A Ten Video Defense of Cultural Appropriation

September 29, 2016

“Cultural Appropriation” has reared it’s sombrero-sporting head in the literary community once again in another series of critiques and critiques of critiques and critiques of critiquing and those doing the critiquing, over something that should, in the end, be a fairly straightforward caution for authors to just get it right, that somehow never ends up that simple.

Rather than attempt to spill more words into this never-ending tumult, I instead present a series of videos in defense of “Cultural Appropriation:”

So white dudes can’t rap…

This is really problematic…

If this isn’t cultural imperialism, I don’t know what is…

A university costume party goes really off the rails…

This has to be because we nuked Japan…

…or this is…

Italy, Fascism,  Eastwood, that empty chair, it all makes sense now…

A movie this fun must be bad for you…

That don’t look like Deep Purple…

And we all know country music is problematic…

So I have a fan theory

September 27, 2016

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.

Throwback Thursday

September 22, 2016

I’ve been blogging off-and-on for years, and today I’d thought I’d go point to the ten most popular blog entries I have according to Google Analytics. Predictably, six of them are writing related. (Note, these don’t include the Plot and Worldbuilding articles that drive about half the traffic here. Those aren’t blog posts.)

 

Speaking of the 80’s. . .

September 20, 2016

I just finished the 1987 apocalyptic doorstopper of a novel, Swan Song by Robert McCammon.

My first thought:

As 80s as Chuck Norris stabbing a dirty commie.

As 80s as Chuck Norris stabbing a dirty commie.

If any one piece of literature embodied the pop-culture zeitgeist of a particular decade, it is this novel. This book could not be more eighties if it was sporting a mullet and fronting for Van Halen. It’s eighties like a block of government cheese, leg warmers, and slasher movies on VHS. Don’t believe me? Let me list some of the elements we’re introduced to:

  • The homeless bag lady.
  • The pro wrestler.
  • The crazy ‘Nam veteran.
  • The computer nerd who’s into gaming so much he has trouble distinguishing the game from reality.
  • A fleet of homemade armor-plated cars straight out of the Road Warrior.
  • The Cold War, natch.
  • At least one Rubik’s cube.

My second thought:
The book is enjoyable, but I suspect those with a more sfnal bent may have some substantial problems with it. It works as an apocalyptic fever-dream, or an extended allegory, but if you try to bring any real-world logic to the proceedings after the bombs drop, your brain will hurt. (Example: If you know anything about dressing game, the wolf-hunting scene makes about as much sense as the turkey dinner scene in Eraserhead, and has a similar effect on the audience. ) One of the points to the book seems to be the nuclear war creates a literal hell-on-earth, and everything from physics to biology seems to be twisted to this purpose. In this sense, it may almost qualify as a proto work of bizarro fiction.

Weekend of the Pooka

September 15, 2016

pookawebbanner2015This coming weekend I will be participating along with other local authors Saturday & Sunday 1:00pm to 5:00pm at the annual Bedford, Ohio “Weekend of the Pooka.” at the Bedford Commons. (730 Broadway Avenue, Bedford, Ohio.)

In addition to myself, attending authors will include Vince McKee, Michael Heaton, Jonathan Knight, James Renner, Gail Bellamy, Kelley Grealis, Laura Peskin, DM Pulley, Les Roberts, Shelley Bloomfield Costa, Irv Korman, Charles Cassidy & Wendy Koile.

In addition to the authors, there will be art and wine :)

Hope to see you there.

Choice of Games update

September 13, 2016

My effort on the “Welcome to Moreytown” game proceeds apace. I am currently finishing up chapter seven of twelve, and hope to have eight completed by the end of the month.  Entirely coincidentally, a member of my writing workshop had her game critiqued, which prompted a discussion with yet another member  of the group who teaches game design… (As an aside; is it me, or is there much more overlap between the gaming and SF communities nowadays than there was five or ten years ago?)

Anyway, that discussion brought home what a different mode of writing this actually is, and not just because of the amount of coding that is involved.  It’s almost the inverse of script-writing.  With a script, as a writer, you must leave stuff out.  A lot of stuff.  As a novelist, it can feel like most of the stuff.  Most of the visuals, costuming, stage business, all relies on other people.  That’s why scripts are so lean vs. prose, a feature film script can run about 100 pages, and if there’s more than a couple hundred words a page it’s probably too dense.

With this type of gaming script, you end up writing a lot more than you would with comparable prose.  Code aside, it’s possible for a player to go through the entire thing and only read about half of what you’ve written.  Also, given the permutations, it will be a very rare pair of players who end up reading the exact same portions of it.

