White supremacy and characterization (#SFWApro)

By now, probably all of you have heard that white supremacist Christopher Cantwell, who talked very tough about Charlottesville, broke down in tears on video when he learned the cops might be looking to arrest him. And along with thoughts about politics, that got me thinking about writing characters who are not what they appear to be. Jekyll and Hyde, though not in the sense of good/evil (Cantwell’s evil in either mode)

In his first video interviews, Cantwell came off like the baddest of bad asses. When the heat was on, he crumbled. It’s a very old trope, of course, the tough guy, the successful guy who turns out to have a yellow streak a mile wide. But it’s still striking to see such a thing in real life. If I were writing an alt.right character, I’m not sure I’d even try it. I’d probably find it too cliched, particularly since Cantwell’s not facing the death penalty or a lynch mob — just an arrest warrant. The advantage of real life, as Lawrence Block once put it, is that you don’t have to justify what your characters do because they did it, whether it makes sense or not.

If I were writing from Cantwell’s point of view, I could write him as someone who knows from the first that he’s bluffing, and nowhere near as confident as he sounds. Or maybe someone who sees himself putting on an act to intimidate his adversaries. Or possibly in denial — he doesn’t realize his tough shell is a bluff until he gets into trouble. Any of these could work, depending on what sort of character I needed the fictional the white supremacist to be. But I think I’d have to deal with what he imagined the consequences would be. Did he really believe no bad would come his way? Was that sheer arrogance or just delusional thinking? Again it depends on what I need for the story.

Writing from another POV, I suppose the reaction to the change could be shock (his best friend had no idea he wasn’t a genuine badass), or relief (the big bad man-monster isn’t so tough) or wry amusement. Or maybe my POV character is the kind of brilliant detective who sizes him up from the start and tells the other characters they’re going to see him break.

Come to think of it I do have a character like that. An arrogant, rich Southerner who enjoys screwing people over (it’s not enough for him to win, somebody’s got to fail). At the climax, when he realizes he’s completely lost everything, including his life, he cracks. Trouble is I don’t have a story to fit him into. Yet.

Hopefully when I write it the story will be good enough nobody will tell me the character shift is unbelievable.

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Is Our Writers Learning? The Dastardly Miss Lizzie (#SFWApro)

THE DASTARDLY MISS LIZZIE: Electric Empire #3 by Viola Carr (cover by Gene Mollica, all rights remain with current holder) has extra interest for me as Jekyll and Hyde play a big role in Questionable Minds. A novel about their equally schizoid daughter was irresistible. And enjoyable.

THE STORY: Dr. Eliza Jekyll is a police surgeon investigating the Jack the Ripper killings (or the alt.equivalent) in a steampunk London where Edward VII is the feebleminded king, Isaac Newton is the regent, and also head of the Royal Society, which has become a technocratic oppressor that stamps out or kills anyone with heretical scientific/magical theories. Eliza soon discovers the case is strange than she imagined, but she has to fight backstabbing police officers and her own demanding id Lizzie Hyde, to get to the truth.


Women doing things is better than women not doing things (as I said in an earlier review). There’s no shortage of sexism sent Eliza’s way but instead of just wanting to have adventures, she’s already having them. That makes her much more interesting. And there’s a healthy female cast besides Eliza doing stuff — policewoman, scientist, cyborg and a schemer.

Steampunk settings can be taken as a given. I honestly don’t know how England got in the state it’s in, but so much of this is familiar, it doesn’t matter. Advanced science in Victorian-ish era. Government dysfunctional and turning dystopian. Lots of people living out alternate lives. I think steampunk’s reached the level of space opera — you don’t have to know the history of how we got into space to enjoy the story. Same here.

And of course, the Jekyll/Hyde story is familiar enough to carry a lot of weight. But as I’ve read mid-series books that completely lost me, the fact I could follow this without reading #1 and 2 is to Carr’s credit (there were things I’d like to know, but nothing I couldn’t follow the book without).

That said—

I wish authors would put years on their stories. Temporally this seems to be a mess. Isaac Newton and Lizzie’s lover Jonathan Wild are from the early 1700s (though I also wondered if Wild was a reference to Jack Wild playing Artful Dodger in Olivers!); Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter hasn’t been married off, which would put this 1858; but Jekyll and Hyde was set in the 1880s and they have a daughter which would make this early 20th century.

