Discrimination as metaphor in specfic (#SFWApro)

In a 2012 blog post I read last year, Aliette de Bodard takes issue with the idea of showing nonhumans (mutants, ETs, vampires, fae, mages) as a discriminated minority, much like blacks, gays, Jews, Latinos. Her specific criticisms:

•Real minorities are not, in fact, nonhuman, nor are they dangerous as vampires (for example) are.

•Creating a minority that’s an alien race perpetuates stereotypes about real minorities not being really human.

•Authors in focusing on discrimination against their fictional creatures don’t show any real-world discrimination against blacks, gays, etc.

•By showing the fictional creatures wanting to become a part of mainstream society, the subtext is that mainstreaming should be everyone’s goal, that alternative lifestyles are inferior — the old 1950s idea of a melting pot where immigrants and minorities would win their rights by proving they could conform to white American standards.

This is an argument I’ve heard before, though more in the sense of justifying legal discrimination against mutants, Inhumans, whatever: unlike real minorities, mutant powers make them a genuine threat to society. Isn’t registering them reasonable? de Bodard would seem to be arguing that by implication, registering or imprisoning mutants says laws against minorities are legitimate (I may be misinterpreting her logic here). I don’t think I’d agree with that. Discrimination doesn’t have to be an allegory or metaphor, it can be a thing in itself; while I think discrimination against paranormals is a tedious cliché, I don’t think it’s implausible at all.

And as Steven Attewell has shown in some of his Marvel History posts, discrimination against mutants isn’t automatically racial: in the Silver Age it often reflected paranoia about Commie subversives lurking among us (made specific in the second Sentinels story — cover by Neal Adams, all rights remain with current holder), the same sort of paranoia I wrote about in Screen Enemies of the American Way.

Which is a long-winded way of saying I don’t think discrimination against Fictional Race/Beings/Culture is necessarily as objectionable as de Bodard finds it. And I’ve known people, both black and gay, who did identify and connect with the X-Men’s plight. Even though I have my own reservations about X-Men as Metaphor, I can hardly disagree with people who are minorities and do feel the metaphor works (unlike me, they have a dog in the hunt).

But I also can’t disagree with de Bodard’s point about not portraying real discriminated minorities alongside the fictional ones. Or as one gay acquaintance put it back in the 1990s, it’s nice that X-Men can make a statement about gay rights, but it would be nicer if they had some actual gay members. I can think of a number of other stories where that criticism could be made, for example the Alien Nation TV series (IIRC).

I have nothing to say about the “melting pot” aspect of her post. If I think of anything, I’ll post again. I do have some ideas about discrimination as it relates to mages, but that’ll definitely be a post in itself.

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City of Blades and worldbuilding (#SFWApro)

Reading reviews of Robert Jackson Bennett’s CITY OF BLADES (cover by Sam Weber, all rights to current holder) it struck me that what most of the reviewers were impressed with (I’m talking review columns, not individuals on Goodreads) was not at all what I liked about it.

First, the story: grizzled Saypuri General Mulaghesh, a supporting character in City of Stairs, gets dragged from her retirement to investigate the disappearance of a Saypuri official in the city of Voortyashtan.  Voortyashtan was the heart of the Divine Empire, which once ruled the world, until the Saypuri brought it down with anti-magic weaponry. Now they’re trying to rebuild the port city, despite the unrest of various local factions (it seems the Iraq War was a big influence on the politics here). And as Mulaghesh learned in the previous book, not all the miracles have gone …

I thoroughly enjoyed it, except for some awkward modern terminology (not totally inappropriate for the setting, but it jarred just the same). I like Mulaghesh as a middle-aged lead (much more interesting than the oldsters in Black Wolves), the magic set up is intriguing, and the story is solid. But most of the reviews I read didn’t think Bennett was that much as a storyteller, they liked him (to the extent they did) as a world-builder.

