Ad-Astra 2016 schedule

Here’s my Ad-Astra schedule. There’s also a small chance I’ll be making a super-secret appearance at another panel. And I have a panel that overlaps the scotch tasting, but I miiiight turn up for the back 50 of that too.

Reading – Friday, April 29 – between 7:00 and 8:00 P.M. with Naomi Foyle, Anatoly Belilovski and Ian Donald Keeling.

Thinking Outside the Superhero Box – Saturday, April 30 between 5:00 and 6:00 P.M.

Cinematic Universes Serialized Television and The Disappearance of the Beginning Middle and End – Saturday, April 30 between 8:00 and 9:00 P.M.

We Destroy the Things You Love II – Saturday, April 30 – between 9:00 and 10:00 P.M.

Online Social Networks and Communities Explained – Sunday, May 1 between 10:00 and 11:00 A.M.

How to poison a franchise

3-6-banthaThis isn’t about squicking anybody’s squee. Well, it is, but not in the way you might expect. With that being said, fuck Star Wars Legends.

I hate, HATE Legends. I have read a grand total of 0.5 Legends books, and that some decades ago. Usually I don’t hold passionate opinions about sprawling franchises that I’ve no investment in. So why the hate for Legends?

Because of the fans who won’t let that shit go.

These are the fans who are so convinced that their manic pixie dream villain Thrawn would be better than Hux, Snoke and Kyllo Ren for Reasons.

These are the fans who heap insults upon Chuck Wendig books that haven’t been released yet, up to and including one who said he hoped Wendig had an accident that permanently ended his writing career.

These are the fans who whined that there were two Star Wars movies, (In A Row!) with a woman as the main protagonist.

I am generalizing a group a bit here. I don’t think every one of the misogynistic SW fans is also a Legends EU fan, but the venn diagram kind of looks like this:

venn

Mostly overlap.

And here’s the thing: When, every time I hear, “but it should have been THRAAAAAAAAAAAAWN!” it’s accompanied by, “eeew, girls and gays all over my Star Wars!” I am less likely to want to read about Thrawn ever again.

I bounced off the EU books because they were crap.

Sorry fans.

They started off as bland corporate tie-in fiction, and they turned into a dog’s breakfast of bad plot decisions and shocking twists that failed to shock or twist much.

So, no, the Heir to Empire books should NOT be movies 7, 8 and 9. But what’s more, I’ve been re-examining a lot of Star Wars media because of how wildly successful the film was. I might have considered revisiting the Legends books. Except that fans who aren’t happy because the story they like isn’t the annointed official narrative for some reason that I’ve never been fully clear on have poisoned that well.

So congratulations Sad Banthas. You’re so worried about Disney taking Star Wars Legends off life support that you’ve killed the franchise yourself.

Meanwhile I still don’t understand why the fuck canon status matters.

Oh wait, it doesn’t.

A spoilery discussion of Star Wars Rebels

p11761869_b_v8_aa.jpgI’m going to try and hold off on saying anything about the meat of my discussion for about a hundred words because I don’t want the spoilery content to make it onto Facebook, Twitter, etc. previews. Please note that if you continue there will be spoilers. This is because I’m trying to get at some thematic things that depend on some of the late-season action pretty heavily.

With that said, I’ll note now that I came to Clone Wars very late (as in I’m still not done watching it) largely because I was one of those fans who felt very let down by the prequel trilogy. In fact if it weren’t for Adam Shaftoe being like, “no, seriously, give it a chance,” I wouldn’t have ever got around to it.

Clone Wars largely seems to be an apologia for the prequel trilogy. It does this by giving room for the relationship between Anakin and Obi Wan to breathe, by introducing Ahsoka Tano as a character, by allowing time for Anakin and Amidala’s romance to seem less straight-up creepy and by humanizing the clone troopers and giving space to examine how they’re affected by a war they were born and raised to fight.

But even so it seemed like a half-measure to me. Clone Wars does much to humanize Anakin Skywalker and remove some of the taint of Hayden Christensen’s career-destroyingly bad performance in the prequel trilogy. But, at least the parts of it I’ve seen to date, don’t really do anything to show us a man being seduced by the dark side of the force. And that’s a problem, because Palpatine’s co-option of Skywalker remains the most awkward and ham-fisted parts of the prequel trilogy: a victim of stilted scriptwriting, crowded plotting, last minute stunt-casting and Christensen’s inability to act his way out of a paper bag.

And so we’re left with a story of a now thoroughly humanized Jedi, who suddenly goes inexplicably insane and starts murdering children for no fucking reason in Ep. III.

I don’t know, maybe there are scenes later in the Clone Wars trilogy that I haven’t seen yet, where Anakin must engage Dooku on a dialectical level rather than just as an enemy swordsman, where he’ll have to confront the discrepancies in Jedi orthodoxy and see that perhaps the ideas of the Sith – that embracing passion makes one stronger, more able to shape the universe the way it should be – are worth examining.

But I haven’t seen them yet, at all really, and I’m into the second season of that show.

Ok, that’s probably long enough.

So let’s get to it.

Spoilers, etc.

Star Wars Rebels is the Darth Vader origin story the prequel trilogy should have been.

Being in the second season is significant because Rebels is two seasons old and has managed to create a Vader origin story on two levels, both of which are more effective than Ep. III ever was.

The first level is as a textual origin story. Throughout the second season, having defeated the Inquisitor from season one, the rebels face a nemesis in the form of Vader himself, and gain an ally in the form of Ahsoka Tano.

