Category Archives: social commentary

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Built Ford Tough: Brave New World

I have this little theory — a “little theory” being one of those half-assed ideas one has that won’t stand up to scrutiny — that a person can have either a Macbeth English major or a Hamlet English major. I myself had theMacbeth kind, having read the Scottish play three times for various classes during undergrad, and never once Hamlet. (In fact, I have never read Hamlet, though I’ve seen it maybe a dozen times.) That Macbeth was the thing when I was in school says something about the pulse of that moment in time. Maybe it’s too histrionic to see something in my profs choosing the Macbeths and their overreaching pas de deux over Hamlet’s leaderly meltdown during the Clinton era, but then again, maybe not.This little theory falls apart once I factor in the twice-read Tempest or King Lear– it’s silly to decant ones formative Shakespeare into two plays, and then roshambo — but like all little theories, I do cleave to it inordinately.

To stretch this little theory a bit, I see this kind of small theoretical split in a bunch of sub-genres: The Yearling or Old Yeller, in the dead animal department; Monty Python or Hitchhiker’s Guide, in ye 70s British humor department; and for the purposes of this essay, 1984 or Brave New World in your classic dystopia department. People tend to have read one or the other, and if both are read, the one you encountered earliest is the one you prefer. I had a 1984 childhood, finishing that book on a bus back from a school trip to Quebec, and feeling that bullet right in my brain. It’s entirely possible that I would feel the same way about Brave New World if I’d read it at the time — the adolescent brain being what it is — but I didn’t. Instead, Huxley’s classic had to contend with dreary old me, a me that couldn’t ever get a leg over. Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy many facets of Brave New World, but just that much of my enjoyment was at arm’s length — ironic, critical, or historical — and not in the moment of narrative. It was worth reading to be read, and not in the reading of it. Ah, my lost youth.

I was honestly surprised at how science fictional the opening was. There’s a whole lot of technobabble and der blinken lights, mouthpiece characters yammering on about how the axlotl tanks work and embryonic division and sleep hypnosis and the like. I feel like — and this could be certainly another “little theory”, but bear with me — contemporary literary fiction tends to avoid hard science trappings, lest one get genre cooties all over one’s magnum opus (cf. The Road, Zone One, et al.) Huxley’s got no squeamishness about that, and his future has the hard patina of 30s futurism, all aeronautics and chemistry. I was recently regaling a friend about Gibson’s “Gernsback Continuum”, and its elucidation of the semiotic phantom of  “American streamline Moderne” that gets the story’s narrator so twitterpated. Which, whoa.

The future of the past is a detritus we all live with — in our nostalgia and anxiety dreams — and it’s odd to see such an early one, such an embryonic one: 1932, before the Great War that informed 1984, before any of the other condensed catastrophes of the world we inhabit now. I found the way Huxley is taking aim at American consumerism — the social engineers are called “Fords”, and there are a variety of almost funny jokes about this — and Soviet authoritarianism — Lenina is our almost heroine — just touching. I can’t imagine a contemporary writer cutting these two things together; they’ve been too solidly set as a dialectic in the interregnum. Plus, none of these things mean the same anymore anyway. I mean, the first Stalinist purges had just happened a few years before Brave New World, but these early purges didn’t involve arrest and death like they would later, starting with the Great Purge of 1936. They were ideological litmus tests, sure, but Stalin had not yet begun to dream of the gulag and all the other nightmares that have since been associated with (at least) Soviet communist. And Ford had not yet begun collaborating with the fucking Nazis, because the Brownshirts were still just vigilante skinheads. Anyway.

The part that made me lose my shit was when our cheerful fordians spend a weekend in the “human reservation” somewhere in the American southwest, probably Arizona, which is peopled with folk who look a lot like the Pueblo people of the American Southwest. Americans certainly have a kinky view of the native peoples of North America: in historical contexts, there’s this spiritual largess afforded conquered people, and in modern ones, an irritation that aboriginal Americans continue to exist. Why do you still keep making claims to shit we legit conquered you for, noble savage? It’s not dissimilar to a British view of colonial artifacts: certainly the Greeks cannot be trusted to caretake the Elgin Parthenon Marbles. Huxley’s description of the reservation hews to this, with an irritation towards pagan “superstition” and general backwardsness, married to a strange in-the-reverse satire of sterile “progress”.

The story of John the Savage — the Englishman born in the reservation — ends up being this completely bananas expression of an inherent Englishness. Though born into the community, he somehow has problems with the language and never quite fits in. (Though, admittedly, some of this is his mom being the town drunk and whore, if you’ll excuse the expression.) I’ve known a lot of children of immigrants, and they know English as well as I; it’s their first language too. He’s given the collected works of Shakespeare at some point, and, like Frankenstein’s monster lurking at the edges of English society, somehow manages to divine the history of Christianity, all the trappings of traditional gender roles, and Romantic love. Which he then hews to when confronted by fordian society, like British culture is something that can be activated by a book, regardless of where you were raised. At least given the right blood quantum, to filch nomenclature from the American reservation.

It’s a trip watching John freak out when the woman he’s decided to courtly love propositions him sexually: omg, good girls don’t even do that!! Casual sex is super bad for you!! I get the impression I’m supposed to agree, and put in context of the fordian society which constantly describes women as “pneumatic” I kinda do, but I really don’t. It’s a false binary: harsh traditionalism or completely freewheeling sluttery. I’m not even going to go into all the feminist virgin/whore stuff, and you are welcome to fill it in yourself. Suffice it to say when John meets his inevitable end [uh, spoiler, except not really, because we can all see where this is going] in a welter of OH DO YOU SEE, I couldn’t do much more than laugh cynically. I was happy just to be done with all the fucking speachifying that typifies the end, good Lord.

