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

Charlie Hebdo

Latuff cartoon on the Charlie Hebdo massacre

The news of the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices has hit close to home. Cartoonists are always one of the first targets for repressive regimes and other psychopaths and Charlie Hebdo has not been shy about taunting authoritarian assholes; they already had their office firebombed by the same kind of idiot who got offended enough this time to kill. As Ted Rall put it:

Cartoons are incredibly powerful.

Not to denigrate writing (especially since I do a lot of it myself), but cartoons elicit far more response from readers, both positive and negative, than prose. Websites that run cartoons, especially political cartoons, are consistently amazed at how much more traffic they generate than words. I have twice been fired by newspapers because my cartoons were too widely read — editors worried that they were overshadowing their other content.

Scholars and analysts of the form have tried to articulate exactly what it is about comics that make them so effective at drawing an emotional response, but I think it’s the fact that such a deceptively simple art form can pack such a wallop. Particularly in the political cartoon format, nothing more than workaday artistic chops and a few snide sentences can be enough to cause a reader to question his long-held political beliefs, national loyalties, even his faith in God.

That drives some people nuts.

Twelve people killed so far, five of whom were cartoonists, some of the most famous in France and beyond: Charb, Cabu, Honoré, Tignous, and Wolinski. It’s a tragedy like no other that has happened to the comics community. Cartoonists have been threatened, assaulted and even killed for their cartoons, but on this scale?

And what may be the worst thing about this massacre (apart from, you know, the people murdered) is that the cartoons may just have been used as an excuse for some fuckwitted jihadist publicity stunt to heighten the tensions, wanting to rile up islamophobia by attacking a well known target in the worst possible way. The attackers know and count on innocent Muslims getting caught in the crossfire, but don’t care. All that matters is that they showed how big and scarey they are to be able to kill people only armed with pen and ink.

The danger is of course that the response to this attack will travel through the well worn tracks of outrage and Islamophobia, of uncritcally making Charlie Hebdo into free speech martyrs to rally people for another spot of Muslim bashing, as Geertje Wilders was already busy doing while the bodies were still warm.

For me personally, Charlie Hebdo’s satire about the Islam felt too much like punching down to be enjoyable or interesting; this tragedy doesn’t change that.

No more junk!

I’m not one for New Year’s Resolutions normally, finding them a waste of time, but I do want to change some things this year. Basically, I want to free myself of junk. And I’m not just talking about junk food here, though gru knows I could stand cutting down a lot on it, but junk consumption in general. In these past few years I feel like I’ve wasted too much time on things that don’t matter, aren’t worth it, or even actively harmful. I’m talking about.

  • NO more junk tv. So much time wasted with crappy Discovery “documentaries” about awful people fighting over the scraps of other people’s failures, mildly amusing quiz shows and talking head football shows. Meanwhile my movie watching dropped almost to zero because I had “no time” for them, then spent twice as long watching crap on television. I need to stop that and watch something good instead.
  • NO more online junk. The internet is of course the ultimate quick junk fix and I need to stop falling for Upworthyesque shit or tvtropes rabbit trails. I need to let go a bit more and not hit up more sites when there’s nothing interesting to read or see. I certainly don’t need to keep watching 40 minute long videos of other people playing games when I could be playing myself. Which brings me to.
  • NO more junk gaming. For fuck’s sake, I had to make a spreadsheet to keep track of all the games I’ve already bought in the two years I’ve finally had a modern(ish) pc, yet I keep buying and not playing them? Meanwhile Football Manager shows ridic numbers of hours spent on it, in “just one more turn” type of button pushing pellot drop gaming. I like the game, but I need to let go of it a bit more when I’m just playing it to get the season done and over with.
  • NO more junk blogging. Less of the obsession to get posts out daily or regularly when I have nothing to say, more time spent on writing them. ‘Nuff said.
  • Finally, NO more junk reading. Not that I necessarily regret the books I read last year, but there have been times in the past two-three years where all I could stomach reading was Mass Effect fanfiction and shitty mil-sf. That needs to change.
  • Basically, I want to engage more rather than mindlessly consume what’s put in front of me.

