Archive

Author Archive

Galactic Philadelphia

December 15, 2017 Leave a comment

Last Tuesday, on December 12, I attending a reading called Galactic Philadelphia and wrote some reflections on it while the reading was happening. Reading that evening were authors Tom Doyle and Fran Wilde, and I can say that they both did fantastic jobs and I recommend buying and reading their books.

Anyway, on with my reflections:

So I’m sitting here listening to Tom Doyle read from the prologue of his new book, War and Craft, the third in his trilogy. I’m in the basement of an Irish Pub on Walnut street, across from Rittenhouse Square (it’s called Irish Pub, by the way, and I love that). This is an event for Galactic Philadelphia, which is kind of like an event for writers of science fiction or fantasy to do readings of their works. It’s the first time I’ve ever done sometihng like this, and it’s interesting to meet new people who have the same passion for sci-fi that I have.

There are a lot of people here who write science fiction–some as amateurs, and some as Grand Masters, like Sam Delany, who is sitting at a table very close to me. Michael Swanwick is also here. You know, it’s funny–in Michigan we just didn’t have these kinds of things with such legendary writers from where I was from. Once I got to see John Scalzi at a reading at Schuler Books & Music in East Lansing once, but it was a one-off event.

This event is a product of living in a city like Philadelphia. And I suppose that moving here, taking a chance, was worth it just for that. I mean, it was like a twenty minute walk to get here from my house, and it’s a pretty straight short with a few 90-degree turns. I guess to some extent I’m still getting used to living in a city where this is possible. A short walk to science fiction.

And I think to a large extent this is the kind of thing I’ve always wanted from life. I don’t think that I could ever have imagined that, when I met Anastasia in the science fiction class that Eric Rabkin taught, that I would have ended up here. Maybe this is where I was meant to belong this entire time. I really like that thought, and I really like the idea of spending time with such creative, intelligent people.

Advertisements

NaNoWriMo 2017: A Success

December 6, 2017 Leave a comment

Do you know what I like best about National Novel Writing Month? It really forces me to take the time to sit down and get a new idea out of my head and on paper. Well, not really paper but you get the idea. So far I’ve managed to get out four novels of at least 50,000 words. They’re not complete by any stretch of the imagination, but they’re really good starts for ideas that I’ve wanted to develop for years. Life gets in the way sometimes, you know?

I have a notebook full of ideas that I want to develop into novels or short stories, and the latest story I wrote from NaNoWriMo was taken from it. I think I’m up to 67 ideas that I’ve come up with? Either way, if I come up with an idea that I think is worth remembering and developing, and I don’t have time to work on it right then, I write it down in that notebook to get back to later. I called it “Zombie Projects,” because they’ll come back from the dead some day.

After two years of not participating in NaNoWriMo I managed to hit the 50,000 word mark on my fourth novel, and I did it in about 28 days. Technically it is actually 21 days since I didn’t write for seven of the days for various reasons. I finished the contest on November 28, with no small amount of relief. I really do love to do this, but it’s a lot of stress and pressure, and I always end up writing many more than 50,000 words because I will completely rewrite entire sections, which means that I probably came closer to writing 75,000 words in 21 days.

The story I wrote–and am currently in the process of writing, still–is called The Road That Leads Home. If you want to see the details of the novel as they exist on my NaNoWriMo profile, you can click here. There’s a brief synopsis (which needs to be updated a bit), and a rough draft excerpt of one of the important parts of the novel.

So what is it about? Well, I had this idea to write a science fiction novel about a half-human / half-alien girl who had to grow up on Earth, surrounded by people who hated her for merely being only half-human. For the longest time I had no idea how to approach it, but two things really fell into place that helped to finally launch it. The first was attending a panel at the science fiction convention Escape Velocity, in which one of the panelists asked if we could get into touch with the “other” within ourselves in way that doesn’t honor our humanity or humanism, but changes and transforms us. In other science fiction aliens embrace the human within them or human ideals to resolve conflicts of identity.

Take, for instance, Commander Spock from Star Trek. His cold, logical alien demeanor is constantly pitted against the empathetic humanism of Doctor McCoy. Conflicts between them, and those of identity that Spock experiences personally, are often resolved by Spock getting in touch with his human side, and holding as a virtue the ideals of humanism. It seems as if Spock needs to abandon his alien parts. Aliens in science fiction are meant to destabilize our own identities, to throw our own views of ourselves into question. We can use them to analyze our behavior and our philosophies, but because we think so inwardly when we think of aliens we never really imagine something truly alien.

My story was not an attempt to imagine something truly alien, but to look at the development of Spock and say, “Huh. Wouldn’t it be interesting if there was a character who specifically rejected humanity and humanism?” Could we maybe use that as a way to move beyond self-congratulatory–even conceited–celebrations of humanity and explore someone coming to terms with their identity by embracing the otherness within them?

So how do I get there? The second thing that fell into place was attending a lecture by N. Katherine Hayles called “Why We Are Still Posthuman.” I had heard of posthumanism before, but never really explored it in depth apart from one aspect of it called transhumanism. This lecture really helped me to connect to dots that led me to develop the central conceit of The Road That Leads Home. Being human is contingent; it’s an historical and cultural construct. What a human is, and what it takes to be one, changes over time–it’s constantly in flux. Humanism is often constructing and bounded–in the world we live in now, one with cyborgs and Google Glass and other technological wonders, our definition of what makes a human is expanding every day and we’re not even aware of it.

