Tag Archives: literature

We all need a little more John Milton right now

I first encountered Milton’s excellent treatise in support of free speech when I was teaching British Literature, and I’ve never forgotten his stunning prediction that Truth, in an open encounter with lies, will always win.

Given the nastiness of our civil discourse these days, perhaps Milton was too optimistic. The Enlightenment guys always were a bit under appreciative of just how bad humanity can get.

But at the core, I think Milton is right. The goal of thorny discussion is not to banish the ideas we hate – though indeed, racism and misogyny and xenophobia are ugly, horrible ideas that are driving elements of the 2016 election cycle. The solution is to shine more light on those ideas, to examine them, to teach adults as well as their children to discern critically the nature of ideas, to offer explanations of complicated concepts in ways nearly everyone can understand (YouTubers! Get on this!), to listen and respond rather than shouting and screaming and walking away.

We all need a dose of Milton right now. We need his dogged determination not to fear ideas we don’t agree with, and be willing to talk about them.

Freedom of thought, freedom to pursue knowledge, and freedom of speech is a societal good, I argue, not a threat. We need to embrace the battle of ideas, not seek its regulation in new-fangled licensing laws, the like of which I had hoped were going the same way as monarchy. ‘Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions’, I wrote. ‘For opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.’ And further on, ‘Let [truth] and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?’ You see, a free and open public sphere, in which people are able to say what they think, and print what they believe, is the best way to get at the truth of the matter. This is because the people, as free and reasoning individuals, will be able to judge for themselves the merits of opposing arguments. A bad argument is best corrected, in public, by a good argument.

Source: ‘Let Truth and Falsehood grapple’ | Free speech | spiked

Read the whole essay ^ – it’s worth your time.

Hugo 2016 wrap-up

Here are the winners of the 2016 Hugo Awards | The Verge

Thrilled that my top picks (or #2 pick, in one case) in the major categories for the Hugo were awarded top honors yesterday. Especially thrilled that good writing came out on top, from a variety of perspectives and backgrounds and cultures.

Please go check out the year’s winners if you need some new books in your life.  In some cases, I found all the nominees in one category to be good reads – I noted that in my reviews:

Novel: The Fifth Season (review)

Novel: Uprooted (review)

Novellas

Novelettes

Short Stories

Review: Hugo Awards 2016 – Novelettes

What is a novelette? you ask.

It’s what, as an English teacher, I would’ve called a short story just a little bit too long to assign for one night’s homework. (That makes novellas, to me, about a week’s worth of high school homework.)

I found more to like among the Novelette nominees for the 2016 Hugo Awards, though the Sad and Rabid Puppies certainly left their muddy paw prints all over this category. All 5 nominated works were on one of the Puppy slates, but usually not both.

The nominees continue to suffer, in these shorter works, from poor selection but perhaps that’s as much a result of fan voting as it is the Puppies’ attempt at chaos and domination.

In order of my appraisal:

  1. “Obits” by Stephen King is going to be my top pick in Novelette, though my #2 selection is within a hair’s breadth of taking my top vote.  But it’s hard to deny the feel of sentences coming off the pen of a man as experienced and talented as King. It’s like holding a real $20 bill after checking out some counterfeits. Sure, his writing has weakened in the past decade (that auto accident did something to him, I think) but he’s still a master of the craft, and I’ve always liked his shorter fiction the most.
    This tale is nearly perfect – the “voice” of the main character just fits, the way it’s supposed to. Every word slots into its the sentence, painting exactly the picture King wants you to see and feel.

    This story, like a good sci-fi/fantasy tale, pushes people to the forefront to carry the plot, allowing the non-realist elements to create a rich background tapestry that absolutely supports the plot without shouting it down. I enjoyed pretty much every line.  The conceit of the tale isn’t a new one, but King handles it well, and I think that’s worth a lot.

  2. “Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingling, trans. Ken Liu surprised me in several ways. The story would be at home in the dystopian future of Paolo Bacigalupi, a world in which man’s inability to care for himself and his planet yields ugly consequences.In this story, Beijing in the future has been engineered so that the richest 10% of the population lives in spacious homes and parks for 24 hours, then the city “folds” itself, origami-style, and rotates, giving a second group of people 12 hours of daylight. That second group represent a minority class of educated professionals who rush to get everything done. Finally, the bulk of Beijing’s 50 million inhabitants are crammed into the teeming, squalid third realm, which emerges in the last quarter of the 2-day folding cycle to see 12 hours of night.

