Tag Archive | fantasy

Weekend Update 8/12/2017: Hugo Winners and many other things

The 2017 Hugo award base was designed by Finnish artist Eeva Jokinen. (Photo by Michael Lee.)

The 2017 Hugo award base was designed by Finnish artist Eeva Jokinen. (Photo by Michael Lee.)

The Hugo Award winners were announced yesterday at Worldcon 75, this year happening in Helsinki. I’m not there, but enough people I know are that my twitter feed was full of news and reactions. And it’s really fun when people whose work you love and who you have met in person are among the people bringing home rockets. I checked against my ballot after, and found that in four categories the person/work that I picked as number one had won. And it looks like in every other category, the winner was in my top three. Of course, as I said at the time, I thought that every category had at least four or five pieces that I absolutely thought deserved the award. It was a good year. And isn’t this year’s trophy gorgeous?

Anyway, the winners are:

Novel:

The Obelisk Gate, by N. K. Jemisin (Orbit Books)

Novella:

Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire (Tor.com publishing)

Novelette:

“The Tomato Thief”, by Ursula Vernon (Apex Magazine, January 2016)

Short Story:

“Seasons of Glass and Iron”, by Amal El-Mohtar (The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, Saga Press)

Related Work:

Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000-2016, by Ursula K. Le Guin (Small Beer)

Graphic Story:

Monstress, Volume 1: Awakening, written by Marjorie Liu, illustrated by Sana Takeda (Image)

Dramatic Presentation, Long Form:

Arrival, screenplay by Eric Heisserer based on a short story by Ted Chiang, directed by Denis Villeneuve (21 Laps Entertainment/FilmNation Entertainment/Lava Bear Films)

Dramatic Presentation, Short Form:

The Expanse: “Leviathan Wakes”, written by Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, directed by Terry McDonough (SyFy)

Editor, Short Form:

Ellen Datlow

Editor, Long Form:

Liz Gorinsky

Professional Artist:

Julie Dillon

Semiprozine:

Uncanny Magazine, edited by Lynne M. Thomas & Michael Damian Thomas, Michi Trota, Julia Rios, and podcast produced by Erika Ensign & Steven Schapansky

Fanzine:

Lady Business, edited by Clare, Ira, Jodie, KJ, Renay, and Susan

Fancast:

Tea and Jeopardy, presented by Emma Newman with Peter Newman

Fan Writer:

Abigail Nussbaum

Fan Artist:

Elizabeth Leggett

Series:(Special Category added by option of Worldcon 75)

The Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen)

John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer: (Not a Hugo Award, but administered along with the Hugo Awards)

Ada Palmer


And I’m sure that in certain corners of the trollnet there is a lot of angry thrashing: Women swept nearly every category at the 2017 Hugo Awards. To paraphrase Ruth Bader Ginsburg: and for how many years were the categories literally swept by men (and almost always white men, at that)? Let me repeat: I’m an old, literally grey bearded, cis male white fan who literally learned how to read from Robert A. Heinlein novels, and every single one of this year’s winners were fabulous sf/f works that deserve that award because they are awesome stories.

So, congratulations to all the winners!

Oh, another thing announced yesterday: Worldcon 2019 will be in Dublin, Ireland! It’ll be the first Irish Worldcon! Yay! There’s a lot of other fun news from the con, you can see a bunch of pictures and more here.

On to other things: Terry Gross is one of my favorite people to listen to on the radio. She’s been interviewing people for years, and much of what I like about her show is how many times she made me really connect with and care about people I didn’t expect to. Anyway, she was on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon this week, and it was funny in a way I absolutely did not expect. Watch the whole clip to learn about her process, but also to get a really good laugh when she tells the story of the time Bill O’Reilly angrily stormed out of an interview.

NPR’s Terry Gross Has a Sick Burn for Bill O’Reilly Walking Out on Their Fresh Air Interview:

(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.

Lots of people have been freaking out about all the nuclear war talk this week. I left most of it out of yesterday’s round up of links other than to link to an analysis of why it is almost certain that we don’t actually need to be worried just yet. But besides most people not understanding the technological hurdles as to why North Korea doesn’t have that missile-capable bomb there’s more. And Nothing New On North Korea Except Donald Trump’s Freak-Out. There actually isn’t any new news. Only one agency is saying this is a possibility, and that same intelligence agency claimed the same thing several years ago and was shown to be wrong then. Furthermore, Donald isn’t suddenly talking about this because of a security briefing he got. He started angrily threatening war when he saw a headline in the Washington Post… which he has also claimed in one of the fake news outlets, but obviously he doesn’t really think that, does he? Anyway, Rachel Maddow’s clip that I linked is really good. And she had an actual
(recently retired) intelligence expert whose specialty was North Korea for decades. It’s really worth the watch.

Related, I’m really irritated that this is even necessary: From the editor in chief of Christianity Today: The Use of Nuclear Weapons Is Inherently Evil. Even though I consider myself a former christian, it angers me to a level that is difficult to describe that there are so-called christian pastors saying the opposite, saying things like Megachurch Pastor Says Trump Has God’s Approval to Start Nuclear War. Geezus! Even the religious right’s favorite president, Ronald Reagan, condemned nuclear weapons as “totally irrational, totally inhumane, good for nothing but killing, possibly destructive of life on earth and civilization.” And who can forget what the late evangelist Billy Graham said on the subject: “I cannot see any way in which nuclear war could be branded as being God’s will. Such warfare, if it ever happens, will come because of the greed and pride and covetousness of the human heart.”

Well, we certainly have a president who epitomizes greed and pride and covetousness…

Grrrr! And don’t get me started on the literal Nazis marching in North Carolina… but at least some Republicans are waking up: Former GOP Senator Calls For Trump’s Removal “Donald Trump is seriously sick. He is dangerous. As a citizen, a former U.S. Senator and twelve-year member of the Armed Services Committee, I urge you to act at once. This is an emergency.”

I can’t end on a sour note. So, here’s some much better news: ‘Sense8’ is back in production, and the finale is going to be totally ‘epic’ and Formerly Abused Husky Now Helps Children Who Have Been Abused.

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Everybody was kung fu fighting, even mighty whitey — more of why I love sf/f

On reflection, I don't think the story lines were why hormonal 14-year-old closeted me was fascinated with the character right away...

On reflection, I don’t think the story lines were why hormonal 14-year-old closeted me was fascinated with the character right away…

This post will eventually become a commentary on the Netflix series Ironfist based on the Marvel comics character, but I have a lot of ground to cover first. I am an old literal grey-beard fan who was reading U.S. comic books before the great Kung Fu/Asian cultural appropriatation phase of the early 70s, so my relationship to any media property related to that era is a bit complicated. Because both the Jessica Jones series and Luke Cage series had significantly transcended their original comic book incarnations, I had high hopes for what might be done with Iron Fist. Alas, those hopes were not met. However, I think that the series Netflix ultimately produced is not a complete failure, and may eventually be redeemed with the subsequent series in the franchise.

