embrodski

Aug 022020
 

Chicago 2012

In my recent review of A Memory Called Empire I posted

“there is nothing exceptional about this. It’s…. fine. It’s fine. But it’s not good. It’s certainly not genre-defining or among the best things published that year. It’s just a space opera story being stretched out to meet publisher demands for a series. That is not inspired, and it’s not inspiring.

I know there’s at least one Hugo nominated novel that I just don’t get every year, but I don’t think anyone is doing Martine a favor by pretending they think her novel is a Hugo contender. I feel bad that this happened.”

A few days later, A Memory Called Empire won the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Novel.

This has made me really reflect on myself, SF in general, and what The Hugo Awards are/mean. Here’s what I’ve come to–

The Hugo Awards are given out by the participants of The World Science Fiction Convention. It’s a fancon run by huge SF fans, and it’s great. :) They read a lot of SF, and at some point in the past decided “Hell, we have this big ol’ party/con every year, why not vote on what our favorite books/stories of the last year were, and give them an award?”

As these cons are attended by people who read A LOT of SF, they were pretty decent at picking out really good examples of SF lit. Since the con is often attended by people in the SF publishing industry, and frequently by VERY big name authors in the SF field, the awards they gave out started to get some attention. In time they became a marker of overall quality in the field.

And yes, ultimately it’s a popularity contest. That means works by popular authors are more likely to be noticed, and outstanding novels by unknowns will sometimes be missed. That’s just how things are. Nonetheless, usually things that are really good become popular, so it works out enough that one accepts that The Perfect should not be the enemy of The Good.

But of key importance in a popularity contest is who the audience is. If you are a vegetarian, the Best BBQ In The South of 2020 isn’t gonna matter to you, because as good as it may be considered among BBQ aficionados, it just isn’t for you.

This is why I never bothered with Lit Fic awards. I don’t care how great some piece of LitFic is, I’m not gonna like it cuz it’s LitFic. The Hugo Awards were what I really cared about, because the people who voted on them were like me. They were nerds and dreamers who got excited about fantastic magical devices and weird alien societies, and heroes going through scarring trauma but saving the day in the end. They created a big ol’ nerd con they could all go to once a year where they’d all geek out together over the latest Fantasy epic or SF mind-fuck.

For the last several years, this has been less and less the case. And before we go nuts, I want to stress this is not a bad thing in itself. I’ll explain myself.

When guys hear I’m in a book club, they always assume I’m the only dude in a sea of women. This is because that’s what most non-SF book clubs are like. Ours is different, we have a nearly 50/50 split, sometimes favoring men a little. I assume this is because SF/F is typically viewed as a Guy Thing. There’s a stereotype of the SF nerd, and he’s not female.

We are fortunate to have a wide variety of people in my book club, and it makes for interesting discussions. We even have what I nowadays think of as “the white woke woman.” She’s not a social justice warrior. But she is white, well-educated, politically liberal, works in academia, etc. I want to stress here that none of these are bad things. We all love her, she is a joy to be around, and I consider her a friend. If you were to picture the type of lady that attends monthly book club meetings reading Lit Fic, you’d see her.

She loved most of the things nominated for this year’s Hugos. She was far more into the shorts than anyone else, they really spoke to her. And that is wonderful. It is always a pleasure to see a friend taking true delight in something! It is good for there to be joy in the world, and watching people experience that joy is great, and I don’t want to take that away from anyone.

But it strengthened my impression that the typical WoldCon attendee has been trending further and further away from the SF nerd that used to include me, and now consists mostly of the woke lady reader. I didn’t think anything of the fact that A Memory Called Empire was nominated — every year there is always some nominee that has no place in the Hugo pantheon IMO, but got in through a fluke of popular convergence. They are always sifted out during the voting process. This year, the sifting out decided that A Memory Called Empire is indeed the highest peak that one can aspire to within WorldCon circles.

This isn’t that surprising, when one thinks about it. Men Don’t Read. Not literally true, but when you look at the numbers, women consume FAR more written fiction than men do. If you want to be a successful author, your best bet is to write Romance, that’s where the majority of the money is. Failing that, LitFic aimed at women audiences is also huge. Whether this is because men are inherently less interested in reading, or if it’s because our sexist society systematically discourages male reading, or something else entirely, is unimportant. Women read a lot more, and they predictably have differing tastes in the aggregate.

In the past, SF had a certain aura about it that kept it mostly restricted to SF nerds. Most non-nerds stayed away, in part due to the aura of weird nerd crap that SF exuded. There were definitely nerd women in those circles (like I said, half our book club is women), but they were way outnumbered by the men. Also, they had tastes pretty similar to the other nerds, which is why they pushed through that aura of nerddom in the first place.

In the past decades, SF/F has become very mainstreamed. Normies read and love it now. Which is great! I love when people love things. :) But it means that the ghettos that used to be populated by SF nerds have been gentrified by regular readers. And most of those readers are woke women. They are educated and fairly well off. (It’s not a coincidence that going to WorldCon is far more expensive now. It’s also often an international destination event.) That’s simply how the demographics work out when a written genre becomes popular. Most heavy readers of most fiction words are educated, well-off, and women. Demographics aren’t good or bad, they’re just the way the world is.

So the Hugos are now, in effect, an award given out by a type of person with tastes very different from my own. I am glad they have a community they are happy in, and an award they can give out to celebrate works they love. I admit I am sad to be evicted from a place I used to consider a home. But I ain’t fancy, I’m a basic boi that reads a bunch, and I don’t fit in anymore. When all your friends move out, ultimately you gotta realize it’s time for you to move on as well.

