Giving Fredric Jameson the side eye

Quick, which famous cyberpunk novel is recapped here:

On one of those, this is a heist or caper story, in which a group of characters has been assembled to steal a valuable property (in the event a computer hard drive) from the advanced computer of a powerful transgalactic corporation, whose headquarters is based on a satellite in space. In fact, this ostensible corporate theft turns out to be an elaborate screen for something quite different, namely the junction of the two gigantic computers of these rival corporations, and their unification into the most powerful force in the universe (a story not without its family likeness to Ray Kurzwell’s influential fantasy of the post-human “spike,” and in fact already filmed in the 1970 Colossus: The Forbin Project).”

Fredric Jameson thinks it’s Neuromancer. His essay was linked to on Mefi last night and the extract annoyed and intrigued me in equal measure:

“I merely want to remind us that cyberspace is a literary invention and does not really exist, however much time we spend on the computer every day. There is no such space radically different from the empirical, material room we are sitting in, nor do we leave our bodies behind when we enter it, something one rather tends to associate with drugs or the rapture. But it is a literary construction we tend to believe in; and, like the concept of immaterial labor, there are certainly historical reasons for its appearance at the dawn of postmodernity which greatly transcend the technological fact of computer development or the invention of the Internet.”

It’s a conclusion that you could argue is (trivially) true but misses the point of cyberspace and it would be interesting to follow Jameson’s reasoning, but if he’s wrong about something as fundamental to the argument as the plot of the novel he’s basing his critique on and something so trivially checkable, how can I trust the rest of his argument, that he’s honest or careful with the rest of his sources?

Hero Complex — Sean O’Hara

Cover of Hero Complex

Hero Complex
Sean O’Hara
394 pages
published in 2014

Whether or not you’ll like Hero Complex can probably be determined by whether not the following passage intrigues or annoys you:

Ryder leaps onto the wall of an apartment building and runs straight up the side. She’s almost to the eaves when she jumps again, this time somersaulting high into the air, coming to apogee several yards above the monster. She flings her arms apart and the night is illuminated by stroboscopic beams from her—I’m not seeing that right. There’s no way she’s shooting lasers from her boobs.

“Of course not. That would be ridiculous,” Jensen says.

I thought as much, but given how many ridiculous things have occurred lately, I wanted to be sure.

Ryder snags a tree branch with an outstretched hand like it’s a trapeze and flips herself around.

“Everyone knows laser beams are invisible in clear air. Those are charged particle cannons,” Jensen says.

Read more

Having a successful boycott is not the point

Irene Gallo calls the Puppies what they are: nazis

As I predicted, Tom Doherty’s public dressing down of Irene Gallo for her (correct) comments on the Puppies failed. Having scored one success Day and co have doubled down and unleashed the dreaded boycott threat on Tor. All the usual idiots are of course crowing about Tor tasting Puppy power while everybody else has at turns been slightly depressed about it and somewhat upbeat about the slim chances it has of succeeding. And they’re right that the chance of Tor giving in to ridiculous demands like this are small:

Tor must publicly apologize for writings by Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Moshe Feder, Irene Gallo, and John Scalzi that “demonize, denigrate, slander and lie about the ‘Puppies’ campaigns”

That’s not going to happen, nor is Tor going to fire anybody about this: there aren’t enough Pups to provide a proper boycott. At best they can hope for a similar “success” as the Southern Baptist boycott of Disney for being too gay friendly. At worst, they shoot themselves in the foot because Tor also publishes John C. Wright. But focusing on whether or not the boycott can succeed is missing the point. The point of the boycott is the boycott.

As I said before, Day is following the Tea Party/Breitbart Culture Wars playbook. Gin up outrage, energise your base, focus their attention on the designated enemy, then fleece the suckers. Vox knows how the game is played because he’d been working for Worldnet Daily one of the low rent rightwing clearing houses his daddy had set up until he became too loony even for them. What are the odds on the next instructions of Day, as “leader of the Rabid Puppies”, will next issue instructions that the only proper way to boycott Tor is to instead buy books by goodthink publishers like Baen or his own vanity press?

The key is not to win, the key is to keep the fight going and make some money doing so. That’s been the career path for whole generations of roghtwing bloviators: fart out articles and blogposts and books about the evil of libruls and blag your way onto wingnut welfare. But to do so you need that red meat to keep the suckers in line. Without the month late fauxrage at Gallo’s comments the Puppies wouldn’t have anything to talk about. But this? This they can spin out until long after this year’s Hugo results are revealed.

