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10 posts from August 2009

August 31, 2009

This Is My Happy Song


He claimed to be sick of this song already when I requested it in Berlin in 1997. Poor guy. He will never get to stop singing it. Damn, everybody sings along. God, people are scary.

August 27, 2009

Reading Update: Mammothfail Is A World-building Issue

I just read: Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede and the fourth Buffy Season 8 Omnibus.

Naturally, I ordered this Thirteenth Child from BookSwim (netflix for books, not sure I recommend it yet) as soon as Mammothfail broke. I'm not sure I recommend BookSwim yet because it took that long for those books to reach me. So I'm reading this very late, with regard to the brouhaha, and in fact had forgotten that the book was coming at all.

First of all: yes, Wrede is a good writer. The book was a fun and fluent read, with a decent plot, interesting magical rules, and very alive characters. This last is very rare. I've noticed that readers will often credit a flat-charactered book with good characterization if the book itself is good. But a book doesn't have to be character-driven to be good. There are other drivers.

The book is also distinctly feminist in outlook, but also in a very rare way: feminist historical fiction tends to invest its characters with anachronistic attitudes and skills. Thirteenth Child didn't make this mistake. Its female characters, although strongwilled and powerful people, never complained about having to stay home and do the mending while the boys got to go out and play. They expressed frustration over it, but didn't combat it on a theoretical level that would have been inappropriate for the nineteenth century. I really appreciated that. It made the expression of female power so much more interesting.

The one part that is problematic is, of course, in the world-building. Yes, race in SF is a world-building issue. It has to do with how you see your world, not with how your world really is. There are very few places in the US that are actually all white. But there are also very few places in the US where middle class whites can't get away with failing to perceive the actual diversity all around them. We think there are huge all-white pockets of the US because writers portray fictional USes as all white so often, that they must be drawing on some sort of reality. But they're not. They're drawing on their perception of reality, as are all us chickens.

Let me break this down a bit for myself as well. There are three types of white-protag books by white authors in SF: the type that has important characters of color, the type that doesn't have important characters of color, and the type that has no characters of color at all.

The white-protag, white-authored book that has no characters of color in it: we don't need to talk about those, I hope. They are what they are, and I don't read them anymore. Some of them are extremely well written, most not so much. All take place in an alternative world in which white privilege has won, irrevocably. I think they have become immoral to write, as do a lot of other people, but as long as there is a market for them, they will sell. But let me just underline, before we leave this subject: these books have fictional worlds that are utterly unrealistic, in both the sense of fictional mimesis, and in the sense of human truth. US-written SF comes from a country where all-white simply doesn't obtain outside of certain clubs and gated communities. Period.

PoC, especially activists, will tolerate the type that doesn't have important characters of color -- like Harry Potter -- as long as there is a clearly genuine good faith effort to reflect some sort of real-life diversity in the book. There's a lot of discussion, and there can be a lot of disgust over the second-class-citizenship of characters of color in these worlds, but it's clear that the author hasn't completely ignored the actual racial diversity of the situation they are depicting. In fact, there's an honesty to this sort of writing: if you're white in America and middle class or higher, the chances that the main characters in your life are white are enormous. So reflecting diversity in your fictional world -- while your main characters are all white -- is at least honest about not just perception but your own personal reality. (Of course, it's fiction, so you're supposed to not reflect your own personal reality exactly, but I'm making a point here.)

The first type of book, in which some of the more important characters are of color, makes the situation more complex, because -- while these are the books that really start to deconstruct the white-only paradigm of American fiction -- there's the danger of the Magical Negro, and the dark-skinned sidekick, both stereotypes. There's also the danger, when a CoC is focused on so intently, that the CoC will be either whitewashed, or overethnicized. And finally, there's the danger of tokenizing. Because so much authorly energy is spent on a main CoC, there seems to be no color left for the rest of the humanity, and so you have an M&M adrift in a sea of marshmallows.

To reiterate:  while the diverse-world, white-main-characters book has a world-building honesty to it, it still keeps CoCs in second-class citizen mode. Whereas the oC-main-characters book may utterly fail in world-building. That's what's so puzzling.

What's weird about Thirteenth Child is that this book is two of these types: there are two important characters of color, both black; there are no other characters of color in the book at all; and the whole takes place on a continent that has no indigenous characters of color. If you look hard enough, it looks like a Harold and the Purple Crayon-scape: deft and lively figures and scenes, but drawn on a completely blank background. What has been making everyone so crazy about this book is that it is an attempt to write a "morally correct" fiction with important characters of color, but it is placed over a fictional world that has been deliberately and completely whitewashed.

Let's deal with the first one first: the book has major characters of color. These are a female magic teacher and a male itinerant magician and mentor. Both are black, both practice some fusion of "Avropean" (European) and "Aphrikan" magic, and both mentor the white, female, teenaged protagonist in developing her own magic, which maps better to Aphrikan than Avropean styles. Neither encounters any racism in this world ... one in which slavery was abolished three decades earlier, certainly, but one in which there was black slavery.

