Monday, May 25, 2015

Tomorrowland

"When I was younger, the future was... different."  So says Frank Walker (George Clooney), one of the heroes of Brad Bird's Tomorrowland, in the opening narration that acts as a frame for the film's story.  It probably says everything you need to know about this movie that Frank--and the film itself--seem entirely unaware of the irony and self-contradiction inherent in a statement like this, and in case you were still in any doubt, the movie immediately flashes back to the 1964 World's Fair, where an 11-year-old Frank (Thomas Robinson) has arrived to submit his entry in a young inventors' competition--a jetpack.  When questioned about the utility of such a creation, Frank thinks for a moment, and then explains that if he were walking down the street and saw someone flying above him with a jetpack, he'd be inspired to believe that anything was possible: "Doesn't that make the world a better place?"

Bird is probably best known for directing Pixar's The Incredibles, still the best superhero film ever made despite--or perhaps even because--of its deeply uncomfortable political subtext.  Tomorrowland shares The Incredibles's retro-futuristic aesthetic (which, to be honest, probably looks better in animation than in live action--there's a rather pronounced uncanny valley effect that speaks very loudly to the problems with how people in the 60s imagined the cities of the future), and its overt politics, but it does not manage the earlier film's flawless amalgam of message and story.  The Incredibles is a troubling work because its story is so compelling and so well-constructed that it all but forces you to buy into its quasi-fascist worldview, without ever truly coming out and stating it.  Tomorrowland is a clunkier piece of storytelling, at points so loaded with infodumps, and so fond of the genre trope in which the protagonist is launched (quite literally) into a new world, that I found myself thinking of it more like a two-hour pilot for a TV series than a feature film--the whole thing feels more like setup for a story than the story itself.  It's also a lot more blatant about its message, which is delivered in canned speeches at several points throughout the movie.  If, like myself, you find that message questionable (or at least founded on questionable assumptions) then the film's baldness can be taken as a point in its favor, since it makes it easier to argue with.  But it's hard not to regret The Incredibles-level work that we might have had with a more canny writer (Tomorrowland's script is credited to Bird, Damon Lindelof, and Jeff Jensen) at the helm.

After a rather protracted opening segment in 1964, in which young Frank is given a pass to the titular Tomorrowland--a place of technological wonders and flawless urban planning--by a mysterious little girl called Athena (Raffey Cassidy), the action flashes forward to the present, where our heroine is the effervescent, scientifically-minded teenager Casey Newton (Britt Robertson).  The daughter of a NASA engineer who still dreams of going into space, Casey spends her nights trying to sabotage the deconstruction of a local launch platform, and her days frustrated by the litany of hopelessness--political, environmental, and cultural--fed to her at school.  "How can we fix it?" she demands of her flustered teachers.  When she's given a glimpse of Tomorrowland, she becomes obsessed with reaching it, which puts her in the path of the grown-up Frank and of Athena, who turns out to be childlike robot (this means, among other things, that the main romantic plotline in the film is between Clooney and a ten-year-old girl; in fairness to Tomorrowland, the handling of this is less weird than it might have been--largely because Cassidy is great and consistently steals the show out from under her two co-stars--but still pretty weird).

To actually describe the progress of the plot from the moment our three heroes are brought together--which involves being pursued by homicidal androids and lots of bouncing from one point on the globe to another--is to draw attention to how inessential most of it is.  The point seems to be mainly to provide excuses for kinetic action setpieces (which are well done but eventually a little repetitive--there are only so many times Frank can bundle Casey up into something that isn't supposed to function as a vehicle only to reveal that that's what it is), and for the cynical Frank to bounce off the optimistic Casey.  At some point, the end of the world comes into play--the people of Tomorrowland built a machine that shows the future, which revealed that the Earth is doomed.  When they tried to warn humanity, they instead discovered that the subliminal images of apocalypse they transmitted were being embraced, used as fodder for pop culture and an excuse to do nothing about the world's problems.  In disgust, they shut themselves away from the world, but Frank insists that there is still hope--that people like Casey, with their boundless capacity for optimism, are capable of changing the future, and that it is in fact the narrative of hopelessness being fed to the world that is creating that hopeless outcome.  If Tomorrowland provides the world with an image of hope and a better tomorrow, Frank and Casey insist, it will inspire people to create it.

There's a certain class of science fiction fan who will eat up Tomorrowland and its message with a spoon, and it should be said that there's a lot worth celebrating in the film.  Simplistic as it is, the message that it's important to believe in the possibility of change is a worthwhile one, and the fact that it's placed in the mouth of a girl, and a technically-minded one at that, is refreshing and laudable.  But if you're like me, you'll probably also find Tomorrowland unbearably hectoring, and it's worth examining why.  To me, it all comes down to Frank's thoughtless assertion about how he had a better class of future back in 1964.  You need to be pretty damn arrogant to expect that fifty years on, people should still desire the same future you dreamed of as a child, and pretty damn ignorant too--jetpacks are actually a really bad idea, and people in 1964 could not have imagined the microchip and telecommunications revolutions that have made such incredible changes in the world (allowing, for example, a woman in Israel to speak to people all over the planet at the speed of light).   

Tomorrowland's argument is that the future that we in the present imagine is inherently worse than the one that golden age SF imagined.  To my mind this is stretching the point quite a bit--I refuse to believe that no one was writing post-apocalypse in the 1960s, and as popular as the genre is today it doesn't hold a candle to the popularity of the inherently hopeful superhero genre.  But even if we accept the film's premise, to argue that this shift comes down to nothing but a personal failure of the present generation is to ignore some very important political realities.  Frank is a baby boomer, a member of a generation who enjoyed unprecedented government protection of their rights and safety, a social safety net, and huge public works projects, and who then turned around and pulled the ladder up after them; there's a reason why young people today, facing a future of debt, inequality, and environmental collapse, don't feel like imagining a rosy tomorrow.  Setting the film's backstory in 1964 also puts it just on the cusp of immense social upheaval that would, quite reasonably, have changed the way that we imagine our future in ways that the movie for the most part doesn't acknowledge--though the final scene shows Frank and Casey recruiting people of many different ethnicities from all over the world, in the body of the movie the cast is entirely white (with the exception of an evil robot played--impeccably, of course--by Keegan-Michael Key).  Most importantly, Tomorrowland seems to take it as a given that the imagined future of 1964--that secret world of jetpacks, monorails, and shining concrete-and-glass skyscrapers--is inherently good, and I don't think the film earns that assumption.

At their worst, dystopia and utopia have exactly the same problem.  They are both stories about an elite.  When Frank arrives in Tomorrowland, he's told that it's a place where the bright and energetic can build a better tomorrow without "politics and bureaucracy" getting in the way.  This is, of course, exactly what you get when half a dozen bright people who can't imagine that there's anything they don't understand get together and decide that no one in the history of humanity has had the idea they're having right now (as usual, XKCD already has this dynamic pinned down).  When you actually get out in the real world, however, with its seven billion inhabitants, politics and bureaucracy become, not impediments, but necessary tools for getting anything done.  Often, the ideas that seemed so brilliant on paper turn out to be unworkable when you have to apply them to actual human beings, who aren't willing to let you overturn their lives for the sake of an experiment.  There's a certain type of science fiction writer who seems to find this terribly depressing, and who instead of trying to write about human society in its full, dizzying complexity, decides that they can tell their readers something meaningful about the world by removing all but a tiny fraction of a percent of the people who live on it, whether by positing an apocalypse, or, as Tomorrowland does, by whisking its heroes off to a magic world where only the smart, special people get to go.