It’s hard to deal with this. Just ignoring it is one option, not giving the oxygen of publicity to these people, but can obviously backfire. You can’t deal with this thinking these are normal fans, and that just ignoring it will starve this “controversy” of the fuel it needs. People like Day (and Larry and Brad) are perfectly capable of keeping the fire stoked indefinitely. Not responding just cedes ground and helps them keep up the pretence that they’re speaking for some imagined silent majority.

Rather, their more noxious opinions and writings should be exposed to sunlight, because the natural response of normal people not obsessed with partisan politics like the Puppies is to run the hell away from the circus. That’s also why somebody like Hoyt is so angry at Mike Glyer for accurately quoting her on File 770. Somewhere she’s aware of how she sounds outside her little echochamber. And that’s why Natalie Luhr’s showcasing of Michael Z. Williamson greatest hits is important. It removes the pretence that these are just fans rather than collossal assholes.

Mistaken Hugo voters or just unlucky writers?

Eric Flint, in the middle of another what’s likely to be an illfated attempt to talk sense into the Puppies, also talks about the way in which the Hugo Awards have overlooked or slighted some of the best authors working in science fiction & fantasy over the decades:

The Hugo voters, in their wisdom or lack thereof, decided that Christopher Anvil, Hal Clement, L. Sprague de Camp, Richard Matheson, Andre Norton, Fred Saberhagen, James H. Schmitz, A.E. Van Vogt and Jack Williamson were not very noteworthy. Of those nine authors, five of them are now in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame and two out of the other four—Anvil and Schmitz—have had their complete works reissued in modern editions. (Full disclosure: Okay, fine, I’m the one who edited those reissues—but they sold pretty damn well for reissue volumes.)

Quite clearly, the Hugo voters were… ah, mistaken. (That sounds more dignified than “full of crap.”) Those are not the only times that Hugo voters have been…. ah, mistaken. They certainly won’t be the last, either. In this, the Hugos are like all awards. You win some, you lose some, so to speak.

It would be nitpicking to complain that Jack Williamson and Richard Matheson at least did get some Hugo recognition, that Van Vogt wrote his best work before the Hugos got established, or that some of the examples aren’t actually all that good, there still remains the question of how so many writers with such long careers were overlooked (and Flint’s examples could of course be extended with dozens more). Is that really the fault of the Hugo voters, just bad luck, or perhaps the simple fact that not all deserving kids can win prizes every time?

Surprisingly, I think it’s the latter. The long and short of it is that in any given year, there are twenty places on the Hugo ballot for a fiction writer: five each for Best Novel, Novella, Novelette and Short Story, give or take the occasional tie. That’s a high bar to clear for any writer, to get one of those slots, never mind win. Especially since the seventies, when fantasy and science fiction have exploded in popularity and size, the chances are high some deserving novel or story is going to be overlooked. (I know that even without the Puppy shenanigans, I easily had six or seven candidates for five slots in the Best Novel category.)

I think Flint has made a category error in other words, in complaining that deserving writers have been overlooked when the awards are actually for stories. It’s no good saying that a given writer is good enough to get a Hugo Award, you need to prove that in a given year, any given year, their best work would stack up to or beat that of their competition. And of course you also have to back that up with more than just your own taste. Jo Walton attempted to do this, in a series for a few years ago, comparing what was won and nominated to what wasn’t, but as I recall for the most part she’d been satisfied that each year at least had credible candidates for each category, with some notable exceptions.

Now my personal opinion, which I think I share with Flint up to a point, is that the Hugos did start to falter from somewhere in the late seventies or early eighties as the SFF field exploded but Worldcon stagnated and aged. So many of the novels winning the Hugos in the last thirty years to me are no more than decent rather than brilliant, occasionally awarded for who wrote rather than their own merits. This again changed for the better in more recent years, thanks in no small measure to the Hugo Voter Packet and the better promotion of supporting memberships, but then the Puppies happened.

Intersectionality is just another word for solidarity

I’m always leery of arguments like this, that want to dismiss the different axises of oppression various groups of people struggle with in favour of some vulgar marxist idea of the working class and not asking too many questions. Too often this has been used by alter kakkers to just dismiss any struggle that doesn’t fit in their century and a half old ossified world view:

Where people on the left should be focussed on what unites us, us here referring to the working class rather than the left in general (lol, as if that’s going to happen), as workers -the foundations from which we can build the new society- we now see attempts to stratify through definition the working class under the guise of intersectional analysis. An intersectional analysis is a useful tool to have in one’s box if one is studying Sociology or writing academic papers but in the real world it doesn’t translate well, not well at all. In fact one of the reasons that I began my abstention from generalised political activity was the emergence of this approach -along with the increasing popularity of privilege politics- as I saw early on that the praxis that would develop from this approach would inevitably see a return to the embarrassing ‘hierarchy of oppressions’ which permeated the radical politics of the 1970s/80s (before my time -I’m not that old!).