I’m just going to note here, briefly, that the racial categories in the fordian society are completely fucked. While there are moments when I felt this was meant satirically, there are at least as many, if not more, where I felt it was not. Emphatically.

So. Strange New World is a trip, and I recommend a pass at it if you’re into the history of science fiction or the social satire, or where those two things connect, but I’ve gotta say it’s not aging too well. While I appreciate the ways Huxley anticipated the soporific effects of media on labor — and, weirdly, the horror of the paparazzi — his satire is bound by the rules of the day, as all satire is. That’s the sad thing about satire, which bites best when it’s specific, situated, in the moment, but then the moment moves on and it’s left as a relic, a joke that has to be explained to get the punchline. Same goes for horror and comedy, which says something about all of them.

FASHION VICTIM

Talking style with the St Paul Mayor

From the second in a series of fashion profiles from the Star Tribune of elected officials:

After the start of his second term in office, St Paul Mayor Chris Coleman has shown that a man can possess a serious sense of fashion and still be treated seriously. So what we’re going to do, in our interview, is not take him seriously at all.

Describe your style: “I’m a Midwestern politician and I was trained as a lawyer, so I’m going to go with hugely bland. A lot of my family worked in newspapers so we have a family tradition of a “wardrobe for print”. But I’ve got a bod for sin, just like Melanie Griffith.”

You feel best when you’re wearing …“Blue shirt, red tie. But sometimes I like blue shirt, blue tie just to change it up. But just between you and me, business casual totally stresses me out. How am I supposed to accessorize Dockers and a polo shirt?”

Where do you shop? “It’s absolutely killing me that Men’s Warehouse evicted the “I guarantee it” guy from the board. That place was my favorite, but now, I don’t even know. What will it be without George Zimmer? Burlington Coat Factory is also really nice.”

You never leave home without …“So, this is a little creepy, but I have this rabbit’s foot from when I was a kid. It was dyed green, but the color has faded, so it seems a little sickly. I’m reasonably sure it’s the reason for my political success though, so I had secret pockets made in all of my clothes. Its name is Melvin.”

What’s your No1 fashion rule? “No white after Labor Day. I’m working on legislation that will make this law in St Paul. Plus, socks with crocs are both morally and ethically wrong.”

Are there any fashion challenges that come with being a man in politics? “I’m legit sick of all the attention that my panty lines get. So I like old fashioned boxers, and they have a tendency to wad up a little. Really, it’s just a couple pair of them, for my “fat days.”  It’s not anyone’s business but mine and my boys’.”

How has your style changed since becoming mayor? “I wore more sweaters when I was on the city council, but I think I need a more national look as a mayor, you know? Like I’m the boss, but not like the boss boss. I’m worried I’m sacrificing approachability for professionalism, but the right tie can really soften the whole “executive branch” thing. It’s a balancing act, like eating peas without honey.”

Tell us about your hair. “It’s 100% my own hair. I would not want to pull a Traficant; that’s just awkward for everyone. My wife calls me a “silver fox,” but I still can’t tell if that’s an insult or not.”

Who are your style icons? “Oh my God, there are so many. I mean, obviously, JFK, because I rarely wear hats. Obama, Clinton, and both the Georges Bush wore suits a lot and were in government. I think my sweater period was a nod to Fred Rogers. I honestly shed tears when he died. Such a good man.”

I can’t help but notice that this interview is 100% grade A gold-plated bullshit. “Right you are, Star Tribune. Keep up the good work, you rapidly irrelevant nitwits. Maybe I’ll accessorize the end of this interview with my middle finger.”

(With apologies to Chris Coleman, who seems like a nice guy. For sure doesn’t keep the severed foot of a small animal in his clothes.)

The Goodreads Forbes 25 Interviews

The folk at Shelf Inflicted – who appear to be mostly Goodreads escapees – are running a series of interviews with the 25 people mentioned in the Forbes article about Goodreads however long ago. I was listed as #18 of the top 25 reviewers, and I think the category was in the last year, for the whole world. So, you can check out my interview here, or you can read it below. The whole series is pretty interesting though, and it’s a super weird group of people with super disparate interests.

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Today’s guest is Ceridwen.  Ceridwen also posts at Readerling.

How did you discover Goodreads?
An irl friend sent me a link in April of 2008, which means I’ve been active on Goodreads for five years now. I didn’t interact much at first – I had no experience with social media; facebook would come later for me – but very slowly accrued friends other than my mother, husband, and a smattering of real life friends. As an introduction to social media, it was a kind experience, as the early-ish days of Goodreads had a sort of backwater enthusiast vibe, and you could be reasonably sure that no one at all was paying attention, which suited me fine.

What have been your most memorable Goodreads experiences?
That’s hard to say. There have been some memorable scandals, trollings, call-outs, and cat-fights that have occurred on Goodreads which were fun for me. I can think of a dozen instances where pointless and/or stupid trolling turned into runaway threads full of humor, lolcats, and, you know, profound commentary on books. My personal favorite was the time one of my reviews got trolled by a fine young man from Texas with a penchant for dismissing people as “ugly lesbians”. I still get comments on that clusterfuck of a thread wondering what the hell happened.

Though I haven’t been involved in much of this, except as an observer, I find the various author/reviewer meltdowns that occur pretty fascinating. Goodreads is a focal point for two different trends: self-publishing and citizen reviewing. So you have two different kinds of folk running up against each other – people who don’t know shit about marketing running up against sometimes harshly stated opinions – and the result can be explosive. And I really shouldn’t be singling out the self-pubs, because a fair number of these explosions have happened between Big Six authors (or their agents or friends) and their readers. As the industry changes from more mediated relationships – authors are largely left to their own devices these days (I am given to understand) – the potential for conflict approaches one.

