Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Warrior's Way: Ninja Assassins and Blowing Shit Up in the Old West

The Warrior's Way is a beautifully shot, silly little film that's apparently been stuck in post-production for years. This doesn't surprise me, as anybody who starts mixing genres is going to have some trouble with marketing. In this case, it's a mix of martial arts movie + western, with all the silliness that that implies. In fact, there's even more silliness than that, as our martial arts hero exiles himself to America and takes up in a town largely populated by a defunct circus troop where he takes over an old friend's laundry business and starts teaching the local tomboy how to throw knives and cut people up.

Yes, I'm serious.

And if that description didn't pique your interest, this is not the movie for you.

In the Far East, a super assassin, the "best swordsman in the world - ever" kills every member of a rival clan save one. He saves this child and exiles himself to the American west to a small, decripit little town that has suffered under the tyrannic rule of some random group of Bad Guys. I'm not really sure why the Bad Guys are terrorizing this town. Or why they terrorized the town once, apparently, and then just came back a few years later for the sake of the plot to terrorize it again. You know they're bad guys mainly because they try to rape the heroine (twice) and because they kill people indiscriminately. Why do they do this? No frickin' clue. Because the plot says they do. Handwave, handwave.

As our hero begins to rebuild his life among the circus freaks and with our tomboy heroine, he is also hunted by the members of his assassin's guild, who are pissed off that he didn't kill the last member of their rival clan. They believe that the only way to truly "win" the war against the clan is to kill the last member. After all, when she grows up she will just start to hunt them down, and the whole cycle will start again.

Kate Bosworth of Blue Crush fame (she will always be "that chick from Blue Crush" to me) plays our heroine, a scrappy tomboy whose family was murdered by aforementioned Bad Guys. She scarred the one who tried to rape her by throwing hot oil in his face (a touch which reminded me of the scar that Red Sonja gives the Evil Queen, after the guards rape Red Sonja. Nothing new under the sun). This incident, of course, inspires her to take up arms to seek revenge (whenever he rolls back into town? Or has he been periodically visiting and she just hides? Who knows), and now she practices throwing knives. Before our hero entered the scene, his predecessor was also teaching her how to weild a blade. So, you can see how I'd appreciate this movie, despite the ridiculous and annoying and overdone near-rape scenes.

There's a lot to like in this movie if you're willing to sit back, relax, and giggle along. They're pretty clear about what kind of movie it is right from the get-go, with supertitles that tell us the assassin on the screen is now the "Best swordsman in the world - ever." It's a silly little romp that spends a lot of time planting flowers in the desert only to blow them up (literally and metaphorically).

The fight scenes are pretty spectacular, the blood is over the top, and it has a couple of really great lines. My favorite is when the hero finds our heroine trying to throw knives, and she's missing her target. He turns to her and says, "It's not your arm that shakes. It's your heart." Somehow, blindfolding her and taking a few good lessons with the hero cures her of this (handwave, handwave), but it wouldn't have been nearly as good a movie if she didn't get her revenge, too.

I appreciated that she had her own story arc. I didn't appreciate that (spoiler, duh) she gets stuck with the kid at the end, which was pretty much the stupidest thing in the whole world based on everything that came before. What, she had a kid sister once so she knows something about kids? I guess she did make the kid a diaper when they rolled into town, so she must be the perfect person to give a kid to?


Of course, by then most folks are dead, so there's not a lot of other options.

At any rate, the movie stuck to its mixed genres. Plenty of martial arts action, stoic hero, *and* it's western sensibilities - random bad guys, big shootouts, plucky heroine. This movie was about fifty million times more fun than half the crap that's out right now, but it's going to have a much narrower audience because, yeah, weird little movie with ridiculous plot holes. Geoffrey Rush even shows up as a filthy, drunken marksman. Weird, I know.

Depending on your taste, this might be a fun film to see after a couple of beers. Don't expect anything profound, but if you want to see some stuff get blown up, cut up, shot up, and giggle at movie tropes (and roll your eyes at ridiculous rape-means-we're-bad bad guys) while a red-headed heroine throws knives, this could be fun.

Also, circus freaks. Blood feuds. Ninja assassins.

Sometimes I suspect I was just delighted that they'd gotten all of these ridiculous things into one movie.

Monday, December 06, 2010

When in Doubt, Cut Down a Tree. In the Snow.

There are worse ways to spend a Saturday...

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

What's On Your Bookshelf: Why I'm Still Holding Out On Buying an E-Reader

The local Books & Co. had several Nooks on display the other day. I've resisted e-readers for lots of reasons, but mostly because of Amazon's weird "You bought it but we can take it away" thing. If I download a book, I want to download it like a PDF. A file that's mine. No DRM. The idea that Amazon or a publisher can suddenly decide to retract something already given scares the anti-censorship fiend in me.

And yet... and yet.. I have too many books. I'm tired of moving them. And sitting in bed curling up with a 800-1000 page book isn't really cozy. It's awkward. Carting it around on a plane is even less cozy. Reading from a slim e-reader seems so much easier. 

But I'd also like to actually be able to, you know, read it. I love the color Nook, but the backlight kind of bothers me on that version. But I'm not sold on the non-backlight because if I can't read in the dark on an e-reader without and extra light, what's the point? And why am I paying as much for an e-reader as I am for a laptop? At that point, why not just read books on a laptop? And that's just no fun. And why should I pay extra for Wi-fi? 

That said, I realize how much easier life would be if I could fit all my books onto a hard drive... but also how easy they would be to lose. Knowledge is great. But it's also hard to hold onto.

I suspect that I will always buy really good books in print. The kind of books you really love and cherish. The ones you want to have signed by authors. Or the ones with really important information that isn't likely to go out of date soon.

But there are other kinds of books - the popcorn reading, or the 8-book sagas, or the 12-book history compilations - that will just be easier to read and forget about or read and easily access on an e-reader. I love books, but the more junk I get bogged down in, the more I realize just how many of them I can live without. There are only so many books I love at any one time.

When book and movie libraries both move totally digital, I expect to have a couple bookcases of prized books, and that's it. The more times you move, the more you appreciate having a clutter-free life. E-readers help with that. But I don't love the technology enough (and it's not yet cheap enough) to make the switch.

I'm a notoriously late adopter. I resisted getting a cell phone until I live in South Africa, and then I ditched it again for four years in Chicago.  I didn't get a proper one again until 2007?

The e-reader will be the same. All the cool kids will have them, and stare at me wide-eyed when I talk about how much space all my books take up, before I finally find something that really turns me on.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Homesteading in Dayton, Ohio

I lost my last job because of the banking crisis, but despite that week of terror, I've been largely shielded from the recession. I was beyond lucky to get offered a job after being unemployed a week. Health insurance freak-outs subsided soon after. 

All around Dayton, stimulus money has inspired tons of construction projects. There are new parks, newly paved and repaired streets and highway projects, and abandoned buildings being torn down. There are even a couple new tech buildings being built. The local university has been taking advantage of the crash to buy up property, including the enormous old NCR building, and is making the south side of the city a regular university town.

Few of these buildings are full anymore.
It's easy to ignore or simply not see other things. I visited the pharmacy downtown yesterday during my lunch break, and discovered that Chik-fil-a, and Roly Poly in courthouse square, and the Quizno's across the street, had been closed for some time. I'd known Quizno's was done for awhile, and I figured Roly Poly was coming (they have terrible service), but Chik-fil-a was a surprise.

See, the big skyscrapers downtown are far from full right now. Some of them are totally abandoned and up for auction.

I came home last night to find that the city had finally torn down the two houses due for demolition across the street from our house. This was after they'd finally gotten to the house right behind ours last week. Our neighborhood is wide-open and spacious, and it reminded me in that moment of Detroit. They've got a similar issue in many of their neighborhoods. So many houses have been torn down that they're looking for people to do something with the old lots. Abandoned lots that nobody's doing anything with aren't making the city money, and aren't inspiring people to stick around.

I remember telling J. at one point that we should totally go out and "homestead" in Detroit, where if you call the police there's a good chance they won't come and if your electricity goes off, it may not come back on again. If I didn't have to worry about where my drugs would come from, it could be fun.

Turns out, I kind of like this option better. Easier access to drugs and all. See, Dayton still functions, despite the complaints you see piling up on the City's Facebook page. Everyone I've dealt with at the City has been pleasant (even if not always competent - but that was one person out of half a dozen), and genuinely interested in helping people grab up and develop land. There is opportunity here, even if it sometimes seems like the world is dying all around you.

