Tag Archive | things I like

Sunday Funnies, part 39

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

Pearls Before Swine by Stephan Pastis This is another of those comic strips that I don’t need to check regularly because so many people are always posting strips, and when they do, I go catch up. The heart of the series are two characters, a clueless Pig and an arrogant Rat, and they comment on just about everything. It’s hard to describe that subject matter beyond “human foibles and society.” The author says his goal is to poke fun at humans’ unending quest for the unobtainable, and that’s probably why so many other reviewers describe it as a cynical comic. I don’t find it cynical, but I must admit that my basic optimistic temperament may be skewing my perspective. Or maybe I’ve just known too many cruel jerks who describe themselves as cynical that my definition of cynical is off. In any case, Pearls Before Swine certainly mocks human foibles without crossing into mean-spirited territory.


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.

Kyle’s B&B by Greg Fox is hard to describe. The main character, Kyle, is a gay Canadian who owns a bed and breakfast that seems to be constantly occupied by hot queer guests. Many, many hot queer guests! There is some romance, and a lot of jokes about things ranging for sub-cultures in the queer community, to gardening and pop culture and… well, a lot of stuff. If you like Greg Fox’s work, you can purchase his books here

Good Bye to Halos by Valeria Halla. Fenic 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 and Fenic finds herself in a place call Market Square and unable to get back. She is befriended by an anthropomorphic lion and learns that Market Square is a place where queer kids from many worlds/dimensions find themselves when they are abandoned or lost. Later, as Fenic gets older and assumes that her father is never coming to rescue her, the adventures become increasingly fantastical. If you like the artist’s work, you can support her on Patreon.


What QQ by Carlisle Robinson. This is one of several comics created by Carlisle Robinson, a deaf trans masculine queer artist. If you like Carlisle’s work, consider supporting the Patreon

Casey at the Bat by Bob Glasscock. 20-something Casey was dumped by the man he thought was the love of his life, then a friend convinced him to try out for a local gay softball league as a way to meet new people. And thus begins the comic. Casey At the Bat describes itself as a lighthearted slice-of-live romantic comedy, that just happens to start a young gay man. The strip is entertaining and does mostly stick to the less serious topics. If you enjoy this comic (which is more about romance and friendships than it is about sports—though there is some of that, too) you can purchase collection of the comics here.

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.

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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 has 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.

Screen Shot 2015-09-27 at 10.15.31 AM“Unshelved” by Gene Ambaum & Bill Barnes recounts the adventures of a teen services librarian named Dewey. The web site is also an online book club, with reviews, links, and samples of various recommended comics and other books. This should not be a surprise, since one of the creators of the strip, Gene Ambaum, is a librarian in real life. The strip is funny, and is available for free syndication on non-commercial websites. They’ve printed a number of collections of the strip and have various other cool things related to the love of reading and libraries for sale on their online store.

NsfwOglaf, by Trudy Cooper and Doug Bayne is a Not Safe For Work web comic about… well, it’s sort a generic “medieval” high fantasy universe, but with adult themes, often sexual. Jokes are based on fantasy story and movie clichés, gaming tropes, and the like. And let me repeat, since I got a startled message from someone in response to a previous posting of this recommendation: Oglaf is Not Safe For Work (NSFW)!


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.

Note the Second: For the first several years that I was making these posts, I foolishly inserted the title graphic for each comic using the WordPress defaults—so that when a reader clicked on the graphic, they would see the graphic full size. What I should have been doing was changing the setting so that clicking the graphic would take you to the home page of the comic being reviewed. Which I have been doing for a while with new reviews. But most the the mini reviews under each new review had the old behavior. Which I was reminded of when I saw that about half the clicks on my blog the day Sunday Funnies, part 39 posted were people clicking on the images. So I spent the time to fix them from that entire post. And will be using this fixed list from now on. I wasn’t a quick simple fix, so I’m not likely to go back and fix the 38 older editions of this blog series any time soon.

Timorous heroes and erratic phantoms—more of why I love sf/f

Movie poster for The Ghost and Mr Chicken.

A hauntingly hilarious cinematic experience!

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love The Ghost and Mr Chicken. I know, based on when it was released in theatres and then when it came to television, that I was probably 8 years old when I first saw the film, but it was a staple of local TV afternoon movie fare for the next decade or thereabouts, so I saw it at least once a year from sometime in elementary school until well into high school. I acquired a VHS copy of the film for myself as an adult and watched it around Halloween for a number of years, and since then I’ve re-acquired it on disc and now I can stream it from our media server whenever I want. So I’m really familiar with the film, in all of it’s lovely, gooey, genre-goodness!

