Tag Archive | things I like

Hard Times reap hard lessons, or when did cyberpunk really begin?

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.

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Astounding Stories of Super-Science, or name changes are nothing new in sf/f

The February, 1930 cover of Astounding Stories of Super-Scinece, cover art by  H. W. Wesso. In 1930 the magazine's editor was Harry Bates.

The February, 1930 cover of Astounding Stories of Super-Scinece, cover art by H. W. Wesso. In 1930 the magazine’s editor was Harry Bates.

Just last week I commented on the kerfuffle in sci fi fannish circles about how problematic some of us think it is to have one of our major awards named after an extremely racist (and misogynist, classist, xenophobic, anti-democracy advocating authoritarian) and long deceased editor. I only linked to a fraction of the commentaries and arguments posted online since the acceptance speech that kicked this off. And while the kerfuffle has raged on there has been a very significant development: A Statement from the Editor.

As we move into Analog’s 90th anniversary year, our goal is to keep the award as vital and distinguished as ever, so after much consideration, we have decided to change the award’s name to The Astounding Award for Best New Writer.

So, Dell Magazines has decided to rename the award. They pledge that the award recipients will continue to be selected in the same way as before, and pledge to work with WorldCon going forward to implement the change. This might seem like really swift action on the company’s part, but another article published just the day before this announcement, the current editor is quoted as saying that he has been having this conversation within the company since shortly after he read an early draft of Alec Nevala-Lee’s book about the Campbell era: Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction.

As many people have pointed out, there have been previous op-eds, letters, and even petitions suggesting changing the name of the award, so it is hardly a new idea.

This decision has been no less controversial than the aforementioned speech. And I find it particularly amusing that one of the arguments being put forward by people who don’t want to change the award’s name is that changing names is bad and it somehow erases history.

This argument is particularly amusing in light of both an award an an editor tied to the magazine formerly known as Astounding.

When the magazine just began publication in 1930, the full title was Astounding Stories of Super-Science, as you can see by the image of the ‘zine’s second issue included above. A few years later, the title was shortened to Astounding Stories. Then, shortly after Campbell took over as editor, he renamed the magazine Astounding Science Fiction, which is the name it operated under until 1960, when Campbell changed the name to Analog Science Fact & Science Fiction.

That last name change was handled in an interesting way, graphically. For a few months both the name Astounding and Analog could be seen, with Astounding fading more and more each month. There was also a lot of variation with the rest of title, sometimes appearing as Science Fact & Fiction, sometimes Science Fact/Fiction, and sometimes with the ampersand or slash replaced by a glyph that looked like an inverted U with a line through it which Campbell said meant “analogous to.”

Which gets us to another faulty argument being made against the new name: calling it the Astounding Award still makes the name honor Campbell, and why isn’t that problematic? First, Astounding was published for seven years before Campbell became editor, and the previous two editors weren’t quite as ideologically driven in their story choices as Campbell. Second, Campbell was the one who wanted to stop calling the magazine Astounding all along. And third, while Astounding is one of the names of the publication in question, it’s also an adjective which is a synonym for wonderful or amazing.

Based on a lot of comments I’ve seen from the irritated ones, most of them don’t actually know that much about Campbell. They certainly haven’t read any of his notorious editorials. I suspect that for most of them, they know that he published Heinlein and Asimov and the like—and I suspect they haven’t read many of those author’s works, either. Campbell’s sort of a Rorschach test in that way: they see what the want to see. And frankly, the main thing they know is that those darn Social Justice Warriors and uppity people of color and decadent queer fans are critical of Campbell, therefore he must be defended at all costs no matter how illogically.

I didn’t start regularly reading sci fi zines until shortly after Campbell’s death, and even then, the magazines I preferred were Galazy and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Most of what I knew about Campbell in my early years came from the autobiographical bits that Isaac Asimov included in his anthologies (especially The Early Asimov) but even Asimov’s portrayal of him did not ignore some of Campbell’s eccentricities and flaws.

I recall Asimov seeming least happy about Campbell’s insistence that if aliens appear in a story, they absolutely must be shown to be inferior to humans in some way. It so bothered Isaac, and Isaac felt that he owed Campbell first shot at any of his stories, that Asimov simply stopped writing aliens at all. Asimov’s future history galaxy-spanning society was inhabited by humans and their robots and that was it.

Campbell had a lot of other rules about stories that pushed the field of science fiction into a specific idealogical corner. One in which rich, white, aggressive men were always on the top of the heap, and where the working class, poor, less educated, and women and people of color were always on the bottom—and always in need to the leadership of the folks on top.

For all that Campbell is often regarded as a proponent of keeping science in science fiction, one has to note that Campbell meant physics and chemistry. Sciences such as geology, paleontology, anthropology, linguistics, and sociology weren’t part of the Campbellian vision.

Society changes. Our understanding of the universe and our place in it changes. Science fiction as an art form and the fannish community of Campbell’s peak years wasn’t very welcoming to women, queer people, people of color. Yes, there were always fans and creators within the sci fi community who came from those other communities, but it was clear that we weren’t meant to be heroes. That our stories never mattered. That our role was always to be supporting characters or sit quietly and marvel at the competence of men like Campbell.

And that’s neither true of the real world, nor is it something an ethical person should aspire to.

So, yes, the name change is a good thing. Because one of the things I love about good science fiction, are those moments that astound me.

That has always been here, or politics aren’t a new thing in sf/f

The cover of the November, 1950 issue of Astounding Stories. Cover art by David E. Pattee. The cover illustration shares the same title as John W. Campbell's political editorial published in the same issue.

The cover of the November, 1950 issue of Astounding Stories. Cover art by David E. Pattee. The cover illustration shares the same title as John W. Campbell’s political editorial published in the same issue.

I’ve been a fan of Jeannette Ng since a friend recommended her novel, Under the Pendulum Sun a bit over a year ago, so I was overjoyed when at this last weekend’s WorldCon they read her name as the winner of this year’s John W. Campbell Award. And here acceptance speech began with the line: “John W. Campbell, for whom this award was named, was a fascist.” And she went on to talk about how the way he shaped the genre excluded many people but then, “But these bones, we have grown wonderful, ramshackle genre, wilder and stranger than his mind could imagine or allow.” And then she pivoted to talk about the current situation in Hong Kong, the city in which she was born. You can read the text version here. As you might guess, her speech has drawn some criticism from certain corners of the fandom.

I am not one of the people upset with her words. I was watching the livestream and when she spoke those opening words I literally exclaimed, “She went there! YES! Oh, you go grrrl!”

The reasons people have given for being upset at her words boil down to basically three claims:

  • It is inappropriate to make a political statement in a science fiction award acceptance speech,
  • Campbell was conservative, but not really a fascist,
  • It is extremely ungrateful to say such a thing about a man while accepting his award.

Let’s take on each of those assertions:

Are political statements inappropriate at sci fi award ceremony? During the approximately 33 years that Campbell was Editor of Astounding Science-Fiction he wrote an editorial for every monthly issue and almost none of those editorials were about science fiction. Most of those editorials were on various political topics. You can read a bunch of them here. He injected his opinions on race, democracy, the poor, and many other topics every month into that magazine. Many years after his death, Michael Moorcock (award-winning British sf/f author probably best known for the Elric series) observed that Astounding under Campbell was a crypto-fascist platform.

Campbell wasn’t the only one putting politics into science fiction.

  • Part of the plot of H.G. Wells’ classic novel, The Time Machine (published in 1895), is a commentary on the destructive nature of capitalism and the economic/social class system.
  • One of Jules Verne’s novels, Paris in the Twentieth Century, was such a scathing indictment of the dehumanizing power of industrialism, that no one would publish it until almost a hundred years after his death! In the original manuscript for Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (published in 1870) Nemo was a Polish scientist who was bent on revenge agains the Russian Empire because Russia had invaded his homeland and killed his family. It had a moving speech by Nemo condemning Russian Imperialism. Verne’s publisher, knowing that much of the income for Verne’s earlier scientific adventure stories had come from Russian reprints, asked him to remove that, and suggested that if Nemo needed to have a political cause, that perhaps the abolition of the slave trade would be a target that wouldn’t harm sales. Verne decided not to do either, and so there are some enigmatic scenes in the novel when Nemo destroys some ships flying a flag he finds offensive, but our viewpoint character never knows what flag it is, nor why Nemo hates it.
  • Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (published in 1818), among other things, explores the relationship between individual freedom and one’s obligations to society. Many of her short stories and books written after Frankenstein explore the role of women in society (and why they should have the right to vote and own property) and directly tackled various political institutions.