Your Happening World (December 9th through January 5th)

  • Special Prostitution Courts and the Myth of ‘Rescuing’ Sex Workers | VICE | United States – Police are violent in general, and violent specifically to women they think are sex workers. According to a 2012 study by the Young Women's Empowerment Project for young people who have sold sex, a third of all reported abuse came at the hands of the police. Sources told me officers had called women "sluts," groped them during arrests, even made jerking-off motions with their batons in court. In the Brooklyn HTIC, RedUP saw a black woman who claimed to have been beaten so savagely by police that she landed in the hospital.
  • Superhero showdown: Which comic book rumble was the real Battle of the Century? | Ars Technica – What should constitute the Battle of the Century? To these comics, it's two main things. First, the two combatants must both be at the top of their game. That's more in terms of popularity and relevance than pure ability (Lil' Abner versus Superman wouldn't be fair otherwise). The second requirement is as easy—the battle itself has to somehow be epic. While doing research, we didn't limit candidates to books using the word "battle"; we also included things like "fight," "bout," and "showdown." The extravagant claim simply had to appear on the cover.
  • Science every day | Day 1 | Signe Cane
  • On Rolling Stone, lessons from fact-checking, and the limits of journalism – It was as both a feminist and former fact-checker that I watched with rage on Friday as Rolling Stone distanced themselves from the account of a gang rape at UVA they published last month, covering for their own journalistic missteps by throwing Jackie, the rape survivor at the center of the piece, under the bus. And the rage is only growing as many of the journalists now rushing to condemn Rolling Stone are starting to spin a tale of how a “Believe the Victims” mentality got in the way of good journalism in this case. Feminism’s to blame, as always.
  • The Digital Comic Museum – Free and Public Domain Comic Books

The Blue Place — Nicola Griffith

Cover of The Blue Place

The Blue Place
Nicola Griffith
308 pages
published in 1998

I can’t remember the last time I’ve been as frustrated with the ending to a novel as I am with The Blue Place. I had seen it building up from at least halfway through the story, hoping that its seeming inevitable conclusion would be subverted at the last minute, the same way Nicola Griffith did earlier in the novel, with another plot point that seemed to descent into hardboiled cliché until it didn’t. But the ending wasn’t subverted, was hardboiled cliché, did upset me and yet fitted perfectly with what is an incredibly smart, engaging novel by a writer who has never gone for the easy route in her stories. So what’s going here? To try and find out will take some effort and certainly some spoilers.

Let’s start with Nicola Griffith herself first. Yorkshire born, she moved to Seattle to live with her wife, the writer Kelley Eskridge. Her first fiction was published in the late eighties, her first novel in 1993. So far she’s written six novels, of which I have now read half. As you may have guessed, The Blue Place is a hardboiled detective novel, her third, the first two being Ammonite and Slow River, both science fiction. she would go on to write two sequels to the The Blue Place, while her latest novel, Hild, is a historical novel about 7th century CE saint Hilda. So far all her novels have had lesbian protagonists and The Blue Place is no exception.

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Monument — Lloyd Biggle

Cover of Monument

Lloyd Biggle
173 pages
published in 1974

It’s been a while since I’d read any of Lloyd Biggle’s novels; the last one had been The World Menders back in 2007. I’ve always liked his writing, quietly liberal and anti-colonialist in a way that few other science fiction authors of his generation were. His belief in the idea that “democracy imposed from without is the severest form of tyranny” seemed especially apt during the darkest days of War Against Terror triumphalism. He is however, not a writer much read these days, having done the bulk of his writing in the sixties and seventies. He died relatively recently, in 2002, after a long illnes, having written only some six novels since the seventies.