I don’t have any easy answers for this, and I don’t think either reviewers or authors have gotten it right 100% of the time. I believe there is a tendency for reviewers to be rewarded for strong reactions – when I sort my reviews by the ones with the most votes, the first ten are either five-starred or one-starred reviews, hatchet jobs or soaring praise. I get it: we respond strongly to strong emotion, and I don’t think there is anything wrong or bad about that. I worry sometimes about this feedback loop though, at least as it pertains to the critical process. I mean, no one ever said that a citizen review had to be a measured intellectual endeavor, and god bless all the goofing, irreverent, parodic, cheerfully off-topic reviews out there, but I still worry about the middle-voice, the three-starrer that gets lost in the wash. Heated rhetoric is rewarded – and I’m not saying I’m immune to this, having penned some hatchet jobs and love-fests myself – but sometimes I wonder what reviews would look like if it weren’t. I certainly think about this when I reach for the hatchet.

Name one reviewer not in the Forbes 25 that people should be aware of.
Just one? This question sucks. How about 25? In no particular order:

Eric from Minneapolis
Matt from Nebraska
Miriam from California
Ben Babcock
Paquita Maria Sanchez
Mike Reynolds
Monica!
Caris O’Malley
Michael Springer, who has some terrible pseudonym these days
Dead Flamingo Jessica
Sparrow
Joel from Chicago
Jacob Ford
Terence from California 
Moira Russell
Lisa Vegan
Abigail A. 
Kelly from I don’t know where
Aerin from Seattle 
Flannery
RandomAnthony
Jason Morais
Lightreads
My Flesh Sings Out aka Josh
oriana from Brooklyn
Wealhtheow Wylfing

This might be more than 25, and I could add more. I <3 a lot of reviewers on Goodreads.

What was your initial reaction to Amazon buying Goodreads?
Zombie apocalypse? No, really, I think it was inevitable that Goodreads was going to sell out or go public, because the problem of monetizing any start-up for the founders. CEO Otis was looking to cash out on a very good idea executed (mostly) well, and I can’t say I blame him. Plus, Goodreads just hit some kind of tipping point with user numbers – 10+ million and counting – and I don’t think Goodreads has been able to cope in terms of capital or infrastructure. (Witness the complete failure of the notification system on a regular basis, and less important problems like their inability to update top lists for months.) After facebook went public to not disastrous, but not fantastic results, that left selling out. I am hugely disappointed that it turned out to be Amazon, but I’m also not hugely surprised.

Amazon has created a problem for themselves with the discoverability issue – as the bricks and mortar bookstores shutter, there’s no place for serendipitous browsing, and their “if you’ll like this, then” algorithms are probably the best out there, but that doesn’t mean they’re good. Plus, Amazon reviews are heavily gamed by all kinds of competing forces – authors and/or fans with grudges, a downvoting system that tends to punish outlying opinions or perspectives, payola scandals, even Michael Jackson fans gone insane. As product reviews not personal responses, the personal gets lost. The social network aspect of Goodreads solves their discoverability issue and the issue of confidence in the review. We goodreaders are now all the person inside the Mechanical Turk. Which sucks. Maybe there’s no difference in shaking my ass for CEOtis or Amazon, but it feels different.

How many books do you own?
A quick estimate using my thumb puts the number at about 750, but that’s not factoring the stuff in the basement or the kids books. So probably a thousand. I like books, as objects, but I tend to give them away when I love them, and I seldom re-read.

Who is your favorite author?
Ursula K Le Guin

What is your favorite book of all time?
Fail. Impossible to compute.

What are your thoughts on ebooks?
I adore paper, and there are things that are impossible to do with a screen that you can do with a physical object, but ebooks have their place. I read a lot of pulp mass market stuff, because I can put down several throw-away fictions while I’m reading something more considered. It’s almost required, because I’m a pleasure reader primarily, and while I get pleasure from smart stuff, it requires a level of engagement that I can’t give it just before bed or on a Sunday afternoon or whatever. So an ebook that I can half-assedly download from the library and pick at can be really perfect.

I’m not hugely excited about all the proprietary readers out there – Nook, Kindle, Kobo, whatever – which lock readers into a specific distribution channel. I don’t think that’s good for publishing, but I don’t know what the solution is.

What are your thoughts on self-publishing?
Boy, what a thing. Obviously, publishing is in a huge upheaval at the moment, much like music was ten years ago, but I don’t think we can necessarily extrapolate what happened to music distribution to book publishing. So many of the arts have fractured into the long tail – a series of sub-sub-sub-genres catering to very, very specific readerships. Which can be great for those specific readerships, but if you’re not in them, maybe hard to figure out. I am absolutely game to read self-published works, and I have read and enjoyed a number, but I do admit I worry about the editorial process, and, given some of the meltdowns I’ve seen, the insulating effect of the publisher when authors and readers interact.

We could all use an editor – as I’m fiercely aware of when I post some damn review riddled with typos and badly connected thoughts. Platforms like Goodreads become all the more important when sorting through self-published works, which are rarely reviewed on traditional platforms – even the mid-list gets lost, and if you’re talking about genre fiction, forget it – which is why the Amazon takeover continues to worry me. The difference between product review and criticism is vital.

Any literary aspirations? 
Sure.

Amazon buys Goodreads

I started a post about the recent aquisition by Amazon of Goodreads, but then I kept spending too much time screwing around finding links and whatnot. Here’s what I tossed off as a response to a facebook post by a friend asking me what I think of the whole mess. This was the article she sent me. 


