In some previous years I posted my ballot (or some other indication of my choices) on the blog, in part because some followers had asked me to. But this year was difficult in the most wonderful ways. I kept fiddling with my choices in all of the categories because so many of the nominees were so good. I really enjoyed all the stories that I read (the fact that a bunch of works and creators that I nominated made it in various categories didn’t hurt this year). Still, between all the categories there are 114 nominees, and out of that whole bunch there is exactly one that I didn’t think deserved the award.
So, to re-iterate, the hardest part this year was picking which things to put in first place in each category, since I thought pretty much everything this time around was award worthy.
Technically I still have several hours after this post will publish when I can go back in and move things around on my ballot, but I really think I need to stop dithering and just leave it.
Two categories that I almost always decide on last are the Editor, Long Form, and Editor, Short Form. For short form, usually if I recognize which publication an editor worked on, and I’m familiar with it, I feel confident I can rank them. It’s when I don’t know the publication well that I feel a little less certain.
Editor, Long Form is easy if, like this year (and as I recall last year) every nominee provides a list of all the books that they worked on that were published in the year under consideration. Then I have something to judge them on. This category was previously one of the hardest for me in the nominating phase, until I read a suggestion on someone’s blog: look at the list of the books you’ve decided to nominate, go to the publisher’s web site for each, and find out who the editor of that book was.
I’m kicking myself for not thinking of this during the nomination phase with regards to professional artist. If a book that I know is eligible has a great cover, I should nominate that artist. So, next year I hope to have more than one nominee in that category!
Anyway, it’s been a fun couple of months reading the stuff that made the ballot. Now that I’ve finished my voting, I can go back to reading other things in my big to-read pile!
Another week of hotter than normal temps here, which we’re managing to get through, but I’m spending a lot more time sitting out on my veranda after dark sipping tea or ice water or LaCroix or gin & tonic…
But enough about us. Let me present to you this week’s Friday Five: the top five (IMHO) stories of the week, five stories of people behaving badly, the top five stories concerning queer people, the top five videos, and a few of notable obituaries (plus my blog posts).
I need to do a bit of a follow up to my previous post about the issues at Worldcon. I didn’t touch on everything that happened, and since the issue blew up, Mary Robinette Kowal, whose tweet from years ago on a related subject I quoted in that post, has agreed to help redo the programming. Kowal has been running the programming tracks at the annual Nebula conferences for a while, and she had posted a nice summary of their process for trying to put together a program that appeals to many parts of the community. So many of us are provisionally hopeful that the situation will be a bit better at the actual convention than they appeared just days ago.
I have also been reminded that sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between ignorance and actual malice. Now, I was thinking that most of the bigotry that seemed to be motivating the issues were likely unconscious—all of us are often unaware of just how many prejudices we have absorbed from society. Alis Franklin, in particular, has pointed out another explanation for much of the problem:
“This all feels very much like people used to running a small-town parochial con with an established member-base suddenly getting in a twist because they have to accommodate (gasp) outsiders.”
And she’s likely on to something. A lot of this does sound like the people in programming are speaking from their past experience running their local convention, where they believe they know their audience and what those attendees expect. But even if that is the case, I still suspect that their local crowd includes a lot more queers, people of color, and other folks who are interested in topics that their local con doesn’t recognize in programming—because as I said, we’re everywhere, and we’re all used to being excluded and dismissed; so much so that when we raise an issue and are shut down, we often just hold our tongues thereafter.
On the issue of the one pro whose submitted bio was edited to change all of eir pronouns to “he” and “him”, and the insistence for a few days that this was a bio taken from the web (when no one can find such a bio and they can’t provide a link), that gets into the conscious versus unconscious bias. Either the person who copied the bio was simple too ill-informed about non binary people and nontraditional pronouns, and simply assumed it was some kind of extremely consistent typo (which I think is a stretch), or they’re one of those people who balk at pronouns to the point of refusing to use any they don’t agree with and decided to change the bio and then claim it was a mistake if they were called on it.
I don’t know if the same staffer is the one who decided not to use another pro’s usual publication bio and photograph, and instead write a different bio using information that usually was not released publicly and use a photo taken from the pro’s private Facebook. In any case, it is difficult to construct an “honest mistake” excuse for that one. And if it is the same staffer, I think that is more than adequate proof that the changed pronouns on the other bio was an intentional aggression.