    Against this rich background Hao tells us a story of love and loss that’s poignant and touching.  The writing is a little bumpy – I know Liu is a good translator – perhaps there’s something about the cultural shifts and language usage that isn’t quite coming over clearly. But this is a story well worth your time to read.I’m not sure if this next story deserves a Hugo, but I sure enjoyed it:

  3. “And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead” by Brooke Bolander mashes up two of my favorite genres into one lively and darkly funny story that still manages to be very human and very perceptive.  She takes the cyberpunk world of Blade Runner or Android Netrunner and inserts the kind of hard-bitten characters you want to find in 1950s pulp detective fiction. But her protagonist, Rhye, blows through any gender stereotypes, presenting as a tough-as-nails street tomboy with a mouth like a sailor. (I noted that several folks on Goodreads gave up on this story quickly due to the flying F-bombs in just the first paragraph.)

    As a woman who happily inhabits gamer culture, I found this story like stepping into online multiplayer – a bit crazy, a bit vulgar, and very fun. It wasn’t exactly new thinking, but the writing was great. Plus, even as a Puppy nomination (Sad, not Rabid …. since I can’t envision any Rabid Puppy being supportive of a Strong Female Lead), this story shows that “classic” sci-fi themes aren’t destroyed when authors bend the genders and honor the culture of gamers/cyberpunk with good character writing.These two stories will fall below the “No Award” bar on my ballot, for sure

  4. “What Price Humanity” by David VanDyke was interesting enough, but the Big Idea has been done before (many times) and the story itself was a little ham-handed in its construction and plot pacing.  I guessed the twist at the end easily; the frame tale that attempts to give the story some context feels disjointed and preachy. Even the Big Question that VanDyke is trying to wrestle with falls flat.  It could have been provocative, but … it wasn’t.

    SPOILER ALERT…. I don’t want anyone who’s planning to read the story to see this accidentally so again — Spoiler!! — but VanDyke didn’t even raise a deep ethical quandary IMO. Is there anything unethical about copying a human’s consciousness and having it control a weapon? well, doesn’t that depend on whether the human whose consciousness is being copied gave his/her consent or no? and it’s so materialist (in the philosophical sense) to ground a story in the idea that copying someone’s brain pattern exactly (an engram) would somehow recreate a whole *person.*  Nah.  This is a bad knock-off of cloning ethics, at least in the way he handles the story here, and I’m confused why VanDyke didn’t learn anything from the other, similar stories in this vein that surely he’s read.

  5. “Flashpoint: Titan” by Cheah Kai Wai is the personification of what I expect the Rabid Puppies want in their foreign policy. I found the story to be a bit naive, slightly racist, overly reliant on stereotypes, and dull due to its reliance on technical details.  It had good moments, and I didn’t mind reading it through to the end. I even liked the main character and his crew, and I learned things about space warfare that I hadn’t considered (like the incredible cost to delta vee and propulsion systems that a simple redirection of course would take).

    That said, this story – like “Seven Kill Tiger” on the Short Story ballot, from this same collection There Will Be War – feels like a bunch of 50-something Republicans who like to shoot guns but never actually went to war decided to chew the fat about how much they hate Muslim terrorists and the Chinese, and turned that into a short story instead.

    Cheah’s story is at best tone deaf when it comes to racial stereotyping, totally unaware of how playing into 40s and 50s era pulp caricatures of other countries should strike 21st century readers as offensive. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure the Rabid Puppies who nominated this work consider that kind of insensitivity a badge of honor.

One final thought —

Military sci-fi can be brilliant (I thought The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu presented amazing military/space dilemmas) and very thought provoking (Joe Haldeman’s Forever War) even when it’s “fun” (eg: Hammer’s Slammers by David Drake).  But Drake and Haldeman write like men who experienced combat — because they did —  and their stories focus on the human side of war, not the details of the warfare itself.

To me, that’s a key difference between military sci-fi worth my time, and military sci-fi that reads like it was sponsored by the Koch Brothers.

*****

Next up (and already in progress): Novellas! I’ve read 2.5 and enjoyed them so far. Looking forward to writing that review.

Review: Hugo Awards 2016-Short Story nominees

Well, that was a waste of my time.

If you are following the Hugo Award ballot, the annual fan-nominated and fan-elected winners for excellence in sci-fi and fantasy writing, you are aware of the Sad / Rabid Puppy controversy.