What does this mean for me? It means I can no longer say anything is “Hugo material” or not, because my judgements of quality do not mesh with the audience of the Hugos. It means I don’t really need to bother reading Hugo works, any more than I read LitFic award winners, because they don’t say anything useful about what I will appreciate. And it means I gotta go looking for a community that is more like me, and likes the things I like, so I can go geek out with them and feel at home again. Maybe we can even throw a con for ourselves so we can meet up IRL and fanboy about the latest thing with cool swords and explosions and tormented heroes and freshman philosophical quandaries. :)

On the plus side, WorldCon was my nerd home for a while, and I’ll always have those memories, and the friends I made there

Jul 302020
 

A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine

Synopsis: A diplomat from a space station makes friends with high-level officials of a space empire.

Book Review: The book starts with a really interesting situation. The diplomat has the memories and personality of the previous diplomat uploaded into her head, and the two of them have to integrate into a new unified personality. She deals with foreign reflexes and intrusive emotions, and can speak with the old diplomat in her head to a fair extent. It was a delight to read, and I was looking forward to a great rollercoaster of interaction and personality conflicts. Which was good, because with the setting being a boring diplomacy gig in a safe embassy, the action outside her head was pretty dull.

And then a few chapters in the uploaded personality & memories are wiped out.

Most of the rest of the book is a slog to get through. The stakes are low, we don’t really care about the protagonist’s mission, and the political intruige is poorly done. The personal assistant that gets assigned to our protagonist seems to be fawningly in love with her and her home station, showing far more loyalty to this stranger than her own people. I assumed she was a very bad double-agent for being so unrealistically loyal, but it turns out she really does just exist to give the protagonist an unswerving ally.

Which is a good thing for our protag, because she’s a complete idiot. Early on she, her assistant, and a friend play a game of “Let’s build trust by telling each other secrets!” The assistant reveals a minor sexual fetish for foreigners. The friend reveals something equally innoculous. Our protag reveals the most sensitive state secret of her people. I /foreheaded. Turned out to be fine though, because her assistant is just so loyal!

I get the feeling this book was trying to be A Song of Ice and Fire In Space. There’s a great, inhuman threat descending from the North deep in the galaxy, which cannot be reasoned with or understood, and the small border state that knows it’s coming has to appeal to a larger empire to defend all of humanity, but gets caught up in the machinations of a power struggle within the empire. The problem is that the machinations of the power struggle have to be interesting. GRRM knew how to write political intruige. Martine does not. Ideas are easy, execution is hard, and the execution here left me alternately rolling my eyes and bored.

Deep into the book, a few chapters from the end, the action picks up and SOMETHING worth writing about finally happens in the story. We get quite a bit of fireworks, and it’s actually fun reading for a few chapters! Then the news of the approaching alien onslaught is delivered to the people who can do something about it and the book ends.

This book could have been titled “Space Opera: Prologue.” Because that’s what it is — a prologue that was spun out into a novel for no good story reason. It was done for a pretty good financial reason. As has been bemoaned on this blog before, everything has to be a series now to make any money, and so what should be a prologue within a novel is sold as a seperate novel… even if it has to be padded out with a hundred thousand words of filler. Bleh. A thousand curses upon this dumb trend. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: There’s not much to talk about in a book of such thin substance. Not Recommended

Hugo Note: I’m being a bit harsher on this book than I would normally be. This is because I came in with high expectations. This is a perfectly servicable fluff book for times when people just want to kill time wandering through a space opera prologue. It is mediocre, but it’s a first novel, and most authors need several novels to get their writing legs under them. I wouldn’t recommend it, but I recognize there’s a place for these sorts of things. If I had come into this like any other book, I wouldn’t have expected something really good from the get go, and I would have been able to enjoy it a bit more.

But I didn’t come into it like any other book, because it has been nominated for a Hugo. A significant number of people put this forward as a book that may very well be one of the best SF books written in 2019, a book which may alter and redefine aspects of genre fiction, and a work that any other novelist should be proud to aspire to. So I came in with some expectations. Turns out those were ridiculous expectations and it really hurt the novel that I had them, because there is nothing exceptional about this. It’s…. fine. It’s fine. But it’s not good. It’s certainly not genre-defining or among the best things published that year. It’s just a space opera story being stretched out to meet publisher demands for a series. That is not inspired, and it’s not inspiring.

I know there’s at least one Hugo nominated novel that I just don’t get every year, but I don’t think anyone is doing Martine a favor by pretending they think her novel is a Hugo contender. I feel bad that this happened.

Jul 232020
 

The Light Brigade, by Kameron Hurley

Synopsis: A fascist footsoldier becomes unstuck in time, realizes war is hell, and turns against the system that created her.

Book Review: First, an apology. I moved this month, and that process has drained away a lot of my time. I read this book well over a month ago, and this review is very late. Some of the details are already a little fuzzy.

I was impressed by Hurley’s decision to go with a protagonist that is a fascist in the current political environment. The novel doesn’t glorify fascism, quite the opposite in fact, it shows how evil a system it is. But such nuance can often be missed by people looking to get outraged, so it wasn’t the safest choice. It was a good one though. Portraying how a fascist system is destructive and abusive even to its own members is powerful, and was well executed. The Light Brigade isn’t some cartoon dystopia you find in YA fic, where the snobby elites kill kids for the lulz in a stable evil empire. This was a thoroughly real, crumbling dystopia in a war of all against all, reminiscent of original cyberpunk. It is gritty, and gritty is something Hurley does very well.

I also really enjoyed that the novel stays bitter and angry all the way through. There is no Conversion Moment where the protag joins the holy order and dedicates herself to righteousness and things improve locally. There is only deepening bitterness, and a refocus of anger from what her masters want her to kill, to what actually deserves destruction. This is my cup of tea, and I love it.

The theme is also exactly up my alley — a recognition that violence begets violence and is awful, but done in a way that allows us to see maximum violence along the way, because I get a visceral thrill out of the spectacle even as I abhor it IRL. Any book that gives me violence thrills while making me despise violence generally gets my support. :) This is message fiction done well!