In the early 70s U.S. pop culture became obsessed with martial arts. One of the best examples of this was the television series, Kung Fu which ran from 1972-1975. The show, which was wildly popular both with audiences and critics, told the story of Kwai Chang Caine, a half-chineses, half-white man raised in a Shao Lin monastery who winds up in the American Wild West wandering the countryside seeking his father while evading agents of a Chinese nobleman who wants him dead. The show cast white actor David Carradine in the role (after rejecting Bruce Lee). And it really was wildly popular. In the redneck rural communities I was living at the time, every one of my classmates would quote favorite lines from the show and make allusions to it in various ways. While the show cast a white actor in the role of the supposedly biracial lead, since ever episode relied heavily on flashbacks to incidents in Caine’s childhood, teen, and young adult years back in China, it also provided a lot of acting roles for Asian American actors in recurring and supporting roles. Probably more so than all of American TV before then. Which doesn’t make up for the white washing, but was at least a teeny step forward.

That TV show wasn’t the only bit of pop culture effected. Action movies and television series of all kinds started introducing martial arts experts to their story lines, and soon audiences were expecting amazing martial arts fights in all of their entertainment. Even the BBC’s Doctor Who had to bow to the expectation, with the velvet-jacketed Third Doctor suddenly becoming an expert in “Venusian Karate” though embarassingly what that meant was the actor occasionally exclaiming a cliche “Hai-ya!” as he felled opponents with an unconvincing chopping motion of his hand.

And comic books were hardly immune. Suddenly every comic company was adding martial arts experts (some of asian descent, some not) into their superhero lines. Comic titles such as Master of Kung Fu, Karate Kid (no relation to the 80s movies), and Kung Fu Fighter, and Dragon Fists were suddenly popping up in department store comics racks. Along side characters such as Shang Chi, Richard Dragon, Lady Shiva, and Karate Kid (no “the”) there was Danny Rand, aka Iron Fist: the Living Weapon.

Danny was a classic mighty whitey: a white orphan taken in by mysterious monks in a secret temple in the Himalayas, who masters their semi-mystical martial arts to a degree that far exceeds any of the natives and becomes their greatest warrior. This being an American comic, of course Danny comes to America, specifically New York City, where he tried to reclaim his family fortune (along the way discovering that his parents’ deaths on the journey may not of have an accident). His costume was a bit unusual for male superheroes of the time—ridiculously plunging necklines were usually reserved for women. The excuse for exposing all that skin was the black dragon mark on Danny’s chest. It’s not a tattoo, but rather a symbol that was burned into his flesh during a fight with a dragon, which is an important part of the ritual of becoming the Iron Fist.

This was the fifth issue of Marvel Premiere that featured Iron Fist. Premiere was a series Marvel used to introduce new characters or revive old ones that might lead to a new series.

This was the fifth issue of Marvel Premiere that featured Iron Fist. Premiere was a series Marvel used to introduce new characters or revive old ones that might lead to a new series.

When Marvel debuted in comics in 1974 I was 14 years old. I didn’t read the very first couple of issues. Back then my source of comic books was the rack at the only drugstore in the small town where we lived, and which comics they got were hit and miss from month to month. But I remember seeing this cover in that rack one day and being instantly fascinated. I bought the comic, and as I frequently did in those days, read it, re-read it, and re-read it again and again. The story was middle episode in the middle of a story arc, so I was a bit confused about some things, but was still immediately enamored with the character. I kept my eyes peeled for the character from then on, and managed to pick up a few more issues as they came out, but not all of them. It was a constant frustration at the time: not being able to count on the next issue making it to my town.

Because of that inconsistency—where I would pick up, say, issue #85 of Spider-Man, then not find another issue until #89 came out—I spent a lot of time looking for clues in the stories as to what I had missed in the intervening issues, and I would write up my own versions of the adventures my favorite heroes had experienced in between. Very occasionally I tried to draw my own comics, but mostly I wrote them out more as prose stories. This skill of figuring out all the ways a character might go from point A to point Z has been useful in my own writing since.

Eventually, after my parents’ divorce, Mom, my sister, and I moved to a town large enough to have multiple book stores and an actual comic shop, where eventually I managed to purchase at relatively cheap prices many of the back issues I had missed of Iron Fist and several other titles. I was a little disappointed that some of my attempts to fill in the gaps between issues were way off, but I still loved the character. I know now (but didn’t realize back then) that one of the things that appealed to me about the character originally was that chest-baring costume. But Danny Rand’s story also appealed to me because he was an outsider, never quite fitting in anywhere. That was something I really empathized with.

Another thing that appealed to me about Iron Fist the comic (and some of the other Kung fu-ploitation properties) was the inclusion of (often mangled, I know) zen, buddhist, and taoist philosophy. Seeing other traditions underpinning moral and ethical principles, seeing good, brave, and noble character behaving morally and ethically outside of the fundamentalist Christian framework helped me reconcile my growing discomfort with the evangelical beliefs I’d been raised with. Yes, it was culture appropriation, and it was a stripped-down and distorted representation of those other religions, but it wasn’t being done to deride those beliefs. The distortion was because of ignorance and the expediency of meeting writing deadlines, not out of a hostility to the cultures themselves. While it was problematic, it still helped me find a way to escape the clutches of a homophobic denomination. And that’s a good thing.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I had had high hopes for the Netflix Iron Fist series. I’d read enough reviews when it first came out to know that the consensus of critics and a lot of fans was that the show was nowhere near as good as some of the other Marvel-Netflix shows. But I still hoped. I still think that the show would have been improved immensely if they had cast an asian american as Danny. It would have been really easy, and I think would have made the way they chose to tell his story work a bit better. The external conflict of the series is mostly about control of the corporation originally founded by Danny’s father and the father’s best friend. The internal conflict is about Danny trying to figure out his place in the world. If they had made Danny biracial, showing his father in the flashbacks as white and his mother as, let’s say, Chinese American, then that internal conflict would have had more layers. And this story desperately needed something less shallow than a badly thought out boardroom drama.

It also doesn’t help that the actor they cast as Danny seems about as talented as a block of wood. Seriously, the adam’s apple of the actor who was cast to play Danny’s childhood friend from the mystical city displays more acting talent and skill in a single scene than the actor playing Danny does in the entire series. Another big problem is pacing. The series spent about 9 episodes setting things up that could have easily been handled in one. The first episode was pretty an okay beginning of the tale, but it wasn’t until about episode 11 that things seemed to pick up. I also can’t figure out why they showed virtually no scenes of the mystical city where Danny gets his training. Let along never showing us the dragon. I mean, what is the point of telling Iron Fist’s story without showing us all that?

Maybe they’ll do better in season two.