When you actually put that world on screen, however, it becomes clear just how unreal this vision is.  The Tomorrowland that Frank and Casey see never looks like a real city.  It's too designed, too homogenous, too clean.  Real cities grow in patchwork.  They develop in response to the needs of their inhabitants (if we're lucky, that is).  It's completely unsurprising when Casey arrives at the real Tomorrowland and finds it abandoned, unmaintained, full of broken glass and crumbling concrete.  This is what happened to the grandiose urban planning projects of the 60s, the ones that thought they could design new humans to live in them--all that's missing is the graffiti.  So it's more than a little unbelievable that the movie ends with Frank and Casey restarting the Tomorrowland project, planning to bring people to that city of the future that now looks like a forgotten, overgrown past.

I found myself comparing Tomorrowland to another recent kids' film, Big Hero 6.  Though technically a superhero movie, it shares many qualities and preoccupations with Tomorrowland.  Like it, it's a story about the struggle between despair and hopefulness (albeit on a personal level, with the hero struggling to find a way to overcome his grief over the death of his brother, and the villain having succumbed to despair after losing his daughter), and also like Tomorrowland, it is a story about inventors, about young people who believe they can change the world through the force of their intelligence and ingenuity.  But where Tomorrowland imagines that the only way to achieve this is to whisk its dreamers away from the mundane, troublesome world that is holding back their brilliance, Big Hero 6 is determined to stay connected to it.  Its imaginary setting of San Fransokyo is everything that Tomorrowland wants to be but isn't--a vibrant, multicultural, livable city where people of all classes and backgrounds meet.  Its inventor characters aren't cut off from the world, but working in the middle of it and responding to it, creating things that people around them might find helpful and useful.

Of course, San Fransokyo is a fantasy (and a particularly saddening one, given that in our world San Francisco is increasingly becoming a city for the rich) but it's important to note what kind of fantasy it is.  Big Hero 6's protagonist, Hiro, can become a hero because he has the infrastructure around him that allows him to--a city where he can live and move around and experience many different walks of life, a university where he can be challenged and given tools to develop his skills, a legal system that doesn't criminalize him when he acts out after experiencing terrible loss, and which prioritizes his rights over those of corporations.  If you want an optimistic vision of the future that I'd like to sign on to, this would be it, far more than Tomorrowland's sterile playground of the elite.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

Before I start talking about Mad Max: Fury Road, I should probably say that I haven't seen any of the other films in the Mad Max series, and that I'm not feeling a particular need to catch myself up.  This should not be taken as a criticism of Fury Road, which is indeed as brilliant and exhilarating as advertized, and whose gorgeous, pulse-pounding action scenes put the rest of Hollywood's blockbuster movies to shame (in particular, the recent Avengers: Age of Ultron, whose busy but weightless extravaganzas of destruction now seem almost embarrassing in comparison; one wishes that Marvel would send all its directors to George Miller for lessons).  But Fury Road is also a fairly self-contained piece of filmmaking--essentially a two-hour-long chase sequence--that neither requires nor rewards an investment in its characters or world beyond the scope of its story.  I've seen the film compared to Gravity, another gorgeous, propulsive action movie with minimal story and characters, and the comparison seems very apt.  Like Gravity, Mad Max is utterly absorbing while you're watching it, but I don't feel any particular interest in visiting its world again.

Part of this might have something to do with the fact that the film's title character often feels like the least essential thing about it.  Tom Hardy has rather quickly gained a reputation as the thinking person's action star, and fans have been waiting for him to find his breakout role, but I'm not sure that Fury Road is it.  The film begins with Max, a survivor in the desertified, post-apocalyptic hellscape in which the series is set, being captured by the henchmen of the warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who plans to use him as a "bloodbag" for one of his crazed warriors.  When one of Joe's top lieutenants, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), escapes on a decked-out big rig in which she has stowed five of Joe's enslaved "wives," Max is carried along with the pursuing war party as a snack for the road.  For the rest of the film, even as he demonstrates the ingenuity and survival instincts that have kept him alive for so long, Max seems less mad than depressed, haunted by the deaths of loved ones he couldn't save, and driven to keep running and fighting not because he has any hope for the future, but because he doesn't know how to do anything else.  It's a surprisingly low-key character turn for a movie that features, among other things, an army of death-crazed warrior-boys who travel with their own death metal guitar player, suspended in mid-air before a wall of speakers that has been mounted on an off-road vehicle, the better to provide a soundtrack for their orgy of destruction.  Hardy doesn't exactly get lost in the shuffle as a result, but when the film ended with him bidding farewell to its characters and moving on, I didn't exactly feel motivated to follow.

Still, if Max feels less like a mover of the plot than someone who has stumbled into it and is just trying to get out alive, that's obviously part of the film's intention.  Fury Road is Furiosa's story.  She's the one who came up with the plan to rescue the wives, and she's the one whose backstory--she was kidnapped as a child from an idyllic, matriarchal society, a "green place" where she hopes to return--ends up driving the movie.  This fact is part of the reason that Fury Road is being lauded for its feminist credentials, and though these are obviously present (Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler was apparently brought in to consult on the script) and treated seriously, I think there's a danger of blowing them out of proportion.  A lot of what Fury Road does with regards to women--making the prime mover of the story a woman who is not sexualized or treated as the hero's prize, featuring multiple female characters, not all of whom are young and beautiful, passing the Bechdel test--is not so much revolutionary as the very baseline of what we should expect from most movies--what we would expect, if we hadn't become so accustomed to the toxic sludge of misogyny that Hollywood blockbusters have been serving up for twenty years.  In fact, the more I think about it, the more Fury Road seems not like a revolution, but like a throwback to the action films of the 80s, before the genre gained the respectability that comes from being Hollywood's primary source of revenue, back when it was still possible to put women and people of color front and center, to be weird and grotesque, and not have to worry about courting an audience made up of thirteen-year-old boys.

(The slightly exaggerated enthusiasm with which Fury Road's feminism has been received is presumably the reason that some of the problems with how the film handles its female characters have so far been elided from its critical reception.  For one thing, the film indulges in the particularly annoying trope of a woman who has spent ages planning a heist or an escape or a rebellion, but who for some reason needs the help of the man who has just now stumbled upon the plan to carry it out.  Fury Road isn't as bad on this front as, say, Guardians of the Galaxy, but it certainly knocks you out of the story when Furiosa reaches one of the crucial stages of her escape plan, and suddenly needs Max's help to get through it even though he's only been on her rig for a few minutes.  For another, though Furiosa herself isn't subject to the male gaze--she's all close-cropped, salt-and-pepper hair, sensible clothes, and of course a wicked-looking prosthetic arm--the wives aren't so lucky, and it feels particularly significant that they're all young, beautiful, thin, and clothed in skimpy, diaphanous shawls (especially as we see that Immortan Joe has other wives--older, obese women who are pumped for mother's milk like literal cows--who are not part of the escape plan).  The first time we and Max see the wives, they're washing the dust of their escape off each other with a hose as their minimalistic clothing clings to their bodies and goes see-through.  In the screening I attended, the young men sitting in the row behind me did not sound as if their consciousness was being raised.)

What feels much more important to Fury Road's feminist credentials than any particular character or plot point is the very premise of the movie.  I've seen reviewers try to read Fury Road as a statement about human trafficking and sex slavery, which honestly makes about as much sense as trying to read it as a screed against pumping women for mother's milk.  Both of these plot points are merely exaggerated expressions of the true evil at the heart of the movie, toxic masculinity.  Immortan Joe treats women as possessions, brood mares, and cows, yes, but he also treats young men as cannon fodder.  His "war boys" are literally that, children raised to desire nothing but violence, taught that a glorious death in battle will secure them immortality in Valhalla, either unfamiliar with or openly hostile to all soft emotions.  Much attention is paid to their traditions, all of which are designed to glorify both Joe and the boys' sacrifice of their bodies and sanity in the pursuit of his quest, but when Joe removes his favor, the war boys are revealed as what they are: empty children incapable of grasping the complexity of the world, clinging to fairy tales told to them by an uncaring parent.  The brilliance of the movie is less in telling a woman's story, and more in so baldly demonstrating how old men with power will use young men as their tools and weapons, by teaching them to hate and fear women.