While both characters presumably have their own goals in life, we don't know what these might be; they are never hinted at. One character has a background, a family, and a place to go when she leaves the school she's teaching our protag at ... but the fact that she'll be leaving that school shortly after our protag graduates sort of underlines the idea that this teacher is there specfically to help her. The characters serve three purposes in this particular story: to teach the white protag a form of magic that whites couldn't teach her, to diversify the population of the story both by being black and by embodying the cultural diversity of magic, and to give the main characters moral stature by being their friends. (Yes, in a world where trolls cite their one black friend to justify racism, social proximity to one black person does serve to heighten your moral standing.)

So yes, these two characters are the very definition of Magical Negroes. Thus ends the analyze-the-two-characters-of-color portion of this review.

When you look away from these two characters, the rest of this world is entirely white. I've mentioned above that that's a danger of white-authored narratives with important CoCs. But it's much deeper than that in Thirteenth Child. Even white-washed frontier narratives like the Laura Ingalls Wilder books had Indians in the background, or at the very least, the threat of Indians. Their presence in the land was minimized, but it was one of the essential givens of this world, one of the essential elements that shaped frontier life and limited migration. Yes, their presence. Because, unlike with African Americans, whose presence in the US wasn't the issue -- it was rather where they got to go, what they got to do, and who got to decide what these were -- the whole issue with Native Americans was their presence. Remember that little word "genocide"? Yeah, that's a presence issue. It's not about where you get to be, it's about if you get to be.

So, there's a little something extra going on here than merely a white middle class author reflecting her privilege of being able to ignore the PoC all around her since her particular neighborhood is mostly white, as are all her friends. No, this is extra-blanking. Even old SF took us to other worlds to give us our white-only. This is an alternate, white-washed US, a re-do, a retcon. Aside from all the moral issues, it's impossible to get with on an imagination basis. Throughout the reading, especially once they left the safe settlement and went out into the wild, my mind couldn't stick the idea that there were simply no Indians out there. It's the Old West! There are Indians! Bad Indians or good Indians depends on whether it's Terence Malick or John Ford making that film. But there are Indians. My mind kept sliding away from the empty-of-humans landscape and putting Indians over the next ridge. Seriously, it's impossible. The only way I could make it work was by blanking out the landscape and blotting out human AND animal threat, both. This was easy since there weren't many descriptions in the book. And it resulted in the Harold-and-the-Purple-Crayoning of the story.

One more thing I want to mention about this and then I'm done: I have to wonder what Wrede was imagining the landscape as when she wrote this. Did she have trouble seeing the Indian-free landscape? Presumably not, but she doesn't fill in what she sees very much or very well. (Usually I appreciate low-density-of-description narratives but there are times when these don't serve their purpose.) This makes me wonder further ... in whitewashed mainstream narratives there usually isn't a lot of description of landscapes and cityscapes in which PoC don't take place either. I imagine this is because white writers, writing for predominantly white readers, only have to sketch in the consensus perception of an all-white reality with a few gestures. So the barely gestured, non-Indianed US frontier of Thirteenth Child: did Wrede subconsciously assume that the rest of her predominantly white audience could see an unpopulated American West just as easily as she could?

And my last question about that is: could they?

August 21, 2009

Geek Post: Why Voyager Rocked

Over at Tempest's blog, she asks why people really disliked Captains Sisko and Janeway. (If you don't know why this is a loaded question, don't bother reading this post, because it means you don't know shiz about Star Trek.)

I started to respond in a comment, but then it got really long, so I thought I'd just take it over here.

Voyager was a groundbreaking show. The first half of the show's run was shaky, but once 7 of 9 stepped in, the show became truly groundbreaking. In the 7 of 9 era, the characters and roles were slightly reshuffled, until the ship was led by a triumvirate of strong women. In fact, the ship, and the show, were led by the three archetypes of crone, mother, and virgin (that's Janeway, Torres, and 7 of 9 to you.) It took a little while for these roles to shake out, but watching them develop was thrilling. And watching how Voyager took these three archetypes and thoroughly subverted them, was even more thrilling.

Janeway started out as a shaky and boring character for one simple reason: we have archetypes of male leaders of all ages, but we don't have valid archetypes of early-middle-aged female good leaders. Think about it: there are the bad mommies (Medea) and evil witches galore (Circe, wic witch of west), there are the insane women-of-a-certain-age (neither good nor bad), and there are the various monsters (harpies, sirens, Medusa, oh my!), and there are the magical wimmins, like sphinxes and such, who help heroes to something, but exact a price. There are no heroines, no protagonist archetypes, who are early-middle-aged women.

And let's face it: Star Trek's bread and butter has always been Western archetypes.

So Janeway got off to a shaky start, since she had no archetype to embody. After a great deal of silly romantic trouble, and a genuinely touching reckoning with her relationship with Chakotay, she finally settled into her role as, not the captain of the ship, but the mother of all mankind. Yes, it took them about three seasons to realize that, out in the Delta Quadrant, Voyager was a microcosm of all humankind and Janeway was the crone queen. They picked up on this when they opposed her to the Borg queen and discovered that they were equals. The good mommy of diversity, and the bad mommy of assimilation.

