January 24, 2017

Rrrrrrrrreading Aloud

Your Humble Blogger has been reading The Lord of the Rings out loud, a bit at a time, as part of our household’s evening entertainment. Last night I read “The Bridge of Khazad-dǔm”. It seemed to go well, but my children were brought up in a world where everyone knows that Gandalf comes back. They were neither particularly surprised nor particularly alarmed by his demise; my Perfect Non-Reader was more emotional about the discovery of Balin’s tomb. Ah, well.

What I’m finding interesting about it is coming up with voices, and the things that I’m noticing about characters and dialogue having assigned voices to characters and having to stick to them. Let me begin by saying that I have read and re-read the series to the point of overfamiliarity, but this is the first time I am reading it aloud. Well, and it’s possible I read a bit of a chapter at a Story Reading back in college, but I don’t really remember. Any Gentle Readers who were present for such an event should remind me. I’ll also say that I feel strongly about giving voices to the characters as I read, mostly because I enjoy it, but also because I think it makes the story work better. Also, while I do love the sound of my own voice, I love the sound of my voice doing accents even more.

So, the thing about LotR is that not only is it probably the longest work I have ever read aloud, it probably has the most characters to voice. I say probably because Dickens, you know, but of course in reading Dickens the accent is often determined by the text: region, class, background, education all specified and the dialogue already written for it, often along with notes about pitch, pacing and timbre. Tolkien does not often describe the voices of his characters (you will find an occasional harsh or clear) and the milieu, of course, means that I can’t just use the accent from the region they are from, what with there not actually being a Gondorian or Rohannish accent in real life.

Well, and what did I do? First of all, of course, was Gandalf, for whom I took John Huston’s voice from the Rankin/Bass cartoon. For Bilbo Baggins, I used a raspy old-man South of England accent, confident that I wouldn’t have to do much of it and not terribly worried. Then we have our continuing characters: Frodo, who as the protagonist I voice in “my” voice (that is, the narrator’s voice). I wanted the other three hobbits to be, as I think they were written, from different areas of England. Sam, the gardener, I gave a strong Irish accent—to be frank a comic Oirish accent. His colloquial lines work surprisingly well that way; the rhythms of his speeches as well as his comic fright (in the beginning) and unswerving loyalty. Pippin, as the young scion of the aristocratic family of Tooks, I gave a sort Terry Thomas silly-ass upper-crust accent which (so far, anyway) has proved absolutely perfect for his combination of arrogance, idiocy and charm. My Perfect Non-Reader thinks it sounds too much like my Draco Malfoy; they are both very much upper-class English aristocrat voices, but I think I gave Draco an Eton drawl, with the elongated vowels, while Pippin’s is the quicker what-what sort of thing. Also a different way of holding the mouth, as Pippin has a stiff upper lip that Draco does not. Last of the hobbits is Merry, who has not been a success so far. I intended him to be Scots (the Brandybucks seem to me clearly Scots-analogues) but for some reason I have been unable to switch into a Scots accent for the single lines required for Merry’s dialogue. I have settled on a sort of Welsh (ish, at least that’s how it has been sounding to me) accent that at least is distinguishable from his fellows’.

I had originally had the idea that all of the Big Folk would have American accents, and the Breelanders were southerners of an Alabamaish stripe. Then Strider arrived, and for reasons I am unable to recall, he spoke with a German/Austrian accent, high-pitched and very clipped and precise. It gives him a real sense of menace, I think, which was a good thing in Bree but may not be what we want in the Houses of Healing. Well, we’ll see. At any rate, I went back to America for Boromir, who is Mayor Quimby—my plan is to have Gondor accents be Boston accents, each according to his class origins, because I can do the classes of Boston accents, which I would find difficult for any other American region. The accent makes Boromir rather unlikeable, I’m afraid, but then Boromir isn’t exactly likeable anyway. The test will be whether Faramir is likeable, but by then it will be too late.

The dwarves have Russian accents, of course, It’s the elves… I had imagined, when I was thinking about what accents to choose for the characters, that the Elves should have Scandinavian accents—Danes and Swedes and such. I wanted to place them geographically together, and I had a sense, I suppose, that the highfalutin’ language of the Elves would work well with that musical rhythm. Sadly, it turns out I can’t actually do a Scandinavian accent. It has been a total disaster. Also, Legolas’ dialogue sounds utterly awful. Just hideous. Also also—there are a lot of Elves in this book! There are only two dwarves with significant dialogue: Glóin and Gimli. They are father and son, so Glóin has a slightly deeper bass and slower pace but otherwise they are the same. The council of Elrond includes not only Elrond Half-Elven and Legolas the wood-elf but Glorfindel and Galdor and Elrohir and Erestor, and before the hobbits get to Rivendell there are Gildor and his crew, and we’re about to get to Lothlorien where we’ll have Haldir and his brothers and then Galadriel and Celeborn. That’s… um… more than ten different elves with dialogue, most of which have at least three or four lines. Yeesh.

I don’t know what to do at this point. I don’t really have the time or energy to learn Scandinavian accents properly, and soon Legolas begins to speak more frequently (really, he is almost entirely silent through Moria) and Galadriel is really important and eventually Elrohir and Erestor re-enter the story. And Arwen speaks at some point, doesn’t she? I am considering just telling everyone that the accent thing isn’t working and from now on Elves, including the ones that have already been in the story, will sound like they come from Latin America.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

July 12, 2016

Con Report: ConnectiCon 2016

Well, and Your Humble Blogger went to a Con for the first time in nearly twenty-five years. This was ConnectiCon, a large (twelve thousand person) pop-culture convention that I went to largely to accompany my Perfect Non-Reader (who will be fifteen in a week and probably isn’t quite up for being dropped off at an enormous convention site and picked up twelve hours later) rather than for my own entertainment. It was a very well-run Con, as far as I could tell, particularly for its enormity, and insofar as the primary purpose of a Con is to make the Mundanes feel old and out-of-touch, it was an enormous success.

Things I learned at ConnectiCon 2016:

  • I have withdrawn from popular culture and I am OK with that. I recognized less than a quarter of the costumes and found less than a tenth of the panels to be on subjects of even mild interest to me. I don’t watch television much and watch a handful of movies a year and don’t play videogames, so I have no cultural reference points with most of the culture. I did at one point read some comics, so I am not altogether unfamiliar with the superhero genre that is so dominant now, but I am essentially unfamiliar with their current film, television and comic book incarnations. While I am not proud of that, and in fact acknowledge that it would be good for me to be more intimately familiar with the culture I live in, I just don’t want to spend my time on it. For relaxation I re-read old YA specfic and play Tetris; keeping up with the MCU seems like work to me at this point.
  • Everything is too loud. This is exacerbated by me being middle-aged; while my hearing is deteriorating slowly, what has really gone is my ability to single out a voice from a muddle of noise. This means that I can’t enjoy conversations in areas with loud music or raucus cheering, even if that noise is bleeding in from nearby rooms. Still, my P N-R also felt that the Con was uncomfortably loud, and that it was difficult to escape the ruckus. Central to this is that the Con was running very loud karaoke all day Sunday (and most of the day Saturday, I think?) in a mezzanine that was part of the public concourse, such that I couldn’t make out what was being said to me in the opposite mezzanine some fifty yards distant. The other big crowd events were held at a tremendous volume too, though, such that I almost was driven out of the room by the intro music to the masquerade (and in fact made it through less than a quarter of the event, but I needed to take some time to work on my lines as well)
  • I still like people-watching the cosplayers. It’s still fun to see all the people dressed up goofily, even if I have no idea what they are trying to look like. It’s fun to recognize the few things I do recognize (one particularly excellent one was the fellow dressed as The Shadow) but it’s also fun to just say that’s a humongous hammer or those people are all identical or the action on those wings is excellent. And in truth the creativity and craft on display are outstanding. It’s sort of like an enormous twisted craft fair where (almost) everything is built onto a human form.
  • I don’t like people-watching the cosplayers as much as I used to. Bear with me a bit, because I’m still trying to work out why this is. Part of it, I’m sure, is just that I feel excluded by my unfamiliarity with the fandoms being celebrated—I am, by any objective judgment, one of the mundanes they are attempting to freak out, and I feel that. Part of it is probably that my own sense of taste is exceeded by the gore factor. (Digression: one major difference from the Cons of my misspent youth is that the costume weaponry now tends to the absurdly oversized. I suspect that’s a combination of Anime/Manga/Videogame styles of depiction and a deliberate effort by Concoms to discourage and/or prohibit realistic-looking weapons. At any rate, my recollection is that in the 1980s, daggers and handguns were far more frequent and there were no twelve-foot triple scythes or 18" diameter laser-cannon arms. Which means that in some sense when you look around the Con it appears to be all about weapons and violence to an extent that was not the case twenty-five years ago, but in another, the cartoonish aspect is less threatening. The makeup, on the other hand, leans to the realistic wounds much more than previously. End Digression.) Part of it is that I am old, and more specifically that I am much older than almost all the cosplayers. They are young enough to be my children, and perhaps coincidentally I am old enough to be their father. While I do enjoy the display of pneumatic female flesh—enjoy it a lot, probably to a problematic extent if the truth be told—I was very much aware that the display was not intended for the enjoyment of this middle-aged man, and furthermore that leering at what I think of as little girls is not so fun and naughty and consensual as all that. I am not decrying the cosplay displays of T&A; I’m just saying that it isn’t for me any more (if it ever was, but at any rate I am currently aware it isn’t for me) so that’s not so much fun.
  • I don’t really know what ‘fandom’ is, but I’m not currently part of it. I went to a panel on Broadway fandom, and, well, first of all I’m really, really old. The musicals discussed were Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, Into the Woods, Rent, Wicked and of course Hamilton. My gateway shows were My Fair Lady and Fiddler on the Roof and Annie. But more important than my being old, I realized that the indications of the existence of a fandom for a show were, pretty much, gifs and memes and fanfic and cosplay. And I just don’t have any particular interest in creating or passing along or even seeing gifs or memes or fanfic or cosplay for My Fair Lady or Fiddler on the Roof or even, really, the shows I was so passionate about when I was a teenager: Sweeney Todd and La Cage aux Folles. Would I have had such an interest had memes (in the sense of easily distributable pictures with snarky text) and gifs been available in 1986 and had there been a network of people to share them with? Probably. But it appears that boat has proverbialled for me. And it occurred to me that this is true of the speculative fiction I like as well: the recently-concluded Temeraire series or the Vorkosigan series or the works of Kazuo Ishiguro or James Morrow are not enhanced, for me, by such things. Which places me outside of what fandom does.
  • A spirit-gum-and-crepe-hair beard lasts maybe three hours, four hours at the maximum. Which is plenty for doing a show, but not for a day at the Con. During the day on Saturday, when I was there for nearly twelve hours, I did patch repair work a few times and eventually gave up. True commitment would have meant going in to the CosPlay Repair Room (there was such a room) and starting from scratch, a half-hour or so process. I couldn’t be arsed. In all, my total commitment to my costume was minimal: I played the Roger Delgado incarnation of The Master, which consisted of a black suit, the little beardie beard, combing my hair back off my now-so-prominent forehead, and a necktie that I don’t choose to wear very often. From the responses of old-Whovians, it was effective enough, but then I was walking around with my P N-R, who was far more conspicuously dressed as the Michelle Gomez incarnation of the same character. Still, if I were to do it again, I ought to create a permanent beard with a backing and then stick that on, such that it would come off all at once rather than in patches, and could be reattached in seconds.
  • Tabletop games are Teh Awesome. OK, I didn’t just learn this, but—well, as a mini-Digression, I was thinking that a twelve-thousand-person Con could effectively be divided into a few tracks or mini-Cons (not so mini as all that) such that a person who was interested mainly in, say, fantasy films could pleasantly avoid most of the rest of the circumjacent stuff, and so could a person focused on anime. It seemed to me that the ConnectiCon staff discouraged this rather than encouraging it. They presumably know what their membership likes, and I’m all for that, but I often felt substantially lost and outnumbered. However: the tabletop game area was in a hotel next door to the convention center, and one could happily spend as much time as one wanted, just borrowing games from the vast lending library and playing them, either with your own friends you brought with you or with other interested folk. I wasn’t terribly adventurous, playing only with my concompanions, but at one point after I had fled the CosPlay Death Match (which in truth I ought to have known not to even peek into; I lasted all of fifteen minutes into the event) I just wandered through the thirty or forty tables, seeing groups of people contentedly (and quietly!) playing Munchkin and Blockus and Lanterns and Dominion and Pathfinder and some game I had never heard of. That was the moment—far more than at the Doctor Who Fan Photoshoot—that I said to myself these are my people.