In several of the discussions online I’ve seen a lot of people not understanding what the problem was with requesting semi-formal wear for the Hugo ceremony. Foz Meadows summed it up better than I did:
”…the fashion at the Hugo Awards ceremonies tends to be a welcoming, eclectic mixture of the sublime, the weird and the comfortable. Some people wear ballgowns and tuxedos; some wear cosplay; others wear jeans and t-shirts. George R. R. Martin famously tends to show up in a trademark peaked cap and suspenders. Those who do dress up for the Hugos do so out of a love of fashion and pageantry, but while their efforts are always admired and appreciated, sharing that enthusiasm has never been a requisite of attending. At an event whose aesthetics are fundamentally opposed to the phrase ‘business casual’ and whose members are often uncomfortable in formalwear for reasons such as expense, gender-nonconformity, sizeism in the fashion industry and just plain old physical comfort, this change to tradition was not only seen as unexpected and unwelcome, but actively hostile.”
I also note that a few days ago Mike Glyer posted a link to a letter from decades back from E.E. “Doc” Smith (the author of the Lensmen books, among others) when the 1962 WorldCon asked for all the ladies attending the award ceremony to wear long formal gowns. Smith commented that his wife had not owned formal wear since entering retirement and thought it was unreasonable to expect people to go to such an expense.
Which is a nice segue to this: until the 34th WorldCon (MidAmericaCon I, 1976 in Kansas City, Missouri) the Hugo Awards were given out at the end of the convention banquet. The banquet consisted of eating (obviously) while the guests of honor gave speeches. Fans who couldn’t afford the extra expense of the banquet were allowed in (usually in a separate area such as a balcony) for the awards portion. The awards ceremony was separated from the banquet in 1976 for a couple of reasons, but one was to make it easier for everyone who wanted to attend to do so. The conventions had gotten so large that the fraction who wanted to see the award ceremony was too much for the banquet halls of typical convention hotels to accommodate, and there had always been the problem of people who couldn’t afford the banquet ticket. I wanted to close with that because I have seen a number of people arguing that the people who are feeling unwelcome because of this con’s actions are making unreasonable demands to change traditions of the conventions.
The traditions change over time for many reasons. It isn’t about change for the sake of change, it is change of the sake of practicality and realism. People have, in the past, believed that science fiction and fantasy was only created by straight white guys, and was only loved by other straight white guys. That has never been true, but the illusion was maintained through a variety of societal forces and some willful ignorance. It has become increasingly difficult to maintain that willful ignorance, and besides, ignorance is never a good look on anyone. It’s not about whether fandom is diverse, it is about to what lengths some people are willing to go to ignore, silence, or push out that diversity.
So a problem that had been brewing for a while with this year’s WorldCon came to a head this weekend. There had been hints and rumblings. I’d heard that many pros were mentioning having problems communicating with some members of staff. Then there was the request to all the Hugo nominees to wear semi-formal wear to the award ceremony, so it would be “elegant and professional looking.” That one rang alarm bells for me because almost everytime I’ve ever heard anyone use the term “professional looking” it was a dogwhistle for everything from “please don’t be obviously gender non-conforming” to “please don’t look like the kind of person who can’t afford a bespoke suit” to “please don’t dress ethnic” and so on—in other words, trying to enforce some homogeneity.
So how things came to a head: a professional writer who has been nominated for a Hugo this year was told they weren’t going to be on programming because “there is a kind of creator who appeals to Hugo nominators, but are totally unknown to convention attendees.” The email also managed to misgender the pro and… well things went downhill, after the pro and their spouse posted some of this information online. The programming people contacted the spouse, asked the spouse to convey their apology and expressed disappointment that they went public instead of handling this privately.
And that prompted many many other writers and creators to come out of the woodwork, posting their own many attempts to deal with similar issues (such as, “why did you discard the bio my publisher sent you, and pull information from my private Facebook account instead?” “What do you mean that people like me aren’t of interest to convention attendees?”)—indicating that a whole bunch of people had been trying to address this privately to no avail.
Only when it became public and dozens of authors who were on the programs wrote in to either withdraw, or at least suggest that other, newer, less well known writers could take their place on some panels, did the con chair issue a real apology (there had been a “we’re sorry if anyone’s offended” style non-apology the night before).