I could find many more examples throughout the history of science fiction. But the upshot is, politics have been in the fiction itself, and creators of science fiction have used both the stories and other associated platforms they gained access to as writers for making political statements the entire time.

Was Campbell a fascist? At least several of the people claiming he wasn’t a fascist admit that he was racist, but they insist that isn’t the same as being a fascist unless you are using a really loose and “modern” definition of the term.

Campbell advocated a lot of fascist ideas in addition to his racist policies, such as means-testing for voting rights (Constitution for Utopia {1961}). He argued many times against democracy (Keeperism {1965}) or the rule of law (Segregation {1963}) rather than the rule of wise men. He argued that many people (particularly black people) were better off enslaved (Breakthrough in Psychology {1965}, Colonialism {1961} and Keeperism {1965}) and they even wanted to be enslaved, and that the genocidal disasters caused by colonialism were the fault of the inferior culture of the victims (Constitution for Utopia {1961} and Colonialism {1961}), not the colonial powers. He also argued that the death of children in medical experiments was for the good of society (The Lesson of Thalidomide {1963}). He argued the poor people were poor because they deserved to be (Hyperinfracaniphilia {1965}) and that society was better off transferring wealth to the rich. He argued in favor of racial profiling and the persecution of anyone who did not conform to conservative societal norms (The Demeaned Viewpoint {1955}). And (because of course he did) he argued for sterilizing people with undesirable traits to prevent them having children (On The Selective Breeding of Human Beings {1961}).

That last one is right out of the Hitler-era Nazi playbook!

John W. Campbell espoused and promoted fascist policies. You don’t have to use a modern or loose definition of fascism to recognize that he was a fascist, you just need to read what he wrote there in the pages of Astounding Science-Fiction.

Those editorials are part of the reason that, for instance, Asimov said that Campbell’s views became so extreme that he sent fewer and fewer stories to Campbell.

Campbell liked to micro-manage authors he published, in some cases pressuring writers to revise stories to conform to his authoritarian, racist, and misogynist views.

Is it ungrateful to accept his award while critiquing him? I (almost) can’t believe people are making this argument. Campbell’s ghost is not giving out this award. Campbell’s estate is not giving out this award. This award is handed out by the World Science Fiction Society, after a nomination and voting process in which members of the World Science Fiction Society participate. The award is named after Campbell, but it isn’t his award nor is it coming from him in any way.

I am a member in good standing of the World Science Fiction Society, and it just so happens that on my Hugo Ballot this year I put Jeannette Ng in the number one spot for the John W. Campbell Award on my ballot. But even if I hadn’t placed her at #1, I would still insist that the award is coming from the 3097 World Science Fiction Society members who voted in this year’s contest. It is not coming from Mr. Campbell, who died 48 years ago, the award is coming from us.

In recent years we’ve had a misogynist, racist, and homophobic faction of the fandom organize to try to purge science fiction of the “wrong” kind of fan and the “wrong” kind of writer. That’s the bones of exclusion that Ng talked about in her speech coming back to haunt us. Part of their attempted purge was to slate-vote the Hugo awards, until we changed the rules to make it much harder for them to take over entire categories. That means that the Hugo award ceremony is not merely an appropriate place to deliver Ng’s critique, it’s the perfect place.

It is clearly time to discuss renaming the award. That doesn’t mean penalizing any past nominees or winners. It doesn’t mean exiling Campbell and the writers he cultivated from the canon of sf/f. It simply recognizes that just because a person had a profound effect on the genre, that impact doesn’t negate problematic aspects of his actions within the community. And as the sf/f community and field grows and changes over time—as our awareness of the diversity of people and ideas that have previously not been welcomed to the table expands—it is perfectly appropriate to make changes in how we recognize and honor excellence in the field.


Mike Glyer has an excellent round up of postings and comments from other people over at File 770: Storm Over Campbell Award.

Edited to Add: Elseweb I received some quibbles about the third part of my argument here. While the nominees for the award are chosen by the Hugo voters of the WSFS, and the winner is chosen by those same voters, the award is technically owned by Dell Magazines, the company that publishes the science fiction magazine Campbell was most associated with. That’s why the announcements and such always mention that the award is technically not a Hugo. I was aware of that at the time, but considered it only a distracting tidbit. Dell Magazines is not the Campbell Estate. Campbell’s estate doesn’t contribute any money to the making of the award pins that all nominees get, and of course, Campbell’s ghost does not hand out the award.

More news here: Astounding Stories of Super-Science, or name changes are nothing new in sf/f.

Fumble fingers again

I was still editing and accidentally click Publish in stead of Save.

But now the post is up: That has always been here, or politics aren’t a new thing in sf/f.

A Hugo of Our Own

A close up of the Hugo award won by Archive of Our Own this week.

A close up of the Hugo award won by Archive of Our Own this week.

I watched the livestream of the Hugo Awards ceremony broadcast from DublinCon yesterday. When the feed wasn’t glitching or having other problems, it was great. And I got to squee live on twitter about some of the wins. The ceremony flowed well, the setting was nice. The music choices were good, and the co-presenters Afua Richardson and Michael Scott did a lovely job. More than a couple of moments brought tears to my eyes. There was also a lot of laughter. So, good ceremony, and as I indicated when I talked about trying to finalize my ballot, we had so, so many excellent nominees in every category that no matter who won I was going to be happy.

Before I comment further (just in case you haven’t seen the list elsewhere), here are the winners.

2019 Hugo Award Winners:

Best Novel: The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Best Novella: Artificial Condition, by Martha Wells

Best Novelette: “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again,” by Zen Cho

Best Short Story: “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies,” by Alix E. Harrow

Best Series: Wayfarers, by Becky Chambers

Best Related Work: Archive of Our Own, a project of the Organization for Transformative Works

Best Graphic Story: Monstress, Volume 3: Haven, written by Marjorie Liu, art by Sana Takeda

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form: The Good Place: “Janet(s)”

Best Professional Editor, Long Form: Navah Wolfe

Best Professional Editor, Short Form: Gardner Dozois

Best Professional Artist: Charles Vess

Best Art Book: The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition, illustrated by Charles Vess, written by Ursula K. Le Guin

Best Semiprozine: Uncanny Magazine

Best Fanzine: Lady Business

Best Fancast: Our Opinions Are Correct

Best Fan Writer: Foz Meadows

Best Fan Artist: Likhain (Mia Sereno)

John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer: Jeannette Ng

Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book: Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi

The full voting statistics have also been posted and can be read here.


In seven of the categories this year, the nominee I had at number one on my own ballot got the Hugo. So that was fun! In three of the categories my second choice won.

I’m particularly pleased the Archive of Our Own, which is an enormous fanfiction repository, won in the Related Works category. I do have one quibble with some of my fellow members of AO3 (as we call it): you are not a Hugo Award-winner author. No matter how many of thousands of words of your fiction is in the Archive. Just as authors whose work was published in Uncanny Magazine this last year aren’t Hugo winners by dent of Uncanny winning the award; they are authors who have been published in an award-winning zine. Another way to look at it: Camestros Felapton compared the AO3 entity to a library: “It’s the library that’s being nominated, which includes its contents but which is not the same as its contents.” (emphasis added).

Yes, all of us who support, use, and contribute to Archive of Our Own should take pride in this win. But don’t go slapping a Hugo logo on your fanfic, all right?

I haven’t yet seen anyone grousing about AO3 winning. I saw a bit of that “Ew! Fanfic! ICKY!” when it was nominated. I saw more people trying to disguise their fear of fanfic cooties with arguments about why the Archive itself is not a “Work” in the sense necessary for the award. I think a number of us have already shown that it meets the definition.

One thing that I thought was more than slightly amusing elseweb was that one of the same people I saw arguing that AO3 wasn’t a “related work” was also upset about the Fan Writer category including people who get paid for some of their writing. There seems to be some sort of cognitive dissonance going on there.

Anyway, not only did AO3 win, but it won by a huge margin! Which means that a heck of a lot of Hugo voters thought it deserved the award.