Looking at the above, it would be easy to conclude that I had a miserable time and regret going, which is far from the case. I had a very pleasant time, and enjoyed all the panels I attended, and mostly enjoyed the people-watching, and very much enjoyed the concurrent and adjacent food-truck festival on the Hartford Riverfront, and most of all enjoyed the company of my teenage child and friend, with whom I had a very pleasant time with passions shared and those not shared at all. My only real complaint with the way it was run was about the volume of the karaoke (and, seriously, as far as I could tell it was just straight-up karaoke, not some sort of filking thing, as I initially assumed, and while I’m at it I didn’t notice any filksinging panels/events; is that not a part of Big Media Cons these days?) and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were thousands of congoers who enjoyed it, so they oughtn’t change it just to suit this old man.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 18, 2013


I like the idea of hashtag games. I keep thinking I should, you know, actually engage in them. Only—

The other day, Adam Beechen, author of Hench and What I did on my Hypergalactic Interstellar Summer Vacation and childhood friend of Your Humble Blogger, tweeted this:

I came up with two right away: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Fifth Dimension and Hello, Dhalgren!. Then I sent out this one:

Oh, I was proud of that one. Then I spend quite some time trying to decide where to put the skiffy into The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. The obvious thing is to set it on Titan, but I decided, in the end, after an extended debate in my mind utilizing three separate levels of analysis, that The Best Little Wormhole in Texas is funnier.

I don’t know whether the game had quietly died whilst I argued out the humor with myself. If it didn’t, that one killed it.

See, I could happily do these all day.

  • A Most Happy Phalanx
  • Pump Blobs and Dinettes
  • City of Weeping Angels
  • The Full Na’vi
  • Thoroughly Modern Mad Max
  • The Wookiee Singer
  • The Psychlo Pimpernel
  • Five Clones Named Moe
  • Fuzzy Girl
  • Dirty Rotten Sandworms
  • Bye Bye Body Snatcher!
  • A My Name is Alien
  • Galactic Overtures
  • Sunday in the Park with GELF
  • The Kree Nobody Knows
  • My Fair Lensman
  • On the Thirtieth Century
  • Microscopic Me
  • Ben Franklin on Pluto
  • Vogon Babies
  • Irma la Droid
  • The Music Mantis
  • 451 in the Shade
  • How to Succeed in Business Without Really Flying
  • Side By Side By Stargate
  • Ferengi Girl
  • Legally Borg
  • The Kzin King
  • Gallifrey Gardens
  • The Klaatu Will Rock
  • A Day on Trantor, A Night in the Foundation

Really, the only hard part is stopping.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 8, 2010

The City and the other City

So, Gentle Readers. You have probably been wondering what about the great fictional cities in the American cultural consciousness?

That’s an interesting question. I’m not altogether sure what you mean by it, but I think you have to count Gotham City and Metropolis at the top of the list. When you think about the number of people who have read or watched stories that take place in those cities, and the number of people that have written stories that take place in those cities, I don’t think there’s any question about their place in our culture. I suppose you could add the Emerald City, maybe, although it seems like a distant third. What am I missing? Orbit City?

Anyway, what strikes me about Metropolis and Gotham City is how little I know about them as places. I mean, they are both New York City, of course, and they both have harbors, and so are on the sea. But does Metropolis have a river that runs through or alongside the city, and if it does, is it going North-South or East-West? Is Gotham City’s infamous high-crime inner-city neighborhood north of Town Hall, or is that the stretch of mansions that holds Stately Wayne Manor? Where’s the University? How far out do the suburbs go?

Now, I don’t read the Batman or Superman or Justice League comics; my familiarity is mostly through movies and television. Well, and I have read some of the comics, sure, over time, but I’ve never been a consistent reader. So it may just be that Gotham City and Metropolis do have consistent landmarks, and I just don’t know about them. Or it could be that part of the American Cultural Consciousness is that Gotham and Metropolis are constantly remaking themselves, the bridges and towers of yesterday’s Gotham disappearing into the blank we call history. Certainly, part of the fun of the first few Batman movies of the nineties was the way that Gotham was an entirely different city each time around. And yet, I wonder.

Can you think of half-a-dozen landmarks in Metropolis or Gotham City, and have some sense of their relationship to each other in the imaginary geography? Is that just true of fictional cities in general? I think I have more of a sense of the map of Springfield, for instance, but that may be my misimpression, or perhaps the result of my having watched a higher percentage of Simpsons episodes than Batman books.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

May 24, 2009

Specfic on stage, again

Your Humble Blogger read (or rather skimmed) an early Caryl Churchill radio play called Not Not Not Not Not Enough Oxygen, a radio play from 1971. And it is making me revisit the thing I wrote about a year and a half ago, that is, why there aren’t more speculative fiction plays.

I am not actually a huge fan of Caryl Churchill, for a variety of reasons, but clearly amongst the enormous output are a number of specfic plays, largely set in the near-ish future (some of them have dates that have since passed), largely without much difficulty either staging the plays or explaining the specfic elements. The idea that (as in Oxygen) the pollution is so bad people purchase oxygen in canisters, or that (as in A Number) (did you get my little pun up there? Hee Hee) powerful people will clone their offspring, these are not difficult ideas to stage, nor is it necessarily difficult to make a play that uses those ideas, except of course that it’s difficult to make a play at all.

Anyway, amongst my ideas for a play is one with the working title Station; I doubt if I’ll ever write it, so I’ll throw the thing out here for discussion. The setting is one of those small gas station and tchotchke stores on state roads a good long way from anywhere. Specifically, of course, I’m thinking of Western Connecticut, and all the places that I’ve passed again and again, but they exist in other parts of the world as well. The stage set (in my mind) is the interior of the station, with the cashier counter with computer on Stage Right, the main entrance up center with one of those auto-sliding doors, an exit to the house where the owner and his wife live, and the various displays of chazerai, anti-freeze, souvenirs and local-grown delicacies. The characters are the owner of the place, a middle-aged fellow of more than usual craziness; his wife, who is rather more sensible without (I hope) being that stereotype; the assistant (who is the main reason I can’t write the thing, as he should really be foreign-born, South Asian or Eastern European, and I can’t hear his voice at all or get him as a character, and my attempts so far have been unpleasant for me); and a variety of regular customers.

