If you search the web for the history and definition of cyberpunk, most places will tell you it is a dystopian sub-genre of science fiction which came into being in 1983 when Bruce Bethke published a short story by the name. Most definitions of the subgenre focus on a society controlled by computers and cybernetic technology. But I think a better definition is stories in which the main characters are marginalized and/or alienated, living on the edge of a generally dystopic society, where daily life has been transformed in invasive and sometimes grotesque ways by rapid technological change—a world where everyone’s access to information is controlled (usually by moneyed interests who in turn don’t realize the information and technology are controlling them) and information about individuals is used against them. These are the themes common across works that most people agree are cyberpunk.
Because cyberpunk was identified as a sub-genre in the 1980s, computers and their possible misuse figured prominently in early works. As computers became more ubiquitous in the real world, later works have tended to focus on the products of all the information technology. The hallmark of cyberpunk is stories which show that despite technological advances, the quality of life has degraded precipitously. Cyberpunk protagonists face off against the dehumanizing forces of technology, trying to reassert the worth of human imagination and connections.
Neuromancer by William Gibson (published in 1984) is said to be the first cyberpunk novel. Although other people have argued that Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a contender for the first cyberpunk novel, even though it was written years before the term cyberpunk was coined. And clearly since one of the themes of that book is that we must understand how technology encroaches on life in order to understand what technology is, and that is a very cyberpunk notion. There is certainly no doubt that the movie based on Dick’s novel, Blade Runner is cyberpunk, which could be another argument in its favor.
I am quite happy to include Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? within the sub-genre of cyberpunk, but I don’t believe it was the first cyberpunk novel. The first cyberpunk novel was written 114 years earlier than Dick’s novel, and 130 years before Gibson’s. The first cyberpunk novel was published in 1854, written by none other than Charles Dickens. It was a novel called Hard Times — For Our Times. I recognize that this seems an extraordinary claim, but bear with me.
Hard Times is not one of Dickens’ most famous works. It is one of the shortest novels he wrote. And unlike many of his more well-known novels, not a single sub-plot has any humor in it. Some characters get happier endings that others, but no one gets a classic happy ending.
The book is set in the fictitious industrial town of Coketown. The story opens with one of the villains of the piece, Mr. Gradgrind, a school board superintendent, quizzing a young woman (Cecilia Jupe) at the school about the definition of a horse. When Ceclilia describes it as a magnificent creature, he berates her for not knowing the zoological definition. Gradgrind is convinced that all education should be facts, only facts. Gradgrind lays out his belief that all of life can be understood if you simply know the facts and averages, and that things such as art, music, or imagination are wastes of time. Later in the book we will learn that Gradgrind has named one of us one children after Rev. Thomas Malthus (famous for writing about overpopulation problems and tangling his mathematics with his moral philosophy), which I think is telling.
Another important player in the book is Mr. Bounderby, a wealthy mill owner who is the employer of many of the other characters in the novel. Bounderby and Gradgrind are friends and business associates. Bounderby wants to marry Gradgrind’s daughter, Louisa, even though she is more than 30 younger than he. Bounderby is also big on numbers and calculations—he makes all his decisions—both business and person—based on cold facts and numbers. We also learn that Bounderby is the sole shareholder of the only bank in Coketown. As the plot of the novel develops, it turns out the Bounderby has financial ties to just about everyone in the city.
Much of the plot concerns itself with the toll that factory work takes on workers and their families, which we mostly see through the eyes of Stephen Blackpool, one of the workers. Dickens portrays the dehumanizing effects of industrialization, particularly when the same people who own the means of production also control both the flow of capital and information. He also has a subplot about an attempt by the mill workers to unionize. Unfortunately this is the weakest subplot of the novel, because Dickens didn’t seem to understand how unions work.
A driving force of many of the subplots is Bounderby’s network of spies. He uses his financial power over people to force them to spy on their neighbors, families, and co-workers, and report to Bounderby so that, for instance, he can prevent the workers unionizing.
So, how does this map to my definition of cyberpunk?