There are things I like here. I like that it's a bike friendly city. I like the 2nd Street Public Market that's open year round and has an awesome deli that serves lobster bisque (if I close my eyes and don't think too hard, I can pretend I'm at Pike's Place Market in Seattle). I like that we've got a bunch of rivers, and parks. I like that there's a boxing gym right downtown, even if I still haven't managed to get there. I like 5th Street's bars and restaurants and funky feel. I even like the Dayton Dragons field, even though I could give a crap about baseball. It just looks nice. I love the art institute. And the summer festivals are killer. It starts with the Strawberry Festival, then the Lebanese Festival, the Greek Festival, Octoberfest, and so many more, and as many county fairs as you'd like to go to.

Now, it's not like I'm going to write a love letter to this place. When I came home yesterday and looked at the flat, filled in lot where our haunted house used to be, I dreamed once again of spring when we would be able to start planting five million trees on our combined barren lots. I miss the mountains, and big trees, and the ocean. I miss road trips to Reno and Bend, OR and Timberline Lodge.
Taste of home: 2nd street public
market is open year round

But I'm also under no illusions about how everyone else is struggling through this recession in big cities where rent is always over $1,000 and mortgages are often over $2,000.

My quality of life out here is a lot better than it would be if I was trying to scrape together $1,200 for a two bedroom in Portland and shelling out hundreds a month to cover gas. Today, I live two miles from my job and a mile from J.'s school. The longest commute we have is J's 20 minutes to Centerville when he's working nights at one of the school's branch campuses.

With all my student loan payments, I don't know how I'd live very well at all in a big coastal city. But out here? Out here I have a house for $541 a month, a car that's paid off, and I don't generally worry about how to pay for groceries. It's not such a bad place.

Now that our prior place is all rented out, we can even afford Christmas, which was looking iffy there when we expected to be paying mortgage + rent in December. Life was not going to be fun. Now we're getting back our deposit, too, and Christmas is fun again.

There are very few places J. and I could live well on what we make (particularly with the amount of debt I've wracked up traveling and getting degrees over the years). I'm not in love with Dayton, but I like that it lets me live that hazy half-dream of The Good Life on a budget.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Mad Men Tango

One of the things that makes Mad Men so consistently watchable is that it defies soap opera conventions. We've come to expect certain things from TV shows. We expect these people to live crazy, over-the-top lives full of great tragedies and great good fortune (but mostly, great tragedies). We expect miscarriages, drowned children, car wrecks, true madness, terrible accidents.

Instead, what Mad Men gives us is tangible, relatable, believable, every day tragedy. J. and I watched the season finale last night, and while Don was out philandering with yet another woman - leaving his children alone in a hotel room - J. said that he expected one of the kids would have disappeared, or the baby would have died or... something, while Don was out getting it on. This would *surely* be Don's wakeup call about all the philandering... No way, I said. This isn't a soap opera, and that's one of those convenient character-spurring-moments that doesn't happen in this show.

Sure enough, we pan to the lamp and get on with the show with everybody still intact.

In fact, the one truly outrageous accident I could think of in the show was when account exec Ben Cosgrove runs over the foot of the new head of operations with a John Deere mower last season. And one of the reasons it was so outrageously believable is because nothing like that happens on this show. But, just like real life, weird and wacky does occasionally happen. Just not, you know, every damn week of your life (OK, so, there was the weird California thing where Don runs off with that crazy family of free-love rich folks for three weeks, but I've blotted most of that out).

They also take great pains to ensure that we see lots of time passing between and during episodes. It's not like there's some wacky hijinks going on at the agency every week or some tumultuous thing in their homelives getting upset every week for the benefit of TV audiences. We just get the highlights. In fact, a great deal of the actual action in this show happens offscreen. What we see are significant slice-of-life character moments. We get The Milkshake Scene, and Betty-giving-Don-the-keys scene, and Peggy wearing the client's product to a client meeting scene, and etc. This makes the show clip along very quickly, and lets us judge our protagonists during low, high, and simple everyday  moments.

Everytime somebody gets pregnant on this show, I still expect The Tragic Miscarriage or the Botched Abortion, but it never happens. Instead, they get to make tough choices and deal with tough consequences - just like real life. Most women don't get "saved" from having to make a decision by a convenient miscarriage. And, let's face it - well off women like Joan don't generally go to bad doctors, even during the era of illegal abortion (illegal things, as we all know, only apply to poor people, no matter what time period you're in. The rich have always been able to do pretty much what they want).

In fact, the only absolutely wild thing about this show is just how many women Don Draper sleeps with. Thing is, as a successful ad executive in the 60's, this is probably one of the more believable things about this show. It's just hard to believe anybody would have that much mental space to manage their affairs. That said, unlike, say, Nip Tuck (talk about a soap opera!), all of the women he's gone to bed with are distinctive characters, not plot coupons. They have sex with him for their own reasons, and figuring those out and seeing how they gel with his (or not) is one of the best parts of the show. There's something I've liked about nearly every love interest, even the prostitute. Because, again, they're well-rounded, well-acted characters. Not just "Don's love interest this week."

This is a show that I'm drawn to not simply because it's set in an ad agency, but because it deals starkly with relationships between people. How people justify being horrible to other people. How they use (or are used by) others. The decisions we make when it comes to job vs. family. Gender relations in the workplace. Power negotiations.

The best part is that it's not bad guys vs. good guys, either. All through last night's episodes, I kept saying, "Don is such a dog! Ack, he's such a dog!" and then Betty shows up and I'm like, "Ack! She's such a little kid! Such a selfish little kid!" The beauty of this type of show is that not liking one character doesn't mean you have to like the other. Just because Betty married a dog who cheated on her doesn't make her the victim. Not in the least. She negotiates her own life. Makes her own choices. And some of them are nearly as dog-like as Don's. I don't sit around boo-hooing that she's some kind of victim. Nobody is good or bad. They're just people. And they are doing their best with what they've got, in the situations they're in (except Don, who is a dog!).

In fact, what I love about watching Don is watching his moral compass at work. He simply does things without thinking of anybody else. He's truly the most selfish character in the show (which says something considering it's a show that includes Pete Campbell), but he believes that everything he's doing is absolutely right. He does whatever it takes to get what he wants, and not even his family is sacred. It's whoever you need to crawl over to get to the top... and yet, he keeps up this illusion that he's a good husband, father, and family man. The people in his life are there to be used. No more, no less. And when he is done, he simply dumps them. And hands them some money or something. Desperately hoping they will go away.

The supposed irony of this last episode is that Don re-marries before Peggy. But then, Peggy doesn't have a male secretary, so she's at a distinct disadvantage. The best scene, by far, in the finale was the one between Peggy and Joan as they commiserate over their crazy office life and Don's puffed-up pride at his latest engagement. "Here, ladies, you do all the work, and we'll keep drinking and fucking our secretaries, ho-ho."

And yet, just like the characters themselves, the gender relations at the office are not bad guy/good guy. They simply are. Peggy fights for her raise. Joan just says "thank you" when she receives a title but no raise. They come from different schools of how to get ahead in life, and they have far different tool boxes. Watching them negotiate power for themselves inside and outside of the office on par with the mechanics of guys' personal lives is what kept me watching this show in the first place.

Because, as noted, Don Draper is a dog.

And, you know, that's another thing. I've been hoping Joan would dump her ridiculous fiance-and-then-husband forever. The show had one of the most believable rape scenes I've ever seen - non-consensual, not-brute-forced sex - between Joan and her fiance (again, sticking to that "Here's how most things happen to people. Not here's how we imagine things happen to people" idea), and ever since then, I kept hoping she'd dump his ass. But, you know what? Life keeps going. How many people have had non-consensual sex with their significant others? Their relationship keeps going. They have bad times. They have good times. But nobody's all bad. Nothing's all bad.

I love that this show explores why and how people stay together, even if they are sometimes terrible to each other. We love our black-and-white society. We love "Well, he hit you, so leave" or "He cheated on you, so leave." Or "They didn't give you a raise, so leave." Finally, there's something I can actually watch on TV that doesn't say, "Someone did X, so they are they Bad Guy." It says "We're all bad guys. We're all good guys. It's just a matter of how much good and how much bad at this particular time."