What was brilliant about the way they wrote her character was that they then used her position of power to question the way leaders in hierarchies make decisions. She didn't always make the right one, but, while always acknowledging that, the show didn't look down on her for it. Her wisdom was always greater than everyone else's, but her wisdom wasn't always right. They used the Borg queen and 7 of 9 to underline this lesson, comparing the hierarchy that may be necessary among diverse individuals, with the consensus that is possible among the thoroughly assimilated. Hierarchy and diversity were not always shown to be the best choice.

Torres started out as the fiery hottie, the amazon, which is why her character didn't work so well: it's hard to have a fiery hottie who's also a brilliant leader. Amazons are forces of nature, tamed by the love of a hero stronger than themselves. By "taming" her fieriness a bit with marriage and a child, they slotted her into the archetype of mother. However, the man she married wasn't the hero stronger than herself, but the reformed weasel. So she got to remain a leader. This ended up being the perfect platform to talk about a young woman growing into a position of leadership. It subverted, whether intentionally or un-, both the archetypes of mother and of amazon.

And Seven subverted the virgin archetype thoroughly. Raped (in the sense of being abducted) and thoroughly physically violated at the age of 6, Seven as an adult retains a childlike innocence, coupled with some seriously dangerous hardware. And by hardware, I don't mean the kind of asskicking karate-hardware that is the substance of millenial male fantasies from Buffy to whatever happened in the action film genre yesterday. By hardware I mean smarts: brain enhancements, databases, skills, abilities. She also has a fading sense of certainty about herself and her place in the universe that is the legacy of her Borg upbringing. This Borg confidence is depicted as one of the good leftovers of her background; the show doesn't assume that everything she learned as a Borg is bad or wrong except her military capabilities, as a more salacious show would do. And there's some very sophisticated discussion of her Borg spirituality (yes, they have some) and her Borg worldview.

This bumps into the fact that Voyager dealt with multiraciality and transnationality in a much more sophisticated way than all the previous (and subsequent) Treks. Although Torres is largely treated as a tragic mulatta, and her two species viewed reductively, note that her human half is Latina, itself a multiracial identity. Although the two episodes in the series that deal directly with her multiraciality are stupid (there's an early episode where she splits into her Klingon and human halves, and her Klingon half can't think, while her human half can't fight -- not offensive at all!; and a much later one in which she's pregnant and goes crazy trying to make sure her daughter doesn't end up with Klingon brow ridges), the rest of the show, when not focusing on what they think she should be doing with her multiraciality, deals with it rather delicately: showing how she extracts strength and trouble, questions and confirms herself, both, through her cultural uses and memories of her parents.

Seven, on the other hand, is a transracial adoptee, a third culture kid, and a multiracial (since she carries marks of both races on her face and body.) Like I said above, Voyager, unlike TNG, doesn't assume that a Borg separated from the collective is better off. We see Seven having a lot of trouble adjusting, and learn slowly that part of her successful adjustment is owing to the confidence and centeredness she found as a Borg. In one episode, she says that her memories and experience as a child and as a Borg remain with the collective, and it comforts her to know that she will be immortal in that way. Nobody else on board has that kind of certainty of an afterlife. The show's treatment of Seven is an example of true diversity: Janeway sometimes finds Seven's ideas and decisions abhorrent, but she tolerates them and learns to live with them.

I find it strange that people are so hostile to Seven. She was brought in to replace the ingenue character of Kes, who never quite worked out. Kes was both the virgin/ingenue, and the sexual/romantic partner of an old-looking and seeming character (Neelix.) That never worked out, for obvious reasons. And when they started giving her superpowers, it wasn't believable -- or desirable -- because she'd spent the previous three years being annoyingly perky and powerless. Seven was very carefully thought out to replace her: Seven was a virgin/ingenue, but with built-in strength and power. She was the opposite of perky, and was clearly on a coming-of-age trajectory. When Seven got with Chakotay, it was clearly the next phase in her evolution: she wasn't going to be expected to get it on and remain virginal, like Kes was.

I truly think that people who think Voyager was a bad show either didn't watch the second half of the run (most likely) or haven't yet become comfortable with the idea of women in leadership positions. Even the somewhat groundbreaking Battlestar Galactica, which started out with women in leadership positions in civilian and spiritual life, couldn't quite bring itself to depict a good woman military leader. That's pretty radical.

Also, Voyager depicts three strong male characters who choose to take supportive roles vis-a-vis women. Chakotay is a strong character in more than one sense: he takes his own path, he's a military leader and also a leader in personality, and he straddles the military and rebel worlds without breaking apart or going crazy. Chakotay, halfway through the show, in the episode in which he and Janeway confront their romantic feelings for each other, lays it out: he's accepted the role of helpmeet, of the man who enables the woman leader. It's completely awesome. Later, he becomes Seven's lover, and it's clear that he's an older teacher-type lover, a kind of Kris Kristofferson to Seven's Barbara Streisand.