Within the show, Vader is as different from the season two inquisitors as Ebola is from a head cold. The inquisitors in season two are largely typical cartoon antagonists. They’re dangerous enough to provide an obstacle to our heroes, but rarely present much in the way of legitimate peril.

And then there’s Vader.

Vader gets a large vehicle dropped on him in his first encounter with the rebels. He’s buried under tonnes of scrap metal. And then he just shrugs it off. His laboured breathing doesn’t even change speed. Vader is implacable, a juggernaut, he’s inevitable death, patiently walking toward his enemies, fully aware that they are insects.

1200

Just try not to cry.

Ahsoka discovering his identity, and coming to terms with the fact that her master, the man she fought with, who taught her to be the person she became, has become a monster, is one of the most emotionally intense moments I’ve seen in a cartoon. I mean we’re almost reaching Jurassic Bark levels here.

In these moments between former master and apprentice, we manage to see at the very least  how far Vader has fallen. We see the contempt he has for the man he was. We see how he’s encased himself in emotional armor, and how he believes, and not without cause, that this distance has made him so very much stronger than he was.

This provides context for Vader that functions as an origin for him better than a direct retelling of his fall. But of course, as Lucas said, and Abrahams skillfully showed, Star Wars products should rhyme. And that’s where we hit the thematic way in which Rebels becomes a better Vader origin story.

We need to talk about Ezra

Ezra is the perspective protagonist of Star Wars Rebels and he holds the narrative focus much more strongly than Anakin does in the Clone Wars. This callow youth is a force sensitive who has grown up without his parents due to their having been among the first people to actively oppose the Imperial order. We eventually learn that they were imprisoned and later died orchestrating a prison escape in response to their own son’s rebellious propaganda.

Bam. Ezra holds some responsibility for his parents death while simultaneously being able to externalize the blame to a vast and implacable foe to whom his anger was already devoted.

He’s also frighteningly powerful. The show handles this with uncharacteristic grace considering how heavy-handed the Star Wars franchise can be, focusing on Ezra’s special talent: charming animals. Over and over again, his ability to empathize with the monstrous creatures who occupy the frontier of the Star Wars universe gets him and his friends out of peril. He soothes angry monsters. He secures flying steeds for last-minute escapes. He identifies potential environmental hazards and enlists beasts to fight his enemies for him. This happens over and over again. And what’s more, Ezra is shown to far surpass Kanan in this regard. As for Ahsoka, she may be a masterful light sabre duelist, but the script never gives her that sort of ability.

And Ezra has a clear affinity with the Dark Side. Kanan agonizes over it. Yoda is nervous around it. Maul exploits it. The inquisitors egg it on. Every force sensitive Ezra encounters (again, seemingly except Ahsoka, who seems to have a blind spot when it comes to the Dark Side) notices that the boy has a bond to it.

And boy howdy but it’s seductive. When Ezra fails to accomplish Force feats using Jedi methods of serenity, Maul tells him to harness the power of his emotions, and it might as well be nitrous. Ezra, when he lets his passion into his force work, is far more powerful than when he is under Kanan’s watchful eye. This is highlighted repeatedly through the second season to such an extent that it reinforces my opinion that the whole dark side / light side thing and some of the toxic structures that leave the Jedi so vulnerable to the Sith exist precisely as a check to the power a fully trained Force user can wield. Simply put, the Jedi are deliberately handicapping themselves for moral reasons. And Rebels makes this much clearer over and over.

This whole story boils throughout the length of the second season, but it comes thoroughly into focus when Ezra encounters Maul (not Darth, not anymore) during the finale. Old Master Maul embodies the seduction of the Dark Side much more effectively than his own master ever did in the movies. And I can see a dark timeline where Ezra slowly drives away his friends with his spiral into darkness, until all that’s left is to bow before a master he hates, but who is the only one who understands the journey he’s set himself to.

Parallels in the supporting cast

So if Ezra is our Anakin Skywalker stand-in, and Maul is our Palpatine, this sets Kanan as our Obi Wan. And he does an admirable job. We get a real sense of mentorship with Kanan, but also camaraderie. Kanan is in many ways the ideal Jedi. He’s selfless, kind, brave and occasionally reckless. He tries to temper his action with wisdom and agonizes constantly as to whether he’s really up to the tasks he sets himself.

Unlike Obi Wan with Vader, Kanan is probably the first one to notice how strong Ezra is with the Dark Side. And as he tries to guide his apprentice along the Jedi path, this anxiety, that he will fail his apprentice and precipitate a fall, is his core fear.

Yoda stands in for himself in the series. He remains the slightly disapproving master turned recluse that he is in Empire Strikes Back. But his reaction to Ezra, while echoing his reaction to Luke Skywalker, is much more level than his immediate rejection of Anakin Skywalker in Episode I. Of course Yoda’s awareness of Ezra and Kanan presents a puzzle since, his words to Obi Wan regarding Luke at the climax of Empire is, “there is another,” and this is clearly Leia, he never says, “and, you know there’s that Jedi Knight and his apprentice who helped found the rebellion kicking around too.”

So that raises the question of why they’re out of the picture by the time Luke bursts onto it.

There isn’t really a Padme equivalent, as Ezra’s romantic life has taken a thankful back-seat to his master-student relationship. However the closest parallel is probably Sabine – the Mandalorian artist/bomber who joined the rebel crew shortly before Ezra.

