Tag Archive | Throwback Thursday

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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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.

Dark barons and ultra-competent (conniving) wizards, or, more of why I love sf/f

My copy of the paperback of <em>The River of the Danciing Gods</em> by Jack L. Chalker.

My copy of the paperback of The River of the Danciing Gods by Jack L. Chalker.

Jack L. Chalker is probably most famous for the Well World Series, which consisted of ten novels written over the course of 17 years. And while it was through the first several novels of that series that I first began reading Jack L. Chalker, I didn’t become a squeeing fanboy of his work until I read a different series, beginning with The River of the Dancing Gods, either late in 1985 or early 1986. The book was published in ‘84, but I didn’t read it until a friend was going on and on about it, being surprised that I hadn’t read it, as it was the sort of thing he would expect me to love.

So I borrowed his copy of it and blew off homework one night to stay up all night reading the novel.

I really liked it.

The premise of all of the Dancing Gods books is that when god created the world as we know it, there was an unintentional echo. A parallel Earth, if you will, though it was a bit messed up. For whatever reason, the Creator let his messengers, the Angels, take control of this unintended echo universe, and they began trying to clean up its broken laws of physics and so forth. The Angels did this by writing down rules of how reality should work each time they encountered an anomaly. These rules eventually became a giant encyclopedia of rules, and mortals living in this parallel world who studied the rules could become wizards and perform magic. Unfortunately, at the same time, Demons were trying to subvert the Angels’ efforts, so the war between Heaven and Hell spread to a new battleground.

All this this is something that the reader learns during the middle of the book. This back story isn’t how things start. No, things start with a woman named Marge in our world, who has leapt from the car being driven by her abusive boyfriend, and finds herself walking along a long stretch of Texas highway. Then a truck driver named Joe stops to offer her a ride, but then there are both who confronted on an unfamiliar stretch of highway by a man who looks like Santa Claus dressed in a very elaborate Victorian suit. The man introduces himself as Throckmorton P. Ruddygore, wizard, and explains that in about 18 minutes Marge and Joe are going to die in a horrible accident. Unless they allow Ruddygore to transport them to his world, where they will become epic heroes and have the opportunity to thwart an Apocalypse.

Marge and Joe agree, and they are transported across the Sea of Dreams to the other world, were each of them begins a process of being transformed into a heroic archetype that can take on the evil which threatens the world.

The River of the Dancing Gods is a book that defies categories. Looked at from one angle, it is a portal fantasy (characters from our world go through a magical portal to a fantastical world), but from just a very slightly different angle it is a standard epic fantasy (story set in a world unlike our own where epic events that change that world forever occur). Except from a very slightly different perspective it is a parody of an epic fantasy. Or, if you tilt your head a little in a different direction, it looks like a deconstruction of each of those things.

Joe and Marge undergo a physical transformation when they cross into Ruddygore’s world. Then they spend some time being trained for their roles as Barbarian Warrior and Mysterious Sorceress respectively. And during the training is where we start to learn about all those rules written by the Angels. Most of the ones we learn are based on trope of epic fantasy and sword & sorcery stories (particularly of the pulp era), such as “All fair maidens must dress as scantily as the weather allows,” or “Magic swords for quests must be named” or “Barbarians must be tall, dark, and handsome, exotic in race but of no known nationality.”

The book is written comedically, but only occasionally crosses the line into parody. It is clear that Chalker loved high fantasy and sword & sorcery tales, but he also loved a good laugh. Most of the jokes in the story are aimed at the ridiculousness of those tropes, or finding ways to make the incongruities that come to mind when you examine those tropes carefully into twists in the story.

The quest of the story seems straightforward enough: a mysterious evil sorcerer called the Dark Baron has gathered an army of goblins and other monsters and so forth and is almost certainly aligned with the forces of Hell and is out to conquer the world. While the rules limit the number of full-fledged mages in the world to 12, and it seems certain that the Dark Baron is one of the other eleven mages, Ruddygore hasn’t been able to determine which one the Dark Baron is, which complicates things a bit.