Science fiction is often an imperialist, colonialist genre, in which it’s taken as natural or even desirable for there to be a galactic imperium to which newly discovered worlds should be gently or firmly — depending on the author’s preference — be persuaded to join. Sometimes this is dressed up as the need to avoid interstellar wars and even in stories with a Galactic Federation rather than an empire the need for newly discovered worlds to be assimilated is rarely questioned. Not so with Lloyd Biggle; several of his books question this mentality and Monument is one of them. Taken its lead from what was happening in e.g. Polynesia at the time, it’s an sfnal attack on ill considered economic development imposed from the outside.

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Books read December

Ten books read in December brings the total for 2014 up to eightyeight in total, six up from 2013. I’d hoped to have more of an end spurt, but a short illness put paid to that. 2014 has been the most unbalanced reading year since I started keeping count in 2001: seventyfour fiction books, of which fortysix science fiction and twentysix fantasy, against only fourteen non-fiction.

There are a couple of reasons for this of course. Because I went to Worldcon this year I got to read the Hugo Voters Package, meaning July and August were spent reading through that, while I also got interested in Dutch language science fiction again, reading a lot more Dutch sf than I had in a long time. Nevertheless I want to read more non-fiction this year.

Genderwise I’m still trying to fix the balance in my reading, having calculated back in 2010 that less than ten percent of the books I read had been written by women. So of the fortysix science fiction books, thirtyone were by female writers as were eighteen of the twentysix fantasy books. Since the only crime novels I read were by Nicola Griffith, the total for my fiction reading was fiftyone books by female versus twentythree books by male writers. Non-fiction on the other hand was male dominated: four women versus ten men. Something to pay attention to this year.

Though to be honest I’m less bothered by this, then I am with keeping my science fiction and fantasy more balanced and diverse; those are the genres I like the best and read the most of. What I like to do in 2015 is to keep reading more books by women, but also start reading more stories by authors from outside the UK or US. There’s a wide world of fantasy and science fiction outside these two countries and I want to know more about it.

In any case the last books I read in 2014 were the following:

The Violent Century — Lavie Tidhard
What if, only a few years before WWII, one particular quantum physics experiment creates a probability wave that gives some people superpowers?

The Dark Colony — Richard Penn
A self published, hard science fiction police procedural set on an asteroid belt colony.

De Scrypturist — Paul Evanby
A great steampunkesque Dutch fantasy story by what I suspect is one of Holland’s best sf&f writers.

The Nemesis from Terra — Leigh Brackett
Another of Brackett’s tightly plotted Mars adventures.

Meeting the Sculptur — Floris M. Kleijne
A clever little time travel story.

The Martian — Andy Weir
One of the sleeper hits of the year, this hard science fiction novel of an astronaut stranded on Mars and how he’s saved through ingenuity, can do spirit and NASA led teamwork.

Falling Free — Lois McMaster Bujold
The last novel in Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga I hadn’t read yet, set 200 years before the main series and showing how the Quaddies got their freedom in a sort of eighties update of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

The Story of the Stone — Barry Hughart
The second in Hughart’s series of fantasies set in mystical China and the only one I hadn’t read yet.

High Wizardry — Diane Duane
The third in the Young Wizards series: great YA fantasy adventure.

Monument — Lloyd Biggle Jr
A classic anti-colonialist science fiction story.

WALL-E: thriumph of the nice guy

So seeing WALL·E over Christmas again got me thinking. That love story between WALL·E and EVE, that’s pretty much the nice guy fallacy in a nutshell, isn’t it? WALL·E falls in love with EVE and pesters her while she’s doing her job, not taking no for an answer. He keeps hanging around and bringing her gifts she doesn’t need, isn’t honest about his feelings for her but seems to think that if only he brings the perfect gift she’ll like him. That by accident he does bring her just the thing she needs doesn’t alter anything. After this he stalks her to her home, interferes with her work again, makes her an accomplish in his jail break from the mental hospital for robots, keeps her in trouble with lawful authority and finally guilts her in loving him when she sees how he took care of her when she was incapitated. All that’s missing is the negging.