The downside is, I didn’t get anything new here. The protag becomes unstuck in time, and so we get the distorted, chopped-up narrative common to other well-known anti-war books. It felt very reminiscent of both Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five. While I consider that high praise, I don’t think it cleared the bar the same way those works do, and so suffered in comparison to them. As I read I felt a number of times that this would be really cool if it was the first time I was experiencing it… but it’s not, I’ve read it before, and I don’t think it improved the recipe. I don’t want to diminish what Hurley has done, because this is better than a lot of things I’ve read in the past couple years, but it honestly felt like a remake that didn’t live up to the original.

I’m not sure how to go with the recommendation on this. Will this turn out to be something that I look back on years later and wonder why I didn’t love it at first? I don’t know. Maybe. If this sounds interesting to you, I don’t want to dissuade you from picking it up. But I would put other things on my reading list above it, so, though I may regret this later, I can’t quite recommend it.

Book Club Review:  This is pretty good for a book club book. The time-loop shenanigans are fun to puzzle over together. Most of the book club found the protagonist to be rather unlikable, which I had to admit is a fair cop, and gave us further things to discuss. I don’t think other readers liked it as much as I did, but the discussion went well, which is a big part of what makes a good book club book. One reader did point out that this is another book that unfortunately trivalizes torture and its effect on the victim, so there’s that. But nonetheless, I think the meeting we had tips it just over into Cautiously Recommended for book clubs. (Cautiously because there is a lot of violence and despair, some book clubs may want to avoid it for that reason… but of course those book clubs would want to avoid any realistic war novels as well.)

Jul 212020
 

Sorry for the long delay, I guess sometimes “tomorrow” means “in over a week”!

I.

Anyhow, yes, Emergency Skin is meant to be funny. I don’t think this should be controversial. I mean, there’s a dick joke in the first paragraph. Not only does the poor protag obviously not know what is desirable in a human body (long thighs?), but he’s being sold a long penis when we all know a long, thin penis is no one’s friend.

Most of the humor in the story is of this style – we see a naive protagonist being lied to by a narrator that is taking advantage of him. It’s a sort of comedy of errors, as we see a couple of complete idiots bumbling about in a Three Stooges-style fiasco, getting more and more wrapped up their buffoonery. Like, how can you not laugh at a society that thinks they’re The Best Evar but apparently hated women so much they replaced them all with “pleasurer robots?” Their entire society is so mentally and culturally deficient that it’s pretty clear that they were politely given the tech to leave by a humanity that really wanted them to move away, and they’ve lied to all their descendants claiming that they were so very smart that they found a way to leave the planet when no one else could. As if they’d had the capability to do cutting edge research, or accumulate vast wealth, with the three brain cells they had left. :D

Anyway, this would just be a straight-up farce if it was simply a depiction of this society of charicatures, but it turns into a satire when we see one of these flunkies coming back to Earth to interact with normal people. At that point, Emergency Skin reads very much like a take down of bad message fiction. It’s holding up a mirror to writers of bad message fic and saying “See, this is what you look like when you don’t do this well.” Writing good message fiction is a skill, and takes a lot of work. When it’s bad, it’s really bad. Satire can point this out via demonstration, and make us laugh along the way.

The really cool part of Emergency Skin is that you actually feel sympathy for the protag here, because he’s so niave and doesn’t know any better. He’s being used by the narator, and so we cheer when he sees through their lies and decides to go back and help his fellow citizens. There’s an actual good character arc, which is pretty unusual for a short satire piece.

II.

Poe’s Law is an artifact from the atheism wars on the early internet, which states that it is impossible to create a parody of extreme views so obviously exaggerated that it cannot be mistaken by some readers for a sincere expression of the views being parodied. No matter how ridiculous of a religious claim you made, someone would think it was serious, because why not? Religions are already looney toons. Religious people would often get upset about this, saying that it was plain freakin’ insulting that someone would say they couldn’t tell the difference between an absurd parody and a real religious claim. This sometimes resulted in hilarious own-goals, when it was discovered the original claimant was in fact a religious person expressing a sincere belief that the objecting theist had claimed was so ridiculous that only a liar trying to Own The Opposition would pretend to be confused whether it was a joke or not.

(Related fun study – some conservatives thought The Colbert Report was a pro-conservative show. From a study: “conservatives were more likely to report that Colbert only pretends to be joking and genuinely meant what he said while liberals were more likely to report that Colbert used satire and was not serious when offering political statements.”)

Which is to say that the meta punchline is Emergency Skin is being Poe’d. At least a couple people in our book club assumed Jemisin was writing this as a serious piece of anti-something propaganda. I’m not entirely sure what the “something” in this case is, but I think some combination of Billionaires, Capitalists, Whites, and Men. And, sure, those are all popular targets of the illiberal woke-ists out there. But I don’t think an objective reading of the story can support this.

III.

The story, as a satire, is pretty obviously about idiots the rest of humanity didn’t want to have around. They are shown to be a dysfunctional society brought to the brink of extinction due to their own mental, moral, and cultural failures. They’re just barely keeping old tech functioning, having to scavenge repair parts from Old Earth regularly. They are a fascist slave-owning society with dogma and philosophy completely inimicable to scientific advancement or functional capitalist systems. There is no way they got off Earth on their own. They were basically kicked off, and teach their descendants blatent lies. They do their best to hide these lies from the scavenger scout, but the truth is so blindingly apparent, and the society is so inept at even something as basic as lying, that the figleaf of falsehoods is blasted away immediately upon arrival.

The story, as serious criticism, is…. let’s say “problematic.” It’s the story of a minority group of humans. This minority group has distinct physical features (skin color, facial structure, hair) that make it obviously different from the rest of humanity. This minority group is also mentally, morally, and culturally retarded. Yet despite being vastly inferior to the rest of humanity, they have somehow insideously taken control of major power structures on Earth. In addition, they’ve tricked, defrauded, or outright stolen vast amounts of wealth from those who created it and should rightfully own it, and horde it for themselves. When the rest of humanity was in its most desperate situation, they stabbed humanity in the back and abandoned us, taking all their stolen wealth with them.

