Tag Archive | fantasy

Fighting toward the light at the end of the tunnel—or why hope is important in sf/f

What’s wrong with hope? (click to embiggen)

One of the things I loved about tumblr (before the SESTA/FOSTA madness), was the wide variety of cool things that would come across my dashboard because someone had reblogged something reblogged by someone who had reblogged from someone else. At some point in the last year, this blog post by Alexandra Rowland crossed my timeline. I thought it was cool, and I liked it and reblogged it myself, and I didn’t think about it again until last week when everyone was posting links to an article on the same subject on Vox (and in many cases arguing against the premise). The original post was simple:

The opposite of grimdark is hopepunk. Pass it on.

Rowland goes on to describe hopepunk in more detail. In later posts, when lots of people argued about the term she chose (often suggesting noblebright as the preferred term), she explained how a hopepunk world is different than a noblebright one. Noblebright is where every hero is noble and pure and they conquer evil because they are noble and pure and once evil is conquered everything goes back to being noble and pure. A hopepunk world isn’t a rose-colored fairytale place, instead:

The world is the world. It’s really good sometimes and it’s really bad sometimes, and it’s sort of humdrum a lot of the time. People are petty and mean and, y’know, PEOPLE. There are things that need to be fixed, and battles to be fought, and people to be protected, and we’ve gotta do all those things ourselves because we can’t sit around waiting for some knight in shining armor to ride past and deal with it for us. We’re just ordinary people trying to do our best because we give a shit about the world. Why? Because we’re some of the assholes that live there.

I’m not completely sure when the term grimdark was first coined, but I know the attitude was around (and works of fiction based on it were getting praised and winning awards) in the late 1980s. Grimdark is sometimes described as a reaction to idealistic heroic fiction, meant to portray how nasty, brutish, violent, and dark the real world is. It has also been defined somewhat more accurately as a type of fiction that prefers darkness for darkness sake, replacing aspiration with nihilism and the assertion that true ethical behavior is either futile or impossible.

I think a much more accurate description of the majority of grimdark is torture porn and rape porn pretending to be a deconstruction of unrealistic tropes. Damien Walter noted in an article for the Guardian a few years ago that it is driven by a “commercial imperative to win adolescent male readers.”

Usually in grimdark stories the driving narrative force is to do the most brutal, shocking, nasty thing the author can to characters that they have made likable—with a lot of misogynist skewing. Rape of women and children is particularly prevalent in these stories, usually justified by the claim that that is realistic for pre-industrial societies, ignoring the fact that in war zones throughout history men were almost as likely to be the victims of rape by the enemy as women. I also have trouble with the “realistic” defense particularly in the epic fantasy settings because those authors never show people dying of cholera or dysentery—which in the real historical settings were at least a thousand times more likely to be the cause of a person’s death than torture or rape.

Grimdark appeals most strongly to white (usually straight) young men from middle class backgrounds—the sort of people who are least likely to have experienced much in the way of grimness in the real world. They are the kinds of guys who will insist that they are oppressed now because women, people of color, and queer folks have some civil rights protections. In short, they are the kind of people that:

They’re nice white middle class boys and the closest they’ve ever come to the ghetto is when they accidentally got off at the tube in Brixton once, took one look around and ran crying back into the tube.

I’ll tell you where that quote came from in a minute. First, I want to finish explaining why I believe it is mostly white, straight, middle class young men who find this appealing. It’s precisely because their exposure to grim realities is almost always secondhand. The notion that the person held up as a hero isn’t really a paragon of virtue is something they didn’t experience firsthand as a child. They didn’t routinely have someone they admired and loved call them an abomination, for instance. Queer kids, on the other hand, experienced that again and again growing up. Women learn early in life that the best they can expect from society and family if they get sexually harassed or assaulted is that they will be blamed for not somehow avoiding the situation. People of color learn that their lives are considered disposable by much of society, and so on.

Brutality, nastiness, and cruelty aren’t surprising revelations, to us. They are things we learn to expect (and endure with a smile if we don’t want to get grief from those around us). So we don’t get the same puerile thrill from its portrayal as others do.

I started working on this post last weekend after reading some of the follow-ups to the Vox story that I included in the Friday Five. And then I discovered that Cora Buhlert had already said much of what I thought about the issue (and had a lot more references than I to quote) in a blog post that I failed to read last week while I was being sick and not reading much of anything: The Hopepunk Debate. The block quote above came from there, where she was quoting a much older posting she had done elsewhere. You should go read her post, because it’s full of all sorts of interesting citations and observations.

When grimdark first started popping up, it seemed to many like an interesting and novel way to look at our perceptions of culture. It was the scrappy newcomer to the pop culture landscape—in 1987. In the 30-some years since, it has become one of the dominant paradigms of storytelling. The most popular fantasy series on television anywhere right now, Game of Thrones, is grimdark. It’s no longer surprising when likable characters are maimed and tortured and murdered in brutal ways in popular shows and books. It’s become boringly predictable.