Tom Paris is a stereotype, not an archetype: he's an immature wild-boy, who's the best pilot in the whatever, but is traumatized by the consequences of his own cowardice and immaturity. He eventually grows up enough to atone for his past wrongdoings and Become A Man, but he doesn't have the personality of a leader. Instead he falls in love with Torres, who is a leader, and takes on the implicit role of a woman leader's partner. And then there's Tuvok, who has a wife and kid at home, and is smarter, older, more controlled, and better educated than everyone else on board. And he makes himself Janeway's instrument because he recognizes the power of her leadership, and because he believes that it's the right thing to do.

(And one more thing: the Doctor plays the vain, fussy, diva character. The male Doctor. Think people might have a problem with that?)

The strong and satisfied male helpmeets are probably the bitterest pill for Voyager-haters to swallow, even though no one has mentioned it. In fact, no one ever mentions the male characters on the show at all, not to love or to vilify them. I think it's the absence, the lack of male leadership that causes people to clock Voyager as "boring," or "silly." I used to watch queer films and think they were boring, until I read somewhere that this is a privileged response: most of the films I watch show heteronormative sexuality, which is more interesting to me in the titillating sense, so I don't have to have any interest in other types of sexuality. But (cue violin music) once I got with the program and stopping making every narrative have to be about ME, I found a whole world of narratives out there about people nothing like me with concerns nothing like mine that were not just interesting, but amazing. Including queer narratives. (Here's one among many, by the way, and you can watch it free on the web.)

Which is all by way of saying that Voyager was definitely uneven. And I don't hold it against people for misjudging the show based on the first few seasons. But ultimately, Voyager was one of the groundbreaking shows of the ages, and definitely the most groundbreaking Trek since the original series.

So there.

August 19, 2009

Publication News!

Amid the moany-groany there's some good news:

The awesome Timmi Duchamp, editor of Aqueduct Press, has accepted a short MS of mine for publication in her Conversation Pieces chapbook series! Yay!

The book will be called Slightly Behind and to the Left, and will contain four stories: "Pigs in Space," "Pinball Effect" (which will be published as the "gravity" entry here,) "Abducted by Aliens!", and "Vacation." There are also three drabbles (100 word stories) in it, all written for FarThing, although she only took two (beeotch!)

It'll be out most likely by the end of the year, although that's not yet locked down. Open the champagne!

August 18, 2009

Long-ass Reading Update

The Magicians by Lev Grossman
We3 by Grant Morrison
Sacred Scars by Kathleen Duey

It's been a book-devoury kind of 72 hours. I read The Magicians in a day, and Sacred Scars in two. Haven't done that in a while. Maybe I was just hungry for it.

The Magicians is about an older teen -- getting ready for college, who is obsessed with Fillory, a Narnia-like fantasy world explicated in a series of children's books. He discovers that there IS actually magic in the world, and is recruited into a college for magicians. Upon graduating, he finds himself in exactly the same lost state that all college graduates find themselves in (which my college best friend called the Wounded Chicken Phase) and then

HERE BE SPOILERS (FOR THE REST OF THE POST, ACTUALLY.)

discovers that Fillory actually exists.

The book's a good read, a page-turner, but there are two serious problems with it. The first is that Grossman can't seem to decide if the book is a parody, a tribute, or metafiction, and sadly runs with all three. The story doesn't have much to do with the Narnia series: its rather a cross between The Neverending Story and The Secret History with a little Harry Potter thrown in. That's the tribute. In fact, you can see an example of really successful tribute in the sorting into houses segment, where there's no sorting hat, but rather students are divided according to the direction their magical gifts take. The house common rooms aren't the site of butterbeer drinking and flirting so much as serious boozing and sex. The nod to Harry Potter and The Secret History are visible, but the similarities are not one-to-one, and are abandoned entirely in favor of pursuing the good story.

So the Narnia-like elements in the second half of the book are pretty much parody: talking animals that are boring, an evil witch who isn't really all that scary, Aslan replaced by two sheep (rams, but still,) and an Edmund Pevensie-a-like who turns truly evil. And the book is waaaay too knowing about all of this, without ever actually stepping outside of itself to get real with us. So we have to deal with the snarkiness of a metafiction, without ever being invited into the deconstruction along with the author.

There are some shifts between the world of the book and our world which aren't oiled, and are therefore awkward. For example, some of the characters make direct Tolkien/LOTR references. Of course, Tolkien and Narnia author C.S. Lewis were friends and colleagues, and part of the same fantasy geek squad. So having a world with Tolkien in it, but not Lewis (but which DOES have a C.S. Lewis-esque, or perhaps Lewis-Carroll-esque, author in it who is degraded by being depicted as a pedophile) is a shift that needs to be smoothed somehow ... and isn't. Unlike in Galaxy Quest, where the TV show starts out as a parody of Star Trek and then takes on a life of its own, Fillory does the reverse: starts out as a sort of tribute-world with the potential to have its own life, and then turns into an increasingly flat parody.