Because the thing is, the people who were being excluded weren’t just new writers to the field, it was overwhelmingly the queer creators, the non-white creators, and the women creators. And at one point, the programming person explicitly said, “Do you expect a WorldCon to be like WisCon?” WisCon being famously more feminist-friendly and queer-friendly than most other conventions.
Other people have written about this situation, and probably better than I, but there’s a part of this whole thing that just really presses my buttons, and it aligns with a theme I’ve written about many times on this blog: to wit, queer people, trans people, people of color, women, and people of many religions and cultures have been fans of sci-fi/fantasy (and created sci-fi/fantasy) for as long as it has existed. We aren’t new. We aren’t exotic. We aren’t fringe or band-wagoners. We’ve always been here, we just have seldom been allowed to be visible. As Mary Robinette Kowal observed at least four years ago:
“It’s not about adding diversity for the sake of diversity, it’s about subtracting homogeneity for the sake of realism.”
—Mary Robinette Kowal
Let’s go back to the explanation that was being given before the backlash forced them to scrap their programming plans and start over: “There is a kind of creator that appeals to the Hugo nominators who is not known by the convention attendees.”
I have at least three responses to that:
First, nominators are attendees. In order to nominate for the Hugo Awards and in order to vote for the winners, one must purchase a membership to the convention. And you know who else are attendees? The pros who are coming to the con that the con com doesn’t want to let on the program. Sure, not every attendee participated in the nomination process, and not every one of them nominated ever finalist, but some fraction of the attendees did. And the number of people who nominate is more than large enough to be a statistically significant sample of fans. So it is an entirely misleading and useless distinction to try to draw between attendees and nominators.
Second, this argument is a form of gaslighting. I’ve seen some people compare it to the old TrueFan arguments (and the more recent Real Fan claims from melancholy canines), and those are good comparisons, but I think a better model is the Moral Majority. I know I hark back to that particular group a lot, and I admit I know so much about them because they originated in the denomination in which I had been raised and they came to national prominence literally as I reached legal voting age, so my earliest election experiences included being told again and again that, because I disagreed with them, I was a member of the implied immoral minority.
This is the same kind of argument: “attendees” are implied as being the vast majority of fans, and these majority of fans don’t find “that certain kind of creator” interesting, unlike the “nominators.” The nominators are, by inference, supposed to be viewed as a fringe, extremist minority whose interests can’t possibly overlap with the implied majority. And just as the Moral Majority’s very name contained two lies (they were neither moral nor a majority), this notion that type of fans who are not interested in a “certain kind of creator” must consititute such an overwhelming majority that virtually no programming to appeals to anyone else is worth having.
Third, the majority/minority part isn’t the only form a gaslighting being attempted. Because here’s the thing: in most of the Hugo categories, it is not people who are nominated, but works of sci-fi/fantasy. The authors are referred to as nominees, but technically it is a specific novel, novella, novelette, short story, et cetera that is nominated. But that phrase, “a certain kind of creator who appeals to the nominators” puts the emphasis on the creator and the creator’s identity. In other words, they are arguing that the nominators really didn’t like the specific story, but have chosen the story to fulfill a quota or something.
In other words, the person who made this statement believes that the story nominated doesn’t really deserve to be nominated, and believes that the nominators don’t believe that either. It’s the same racist/homophobic/transphobic/misogynist arguments that the melancholy canines were making. A “certain kind of creator” is a dogwhistle. The nominators may want queer/trans/women/people of color, but “normal” people don’t. That’s what that statement says. And this is why I still fervently believe the person who said that should be fired from the con com.
Fourth, finally, they are arguing that attendees are only interested in seeing creators they already know and love. Completely ignoring the fact that most fans want to both see old favorites and to find new writers/stories/shows/what-have-you that might become favorites. One of my favorite parts of attending conventions are when I am exposed to new authors I’d never heard of before, and new works that I’d never seen. I’m always writing down names of authors and stories and ‘zines and so forth, and then going to look them up after the con.
Many of the authors who are currently in my personal list of favorites, are people who I learned about at a convention panel. Yes, once they become a favorite, I will look for their names in the programming grid and try to see some of their events, but I’m not just there to see the folks I already know.