Running through the play are depictions of the ways people deal with changes in their lives, their makeshift attempts to prop up the façade of normality, and the poignancy of letting go even those things that need to be gone. So. The play opens with the assistant (let’s call him, oh, Walter) pulling the morning newspaper off the printer for one of the regular customers and reading off the headline that Peak Oil has at last occurred. The owner (Barry, I suppose, for now) scoffs at the idea that people will really change their driving habits. People don’t change like that, he insists. They like their cars, and they are going to stick to them. Like the customer who sticks to buying a printed newspaper with his coffee rather than reading it on-line like everyone else.

Over the first act, then, Barry, Walter and (hum, um, let me think for a minute) Mary (that’s very wrong, but we’ll keep going) prepare for and serve a half-dozen customers. It becomes clear that Barry has made a niche for himself providing particular services to regular customers: the printed newspaper, a thermos of soup, a particular coffee, advice on music, whatever. Barry’s customers stop here on their way to work in the city, despite there being equally convenient gas stations much cheaper, because of the personal connection and extra service, but also because it has become part of the routine. Barry entertains them and himself with running gags, goofy voices, gossip and an endless stream of preposterous ideas for money-making inventions. Walter finds the whole shtick amusing in spite of himself; he is a serious young fellow with practical dreams and a pessimistic outlook, but Barry appeals to him anyway, and Mary mothers him just the right amount, and between them they keep the place running. I suspect the first act ends with Walter going out to change the price on the big sign out in front.

The second act takes place a year later. The station is mostly the same, but a little rundown, with some empty spaces on the shelves and the posters and displays a bit faded. We see the same preparations, but some of the customers we met in Act One aren’t coming in any more. As we go through the day, Barry, Walter, Mary and the remaining customers gossip about the other customers. Some have started taking the train, some work from home, some have moved into the City. The older woman who used to buy the thermos of soup is dying, and no longer drives into the city for her weekly shopping trips. One of the fellows comes in and tells Walter that he got one of those new cars, and he won’t be needing to buy gas. It’s clear that they can’t keep the thing going much longer, and then Mary comes in with the news that their supplier has gone out of business and nobody else will take them on. The cost of delivering the gas, the dwindling supply, the lifestyle changes and the wave of bankrupt stations all wind up cutting off places like Barry’s. He refuses to fire Walter, but Walter (it turns out) has made plans and will be fine. He is insufficiently romantic to go down with that particular ship. But what about Mary?

Two things come out during the second act. First is that Barry can’t bear to leave the place, and in the stress he clings to his routine. He continues to print out the newspaper for the guy who hasn’t come in to buy it in months. He puts on his silly voices and has conversations with imaginary customers. He gossips about them. He cajoles Walter and Mary into joining him in the charade, and they each, in their way, coming to the end of it. Which is the other big question of the second act, whether Mary will stay with him in his increasingly untenable station or go somewhere else without him.

The third act starts a year after that. Barry is by himself in the station, which is back to how it looked at the beginning, fully stocked and with new-looking posters and displays, and perhaps even a new stack of motor oil cans or something. The printer is going, and Barry is making the usual preparations, talking to himself, or possibly to Mary in the back room. After a few minutes, the doors open by themselves, and Barry has a conversation with an imaginary customer, who we can hear respond although (and ideally we’re not initially sure of this) it’s Barry’s voice impersonating the customer who we saw in Act One. Their conversation is almost identical to the first act conversation; we see a series of these, with Barry providing all the services he had a couple of years ago, but all by himself and to nobody. The doors open and close, the cash register opens and closes, the coffee machine runs. At one point, the invisible customer goes into the bathroom, the door opening and closing, the sound of flushing, the door opening and closing again. Ideally the audience is not absolutely sure, at first, whether this is all in his imagination or whether (as it turns out) he has rigged the doors, speakers and all to go through the paces. Perhaps he has to go over to the computer on the cashier’s counter and hit a button, now and then. This whole bit lasts ten minutes or so; just the one actor and some tape.

At the end of it, Mary calls. Barry hits a button on the computer and her image is projected on a wall; they have a video conversation with far too much exposition: Mary has turned one of Barry’s preposterous money-making ideas into actual money. She has moved to the City, as lots of other people have, and she is supporting Barry in his delusional hobby. She tries to convince him to leave the place and join her; he is clearly tempted. He is nearly at the end of his prodigious stubbornness. His hollow world is becoming harder to sustain. He can’t quite commit to leaving, though. And Mary won’t cut off the money to force him out, and of course won’t return, as she likes her new life managing the whatever-it-is business.

After the phone call, Barry has a quiet moment looking around and tidying the place, and then goes to the computer to record more gossip for himself in the customer’s voices. The door opens again, and Walter comes looking in. It’s his first time back in a year, and he looks good, successful and healthy. It turns out that he is looking to buy a house in the area and was surprised to find the place still running. Barry has to explain that it isn’t, really. He is just keeping it going so that that whole world wouldn’t be lost. All those people, in their bedroom communities, going back and forth on those winding roads before hitting the interstate. The little rituals, the stopping places, the repeated complaints and jokes. It’s all gone, Barry tells him, and he’s like the last Aztec. Walter points out that the Aztecs were particularly horrible, and that nobody really misses them; Barry admits that the world is, maybe, better off without the Aztecs, but that somebody should miss them, just because they’re gone. Still, he admits, it’s not much use being the last one. And somebody does miss him.

Barry gets the idea to sell Walter the station; he can live in the house and keep the station part going. Walter, at first, thinks that Barry just means not knocking down the building, but Barry means going through the charade of serving the imaginary customers every day. He shows Walter the program, starts it going and goes through the thing again, showing him how it works. Walter is baffled at first, but then joins in; they agree to the deal, and the play ends with Barry leaving to join Mary in the City and Walter printing off the newspaper for the imaginary customer.

So, that’s the outline. I think it’s a terrific play, or could be if it were well-written. I’m not actually writing it, largely because (a) Walter is so far a total failure as a character, and (2) as the thing would be very expensive to stage, I wouldn’t be able to see it. And, I suppose, in the year and a half that I’ve been musing on the idea, it has already gone a bit past its sell-by date; even if were to write it instantaneously and, oh, send it into one of those competitions, and it won the competition and its prize of a full production, by the time it was produced the moment would likely have passed. The disappearance of those places and that lifestyle is still speculative fiction at this time; in another year or two it will not be an interesting speculation, one way or the other. You know?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

April 28, 2009

Who go?

So, I happened to look at The 2009 Hugo Nominations again today, and was again reminded that I am perplexed by the Hugos.

Mostly, what perplexes me is that the Hugos are simultaneously a Big Deal and not a Big Deal. The nominations are decided by three or four hundred fans, and the actual awards are decided by seven or eight hundred fans. It’s not like the Booker Prize or something where there is a panel of judges, highly qualified eminences worthy of the most scathing criticism when they reward utter crap instead of the obviously worthy stuff I like. And as a popular expression of what is actually being read in the streets, by people who should probably go home or at least to a coffeehouse somewhere, it’s such a laughably small group that it can be easily dominated by partisans of one or another writer, or certainly by partisans of one or another style. I mean.

Now, before I go on with that whole irrelevance thing, I should discuss the idea that the voting pool for the Hugos is a good working combination of the two. Because the WorldCon draws a good chunk of writers and publishers, the group of people with voting rights is disproportionately made up of people with a good deal of experience in The Industry (as with the Motion Picture Academy for the Oscars). Instead of being an insular group of insiders, though, that Inner Ring is leavened with the fen who get a vote as part of the package of going to the con, or who have spent a little dough to support the con. The combination (this argument would go) works better than either one or the other.

Or, there’s the argument that specfic writers and fen are special cases, much more likely to read each other’s stuff than in other genres, and that Kazuo Ishiguro would be a lousy judge of Martin Amis novels, but Connie Willis would be a terrific judge of Ian McDonald books. And that the fen are more likely to read all around within the genre, and are therefore better judges than readers of literary novels or historical novels. And as proof of that, we can look at the list of Hugo-winners and compare it to the National Book Awards or the best-seller lists, and frankly, the Hugos do look pretty good, considering.

On the other hand, my main point isn’t that the Hugos suck, it’s that the Hugos aren’t a Big Deal, or shouldn’t be seen as one. You can tell it is a big deal because people argue about it a lot, which is a sign of a Big Deal. The set-up should keep it from being one of the things worth arguing about. It should be one of those things that you find when you click on the Awards link: ALA Notable Book, BookSense Pick, Hugo nominee, as featured on Fresh Air with Terry Gross. You know? Certainly a cool thing, but not an on-the-cover-of the-next-printing thing. Whereas, in the word we live in, the Hugo is The Thing for a specfic novel, and then Nebula is The Other Thing, and then there are a bunch of other awards that nobody really argues over with any vehemence. And I don’t think there’s any good objective reason for that—or for that matter any subjective reason I have found persuasive.

