Fascinating

There’s a side-topic I’m trying to avoid (badly) covering mainly because it is 80% changing the subject from the actually topic du-jour i.e. shitty behaviour by authors in SFF and comics towards other people — mainly (but not limited to) sexual harassment and sexually exploitative behaviour. I more than alluded to it in this post because of the 20% of it that isn’t changing the subject (shitty behaviour in a community and how a community should respond without itself being shitty).

This post isn’t the post that I’m not writing but just a note to myself. The note is simply* pointing at a recent Mad Genius Club post by Dave Freer: https://madgeniusclub.com/2020/06/29/a-bonfire-of-vanities/ Which is fascinating in that it clearly is inspired by the current events in the science fiction community but is very firmly centred on the 80% changing the subject aspect of it.

That is fascinating. Put another way, people who we know have been demonstrably and outspokenly hostile to well being, peace and prosperity of the science fiction community would really like to change the subject from powerful male authors (none of whom they like, indeed Myke Cole is actively hated by the Puppies) being held to account.

*[OK not “simply” because I couldn’t help editorialising.]

Review: Superior by Angela Saini

Science journalist Angela Saini’s third book Superior: the Return of Race Science is a very timely survey of the history and contemporary impact of the attempts to use science to prop up racism and beliefs about race.

From Carl Linnaeus to the sinister Pioneer Fund, Saini maps the shifts both in actual understanding and the layers of post-hoc rationalisations for prejudices. She does this with minimal (but appropriate) editorialising and instead lets the views of a very wide range of interviewees inform the reader about how views have shifted or, in some cases, stubbornly refused to shift.

Much of it covered topics and personalities I was already familiar with and if you have read books like Stephen J Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, then you’ll be familiar with a lot of the background. However, Saini takes a broader survey and branches out into topics like the misguided but often well intentioned use of race in prescription medicines. I found that the sections that covered areas I was already very familiar with where both interesting and provided good insights, although I obviously got more value out of the sections on topics I was less aware of.

Saini also charts recent events such as the rise of the alt-right, the renewed ideological racism in populist governments (in particular Trump’s America but also Modi’s Hindu nationalism) and demonstrates how the 18th century obsession with race is connected to modern concerns and pseudoscience.

The people-centred approach of the book gives it a very human quality. Saini has a knack at humanising many of the protagonists without excusing or apologising either for their mistakes or (in many cases) their bigotry. Rather, by focusing on the individuals her approach highlights their motives and in the cases of many of the scientists involved how they managed to fool themselves into thinking they had transcended their own prejudices and somehow found objective truths instead of discovering convoluted ways of having their own biased assumptions echoing back to them.

I listened to the audio-book version which is narrated by Saini herself. I really highly recommend this book both in terms of the insights she gives on the topic but also as an example of excellent modern science writing.

Susan’s Salon: 2020 June 28/29

The last open thread this June for people to just chat about whatever. Posted early Monday Sydney time (still Sunday in most places) . It’s OK to be sad, worried, angry or happy (or all of those things at once). Please feel free to post either troubling news or pleasant distractions in the comments for this open thread. [However, no cranky conflicts between each other in the comments. Links, videos, cat pictures etc are fine – be nice to one another!] Whatever you like but be nice to one another ๐Ÿ˜‡

Wear a mask while posting a comment.

Covid-19 in Australia Update

For largely good reasons, international coverage of the covid-19 pandemic is not currently focused on Australia. However, the dusty continent is where I keep my body, so I pay a bit more attention to it. While New Zealand remains almost virus free (the exception being people returning from overseas), Australia has low numbers of new cases but there remain a persistent number of cases apparently from community transmission.

The main attention is on the state of Victoria that has had a spike of 41 new cases on Saturday. New South Wales has much smaller numbers but there are still cases that appear to be community transmission (i.e. not people in quarantine who have recently returned from overseas). Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Western Australia has been able to further ease restrictions with pubs and nightclubs opening fully.

One geographic/demographic aspect of Australia that is relevant to WA opening up is the degree to which each state can restrict travel between states. This has lead to some tension between New South Wales and Queensland which still retain some border restrictions.

Things have otherwise pretty much relaxed into a new normal. Cafes and restaurants are sort of open, the roads are busy again but public transport is less crowded. Most people who can work from home (those that work in the great Excel and Microsoft Word mines churning out documents) still are.