So, the story concerns Luther Heggs (played by Don Knotts), a middle-aged man who has always dreamed of being a Famous Journalist or other sort of hero, but has never been able to rise above his job as a typesetter working in the basement of the Courier-Express, the weekly newspaper of the town of Rachel, Kansas. The opening scenes of the movie establish Luther at the butt of just about everyone’s joke in the town, and given his tendency to jump to conclusions and become almost hysterical over the slightest odd occurence, the audience is not supposed to be surprised.

Then comes news that the Old Simmons Mansion, the site of a notorious murder-suicide decades ago which has been a decaying housed rumored to be haunted all of those years, is going to be bulldozed down soon, as the only heir to the Simmons’ is coming back to town around the time of the anniversary of the murder-suicide. Luther is dared/assigned to spend a night in the house on the anniversary of the horrid events and write an exclusive, the first time he has been offered a by-line at the paper in his whole life.

Luther also has had a lifelong crush on Alma Parker (played by Joan Staley), who is also being wooed by Luther’s most frequent bully, the only official reporter for the local newspaper. Being teased as a coward by said bully in front of Alma, Luther declares he will undertake the assignment.

Luther lives in a boarding house whose other tenants are all played by a gaggle of famous character actors of the period. And who amp up the fear by telling Luther the versions of the murder-suicide that each of them has heard.

Luther goes to the house, has a few very comedic misadventures that show how over-excited and fearful he is… and then the real spookiness happens. The painting of the last Mrs Simmons transforms during a flash of lightning from a regular painting to one with a pair of garden shears sticking out of it, with blood dripping down the canvas. The organ in the tower starts playing, but no one is at the keys. A bookcase swings open to reveal a secret stair way to the staircase. Other spookiness happens until Luther finally faints in terror.

The next day, Luther tries to tell his story to the editor and the only other reporter, and they translate his tale into a compelling story that runs on the front page of the next edition of the Courier-Express. This leads to a number of unexpected actions. Many people in the community think of Luther as a hero. The wife of the manager of the local bank happens to be the head of the local seance society and since she essentially owns the bank, suddenly the Simmons heir is prevented from getting his clear title to the house.

I should pause at this point and confess that despite being listed as an uproarious comedy, this movie did give me nightmares as a kid. However, the nightmares were because of the scene where Luther is forced to give a speech at the local community Fourth of July Celebration. It’s a scene that is extremely painful for anyone who suffers from excess empathy and can’t watch embarrassing scenes.

Anyway, the heir to the Simmons mansion sues Luther for libel, and uses the trial to trot out all of the most embarrassing stories of Luther trying to impress his classmates and neighbors throughout his life. Finally, the judge approves a jury request to go spend the night in the haunted house to see once and for all whether what Luther recounted in his story really happened.

Of course, under the observation of the jurors, judge, and neighbors, nothing untoward happens. The cringe ramps up as Luther tries to make things happen as they did on the night. It becomes clear that her lawsuit if going to go against Luther, and everyone who has supported him up to this point rejects him.

…except for Alma.

As the rest of the community leaves, with Luther standing in front of the house pleading for someone to believe him, she goes back inside, and finds the lever that opens the secret bookcase. Soon, the spooky organ is playing itself, and Luther goes back inside, finds himself confronting a fiend threatening Alma’s life. Eventually, Luther is vindicated before the whole community, and the truth about that murder-suicide decades ago is revealed.

Many years ago I mentioned that this movie was one of my favorite fantasy/horror films, and a friend got really upset at me for that claim. The ghost within the story is explained away in the final act, the person pointed out. Also, the entire movie is framed as a comedy about how easily Knotts’ character is sent into flights of fancy. “It’s a comedy with a fake ghost, not a fantasy or horror story,” my friend insisted.

I have a number of quibbles with that. First, there are a lot of very spooky moments in the middle of the film that definitely qualify as horror. Second, if you can’t accept tales about people investigating claims of the paranormal as part of the genre of sf/f then I don’t want to know you. And third, in the final scene of the movie, after Luther and Alma exchange their wedding vows, we see the chapel’s Wurlizter organ playing itself! So, sorry, just because most of the happenings (but certainly not all—in most cuts of the movie the bleeding portrait is never explained!) have a mundane explanation, that doesn’t mean that one of the murdered people didn’t hang around as a ghost.