I don't know where this show is going, or how long it will stick around, but as long as the writing and acting stays at this caliber (more milkshake scenes, less California threesomes), I'm certainly going to stick around for the ride.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Happy Weekend

Mine certainly was!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Women, Guns, and Gods: The Horns of Ruin

I found Tim Akers's last book, Heart of Veridon, by accident at the local bookstore. I enjoyed it so much that I eagerly awaited his next book, The Horns of Ruin... until I read the back cover copy.

See, it had all this stuff that annoys the crap out of me. I'm not a fan of sword and sorcery, or stories about gods, or steampunk, so marketing "sword and sorcery meets steampunk" doesn't work for me (your mileage may vary. Being in marketing, I know this is good marketing; I'm just not the target). You should know that right off before I go into my thoughts on the book. This wasn't really a book I should have enjoyed.

But, you know, Tim Akers is a fucking great writer.

And when you're reading great writing, you forgive a lot

The Horns of Ruin is about Eva Forge, last paladin of the dead god Morgan. Her cult of Morgan is dying, and the man she's sworn to protect is kidnapped. Great fantasy is about setting as much as the people in it, and the city of Ash is a lovingly detailed, creepy, and arcane city built atop a black lake. There's a whole mythology here, with creepy beings you've never heard of and a huge, detailed history that's spun seamlessly into the story. There's no "pan to the orcs" or "well, you know how elves are." Like VanderMeer's Ambergris, this worldbuilding is done from the ground up.

One of the reasons I was willing to pick this up despite the fact that it dealt with living gods and sword and sorcery is also because Akers did something in Heart of Veridon that was really awesome: he presented the "gods" in that world as really, truly, unknowably alien. Gods became gods because they were creepy things we didn't understand, whose motives could be anything from benign to sinister. You don't know what exactly they are. Or where they came from. Or how you should relate to them. You simply build your faith around them in order to make some kind of sense from the freaky unknowable. When we don't understand something, we kill it or we worship it. Which is especially fitting considering how this particular story goes.

At any rate, I figured that his take on gods would at least be more interesting than your standard fare. And I was not disappointed.

Ash has a very complex magic system based in... well, mythology and history. That is, the mythology and history of *this world,* not our own. The gods were regular guys once, three brothers who quarrelled and fought and backstabbed and won great battles and conquered the city. They were people, once, who amassed their power over time. The idea here is that godhood is something amassed over time. There are many potential gods - the successful ones are those who are able to best gather what may be a finite amount of power around them.

The analogy to real-life politicians/celebrities/robber barons is pretty stark. 

I won't pretend to know how the how system works - it's a reasonably fast read. Suffice to say it felt very original for a sword-and-sorcery package, and it was cool watching power invocations in action. There are spells/invocations for speed and strength and battle moves. You invoke to draw on power. It's spell casting seamlessly woven into the history of a place.

And it's this, to me, that's the real strength of the book. The originality of the magic system/casting, the mythology, the way it all ties together to create a city that's very much Other. And did I mention the writing is really good? That means you get to dig your hands into the guts of this city, and it breathes on the page.

This is a spare little book. I say that because though the mythology is huge, it's confined to one city. And the cast of characters is small. The plot's very contained. I'm not sure why that felt odd to me - maybe because so much of fantasy fiction is about conquering the world, not making or unmaking a city.

The characters, unfortunately, felt a little spare as well. Eva is cool - guns, swords, massive power through invoking the strength/power of her god - but she doesn't connect with much of anyone along the way. I know she's supposed to care about her Fratriarch but just wasn't sure... why. Because her cult is all she knows? I knew it because it was said, but for some reason, never felt it. It's tough to write a warrior woman you can connect with. Like Del in Sword Dancer, or Monza from Best Served Cold, you have to cut away big pieces of yourself to make it as a woman and a warrior, to be taken seriously, but both of those books were very good at showing the heroine connecting - or failing to connect - or trying and failing and failing again - with people. And that made them not only interesting, but sympathetic.

Eva didn't really try to connect with anybody. She tried to not hit people in the face because they could further her cause, but some bit of humanity was missing from her, and it made her a little flat. I would buy more of the "cold warrior woman" thing if there was any kind of "got to cut part of yourself away to succeed cause of, you know, sexism" thing at work, but... Thing was, in this world, I didn't get that being a woman was an issue. Nobody really commented on it. It's got one of those "assumed equality" things going on, which is always weird in fantasy fiction, since feudal worlds (even those that have moved on to industrial revolution steampunk) are nearly always exploitative. It's cool if they're not, I'm just always interested in why, and that's not often answered in assumed equality world. I couldn't really figure out this world's social structure, since Eva pretty much just pounded in the head of anybody who got in her way (which was highly entertaining, yes, but did get repetitive). So I wasn't sure how much of that stripping-away-of-self she'd really had to do to be taken seriously. Her cult/invocations gave her great power. People respected that. It was far more important which of the gods you worshipped than what your social class was. Thing is, there's more than scholars and priests running a world, and though we saw a few random workers and got some lines from spear carriers, I wasn't really sure how life was for everybody else.

Because Eva is so one-minded, she never connects with anybody, either. And that's... troubling. I need to care about people in my books, and if there's no love (even muffled), or guilt (even rationalized), or remorse (also rationalized), it's harder to connect. Things glance off Eva like a stone skipping over a lake. This may simply be purposeful - she's been raised to be one-minded - but it made it tough to root for her along the way, even though the fight scenes were cool.

For what it's worth, the book does pass the Bechdel test (though barely), despite the small cast. This is primarily because Eva is paired up with a rogue scholar along the way who knows her own way around the city (the reason it's "barely" is because they're generally talking about how to find the Fratriarch, who is, you know, a guy. And the bad guys and gods are, you know, guys. So though your two primary characters are female, your entire supporting cast - including hordes of baddies - are guys).

Overall, this was a fast, entertaining read. I wanted to love it more than I did, and I suspect some of that had to do with not connecting with Eva. The story is so much in her head that it was hard to get perspective - either on her or on events outside what she believed was immediately important. The pacing was pretty breakneck, too - hardly any breathing/character stretching room between fight scenes. Though I was annoyed at some of the more "fan-fictiony" moments in Best Served Cold where the characters nattered on, I realize that what those did for me was make the characters far more endearing. At the end of the book, you feel like they're your friends in the same way you feel about the crew of Serenity. Even if they're your asshole friends who'd cut you as soon as look at you.

I wanted to be friends with Eva and the rogue scholar. But at the end of the day, they were ascending into something else, and leaving their humanity behind. It fits with the book's themes, but was a little disappointing as a reader.

That said, there's an incredible mythology here, great fight scenes, and some really stellar writing. If you want to go somewhere that's actually fantastic for awhile (or if you ever wondered how cool it would be to have a sword with an "articulated sheath") I'd give this one a whirl.

Not everybody needs to go kicking in heads with their friends, I suppose. Kicking in heads with paladins infused with the power of dead gods can be pretty fun too.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

And The Walls Come Tumbling Down...


Our haunted house gets smooshed. 

Friday, November 19, 2010

What 15 Years of Rejection Slips Looks Like

Something for all you young writers to look forward to! One of the best parts of the digital age is that you will no longer be hauling piles like this across a couple of oceans and dozens of living arrangements. The historian in me loves that I still have a bunch of rejections from defunct magazines.

*Note that the letter I pick up from my now-agent is actually a request to see the rest of the book, not the actual rejection, but she did reject that first book. Just important to note for those of you who are easily discouraged. If one book or story doesn't work, you just write another one.

Revenge of the Blogosphere: Haters & Comment Moderation

I started this blog back in 2004 as a place to mouth off about my life. It was a natural extension of the long and winding emails I was sending out to groups of friends. Back then, only the "cool kids" were on the Internet anyway, so I didn't feel so strange about posting things in public. Geeks and freaks stilled ruled the net. It was pushing into the mainstream, but I can guarantee that nobody at my day job back in Chicago Googled me in 2005 or even 2006.

There's some fun stuff that comes with blogging. I remember going to a Wiscon the year after I started and how people came up to me and introduced themselves - total strangers - saying they read and followed the blog. It was... weird. As a writer, the cliche is that everybody asks you, "Where do you ideas come from?" In the blogging world, the first thing other bloggers ask you is, "How do you deal with negative comments?"