Except that’s not quite true. Brutality has always been banal.

This gets to why I think Rowland is right to use the suffix -punk in her description of this reaction to grimdark. Grimdark has become the norm in too much of speculative fiction. Believing that hope is a thing worth kindling is, in such an environment, an act of rebellion.

We can argue about what kind of works qualify as hopepunk. For instance, I think that The Empire Strikes Back could be considered hopepunk. Luke’s insecurities and imperfections drive his part of the plot. Lando isn’t a nice guy (charming, yes, but not nice). Han is imperfect in different ways than Lando or Luke. Lots of things don’t go right for the heroes, but they don’t give up.

I’ve said many times that science fiction is the literature of hope. Even in most dystopian fiction, I have said, there is a glimmer of hope. I fully understand that that is something I believe, and isn’t necessarily an empirical fact. I believe the best sf/f can be realistic, it can be dark, it can portray the imperfect and even nasty nature of the world, while still offering that glimmer of hope.

And the truth is that that world is more realistic. That is an empirical fact. If the worst possible outcome was always more likely than others, our planet would be a barren, lifeless rock. Yes, we all die eventually, as far as we know all living creatures do. But the world is full of life because more often than not, living things survive, they endure, and they pass the gift of life along. Not understanding that requires turning an awfully big blind eye on the world. It’s a boring and inaccurate assessment of the world around us.

“The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.”
— Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”

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Hitchers, and Reapers, and Phantom Riders—more of why I love sf/f

Cover art for The Girl in the Green Silk Gown.

Cover art for The Girl in the Green Silk Gown.

Before I get into this book review, I feel the need to disclose a few things. Seanan McGuire, the author of the books I’ll be discussing below, is a personal friend of some of my friends. Other than sitting in some panels that she has been on at conventions, and a short conversation (which consisted of me gushing like a fanboy) at an autograph session where she signed some of her books for me, I am not myself meaningfully acquainted with her. However, because we have these mutual friends in addition to me being a fan of her work and following her on social media, some might say that my opinions of her work are biased. On the other hand, any of the writers or artists who are my friends can tell numerous stories of me giving harsh critiques of their work to them, which I hope will provide some indication that I am able to judge the work of fiction as a work of fiction regardless of who created it.

But that isn’t quite full disclosure. Because I am also quite a nerd/fan of anything to do with Urban Legends. And I have a particular fondness for any sort of work of fiction that attempts to explore and more fully explain folklore. For example, see any of the blog posts where I talk about Mary Stewart’s Arthurian novels: The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment, and The Wicked Day.

Because of my love for urban legends and fiction based on folklores, I was aware of the existence of the McGuire’s earlier book, Sparrow Hill Road and had it on my list of books I intended to buy and read some day. Sparrow Hill Road is a fix-up; which means that a number of stories which had originally been published elsewhere are assembled (and sometimes altered or expanded) into a single story. This is different than an anthology, which is merely a collection of the previously printed stories. In a fix-up, the author transforms the series of pre-existing stories into a more coherent, novel-like structure.

I had not gotten around to buying and reading this book, when I became aware that a sequel—which was not a fix-up but was a new story conceived and written as an entire book from the get-go—was about to be published. As in, within a few days of me finding out it was in the pipeline, it would be available to purchase. So I went ahead and pre-ordered the second book, while buying and downloading the first, which I started reading right away.

The urban legend McGuire explores here is a subset of the Phantom Hitchhiker. There are many versions of the Phantom Hitchhiker, but McGuire focuses on is “the girl who asks for a ride home; the one who turns out to have been dead all along.” So the first book, Sparrow Hill Road, introduces us to Rose Marshall, who was 16 in 1952. When her boyfriend failed to pick her up for the prom, Rose got in her car and started down Sparrow Hill Road and wound up in a fight for her life against, well, that’s a detail that is revealed slowly over the course of the individual episodes in this first book. Suffice it to say that Rose is killed and she becomes the Phantom Prom Date.

Over the course of the stories we watch as Rose interacts with the living and certain supernatural forces. From the child separated from her parents at a rest stop who Rose leads to safety, to an angry ghost that doesn’t even remember why it wants to kill, to a retired banshee who still likes to lend a helping hand, we see a wide variety of people and other beings whose destinies are tied up in the highways and byways of America. McGuire builds a rich and multilayered mythology here, weaving in elements of folklore and other urban legends to create a fascinating twilight world.

Rose’s primary function is to help those who are fated to die on a roadway get through the transition and head on to the afterlife (one that is denied to her for various reasons) without becoming one of those vengeful spirits or other dangerous creatures. Sometimes she’s called to a scene where the mortal can be saved, and if Rose can, she does.