And, you know, this year I happen to have read three of the five nominated novels (no, I have only blogged two as of yet), and although I loved one and thought the other two were perfectly good, I didn’t think of any of them as worthy of the Top Award in the Field. And in fact, my preference is for the Top Award in the Field to go to something I wouldn’t have picked up anyway, if you know what I mean. The Hugos aren’t set up to do that, I know. But that’s why they aren’t really relevant.

OK, look. This year, three out of five I read, two because I read all their stuff anyway, for whatever reason, and one because the publisher sent me an ARC. Last year I read two out of five (again, I had read and enjoyed previous books by the authors), rejected one because I don’t like his stuff, put one more on the hm list, and picked one up at the library because it was a Hugo nominee and didn’t get past the first chapter. In fact, I think the last time I finished reading a book that I had started because it had been nominated for a Hugo was in 2006 with Spin, and then before that I think 2003’s Hominids (which I read somewhat later), and then we’re back to Darwin’s Radio. That’s three in ten years.

Of course, I’ve read lots of others, and it’s certainly possible that I would have enjoyed reading others if I had bothered to get them, but still: here’s a fellow who reads a lot of specfic (30-40 novels a year, not counting re-reads, counting YASF) , and the list of Hugo nominees over ten years comes down to two big categories: books I read for other reasons and books I wouldn’t read if you paid me (well, I would want cash). With a handful of outliers. That ain’t good.

And you could argue that the purpose of the Hugo nominations is not to introduce people like me to new books that I would enjoy but would not otherwise have read—and that’s true, the purpose is to award a sort of Best Book Prize, but then, why is it a Big Deal?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

Post Script: Yes, I know, there are other Hugos. It’s plausible that people argue about them, too, but seriously: short stories and novellas are just not a Big Deal these days, culturally speaking, and besides, I don’t like them very much.

April 14, 2009

Pseudo-History: A taxonomic travesty

Regarding the responsibilities of writers of historical fantasy or pseudo-historical fiction, Your Humble Blogger has little that would head in the direction of anything definitive. I have been pondering the issue for a while now, and if it helps, I've come up with four categories that seem to me to have differing levels of authorial responsibility to historical whatnottage, in all its various stuff.

Digression: Gentle Readers may have noticed my tendency to break things down into classes and categories, laboring the distinctions in a nineteenth-century positivist way, taking on the tone of an ancient Strunk lecturing to a particularly slow-witted class of fresh folk. That tone is not provoked by the Gentle Readers; Your Humble Blogger is actually lecturing his own self. In third person. Sorry about that. End Digression.

The first category is fiction that takes place in our actual history, or something very close to it. What came to my mind in this category was the John the Balladeer stories of Manly Wade Wellman; there are speculative elements (it's OK if I call them that, right?) but the world is our world. I think that the author who chooses this path has a high bar of accuracy, and can fairly be criticized not only for anachronisms and such but for perpetuating stereotypes, whitewashing the treatment of racial and ethnic minorities, glamorizing war, misogyny and ecological devastation, and anything else that a novel in that setting but without speculative elements would be criticized for. The existence of a vampire in nineteenth-century New Orleans would not justify neglecting the cultural jumbo that would presumably be the reason to set a vampire novel in nineteenth-century New Orleans. Right? A novel set with magicians or dragons in the Napoleonic Wars should either touch on the state of women and slaves or have some really good justification for avoiding it.

The second category is fantasy that takes place in another world that is abstracted from a specific and recognizable culture and time. This could be Harry Turtledove writing the Videssos books that are clearly Byzantium with some fantasy elements. What puts a book into this category is that the parallels between Videssos and Byzantium are supposed to be a Source of Reader Pleasure. Or, to take the intention away from it, a reader should place the book in this category if she finds the parallels to be an integral part of the book. Then the reader, it seems to me, is justified in criticizing the accuracy of the book within the abstraction of the author, or (equally important) in criticizing the abstraction itself. That is, with further thinking, I think that it's fair for me to criticize the choice that Mr. Turtledove makes in (f'r'ex) not dealing with insular religious minority traditions within the larger community. On the other hand, in that criticism, it's important to keep in mind that there are purposes served by the abstraction, and that the thing you are criticizing may be part and parcel of the thing you like. What is obviously (I hope) unfair in this category is complaining that Makuran is Persia and therefore should properly be east of Videssos.

Now, I want to spend just a little longer on this category before moving on. Ms. Bujold, after reading a series of this-is-the-version-of-that posts on The Sharing Knife series, felt compelled to point out that although the book is inspired by the American Frontier, it isn't actually set in the American Frontier, and that therefore there aren't one-to-one correspondences. And that's clearly fair. Except that by making the setting recognizably a pseudo-real American Frontier, she has set up some of the correspondences, and she has to answer for them, whether they are altogether reasonable or not. I do feel that I am entitled to be grumpy about Ms. Bujold's choice to make an American Frontier without Africans, French or Mexicans, even if it's isn't the real American Frontier.

A third category: books that are set in a fantasy world that is largely taken from a particular culture, but which is so different from our own history that its difficult to draw correspondence between any two elements. There are loads of swords-and-sorcery books that are vaguely European, and loads of spooky books that are vaguely Maerchenwald, and so on and so forth. One example might be the Dalemark Quartet by Diane Wynne Jones, which is very very Welsh, but is set in a place that is not Wales at all in any way, and doesn't have anything like the history of Wales. I think these are pretty murky. My inclination is that you have to criticize them on their own terms. If you find that having a semi-medieval or renaissance society without any oppression or visible racial or religious minorities gets up your nose, I think it's worth saying so, and laying out why. But since those religious and racial minorities are going to be invented, I think criticisms of how they are handled (when they are handled at all) is tricky; I've seen reviews that say that obviously the K'Parheth are meant to be Asians, and that therefore the whole book is racist in its depiction of Asians/K'Parneth, and, you know, sometimes that's persuasive and sometimes it isn't. Looking at it from the other direction, I think a writer should be able to invent the K'Parneth without having to make them line up directly with any of our cultures.

But, and this is where it turns out I've been headed with this, I think it is incumbent on a writer to be aware of things like: the Magic Negro trope; Orientalism and similar exoticism; the stereotype of Jews as grasping, uncouth and untrustworthy; the Madonna/whore dichotomy, together with other depictions of women that justify the patriarchy; the deliberate social norm of invisibility of minorities, service workers, cripples, and other undesirables; etcetera, etcetera, etcetera (as the King of Siam would say). That may be a lot. I don't know; I don't write. But I think that it makes some sense that people who read a book set in a version of, say, medieval Europe will be offended to find all of the social and cultural evils whitewashed away, or to find that the K'Parneth are inscrutable slant-eyed fanatics who can't pronounce their rs and ls. And it takes more than coming up with new names for geographical landmarks to get away from that.

Well, and I may as well go through the fourth category, as long as I'm at it: books that are clearly intended to have parallels with a portion of our own world's history, but with utterly different circumstances, such that the difference is a large part of the point. I'm thinking here of Trantor of course, ancient Rome in space. But there are others, which of course I can't think of off the top of my head. Shakespeare in space, El Cid in space, Ali Baba and the Forty Space Pirates. You know. My inclination is to give these an extra break, because these things are by their nature delicate, and the more you stretch them the bigger the rips are. On the other hand, it's absolutely fair game to criticize the initial choice; Mr. Asimov decided to do The Decline and Fall of Planet Rome because he thought that the story of Rome is and ought to be central to our story of ourselves, for very large values of us, and that's problematic in a variety of ways. But having made that choice, I don't think he's on the hook for fairly representing the Roman system.

OK, very long indeed, and without much real content. I suppose what I've concluded (to this point) is that I do think it's important, when reading and criticizing a book, to decide which category it's in. And I think it's important for an author to decide that as well, although of course there's no guarantee that the reader will agree. But part of my disagreement with dance (prone to laughter) may be from that categorical disagreement; I think d(ptl) would place the book in the third category, while I would place it plumb spang in the second. I could argue that categorization, but the point is that our different recognitions of the kind of book it is have a substantial effect on our subsequent Sources of Reader Annoyance (and presumably Pleasure).

Take another example: Steven Brust's Khaavren romances. Of which I have only read The Phoenix Guards, so I'm not particularly qualified to play this game, but still: is it category two, because it is so obviously France despite not being France at all, or is it category three, because it so obviously isn't France at all, despite the whole D'Artagnan thing? And if people have very different answers to that question, is my rubric useful?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

March 22, 2009

Mohanraj, Rosenbaum, Bujold

So. Since I had a thing to say about Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sharing Knife series and (oh dear) the RaceFail conversation, I thought perhaps I’d separate it out from the Book Report I keep meaning to write about the latest book and write it as its own note. This one won’t have spoilers for Book Four, nor will (imao) the plot spoilers for the series really spoil anyone’s enjoyment. On the other hand, while the plot spoilers shouldn’t spoil your enjoyment of the series, it’s possible that the discussion will. Because the reason why I wanted to write a bit about RaceFail and the Sharing Knife was because to a very limited extent, the RaceFail discussion did ruin my enjoyment of the series. Not ruin, but, let’s say, work to the detriment of…

I don’t know if Gentle Readers read Mary Ann Mohanraj over at John Scalzi’s Whatever on specfic (and other) writers and race and so on; it’s a fascinating document, right-headed if I can call it that, and persuasive, and all kindsa good stuff. And then there’s Benjamin Rosenbaum, who I linked to a day or two ago and who knocked me out again with a note on Identity and Othering in “The Ant King and Other Stories”, in which he took a quantitative look at his own stories and found things that he didn’t know. Just to be clear, because some responses I’ve seen have missed the point and thought he was seeking to impose a sort of quota on other writers, and that didn’t seem to be the point at all. He was showing (I thought effectively) how difficult it is for a writer to escape the water we are all swimming in, even when he is clearly attempting to do so. Anyway, if you haven’t read those two posts, I strongly advise reading or at least skimming them, as they are what ruined my enjoyment of The Sharing Knife. Well, not ruined. As I said.