So I wanted to write a story that deconstructs the boundaries in humanism, exposes its limitations and its prejudices, and tries to find something beyond it. In my novel, humans don’t really react well to that, and why should they? They’re being asked to abandon the idea that they have a special place in the universe, or that there’s something special about them in their very nature. The very existence of my protagonist is one that is a threat to them and any philosophy that puts humans front and center.

What’s funny is that this is happening today, even as you read these words. It’s unavoidable, and as we explore the impacts of technoscience on how we imagine ourselves and our place in the world. The emergence of new technologies that connect us to each other via social media changed us. The medical science that allows for organ transplantation changed us. The fact that we acknowledge the sentience and intelligence–not to mention rights–of animals besides ourselves is changing us. And this will only accelerate as time goes on. Humanism will not be able to keep up with that, which is why posthuman schools of thought (like transhumanism, for instance) are becoming more attractive to greater numbers of people.

We’re entering a brave new world. I think we should embrace it.

Before I close out this post, I want to include a small excerpt from my current rough draft of The Road That Leads Home. It’s written to be like a biography / autobiography, sourced from different types of media and put together to form a narrative of the life of my protagonist. Her name is Freya Jameson, and the excerpt is televised interview between a journalist and Freya’s fully human brother, Scott. Please keep in mind that this is a rough draft, and as yet contains rather blunt, unsubtle references and language–I’ll clear that up later. I just wanted to get the general scene written.


Charles: Welcome back to Detroit News Now. Sitting with me in the studio is the brother of Freya H’val r’ Earth’van, a member of the first generation of Human Hybrids. Scott, thank you for agreeing to speak with us today.

Scott: No problem, Charles. I’m happy to clear things about and set the record straight.

Charles: It’s good that we’re launching right into this, because I have a hard question right off the bat. What happened to Freya?

Scott: Can you clarify? Lots of things happened to Freya.

Charles: Why did she renounce her humanity and leave Earth?

Scott: Because she wasn’t human.

Charles: It’s a matter of record that she was a Human Hybrid. Her father—

Scott: Let me stop you right there, Chuck. Can I call you Chuck? You call her a Human Hybrid, not a human. Her whole life she was essentially told ‘you’re not really human.’ And people act surprised when she finally agrees with them?

Charles: Don’t you think that’s a little unfair? Not everyone feels that way about them.

Scott: No, absolutely not. You might not have directly caused her harm, but you are part of a media organization that breathlessly and repeatedly reported on the so-called ‘Hybrid Crime Wave.’ Don’t deny it, Chuck. For years you could turn the news on and the first thing you would see is one of your anchors reporting on some minor crime by one of the desperate people that were rejected out of hand by our society, next to some scary graphics, as if they were out in gangs, roaming the streets, murdering people.

Charles: The reporting on those crimes was problematic, yes, but that doesn’t—

Scott: Don’t give me that. You can lie to yourself, but we both know what it was. Tell me, Chuck, did you have to clean up your sister’s busted lip after some jerk broke it open with a rock to the mouth? Did you have to endure the scorn of other people merely for having a sister that was a little different? Did your grandparents tell you that they wish you had died in the womb? Don’t tell me this isn’t about how much we pushed her to that.

Charles: So you’re saying that she blames everyone but herself for what happened to her.

Scott: Excuse me? I’m sorry, it sounded like you were implying that Freya was responsible for what we did to her. Are you going to blame her for almost being raped next?

Charles: What I’m saying is that we know she was radicalized at some point in her early twenties. There is evidence that, for a time, she advocated for violent separation from the human race for all Hybrid Humans. Are you denying that she became a public danger?

Scott: Absolutely. See, this is so like you [censored]. She didn’t advocate for a violent separation, and that you’re still claiming that tells me you never actually cared to listen to her.

Charles: Well, then, tell us, Scott. What did she advocate for? What did she mean by, ‘we must free ourselves of the shackles of humanism, forced on us against our will by circumstance of birth. This isn’t a struggle for human rights—a racist term—it’s a struggle for the rights of all thinking and feeling creatures in this Silver River. There will come a time when we all must ask ourselves if we prefer benevolent subjugation under the yoke of humanism or the bullet.’

Scott: Can you finish that quote, please?

Charles: Don’t you want to answer that?

Scott: If you don’t want to finish the quote, I will.

Charles: Answer my question. What did she mean by that?

Scott: I’ll finish the quote.

Charles: Answer my question.

Scott: Don’t interrupt, Chuck. That’s rude. Here we go: ‘…humanism or the bullet. If we can’t free ourselves of the chains imposed upon us by those who would call us Hybrid Humans while denying our humanity, we must cease to be that which we are now, and through the violent revolution of the self, set out on our own. Henry David Thoreau once said that ‘we need the tonic of wildness,’ and I am here to tell you my brothers and sisters of common heritage that we are athirst of home, country, and community. We need to drink of the tonic of wildness and discover our own country in the stars.’ Where do you see a call for violent separation of the human race?

Charles: She literally mentioned a bullet.

Scott: Obviously a reference to Malcolm X’s speech ‘The Ballot or the Bullet.’ The second part of the quote, which you refused to read to your audience—which I find both unethical and dishonest—gave it context. She wasn’t talking about a violent overthrow of government or attacking people in the streets. She was talking about a radical reinvention of the self, embracing the otherness that had for so long been forced on her by us. She said, ‘if we’re to be dismissed as other, let us embrace the otherness. Let us show them it won’t be an albatross around our necks, but an identity. We’ll define ourselves as other than human. I’ll define myself as other than h’tro. What will you drop in order to embrace the otherness in you?’