What the AO3 win means to me is that a lot of fans value fanfic and the fanfic community. Which probably oughtn’t to surprise is, since the Hugos are a fan-voted award and this is a category that frequently goes to fannish writing. But because people who dislike fanfic are so very vocal and persistent in their criticism, it’s easy to get the impression that fanfic isn’t popular. Just as the many critics of certain sci fi movies we could name makes us forget that millions of people had to buy tickets to said movie in order for it to make the amount of money it did.

It’s a variant of the True Fan Fallacy. The argument is that the wrong kind of fans like it. And to them I say, “Shove off!” The rest of us are here to talk about what we love and to, you know, actually love this stuff that we all claim to love. Because we’re fans—a noun derived from the word fanatic, because we are filled with sometimes excessive enthusiasm.

I am so happy for all the winners. I am even more happy that we had so many awesome stories to choose from this year. I really do wish we could give a rocket to all of them.

Most writing advice is free, but the value varies

“Writing Advice 5¢ - the Expert is In”

We’re all experts…

I made my first professional sale to a science fiction ‘zine (Worlds of If) forty-four years ago. And I was ecstatic, because I had only been submitting to professional ‘zines for two years, and I had already made a sale! I was on my way, right?!? Except I didn’t make another sale until thirteen years later. So maybe I didn’t quite know what I was doing, just yet. And for the next ten-ish years, I only managed to sell stories to fanzines and semi-prozines. Which seemed like more proof that I wasn’t quite a pro.

Except…

My primary source of income since 1988 has been writing. Most of that has been technical writing (and related jobs) in the software industry, but I find it really hard to discount the fact that the word “writer” has been part of my official job description for a bit over 31 years. So my day job and my hobby job for more than three decades has been “writer” — so maybe I have some idea of how to put words together? Plus, for more than two decades I was the editor of a semi-prozine that produced at least three issues a year for those two decades. Which were offered for sale and purchased in sufficient quantities to cover the cost of printing.

So maybe, just maybe, I have some correct notions about what it takes for a story to appeal to an audience, right?

But here’s something I am absolutely certain of: I can’t teach you how to write. I can tell you how I do it (the parts I understand—there’s a whole lot going on in everyone’s subconscious that remains ineffable). I can tell you techniques that work for me. But only you can figure out how you can write.

And that’s true of everyone. No one, no matter how accomplished, can tell you how to write. I love reading or hearing about how other people go about writing. I like attending panels and seminars and the occasional online class from other writers. So I’m not saying don’t take anyone’s advice or class, just remember that in the end you are the person who is telling your stories. So only you can figure out which things people suggest work for you, and which don’t.

A lot of advice gets repeated regularly, and it seems sound. When you’re feeling anxious about writing, it can be comforting to have these rules to fall back on. But these pieces of advice can be stumbling blocks or worse. For example, one frequently repeated piece of advice is to cut out the adverbs. “Search for words ending in ‘ly’ and delete them!” So take out things like terribly and gently and carefully and slowly. Supposedly this makes your writing clearer. It also makes your writing duller. Some adverbs are superfluous. But like every other kind of word (nouns, verbs, adjectives), sometimes they are exactly right.

Then there is that tired old chestnut, “Show, don’t tell.” I’ve written before about how that advice is more wrong than it is right. In a nutshell: the extreme version of the advice leads you to remove all exposition from your story and exclude people who don’t share all your (unconscious) cultural assumptions. For a writer of science fiction or fantasy, that makes it impossible to put the reader into a world that is different than our own. Better advice is to paint pictures with your words. Anton Chekov said it thusly: “Don’t tell me the moon was shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” So use exposition when necessary, but make sure it isn’t flat and boring.

Said is a perfectly good verb. So is snarled, whispered, replied, asked, shouted, demanded, muttered and retorted. So that advice about never using any verb other than said as a dialog tag is another one that is well-meaning, but not completely right. Now, it is true that a writer can go overboard with the dialog tags. I was cringing mightily during a recent audio book where the author seemed to take the flip side of the advice and never used said at all. Among the horrible tags he did use were: extrapolated, polled, nodded, puffed, interrogated, and the absolute worst: all-caps-ed. This is another one where the truth is somewhere in between. Don’t go bananas with the synonyms for said and asked, but don’t stick to only those two, either.

Also, sometimes you don’t have to use dialog tags at all. You can describe what the character is doing: He pursed his lips. “Do you want my honest opinion?” Or if you are telling the story from a particular character’s point of you, you can describe their thoughts or feelings: Sarah wanted to hug him. “You have no idea how much I needed to hear that today!” But again, you need to figure out what works for you. I have a bad habit in first drafts of putting a she/he/they nodded on about half the dialog entries. I think it’s because I nod when people talk to me (which is hilarious when I do it on conference calls!). But when I read the draft later—especially aloud to my writer’s group—it sounds like everyone in my story is constantly bobbing their heads wildly and can really distract from the scene!

Some people insist that you absolutely must write every day on your project or you aren’t a real writer. Bull. Yeah, some people write like that. And if that works for you, great. But some of us need to take days off. My day job involves writing and editing, so some days when I get home my brain is burned out, and I don’t get much if any writing done. And don’t tell me to get up super early and write before I go to work. I’m not a morning person, and frankly if I tried I have no doubt that some days I would be much less than good at my job. And I like my work. Work pays the bills! And I like eating. If writing every single day works for you, great, do it. But don’t feel like a failure if some days you just have to do something else to recharge the mental batteries.

There are two very common bits of writing advice that I do fully endorse:

  • A writer writes. You can skip days, but you can’t skip writing altogether. If you feel stuck, force yourself to write a single word. Just one. Then, look at it, and decide what the next one is. If that’s what it takes, just make yourself put one word after another until you have a sentence, and then another and another.
  • A writer reads. Read other people’s work regularly. Read things you love. Every now and then, read stuff from a genre you don’t like. Or a style of writing that you usually don’t take to. Not all the time, but make sure you are expanding your reading horizons, regularly.

Other than that, I just have to ask: why are you still reading this post! Go! Write something! The world needs your story. And no one can tell your story except you.

Dragons to the rescue, or more of why I love sf/f

My copy of The Dragon and the George, which I never realized was a fist edition until I was researching for this blog post.

My copy of The Dragon and the George, which I never realized was a fist edition until I was researching for this blog post.

I’ve mentioned before that I joined the Science Fiction Book Club when I was in middle school. Now, the problem was that I didn’t have a steady source of income, and I did my first order without consulting any adults in my life1, and so I had not realized that the cheap price on the advertisement did not include shipping, so this mysterious box arrived in the mail with postage due and my parents were not pleased. Anyway, for the next several years I had to remember to send the post cards back in saying “Do not send this month’s selection!” except on those occasions that I had some money or that my parents agreed I could have the particular book and they would pay for it. Anyway, from about October 1975 until July 1976 I got to order one book every month because my parents were going through a messy divorce and my paternal grandfather declared he would pay for the books4. And one of the books I got during that interval was The Dragon and the George by Gordon R. Dickson.

The premise of the book is a weird hybrid of sci fi and fantasy—both portal fantasy and epic fantasy by the time the book is through. Our protagonist, Jim Eckart, holds a PhD in Medieval History and is hoping to become a full-time instructor at the university. His fiancé, Angie, is working on her own doctorate degree in English literature5, and is also working as an assistant to a professor who, in Jim’s opinion, is always tricking Angie into working more than she ought to. One day, when she isn’t ready to be picked up by Jim, he rushes to the professor’s lab, arriving just in time to see Angie in a contraption that looks as if it is from a bad sci fi movie—and then she vanishes before Jim can say a word.

The professor’s machine is supposed to boost latent psychic abilities, and he was trying to get Angie to astral project into another dimension. He never expected her to physically teleport there. The professor has to explain that he can’t simply pull Angie back—it is her own psychic talent that did the trick, after all. But he is certain that if she could be hypnotized in the other realm to return home, she would pull it off. So he convinces Jim to get into the machine, and at a lower power setting, has high hopes6 that Jim will project into the body of a native of this other dimension near Angie and be able to convince her to return herself home.

That’s the set up.

Jim agrees, and he wakes up not inside the body of any person close to Angie. Instead, he wakes up inside the body of a dragon named Gorbash, and trouble ensues from there.

The body Jim is in isn’t anywhere close to Angie’s location. He spends a few chapters trying to sort out the world he is in, which seems to be very similar to 14th Century England… except that are multiple species of dragons, and there are wizards, and some wolfs can talk. Also, humans in this world are all called Georges (at least by dragons and the talking wolves) because of the legend of St. George and the Dragon. Hence the title.