Schools have been open for time. Post-pandemic there will be a lot of discussion about schools. As a policy intervention, school closures has been one of the most erratic i.e. there are countries with quite strict lockdowns that have left schools open or partly open and countries with less strict lockdowns that have kept schools closed. Overall, it does look like children aren’t a major source of transmission but it is also clear that the social logistics of closing schools was a genuine challenge. In future pandemics we might not be so lucky (yes, I can’t say anything about this feels lucky except in the sense of it really could have been even worse). A different disease might have more aggressively affected children and governments really need to start planning for ways of closing down schools in a sustainable way.

I travelled into Sydney CBD the other day and there was a normality to the city. The streets were busy with cars and people again. I wore a mask but most of the other people I saw wearing masks were ethnically Asian. Mask wearing hasn’t become habitual here and Australia didn’t have a ‘wear masks at the shops’ level of eased-restrictions mainly because the number of cases fell pretty rapidly (we got to skip that step). Australia likes to boast about itself as part of the Asia-Pacific region but it would do well to adopt the habit of major cities in the region and make mask wearing the norm.

There were Black Lives Matter protests here but so far there have been no recorded covid-19 cases that appear to have originated with the protests. Of course, protestors were generally very good at wearing masks and other PPE (police…not so much).

The shortages in various goods experienced in April had largely been forgotten, aside from some shops being overstocked with off-brand toilet paper. However, the small but scary surge of cases in Victoria has led to supermarket chains imposing restrictions pre-emptively. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-06-24/woolworths-reintroduces-item-limits-victorian-stores/12388436

The big difference with this new upswing in cases is that testing is now widely available and the infrastructure for contact tracing exists. The contact tracing app doesn’t look like it has had enough people downloading it and using it to make a big difference though.

I think it is still too early to draw any clear conclusions about policy responses to covid-19 other than ‘do not have Boris Johnson or Donald Trump as your national leader’. Mask-wearing? It looks like it works but to have really made a difference to the covid-19 outbreak, people needed to be wearing the masks before they knew about the pandemic. That’s not absurd so long as people in major cities just start adopting that as a habit, particularly if they have the sniffles. Panic-buying of PPE would have been a potential disaster for health workers in the early weeks of the pandemic. However, if people habitually wear them then people will have supplies in and ready. In Australia we may need them anyway if we get another bad fire season (oh, yes that was still this year even if it feels like it was decades ago).

Above all, Australia was lucky rather than smart. Our national government isn’t particularly competent but they managed to step over the low bar that the UK Tories and USA GOP failed on. As I have suggested before, I believe the PR disaster that befell the PM (Scott Morrison) because of his woeful handling of the bushfire crisis resulted in the federal government fearful of a repeat performance.

An inconclusive post about bad behaviour

In recent days there has been a renewed focus on some genuinely shitty behaviour by science-fiction writers and others in the SF&F community. I don’t have a lot to say about the specifics because a) I literally don’t know anybody and b) it’s a good time to listen rather than suck oxygen. The discussion has rippled outwards as well and while the specific behaviour initially talked about revolved around the behaviour of male authors and predatory, harassing or emotionally abusive/exploitative behaviour to women, there is a wider question of power-dynamics and bullying behaviour.

Those broader questions have then touched on issues in the semi-recent past, including events like RaceFail from 2009 and the issues around Requires Hate that came to a head in 2015. Those in turn raise the issue of nested power dynamics, in a complex and international community where publishing has its own hierarchies & positions of power, social media and size of followers has another power dynamic and these play out with existing social divisions around wealth, class, language, sexuality, gender and ethnicity (and ethnicity within both national and international contexts).

It is a complex ethical space and at the same time the issue at hand is very simple: STOP BEING SHITTY TO OTHER PEOPLE & START TREATING PEOPLE AS PEOPLE NOT AS THINGS OR GAME PIECES. I say “simple” and even as I write I use a paraphrasing of Kant’s categorical imperative and in this context have to point out that philosophers long and appalling level of racism and sexism. A simple idea that we keep failing at in fractal like ways.