The conventions where I ran programming were all smaller than WorldCon, but I have run programming at conventions. I know it is hard work. I know it can feel like thankless work. But one of my goals with that programming was to provide convention attendees opportunities to learn new things, to find new artists or writers and so forth that they didn’t previously know about; to introduce the work of many people to new audiences, while also giving fans a chance to see the people whose work they already liked.
If you don’t see that both of those goals should equally drive the programming of a sci fi or fantasy con, then you absolutely should not be working on programming. Go work for a commercial convention where the only point is to sell autographs. Do not volunteer for a World Science Fiction Con.
My writing continues quite slowly. I didn’t have a superlong work week this week, though since I worked late into Friday, the weariness bled through the whole weekend and I don’t quite yet feel recovered.
But enough about me. Let me present to you this week’s Friday Five: the top five (IMHO) stories of the week, five stories of people behaving badly, the top five videos, and a couple of notable obituaries (plus my blog posts).
I’ve started this blog post many times, but I either find myself wanting to pull my hair out at the mental gymnastics the haters (who claim to be TrueFans) keep putting themselves through to try to make their arguments that up is down and two billion plus one billion equals zero… and I keep giving up. When the craziness first came to my attention, back in those bygone days when the first trailer for The Force Awakens sent them into a tizzy of anger and outrage, I figured it was just an age thing. Right? I was 17 years old when the original Star Wars came out, and I had watched the Watergate scandal unfold and take down a corrupt president a few years before. I understood that the Empire was a corrupt government founded by people who had, at one point, been treated just as any other politician proposing what ideas that some people disagreed with who turned out to be fascists who destroyed the old government, and that the Rebellion was being led by the remnants of what had been the opposition party before all of that. In other words, I understood that every single plot element in the original Star Wars was about politics.
These other folks, who whine and rage about the new movies, I just assumed they were closer to the median age of the typical internet user. Their first exposure to Star Wars had been to see it on a TV at home, possibly when they were too young to remember the first time. It was just something that was always there. Whereas I saw it as a great movie that changed the way the genre was perceived as well as creating a seismic shift in all of pop culture, to them it had always been there. And they had been too young to understand that the word “empire” was inherently political, just as the phrase “rebel spy and a traitor” was also inherently political.
Oh, how naive I was just a few years ago. I hadn’t realized that the problem was much deeper than that.
Before I go on, a few other people have examined in depth a couple of the issues at hand, and rather than try to construct the same analysis, you should go check these out:
The latter post, by the Aaron Pound, is extremely helpful in this discussion if for no other reason the two tables showing how all of the movies in the Star Wars franchise have done at the box office, and comparing them to other franchises (expressed in millions of dollars):
Please note: when adjusted for inflation, the original Star Wars made three-and-a-quarter billion dollars at the box office—that’s $3,252,000,000! Notice, also, the big drop-off that The Empire Strikes Back suffered, and then how the number went down a bit more for the third movie, The Return of the Jedi.
Now let’s look at the other chart (also in millions of dollars):
Aaron assembled this second chart to show how a single-character movie in a large franchise fares in comparison to the main courses, if you will. The Avengers and its sequels have made a whole lot more money than each single-character movie in the Marvel universe, and so we shouldn’t be surprised when Solo made a lot less money than The Force Awakens. Unfortunately, at least some execs at Disney didn’t understand this, otherwise they wouldn’t have authorized re-shooting almost the entirety of the film, bringing the cost of making Solo up to approximately $250 million (and then spent about $150 million promoting).
For the record, I liked Solo a lot. But I went into it knowing that because it’s a prequel, it will not cover any new ground. They had to show us how Han and Chewie meet, they had to show us how Han wins the Falcon from Lando in a card game, they had to show us the Kessel run. Those beats have to be hit. And because we’ve seen Han’s story play out in the original trilogy and The Force Awakens we already know who the love of his life will be, and he won’t meet her in this movie. Right? And when we meet Han in the original movie, he’s an established smuggler and scoundrel who owes money to at least one dangerous crime lord, so we can expect that this prequel will be some sort of criminal action-adventure movie. Therefore, it is nearly impossible to make this a movie that’s going to blow anyone’s mind.
They delivered a solid heist movie that did show us parts of the universe that the other films have mostly glossed over. It isn’t a bad movie, it’s just the sort of movie more likely to make $400 million than $1 billion, which can’t justify the amount they spent making it.