This emphasis on toxic masculinity is, however, a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, this is the dirty, diseased secret at the heart of so much of our culture (and our entertainment in particular) and it's refreshing to have it out in the open, even if the message is likely to fly over the heads of much of the audience (and some reviewers).  On the other hand, it means that Fury Road is a feminist work that is ultimately about men.  The only real character arc in the movie belongs not to Max or Furiosa, but to Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a war boy who starts the movie in love with death, and ends it having learned to value kindness and friendship.  Women, meanwhile, are left inert by a story like this.  If masculinity, taken to its illogical extreme, is held up as a cult of death, then femininity--which represents emotion, compassion, and of course motherhood and the possibility of new life--is inherently good, and this leaves no room for women to change, grow, make mistakes, and of course feel angry and vengeful.  The film has the good sense to give the wives different personalities and attitudes--from the saintly Angharad (Rosie Huntingon-Whiteley), who preaches forgiveness towards the war boys, to the more militant Toast (Zoë Kravitz) who is happy to blow their brains out--but none of them, nor for that matter Furiosa, is as damaged or as angry as their situation would seem to demand.  They've all held on to their souls in a way that that the men (including Max) haven't managed to, and it's hard not to feel that this is because they are women.

Fury Road ends with Immortan Joe's death, and with Furiosa returning to his stronghold as a conquering hero.  In another movie, this might have been taken as an ambivalent, even bleak ending.  In the unforgiving world of this series, after all, one dictator isn't much different than the other.  Furiosa might not keep a harem or train child soldiers, but she'll still need workers to do the backbreaking labor of pumping water from beneath the ground, and warriors to fight off the other tribes in the area.  It feels odd to say this, but a film less committed to a feminist message might have been willing to acknowledge that a woman's victory isn't necessarily a victory for good.  (Another way in which the film's feminism obscures its other problems is the near-uniform whiteness of its cast.)  But then, in the world of the Mad Max movies, the triumph of good probably isn't a real option.  The best you can hope for is survival, and a brief respite from struggle.  This Fury Road delivers, and, more importantly, earns.  At the end of its explosive, deranged chase, you genuinely want its characters to catch their breath and feel safe for a little while, even if a moment's reflection leaves you wondering just how safe they truly are.

Friday, May 01, 2015

The 2015 Hugo Awards: A Few Thoughts as Voting Opens

Nearly a month after the announcement of this year's Hugo nominations, the story has settled down from a furious boil to a steady simmer.  The best sources for ongoing discussion and the increasingly silly backpedaling from the Rabid Puppy camp continue to be Mike Glyer's File 770 and James Nicoll's LJ, but I wouldn't blame anyone for feeling overwhelmed by the sheer breadth and depth of the discussion.  The purpose of this post, then, is to highlight a few key pieces of information that are particularly relevant now that voting has opened.  I'll probably repost this once or twice as we get closer to the voting deadline.
  • Voting for the 2015 Hugo awards is now open, and will close on July 31st, 11:59 PDT.  You are eligible to vote if you are an attending or supporting member of Sasquan, the 2015 Worldcon in Spokane, Washington (to clarify: members of the 2014 and 2016 Worldcons, who were eligible to nominate for this year's Hugos, can only vote for the winners if they are also members of Sasquan).  If you're already a member, you should either have received or will soon receive your membership number and PIN, which are necessary for online voting.  If they don't arrive by next week, you can get them on the PIN lookup page, or by contacting the award's administrators at this address.

  • You can become a supporting member and exercise your voting privileges at any point between now and the voting deadline.  Sasquan has experienced a massive boost in membership since the Hugo nominees were announced, almost all of it made up of supporting memberships.  Supporting members are also eligible to receive the Hugo voting packet, which will probably be released towards the end of this month.

  • Since the nominees were announced, several changes were made to the ballot.  Two of the Rabid Puppies nominees were disqualified and removed from the ballot.  Two other authors--Marko Kloos (Best Novel, Lines of Departure) and Annie Bellet (Best Short Story, "Goodnight Stars")--asked to be removed because they did not wish to be associated with the Rabid Puppies campaign.  After the award's administrators announced that the ballot was finalized, two other nominees, Black Gate (Best Fanzine) and Edmund R. Schubert (Best Editor, Short Form), announced that they were declining their nominations as well, though their names still appear.  The final ballot can be seen here.

  • There's been a lot of discussion about what the correct approach to voting should be this year.  My policy is still that, with the exception of the Dramatic Presentation categories, I will be No Award-ing all the Puppy selections (that said, I will be placing the Puppy-endorsed episode of Grimm nominated in Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form under No Award, because it isn't very good at all). Deirdre Saoirse Moen has a guide if this is how you'd like to vote.

  • In addition to No Award-ing the Puppies, there are two other categories where I will be voting No Award for all nominees.  I've already written about the Best Fan Writer category, and in addition I will not be voting to give a Hugo in the Best Novelette category, even though it contains a non-Puppy nominee in the form of Thomas Olde Heuvelt's "The Day the World Turned Upside Down."  Chance has written eloquently about the many problems with this story, which does not deserve to win a Hugo by default.

  • Speaking of Chance, she's thrown herself on the grenade of the Rabid Puppies' short fiction selections, and is reviewing them one by one with sad and hilarious results.  Her reviews are required reading, first if you like funny and snarky writing, but also if you're still under the impression that literary merit has anything to do with this campaign.

  • In addition to voting for the Hugos, supporting members of Sasquan may vote in the site selection ballot to choose the location of the 2017 Worldcon.  I would very much like to see the Worldcon come to Helsinki, so I will definitely be voting in this election, but the process is a bit complicated.  To vote for site selection, you not only need to be a member of Sasquan, but you have to pay an additional site selection fee of $40.  This fee will be converted into a supporting membership of whichever bid wins the right to host the 2017 Worldcon.  While it is possible to vote for site selection online (by scanning your ballot and emailing it to the convention), at the moment Sasquan is only taking payments for this additional voting fee via check or money order, which obviously puts international voters at a significant disadvantage.  The convention has promised that online payment will be available in a few weeks, and I'll make announcements about that, either here or on my twitter feed, when it happens.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

An Impressionistic Painting: Thoughts on Daredevil

In the fifth episode of the new Netflix series Marvel's Daredevil, lawyer-by-day, vigilante-by-night Matt Murdoch (Charlie Cox) explains to his new friend Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) how he sees the world.  Blinded in a childhood accident, Matt discovered that his other senses had become superhumanly sharp, allowing him to perceive far more than ordinary people.  "You have to think of it as more than just five senses," he tells Claire.  "I can't see, not like everyone else, but I can feel.  Things like balance, direction, micro-changes in air density, vibrations, blankets of temperature variations.  Mix all that with what I hear, subtle smells.  All of the fragments form a sort of... impressionistic painting."  It's a speech that offers insight not only to Daredevil's title character, but to the show itself, which often feels less like a straightforward narrative than an impressionistic work in its own right, zooming in and out of its story in a way that seems almost random.  It's a novel approach, especially in genre TV, but one that hasn't entirely paid off, resulting in a series that is brilliant at points, but whose whole is curiously unsatisfying.