She’s a heck of a lot more interesting than Padme ever got to be, though this could be the combined influence of both the awful scriptwriting that Portman faced in the prequel trilogy, and the fact that she’s got so much more screentime when all is said and done. Still, her ascerbic wit, her moodiness and her desire for inclusion, trust and respect provide a role model for Ezra which point him away from the staid teachings of the Jedi without going into the nonsensical, “Jedi aren’t allowed to love,” crap from the prequel trilogy. After all, Kanan’s relationship with Hera stands in stark contrast, a relationship of mutual respect, tender love and compassion.

Hera then acts effectively as a foil for the Padme role.

Here I have to divert to say momentarily that it’s unfortunate the extent to which the show does use the women in the cast to advance the character arc of the male characters. However the episode where Hera and Sabine have to recruit a ship builder together remains one of the strongest stand-alone episodes in the series, so this is something which will hopefully be corrected as Disney comes to realize how strong the force is with women.

The remaining key cast members mostly serve roles of comic relief and don’t need much discussion here. Chopper as stand in for R2-D2 isn’t exactly something that advances much thematically, especially since he’s basically just a palette swap.

That finale tho

So this is where we leave our Rebels: Kanan wounded by Maul. Ezra opening a Sith holocron even though he knows that thing is bad news. The battle between the Rebels, the Inquisitors, Maul, Vader and Ahsoka reduces the Inquisitor population further but ultimately sends all the other force users to their respective corners to wait for Round 3.

It’s hard to say which way Rebels will go. Using Jedi as much as it has – and Rebels is absolutely lousy with force users – paints it into a corner since Kanan, Ahsoka, Ezra, Maul an the Inquisitors are absent from the original trilogy. We could be looking at a tragedy story here.

But it’s  children’s cartoon. So maybe we won’t get such a dark ending. And that’s what ultimately makes Rebels compelling entertainment. The stakes are organically high. The characters are invested in the story in a way that makes sense and that puts them in a position of genuine peril – both to the body and to the heart. And that leaves me anxiously awaiting Season 3, flaws and all.

About that Iron Fist thing

I hesitated to write this post. As my hand hovers over publish, still I hesitate. Because I’m not sure the world really needs an attempt at a think piece on cultural appropriation from a white writer. To some extent I fear that this article might be seen as apologia, and it’s really not intended in that vein. But ultimately, I have some thoughts on some things I’ve seen, culminating with the Iron Fist casting thing and I don’t think I can express them in the brief space allowed on Facebook or Twitter.

So here goes.

I write martial arts stories. In general I’m a fantasist in my writing and I’m one who has a lot of the same influences as other fantasy writers: Dumas, Scott, Tolkien, LeGuin, Zelazny. But being a martial arts author specifically I’m also influenced by a few authors that might not be so well known: Luo Guanzhong, Shi Nai’anWu Cheng’en, Jin Yong. And what’s more, I wear the influence of their books on my sleeve just as openly as the influence of LeGuin’s A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA, Scott’s IVANHOE or Dumas’ COUNT OF MONTE CHRISTO. (Jin Yong is himself a fan of Dumas and so that influence ends up impacting me twice.)

Now that means that my stories play with Chinese tropes as often as they do British and French ones. But I’m also somebody who recognizes the problems posed by cultural appropriation and colonialism. I’m well versed in the damage of yellow peril narratives and orientalism in genre fiction. A bit of cognitive dissonance there. I’m aware of that.

The thing that makes appropriation and influence extra complex is that, unlike the orientalist view of monolithic cultures, people within a culture may have vastly different opinions on things surrounding their culture. When you add diasporas and cultural interaction within migrant populations into the mix that becomes even less clear which is how you get situations of kimono manufacturers in Japan targeting external markets at the same time that people of Japanese descent in the USA ask people to please stop using their ancestral dress as a costume. Because, you know, people are people shaped by personal experience everywhere, and how much comfort you have in living aspects of your inherited culture without fear of censure probably impact your desire to export elements of culture.

I suspect Canadians are more sensitive to the idea of cultural export than average, living as we do next to the biggest cultural exporter in the world. But the United States is far from the only cultural exporter. Britain, France and the other old colonial powers play that game, of course. Meanwhile the film industries in India and China and the music industry in South Korea have all begun targeting export markets aggressively.

A lot of this can be viewed through a Conflict Theory lens as a consequence of relative power; a film studio executive in Mumbai has a lot of it while the child of Indian immigrants getting bullied because her lunch smells different from bologna on white bread does not. It’s likely within that lens that they’ll develop differing views on how outsiders interact with their shared material culture.

Tropes are part of material culture. In fact they’re a huge part of material culture. Tropes present a shared vocabulary for understanding how to decode literature. Literature often becomes how cultures come to understand themselves. So in a way tropes are the basic building blocks of shared cultural understanding.

So using tropes from another culture is a big fucking deal, and can be a minefield. Some things to consider:

  • When you use the trope do you understand what it stands in for and how it connects to other tropes?
  • Are you perpetuating a harmful stereotype with your deployment of those tropes?
  • Are you showing respect to the culture that owns those tropes?
  • Is there a vast power differential between your culture and the parent culture for the tropes you intend to use? (EX: It’s not ever going to be appropriate for white people to mine First Nations tropes you know, since we were actively engaging in genocide against First Nations people within living memory and since they still represent the most repressed population in North America.)
  • Have you done your research? Seriously, do your bloody research.
  • Do you understand why you want to use these tropes? Is it a good reason?