Blogging is a great way to prepare yourself for when your first book comes out. If you haven't started a blog and you want to be a writer who actually engages the world, I highly recommend it. Because, if you're lucky, you'll say plenty of things on your blog that make people who don't even know you hate you. And people hating you, for a writer, is a very similiar feeling to people hating your book. So you'll grow some thick skin real quick.

It's funny that people who read your posts get far more personal in their attacks than people who read your fiction. If you're lucky, they engage with your actual argument, but more often, they feel it's necessary to personally attack you. Which is weird, since they don't, you know, know you. But blogs are far more personal spaces than books, in part because of the fiction/nonfiction divide and in part because there's not the status confirmed by mega-publisher standing between me and the reader. We read stories differently if they've been published vs. unpublished. I expect published stories to be better. It doesn't mean they are. But I have different expectations. The web has become a great equalizer, and it means there's no longer any ivory tower for you to hide behind when people throw stuff at your crappy arguments.

Now, there are all sorts of things I can infer about a writer from what they write. But I don't know that I've outright called an author a woman-hating faggot, for instance, because of something he'd written.

But when you're loud and offensive and explicitly tackling feminist issues on a blog, the odds of a day going by in which you're not called a man-hating lesbian go up the more you post. Now, there's certainly nothing wrong with being a man-hating lesbian. There are certainly women I find attractive, and certainly some men I strongly dislike. And I suspect the vast majority of people in the world find some women attractive and strongly dislike some men, and vice versa. What gets me is how this stuff is brought out to silence the speaker. To invalidate what they're saying. You could have the best argument in the whole world, but one scream of "man-hating lesbian" and some weirdo thinks they've cut you down.

Um, no.

See, here's the thing, folks. If you choose to live publicly, you have to deal with the haters. And there will always be haters. Far more haters if you have an explicitly political blog. They will send you nasty emails and threaten sexual violence and call you gay, because this is about the extent of the scary stuff they can think of.

That's the good news. Because if it you know how to throw a good right hook and don't find being gay offensive, the world is your oyster.

Yes, really.

I've gotten all sorts of hatred spewed over here in the six years I've been posting to this blog. Thing is, all everybody talks about is the bad stuff (look at this post, even!). What we fail to talk about (and what nobody ever asks me about) is how to deal with the *good* stuff. I've had fan letters and thank-you letters and some really good stories about folks who changed their lives because of a personal story I shared here. I've had letters and comments that literally leave me speechless (or word-less at least). In the face of strong, heartfelt emotion I always have trouble responding, and it's no different with blog comments.

We continually focus on the bad. I know a handful of female bloggers who've deleted their blogs due to harassment. That's a tragedy. I understand it, sure, but it's a tragedy nonetheless.

When you start thinking about quitting, pull up the good conversations. The fan emails. The amazing comments. Remember the lives you're making better.

And just know that harassment comes with the territory. Harassment means you're doing something right. It means you made somebody uncomfortable. It means you're freaking them out and shaking up their worldview. It doesn't mean you need to shut up.

When people ask me how to moderate comments, I actually find it to be a trivial question. It's not about how to moderate comments. It's how to have the courage to keep talking when everybody wants you to shut the hell up. Hatred is exhausting. And we focus on the hatred, of course. We give negative comments three times the attention of positive ones, which always makes it seem like there are more than there really are.

The kind of blogging I do, I realize after my long hiatus, really is about courage. I was worried all the time about what people would think. I was worried about strangers at cons. Stalkers. Potential employers. Work colleagues.

But there's also a lot of good that comes from it. A lot of people who find some value in it. Who take courage from it.

And that makes it all worth it.

You have to figure out what's worth it for you, too. I don't envy the bloggers who've been targeted with hate campaigns from the big conservative or MRA blogs. I don't envy folks with exes who stalk them via their blogs. I don't pretend that "just ignore the haters" works in every instance. But the majority of the time, what we need to go forward is, simply, courage.

And a willingness to hit the "delete" button.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Hey, Jude

I don't generally like to mix my personal blog with my day job life, as it's a good rule of thumb to keep the two separate. However, being somebody with a chronic illness that most folks get when they're kids, I have a soft spot for kids with chronic illnesses. I also have a blog that some people do, on occasion, read (especially when I'm ranting about Urban Fantasy, apparently).

My boss's son, Jude, has been suffering from an undiagnosed neurological condition that looks a lot like epilepsy - but all the tests have come back negative, and the drugs for epilepsy don't work. It sucks even more in this case because it's a kid, and it's tough for a kid to tell you what's wrong/what he's experiencing. They have spent many years, many doctors, and many, many dollars trying to figure out what's wrong with him and if there's anything they can do to help control his episodes. You all who've followed my frustrations over health insurance claims and benefits and dollars over the last four years may have some idea of what that's been like for them.

I know SF/F circles move in and out of health offices quite often, being the sorts of people prone to chronic conditions and terrible health (one of the reasons we turned to SF in the first place, come now).

Please take a look at Jude's story and pass it on if you're so inclined. Getting the latest cat picture to the top of Digg is all very well and good, but it's helping out people like this that is the real power of social media. Let's see if somebody knows somebody who knows somebody who can help.

You can contact David and/or learn more at his blog.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

God's War Cover Reveal

Here it is, yo, it all its bad ass glory:

Why I Fucking Hate Dollhouse

So I've gotten through all the Pawn Stars available on Netflix, and now I have a stack of gender and Islam books to get through, and you know, hey, sometimes I need a break.

It's been a long week here already and its only Wednesday. I've got a new dog that won't crap outside, bad weather, unresponsive city officials, and lots of day job.

So last night I turned on the TV. Drank a couple beers to get up my courage, and watched a couple more episodes of Dollhouse.

Why? Why oh why?

Because there are, in fact, people who like this show. Who talk on and on about how Whedon is doing this amazing transgressive things with it. Who say it really hits its stride in season 2, and if you can just sit through all the used and abused women until then, it gets really interesting.

Also, of course, I was exhausted and vegetative.

That's always how they get you.

I stopped watching initially after episode 2, when our supposed heroine is hired out to some guy as a whore/target practice. Yeah, I'm serious. It's The Most Dangerous Game. Again, this might be more interesting if I wasn't around to endure this whole "ha ha hee hee isn't that funny" hoax.

As it was, it creeped me the hell out, and I stopped watching.

I wanted to give Whedon credit. You always want to give folks you see as allies credit for stuff. But here's the thing: just because you were responsible for writing and producing the majority of the Buffy series and Firefly was a lot of fun doesn't mean you get a free pass when you're creating bad TV.

Last night I squigged through three more ponderous episodes of misogynistic hate. Sexy ladies being used, abused, wiped, and bought like so much merchandise. You can go on and on about how this is really an in depth critique of modern day human trafficking, or tell me that Whedon really is just building it all up and showing you how bad it is so he can tear it all down.

But the fact is that 1) The Madam isn't actually in charge. She answers to a guy, which she's on the phone with in ep 3 or 4 and 2) Alpha, who plays around with folks and also wipes folks, is a guy 3) And Topher, of course, the genius wiperoo of them all, is a skeevy, nasty sort who I hate more and more as each episode goes on 4) Echo's protector/body guard is a guy 5) the "good guy" trying to save Echo from all these bad people is, of course, a guy. 6) the only female regular character outside of Dollhouse is obsessed with our "good guy" in a romantic way and even brings him meatloaf or lasagna early on (I suspect she's likely a Doll, too).

It's gross.


It's a bunch of women being used, controlled, and abused  by guys. Orbiting guys. Serving guy clients. They aren't always whores. Whooop-dee-doo. Sometimes they are safe-crackers who suddenly become mind-wiped cucumbers. At. every. single. step. along. the. way. these people are people manipulated and controlled. And it doesn't get better. Telling me, "Alpha will help inspire them to be freeee!" or "that FBI guy will help set them freeeee!" or even, "Echo will someday become a super weapon!" are all stupid, boring, cliched, hackneyed things. There is nothing at all redeeming about this show. Not one single thing.

To add insult to injury, Eliza Dushku just doesn't have the acting chops to pull this off. And the overt sexualization of all the women just gets annoying. And the wiping and wiping and wiping gets old. He had a couple episodes to give us the script that she then unpacks and rebels against. I'm just not going to sit through half a dozen or a dozen or two dozen episodes of abusive hate in order to get around to the point.