The second problem is that he gives in to a horrible compulsion to tie up every single little thread. I'm not exaggerating when I say that this ruins the book. The wonderful tension in the first half of the book comes from the play between the mundane world, in which the protag is a geeky loser who doesn't get the girl (who feels sorry for him but is also creeped out by him,) and the world of magic, which is kept free of unpleasant weather, and in which the protag is the good-looking lover and top student he always dreamed he would be. But the mundane always creeps into the fantasy: learning magic is hard work and very boring; possessing magic doesn't save you from purposelessness; you can kill someone with a stupid prank just as easily with as without magic.

The creeping realism is really effective in the first half, but in the second, as the truly excessive number of pistols hung over the mantelpiece get fired -- one by one by one by one ... -- the realism creeps right the fuck back out of the narrative, and we're left with neither a serious fantasy, nor an interesting experiment in juxtaposing realities, but rather a smirking parody. If only a couple of the major threads hadn't tied up quite so neatly, the book would have been great, rather than just good.

To wit: Julia, the girl who won't date him in the mundane world, turns up, desperate and begging to be let into the world of magic. He tells on her and lets her swirl off back into the magicless world, certain that her memory has been wiped. It would have been fantastic if he had just left it like that. Because that's what happens in real life. We don't always find out what happens to the former loves of our lives, who step down off their pedestals and then disappear. (That's what google is for, frankly.) But no, Julia has to turn back up at the very very end, having mastered magic in her own way and now prepared to be part of a new superhero team of magicians. Yak.

Also, the incredibly scary monster from another dimension that turns up in the first half (the analogue to A Wizard of Earthsea's death shadow,) ends up being the Edmund-Pevensie-a-like, stopping back in from Fillory to wreak havoc and seed a revenge-motive. Waaaaaaaay too neat. Yak. It would have been so much better if the scary monster had just remained a random scary monster from another dimension. It would have made the danger and vastness of the practice of magic so much more present. Tying this thread up only flattened what was starting to be a very complex world.

The worst one, however, was the ending, where a new superhero league of magicians seems to be forming. WTF? The ending should not have been neat at all, but should have ended in a ragged tear. He's returning to reality, after all.

Okay enough bitching. I'm giving the impression that it's a terrible book. It's not, it's quite good. But it's not great, and it's not going to rise above the level of the other twenty or so good reads I'll have this year. And it could have done.

We3 is very short and sad. Weaponized doggies and kitties and bunnies. Weepy. I hear they're making a movie. Visuals a little hard to read during the action scenes. Hope the movie is more legible.

Sacred Scars is fantastic, in both senses. It picks up right where Skin Hunger left off, and pulled the same nasty trick that Skin Hunger did, in that it didn't really have an ending, but just sort of stopped. There's a third book in the works, and if it's as good as the first two, I'll be thrilled. I'm not as mad as I was at the end of Skin Hunger, because this time I was expecting the book to just end without resolving anything.

I've never seen a writer with so much patience, building up the game, or war, or whatever it is that's playing out in Sacred Scars. The books, in alternating, short chapters, tell the story of a boy and girl, centuries apart, who both have a role in bringing back and shaping magic in their secondary world. The girl, Sadima, who has a magical gift, runs away from home to be with her magician love Franklin, who is the servant of Somiss, a sociopathic royal family member trying to bring magic back to the world. Sadima soon discovers how evil and crazy Somiss is, and ends up trapped in a cave with him and Franklin, and a group of caged street children Somiss is experimenting on.

The boy, Hahp, is an aristocrat's second son, whom his parents send to -- yes -- a school for wizards run by Somiss and Franklin centuries later (how? We only start getting a clue to this in the second book: a longevity spell.) The school is a rat-maze for sociopaths: the ten boys admitted are told that only graduates survive the schooling, and only one of them will graduate, and are forbidden to speak to or help each other. How they negotiate their schooling is detailed excruciatingly (for them, that is), and is starting to be revealed to be an elaborate game, or wargame, between two factions of their teachers.

SPOILAGE ONCE AGAIN, IN THE FORM OF SPECULATION

Okay, I just want it down for the record what I think is going on: I think the comment Hahp makes that he thinks that Somiss is being punished is part of the truth. Somehow, Sadima gets her memory back and finds her notes and learns to practice magic within the confines of the Eridean group. She discovers, as Erides did, that magic can't be controlled, and founds the school herself to ensure that all graduating (that is, surviving) wizards do so because they have shared magic and resources with others. She punishes the original wizards by forcing them to teach in this school.

Yeah, okay, it could go a bunch of different ways, but that's my current speculation. Wow, a good reading weekend!

August 14, 2009

Four Years in the Life of John Hughes, Fascist

(I wasn't gonna write anything about John Hughes, but then my friend Joel Tan called for submissions on Facebook for a little Facebook anthology of John Hughes/80s memorials. I will post a link when it's ready.)

At first it seemed like John Hughes was just bad timing for me.

I was fourteen when "Sixteen Candles" came out and sixteen was too far away. I was a late bloomer and had never known what it was like to have a devastating crush on somebody in school. And let's not even talk about Long Duk Dong. I blocked him out and had to be reminded of his existence, frequently. I also suspected that the character I most resembled was Anthony Michael Hall's. Ugh.