So, yes, that article is a pretty great capture of the general panic about Goodreads within Goodreads. People are exporting data like crazy, joining LibraryThing (which smartly has offered a free membership all weekend) and there have been (at least) a couple of account deletions, some by very very old and entrenched users. 

The biggest concern is that Amazon will begin enforcing their review standards on Goodreads, and if they did it would be fairly catastrophic to the community. First, Goodreads has never censored for profanity, and I would lose a sizable percentage of my reviews if they did. I can completely understand a commercial venture keeping the cussing out of product reviews – it’s like a bookstore not dropping the bomb on an endcap. But Goodreads has been primarily a social network, and the idea that it could shift its focus to shilling makes a lot of people nervous. Facebook makes a lot of terrible terrible choices, but policing for cussing isn’t one of them. 

Like other social networks, Goodreads has also never instituted down-voting on reviews. It isn’t social to let semi-anonymous people troll you with a click; they actually have to type out that they hate you and your opinion. And it is far too easy for people to build down-voting campaigns against unpopular opinions, specific users, or whatever, as various Amazon scandals have shown. (It seems every day that an author/reviewer/maniac and his/her cronies goes to war against an Amazon reviewer, and down-voting makes that all too easy.) 

And finally, Amazon’s treatment of author reviews is totally bizarre. In response to the revelation that a large minority of Amazon reviews were bought and paid for by someone (publisher, author, whomever), Amazon cracked down on author reviews and reviews by friends of the author, in a way that hugely missed the point. I have zero problem with reviews written by authors, either of their own work, or of other writers in their genre. They can be stupid or done badly, but as long as there is disclosure, who really cares? And, sometimes people in the field can assess something in ways that wouldn’t occur to the average reader. Traditional reviewing platforms have always relied on author reviews for this very reason. Plus, you’re dealing with people who know how to write. Sure, you can totally get bullshit blurbcraft and friends scratching friends’ backs, but, uh, hasn’t that been an aspect of publishing since cuneiform was invented? I have a large number of GR friends who are also published authors (who run from the traditionally published to hard core Smashwords silliness) and silencing them for being published once makes no sense. Writers read. 

All this said, I don’t think Amazon is stupid enough to institute any of these sweeping changes, certainly not right away, and certainly not if they really do keep CEO Otis around in a meaningful role. And in terms of technology, I think all of Otis’s apple-cheeked exclamations about how this will make everything better is probably accurate. The Goodreads search engine is embarrassingly bad. Goodreads has really dippy server management, and the site fails to function reliably on a regular basis. Amazon will probably clean up all of the bad technology. 

But on a deeper level, I think the sale of Goodreads to Amazon signals the very real end of the big six publishing houses. They’ve been under siege for a long time, and haven’t been as terrible as the music industry in their response to new media, blah blah blah. It’s not going to happen tomorrow or anything, but I can understand some of the doom-crying because the writing is so very much on the wall now. In neon. Also, Barnes & Noble is fucked. So, so fucked. Which honestly depresses me. 

Anyway, tl;dr.

Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction

This review is something of a mess, written over months, and at least four separate reading sessions. Which works in some ways, because Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction is a mess. I thought it was a short story collection, and while I admit it’s my bad for misreading the term “anthology”, it’s not the best anthology. I can’t tell who Grace Dillon, the editor, thinks she’s writing for. Heavily academic, full of lots of jargon and dense, offhanded references to theory, writers and history that blow past your average reader. I have a good background in science fiction, and a shakier one in Native (North) American history – a minor in college coughcough years ago – and I could barely keep up. 

I probably should have just given up, but it got to be a grudge match: Grace Dillon, you will not defeat me with your horrible introductions and promiscuous use of epigraph. There’s a lot of very cool material in here, a lot of both explicit and implicit criticisms of science fiction as a genre, new and odd angles on science fictional narrative, etc etc. It’s a good place to get a broad polling of indigenous voices in a genre that is often extremely colonial in nature, which is what I was looking for when I picked this up. 


It’d also be a good place to start building a syllabus or a master’s thesis, but as a pleasure reader primary, I didn’t take much pleasure in that aspect of the anthology. Quit freaking mansplaining what is going on and just cut to the chase! The excerpts should have been doubled in size and the introductions cut to a paragraph. Terms, in general, should have been better defined – I don’t think there was an articulated definition of either science fiction or indigenous, which might seem like talking down to the reader, but in an anthology predicated on contested things like genre and identity, I think more down-talking would have been preferable to the over-the-head talking.  

So I’m going to give this points for existing, and for having fairly strong selections, but I’m going to take many of them away for the huge editorial drag going on. 


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This was the book I brought to read while standing in line to vote. W00t. 

Notes in progress: 

So far the short stories have been excellent, but the introduction and prefaces to the individual stories are written like a Master’s thesis, by which I mean pretty jargony and hung up on some really abstruse stuff. The editor has this pretty big boner for the concept of slipstream science fiction, and it’s often pretty cool watching her twist herself in knots trying to make some of these stories come off as science fictional. It works a lot of the time, like the odd, dreamlike story “Aunt Parnetta’s Electric Blisters” by Diane Glancy which centers on the technological intrusion of the icebox – culture transmitted through technology and all that. Plus, it’s just really beautifully written, despite the dialogue being in dialect, which I normally loathe. 