The angry guys who insist that this is more proof that some how the franchise whose main movies are earning more than a billion each is betraying true fans and so forth, don’t understand how the blockbuster movie industry works, compared to, say, the book publishing industry, or the gaming industry, and so forth. A cadre of true fans can make books profitable, but any group of “true fans” in any genre is simply too small a group to generate a billion dollars in revenue for a single movie.
Because the “true fans,” the kind of fans who argue about the economics of the cloud cities or who are dying to see the back story of characters in the original films are going to number in the thousands, at most. Whereas to make the sort of money that The Force Awakens made, you don’t just need millions of people buying tickets, you need at least 100 million.
And when you consider that the so-called “true fans” who are making this argument are the same guys who are angry that one of the leads of the new movies is a black man, and are furious that the primary protagonist is a woman, and are absolutely livid that another lead character is a chinese woman—well, that just means this is an even smaller fraction of the audience than simply people who are nostalgic for the original trilogy.
And with that belief system, well, it’s clear that they aren’t aligned with the light side of the force, either. That ain’t the force you’re feeling, guys—it’s hate.
A while back I was reading with more than a bit of amusement a conversation on tumblr where some Americans (by which I mean people from the U.S.), specifically some of my fellow southerners, were trying to explain sweet tea to some British folks. There were a few Brits who had spent some time in the U.S. also chiming in. I’m not sure if the most amusing bit was how many of the Brits were scandalized that most Americans don’t own tea kettles, or how horrified they were to learn about southern sweet tea. Southern sweet tea is not the same as tea which has had sugar or honey added. Southern sweet tea is an altogether different phenomenon. Just for a hint of what I mean, there is a recipe for Tea Punch (a different drink, but likely the granddaddy of sweet tea) from shortly after the American Revolution that includes this: “Make a pint and a half of strong tea in the usual way, then pour it boiling over a pound and a half of sugar…”
In the movie version of Steel Magnolias Dolly Parton’s character observes that “sweet tea is the house wine of the south.” Which is true, though there can be weird nuances. For one thing, there are people who disagree about which parts of the country constitute the south. Seriously! I once had a temporary co-worker from Georgia sniff very disdainfully at I and another co-worker after we mentioned that our families came mostly from Oklahoma and Texas, that “those aren’t part of the south, those are in the West.” I have also heard people from North or South Carolina insist the Florida is not part of the south. I’ve been told by one acquaintance who grew up in New Orleans that “N’Orleans doesn’t really do sweet tea!” Whereas a friend whose family comes from other parts of Louisianna once commented after sampling my sweet tea, that I didn’t have nearly enough sugar in it. Some people insist that Sweet Tea states should get their own designation, with arguments about whether the “tea line” encompasses all of Texas, or only East Texas, for instance.
I grew up on sweet tea, and I learned how to make it from my mom and various grandmothers and one grandfather, and each of them had a slightly different recipe. They were all good in their own ways, but they were also very different. Many families guard their sweet tea recipes, sometimes referring to them by names like, “Great Aunt Pearl’s Sweet Tea.” So, before we get any further, I’m going to warn you right now that no, I absolutely will not tell you my Great-grandma S.J.’s Sweet Tea recipe, nor Great-grandma I’s, nor my Nice Grandma’s Sweet Tea recipe nor her Sun Tea recipe (which is a different beast altogether).
What I will do is tell you my Evil Grandmother’s Sweet Tea recipe. One reason why is because she frequently told it to other people outside the family. Another reason is because I don’t think hers was the best, but it will give you an idea of how these go.
My Evil Grandma insisted that Sweet Tea was best made in an aluminum pitcher. She had a 2-quart aluminum pitcher for just that purpose. To make her tea, you fill a whistling tea pot with water and set it to boil. While it is going, you measure out four and a half cups of sugar into the bottom of the aluminum pitcher, then you add a half teaspoon of baking soda. You let the kettle get to a loud whistling, then pour the still boiling water into the aluminum pitcher. Stir furiously until the sugar dissolved, then count out fourteen Lipton flow-through tea bags, put them in the pitcher, stick a lid on it, and put it into the fridge for one hour. Then, take the pitcher out, pull out the tea bags, but make sure you squeeze them so all the dark tea gets into the pitcher. Top off the pitcher with however much tap water is needed to fill, and stir some more (because some of the sugar probably precipitated out). Put it back in the fridge for at least another hour. Now, you can serve it over ice.