I had enjoyed the book so much, I was frankly a little worried to re-read it years later. I didn’t want to find chockful of problematic material that was so cringe worthy I couldn’t enjoy it. Fortunately, it wasn’t bad on more recent re-read. Marge has a bit more autonomy than the usual Fair Maiden in sword & sorcery tales, and at some crucial points Joe manages to rise above the usual limits of a dude with a sword. But there are other ways in which the story fails to transcend the typical problems of the sub-genre or its period. It also shares one issue that most of Chalker’s books have: he has a strange fascination with physical transformation, sometimes slipping into body horror in what would otherwise be funny books, and other times completely glossing over the traumatic effects of such transformations. It isn’t exactly problematic here, but as I recall it gets weird in one of the later books.

Really, the biggest disappointment was realizing that the scene that made me laugh out loud so long and hard that my side literally ached and I had tears running down my face isn’t in this book at all. A little research in the sequels turned up the scene I recall, so it is there, just not in this book. Which I think is actually a good thing. Too many sequels don’t live up to the first part of a series. If the funniest bit is yet to come, that’s a good thing.

To sum up, the story of The River of the Dancing Gods was very funny, and engaging enough that I couldn’t stop turning the pages. Chalker was clearly having a very good time writing the book, and I think the reader enjoys the ride exactly as much as the author did. Which is a trick some writers don’t pull off very well. Re-reading it, I see the book has influenced my writing in ways that I hadn’t quite realized. Of course, during my 20s I read a whole lot of Chalker’s work, so it shouldn’t surprise me that some of his themes and quirks have slipped into my own writing.

I am looking forward to re-reading more books in this series.

Sometimes Extinction Arrives on Wheels — more of why I love sf/f

Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, July 1988. Cover art by Bob Eggleton.

Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, July 1988. Cover art by Bob Eggleton.

Some months back I wrote about the first story written by Connie Willis that I remember reading. And while that story is awesome and I still find new insights every time I read it decades later, the first of her stories that made me go, “Dang! This author is GREAT!” Was from a few months later that same year: “The Last of the Winnebagos.”

The story is about a photojournalist who is supposed to be on his way to cover a political event, but he stops to take pictures of the so-called Last of the Winnebagos. The tale is set in a dystopia near-future where, among other changes, the entire species of dog was wiped out by a plague. During the death spiral of the dogs extinction, laws against animal cruelty and the like have ratcheted up, and the Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has become not just a major political force, but for all intents and purposes a national secret police force. Even accidentally killing an animal can result in serious prison time and other steep penalties.

There are other changes that have taken place unrelated to the dog plague. Energy sources are rationed, for instance. At the time of the story there are only three states left in the country that have not banned RVs and similar gas-guzzlers. Even in those states where they are still allowed, just vehicles are banned from federal freeways. So the elderly couple who drive around in one of the last RVs, regularly park somewhere public, put up a sign, and for a small fee give people a tour of this relic of a bygone era.

While taking pictures and interviewing the couple, the photojournalist takes particular interest in the photos they have of their last pet, who succumbed to the plague, like so many others. During this portion of the story, we learn of that the journalist has an ongoing side project to take photos of people talking about their beloved dogs, trying to catch the moment when, as he says, “their face reveals the beloved pet.”

I don’t want to give away any more of the plot. Suffice it to say that there are secrets revealed—such as why the photojournalist is more interested in the elderly couple and their photos of like on the road with their beloved, long-lost pet than the paid gig. And we learn a few more interesting twists about the dystopic America the characters inhabit.

That’s a big part of why this story hooked me. The dystopia that Willis imagines in this story is quite different than any I had seen before. Yet utterly believable. People will vote for very strange things and get behind politicians proposing quite ridiculous things if they get riled up enough. A truth that has been demonstrated very painfully the last few years.

Even though the story involves the journalist driving over great distances a few times, interacting with the “secret police” as well as ordinary citizens, the tale always feels intimate. We’re exploring something very personal and painful in this story. In addition to seeing some novel ideas (for the time) of how certain technologies would change.