It’s not the first time I’ve seen a book recommended because of cool world-building, and it didn’t make sense to me then, either. I’ve seen many books where I love the setting and the premise, but for me world-building is only important to the extent it generates a great story and good characters. The depth that Tolkien gave to Middle Earth is impressive, but I’ve never had the slightest urge to read through those appendixes in LOTR. Elaborate magic systems, as I’ve mentioned before, usually bore me. As I mentioned in the Black Wolves review, endless exposition about culture, society and whatever usually leaves me cold if it’s not in the service of the story (or the characters). I had the same reaction to An Accident of Stars — the world is interesting, but nothing much is happening.

Yet obviously for lots of people the world-building is fascinating. And I can sort of understand it: I have the same reaction to super-hero comics. The endless details of how the Scarlet Witch’s powers or Superman’s abilities work are something I can immerse myself in happily. Ditto the details of real history. But fantasy worlds? I need to know as much as will advance the story or dramatize the characters’ reactions, but not much more than that (as I mentioned in the Black Wolves link, something I’m having to think about working on Southern Discomfort).

Does that indicate my writing is fundamentally out of sorts with what publishers and readers want? Maybe. Or maybe not: most of the Blades reviews on Goodreads liked Bennett’s story a lot more than the formal reviews. Whatever that signifies.

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Is Our Writers Learning? Only the Dead Know Burbank (#SFWApro)

ONLY THE DEAD KNOW BURBANK by Bradford Tatum (cover design by Gregg Kulick, all rights to current holder) has an interesting concept and some beautiful writing, but not much else. I gave up midway.

THE STORY: Maddy is a young girl in Germany, growing up before WW I. After various adventures, she’s turned into an undead (a scene poetic enough that I don’t mind the vagueness of what exactly happened), then winds up working in early German cinema. Her undead nature gives her a unique understanding of horror which ultimately leads her to Hollywood where she becomes the genius who secretly gives birth to Universal’s classic horror films.


Style and description are nice, but not without substance. Lord Dunsany has style, but he also has great stories to tell. Tatum, not so much. In fairness to Tatum, that’s because this is 90 percent a historical non-fantasy novel, and I don’t care for those. The endless details of Maddy’s mundane life, or of Weimar-era decadence, just don’t fascinate me in themselves. The movie-making scenes are the most interesting, but not interesting enough to entertain me.

Don’t let writing drown out feeling. The thing that started me skimming is that Maddy’s voice is very detached. She describes her setting and physical sensation in detail, but rarely with passion, even when she gets raped. I know she’s dead and remembering all this from decades later, but it still makes it hard to care. The only time we see flashes of passion are, again, when she’s working on the movies (Tatum is a screenwriter/actor).

Enough with gratuitous rape. There’s a rape scene in the first third that serves no purpose other than to show how horrible Maddy’s life is. As many people have pointed out, using rape to convey utter horror or a living hell has been way overdone. And it’s usually gratuitous, as in this case: Maddy died, she’s being possessed/mind-controlled but she has to be raped as well? And while the rape is graphic, we never really see the emotional after effects (partly because Tatum, as noted, buried strong emotion under Maddie’s listless voice).

Don’t offer deep thoughts if you don’t have them. What convinced me to stop reading was when Maddy tells someone that the core of Dracula is incest. Dracula wants a lover, but he has to “sire” the women he loves to turn them into vampires. So they’re his daughters and his lovers. So incest. Sorry, that’s just silly. And I don’t believe anyone used “sire” in vampire stories that long ago (there are other words that seem too modern, like “desensitized” in reference to horror having too much gore and violence).

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Trump, Trump’s people and some people fighting against them

I wrote last week that the the one time we shouldn’t take Trump literally is when he promises something that will help people. Case in point, Trump is not planning to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure. But that doesn’t stop some pundits dreaming that Trump is shifting to the center. Or applauding that as he attacked Syria, that makes him more presidential. Or in one particularly ghastly Politico piece, arguing that Trump running the White House as a family business is a good thing.

•The White House demanded Twitter provide the identity of an alleged government employee tweeting against Trump. Twitter refused. The White House backed down.

•The current FCC chair is working to eliminate the FCC’s new net neutrality policy. Oh, and Charter’s no longer required to compete for customers as part of its Time Warner merger. And with the FCC’s privacy restrictions on Internet providers also toast, one state is looking at imposing its own privacy rule.

