Your Happening World (January 15th through January 21st)

  • Losing Weight and Building 6-Pack Abs – Scooby’s Home Workouts – It’s not that hard and its not that complicated. The changes you need to make to lose weight and reduce your bodyfat are much smaller than you fear and they are easier to live with than you could possibly imagine! A common sense approach involving exercise and nutrition is all that is required to get ripped, washboard abs. When most people think about losing weight, what comes to mind is words like “hunger”, “deprivation”, “diet”, and “agony”. No! Losing weight properly will not result in any of these, the key is in the above two words “common sense”.
  • Morning Star :: Fantastically profound – Joyce was intensely proud of his roots and once said: “I’ve taken a conscious decision to explore the lives of people who are still ignored by a majority of writers.” He enjoyed his success but expressed sadness at feeling “educated out” of the environment and culture into which he was born.
  • This is a jar full of major characters  … | Time-Machine? Yeah! – Actually it is a jar full of chocolate covered raisins on top of a dirty TV tray. But pretend the raisins are interesting and well rounded fictional characters with significant roles in their stories.
  • The Man in the High Castle [HD]: Amazon Instant Video – Free pilot of the television series
  • Sleeps With Monsters: I Want More of Everything I Like | – I’ve spent the past little while, in fact, dwelling on the kinds of books I’ve read (and reread) in the last year, and considering the kinds of books I would give a wisdom tooth to see more of.

Half Life — SL Huang

Cover of THalf Life

Half Life
SL Huang
150 pages
published in 2014

SL Huang’s first novel, Zero Sum Game was a tightly plotted, fast paced technothriller, which I only got to know about because I’d been following her blog. The sequel to it I got to read because SL Huang offered a review copy, which is always appreciated. It’s actually the first time that any author has done this, so it’s a bit of new terrain for me as a reviewer. What about ethics in science fiction reviewing? No matter; I would’ve bought this anyway and getting a free book is nice, but had I not liked Half Life I would’ve said so too.

Now when we met Zero Sum Game Cas Russell was an amoral math savant making her living doing …retrieval… work for anybody who could pay. Thanks to the events of that novel she went from being bad at ordinary relationships and not worrying about it to being still bad at them but working on them. In Half Life she goes further; it can be best summed up as “Cas learns the value of friendship through the medium of extreme violence”. It all starts when she gets a somewhat particular retrieval mission, to rescue the daughter of Noah Warren, an ex-engineer laid off from Arkacite Technologies, who claims that they hold her for experiments. Cas is weirdly possessive about kids and even though she immediately notices during the rescue mission that Liliana isn’t a real girl, but an extremely advanced robot, that doesn’t stop Cas from wanting to protect her.

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Resident Evil

Milla Jovovich/Alice waking up vulnerable

For some reason the Resident Evil movies have been repeated constantly on Dutch commercial television channels, the ultimate late night brainless action horror, ideal to watch when only paying attention intermittedly, when things get exciting again. I’ve been watching off and on when I catch them on telly, but Sunday was the first time I actually watched the first one all the way through. Starring Milla Jovovich, the perfect actress for these movies, especially here, where her blonde, model looks work well to give her a certain vulnerability and innocence,. A more stupid movie would’ve been more exploitatives, lingering more on her nudity, but here it’s mainly functional and quickly remedied.

closeup of Alice/Milla Jovovich

It’s more than eight minutes before Milla Jovovich/Alice, the heroine of the movie actually appears, waking up in a shower not knowning where she is, who she is or what she’s doing there. A lot of the first quarter or so of the movie, after her introduction is like here, focused on close ups of her face, her reactions to what’s happening around her. For an action movie, this in any case a movie that spends a lot of time lingering on people’s faces, the focus closed in on them.

Going into the hive

Which makes wider shots like this stand out even more. This is about twenty minutes into the movie, after Alice has been surprised by a tactical team attacking the house she woke up in. They seem to know her but she doesn’t know them. They’ve just opened the entrance to the underground city they need to investigate. Notice how Alice is the focus of the shot, even standing in the background, the angles providing a sense of menace with her in the middle of it. She also has the only colour here, everybody else dressed in black, with the exception of the civilian cop to the left of her, like her at this point an innocent dragged along into the maelstrom.

Alice going into action

Fifty minutes into Resident Evil and Alice finally moves from observer to participant, in a great sequence of escalating threats that takes only a few minutes to work themselves out. First she has to escape a zombie dog, then an attack by a zombie security guard sees her put her karate skills in action, followed by her emptying the gun she took of the guard into the rest of the zombie dog pack. What’s interesting here is how calm she remains throughout, indeed throughout the movie, as compared to the rest of the cast. Note how at this point she’s covered up, wearing a leather jacket over the skimy red dress she wore earlier.

in charge

Near the end of the movie and the jacket is gone again, but whereas first the flimsy dress made her look vulnerable, here she takes charge, leading rather than following. Alice is now in total control, knowing who she is and what she’s doing, having lost her vulnerability by going through the worst the Hive could throw at her and coming out the other end, unscathed.