Knowing that Whedon produced it makes it even more insulting. You always react strongest when somebody you perceive as a part of your "in" group appears to betray you. I still feel the same way about Dollhouse as I did after the second episode: Whedon could have been spending his time creating far better shows. And instead, wasted several years of his life putting together this piece of crap.

Did anyone get past the first two episodes? Why did you keep watching? I only made it through three more because I was a little buzzed and hoping to find something redeeming; you want to be able to find what others find. Was that the only reason ya'll kept watching? Because you kept hoping it'd get better?

Because I have to tell you - it's a physically painful show for me to watch. Every episode, you're just waiting for somebody to sexually assault the heroine. Every. Single. Episode. That gets really exhausting and nerve-wracking. Folks might say, "Hey, good TV should *make* you uncomfortable!" But to what end does my discomfort serve? Will it teach me more about myself or the world to watch a heroine manipulated, controlled, and assaulted for hours on end? Even if she rebels against it later because she gets her special powers? Cause like the UF stuff I gnawed on earlier, she's never going to escape being a doll. She's absolutely surrounded by men manipulating and controlling her.

Smacks a little too close to home for a lot of people, you know? And her getting superpowers as bestowed by somebody else (Alpha or whoever) just isn't going to make up for all the gross human trafficking stuff.

I realize these are interesting things to you, Whedon, and that you'd like us to be uncomfortable. But there's being edgy and transgressive and then there's Hunting for Bambi. Five episodes in, there's still little to nothing to distinguish one from the other, except yours is TV and there's was a marketing ploy.

Here's to hoping that Pawn Stars season 3 shows up on Netflix soon.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Sex, Death, and the End of the World: Thoughts on The Windup Girl

There has been a lot of ink spilled (real and virtually) about Paulo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl. A few months back, I decided to see what all the fuss was about and ordered a copy.

This was a dense book, the type you don't see mass marketed very often, in large part because it throws you right into the story and expects you to catch up. There's no popcorn here along the way. No, "As you know, Bob," just "Here's what I'm doing, ha ha figure it out."

I pushed through the first twenty or so pages thinking I was going to end up putting it back down again. The characters aren't particularly likable. There's really nobody to root for. Toward the end of the book, I realized I wasn't terribly invested in who "won" or died.

That said, the characters are interesting, and that makes all the difference. Exiles and outcasts, expatriates and profiteers... they're all here. Bacigalupi is a great evocateur of worlds, and he captures the heat and stink and chaos of this future Bangkok with great force. This is a book that's very much about the world, the re-emergence of colonization after a spectacular collapse, civil war, and above all, exploration of the world after the terrible repercussions from too much genetic meddling with our food stuffs and our environment.

The host of characters include a scheming expatriate employed by a "Calorie Company" - big ConAgra-like companies that literally control every edible thing that comes on the market. The entire economy is based on calories - fossil fuels have been used up, and energy is measured in literal human calories. Genetically modified animals and people help pick up where fossil fuels let off, but it's been a long climb back into industry.

Part of what seems to have made this book so popular - besides the fact that it's well-written, evocative, and engaging - is that so much of it is so here-and-now newsworthy, which people love. I felt the same thing when I read his take on how big-business-controlled seeds had aided in toppling the world. I'd just finished watching a smattering of documentaries about the monopoly on corn seed and fertilizer of some big companies today, how farmers weren't even allowed to harvest their own corn for planting, because the seeds themselves are patented. Yes, the seeds are patented. They are owned by a corporation.

In the Windup Girl, we get an answer to the question, "What happens when all the seeds are patented, and then there's a blight, and no alternatives around anymore?" We also get an answer to the "What happens if we continue on like we are and the oil runs out" question, too. These are both big concerns. Science fiction has never really been about the future so much as it is about exploring answers to today's questions and concerns. We write our future fiction (and our fantasy fiction) in reaction to what we're experiencing now. The Windup Girl is right there at the forefront.

Big stuff aside, I did want to take a minute to share some thoughts on The Windup Girl herself (the blog's titled Brutal Women, afterall). The whole Asian sex slave robot/genetically tailored pleasure girl slave thing has been done to death. The minute she comes on the scene I was like, "Tra-la, whatever."

But Bacigalupi makes some very interesting choices, here. Though she is created by and owned by men, it's a woman who is her primary on-stage abuser, and the person you hear spewing the most hate at her. As a Windup Girl, she's outcast, hated, feared, and can't walk outside alone without fear of being recycled. Not only that - her flawless skin means she has pores so small that she doesn't regulate heat properly. This is a big problem in sweltering Bangkok at the end of the fossil fuel age, when things like ice and air conditioning are for the super rich... and she's an rich guy's abandoned companion who's been taken up into a petty brothel. That means she's utterly, completely dependent on others. Physically, and genetically. Because she's been bred to be submissive, dependent, with an overwhelming desire to please.

What makes her different that other robo-women? She knows exactly what she's been bred for. She has a painful knowledge of her dependence, even as submitting to her masters' desires fulfills her dog-like need to please, she hates herself for it. She knows it for what it is: bad programming.

And she fights it.

How many times have you done something for somebody that was against your principles? How many times have you done something you were uncomfortable with, or that you didn't really like, but that made somebody else happy? And then afterward you were like, gah, why did I do that?

That's her whole life. It's knowing what free will's like, but never having it.

All that said, she does work hard at rebellion, and in the best of all girl-power stories, she does in fact get weaponized... and the whole place goes to hell. She has been slowly battering against the cage of her genetics for some time, so when she bursts out, it's pretty spectacular, and unpredictably violent (after yesterday's post about women getting weaponized in response to sexual violence, I should have found this more predictable, but the way Bacigalupi sets it up, it's actually not. It felt like an interesting instead of a predictable choice).

everybody's getting stepped on by everybody else.

Overall, this was a good read. If you can get through those first few initial pages without going, "Fuck this, I don't know what the hell is going on!" you'll be fine.  Things pick up. Things make sense. Sometimes they make too much sense. And you start to wonder just how fun the world is going to be in 50 years unless we get some electric cars and high-speed trains and stop corporations from controlling the genetic makeup of our foodstuffs.

Which, of course, is exactly what a good SF novel should be doing... freaking me out about the future.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Why I Don’t Read Much Urban Fantasy