In case you don’t know where the title of this blog post originated, here’s a music video that might explain things:

Carl Douglas – Kung Fu Fighting:

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

Zen, Bradbury, and the Hugo Awards – more of why I love sf/f

A quote from Ray Bradbury's “Zen and the Art of Writing” (click to embiggen)

A quote from Ray Bradbury’s “Zen and the Art of Writing” (click to embiggen)

Recently someone posted these images of a couple of paragraphs out of Ray Bradbury’s book Zen and the Art of Writing which is only one of the times he told this story. At the age of nine Bradbury fell in love with the Buck Rogers comic strip in his local newspaper, and began cutting out and saving the strips and so forth. His classmates at school teased him for loving such a ridiculous and unlikely story. The teasing eventually drove him to tear up with collection of carefully cut out comic strips. And he was miserable for some time afterward. The bit I found most profound in this version of the story was his realization that the classmates who made fun of the stories he loved weren’t his friends, they were his enemies. It was a realization that resonated deeply.

A later paragraph from Ray Bradbury's “Zen and the Art of Writing” (click to embiggen)

A later paragraph from Ray Bradbury’s “Zen and the Art of Writing” (click to embiggen)

But it’s a realization that is difficult to remember when one is on the other side of that divide. We’ve all been there: a friend or relative is completely enamored with an activity or book or series or movie that we just can’t stand. And try as we might, we can’t understand what they see in it. Assuming that the pastime in question isn’t something that harms anyone (so let’s leave dog fighting and fox hunting and the like out of the discussion), it shouldn’t matter to us where their enthusiasm goes, right?

And yet it it can bother us a lot.

Some works of art (movies, books, TV series) are racist or sexist or misogynist or homophobic or transphobic or ableist, but still have some redeeming qualities. We’ve all liked something which had some problematic stuff in it. The original Dune novel is homophobic (the more evil a character was, the more gay they were, no good character is even bi-curious), for instance, but I still really enjoyed the novel when I read it as a teen (and the first few sequels). I still like the book, but now that I’ve become aware enough to recognize the homophobia, there is a caveat when I recommend it.

I wrote a lot of fan fiction in my late teens and early twenties and some of it utilized the same problematic trope as Dune: the few bisexual and gay characters I wrote back then tended to be at least a bit on the wicked side. This was true for a while even after I started coming out to myself as queer. So while I can’t excuse the inherent homophobia in a lot of stories written in the 50s, 60s, and even the 70s, I understand that it doesn’t always come from an actively malicious place. I’ve also written before about how shocked I was when, after someone pointed out a certain amount of sexism in a story I’d written, that when I looked at a lot of my other works with that in mind, there was casual sexism all over the place. So just because someone is able to enjoy a piece of art because of a small amount of problematic content that doesn’t necessarily mean that they endorse the prejudice.

However…

While I’m willing to let other people like whatever they want, I’m not required to approve of their choices or withhold judgment. If someone only likes things that are extremely anti-semetic, for instance, it’s perfectly okay to infer from that predilection that the person is more than okay with anti-semetism. Furthermore, if:

  • the only works a person likes pushes a misogynist, homophobic, racist agenda;
  • and/or if they actively try to exclude works that give marginalized people a place at the table;
  • and/or if they actively harass fans who recommend works that center marginalized people;
  • and/or if they campaign against writers or artists because of their race, ethnic background, sexual identity, et cetera;
  • and/or if they say that portraying queers or people of color and so forth in a positive manner represents an existential threat to civilization…

…they have clearly shown that, like Bradbury’s classmates, they are not friends, and are actually enemies. Not just enemies of queers and other marginalized people, but in my not-so-humble opinion, enemies of science fiction/fantasy itself. I firmly believe and will always insist that sf/f is ultimately about hope. Even the most dystopian sci fi and gruesome horror hinges on a glimmer of hope. I am not being a hypocrite or intolerant if I decide to stop spending time with enemies (which includes exposing myself to their opinions). I am simply following Bradbury’s example: I’m taking my dinosaurs and leaving the room.

That’s enough about that, for now.

Voting on the Hugo Awards ends soon, and I’ve been fiddling with my ballot off and on for a while. Because of the move, I didn’t get around to downloading the Hugo Packet until later than usual. And because the unpacking is still going on and June at work was all about lots of very long hours, I’ve been having trouble reading all the stuff that made the ballot which I hadn’t already read.

Anyway, the status of my ballot as of Wednesday night is behind the link…

Read More…

Da, DA, da-da-da-DAAAA-da, da-da-da-DAAAA-da, dut-dut-da-daaaaaa! I love sf/f soundtracks

These fabulous two-disc sets have been in my collection for some time. I only yesterday realized I'd never imported them to my iTunes library!

These fabulous two-disc sets have been in my collection for some time. I only yesterday realized I’d never imported them to my iTunes library!

I saw the original Star Wars on opening night. I’ve written a few times before of being a 16-year-old geeky/nerd and my slightly older geek/nerd friends who always heard about every obscure genre movie before anyone else did who drove me down to a big theatre in a suburb of Portland, Oregon to see this thing… and it was awesome. The very next day we gathered up a bunch of our nerdy friends and made another trip to go see it. I immediately became one of the world’s biggest Star Wars fans. That summer, the soundtrack came out of vinyl, so I had to buy the album. The show was such an incredible surprise blockbuster, that someone made a disco single versions of the theme that became a number one hit. A bunch of my nerdy friends spent the summer touring with the evangelical teen choir of which I was technically a member (but was not deemed worthy to go—the ins and outs of that and how it was influenced by people’s suspicions I was queer is worthy of some separate posts, but not today). And I had a very hard time getting a couple of them to listen to the album when they got back, because they’d all heard the awful disco song on the radio.

But once I got them to listen, they all loved it, too.

I played that album a lot. But vinyl records lose fidelity over time because each time you play them the physical needle that has to run through the groove to vibrate because of the shape of the groove and translate those microvibrations into sound also wears the groove smooth, slowing destroying the sound. I played it enough that, a few years later when the second movie came out and I bought the soundtrack album for it, I could hear the difference in some of the repeated themes, and bought myself a fresh copy of the first album, played it once to make a cassette tape, and put it away. I also made a tape of the Empire Strikes Back soundtrack and stopped listening to the vinyl album. I listened to both cassettes often enough that eventually I had to get the albums out again to make fresh tapes.

And yes, eventually I ended up with a vinyl version of the soundtrack for Return of the Jedi. For many years after that, I would only occasionally play the vinyl albums, relying instead on the homemade cassette copies when I wanted to listen to them. I did this with a number of sci fi movie and TV series soundtracks through the 80s and early 90s: buy the vinyl album listen at least once while I made a cassette copy, then put the album carefully away and listened to the cassette as often as I liked. And I really enjoyed listening to the music for movies and other shows that I loved.

And then along came compact discs. I started buying new music on disc, and as I could afford it, if I found CD versions of favorite old albums, I would buy them. At some point in this period of time, I found a disc that was titled, “The Star Wars Trilogy” as recorded by the Utah Symphony Orchestra (the originals had all been done by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John Williams) for a very reasonable price, and I bought it.