That attitude remains in the epilogue, as the movie has turned full circle and has her again wake up to chaos, now in some sort of lab, which turns out to be located in the middle of Raccoon City. From the chaos she finds as she stumbles out, it’s clear that what happened in the Hive was child’s play compared to this, but even barefoot and dressed in a medical shift, she’s fully in control and ready to kick ass.

A new kind of comics criticism

David Brothers has just published a post on Comics&Cola, which talks about his frustrations with addressing racism and the like in comics and how there should be a place for a new sort of criticism in comics:

But the new criticism, the criticism that is largely coming from black and brown and Asian and Muslim and gay and trans and feminist circles and even more besides, doesn’t have an established place in comics yet. The culture is not used to it. The culture doesn’t know how to react to it, because it often comes from a deeply personal place and is accompanied by emotion instead of rote facts about first appearances and career milestones. The result is a constant diminishing of the concerns of the essayist and mocking of their context.

We talk about outrage culture and never stop to ask ourselves why someone saying “This hurt me, here’s why” is offensive, but a white man creating a comic where women are raped and non-whites are racially stereotyped is not. We scream “Free speech!” in the face of people who say “This is messed up.” We never examine why someone is angry before dismissing them for their anger. We demand perfection and eloquence from someone who has just been confronted with the unbridled contempt someone else has for them and everything they represent.

Much of what Brothers is talking about is of course the well known Tone argument: “I’m not going to listen to you as long as you’re shouting at me”. Another part comes from what Laurie Penney calls a href=””>nerd entitlement, a toxic mix of historic victimhood and elitism that makes comics, perhaps more so than any other nerdy pursuit, hostile to everybody “not like us”, women and people of colour especially; the stereotypical nerd being portrayed as white and male even though women and people of colour have always been present.

That’s where comics particular history reinforces those already existing tendency. Because it’s been used so often as a scapegoat for all sorts of social problems like juvenile delinquency, has been the victim of official opprobium, has had retailers prosecuted for selling material “not suitable for kids” or artists put in jail for what they put on paper, any criticism based on larger societal concerns is immediately met with hostility. And it isn’t so much the fanboys that are the problem, attached though they are to certain questionable superheroine outfits.

No, rather it’s the critical press and the socalled art comix community that’s the problem. Unlike what’s been happening in related nerd fields like science fiction fandom, there’s very little attention within serious comics circles for issues of representation, diversity and the systemic effects of racism, transphobia, sexism or homophobia. Most of the serious commentary still seems to believe in art in a vacuum, without much attention for how it reflects or even encourages racism or sexism. There’s this very baby boomerish idea of the freedom of the artist to do what he wants, without much curiosity about why it is always he doing it. It’s why you get glitzy thrash like Fukitor published by Fantagraphics, something that’s supposed to be transgressive but only deals in the same tired stereotypes you could’ve found in an eighties Chuck Norris action movie.

What critical tradition (American) comics has had, has largely come around through the efforts of The Comics Journal: no other critical magazine has had its longevity and influence. Yet that influence isn’t always benign; molded after the personalities of its founders, Kim Thompson and especially Gary Groth, it’s always been macho, aggressive and sometime disdainful of concerns outside of pure art. So you get this sort of sneering too often, a defensive response without any attempt to understand what it is sneering at.

What comics needs is the equivalent of Racefail in science fiction fandom, when long simmering issues of representation and diversity came to a head and all the underlying racism & sexism boiled over. Science fiction finally had to come to terms with the idea that fans of colour weren’t rare, weren’t hidden and owned science fiction as much as anybody else. Comics still hasn’t woken up to this.

Your Happening World (January 9th through January 15th)

Sad puppies still not house trained

Brad Torgersen, in a move reminiscent of a Great War general deciding that this marching his men into the German machine gun fire will win him the battle, is calling on his fans to vote for a Sad Puppy slate again in the Hugos, cause that worked so well last time. Here’s a classic case of projection, courtesy of File 770, because no way I’m linking to Torgersen directly:

For those of you who don’t know what SAD PUPPIES is, it’s a (somewhat tongue in cheek) running effort to get stories, books, and people onto the Hugo ballot, who are entirely deserving, but who don’t usually get on the ballot. Largely because of the nomination and voting tendencies of World Science Fiction Convention, with its “fandom” community. In the last decade we’ve seen Hugo voting skew more and more toward literary (as opposed to entertainment) works. Some of these literary pieces barely have any science fictional or fantastic content in them. Likewise, we’ve seen the Hugo voting skew ideological, as Worldcon and fandom alike have tended to use the Hugos as an affirmative action award: giving Hugos because a writer or artist is (insert underrepresented minority or victim group here) or because a given work features (insert underrepresented minority or victim group here) characters.