He may not be that old, but his criticisms are. There’s always been a tension within socialism about how to define the struggle. Rightwing socialists tend to define it narrowly, purely as the struggle of the working classes against the bourgeois and anything that isn’t directly related to that struggle as a distraction. Depending on the decade — or century — you’re talking about this could mean feminism, civil rights, gay rights, or today, intersectionality and online activism.

The leftwing has always defined the struggle much more broadly. There’s a long and proud tradition within socialism and communism of not just fighting for the rights of (white) working men, but also recognised from the start that you can’t build a classless society when half the population is still powerless because of their gender, that it’s immoral to let the welfare of the British worker depend on the continuing exploitation of the Indian worker. So there’s always been a strain in socialism that defined the struggle much broader than just defending workers’ rights, that strived for an utopia for all people.

That is intersectionality pur sang and the thing about it is that it works both ways. There’s always a tendency to assume that these causes always distract from your own, much more worthy and important one, but intersectionality also gets you allies. That’s what happened in 1984 when at the height of AIDS paranoia stoked homophobia a group of London gay men and lesbians reached out and supported the South Wales Miners Strike:

Both groups were canny enough to understand that they struggled against the same oppression. The gay and lesbian activists recognised the police violence and oppression the miners were subjected to from their own experiences with them and believed in solidarity enough to not just recognise it, but take action. And the miners reprociated, send delegations to Gay Pride, supported them in their struggle. It was of course mocked by the establishment — now the perverts support the pits, as The Sun put it.

But you might say, gay liberation, strikes, those are real political actions, real causes, not frivolity like what I’m talking about, but that was far from the mainstream view back in 1984. So many socialists for so long saw homosexuality as a capitalist perversion, not as part of their struggle, not something that could be easily portrayed in terms of class struggle. And that’s why this bloody cartoon included in the post annoys me so much:

cartoon by RednBlackSalamander

Not just because it’s a lazy cheap shot and doesn’t understand that in 2015 it’s really hasn’t been possible for at least a decade to pretend that that online space is less important than offline spaces. No, it’s because I’m old enough to know that all the examples of worthy causes given here –take back the night, ending rape culture, lgbt rights — would have been ridiculed and dismissed as fauxtivism and middle class vanities not too long ago. It’s breathtakingly ignorant.

Now AW Hendry started his post by mocking the Sad Puppies, which is how I stumbled upon it, thanks to Mike Glyer’s sterling work rounding up Puppy related material. He used it as his example of how people waste time with online activism and throughout his piece the unspoken assumption is made that online doesn’t matter and economic considerations should be much more important than cultural fights like this. What this misses is that, even apart from the simple fact that quite a few of us now live our lives as much online as in the real world, online follows you home — ask Zoe Quinn or any other SWATting victim. What he also misses is that the struggle over the Hugos is more than just the misplaced vanity of a few rightwing culture warriors: as Kameron Hurley explained, the Hugos meant she got $13,000 more in her post-Hugo book advance.

Not the highest of stakes perhaps, but for your average struggling writer that is a large chunk of money. I also have the suspicion for at least some of the ringleaders, this kerfuffle is a way to help themselves to some of that sweet, sweet wingnut welfare. People like Tom Krautman or Dave Freer may seem dangerously unhinged to normal people, but they’d fit in well with Vox Day’s old haunt, Worldnet Daily. Voxy himself of course is trying to establish his vanity press as a serious rightwing proposition and arguably does all this for the publicity. Which means for him at least it’s not the winning that’s important, it’s keeping the fight going, the better to keep fleecing suckers.

Puppy baiting for fun, not profit

Spacefaring, Extradimensional Happy Kittens gets it right when they say we’re wasting time, energy and attention by engaging the Puppies:

But the fact is, Happy Kitten energies were wasted on fighting a culture war on a battleground selected by the opposing side when they could instead have been reading, writing, buying, enjoying and celebrating some first rate SFF. The Puppies are opposed to SFF that is diverse or deals with gender or political issues or is technically ambitious. I think there’s a lot that Happy Kittens can do for that sort of SFF, apart from engaging in a debate where nobody is really going to change their views.

They miss one thing though: for all the outrage and anger it generates, it can also be fun to blogivate about how awful those people are. At least for those of us not the victim of harassement campaigns. It’s whack-a-mole, but it doesn’t have to cost too much energy as long as you manage to restrict yourself.