Daniel Abraham had an interesting post up about rape and urban fantasy  that I’ve been chewing on for awhile. To sum it, it’s some thoughts on women and power as they’re portrayed in urban fantasy. Or, “urban fantasy is a genre sitting on top of a great big huge cultural discomfort about women and power.”
True and true.
Much of urban fantasy, he argues, exists to explore and unpack – among other things - women’s fear of sexual violence. So the best way to explore the issue of women and power and sexual violence may be to not state it explicitly. After all, once you state a book’s overall theme out loud, “Why yes, I am immune to sexual violence and find it quite liberating, but I am also interested in how it has re-shaped my life” it loses some of its power.
I thought it was an interesting thesis, and mulled on it for awhile. I was reminded of the Buffy episode – one of the most disturbing for me – when she loses her powers (taken away from her by a guy, her mentor, as a test. Talk about worst nightmare) and walks down the street, small and afraid, as a group of guys leers and heckles her. It was a profoundly unsettling moment, to see the heroine you love so much for her physical strength get demoted to, well… a woman like us. She doesn’t confront her hecklers like she would have done when she had her superpowers. She just does what we’ve all done at one time or another – hunches up her shoulders, doesn’t make eye contact, and scurries quickly away back into her house.
What Abraham came to realize over the course of the dialogue that ensued after the post went up was that, actually, urban fantasy and its predecessors (i.e. the warrior woman books of yore – which I have a much firmer grasp on, and will talk about more than UF here) pretty much all explicitly use rape and/or sexual violence in the narrative more than you might think. It’s a big old honkin’ cliché that in order to give your heroine an “excuse” to be violent, you have to give her a good, violent reason – like a past rape or intense fear of sexual violence.
There is a long history of literally weaponizing your heroine in response to attack. It happens to guy characters all the time, too (you know, the ones whose wives and daughters are raped and killed in order to spur him on to revenge. Once again: we all get weaponized in response to rape, which is THE WORSE THING THAT COULD EVER HAPPEN!!).  So on the one hand, powerful female characters are weaponized because their guy counterparts were. The thing is, they’re just more likely to have personally felt the violence themselves in addition to acting out violently in retaliation against violence done to others. We made weaponized women heroes who were also victims. The first couple times you read it, it’s interesting. And then it’s not. 
I’m re-reading Jennifer Roberson’s Sword Dancer series right now, which I read back when I was 14 or 16, and there it is right there: the ass-kicking female heroine was raped and her family was killed, which spurs the entire arc of her narrative. She becomes cold and hard and goes on a blood rampage after the guy who raped her and killed her family. Red Sonja gets her powers from rape, too. Ash gets raped. Hell, even Veronica Mars gets raped (yes, yes, I’m mixing my media – stories are stories. I am also reminded of “That was the end of Grogan... the man who killed my father, raped and murdered my sister, burned my ranch, shot my dog, and stole my Bible!”).
In Tamora’s Peirce’s Alanna books, she said she created the character with the explicit intention of NOT having her become a warrior based on past experiences with rape or violence. It was just so incredibly overdone, in her reading experience, that she wanted to do something different. She wanted to create a heroine who wanted to be powerful because it felt right and made her feel powerful, not because of what someone had done to her
One commenter in particular took issue with Abraham’s post, and I followed the dialogue with interest. I didn’t find anything he’d said particularly offensive (not loving UF all that much, myself), though the more I thought about the “books about women and power don’t talk about sexual violence” thing the more it seemed weird to me.  
Why’s it weird. Well, because UF exists in a version of this world. Even if you can defend yourself from a rape… you are still going to fear rape. Why? Because, you know, you’re a woman. And our society pretty well grinds it into you from day one that rape is THE WORST THING THAT COULD EVER HAPPEN TO YOU. Worse than dying, even. You see it much more explicitly in other cultures where women are literally stoned to death or hang themselves after being raped, but you still see it here a lot too. There’s a lot of cultural baggage around rape, which is yet another reason women don’t like to report it. If you report it, you’re presumed guilty in one way or another. Even if you didn’t wear a short skirt, and you fought back, and you weren’t walking “somewhere” alone, or going to your car without pepper spray, or whatever reason people make up so they can make it your fault that somebody attacked you, just being raped still carries the stigma of taint. Of badness. Of brokenness. Dishonor.
So, you know: you are going to carry a lot of internalized stigma around about being raped, even if, you know, on some level, your new shiny powers protect you from it.
After much back-and-forth, Abraham’s anonymous commenter got there, too. She said it much more pointedly than I did, tho:
I don’t read much urban fantasy, as stated (the heroines have all started to blur together for me), but I’ve suggested Abraham’s MLN books to others, and I had a few people say that it sounded like it was written by a guy – folks who didn’t know who the pseudonym was for. When people say things like this, I always wonder what they mean. Nobody could really articulate it. But I suspect it has something to do with the above. Because even if you’re Superwoman… you’re still a woman. And the world you live in makes certain that you remember it - superpowers be damned.
Urban fantasy is, indeed, about women and power. Learning to wield it. Negotiate it. Have meaningful relationships while wielding it. In a world where women are starting to make as much or more money than men (in some areas), and are pushing ahead in terms of formal education, this weird power sharing is something we’re all trying to negotiate in real life, too.
Why are guys so intimidated by strong women? Not even Mad Men knows.  But urban fantasy books are interested in exploring those themes, too.
The thing is, even with all this perceived power, we still have a lot of cultural baggage trying to push us back down. Outdated ideas about virgins and whores, continued hysteria over what women do with their uteruses, sexual violence and the stigma around it (still primarily for women – when was the last time you heard the epithet “rapist” used against a guy in a negative way?), tricky power negotiations, social baggage around pregnancy and taking time off to be with your kids, stigma around being a stay-at-home mom and stigma about being a working mom (basically, if you’re a woman, you must be doing SOMETHING wrong), and etc.
Having superpowers doesn’t peel away all the social baggage. In fact, it actually HIGHLIGHTS the social baggage so it stands out starkly and ridiculously for what it is. Superpowers say, “Hey, I’m buff and tough, so… why do I still think all these made-up rules apply to me? Why do I still care so much about being skinny and having a boyfriend?”
It’s a lot easier to critique society when you obviously no longer fit within its confines. It’s also easier to talk about how lonely you are in it because you don’t fit in it.
So, women and sexual violence. A lot more of it in your woman-power fantasies than you might think. Because, women with superpowers are still women.
Which, if you think about it, is also a really good sum up of women’s places now: We can make our own money, get great high-power jobs, take boxing classes, mouth off, have sex outside of marriage (and even enjoy it!) and take on all the trappings of power… but… well… at the end of the day, we are still women – and being called “Women” means we get to deal with all that that means to our culture. And there are still men (and other women) who go to great pains to remind us of this, and who try and use those reminders to strip away our power.
Now, all that said, and understanding Anon’s issues with a guy boldly stating that his heroine just wasn’t going to worry about rape because she was just never going to get raped cause of her powers… I have to say that I’ve got a pretty similar stance in my fiction - though I've had to take my heroines off this planet in order to do it in a way that I feel is believable, sadly. 
I have that stance in direct reaction against the “strong woman got raped and now she’s allowed to be violent!” cliché. I prefer working in worlds where rape carries no stigma. Or carries some other stigma (preferably a horrifically negative one for, you know, the person perpetrating the crime as opposed to the victim). I want worlds where rape makes no sense. Where it’s not a weapon of war or control. It’s a violent thing, certainly, but not socially acceptable as it is in this society (yes, it is. I just skimmed some recent rom-com where the heroine turns down our hero half a dozen times – he shows up at her work, her apartment, and calls her a lot. She turns him down every time. Then, at time number eight, changes her mind and they hook up. What message is this kind of story sending to guys? Mass media still markets “passion” and “romance” to guys as “not giving up when she says no.” And then we all wonder why there’s a disconnect).
Committing sexual violence - which is a particular type of violence that goes out of its way to remind women that they’re women, and Other – has ridden off into the world of cliché for me. No doubt that, as Anon says, these books are helpful for survivors of abuse, which is still 1 in 4 in this country. They help us realize that yes, in fact, life does go on, and we can grieve, and go forward.  
But I'm tired of reading about abused women. My master's thesis looked at how the African National Congress recruited female fighters during the war against apartheid. I have stacks and stacks of real-life stories about violence perpetrated against women in every country. I'm a feminist blogger, and read the stats and facts and figures every day. I get images of women being abused all the time. Yes, it's real life. Yes, terrible things happen. 
But that's not all there is to life. And I feel that seeing only negative images of women - of women abused, hurt, scared, exploited, harrassed - every day all the time is only going to make you hate being a woman even more. 
Think about that. If all you ever saw about, say, an imaginary country called Valynna were sad, unhappy people, would you want to become a citizen of Valynna? What if you already were a citizen? Would you feel better or worse about being a member of that country if all you saw all the time was the worst of what could happen to you?
I made a conscious choice in my work on this blog waaaay back in 2004 that I wasn't going to post images of women being abused. I was going to post images of happy women, strong women, powerful women, successful women. Yes, I would talk about the unique challenges we have, the abuses, the power struggles, the objectification, but I carefully chose those sidebar images to portray strong, vibrant, happy women. I am tired to see suffering women all the time. Because though it may be *a* truth, it is not *the* truth, any more than any one experience stands in for all experiences.
When I look for heroines, I look for heroines who choose violence as a tool because it works for them, not because it’s thrust upon them. I want heroines who are powerful for power’s sake. Who are honestly, truly, really, scary. Not sexy-scary. Not girl-next-door-scary. But genuinely someone who you’d be terrified to bump into in a dark alley. Because they are so good and unapologetic about what they do.
And I just don’t find that in any believable character in UF. Not anybody who's got an interesting setting, at any rate. Because the setting... our world, even Changed... is still our world. With all the same bullshit.
Joanna Russ once said that the reason she started writing science fiction was because it was the genre where you were allowed to imagine how “things can be really different.”
UF lets us address issues of power and sex and violence as women in a changing world. Our changing world. I deal with that every day. I’m not so interested in writing it or reading it.  
What I’m interested in is what makes us women. And who we’d be… with the same parts… but somewhere else. I want to pull off all the baggage and put on some different loads and see how people interact. I am tired of rape and leering and cat calls and expectations to have kids or not, or get married or not, or whatever.
I want to imagine how things could be really different.
My turnoff with UF is pretty much the exact opposite of what Abraham argued as being not there (or what shouldn't be there): women in these books are still bound by the cultural rules of being women, including the threat of sexual violence. They are merely exceptions when people know about their powers. If they don’t know about their powers, they are still going to be treated like women. And though there is endless delight in watching them combat people’s stereotypes, there are still far too many of those moments when the heroine creeps away into the night, hunching her shoulders, leery of cat-calls.
It’s a not-fun world. An uncomfortable world. A world we’re certainly working on making a better place.
But not the world I'm primarily interested in writing my spec fiction in.
Because it's the world I have to live in and write non-fiction about every day.
I am tired of seeing women getting beat up and crapped on. I want to imagine something different.