So last year Torgersen and co got enough people to waste at least $50 on a supporting memberships to be able to get a lot of shite on the final ballot that otherwise would get nowhere near the Hugos, but came up with a big fat nothing when the awards were actually chosen, usually ending up last or second to last in their categories. Satisfying as that was, it did mean actually deserving books and stories got short shrifted as the Sad Puppies got on the ballot instead.

Now he wants to do it again, but it’s not him that makes the Hugos into an ideological purity test, oh no, it’s those nasty liberals. They force him into this sad spectacle, because of their constant nominating of inferior science fiction. Because honestly, you don’t actually think a writer of colour can be any good now can you? And you sure as hell don’t want to read about those people if you can read about manly men manly saving the universe for America. Again.

The truth is of course that all those socalled “affirmative action” nominations happened organically, because people actually liked the writers, books, stories and artists they nominated, actually like reading books not written by a white American writer doing the same old, same old done better three decades ago.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow and if there’s anything rightwingers are incapable off, it’s accepting bitter truths gracefully. Much better to throw a temper tantrum.

The Handmaid’s Tale — Margaret Atwood

Cover of The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale
Margaret Atwood
308 pages
published in 1985

About a decade ago, when promoting her book Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood said some dumb things while distancing it and herself from science fiction, insising it was “speculative fiction” (ironically a term invented by that most hardcore of sf writers, Robert Heinlein when he tried to make sf respectable half a century before Atwood) and being dismissive about “talking squid in space”. Science fiction fandom has a long history for (imagined) sleights and while Atwood has long since walked back her remarks, sf fans tend to still be a bit grumpy about it. Yet Atwood does have a point that she isn’t writing for science fiction readers and therefore her books shouldn’t be judged by science fiction standards.

Which is fair enough. If you read the Handmaid’s Tale it soon becomes clear that though it is science fiction, it’s science fiction in the dystopian tradition of Orwell and Huxley rather than in the tradition of e.g. Heinlein’s If This Goes On…, another story of religious oppression in a future America. That has flying cars and blaster guns and other sfnal paraphernalia though no space squid, while Atwood’s story is set in what are still recognisable eighties suburbs.

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Je ne suis pas Charlie

I’m always wary about people being overly supportive of causes that already have the support of everybody sane and the wholesale embrace of Charlie Hebdo and the right to draw cartoons offensive to religious nutters fits this to a t. It’s not just the War on Muslims terror fetishists like Nick “glug glug” Cohen who come crawling out of the woodwork whenever some atrocity happens close enough at home, but also all the earnest decent people on the news and out on the streets showing their disapproval for murdering cartoonists. What do you want to achieve with this, or with having Je Suis Charlie graphics on Facebook or Twitter? Especially if you don’t live in France? The murderers don’t give a shit and your government will only use your abhorrence as another excuse for more “security measures”.

I do understand the impulse to do something in the face of atrocity; it’s the same impulse when a particularly well liked celebrity dies a horrible death, that objectively has nothing to do with you perhaps but because you know so much about them, it still hurts you and you want to show that you sympathise with their friends and family. It’s a very human impulse and while we may often sneer at it, it is heartening to see those waves of sympathy cross the globe in the wake of tragedy (or even good news, as in every time an American state legalises equal marriage).

And on some level, the attack on Charlie Hebdo does touch me, not because it’s an attack on my freedom of speech, but rather because they are part of my tribe, of the great global comics family. Those were people I’ve heard of, have read strips by, knew about before the news broke about the attack. I knew of Charlie Hebdo and its irreverant humour even before their first Mohammed cartoons controversy, knew their history of kicking over any sacred cow they come across.

But I still don’t feel comfortable saying “Je suis Charlie”.

For two reasons. First, the murders are not actually a threat to our freedom of speech in Europe. Though it may seem strange or even callous to say this, it’s not actually that brave to make fun of Mohammed here. There isn’t the need to show you approve of the right to make fun of Islam because that’s already a given. Governments won’t prosecute you for it, newspapers won’t censor you, your neighbours won’t shun you, even with the threat of nutjobs coming after you. Yes, Salman Rushdie, yes there’s the murder of Theo van Gogh, yes, there are the Charlie Hebdo murders and there are always other headbangers wanting to martyr the next high profile cartoonist, but doesn’t actually challenge anything to joke about Mohammed or Islam here, in secular Europe. The vast majority of threats to free speech on this subject happens in countries like Egypt or Malaysia, countries our governments are happy to support, and comes in the form of state repression: fines, blasphemy trials, censorship. You don’t face that kind of everyday oppression here for being mean to Muslims, indeed your career can thrive on it if some government official does get shirty with you about it, as in the case of Gregorius Nekschot.

The second is, as I said in my first post, that I didn’t necessarily like what Charlie Hebdo did before the shootings and I don’t believe their murder should change that opinion.

Your Happening World (January 5th through January 8th)