So let’s look at Iron Fist.

Bill Everett got in on the martial arts movie craze in the US early – he says before Bruce Lee put out his first film (and he probably means before the theatrical release of the Big Boss in 1971 which means he was probably watching one of the late 1960s era Shaw Brothers / King Hu films, which included some true masterpieces like COME DRINK WITH ME, so right on for him being a fan.

In the 1971, Nixon and Mao hadn’t yet normalized relations between the USA and China, so what media there was came out of Hong Kong or Taiwan. But by the time Iron Fist hit comic stands in 1974 that had changed, and China was huge in American consciousness. Writing accessible stories that deployed tropes from China could be seen as reasonable. But it’s unfortunate that, along with those Chinese tropes, the author inserted the Orientalist trope of the white guy who goes to an exotic locale and becomes better at exotic stuff than the locals.

Marvel did some interesting stuff previously with Shang-Chi, who could be seen as a critique of Yellow Peril narratives, if somewhat accidentally, so Iron Fist was a bit of a step backward.

But the Iron Fist / Power Man team-up was kind of ground breaking in its own way and I’ve generally been content to see the Iron Fist comics as effectively benign. The aren’t an ideal way for white audiences to interact with Chinese tropes (I’d rather we got more works in translation instead) but they’re not that harmful either.

So we’re getting an Iron Fist show in the MCU and there’s been something of a three way debate over the casting of Iron Fist. This debate breaks down approximately like this:

  • Iron Fist should be played by an Asian actor because the MCU has been unwilling to give major roles to Asian characters. Considering the background of this character and the extent to which he’s built from Kung Fu movie tropes it’d be fitting to race-bend him.
  • Iron Fist should be played by a white actor because the character is white in the comics.
  • Iron Fist should not be played by an Asian actor because he’d be yet another Asian ninja character in a shared universe of film and TV that includes Asian characters, and actors of Asian descent portraying aliens only either as hand-to-hand combat specialists or doctors. Casting Iron Fist would act as a release valve for the MCU to improve the diversity of its lead casting.

I tend to support the first of these three positions. Arguably the biggest role in the MCU played by actors of Asian descent is in Agents of Shield in which Melinda May is a breakout character and in which we have Chloe Bennett (previously when discussing this issue on Facebook I forgot to mention her and felt a need to highlight her now) playing Daisy Johnson, a multi-talented hacker / spy / inhuman super-power. Still, arguably Phil Coulson is the actual lead on Agents of Shield. After Season One, Daisy was largely relegated to supporting lead status, a position that Melinda May has always been in. (Seriously can we just add May to the Agengers? Please?)

The same situation arises in Guardians of the Galaxy, where Dave Bautista (who is half-Filipino) plays a supporting lead as Drax the Destroyer. OTOH almost every MCU product includes a white lead. Certainly that’s the case for Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, The Avengers, Ant Man, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Guardians of the Galaxy and Agent Carter. I’ll give you that you could look at Agents of Shield as an ensemble cast in which Daisy and May play very large roles.

About the only thing to say positively regarding the second position is that white / black partnerships were rare at the time that Iron Fist teamed up with Power Man. Other than that, no, I don’t care. Race-bending is a thing that happens these days and just because the character was created as a blond guy doesn’t mean he has to stay blond. It’s not integral to the character of Danny Rand aside from as it relates to his relationship with Luke Cage.

The third position I have some sympathy for. The only thing I’d argue is that while it’s true that Daisy is basically the only named character played by an actor of Asian descent in the entirety of the MCU who is neither a martial artist first and foremost, nor a doctor, the population of the MCU is largely composed OF doctors and martial artists of one stripe or another, race notwithstanding. I’d say that it’s kind of sad that, for all its flaws, the MCU has done a better job of diverse casting than average for Hollywood. After all, we live in a world where this movie and this movie were both greenlit in close proximity to one another.

I certainly agree that the MCU could do a MUCH better job. And I’d much rather see either an Amadeus Cho fronted project or a Shang-Chi project come into the MCU than Iron Fist. That said, I understand why we’re getting Iron Fist instead.

I think casting Iron Fist as white is a missed opportunity. Iron Fist – the comic – is a harmless enough bit of trope stealing, especially considering both when it was inspired (at a time where the only contact the USA had with China was largely kung fu movies coming out of Hong Kong) and the context of the creator writing the comic as a reaction to how much he loved Hong Kong film. But this isn’t 1974 and it certainly isn’t 1971 anymore and standards have changed. The MCU has overwhelmingly allowed their properties to be fronted by white actors – and will continue to do so until Black Panther comes out.

Iron Fist, drawing, as it does, from the vast well of wuxia tropes, a well which is much more accessible if you do your research today than it was in 1974 would have been an ideal place to put an actor of Asian descent front and center.

You know, like they did in Into the Badlands.

The best show on TV.

Go watch Into the Badlands right now.

Um… what was I talking about? Oh yeah, Iron Fist. I hope that Marvel uses the show to highlight race relations through the Rand / Cage connection. Frankly BLM has brought a lot of stuff to the forefront of public consciousness that it would be good to give space to in pop culture. Establishing a friendship between Luke Cage and Danny Rand, in 2016, in the city of Eric Garner, and doing it in a way that demonstrates just how vast the gulf is between the privilege Rand enjoys and what Cage must endure could make for interesting television. But that’s the only even half-way compelling reason I can see to release an Iron Fist show and to cast Danny Rand with the same guy who played Ser Loras.