I know what I loved about the film is that Luther—the guy no one in town takes seriously and who is bullied for not being sufficiently manly—is the hero who gets the happy ending. And I like to think that he had a long career afterward solving haunted house mysteries with the help of Alma and their ghostly sidekick.


Part of the reason I decided it was time to write about this movie was this story (which was included in last week’s Friday Five): Joan Staley, Actress in ‘The Ghost and Mr. Chicken,’ Dies at 79 – She also slapped Elvis Presley in ‘Roustabout,’ sang to Audie Murphy in ‘Gunpoint’ and played Shame sidekick Okie Annie on ‘Batman’.

Undying fiancées, melodramatic lab assistants, and monsters in the closet—more of why I love sf/f


I don’t know exactly how old I was the first time I watched The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, but since I’m pretty sure that it was on the Saturday afternoon Science Fiction Theatre on Channel 2 out of Denver (long the home of “Blinky the Clown”). Which means that I couldn’t have been more the 10 years old. I know the second time I saw it was a late Friday night Nightmare Theatre offering during a time I was allowed to stay up after midnight on Fridays, so that means I was between 12 and 14 years old. The third time was many, many years later as an Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episode… and it was one of the times I really wanted a means to mute the commenters. Because as campy and awful as The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is, I’m actually very fond of it.

And it really is a poorly made film on so many levels. It was released with the title The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, but yet when you get to the end of the film the credits appear under a title card reading The Head That Wouldn’t Die. The direction is clunky. A lot of the dialog is more than just clunky, it’s actually a wonder some of the actors could get the lines out! The car accident scene is so badly edited, it makes Plan 9 from Outer Space seem like a masterpiece.

And then there is the plot: Dr. Bill Cortner is a brilliant surgeon who has some unorthodox ideas—so unorthodox that his father (a more famous surgeon) urges him to take up a new profession. Dr. Cortner is taking his new fiancée, Jan Compton, to the family’s country home (I think to meet his mother), when they have a car accident. Cortner gets out with barely a scratch, but Jan is neatly decapitated. Somehow Cortner has the presence of mind to carry her head to his locked lab in the basement of the family country house, where Cortner’s creepy lab assistant, Kurt, helps him set Jan’s head into a pan of blood and attach various life sustaining equipment to the head.

There’s a monstrous Thing in the Closet of the lab that occasionally growls incoherently and bangs on the heavily locked door. We are told the Thing is the result of a previous failed experiment, but given no other details. Jan can mysteriously talk despite not having lungs nor any sort of breathing apparatus. And Kurt the assistant has a serious deformity on one arm.

Jan pleads with them to let her die, but Dr. Cortner has plan! He will find a body to transplant Jan’s head onto and they will be able to live happily ever after. He then drives into the city to search strip clubs, night clubs, and even a beauty contest to find a suitable body.

While Cotrner’s off doing that Jan and Kurt the Assistant have existential debates about the meaning of life and horror. It is also during the middle that we learn of Kurt’s sadistic streak, as he takes delight in teasing the Thing in the closet. Jan, meanwhile, realizes that somehow she had developed psychic powers, and she starts communicating with the Thing in the closet.

Eventually, Dr. Cortner settles on a suitably sexy body to steal of Jan: a model whose body is perfect, but she has a scar on her face which she is ashamed of. Lying that he can remove the scar, Cortner lures the model up to the family’s home where his lab is. Once there, he drugs her, and begins to prepare for the surgery.

Jan begs him not to do it, but Cortner is determined.

Jan eggs the Thing in the closet on, and in an extremely bloody finale it escapes and kills both Kurt and Corter. It’s egregiously gorey, and I remain a bit surprised that this movie was shown during the afternoon on a local TV station.

The Thing in the Closet, by the way, is played by Eddie Carmel, also known as “The Jewish Giant.” Eddie suffered from a form of gigantism and acromegaly because of an incurable tumor on his pituitary gland.

The fight has also started a fire, so the lab is burning down. Jan instructs the Thing from the closet to carry the unconscious woman to safety, but to leave Jan there to burn with the rest of the house.

Depending on which edit you see, the movie’s sleaze in the middle outweighs the extreme gore of the ending. The scenes of Cortner looking for a body include a lot of footage of the strippers stripping, at least one instance of models wrestling, and the women opening talking about how no one is interested in them other than for their bodies. Apparently full frontally nude scenes were filmed and intended for the international release of the film.