It was a good story. A thought-provoking story. A story that explored both personal grief, and communal regret. As well as looking of multiple (and very plausible) types of extinction.

Playing Piano on a Star’s Surface and Other Impossible Things — more of why I love sf/f

Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, April 1983. Cover art by Marc Yankus.

Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, April 1983. Cover art by Marc Yankus.

In 1983 I was still attending a community college part time while working several part-time jobs, stuck in a weird financial situation too complicated and frankly boring to go into right now. The important points are that I was still very closeted and in a situation where I was dependent on conservative religious relatives and equally conservative institutions for my livelihood. I clung to science fiction and fantasy as a half-drowned person might clasp the last floating piece of wreckage after a boat disaster in the middle of the ocean. And while I couldn’t always afford to buy new sf/f books and anthologies when they came out, the local public library subscribed to three science fiction magazines, one of which was Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, so a few times I month I would spend an afternoon at the library reading those magazines.

And it was in the pages of the April 1983 issue of Asimov’s that I first met Connie Willis.

The novelette included in that issue, “The Sidon in the Mirror” is told from the point of view of person just arrived on a new planet. Except it isn’t a planet. Paylay is a dead star, and somehow humans have figured out how to live on a solid crust of the outer layers of the dead star. It isn’t a terribly nice place to live, but large pockets of various pure elements can be mined, so people have an incentive to come there. A side effect of the mining process has created a thin layer of mostly breathable air that is much higher in helium and hydrogen that ours is.

We learn that our viewpoint character is not human, but rather a Mirror: an alien species that has the ability to absorb personality traits, skills, and other things from other beings. They don’t take on the shape of the copied person, and the process is totally involuntary. Mirrors don’t even know they are copying, their personality being re-written as they go, unless someone else notices and tells them. There have been some instances in the past of Mirrors absorbing the murderous thoughts of others and acting on them, so they have been banned from various world.

He’s been brought to this strange mining colony to play piano in the colony’s only brothel. He had previously absorbed the piano playing skills of a now dead man who was known to both the other of the brothel and at least one of her employees, which is at least part of the reason he was brought to Paylay.

The rest of the plot is difficult to summarize, in part because Connie does a really good job of putting you inside the head of the person who doesn’t know or trust his own thoughts and motives. He is afraid he is going to be compelled to do something horrible, and there are characters he is now living among who appear to be trying to manipulate who he copies for their own nefarious purposes.

But I should explain the title. The viewpoint character’s species are called Mirrors, as explained. There is another alien creature mentioned, it’s called a sidon. Sidon’s are vicious predators, but some people have tried to tame them (because people will do that), and it has always gone badly. The miners have taken to naming their mining taps as sidons—while all the compressors and pipes and such are holding, everything seems under control. But ever miner knows it is only a matter of time before a tapped sight explodes. They’re just all trying to make their money and leave before that happens.

By the end of the tale there are violent deaths, and it is left to the reader to decide which of the deaths were murder, which were self-defense, or whether they fall into another category all together.

On one level the story is about the meaning of free will. Willis herself has said, when introducing the story in collections of her work, that the story was inspired to seeing stories of twins who were adopted out separately, and then find each other as adults and learn how many things about their lives are spookily similar. Many things we think of as choices may not be at all.

If was a tough story to read, because there were points in the tale when I wanted the viewpoint character to do something different. I saw moments he could have escaped the trap. Except when I got to the end, I found myself questioning the definition of trap I had been using. Was the trap the manipulation coming from one of the two characters who were trying to turn the Mirror into a killer, or was the trap the Mirror’s own belief that he himself would inevitably turn into a violent killer, or was the trap the fear of the other characters?

I’ve re-read the story many times over the years. And even though I know how it ends, I’m always at the edge of the seat throughout. As mentioned above, Willis really puts you in the mind of this character so that by the middle of the story, I’m just as afraid and uncertain as to what will happen as the character is.