The most brutal fantasy – a review EMPIRE ASCENDANT by Kameron Hurley

empire-ascendant-by-kameron-hurleyI thought I was prepared.

I had read MIRROR EMPIRE. I’d read GOD’S WAR. I knew Kameron Hurley was as unrelentingly brutal as any other author in fantasy out there.

I knew Kameron Hurley made the average Grimdark fantasy look like a meet cute.

I was not ready.

EMPIRE ASCENDANT is definitely the most brutal book I’ve read since BEST SERVED COLD by Joe Abercrombie; and I’d need to re-read Abercrombie’s tale of revenge before I’d commit to even it being as heavy a book as this. If any book deserves to be converted into a black metal saga it is this one.

Set in a world which broke thanks to a forgotten apocalypse thousands of years previous, EMPIRE ASCENDANT is the second book in the Worldbreaker Saga. It picks up shortly after the hard-won victories of the protagonists from the first book and shows them to be entirely futile.

Every victory achieved by blood, tears and sacrifice in MIRROR EMPIRE is Pyrrhic. And that’s the high point of this story.

I have to say that Hurley is masterful at writing broken people who are fundamentally human, throwing them through a wood chipper, gathering up the broken bits into a heap and then making you care about the heap. This is especially the case with Zezili. The general of Dorinah, full of rage and destruction, abuses everybody she purports to love and spends the first book complicit in the vicious misdeeds of her empress. Her weak attempt to rebel and do the right thing leads to her being viciously mauled and she starts the second book barely clinging to life, being put back together in the wake of this. Things don’t get any better for Zezili, but along the way something strange happens.

You watch this powerful, destructive, dangerous person get the shit kicked out of her over and over again. Time and again the universe sends her the message to stay down, stop fighting, just rest for the love of all that’s holy. But no. She gets back up. Over and over again, against all the odds, Zezili gets back up, spits out a mouthful of blood and broken teeth and woozily says, “was that your best shot?”

And by the end of the book, you’re pulling for her. This awful, abusive, abrasive, stubborn killer just goes through so much and even though she’s not much more than a mass of wounds held together by stubbornness and contrarian spite you can’t help but sympathize with her.

Hurley doesn’t do simple characters.

The likable pacifist leader of the Dhai is a coward and a fool. The brilliant tactician is arrogant and can’t get anybody to listen to her. The genocidal tyrant is motivated mostly by a deep well of love for a family who will die if she doesn’t carve out a home for them somewhere else, a home that can’t exist unless she slaughters their doubles. Every character in this book is a study in the cognitive dissonance of a person who will do horrible things with the best of intentions, and heroic things with the worst of intentions.

And then that climax.

The next time somebody suggests that the Red Wedding is as rough as things get in fantasy I’ll just smile wistfully and shake my head.

I loved EMPIRE ASCENDANT, but it is one of those books that’s hard to recommend. Because this is not a book that welcomes the reader for a few happy hours of gentle escape. This is a book that wars with the reader. If you want a fantasy novel that will struggle with you, a fantasy novel that will kick you in the gut and stab you in the heart, read EMPIRE ASCENDANT.

Mortality

Three and a half years ago I got my first tattoo. A few months before that time my father had fallen very ill, and while his condition eventually stabilized, at that time I was thinking a lot about things I’d wanted to do, things I’d put off doing and the danger that a life could end, incomplete.

I’d also been progressively putting on weight since I’d left university, and since my father’s illness was a complication of diabetes I was growing worried that I didn’t want to start down the same path. I stopped drinking pop. Bought a bicycle. Failed to lose weight.  I got more tattoos, traveled to Cuba and back to China, had a daughter, published a book. Reassessed my health needs, started using calorie counter apps and measuring exercise. Lost sixty two pounds.

For three years I frantically ticked off things I’d always intended to do and made sure I got them done. In part because, at the age of 33 I’d felt the first breath of mortality in the frailty of a man who’d been a constant in my life.

It’s been a rough winter. At the start of it, a casual friend, who was a very close friend of some of my close friends died suddenly and unexpectedly. I’d dealt with sudden death before, a few of the friends in my youth committed suicide, but this wasn’t somebody deliberately ending their life. This was illness claiming a peer. Then Lemmy Kilmister died, David Bowie died,  Alan Rickman: artists I’d followed to one extent or another for my whole life. It was a kick in the teeth.

Today I heard about David G. Hartwell. I didn’t know him that well. We’d met. I was one of probably a multitude of emerging authors who he provided some personal advice to at World Fantasy Convention. I’d seen him around on panels and in room parties a few times. He seemed like a good guy. I have friends who knew him much better. And for them I feel the deepest sympathy.

We are, none of us, immortal. And that’s terrifying. But I learned something through this bitter season of grief and pain. It was something hovering around my consciousness for the last three years.

We have the capacity to carry things on for those who pass before us. When Bowie died Choir! Choir! Choir! brought together hundreds of people at three events to sing re-arranged versions of his classics. As tribute to an artist, who constantly re-shaped his image and his art over a decades spanning career, other artists helped a group of people create new art.

A form of immortality can exist, though it’s a tenuous one. A lot of people suggest it lives on in the memories of people who knew them. But even that fades in time. Rather it lies in the deeds a person inspires.