“Custer on the Slipstream” by Gerald Vizenor is a harder sell, at least the way it is being sold here. At first glance the title seems to be the perfect encapsulation of the Master’s thesis – slipstream! fiction! – except that it’s referring to the 70s version of slipstreaming, which is using the wake of rig to pull your car along. I’m not saying it doesn’t count in the collection or anything, but it seems (at least partially) like this is a mordant satire about the concept of “Indian time” – you know, “he runs on Indian Time, therefore he never shows up at the right hour” – instead of being about “slippage” and “culturally constructed expressions of time space that run counterfactually with national narrative” or whatever. (These are not direct quotes; I am being a bitch here.) 

Without even explicitly naming the concept of Indian Time, Dillon seems to fall into the usual apologia about how Native people are more in tune with the planet and nature and stuff – and, I don’t actually dispute that time sense can be, and often is, culturally constructed – I just kinda get bothered by implicit justifications for racist terminology that use other stereotypical characterizations of Native America. The perception of the concept of Indian Time, by both whites and native people, might more be a function of the crushing poverty and often physical remoteness of most Indian Reservations, which might make it hard to show up at the BIA to treat with Custer at the hour set for such an event. (Which is, of course, not even getting into the fact that much of Native America is urban.) Which is kinda the point of the story – partially – so all this talk about slippage feels like it’s missing the point. In other words, I think this story works in the collection, but not for the reasons outlined in the intros.

Anyway, then onto an excerpt from The Fast Red Road: A Plainsong, which I enjoyed until I had to just stop reading. In the intro, Stephen Graham Jones has some really interesting stuff to say about reading science fiction as an indigenous person – how so much sf encodes Western Expansion narratives in ways that are, of course, totally racist, but at least the SFnal shift makes chinks in the colonial narrative that your usual Cowboys and Indians story doesn’t allow. Sure, Klingons are noble savages – indeed, down to using Crazy Horse’s famous exhortation that “It is a good day to die” as a war cry – but there’s a red-shift in the characterization. Badump tss. 

What I read of The Fast Red Road was totally PKD style identity freak-out and pretty great, but as just an excerpt of a larger work, it was difficult to track what was going on. A slice of an identity wig out is hobbled, because so much of a wig out relies on a series of reversals that can only be considered as a gestalt. At that point I paged through the table of contents and figured out that roughly half of these entries are excerpts from larger works, which seems a little ominous to me. I have given myself permission to chuck things as I go if they refuse to work in single-chapter form. 

I started into the excerpt from Flight by Sherman Alexie, but then it was time to vote! 

Vote Vote! 

A few more notes:

This is not true, but I will say it anyway: the intro to the excerpt from Flightwas longer than the excerpt. Or boy did it feel like it. The section of this book I read on the plane yesterday was all bits of larger works, and Dillon’s intros are beginning to wear, though I don’t feel like I can skip them lest I not know what’s going on. The intro to Flight feels like a shoehorn job, because the very brief passage from Alexie’s story doesn’t feel science fictional at all, but more in line with coming-of-age identity mind-fuckery. That is a perfectly cromulent literary device, I’m just calling bullshit on every act of mind-fuckery being science fictional. Plus, and I hate to say this out loud, but I don’t like Alexie’s writing style all that much. I read a bunch of his stuff years ago until I learned I should probably just not. He’s really choppy and spare, and I can see how he’s good at what he’s doing, but he’s just not for me. 

The excerpt from Refugees by Celu Amberstone (which, annoyingly, does not appear to be in the database) was the first of these bits that got me wanting to read the larger work. Taking place on an alien planet which had been seeded with Native people seven generations before by an alien race, and are now in the process of folding in modern Vancouverans (-ites?), the ideas felt like stuff from Octavia E. Butler‘s Xenogenesis Trilogy, but written by John Crowley. Sort of. Not to be too blurbily reductive. The aliens are lizard-people, which has this really nice recoil to it, even while the (possibly hopelessly naive) damaged narrator – who was born on the alien planet – tries to understand what all the shouting is about from the Earth-born folk. There was a lot of nuance here, and motivations were murky and dangerously misunderstood – a pre-industrial utopia which might just be another reservation – conflicts between urban and rural. Really nice.

The Black Shipby Gerry William is hard core space opera, which is perfect. Space opera 100% encodes the colonial narrative in its little mechanical heart, and William is firmly aware of this, running the tropes with a twist. It’s like if Chickotay weren’t horrifyingly lame, all the potential of the conflict between the Federation and the Maquis running out into make-out sessions about Honor and the Chain of Command. 

Oops, I skipped over “Men on the Moon” by Simon Ortiz. I’ll get to it later.

Midnight Robberby Nalo Hopkinson is another one I’d pick up, partially because it turns out I dig her style. She’s got a way of blending folk tale and idiom into SFF settings – at least going from this, and the other book I’ve read by her, The Chaos- while having this just splendid sense of the weird. Reminds me a little of Sheri S. Tepper in that, although I think Hopkinson is more playful. Good use of dialect too. 

The other Gerald Vizenor selection – this time from Bearheart: The Heirship Chronicles - did not turn my crank at all. I dig he foresaw the whole ecopunk peak oil situation in 1978, but the writing feels dated, and the excerpt goes nowhere. 

That could certainly be the fault of our intrepid editor’s choice of excerpt though, a problem I see in the next two selections as well: the first from Mindscape by Andrea Hairston, and the second from Land of the Golden Clouds by Archie Weller.  I was only able to get through the second selection with some teeth gritting – and I don’t think I got much out of it – and the first I was unable to complete. Which is not to say that either are bad, just that as small selections – often shorter than the editorial introduction – I couldn’t track the characters, cultures nor conflicts in a meaningful way. Throw in stylized dialect like in Golden Clouds, and I’m out. Books teach you how to read them; they build their characters and dialects and cultures so it isn’t an assault. (Certainly, beginnings can be assaults, but that is part of the learning process.) Being told how to read them in humorless academic introductions is not the same as the lessons you get in novels about how to read that novel. 