Editing this note to add that realio trulio, if you are trying to seriously engage with this post without reading and referencing those essays, you are doing both me and yourself a disservice. I have been surprised by how pleasant it has been to be linked by Ms. Bujold and have new Gentle Readers who have all been great, but still: this is a note about how those essays affected my experience of reading The Sharing Knife, not so much about the series of books itself. End later editing (Last day of April, 2009)

See, here’s the thing: the world of The Sharing Knife is a fictionalized fantasy version of frontier America. The characters start in the north and follow the Mississippi down to New Orleans, and then come back to the North overland. It’s not the Alvin Maker world; the cities and rivers have different names and do not necessarily match up to our world. On the other hand, it’s clearly an American fantasy world, in the economy, the language (with suitable Fantasy modifications), the technology and the social structures. The elves (which are called Lakewalkers) are not only elves but a fantasy version of Native Americans. And there are no Black people. No Mexicans. No Cajuns. No French. No Dutch.

The travelers never run into a community where a different language is spoken. They do find that the food changes a bit from region to region, mostly because of the local game, but they don’t come across ethnic foods, nor is there any real disagreement about what is tasty and what isn’t. That’s generally true of cultures as well: there are regional cultures, which are dictated by natural features, but there aren’t ethnic cultures, dictated by tradition, taboo and taste. Or, rather, there are two cultures: farmer and Lakewalker, or human and elf, or White and Red.

I was reading the new book at around the same time as I was reading those notes I linked to, and when I went back to the Bujold, I couldn’t help noticing that it was, in many ways, utterly what they were talking about. I don’t mean to say that either would hold up the books as racist, necessarily, just that I think they would be willing to hold them up as examples of works that come out of a racist society and perpetuate not only the feeling among racial minorities in America that the specfic community is hostile to them, but to the ongoing actual exclusion of minority viewpoints in the worldview of specfic readers and publishers.

And as I read the book, an African-American in my imagination kept saying what happened to my people? Where’s my history? Ain’t I part of America? And I pointed out to that imaginary fellow that really, the book would not have been improved by a digression into the racial politics of the fantasy world. He wasn’t impressed. I don’t think he agreed with me, or rather, he seemed to think that improved might mean different things for him and me. And he seemed to think that asking him to sacrifice his entire culture, history and family to my idea of improved wasn’t altogether fair. I pointed out to him that my own culture, history and family weren’t really represented; there were no immigrants in the stories, nor religious minorities within the two main cultures. He shrugged, this imaginary fellow. If I were willing to give up the House of David, that was my choice, he implied, but that choice didn’t give me the right to choose for him, or it wouldn’t if he weren’t a figment of my imagination.

Now, let me say straight away that part of the problem of racism in society is people having imaginary conversations with imaginary people of other racial and ethnic groups, rather than having real conversations with real people. I could easily project my resentment against the imaginary unsympathetic fellow onto a real person whose only connection to the imaginary one is skin color. I know that my imaginary conversation is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

And furthermore, I really don’t think that the series would be improved by introducing racial and ethnic diversity. I am a fiend for narrative, as I have often said, and I have enough problems with the leisurely pace of this series; three more pages at every stop detailing the combination of geography and culture that produces the local color would have got so far up my nose I wouldn’t have been able to smell the daffodils that I got for Daffodil day and which are really lovely. Have I mentioned how much I love daffodils? They totally symbolize Spring to me. Particularly the ACS fund-raiser, which has become an important part of my yearly cycle.

Oh, right. Have you noticed how much easier it is to talk about flowers?

Anyway, when I read Ms. Mohanraj’s essay, I thought that it wasn’t just about combating racism in our society through writing and publishing, but also about producing more stories that suited her taste. Among the bits of advice she gives is this: Give your white characters an ethnic and cultural history, even if it ends up barely mentioned in your story. But be sure you do indicate it somehow — it’s not enough for you, the author, to know their history. She describes this as helping to make characters vivid as opposed to generic, which is in some sense true, but it’s not as if the terms vivid and generic are objective terms that exist independent of the reader’s taste. To stic with Ms. Bujold’s works, I can see how people might consider Miles Vorkosigan generic white: although there are elements of Russian culture in the Barrayaran ruling caste culture, on the whole there’s nothing very specifically ethnic either in that culture or in his place in it. There is a Greek-speaking minority, and we get a couple of references and representatives, but not much and easily forgotten. And so on. I don’t want to get bogged down in the details, but I think there’s a real sense in which, given the Vorkosigan universe, there are lots of characters including Miles himself who could come off as generic white. And yet, lots of people (including YHB) find Miles to be vivid. In my case, it’s because I’m a fiend for narrative, and he’s very… active.

What I’m saying is that while I largely agree with Ms. Mohanraj that it’s a good idea to imagine an ethnic identity when inventing a character, I also tend to (from my position of white privilege) like plenty of books just fine in which most characters are either generic white or unmarked. And I think that’s a matter of my own Sources of Reader Pleasure and Irritation, which are my own taste, and (what with people being different one to another, which is what makes the world interesting and fun, after all), I neither expect other people to cater to my taste nor do I want to give up my taste for other people’s expectations.

Which is where Mr. Rosenbaum’s note comes in. Although I found interesting the ways in which cultural stereotypes creep in on an author all unbeknownst like, the thing that really struck me was the way that the accumulation of choices, each of which are individually plausible or even good choices, can be detrimental to the—well, to the author’s vision of the work, to the condition of the field, to society at large, to the feelings of individual humans of a variety of backgrounds. I think that (nearly) each of the stories Mr. Rosenbaum wrote were the result of choices that not only seemed good at the time but actually were good choices viewed in themselves. The result, though, was those pie charts with all that pink.

Now. To go back to YHB and The Sharing Knife. Reading the essays I linked to did ruin the books for me (no, it didn’t ruin them, but you know) in an interesting way. I still maintain that the books would not have been improved by following Ms. Mohanraj’s advice. That is, I think that any attempt to impose the right-minded thinking that Ms. Mohanraj (and Mr. Rosenbaum) explicate would have worked to the disadvantage of the particular work in question. While, at the same time, having the book work in the way that it does, missing the ethnic and cultural diversity or even markers that are missing and that YHB didn’t notice were missing throughout the first three books, well, it adds to the cumulative effect. If it was a lousy series, and nobody read it, then it might not matter. But it isn’t. It’s a perfectly good series (altho’ I have other issues with it as well) and it’s selling just fine, and those things are true in part because it’s so much easier to erase minority viewpoints and just go on without them. In the short term. In fiction.

Anyway. I’d be curious to know the reactions of Gentle Readers to these angles; I am far from a deep thinking about race or fiction, and I suspect I’ve got hold of the wrong end of several different sticks here.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

March 12, 2009

Book Report: Agent to the Stars

So, back when I was purchasing books for airline travel, I picked up John Scalzi’s Agent to the Stars, the first novel he put out as shareware that later got picked up as a boutique collector’s thing for his Internetty Campbell fans and then even later as a Tor trade paperback. That’s the one I bought. Now I’ve read five of this guy’s novels, and bought two of them. What’s up with that?

I started reading the guy’s blog a billion years ago, after Agent was up and before Old Man’s War was published, mostly because a Gentle Reader had recommended it to me as an interesting blog by a good writer who was also primary parent of a girl just a trifle older than my Perfect Non-Reader. Which it is, although now that Athena is in school, he doesn’t have that primary parent thing so much, and now that I work, I don’t have that primary parent thing so much. But he still writes well, and although I find his politics frustrating and his snark a little tiring in large doses, I keep him on on the aggregator. And, you know, pick up his books at the library when I see them.

Which, still, what’s up with that? I think the only one of the books that I really liked was The Android’s Dream; the others were perfectly good, and well-written, and surpassingly competent, but not really that great. On the other hand, each time I’ve read one of his books, I’ve been made aware again of just how much I value competent writing. I mean, seriously. A couple of chapters into his stuff and you know what you are going to get, and you get it. Not the plot twists, I mean, which, you know, fine, but you know you’re going to be able to differentiate the characters, you know you aren’t going to have to suffer through seventy-five pages where the plot goes nowhere while the characters develop like negatives in a dark room, you know that although there may be plot devices that make no sense, they will be presented quickly and cogently, and they will seem to make sense to the characters, and it will be easy to pretend to yourself that they do make sense.