Now that you’ve read the one recipe that I am willing to disclose, we can analyze it a bit. Most of the sweet tea recipes I have acquired over the years use tea bags, not loose tea. And very often people have strong feelings about which ones to use. I have seen, for instance, recipes that call for specific brands and varieties of tea bags–specifying X bags of specific brand of black tea plus Y bags of a specific brand of mint tea plus Z bags of a specific brand of orange pekoe, for instance.
I will neither confirm nor deny having witnessed two relatives almost come to blows over an argument about whether an Earl Grey tea is ever suitable for sweet tea (with a third relative opining that Earl Grey is all right in a sun tea as long as you have a few other kinds with it, but really should only go in to sweet tea if you have nothing else).
Why do some recipes include baking soda, you may ask? Tea leaves contain tannic acid which is very bitter. When you steep most teas for more than, say, 2 minutes, you can get a lot of tannic acid in the tea. Some people swear that a small amount of baking soda (which is an alkaline compound and will neutralize an equal amount of acid) mellows out the tannic acid flavor. I’ve also heard people claim that the baking soda helps with dissolving more sugar into the water.
Many recipes specify how to boil the water. There are people who insist the sugar must be in the pitcher that the hot water or hot tea is poured into. Others say that most of the sugar should be mixed with the water as it is brought to a boil.
My Evil Grandma’s sweet tea was very dark, nearly the color of coffee. A lot of people say that is two strong, the tea should have more of a rich reddish color than a deep brown.
Because most of my life has been lived outside of the sweet tea states, I got used to drinking the rather weak and completely unsweetened tea served here. Also, in my late twenties when I realized just how rampantly adult-onset diabetes stampedes through my dad’s family, I made the decision to mostly stop sweetening my tea or coffee. And now that I am diabetic, I don’t make sweet tea ever.
And while we’re on the subject of diabetes, I want to point out that all of the sweet tea recipes from my mother’s side of the family called for way more sugar than any that I learned from Dad’s side, yet Dad’s family is where almost all the diabetes is. So don’t come at me on that.
While I don’t make sweet tea, I still make and drink a lot of tea and have many fond memories of sitting down with friends and family, everyone with a frosty glass of tea, on hot summer days. So the last few weeks, after my husband brought home a one gallon glass jug, I’ve been experimenting with sun tea recipes, based only loosely on my Nice Grandma’s. Put the collection of specific tea bags in the water, set it out in the sun for an hour, then remove the bags and let the jug chill in the fridge. The one thing to remember about sun tea is that since the water is never brought to a boil, it is more susceptible to bacterial contamination, so you want to finish off the whole batch in no more than two days.
It’s not quite the same, but drinking the cold, unsweetened tea that I’ve made this way, brings all those fond memories back. As Fred Thompson observed in his book, Cornbread Nation,
“Sweet tea—your mother’s sweet tea—means you are home.”
I really wish I could blame Camp NaNoWriMo on how little blogging I’ve been doing, but it’s all down to the string of more than 10-hour days as we zero in on yet another ridiculous deadline at work. And now the heat is back, and I don’t deal well when the weather gets hot.
Anyway, here I present this week’s Friday Five: the top five (IMHO) stories of the week, the top five videos, and a couple of notable obituaries (plus my blog posts).
In 1983 I was still attending a community college part time while working several part-time jobs, stuck in a weird financial situation too complicated and frankly boring to go into right now. The important points are that I was still very closeted and in a situation where I was dependent on conservative religious relatives and equally conservative institutions for my livelihood. I clung to science fiction and fantasy as a half-drowned person might clasp the last floating piece of wreckage after a boat disaster in the middle of the ocean. And while I couldn’t always afford to buy new sf/f books and anthologies when they came out, the local public library subscribed to three science fiction magazines, one of which was Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, so a few times I month I would spend an afternoon at the library reading those magazines.
And it was in the pages of the April 1983 issue of Asimov’s that I first met Connie Willis.
The novelette included in that issue, “The Sidon in the Mirror” is told from the point of view of person just arrived on a new planet. Except it isn’t a planet. Paylay is a dead star, and somehow humans have figured out how to live on a solid crust of the outer layers of the dead star. It isn’t a terribly nice place to live, but large pockets of various pure elements can be mined, so people have an incentive to come there. A side effect of the mining process has created a thin layer of mostly breathable air that is much higher in helium and hydrogen that ours is.
