Pointing at a problem is not the same as identifying it

Late to this party, but apparently science fiction publishing has a major race problem.  The study does the requisite bean counting and discovers, as if it was some sort of surprise, that black authors are underrepresented in traditional SF publishing.  The problem is that’s all it discovers.  When your survey finds only 63 stories by black authors out of 2,093, you really don’t need the survey in the first place.  One would hope that with the effort came some data about causes.  Unfortunately, we don’t get any real insight as to why this is the case. Saying “systemic racism” is simply naming the cause without actually specifying anything, certainly not anything actionable.

Instead, we have data (showing a problem that was obvious beforehand) given in support of anecdotal information. Even the article itself is a little confused about what it’s talking about ; “The advice to write ‘what the market wants’ is code for white characters and white stories.” Which may be an accurate observation, but is conflating two separate issues of representation, that of authors and that of characters. The other examples of “subtle bias” fall into the category of anecdotal data and strongly suggest a confusion between correlation and causation.

This all seems to simply be an exercise to justify attacks on those “subtle biases.”  That’s probably a valid goal in itself, but the problem is there are no particular data here that suggest that addressing those anecdotal issues will significantly alter the demographic issues being reported, and that’s arguably the point of the exercise.  If these anecdotal issues are simply due to the field being dominated by white people, then you might fix every single one and just end up with a field dominated by nicer white people with the exact same demographic breakdown.

If you want to address the issue of author demographics, I can think of a few questions you really need to ask:

  • Do black people consume SF at the same rate as whites, or are the black/white ratios for readers similar to the ratios of published authors? (The same way the male/female ratio of Romance readers and writers are probably similar.)
  • Is SF somehow unique in this, or is there a similar demographic breakdown in other genres such as Mysteries, Horror, or Literary Fiction? (And are ratios for writers vs. readers similar?)
  • Is the racial makeup of published stories the same, more representative or less representative than the racial makeup of submissions?
  • How many blacks are writing, published or unpublished, vs. how many whites?
  • How successfully in comparison?
  • Is there any difference in the number of rejections white authors receive vs. black authors before they’re either published or give up?
  • Do the numbers for Indie publishing reflect the anecdotal assertion that it is more representative demographically?
  • What about the success rate for black Indie authors vs. white Indie authors?

Until those are answered in some degree, the only solution people are going to propose is “just publish more black authors,” which would make the particular symptom they’re pointing at go away without addressing whatever fundamental problem is actually going on.


How You Aren’t Helping Online

I was pondering making comment on the SF kurfuffle du jour, but many obvious predictable people are making the obvious predictable points, all biases are being confirmed, and if anyone’s going to change their minds on the Internet it will only be upon facial contact with the hard cold unyielding surface of reality, and not by reading my hot take on the matter. So instead of launching into a tirade at what a sorry state it is that things have come to this, I’ve decided to mock how passionate people insist on making fools of themselves complaining about things online. Facebook users take note.

Not knowing what the hell you’re talking about: When you launch into a screed about anything, getting basic facts wrong (such as what is or is not illegal, what is or is not part of a code of conduct) will make you come across as a moron. An order of magnitude worse is saying “I don’t know [X] but I think [Y].” At that point you’re just making crap up, and not in a good way.

Putting the ad hominem before the horse: If there is a debate that person [Z]’s actions are just, right, advisable, problematic or a war crime, starting said argument by stating person [Z] is a known dumpster-fire douchbag coprophagic kitten eater is not doing you any favors. This statement insures that you will only be taken seriously by people who a) know who the hell [Z] is, and b) agree with your assessment. This is a smaller number of people than you imagine, leaving the vast majority of the population to view you as an unreliable nitwit with more axe to grind than argument to make.

The Amazing Kreskin: A combination of the prior two, this is where by the power of ultimate insight you divine the true motives of [Z]. “We know that [Z] is an evil person because they obviously did [Y] because of [X].” This basically translates to “We know that [Z] is an evil person because they obviously did [Y] because of their desire to do evil.” If you state that [Z] “wants” to do something problematic without a direct indication of [Z] expressing that particular desire, you’re at best inferring something that you have no direct evidence for. At worst, it makes it appear that you enjoy libeling people to support your own biases.