If you go with the Sources of Reader Pleasure and Annoyance analysis, what is amazing is how few Sources of Annoyance there are in his books, and how few Sources of Pleasure I then need to not only enjoy the book as a whole but want to read more books by the author. Which is a good thing, I think.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

inclusion, exclusion, occlusion

Benjamin Rosenbaum wrote a note the other day essentially announcing his re-entry into the blogosphere with a note On Blogging that threatened to write an incomplete and imperfectly articulated essay. He did not mention that it would be On RaceFail ’09; I think those were the good old days before I had heard of the thing, anyway. I still know almost nothing about it, and although I found his essay provocative, I am going to attempt to avoid the provocation, and instead write about…

Well, see, here’s the thing. Browsing through the whole controversy, I was struck by this thought: the SF/F community exists, and I am not in it. This may not seem like a startling conclusion to you, but it was to me. When I was a teenager, I thought of myself as a fan, possibly a trufan; I went to the local conventions, dressed in costume, and talked about books and movies and television shows with other fans. Or fen. I wound up being co-president of the specfic fan group at college, although (and this is a whole nother minefield about community) the group wasn’t particularly interested in speculative fiction. But anyway. At the time, I thought (or I think now that I thought then) that there was a sf/f community, and that I was in it.

Later, when I drifted away from attending conventions, I realized that my high school con attendance was really a group of a dozen or so teenagers, taking advantage of an excuse to go to a hotel for a weekend and generally not interacting with anything bigger than ourselves. It was a community, if you will, but not an sf/f community, just a community of a bunch of teenagers. And I became convinced that in truth, there was no sf/f community in any significant sense. Oh, there were people who went to conventions and voted for the Hugos, but not very many, and there were people who wrote and published speculative fiction, but not all that many of those, and not all that many of those were fans, really, in the sense that I understood the term. And lots of people read (or really, watched) science fiction and fantasy, and almost none of them were fans, in the sense that I understood the term. So the idea that there was a community, in any real sense involving communication and connection, bridging, common interests and goals, cooperation, any of that, well, I don’t know that I ever said ain’t no sech thing, but pretty close.

But it turns out that there reallio trulio is a sf/f community. And that I’m not it. Because one of the ways that you can tell if there’s an actual community is if Big Issues come up that people within the community talk to each other about. Did you hear about the Davidsons? is one difference between a neighborhood and a community. And clearly, people were stopping each other on the street (well, the virtual street) and asking if they had heard. And not only had I not heard about the Davidsons, I continued to have not heard Davidsons while the gossip became about what the Jim Melton said to his wife about the Davidsons, and what she said back. Not that I mean to trivialize the topic, but then you can’t really assume that the gossip about the Davidsons is trivial or shallow, either. My point when you look at the dynamic from the point of view that it is All About YHB, the overwhelming conclusion is that I don’t know the Davidsons, nor the Meltons, despite having metaphorically lived down the block from them for years.

Now, one of the things I’ve recognized about the sf/f community, even when I didn’t really believe it existed, is that it is very much concerned with issues of exclusion and inclusion. Which is why the plural of fan is fen, right? I mean, there’s a lot of secret handshake bullshit, ghu and infernokrusher and rot-13 and zines and all the inside jokes that have come and gone over the years. And no, not all of them have been purely fanstuff, but the aggregation is clearly baffling to mundanes, and while I won’t say that such is the point, really, it’s not not the point, either, from the point of view of the insider who gets to really accomplish something by getting inside. On the other hand, this is scarcely unique to the sf/f community.

OK, so I’m getting, slowly, to my point here. Because I have one. Really. I just needed to get it out of my satchel, and there was all this other stuff on top of it. But I’m nearly there, now. Promise. Anybody still here?

So. While happily ignoring everything else about this whole business, what happened to the Davidsons is that a bunch of people were told that the sf/f community is perceived by racial minorities as unwelcoming to racial minorities. That is, racist. Now, as Ben Rosenbaum was saying up there, the accusation of racism, particularly of institutional racism, of community racism, is a very tender spot for us privileged white people, and we squawked. (Of course, by saying we, I am not claiming membership in the community that I was just talking about not being a member of, I’m just saying that had I been part of the we, I would presumably have been part of the squawking white we).

So, there I was, thinking about what Ben said, and about the fact that I wasn’t part of the squawking white we or any of the we at all, and I was thinking about other communities that are similar in some sense to the sf/f community. In that they exist, I mean. One of them that came to mind immediately is Scottish Dancers; while a lot of it is just people going to their local groups and having a good time, there is a national and international community, as evidenced by the fact that when something happens to the Davidsons, people hear about it. Heck, I hear about it, sometimes, and I don’t strathspey. And you know? I suspect that there are people who feel that Scottish Dancing is not welcoming to racial minorities. And that there are people who would seriously squawk about the idea that the community is racist. I mean, seriously. Of course they would.

Of the communities that I am a part of myself, there’s… let’s see, I’m not really good at it, honestly. There’s the Jewish community, which (a) is not looking for new members, other than generationally, which, you know, is different from racism in important ways that are really difficult to explain, and (2) really does, in places, go into the neighborhoods and the churches and try to have bridges between communities, but again, it’s a lot of work, and we have day jobs, and it’s easier to remember that stuff in February than it is in September. And we have a really heavy tradition of inclusion and exclusion. Not perhaps a good comparison with other communities, but I thought I’d mention it.

What else? I work in a library, and am slowly starting to keep up with what is happening at the Davidson branch, and surely there are lots of libraries that are having issues with inclusion and exclusion. I like to think that libraries are less likely to squawk when called on the barriers to minority groups of various kinds, and more likely to put effort into building bridges. Because, you know, libraries. Still, you know it happens: there’s an accusation that a library is not welcoming to the new immigrants to the neighborhood (whether those are from overseas or from the other side of town), or just as likely the local patrons and volunteers get all whatnot, and the story gets written up in one of the library journals or sent around on a listserv, and a RaceFail would definitely be a possibility.

Stretching a point, let’s call community theater a community; I might hear about something that happened to the Connecticut Davidsons, but probably not if the Davidsons were in Ohio, but let’s stretch the point. Is community theater welcoming to racial minorities? In a pig’s eye, is it. I mean, look at it. Look at us. We may talk a good game (or we may not) about race-blind casting or whatnot, but when it comes down to it, we’re a bunch of white college-educated people who would have to work like dogs to make our group anything but a bunch of white college-educated people, and frankly, we’re working pretty hard just to put on a show in the old barn. We’re not going to go into the neighborhoods and find black or asian or latino volunteers, and we’re not going to find babysitters for those volunteers, nor give them the extra help they might need approaching the plays because they didn’t have the college theater experience the rest of us did, and we’re not going to choose plays that are going to appeal to black or asian or latino audiences because we are having enough trouble selling tickets to the shows we like and that have parts that are perfect for us. Which means that we’re going to stay a bunch of white college-educated people, who are largely comfortable with each other, and are certainly not racist. No, no. Just busy.

It seems to me that it’s really hard for people within the community to really know how that community appears to people outside the community. After all, the political Parties spend millions of dollars trying to figure out what they look like to Independents, and look what they look like. And I think—I think—that when you can assume that your community looks good to the people outside, that’s a good deal of what is meant by privilege.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

August 11, 2008

Hugo there

Your Humble Blogger has in the past been on about the Hugo-nominators and voters and the general specfic-chattering classes having a blind spot for works that are marketed to people who are not sf fans. As you may already know, this year’s Hugo went to The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon, a novel that was clearly marketed as literary fiction rather than genre. Mr. Chabon himself seems to be a genre fan; certainly there doesn’t seem to be the hostility there that there is with, say, Margaret Atwood. Anyway, I’m happy enough that the book won, as (a) I think it’s a fine book, and (2) I like the idea that it is fully accepted in the Hugo-voting community as a specfic book within the meaning of the act. I will be curious to see whether HarperCollins pushes the Hugo as a marketing tool; they haven’t yet added it to either the main HarperCollins page or the TYPU page, but that could well be tardiness, as they still have the Locus award-winners up on the main HarperCollins page.

Anyway, Gentle Readers of this Tohu Bohu probably have lots of opportunities to chat with people who know their specfic about the Hugos, or to read the on-line conversations of such people. It was interesting to me to read a thread about the Hugos over at the McCovey Chronicles, a SportsBlogs Nation site for fans of the San Francisco Giants. Not many fans of the specfic novel over there, not many people with any real knowledge of the genre. There seems to be some bewilderment that alternate history of the TYPU kind is eligible for a Hugo at all (to be fair, I believe this is the first time that a straight-ahead alternate history novel has won the Hugo), and it might be interesting to view the confusion over genre definitions from the point of view of people who don’t know much about the genre and don’t care much, either. At least, it has to be as interesting as the same old conversation with the same old people, right?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 17, 2008

Rocket stages

So, Gentle Readers know that I think the Hugos and Worldcon should do something to recognize artists (as distinct from illustrators) who work in speculative fiction. Yes? Can I get some agreement on this? Or argument?

Anyway, that idea came back to mind when I was thinking about speculative fiction on stage. There just isn’t much, is there? I mean, leaving aside folk stories and children’s shows (which I have just arbitrarily decided to leave aside), can you think of five sf works? I have been trying, and I’ve come up with Caryl Churchill’s A Number, and the Rocky Horror Show, and the musical of Lord of the Rings. Oh, you could include some of Samuel Beckett’s plays, if you wanted to be a bit of a jerk about it, and sometimes I do (OK, fairly often). Has a play been nominated for the Hugo Dramatic? Not that it would win, what with nobody seeing it and all, but still.

I’d be curious to see what a really good adaptor would do with Never Let Me Go, although of course it would be totally different from the prose work. I suspect it would be one of those things where three characters do monologues, rather than attempt to create scenes and dialogue. Still, it might work. A stage adaptation of “Biographical Notes to ‘A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes’, by Benjamin Rosenbaum” would be a hoot, and would very likely work as theater (with puppets!). I could image a play with some of the conceit of Spin, not an adaptation but a different exploration of some of the ideas.