Basically, they’re 1930s Jews in Nazi propaganda.

What’s more, it turns out that once they were left to themselves, their true nature of theiving untermensch is revealed, and their new world collapses. Meanwhile, now that Earth is freed of their insidious leeching, Earth flourishes, and ushers in a New Golden Age where everyone has plenty and there is no more strife. By extension, the reader is left to wonder that if only… IF ONLY this vile minority of sub-humans could somehow be removed from the planet everything would be sunshine and roses.

So, yeah. I know this is combining Poe’s Law with Godwin’s Law, but reading this as a serious work of modern cultural criticism, one would be forced to say that Jemisin basically recreated the worst kind of exterminationist Nazi propaganda. And, to be quite honest, I don’t think that’s remotely plausible. It’s as silly as saying Colbert is a secret Republican, or Obama is a secret Muslim, or Scott Alexander is a secret Nazi.

And come on! This is a story that includes lines like “Beautiful? That’s… You’re only saying that beacuse they have skin.” Or “They want everything for everyone and look at where it’s gotten them! Half of them aren’t even men.” These are jokes, and pretty good ones!

Also, would an author that seriously embraced that sort of ideology be one of only two (of the twelve short work authors) who didn’t make the story available freely to all? And be the only author who made the story available ONLY at Amazon, so people are forced to give their money to the boogeyman of the leftists? I had to install a Kindle app to read this, I don’t think anti-capitalism is a driving value here. :)

Jul 102020
 

Hugo AwardBy long tradition, we read the Hugo nominated shorts in our book club. Spoilers for all stories below. I’d encourage people to read all of them, they’re short, but if you’d like to know which ones I think are the best so you can read just those before getting spoilers, they are: “For He Can Creep”; “As the Last I May Know”; “Do Not Look Back, My Lion”; Emergency Skin, by N.K. Jemisin (not available online)

Best Novelette

“The Archronology of Love”, by Caroline M. Yoachim

A story about loss and longing. I didn’t find it particularly interesting, but this may be because I have a cold, dead heart. ;) Several people in our book club really loved it, and found it bittersweet and poingnant. I honestly can’t even remember much of it after less than two weeks since I read it. It wasn’t bad, just nothing here for me.

“Away With the Wolves”, by Sarah Gailey 

A pretty good werewolf story. It deals with disability and chronic pain in a way that I really wanted to connect with, as someone who is now a sufferer of daily chronic pain and kinda-sorta-techincally-mildly-disabled-I-guess. But for some reason it just didn’t click. It feels unfair to say that, because I can’t point to anything in specific. It just… didn’t connect for me. This was a feeling shared by everyone in my book club, so I don’t think it’s just me, and we all really wanted it to work. I don’t know what the secret sauce is, and it feels shitty to say that something is missing it. :( But, well, there we go. It ended with a nice message of acceptance and community togetherness which was pleasant enough. Just no fireworks.

“The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye”, by Sarah Pinsker

There’s nothing to this story. It’s a bit of cozy mystery fluff with an SF twist at the end. I want to make it perfectly clear that there’s nothing wrong with that. God knows I love a lot of fun, fluffy stuff that’s just pure enjoyment without heft to it. But I was surprised to find this on the Hugo short list. On a craft level, it’s great. Pinsker is an acomplished writer of astounding skill, and kept me reading the whole time. It’s entirely enjoyable too. But I get the feeling she was just having fun here, and I imagine she was as surprised as I was to find it as a nominee. Awards tend to favor works that will be viewed as “influential” on the broader art form by future generations, and it seems unlikely to me that a light bit of mystery fun fits that.

Emergency Skin, by N.K. Jemisin

This is a fantastic satire of terrible message fiction. I laughed several times, which is unusual when reading, for me. It’s not as full-on absurdist comedy as the other Hugo-nominated parody of my time, “The Shadow War of the Night Dragons”, but to make up for that it has an actual plot, with a full storyline and character arc that is more-or-less fulfilling. Being able to pull that off in a parody piece is really impressive. They tend not to lend themselves to that.

There was quite a bit of disagreement between me and the rest of my book club on this story, several people didn’t realize it was a comedy. Tomorrow I’ll be writing up a significantly longer treatment on this, because c’mon, that’s just crazy, one can’t let that go unexamined!

“For He Can Creep”, by Siobhan Carroll

Oh my god, this is the most perfect feel-good story and I love everyting about it. It’s about a cat that fights Satan in an insane asylum! And it’s even better than you’re already thinking! I checks just about every single box for things I like in feel-good ficiton. Adorable protagonists with snoots and whiskers and swishing tails, that don’t take crap from demons. The titular character has Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres levels of self-assurance and lack of patience for fools, and doesn’t try to pretend he isn’t awesome. His priorities are all screwed up, but perfect for a cat, and it’s a joy to watch him saunter right into disaster. And the story centers on a madman! AND THE DEVIL! They literally fight freakin’ Satan. Also there is a work of art so intense it can shatter the world. The prose is straight-up gorgeous; it’s lyrical throughout, with some flamboyant flourishes. The plot is engaging and very satisfying, and I literally want to read a dozen spin-off stories based on these charecters, but only if Carroll is the one to write them. If she doesn’t win this year’s Hugo then all love of art has fled from the world, because this is Art.

A thing of note – both “Blur in the Corner of your Eye” and “Away with the Wolves” are also feel-good stories. But “Wolves” lacks the joyful energy, and the intensly lovable characters. Neither “Wolves” nor “Blur”  innovate, and don’t have have beautiful, lyrical prose or experimental style. I believe this is what seperates a Hugo-contender from a “pretty good story.” “For He Can Creep” is impressive and memorable in addition to being a fantastic read.