In 1997, 20 years after the original release of the first movie, a set of three 2-disc Special Edition sets of the soundtracks for all three of the original Star Wars movies were released, so I finally picked up the full soundtracks on CD. These sets had considerably more music than had been included in the old vinyl albums. They had also been remastered. Each of the discs was printed with holographic images of the Death Star and other ships from the universe. Each set came with a mini hardbound book with notes about the music. They were cool. I listened to them fairly frequently for a few years.

When I first acquired what they called at the time a Personal Digital Assistant (a Handspring Visor, to be specific), it came with a disc of software to help synchronize your calendar and contacts with your Windows computer. When I upgraded a couple years later, the new disc of software included a copy of Apple’s new music manager, iTunes (the Windows version), which you could use to put music on your PDA. At the time I often listened to music while working on computer by pulling discs out of a small shelf unit I kept in the computer room and stuck in a boombox we kept in there. The little shelf held only a subset of my library, as the rest of our discs were in a much bigger shelf unit in the living room next to the main stereo. So I grabbed some of the discs from the small shelf, stuck them in the CD drive on my Windows tower, and let them get imported into iTunes. That was the original core of my current iTunes library, from which I created my first playlists—imaginatively named “Writing,” “Writing Faust,” “Writing II,” “Layout An Issue,” and “Writing III.” And several tracks from the aforementioned knock-off Star Wars Trilogy disc were included, because that was the only Star Wars music disc I kept in the computer room at the time.

Many years later, I usually listen to music from my iPhone. I had thought that I had imported all of my music from disc into the iTunes library years ago, and most of the time I buy music as downloads, now. I have new playlists which include the Star Wars theme or the Imperial March. So I thought it was all good. I hadn’t gone out of my way to listen to the entire soundtracks of the original movies in years. I have continued to buy new soundtracks for movies I love. I tend to listen to them for a while, and then pick some favorite tracks that go into playlists.

Because of some articles I was reading about the upcoming films in the Star Wars franchise, I decided that I should re-listen to the original soundtrack, and was quite chagrined to discover that, even though I thought my entire iTunes library was currently synched to my phone, all that I had was the knock-off album. (And the wholly downloaded soundtracks from The Force Awakens and Rogue One.) I was even more chagrined when I got home and couldn’t find the original albums in my iTunes library on either computer.

So I went to the big shelf of CDs in the living room (which my husband was actually in the middle of packing), and snagged the three two-disc Star Wars soundtrack sets and carried them up to my older Mac Pro tower (because it still has an optical disc drive). I now finally have the albums on my iPhone. Sometime after we finish the move, I’ve going to have to go through playlists to replace the versions from the knock-off album with the authentic score. Because, that’s what I should be using!

Also, clearly, after we’re all unpacked at the new place, I need to go through the rest of the discs and see what other music which I thought was in my library is still sitting trapped in a physical disc which never gets used any more so I can import them to the computers. I mean, our stereo doesn’t even have a disc player!

The incredibly true confessions of a totally queer sci fi geek

“Half naked... staring at phallic spaceships... totally straight, right?” © Syd Barrett (Click to embiggen)

“Half naked… staring at phallic spaceships… totally straight, right?” © Syd Barrett (Click to embiggen)

The Hugo Award Finalists were announced yesterday. This is the first year with two rules changes that were enacted to try to prevent certain angry reactionary (misogynist racist homophobic) parties from slate-nominating a bunch of horrible stuff onto the ballot. The pups took over entire categories of the ballot two years ago (but we No Awarded all of those categories), and slightly less-destructively last year. The good news! They only got one nominee in on a few categories (plus two nominees in one), and even then, several of their slate pics were works that almost certainly would have gotten on the ballot without their help. I don’t want to re-hash the two puppy camps, their arguments and so forth here, because plenty of pixels have been spilled on that already. For this queer old fan, a big reason science fiction and fantasy holds a big place in my heart because its promise of better worlds and a better future was how I survived the bullying, bashing, hatred, and rejection of my childhood. That there are people who so despise people like me being included in works of sf/f that they’ll organize a bloc-voting scheme is more than a little infuriating.

But there are a few things to talk about on this year’s finalist ballot and the new rules. Mike Glyer at File 770 does some number sifting in an attempt at Measuring the Rabid Puppies Effect on the 2017 Hugo Ballot. David Gerrold, science fiction author (including perhaps most famously the Star Trek Original Series script, “The Trouble with Tribbles”) and 2015 World Con Guest of Honor sums up a lot of my throughs in a post of Facebook, part of which I excerpt here:

“My seat-of-the-pants analysis (I could be wrong) is that the Hugos are in the process of recovering from the 2015 assault, precisely because the Worldcon attendees and supporters see themselves as a community.

“There’s a thought buried in that above paragraph — that communities unite to protect themselves when they perceive they are under attack. This works well when the attack is real, such as Pearl Harbor. But it can also have negative effects when hate-mongers such as Bryan Fischer and Pat Robertson (both of whom were in fine form this week) invent a scapegoat (LGBT people) for unwarranted attacks in an attempt to unite the community around their own agendas.

“So while those who have a long history of participation in Worldcons will see this unity as a good thing — those who identify themselves as the aggrieved outsiders will see it as more evidence that the establishment is shutting them out.

“Myself, I see it as a collision of two narratives — one that is based on 75 years of mostly healthy traditions, and one that is based on a fascist perception of how the world works.

“Most important, however, is that most of this year’s ballot suggests that we are seeing a return to the previous traditions of nominations based on excellence. Most of the nominations are well-deserved, and my congratulations to the finalists.”
—David Gerrold

I would characterize the two narratives as:

  • one thinks that a better tomorrow includes the notion that Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations is a good thing, and
  • the other that thinks the world was a better place when the heroes were always white men, while women only appeared in stories for the two purposes of being rescued by the hero and being his reward for a job well done.

But Gerrold’s wording works well, too.

Anyway, because of the drubbing they received the last two years and the rules change, one of the puppy groups essentially folded up shop. The other, realizing that the rules made it nearly impossible for them to take over entire categories, went with a more limited ticket this year. As mentioned in one of the links above, this resulted in them naming about 7% of the nominees, and a few of their picks are complete piles of steaming meadow muffins. Which means in every category we have four or more excellent choices to evaluate and choose from. Not everyone sees this year’s ballot as good news. One puppy apologist tries to claim that this year’s balloting numbers proves that the Hugos have driven off half the fandom (here’s a Do Not Link to his post if you want to read it). Now this is a person who claims that we’ve been telling Christian and conservative fans that they aren’t welcome. Whereas all that has happened is that more than a token number of people of color and an occassion LGBT person has made it onto the ballot.

Anyway, his reasoning is dubious on a mathematical level. First, he shows that the number of nominating ballots dropped by between 42-46% in some categories, and that sounds dire. Until you remember that the number of nominators surged last year way above the usual number precisely because after news got out about how the puppies had piddled on the ballot in 2015, a bit more than 2300 fans who had not previously been voters bought supporting memberships and voted in 2015. The overwhelming majority of those new voters resoundingly voted No Award in the categories the puppies had taken over. Fewer of those fans returned to nominate in 2016 for variety of reasons, but not all of them, by any means. Again, the majority handed the puppies a resounding rebuke and we passed two rules changes that made the bloc voting scheme less likely to succeed.