There are certain aspects of speculative fiction that would be difficult on stage, true. When you think about it, though, it’s just as easy to build a stage set of a Mars colony mine as a Long Island mansion. You don’t have to go outside the dome, just as you don’t have to go outside the house. You do need a set of good characters, with a conflict that can be played out over a short evening.

Think of two plays that were successful recently: Copenhagen and ART. Copenhagen, which I loved, was three characters talking about a scientific breakthrough and the research surrounding it, and how that affected the characters’ relationships to each other as well as a war in which they played a part. It was historical rather than speculative, and that mattered to the play as it was written, which is highly specific and works on that level. Still, there’s no reason to believe a play involving a speculative breakthrough and a future war and the relationships between three characters involved in the research could not work.

ART is about (again) three characters responding to a work of art that one of them purchases, what their reactions to that purchase reveal about them to each other, and how that knowledge changes their relationships. It is set in (more or less) the present, and the work of art belongs to a specific art-historical movement, but other than that, it isn’t hugely specific. A similar play where the characters reacted to something speculative, something that does not now exist might well work. It would be nothing like ART (which I didn’t much like), but there’s no reason to rule it out.

Why doesn’t more specfic theater exist? It doesn’t seem to me that it’s because of a stodgy theater-going crowd. There’s a tremendous amount of irreal (or “irreal”) stuff being put on all the time, and there is clearly a tremendous appetite for it. It’s not because of a lack of interest in speculative fiction in the wider culture. Most of the popular movies and television shows are specfic. So I’m guessing that there’s an unsurprising reluctance among playwrights, producers and audiences to see something that is labeled SF. Matthew Cheney, in his review of A Number says that in the theatre world there are only such things as plays, and nobody much bothers worrying about what to call them or their writers. (How odd it would be to hear someone describe Churchill, or anyone else, as “the famous sci-fi playwright”!) Well, true in a way. But it’s also true that there are no famous sci-fi playwrights, Ms. Churchill notwithstanding.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 21, 2007

Book Report: Un Lun Dun

So. Your Humble Blogger read Perdido Street Station before this Tohu Bohu became 30% books, so Gentle Readers might not be aware that I did not like it. Didn’t. Sorry. Nuh-unh. It was very obviously the sort of book I would like, without being any actual book I do like. I don’t even remember why, specifically, other than that it seemed to be mostly noodling. So when I heard that China Miéville had written a YA book, I was only mildly interested. Un Lun Dun fell into my wicked hands, however, and I thought what the heck, anyway.

And it turns out that it is wonderful. Wait, let me say it again, in italics: Un Lun Dun is wonderful.

Part of the wonderfulnessosity is just the fun, the New Weird craziness, the grotesques and puns, the moil and the umbrellas and the unbrellas and the rebrellas. But part of it is that Mr. Miéville agrees with Your Humble Blogger. Hurrah! All the things that get up my nose about Young Adult specfic get up his nose, and he not only turns the tables on them and then mocks them just enough, but he makes the story work without them! There’s a chosen one, and she’s a big loser, and she doesn’t fulfill the quest, but somebody else does, so it’s OK! Our hero chooses herself, which makes her far more of a hero. There are prophecies, and they are wrong, or at least some of them are wrong, and there’s no real way of knowing which ones. There’s a Quest! And the Quest! has several parts, and the Quest! has to be done in the proper order, and our heroine looks at the Quest! and says screw that and jumps to the end. Hee hee! Take that, Fate! Take that, annoying tropes of my favorite fiction! Take that, and that! And one more! And that’s all, you can’t have any more.


The point is not just that Mr. Miéville agrees with all right-thinking people such as YHB that fantasy novels are bizarrely and fawningly approving of such evil and destructive traditions as hereditary monarchy, the primacy of genetic traits and the authority of prophecy, no. The point is that he has made a very good story without approving of that shit, and thus not only proving it can be done but (I hope) forcing many people who do write fantasy to come to terms with the fact that they have been approving that shit, and that they can write very good stories without it.

I’m hoping to read a bunch of stuff inspired by that—not by the New Weird, which is fine and all, but has been around for a while, but by the radical left-wing idea that the hero doesn’t have to be a fucking prince. Got it? Good.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 8, 2007

Book Report: Dune

Whenever I reread Dune, I am surprised by how much happens before Paul becomes the all-knowing and all-powerful and not-very-interesting fulfillment of prophecy. There’s a lot of book before he even gets to Dune, for one thing, and then there’s a fair amount of book before the Baron strikes, and then there’s some more book before he gets to the Fremen, and a little more book yet before he gets to the sietch. Yes, during this time he’s acquiring ultimate power and knowledge, but he doesn’t have it yet, so there’s still some interest in how he’s going to get out of the various plot problems.

You’d think that eventually, YHB would remember what the book is actually like. No. A month or so after reading it, I’m convinced that it’s the prime example of how bad an overwhelmingly powerful hero is for a book. Which in some ways it is, although since it takes several hundred pages to get to that point, there are undoubtedly far better examples.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 6, 2007

Book Report: Cold Comfort Farm

An odd thing about blogging everything I read is that I find the blogging seeps into the reading. I read the book knowing that I’m going to be blogging the book, and in the back of my mind, often enough, is the question what am I going to say about this book? This question moves closer to the front of my mind if I’ve read the book before, particularly if I’ve read it several times, which we all know happens a lot. Oh, it’s not a terrible thing, and of course I reserve the right to just say I’ve read the book and move on. But it’s there, and it affects my experience.

So. I was in a foul mood at some point fairly recently and picked up Cold Comfort Farm in an attempt to cheer myself up. A successful attempt. Much cheerfulness resulted. It’s a wonderful, wonderful book.

Here’s what I was thinking I might write to the blog, though, as I went through it this time: why did Stella Gibbons make this book specfic? It’s written in the early thirties (and/or the late twenties) and set in the mid-fifties, as far as I can tell. After the 1948 Anglo-Nicaraguan War, anyway. There is no particular point to it, other than throwing in a few jokes about visiphones and air taxis. I suppose there’s a joke in the idea that Sussex farm life, already a relic of an earlier time, will be essentially unchanged a couple of decades hence. Mostly, though, it just seems odd. You could leave out every indication that it’s set in what was then the near-future without harming any part of the rest of the novel, and in fact the magnificent film version does so. So did Ms. Gibbons put the specfic stuff in as a E.M. Forster reference? Or just a general joke on futurism in the sorts of writing she was mocking? Or what?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

June 1, 2007

Book Report: The Confessions of Max Tivoli

I was given The Confessions of Max Tivoli by my Best Reader, who was under the impression that it was one of those specfic-marketed-as-mainstream books like The Time-Traveler’s Wife which I liked so much. It turns out not to be. It does have something in common with that book, a romance between a caddish man and an clever and interesting woman, where the man is unstuck in time in a particular way that dooms the romance. In the Wife, the man is actually unstuck in time. In Tivoli, the fellow ages backward. Just by appearances, actually; at the age of ten he looks like a little old man, then his appearance sheds years until at sixty-five or so he looks like a ten-year old. His memory works the normal way, and the biological changes don’t appear to have much affect on his character.

Anyway, I was disappointed by the lack of any actual speculative element in the book, and I was also disappointed a bit because it’s set in San Francisco, a city much like Heaven, in the period from 1880 or so until 1930 or so, a period that is absolutely fascinating, and it doesn’t really do much with those settings. I mean, the settings are there, and they provide some color to the book, but mostly the book is a meditation about love and age and beauty and so on. The author, Andrew Sean Greer is not very interested in world events. When Max Tivoli goes to Europe to fight in the Great War, a man in his forties among boys in their teens, and Mr. Greer mentions it only in passing. The Great Earthquake of 1906 similarly happens just off-screen. Max Tivoli does not engage in any of the intellectual, artistic or literary movements of the time. He just moons over the lady.

That’s too harsh. Particularly because mooning over the lady is poignant, affecting, even occasionally uplifting (although mostly not). With all the mooning over the lady, there’s a lot about the nature of love, and desire, and with the whole living-backwards business, there’s a lot about the nature of beauty. And as Max ages, his beloved sees him first as a father-figure, then as a lover, than as a child to be mothered (she doesn’t know it’s him each time, of course). It looks at her love, and the way he receives it or can’t receive it, in those terms, and that’s interesting as well. Still. If it’s unfair to criticize a book for not being the book I wanted, it’s unfair for the book not to be the book I wanted, isn’t it?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

Book Report: Terra!

I must have been in high school when I first read Terra!, by Stefano Benni, and thought it was the Greatest. Thing. Evar. Well, we didn’t say Greatest. Thing. Evar. in those days. It was before the Simpson. Yes, yes, before the Simpsons. Imagine that. Anyway, I think the book suited the mid-eighties and my teens particularly well, it’s post-nuclear hijinks making me feel daring and superior, as if I saw through enough of society’s ills to appreciate this wild work, unlike the drooling yahoos circumjacent. So there’s that.