Jim eventually figures out that Angie has been captured by two dragons. He meets with them, and attempts to hypnotize Angie so that she will return to earth, but she refused to leave without Jim. While they are trying to think of an alternative way for both to get back, one of the dragons whisks Angie away, and she is imprisoned by an evil knight and the dragon who was in an alliance with the forces of Darkness.

Jim meets a wizard named Carolinus who sets him the task to collect a series of companions (which includes a knight, a woman archer of extraordinary talent, a talking wolf who was a friend of the dragon Jim’s consciousness is trapped in, a very elderly and no longer robust dragon who is a relative of the body Jim is trapped in, and a small dragon from a subspecies that is ridiculed by normal dragons) before he can make an assault7 on the keep where Angie is being held prisoner.

The whole point of this book was to invert the idea of who we should be rooting for when knights battle dragons, so it should be no surprise that the part I found most interesting was the complex society of dragons that was partially explored in this book. Two of my three favorite characters in the book are dragons (the elderly dragon and the smaller one). I read this book about a year before my social group discovered original Dungeons & Dragons8, which was only shortly before the first printing the Advanced D&D’s Player’s Handbook, which we all bought, and tried to produce better adventures with as slowly, every so slowly, the Monster Manual and other books needed to make AD&D a real game were published.

And mention all of that because when I was designing campaigns, I tried to play the dragons more like the characters in this book. Which was easier to do before the official Monster Manual came out and was filled with, frankly, a poorly-designed set of monsters.

But to get back to The Dragon and the George, eventually the evil knight and dragon and their many monster companions are defeated, though at great cost, and Angie is rescued. Angie and Jim decide that they don’t want to go back to earth for various reasons, and Carolinus separates Jim for Gorbash, giving him a human body identical to his one from earth. Which set things up for the characters to return for a sequel, that that wouldn’t be published for 14 years. Dickson eventually completed a total of 9 books in the series before his death in 2001.

I only read three of the sequels. I didn’t find them as compelling as the original. Sometime in the mid-nineties, after being disappointed in one of said sequels, I decided to re-read the first book, and was quite happy to find it still enjoyable. Do I wish the damsel in distress had been a more fleshed out and active character in the story? Yes. But the story held up a lot better than some of my other old favorites from my teen years and before.

And besides, the dragons, at least, got to be something more than cliches.


Footnotes

1. As I recall the offer that I found inside a copy of Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, which was itself the result of one of my grandmothers buying me a subscription for my birthday and renewing it each year after2, had said that you would receive 6 books for just one nickel3!

2. The other grandmother, by the way, upon hearing me explain to a friend that I’d actually wanted a subscription to the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction purchased me a couple years of subscription to that ‘zine, as well my next birthday.

3. The order card had a place for you to tape a nickel to the card before placing it in an envelope. I complete missed the small print about the shipping.

4. I did not intentionally manipulate anyone’s sense of guilt. The month that all we found out about my dad having had a long-running affair with another woman and having fathered two children with her and so on and so forth was, well, it was hectic. And I didn’t mail the card in on time that month, and the book showed up a few weeks later, and things just happened5.

4. Not that I didn’t recognize it was a gift horse into whose mouth I was not looking, but…

5. I can’t decide whether I should be irritated at the cliché of the woman who is the romantic interest of the male protagonist being into English Literature. On the other hand, I suppose that we ought to be grateful that Jim isn’t a science major, right?

6. I distinctly remember being a bit put out at this point the first time I read it, because it seemed to me that the professor had no evidence to back up any of this theories.

7. I said it would move into Epic Fantasy territory!

8. The precursor the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons9 published first in 1974 and came as a set of small books and very cheaply-made dice in a white box.

9. Which began being published as hardbound rulebooks in 1977.

Divine prophecies and muscular men in very short skirts, or more of why I love sf/f

Jason fights the Children of the Hydra’s Teeth.

I’m not sure how old I was the first time I saw Columbia Pictures’ Jason and the Argonauts. I used to believe that I saw it in a movie theatre on the big screen for the first time as part of one of the series of kid-friendly matinees that I got to attend from the age of about 6 through 10… but after doing some research I discovered that the film wasn’t made available in theatres at that time. Because the film’s box office take from the first theatrical run in 1963 (just a few months before my third birthday) was underwhelming, it wasn’t re-released into the theatres until much later, after spending years as a staple in syndicated television, which is where it became a hit, prompting the studio to re-release it to a much more successful run in 1978.

This post runs a bit longer than usual, because I wrote much of it while re-watching the film for the first time in many years. And I watched it because after reading this review of a Ray Bradbury story that was clearly inspired by Ray Harryhausen (the special effects genius) I just had to. If you don’t need the detailed commentary, you might want to scroll on down to my Conclusion.

Jason and the Argonauts is based on the Greek tale of Jason and the Golden Fleece. Jason was the son of the king of Thessaly. His parents and at least one of his sisters was killed by the usurper Pelias. Pelias misunderstands the prophecies of his soothsayer, and tries to eliminate all of the heirs of the king of Thessaly. Just before he murders the eldest daughter of the king in the temple of Hera, a shadowy figure who he believes is a priestess (though she is actually the goddess Hera herself) tries to warn him away from this path. When he kills the king’s eldest daughter anyway, Hera tells him that one day a man with only one sandal will usurp him. She also warns him that if he kills Jason, the son of the king himself, that he will also be destroyed. Then she vanishes, along with the the third child, another daughter of the king.

Before I summarize the rest of the plot, there are a whole lot of subplots that were left dangling in this movie implying that there would be a sequel, and I’m just a little bit annoyed that no one has done anything with that.

Anyway, the story that follows is frequently intercut with scenes of Zeus and Hera (and a couple of other Olympian gods) discussing the happenings on Earth. In some of those scenes human history is portrayed as a board game between the gods. It is an interesting conceit that is used in a lot of other mythological-based movies in later years. I think this one happens to play out better than many of the others.

Back to Jason’s story. Twenty years after the bloody coup, King Pelias is riding his horse near a river, is thrown from said horse, and a passing stranger jumps into the water to save him. The stranger loses his shoe in the process of saving the man, and quickly identifies himself as the long lost son of the previous king on his way to take back his throne. Perlias realizes who Jason is before he introduces himself, because he has spent twenty years waiting for the man with only one sandal. Jason, on the other hand, never asks the name of the man he rescues. And never becomes the slightest bit suspicious that the man he rescues has a camp staffed with a lot of guards in royal armor and a rather large number of scantily clad entertainers. Nor does Jason, who is sworn to kill the man who killed his father and has been king of Thessaly for 20 years, recognize the only son of said king when he is introduced to him by name.

Despite all of this obliviousness, we are still rooting for Jason who wants to pursue another prophecy that Pelias ignored: that at the end of the world there is a tree, and hanging from the branches of that tree are the skull and skin of a golden ram with magickal powers that will ensure a long and successful rule to the man who captures it. Jason holds a contest, and several characters from Greek myth win a spot on his crew. Because the shipwright Argos builds his ship, he names it the Argo, and with a figurehead that looks like the goddess Hera, they set out looking for the Golden Fleece.

Hera is only allowed to help Jason five times, and Jason manages to burn through those five helps in less than half the movie. This gets into one of those infuriating questions, because part of the set up of Jason’s life from back when he is a baby is Zeus decrees that Jason will kill Pelias and take back his father’s kingdom. So why the heck does Zeus tell Hera she can only help Jason the five times?

I need to be honest here: those questions didn’t occur to me during the dozens and more times I watched this show on various local TV stations from the mid-60s through the 70s. The incredible battles with the giant bronze statue of Talos, the harpies, the seven-headed hydra, and the skeletal warriors all loomed much larger than any plot inconsistencies. Special effects master Ray Harryhausen owned this movie, and many of his special effects still stand up 56 years later.

One of the men who competes in Jason’s ad hoc Olympics and gets a berth in the crew is Pelias’ son, Acastus. Once again, it’s unclear why, when all the greatest athletes and warriors of Greece come to compete in the games, no one recognizes Acastus as King Pelias’ son and happen to mention that fact? Anyway, Jason now has a large crew of bronze-skinned manly men. About half are dressed in tunics with extremely short skirts, like Jason. The other half in loincloths that look kind of like baggie briefs.