So what I want to do, what I hope we can take away from this season of grief, is that we can build something beautiful even on a foundation of pain. We can create art. We can sponsor a cause. We can try to build something, accomplish something with our own lives. Life is brief and fleeting, and loss hurts whether it’s a close friend, a friend of a friend or a revered celebrity. So let’s build something lasting on foundation of that loss as a bulwark against the erosion of time.

Happy new year 2016

Ok, I’m pretty deep in my cups, it being 1:30 a.m. January 1, so I’m going to start with that as a disclaimer for grammatical oopses and general thread-losses.

So let me start by saying Happy New Year everybody! I hope 2016 is the year when we learn from the wrath of 2014/2015 and use our newly built tech-aided telepathy to increase joy, compassion and understanding within the world.

With that in mind I’m going to be talking a bit about Star Wars and fandom. I will try to avoid spoilers (even though I’ve previously set the end of my personal spoilers embargo at Jan. 1, 2016,) but if you haven’t seen the film yet and you want to avoid any information going in you might want to stop reading now.

Launching the ships

In a Star Wars discussion group I joined after watching the film there’s been some sharing of fan fic images. These sketches have displayed various iterations of Rey/Finn/Poe ships that take for granted the chemistry between Finn and both of the other two lead protagonists new to Episode 7. My personal favourite has Rey introducing her boyfriend Finn, and his boyfriend Poe.

It’s pretty obvious, at least in certain circles of progressive fandom, the extent to which Oscar Isaac plays his friendship to Finn as a romance, if a subtle one. Isaac has actually confirmed this in an interview.

Between the press-junket soundbite from Isaac and the wonderful tendency of fandom to ship everybody with everybody else, it’s little surprise that we’re seeing so much fan-art focusing on the possibility of a relatively open love triangle between the three.

Furthermore, perfectly mature adults who, in the same group have spent quite a bit of time sharing and discussing critical analysis of the new film, have been enthusiastic both about the images and about the idea that we live in a world where a story like that might some day achieve canonicity.

Think about that for a second. We now live in a world where the idea of love being divorced sufficiently from gender that a person might love two people of different genders in effectively the same way isn’t automatically met with derision. To me this tends to support Theodore Parker’s oft-quoted axiom that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

It’s been a rough year for justice.

It sometimes seems that our southern neighbours are tearing themselves apart, between increasing discontent over police brutality and the gong-show of the long wind-up to the 2016 presidential election. Across the Atlantic, Europe is embroiled in yet another eruption of wide-spread, and sometimes frightening, xenophobia. Vast swaths of the Middle East are in a state of war with no clear solution to the conflict in sight. China’s economy, the engine that kept the gears of the world turning since 2008 has stumbled, and stuttered as a new normal suggests the years of double-digit GDP growth and an expanding middle class are over. Suddenly the seemingly harmless corruption of the past two decades seems more sinister, and regional tensions all the more volatile. And meanwhile, in Canada, we smugly congratulate ourselves for electing a government that clears the low bar of being adequate and not-entirely-heartless and then proceed to do little to make anything better.

But none of these are new problems.

Racism and xenophobia, war, political strife and political lethargy disguised as thin progress are all very old problems. Some of the oldest.

But we live in a world where the race of a couple of protagonists is so unremarkable that the most conservative construction of relationships in their film is the one that includes just an interracial heterosexual pairing.

We live in a world where I can’t find a Rae doll for my daughter in two different toy stores not because she was excluded from distribution but because she’s already sold out (though the release of her figures was still delayed far too long).

The fandom and merchandising surrounding a Christmastime movie release aren’t much in the face of the very real grief and pain caused by the injustice we still haven’t fixed, but I sincerely hope they reflect a sea-change in general public opinion. I want to believe that the Overton window has moved sufficiently that the realm of public perception is now one in which opinions that were previously on the far fringes of liberal “deviance” are now accepted as just another way to be, another way to love and to live.

I’d like to believe that, in 2016, we’ll see action movies with POC leads, with hero journeys belonging to women, with queer protagonists in all of the possible infinite diversity that love can reflect.

I do believe the world is ready for this. This doesn’t mean it will be easy to shepherd these changes into the world. The process of shaping public perception is a constant struggle between compassion and liberty on one hand, fear and isolation on the other.

But the year is over.

We’ve spent another year truly learning what it’s like to have instant access to the hearts and minds of humanity in all its diversity, good and ill. We’ve had another year to assimilate the joy and the burden of knowing the inner life of the growing majority of the population who now participate in the great transformation of online life.

And so its without bitter irony or grief that I wish you all a happy new year. We have a lot of work to do. But we can do it. We have a tall mountain to climb, but if we look down we can see the height from which we started. The arc of the moral universe is long and the path it takes is winding. There are false starts and there will always be push-back from people who fear change, who benefit from the old systems and who don’t want to lose those benefits and people who are just misanthropic and unhappy. But ultimately the arc bends, slowly and inexorably, toward justice.

Let’s make our resolution for 2016 be to do our part to help that arc curve a little bit faster. The struggle might be hard, but if we approach transformation from a place of justice and compassion, at personal, national and global levels, we can make 2016 a year to be happy about.

Sort of a review of Star Wars Aftermath

It’s hard for me to review this one. This is for two reasons:

  1. I’ve been an active participant in online debate surrounding the campaign against Chuck Wendig and am thus biased.
  2. My usual choices in Science Fiction lean more toward big-idea books rather than action-adventures; when I want the latter I usually go to various subgenres of fantasy. As such, I’m less well equipped to do a fair review of a book which is an action-adventure science fiction. That being said, if you replace the blasters and light sabres with arrows and swords, this book cleaves closer to Fantasy tropes quite a bit, so this is a much smaller concern.