Also, what a computer can do, opposed to the old choose-your-own-adventure games, is allow choices that change narrative elements other than the story’s plot progression.  An obvious example, if you play one of Choice of Games’ free sample games, is the swapping of gender.  In the “Choice of Broadsides” game, your gender selection affects the entire navy. But there are other interesting things you can do.  An example from the WiP “Welcome to Moreytown,” is the choice of PC species comes with choosing a primary sense (vision, hearing, smell) that doesn’t do a lot to affect the story, but changes the descriptions of various scenes throughout the game.  Another example, the PC meets an NPC and the player chooses how they see that NPC: irritating, ridiculous, creepy or interesting.  the encounter proceeds roughly the same way for each choice, but the descriptions provided to the PC differ according to that first impression, and it colors every time that NPC is refrenced or encountered through the game.

Needless to say, a much different experience.

 

So why are things so nasty?

September 8, 2016

You know what I mean. From the presidential election down to what stupid little award our geeky niche genre decides to award itself, we cannot seem to have anything like a polite disagreement anymore.  Everyone gets up in arms about everything from who’s using what bathroom, to who’s cast in what part in a movie no one wanted rebooted anyway. It’s reached the point where it’s necessary to write articles like this.  WTF happened?

The obvious answer is, “the Internet happened.” So now everyone goes on-line, withdraws into their little confirmation bias bubble, consumes all the news that conforms to their worldview only to pop out of their hole to virtue-signal to their tribe, troll the enemy, and block people on Facebook.

The problem with that hypothesis is, when people actually study the issue, the whole “self-contained political bubble theory” tends to leak a little. According to a Pew Research study:

These cleavages can be overstated. The study also suggests that in America today, it is virtually impossible to live in an ideological bubble. Most Americans rely on an array of outlets – with varying audience profiles – for political news. And many consistent conservatives and liberals hear dissenting political views in their everyday lives.

Frankly, political bubbles are probably a lot more permeable nowadays than they were in the good/bad old days of three networks when a kid had to join the army or go to college to be exposed to a political point of view different from wherever they grew up. So what gives? After all, actually interacting with different folks is supposed to be a good way to promote tolerance.

I have a theory, and the Internet and confirmation bias do play a role, but not due to any bubbling.

In fact, I think the opposite is happening.  In days of yore, were you to hear an alien political opinion, chances are the voice of that opinion would have been tested by prior debate, the message honed, practiced and tempered by experience.  In the days before instant viral communications, a political message had to pass through many gatekeepers and face many opponents before it reached you, either on the campaign stump, via the printed word, or over a broadcast network. Ideas from the crackpots, the insane, and the stupid rarely reached beyond their own street corner, and when they did, it was after their message had been polished so shiny that people couldn’t see the crazy for the gleam.

This is no longer the case.

Everyone has a political opinion, and almost everyone feels obligated to share it.  Today they all can.  Nowadays, when someone wishes to rail against conservatives, their opponent isn’t a William F. Buckley Jr. or a William Safire or even their local alderman— it’s “RedneckJesus66” on some YouTube comment thread.  Someone trashes liberals, they aren’t arguing with Adlai Stevenson or John Maynard Keynes— it’s “MoonshineUnicorn37” on Tumblr.

The great evil of the Internet is the unleashing of an army of actual living, breathing straw-men to feed the fires of all political debate.  Everyone’s core conviction that they’re the smart ones and all their political opponents are stupid is now fueled by the fact that any idiot can now publish any screwball idea, and have it carry the same weight as the New York Times.  This means that no one needs a coherent argument anymore, because there’s always some poor sod on the other side that’s published something stupider than they ever will. Nowadays on the Internet, and increasingly in real life, political discourse is always punching down. Everyone now eschews the engagement of ideas, preferring instead, the easy fight against the most idiotic comments from the opposition.

That’s why we can’t have nice things anymore.

Five Favorite Covers

September 6, 2016

I mentioned on Facebook that the best cover songs are ones that bring something new to the table. There’s something magical when an artist takes an existing song, does something radically different with it, and makes it work. In the following cases, I think the result surpasses the original.

Half Century

September 1, 2016

4615613

Yep, I hit the big 50 today and pretty much the most exciting thing I did today so far was renew my plates and driver’s license. Now I need to dig up that AARP card they sent me.

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Pointing at a problem is not the same as identifying it

August 30, 2016

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.