“Oh!” said his wife. “It’s like the War”

Owen Stephens recalls how in 2000/01 he ran a roleplaying session for Wizard of the Coast’s then new Star Wars D20 game when an elderly gentleman with actual commando experience showed up at his table. (Via).

Also a nice example of how backwards most of the warfare in the Star Wars universe is, that WWII commando tactics can completely rip apart the opposition…

Why Peter Parker is the better nerd

I. Coleman has a point, comparing the hero of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One with Peter Parker:

If you want a geek hero, look at Peter Parker. He likes Star Wars and obsesses over superheroes. He’s a nerd. He gets bullied for being a nerd. But his fondness for LEGOs isn’t what makes him a hero – that would be his heroism. His goodness. The fact that he’ll go out of his way to help an old lady cross the street. He knows what it’s like to get picked on, and instead of picking on others in turn, he chooses to stand up for the little guy no matter how hard it is. Peter Parker is what geek culture needs to strive to be every day. When we write an article or a videogame or a book, we should think “Would Peter Parker write this? Would he agree with what we’re saying?”

And conversely, I propose we should also ask “would Wade Watts like this?” And if the answer is yes, you should delete your draft, burn your script, drown the thing in white-out and start over. And it’s this test, more than anything else, that Ready Player One so catastrophically fails. Yes, it’s boring, poorly-written, and literally contains a ten-page list of titles of things the author likes. But it also fails the basic test of humanity, creating a character and a world so repugnant that I feel more than justified in saying it represents the absolute worst of nerd culture.

Peter Parker: science nerd

But there’s another way in which Peter Parker and Wade Watts differ, one that’s just as important as the one Coleman points out: what kind of nerd they are. It’s this difference that at least partially explains their moral differences as well. As we all know, Peter Parker got bitten by a radioactive spider that turned him into Spider-Man, but the reason he was bitten by that spider was because he went to a scientific exhibition, because Peter Parker was the kind of nerd who was really into science, who was studying to become a scientist. That’s why he was bullied, at a time when being a brainiac was not a good thing. There’s more than a hint of classism in the bullying, what with his principal tormentor being the popular, rich jock who could afford to tool around in a sports car, while Parker wore handme down clothes and thick nerd glasses. And that’s why he was bullied: he looked poor, he was a brainiac, he didn’t share the interests of the cool people nor felt the need to imitate them.

Wade Watts on the other hand is the worst possible sort of nerd, the one that thinks his (excessive) love of Star Wars and knowledge of eighties nerd trivia makes him special, gets him persecuted. He doesn’t create, he just consumes, never does anything original. He has a persecution complex but nobody’s persecuting him. His type is widespread among fandom, usually white men who’ve never had much hardship in their lives, but who’ve convinced themselves that a light spot of bullying during high school means the entire world is against them because of their brilliance. These are usually the same people who want to exclude anybody not like them — LGBT, women, PoC — from fandom, that only they are true fans though they never contribute anything. That’s the kind of fan who eat up flattering trash like Ready Player One.

Heinlein talks

I came across this video thanks to File 770, following the bread crumbs back from a post about the latest rightwing sf writer making an arse off himself. Heinlein is arguably the ur-Puppy, in that most of their beliefs can be traced straight back to them. Heinlein would’ve known better than to insult sf readers on social media or pick public fights with other writers willy-nilly though. He could actually write, had to be able to write stories that everybody — rather than just those who ideologically agreed with him — could enjoy, or he would’ve had no income. Johnny come lately coat tail riders like Jon Del Arroz on the other hand seem to want to sell books as a way to stick it to the libs, rather than on their own merits. Buy this book and annoy Mike Glyer or something.

The problem with any of the Puppy authors is of course that everything they’ve done was done before and better by writers like Pournelle, Niven and especially Heinlein. If I wanted to read a rightwing tract masquarading as science fiction, I’d read them and still get a chance at a half decent story too. No wonder the Correias and Torgersens of this world are so salty: they can’t even buy the respect they feel is theirs even if they have the sales, because nothing they do is all that interesting or novel. They’re just copies of copies of copies of Heinlein. You’re better off reading the real thing.

The last whites only literary movement in science fiction

The New Weird might be the only literary movement that wasn’t so much still born, as murdered in its crib by the very same people who first created it. Yet as Jonathan McCalmont explains, it still left a lasting impact on science fiction. Reading that history however, something struck me, especially when reading the quote below by Steph Swainston:

The New Weird is a wonderful development in literary fantasy fiction. I would have called it Bright Fantasy, because it is vivid and because it is clever. The New Weird is a kickback against jaded heroic fantasy which has been the only staple for far too long. Instead of stemming from Tolkein, it is influenced by Gormenghast and Viriconium. It is incredibly eclectic, and takes ideas from any source. It borrows from American Indian and Far Eastern mythology rather than European or Norse traditions, but the main influence is modern culture — street culture — mixing with ancient mythologies.

The New Weird was the last science fiction movement that could still get away with thinking about diversity only in terms of what’s being written about, rather than who is doing the writing. It was the last movement to be able to assume that writers and audience both would be largely white, largely male, largely middle class. Fast forward half a decade and you got Racefail where science fiction and fandom got their noses rubbed in the fact that this was no longer the case, if it ever had been. Another half decade and you got the culture wars instigated by a bunch of sad losers angry that their lazy, rightwing power fantasies no longer win Hugos. It’s a point jonathan McCalmont makes as well:

If the TTA Press forums discussion marked the point at which genre culture gave itself permission to begin ignoring genre boundaries then Racefail was the point at which genre culture began to both recognise its historical failures and begin appealing directly to its readers rather than simply working on the assumption that the default reader of genre fiction was a white, middle-class male and that everyone who wasn’t would just happily put up with the fact that virtually nothing was written with them or their concerns in mind.

As said, diversity when looked at from that white, middle class male perspective tends to focus on who’s being written about more than on who’s doing the writing. Not that this isn’t important in its own right, but it will still reflect the same limited perspective and no matter how well intentioned, often reducing anybody who isn’t (white, male, middle class) to the exotic. Diversity from this perspective is always from the outside looking in, making it easy to fall into stereotypes, cultural appropriation, orientalism and othering. You get things like making mutants as a metaphor for the Civil Rights struggle and thinking that’s enough, or writing alternate history in which America is conveniently empty when the Europeans land. This sort of diversity is only possible if your audience and peers are the same as you, or you can at least pretend they are.

The New Weird happened at arguably the last time that you could still hold up this pretence without immediadely being contradicted by the very same people you’re denying the existence of. Twitter, Youtube and Facebook didn’t exist yet, blogging was in its infancy and existing fannish and science fiction online spaces were still dominated by, well, white middle class men. What made Racefail not just possible but inevitable was that between the New Weird and Racefail the internet became not just mainstream but ubiquitous as both access and ease of access increased; it’s no coincidence that much of Racefail took place on Livejournal, one of the earliest social media sites and one that had long been home to sf fandom. Tools or sites like Twitter or Tumblr have only made it easier for everybody to let their voice be heard, harder to ignore people when they address you directly. It has its advantages and disadvantages, but the upshot is that science fiction can no longer pretend to be just white, middle class or male.