The third effort to bring Marvel's cinematic universe to the television medium, Daredevil is also the opening volley in a project that is the televized equivalent of the ambitious Phase I.  Over the next two years, Netflix plans to release three other series--AKA Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist--featuring Marvel characters and set in roughly the same environs as Daredevil, culminating with a team-up of the four shows' heroes in The Defenders.  While the cinematic universe has been spectacularly successful, however, Marvel has so far floundered in its TV efforts.  Agents of SHIELD remains so in thrall to the events of the larger story around it (it is currently setting up events that won't pay off until 2019) that it has yet to develop characters or a story that are compelling in their own right.  Agent Carter has a dynamite main character and spectacular action scenes, but struggled to find a story to tell with them, even when limited to only eight episodes.  Daredevil rather badly needed to make a splash, and perhaps for that reason it has struck a much darker tone than the rest of the MCU (another reason is that it draws on the work of Frank Miller, who has written some of the definitive Daredevil stories, and who acted as a consultant on the show).  The core of the series is Matt's frustration with his belief that the city he loves (specifically Hell's Kitchen, the neighborhood where he grew up and still lives) is being lost to crime and corruption, and his struggle with the question of whether the best way to address this is as a lawyer, fighting for the rights of the poor and disenfranchised, or as a masked vigilante, who beats up criminals and seriously debates killing the crimelords who control them.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Daredevil--and, initially at least, the most compelling--is how fully it takes advantage of the streaming TV model, and of the expectation that it will be watched in a single or at most a few large gulps rather than week-by-week.  Freed from the need to win over an audience with standalone episodes (which hardly any genre show does well anymore, unfortunately) or to be accessible to viewers who tune in halfway through the season, the show allows itself to be structureless.  There is no straight line running through Matt's crimefighting and his pursuit of the criminal gangs plaguing Hell's Kitchen, and the show feels free to elide the parts of the story that it finds boring or unnecessary.  The first episode ends with Matt using his super-hearing to pick up the sounds of a kidnapping in progress.  The second episode begins with Claire, a nurse, finding him badly injured in the dumpster behind her building.  As she patches him up, he explains that he's been pursuing the kidnapped child and ran afoul of some people involved in the crime, but the show trusts that we don't need to see that connective tissue.

The expectation of binge-watching also allows Daredevil to draw out explanations of its world and title character.  When we first meet Matt, he's already patrolling the streets and performing seemingly impossible feats.  It takes five episodes for us to learn what his powers are and how he uses them; seven, to learn who trained him to fight and put the idea of vigilantism in his head; and ten for him to articulate why he decided to don the mask and how he justifies his violent actions.  By the same token, the season's villain, Wilson Fisk (Vincent D'Onofrio), known in the comics as Kingpin, is only introduced at the end of the third episode, and the season's eighth episode is dedicated almost entirely to him and to laying out his past.

As the first season draws on, however, the shapelessness that was initially so intriguing becomes a burden.  It saps tension from the story, which was anyway never particularly propulsive.  Fisk actually achieves the bulk of his dastardly plan at the end of the fifth episode, when he bombs several city blocks which he plans to redevelop (as noted in this brilliant dissection of the show, Daredevil simultaneously oversells and undersells the evil of a villain whose master plan is basically gentrification).  For the rest of the season, Matt is playing catch-up, trying to either prove that Fisk is a criminal or decide whether he wants to kill him.  But instead of building to a climax, the story seems rather to stumble onto a solution that allows Matt to confront and defeat Fisk without doing most of the legwork required to bring him there.

As the season grows more slack, it also becomes easier to notice that a lot of the innovation that Daredevil supposedly brings to the MCU--the emphasis on class and on the effect that crime and corruption have on the poor, the central importance of an urban setting which the hero vows to protect, the use of rich plutocrats as villains--are things that were done just recently, in the first season of Arrow.  To be fair, this is less a case of plagiarism than of two works drawing from a common source (more precisely, Arrow's first season is a blatant riff on Batman Begins, which in turn was heavily influenced by the work of Frank Miller).  But there's no denying that there are elements in Daredevil that feel as if they were lifted directly from Arrow.  Fisk's evil plan to save the city from corruption by destroying the parts of it that he has deemed too diseased echoes both Malcolm Merlyn on Arrow and Ra's Al Ghul in Batman Begins.  The season's tenth episode, "Nelson v. Murdock," centers on the disgust and dismay felt by Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), Matt's best friend and law partner, when he learns Matt's secret.  The episode is designed to show Matt how a normal, sane person reacts when they learn that he has dedicated his life to violence, but Foggy's reaction is almost word for word the one expressed by Tommy Merlyn on Arrow when he learns Oliver's secret.

To be sure, Daredevil is often much better made than Arrow, particularly the early episodes which were quite dire (it also has an obvious advantage over Arrow in being a story about class whose characters actually come from a working class background).  But it is not so much better as to completely distract from the fact that it's retreading very familiar ground, and in some cases it actually falls short.  The most crucial of these, unfortunately, is Matt himself.  Like Arrow, Daredevil is the story of how its title character grows into heroism, but the show rarely seems willing to commit to actually depicting that process.  It spends a lot of time explaining Matt's background to us, but very little time on Matt himself.  Cox is very good at showing us the various masks that Matt presents to the world, but when it comes to the anger and ugliness that lie beneath, he's rarely given enough to work with.

Matt's character arc over the course of the first season revolves around the dilemma of whether he should kill Fisk.  That's a fairly inert plot--no story that puts so much emphasis on whether or not our hero will kill a single bad guy is going to end with him doing the deed--and made even more so by the lawyerly way in which the show phrases the question--in the second episode, Matt brutally tortures a man for information and throws him off a roof, but it's OK because he lands in a dumpster and only ends up in a coma.  Arrow was actually much smarter about this issue--it started with Oliver already an unrepentant killer, and let him slowly walk back from that state over the course of its first season.  One of the problems of telling a superhero story in a gritty, "realistic" tone is that the closer you get to setting your story in something that resembles reality, the clearer it becomes that superheroes are actually a really bad idea, and that people who choose to go out at night in masks to beat up criminals are pretty messed up.  So giving your hero some space to become a better person without actually giving up the vigilante lifestyle, as Arrow does, is a good idea.  Daredevil, in contrast, paints itself into a corner--if Matt commits this particular murder, he's damned--and has nowhere to go from that point.  It ends up embroidering around the question, sometimes in ways that are very compelling--Matt's conversations with a priest (Peter McRobbie) who challenges him to decide whether he's looking for a reason not to kill Fisk, or a justification for doing so, are a consistent highlight of the season--but never in a way that leaves him room to grow or change.

Matt's flatness stands in even sharper contrast when he's compared to Fisk, who is simultaneously Daredevil's greatest accomplishment and its biggest stumbling block.  Played to perfection by D'Onofrio, Fisk is at once ruthless and deeply vulnerable.  He is also one of the series's most emotionally available characters.  In one of his earliest scenes, he makes an awkward but extremely sweet pass at a gallery owner, Vanessa Marianna (Ayelet Zurer), whose relationship with him is the season's central romantic plotline.  He has a strong, supportive friendship with his assistant Wesley (Toby Leonard Moore), who seems to genuinely care for his boss, and whose affection is clearly reciprocated.  In a show full of masculine posturing, Fisk is the only character who allows himself to behave in decidedly unmasculine ways--when Wesley is murdered, Fisk sits for a long time holding the dead man's hand in his own, and plants a kiss on his forehead before leaving.  And yet Fisk is also a deeply damaged man, scarred by the abuse of his father, whom he murdered to protect his mother, and harboring deep reserves of rage.  When his first date with Vanessa is interrupted by one of his criminal associates, Fisk kills the man in a fit of incandescent, irrational anger, shouting "you embarrassed me in front of her!"