Goal-post moving: One great way to broadcast the fact you have a weak argument, few facts, and an inability to let go of a pre-conceived outcome is the following— “Well I heard that [Z] did [X], isn’t that awful?” “Actually [X] never happened, we have a recording, ten eye witnesses, sworn testimony and a major newspaper. . .” “But what about [Y]?”

But they said: If your only argument about [Z] is that [Y] said this or that about them, why are you even in the debate? Just shut up and let [Y] make their own arguments. They can certainly do better than you, since you can’t even come up with any of your own.

Confusing means and ends: “I support the children by pounding kitten skulls into the pavement.” “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” “Why do you hate the children?” “Crushing kitten skulls doesn’t help. . .” “Your critique is an attack meant to keep me from helping children.” “Are you even listening?” “Unleash the kitten stompers on the child hater!”

And this makes me happy.

If you follow me at all, you know I’ve been at this for quite a while now. I’ve written about my first novel, Forests of the Night a couple of times now, but in both cases I talk more about the story than how it was published.  Back in the early nineties I was still in my twenties and still in college.  Instead of a brag shelf, I had a bulletin board covered with rejection slips.  (Do people still do that?)  I had written one execrable fantasy novel that was 120,000 words of learning experience, which, to my credit, I knew was unsalvageable.  Forests was different though.  It was the first writing I’d ever workshopped, and while I received a lot of criticism, I got enough feedback to produce something I thought was publishable.  As one did in days of yore, I sent queries to many, many literary agents. And, upon finding representation, my new agent, Jane Butler (who retired some time ago now) sent Forests off to Sheila Gilbert at DAW.

In 1992, Sheila bought my first novel about an anthropomorphic tiger detective and started my career as a novelist.  I’ve been working with her ever since.  For nearly a quarter century and 23 subsequent novels she has worked with me and supported even some of my more insane story ideas.  Her late husband contributed the map of the planet Bakunin in the front of the Hostile Takeover books.  In addition to giving me editorial notes on my books, she’s asked for input on cover ideas, and some of the suggestions she’s accepted have resulted in some of my favorite cover art. Perhaps most important for my career, and my fans, she’s kept most of those 23 novels in print, including that first one with the anthropomorphic tiger detective. For paperback original genre fiction, that’s not just rare, it’s practically unheard of.

This past weekend, at Worldcon, Sheila got the kind of recognition she deserves. As much as she’s supported me, and all her other authors, it’s gratifying to see the SF community supporting her with a well deserved (and overdue) Hugo.  Congrats, Sheila!

Two random thoughts.

A couple of things to file under, “what the future might look like.”

First, what is the most significant thing the Internet has done to political communication, or communication in general? You know the answer, though it wasn’t the answer you just thought of.  Consider the MediaGlyph, and how it is both the natural product of the sound bite, and a compelling explanation for the state of the current political landscape.

Second, what is the most significant consequence of introducing self-driving cars?  If you didn’t answer “an increase in capacity utilization resulting in a crash of demand for new vehicles,” you may want to read this Zero Hedge article and think about unintended consequences.

10 Things Suicide Squad Got Right

Suicide_Squad_(film)_PosterI mentioned Suicide Squad in my prior blog, and I did indeed see it in the theatre the other day. So what did I think? Well, most of the folks critical of the movie are right, it is badly flawed— and almost all those flaws can be attributed to the execrable editing. Amazingly, though, somehow the film’s good points managed to just outweigh the horrible damage done to it in post-production. Enough to make one weep at what may have been, and actually justify a “director’s cut” Blu-ray release. So, rather than harp on the film’s many faults (and they are legion) I thought I’d give a list of what the movie actually got right:

10) The casting is pretty superb in my book. Even Will Smith’s typical glib demeanor syncs well with portraying a complete sociopath. And the chemistry between him and Margot Robbie make the film.

9) The acting also shines, once you take into account the limits of the choppy editing and the fact that this is an ensemble action movie where we aren’t going terribly deep into these characters.

8) The bad guys are actually bad guys. All of them. It seems that every time a Hollywood movie gets its mind on focusing on a group of criminals doing something there is a near-irresistible temptation to make our hero(s) wrongly convicted, or justified in their criminal acts in some way. But there’s no question here that the characters belong in prison. Only one character has a redemption arc over their criminal past, and their crimes are so irredeemable that this only elicits some sympathy.