Part of the self-reference in the issues of both bad behaviour and power dynamics is how we (as a community and as individuals) respond to people within our community acting badly towards others. Assuming we aren’t talking about behaviour that amounts to criminality* then we are talking about behaviour that we can only discourage/punish by the means of social consequences. Social consequences (which could amount to simply not following somebody on Twitter any more to something more substantial) are themselves acts which employ varying degrees of power dynamics between people.

And that circles back to systemic biases, specifically whether shitty person A and shitty person B end up suffering different consequences for similar behaviour of if shitty person A is a person-of-colour/woman/trans/gay/etc and person B is a straight, cis American/British white man. One of the big issues with systemic biases is they can are easiest to identify in aggregate: they often function stochastically and when looked at case-by-case there are (particularly in the kinds of behaviour I’m talking about) sufficient differences between case X and case Y that the difference in consequence can be rationalised away (X was dumped by their agent because of X’s behaviour but then Y wasn’t… but then X had done i,ii,iii,& ix and Y had done ii,xi, &xii etc where each of these are non-trivial cases of genuinely bad behaviour to others).

In workplaces or in more formal settings like a convention, a rules based approach can add a quasi-legal framework to things. By codifying both behaviours and consequences it can be easier to track both and look for inequities as well as providing frameworks to ensure that people who have behaved badly are still treated as people. In practice though, that doesn’t happen and we also have very recent examples of such structures being used as an instrument of bullying and power plays. Rules and power structures can be weaponised by people who act in bad faith.

However, the alternative that we have without those frameworks is a situation where I can say with confidence that probably different kinds of people are treated inequitably in these situations because I know in advance that our communities have not magically transcended systemic biases or hundreds of years of class, racial and gender biases BUT would struggle to spot whether a given case is an example of that.

Complex thing is complex! I don’t have any solutions at the end of this but I do know that worst thing to do in the face of a big ugly complex thing in which people are suffering genuine hurt is to give up. Seeing first that something is both complex (see above) but also simple (stop being shitty to other people) is part of interrogating a problem**.

*[or behaviour that arguably does amount to criminality but which victims have substantial reasons not to want to involve law-enforcement for so many reasons.]

**[and yes, I’m aware that seeing things in terms of ‘problems’ is also a cognitive bias of my own because I like problem solving and yet that is also a way of turning people into abstract things. Recursive thing is recursive.]

ETA: I finished that post and went to check my mail and there was a newsletter essay by Alexandra Erin that addressed the topic better (because she’s a better writer ๐Ÿ™‚) https://alexandraerin.substack.com/p/more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger I liked this paragraph:

“You canโ€™t win at sadness. No one wins at sadness. If you go with sadness, that means the game is over. Sadness means youโ€™re out of moves. Sadness means there is no convincing the other person or people that you were right all along, that what you did was fine. Sadness means the final death of your last hope of powering through and coming out the other side untouched and unscathed.”

Could “The Return of the Secret Baby of the God Emperor of Dune” win a Hugo Award?

It certainly could but only by defying expectations. [Post title based on this comment by Cora https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2020/06/21/back-to-flint/#comment-46478 ]

Not only are no wholly original ideas but the more out-there a story is the less accessible it is. Tropes, familiar plot structures, common refrains all make the cognitive task of reading a story easier (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_load) and up to a point, that makes reading familiar stories more pleasurable. Conversely, surprise, sudden shifts of perspective (e.g. when ‘getting’ a joke or a pun), novelty, solving a puzzle or getting an abstract reward for cognitive effort are also pleasurable. Twists, subversions of genre, reversals of tropes and other forms of surprise can cause delight — think about a baby playing peek-a-boo and the delight we get from an early age from learning about object permanence. Delight and comfort are related twins of cognitive pleasure (along with other elements such as excitement and catharsis).

Plot twists are one way to engender that delighted feeling of surprise and they have a multiple effect. The surprise itself is enjoyable but we also feel clever in being rewarded with a revelation (even if we didn’t actually work it out) and we often feel the urge to share with others precisely because when somebody watches The Sixth Sense (for example) unspoiled, we know something they don’t know and we enjoy the punchline again vicariously.