•The EPA has postponed banning a pesticide that its own science says is dangerous to humans. It’s getting sued over that decision.

•Slacktivist discusses why Trump voters won’t let us have nice things (because that means people of color get them too). Echidne looks at Trump’s win and his staff as a backlash against feminism. Slacktivist (again) reminds us that when Jesus says we must love our neighbor the person who gets technical about who our neighbors are is doing it wrong.

•A court has ruled that civil rights laws prevents firing or refusing to hire gays.

•Some Republicans are proposing a way to let insurers charge through the roof for pre-existing conditions.

•No, the Democrats filibustering Neil Gorsuch is not at all unprecedented.

•If conservatives can live with Bill O’Reilly and the allegations of sexual harassment against him, why would they be bothered by Trump’s sexism?

•A close-up look at what Trump’s 2005 tax return really shows.

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Filed under economics, Politics, Undead sexist cliches

Print fiction didn’t bring its A-game to my house this week (#SFWApro)

Frank Belknap Long’s SURVIVAL WORLD has such a great image in the first couple of pages (a guy thinking nostalgically about surfing reflects that water’s become so corrosive the first time you fell off the board you’d need a skin graft) I thought it would be awesome. Unfortunately the initial concept (scientist trying to save  environmentally collapsed dystopian future) gives way to a time trip and like Black Wolves never recovers after the jump. A bigger problem is that it’s another example of drawing-room SF — constant talk not only about the science but politics, human nature, the fate of mankind, and never anything that’s compelling enough to hold my attention.

Much as I love Lin Carter’s work for the Ballantine Adult Fantasy line, he seems to slip his gears whenever he turns to novellas: GREAT SHORT NOVELS OF ADULT FANTASY II bites just as much as I and Double Phoenix did (though the Gervasio Gallardo cover [all rights remain with current holder] sure is pretty). The Tranmutation of Ling by Ernest Bramah is genuinely charming (though very orientalist, so YMMV), but the George McDonald and Robert Chambers entries are forgettable and Eden Philpotts’ The Lavender Dragon is just bad. It starts well as a stuffy knight encounters a well-spoken dragon but then bogs hopelessly down when it turns out the dragon is running a utopian commune so we get lots and lots and lots of talk about building a proper society (it’s easily even more tedious than his The Miniature).

RED HOOD AND THE OUTLAWS: The League of Assassins by James Tynion IV and Julius Gopez starts well (an amnesiac Jason recoils from resuming his old life when he realizes how much blood is on his hand) then tanks completely. Part of this is Tynion’s clunky nomenclature (the “All Caste” and the “Untitled” being two of the players here), part that his version of the League of Assassins and R’As doesn’t work for me at all. A really big part is giving the assassin Cheshire an I-learned-witty-dialog-from-watching-TV style of conversation, because I’m heartily sick of that kind of banter. Tynion did better with the follow-up volume.

The winner of the week was the fourth volume of ELFQUEST in which Cutter and his tribe battle the trolls to finally seize the lost elfin citadel of Blue Mountain, then learn the truth behind their origins. Only it turns out that doesn’t actually show them what they way forward is … successfully charming and thoughtful both.

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Angry Martians, a disappointing black film, TV and a play: reviews (#SFWApro)

THE ANGRY RED PLANET (1960) is by the same creators as the tedious The Time Travelers and equally uninteresting, except for one truly memorable monster, the absurd bat-rat-spider. An expedition to Mars encounters various Martian horrors before the Martians send them home and tell them not to come back, the end. Very, very talky in the drawing-room SF vein (even though most of the talk takes place in labs or on the ship). “Nothing I’ve seen contradicts the theory that basic matter is the same everywhere in the universe.”