Charles: And you don’t see how that makes her look bad? You don’t see how that might turn people against her? Doesn’t that, in actuality, confirm people’s feelings about her?

Scott: Do you know what Freya would say to that?

Charles: Please enlighten me.

Scott: She would say that what they fear the most, what they find the most repulsive, is that she turned her back on them—on humanism—and embraced something foreign and strange. It was a rejection of the very thing that they denied her, that they constantly told her she wasn’t good enough to possess. It’s not about her, Chuck. It’s about them. It’s about you and me, and your audience sitting at home. They constantly said that Freya wasn’t like them. All she did was embrace that.


Thank you for reading!

Book Review: Artemis by Andy Weir

December 4, 2017 2 comments

I have to start this book review with a confession: I almost missed a typo in the title. I wrote “Andy Weird” instead of “Andy Weir,” and it never even crossed my mind that “Weird” was wrong.

Artemis by Andy Weir had a lot of expectations to live up to. Weir’s first book, The Martian, was something of a sensation. It was so popular, in fact, that they made a movie based on the book that was actually pretty great. I was a huge fan of both the book and the movie, so I was looking forward to reading Artemis. So much so, in fact, that I took a trip with my fiancee to New York City to attend the official book launch, which you can read about here.

Like always, be prepared for spoilers in my review. If you don’t like spoilers, I don’t recommend reading any further.

The moon’s a mean old bitch.

Artemis is a book about a city on the moon, named Artemis, designed in painstaking detail by Weir to be as realistic as possible. One has to admire the world-building of this book, with details ranging from the way that they deal with the moon’s regolith to the way the economy works in the city. Any aspiring author would do well to read this book for the world building alone. Weir provides a masterclass in thinking about all of the small, day-to-day issues that most people wouldn’t imagine, and he puts them into the narrative with such breathtaking ease that you might be tempted to think that he didn’t work that hard at it at all.

The first few pages of the book have detailed maps of the lunar surface where the city exists, complete with the train lines that take people to the Apollo 11 landing site, the reactors, and the smelting plant. I’ve always appreciated these kinds of maps in science fiction stories. Typically, they’re present in epic high fantasy, like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. When you’re writing a book in which the setting itself is a character in the story, maps help bring the story to life, so it’s greatly appreciated and this earns the book a bunch of points.

I think the book suffers from a plot that seems tacked-on, in some instances. The conclusion and resolution aren’t entirely believable, and I have issues with the way the economy works, or could even transition at the conclusion of the story. I suppose that this is a hazard when you design the setting and build the world, and then add a plot to it later. There’s one specific place where there is a conflict between characters that comes up at a really odd time and feels extremely forced onto the story. The book is also on the short side, coming in at only 305 pages. I don’t usually say this, but given the subject of the book, as well as the intricate detail needed to really make it believable, a hundred or so more pages could have fleshed out a lot of the plot and the characters, and improved the overall quality of the book.

Another small issue that I have is Weir’s use of the interrobang. I’ve talked about this before, in my review of Dan Brown’s Inferno, but I think it bears repeating here: if you use the interrobang, use it once and no more. This is a personal issue, but I think when an author overuses the interrobang (and Weir uses it three times that I can remember, twice on the same page), it feels like the author is getting lazy. I think I would put this under a “show, don’t tell” problem in the writing.

Perhaps the biggest issue was the fact that, despite the fact that it is a really good book on the whole, some of it just seems so cliche. It’s like a hard-boiled detective noir that’s drowning in hard-boiled detective noir cliches, filled with cigar smoke and long legs and dames in red dresses and whiskey. At one point the administrator of Artemis takes out a gun (which are strictly forbidden for obvious KABOOMY reasons) and gets tricked into revealing something by that main character, Jasmine Bashara. To some extent these cliches are unavoidable because the book reads very much like a Western on the Moon. Hey–that should be a genre on its own.

The Gizmos did whatever magic shit computers do to identify each other and verify.

There is a golden rule of science fiction: don’t explain. There are hard science fiction stories where the science and technology are the raison d’etre of the story, but in most cases, people don’t care about a thorough and plausible explanation of technology in the narrative. We don’t read stories for that reason, and if they wanted to know about that, they could read a technical manual or journal.

Weir, thankfully, follows this rule closely. He uses a combination of narrative exposition and character perspective to fill in the blanks about technology, culture, and science. And that’s really the only knowledge that the reader needs to get through the story. I tend to be a picky reader, but I am perfectly fine with that, and I’ll let the author get away with not knowing how everything works as long as it is internally consistent and the plot and characters are good.

Artemis strikes a good balance between the hard sciences that explain how the city functions and the people live in it and the plot. This is sort of Weir’s specialty, though, and it’s something that’s not easy to pull off. He did it with The Martian, and he does it with Artemis. Science drives the plot and sets the stage for the book, but it isn’t in the way of the story.

It’s the greatest little city in the worlds.

The book is a straightforward, linear narrative. The backstory is filled in with pen-pal letters between Jazz Bashara, the main character, and Kelvin, a boy (and later, man) on Earth in Kenya, who works for the Kenyan Space Corporation. Artemis, we learn, is owned by a company based in Kenya for reasons that Weir explains in the book (and it isn’t a stretch to accept it). This pen-pal method is a good way to fill in Jazz’s backstory, and as the narrative goes we learn more about her current predicament based on the things in the past that got her to where she is.