I’m assuming all this can be explained by divergences in history, but it’s still frustrating. Putting a year on the opening of the book would help ground me a lot. Even with much less divergent stories, lack of definite era frustrates me. More so because some of the phrases are just too twentieth century. I’m sorry, nobody in Victorian England is going to be talking about a tinfoil hat to protect them from telepathy. It was annoyingly anachronistic.

One or two of the names also feel — not anachronistic, but too freighted with meaning. If Lizzie’s lover Jonathan just happens by coincidence to have the same name as criminal mastermind Jonathan Wild, that’s distracting. Ditto Inspector Harley Griffin, which makes me think of Hawley Griffin (the full name of the Invisible Man in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen).

Despite the criticisms, I thought this was a good read and a solid work.

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Free speech, even for Nazis?

As Popehat puts, the recent demonstration in South Carolina is a worst-case hypothetical — do we support free speech even when Nazis and white supremacists are marching in the streets, spitting hatred at Jews, packing heat and in one case mowing down protesters (and celebrating the death of one victim).

For a number of liberals (I don’t have a statistical measure) the response is “screw free speech for Nazis.” They wouldn’t grant ours, why should we grant theirs? For others, Nazis cross the line: ” These people here? The ones wearing swastikas, waving Nazi flags, marching in T-shirts with Adolf Hitler quotes, and throwing Nazi salutes? This isn’t protest. This is a threat.”

And it is threatening. It’s hardly new — the far right was rumbling about the need for a new American revolution back in the Clinton era — but it’s bolder and louder than I think it’s been since I came to this country.

Legally, however, being a Nazi and spouting Nazi beliefs is free speech. And I think it should be. Not so much for the practical benefits (I’ll get to that in a minute) but I believe a country where people are free to advocate for their beliefs, even evil beliefs, is better than one where they’re not. I believe speaking back or out-protesting them are better alternatives.

There are lots of exceptions to this, of course. Actual death threats, online harassment, offline harassment (like Jeremy Christian’s verbal assault on two Muslim women) slander, libel, intimidation, conspiracy to commit crimes, none of those deserve protection under the First Amendment. And I don’t think the right to assemble and the right to free speech translate into the right to bring heavy firepower if a city wants to ban it (I don’t think in situations like this it’s a violation of the Second Amendment either). But I still think the alt.right should be free to speak.

The alleged practical benefits are that a)if people are allowed to speak, it exposes everyone to more ideas and increases the chance of an unpopular truth winning out and b)if the government has the power to shut down bad speech, who’s to say it won’t find your speech is bad.

On the first, I find myself less optimistic than I used to be. Rush Limbaugh and the rest of the far right ranters have been pumping extremist rhetoric into the body politic for more than two decades now (and it’s not stopping), and it’s definitely pushed a lot of America to the right (and contributed to the rise of fascism). Lots of conservatives will not be won over to a better way. I think misogynist internet sites have a similar effect. There’s no guarantee truth will win out.

On the second, it’s perfectly true that a government that can ban “hate speech” can easily decide that Black Lives Matter or the Southern Poverty Law Center is a hate group. But I’m not sure that refusing to ban Nazis will stop that. If there’s one thing Republicans have demonstrated in the 21st century, it’s that they’re completely uninterested in precedent: if they can find a way to ban speech they don’t like, they’ll do it whether the left extends them the same courtesy or not. Nobody’s pushing to ban Christianity for instance, but plenty of the religious right are cool with banning Islam. The Bush II years were full of demands that liberals STF about the president — questioning him only aids the terrorists! A belief they immediately dropped when Obama got elected.

But the solution to that is to give free speech the strongest protections in law that we can. Not to sign on with the banners. The U.S. jettisoned a lot of its Fourth and Fifth amendment principles after 9/11 (right to a speedy trial, right to habeas corpus, right not to be held without evidence, etc.). We’re not any safer and we’re not better off because of them.

Even in the face of the hate, I still advocate for free speech.