The Girl in the Green Silk Gown is where things start hopping. Rose’s first full-length novel opens up 60 years after her initial accident. She’s been 16 years old for all that time, and has become an expert at navigating several layers of reality—dipping into the mortal realm when needed—and familiar with a lot of supernatural threats. Throughout the 60 years she has been pursued off and on by the immortal Bobby Cross, who was responsible for her death. Killing her wasn’t enough. He is out to end her, because consumer her soul (or essence or whatever) being necessary to preserving his immortality. She has eluded him many times over the years, so he launches a more complicated scheme to strip of her powers and trap her in the mortal realm where he’ll be able to finish her off. With a very unlikely ally, she embarks on a quest the included going to the depths of the underworld in an attempt to not just survive, but get back what she’s lost.

The novel builds on and expands a lot of the secrets of the ghost roads and related phenomenon introduced in the first collection. There are some great new characters, as well as the return of several favorites. It’s fun. It is tense when necessary. McGuire kept me turning the pages, anxious to know what would happen next.

I think that The Girl in the Green Silk Gown can be read and enjoyed by someone who hasn’t read the first book. I recommend them both. I’ve seen some overall positive reviews that are less happy with the episodic nature of the first book, particularly the fact that the stories aren’t entirely arranged chronologically. So if you think that might bother you, maybe try the second book first.

I loved them both!

Thoughts on a book recommendation list

James Davis Nicoll writes book reviews and related articles that are published (among other places) at Tor.com. He recently posted “100 SF/F Books You Should Consider Reading in the New Year” where he gives brief (and fun) descriptions of each of the books. They include both fantasy and science fiction, and range over a rather long publishing time. He says in bold print in the introduction, and repeats in all caps at the end, that this list is not meant to imply that these are the only books one should consider reading this year.

Shortly after it went up, he found out other book bloggers were making a meme out of it, where they would list all 100 and mark them in some way to indicate which ones you have read. So on his personal blog he listed only the titles, authors, and year of publication with the suggestion: italics = you’re read it already, underscore = you would recommend a different book by this author, and strikethrough = you recommend no one read the book. And since I keep meaning to write more about books on this blog, I figure this is an easy way to start.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (2014)
The Stolen Lake by Joan Aiken (1981)
Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa (2001-2010)
Yokohama Kaidashi Kikō by Hitoshi Ashinano (1994-2006) [partial]
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)
Stinz: Charger: The War Stories by Donna Barr (1987)
The Sword and the Satchel by Elizabeth Boyer (1980)
Galactic Sibyl Sue Blue by Rosel George Brown (1968)
The Mountains of Mourning by Lois McMaster Bujold (1989)
War for the Oaks by Emma Bull (1987)
Wild Seed by Octavia E. Butler (1980)
Naamah’s Curse by Jacqueline Carey (2010)
The Fortunate Fall by Raphael Carter (1996)
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (2015)
Red Moon and Black Mountain by Joy Chant (1970)
The Vampire Tapestry by Suzy McKee Charnas (1980)
Gate of Ivrel by C.J. Cherryh (1976)
Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho (2015)
Diadem from the Stars by Jo Clayton (1977)
The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper (1973)
Genpei by Kara Dalkey (2000)
Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard (2010)
The Secret Country by Pamela Dean (1985)
Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany (1975)
The Door into Fire by Diane Duane (1979)
On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis (2016)
Spirit Gate by Kate Elliott (2006)
Enchantress From the Stars by Sylvia Louise Engdahl (1970)
Golden Witchbreed by Mary Gentle (1983)
The Dazzle of Day by Molly Gloss (1997)
A Mask for the General by Lisa Goldstein (1987)
Slow River by Nicola Griffith (1995)
Those Who Hunt the Night by Barbara Hambly (1988)
Winterlong by Elizabeth Hand (1990)
Ingathering by Zenna Henderson (1995) — (this is actually a collection of a series of stories, about half of which I have read separately)
The Interior Life by Dorothy Heydt (writing as Katherine Blake, 1990)
God Stalk by P. C. Hodgell (1982)
Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson (1998)
Zero Sum Game by S.L. Huang (2014)
Blood Price by Tanya Huff (1991)
The Keeper of the Isis Light by Monica Hughes (1980)
God’s War by Kameron Hurley (2011)
Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta (2014)
The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin (2015)
Cart and Cwidder by Diane Wynne Jones (1975)
Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose Jones (2014)
Hellspark by Janet Kagan (1988)
A Voice Out of Ramah by Lee Killough (1979)
St Ailbe’s Hall by Naomi Kritzer (2004)
Deryni Rising by Katherine Kurtz (1970)
Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner (1987)
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1962)
Magic or Madness by Justine Larbalestier (2005)
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (2013)
Biting the Sun by Tanith Lee (Also titled Drinking Sapphire Wine, 1979)
Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee (2016)
Wizard of the Pigeons by Megan Lindholm (1986)
Adaptation by Malinda Lo (2012)
Watchtower by Elizabeth A. Lynn (1979)
Tea with the Black Dragon by R. A. MacAvoy (1983)
The Outback Stars by Sandra McDonald (2007)
China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh (1992)
Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre (1978)
The Riddle-Master of Hed by Patricia A. McKillip (1976)
Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees (1926)
Pennterra by Judith Moffett (1987)
The ArchAndroid by Janelle Monáe (2010)
Jirel of Joiry by C. L. Moore (1969)
Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (2016)
The City, Not Long After by Pat Murphy (1989)
Vast by Linda Nagata (1998)
Galactic Derelict by Andre Norton (1959)
His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik (2006)
Dragon Sword and Wind Child by Noriko Ogiwara (1993)
Outlaw School by Rebecca Ore (2000)
Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor (2014)
Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce (1983)
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy (1976)
Godmother Night by Rachel Pollack (1996)
Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti (1859)
My Life as a White Trash Zombie by Diana Rowland (2011)
The Female Man by Joanna Russ (1975)
Stay Crazy by Erika L. Satifka (2016)
The Healer’s War by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough (1988)
Five-Twelfths of Heaven by Melissa Scott (1985)
Everfair by Nisi Shawl (2016)
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski (1986)
The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart (1970)
Up the Walls of the World by James Tiptree, Jr. (1978)
The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner (1996)
The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge (1980)
All Systems Red by Martha Wells (2017)
The Well-Favored Man by Elizabeth Willey (1993)
Banner of Souls by Liz Williams (2004)
Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson (2012)
Ariosto by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (1980)
Ooku by Fumi Yoshinaga (2005-present)