The story made me think a lot about how we make decisions. How much of what we feel is the result of what people expect us to feel? How many decisions that we think are our own are being forced upon us? What, exactly, is the nature of our own identity?

They were questions I was wrestling with personally. While I didn’t have an sudden epiphany at the end of the tale, it did nudge me further in the direction of coming to understand how the nature of the closet. The stifling social trap that many queers find themselves living in is constructed at least as much by our desire to win the approval of society, family, and even my closest friends. It isn’t just fear that drives one into the closet, but also (ironically) the need for love.

And it took an alien playing piano on the surface of a dead star to show me that.

Ken and Ben, twinks in love — or where did you think fashion came from?

Magic Earring Ken

One weekend way back in 1992, my late husband Ray and I were having brunch at the old Hamburger Mary’s in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, and I was reading the local snarky alternative weekly newspaper, The Stranger when I read about Mattel’s latest edition to the Barbie toy line: Magic Earring Ken. He was being written about in the snarky paper because one of the many so-called Christian anti-gay organizations had sent out an alert to their supporters explaining how Mattel had released a Gay Ken, marketing it to children, and each doll came with a sex toy! They helpfully published a 1-800 number where people could call Mattel and tell them they were going to boycott the company. And apparently a lot of them did, prompting the company to issue a statement trying to explain that the Ken wasn’t gay and there certainly wasn’t a sex toy included.

The reason the wingnuts had gotten up in arms about Gay Ken was because a couple of weeks earlier, Sex Advice Columnist Dan Savage had mentioned in his column that he had seen this so-called Gay Ken. He noted that the clothes and hair style of the doll would not have looked out of place in the West Hollywood a couple of years previously, but wasn’t exactly super stylish any more, but that every gay man would recognize a piece of jewelry that came with the doll as something they usually only used while having sex.

Because Dan hadn’t said what the jewelry was, and then the wingnut pastor (who I’m sure was only following Dan’s column to keep tabs on a notorious queer—except this was 1992, and Dan wasn’t really famous or notorious, yet) had called it a sex toy, apparently a lot of his followers assumed that doll was being sold with a dildo or vibrator and they really confused the poor people answering the phones at Mattel, let me tell you.

Later that day, Ray and I scoured a few toy stores until we found Magic Earring Ken, and we bought two of them. Ray named them Ken and his boyfriend Ben. He decided they needed to be displayed like art, and got a couple of doll stands so they could stand atop a shelf we had in our living room in the teeny studio we were living in at the time.

I have seen people post on tumblr and other places a very wrong version of how the doll got designed. It had nothing to do with trying to make Ken look like someone at a rave. It had a much more innocent origin. The designer responsible was interviewed for several magazines after the incident. She was looking for new ideas for the next year’s Ken—because a survey the company had done asking girls whether Barbie should get a new boyfriend, had returned the results that girls wanted Barbie to stay with Ken, but that wanted Ken to be “cooler.” The designer, realizing one of her nieces was exactly in the age group that played with Barbies, took her niece and several of the nieces friends out for ice cream at a mall. And there, she asked the girls to point out all the boys who they thought were dressed “cool.” As people walked by, the girls would point out guys (usually older teens or college-age looking), and the designer took notes and made quick sketches of the clothes and hairstyles.

She was not aware that the chrome metal ring some of the young men were wearing on chains around their necks were cockrings. And truth be told, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the guys wearing them didn’t know, any more than a lot of the girls in the mid-eighties inspired by Madonna started wearing silicon cockrings as bracelets. And also, most of those guys probably weren’t gay. It’s often been the case that certain marginalized groups, including by not limited to queers, establish fashion trends that get copied subsequently by other folks.

Based on follow up conversations with some of girls and her notes, she designed a new look for Ken. And the next year (1992) it came out. It was selling as expected for at least a month before someone writing for another gay paper somewhere saw it, wrote a short humorous article calling the doll a Gay Twink. And Dan found out about it, and things were from there.