We learn that our viewpoint character is not human, but rather a Mirror: an alien species that has the ability to absorb personality traits, skills, and other things from other beings. They don’t take on the shape of the copied person, and the process is totally involuntary. Mirrors don’t even know they are copying, their personality being re-written as they go, unless someone else notices and tells them. There have been some instances in the past of Mirrors absorbing the murderous thoughts of others and acting on them, so they have been banned from various world.
He’s been brought to this strange mining colony to play piano in the colony’s only brothel. He had previously absorbed the piano playing skills of a now dead man who was known to both the other of the brothel and at least one of her employees, which is at least part of the reason he was brought to Paylay.
The rest of the plot is difficult to summarize, in part because Connie does a really good job of putting you inside the head of the person who doesn’t know or trust his own thoughts and motives. He is afraid he is going to be compelled to do something horrible, and there are characters he is now living among who appear to be trying to manipulate who he copies for their own nefarious purposes.
But I should explain the title. The viewpoint character’s species are called Mirrors, as explained. There is another alien creature mentioned, it’s called a sidon. Sidon’s are vicious predators, but some people have tried to tame them (because people will do that), and it has always gone badly. The miners have taken to naming their mining taps as sidons—while all the compressors and pipes and such are holding, everything seems under control. But ever miner knows it is only a matter of time before a tapped sight explodes. They’re just all trying to make their money and leave before that happens.
By the end of the tale there are violent deaths, and it is left to the reader to decide which of the deaths were murder, which were self-defense, or whether they fall into another category all together.
On one level the story is about the meaning of free will. Willis herself has said, when introducing the story in collections of her work, that the story was inspired to seeing stories of twins who were adopted out separately, and then find each other as adults and learn how many things about their lives are spookily similar. Many things we think of as choices may not be at all.
If was a tough story to read, because there were points in the tale when I wanted the viewpoint character to do something different. I saw moments he could have escaped the trap. Except when I got to the end, I found myself questioning the definition of trap I had been using. Was the trap the manipulation coming from one of the two characters who were trying to turn the Mirror into a killer, or was the trap the Mirror’s own belief that he himself would inevitably turn into a violent killer, or was the trap the fear of the other characters?
I’ve re-read the story many times over the years. And even though I know how it ends, I’m always at the edge of the seat throughout. As mentioned above, Willis really puts you in the mind of this character so that by the middle of the story, I’m just as afraid and uncertain as to what will happen as the character is.
The story made me think a lot about how we make decisions. How much of what we feel is the result of what people expect us to feel? How many decisions that we think are our own are being forced upon us? What, exactly, is the nature of our own identity?
They were questions I was wrestling with personally. While I didn’t have an sudden epiphany at the end of the tale, it did nudge me further in the direction of coming to understand how the nature of the closet. The stifling social trap that many queers find themselves living in is constructed at least as much by our desire to win the approval of society, family, and even my closest friends. It isn’t just fear that drives one into the closet, but also (ironically) the need for love.
And it took an alien playing piano on the surface of a dead star to show me that.
Yesterday’s edition of Friday Five included the story of a 12-year-old black kid who was mowing a lawn (which he had been hired to do) when neighbors called the cops on him. That was not the only episode of a white person calling the police on a black person this week: Pool Patrol Paul.
So, a woman and her daughter went to use the pool owned by the neighborhood Home Owners Association, of which the black woman is a member (which means she is one of the owners of the pool). There are a couple of different videos of the incident, with the guy explaining that it isn’t racial, he’s just enforcing the rules. A white woman in the background of one video points out that she wasn’t asked to show her ID. A few moments later, after the police determine the the black woman has a valid keycard to unlock the gate, and the white guy tries to imply that the black woman stole the key card from a valid resident, an different white woman says, “You didn’t make me sign in!” The guy has subsequently resigned from the board of the home owners association, resigned from his position as the “pool chairman” and either was fired or agreed to resign from his job.
The funniest take I’ve read on this was written by Michael Harriot: Sentient Marshmallow Calls Police on Black Woman for Swimming in Her Own Pool, which is where I grabbed the image above, because he has a theory as to why certain white people, as he asks, who do “white people believe the cops are their personal fugitive slave catchers. Are police supposed to be universal technical support for white people? Why are white people like this?”