Nicoll tends to review books that don’t get reviewed elsewhere, and he reads a prodigious amount, it shouldn’t shock anyone that this list includes a lot of authors who don’t fall into the cishet white male category. I was pleased at how many of the books on the list were ones I had already read and liked. There were a few that were already in my to-read pile, and a good number that I’ve seen before and been interested in, but just hadn’t gotten around to.

And a bunch of these have been added to my wishlist, now.

I should try to put together some recommendation lists of my own. Or maybe just find a few more lists others have posted to link to.

Embracing many realities, or why sf/f is about more than just ideas

Cover of the January 1959 edition of Astounding Science Fiction

I don’t know what these guys are supposed to be arguing about over this nativity scene, but clearly the alien is amused.

My seventh grade math teacher noticed that everyday during lunch break I would sit off to the side reading, and also that each day I had a different book. It just so happened that his class was my first class after lunch, and one day early in the term, as I walked into the room, he asked me what the book I was reading that day was about. I tried to sum up the plot as the other kids were coming in and taking their seats. He nodded, said it sounded interesting, and then we started class. The next day he asked the question again. It continued, each day he would either ask me what the book I was reading that day was about, or if I’d liked the way the previous day’s book had ended. This particular teacher had known me my whole life. He and his wife had been classmates of my parents. There was a picture in Mom’s photo album of him and Dad chatting while Mom and his wife were cooing over me as a baby. As I recall, his wife was the one holding me. So I didn’t think of him as just a teacher—he was an old family friend. So I just took the questions as sincere interest.

These conversations always happened as the other kids were filing into the classroom, taking their seats, getting out their books, and so on. And usually they all just ignored what I and the teacher were talking about. Until one day when one young woman walked up to us and declared in a rather loud voice. “My mom says that people who read all the time are freaks who don’t understand the real world because they spend all their time in those imaginary places!”

It seemed as if the entire room went silent and that everyone was looking at us.

I started to stammer out something, but the teacher said, “It’s not nice to call someone a freak.” And then he told us to both take our seats.

She was hardly the first person to criticize my reading habits. Adults had often felt the need to weigh in and tell my parents that they shouldn’t let me read science fiction and fantasy, especially. Many thought all the fantasy was satanic, and the science fiction was equally suspect because scientists believe in evolution. There were also many who just thought that how much time I spend reading was the problem, regardless of the subject matter. There are a variety of reasons why non-readers distrust books. It’s not just the evangelical fundamentalists, who tend to classify everything in the world into the two categories of pro-Jesus and pro-Satan who misunderstand what the realm of sf/f is about.

A few weeks back I wrote about the older professional sf author who dismissed the three recent award-winning novels (which he admits he has never read) of a black woman because “psychic powers to control the earth and earthquakes had already been done in the fifties.” Besides being a dick-ish comment, it’s a bog standard gatekeeping argument.

Gatekeeping is an insidious system of exclusion intent on denigrating, dismissing, and erasing anyone who doesn’t conform to the cishet white male (often English-speaking) yardstick. This particular argument has two prongs: the first is the implication that a person is ignorant of the past of the genre, the second is the notion that a great science fiction story must introduce a new idea in order to be great. Science fiction has been defined as the literature of ideas, after all.

I have several objections to this entire line of reasoning.

First, almost none of the works that are usually authoritatively held forth as “great” science fiction actually introduced a new idea. For example, The Stars My Destination was a novel by Alfred Bester published in 1956 and frequently named in various polls as the greatest science fiction novel of all time. Here’s the thing: The Stars My Destination is basically a re-telling of The Count of Monte Cristo (published more than 100 years earlier). Oh, yes, there are interplanetary space ships and human colonies on the asteroids and various planets of the solar system (standard sf ideas for at least two decades at that point), and the main character (who in this case is definitely not a hero) developed the spontaneous ability to teleport simply by thinking about it. Even then, the notion of teleportation had been used in science fiction and fantasy stories since the 1870s (that’s right, when Ulysses S. Grant was President of the United States).