“Omphalos”, by Ted Chiang

A return to old-school Chiang, where he examines what the world would look like if a belief people claim to hold was actually true. In this case, young earth creationism. I didn’t find it as engaging and pround as some of his other examinations, though. Maybe because this was never a belief I’d held? Perhaps the Chiang stories people most enjoy are the ones that tackle subjects most dear to their own upbringings/beliefs. However it is expertly executed, as all his stories are, and obviously there are enough people with a background of young earth creationism that it had the numbers to make it as a nominee. Mad props to Mr Chiang, as always.

 

Best Short Story

“And Now His Lordship Is Laughing”, by Shiv Ramdas 

A great revenge story set in colonial-era India. An atrocity is visited upon our heroine, and when she recovers enough to exact revenge, it is graphic and brutal. Some of our book club didn’t particularly enjoy that. I loved it, because I like bloody revenge stories. There is a part of me that wants to see such horrors avenged, to see their perpetrators die screaming, and everyone around them who was complicit can die screaming too. Giving such feelings a safe outlet is what fiction is for. If you like the bloody-revenge part of Tarantino movies, you’ll probably like this. I sure did.

“As the Last I May Know”, by S.L. Huang

Oh damn! Someone took the Roger Fisher proposal that the nuclear launch codes be kept inside an aide so the president would have to cut them out (thus killing a man with his own hands) before starting armageddon, and made a story out of it, and it’s soooo good. It’s set in a different world, so national sympathies don’t get in the way of telling the story. Instead we simply live with the child(!) chosen to be the bearer of the code, as her nation falls closer and closer to nuclear war and the president who’s come to love her has to decide if he can kill her to save his entire nation. Not only is it a great take on a great thought experiment, it’s really brought home by the defection of the girl’s adoptive father/mentor at the end. Despite being a pacifist priest, in the end he breaks, and tries to provide the nuclear codes to the president WITHOUT requiring the sacrafice of the child, because he can’t live with the death of the daughter, but he can’t live with the destruction and slaughter of his country either. It’s brutal.

And the fact that it ends without us knowing if the girl is going to live or die is perfect. The reader is left trying to figure out which ending would I prefer? and thus has to answer for themselves which situation is worse? Is this worth the cost in my own opinion? Is this justice?

While most of my bookclub thought this was an anti-nuclear-weapons story, I pointed out that it seems very much like a Tragedy of Good Intentions. The purpose of the policy is to prevent nuclear armageddon unless it is absolutely vital. But the country that invades our protagonist’s country doesn’t have nukes themselves. They ravage the interior, thousands are killed in the fighting on both sides, and tens of thousands of civilians are killed in bombings, many times more displaced and starved, and cities ruined. Because the invading country figured our president wouldn’t kill this child to launch nukes. The intention behind the policy was good and pure, but there wouldn’t have been an invasion at all if the nukes didn’t require a child sacrafice. Because the invaders would have worried that if they invaded, nukes would have been launched in retaliation and the aggressor nation devestated. Without a war there would have been thousands of soldiers lives saved on both sides, and possibly hundreds of thousands of civilians. As a cautionary tale, the message is obvious — don’t give anyone a reason to think you won’t use the nukes, and you end up preventing wars and saving many lives.

Except, of course, without some deterant on their use, it’s much easier to get world wide armageddon. And shouldn’t someone willing to kill millions of people have to kill at least one person first? If you can’t kill one person, how can you kill so many, so indiscrimently?

And in the end, the nukes might get launched anyway. Damn, man. Really, a very good story.

“Blood Is Another Word for Hunger”, by Rivers Solomon

Another revenge story. This one is more elaborate, and grows to encompass an entire society. As in “everyone in this society supported this atrocity by their acceptance of slavery, burn it all down.” Again, I like revenge stories, so I liked this. It focuses less on the revenge itself, and far more on how getting your revenge isn’t enough, because afterwards the world is still broken and you are still empty. The protagonist grows over the course of the story, learning to find acceptance and belonging with her friends/surrogate family. In the end revenge stops being the goal, and instead becomes the means towards the true goal, which is family and togetherness. It’s actually a really positive message among all the slaughter. :)

“A Catalog of Storms”, by Fran Wilde

I gotta admit, I didn’t particularly get this story. It’s written in a surreal, dreamlike way, never fully explaining what’s happening, but giving you enough to figure out the broad strokes. Yet, despite figuring out more or less what’s happening, I never really felt a connection. It all felt too unmoored in anything. I dunno… it’s been a while and it still bugs me. I think I’m missing something, and if I reread it a few times perhaps whatever I’m missing will click and I’ll have a revelatory moment. I was hoping someone in my book club would have insights on this, but they all felt basically the same way, which makes me suspect maybe it’s not us, it’s the story. Googling has found only people that say basically the same thing — a cool mood piece, but there’s not much that happens to anyone. I guess all I can say is it wasn’t to my taste. Good imagery, though.

“Do Not Look Back, My Lion”, by Alix E. Harrow

A very strong piece about being an outsider in your own society. A woman of peace is tolerated in a warrior culture because her wife is the best warrior in the land, but everyone else shuns her, even her own children. The one child that takes after her is pressed into the military anyway, and as more and more of everything she loves is taken from her and forced into the war machine, she rebels. Unlike the other stories this year, this rebellion isn’t a bloody revenge. She flees, and prevails upon the love of her wife to protect her. The two both do what is right in their own way, despite their methods being antithetical at a first glance. It’s a love story of the type you don’t see often – one about the love of a dedicated relationship after many years together, rather than the passion of new love in youth. I really liked this.