7) The movie isn’t as nihilist as it appears on first glance. Suicide Squad may deal with characters without a moral center, but they actually are aware of that, and suffer for that lack. You see this with every family/romantic connection shown for the members of the Squad. (It’s arguably the point of the bar scene.)

6) The film is aware that getting this group together is a bad idea. But this isn’t a plot hole. It actually is the plot.

5) The Joker. This movie needed a different take on him, and the one they chose both fits in this universe, and is distinct enough from every other portrayal to stand on its own. Also, it was a wise decision IMHO to use him sparingly, because he can easily chew up a whole movie by himself. They needed him because Harley, but only for that. Any more would be a distraction from the main plot.

4) The soundtrack. Sure, they may have been trying to riff on the Guardians of the Galaxy’s MO. I don’t care. This would be a case of a DC film learning the right lesson from Marvel.

3) The one-liners. “I love your perfume! What is it, the stench of death?”

2) The tone.  This is another case of learning the right lesson from Marvel. Getting the tone right for a superhero movie is a delicate process, it’s very easy to fall into the two extremes: either take everything way serious and fall into gritty angst and nihilism, or descend into self-mockery and keep winking at the camera to show the audience that you’re not falling for it. Somehow, this movie avoided that trap. It knew the place of humor, and it wasn’t at the expense of the characters or their stories. (Except Captain Boomerang, but we’re supposed to think he’s an asshole.)

1) It showed that you can make a superhero movie diverse without an accompanying internet meltdown. And given that it looks like this movie’s making money, there’s a good chance we’ll see more of this type of casting. . . and maybe a little less of the online angst.

Speaking of the 1980’s. . .

How many of you remember the Tobe Hooper film, Lifeforce, from 1985? It’s probably the only piece of genre pop-culture from the 80’s that Stranger Things didn’t pay homage to— possibly due to the combination of full-frontal nudity and zombies. Lifeforce hasn’t gotten the same love from posterity as Tobe Hooper’s other efforts (such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Poltergeist) which is unfortunate. It’s worth checking out for reasons beyond Mathilda May walking around a government facility completely nude, killing guards right and left (shades of Elfin Lied). The whacked-out story is also worth the price of admission, as are the impressive effects for a Golan-Globus film. (You will not believe this came from the same people responsible for Superman IV.)

One of the more impressive bits of the film is the apocalyptic destruction laying waste to London as the space vampires’ contagion turns the population of the city into undead monsters rampaging through the streets. Then, in order the save the world, the protagonists need to make their way through the dark nightmare streets of the destroyed city, toward the evil light blowing up into the sky from the heart of St. Peters. Our hero has to survive to reach the source of the light and our evil female villain in order to stab her through the heart and stop the apocalypse. . .

Lifeforce (1985)

Wait a minute now. Where have I seen this recently?

Yeah, Suicide Squad— intentionally or unintentionally— made its climax an extended homage to an obscure 80’s Golan-Globus B-movie.

suicide squad
Suicide Squad (2016)

(PS: I know, the evil sky beam is it’s own trope lately, but Lifeforce needs some love for pioneering the form.)

Stranger Things

Just finished watching Strangstranger thingser Things on Netflix, and it is fantastic. By now you’ve probably heard that it is a nostalgic throwback to 1980’s cinema, and you’ve probably heard people name-drop Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, and John Carpenter when describing it. This is all true; we have a host of Speilbergian characters, a plot that could have come from a King or Koontz novel, and a score that Carpenter could have written. Even the title font is lifted directly from those Signet paperbacks that crowded the rack on the corner drugstore circa 1985. But leaving it at that (as awesome as that description is) is really selling this series short.