We learn, for instance, that in the recent past that Jazz was homeless and running from Artemis’ resident Sheriff, Rudy (who was, in the past, a Canadian Mountie). Through this we further learn that it is illegal to be homeless in Artemis, and if caught she would be deported to Saudi Arabia, a place of which she has no knowledge. Worse, by kicking her out of the only home she has ever known (a pretty bad punishment in and of itself for merely being homeless), she’d suffer crueler punishments because of the side-effects of moving from the low-gravity environment of the moon to the high-gravity environment of Earth. Her body is just not suited for life on Earth without serious medical issues. If you think that this system is crazy and unjust, believe me, you’re not alone.

The problem is that Artemis feels too much like a lawless town from the “Old West.” Partly this is by design, as Weir said that he based a lot of it on Caribbean resort towns. But I can’t help but think that there’s something extraordinarily nefarious about this whole enterprise. For instance, there are no age-of-consent laws on Artemis, and justice is usually distributed by way of angry mob. First, I have major issues with this because consent, and the ability to give it or to withhold it, is one of the foundational pillars of Western Law. I don’t know how Artemis could survive long without something as basic as age-of-consent laws–and we get a taste of the problems that can cause because of Jazz’s experience with an ex-boyfriend who turns out to be a pedophile (which Weir never explicitly says but which is made rather obvious).

Second, justice by mob is extremely primitive. For the entirety of Artemis, a city of 2,000 people, the only legitimate lawman as Rudy. It’s just not possible for him to properly police the entire city. And when he does, his version of justice tends to be delivered by the force of his knuckles. It’s obvious that one of the greatest foundational problems with Artemis is smuggling, and it turns out that Jazz has that particular market cornered. She smuggles flammable things into the city, which, quite obviously, is really dumb. But money is money for a person who was homeless once and at risk of being kicked of the damn moon.

Complicating matters is the fact that an organized crime syndicate is not only present in the city, but is involved in some of its more critical functions. Why? Money laundering. When I came to understand the full extent of the corruption required for them to be tolerated, and then later removed, the only note I took was “we’ve been spending most our lives living in a libertarian’s paradise.” The administrator is in on it, and what it comes down to is the compromises that must be made that comes back to bite you in the ass. Artemis is on the verge of bankruptcy (well, duh) and to save it they need to do some shady shit.

Why would a criminal organization use Artemis to launder money? It’s because the unit of currency on the moon, commonly called the slug, isn’t very highly regulated. It’s not really a currency–it’s a prepaid unit for transferring cargo from Earth to the moon, and it’s useful for trade. KSC track the balance, and acts as a bank, and transaction occur pretty much without any serious oversight. So moving slugs around and then selling them for real money is no real problem.

So are these flaws with the story? No, I think they’re partly what make the story interesting and worth reading. I was quick to grow frustrated at the way that Artemis was created and functioned, but it wasn’t because it was badly written or poorly conceived. It was because it was just too realistic. When later we see Artemis transitioning from its current incarnation of lawless capitalism to one of taxed property, ownership, and laws it feels real, organic, and natural (even if I don’t believe it would happen without a lot of civil strife and rioting). So for someone like me, who is knowledgeable about politics, policy, and philosophy, a lot of the stuff in this book made me angry. But it made me angry because it was believable. Several aspects of Artemis were unsafe, and as you’ll learn after you read it, it was a catastrophe waiting to happen. In short, it was human. And humanity often makes one frustrated and angry.

Physics dictates it tastes like shit.

One of the real strengths of the book is how it weaves exposition and detail into the story as if it were natural conversation or narration. The above quote pertains to Jasmine explaining the process of creating warm drinks, like tea or coffee, on Artemis. Through her very strong voice, she explains coffee, oxygen, pressure, boiling points, and the process of making coffee in a low pressure environment. Because the air pressure in Artemis is about 20% of Earth’s pressure, the boiling point in Artemis is 61 degrees Celsius. That’s as hot as drinks can be on Artemis, so they seem cold to most people.

This is the pattern that follows most, if not all, of the technical and scientific explanations in the book. For instance, Jasmine talks about gunk, the foodstuff most commonly consumed on the mood and made of flavored algae grown in vats in her characteristic smart ass voice. She also managed to make process of smelting to get aluminum and oxygen from the resources on the moon interesting.

Crashing your pressure vessel into things is bad. It can lead to unscheduled dying.

This book wouldn’t be what it is without the distinct voice of the main character, Jasmine Bashara, or Jazz. It’s not accurate to say that she’s merely the Arabic, female Mark Watney; she’s more than that because Watney was concerned with saving himself, whereas transitions from saving herself to saving Artemis. I think it’s also worth giving Weir credit for making Jazz Arabic, and her father Muslim. This leads to some interesting interactions between her father and herself, as well as certain explorations of the needs of her father’s religious beliefs while not on Earth. More than that, it was just nice to see an Arabic woman with a Muslim father cast as heroes in a story for once.

I do have a few criticisms of Jazz, and they’re relatively minor compared to the many great things about her character (which I hope you’ll find out for yourself when you read the book). The first is that, while I understand Jazz to be a rogue with a heart of gold, she seems to be hypersexualized. It’s hard to put my finger exactly on why I feel this way, and it’s even more difficult to describe what, exactly, my problem is with this aspect of her character. However, I think that it creates some awkward moments in the book that I’m not sure add to the experience in a positive way. On the other hand, the hangup could be mine and mine alone, and I accept that. The book is very intimate because it rings so true with the voice of the main character. We get a very close and intimate view of her mind and the things that she thinks. Sex is naturally a part of that experience.