A PIECE OF THE ACTION (1976) was Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier’s third and final big-screen team-up (the first being Uptown Saturday Night) and easily the worst. Instead of blue-collar buddies, they’re now master criminals (safe cracker and conman respectively) blackmailed by retired cop James Earl Jones into serving as mentors at a job center for troubled inner-city youth. I loved this the first time I saw it, but now I recognize how many shopworn tropes are in it — this could as easily have been Welcome Back Kotter or one of Warner Brothers’ 1930s dramas about slum kids, coupled with the time-honored plot of Guy Becomes Teacher, Blossoms Into Decent Human Being and lots of stuff about how all the kids need is Confidence and a Good Attitude. Another problem is that there are two main plots, the crime drama (will the vengeful mobsters catch up with them?) and the kid stuff, and the film doesn’t mesh them smoothly. “That’s your first lesson — nobody gives you something for nothing.”

DC LEGENDS OF TOMORROW had a much better season than its first, replacing Vandal Savage with the Legion of Doom (“I got the name from this cartoon I watched as a kid.”), a trio of established villains who very much want to rewrite history to put wrong what once went right. This was just a really fun show and the final episode of the season was spectacular. “Why would a relic from the Crusades turn up in the Galapagos during the Reagan era?”

I recently discovered that the one nonsyndicated episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, The Encounter, was online at YouTube and so thought I’d give it a look. This story of Nisei George Takei and WW II veteran Neville Brand locking horns with each other is superbly acted — given it’s a two-man show, they picked two great guys. Unfortunately the racial overtones are (as they say) problematic, staring with the Big Reveal that Takei’s father was a Japanese spy working with the attackers at Pearl Harbor (there was no Japanese fifth column at Pearl Harbor). The rest of the arc seems to imply that Takei has something to atone for equivalent to Brand murdering a Japanese officer, or that he’s still somehow a threat just because of his sinister Japanese-ness or something, which probably explains why it’s not in syndication or on DVD.THE GRAND DUKE was Gilbert and Sullivan’s last production and I wasn’t optimistic about it given Utopia Limited and Princess Ida (the preceding creations) were hardly their A-game. Surprisingly this was very entertaining: a troupe of actors plotting to take over a small German principality get a lucky break due to an arcane rule of law that allows one of their number to legally assume the Grand Duke’s role. However it turns out that includes the Grand Duke’s responsibilities, such as marriage — or engagements — and it turns out the Duke’s been kind of free with his proposals. Great fun, good looking and well performed; the duke is somewhat modeled on Trump, but that works fine.. “Be a violet — a crushed, despairing violet.”

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Another changing tide? (#SFWApro)

But changing in a good way, happily. As King Cnut demonstrated (image borrowed from Medievalists, don’t know artist, all rights reside with current holder) we cannot hold those tides back. Before I get to tidal matters, here’s a quick overview of the week:

•I wrote and submitted my newest Screen Rant, as I mentioned this morning.

•I submitted more articles on the current Leaf project.

•I sent in my first sales tax payment on sales of Philosophy and Fairytales. It was less than a buck so the charge for paying online was actually more than the tax. On the other hand, it is kind of cool that I need to pay sales tax.

•I continue to struggle with fixing up Sex for Dinner, Death for Breakfast. I think I have the problems fixed but I’m ordering a test copy (about $6) just to make sure.

•The best part of the week is that I got back to work on Southern Discomfort. I just promised myself that no matter what, I’d get a thousand words done every day, and I did. I’d like to do more, but it feels wonderful to be moving forward with it.

And that’s the tide part — after swinging so heavily to nonfiction, they’re moving me back to fiction. Okay, technically I moved myself back by conscious effort. So much for the metaphor. But then again, the nonfiction does seem to be slowing down a little. This latest Leaf project will wrap up by the end of next week at the latest. One of those nonfiction projects I talked about at the link just isn’t happening (not the first time I’ve gone through Welcome Aboard! followed by Crickets!). I have another one that may start next week — we’ll see what happens. So that could mean less money (boo!) but more fiction time (yay!). And I have a few potential nonfiction projects, both articles and long-term gigs, to look into next week.

On a non-writing note, I had a frustrating experience making calzones this week. The dough just didn’t work, which I assume is my fault though the recipe did seem off (very little time for the dough to rise). However I made the filling without the calzones and its delicious.  I shall make it again soon.


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Filed under Nonfiction, Personal, Sex for Dinner, Death for Breakfast, Southern Discomfort, The Dog Ate My Homework, Time management and goals, Writing