It's an impressive, complex portrait, and I very much hope that genre prejudice will not preclude D'Onofrio from receiving some award attention for it.  But it's also a huge problem for the show that contains it, because Fisk turns out to be massively more interesting than anything else on screen, including of course the show's titular hero.  As a lot of superhero stories do, Daredevil mirrors its hero and its villain--both come from a working class background, both had violent fathers (though Matt's father, a boxer, was never abusive towards him), both care deeply about their neighborhood and believe that it has fallen to them to save it, and both struggle with deep-seated rage.  There's even an obvious echo of Matt's condition in Fisk's defining moment, when he stares unseeing at a blank wall, unable to drown out the sounds of his mother being beaten.  But the parallel runs so deep and Fisk is such a dominant figure in the story that it feels less as if Daredevil has mirrored Matt and Fisk, and more as if it has given them the exact same character arc, and let Fisk do it better.  By the end of the season, it is Fisk, not Matt, who has had a complete character arc and experienced a transformation (and it is Fisk's decisions, not Matt's, that move the plot, his own bad choices that lead to his downfall far more than Matt's heroics).  In a way, this was inevitable the moment the show chose to center itself around the question of justified violence--Fisk, who is not a hero, can come to the logical conclusion of this dilemma in a way that Matt never could, embracing his own villainy in the season's final moments.  By the end of its first season, Daredevil feels a lot more like Fisk's story than Matt's, and though this is interesting and clearly the result of deliberate choices, it's also unsupportable, especially within a universe as fundamentally conservative as the MCU.

The impressionistic storytelling, the shapeless plotting, the choice to humanize its villain and place his story at its center--these are all ways in which Daredevil tries to work within the conventions of prestige crime shows like The Wire or True Detective (and one of its core problems is that, well made though it is, it lacks the level of writing that can take these challenging tropes and weave them into a compelling story).  Another example is the over-emphasis on male characters at the expense of any women in the cast.  There are three women in Daredevil's main cast, and none of them feel particularly well served by the first season.  Claire appears in only a few episodes (Dawson is apparently intended as a crossover character between the different Netflix shows, and as her character in the comics has connections to Luke Cage she will probably be seen in his show) and seems to function primarily as a caretaker and sounding board for Matt, though she also has enough good sense to shut down their nascent romantic relationship when she realizes that he has no intention of stopping his vigilantism.  Vanessa gets more screen time, but her relationship with Fisk is frustratingly one-sided.  We learn enough about him to understand why he falls for her so deeply and so quickly.  But we learn almost nothing about Vanessa (who is hardly ever seen away from Fisk--there is only one scene in the first season that she does not share with him), much less anything that would explain why she's not only willing to date a man whom she knows to be a violent criminal, but so quickly ties her life to his, involving herself in her crimes and agreeing to go on the run with him at the season's end.

The one bright spot on the female character front is Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), a client of Matt and Foggy's who becomes their receptionist.  Unlike Claire and Vanessa, Karen is the driver of her own story, in which she investigates the criminal conspiracy that led to her being falsely accused of murder, and which inevitably leads to Fisk.  Woll is excellent at conveying not only Karen's determination, but the hint of mania that underpins it as she browbeats and steamrolls her way towards the answers about the events that tore her life apart.  Though driven by noble intentions, Karen's zeal to get at the truth and find justice for herself and others leads her to act recklessly and often unethically, and unlike Matt there is space in the show for her to become somewhat unlikable without completely losing her way.  Unfortunately, Karen's plot strand is also the season's least successful, least interesting aspect.  Her investigation somehow manages to be simultaneously too detailed and not detailed enough, drowning the viewers in a flood of meaningless names and places while signposting major breaks in the case that don't actually make any sense.  In the season's later episodes, Karen and her partner, the journalist Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall), discover that Fisk killed his father--not so much by being ace investigators but because the truth more or less falls in their laps--and walk around convinced that they have a smoking gun, even though it should be obvious that a twelve-year-old boy who killed his abusive father would be a figure of sympathy, not scorn.  It's a story undeserving of its main character, and it helps to cement the feeling that Daredevil is a lot less interested in the women in its story than in the men.

(Much has been made of the fact that the people behind the show's scenes are almost entirely men--only one of the season's episodes, for example, was co-written by a woman--and one of the ways in which this feels most obvious is the show's handling, or rather its failure to handle, women's relationship with violence.  Both Claire and Vanessa choose to become romantically involved with men whom they know to be violent, and at no point is it ever suggested that they fear that violence could be turned onto them.  It's obviously not unrealistic for women to ignore the danger that their romantic partners pose them, but the show itself never seems to consider that this is a questionable choice--despite showing us repeatedly that both Matt and Fisk have deep reserves of rage which they often have trouble controlling, we're apparently meant to take them at face value when they assure the women in their lives that "I would never hurt you."  Karen, meanwhile, comes to Matt and Foggy's attention after she's drugged while on a date with a man, and yet the obvious implications that such a setup would have for most women are never considered--drugging her is merely a means to framing her for her date's murder.  This is not the only way in which Daredevil's pretense of "realism" runs aground on the shoals of its limited perspective--for a show about poverty and class, it's jarring that the perspectives we see belong almost exclusively to white people, and it will be interesting to see the show analyzed from a disability rights perspective--but to me it was the most obvious.)

Sporadically brilliant but ultimately inadequate, Daredevil is a marked improvement on its predecessors, but still not the home run that Marvel needed to launch their Netflix experiment.  There's probably a longer discussion to be had about why Marvel does so well in its movies, but has so far struggled to expand its universe into television (while DC has had the exact opposite results).  My previous theory was that television series need room to grow and become their own story before being folded into a wider universe (one of Arrow's problems in its lackluster third season has been that so much of its storytelling is in service of jumpstarting more and more spin-offs set in its world).  But Daredevil is undeniably its own thing--even as it cribs to blatantly from so many sources.  Perhaps the problem is simply that Marvel's TV shows have the same storytelling flaws as their movies, which tend to half-ass their plots and cover for it with fun character moments and exciting action scenes.  That's not an approach that can work in a multi-part story, and especially not when your main character can't quite hold the spotlight.  There's still a lot here worth watching for, and certainly enough to build on in the second season, but I hope that future Marvel series have a stronger sense of their main character, and a more interesting story to build around them.

Friday, April 10, 2015

The 2015 Hugo Awards: Why I Am Voting No Award in the Best Fan Writer Category

It's been six days since this year's Hugo nominations were announced, and in fandom time that feels like an eternity.  As dispiriting as the nominations themselves were, the response to them has been gratifying--the consensus that the Sad and Rabid Puppies crossed a line in promoting a single slate of nominees has been swiftly reached (including in mainstream venues like Salon, Slate, and The Guardian), and I'm seeing a lot of support for the policy of No Award-ing all Puppy nominees.  With the shock of the nominations starting to fade, it's perhaps time to start looking at the nominees that are left to us, and to see how we can cobble from them a selection of winners that best reflects what we want to see from the field.

In several categories, the Puppies took all but one nomination, and those remaining nominees have no doubt taken a read of the situation and realized that they stand a very good chance of winning a Hugo by default, which is probably something they feel very conflicted about.  Taking a look at those nominees myself, I see some who would have seemed like deserving winners in any year (Julie Dillon for Best Pro Artist), and others that I don't know much about (Wes Chu for the Campbell Award).  I also see the Best Fan Writer category, in which Laura J. Mixon is the only non-Puppy nominee.  As difficult as this is to say, my plan at the moment is to rank Mixon below No Award, and I'd like to talk for a bit about my reasons for doing that.

Mixon is on the ballot because of a single post, "A Report on Damage Done by One Individual Under Several Names."  George R. R. Martin endorsed her for a nomination, and whether or not that played a deciding role in securing it for her (his endorsement was made only a day before the nominating period closed, but on the other hand he does have a huge megaphone and the Best Fan Writer category has a relatively low profile and would thus be susceptible to his influence), it reflects the perception that Mixon performed a public service in writing that report, and that the Best Fan Writer category can and should be used to reward such service.  I don't know whether I agree with that approach, but the fact that everyone (including Mixon herself) seems to agree that this is what happened makes it easier to discuss what message is sent by nominating and rewarding her.