First off, the series works on its own terms even if you could care less about the nostalgia factor. The acting is stellar on all counts, especially the kids’ ensemble. You care about all these people and what they’re going through. Second, while some critics might complain about the plot being simple, derivative, and “stuff we’ve seen before,” that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Most of the story beats in Lethal Weapon were already well-worn by 1987. Halloween’s story can fit on a postcard and leave room to list the cast and crew. Tarantino’s complete oeuvre is derivative of classic 70’s exploitation films. Stranger Things takes a basic story, a host of genre tropes, and a deep knowledge and affection for a particular era of filmmaking, and executes it so well that one half-expects the show to be followed by a VH1 “Where-are-they-now” documentary focusing on the child actors, now in their forties. I’d go one further and say that, unlike Tarantino’s work, Stranger Things fits seamlessly amongst is influences, less as a modern child, and more as a belated-but-contemporary sibling.

Also, those who critique the tropes and homages miss one of the more impressive bits of writing alchemy here. This isn’t just one story, but three distinct stories braided together. Or, really, the same story from three different points-of-view and three different genres. You have the Speilbergian kids story where they take in the “alien” stranger who might have a connection to their missing friend. You have the adults, the grieving mother and the alcoholic Sheriff, caught in a government conspiracy over sinister Cold-War CIA experiments reminiscent of early King, Firestarter in particular. Then you have the teens caught in a monster movie/creature feature that bears more than a passing similarity to A Nightmare on Elm Street. All three levels work and the plot gears mesh seamlessly. When the separate braids join up in the end, there’s no question that all the story parts hang together. If you want a case study in how to successfully mash-up an arbitrary number of diverse story elements into one work, Stranger Things couldn’t be a better example.

IMHO, this is the best thing to come out of Netflix since Jessica Jones.

Welcome to Moreytown

You may have heard me mention on Facebook that I’m writing a game for the fine folks at Choice of Games based on my Moreau Novels.  As I said when I broke the news:

If you’re unfamiliar with CoG’s work, think of it as a (much more) sophisticated digital version of the “choose your own adventure” titles from the 1980s.


My current progress on the project: I just crossed the halfway mark on the draft of the game.  If we count by chapters, I’ve finished six of twelve so far.  If we go by “word” count, it’s probably short of halfway because I suspect the code part of the writing will become more complex as I close in on the climax.

That “word” count  is a good way to give you some idea of the difference between this kind of project and straight prose.  In a typical novel, my chapters typically run an average of 2,500 words or so.  The chapters in the game probably cover the same range of plot development as my prose, and display to the reader/player a similar amount of narrative.

Sexy Nohar

However, when we include the code along with the narrative the reader/player doesn’t see (for instance, because they went out the door rather than the window) each game chapter runs from 5,000 to 10,000 “words,” that’s 2x to 4x the amount of writing for a comparable prose chapter.

Some non-spoilery details about the game so far: You will be playing a non-human— fox, tiger, rat, capybara, etc. The setting is a non-human ghetto, the eponymous Moreytown, in a unspecified US metropolitan area.  It will have street gangs, drugs, and explosions.  It will have fights, cults, and, potentially, interspecies romance.

I will keep everyone posted as this works its way through the development pipeline.

Star Trek


I’ve finally seen the most recent Star Trek film and it has my enthusiastic approval. No it’s not the original series. But, IMO, that’s a plus. The major weakness of the first two post-reboot movies were the ham-handed attempts to tie this Star Trek to that Star Trek. This is the first of the three to admit that it’s its own thing. Almost. There’s a couple of callbacks that were made necessary by the premise of the reboot, and they still feel as weird as characters from Tim Burton’s Batman making cameos in Christopher Nolan’s. The good news is that this movie seems to be explicitly closing the book on that. It finally feels comfortable being itself, and gets to rank itself in the upper tier of Trek films.

Also, the Sulu = Gay thing: I can’t imagine something being more a non-issue from any side of it you’re coming from. You’d be hard pressed to find a less empowering or more ambiguous way of representing a gay character on film. Not only is it a fraction of a second that was probably added in post to get some social media buzz, but there’s no context, and no impact on the plot or Sulu’s character. If the guy in the scene is Sulu’s gay husband (and there’s no confirmation in the film that this is the case), Sulu seems a little less concerned about the guy’s possible demise in the subsequent attack than he should have been. Contrast with Uhura’s attitude toward her ex, Spock. Or Scotty’s attitude toward hot alien chick. If you just want to drop some gay representation without making the story about that, watch some Doctor Who episodes, and don’t film it like you’re embarrassed and plan to cut it later.