When "The Breakfast Club" came out, I was in a brief fresh-faced phase, not popular, but at the height of my high school popularity, only an average student, the first cut from the team, and unable to identify with any of the stereotypes therein represented. A year later, I'd turn into The Basket Case, but by then the movie had ceased to matter, and the dandruff thing just grossed me out anyway. I never got dandruff until after college; it was a distant, adult thing.

When "Pretty in Pink" came out, as I said above, I had moved to a more Hughes-like public school and morphed into the Basket Case, and was watching Stephen Frears/Hanif Kureishi movies and reading Paul Celan. The previous year the movie would have spoken to me. The previous year I was buying skippy little sixties dresses with my best friend and strategizing how to sneak into clubs we never tried to sneak into. Now I was dropping out of school and trying to ignore how the furniture moved every time I looked away from it. Now the movie appeared to be exactly what it was: a cheap knockoff of an outsider life.

I laughed at "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" along with everyone else: it was funny. I never could articulate then -- nor can I explain even now -- the dread feeling in the pit of my stomach that movie gave me. I still feel it. It had a cold, existential edge to it, and the characters, aside from looking like adults, were so unpleasantly alien to me as to kill any enjoyment aside from that of purely cynical entertainment.

When "Some Kind of Wonderful" came out, I was -- miraculously -- in college, with a blonde bob, and my dream of being a drummer blossoming (it was to peak two years later when I actually bought a used drum kit for $60.) But ... I was in college. I couldn't even bring myself to express the wish of seeing the movie in front of my friends. I waited until I got home for winter vacation and went to see it at a second run theater by myself, a throwback to my Basket Case year. I did not allow myself to love it, even though the misfit finally got the misfit and this was perhaps the only John Hughes movie I could ever have loved; I was too grown up.

But, it turns out, it wasn't timing at all. I never fit the schedule; I never fit the mold. I was not pretty and graceful and cool like Molly Ringwald or Mary Stuart Masterson, and strangely, I never quite wanted to be. I was not exactly the white kid down the block, either; and the goofy and neglectful parents of this universe were nothing like my involved, overeducated, transnational pair. The characters I wished myself into were Maria from "West Side Story" and Alex from "Flashdance": parentless, urban, racially ambiguous girls who risked being shot for love, being fired for art. Self-sufficient girls who made up their own minds and were leagues away from the shallow problems of suburban high school popularity contests.

John Hughes movies were themselves the round hole I never fit into. They ruled my teenaged years like bullies, like Reagan, like the eighties. John Hughes fading out of the consciousness of my age group was a fact akin to the mainstreaming of alternative rock and Bill Clinton: the decline of a set of ideas that had poisoned the end of my childhood; the cultural accession of values more closely in alignment with my own; a huge weight off my chest.

I've been moved by the outpouring of emotion at the death of John Hughes, as I was by the fallout from Michael Jackson's death. But I was moved by the emotions of others, not by the deaths themselves. MJ meant nothing to me, but he was harmless. There was nothing in his message (such as it was) that hurt me. I can't say the same of John Hughes, whose shallow examinations of class distinctions in suburban high schools were a throwback to the geography of the fifties and sixties -- when different classes were still being schooled together.

Hughes never understood real power dynamics as they played out in American public schools. His blithe assurance that a drunken party could achieve social parity between two groups with vastly disparate levels of power was the teenaged version of the blithe assurances that if you laughed along with them, bullies would stop torturing you, or if we stopped talking about color, we'd see that racism was over, or if we squirted more ketchup on our tater tots, we'd get the nutritional equivalent of vegetables.

I was so glad to be shut of John Hughes, that I never thought about him from that day to this, except to murmur unconsciously insincere agreement when somebody nostalgized about one of his deathly movies. But now that he's dead, and I have to look squarely at his legacy, that's over for me. Time to let out the dead, grey feeling in my gut that his movies always birthed. Time to wash away the worst of the previous bad era.

Now, how do we wash away the Bush years?

August 12, 2009

Reading Update

Read the first Buffy comics omnibus; not the season 8 series but the comic based on the original screenplay.

Then I read Waylaid by Ed Lin. It's a Kaya Press book. It's about a twelve year old Chi-Am boy growing up in a sleazy motel on the Jersey shore, where he and his parents live a really marginal existence. It reminded me of Hiromi Goto's The Kappa Child, in that there's a fascination with disgust and the disgusting. A lot of descriptions of gross food that makes people sick in gross ways, and details of pores, and hairs, and sweat and body odor.

Makes me wonder if the authors live their lives in disgust, since they've written books so interpenetrated by it. Depressing. A good book in many ways, but depressing.

August 11, 2009

Editorial Work Is HARD, Asshole!

Argh!

I wasn't gonna mix into this discussion (in fact, I've said pretty much all I thought I wanted to say before) but dude. Come on.

We're back to the stupid argument about whether editors just take what's coming in through the transom vs. what writers whom they've invited to submit have sent them vs. what they've read before. ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME? Are those the only options? WHEN DID EDITORS BECOME SO FUCKING PASSIVE?