Of course M. Night Shyalaman’s career illustrates that over-familiarity with a structure can undermine the pleasure of surprise. Multiple films with a twist or revelation intended to make you re-evaluate the whole film is a signature move. His films come pre-spoiled, you can’t go into them now without an expectation that the story arcs contains such a twist, which undermines the surprise when it comes. Indeed, the twist becomes a harder move to make in general after the success of films in the 90’s by other directors such as The Usual Suspects, or Seven.

Of course a twist at the end isn’t the only way to create surprise. Undermining expectations by exploiting familiarity either of genre, character or context is another way to create surprise/delight. Rian Johnson’s film Knives Out did this, for example, by taking a whodunnit murder mystery plot, derailing that plot part way by showing exactly the who, how and why of the death, shifting to a different kind of genre thriller only to return at the end of the film to the detective revealing who the real murder actually was and thus making the surprise twist of the film being that the film really was the cosy country house mystery that it initially appeared to be (plus a whole bunch of other things).

Comfort versus delight are juxtaposed but they aren’t *opposed*. Books can have both in much the same way that somebody who enjoys murder-mysteries might well enjoy Knives Out (or not, as the case might be). Comfort and sticking to form is itself a skill and having invoked Rian Johnson already the juxtaposition is one that exists with the recently concluded third trilogy of Star Wars films: J.J. Abrams providing the two book-ends and Rian Johnson the middle in a way that demonstrates the problems with the two approaches.

Abrams, particularly with The Force Awakens, took the comfort path with a film aimed at nostalgia and hitting the plot beats and style of the original films. The film had new characters and better effects but the overall approach was to try replicate the feeling of watching Star Wars. Johnson’s The Last Jedi didn’t ditch all of that but in multiple ways (see my review) attempted to zig when the audience expected a zag. The result was less than perfect — I haven’t done a complete new triology rewatch but the middle film is my favourite and yet…it share with Abram’s films a sense of dissatisfaction. Neither approach entirely worked despite the obvious talents of both directors.

I’m talking about Dune of course and hence it is appropriate that it takes seven paragraphs about a different medium before bringing it up. Dune was hardly the first science fiction book to mix fantasy tropes with far future space travel. If anything, this mixture of faux-medievalism and planets harked back to earlier pulps (just as Star Wars echoed film serials of the 1940s) but the addition of other elements and that broad-brush sense of a bigger setting with a unexplained but deep history still felt fresh when I first read it (again, like Star Wars borrowing Akira Kurosawa).

The Abrams versus Johnson dichotomy with new works by new creators within an established fictional-universe is one way to personify the dilemma. The Abram’s approach is to provide the same thing again but different and the Johnson approach to undermine and rework, or the dichotomy between the-same-but-different versus different-but-the-same.

However, when it comes to awards, the-same-but-different has an obvious disadvantage. It is the same issue I have discussed before and it is an absolutely inherent one. Awards for creative works necessarily must single out particular works and in doing so assert that the honoured work is notable and hence different from comparable works. This in no way is a disparagement of those writers whose work is deeply within the comfort territory, Kevin J Anderson is manifestly a talented writer at what he does and I’m also mindful of how huge swathes of writing (particularly in Romance) is dismissed as less worthy precisely because it as seen as “unchallenging” or otherwise undifferentiated (and hence regarded as disposable).

Nor is this strictly an issue of formulaic writing or sticking to familiar plot arcs. Terry Pratchett is another name that is raised in discussion about under-acknowledged writers. Yet his quirky and often self-subverting novels were rarely singled out despite Pratchett himself being widely honoured (literally honoured with an OBE). However, the question of why this book rather than that book also applies and, to some degree, to which Pratchett could reliably deliver familiarity and consistency with sufficient novelty.

And yet. That very quality of familiarity is the essence of surprise. Jokes often work by a sudden shift in expectations. To quote Douglas Adams (like Pratchett, comfortingly surprising):

Ford: โ€œIt’s unpleasantly like being drunk.”
Arthur: “What’s so unpleasant about being drunk?”
Ford: “Ask a glass of water.โ€

Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

So arguably, the greatest surprise, the most novelty, the ultimate in standoutability is not a wholly novel work. If everything is different, aside from the book being difficult to read (because you literally have to work hard to read it) there’s also no ground from which to distinguish the figure. Highly original works don’t offer surprise because they don’t engender the same expectations or worse the expectations work against the novel leading to disappointment rather than surprise.