Statistical analysis of the nominating and voting in 2015 and 2016 showed that the number of puppy voters was probably no more than about 250 people those two years. That many people nominating in lockstep could take over the entirety of some down-ballot categories, but it couldn’t win. The larger of the two puppy groups gave up this year—not posting recommendations, not writing their angry blog posts, and generally not bringing a lot of attention to the cause. Their 250 people could not account for more than a fraction of the 1600 nominator drop that happened this year. Most of those 1600 who didn’t participate are from that group of fans who joined for the explicit purpose of opposing the puppies, and now believe that the rule changes and so forth have taken care of the problem.

Analysis of the partial numbers we have from this year’s nominations indicates that the remaining puppy voters number between 65 and 80 people. That’s a 68% drop-off in their group, a far more significant number, I think.

There have always been fewer nominators than voters. Nominating (filling in five blanks in each category) is harder work than voting (choosing from a small list of finalists in each category). And in order to vote or nominate you must purchased at least a supporting membership to WorldCon. A lot of fans don’t have the extra money laying around to buy a membership to a WorldCon that they aren’t attending. So you have to be pretty devoted to the ideas of sci fi/fantasy and/or feel a certain amount of sentiment toward the Hugo Awards themselves to participate year in and year out. Folks who normally don’t spend those funds on that felt something we loved was under assault, and we shifted our priorities a bit to make a stand.

The puppies whipped up some reactionary anger by referring to certain past winners as being motivated by nothing more than Political Correctness, and spinning a very distorted narrative that some of their favorite authors weren’t winning because of an anti-conservative or anti-christian agenda. An angry desire to give the middle finger to so-called PC elites might motivate people to spend some money and do some copy-and-pasting once or twice, but it’s hard to sustain that anger.

I love science fiction and fantasy. I think of it as a literature of hope and imagination. Even dystopian sf, in my opinion, touches on that hope for a better tomorrow even while it portrays a dire future. I am not the only fan, by any means, who was drawn to the literature because I felt like an outsider who didn’t belong in the mundane world of the present. Sf/f has always attracted outcasts of all sorts, which is why many more fans (not just the people of color, the women, and the queers) felt it was worth defending. I know that at least some of the puppies feel as if they are outcasts, though their argument is difficult to back up with facts. White male authors still make up a disproportionately overwhelming majority of the published works, and usually a majority of the nominees for these sorts of awards. They aren’t in any danger of being excluded. I’ve voted for books and stories in the past written by people I knew I disagreed with politically, because the story was good. It isn’t the political views of the author (and not usually of the story, though some of the examples in 2015 were so heavy-handed at hitting the reader over the head with politics and religion that I started to wonder if it wasn’t supposed to be a parody).

I want sf/f to be welcoming, yes. But not so welcoming that people who have literally called for the extermination of writers who include queer characters in stories to feel welcome. Or call an author who happens to be African a savage. I do have my limits.

See, I want the awards to recognize cool stuff written by people who really love telling stories. I like it when the ballot includes stories and authors I’ve not previously heard of. I like it even better when those stories make me want to read more by that person in the future. I don’t want “inclusive” stories or “diverse” stories for the sake of diversity, I want stories that look like the real world, where cisgender people and trans people and people of color and straight people and not-straight people and people of many different religions and people of no religion and people of different abilities are all included. Not to meet a quota, but because that’s how the real world is now! Yeah, as a queer man I’m happy when I see queer characters in a story, but it isn’t enough on its own to make me vote for it.

She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness — more of why I love sf/f

Anthony Head, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Brandon Nicholas, Allison Hannagan and James Marsters from a BtVS publicity shot.

Anthony Head, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Brandon Nicholas, Allison Hannagan and James Marsters from a BtVS publicity shot.

I am one of the biggest, craziest Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans you will ever meet. But I wasn’t always one. I saw the original movie when it came out, and thought it was very funny. There were some things I didn’t like about it, but it was a good laugh and a fun inversion of the typical teen horror film. Then a few years later I heard they were making a television series out of it, and I was certain it would be very bad. My late husband, Ray, watched it from the beginning when it started airing as a midseason replacement in March of 1997 and told me it was awesome. At the time, it aired on a night when I frequently had board meetings or committee meetings for the chorus, so I wasn’t home while he was watching it.

He managed to get me to watch an episode or two with him that summer, because he had a lot of the season on video tape. I don’t remember hating it, but it also didn’t really grab me. Season two started that fall. I remember one particular evening when I got home for chorus rehearsal that Ray was telling me about the show and how much he was looking forward to next week’s episode, because there had been a cliffhanger.

Two nights later, Ray had a seizure and went into a coma. Then he died, and I fell apart.

Some time after he died, I was alone in the house doing something, and I heard a noise from another room. I went to see what was going on, and one of the VCRs was rewinding furiously, then popped its tape out. In 1997 DVRs didn’t exist. We owned three video cassette recorders, though, and Ray had a complicated schedule of pre-programmed recordings, and a pile of labeled tapes. He would swap out tapes at different times in the week, so that the different machines would record the next episode of whichever series was kept on that tape.

And I hadn’t been keeping up.

This was maybe two weeks after Ray had died. I was still deep in the shell-shocked stage of grieving. So the idea that I hadn’t kept Ray’s rotation going seized me as a terrible thing. I was letting him down! I had let the wrong shows get recorded on the wrong tapes! Who knows what else I had messed up? Never mind that Ray was beyond caring about these things. I wasn’t rational. When someone you love dies, even the most stoic and logical person has some moments of irrationality over take them.

So I tried to sort out what was going on with the tapes. And that’s how I ended up watching all of the season two episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, along with about half of the season one episodes out of order (because his labelling system wasn’t always discernible to anyone but him) in a very short time.

There’s a lot of things that happened to me in those first few months after Ray died that I don’t remember clearly. But one of the few crystal clear moments was one point when I was staring at the TV and I said aloud, “Dang it, Ray! You were right. This show is incredible!”

I was addicted.

Don’t get me wrong, the show has problems. I can rant for hours and hours about how monumentally awful were most of the decisions the writers made in season six, for instance. And the many ways that season seven doubled down on some of the failure. Even before the universally despised season six, there was the incredible frustration of how the first half of season four showed such brilliance and promise of taking things to a new level, then collapsed into a world of disappointment and lost opportunity. And oy! Trying to make sense of both the explicit and implicit contradictions about the nature of magic, demons, the biology of vampires…!

Dru and Spike!

Dru and Spike!