The individual Mixon writes about was known variously as (to give a by no means complete sample) Wintefox, Valse de Lune, Pyrofennec, A Cracked Moon, and, most famously, Requires Hate.  Under that last name, she published a blog in which she wrote angry, often harsh critiques of genre fiction, particularly epic and urban fantasy.  She often came under fire for the angry tone of her reviews, and for her liberal use of violent rhetoric, often directed at authors or other reviewers she disagreed with.  Defenders of the blog argued that the anger Requires Hate displayed was merely a performance meant to illustrate her disgust with the sexist and racist tropes and plot elements she disdained, that her reviews served an important function in dismantling the prejudice that still lingers within the genre, and that attacking her rhetoric amounted to dismissing her arguments for not being presented in the correct, conciliatory tone.

The Requires Hate blog was allowed to fade away around 2012, more or less coinciding with a loud, public blow-out with a number of authors including Liz Williams and others.  Shortly thereafter, a young writer by the name of Benjanun Sriduangkaew began publishing well-received short stories in several major short fiction venues, even earning a Campbell Award nomination last year.  Known to a small number of people within the industry was the fact that Sriduangkaew and Requires Hate were the same person.  (Because that's the name under which she's continued to speak publicly, for the rest of this post I'm going to use the name Sriduangkaew to refer to this individual, even when referring to statements made under her other aliases; the impression I've formed, however, is that Benjanun Sriduangkaew is also a nom de plume--which, for the record, is a thoroughly legitimate and commonplace choice for which I see no reason to criticize her.)

What happens next is less easy to discern.  What does seem to have been substantiated is that Sriduangkaew got into a fight with author Tricia Sullivan over the latter's most recent novel, Shadowboxer, which Sriduangkaew felt presented a skewed, Orientalizing view of its Thai setting.  At some point she seems to have attacked the author Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, who refused to join in her excoriation of Sullivan's book.  At another point--and the timeline here has been very hard to gauge, so I have no idea what happened before what--Sullivan and, apparently, Williams began a whisper campaign linking Sriduangkaew to the Requires Hate persona.  This went on for several months and included, it has been claimed, contacting publishers and urging them not to buy stories from Sriduangkaew.  Finally, last fall, Nick Mamatas, who is close with Sriduangkaew and knew her identity, made a public post linking her with Requires Hate, in what he claimed was an attempt to get ahead of the rumor mill.  If Mamatas believed that his post would throw the burden of guilt on Sullivan and Williams, however, he miscalculated.  When James Nicoll reported on the affair, the comments to his post became inundated with anonymous respondents all saying the same thing--that during the ten years that she was switching identities and "performing" rage, Sriduangkaew was also engaged in campaigns of abuse and harassment against authors and fans, many of whom were still too frightened to accuse her publicly.

My own feelings about this mess are deeply conflicted.  I never thought much of the Requires Hate blog.  I appreciate--and indeed have published--angry and performative reviews that make strident points about racism and sexism, but in Requires Hate's writing the ratio of rage to actual critique and insight didn't seem to justify the effort.  Still, it was obvious that a lot of readers got something out of her writing and valued its existence, so when the rhetoric in her reviews turned violent and began to be directed at actual people, I quietly stopped reading.  I had been vaguely aware that Requires Hate was one of several pseudonyms (which, again, I see nothing wrong with), but the only one I was aware of was the one under which she commented at Ferretbrain.  There, she struck me as a bully, someone who perceived disagreement as inherently illegitimate and ruthlessly attacked anyone who expressed it.  But, since the people on the site seemed to take this in stride, it hardly felt like my place to intervene.  When the blow-up over the Requires Hate blog happened in 2012, I was sympathetic to a lot of the criticisms raised, but it also seemed clear that to stand against Requires Hate would mean standing with people I cared for even less, who would cheerfully use her behavior as a cudgel against all anti-racist, anti-sexist writing, and who would tar any angry review with the brush of "bullying."  I was dismayed to discover that the friendly Sriduangkaew persona had been a front, but in the grand scheme of things we hadn't been friends and she hadn't owed me anything.  It did not seem obvious to me that the extent of Sriduangkaew's deception justified its exposure.

I did not know about the abuse.  When the allegations surfaced in the comments to Nicoll's LJ post, however, it seemed obvious that I should have guessed.  Not only were there multiple accounts of it, but the behavior they described was entirely consistent with Sriduangkaew's public utterances, the viciousness merely turned up.  In that light, Sriduangkaew's behavior--the multiple aliases, and even more tellingly, her consistent deletion of her internet history, especially where it could cast her in a negative light--was clearly revealed as that of a predator, who makes nice with those who have power and attacks those who don't.  Sriduangkaew's apologies--one as herself and one as Requires Hate--only confirmed that impression.  They both minimize or outright ignore her actual abuses.  She is far too busy apologizing for offending the powerful to remember that she bullied and abused the powerless.

I've said all this not only to clarify where I stand on Benjanun Sriduangkaew (which is surely not something that anyone cared about) but to make it clear that I do see the value in Mixon's report, which collates evidence of Sriduangkaew's history and actions over more than a decade and in multiple guises.  Abusers thrive when the communities around them forget who they are and what they've done.  They actively encourage that forgetfulness--as Sriduangkaew has done by switching personas and erasing her own past.  Especially in a community like ours, in which newcomers are always showing up, there is a great deal of value in having a single resource to point to whenever a certain name comes up.  And there's no denying that something like Mixon's report is exactly how people with privilege and power should use them when abuse and harassment happen in their community.  (Over at SAFE, the blog she established with Tade Thompson to provide a safe space where fans of color can hopefully be protected from abuses like Sriduangkaew's, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz writes about why she feels that this value justifies awarding Mixon the Hugo.  Obviously, we disagree, but I strongly urge you to read her take in full, because it is an argument worth considering.)

But.

There is a huge difference between acknowledging that something has value and giving it an award.  The message that the latter sends is one that I, personally, am not comfortable with.  To begin with, there are huge problems with Mixon's report.  Some of them are not her fault--Sriduangkaew's self-editing and the fact that so many of her victims would only speak on condition of anonymity mean that Mixon lacks citations for many of her claims, and I can see feeling that the importance of her cause justified ignoring the conventions of good journalism.  Others, however, were entirely within her control.  The report consistently treats all of Sriduangkaew's excesses--her rage-blogging, her public bullying, and her private abuse and harassment--as if they were equally bad, whereas to my mind only the last one justifies the opprobrium that has descended upon her.  In a particularly ill-judged segment of the report, Mixon divides the people who have sounded off about Sriduangkaew into "pro-abuse" and "anti-abuse," even though it should be clear to anyone that this is an enormously complex situation with many nuances.  (UPDATE: I had misremembered that this segment was in Mixon's report.  It's actually in another LJ post by azarias.)  The report's emphasis on mathematical "proof"--Mixon includes charts and graphs to demonstrate, for example, that Sriduangkaew predominantly targeted women of color--feels perverse, especially given that Mixon is missing most of her sources.  Worst of all, unsurprisingly, are the comments, which confirm my impulse from back in 2012 that most of the people who would take an anti-Requires Hate stance are ones that I want nothing to do with.  It takes a mere instant for someone to show up and announce that Sriduangkaew's existence proves that all anti-racist writing is bullying.  Another wonders aloud whether Sriduangkaew is "really" Asian.  In her essay, Loenen-Ruiz writes that giving Mixon a Hugo demonstrates the genre community's commitment to protecting the weak and vulnerable.  I think the comments on Mixon's report demonstrate something very different.