None of the ideas in The Stars My Destination were new, so why do so many science fiction fans and pros consider it a great sf novel? This gets us to my next objection: because a novel isn’t just about a single idea. A novel is a complete story with multiple characters and sub-plots. It’s about the synthesis of narrative, characterization, world-building, actions, reactions, and consequences. It’s the way Bester took many elements the reader was already familiar with, combined them, contrasted them, and wove a compelling tale out of them.

Science fiction is the literature of ideas in the sense that ideas are things we examine and re-examine. We toy with them, dissect them, expand them, redefine them, deconstruct (which is different than dissection) them, reassemble them, combine them with other ideas, and so forth. And it isn’t a competition (even though we have awards and sometimes argue about the relative merits of different works), it’s a conversation. Subsequent tales that use ideas others have used before should be understood in the context of the give-and-take of a conversation. One story looked at one aspect of the idea, other stories imagine different aspects, or ask us to reconsider the assumptions of the previous viewpoints.

It isn’t about settling on one and only one notion of reality. It is about possibilities. It should not be about narrowing the possibilities, but rather expanding the mind.

If wanting more possibilities makes me a freak, then I’ll proudly take the label.

You don’t have to love what I love, but not all differences are merely opinions

"I respect people who get nerdy as fuck about something they love."

“I respect people who get nerdy as fuck about something they love.”

I’m a nerd, and an old one at that. So, for instance, I watched Star Trek: the Original Series when it was on prime time television back in 1966 (I was in kindergarten and first grade, but I watched them!). And I have a giant collection of classic Doctor Who episodes in our disk library. And every time my family moved to a new town during my childhood, I quickly found, checked out, and read every book by Heinlein, Bradbury, Le Guin, and Asimov I could find in the school and public library. And so on, and so on. But I also happen to love watching my favorite football team play. And I love finding science fiction and fantasy authors whose worlds don’t erase queer people, women, people of color, and don’t replicate the patriarchal white imperialism that much of the scf fi I grew up on assumed to be normal.

I don’t think that I should impose my faves on other people. I will enthuse about things I love so emphatically that it sometimes comes across that way, and I am sorry to anyone that has felt that I was pressuring them to like everything I like or dismissing their difference of opinion.

At least I’m not as bad as some people. One of my friends was recently scolded for using the phrase “sportsball.” The person doing the scolding said that sportsball was a derogatory term that implies that people who like sports are bad. To say I was flabbergasted would be an understatement.

I’m a football fan (specifically most often the Seahawks) and I use the phrase “sportsball” all the time. Sometimes I use it when the topic under discussion is a sport that I am less well informed about, such as professional Soccer or Basketball. Sometimes I use it because I know that I am talking to people who do not like sports, and I am attempting to signal that I understand they might not find the topic as interesting as I do. And sometimes I use it to communicate the fact that I know it is an entertainment and a luxury and not of real importance to the life and well-being of 99% of the planet.

For someone to leap to the conclusion that “sportsball” is a derogatory term is laughable, at best. I, certainly would never disparage someone simply for being a fan of one or more sports. Unless that person is a fan of the New England Patriots, or the Dallas Cowboys, or the Philadelphia Eagles—because those fans are just not right in the head. To be fair, plenty of them think the same thing about Seahawks fans, but that’s one of the weird things in sports culture, at least the portions of it I’ve been involved in—we trash talk each other’s teams all the time.

I have a very old friend who is a big fan of the Arizona Cardinals, and he teases me by calling my team the Sea Chickens all the time. And I have been known to make the comment that his team’s mascot should be a possum, because they play dead at home and get killed on the road. There’s also one of my sisters-in-law who is a big Kansas City fan, and before the last divisional re-org, our teams had to play each other twice a year, so we have been known to taunt one another whenever the other’s team loses.

But those are people I know, and we know that just because we’re super enthusiastic about our faves, that doesn’t mean we’re talking about something that really matters in the big scheme of things.

That isn’t true of all forms of criticism, though. It’s one thing, for instance, if I say that I really enjoyed reading the science fiction of Robert Heinlein when I was younger. Or how much I learned from reading the non-fiction of Isaac Asimov (and also loved his sci fi work). It’s quite another if I tell other people they must like those writers or else. Particularly if they are offended by Asimov’s personal sexual misconduct, or Heinlein’s sometimes rampant jingoism (and his weird attempts to not be racist or sexist that come across very differently today).