The Argo sets sail, without a clear idea of where they are going, and their provisions run low. Hera directs Jason to the Isle of Bronze and warns them to take only food and water. Hercules and Hylas (who had become friends during the games when Hylas defeated Hercules at a discus challenge using a bit of cleverness) find a valley filled with giant bronze statues, in the base of which are hidden giant pieces of jewelry. Hercules decides to take a giant brooch pin because he thinks it will make a fine javelin, and the statue Talos comes to life and starts chasing them. The giant looms and menaces the entire Argo crew. When they try to flee, he intercepts the boat at the harbor mouth, shaking all of the men out of the boat and braking the ships mast and the figurehead of Hera.

Hera tells Jason to look to Talos’s ankle for his weakness. In the next fight, while the other Argonauts yell and scream and run around distracting the giant, Jason sees a stopcock in the ankle of the giant, runs forward and unscrews it. Even when I was a kid, I never understood why Talos simply stands there, staring down at the Argonauts and sort of swiping at them with his sword. Why didn’t he just start stomping on them like ants? Anyway, magical fluid pours out of Talos’ ankle, the bronze statue goes stiff and falls over, apparently dead. Also, clearly crushing Hylas.

But somehow the rest of the crew never saw that, so we are given to understand that during whatever length of time the subsequent shipbuilding montage takes place, Hercules wanders around yelling out Hylas’ name. Once the ship is repaired, Hercules refuses to leave without Hylas. The rest of the crew refuses to leave without Hercules, so Jason has to call on Hera again. She warns him that this is the last time she can help, but he insists, so she addresses the crew directly, explains that Hylas is dead and that Hercules now has another destiny to pursue, and that they must sail to another island and consult the blind prophet Phineus.

So off they go. We see Phineus (played by Patrick Troughton, the second Doctor) living a sad existence in a ruined temple. People from a nearby village bring him food every day, but harpies attack him each day, eating the food themselves and leaving him only scraps. This is how Jason and his crew find him. They are all, by the way, now dressed in matching white tunics (still with extremely short skirts) and matching armor. I have no idea where they were keeping this change of clothes, because the ship, as depicted, is barely big enough to hold the crew sitting at the oar seats. There aren’t any cabins below decks or anything. No wonder they ran out of supplies!

Anyway, Phineus explains that he misused his gift of prophecy and Zeus cursed him with the harpies. Phineus will only help Jason if he frees him of the harpies. So the crew arrange a trap, then build a cage for the harpies. Now that Phineus can eat in piece (and torment the harpies), he tells Jason that the fleece is on the Island of Colchis, which can only be reached by sailing between the clashing rocks (which destroy any ship that sails through). Phineus’ vision doesn’t tell them how they can survive, but he gives him an amulet that he says is the only other help he can provide.

They sail again, find the clashing rocks. They aren’t sure what to do, then see another boat sailing between the rocks, and then see boulders start falling down and destroy the ship. Jason insists the gods want them to sail through, so the Argonauts start rowing. The boulders start falling all around them. There are a lot of frightened reaction shots. Jason gets angry and throws Phineus’ amulet into the sea.

Up on Olympus, Zeus is smugly watching the ship in danger and says something to Hera about it being too bad that she can’t intervene any more. Hera moves a piece on their game board, a sort of merman figure that looks suspiciously like the amulet Jason just threw into the sea. Triton, son of Poseidon, rises up out of the sea and holds the rocks back. The Argo sails under one of Triton’s armpits, and all is well. I think we’re supposed to assume that Triton’s arrival doesn’t violate the rule that Hera could only intervene five times because Phineus’ amulet was involved. It’s not clear.

Anyway, they find the wreckage of the other boat, and clinging to the wreckage is a woman. And thus we meet the third female character out of the entire film who has lines of dialog! Medea tells Jason she was sailing from Colchis (though not why) and tells him that the King of Colchis is Aeëtes. When they make shore, Medea tells them which way to go to reach the city, then walks off in a different direction, telling them she must go a different way.

After Jason meets Aeëtes, the king invites him and the Argonauts to a feast, and we see Medea again and learn that she is the high priestess of Hecate. Midway through the feast, Aeëtes reveals that he knows Jason has come to steal the fleece, because Acastus has betrayed them. This is when Jason finally learns that Acastus is the son of Pelias. So the Argonauts are locked up and sentenced to die. Medea goes to the idol of Hecate, her goddess, and asks what to do. The statue doesn’t answer.

This is another place that as a kid I was trying to figure out why we don’t see Hecate. Why isn’t she up there with Zeus and Hera and Hermes and the other gods watching all of this?

Medea decides that she can’t betray her heart, so she drugs the guards, steals the keys to the jail cells, and lets Jason and his crew out. I have to pause here to say that as a kid I had no problem believing that Medea had fallen in love with Jason during the voyage. As an adult I have some questions, though. I mean, yes, Jason looks really hot in that mini skirt, but there was an entire crew of men, most of which are all equally hot and just as sexily going about their nautical duties in equally revealing tiny skirts.

Doesn’t matter. While Medea was arranging the jailbreak, Acastus has snuck out of the palace and gone to the sacred tree to steal the fleece himself. I guess he was planning to take the Argo and sail it all by his lonesome back home to dad? We never learn the details of his plan. Medea leads Jason and his crew to the tree, where they are confronted by the 7-headed hydra. And this is when we see that Acastus has already been killed by the hydra. Jason manages to stab the hyrda in the heart. They take the fleece and flee.

Aeëtes and a bunch of soldiers are closing in. One soldier shoots Medea with an arrow. Jason uses the fleece to heal her. And all of the enemy soldiers apparently just stand around waiting to see what the fleece does? It isn’t clear. Jason picks two of his crew to face Aeëtes and send Medea with the others to fetch the boat. I don’t know if Aeëtes never thought to seize the ship, or if we’re expected to assume that the Argonauts have to fight to get it back.

Anyway, Aeëtes had called on Hecate when he found the dead hydra and saw that the fleece was no longer there, and fire had come down from heaven and burned the hyrda. Aeëtes had his soldiers gather the teeth of the hydra. Now that he has confronted Jason, who is accompanied by only two of his crew, does Aeëtes have his larger group of soldiers attack? No, he monologues for a moment, then throws the teeth onto the ground. From the ground seven skeletal soldiers armed with swords and shields rise, and they attack.

This fight scene seems to be everyone’s favorite part of the movie. And it is fun. As far as it goes. Jason’s two companions get killed. So far as we know only one skeleton is taken out when its skull is chopped off. But the way Jason “defeats” the remaining six is to leap off a convenient cliff into the sea. He survives the dive, and the Argo is conveniently nearby. The skeletons jumped off the cliff chasing Jason, and apparently despite being magical skeletons, they don’t float.

Jason has reached the ship. He and Medea kiss, and we cut to Olympus where Zeus tells Hera to let them enjoy this victory while they can. There is a bit of philosophizing, then the end credits roll.

Conclusion

The film follows the myths rather more faithfully than one would expect from Hollywood. The section with Pheneus and the harpies comes straight from the original Greek saga. Traditionally the Golden Fleece was guarded by a dragon whose teeth would transform into skeletal warriors. Talos (who in the original isn’t encountered until after Jason has obtained the fleece and is sailing home) is killed by the removal of a plug in his ankle. The Greek Tragedy trope that the more you try to fight destiny or prophecy, the worse things go for you is illustrated in some of the character arcs. It could be argued that Medea’s inexplicable quick fall for Jason comes from the myths, too, since in the saga, Hera persuades Aphrodite to send Eros to make Medea fall for Jason, and much later when Medea finds Jason plotting to marry another woman, Jason reveals that he knew Medea was acting under the spell from Eros the whole time.

Even without knowing the myth, viewers saw many, many hints for a sequel in the script. I mean, it ends with Zeus literally saying that the rest of the adventure is yet to come.

It’s clear the studio was hoping this would be a hit and they could have some sequels. And clearly they would have had to bend the myths further to do so. In actual Greek myth Jason never becomes king. He and Medea try, but things don’t work out. Medea tricks Pelias’ daughters into killing their father, but Acastus becomes the King of Thessaly (because he doesn’t die on his voyage with Jason in the myths). Jason and Medea have a falling out that gets even bloodier than the murder of Pelias. Eventually Jason and his new allies do kill Acastus, but Jason’s son is the one who ends up king. And it’s all very messy.