The second criticism that I have is that there are a few times where Jazz seems to be a bit of a Mary Sue. There’s a part where she learned some very advanced and complicated electronics in an evening, and I just do not find that believable. We’re to understand that she’s an exceptionally smart and talented individual, which is fine. But I think that a lot of the things that she does are things that she doesn’t seem to have any relevant experience with. There are specific places where her talent and ability make a lot of sense, such as the scenes in which she welds–there’s a history there with her father. But that electronics thing seems to come out of nowhere and, without it, some of the later events couldn’t really happen.

How dare you call me lazy? I’d come up with a scathing retort, but meh, I’m just not motivated.

In the final analysis, Artemis is a great book with some minor flaws. Those flaws do not detract from the experience of reading and enjoying the book. It is not, however, The Martian. It’s an entirely different beast, and any comparison with his former work isn’t really fair. It’s not as good as The Martian, but I think it was trying to do something different and I think it largely succeeded. The Martian will be recognized as a classic of science fiction, and rightly so. Artemis may not be, but it is a great novel, with great characters, and amazing world building. It definitely deserves a place in the modern canon of science fiction greats.

With that in mind, I rate the book 4 out of 5 stars, and recommend it to fans of The Martian, fans of science fiction, and fans of caper stories. A general audience will also enjoy this book.

 

Review: “The Veldt” Radio Play at the Chemical Heritage Foundation

December 2, 2017 Leave a comment

Hello, dear readers!

I have a somewhat special treat today, and I’m excited to talk about it. Last night, Anastasia and I went to the Chemical Heritage Foundation to see a performance of an old-timey radio production of “The Veldt,” a famous short story by Ray Bradbury. The production was staged by the Hear Again Radio Project and The Mechanical Theater.

I feel it’s helpful to have an example of how the X-1 radio play sounds to get a feel for the performance.

This is the first time I’ve ever watched a performance like this. I’ve listened to radio plays on YouTube before, like the one I’ve linked above, but there’s something special about going to a spectacle made of one. These kinds of radio plays exist on YouTube, and in the form of podcasts to be downloaded in the privacy of your own home, but how many of us actually own radios in our homes anymore? To be completely honest, the only reason I have a radio is because I found a stereo for free on a random sidewalk in Philadelphia. It was broken, but popping off the metal casing and a quick examination allowed me to bring it back to perfect working order. I don’t even use it for the radio, I use it for the CD player and tape deck.

By the way, in terms of modern radio plays on podcasts, I recommend the relatively new “Mission to Zyxx,” which is an improvised science fiction comedy.

To get back to The Veldt radio play, what I liked most about it was that it was designed from the down up to mimic an old-time radio production. They started with a promise to transport us back to the 1950s, and they delivered. They had old microphones like you might see in old radio stations. The performance started with one of the performers shouting that the production was about to start, and another counting down the seconds until they went live. A host started to introduce the program, even adding a jingle and commercial for a toothpaste.

There was piano accompaniment, and a person that was responsible for the sound effects. They had metal cups to alter voices, shoes to mimic steps, a plate and cutlery for eating. A wooden box to simulate doors and banging. It was a pretty well-staged production, and it’s very true to the its roots as a radio production.

The actors had great comedic timing, which was necessary because the play deals with deep, somewhat disturbing content and themes. The acting was actually pretty fantastic, and it made me really believe that, if I was listening to this over a radio, it would be authentic. The timing was right for the sound effects, and the actors played their parts seriously.

What I really want to focus on is the effect of making what is naturally a performance meant to be delivered in an aural media in the privacy of your home into a communal event on a stage. Partly I think watching the performance on a stage detracts from the way the play was meant to be experienced, because the visual stimuli overtakes your ability to imagine the events as they’re happening. You’re focused, for instance, on the man making the sound effects (so you know they’re just sound effects), or the people on the stage reading their lines from a script. I do not think, however, that this makes the experience poorer, it just makes it different.

What it adds is the experience of listening and watching the play with an audience who may react differently than you. You also get a view of how a radio production like this may have been made (though, of course, only small facets of that). The spectacle itself can be said to be a commentary on our modern society, and on the way that new forms of media have done away with old forms like this. There’s a certain kind of creative necessity on the part of the listener when you’re listening to the radio that’s not present when you’re watching movies or television.

In some ways, our society is oversaturated with both medium and message. Our brains engage in different ways over times as media delivers more sensory experience. I don’t think this is necessarily to our detriment, but losing these old forms does come with a price. These radio shows are an interesting part of our history, and I do think that it’s worthwhile to explore them every once in a while.

Just think: some day people may go to “Television Parlors” to partake in a rare opportunity to watch a “television program” on “old lightboxes with speakers.” Imagine how they’ll marvel at how primitive it was. 4K with surround sound? How primitive.

Thanksgiving at Our House

November 30, 2017 Leave a comment

So this year, my fiancee Anastasia and I hosted Thanksgiving at our house in Philadelphia. It’s the first time that we’ve hosted a holiday at our house as a couple, and the first time we’ve had guests stay at our house for a few days. Her parents came in to the city from Michigan, and stayed from Wednesday morning to Friday afternoon (which also happened to be my thirtieth birthday–Happy Birthday to me!). In terms of “firsts” it’s not really that big or remarkable, but still meaningful.

We had plans for the time that they would be here in the city apart from dinner on Thursday. Philadelphia is an amazing city, filled with museums and galleries. The city itself, from the ground up, is thick with history. Anastasia and I live about five blocks away from Independence Hall, and a walk there is a short stroll. The first thing that we did was take a trip to the Barnes Foundation, and I spent a couple of hours there looking at so much Renoir that I don’t think I’ll need to see any more impressionist art for at least a year.