It turns out, though, that it’s a fairly good book. It’s not great, and in particular he doesn’t have any way of making the plot-wrapping-up bit readable, but there it is. There are a lot of good jokes and a few great jokes. Mr. Benni interrupts the plot every now and then to have one of his characters tell a story, and the stories are generally wonderful. We visit half-a-dozen marvelous places, from the glittering double-spaceship of the Amerussian Shieks to the Snakeman’s junkpit asteroid. The language (it’s translated by Annapaola Cancogni) is wild and irregular, and there are a handful of places where the English is clumsy or false, but on the whole, it’s a fun ride.

And, of course, one of the fun things about reading specfic from the mid-eighties is seeing how much our fears about the future have shifted. Mr. Benni was riffing off our fears of nuclear winter, corporate takeover of government functions, street violence and oil dependence. He uses the images of Japanese technical superiority and penchant for miniaturization that were prevalent at the time, and the images of obscenely wealthy Arab oilmen who really run the world that were prevalent at the time, and the images of the nobility of rejecting technology that were prevalent at the time. And it’s fun to see which images are still prevalent.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 15, 2007

A mere butterfly, flitting hither and yon

So, if it’s OK with y’all, Gentle Readers, I’m just going to fling at you a bunch of things I thought were interesting to post about, but which I haven’t actually written a post about:

  • There are some interesting things over at Matthew Yglesias’s’’ses proudly eponymous site about the War Powers Act. I am becoming even more entrenched in my belief that the War Powers Act, for all that it was intended to limit the power of the Executive to engage in undeclared wars, in fact hands the war power to the Executive to use at the whim of whoever happens to be President. We should repeal it and start again, ideally with an incredibly restrictive law that makes it clear that the war power belongs solely to the Legislatures, and that the President must not invade any other sovereign nation without a proper declaration of war. I know, I know, as Commander in Chief, the President has to respond quickly and whatnot. No, he doesn’t. There is no reason why the President should be able to invade without first getting a declaration of war. He can command our military within our borders and within the borders of our allies and generally play defense by himself, great. If we have an invitation from a sovereign government (an officially recognized sovereign government) to bring in peace-keeping troops and military advisors, well, we can work something out in a bill to allow for retroactive permission, but pretty quick. Not three months, or two, or one. Is our national transportation system so bad that we can’t convene a special session to deal with a crisis?
  • Robert Gallucci makes a terrific point in a short interview with Foreign Policy when he says “this theory that Bolton apparently operates on, that we’re in a situation where we have to worry about rewarding people or not rewarding people is not a useful construct for international relations. It’s probably not bad if you’re trying to teach your kids about the playground, but [it doesn’t work] for international politics.” I have a sense that Our Only President and his cabal of incompetents and crooks somehow think of non-westerners and not-quite-grupp, and that they have to be Taught Lessons. I think there is a question of maturity, but I don’t think the point of that question is away from the White House.
  • I’m not all the way through it, but I can already recommend Mary Robinette Kowal’s series of posts about reading aloud. There is a lot of stuff there that is just technical enough to be actually useful.
  • I understand that the point of a recommended reading list is to, you know, recommend books that I have not actually read before, but I was surprised to see how little of Locus magazine’s recommended stuff from 2006 I had read. Or, frankly, am interested in reading. I believe I have only read one of the grupp novels and one of the first novels, and none of the YA books. I have read some good things from 2006, haven’t I? Or have I? It was interesting to see Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon and James Morrow on the list—I usually complain about books that are clearly speculative being kept out of talk about specfic, but in the case of The Last Witchfinder I am skeptical about its place on the list at all.
  • From Zadie Smith on Litchrachoor in The Guardian January 13th, an essay called “Fail Better”: “[G]reat writing forces you to submit to its vision. You spend the morning reading Chekhov and in the afternoon, walking through your neighbourhood, the world has turned Chekhovian; the waitress in the cafe offers a non- sequitur, a dog dances in the street.” The essay appears to have disappeared from The Guardian’s site, but it has been cached for those who are interested and have mad skillz. Mostly, though, I just liked the description there.
  • There have been a lot of notes in Left Blogovia about the various candidates’ positions on Iran, and whether they should take military strikes off the table. Just to be clear, if Larry King or the buffoon Chris Matthews asks you about military strikes, you say “They would be a mistake.” If he asks if that means that they are off the table, you say “They would be a mistake.” If he persists, and insists that he must know if they are off the table, ask him “what table? I’m talking about foreign policy and the possibility of a tragic and unnecessary war; what are you talking about?” If you become President and circumstances compel you, in your judgement, to order military strikes, you will have the power to do so (with the prior approval of the Legislature, yes?) whether they were on the table or not.
  • Travis Daub mentions a six-year old interview with Lori Wallach, during which she used her line about “two ships passing in the night. One ship is loaded with chopsticks cut from wood in the Pacific Northwest and being shipped to Japan. The other ship is loaded with toothpicks cut from trees in Malaysia and packaged in Japan on their way to California.” Mr. Daub is reminded of this by the news that “Producing and shipping one bottle of Fiji bottled water around the globe consumes nearly 27 liters of water, nearly a kilogram of fossil fuels, and generates more than a pound of carbon dioxide emissions.” Mmmm, water.
  • Remember the Maine!

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 7, 2006

An Endorsement

I haven’t been in for years, but evidently Pandemonium is finding money tight after their Big Move down to Central. My own experience with them is primarily going in on my lunch hour when I have neglected to provide myself with etwas zu lesen and picking up a trashy used paperback for a buck. It was excellent for that purpose. Had I been blogging books at the time, y’all would have heard about it. I often wish, these non-Cantabridgian days, that I had such a local place. I don’t know that they made any large quantity of money off me, as I rarely purchased any books or games new. Now that I think about it, I did, on occasion, buy the odd Dork Tower collection or Fluxx deck. Anyway, I was a regular, within the meaning of the act, and am no longer a regular due only to being far away. Even then, when in Greater Boston, I would often try to make my way to Harvard Square for one thing and another, and one of those things would generally be a visit to Pandemonium. Now, however, I will have to actually remember to head to Central, which, you know, I might do (Pearl and 1369 and 10,000 Villages and not terribly far from the ess and ess).

Anyway, what YHB was going to say is that this Tohu Bohu is happy to endorse Pandemonium, and without compensation, either. If you are in the market for what they sell, and are in the general neighborhood, I recommend you drop by and see what they are up to. What do they sell? Books, specfic mostly with some comics, and games, role-playing mostly with some scattered Other Stuff. Cheapass games, collectible card games, that sort of thing. For me, the key thing was the wide selection of cheap, crappy secondhand paperbacks. It was like ... you know what it was like? It was like going over to a friend’s house and rummaging through their shelves. Yes, I did have to actually pay a dollar or so for the book, but it really felt more like that than like a commercial transaction.

Yes, the staff was knowledgeable, probably far too knowledgeable, in that they had opinions, which meant that some of the things they recommended were Not To My Taste. Which is, fine, you know, as people are different, one to another, but still. Oh, and although I wouldn’t describe the place as a hangout for con-going types, there was generally somebody in there in the sort of half-costume street-clothes that scream of desparate nerdosity, trying to have a neverending conversation about some esoteric RPG something or other with the clerk who doesn’t want to offend the poor human-without-social-skills but who is nonetheless aware that there is somebody at the counter who wants to give the store his money and then leave. I am old. I don’t enjoy that part of the atmosphere all that much anymore.

On the other hand, I am very happy about the money I have given them, and what I got in return. So. An endorsement.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

March 26, 2006


It turns out, and this is a surprise to Your Humble Blogger, that at least a dozen novels have been Reported in this Tohu Bohu that, if YHB understands the rules correctly, were eligible for the Hugo. One of them has been nominated, or rather has become a Nominee, which isn’t quite the same thing, but better.

Anyway, I might possible read one or another of the other nominated novels before the end of the summer (although I really doubt I will read Charles Stross’ss’s book, since I read one and didn’t much like it, and read the acclaimed short story that I understand is the nut of the book, and didn’t much like it), and if so I will change my views accordingly. But I must say, at this point, I am a trifle shocked, just a bit more than surprised, by the list. I mean, of the ones I’ve read, I would not have guessed that OMW would be the one nominated, either on its merits or on the politics.

What was YHB’s favorite of them? Hmm. Honestly, I’m inclined to put Night Train to Rigel at the top of the list. I don’t know. I couldn’t say I enjoyed that one much more than OMW or Effendi. Wait a minute, I forgot one, I’m changing my tune. My favorite specfic book of 2005 (of the ones I actually read) was Magic Street. Which was pretty good, actually. Better than Anansi Boys, certainly, although I was surprised to see that one left off the final ballot. Oh, and a question: was Die Haarteppichknüpfer ineligible for the Hugo because it was a translation, and had been published earlier in its original language? That doesn’t seem fair. And was it eligible in the year it was published in German and then again when it was published in English? That doesn’t seem fair, either. Not that I liked it that much, anyway.

Oh, and here’s another question: why isn’t there a Hugo for best work aimed at the juvenile/YA market? I mean, I know that there isn’t any really good definition of that, and there would be all kinds of agita about qualifications, etc, etc, but there are loads of YA specfic books coming out every year, and although most of them are crap, so are most of the specfic novels for grupps, and the best of them are easily as good (imao) as the best of the books for grupps. Is it that somebody thinks that most Hugo voters don’t read YA novels? But then why have them vote on short stories?

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

Edited to add: as of May 2006, my vote for Best Specfic Novel of 2005 is Never Let Me Go, with Magic Street falling back to a very distant second.