Discovery

Well, I got a chance to see the first two episodes of the new Star Trek and here are my thoughts:

  1. If you obsess about canon, this series will trigger you hard. There is no way you can sensibly integrate this into the same universe as TOS without serious mental violence so my suggestion is just let it go.
  2. This series is dark.  Not just thematically, but in terms of palette.  If you prefer the historical Trek aesthetic, you may be better off watching The Oriville.
  3. I don’t think I can judge the series itself because it has yet to establish a status quo. The first two episodes are really a prologue setting up the main character’s backstory.
  4. If we judge by the first two episodes, this will be a Trek where blowing ships up is going to be a regular thing.
  5. I don’t like the design of the new Klingons, and that seems to be a common sentiment.
  6. Still it’s watchable, and I liked the main characters…
  7. …but not enough to pay for yet another streaming service just for the one show.

How to make me feel old.

So far my Facebook group, Swann’s Lounge, seems to be a success. But it comes at a price. On one of the more popular threads people are listing “obscure” SF/F titles. There’s a lot of good stuff in there.  But apparently it’s been long enough for Jack L. Chalker’s Well of Souls, and Julian May’s  Saga of Pliocene Exile to become obscure to some folks. Given that I bought both these series as they came out. . .  Let’s just say it made me feel my age.

Lounging About

I just want to let people know about my continued effort to integrate myself into the social media landscape (or other buzzwords to that effect) I have launched myself a Facebook group called Swann’s Lounge. So, for those of you on Facebook, you can join a bunch of like-minded folks to discuss reading & writing genre fiction, particularly Science Fiction and Fantasy. Come on and join the discussion, or start one of your own.

Concoction

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I’m going to be at the Cleveland Concoction convention this coming weekend from March 10th through the 12th.  If you’re in the area, directions are here.

You can find the overall schedule here, as for what I’m doing:

  • Fri. 11pm – Fantasy and Rule 34
  • Sat. 12pm – Vampires, Werewolves, and Gods—Rewriting Legends
  • Sat. 2pm – Author Showcase (Session 3) [Wherein I will read a bit]
  • Sat. 3pm – Autographing (Session 3) – Author Alley
  • Sat. 9pm – Why Villains Matter
  • Sat. 11pm – Inter-Species “Relations”
  • Sun. 1pm – There are no Saints in Fiction

Looking forward to seeing some of my fans there.

A Thought About Lovecraft

The TombIf you were to pick out who is the most “problematic” character in the SF/Fantasy canon, H.P.Lovecraft has got to be near the top of the list. He is probably one of the most influential voices in the genre, not just touching authors as diverse as Stephen King and Charles Stross, but extending his tentacles deep into popular culture; movies, comics, games, t-shirts, internet memes, music. . .  The influence is pervasive.

And that’s what makes him problematic.

Because he was also a racist and bigot of the first order. This is, in the current age, the primary unforgivable sin. And he made life particularly difficult for any apologists because he wasn’t particularly subtle about it in either his fiction or his correspondence. Not only did he make his views explicit in his letters, any reader with half a brain can look into his stories of the terrifying “other” and see the racism staring right back.

It occurs to me that this is exactly why he is such an important writer. Some others might want to, on one side, remove or minimize his pride of place among foundation authors in the genre, and on the other, minimize his “unwholesome” views to protect his legacy from being tarnished. . . I think both sides miss the point.

What Lovecraft did was take his own personal— and to modern eyes bigoted and racist— fears, and abstracted them just enough to make them universal.  The fact is, however progressive anyone tries to be, there is always “our” tribe and the “other” tribe. Some draw the lines by race, some by class, some by nationality, and some by political affiliation.  We may not like this fact of human nature, but that doesn’t change the fact that it exists.  Lovecraft looked into the darkest part of his own soul and pulled out something horrifying, and very human.

So I have a fan theory

movie_poster_zootopia_866a1bf2So I noticed that the movie Zootopia is on Netflix now, and it reminded me of a little fan theory I developed back when I saw the movie in theatres.  If you’ve seen it, you may have noticed something that differentiates this film from the typical Disney (or any) “funny animal” story.  In stories of Mickey, Donald and Goofy, the world the characters inhabit is simply a proxy for the real world us humans inhabit.  If species is mentioned, it’s only for the sake of a joke, or as an obvious metaphor for class or race or nationality and we just accept the characters are just humans in funny suits.

Zootopia is very different in this respect. The story spends science-fictional levels of effort world building to show that we’re not just dealing with furry humans. The eponymous city spends vast technological resources to accommodate everything from radical size differentials to having separate artificial ecosystems emulating everything from artic to tropical conditions.  Most importantly, it acknowledges a past history where the animal denizens had the predator-prey relationships we’re familiar with. “Thousands of years ago,” these animals didn’t have culture, technology, or even the anthropomorphic posture they show in the present time.  This is, in fact, a major plot point… Which leaves a question dangling.

How does one get from there to here? Everything about the film is sfnal in its attention to detail, but it mentions “thousands of years” for this transition in the first few minutes.  That doesn’t seem enough to build a technological culture from scratch.  Also, no humans are in evidence. While we could posit this is an alternate Earth where humans never evolved, we still see at least one major character that seems to have developed from a domesticated species.  Also, it seems that these animals, mammals at least, all developed intelligence at roughly the same time, evolutionarily speaking.

brain-wave-coverNow consider the plot of the Poul Anderson novel, Brain Wave.  From Wikipedia:

At the end of the Cretaceous period, Earth moved into an energy-damping field in space. As long as Earth was in this field, all conductors became more insulating. As a result, almost all of the life on Earth with neurons died off, causing the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event. The ones that survived passed on their genes for sufficiently capable neurons to deal with the new circumstance. Now in modern times, Earth suddenly moves out of the field. Within weeks all animal life on Earth becomes about 5 times as intelligent. The novel goes through the triumphs and tribulations of various people and non-human animals on Earth after this event.

At the end of the novel the humans develop interstellar travel and it’s implied that they leave for the stars. Given how close the apes are to humans, they may have joined them. The super intelligent animals left behind wouldn’t need to develop technology, language, or culture from scratch, the humans would have left that all behind for them. A few thousand years would be enough time to build a culture out of those remnants, and also probably enough time for the animals to self-select, breeding for a more “human” appearance and posture, emulating these long-disappeared humans, their progenitors, who left for the heavens…

Zootopia is a sequel to Brain Wave, set about nine or ten thousand years after the humans left.

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.

 

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!


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-soul-funnel
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.