Also of note, since I’m on a world-building kick — absolutely stellar worldbuilding. It was published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and good worldbuilding is basically The BCS Thing, and it’s nice to see they are still holding strong to that. :)

“Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island”, by Nibedita Sen

This was a bit of a nothing-burger for me. An infant is taken by the British from an island of cannibal women and raised in a boarding school. She makes a friend who develops a crush on her. The friend then cuts off pieces of herself and secretly feeds them to their mutual friends over dinner. Everyone is very disturbed by this. That could make a good story, but what I just told you is basically the entirety of what you get. It’s told in ten snippets from news or scholarly articles about the event, so you get the story in pieces and have to put it together yourself. I really like this sort of structure play, my Favorite Book Ever does the same thing. Except Vellum has an amazing story with God and angels and alternate universes and fantastic character development. When I put together the pieces of “Ten Excerpts” there wasn’t anything there. Just… hey, here’s a thing that happened, kinda gross right? Cool structure play on it’s own isn’t enough, you still need a good story at the heart of it. For a fantastic example of structure play, I generally refer people to this owner’s manual which is secretly about superstimulus, the crushing power of beauty, and loneliness.

OTOH, one member of our book club REALLY loved it. The story does give you a lot of pieces, and if they really strike your fancy you can certainly arrange them into a larger structure.

Highly Recommended: “For He Can Creep”, by Siobhan Carroll; “As the Last I May Know”, by S.L. Huang

Recommended: “Do Not Look Back, My Lion”, by Alix E. Harrow; Emergency Skin, by N.K. Jemisin

Jul 072020
 

I was recently brought to my attention by my cohost at The Mind Killer podcast that HBO is run by simpering cowards. They will not make available the five South Park episodes that have Muhammad in them.

Two of these episodes, Cartoon Wars part 1 and part 2, are still available to the South Park Comedy Central website (linked).

The other three: Super Best Friends (alt); 200, and 201 (combined), are available at various torrent sites around the internet. I can’t vouch for any of these links, I didn’t download them myself.

The episodes also are likely available on the DVD versions. Super Best Friends is in season 5 and 200 & 201 are in Season 14. Again, I have not bought these, so I can’t verify they are on the DVDs.

And here’s my drawing of Muhammad from way back in the day. Remember the cartoonists massacred in Paris. HBO has spit on their memory.

 

Jun 232020
 

The following is an email I wrote to New York Times technology editor Pui-Wing Tam, whose email is pui-wing.tam@nytimes.com. Inspired by Wesley Fenza.

Dear Ms. Tam:

Yesterday I learned that one of your reporters is planning an article about Scott Alexander and his blog Slate Star Codex. In this article he plans to reveal personal information about Scott, including his true name, which could jeopardize his career, and will put both his safety and the safety of his family at greater risk.

I was appalled to discover this is the standard policy of the New York Times. Doxxing anyone is considered default harmful among all people who have taken the time to consider the question, and is not done in civilized forums without strong extenuating circumstances. That such a pro-doxxing policy is still on the books at a major institution in these days is scandalous, and I can only hope that it is the result of a lapse in attention, rather than intentional malice.

In an effort to protect himself, Scott Alexander has deleted the Slate Star Codex blog. The loss this represents is hard to overstate. The blog frequently posted in-depth reviews of highly regarded books on topics ranging from historical figures to state governance. He has described in painful detail the experience of working in a hospital and watching how the modern medical system treats those dying of old age. He frequently reviews current pharmacological research. These can be salvaged with some work through archives, but far more importantly is all the great work that will now never be produced due to this silencing.

Scott Alexander is a leading thinker of the modern day. He has produced more influential work attracting many otherwise-mutually-hostile audiences than nearly any traditional journalists. He has done more to influence my life in the last five years than any other person I do not personally know. His blog is one of the cultural touchstones of my community, and the loss of it will be felt as a bleeding wound for years. It is astounding to me that such a loss of human insight and knowledge, including all the lost future decades, is being done in the name of upholding a policy that is itself a vicious holdover from a crueler time.

Please reverse the decision to dox Scott Alexander, and update your policy to one that doesn’t perpetrate violence upon the vulnerable. Thank you for your time.

Eneasz Brodski

Jun 192020
 

I didn’t expect to make another post with the same name so soon.

Earlier today I learned my father is suffering cognitive decline. He builds houses and hires a lot of sub-contractors, and apparently now he will sometimes get confused, and order or approve work he didn’t really want or need. He won’t remember doing it later, and will get upset about it.

I fear for him. He’s proud, and he’s never taken advice well. As this continues, it will become easy for evil people to take advantage of his growing confusion, and he won’t accept help lightly.

I really despise myself, for not having a better relationship with him. He was hard to have a relationship with as a kid, he was very authoritarian and stereotypically reserved. As I grew older and lost my Polish proficiency, the language barrier became a problem. Now it’s hard to relate, there is such a gulf between us. I know it’s not too late yet, but I fear I won’t cross it before his mind really starts to fragment. I’ve never known my dad, and maybe I never will.

I’m also afraid for myself, which is selfish, but there it is. He’s about 25 years older than me. That’s a lot of time, but it’s also not a lot of time.
If I quit accounting and focus on writing, that’s time to get out 25 books or so.
I’ve been a rationalist for 12 years… I have twice as much time left in the movement as I’ve already put in, to help create something greater, and I don’t know if that’s enough. I’ve done so little in the past 12.
Anti-aging tech hasn’t come far enough in my lifetime that I can say with confidence it’ll reach a place that can prevent my own brain decline within 25 years.

I hate that I’ve destroyed every relationship I’ve had that would’ve afforded me someone’s shoulder to cry on tonight.

Maybe I’ve got more of my mom’s genes. Maybe he’s just extraordinarily unlucky. Maybe it isn’t as bad as I’m thinking it is… I haven’t noticed any changes in our interactions, personally. But would I, seeing as I don’t even know him that well?