Yes, this may be tongue in cheek

Playing Civ V the Culture way

One of the things that stayed with me the most from Iain M. Bank’s The Player of Games more than twenty years ago was the following:

Another revelation struck Gurgeh with a force almost as great; one reading—perhaps the best—of the way he’d always played was that he played as the Culture. He’d habitually set up something like the society itself when he constructed his positions and deployed his pieces; a net, a grid of forces and relationships, without any obvious hierarchy or entrenched leadership, and initially quite profoundly peaceful.

In all the games he’d played, the fight had always come to Gurgeh, initially. He’d thought of the period before as preparing for battle, but now he saw that if he’d been alone on the board he’d have done roughly the same, spreading slowly across the territories, consolidating gradually, calmly, economically… of course it had never happened; he always was attacked, and once the battle was joined he developed that conflict as assiduously and totally as before he’d tried to develop the patterns and potential of unthreatened pieces and undisputed territory.

The Player of Games is of course all about playing a particularly complicated game, insanely complicated even, which functions as the central controlling metaphor for a rather nasty interstellar empire the Culture wants to Do Something About. It made sense for the resolution to be about playing the game the Culture way, but ever since I’ve been looking at Grand Strategy and 4X games and how to play those the Culture way, starting with Master of Orion way back when.

Now last week I started getting into Sid Meier’s Civilisation V. Yes, I know, I’m so ahead of the times. After playing a first few games, I started thinking how I would play this game as the Culture. Obviously, it means going for the science victory rather than just attacking and conquering every other player, but how else should I play?

As we know from the Culture novels, the Culture isn’t military aggressive, but can respond quickly and with overwhelming force when provoked. This means building up an empire in Civ V that’s scientifically advanced, with enough resources (gold, otherwise) to quickly build an army when necessary. The other aspect of the Culture is that it is an exploring and flexible civilisation, continueously establishing new outposts and welcoming new peoples, as well as letting others leave. In Civ V terms this means therefore lots of scouting out the world, quickly establishing new colonies and forging ties with other civilisations and city states, including the occasional annexation of a city state.

As for simulating contact, there are the scouts and the diplomatic functions, trading directly with other civs, giving gifts and pledging protection to city states, with the spies acting in the background as Civ’s version of Special Circumstances. On the whole a Culture civilisation should focus on discovering new territories and settling them, improving the empire’s economy and keeping an eye on the more aggressive fellow civs. When need be a bit of dirty trickery should provide the excuse to start a war against an aggressor civ, after which the military forces should be hidden or dismantled again.

It may not be as much fun to play the Culture as it would be to go full Gandhi on the world and let rain the atom bombs, but it is an interesting challenge…

John Carter – Borelord of Mars

Had the movie been more like the the trailer it would’ve been more successful. But having just watched it on the BBC tonight I understand why it was such a box office failure. Boy did this drag, mainly out of the misguided desire to put a framing story around it. It also doesn’t help that John Carter himself is a huge dick during most of the film and an incompentent dick at that. Or that the story itself, that of the reluctant hero unwillingly learns to fight for a greater cause than his own greed, is so predictable.

All of that is fixable though. Cut out everything in the first fifteen-twentyfive minutes until Carter is chased by Apaches into the cave with the portal to Mars/Barsoom, tighten up some of the running to and fro once he’s on Barsoom and with the Tharg, cut at least some of the “Carter gets angry, gets in a fight and gets his arse kicked” scenes, then end the movie with him calling himself John Carter of Mars. That should cut out at least half an hour of tedium and puts the focus back on the fighting and the great setting. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom is a great place for a spectacle film, but not if you load it up with tedious extras.

I’m not sure why Disney felt it necessary to make the film the way it did, why it didn’t just film A Princess of Mars, but it’s such a shame because it could’ve been a great sci-fi romp. When it does gets going it’s a great movie to watch. The CGIed Tharg look great, the Martian technology looks cool and the low gravity jumping looks fun. A missed opportunity.