Despite everything wrong with it, the film still works. And mostly because of Virginia Leith’s performance as Jan. I mean, the film begins with a chillingly delivered line (over a totally black screen), “Please let me die.” The opening of the film is essentially a flashback from the moment that Jan realizes how her fiancé has revived her. Despite spending most the film sitting under the table with her head sticking out the pan, Leith makes you believe. Even the overwrought philosophizing during the debate with Kurt is loaded with pathos. She also gets some commentary in there about Cortner’s obsession with finding the perfect sex doll body for her, completely disregarding her wishes and opinions.

I don’t remember ever having nightmares because of this film. I’m not sure why that is. I certainly didn’t pick up on the gay subtext a lot of people seem to see in the film. The Thing in the Closet seems to be the component that everyone who claims there is gay subtext focuses on—but Cortner is so obviously the sort of narcissistic heterosexual man who only values women for the sex he can get from them, that I just don’t see it.

I do know that when I first saw the film I identified very strongly with both Jan and the Thing in the Closet. Jan refers to herself as the ultimate horror, but I think it would be more apt to describe her as the ultimate Person Without Agency. Which is why I really empathized with her. As a queer kid (technically closeted the first time I saw it, but I didn’t actually know yet that I was gay, so closeted isn’t quite accurate) with an abusive parent, I had almost as little control over my life as Jan. And of course, the way that Kurt bullied the Thing was also very familiar to me.

The ending of the story isn’t exactly a surprise: the mad scientist destroyed by his own creation is a very popular trope, after all. Though the level of gore in the ending was hardly normal when the movie was made. But again, Jan’s final comments, like the chilling opening line and her description of why death would be a kinder fate than what Cortner planned for her, elevates the film above the schlock.

And, honestly, schlock often makes for a great popcorn movie.


I linked to Virginia Leith’s obituary a couple of weeks ago, and it kicked off a trip down memory lane. One of the things I turned up was this fascinating story about the young man who played the monster in the closet: Eddie Carmel, The Jewish Giant.

Evasive geniuses, invisible monsters, and helpful (sassy gay) robots—more of why I love sf/f

Forbidden Planet!

I have written many times about my problematic relationship with scary movies. They give me nightmares, and I’m the kind of person who, while having a nightmare, climbs out of bed, running around waking up everyone I can find, frantically trying to explain the horrific danger we’re facing and how we have to come up with a plan to deal with the threat now. The very first movie that caused that reaction in me is a movie that many people don’t think of as a scary movie: the 1956 science fiction film, Forbidden Planet. Many people think of Forbidden Planet as the ultimate science fiction movie. Nearly every sci fi movie and series since its release has, whether consciously or not, copied its template. Which isn’t a bad thing, in my opinion. And most people don’t think of Forbidden Planet as a horror film, but…

So, in 1971 Forbidden Planet was shown on U.S. network television for the first time. I’ve mentioned many times before that my mom was a sci fi fan from way back. My dad was more of a spy and western fan, but he also liked some science fiction, so he didn’t object when Mom wanted to watch this show. The broadcast was a few months before my 11th birthday. The whole family watched the show together, though I think than my sister, who was 6 years old at the time, fell asleep before it was over.

I really liked the show while we were watching it.

But several hours later, I was standing in the hallway, very confused, because my mom had thrown a glass of water in my face because I had gone to sleep, and then got out of bed and found my parents and started jabbering about the monster that was trying to kill us. This was, as far as my family and I know, the first time I sleepwalked.

So, let’s get back to the movie…

The movie starts on the bridge of a spaceship where Commander John J. Adams is in charge. The movie is careful never to mention any nationality for the military organization in which the crew serves, though at a later point in the film they send a report back to Earth and await further instructions. They’ve been sent to a planet called Altair IV where a scientific expedition was sent many years before, but lost contact.

As Adam’s ship approached the planet, the make radio contact with one of the scientists from the expedition, Dr. Morbius. Morbius warns them not to land, saying he is the only survivor, that the planet is very dangerous, and he can’t guarantee their safety. Adams has his orders, and lands anyway.

They learn that there are two humans on the planet: Morbius and his daughter (named Altaira) who was born after the original expedition landed. Morbius explains that after the discovered the remains of an advanced civilization of aliens called the Krell, members of the original expedition had been killed off mysteriously by some planetary force, until the a small group tried to flee the planet to return to Earth, but the ship was vaporized. Morbius and his daughter have been living alone with their very helpful robot, Robbie, peacefully ever since.