Having considered these two points a few disclaimers.

The part that isn’t really a review

I think the concerted campaign to give one-star reviews to Chuck Wendig was shitty. Like a-grade shitty. I don’t care whether the motivation was because there were three gay characters in the book or whether it was because Admiral Thrawn was NOT in the book. When you’re handing out a shit sandwich, it doesn’t matter what type of shit it’s made with. It’s still shit.

Because my opinion of licensed fiction is very low, as in, I think most licensed fiction is the literary equivalent of the rice pablum that we fed our daughter as her first food: lacking in any flavour, texture or quality that might offend anybody in the slightest, I was disinclined to buy Wendig’s new book despite being a fan of his.

I assumed, oh, that’s nice, that author I like did a Star Wars book. That’ll give him some financial breathing room to keep writing awesome Mookie Pearl and Miriam Black novels. Maybe I’ll read it someday.

<shrug>

<move on>

If it weren’t for the way these gamergaters of Star Wars (more on that momentarily) who call themselves the Bring Back Legends movement I probably would not have bought it.

But I did. And I really liked it. More than any other licensed book I’ve ever read. And what’s more, I’m strongly motivated to tell other people how good it was. I gave it a five-star review on Kobo, Amazon.ca and Amazon.com. I told friends and family to read this book.

So thanks BBL. Good job advertising Wendig’s book for him.

BBL is just like Gamergate, and the Sad Puppies

It doesn’t matter whether they have the same political motives. That’s largely irrelevant. You can be an asshole of an entitled fan whether your sense of entitlement has to do with women in video games, whether Larry Correia deserves a Hugo or whether Disney should continue publishing the Star Wars Extended Universe. The second you start thinking your emotional capital investment as a fan makes your preferred status quo important enough to steamroller over other fans you’re in Gamergate territory.

Some examples:

Sea Lioning in comments: Arguing at length that people who don’t want to discuss your issue are in the wrong because you are, “being polite.” You aren’t. You’re jumping up in other people’s conversations to shout your opinion. It doesn’t matter if you start by shouting please and end with shouting thank you.

“Social Media Campaigns:” The so-called raids that BBL engage in aren’t some sort of SM enabled letter writing campaign. They’re spam. They pop into facebook pages for Del Rey and Disney when new products are announced to shut down any conversation other than, “give us what we demand.”

Targeting high-profile detractors: Whether it’s sending threats to Anita Sarkeesian, writing hateful “parodies” accusing John Scalzi of various misdeeds or one-starring Chuck Wendig’s book what differs is the severity. What is the same is the fact that you’ve got a group going, “I recognize that person, they disagree with my position. I will bring them low.”

And of course in all these examples we have a group acting like they’re owed something. The gamergaters are owed video games wherein they can be as ghastly as they want. The Sad Puppies are owed Hugos denied them by us evil SJWs. The BBL team are owed more Zahn books, and Admiral Thrawn in the movies or on the cartoons.

It’s ultimately about entitlement. The bad behaviour, whether it manifests as threats against the security of the person, spurious police calls, or campaigns to harm sales of a product, is the way in which these groups forward the claim that they’re entitled to certain things, to permissiveness toward behaviours, to whatever.

The number of times I’ve heard from BBL, “we tried writing letters to Disney but they just sent a form letter back saying no. This is the only way we can be heard,” it boggles the mind.

Because, of course, they were heard. And Disney told them no.

They just refused to accept that. Just like Gamergate refused to accept that game critics might be critical of gaming culture. Just like the Sad Puppies refused to accept that their favourite authors wrote books that most fans didn’t want to give Hugo awards to.

They’re the same.

The part that is a review

I’m going to do this a bit differently, addressing prose, characters (use thereof and characterization) and plot (use thereof and interconnectivity with the greater brand) separately. You’ll note I’m going to not dwell on theme as much as I usually would. That’s because the message of this book is very simple: war is hell and messes up everybody’s shit. Wendig deals with that well. But it doesn’t need as much picking apart to get at than The Dark Forest did.

Prose style

Wendig works in present tense throughout the book. He writes in short chapters and his chapters frequently end in a cliffhangery way. I am certainly not going to throw stones. While I write in past tense (I’m just not good enough to sustain present tense beyond short story length) I also use short chapters with frequent cliffhangers. Why? Because for action adventure it works.

Among the detractors who actually read the book, this is probably where Wendig loses people the most. Because in a lot of licensed work authorial voice is as invisible as possible. I understand why: distinctive flair interferes with brand adherence. Generally that’s a bad thing for a franchise.

But Disney has learned this isn’t always the case (see Guardians of the Galaxy) and evidently they gave Wendig the freedom to write, well, a Wendig book. This is very good. And it turns this book from a typical pew pew starships tie-in novel into an interesting work of art.

Character

Wendig populates this book with a bunch of characters who aren’t major players in the movies. There are a few standard bearers here. Fans of Wedge Antilles will… well some will love this book and others may have reason to flip tables. But he’s got a major role. Han Solo and Chewbacca have a cameo. Leia shows up as a hologram and Mon Mothma pops up in a few chapters. But there’s no Jedi at all.

And that’s just fine.