All the sympathetic characters (Louisa, Cecilia, Stephen) are marginalized in various ways, either because of the economic status or because their lives are under the control of others because of their gender of familial dependent status. Coketown is definitely a dystopia, and many aspects of the various social and economic forces he describes are worse than actually existed at the time of writing, so it can be argued it is a near-future dystopia, at that. Many of the difficulties and challenges the sympathetic characters face are because of the invasive way the industrial revolutions has disrupted social norms. The quality of life has degraded significantly, and many characters remember relatively recent times when things were better. Between them, Bounderby and Gradgrind control what information most of the inhabitants of the town have access to. Bounderby actively uses information he gathers through is spies to blackmail or otherwise harm characters who don’t do as he wishes.
In short, the protagonists face off against the dehumanizing forces of technology, and at the end, only those who have been able to reconnect with human connections, emotions, and imagination get a sort-of happy ending.
Dickens doesn’t explicitly say that the tale is set in the near future, even though I argue that was his intent. He’s clearly trying to show where the utilitarian philosophy that was becoming prevalent among the movers and shakers of his time will lead. But if that isn’t enough to make you think of this as, at least, proto-science fiction, there is also Bounderby’s obsession with numbers and calculations. What Bounderby is talking about when he says he makes life decisions based on numbers and calculations sounds an awful lot like an algorithm. And what are computer programs but algorithms? The way he explains his philosophy to Gradgrind at one point would not sound out of place coming from a character in one of Isaac Asimov’s stories involving psychohistory (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation, et cetera).
The dehumanizing aspects of technological advance is a theme that shows up in later works by Dickens. His last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend similarly warned against the loss of humanity to the cold demands of industrialization.
The way we think of genre now wasn’t how writers, readers, or publishers thought of stories in Dickens’ time. Dickens didn’t think of his Christmas ghost stories, for instance, as being a different kind of writing than his less fantastical ones. I know I’m making a stretch, here, but I think it is useful to try to look at stories—new ones we love today, and those that came before—from new angles. Cyberpunk’s core is the negative impacts of technology on individuals and society—cyberpunk is always about a dystopia. Whereas steampunk, despite having a similar name, at its core is optimistic.
Given that contrast, this particular novel, and several others Dickens wrote after, falls more clearly on the ancestral tree of works such as Neuromancer and Blade Runner than Boneshaker or Morlock Night. Maybe what Dickens wrote wasn’t cyberpunk, but I feel quite safe calling him one of the grandparents of cyberpunk.
The tired cliche that there are certain “classics” of sf/f that one must have read in order to be a real fan has reared its ugly head. The current iteration is an assertion that writers of sf/f (aspiring or otherwise) who have not read the classics are not able to write good sf/f. And specifically the “classics” one is supposedly required to read and love in order to be a good writer of science fiction and fantasy are the usual suspects: Heinlein, Asimov, Clark, and so on.
Now, it is true that I read Heinlein, Asimov, and Clark. I have written on this blog about how some of their work helped me in my formative years. I have also written on this blog about problematic aspects of both their writing and some of their personal life choices. I’ve also written before about how some of their writing hasn’t aged very well. Heck, when I was in my teens in the 1970s reading some of their older work, I was finding myself rolling my eyes over things that seemed either embarrassingly wrong or more than a little sexist and/or racist.
Unfortunately a lot of books from the middle of the last century that were important to the development of the genre, and/or were beloved by many fans over a span many years, don’t hold up so well years later.
But that’s not my only problem with this notion. Because people have been bandying around those specific names as “must-reads” for decades. A lot of excellent science fiction was written back then by other people. And a whole lot of good science fiction has been written since the heyday of Heinlein, Asimov, and Clark. A lot has changed in the genre. Sure, Asimov’s short story “The Last Question” was profound and mind-boggling when it was published in 1954 (63 years ago), but when I read it for the first time in 1973, even 13-year-old me saw the ending before it arrived. It was bit disappointing, to be honest. Because the story had been so influential that the once mind-boggling idea had been incorporated, expanded, deconstructed, and re-imagined several times in that 19-year span.