But there were so many things the show got right. One of the things they got most right is casting James Marsters and Juliet Landau as Spike and Drusilla, the Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen of the undead set (and if you don’t know who they are, your life is sadly lacking in Sex Pistols, is all I’m saying). There was a point, after I had acquired the complete DVD set of season two of the series, where literally at least once a week I re-watched the episode that introduced Spike and Dru, “School Hard.” They were evil and cold and vicious and Dru is crazier than a coked out mutt in a hubcap factory. But they were also madly deeply in love. Spike rather proudly proclaimed himself love’s bitch in a later season, “at least I’m man enough to admit it!”

What made the show work was the relationships between the characters. Joss Whedon and his crew created a world in which a small, pretty girl regularly kicked the butts of evil creatures. A world where the real problems that teens try to deal with often made the monsters seem trivial by comparison. Some of the creatures of darkness were metaphors for the problems humans face coming of age, yep. And sometimes the parallel between the mundane story lines and the supernatural ones were a little on the nose.

But then there were the moments of brilliance, such as when everything had been taken from her: her first love turned evil, her best friend lying dying in a hospital, she’s been kicked out of her home, everything she cared about either broken, dying, or lost; the villain has fought her back into a corner and is berating her about all she has lost and all who have abandoned her. “What have you got?” he asks with a sneer, as he thrusts what we think is a killing blow with an enchanted sword. She catches the blade between her hands, looks him in the eye with the most amazing fuck-you glare of determination and says, “I’ve got me.” Then proceeds to kick his butt and save the world.

Those sorts of moments, where a simple refusal to give up in the face of impossible odds, and the many times that various characters in the story sacrificed for their loved ones and found a way out of a hopeless situation—they were what made the ups and downs of the show worth it. And I want to be clear: one of the things they did right more than once was not that the characters found that one last glimmer of hope in the midst of despair and defeat; rather, the characters made their own hope. Yes, Buffy was about empowerment. Buffy was about the damsel being able to rescue herself. Buffy was about turning notions of victims and saviors on their heads. Buffy was about seeing that the questions of good vs evil aren’t always black and white; that part of being a hero (and a big part of growing up) is about learning to make your way through all those shades of grey without losing yourself.

But mostly, Buffy was about love, chosen families, and not giving up.

Destiny, prophecy, self-discovery, and love — more of why I love sf/f

Cover of Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell, cover design by Olga Grlic (click to embiggen)

Cover of Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell, cover design by Olga Grlic (click to embiggen)

Carry On — The Rise and Fall of Simon Snow is a ghost story, a love story and a mystery.” So begins the official blurb on this novel that I found myself enjoying far more than I thought I would. First, an explanation. Rainbow Rowell, the author of Carry On first came to my attention through a recommendation on a podcast. Her work was described by one of the people on the podcast as being young adult novels that didn’t feel like YA. They also noted that she handled non-heterosexual characters really well. So I looked up some of her books and put them on my wish lists, but I hadn’t gotten around to actually trying one.

And then fan art for a book that seemed to be about teen wizards (but not characters I recognized) started appearing on my tumblr dashboard for a series that I’d never heard of: the Simon Snow series. Except there is no Simon Snow series. One of the novels by Ms. Rowell that I’d put on my list was entitled, Fangirl, and the blurb was that the main character, Cath, is just starting college, and that for the last few years her life has been dominated by her love for a series of urban fantasy novels. And these novels star a young man named Simon Snow.

In order to write convincingly about a fan who is very active in writing fanfic and has a number of close friends within the fandom, Rowell had to plot out a fictitious fantasy series. At least enough for the characters to talk about it as if it were a real series. Fangirl was a success, and received a lot of praise, particularly in sf/f circles, despite not being a fantasy story itself, because the portrayal of fannish culture was considered spot on.

After finishing that book, Rowell wound up writing a Simon Snow book. She didn’t write the entire series, she wrote a book that can be looked on as the next book that was published after all the books that Cath and her friends had been fans of in 2013 (when Fangirl was published). So, Carry On is not a sequel to Fangirl. Carry On is a sequel to the fictitious series which is talked about in Fangirl.

The magical world of Carry On bears a strong resemblance to the Harry Potter series, though it isn’t a parody or a satire. It also bears certain parallels to other young adult fantasy series. The plot seems straightforward, at first. Simon Snow attends a wizarding school called Watford. He was not born in the wizarding world, but he has immense power and various prophetic signs indicate that he is the person who is destined to defeat the Insidious Humdrum. The Insidious Humdrum is a mysterious being which, when it attacks, drains all of the magic out of the area, leaving what appear to be permanent dead zones where wizards and other magical creatures become powerless. Simon doesn’t know how he is going to defeat this creature, and has so far failed to master his magical powers. His powers are massive, but out of his control, and things tend to get destroyed when he tries to use them. His roommate at the school, Baz (full name, Tyrannus Basilton Grimm-Pitch) is Simon’s nemesis at school, and is assumed by everyone to be the person destined to try to kill Simon when the big battle with the Humdrum finally happens.

But the story isn’t really about the conflict between Simon and the Humdrum. It’s really about the nature of prophecy, what does it mean to be a chosen one, and how people (whether mortal politicians or master mages) twist belief and hope to fit their own agendas. It’s about identity, not just what it means to be a hero or villain (or the fact that it is seldom either/or), but there are allegories for ethnic identity issues and class identity issues. Oh, and more than a bit about sexual and romantic identity (which aren’t always the same thing).

There is a ghost story. There are several mysteries. And there is even a love story. There are battles magical, political, and personal. And it all hangs together very well. I have to admit, I think the wizarding world portrayed in Carry On makes a lot more sense than the world of Harry Potter, or a number of other fantasies of similar ilk, even though the magic part of the story isn’t the main focus of the plot.

I’m not sure that those two observations are unrelated.

I enjoyed the book a lot. I didn’t find most of the plot developments surprises. As one reviewer put it, the revelations as the story moves along feel more like confirmations of your existing suspicions than plot twists. But again, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think that’s part of why the story hangs together better than some other books we could name.

I enjoyed the book a lot. It didn’t end quite as I hoped it would, but it ended in a way that felt right and satisfying regardless. It did make me wish that some of the series and fantasy books had handled their characters as well as Rowell does. I hope that the next person who undertakes this sort of tale takes note.

What’s better than Bikini Armor Battle Damage? Magic Meat March!

Magic Meat Week is reformatting into a month-long challenge (with a theme for every day of March). (click to embiggen)

Magic Meat Week is reformatting into a month-long challenge (with a theme for every day of March). (click to embiggen)

A couple of years ago fantasy illustrator Amanda Sharpe came up with the idea to dedicate an entire week to the creation of hot fantasy dudes… or… as they called it, Magic Meat Week.

For one week each the last couple years they encouraged artists to draw “hella objectified fantasy dudes,” post them to Tumblr, and tag the art #MagicMeatWeek ”

This year they want all of March to be Magic Meat March.