One thing that Loenen-Ruiz and I absolutely agree on: more than race or gender or anything else, this story is about power.  There is, sadly, no shortage of abusers in the genre community, and whether they get excoriated as Sriduangkaew has (deservedly) been seems to depend a lot more on their power and connections than on what they've done.  René Walling sexually harassed a female writer at Readercon.  It took tremendous community organization and outrage to get him banned from that con (and where, might I ask, is Genevieve Valentine's Best Fan Writer nomination for her fearless and oh-so-eloquent writing about the experience of the harassment and the ordeal that followed?).  Within weeks of that decision being handed down, Walling was volunteering at the 2012 Worldcon in Chicago, and being thanked from on stage by Best Novel winner Jo Walton.  Jim Frenkel harassed women from his position as an editor at Tor for decades before anyone thought to do anything about it.  Marion Zimmer Bradley sexually abused her children and enabled the abuse of countless others by her husband, Walter Breen, something that should, if we lived in a just world, have landed her in prison for life.  Instead, the genre community seems determined to forget about it.  This last year, Deirdre Saoirse Moen and James Nicoll did yeoman's work in publicizing the sordid details of Bradley's crimes--things that were known but not spoken of--but somehow no one seems to have seriously considered them for a Hugo.

I'm not trying to say that Sriduangkaew deserves a pass because so many other, more powerful (and whiter) figures in genre got one--she clearly doesn't.  But when people like Walling and Frenkel and Bradley are allowed to skate by for years, while an author of George R. R. Martin's caliber (who is, quite justifiably, a prime target for the kind of angry rhetoric about race and gender that Requires Hate specialized in, and who just yesterday published a post in which he describes all such angry rhetoric as illegitimate) takes the time to sing the praises of Mixon's report...  Well, it makes it easier to understand why so many people were willing to ignore the problems with Sriduangkaew's public behavior for so long.  Loenen-Ruiz thinks that nominating Mixon for the Hugo shows that the community is taking abuse seriously.  I think it shows that the community will happily excoriate abuse, but only when it's committed by someone of relatively low status.

Benjanun Sriduangkaew and Vox Day are two sides of the same coin.  They're both bullies and trolls, who seem to take genuine pleasure out of causing pain and destruction.  But at the end of the day, neither one of them is really our problem.  Vox Day destroyed this year's Hugos and may have done the award permanent, irrevocable damage, but he's never going to get the prestige and recognition he so clearly craves.  Sriduangkaew has hurt real people in a terrible and lasting way--and if you take nothing else away from this post, I'd like to be clear that I consider that unforgivable--but everyone now knows what she is and her career has suffered real damage (earlier this year Tor.com--whose parent company continues to publish Orson Scott Card and John C. Wright--came under fire for publishing a story by her).  Neither one of them is our problem because neither one of them is in a position to have any real power over the community as a whole.  Our problem--our real problem--is things like the inexplicable, sickening hostility directed at projects like Con or Bust, the People of Color in European Art History project, or Tempest Bradford's challenge to take a year off reading books by white men.  Our problem is that the only thing that gets fandom up in arms over the prevalence of rape in Game of Thrones is when the rapist is a beloved male character.  Our problem is that when fans of color complain about the uniform whiteness of Agent Carter they're told that what they want is "unrealistic," and criticized for harshing white fans' squee.

There's been a lot of talk in the last six days about Us and Them.  The takeover of the Hugos by a cabal of reactionary, bigoted trolls makes it very easy for us to feel righteous and just, as the standard-bearers for social justice and equality.  But the fact is that there are a lot of people on our side who don't feel like an Us, who frequently feel that their concerns, their points of view, their grievances, are not taken into account.  What sort of message does it send to those people to give a Hugo to Laura J. Mixon and her report?  Does it tell them, as Loenen-Ruiz claims, that genre is becoming a kinder, more equitable place?  Or does it tell them that if they ever fuck up, they can look forward to being pounced upon while people with more power and status who have committed far worse crimes skate by?

In writing this, I realize that I will be seen as attacking Mixon.  I'm very sorry about that and I hope that what I've written here doesn't cause her a lot of distress.  My problem, in the end, is less with her than with the people who nominated her and who will now vote for her.  (It is also worth acknowledging that I was a Best Fan Writer nominee last year and had reasonable expectations of being on the ballot again this year.  To be honest, I'm relieved that I'm not--I wouldn't want to be in the middle of this mess--but you only have my word for that.)  I also want to urge you, again, to read Loenen-Ruiz's post, because her perspective is important--arguably, more than mine.  I would also, however, like to point out this post by Kate Nepveu, another victim of witness to Sriduangkaew's bullying (she ran was a member of an online community, 50books_poc, which was destroyed by Sriduangkaew's actions) who writes about her decision not to vote for Mixon.  I'd like to encourage you to consider these perspectives and make an informed decision, rather than voting for Mixon because she's not a Rabid Puppy (one possibility, by the way, is to put No Award first and then rate Mixon below it, which would mean your vote would go to her if No Award is eliminated).  Either way, take a moment to consider the message that your vote sends, to the people within this community as well as the Sad Puppies.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

The 2015 Hugo Awards: Thoughts on the Nominees

If you've been hanging out on (certain parts of) twitter in the last two weeks, you probably had a sense of what was coming in this year's Hugo nominations.  The rumor storm has been brewing furiously, and yet even those dark hints were not quite enough to prepare us for just how dismal this year's nominees would be.  The organized right-wing voting campaign that last year gave us Vox Day, Hugo nominee, has largely swept this year's nominees, completely sweeping six out of seventeen categories, and dominating a further seven, including best novel and the Campbell award.  There's already been a lot of talk on this issue--this thread at Making Light, begun when the whispers of this year's results began to be deafening, is more than a thousand comments long, and Mike Glyer at File 770 has been furiously collecting responses from the campaign's instigators and supporters.  There will no doubt be more verbiage spilled on this issue in the coming weeks, and maybe nothing I have to say here is particularly new, but here are my thoughts at the moment.
  • To begin with, I'd like to discourage people from referring to the bloc-voting campaign with the moniker Sad Puppies.  Larry Correia chose that name when he started encouraging his fans to "take back" the Hugos three years ago, and Brad Torgesen adopted it for his suggested slate of nominees when he took over the project this year.  In the latter case, there seems to have been a deliberate attempt to distance the Sad Puppies from the toxicity of bigots like Vox Day (who was not on Torgesen's ballot) and to present a kinder, gentler face of right-wing bloc-voting.  Day's response to this was to post his own suggested slate, the Rabid Puppies ballot, including himself in several categories.  As this analysis by Mike Glyer shows, it was Day's choices that prevailed, with almost all Puppy nominees appearing on both ballots or on Day's alone.  Our current slate of Hugo nominees are not a Sad Puppy ballot; they're a Vox Day ballot.  They represent the views of a racist, misogynistic, homophobic troll, whose supporters solicited the help of GamerGate to achieve their goals.  Using Sad Puppies as a blanket term allows the people who helped make this happen pretend that it comes down to nothing more than a political disagreement between equally valid stances (as Torgesen has been doing in the Making Light thread) instead of what it actually is, a hate campaign.