Environs of Berneval, 1879

Despite that oversaturation of impressionism, it was a very good experience. I got so carried away looking at the Van Gogh pieces that a guard admonished me for standing so close to the paintings. It was a running joke between Anastasia and I that we couldn’t cross the line. If you’re ever in Philadelphia, I really recommend that you take a few hours out of your day to visit.

Still Life (Nature morte), May 1888. The guard did not appreciate how close I got to this painting.

Afterward we stopped to get a few things that we needed for Thanksgiving dinner, dropped those off home, and then went to grab a bite to eat at Brauhaus Schmitz, just a short walk from our house. The schnitzel and raspberry beer were absolutely delicious. I really quite like that place. They have a giant display that shows the first western beer law.

I can’t read German, but it looks pretty serious.

For Thanksgiving, Anastasia’s mother made roast duck and potatoes, with a delicious cranberry relish. I helped her cook (it is my kitchen, after all). We brought the dinner table up from the basement and put it in the living room on the first floor. Our kitchen and dining area are located in the basement because we live in an old-school Philadelphia trinity house, which means that we have three floors and a basement, but the floors themselves are relatively small.

 

Our living room. It’s quite cozy.

The bookcase and mantle. We’re both geeks.

After dinner we enjoyed tea and dessert, and followed that with a showing of Star Trek: First Contact. I had to bring my TV and blu-ray plater down from my room on the third floor, and we set them up on the dinner table, which we set against the bookshelf.

The next day we set out to visit the Rosenbach, to see the Frankenstein & Dracula exhibit. It was fantastic, of course, and really illuminates the scientific and historical foundations of both texts.

All-in-all, it was a pretty great dinner with awesome company, with a couple of great trips to some Philadelphia landmarks. I have to say that it didn’t feel strange to host a holiday–it felt natural. We’re family, of course, if not legally then practically. I can’t wait until we host another holiday at our house.

Book Review: What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton

November 20, 2017 Leave a comment

Hello, all!

If you’ve read my blog before, you know that I’m a creature of politics. I don’t often write about it here on this blog, but when I do I try to explore subjects deeply. Some of you may know that I ran for State Representative in Michigan in 2014, and in 2016. I kept another website for the 2014 campaign, and if you’re interested at looking at some of the things I talked about you can find it here. One of the things I’m proudest of during my first run was taking a stand for LGBTQ rights, which you can read about in this piece, entitled “Read This Mich. Democrat’s Epic Response to Antigay Group’s ‘Pile of Excrement’” by Advocate.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that I would pick up Hillary Clinton’s new book about the 2016 election, perhaps too obviously titled What Happened. I’ve never read a post-election book written by a presidential candidate before, and I typically stray away from political books in general (unless it’s an academic, scholarly work). Still, given the events of the election I felt that this was a time that I could expand my horizons, if only just once. Before we get into the review, I want to plug her new project, Onward Together, an organization created to promote progressive values.

Every day that I was a candidate for President, I knew that millions of people were counting on me, and I couldn’t bear the idea of letting them down. But I did. I couldn’t get the job done, and I’ll have to live with that for the rest of my life.

What Happened tells the tale, from the perspective of Hillary Clinton, of the 2016 presidential election. A good deal of the book focuses on the Democratic Primary, which, as anyone who pays attention to politics can tell you, was especially acrimonious. However, the book is quintessentially a feminist book under all of the focus on recent history. Indeed, Clinton spends a great deal of time talking about women’s issues and how they impacted her life and political career.

To say that What Happened is biased misses the point. Of course it’s biased, but the book acknowledges that. I think the level of enjoyment you’re likely to derive from this book is how much credibility and trustworthiness you’re willing to lend Clinton. I voted for her in the general election, and I supported her for much of the primary (I voted for Bernie, but started out supporting Clinton). I’m probably willing to give her a little more credibility than a good deal of people, and I think that this comes from my own experience in politics.

The book is split into sections, with titles like “Perseverance,” which are, in turn, split into smaller chapters. These sections are thematic, and give the book a sense of order and purpose. I appreciated this because it helped to order the events as I remembered and experienced them, and orientated them toward themes about politics, the election, feminism, and policy that Clinton explores in the book.

It’s a long book, clocking in at 492 pages (including the index), so it requires a good investment of time. However, if you’re as interested in politics, history, and policy as I am, the pages seem to turn themselves. Whether or not you agree or disagree with Clinton’s perspective–or even if you don’t like her, personally–the book is still a good resource for those of us who are interested in learning more about the way the 2016 presidential election unfolded.

I wear my composure like a suit of armor, for better or worse. In some ways, it felt like I had been training for this latest feat of self-control for decades.

What really works in the book is Clinton’s voice. I’m very aware that she didn’t write the book without help from two other people, but somehow her voice comes out clearly in the pages. Her voice is intelligent, stately, and sure (except for the times it isn’t, and you can empathize with that). The result is that it creates a narrative that doesn’t let you go very easily. I found the book extremely easy to read, and it certainly held my interest. One of the greatest criticisms you hear lobbed at her is that she is robotic and closed off, but the voice she lends here is extremely personal.