As uncharitably as I’m feeling about the editor right now – I am growing to hate her penchant for epigrams and academicese – I don’t think any passage would work, so it’s probably not her choice of passage that is at fault. These are complex, multi-cultural novels – not in the mealy-mouthed sense of multi-cultural, as buzzword for tokenism, but multi-cultural in the sense that its characters are all vocal and distinct cultural voices, and I don’t think we’re used to seeing that. Although there is absolutely a pan-Indian identity these days, the Native experience (in America, anyhow) is one of profound multi-culturalism, with hundreds of distinct tribes, languages and histories. And sure, some of my ancestors came from Sweden, and some from Wales, but that all just lingers on at Christmas. As a white person, I experience my Americanness – no past, glowing future – in a way that is monolithic: I am not Swedish-American or Welsh-American or any other hyphen American. I am American. Native people in the states have a second hyphen, or a third: they come from Native America, but they also come from a tribe, or tribes, or a profound and complex hyphenization. An other that is deeply individual. 

Things begin to pick up for me as a reader when I hit the “Native Apocalypses” section of this this book. I haven’t been making note of this, and I apologize for my laziness, but these excerpts and short stories have all been grouped under various headings: Native Slipstream, Contact, etc. I’m on much steadier ground when the end of the world is seriously freaking nigh. Which might be a thing with this collection: I am a reasonably assured sff genre reader, but I’m little hazier when it comes to aboriginal fiction. I imagine if you came in as someone with zero interest in either of those things, you would be seriously at sea. This collection assumes you can 1) tolerate academic writing 2) read sff 3) have even  passing interest in indigenous fiction. Add it up before you pick this up. 

Anyway, so Sherman Alexie’s “Distances” kinda blew my mind, and I’m sorry I said his stuff didn’t work for me. This totally does. I have a shine for narratives about the black plague, that enormous pestilence and upheaval that profoundly reordered European history. A third to a half of Europeans dead? Jesus. Here’s the thing: I’ve seen statistics that say that as much as 90% of the population of the Americas was dead by European diseases before the people of the interior even knew contact had occurred. ZOMG. Talk about your plague narratives. And talk about how for Native America, the end of the world has already occurred. There are stories of rivers so alive with fish that they could overturn the boat in the European discovery narratives, and that’s because the millions of people who used to fish those streams were dead. Jesus. Dillon finally starts speaking to me in her intros, pointing out the sterility of most Western post-apocalit, when the world would rightly explode with verdency if we were out of it. This is the line that killed me, every time Alexie wrote it: “Last night I dreamed about television. I woke up crying.” 

“When This World is All on Fire” by William Sanders is maybe more perfunctory as a short story – I could see some of the reversals coming – but I liked the more intimate reversals that were the set-up. The value of land changes as the waters rise, even the shitty, half-discarded land of the reservation, but the people, they keep being held to standards of blood and upbringing and jurisdiction. 

From The Moons of Palmares by Zainab Amadahy. I skimmed this one heavily again, because the set up was impossible for me to understand. The same excerpt problem again, though I could dig the space opera encoding from the not-Fleet perspective.

From Red Spider White Web by Misha. Well, this killed. I admit I have a long running love for the cyberpunk street-level diction, and this delivers the whole Sino-fetistist artist whackadoo milieu with a bullet. I dig the masks. I dig the main character selling her ass by the holographic proxy. I dig the scene where she holds the schoolchild down and undoes her masks like profanity. Hot damn all around.

 One more section to go!

Even though I had something like 20 pages to go, it took Herculean effort to pick this sucker up again. I had forgotten I even liked the armegeddon section, but for our last group of writings, we’re back to abstruse and hard to follow, as least as it comes to Dillon’s intros.

“Terminal Avenue” by Eden Robinson is a fine short story, and kind of a relief because it is a short story. Occurring right at the moment of a beating of a Native kid by faceless authority figures for his physical transgression outside a new, urban reservation, the story is impressionistic and almost Proustian in its digressions. The arm coming down reminds the boy of other happier transgressions, ones that didn’t end in a traffic stop. Native America is often conceptualized as rural – and certainly the reserves are, often harshly so – but urban environments have their reserves as well. Don’t cross the boundary lines.

From Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko. Another selection, this time somewhat easier to follow, although the introduction completely fails to hit what seem to me the themes. Mordant, funny satire of commercialized Native America – con men in buckskin, Carlos Castaneda and his Yaqui bs – but met up with Native people using the commercial face of Native America to their own ends. Lots of terrorism and violence, which is interesting in post 9/11 world, because this was written 1991. Maybe Silko was right about the Ghost Dance.

From The Bird is Gone: A Manifesto by Stephen Graham Jones. I just don’t even get this. Something about an android Lone Ranger and his embarrassed Tonto. I suspect the passage is too brief, and the intro fails to illuminate. Again.

From Star Waka: Poems by Robert Sullivan. You’d think something called Star Waka would be this big nerd joke about Star Wars slash Trek – the way waka sounds like war, but then turns out to be a boat, the way waka could be like walk, you know, or trek. And maybe that’s a thing in there somewhere, but as a single poem, it’s not.

And then that’s it!

Finally.