I don’t deal well with certain types of scary movies. I have nightmares, they crank up my anxieties, and sometimes I get physically ill. I have friends who can’t watch really violent shows for similar reasons. Certain shows sometimes hit some of my other buttons—characters who remind me of my abusive father, for instance. Worse, situations that remind me of specific beatings. So there are some shows and even some stories, that I get partway through and have to put aside. There are a couple of authors whose work I refuse to read any longer because they are overly fond of certain tropes/actions/plot devices that have a similar effect on me as those aforementioned scary movies. My approach to all of these things I dislike is to not buy them, not read them, or not watch them. I don’t tell other people they are bad people if they partake of those things.

“We can disagree and still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

(click to embiggen)

However, there are other books I don’t read or shows I don’t watch because the stories themselves promote and revel in various kinds of bigotry or oppression. There is at least one author who took that beyond the fiction to write op-ed pieces in various publications calling for laws to oppress certain categories of people (women and queers, mostly), who fundraised for organizations who actively sought that oppression, and who even in some of the op-ed pieces explicitly encouraged the bullying of children who appeared to be queer, and wrote justifications for gay bashing. For those kinds of things, I can’t just stand by quietly. I speak. I write critiques. I encourage people not to spend money on those things. And, yes, I do think less of the people who read those works.

That’s different than referring to something one doesn’t enjoy as much as other people by an intentional misnomer.

And don’t get me started about separating the art from the artist. Scroll back up a few paragraphs where I explain that I love work by certain people who were less than exemplary in all aspects of their lives.

The thing is, it’s okay if you don’t love the stuff I love. As long as what I love isn’t causing harm to you or others, or encouraging harm of any kind to you or other people, I think I should be able to enjoy it, and you can ignore it, and we can be friends. And if I happen to say I don’t like something you love, that isn’t an attack on you. Even when my critique is emphatic, I’m commenting on it, not you.

But I think the Weird Al said it best:

(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)

No true Martian… or, the myth of the true fan

Art by Bruce Pennington

Art by Bruce Pennington

I find that if I dither over a blog post I feel strongly about, eventually someone else writes something on the topic that says some of what I want to say much better than I have been. I don’t find the phenomenon frustrating, in fact often the publication of these posts help me hone in on an aspect of the topic which I feel most strongly about in such a way that I can express the idea better. This week, there were multiple posts on the topic of what constitutes a “real fan” that are worth sharing. For instance, Camestros Felapton posted: You don’t control who gets to be fans in which he talks about people who, when faced with evidence that a majority of people like things that they don’t, look for ways to exclude those people from fandom:

“It’s the same con-game as used by Palin, Sad Puppies and most recently by Vox Day… declaring themselves the champions of the ‘real’ fans or the ‘real’ people. If you are leftwing or heck, just want to read comics with more realistic women in them, then magically you aren’t real anymore and your purchases don’t count.”

Many years ago this phenomenon was referred to, in fannish circles, as the True Fan Fallacy. Who gets to decide who is a true fan and who isn’t? But it isn’t just in fandom where it happens (which is one of the point Camestros makes in the above linked post).

From a fairly early age I was frequently teased, harassed, dismissed, and/or bullied for not being a “normal boy.” I was called sissy by other kids, and I was called a faggot and a sissy by various adults—including teachers and pastors—because I was interested in things or acted in ways they didn’t think a boy ought to. Then I was accused of not being a real Christian when I pointed out contradictions between things some religious leaders said and the actual words of Christ recorded in the Bible. Then I was accused of not being a real American for a wide variety of reasons (my favorite is still being told I wasn’t a real American because I believed in the separation of Church and state—you know, a concept championed among the Founding Father’s by both the author of the Declaration of Independence {Thomas Jefferson} and the author of the Constitution and Bill of Rights {James Madison}, and further actually enshrined in the Constitution itself!

Just as this last year I found myself being accused by some people of not being a real Star Wars fan because I actually enjoyed The Last Jedi? Me! Who saw the original Star Wars in theatres on Opening Night as a teen-ager in 1977, and then scraped together money from my part-time job to go see it in the theatre twelve more times that summer. And then stood in line over night to see Empire Strikes Back and two years later again for Return of the Jedi on their opening days. I’m not a real Star Wars fan, though, because I disagree with these man-babies who actually think the original trilogy, which was all about a Rebellion against an Empire, wasn’t political???

And yes, I understand that my invoking my history with the original trilogy sounds an awful lot like gatekeeping. But here’s the thing—I don’t believe that anyone who wasn’t alive back then and didn’t see the movies the same way I did are not fans. I admit that I’m giving those who are so clueless as to think the original trilogy wasn’t about politics some serious side-eye, but I’m not saying they aren’t fans of the original series.

I have a good friend who was barely one year old when the original movie came out—and he’s one of the most passionate Star Wars fans I know. It doesn’t matter that he came to the movies later than me. It doesn’t matter than he and I disagree about some things in the various movies. He’s a fan, and the myth of Luke and Leia and Han and Chewie and Obi Wan belong to him just as much as they belong to me.

This discussion of who is a real fan and who isn’t lately centers around stories where white straight men aren’t the only characters who get to be heroes. Guys are upset that a black man, or a woman, or a non-white woman may get to have major roles in the story. And heaven forfend if some of these characters in the spotlight are queer!