Clinton opens herself up to criticism in this book, and she shows us a vulnerable, insecure side under the calm and collected veneer she presents for the camera. Her riff on what it was like to be with Donald Trump on the debate stage is testament to her self-control, and if you read it with an open mind I think you get a sense of the strength of character it would take to step on the same stage with him. As the above quote notes, and as she spent many pages illustrating, being a woman in politics, especially in national politics, is difficult. Clinton claims, and I agree, that she had to maintain composure and restrain herself, whereas her male counterparts could express anger and raise their voices.

Early in the book she writes about the daily ritual on the campaign trail, including how she relied on people for makeup and hairdressing. There’s definitely a note of resentment in her voice when she notes how it’s easier for men. In fact, on page 88 she says, “The few times I’ve gone out in public without makeup, it’s made the news.” I can’t even imagine operating in politics and having to put so much energy into my appearance. I was the kind of person who would throw on a shirt and some blue jeans and I could get away with that.

I could even get away with looking angry and not shaving. Five o’clock shadow may have doomed Nixon in the 1960 election, but it was all the rage in 2014.

In politics, the personal narrative is vital.

I think, perhaps, one of the most gut-wrenching things that I read in the book is when she writes, on page 117, that part of the reason she went to Yale was because a Harvard professor said to her, “We don’t need anymore more women at Harvard.” This came after a paragraph of explaining how men approached her when she was one of two women taking the law school admissions test. The men essentially behaved as if Clinton and her friend were stealing their places, and not earning their own.

Later, on page 118, she writes, “I was used to a narrow set of expectations,” noting how sad she is that women are judged by their appearance. Especially relevant is how women will only have attention paid to them if they look a certain way, otherwise they’ll be dismissed. She then says, “…one of the reasons he lost the Governor’s race in 1980 was because I still went by my maiden name…When he lost, and I heard over and over that my name–my name!–had played a part, I was heartsick that I might have inadvertently hurt my husband and let down his team.” I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around the kind of mindset that would cause people to not vote for a candidate because his wife did not share his last name. This way of thinking seems foreign to me, but it also betrays another ignorance of mine: the fact is that people blamed Hillary for Bill’s loss. It was her responsibility, and her blame to take.

There’s definitely a current of feminist fury running through the book, and it is well-justified given the ground we’ve already covered. Clinton had a lot of barriers to break in her life and in politics, and she has, despite her detractors, made truly historical accomplishments. In a lot of ways, What Happened is a feminist manifesto, and this shines through in Clinton’s voice throughout the text. On page 143 she makes sure to note that, in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Princess Leia gets a promotion to general. And she’s right: general is seen as a promotion–a higher rank than merely princess–and denotes merit rather than inheritance.

A few pages later, on 147, she writes that someone at NASA wrote to her, in response to a letter testifying to her desire to be an astronaut, “Sorry, little girl, we don’t accept women into the space program.” She then writes, “The fact that I was female was secondary; sometimes it practically slipped my mind. Other women may have had different experiences, but that’s how it was for me.” Gender was not front and center in her life unless someone put it there. When she got that letter from NASA, or her experiences noted above, or when she gets news coverage for not wearing makeup. There’s an extremely powerful story in her life, and she tells it without flinching.

And show tunes are the best soundtrack for tough times. You think you’re sad? Let’s hear what Fantine from Les Miserables has to say about that.

Absolutely one of my favorite aspects of this book is Clinton’s voice. It’s an incredibly personal account, written from a first-person perspective, as if she’s having a conversation with you. It’s easy to connect to her, especially if you share the emotions which come breaking through the pages. She’s constantly making references to pop-culture, to TV shows like Game of Thrones, and shares opinions on all of them.

She’s also fantastically snarky. She makes sure to poke Russian President Vladamir Putin in the eye, and one of my favorite lines in the book was, “Good ‘get’ for the Times; they really ate CNN’s lunch on that one” (pg. 60) in reference to an analysis of her lunch at Chipotle  conducted by The New York Times. As Clinton says a few sentences later, “…sometimes a burrito bowl is just a burrito bowl.”

The FBI wasn’t the Federal Bureau of Ifs or Innuendos.

The book delves fairly deeply into the controversy surrounding her use of emails. The above quote is from a long section related to the press coverage of the emails, the way that congress investigated them, and especially James Comey’s conduct in the investigation, his much-castigated press conference admonishing Clinton, and his general mishandling of the entire affair. She lays out her case using quotes from respectable and credible sources with a rather complete timeline, and she shows how biased The New York Times was in its reporting. She gives stats and data about the slant of the news coverage about her emails compared to other campaign issues, and shows how all of that dominated the narrative of the campaign.

Of course, I’m already primed to agree with her about the way the political press handles politics and policy reporting. I didn’t have any negative experiences personally when I ran for office, but I’ve long seen how the 24/7 news coverage demands creating narratives about scandal to get those sweet, sweet clicks and views. Policy and facts are rarely covered, while sensationalist pap is unrelentingly broadcast at all hours. Experts have been swapped out for pundits and talking heads who are, in my judgment, wrong 90% of the time and right merely by accident in their critiques and predictions. Truly our newsmedia is failing us.

I’m coming around to the idea that what we need more than anything at this moment in America is what you might call ‘radical empathy.

The book did leave me uneasy specifically in one regard. Throughout the text Clinton talks about how her faith and spirituality play an important role in her life and the actions she takes. I respect that, of course, just as I hope she would respect my lack of faith and spirituality as an atheist and secular humanist. However, she says that faith and spirituality play a big part in civic virtue. My problem with this is not in the inclusion of faith and spirituality in the conversation or as an aspect of civic virtue for some people. What worries me is that this feels exclusionary. I’m left to ask if my values fit in with this conception of civic virtue, and I honestly don’t know the answer to that. In the past I’ve been in conversations with people who have said that “the Democratic Party cannot be the party of atheists.”