Alas, the show, while not being a flop, exactly, didn’t do that well in theaters, as I mentioned above. But the film influenced other mythic films to follow. The much later film, Clash of the Titans depicted the gods of Olympus moving mortals, monsters, and other gods around a map of the world as chess pieces on a board precisely the same way this film did.

The film’s big cultural impact derives from being played so frequently on television during the 60s and 70s. Back in the day when most people had access to only three or four channels, it was possible for a movie like this to be put in heavy rotation and get seen by a large segment of the population. So there are a lot of people, maybe 40 years old and up, who have very fond nostalgic feelings for this film. While watching it this week I found it still a fun popcorn movie, though it requires a pretty big dose of credulity to overlook some plot details. To be fair, those inconsistencies aren’t worse than many other movies—particularly those made in that era. the fight scenes with the stop motion monsters are a bit cheesy—in many of the shots the harpies and the hydra look like they are made out of brightly colored modeling clay. The bronze giant and the skeletal warriors stand up a lot better.

Manly men.

I made more than a few comments above about the skimpy costumes the men wear throughout the film. And I have to confess that that part contributed to the film’s appeal to me, even if I didn’t realize why when I was very young. I do quite clearly remember thinking it interesting how many of the men were shown with hairy chests. In other movies and TV shows at the time, if men were shown shirtless, their chests were almost always completely hairless. It is worth pointing out that while Medea is often dressed in a flimsy diaphanous gown that doesn’t conceal much, most of the men in the movie are showing a whole lot more leg than any of the women ever do.

The film had a big impact on my conception of mythic stories and epic fantasy. Until I re-watched it this week, I didn’t realize how much of what Zeus and Hera had to say about the nature of the relationship between the gods and humans had soaked into my own feelings on those topics. Just as the way prophecy is treated in the story has continued to inform my own fantasy writing on the topic. And the fact that most guys my age at the time loved the film, it was one of the few bits of fantasy I could talk about at school without invoking the teasing and bullying. Thank goodness I never mentioned those hairy chests, though!

The film was released in a time before Best Dramatic Presentation had become a regular category of the Hugos. Also during an era when any work published in the 12-ish months prior to the actual WorldCon was eligible. And because of its release dates, it would have technically been eligible in either 1963 or 1964. It didn’t make the short list in ’63 (and the category was No Awarded that year). And the category wasn’t offered the next year. Given that the film didn’t become popular until later, that isn’t a surprise. Which is too bad, really. I think many would agree with me that the skeleton fight alone would have deserved all the awards.

Sunday Funnies, part 38: Goodbye to Halos

Another in my series of posts recommending web comics that I think more people should read.

Good Bye to Halos by Valeria Halla. hThis is one of those comics that I feel any attempt to describe is inadequate. The main character appears to be human, but probably isn’t. Fenric is trans and gay. The comic begins when Fenric is a teenager. Fenric’s father says that it is no longer safe for him there, and then pushes him through a portal (not sure whether it is magic or scientific) and Fenric finds herself in a place call Market Square and unable to get back. She is found by a young anthropomorphic lion, and slowly learns that Market Square is a place where queer kids from many worlds/dimensions find themselves when they are abandoned or lost. Fenric appears to be human, but has some psychic/magical powers. Almost every character she meets is a furry-type character. Most are queer of one sort or another. The early parts of the comic concern themselves with Fenric’s attempts to build a new life with her found family. Later, as she gets older and started to assume that her father is never coming to rescuee her, the adventures become increasingly fantastical.

I don’t know how to classify the story, but I’ve been reading it for a while, and must admit that it is more than a bit addictive.


Comics I’ve previously recommended: Some of these have stopped publishing new episodes. Some have been on hiatus for a while. I’ve culled from the list those that seem to have gone away entirely.

Screen Shot 2016-03-12 at 3.18.45 PMCheck, Please! by Ngozi Ukazu is the story of Eric “Bitty” Bittle, a former junior figure skating champion from a southern state who is attending fictitious Samwell College in Massachusetts, where he plays on the men’s hockey team. Bitty is the smallest guy on the team, and in the early comics is dealing with a phobia of being body-checked in the games. He’s an enthusiastic baker, and a die hard Beyoncé fan.

“Manic Pixie Nightmare Girls” by Jessica Udischas is a hilarious web comic that tells of the adventures of Jesska Nightmare, a trans woman trying to make her way in our transphobic world. The comics are funny, insightful, and adorably drawn. The sheer cuteness of the drawing style is a rather sharp contrast to the sometimes weighty topics the comic covers, and I think makes it a little easier to keep from getting bummed out to contemplate that the strips aren’t exaggerations. If you like the strip, consider supporting the artist through her patreon.

https://lifeofbria.com copyright  Sabrina SymingtonLife of Bria by Sabrina Symington is a transgender themed comic that ranges from commentary to slice of life jokes and everything in between. Even when commenting on very serious stuff it remains funny—sharp, but funny. It’s one of the comics that I would see being reblogged on tumblr and lot and I’d think, “I ought to track down the artist so I can read more of these.” And I finally did. And they’re great! If you like Symington’s work, you can sponsor her on Patreon and she has a graphic novel for sale.

Nerd and Jock by Marko Raassina This is a silly webcomic about a Nerd and Jock who are good friends and like to have fun together. Frequently the joke of the strip is to take a cliché about jocks and nerds and twist it in some way. It’s cute. I happen to really like cute and low-conflict stories sometimes. If you like this comic, consider supporting the artist on Patreon.

Assigned Male by Sophie Labelle is a cute story about a transgirl (we meet her at age 11) and goes from there. Some of the strips are more informational or editorial than pushing the narrative forward, but they are in the voice of the main character, so it’s fun. The artist also has a Facebook page of the site, and is in the process of moving to a domain of her own (though currently it still doesn’t have the actual comic strips available). I mention this so you will not be put off by the words “old website” she’s added to the banner. If you like her comic and would like to support her, she has an Etsy shop were four book collections of the comics and other things are for sale.

Stereophonic by C.J.P.

Stereophonic by C.J.P.

“Stereophonic” by C.J.P. is a “queer historical drama that follows the lives of two young men living in 1960s London.” It’s a very sweet and slow-build story, with good art and an interesting supporting cast. But I want to warn you that the story comes to a hiatus just as a couple of the subplots are getting very interesting. The artist had a serious health issue which was complicated by family problems, but has since started posting updates to his blog and Patreon page, assuring us that the story will resume soon. If you like the 300+ pages published thus far and would like to support the artist, C.J. has a Patreon page, plus t-shirts and other merchandise available at his store.

Phoebe and Her Unicorn by Dana Simpson concerns the adventures of 9-year-old Phoebe Howell. One day, Phoebe skipped a rock across a pond, and the skipping rock hit a unicorn named Marigold Heavenly Nostrils in the face. This happened to free the unicorn from her own reflection, so she granted Phoebe one wish. Phoebe wisely wished that Marigold would become her best friend. If you like the comic, you can buy the books here and enamel pins and other stuff here.

Reading Doonesbury: A trip through nearly fifty years of American comics by Paul HébertThis blog is mostly about the Doonesbury comic strip by Gary B. Trudeau which has been being published for 50 years. Hébert looks at various sequences and themes and long arcs from the comic strip, writing essays analyzing how the story went, putting it in context of the time it was printed, and so forth. He also reviews other comics and graphic novels.

The_Young_Protectors_HALF_BANNER_OUTSIDE_234x601The Young Protectors: Engaging the Enemy by Alex Wolfson begins when a young, closeted teen-age superhero who has just snuck into a gay bar for the first time is seen exiting said bar by a not-so-young, very experienced, very powerful, super-villain. Trouble, of course, ensues.

3Tripping Over You by Suzana Harcum and Owen White is a strip about a pair of friends in school who just happen to fall in love… which eventually necessitates one of them coming out of the closet. Tripping Over You has several books, comics, and prints available for purchase.

dm100x80“Deer Me,” by Sheryl Schopfer tells the tales from the lives of three friends (and former roommates) who couldn’t be more dissimilar while being surprisingly compatible. If you enjoy Deer Me, you can support the artist by going to her Patreon Page!

copyright Madeline McGraneMadeline McGrane is a cartoonist and illustrator who is from Wisconsin and lives in Minneapolis. She posts vampire-themed comics and other art on her tumblr blog. My favorites are the vampire comics about three child vampires. They’re just silly. Her black and white comics are minimalist and really work well with her style of humor. Her color work is a bit more complex. If you like her work and want to support her, she has a ko-fi.