So *maybe* the most standoutability and hence the most word-of-mouth, the most I-shan’t-spoil-it-but-you-must-read-this, and hence the greatest chance of picking up nominations would be the (n+1)th sequel to Dune that utterly changed how you think about the original novel. Yes, that probably wouldn’t get published because it would alienate the readership who buy Dune-sequels for the pleasure of familiarity (and may well quite different books for the pleasure of surprise) but at some point (2036?) the original book will come out of copyright and then…

If that still seems improbable, consider how works like The Ballad of Black Tom have received critical acclaim and award recognition by taking the once-surprising-now-very-familiar framework of H.P.Lovecraft and by examining the overt and less-overt racism of the works and Lovecraft himself created stories that are familiar and unexpected. Of course horror as a whole genre is an art form that delights in taking the familiar and making it unnerving.

Review: The City We Became by N K Jemisin

NK Jemisin’s 2016 short story The City Born Great (https://www.tor.com/2016/09/28/the-city-born-great/ ) is the prologue and launchpad to her most recent novel The City We Became. The original story is amended at the end so that the cataclysmic conflict at the end of the short story ends less decisively, with graffiti artist protagonist severely injured after fighting the unnamed enemy. The novel presents a new complication to the premise of the short story: New York is transforming into a living entity but rather than just a single avatar, the struggle has resulted in the creation of five additional avatars, one for each borough of New York. [For those, like me with a very fractured sense of New York geography: Manhattan, The Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and the oft-forgotten Staten Island.]

If you are immediately thinking of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, then that’s not unreasonable but whereas Gaiman’s London is narrow, weird, convoluted and Victorian, Jemisin’s New York is loud, colourful and in your face. Whereas Neverwhere is a rabbit warren of a mystery, The City We Became owes more to superheroes, a genre that is as New York as they come. I can’t claim Jemisin has grasped that same sense of place as Gaiman did with London because I don’t know New York except through it’s own fictional depictions but it feels like it does.

The superhero comparison is not a shallow one. This is very much a story about a group of New Yorkers who each gain unique powers and who must find a way to fight a supernatural evil…and in the process lots of things get smashed including a fight between a kind-of King Kong and an eldritch subway train. The story does aim often at subtlety, the tools of the enemy include racist cops, dude-bro alt-right artists, gentrification, predatory real estate and at least one guy with nazi tattoos and ranged against these forces are an ethnically diverse group of people of different ages and sexualities. Again, the brushstrokes here are big and broad and unapologetic. The main characters get backgrounds rather than deep character arcs as they are plunged head first into a trans-dimensional battle for New York.

Jemisin saves the deeper character work for the odd one out of the bunch: Staten Island. The avatar of the least metropolitan of the boroughs, Aislyn has to face her own life and upbringing as well as the machinations of the enemy. Likewise, the personification of the forces working against the city, the Women in White allows Jemisin to show off her capacity to write about evil in a way that captures the sense of influence and self-deception. This horror dimension to the novel is repeatedly name-checked in terms of HP Lovecraft both as a pop-culture reference for characters trying to make sense of events but also later in terms of the underlying threat. However, as a work of horror this is not so much a commentary on Lovecraft as a story that plays on Stephen King riffs. In particular, it shares King’s use of psychological and personal ethical flaws as a gateway for evil forces.

The story has a definite end but with some significant plot lines and character arcs unresolved. There’s also several indications that the situation with cities transforming into semi-sentient entities is far less than an unalloyed good than was suggested in the original story. Despite the horror elements (or maybe because of it, as it makes the morality simpler) this is a much less emotionally dark work than the Broken Earth series. There are personal conflicts and something sinister in Manhattan’s past (of course, because he’s Manhattan…) but this is a story about good people trying to be good in the face of a very manifest evil.

Fun and I’m keen for a sequel.

Susan’s Salon: 2020 June 21/22

An open thread for people to just chat about whatever. Posted every Monday (Sydney time). It’s OK to be sad, worried, angry or happy (or all of those things at once). Please feel free to post either troubling news or pleasant distractions in the comments for this open thread. [However, no cranky conflicts between each other in the comments. Links, videos, cat pictures etc are fine – be nice to one another!] Whatever you like but be nice to one another ๐Ÿ˜‡

Wear a mask while posting a comment.