Defenders of shows like Dollhouse would say that you have to show all the bad stuff before you show the rebellion against it. I respect that.

Trouble is, people get lost a lot in the bad stuff, and they forget why it was it was bad in the first place. Instead of being "bad" it just becomes the "norm."

Friday, November 12, 2010

Finch: The Stuff Nightmares Are Made Of

Finch's gun is awesome.

I’ve been a Jeff VanderMeer fan ever since I read the novella Dradin, In Love. It had so many of the things I love: a mad, unreliable narrator; weird setting; lush worldbuilding; and a perfect, simple, brutally honest reveal that told you mountains about the narrator and what he really wanted out of life.
There were some fun stories in City of Saints and Madmen, but I didn’t love any of them the same way I did Dradin. After Dradin, I loved Veniss, Underground best. More twisted scenery, broken narrators, piles of bodies and darkness and did I mention the broken people? The Situation was another delightful read for me, which took all the weird worldbuilding and set it on top of a workplace satire that any desk jockey could relate to.
The thing with much of VanderMeer’s fiction is that most of the narrators are not likable. You don’t read VanderMeer if you want to read about heroes (his most heroic character is probably Shadrach from Veniss, Underground. Probably, again, one of the most honest heroes I’ve encountered in fiction in awhile. Heroism is about doing what you know is right, not doing something because you believe you’ll get something out of it – whether it’s fame or riches or, in this case, the girl). 
And that brings us to Finch
Finch isn’t a hero. He was so much of a non-hero that I found myself, at best, ambivalent about him. Even when we find out his prior identity, it’s really not terribly interesting.
What Finch has is an incredible, amazing, nightmare-inducing world the likes of which I haven’t experienced since Veniss, Underground. The book would literally give me weird dreams when I read it before bed. Only reading Lovecraft has ever given me those same dark, slippery sorts of nightmares. The ones that crawl around in your head and whisper crazy things that leave you feeling a bit dirty and confused come morning.
Finch is a strong book, and probably one of the best plotted I’ve seen from VanderMeer. If you can get past the unlikeable main character, there’s a whole hideous new world here to sink your teeth into. It’s not pretty. It’s not heroic. It doesn’t make any sense. And that’s what makes it so scary.
VanderMeer’s venomous mushroom folk are true aliens, the kind whose powers and technology and motives you realize you’ll never be certain of (they actually lose a little of their scariness toward the end when we get too much telling about their motives, but I’m not sure how tension could have been sustained without knowing something about what they were doing). I love their slimy memory holes, their leaky organic guns, the edible bullets (edible bullets!!), the addictive mushroom fumes, the contaminated areas.
This book is fantasy worldbuilding at its best.
I had some issues with the narrative – particularly how the protagonist seemed to be pushed and pulled and used by other forces, which, again, made him so much less heroic (being a used object is always less heroic than being an active agent), but that’s a personal preference in my heroes. This hero was purposely non-heroic, and he stayed that way the whole way through. It reminded me a little of Hobb’s title character in the Assassin books – it’s a story about the catalyst for change, not about the heroes.
I was also pleased to see a big leap here in the quality of VanderMeer’s heroines. Ya’ll might not have noticed this, but it was something I took issue with very early on (and was what sparked my initial correspondence with VanderMeer).
Shriek had a female narrator, but, alas, she was just so dislikable for me that I was never able to finish the book. Finch was, to me, a stronger and more engaging book, and I ate it up like candy. It also had some really engaging female supporting characters. The possibly-turncoat-lover – who made the leap from “Yawn, it’s the woman who exists to have sex with the hero” stereotype to full-blown character with one particularly cutting line toward the end (very a much a “The women men don’t see” type of line), the bookish information gatherer with her own secrets, and the rebel queen, of course (every good book needs a rebel queen).  All three were strong, complex people that really stood out for me along the way, and, I think, greatly contributed to my enjoyment of the book (rebel queeeeeeeeen!).
That said, this isn’t a book for everybody. It’s weird. It’s grotesque. It will, likely, give you nightmares. And Finch, the character, is kind of boring.
Ambergris is not boring. It's amazing. And the civil war, mushroom war, and life-in-alien-occupied-Ambergris-slice-of-life is so incredibly worth reading if you’re a lover of intense worldbuilding that I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Of course there are also some plot holes, a little over-explaining at the end, and some dues-ex-machina-ing (also at the end), and a few too many nods to Shriek (which, as noted, I didn’t finish), and there’s that protagonist thing....

But if you love the type of fantasy that takes you somewhere else… with something else, Finch is a very fine romp.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Moonfail: Or, Why I Look Forward to Being a Dinosaur

I've followed the whole crazy E. Moon debacle since September, and experienced much the same reaction others did to Moon's initial post. Some nodding along for awhile, raising eyebrows at a bit of the one-for-all view of citizenship, and then gaping at the bizarre turn it took with "Assimilate or you're just asking for what you get" rhetoric. And then it launched into something akin to, "You don't know how good you have it! We've been so tolerant! We could have thrown you all in concentration camps like we did to the Japanese!" (no, those are not direct quotes. Please read the link to the original post)


Yes, it was certainly weird, and if it had been an essay about feminism and how women should just assimilate into patriarchal culture if they didn't want to have stuff thrown at them, I think there would have been a stronger and clearer response from the Wiscon committee up front. But then, any big decision made by committee is an epically long, bitter, drawn-out process. It's why I don't like going to neighborhood committee meetings. You get the same kind of dynamic: one or two people ranting on about their own pet projects/beliefs, one or two people actually contributing something useful, and a silent minority slowly seething with resentment of the committee's incompetence while another half dozen people check what's happening on Facebook on their smart phones.

I'm pretty surprised the con had the guts to step up and recind Moon's GOH status.  You have to figure out who you are and what you stand for in order to do that. And you have to be willing to piss a lot of people off. People are worried about what this means for future GOH's. And they should worry. Because if you've got some intolerance built into you (and anybody who's been raised in a racist, misogynist, fearful, intolerant society like, you know, pretty much all of them, is going to have some), at some point it will leak out. And there will be some places you aren't honored at.

Big deal. Get over it.


Get over it.

I don't expect to be invited as a guest of honor by the Tea Party, either.

What hurts for Moon - and what worries many Wiscon-goers - is that it was their own community which they felt turned on them. When your community makes a leap forward and you don't... well, you get left behind. That's how it is.

Today's radicals are tomorrow's dinosaurs.

Yes, that's a good thing. I want tomorrow's society to be far more tolerant and progressive than I am with my in-built biases and knee-jerk misogyny (you have no idea how difficult it was to give Nyx female friends in the bel dame books. Or how weird it was to not make every token spear-carrier a guy. There are a lot of biases I had to be hyper-aware of, and on re-reading it now years after writing it, I can see a whole lot of misogyny in there. And let's not even get into the whole "holy war" thing. That's the subject of another post).

This wouldn't have happened five or ten years ago. For some reason it reminded me of when David Moles posted all those quotes from Harlan-apologists from the private SFWA boards to a public forum (David took this post down some time after the fact, but I found an old post regarding the issue by Gwenda). Back then, the big outrage was about the breach of privacy on an internet forum (even more laughable today, I know, with the Facebook privacy fiasco. Nothing on the internet is ever really private), not a backlash in response to the sexism of some of the public's most beloved SF/F authors.