  • Having said that, it is equally important to say (and a lot of people have already said it) that the Sad and Rabid Puppies' tactics are as legitimate as their politics, whininess, sense of entitlement, and general contempt for the award they claim to crave are risible.  I don't say this out of some noble desire to fight to the death for the rights of those I disagree with (because seriously, fuck them), but because I would really like it if this year's nominations actually spurred a meaningful discussion of how the Hugos work and how we want them to work.  Already there are multiple suggestions for introducing safeguards into the system that would (it is argued) help alleviate the influence of any single determined voting bloc.  On the other hand you have people arguing that we wouldn't be seeing this result if online campaigning of any sort--including things like my recommendation posts--had not become normalized in the last decade (I have a history of being sympathetic to that stance, but I think the ship has sailed on returning to those norms, even if we had any reason to believe that the people who voted with Vox Day would feel any need to respect them).  And on the third hand, there are those pointing out, with some justification, that any democratic system is vulnerable to those who care more about winning than about the system's well-being, and that this is simply the cost of doing business.  Since the Hugos are essentially a write-off this year (I've said several times that I'd be perfectly happy to skip the awards in favor of getting the nominating breakdowns right now instead of in August), I think we have a golden opportunity to really talk about this award and what we hope to get from it, and perhaps even come up with ways to make it better.

  • So what to do about these nominees?  Historically, the Hugos have tended to be extremely vulnerable to manipulation in the nominating phase, but extremely resilient in the voting phase.  You could usually count on the larger Hugo-voting membership, even those who aren't clued into every nuance of campaigning and strategizing, to be able to tell the astroturf nominees from the ones genuinely deserving of consideration.  This year, for obvious reasons, I don't think we can rely on that effect, which leads to the obvious question: what are people who are disgusted with this turn of events to do?  The way I see it, there are three options.

    1. Proceed as normal: read the voter packet, learn about the nominees, and vote according to their literary merits.  I can see the appeal of this approach--proceeding with dignity in the face of undignified behavior--but I have to say that, aside from any other considerations, it strike me as masochistic.  I mean seriously, three John C. Wright novellas?  Who could possibly be expected to put themselves through that?  More importantly, I don't see the merit in pretending not to smell the turd that the various puppies have left on our floor--certainly no one involved with this campaign is going to be chastened by our doing so.

    2. Write this year off: forget about the Hugos, enjoy the Worldcon if you're going, and try again next year.  Again, I can see the appeal--as someone who loves the award, I was hoping to vote on this year's ballot out of love and enthusiasm, not beleaguered resentment.  Those $40 would have been a lot easier to spend in the former case.  But taking this approach means leaving the Hugos to those who want to destroy them (or, in the best case, those who are blissfully unaware of this fracas and may hand Vox Day and his ilk a Hugo simply because they've chosen the best of a raft of bad options).  Especially given how likely it is that the puppy campaigns and their GamerGate supporters will try to influence the winners as they did the nominees, I don't think we have the right to cede the field.

    3. No Award: place every Sad/Rabid Puppy nominee under No Award, even if it means choosing it as your first choice.  (Deirdre Saoirse Moen has a handy guide for how to do this.)  To be clear, trying to achieve this result will take some doing.  It will mean not only voting that way yourself, but publicizing the fact that you've done so and why.  No Award has only won a category once in the Hugo's history.  To achieve that result six times in a single year will be no small matter.

  • Having read the above, it probably won't surprise you that I've chosen door number three (except for the Best Dramatic Presentation categories, where I honestly don't see the point).  When I stated this on twitter last night I got the predictable whining about how I was being unfair and not judging works according to their quality.  I think that my response at the time probably says all that needs to be said on this issue:








  • Some people have been making the point that people who were on the Sad and Rabid Puppy ballots may not have been informed of that fact, and their permission not solicited.  Despite Torgesen's claims to the contrary, this does appear to be the case.  Some nominees, having been informed of how they got their nominations, declined to accept them.  Others, obviously, did not.  Some are only now realizing what the score is.  I feel sorry for nominees who were overjoyed to receive what they thought was genuine recognition only to realize that they've been embroiled in a political fight not of their making.  I feel less sorry for those whose response to that situation has been to pretend that they are not being used as a shield by bigots and hate groups.  Nevertheless, I stand by my decision that all Puppy selections, willing or unwilling, should go below No Award.  It's the only way to register my disgust at this behavior, and, if it causes people to be extra-cautious about associating themselves with Vox Day and his ilk next year, then all the better.

  • One extra point in favor of becoming a supporting member of Sasquan in spite of the horrible Hugo ballot: supporting members are eligible to vote for site selection, even if they aren't on-site for the convention.  This year the convention will be voting on the location of the 2017 Worlcon, and if, like myself, you're very eager to see the Helsinki bid win, it might be worth your money just for that.  There are more details about how to vote here, and the exact process will be clearer once Sasquan opens the site selection ballot.

  • And speaking of next year, what of it, and the future of the Hugos in general?  I've been seeing a lot of people assuming that the Rabid Puppies' success will result in a counter-slate by their ideological opponents, and that the Hugos will devolve into pure bloc voting.  What I haven't seen is anyone standing up to produce such a slate, and I don't think that I will.  People who vote out of a genuine love for the award and the field will inevitably be a lot harder to corral than those who vote out of hate and resentment.  I think that next year those of us who care about the Hugos will do exactly what we did last year--produce dozens of lists of interesting, diverse work for people to consider and hopefully nominate.  But what does that mean for the future of the award?  The way I see it, only two things can happen: either Vox Day and GamerGate stop what they're doing and let the Hugos go back to being what they were, or the award will die.  Once again, the Hugo-voting Worldcon membership is neither passive nor stupid.  They will notice if the award becomes the fiefdom of a bunch of politically-motivated bloc voters, and they will stop taking it seriously.  This is what happened to the Nebula award ten years ago: once it became clear that the award's shortlist had no bearing on anything except who was better at logrolling, the award quickly became a joke.  The SFWA had to work hard to rehabilitate it, and it still doesn't have anywhere near the cachet it did in the early 00s.  I don't say this because I have a solution, or because I believe a hate group like GamerGate cares that the only possible outcome of its actions will be to burn the Hugos down, but because I honestly don't see another possible outcome.

  • That said, it is worth remembering that the Hugos aren't the only award out there.  Alongside their nominations, yesterday also saw the announcement of the winners of the James Tiptree Jr. Award and the Philip K. Dick Award, both of which delivered interesting winners and honors lists.  We should be seeing the Clarke shortlist soon enough, and the list of submitted novels certainly suggests some intriguing possibilities.  I have my (loudly-stated) problems with the Locus Award, but if you're looking for an alternative to the Hugos that is still a popular vote award, you could certainly do worse.  2014 was a fantastic year for genre writing.  It's a shame that the Hugos aren't going to acknowledge that, but that doesn't meant no one else has.

  • Some interesting links on this issue: I like Nicholas Whyte and Andrew Hickey's takes on the situation.  Jason Sanford looks at how well the nominated novels have sold to see if the Puppy selections truly represent the "real" genre (spoiler: they do not).  Stats-maven Niall Harrison has got an analysis of the number of votes needed to get on each of the ballots this year and last, which suggests some interesting conclusions.

  • I will have some more to say about the Best Fan Writer ballot later in the week.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Review: Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho at Strange Horizons

Today at Strange Horizons, I review Zen Cho's Crawford-winning short story collection Spirits Abroad.  This is something of a milestone for me--the first review I've had published in Strange Horizons since stepping down as a reviews editor.  It's also a welcome return to writing full-length book reviews, and for both of those occasions I couldn't have chosen a better subject with which to mark them than Cho's vibrant, funny, brilliantly-written collection.  The stories in Spirits Abroad are remarkable for how they capture their worlds--be they Malaysian villages, ex-pat communities in the UK, or fantastical worlds--in a few well-chosen sentences, and for the equal weight that Cho gives to folklore and more hard-nosed worldbuilding elements such as politics and history.  Cho uses fantasy to shed a light on her stories' worlds, and on the relationships that drive her plots, but her fantasies are also coherent and engaging in themselves.  Spirits Abroad is easily one of the best short story collections of the last few years, and hopefully promises a bright future for Cho's career.