If you aren’t familiar, or if you just want to read an outstanding article on the issue, Wired Magazine wrote a great piece last year, in the wake of Puppy Scandal 2015. It’s hard to boil down, but the Puppies claim the Hugos have been taken over by pretentious liberals who are pushing their “agenda” into the stories, while the rest of us, whether we think the Puppies have a point or not, are tired of crap being shoved into the Hugo Award balloting as a protest move. And these Puppies do seem hell-bent on shoving women and people of color out of science-fiction, in the name of “making sci-fi fun again.” (Did these guys read The Forever War? “Sandkings”? 2001?  Those aren’t “fun” novels…..)

The Culture Wars are raging at the highest levels (and all corners) of American society. Substitute weaponry for verbiage, and this could easily be the stuff of a sci-fi novel…..

Now, in the same year that the so-called mens’ rights movement was driven into a froth by Mad Max: Fury Road, in which Charlize Theron seeks to rescue a bunch of women from sex slavery (and Max is little more than a sidekick), another flashpoint emerged: Puppygate.

In our telephone call a few weeks back, Beale explained that his plan was a “Xanatos gambit.” “That’s where you set it up so that no matter what your enemy does, he loses and you win.”

Source: Who Won Science Fiction’s Hugo Awards, and Why It Matters | WIRED

Last year, many of the Puppy-nominated works were, to be frank, total shit. They were badly written, frothy, of little value literarily or conceptually. But the problem remains: Anyone who wants to shove crap into the Hugo ballot can do it if they’re organized enough. And the Puppies followers jump when they’re told.

*****

So that explains why I spent my early afternoon groaning at the short stories nominated for the Hugo this year. I will be voting “No Award” for this category, and here’s why:

  • “Asymmetrical Warfare,” by SR Algernon:  Cute. If this story had been written in 1931, it would be fresh and interesting. In 2016, it’s basically a copy of an idea that’s been written to death. I think I had middle-school writers who hit on similar ideas. This isn’t worthy of a major award.
  • “Cat Pictures Please” took the place of “The Commuter” on the ballot; I’m not sure why; some authors withdraw from the contest when they realize they’re being used as pawns in a political/cultural war. Aside from that, this was my favorite story of the set. But it, like the one above, is a familiar idea. No novel thinking here.
  • “If you were an award, my love” published on the Vox Day blog is a hate-parody of a winning story from a few years ago that the Puppy people despise. This entry is simply a puerile pot-shot at John Scalzi, a sci-fi author who’s happy to tangle with Puppy stupidity in public and reveal its foolishness. Nominating this for an award is like celebrating some junior-high kid’s dick drawing that he taped in Stevie’s locker just because he wanted to be an asshole to Stevie.
  • “Seven Kill Tiger” by Charles Shao: With a tone-deafness toward its racial stereotyping, this story also suffers from a decided lack of interest or even plot. He imagines a scenario in which China releases a super-virus to kill all the black people in Africa so they can take the land. Ummmmm….. I feel like this guy will probably vote for Donald Trump.
    …and that brings me to … I can’t even believe I’m writing this….
  • “Space Raptor Butt Invasion” by Chuck Tingle:  If gay dino porn is your genre, Chuck Tingle is your man. The fact that this was nominated is nothing but a slap in the face — or a dick in the face, if you will — to the people who actually want the Hugo Awards to be something that matters.

So there you go.  In past years, I might have read gems from the likes of Ursula LeGuin, George RR Martin, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Philip K Dick, Ted Chiang, and countless other great authors who put honest work and craftsmanship into their writing.

Instead, because some controlling asshat who just wants to watch the nerd-world burn is angry that there are too many non-male, non-white, non-straight people all up in his grill and competing against him for readers and sales, I had to spend waste an hour of my time skimming stories about dinosaurs banging a lonely astronaut or tired, worn-down ideas that have been floating around for decades.

The Puppies claim they’re just trying to prove that Hugo voters don’t care about quality, that we will simply vote for people we agree with.

No.  I want to vote for people who can actually write. And if these WASPy men can’t get their shit together and promote stories that might be worth my time to read, they sure as hell don’t deserve any place among the Hugo nominees.

Unfortunately, the Hugo ballot — like the American ballot in 2016 — is deeply broken.  I don’t know if we’ll ever recover.  And that’s pretty hella sad.

*****
Next up: Novellas and Novelettes. The slates of nominees are entirely dominated by works recommended by the Sad and Rabid Puppies, but many nominated authors had little to do with that. I’m hoping there’s some valuable reads here.