At least Pool Patrol Paul remained non-violent, unlike Pool Patrol Paula (no relation): A white woman allegedly hit a black teen, used racial slurs and told him to leave a pool. Then she bit a cop. Last week a group of 15-year-olds showed up at a pool, invited there by a friend, and this woman started yelling at them that they couldn’t be there. The boys (and at least one other witness) say that she used a racial slur, which is what prompted one of the kids to start recording it on his phone. The phone really set her off, because he shouts and comes at him, trying to bat the phone away and she hits him several times. She asks angrily, “How does that feel?” after hitting him. The boys retreat, at least one can be heard very politely saying, “Yes, ma’am, we’re leaving.” Police, reviewing the video and talking to at least one witness at the pool, then got an arrest warrant and went to pick her up. She fought the two cops at her home, injuring both of them—biting one severally enough to break his skin. She’s been charged with assault and battery on the teen, plus two counts of assault on the cops. She’s out on bond, but she has also been fired from her job.
I saw at least one comment to the effect that Pool Patrol Paula, since she got violent with the cops, has some other issues and this shouldn’t be considered a racial case. That’s the wrong way of looking at it.
Let’s go to the case of Pool Patrol Paul insisting that he was only doing his duty as the pool chair person, which including making sure the facilities weren’t used by non-members. When it was pointed out that he didn’t ask anyone else there to prove they belonged, he dodged the question. One of the explanations given over the fact was that he simply didn’t recognize her, since she had bought the house and moved in recently.
Seems plausible, right?
One of the big disconnects that people who are not members of a marginalized group have about the nature of racism, sexism, homophobia, and so forth, is that bigotry is about feeling a burning hatred for those people. But bigotry is much, much more subtle than that. The video indicates that the pool was pretty crowded. It was a hot day, it was Independence Day, so a lot of people were there. It is not possible to believe that in that situation that he carefully assessed every face around the pool, ticking off names from his mental list. As two of the white women there pointed out, he wasn’t enforcing the rule that everyone sign in—until the black woman and her black daughter showed up.
Systemic bigotry is a subtle, insidious force that we absorb throughout our lives. It tints our perceptions, creating filters in our minds that we don’t process consciously. Our brains are really good at classifying things, people, and sounds we recognize. But it classifies them according to these assumptions that we don’t always understand.
I have no problem believing that Pool Patrol Paul did not literally think, upon seeing the two enter the area, “Uh, oh! Can’t let the n—–s in the pool!” It’s more subtle than that. All of the white skinned people moving around him registered to his subconscious as folks who belong, without him thinking about it. The racial issue made him notice the woman and her daughter, and once he noticed, only then did he think, “I don’t recognize them.”
He asked her her name and address. He went into the office, then came out and asked for her ID. In subsequent attempts to explain himself, he first claimed that he forgot the address by the time he got inside to look her up. Then he changed the story to say that the address she gave was for a part of the subdivision that hadn’t completed construction. Then he said that she gave two different addresses.
What really happened is: she gave him a name and her address. He went inside and looked that name up, and it was the name of a home association member registered at that address. But his gut told him she was lying (later he told the police that it’s possible the key card was stolen). So he went back and asked for her ID.
And the problem is that he never asked himself why his gut was telling him she didn’t belong. And given what statements have come out since, he still hasn’t asked himself that question.
Similarly with Paula—she seems to be a more inherently violent person, but again, it isn’t just that she’s violent, it’s why she immediately assumed those boys didn’t belong at the pool (where she was just a person using it herself; she wasn’t responsible for enforcing any rules), and therefore were legitimate targets for assault. When the cops came to her home a couple days later to arrest her, of course she was outraged! She had done nothing wrong, in her mind.
Michael Harriot was on to something with the comment about perceiving police as personal fugitive slave catchers. These incidents happen because on a fundamental level, people like Pool Patrol Paul and Paula, and BBQ Becky, and Permit Patty, and the neighbors who called the police on a 12-year-old for mowing a lawn, all perceive certain people as not belonging. More than that, they perceive the presence of (in these cases) black people in these places as a wrong that must be righted.
Until they understand that about themselves, they’re going to keep doing things like this, while loudly proclaiming that they aren’t bigots.