It seems unnecessarily exclusionary to me, and I react with dismay at these kinds of sentiments. I understand that faith and spirituality play a huge role in many people’s lives. I don’t have an inherent problem with that, and I want to include them in the party and the process of government. But they’re not the only components of civic virtue, and I would argue that they’re not even intrinsic in a general sense. I really don’t want to litigate this issue anymore, but if I’m to be told that the Democratic Party doesn’t have a spot for me because I’m an atheist then I’m left to wonder why I should support that party.

But I’m not cynical enough, yet, to think that it was meant to be exclusionary. A lot of the book is dedicated to the proposition that what’s needed in politics is less anger and resentment, but more empathy and conversation. I know how hard this will be to achieve, and for me personally it might be a lot to ask for me to empathize with people who are fundamentally opposed to my values or even my basic existence as a biracial person. However, I’m willing to try because I think empathy should be our rallying cry as we push back on the politics of division and anger. As Present Barack Obama often said, “I am my brother’s keeper.”

Things are going to be hard for a long time. But we’re going to be okay. All of us.

Despite how badly the election turned out, the book does end on a hopeful note. She quotes from Tala Nashawati, the student speaker at Wellesley’s 2017 graduation ceremony, “You are rare and unique. Let yourself be flawed. Go proudly and confidently into the world with your blinding hes to show everyone who’s boss and break every glass ceiling that still remains” (pg. 464). She juxtaposes this against the hopelessness and despair a lot of people felt after Donald Trump was declared the President-Elect, and it’s effective. Don’t give in to the bad impulses or despair.

Keep fighting. Keep pushing forward. Things change, and they eventually get better. The fact that we can go from NASA telling Hillary Clinton that they don’t accept women as astronauts to her winning the popular vote by three million votes is testament to that.

In the final analysis, I found What Happened to be a good read. I give it a rating of 5 out of 5 stars, and recommend it to anyone who is interested in politics, policy, and current events.

Thank you for reading!

PhilCon

November 18, 2017 1 comment

Hello, dear readers!

This will be a quick post covering the single day of PhilCon I managed to attend. Unfortunately, my fiancee Anastasia became ill and I didn’t really want to go to the rest of the convention without her. There’s not really that much to talk about, so this will be a rather brief post.

The day we attended was the first day, Friday the 10th, and we made it to three panels. The first one was called “Writing for Aliens: Anatomy and Biology,” and was presented by people who had expertise in biology. The topic of discussion was alien anatomy, evolution, and physiology in science fiction. It provided fascinating insights into how xenobiology might work in the real world, and how it could work (but doesn’t necessarily have to) in science fiction. I was able to comment, at one point, that I would be willing to sacrifice absolute verisimilitude in favor of an interesting story, or the exploration of a theme within the story. That is to say, I would be willing to accept something that’s not scientific about alien life–say that they are able to reproduce with other aliens or that they may be a lot like us–if it makes for an interesting story or explores an interesting idea.

For example, I love Star Trek Discovery. I plan on writing some thoughts about it later, but I think it really takes the Star Trek franchise in a really good direction. But the entire conceit with the spore drive and the quantum mycelium and all that jazz is just nonsense. When I first heard the in-universe explanation for it I winced and dismissed it as the worst kind of Star Trek technobabble. But the spore drive, as a focus for the way that the story unfolds, is a fascinating idea and it serves a greater function than a mere Macguffin.

The second panel was one which Anastasia moderated, and it was called “Fandom and Identification.” This one delved into topics that would be considered political, but that’s really hard to avoid when you’re talking about how people are portrayed in the media. Make no mistake: this is a very important conversation to have and this panel delved deeply into some of the panelists’ personal experience. In all honesty, it was an absolutely fantastic discussion, and it produced some interesting perspectives on the visibility of minorities and women in the media.

The final discussion was a late one, beginning and eleven and going until midnight. The topic was ostensibly about writing crisis scenes, and the panel was called “How to Write a Crisis for a 21st Century Audience.” The conversation veered off topic for a fair portion of the panel, but the parts of the discussion that did relate to the topic were interesting. For instance, we explored the idea of what really makes a crisis–does it involve physical damage, immediate threat, or something else?

My two favorite parts of the evening was meeting Tom Doyle, author of the American Craftsmen series of books, and meeting David Walton, author of books like The Genius Plague (which I’ve reviewed here). I first met both Tom and David at the Escape Velocity convention in Washington, D.C., and I feel like our conversations are always fascinating and insightful. Tom even participated in a panel that I had suggested called “The Role of Antiquity and Myth in Science Fiction.” I regret not being able to attend that panel because I was really looking forward to a thorough exploration of that idea.

As a final note, on the table of freebies given out of a first come, first serve basis was a book by Kerry Nietz called Amish Vampires in Space. Apparently Jimmy Fallon did a short riff on it a while ago on his show.

This was the first time I had ever heard of it. I flipped through it and…well, I’m not entirely sure how to respond to it. It has 96 reviews on Amazon.com, with a 4.2 out of 5 rating, so someone thinks it’s worth reading. I might put it on my very lengthy “to-read” list, but with everything that I have going on I’m not sure I’ll have enough time to get to it. Kerry Nietz, if you’re out there, this has to be one of the craziest ideas I’ve seen in a long, long time.

Well, this is a thing that exists.