Apart from that, they’re right. We should focus as much on promoting diversity as fighting hatred. We can’t ignore the Puppies completely because they will continue to keep ginning up trouble, but the sort of low level aggrievation as showcased in Mike Glyer’s invaluable roundups isn’t really worth the trouble, even if it can be fun. Better to do something constructive by donating to Con or Bust frex.

It’s never pleasant when puppies project

This really is a disgusting accusation from Brad Torgersen:

Mr. Sandifer, if you truly believe that a book like ANCILLARY JUSTICE or a story like “The Water That Falls On You From Nowhere” did not benefit from a tremendous groundswell of affirmative-action-mindedness, you’re not paying attention. Please phone me when you’re interesting in discussing diversity beyond a skin-deep level. Quote Larry Niven: there are minds which think as well as yours, just differently.

Especially when you remember the drek Torgersen democratically choose for his supporters to put on the Sad Puppy slate. Which turned out to mainly function as cover for the Rabid Puppy slate run by a serial failure to promote his buddy John C. Wright and his new vanity press.

But it’s a good example of the sort of rightwing projection the Pups are prone too and all too familiar for anybody who was around for the heyday of warblogging –remember that– or the 2008-now freakout after a black man got elected president. I’m not sure at this point if this is done deliberately, or whether it’s completely subconscious on Torgersen’s part to accuse his enemies of behaving like, well, himself. It’s coupled to that other rightwing trait of just refusing to believe people can like other things than you, in its purest form best seen whenever proper football (ie soccer) is making inroads in America again as some pundit pops a gear and start sputtering that surely nobody truly American can enjoy this and it’s all a liberal plot to undermine the moral fabric of the country?

Speaking of projection, here’s Sarah Hoyt showing some rare self knowledge:

We’ve seen the same effect over and over again with people who comment on blogs (clears throat) both cultural and political, and even historical and that, no matter how often they’re proven wrong, keep coming back and stating the same thing they said in different words, as though that would make it true. They seem incapable of processing challenges, doubts, or even factual disproof of their charges.

Or wait, my bad, she actually meant people like the commenters at File 770. Because after all it was they who put forward ridiculous conspiracy theories about why their favourite sf writers didn’t win Hugos, engaged in an organised ballot stuffing campaign, invent their own jargon of “glittery hoohas” (completely misused), Social Justice Warriors and “whole word readers” to sneer at anybody asking questions or noticing inconsistencies and seem incapable of evaluating any sort of science fiction in any way other than as political propaganda, right?

Sterrensplinters — Eddy C. Bertin

Cover of Sterrensplinters

Eddy C. Bertin
222 pages
published in 2013

Eddy C. Bertin was an important author in my personal Golden Age of science fiction. A Flemish author, he was one of the few science fiction writers writing in Dutch back in the late seventies & eighties. Dutch language science fiction has never been particularly abundant and most that was published was not very good. Bertin was one of the few exceptions, an author who could’ve found an audience in English as well (and indeed, has had a couple of stories published in English). Still active, Bertin has written everything from hard science fiction to dark fantasy and horror, often mixing genres and with a tendency towards the Lovecraftian end of horror.

Sterrensplinters (Star Splinters) is a 2013 anthology collecting some of his best stories taken from his 1970s and 1980s collections. These are all long out of print, so a new collection of them is very welcome. The short introduction doesn’t tell much about why exactly these stories were chosen, or why the collection had to be divided into two parts: Membranen and Splinters, other than that the first set of stories takes place in a shared universe, while the remainder are standalone. That second set of stories feels as an afterthought, even if it includeds one of Bertin’s most famous stories.

Read more

The Baen fallacy

Eric Flint is one of Baen’s old guard of authors, somebody who has been writing and editing for Baen since at least the nineties. He’s also one of the more insightful of Baen’s stable of authors, being an old lefty rather than a rightwinger, though it’s only noticeable in his fiction because his gun toting heroes defending the American way of life are unionised. Whereas a Larry Correia or Brad Torgersen show little evidence of thinking things through, acting purely on rightwing reflexes, blaming everybody else for their failures to get Hugo nominations, seeing conspiracies in the everyday actions of fandom, Flint thinks much more nuanced and sophisticated about why the Hugo Awards have failed to reward much of the sort of science fiction Baen publishes. Unlike them, he isn’t so much looking for excuses as for looking for explanations. He’s still wrong though, but he’s interestingly wrong and he provides as clear headed a defence of what I like to call the Baen fallacy as is possible:

But, sooner or later, that stops being sufficient for the in-crowds. At first, they want more than just a good story. Which, in and of itself, is fair enough. The problem is that as time goes by “more than just a good story” often starts sliding into “I really don’t care how good the story is, it’s the other stuff that really matters.”