Genre and The National Book Award

Laura Miller over on Salon wrote an interesting piece called “National Book Awards: Genre fiction dissed again” about the exclusion of genre fiction from the major book prizes, most notably this year’s big it book, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. My widdle ears always perk when people get talking about genre fiction, and how the barriers are maintained between genre fiction – which, by even the most conservative definition, constitutes the vast and overwhelming number of books produced not just today, but forever – and literary fiction. Looked at a certain way, literary fiction is this funny little enclosure, narrowly defined and aggressive in its narrowness. See, for example, a recent statement by the Booker prize head judge:



Referring to last year’s Man Booker chair Stella Rimington’s much-criticised focus on finding “readable” books for the prize’s shortlist, Stothard said that while “readability can be a very interesting thing, great art for the most part resists it to a degree”.   

“If we make the main criteria good page-turning stories – if we prioritise unargued opinion over criticism – then I think literature will be harmed,” Stothard told the Independent. “Someone has to stand up for the role and the art of the critic, otherwise it will just be drowned – overwhelmed. And literature will be worse off.”   

“Books bloggers are harming literature, warns Booker prize head judge” The Guardian, 25 Sept 2012 


 Maybe this isn’t to my point exactly, in that Stothard is mostly bellyaching about readers writing wrong about his precious books and somehow harming them in the process, but I think it goes to showing how narrow the parameters for quality can be defined in the literary fiction awards game. Readability – which, I kinda hate that mushy adjective – is contradictive of quality. There’s this vaunted art that resists its reader. Stothard plays the stereotype of the anti-populist, abstruse, literary wanker that genre readers sometimes use as a straw man, but apparently the straw man has legs, just to conflate two cliches into a straw monster. You can just see him manning the battlements of his little enclave, worried that all this wrong thinking and reading might crack his narrow definitions. Jesus, man, put the monocle away. We’re not going to hurt your books with our pedestrian taste. Part of it makes me think, bah, let ‘em have it. It’s not like there aren’t plenty of awards for the myriad of genre fictions. You can keep your battlements, and we’ll just continue on over here in the genre sections of the bookstore. 

But what bugs me is the the National Book Prize has as its mission “to celebrate the best of American literature, to expand its audience, and to enhance the cultural value of good writing in America.” Which, explain again how once a book gets tagged with a Scarlet G, it is neither culturally valuable nor good writing? We’re losing the war on reading. Year after year the number of readers and the number of books they read decline. There’s a lot of reasons for this, not the least of which is that reading must compete with plenty of other media. (Which I don’t count a bad thing, per se, and I don’t have a lot of patience with jeremiads about How Television Is Dumb when you’ve got Deadwood or The Wire or Breaking Bad out there blowing minds right and left.) But some of it is the sense, perpetuated by such fine fellows as Mr. Slothrop, that reading should be A Chore and No Fun. The inclusion of genre works into the literary fold can only be good for readers to expand their tastes and enhance their enjoyment. I’m guilty of hanging out in genre ghettos; it’s easy to beeline to the science fiction section of the bookstore and stay there. 

However, one of the more profoundly eye-opening reading projects I’ve undertaken in the past few years has been attempting to get a handle on the romance novel. I may have embraced my love of genre early on with geek things like science fiction or fantasy, but I would not have nudged with a barge pole anything directed at the market of romance readers. There was the occasional break-out, such as Bridget Jones’s Diary, but that had a literary gloss – it’s an update of Pride and Prejudice! – that rendered it acceptable to read on the bus. (Also, I know Bridge isn’t strictly speaking a romance novel, but it does fall into the related category of chick-lit, which is mostly characterized by its female readership.) Setting aside the sticky business of taste, one of the reasons I eschewed the romance novel had to do with the same anti-populist notions about the genre of romance – if it is “readable” and “popular”, that is de facto an indicator of poor quality. 

My romance reading project did not end in a wholesale embrace of the genre – I still have a lot of issues with the conventions and expectations in the genre as a whole – but the process of figuring out those conventions and expectations has been immensely rewarding to me as a reader. And I have found some fine novels, and loosened up immensely about what I will be seen reading, and what section of the bookstore I’ll be caught dead in. Harkening back to my skiffy roots, I get a good laugh about this flow chart detailing the geek hierachy:

[from Brunching Shuttlecocks]

This hierarchy could be writ large over the literary genres, starting with literary fiction, and then branching down to genres with their varying cultural currency, ending in turtles. But it’s turtles all the way down, man. All kinds of turtles can be assessed with regards to merit, whether they have detectives or spaceships or love triangles in them, and I’m not just talking about a vague “grade on a curve” metric that often is invoked when genre comes up. Good writing is good writing is good writing. 

I really dug this line from Miller’s piece because I felt like it got at the ways that genre is often a definition NOT residing in the books themselves, but the community that self-identifies as the genre’s readership and therefore seeks to define that readership. “On the other side, aggrieved genre partisans feel justified in ignoring books they might otherwise enjoy simply because the people who like those books don’t respect the books that they like.” We read what we know, therefore we read who we know,  and we’ll barricade the genres against each other. And when anyone jumps the barriers we get uncomfortable. Much gnashing of teeth has gone in the sf community over Margaret Atwood’s assertions that she is not writing science fiction. Of course you are! Durr. But she was probably right in saying that she is not a science fiction writer, not active in the community process by which a genre defines itself. Genre is on some level also a marketing distinction, putting like with like, and the biggest fights seems to go down on the peripheries. Is The Road best shelved in science fiction, given its post-apocalyptic setting? Or does it reside with the rest on the McCarthy books in General Fiction? Probably the latter, McCarthy being known for what he is known. 