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Maps, James Bond (sort of), women drivers and more: books read (#SFWApro)

THE CURIOUS MAP BOOK by Ashley Baynton-Williams is a collection of five hundred-plus years of eccentric maps, including the symbolic (1914 Europe portrayed as a pack of snarling dogs), maps as games (racing around the Great Capitals of the World, for instance) and jigsaws built around maps. More interesting as a visual time-passer than for hard information, and probably not much use as research for Oh the Places You’ll Go (which is what prompted me to check this out of the library)

FOREVER AND A DEATH by Donald Westlake has a financially strapped scheme (a former Hong Kong wheeler-dealer who lost big when the Chinese took over) planning to level the city with an earthquake maker, only to run into unexpected opposition from various people (an environmentalist, a cop, an engineer) pulled into his orbit. This was based on an idea Westlake proposed for the second Pierce Brosnan Bond movie, only to have it shot down for both marketing reasons (if the handoff went badly, it would be like making an action film about Tianamen Square) and practical (Westlake’s writing style didn’t allow for the kind of outline that Eon required to plan shooting, sets, etc.). In its own right good, but the relative realism works against it — the ensemble badly needs a central hero and the ending is very anticlimatic.

LAST FIRST SNOW: A Novel of the Craft Sequence by Max Gladstone is a good fantasy set in what appears to be a modern-day alt.Aztec empire where in the aftermath of a Great War against the gods a poor neighborhood is resisting a magic-backed effort to push them out in favor of gentrification and shopping malls. Very good.

DRIVING WOMEN: Fiction and Automobile Culture in Twentieth-Century America by Deborah Clarke looks at the complicated relationship between women and cars and the uneasy reaction of society to the idea of women gaining more mobility, more freedom and possibly get into more trouble, and how to reclassify the woman driver so she was still feminine (“But attempts to make a car specifically for women always fell flat.”). Using fiction, Clarke shows cars serving as an extension of the motherly role, a small piece of serenity in a crowded life or a way for women to intrude into male space. Interesting, but too academic in tone to really win me (I think more analysis of TV or movies over serious literature might have added some insight). And the chapter on Mother as Cyborg (beginning with an analysis of the sitcom My Mother the Car) really fell flat

EXIT WOUNDS by Ruta Modan has an Israeli cab driver dragged willy-nilly by a female soldier into her efforts to find out if her lover (his father) was a recent victim in a terrorist bombing. Neither the story nor the leads’ relationship follows a conventional narrative, but I enjoyed it. Cover by Modan, all rights to current holder.

POWER MAN AND IRON FIST: Heroes for Hire (by a variety of people, with Mary Jo Duffy doing most of the writing) reprints the first couple of dozen issues of the unlikely team up and friendship between Luke Cage and Danny Rand (I assume this was a way to keep Iron Fist in action after his own comic folded). This starts with the criminal Bushmaster forcing Luke to hunt down Danny’s girlfriend Misty only to have the two heroes (and Misty and Colleen) take him down instead. The resulting series is adequate superhero action, entertaining but not particularly standout. If I were fonder of the leads (I am fond of them, but they aren’t at the level of Flash or Green Lantern in my personal pantheon) I’d like it better, so YMMV.

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Pets, a tiger woman, the Black Panther and more: Movies and TV (#SFWApro)

THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS (2016) has a blissfully happy dog’s world turn sour when his owner (“We’re soulmates — I wouldn’t use the word, but I can see why other people would.”) brings home a hulking new brother; before long, efforts to get rid of the big guy have them out in the city running from a pet revolutionary army and trying to get home. This feels like an unsuccessful attempt to expand a Pixar short — the scenes showing what pets are up to while we’re away are funny (and as a dog owner I identify with lots of them) but once the dogs leave home it’s formulaic enough it might as well be The Aristocats. “Maybe you have plenty of time, but for me every breath is a cliffhanger.”