Eventually, form gets increasingly elevated over content. “Originality” for its own sake, something which the mass audience cares very little about—and neither did Homer or Shakespeare—becomes elevated to a preposterous status. And what withers away, at least to some degree, is a good sense of what skills are involved in forging a story in the first place.

To put it another way, every successful author has to master two skills which, although related, are still quite distinct: they have to be good story-tellers; and they have to be good writers.

Of those two skills, being a terrific story-teller but a journeyman writer will win you a mass audience, and is likely to keep it. On the flip side, being a journeyman story-teller but a terrific wordsmith will win you critical plaudits but won’t usually get you much in the way of an audience.

Before I explain why Flint is largely wrong about the Hugos, I do want to acknowledge that he gets two things right, in that I mostly agree with him that a) the SFF field has become too big for any one award to keep its finger on the pulse off and b) that the way the awards are structured exacerbates this, with various categories that perhaps made more sense historically than they do now. But he goes further than that.

His idea is that the Hugo Awards have lost their relevance not just for the above two reasons, but also because the Hugo voters have become elitist and out of touch with popular tastes in science fiction, something the Puppies have also alleged, but which Flint is smart enough to know isn’t through conspiracy, but rather for perfectly natural reasons. The problem remains that this just isn’t true and doesn’t explain anything that couldn’t have been explained by his first two arguments.

If anything, the Hugo Award over the past three decades has always trended towards rewarding middlebrow books or stories; just look at that list of Best Novel winners and nominees. You can say a lot about winners like Scalzi, Willis or Jo Walton, but not that they “elevate form over content”. Even last year’s winner, Ancillary Justice is a familiar sort of space opera only enlivened by its novel use of pronouns.

Neither does his implied comparison of Hugo voters to jaded art critics hold water. Even apart from the fact the Hugo voters renew themselves each years solely through Worldcon moving cities each year, the hardcore Hugo voters are largely ordinary fans, not professional critics and even if a large portion of those are professional SFF writers, as the Nebulas have shown, this is no guarantee for enlightened tastes. If there’s any conclusion you can make about Hugo voters, it’s that by and large they like familiar sorts of SFF, ambitious but safe, by authors they already know. Also that this tendency perhaps is worse at smaller Worldcons based in the American heartland. Case in point: Scalzi’s Redshirts won when the Worldcon was held in Texas.

But there’s more wrong with Flint’s argument than that neither the Hugo track record nor its voters fit his characterisation and this is the Baen Fallacy: that idea that critically acclaimed is always and forever in conflict with popular taste, as if Dhalgren never sold a million copies. It’s a core tenent of what you might call the Baen philosophy of publishing science fiction, which leads to the idea that sales figures are the only true measure of quality and that “story telling” always trumps any other consideration. There’s also this idea that there’s this silent majority of Baen readers out there not bothering with the Hugos or much of SF fandom who are the true fans because they buy the books, and, in its pernicious form, that “elitist” fans and publishers keep them down, content to take their money but sneering at them all the time.

Course, it was Baen itself which said their readers liked their books to have the same sort of consistency and interchangeableness of Del Monte canned fruit, so who is sneering at who exactly? It fits in well with Torgersen’s idea that real fans like books that are the same as every other book they’ve read, just like their cereal. Again, it’s the supposed populist sneering at his own readers tastes and they lapping it up. But the Hugo voters are elitists?

What seems to have started as a commercial strategy by the late Jim Baen to distinguish his new publishing venture from other science fiction publishers has metastasised into a massive inferiority and persecution complex. Baen himself, conservative as he was in his politics, has never let those stand in the way of publishing both good and commercially viable science fiction and fantasy, was never under any illusion about the qualities of his bread and butter authors like Flint, Ringo or Weber. He aimed his advertising at those who just wanted a good yarn and damn the writing qualities, but his followers seem to have mistaken this advertising for reality and worse, seem to believe everybody thinks this way or lies.

But if we come back to Dhalgren, the most difficult book by one of the most literary minded writers of science fiction, who’d go on to write a series of postmodern fantasies and yet this was a million seller. In the Baen worldview, this was only possible because everybody bought it to look cool or hip or intelligent and not because they genuinely liked it. Hard to believe, isn’t it?

Rather, Dhalgren is the poster child for the idea that critically acclaimed, difficult books can be bestsellers and often are. Sometimes the Hugos even recognise them.