I feel like I’m coming back around to arguing that it’s okay for literary prizes to ignore genre fiction, by allowing that writers can self-define what kind of writers they are, but that isn’t where I want to end up. Of course writers can say anything they like about what they think they are writing. But, when we’re talking about awarding prizes on the basis of the amorphous basis of “literary quality”, I simply do not cede the field to cultural gate-keepers and authorial intent. Prizes, by definition, come down from on high, but they are meant for readers. They are there t
o celebrate the best of literature, to expand its audience, and to enhance the cultural value of good writing. Wait, haven’t I heard something like this before? Oh, of course I have – it’s the very mission of the National Book Award. We are at your gates. We mean you no harm. Let us in. 

A Short Rampage on Whitewashing Earthsea

It’s maybe a secondary sport of readers to both long for and bitch about the film adaption, like betting on the sidelines during a prize fight. Back when I worked retail, one of my co-workers and I would amuse ourselves for hours trying to cast a perfect Sandman film, although we always got hung up on who would direct, and who would play Death. 

Anyway, one of the most quietly awesome things about A Wizard of Earthsea is that LeGuin made her fantasy characters have dark skin. I don’t like physical descriptions of characters, because it’s so often beside the point and superfluous. (See also: sex scenes.) I’m willing to hand out exceptions: I think it’s important we know that Jane Eyre is plain, and that Rochester has a big forehead. (Big forehead …ifyouknowwhatImean.) But one of the most rousing criticisms of fantasy as a genre, for me, is about how horribly lily-white the standards of beauty are, how white=good, and black=bad, and how racial purity is a sign of moral purity. Yucky, yucky, yucky. So, Le Guin slyly steps in and makes her characters not-white: Ged with his red-brown skin, Vetch with his black; no violet cat-eyes for the women, no blondes. There is no moral correlation between skin color and moral worth, no component of sexual purity tied to blonde hair. (As a natural blonde, I have a whole bitch about this, but I’ll silence myself for the moment.)

So, along comes the SyFy Channel adaption – and yes, it still hurts me to write SyFy and it always will – and they fuck all of this up. Danny Glover as Ogion was the only, only, only thing that was okay, but Danny Glover is so classy he rises above. They turned Ged into a petulant white boy; they took every lovely thing about Ged’s un-heroics and turned them into a sick parody of themselves. I said this earlier in a private message to a friend, but I’ll say it out loud: maybe it doesn’t matter what the skin color of fantasy characters are – it’s not like the fictional worlds view race in anything like the way new millennium Americans do – but if it really doesn’t matter, then why are they always white? Le Guin herself had some pointed things to say about the matter, and you should totally read them.

Io9 Quotes Me in a Cute Little Article of Happy Making Science Fiction!

Many moons ago I wrote a sappy little review for Mists of Avalon over on Goodreads.com. Breaking my usual rule of not reviewing things I hadn’t just read – I cannot trust younger me not to entirely miss the point – I instead focused on the reading experience. It was spring, and I was nostalgic. So io9, doing a round up of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels to Cheer You the Frak Up quoted my nostalgia piece. Awww.

The interesting thing to me is that I have been thinking a lot about the effects of nostalgia on our assessments of the fantasy genre, both as it is located in the genre itself, and as that pertains to the readership. A lot of fantasy – and I’m talking here mostly of high fantasy, the kind set in faux medieval settings with kings and questing and the like – is often heavily nostalgic for Ye Olde Times, when men could be men and women could be chattel or nonexistent.

Some of this is just the simplification of the historical record, which is inevitable. There is simply no way to record all of history, and it gets winnowed and simplified down to the Coronation of Charlemagne on Christmas Day, 800, then the Battle of Hastings, 1066, then maybe the Crusades/Plague Years and then Boom! Renaissance! The ways that history gets elided makes us think that somehow politics and economics and all that jazz were somehow less complex than it is today. (Though, admittedly, without instantaneous communications and with a much smaller population, there were fewer players acting on a longer time scale.) Add in the fact that history tends to be recorded by those with the means to record – freedom of the press being limited to those who own one, etc – and you have a recipe for a modern vision of medieval Europe that doesn’t reflect the actual shitshow it was for huge swaths of the population.

So, on that level, I can kinda understand how fantasy writers tend to build these little heraldic semi-Klingon empires with all of their honor and pretty, pointless ladies. (If indeed there are ladies at all; I’m looking at you, Tolkien.) But then I also just get depressed a little because these are modern writers who are writing to a modern audience, and why is this fantasy of white, male, monarchic dominance seen as a good thing? I’m an American, and while I often don’t have a lot to be happy about in our history, the fact that we threw Old George III over and built a functioning democracy – nevermind that our methods and motives might have been way less than pure, lalala – is something I am very proud of. Fuck hereditary monarchy.

So, regardless of how Mists of Avalon might read to me now, I was just bowled over at 19 by a  fantasy world that not just included women, but included women who mattered, who were political, and interrogated the whole business of monarchy, power, religion & what have you. It is very easy to be dismissive of this time in my life – O, Lilith Fair, O, Tori Amos – but it was a godamn revelation to see people like me – by which I mean with vaginas – in a genre that tended to take for granted that a Heroic Mythic Past was one predicated on the subjugation of my entire gender.

And, just to be clear, I am aware how phrases like “subjugation of my entire gender” sound. This is the thing: given how common it is to find depressing, regressive gender roles in a genre that exalts the cultures that enforce them, I truly believe that the take home message, whether intended or not, is that depressing, regressive gender roles are a proximal condition for said exalted cultures. I may be but a lowly lady, but I think that is utter bullshit. Nostalgia, as I have said before, is memory without shame. We shouldn’t be ashamed of the mythic past – we were not there – but we should be ashamed of exalting pasts that were predicated on subjugation. Which might possibly be all of them, unfortunately.

Well, that ended on a sour note. I’m going to go hang out in my house full of electricity and running water, exalting in my right to vote.