Contrary to what many of those other blog posts claim, there was also a Earring Magic Barbie and several other members of the Barbie line got an Earring make-over. But only Ken’s makeover looked gay. And as word spread about the Gay Ken, thousands of queer men like Ray and I ran out to buy them. Magic Earring Ken became the best selling model of Ken in the history of the Barbie line.

But, because of the controversy, Mattel decided to stop making or selling that model.

When I first saw this look in the box on the shelf at the toy store, I thought it looked more like late 80s California dude rather early 90s, but...

When I first saw this look in the box on the shelf at the toy store, I thought it looked more like late 80s California dude rather early 90s, but…

Our two dolls didn’t just stand around gathering dust. No, Ken and Ben became an ongoing art project for Ray. It started innocently enough, we both decided they shouldn’t always dress identically, so we picked up some other Ken outfits and started mixing an matching. Then Ray found more toy props, so he could pose them sitting at a table, drinking coffee. And of course more outfits. After we moved to a larger apartment, Ray bought Barbie’s dune buggy. Then the pink Barbie jeep. And a G.I. Joe. And another action figure (I don’t remember which cartoon show he was from, but he had a weird tattoo on his chest). And more outfits. And a Shaving Magic Ken. I found a Christmas tree that was just the right size for them to stand around at Christmas time. Ray found multiple sweaters, include two different designs of ugly Christmas sweaters that fit them.

Month after month, Ray would change the the clothes on all the dolls, and change out the props to fit with the season. In the summer they would all be in swimsuits or wet suits and have the dune buggy and surfboard, for instance. And every year the Christmas party scene would get a bit more elaborate.

Until Ray died.

The last setup he did was for Halloween. He’d found some things that could be cheesy costumes for some of the dolls, and a little jack o’lantern, and I think a little toy black cat that was the right size. On the night we were discussing Thanksgiving plans, he made a comment about changing Ken and Ben’ clothes and setting all the boys around one table like a Thanksgiving Dinner. Later that night, in the wee small hours, Ray had the seizure that led to the coma and ultimately his death.

I left Ken and Ben and the others in the Halloween set up for a few weeks. I wasn’t in a mood to change them (or really do anything for a few months, to be honest). I decided not to decorate from Christmas that year, until one evening I got hit by the irrational thought that Ray would be very disappointed with me if I didn’t put up at least something. So Ken and Ben and the others went into a box. I bought few Christmas things (because I knew if I tried to unpack any of our big collection of Christmas ornaments and such I would start crying and might not be able to stop) set them up on top of the entertainment center, which had been Ken and Ben’s stage for years.

I did eventually get Ken and Ben and the others out of the box, changed their clothes, and posed them in a not terribly interesting way. It had been Ray’s project, and while I loved helping him do it, it just wasn’t the same without him. After Michael and I got together, he would occasionally make suggestions to change the boys up a bit. But it still wasn’t the same. A couple years later, that entertainment center was getting wobbly. It had been a cheap particle board kit and was at least 8 years old. And while looking for a replacement (and making considerably more money than I had been 8 years prior), I found this enormous, beautiful, solid oak entertainment center that I just had to have.

It was so much taller than the old one, that I couldn’t really see Ken and Ben when they were up there, and changing their clothes and such required a small step ladder. So I packed up a lot of the accessories (the jeep, dune buggy, tables, chairs, et cetera) and most of the dolls, and took them to Goodwill. I kept Ken and Ben, though. I was thinking I should hang onto them if for no other reason, as a monument to a particularly weird and funny pop culture/queer culture collision.

I thought that Ken and Ben were still packed away somewhere in the computer room closet, but when we were packing to move out of that place last April, I didn’t find them in the box I thought they were in. I was a bit perturbed, but figured that at some point in the unpacking I would find them. But they weren’t in any of the boxes from other closets that hadn’t been opened for years. Nor were then in any of the boxes in the basement in a similar state.

I know what probably happened is that one of the times in the last ten years when I would make attempts to go through all of the Too Much Stuff™ that we had at the old place, that I decided to finally donate Ken and Ben to Goodwill or Value Village or the like. But I don’t remember doing it. So I’d rather believe that they got tired of being boxed up and forgotten. They staged an escape and ran off together—two twinks in love, looking for adventure.