In this case, of course, Moon posted her own thoughts to a public forum, so there was no one to blame for her comments but herself. And, true to her convictions, she stuck by them even after learning why others found them so appalling.Which, again, is fine. Nobody's saying you can't be a bigot. I say bigoted things all the time. But I shouldn't be suprised when somebody calls me on it. And - at the very least - I can sit down and think hard about why I'm being called out as a bigot, and re-think my position in light of new evidence and/or arguements against my position (a very good recent example of how a civil dialogue and rethinking is up here about Daniel Abraham's thoughts on rape in Urban Fantasy. Do read the comments. Anon really nails it in the line-by-line deconstruction. This is also something I'd like to tackle in another post).

Moon didn't do that. This is why, in large part, I think the invitation was rescinded. We're all bigots. What makes Wiscon cool is the fact that it's a space where we can talk about why we're bigots, and figure out ways to combat our skewed worldview.

Cons are notoriously bad at making controversial decisions, especially ones that have to do with pissing off their much-beloved writers. Much of Moonfail shows the strength of the LJ POC community and allies inside SF3. Fans decide what a con is and who should be honored. Wiscon wouldn't think to invite Orson Scott Card or Harlan Ellison, no matter how progressive they personally believe themselves to be (ahhh, sorry, let me stop laughing).

Wiscon is a political con. But, more specifically, Wiscon is a feminist con, not a con about combating racism and encouraging religious tolerance - even if the new mission statement makes a nod to that (it's been pointed out that the U.S.'s latest freak-out about Islam isn't racism, but intolerance of religion. If the two weren't linked, however, we wouldn't be seeing the 20% of Americans who fervently believe that our bi-racial president is a Muslim, despite all evidence to the contrary. Part of race and ethnicity is religion, culture. See anti-semitism. Racism and anti-semitism are taboo in most circles now, but it's now OK in a LOT of circles to spew hatred and fear of Muslims. The hilarious part about that is that this country was founded on religious tolerance).

I'd argue that everybody who attends Wiscon enjoys the idea that they're supporting diversity, but what we saw in the Moon fiasco is that when it comes down to critiquing one of their own, about half the Wiscon crowd will support the cause of feminism over racism and religious tolerance. Looking at the comments in the SF3 thread, this is pretty obvious. Wiscon is a feminist con, they say. Bigotry be damned.  So, in their view, Moon should still be honored at a con whose mission statement is, among other things, about eliminating racism and promoting peace, love, understanding and all that.

Sorry. That's not how change works. 

As one of the biggest racist, misogynist bigots I know (having grown up in a racist, misogynist culture I'm not sure how anybody can honestly say anything else), I recognize that I'll be among the writers who never goes to Wiscon as GOH. That's cool. And Moon and others who this will likely happen to in future should also be cool with it. It's not like there aren't plenty of other non-political cons who are going to honor you with a GOH invite. Just not Wiscon.

Wiscon made a stand for something. It let folks know what was acceptable and unacceptable in a GOH. Are they silencing anyone? Did they delete somebody's post? Bar Moon from coming to Wiscon all together? Of course not. They just said, in essence, "This is no longer someone who we see as supporting the mission of Wiscon."(though I do wish they had made a more clear statement of *why* the invite was rescinded, instead of just saying it was rescinded).

And, see, that's the deal, isn't it? In Serenity, the assassin chasing our heroes notes that in the perfect society he's building, there will be no place for him. His actions, he knows, will make his job - and killers like him - obsolete. In a a world where race and class and gender don't matter, we're all dinosaurs. And though I certainly hope that distant future looks more like the happy-go-lucky Star Trek universe than the fascist Firefly universe, I have to acknowledge that there's no place for me in it.

I hate to tell you this, kids, but think about all those "old folks" who we look at as being big bigots. Guess who those bigoted "old folks" are going to be in 30-40 years?

They will be us.

And you know what? If society's come so far that some of our most progressive people today are seen as tomorrow's bigoted assholes, I am cool with that. Because it means we've made some progress.

And that's the whole damn point of all this screaming and yelling and ranting and grief, isn't it?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Where Have All the Brutal Women Gone?

One of the things that bled out of me after I got sick was all the rage and anger and angst. Oh sure, I get upset at things still, but I no longer get worked up into a blind rage. Whenever I start getting worked up, it hits a certain pitch and then it all bleeds out of me, like water. This is unfortunate for a lot of reasons, among them being that anger, despair, and self-hate drove a lot of my motivation. This came up a lot in my personal life, where folks told me that in order to be happy, I’d need to cut out the self-hate. At which point I said, “Well, yeah, that’s great, but… what does that leave me with?”

Not a whole lot, apparently. I find it very hard to get worked up or passionate about much of anything these days. It does come and go sometimes. My writing has finally crept back a bit, after a year-and-change book depression when GW got canceled by the prior publisher. I find a lot of pleasure in writing book 3 these days, primarily because I’ve done that thing that writers do – gave my protagonist a similar issue to tackle. She recently came back from the dead, got a whole lot of extra time… and now she’s not really sure what to do about it. 

Mortality can be like that. 

I got sick four years ago… you’d think I’d be over it by now. You’d think that’d be enough time to go through the grieving process. But I suspect there are many stages of grieving, and when you have a full life with a lot of other, immediate feed-and-clothe-and-medicate-myself things to tackle, you don’t spend a lot of time working through your “Holy crap I’m a cripple now” issues. 

I very nearly gave my protagonist a chronic illness in book 2, just to see how she’d deal with it. But as I worked through that version of the draft, I just wasn’t buying it. Not only because it felt far too Mary Sue-ish but also because, well… I enjoy writing the Nyx books because I get to write about a physically powerful and capable female protagonist. When you take away her physical power, she’s just another woman. Just as vulnerable and frail and potentially weak and fearful as any other person (not just women, but I know my aversion to making her physically weak has a lot to do with her sex. Lack of power is especially terrifying to women, and certainly to me). And, you know, that’s just not something I want to spend my time writing about. I spend a lot of time living it. Why stay up at night writing about victims?

Because that’s what it feels like sometimes. It feels like somebody took a shovel to the back of my head. Just got right on up behind me and swung before I could even turn around (of course, if I’d turned around, I’d be dead. The fact that I came so close to dying – and that dying is so much easier for me now than before – is something else I deal with).  There is nothing you can do to prepare for illness, for disability. With violent attacks, we like to feel that we have some kind of power. That if we just trained hard enough, ran fast enough, hit hard enough, that we could avoid violence. Violent attacks, at least, we can pretend we have some kind of fighting chance against. It’s why I started lifting weights. It’s why I started boxing. I wanted a body I could control. After a lifetime of hating my body, I found some peace in knowing it was very good at knocking over a 200 lb punching bag with a good right hook. There was some comfort in that. 

Getting sick was like starting all over again. Suddenly all my worst food addictions weren’t in my head at all – there were tangible, physical symptoms of my need for immediate glucose (symptoms like convulsions and eventual death). Food had been the enemy for so long, for me, and now it was both the enemy and the cure. Sugar’s too high, your body slowly rots. Sugar’s too low, you go into a coma and die. 

Better figure out the balance, lady, or you’ll die. 

It’s frustrating, and exhausting, to be so aware of your personal care. Your own mortality. I get sick of it sometimes. Sick with my own mortality. 

In that way, I’m not sure how much of my current malaise has to do with being 30 now and how much has to do with simple stress and my poor eating habits over the last year, both of which affect me much more strongly now. Some people might be able to shrug off the effect of stress and food on their health, but when you can measure its effects with a glucose monitor, it’s less easy to brush it aside. 

I should have died back in 2006. I’ve had four years of extra time to mull that over. But when I look at it some days, it just feels like Nyx out on her porch at the coast in book 3, pissing and drinking and fucking her life away. Sure, a lot of life events have happened. Good, wonderful, passionate things. 

But most days, life doesn’t feel as big and bold as it once did. It feels closed and exhausting and unimaginative. Dull-eyed. 

I know what I need to do. That’s the rub, there. My recent A1c was deplorable. My eating habits have degraded to the point of farce. I am tired all the time and when I get excited about anything at all these days, it feels very surreal. 

I would like to live a big, bold, passionate life. 

I’m just so tired all the time. 

And I know where my feeling of power and health comes from – it’s from lifting weights, and boxing, and those horrible, horrible, deplorable, teeth-gnashing 3-mile jogs I was doing on the Chicago waterfront.
I know I need those things to feel better. But I no longer have the self-hate to drive me to do them. 

Just a lot of extra time. 

A lot of fucking and drinking at the end of the world.