THE TIGER WOMAN (1944) was a Republic movie serial starring Linda Stirling (in the photo; all rights to the image remain with current holder) as the White Jungle Goddess who has to deal with schemers plotting to steal the oil lease from the Oil Company of Good. Oh, and they also plan to obtain proof the Tiger Woman is really an American heiress, then kill her and use one of their own to obtain the fortune. This is fun if you can live with the implicit racism of this kind of Tarzan setup (I can, but no question it’s there) and Stirling gets more action than most serial women did (I think she did better in later movies) though the bad guys are both stiff. And yes, the Tiger Woman is wearing a leopard print. “Thanks for the information — you forgot you were dealing with smart people.”

FREE CINEMA was the first disc in a DVD collection of various documentaries in the “free cinema” movement of 1950s Britain. While these would be a fantastic resource if I were writing fiction set in the period (the looks, the clothes, the buildings, peoples’ expressions), they didn’t grab me enough to watch more than a couple. O Dreamland (1953) by Lindsay Anderson was the short that kicked off free cinema with a look at the title amusement park; Momma Don’t Allow (1956) focuses on teens at a dance club.

ROCKET GIBRALTAR (1994) has patriarch Burt Lancaster’s clan gathering for his 77th birthday, where the grandchildren promise to honor Lancaster’s secret fantasy to have a Viking funeral as his birthday gift. A good, low-key film that would double-bill well with Return of the Secaucus Seven (it has a similar slice-of-life feel). With Kevin Space, Bill Pullman, John Glover and Macauley Culkin among the clan.

Moving to TV, FANTASTIC FOUR: World’s Greatest Heroes was a 2006 cartoon that did a very good job with the FF but which never aired all its episodes in the original run (it’s also frustratingly hard to track down even via Netflix). The DVD I did find includes a set of episodes pitting the FF against Doom; solid, well done super-heroic fun.

I didn’t care for Reginald Hudlin’s run on Black Panther which seemed completely discontinuous with everything that went before it (it would have worked better as a Year One) Adapted to a BET network cartoon, however, BLACK PANTHER is a lot of fun and no more divergent than, say, Iron Fist (and a lot better). Djimon Hounsou plays T’Challa (with Alfre Woodard as the queen mother), who finds himself dealing with both American incursions into Wakanda and a scheme by Klaw, the man who killed T’Challa’s father, to kill the son too. Good job. “Send Klaw our best plumber!”

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Despite politics and pups, a good week (#SFWApro)

They kept flying at me and pounding me, just like Superboy, but I persevered (cover by Curt Swan, all rights remain with current holder).

Politics: Well, let’s face it, it’s been a horrifying week. Much like the post-election period, I couldn’t completely keep my mind off the news and kept checking blogs, news sites, etc.

Pups: Trixie and Plushie were really needy this week. Demanding much more attention during the day than they usually do. As they don’t follow politics, I’ve no idea what triggered it.

But despite that, the week went well. I started my replotting for Southern Discomfort and it’s going well so far. Of course it’s early days, so to speak — the first few chapters are much stronger than the later ones — but I also put a lot of thought into character arcs, how the magic works and so on and I think I cleared up most of the problems. We’ll see if I’m right when I reach the chapters where those things are at issue.

I got several chapters done on the Undead Sexist Cliches book and it’s feeling much better than the first draft. Mostly I’m getting the information organized so that there’s a logical progression to chapters and the book as a whole.

I completed another Screen Rant, but as often happens it’s not out yet.

And I did some planning for self-publishing Questionable Minds. I’m definitely going to have to go through the book page by page and check spelling, plus a couple of changes (some things no longer work as well as I thought when I wrote this a decade ago). But it will happen unless I find a publisher first.

I’d hoped to get some short fiction done too, but I put more time into Southern Discomfort and some research reading instead (it’s inter-library loan, so the due date is fairly tight).

All in all, I’m pleased.

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Filed under Personal, Screen Rant, Short Stories, Southern Discomfort, The Dog Ate My Homework, Time management and goals, Writing

Well I suddenly ran out of steam (#SFWApro)

So it’s going to be some cover art again for this morning’s post

Art by Blanchard. Unrealistic, a friend pointed out (there are lots of things that would tower above Lady Liberty), but still striking.

By Bob Foster. These old Ballantine books always seemed like Cool Adult SF to me when I gazed at them as a kid.

An eerie Powers cover.

And one by Joe Magnani

And another Bob Foster for Ballantine.

All rights to the images remains with current holders.

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