Okay, look, I come into fandom via "literary" fiction, not the other way around. And yes, a lot of lit fic editors are lazy fuckers, too. But the basic expectation over there is that you get work by:

  1. calling for submissions
  2. keeping up with your peers so that you know what other editors are publishing. This is so you know what's current in the field, but also so you know what's being overplayed, so that you DON'T publish that.
  3. research into new authors, works, and trends. That's what this post is about, so keep reading.
  4. inviting interesting writers to submit. You know who's interesting by keeping up with the field and doing your research.
  5. maintaining relationships with agents and writers and asking them to find or create specific types of work. This is more proactive than #4, which passively asks specific people to submit what they've already written or to submit what they want to write for your collection. #5 is about actively shaping what people write; and it gives you the opportunity to give writers new opportunities, and to push promising writers in new directions, if you are so inclined. This is a tactic used for books primarily, but can be used for themed anthologies as well (and is so used, frequently.)

What boggles my mind is not that SF readers are ignorant of the editorial process, but that the implication that has been coming out of this argument is that SF editors DON'T GO THROUGH ALL THOSE STEPS. Somebody please tell me I'm wrong about that!

Because "resting on the laurels of what you've already read" is not one of the above steps, and is not part of the editorial process. People who are experts in a field are chosen to, or permitted to, create anthologies because they have a strong background in the field that allows them to understand the new stuff that they're seeing, and NOT because they've already read everything they need to read to create an anthology. Anthologizing is hard work not because you have to read so much slush (get an intern to weed that shit out) but because of all that other work you have to do. And if you're not doing it, you're doing a piss-poor job.

So, to get down to the nitty gritty, as someone in Tempest's comments asked to do, how do you -- not "become a good editor" but -- change the way you do business so that your editing becomes more than an exercise in futility? Here are some steps:

  1. Go out an read diverse stuff. This is not hard. There is google. Go to google and look up "African American fiction anthology," "Asian American fiction anthology," "New Women Writers," "LGBT Fiction" etc. Check these books out of the library. Read them. Then pick the two or three writers whose stories you liked the most AND WHOSE STORIES YOU HATED THE MOST, and read a book each by them. Look them up on wikipedia and find out who their influences and mentors were and read a book each by them. Etc.
  2. Go to Wiscon, Diversicon, Gaylaxicon, whatever, and talk to people who don't look or talk like you. Ask them what they're reading and what they think you should be reading (the answer to these two questions will usually be different.) Take notes. Then GO READ some of what they told you to read.
  3. Send your calls for submissions out to all the people of color you know and ask them to forward it. Follow up with them a week later and ask them where they sent/posted it. Sign up for those lists/groups and follow up on those lists/groups a week later with a personal invitation from the editor to EVERYONE ON THE LIST to submit work. Also go here and send calls for subs to these folks and follow up. ALWAYS FOLLOW UP!
  4. If you are a real editor, then you live in a real city with real readings. Go to them. Ask around for the POC/LGBT/Women's/whatever readings and attend them. They will be mostly boring or painful. That's how it is. You have to dig for gold. Keep going. Every time you go, talk to two people you don't know, especially if they look like they're in charge or if they know a lot of people. Ask them to recommend other readings in the city you should see. Carry cards and call for subs fliers with you. EVERY SINGLE TIME you see writer you think is remotely good, hand them a flier. In fact, hand them to writers you don't think are that good either, and ask them to pass it around. Do this in every city you go to.
  5. Keep doing this. This is not a remedial course that will eventually finish, after which, you will now be diversified. This now how you do your job. Keep doing your job.

Yeah, sounds impossible doesn't it? Right? Right? I mean, who has time to do all that learning about writers and keeping up with writers when you have so much ... editing to do?

And before you ask, YES I HAVE DONE IT, not as an editor, but as a multidisciplinary arts curator. I did it for four years, spent four years going out almost every night to shows, talking to total strangers and asking them to send me stuff, designing and printing calls for submissions and handing them out everywhere, etc. etc. Yeah, it's a full-time job. That's why they call it "a full-time job".

As far as editing an anthology goes, I haven't done that, but it's akin to (but a lot more serious and long-term than) the work I put into creating a reading binder for a writing class. Class reading binders are about book-length, like a short anthology, and need to demonstrate a variety of writing techniques clearly. They also need to tell a variety of types of stories so the students have models of the types of stories they can tell, so that they aren't limited by the narrow scope of their current imagination (my writing assignments tend to focus on both content and form.) And, as a writer of color who generally teaches writing in the context of community antiracist organizations, I make it a point to make my binders diverse in terms of who is writing the stories, their point of view, and their content.

So, how do I do all of this? Dude. I read. A lot.

I ask my list-servs (I've been on a few writers' and readers' list-servs) and I ask friends that I know are readers and experts. And then I go online and look up reading lists, and go to Amazon and look up anthologies and then get them out of the library.  And read them. And mark them up with those bookmark post-its, so that I have stacks of books around the house that look like they're wounded and bleeding (because if a book was wounded, wouldn't it bleed pink paper?) These are books with subtitles like "An anthology of fiction about 9/11" and "New African fiction," and "Poetry About War."