The Junior Science Power Hour by Abby Howard logo.The Junior Science Power Hour by Abby Howard. is frequently autobiographical take on the artist’s journey to creating the crazy strip about science, science nerds, why girls are just as good at being science nerds as boys, and so much more. It will definitely appeal to dinosaur nerds, anyone who has ever been enthusiastic about any science topic, and especially to people who has ever felt like a square peg being forced into round holes by society.

The logo for Scurry, a web comic by Mac SmithScurry by Mac Smith is the story of a colony of mice trying to survive a long, strange winter in a world where humans have mysteriously vanished, and food is becoming ever more scarce.

title
And I love this impish girl thief with a tail and her reluctant undead sorcerer/bodyguard: “Unsounded,” by Ashley Cope.

logo-1Fowl Language by Brian Gordon is a fun strip about parenting, tech, science, and other geeky things. The strips are funny, and he also has a bonus panel link to click on under the day’s strip.

lasthalloweenThe Last Halloween by Abby Howard is the creepy story of 10-year-old Mona who is reluctantly drafted to save the world on Halloween night. This is by the same artist who does the Junior Science Power Hour. She created this strip as her pitch in the final round of Penny Arcade’s Strip Search, which was a reality game show where web cartoonists competed for a cash prize and other assistance to get their strip launched. Though Abby didn’t win, she started writing the strip anyway. If you like the comic, you can support Abby in a couple of ways: she has some cool stuff related to both of her strips in her store, and she also has a Patreon.

Last Kiss® by John Lustig Mr. Lustig bought the publishing rights to a romance comic book series from the 50’s and 60’s, and started rewriting the stories for fun. The redrawn and re-dialogued panels (which take irreverent shots at gender and sexuality issues, among other things) are syndicated, and available on a bunch of merchandise.

Sharpclaw by Sheryl Schopfer. The author describes as “fantasy comic that blends various fairy tales into an adventure story.” The first story is about twin sisters who both have the potential to be sorceresses. One pursues magic power, the other does not. If you enjoy her work, you can support the artist by going to her Patreon Page!

“Champion of Katara” by Chuck Melville tells the tale of a the greatest sorcerer of Katara, Flagstaff (Flagstaff’s foster sister may disagree…), and his adventures in a humorous sword & sorcery world. If you enjoy the adventures of Flagstaff, you might also enjoy another awesome fantasy series set in the same universe (and starring the aforementioned foster sister): and Felicia, Sorceress of Katara, or Chuck’s weekly gag strip, Mr. Cow, which was on a hiatus for a while but is now back. If you like Mr. Cow, Felicia, or Flagstaff (the hero of Champions of Katara) you can support the artist by going to his Patreon Page. Also, can I interest you in a Mr. Cow Mug?

Private I, by Emily Willis and Ann Uland is a comic set in 1942 Pittsburgh in which queer gumshoe Howard Graves is trying to sort out a collection of bewildering clues and infuriating eccentric suspects. It’s an interesting take on a lot of noir tropes. It handles the queer elements well—being outed or caught by the wrong people can spell the end of not just one’s career, but possibly life–without being all grim-dark. If you like the comic and want to support the creators, check out their Ko-fi.

The Comics of Shan Murphy As far as I can tell, Shannon Murphy doesn’t post a regular comic on the web. But among the categories of illustration on her site are comics. Her art styles (multiple) are really expressive. And she just writes really good stuff. If you like her work, considered leaving a tip at her ko-fi page.

Screen Shot 2015-08-02 at 5.36.43 PMMuddler’s Beat by Tony Breed is the fun, expanded cast sequel to Finn and Charlie Are Hitched.

The Young Protectors: Legendary by Alex Woolfson. This is just a new story arc for the Young Protectors comic recommended above. However, Alex is changing up the artists he’s working with in this arc, and the focus is decidedly different. This new arc begins by exploring the changed relationship between our protagonist, Kyle (aka Red Hot) and one of his teammates, Spooky Jones. The story is NSFW, although unless you are a patron of Alex’s Patreon, you see a lot less of the explicit artwork. It isn’t porn, per se, and it isn’t a romance. If you check out the page, you’ll see that Alex has written several other comics, some of which are available to purchase in hard copy. And, as I mentioned, he’s got a Patreon account.

12191040If you want to read a nice, long graphic-novel style story which recently published its conclusion, check-out the not quite accurately named, The Less Than Epic Adventures of T.J. and Amal by E.K. Weaver. I say inaccurate because I found their story quite epic (not to mention engaging, moving, surprising, fulfilling… I could go on). Some sections of the tale are Not Safe For Work, as they say, though she marks them clearly. The complete graphic novels are available for sale in both ebook and paper versions, by the way.


Note: Usually when I do one of these posts, I include the slightly shorter reviews of all the comics I’ve recommended previously. I do periodically go through those lists and remove comics that have vanished entirely. For now, I’m leaving in those that have stopped publishing new episodes but still have a web site.

But the list is getting awfully long, and I’m not sure how useful the older links are. I’m still thinking about it. Feel free to comment if you have strong thoughts on the topic.

Sunday Funnies, part 37: What QQ

Another in my series of posts recommending web comics that I think more people should read.


What QQ by Carlisle Robinson. This is one of several comics created by Carlisle Robinson, a deaf trans masculine queer artist. What QQ consists of various autobiographic observations on being a profoundly deaf person who also happens to be trans. I find the strips both funny and educational. How I started reading this comic involves a story: someone reblogged one of Carlisle’s cartoons, and it included the title, and because of my background with the TTY terminals, I wondered if the two Q’s in the name meant Question Mark. Back in my college days I found myself involved, because of my frequenting of old BBS systems, in helping fundraise for the purchase of dumb TTY (teletype) terminals that were used by deaf people to communicate with each other over the phone. That was how I found out about text relay services that allowed hearing people to call a phone number and communicate with a deaf friend by telling the person working at the service what you wanted to say, they call the deaf person’s number and would type whatever you said into a TTY terminal, and then read back the reply. The teletypes all used only capital letters, and some units didn’t have punctuation keys, so there were all the two- and three-letter codes for punctuation and various common phrases. Anyway, yes, that’s what the QQ means, and the banner picture from the comic above shots a teen-age version of the artist have a conversation with a friend using a TTY unit. Most of the comic has nothing to do with that old technology, but is just focused on things going on in Carlisle’s life.

If you like Carlisle’s work, consider supporting the Patreon


Comics I’ve previously recommended: Some of these have stopped publishing new episodes. Some have been on hiatus for a while. I’ve culled from the list those that seem to have gone away entirely.

Screen Shot 2016-03-12 at 3.18.45 PMCheck, Please! by Ngozi Ukazu is the story of Eric “Bitty” Bittle, a former junior figure skating champion from a southern state who is attending fictitious Samwell College in Massachusetts, where he plays on the men’s hockey team. Bitty is the smallest guy on the team, and in the early comics is dealing with a phobia of being body-checked in the games. He’s an enthusiastic baker, and a die hard Beyoncé fan.

“Manic Pixie Nightmare Girls” by Jessica Udischas is a hilarious web comic that tells of the adventures of Jesska Nightmare, a trans woman trying to make her way in our transphobic world. The comics are funny, insightful, and adorably drawn. The sheer cuteness of the drawing style is a rather sharp contrast to the sometimes weighty topics the comic covers, and I think makes it a little easier to keep from getting bummed out to contemplate that the strips aren’t exaggerations. If you like the strip, consider supporting the artist through her patreon.

https://lifeofbria.com copyright  Sabrina SymingtonLife of Bria by Sabrina Symington is a transgender themed comic that ranges from commentary to slice of life jokes and everything in between. Even when commenting on very serious stuff it remains funny—sharp, but funny. It’s one of the comics that I would see being reblogged on tumblr and lot and I’d think, “I ought to track down the artist so I can read more of these.” And I finally did. And they’re great! If you like Symington’s work, you can sponsor her on Patreon and she has a graphic novel for sale.