Back in 1983 I was sitting in a theatre on opening day for the Return of the Jedi and I was very confused early on in the movie. Why, oh why, was Jabba the Hutt, a slug-like alien, so lasciviously interested in two different mammalian female characters? I mean, I realize that in a universe with many sentient races, there will be some characters no matter what species who get off on putting any other sentients in leashes, but what possible reason would Jabba have to put Leia in that damn metal bra? It made absolutely no sense to me at all.

I understand that thousands (or maybe millions) of straight fanboys in the audience didn’t notice that discrepancy. I understand that it jumped out at me because I’m a queer guy and I wasn’t distracted by Carrie Fischer’s bared midriff. But that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a valid quibble for me to have with the movie.

Also, for each of the original movies that I saw in those theatres, at every single showing it wasn’t just guys in the audience. There were just as many girls and women in each crowd as there were boys and men. And even in the very whitebread part of the Pacific Northwest where I was living at the time, it wasn’t exclusively white people in those audiences, either. Furthermore, I wasn’t, by any means, the only person sitting in all of those theatres back in 1977 who went home to fantasize about Luke and Han hooking up romantically.

Queer folks, and women, and people of color have been fans of sf/f for as long as there has been science fiction and fantasy. We love those stories and those characters and those worlds just as much as any other fan. We’re buying books and going to movies and watching the series because we actually enjoy those books and movies and series. We’re not pretending. I don’t have the time to watch movies I don’t really like, and I certainly don’t want to spend money on books that I don’t enjoy reading.

You don’t have to like the same things I do, just as I don’t have to like the same things you do. But if the only fiction you object to winning awards is stuff that is written by people of color or women or queer people (and you insist that those authors’ sales are the results of “affirmative action” or “virtue signalling”) you aren’t fooling anybody. Everyone can see your bigotry, and we’re not impressed.

I finally stopped fiddling with my Hugo Ballot

The 2016 trophy, awarded at MidAmericaCon II, designed by Sarah Felix. photographed by Fred Teifeld.

The 2016 trophy, awarded at MidAmericaCon II, designed by Sarah Felix. photographed by Fred Teifeld.

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!

Malice or ignorance — more reflections of exclusion at sf/f conventions

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.

Subtracting homogeneity, fighting erasure—reflections on exclusion at sf/f conventions

James Whale who directed Universal's Frankenstein in 1931 and Bride of Frankenstein in 1935 was an openly gay director in the 20s and 30s.

James Whale who directed Universal’s Frankenstein in 1931 and Bride of Frankenstein in 1935 was an openly gay director in the 20s and 30s, just one example of a queer person who created classics in the genre. The movies were adapted from the book Frankenstein written by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, a woman, who is credited with creating the science fiction genre with said book.

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.

Good, bad; I’m the guy with the gun — more of why I love sf/f

Ash Williams (as portrayed by Bruce Campbell), unlikely savior of the world.

Ash Williams (as portrayed by Bruce Campbell), unlikely savior of the world.

Scary movies give me nightmares. And I have been known not just to talk in my sleep when having a dream, but I’ve been known get up, find other people in the house, shake them awake and urgently tell them about the thing that is in the house trying to kill us. This is why I almost never watch scary movies. Fortunately, sleepwalking in general happens less often the older we get, so it’s slightly less of a problem than it used to be.

So frequently friends will tell me about how awesome a particular horror film is, and I’ll just smile and nod.

There was one movie, however, that people kept bringing up again and again. Not just people I knew. Army of Darkness, I had been assured be even a few critics, was a masterpiece of cinema–hilarous and scary all at once. And the star is Bruce Campbell, whose work I had loved in The Adventures of Brisco County Jr, for instance.

I should mention that for the most part, horror and related stories almost never cause me to have bad dreams. And I have written stories and designed gaming scenarios that has caused more than one friend to scoff mightily at the idea that I can’t watch scary movies without nightmares. What can I say? I don’t think it should be that surprising that things I see only in my own imagination will have a different effect on me than things I actually see with my eyes.

Eventually, my friend Sky and my husband Michael convinced me to watch Army of Darkness. I sat on a couch between them, and I am not ashamed to say that at times I was clutching both their hands, and I hid my face in a shoulder during some of the bloodier scenes.1

But I also laughed my ass off. It was wonderful! The film is a great and irreverent take on the notions of chosen ones, reluctant heroes, and merciless evil. It finds so many ways to put humor into situations no person would be expected to survive.

And, yeah, I had a few nightmares that week, but fortunately not the kind where I was screaming in my sleep or shaking my husband awake.2

In case you aren’t familiar, Army of Darkness is a sequel. In 1981 Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, and a bunch of friends (include Sam’s brother, Ted) made a lowish budget film The Evil Dead, in which Campbell first played Ash Williams. The plot is that a group of five college students go to spend a weekend at a cabin, find an old tape recorder, play the tape which proves to be a voice reciting from the cursed Book of the Dead. The spell unleashes a bunch of demons that possess members of the cast, mayhem ensues. The mayhem got gorier and gorier as things when along. As the possessed cast kills each other off, their bodies (and sometimes only parts of their bodies), are reanimated and continue to cause ever more grisly, brutal deaths.