I learned about the event from of the awesome Bikini Armor Damage tumblr. I’ve linked to an written about Bikini Armor Battle Damage before, which pokes fun at the weird sexual objectification and impractical armor drawn on fantasy women in video games, comic books, and so on. You may recall the Bikini Magic Bingo card shared here and many, many places, for instance. Anyway, I’m not a good enough artist to really do this, but I love the idea of putting male characters in the same kinds of strange flesh-baring armor and fantasy costumes the women get drawn in all the time. So I’m spreading the word!

And yes, I like looking at the pretty artwork of the pretty, pretty men. I mean, the empowered men. Right! They’re empowered, not being objectified and shown in ridiculous costumes in overly sexualized poses which would never work in actual combat. No. Empowered. That’s what they are.

Oh! And there’s a theme for each day of the month! The event has its own blog: Magic Meat March. Check it out!

(Hey! I can’t just blog about serious stuff all the time! I’m a queer nerd, after all…)

Crime Does Not Pay (but the hours are good)!

This is one of the covers I made for the gaming binders to help me remember what was in which binder.

This is one of the covers I made for the gaming binders to help me remember what was in which binder.

Back in 1981 I decided that what the world needed was a superhero roleplaying game. At the time, there wasn’t much on the market, and the few games that existed barely qualified as a full-fledged gaming system. But I’d been playing in various roleplaying games for a few years, and had been a superhero comic fan for as long as I could remember (my mom was a comics as well as sci fi/fantasy fan before I was born, so I’m a second generation fan). Since the few games I could find weren’t adequate to my needs for playing at superhero, I invented my own game. I originally called in, unimaginatively, Superheroes. And after about a week of writing up some tables and power descriptions, I talked several members of my gaming group into putting together characters. It wasn’t long before I had enough people playing it, that they started recruiting acquaintances. I made changes and improvements to the rules. Over the course of a few months, I typed a couple hundred pages of rules.

By that time I was running three different groups of players on three different nights of every week.

I ran the last game using the system, and set in the same world and continuity, in the year 2000. I want you to think about that for a moment: I ran a roleplaying campaign, a single campaign setting, with a single history, et al, for 19 years. So when people find out that I’ve got a Victorian Steampunk roleplaying campaign that has been running (with the same core players, same core characters, and in the same continuity) for 16 years and they freak out, I have to point out that it isn’t the longest campaign I’ve run.

There was a point where I re-typed all of the rules for my superhero game into a word processor. And I made more updates and changes to the rules, refining things as we ran into situations that within the game. In the early 90s I was thinking that I might still try to publish the system, and I had changed the name to Crime Does Not Pay (but the hours are good)! The problem was that by then, there were several other superhero based role-playing games on the market, and while I still think there are aspects of mine that were superior to those others, there were also aspects that weren’t.

I should mention that I did get the rules well-defined enough that three of my friends who loved to run games set up their own campaigns. So I got to play in my own system and see how it worked from that point of view.

I’m writing about this now because this last weekend I went through some of the shelves in the computer room, and I emptied out all of the three ring binders, pulled out all the spiral notebooks, and so forth that were full of notes and characters and scenario descriptions and so forth, and put them all into recycle. The scary part as I was going emptying all of those binders was how many of the thousands and thousands of pages of material that was in there was handwritten. In my atrocious printing. But usually in pretty colors, because I love unusual ink colors and I had a tendency to color code my notes as I created villains and supporting characters and scenarios. Or wrote up the fictitious history of small countries or crime fighting organizations, and so on.

Several years ago I made a comment to some friends that, since I hadn’t run a game in the system in years, I should toss all those gaming notes. These friends had been players in the game for years. And one of them was horrified at the idea that I would toss all of that history. So I decided not to tell anyone other than my husband before I went through the shelves.

Usually my inner packrat balks at this sort of thing. I expected it to be more of an emotional trial than it was. But the fact that I haven’t actually run a game, nor seriously looked through any of those notes for this campaign, in more than a decade seems to have given me enough emotional distance to just be amused as I recognized some notes in passing.

The collection of empty three-ring binders left over after I recycled the gaming notes. Please notice that several of more the 4-inch thick binders.

The collection of empty three-ring binders left over after I recycled the gaming notes. Please notice that several of more the 4-inch thick binders.

As you can see from the photo, there were a lot of binders. Several of those were 4-inch binders, which hold about 800 pages each, and at least two were 5-inch binders, which hold 1000 pages each, plus a bunch of 3-inchers, which since they usually have O-rings usually only hold about 570 pages each. When I said thousands and thousands of pages I wasn’t kidding. Keeping the notes organized in binders was always a bit of a challenge. Many years ago I got in the habit of making a title page for the binders, so I could remember that this binder was full of villains, while this one had notes on our never quite completed magic system, and another had notes for older games, while another had the notes for the most recent games and things I was planning.

And there were about a dozen spiral notebooks and several notepads all filled with even more notes. I generated a lot of material running that game for 19 years.

The notebook names were often based on Far Side comics. At least two were based on Calvin and Hobbes strips. As the pages of notes and characters and scenarios piled up, I’d have to make new binders, while older binders would become part of the archives, rather than something I’d get out all of the time.

It’s a little scary to think about how much fictional history we created during all of those games. I should add that when I said it was a single campaign, that’s slightly misleading. As I said I had at one point several groups playing at once, and I kept them separate mostly by basing their characters in different cities. But it was one fictional world, and we did cross-overs. Plus, since it is comic book superheroes, there were occasional adventures where the entire world was in danger. I also set some of the player groups in different time periods. at one point I had two side groups adventuring during the World War II time period, while original three sets had been playing in “the present” so basically the 80s and 90s. Then I had another side group playing in the 70s for. But all of the groups were set in the same world. And yeah, since I had player characters in different time periods occasionally involved in big global events and so forth, the continuity of my fictitious world got nearly as convoluted as that of the big comic book publishers.

Of the six friends who created characters for my first couple of weeks of playing, three have passed away. Of the others, I still have some contact with two on Facebook. I last ran into the sixth player at a science fiction convention around the year 2000, and he had an absolute melt down when he found out I was gay. My friend, Mark, moved to the town where I lived before moving to Seattle in 1983, I think it was, and joined the campaign. He played various characters for nearly 10 years, I think, with some interruptions since he moved to Seattle about a year before I did. And we’re still friends, now. Maybe I should make him a certificate, because I think he might hold the record of the longest player in that game.

I had a lot of fun, and as far as I know the players did, too.

If you want thousands, you have to fight for one — more of why I love sf/f

One of the many covers of various editions of Terry Pratchett's _Small Gods_.

One of the many covers of various editions of Terry Pratchett’s _Small Gods_.

It took me a while to understand Terry Pratchett. Several friends had enthusiastically proclaimed their love for his works. They had waxed eloquently about the hilarity of Guards! Guards, the wondrousness of The Luggage, and the ludicrous fun of the cowardly wizard Rincewind. But when I tried to read the books they recommended, I just didn’t find them engaging. They came across as parodies of fantasy and sword & sorcery, and I just couldn’t get into them. I didn’t understand what my friends saw in them, at all. And one of the books I tried to read back then was Small Gods.The back cover blurb sounded interesting, but I just couldn’t get through the first several pages. It made no sense to me. I didn’t understand how the description of a turtle trying to avoid being eaten by an eagle had anything to do with the the simple novice, Brutha, who only wants to tend his melon patch until he hears the voice of a god calling his name–a small god, but a bossy one. I put the book back down. I was at a friend’s house for something, and waiting, and there was the book sitting on a table.