He’s done well for himself, and for us. He came to a foreign country with almost nothing, and is now very comfortable. I can’t complain. It feels so unjust this should happen to him now, after he’s finally done all the work and gotten to the restful part of life. I want to say it’s not fair, but that’s stupid and childish, nothing is fair. But… fuck. Fuck death, and fuck aging. I feel I have failed utterly, and I didn’t realize this was the test. Now it’s too late to go back and study.

Jun 162020
 

I. TERFs are shitbags

I didn’t really know what a TERF was or why anyone cared for a while. If some minority of women didn’t think that some women were “real” women, how was that different from any other form of dumb gatekeeping? As usual, enlightenment came in the form of a blog post

If you ever visit a racist internet forum or user group or whatever, you’ll notice that they do the same thing. They talk about every single gruesome crime committed by a black person or an immigrant or a Muslim, anywhere in the world. They seek these out […] [in] TERF blogs, a large share of the content is – yep – circulating gruesome, horrifying, and detailed accounts of random crimes or acts of bullying committed by specific trans people. […] Doing this warps your intuitions. It is possible to target any group of more than a few thousand people with this tactic, it tells you nothing, and it’s bad.

TERFs don’t just do the usual shitty gatekeeping thing — they actively practice blood-libel. That’s basically all I need to know about them. They’ve outed themselves as horrible people who deserve contempt. Maybe in a time before social media, that would have been the end of it.

II. Universal Guilt

Societies tend to be in favor of guilty people being punished and innocent people being left alone. This is all well and good normally, but some groups want to really dominate everyone. Millenia ago religion came up with one of the simpler mechanisms of control — universal guilt. It starts with Original Sin, sure, but that’s too abstract for the common folk. The real money is in making normal behavior “deviant.” The more powerful the drive to do the “evil” thing is for everyone, the more power the church has. Once you make sexual attraction itself a sin, you’ve really got ’em by the balls.

Governments picked up on this. It’s very inconvenient having citizens you can’t threaten with imprisonment at any time, which is why it’s impossible not to break some law simply by living a normal life. The more impossible it is to not break a law while trying to live, the more power the government has. Then the government selectively enforces the law based on how much you’ve annoyed them.

This is also the reason there are words you can’t say. Much of the purpose of having such shiboleths is for the creation of victims. It gives the punishing organization control over people’s lives. And the more such words are things people feel driven to say, the more power the organization has.

 

III. Outrage Junkies

I’m not going to re-examine the guts of the social media mob, it’s been so extensively documented that there’s nothing for me to add. Self-righteous rage is addictive, and many people need someone new to hate and destroy every week to keep their endorphins going. The bigger the target, the stronger the rush. And a juicy fall-from-grace narrative that allows people to get in on a plunge from truly outlanding heights… well, that is a prize you don’t get every day.

Enter JK Rowling. Rowling has a long history of championing progressive causes, from women to minorities to the queer community. She’s among the most famous people in the English-speaking world, and a billionaire, and has used that fame and wealth to advance the causes of progressives. It would be quite a scandal if she was a Secret Nazi.

Rowling has never displayed hatred of trans persons. (Yes, she fears cismen as a class, but I think such fears are largely legitimate) She hasn’t participated in bloodlibel showcasings of trans criminals, nor of dehumanizing speech. The worst one can say she’s done is prioritized outreach to ciswomen, and expressed fears that safe spaces for women could be phased out for gender-neutral spaces instead.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with someone prioritizing helping other people like themselves who have had the same struggles in life. No one can help everyone, and many people are motivated to help minority groups which they themselves belong to. This is fine, and common. Very few people complain that scholarships for black people don’t accept applicants who aren’t black. Or that support groups for immigrants don’t support people who aren’t immigrants.

I think it’s unfortunate that bathrooms are the defacto safe-spaces we have for women in public areas, but if there is a social goal of providing such safe spaces for women (both cis and trans), then they must prohibit men from entering (both cis and trans). I am aware that it’s debatable if such safe spaces are needed at all.

What Rowling is “guilty” of is using words that are tabooed. Of (most recently) pointing out (correctly) that our society used to have a word for “people who menstruate” and now such a word no longer exists. And being flippant and salty about it.

 

IV. Creating Frankenstein’s Monster

Because certain people are so eager for their outrage porn, when Rowling has uttered tabooed words before, they were quick to denounce her as a transphobe and a TERF, and spread the word as quickly as possible.

It’s obvious that Rowling’s first missteps were, as is normally the case, the missteps of someone who thinks that merely being a good person and being allied with progressives will offer some protection. “These people know I’m not evil” is a common mistake of someone questioning official dogma they think might be wrong.

It’s been a while since then, with a few outrage cycles. The noteworthy part of this latest situation is that in her response post, Rowling cites TERFs and repeats some TERF talking points, despite not being a transphobe herself.

As has been pointed out before, when good people censor the truth, then the only place people who want to know/say the truth can go is forums held by bad people. If one was never allowed to say “Black criminality rates are higher than the US national average” one couldn’t follow that up with “due to government-aided impoverization and the legacy of racist policies.” If the only place one could go to even utter the question “Why are black criminality rates higher?” was the forums of racists, the only answers one would find is “because black people are inherently bad.”

If the only place one can say anything in the vein of “I’m uncomfortable with governments treating a cisman who says the words “I’m a woman” as a woman for policy purposes” without being turned into a pariah is in TERF forums, then one will go there to say it. As surely as horny teens will fool around regardless of how evil sex may be in the eyes of God. And once in the forums of the TERFs, one is going to be assaulted by their vile sewage.

This is the stupid, stupid cycle of wokeism. The thought-lines must be kept pure, so deviation is met with exile, and exiles are subsequently exposed to drowning oceans of hate-mongering and bloodlibel. The justice mob ruins lives AND makes society worse by their own metric. But hey, at least they feel really good while doing it.