As far as I have been able to tell, Robbie was the first robot in any film to be portrayed with an actual personality, rather than being a walking tin can that mindlessly followed his instructions. One of my favorite scenes with Robbie is when, later, Altaira wants Robbie to make her a dress covered with star sapphires, and Robbie explains that all of those sapphires will take many weeks to synthesize, whereas he could make her a dress covered with diamonds in a few hours.

Back to the main plot: Dr. Morbius is very evasive with the Commander and his crew. He does show them some of the remains of the Krell civilization, including thousands of underground nuclear reactors that are still generating unimaginable amounts of energy for no known purpose, an education machine, and other devices that Morbius still doesn’t understand. But because Morbius’s translation of the Krell records reveal that every last member of the race was destroyed by a mysterious force they couldn’t understand, and Morbius’s shipmates were destroyed by a similarly mysterious force, he keeps urging the commander and his crew to leave. And the first night the ship is on the planet, and invisible monster sneaks into the ship, kills a crewman, and disables the hyperspace communicator, making it impossible for the next several days for the ship to contact Earth.

And let me tell you, the way the showed impact of the invisible monster, who was so heavy his feet bent the metal of the stairway into the ship, was very, very creepy!

The plot continues, with one crewman flirting with (and clearly hoping to take advantage of) the very naive Altaira. The commander intervenes and sends the crewman back to the ship, but he also scolds Altaira for wearing revealing clothing around men. Which confuses her.

When Morbius is no help with explaining the monster, the commander orders his crew to take additional precautions. Each night the ship remains on the planet, the invisible monster attacks again, and each day the ship erects more elaborate defenses, including building a huge blaster. When the monster is trying to get through the force fields and being fired on my many weapons, we get a sort of aura-like outline of the creature, the only time it isn’t invisible. But all of the tech of the starship is unable to defeat the creature.

Eventually, the commander and his closest friend on the crew (who everyone calls “Doc” though it is never clear whether he is the medical officer or if the nickname is because of some other scientific expertise) have become convinced that the monster isn’t some ineffable planetary force. They decide that one of them needs to use the alien “education machine” which Morbius has warned them away from. Morbius has explained that several members of the original expedition has tried to use the machine, and all who had tried died, except Morbius. The commander winds up distracting Morbius while Doc get to the machine.

The machine does kill Doc, but as he is dying, he is able to tell the commander enough to solve the mystery.

There is a dramatic final confrontation, in which it appears that the mysterious force no longer thinks of Altaira, Robbie, or Morbius as beings to protect rather than destroy. And again, the way supposedly impenetrable Krell metal walls were being battered in by the monster was intensely scary! Commander Adams forces Morbius to face the truth. Which results in Morbius’ death. The ship is able to leave the planet, carrying Altaira and Robbie back to Earth, and the entire planet self-destructs after they leave.

Most modern analyses of the movie, if they acknowledge any problematic content at all will note the one and only woman in the cast is less than a full-fledged adult and the only agency she is granted in the plot is whether to remain loyal to her father or switch allegiance to her new romantic interest, Commander Adams. And this is problematic enough. However… all of the men in the story view Altaira as little more than an object that one of them will possess. It is precisely because Morbius perceives that he is “losing” his daughter to the commander that sets the final battle in motion. All of the other characters in the story are vying for the attention of the one and only woman.

I should say, all of the other characters except Robbie the Robot.

I’ve never seen any critic acknowledge that, in some ways, Robbie the Robot is Altaira’s Sassy Gay Friend. He’s clever, he is devoted to Altaira but not interested in her in a romantic way. He cleans the house, prepares meals, and takes care of all the domestic tasks in the Morbius household that would traditionally be fulfilled by a woman in a non-science fiction film of the era, right? One of the roles of the asexual or effeminate man who was the witty friend of the heroine in movies of the 40s and 50s was to have insight into the motives and character of other people that the protagonists did not. So it should be no surprise that in the climactic battle, Cammander Adams uses Robbie’ perceptions of the situation to convince Altaira and Morbius of the true nature of the invisible monster.

It was many, many years later before this queer geeky nerdy child realized that at least part of the reason my favorite character out of this classic sci-fi movie was Robbie the Robot was precisely because he was the only character who wasn’t vying for the attention of a woman. And while many other aspects of the story resonated with me, none of the other characters rose to the level of identification as the robot. So this queer child, who had nightmares because of the main plot, still found models for my possible futures among the supporting cast of this movie.

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.

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 her 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.

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