My friend joined me just as I was setting it down, and asked if I’d ever read the book. So I explained about my previous encounters with Pratchett, and we went off on a long digressive conversation about books we loved, books we tried to get other people to love, books we realized were problematic but still liked, and so forth.

A couple months later, my first husband died. And not long after that I was preparing to head off to spend my Christmas vacation at my Mom’s (which was going to be interesting for many reasons). And a couple days before I left, the same friend stopped by. She was one of many of my friends who had taken to regularly checking on me following Ray’s death, so I thought she was just checking in. She had an additional mission. She had spent a lot of time thinking about what I had said about why I had disliked all of Pratchett’s Discworld novels I had tried to read, thus far, and she was bringing me one book to get me to try again. The book was Wyrd Sisters, which focuses on the witches of the tiny kingdom of Lancre. She explained why she thought I would like it (fairy tale themes given various twists, a lot of Shakespeare references, unconventional characters with deeply-rooted senses of ethics independent of religion), and asked me to give it a try. She cryptically said, “There’s one character in here who I think you’ll really love, but I don’t want to say who, because they need to grow on you.”

The second night of my vacation, I accidentally stayed up all night reading all the way to the end, and was so disappointed that I didn’t have any more Pratchett books to read next, that I started over at the beginning.

I finally understood. Pratchett wasn’t writing parodies, he was writing satire. Going by dictionary definitions of those two words, they may seem to be nearly the same thing. But they aren’t. A parody imitates a specific work or body of work, and makes use of deliberate exaggeration for comic effect. A satire, on the other hand, uses humor, irony, exaggeration or ridicule to critique and analyse human nature. It just so happened the Pratchett did this in many of the Discworld books through the lense of various tropes of fantasy literature.

Once I had found the book that spoke to me, and bonded with characters such as Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, suddenly, the rest of Pratchett’s work made sense. I saw now that the purpose of the jokes was not to poke fun at books and stories I loved, but to make me laugh in such a way that I got new insights into people (and incidentally why we tell some of the stories we tell)1.

Which brings me to Small Gods, one of my favorite books from the entire series2.

cf1f15f34ab9745dfcdd810a6a4e9701Small Gods is built around the notion that in a magical world such as Discworld, believe is what gives gods their power. The Great God Om has been worshipped for centuries in Omnia, because at intervals he returns to earth, manifests in some way, picks a new prophet, does a little smiting, and so forth. When our story begins in Omnia, people are waiting for the god to return and select his Eighth Prophet. Many think he’s overdue. Others are much more concerned with Omnia’s relations with neighboring countries, such as Ephebe. And then there is Brutha, a humble novice that everyone knows isn’t very bright because it’s been impossible to teach him to read, but he’s got a good memory and works hard and never complains as he’s tending garden in one corner of the Citadel in the capitol city. Brutha has a problem: he can hear a voice in his head, and the voice, he is convinced, is coming from a tortoise inexplicably in his garden, and the tortoise insists that he is the Great God Om.

We eventually learn that Om returned to the mortal world three years ago, quite surprised to find himself trapped in the body of a tortoise and almost completely lacking all divine powers. The problem is, you see, that over the last many years, belief—genuine faith in the existence of Om—has dwindled, having been replaced by fear of the Quisition. So now Om is in danger of losing the last of his power and becoming nothing more than a voice in the desert, along with all the small gods that have never had a believer. So he has to find a way, using only the abilities of a tortoise and his one last believer, to make a comeback.

Meanwhile, Deacon Vorbis, the head of the Quisition, is plotting to conquer Ephebe, while simultaneously root out a new underground heretic movement within Omnia. Brutha gets caught up in Vorbis’ plans when Vorbis realizes that Brutha’s memory isn’t just good, it is eidetic. Brutha has no idea why Vorbis has suddenly become interested him him, partially because Brutha has never really questioned anything his whole life. He was raised by a cruel and overzealous grandmother, and believed everything she told him. It isn’t until he meets his god face-to-face that he learns to start thinking for himself. Om, meanwhile, also has some learning to do before the story is over.

Pratchett has a lot of fun in this book with the idea of philosophers. Brutha meets philosophers in Ephebe, including Didactylos, the blind author of a scroll about the physical nature of the Discworld (a vast disc rotating on the back of four giant elephants standing on the back of a great turtle swimming through space), which has become the inspiration of the heretic movement back in Om. The holy books of Om teach that the world is a sphere floating in space on it’s one, revolving around a sun. So believing that the world isn’t flat is heretical.

Over the course of the story we see several aspects of faith and its misapplication. By the end of the story Brutha and Om have enduring various trials (Brutha nearly being burned to death as a heretic himself in the dramatic climax) before Om returns to power, and then finds himself forced to bargain with his new prophet and help transform his religion into one that is less violent. Before they can do that, they have to deal with the small matter of the war Vorbis has started. One of my favorite quotes from this book happens during this part, as Brutha is trying to stop everyone from fighting, and some of his would-be allies are proclaiming their willingness to die for the truth: “The truth is too precious to die for!”

It is easy to look at the book as an indictment of organized religion and blind faith. But I think the people who do that are making the same sort of mistake I did when I was trying to read the earlier books in the series the first time: they’re looking at this is a parody, rather than paying attention to Pratchett’s deeper commentary on human nature. The book skewers blind atheism at least as much as it does empty faith, because Pratchett turns his satirist’s eye on everyone. Characters you would expect to be allied heroes in the book have their flaws examined just as closely as the characters who are primarily villains.

There’s one other plot thread I should mention: The History Monks. Pratchett will use these guys a few more times, most interestingly in Thief of Time. They are a group of monks charged with keeping history on track, running around the world trying to make sure that things happen as they ought. Of course, who gets to decide “ought”?

I like to re-read Small Gods regularly, to remind myself where morals and ethics should come from. To remind myself that there are things worth having faith in (truth, yes, but also people, and compassion, and empathy). To remind myself that evil people are evil, yes, but they’re people, too—and that all of us have the potential to be evil, no matter how well-intentioned we may be. And most importantly to remind myself that forgiveness isn’t something you earn, it’s something you give.


1. One important note: another problem is that Pratchett himself didn’t find his voice in the series right away. In my opinion, Pratchett didn’t find the proper voice for this series until about the fifth book in the series. Some of his characters took a couple books on their own before they gelled, as well.

2. So many favorites. I read a lot of them out of order after finally having my breakthrough. As I mentioned, some of the earlier books are a lot weaker than the later ones. But they’re easier to enjoy once you know where the series is going.

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