And it’s continued to be re-used in sci fi since. Heck, the entire story was boiled down to a two-sentence (and hilarious) joke in a 1992 episode of BBC’s Red Dwarf!
Which is not me saying that something which has been done before can never be repeated. Looking at old ideas in new ways is an essential part of sf/f. It’s just that the value of revisiting the same “classics” over and over is questionable, at best.
I would feel a little less like this was white guys insisting that everyone has to read their favorite old white guys if some of this “must read” lists included Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein published in 1816, as well as anything by Octavia Butler, Joanna Russ, Ursula LeGuin, or Andre Norton.
The usual argument is that Heinlein, Asimov, and Clark created the genre—and you can’t understand what it is now without reading them. Except, they didn’t create it. If you want to understand the origins you need to go back at least another hundred years to Shelley’s Frankenstein, for one, and stories from Nathaniel Hawthorne (“Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”, “Rappaccini’s Daughter” for instance) in the 1830s.
Sure, I think a writer needs to have read a lot and broadly to feed their craft. But when I say broadly, I mean really broadly. Read things outside your favorites, absolutely! Not everything you read needs to be a masterpiece, by anyone’s definition. You can learn from bad examples as well as good. Playfulness is an important part of the creative process, so reading light entertaining tales is just as important to feeding your artistic soul as reading deep, meaningful, serious stories.
Science fiction is supposed to be about not just looking at the horizon, but going past it. Not just using your mind, but expanding it.
And you know what doesn’t stretch anyone’s horizon or expand anyone’s mind? Everyone reading the exact same thing.
If the only input anyone has are the same list of books from the same authors, decade after decade, then every creator will just be regurgitating the same stuff that every other creator has.
There is value in studying what has been done before in your chosen field of writing, but it isn’t the only way to learn to create good stories in the genre. Just as one can learn to drive a modern car without first mastering the horse and buggy, you can learn to write without memorizing a specific set of books from a very narrow set of writers who were working 60+ years ago. If you want to study earlier generations of writers, remember that there is a vast volume of science fiction and fantasy works beyond anyone’s chosen list of classics or favorites. Find lists that don’t include the same few “must reads” and sample the less often recommended works, if you’re going to do that.
Similarly, there can be value for some readers in understanding the roots of some of the things being created today, but it isn’t necessary. You don’t have to go back in time to watch traveling vaudeville shows in order to understand and fully appreciate modern movies, right? You can understand and fully appreciate modern stories without reading the old stuff, first.
Look out at that horizon, and take aim for what’s beyond!
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”
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!
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.”
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 occasional 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
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…!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.
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.
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.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.
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.
Small 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.
Since 1995 I have written an original Christmas Ghost Story that I then read (or otherwise perform; one required ukulele, there have also been costumes) at the annual Holiday Party “sponsored” by the Tai-Pan Literary and Arts Project. Some years the ghost story is set in the Tai-Pan universe (which makes it fun, since that universe is a hard sci fi universe; I’ve had to be a bit creative about the definition of a ghost), some have been set in universes of my own creating.
I have a rather long document that I keep adding Christmas Ghost Story ideas to, so even though I’ve been doing this for more than 20 years, I’m not out of ideas. That’s actually the problem, I have so many ideas, that trying to get myself to focus on one and finish it is always a little bit of a struggle. Thus the many times I have posted a comment to social media in the wee small hours of the night before the party that I have finally finished this year’s…
Anyway, I’ve kind of narrowed it down to four that are speaking to me this year, and still trying to decide. So, I’m turning to the wilds of the internet and giving you a chance to weigh in. Read the titles and teasers below, and pick the one that you would most like to hear on a spooky winter’s night:
Some notes: in the past some friends have at first declined to vote because they didn’t feel that they were sufficiently familiar with the universe or stories. Please don’t let that stop you. People who are familiar with my work will have a really good guess who at least one of the protagonists above is, but don’t feel you have to be in the slightest familiar with me or my work to cast a vote.
I don’t guarantee that the winner is what I’ll work on. Some years I spend days nearly finishing one story, and then have a blast of inspiration that results in my writing a completely different tale. But I can’t decide, so maybe you can help!