And, here's the thing: I START OUT with, not a quota system, but a food groups scheme: this meal has to have meat, veg, fruit, grain, dairy. And it has to fit into another of my diversity categories: one of the formal ones, and one of the content ones. So I can't just grab at random one story each by an Arab, African, Asian, Latino, and Native American about their families. One of these stories has to be science fiction, and one has to be about war, and one has to have a sex scene in it, and one has to be a coming-of-age. One of these stories has to be in first, one in second, and one in third person. One has to be minimalist, and one has to contain a lot of lists, and one has to be written in lush, lyrical prose. Etc.

Yes, I start out there, with the categories, but I don't end there. Because the most important thing I talk about with my writing students is LIFE, or that mysterious something in a story that makes the whole piece of writing come alive for the reader. So, just any contemporary fiction by any Arab or Latino won't do. It has to get under my collar, whisper to me, pop, or just make me uncomfortable. It has to be alive. I'm fine if it's going to make the students angry, as long as it makes them feel something.

I made a spec fic reader for high school students once that included Jaime Hernandez' first few pages of his Locas series, and a story by Ursula Le Guin. I chose both of these because they were both from genre-changing writers, and because I thought the pieces were cool. The Locas piece baffled them: comic books weren't about Latina punk rock chicks arguing about their waitressing jobs and then becoming rocketship mechanics! WTF? And the Le Guin story, "Darkrose and Diamond," pissed them off. It was a sort of YA-ish coming-of-age story about a kid who had magic but chose to pursue his gift for music instead. His choice angered them incredibly because they were led to believe this was a story about the acquisition of a superpower, and instead the protag chose to ignore the standard reader wish-fulfillment.

These discussions, about stories that I thought they would love, became incredibly rich discussions about reader expectations, and the rewards and dangers of subverting them. The kids actually learned more than I intended to teach them. And at the end of the class, those two stories were the ones they remembered the best.

If I hadn't made a point of making that SF reader diverse, if I had just gone by the white, male classics, I might not have thought to include Jaime Hernandez, or even Ursula Le Guin. The point here is that when you go for diversity -- by setting up food groups or quotas, by going for work that has challenged you or others in the past, by taking a chance with something slightly outside the mainstream -- you often get more even than you thought you were getting. You often get a challenge you didn't realize was there, a subversion that hadn't occurred to you, a lesson you didn't know needed to be made.

Yeah, it's a shitload of work. And this is just the reader for a class. It's not an anthology for the ages. It's not going into libraries and personal collections. It makes no claim to definitiveness. Imagine how much reading you would have to do for that.

But that's the job, Asshole. And if you're not willing to do that much work, then don't make anthologies. THAT'S why people are so pissed off at Mammoth Mike Ashley, not because he's a white male, but because he didn't do his job, and the rest of us marginalized folks are gonna suffer, as usual, for it.

August 08, 2009

Reading Update

I think I've lost track of my reading.

Um.

I read China Miéville's The City and the City. Cool idea, but it ended up being a bit of an anticlimactic, nearly straight-genre mystery. I think the book's core was his story "Reports of Certain Events in London" stretched out to book length. "Reports" is a terrific short story about a Pickwickian society of people who study feral streets, i.e. streets that don't tamely remain in a particular place but wander around.

Of course, The City has a completely different premise and purpose, but has a similar feel or feel of intention: to mess with the structure of cities using a surprising novum. And to introduce a mystery that can only happen within that particular situation. And I think this ... idea? structure? purpose? ... was better served in the short story than in the novel.

But still a good read.

Also re-read Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible and it really holds up. Well structured and thought out. Insightful. Fun to read. Some minor glitches with the representation of the female protag, but altogether a good job.

And I think I'm missing something. Arg.

August 06, 2009

Delish Food Hack

I must share:

Easy food hack (if you have these ingredients, which I pretty much always do have, around the house.) First, you can fake curry vegetables so:

  • chop up whatever vegetables you have into large-bite-sized chunks. Onions, peppers are good since they're sweet, and whatever else you have.
  • heat up a pan, then heat up oil in it (whatever kind you like; I use olive) then toss the veggies in and stir-fry for about a minute on high-ish heat.
  • then add salt, pepper, cumin, cardamon, and turmeric. Cinnamon is good too. All powdered, of course. Stir around with the veggies until it's good and mixed. This should take a minute. Also highish heat.
  • take a tablespoonful of coconut oil and glop it in and stir it around until it's all melted and coats everything.
  • then add maybe a quarter cup (or less) of water. We're still on high heat here. The water will finish cooking the veggies in a few minutes. When the water is all gone, the veggies are done and are coated with a lovely, fake-curry-coconut glaze.
  • you can eat this as is (I've found this to be a great side dish) or you can add the piece de resistance. Just as the veggies are done cooking, add large chunks of feta cheese into the pan and stir until the feta is thoroughly coated with the fake-curry glaze and just starting to melt.
  • Yum!

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