A few years later, with a bigger budget, they made Evil Dead II which begins with a reshot and re-edited summary of the first film then picks up where the first left off, with Ash battling both the demonic books (now renamed Necronomicon Ex-Mortis) as well as the demons it summons.

And then Army of Darkness follows Ash’s adventures when he was magically transported by the 1300 where he has to fight an entire army of the evil undead, now given the name Deadites. The third film amped up the humor significantly, with a lot of the horror elements used more for comedic effect. It was still scary, though. This film was by far the most successful in the series.

A fourth film, titled simply Evil Dead is kind of a remake and kind of not. Bruce only appears as Ash in an after credits scene.

As time went on, I became a bigger and bigger Bruce Campbell fan. Not such a big fan that I went back and re-watched the earlier movies, nor the recent remake. But when a couple years ago it was announced that Starz would be showing a horror comedy series based on the series, I was quite excited. Because of the licensing and distribution deals that the Raimi brothers and Campbell had made to get the later films produced, they couldn’t make direct references to the most successful of the movies. They could reference the plot and characters of the original film, and use some elements (the name Deadites and Necronomicon Ex-Mortis), but that left them plenty of room.

Ash vs Evil Dead picks up the story of Ash as he’s well into middle age, using cheesy stories of how he lost his hand (in the first movie he had to cut it off because it was been possessed by a demon, while somehow he remained in control of the rest of his body) to seduce random women in bars. In an alcohol- and pot-fueled haze, he allows one of these women that he persuaded to come back to his small trailer, to read “poetry” from his old book, and evil is back.

What I love about the character of Ash Williams is just how much of a hero he isn’t. He’s a pathological liar (who is usually bad at it), he hits on women constantly, he says lots of casually racist and sexist things, he boozes too much, he drives while drunk and stoned, and so forth. He occasionally tries to run from the danger, but somehow he always manages to pull himself together and try to kick evil’s ass.

It’s a style of anti-hero with a long career in storytelling. I find it fascinating how closely Ash fits the mold of Samson (yes, the Old Testament Biblical character). The Biblical Samson is not, by any means, a holy guy. In the original Hebrew scripture, the word for “to have sex” appears a few dozen times in total–nearly two-thirds of the use of the word occur within the portion of the book of Judges sometimes referred to as the Samson saga.

Seriously, one of those Biblical stories involves Samson partying at a brothel for hours. The Holy Scripture literally says that he screwed every single woman in the brothel so many times that they were sore and some could barely walk and they pleaded with him to go home. Drunk, Samson staggers through the city. But the gates of the city have been locked, and the Philistines have set an ambush, intending to jump him while he is drunk and worn out from all the sex. But before they can, Samson simply tears the gates down and stumbles home.

And this is my favorite part: the scripture says he dragged the gate behind him for miles without remembering that he still had hold of it, and only midway home noticed, and he tossed it into the middle of the field before sneaking into his mother’s house and crawling into bed.

Ash Williams of the Evil Dead series doesn’t possess Samson’s legendary strength, but he manages to survive being beaten, battered, flung great distances, burned, stabbed, run over by demon possesed vehicles, et cetera, et cetera.

Yes, the series was crazy and gory, with literal buckets of blood being spewed all over the actors and sets. But it was also hilarious. Although the Deadites are undead, the show isn’t a zombie story. For one thing, the Deadites are fast. They aren’t mindless. The demons that inhabit the corpses are able to access the memories of the deceased, so they taunt the heroes along the way. They make plans and concoct schemes.

In other words, they aren’t a mindless threat, they’re actually bad guys.

I’ve had a lot of fun watching Ash’s adventures on the small screen the last three years. I was sad to learn that it wasn’t being renewed, but also happy for all the laughs we’d gotten along the way. Bruce has announced that he is retiring this character—if there are any more Evil Dead stories to tell, Ash Williams (or at least not this Ash) won’t be a part of them.

That’s okay. Ash showed us that you don’t have to be perfect to be the hero. He’s earned some rest.


Footnotes:

1. I’ve learned there are things I can do to reduce the severity of nightmares I’ll have after watching a scary movie. Watching on a small screen helps. Being able to pause or walk away when things get too tense is extremely helpful.

2. I’m more likely to wake him up by saying something angry than to scream, truth be told.3

3. I also have gotten better and making myself wake up. Seriously, just a few weeks ago a dream started to have some elements from one of the gorier scenes in a recent episode of the series, and me in the dream said, “No, I don’t not want to have this nightmare! No!” And I woke.4

4. I didn’t wake my husband up in the process, so I don’t know if this was one of the times when I said outloud the thing I was saying inside the dream, but there have been occasions in the past where I did exactly that.

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