*****
If you’re looking for some good, recent sci-fi short stories, try subscribing to one of the fan magazines. Or grab the “Best of…2015” short story collection next time you’re at B&N or BAM.

I enjoyed several of the short stories that Microsoft released as part of a collection last year, Future Visions, especially the story by Annie Leckie that closes the book.

Worth Reading This Week: Film, Helping the Poor, School Desegregation, and Racism (Oh my!)

Two reads and one listen that are more than worth your time.

I’ll open with what I think is the best of the three, though it will require a longer time investment.

Episodes 562 and 563 of This American Life delve into a topic people stopped talking about years ago: school integration.  “Separate but equal” schools were rejected as a solution by the Supreme Court 60 years ago, yet many inner-city minority students live in a world in which their schools are measurably inferior to the surrounding suburban schools where all the money resides.  As rich schools get richer, we must confront the increasing data that supports continued integration of schools across racial lines as a solution to the achievement gap.

Or to be really blunt about it: The Gospel might mean I should love my neighbor enough to send my kid to a worse school so that families with few other options for their kids can benefit from the effects of my (white) privilege.

Controversial enough for you?  Good. Give it a listen.
Also, if you aren’t shaking with anger and grief during the audio of the parent meeting in St. Louis in 2013, you have no soul.

This American Life: The Problem We All Live With (#562)

~~~~~
Second, I commend this dense but readable essay that suggests Christians should stop fighting a PR war and focus attention on the daily, hard work of loving the people around us.  It’s not rocket science. But it takes work … when it’s a lot easier just to snap a selfie at a rally or #StandWith on Twitter or complain about how the Church isn’t helping the poor. (That last line is for you, John)

If you Love the Poor for the sake of the Favs and RTs, it will destroy you. Even doing it for the love of others can tear you apart, constantly peeling the onion of intersectionality until you’re a crying mess. Loving the Poor for the praise of Our Father In Heaven, as Jesus told us to do, might involve just as much crying, but it at least gives you something beyond yourself that you can hold on to when you have no idea whether or not you’re actually loving people or loving the thing you’re building for them or loving the way they make you feel.

Loving the Poor: Pics or It Didn’t Happen (from CAPC)

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Finally, this essay about how watching films changes us for the better because it trains our hearts to empathize is well worth a read. Again, a little denser than I’d like for a casual piece, but absolutely worth your time.  Brought back lots of great memories from the time I read James K. A. Smith’s excellent book Desiring the Kingdom.

Irrigating Deserts: How Film Transforms and Causes Us to Love Our Neighbors (From CAPC)

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OK, I lied. One more.

All the hoopla over Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman hasn’t produced in me any desire to read it. I’m familiar enough with the shape of the tale and the surrounding metanarrative of how a reclusive author at the end of her life suspiciously agreed to release a manuscript she never wanted published.

This is the first article I’ve read which makes me think perhaps GSAW is worth a read after all.

“I am Atticus”: Racism and Vision in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman

Link: Why Study Philosophy? ‘To Challenge Your Own Point of View’ – Hope Reese – The Atlantic

This was an absolutely wonderful read. Get out there and think, kids!

Why Study Philosophy? ‘To Challenge Your Own Point of View’ – Hope Reese – The Atlantic

There is, among some scientists, a real anti-philosophical bias. The sense that philosophy will eventually disappear. But there’s a lot of philosophical progress, it’s just a progress that’s very hard to see. It’s very hard to see because we see with it. We incorporate philosophical progress into our own way of viewing the world.

via Why Study Philosophy? ‘To Challenge Your Own Point of View’ – Hope Reese – The Atlantic.

I also enjoyed her comment about the power of literature to further philosophical thinking (and vice versa):

There’s a lot of interest in literature and philosophy, and using literature as a philosophical examination. It makes me so happy! Because I was seen as a hard-core analytic philosopher, and when I first began to write novels people thought, Oh, and we thought she was serious! But that’s changed entirely. People take literature seriously, especially in moral philosophy, as thought experiments. A lot of the most developed and effective thought experiments come from novels. Also, novels contribute to making moral progress, changing people’s emotions.

My Fav Children’s Book: The Dot and the Line

Norton Juster, who wrote the ever-delightful party of puns The Phantom Tollbooth, also wrote a wonderful little parable called The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics.

I’ve used the book in my classroom for years when introducing the differences between Romanticism and Neoclassicism, but the story is just perfect on its own, especially in the form of a 1960s cartoon.  Everything I love about literature, puns, wordplay, and midcentury design meet in this short film.

Enjoy. 🙂