Nerd and Jock by Marko Raassina This is a silly webcomic about a Nerd and Jock who are good friends and like to have fun together. Frequently the joke of the strip is to take a cliché about jocks and nerds and twist it in some way. It’s cute. I happen to really like cute and low-conflict stories sometimes. If you like this comic, consider supporting the artist on Patreon.

Assigned Male by Sophie Labelle is a cute story about a transgirl (we meet her at age 11) and goes from there. Some of the strips are more informational or editorial than pushing the narrative forward, but they are in the voice of the main character, so it’s fun. The artist also has a Facebook page of the site, and is in the process of moving to a domain of her own (though currently it still doesn’t have the actual comic strips available). I mention this so you will not be put off by the words “old website” she’s added to the banner. If you like her comic and would like to support her, she has an Etsy shop were four book collections of the comics and other things are for sale.

Stereophonic by C.J.P.

Stereophonic by C.J.P.

“Stereophonic” by C.J.P. is a “queer historical drama that follows the lives of two young men living in 1960s London.” It’s a very sweet and slow-build story, with good art and an interesting supporting cast. But I want to warn you that the story comes to a hiatus just as a couple of the subplots are getting very interesting. The artist had a serious health issue which was complicated by family problems, but has since started posting updates to his blog and Patreon page, assuring us that the story will resume soon. If you like the 300+ pages published thus far and would like to support the artist, C.J. has a Patreon page, plus t-shirts and other merchandise available at his store.

Phoebe and Her Unicorn by Dana Simpson concerns the adventures of 9-year-old Phoebe Howell. One day, Phoebe skipped a rock across a pond, and the skipping rock hit a unicorn named Marigold Heavenly Nostrils in the face. This happened to free the unicorn from her own reflection, so she granted Phoebe one wish. Phoebe wisely wished that Marigold would become her best friend. If you like the comic, you can buy the books here and enamel pins and other stuff here.

Reading Doonesbury: A trip through nearly fifty years of American comics by Paul HébertThis blog is mostly about the Doonesbury comic strip by Gary B. Trudeau which has been being published for 50 years. Hébert looks at various sequences and themes and long arcs from the comic strip, writing essays analyzing how the story went, putting it in context of the time it was printed, and so forth. He also reviews other comics and graphic novels.

The_Young_Protectors_HALF_BANNER_OUTSIDE_234x601The Young Protectors: Engaging the Enemy by Alex Wolfson begins when a young, closeted teen-age superhero who has just snuck into a gay bar for the first time is seen exiting said bar by a not-so-young, very experienced, very powerful, super-villain. Trouble, of course, ensues.

3Tripping Over You by Suzana Harcum and Owen White is a strip about a pair of friends in school who just happen to fall in love… which eventually necessitates one of them coming out of the closet. Tripping Over You has several books, comics, and prints available for purchase.

dm100x80“Deer Me,” by Sheryl Schopfer tells the tales from the lives of three friends (and former roommates) who couldn’t be more dissimilar while being surprisingly compatible. If you enjoy Deer Me, you can support the artist by going to her Patreon Page!

copyright Madeline McGraneMadeline McGrane is a cartoonist and illustrator who is from Wisconsin and lives in Minneapolis. She posts vampire-themed comics and other art on her tumblr blog. My favorites are the vampire comics about three child vampires. They’re just silly. Her black and white comics are minimalist and really work well with her style of humor. Her color work is a bit more complex. If you like her work and want to support her, she has a ko-fi.

The Junior Science Power Hour by Abby Howard logo.The Junior Science Power Hour by Abby Howard. is frequently autobiographical take on the artist’s journey to creating the crazy strip about science, science nerds, why girls are just as good at being science nerds as boys, and so much more. It will definitely appeal to dinosaur nerds, anyone who has ever been enthusiastic about any science topic, and especially to people who has ever felt like a square peg being forced into round holes by society.

The logo for Scurry, a web comic by Mac SmithScurry by Mac Smith is the story of a colony of mice trying to survive a long, strange winter in a world where humans have mysteriously vanished, and food is becoming ever more scarce.

title
And I love this impish girl thief with a tail and her reluctant undead sorcerer/bodyguard: “Unsounded,” by Ashley Cope.

logo-1Fowl Language by Brian Gordon is a fun strip about parenting, tech, science, and other geeky things. The strips are funny, and he also has a bonus panel link to click on under the day’s strip.

lasthalloweenThe Last Halloween by Abby Howard is the creepy story of 10-year-old Mona who is reluctantly drafted to save the world on Halloween night. This is by the same artist who does the Junior Science Power Hour. She created this strip as her pitch in the final round of Penny Arcade’s Strip Search, which was a reality game show where web cartoonists competed for a cash prize and other assistance to get their strip launched. Though Abby didn’t win, she started writing the strip anyway. If you like the comic, you can support Abby in a couple of ways: she has some cool stuff related to both of her strips in her store, and she also has a Patreon.

Last Kiss® by John Lustig Mr. Lustig bought the publishing rights to a romance comic book series from the 50’s and 60’s, and started rewriting the stories for fun. The redrawn and re-dialogued panels (which take irreverent shots at gender and sexuality issues, among other things) are syndicated, and available on a bunch of merchandise.

Sharpclaw by Sheryl Schopfer. The author describes as “fantasy comic that blends various fairy tales into an adventure story.” The first story is about twin sisters who both have the potential to be sorceresses. One pursues magic power, the other does not. If you enjoy her work, you can support the artist by going to her Patreon Page!

“Champion of Katara” by Chuck Melville tells the tale of a the greatest sorcerer of Katara, Flagstaff (Flagstaff’s foster sister may disagree…), and his adventures in a humorous sword & sorcery world. If you enjoy the adventures of Flagstaff, you might also enjoy another awesome fantasy series set in the same universe (and starring the aforementioned foster sister): and Felicia, Sorceress of Katara, or Chuck’s weekly gag strip, Mr. Cow, which was on a hiatus for a while but is now back. If you like Mr. Cow, Felicia, or Flagstaff (the hero of Champions of Katara) you can support the artist by going to his Patreon Page. Also, can I interest you in a Mr. Cow Mug?

Private I, by Emily Willis and Ann Uland is a comic set in 1942 Pittsburgh in which queer gumshoe Howard Graves is trying to sort out a collection of bewildering clues and infuriating eccentric suspects. It’s an interesting take on a lot of noir tropes. It handles the queer elements well—being outed or caught by the wrong people can spell the end of not just one’s career, but possibly life–without being all grim-dark. If you like the comic and want to support the creators, check out their Ko-fi.

The Comics of Shan Murphy As far as I can tell, Shannon Murphy doesn’t post a regular comic on the web. But among the categories of illustration on her site are comics. Her art styles (multiple) are really expressive. And she just writes really good stuff. If you like her work, considered leaving a tip at her ko-fi page.

Screen Shot 2015-08-02 at 5.36.43 PMMuddler’s Beat by Tony Breed is the fun, expanded cast sequel to Finn and Charlie Are Hitched.

The Young Protectors: Legendary by Alex Woolfson. This is just a new story arc for the Young Protectors comic recommended above. However, Alex is changing up the artists he’s working with in this arc, and the focus is decidedly different. This new arc begins by exploring the changed relationship between our protagonist, Kyle (aka Red Hot) and one of his teammates, Spooky Jones. The story is NSFW, although unless you are a patron of Alex’s Patreon, you see a lot less of the explicit artwork. It isn’t porn, per se, and it isn’t a romance. If you check out the page, you’ll see that Alex has written several other comics, some of which are available to purchase in hard copy. And, as I mentioned, he’s got a Patreon account.

12191040If you want to read a nice, long graphic-novel style story which recently published its conclusion, check-out the not quite accurately named, The Less Than Epic Adventures of T.J. and Amal by E.K. Weaver. I say inaccurate because I found their story quite epic (not to mention engaging, moving, surprising, fulfilling… I could go on). Some sections of the tale are Not Safe For Work, as they say, though she marks them clearly. The complete graphic novels are available for sale in both ebook and paper versions, by the way.


Note: Usually when I do one of these posts, I include the slightly shorter reviews of all the comics I’ve recommended previously. I do periodically go through those lists and remove comics that have vanished entirely. For now, I’m leaving in those that have stopped publishing new episodes but still have a web site.

But the list is getting awfully long, and I’m not sure how useful the older links are. I’m still thinking about it. Feel free to comment if you have strong thoughts on the topic.

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