Frankly, I’m relieved that Rowling appears to have remained mostly trans-friendly, with a possible blindspot regarding safe-spaces. I think she has a strong heart, and she’ll ultimately resist the hatred spewed by the TERFs. But man, what a horrible thing to do to someone. Way to go, Wokes.

 

V. Why Bother?

I pondered for some time about whether to write this at all. I lost one of the most important relationships of my life by publicly & repeatedly opposing woke dogma a few years back. Usually the price of speaking up isn’t nearly that high, but there is a social cost every time, and a lot of stress.

In large part it goes back to pedophile priests.

When I was an atheist activist, I was outraged by pedophile priests and the cover they got from their parishioners. Not just The Church. I couldn’t believe how much ordinary people would just not say anything about it. It wasn’t their business. Their priest was fine. Why involve themselves in this mess that wasn’t their fault?

I think maybe it was unfair of me to expect church-going people to denounce pedophile priests. They aren’t to be held accountable for someone else’s actions. But I never could get over the silence. It still angers me.

I don’t want to be the person who is always silent. Who sees denunciations I think are unfair, but leaves it alone because it’s not my business. That’s how everyone ends up thinking everyone is a woke-ist, when most people are not.

To call Rowling a transphobe is to devalue the word to the point where it’s not useful in fighting actual hate. Those calling her such are outrage-porn addicts that don’t care what damage they do as long as they can get their next hit. Don’t be like them. And if you see something like this happen, if you can afford to take the hit, dropping even just a “I disagree” helps. :)

Jun 132020
 

I.

In the Left 4 Dead video games, most levels are bookended by “Safe Rooms.” You leave the Safe Room at the start of a level, and the goal is to survive the trek to the Safe Room at the end of the level. The thing about these Safe Rooms is that they really are safe. Once you are securely inside them, you can’t be hurt by the zombies in any way. It’s a huge relief to rush inside one at the end of a level.

For a significant portion of the female population, the world is filled with predators. They have to be on gaurd at all times while around then, a message that is repeated to them over and over from all sides, and which is often personally reinforced through traumatic violence. Yes, not all men, but enough that one lets down their guard only at their own peril.

Through a confluence of social conventions, however, there is a sort of quasi-safe-room available in many public locations. This doesn’t by any means fix the problem, but it does sometimes help a bit. I was unaware of these safe rooms until a friend clarified for me. If a creepy man is following a woman around, maybe harassing her, just doing all sorts of things that make her feel very uncomfortable and threatened, there’s a sort of temporary escape that is sometimes avilable. Currently, a woman can duck into a bathroom with the full assurance that any man that tried to follow her in there would be stopped by anyone else around — men and women. She has the full force of society behind her to have that safe spot that no one man can enter, and she needs to give no reasons or excuses to go in there. It is unconditional.

There’s a number of advantages to bathrooms doubling as safe spaces. A man can’t follow his wife into one (for the publicly-given reason that they are public and he may be intruding on people who are not his wife). A woman can extricate herself from an iffy situation by claiming she needs to pee even if she doesn’t because that’s a plausible excuse at any time and can’t nobody contradict her — there’s no requirement to declare fear. Perhaps most importantly: there are practical reasons and legal requirements that such rooms be available in nearly all public areas. It would be much harder to have simple “safe rooms” set up everywhere for the explicit purpose of protecting women.

II.

I have recently been presented with arguments that such safe rooms are not necessary, and in fact may do more harm than good. ie:

At a certain point you’re just feeding into bad intuitions and anxiety, and it is bad to encourage a constant state of unjustified anxiety. Claims that “men are so violent and unpredictable that we as a society have provided you emergency anti-man zones for your safety” are hyperbolic and misandrist.

Moreover, there are some things that become less safe because we as a society think they aren’t. If there are more women walking around after dark, those women in general will be more safe. And since a lot of the harassment is partially caused by the general perception that women are weak and scared and in danger, because some people enjoy the power trip, if we could get rid of this cultural assumption it’d probably help. Introducing bathroom asymmetry reinforces the “women are Different” idea and that’s harmful.

Furthermore, while it would certainly make the most afraid people more axious (until they were able to see violence hasn’t increased and they are able to adjust to the lived experience of a less-scary world) the gains from making more of society gender-neutral outweigh the discomfort people would experience during the transition.

I am not yet convinced by these arguments. But I think they have potential. I am including them for completeness sake.

III.

Let us assume for the rest of this post that it is a good thing to have safe spaces for women in society, even though that might not be the case.

A particularly vulnerable subset of women are transwomen. In many areas transwomen are targetted for violence at a higher rate than ciswomen, and with greater ferocity. They are in even greater need of such safe spaces than ciswomen (though admitedly in much smaller numbers).

If we grant that safe spaces should exist, that means common, legally required, and socially-sanctioned safe areas must be designated as places that men can’t go. Society will discourage them from entering, and possibly stop them if required.

Allow me to slightly rephrase, since we are living in a period of vocabulary transition and words can mean a number of different things that people can (and do) misrepresent.

To go into women’s bathrooms one simply has to be a woman, whether cis or trans. Men (meaning cis and trans) shouldn’t be allowed in women’s restrooms if we want to preserve them as safe spaces.

In practice, this means bystanders prevent cismen & transmen from going into women’s restrooms. And “Does the person in question look like a man” is the only criteria they can reasonably use.

Yes, there is a subset of women (both cis and trans) that may look masculine enough that they are geninuely mistaken for men and trigger a safe-space-protection response. This sucks. I’m not sure what can be done about that while preserving the safe-space concept. I assume it will be pretty rare.

It is, of course, possible to go to entirely ungendered bathrooms if we want to simply preserve them as places people go to relieve themselves and abandon the safe-space idea entirely. But as long as it is a social goal to have an area that men aren’t allowed to enter, then people who are believed to be cis & transmen must actually be disallowed from entering it.

(To reiterate: the people who simply deny transwomen access to women’s bathrooms by saying “But thur men!” are assholes.)