The story works by living in some of Star Wars’ best spaces – the dirty back alleys and underworld dives. It’s populated by veterans of the war who were broken by it. Interestingly three of the protagonists (four if you include Wedge) were at the Battle of Endor, each separately, and the things that happened there affect each of their arcs in unique ways: war may break everybody but everybody breaks differently.

From a franchise perspective, playing with unknowns also affords Wendig to tell a story with a big theme, without bumping into the limits undoubtedly imposed on him by Disney.

Plot

Structurally the book follows a rescue / heist model that Wendig is comfortable with. It’s also a structure that works very well for Star Wars, existing as it does on the periphery between science fiction and fantasy.

It’s a pulpy story, full of sudden reversals and unexpected changes of fortune. And it’s a book in which people can die. Wendig lets us see the blood and viscera that Lucas’ PG requirements left off-screen for much of the original trilogy.

I guess what I’m saying is that this is a Star Wars story in the best possible way: concentrating on a small collection of neer-do-wells and rogues as they stumble into something bigger than them and pull through by a combination of luck and talent.

Wrapping up

Since we’re approaching TL;DR here’s everything in a nutshell:

  1. I’m a fan of Wendig who hasn’t ever read Zahn, make of that what you will
  2. The people who are trying to burn down Wendig’s book are jerks who smell like gamergating sad puppies
  3. It’s obviously a star wars book
  4. It’s a really good star wars story
  5. It doesn’t matter that Luke Skywalker isn’t in it
  6. Buy it.
  7. No seriously buy it.
  8. Right now.
  9. Stop what you’re doing and buy this book.
  10. Then read it.

I’m reading Star Wars: Aftermath

This is the first Star Wars book I’ve read. I don’t give a pair of dingo’s kidneys for Admiral Thrawn. I’ve only dug a small way into Part 2 so I can’t properly review it, but here’s what I can say with certainty:

  1. It is very Wendig. If you like him you will like this book.
  2. The jagoffs giving it one star for any reason other than they don’t like Wendig’s highly distinctive prose style are full of shit.

This is all.

Trolls Never Sleep

a-close-friend-1499922I’ve had it up to here with the culture wars.

This was going to be a post about what happened to Chuck Wendig. Jim C. Hines has a decent write-up on that up, and while I disagree with him ever so slightly on one point it’s a good general writeup.

Wendig himself also has some stuff to say on the topic.

And this would have been enough for a full blog post right here. The issue with Wendig’s books, and the response both of the culture warriors who I’ve taken to calling antisocial injustice warriors (after all, if they oppose what SJWs stand for…) and of the EU fans who will lash out at any change to the Star Wars canon dovetails so perfectly with Gamergate and the Sad Puppies on so many levels that it’d certainly be in keeping with some of my usual topics.

But then New Zealand went and banned a YA novel on the grounds that it upset vocal Christians. When I say they banned it I’m being literal. Give the book to a friend and you’re facing a $3,000 NZD fine. Sell it in a store and your store gets a $10,000 NZD fine.

So here’s a link to Amazon.com for anybody who wants to buy it. Because with state censorship that’s basically the only response I can make.

I just can’t with all this today. I want to talk more about how parts of fandom have become toxic with what Wendig poetically calls, “weaponized nostalgia.” This vile habit of longing for an imagined better time, and attacking creatives in the present for not adhering to the standard of this fantasy land has actually soured me on the very idea of nostalgia at all. If Michael Bay’s TMNT ruined your childhood, YOU HAD AN AWFUL FUCKING CHILDHOOD ALREADY.

But it’s not just the weaponized nostalgia. It’s the regressive taint-stains who can’t tolerate the idea that the world has moved on without them: that the average person under the age of 25 is so comfortable with the idea of the Kinsey Scale that only a quarter of respondents age 14 to 24 in a recent British survey self-identified as exclusively heterosexual; that books for teens should address the anxieties, conflicts and dangers faced by modern teenagers, rather than trying to sugar-coat the world; that marginalized people have gotten enough of a platform to point out institutional biases and try to do something about them.

But these trolls, these nihilistic dinosaurs so wedded to a past that never was, are just so relentless. I go away for a weekend and they’re attacking Scalzi, I get back they’re already on to the next raid, attacking Wendig. And then another group go after this Ted Dawe author. And that’s even ignoring perennial targets like K. Tempest Bradford, who puts up with more bullshit from these trolls in a week than most people should have to in a lifetime.

And I’m like: don’t these assholes have lives to live?

So I’m tired.

I’m tired of shouting into the void that life is changing and you can either learn to live with it or get out of the way.

I’m tired of bigots being given platforms because they’re good old boys who remember when men were men and rayguns were chrome.

I’m tired of backward religious fanatics trying to cram their holy books down the world’s throat.

I’m sick of all this shit.

Hi, I’m Simon. And here’s what I pledge: if you say don’t read women or people of colour I’m going to. I will because there are some amazing people in those groups writing amazing books.

If you one-star Wendig for putting gay characters in Star Wars, or even if you do it just because you’re angry his books aren’t about Admiral Thrawn, I’m going to buy his book, read it and then give it the fucking rating it deserves on Amazon (which, considering how much I liked every other Wendig book will probably be 4-5 stars).

If you ban a book because it hurts conservative feels I’m going to bloody well put a link directly to its sales page on my blog.

These fucking trolls may never sleep. But at the very least we can make sure all they’re doing is ramming their thick skulls into the wall of historical inevitability.