Unnamed faces in old (and not-so-old) family pictures

One of dad's cousins and family came to visit Great-grandma, and everyone eventually ended up at my Grandparents' house.

One of dad’s cousins and family came to visit Great-grandma, and everyone eventually ended up at my Grandparents’ house.

A friend expressed a particular family dysfunction really well: inherited baggage. This is the phenomenon where, because of some issue one, two, or more generations back, there are relatives you know about, and maybe even hear about frequently, but you never really get to know them. Frequently you also are never told why is it that Great-uncle Glenn will never visit. Nor why, though we very frequently visited Great-grandma who literally lives next door to Great-uncle Glenn, yet we almost never stopped in at Great-uncle Glenn’s house.

That isn’t a made-up example.

Whenever we went to visit Great-grandma on her farm, we would also drive a couple miles down the road to the farm owned by Great-uncle Lawrence and see all of his family. To get to Great-uncle Lawrence’s house, we had to drive right past Great-uncle Glenn’s farm. While we were visiting, often Great-uncle Glenn’s wife, Dorothy, would come to either Great-grandma’s house or to Great-uncle Lawrence’s house to see us. But Great-uncle Glenn wouldn’t.

The picture above was a similar visit… Read More…

When the roll is called up yonder, or queer confessions of an ex-evangelical

Me wearing part of the uniform for the interdenominational youth touring choir I was a member of for many years.

Me wearing part of the uniform for the interdenominational youth touring choir I was a member of for many years.

Just a few months ago I was trying to explain to a friend who lives in the U.K. the weird hypocritical dogma of the typical American fundamentalist Christian, and wound up mentioning that although I disagreed vehemently with many things that Billy Graham preached, I always felt his basic faith was sincere. This is in contrast to my opinion of Graham’s son who has taken over running the ministry, who both on air and in-person came across as an especially unethical used car salesman.

Even so, I was a bit surprised at my reaction to the news that the 99-year-old Billy Graham, oft described as “America’s Pastor,” died yesterday. Let’s make no mistake: while Graham was unusual among Southern Baptist ministers in the 1950s to embrace desegregation (“there is no segregation at the foot of the cross”) and at least gave lip service to decrying racism, he was an unrepentant homophobe. Statements he made over the years included: “Let me say this loud and clear, we traffic in homosexuality at the peril of our spiritual welfare.” Or: “Is AIDS a judgment of God? I could not be sure, but I think so.” Graham claimed to be non-partisan, but often came down on the Republican side of many issues. “At 93, I never thought we would have to debate the definition of marriage. The Bible is clear — God’s definition of marriage is between a man and a woman.” And it’s really hard to justify some of the comments he made while discussing Jews and the media with President Nixon in the 1960s.

But Billy could preach! Oh, how he could preach! It’s difficult to explain to someone who didn’t grow up in an evangelical community in the 50s, 60s, or 70s the cherished place Graham inhabited in the hearts of the faithful, semi-faithful, and faithful-adjacent. Graham wasn’t just held up as an example of a good man and great preacher, people were so certain he was inspired by god, that quoting him sometimes had a stronger effect than quoting from the scripture.

As a teenaged Southern Baptist (very closeted) queer boy in the 70s, I was perhaps more acutely aware of how much Graham was revered than most. While many saw my flare for the dramatic as a troubling hint of queerness, others saw it as a calling from god to become a preacher. The combination of that theatricality with my ability to memorize and recall huge sections of the Bible, as well as a facility with language, and being quick-thinking on my feet had people talking about what a great preacher I would make when I was still in grade school. Once I was older, and had more experience thanks to musical groups, drama club, and the debate team, well, it surprised no one when elders of the church started trying to convince me to get ordained in my late teens.

At the same time, completely unbeknownst to me, Mom and several women in our church were meeting once a week to pray that god would “rescue” me from the temptation of homosexuality. I hadn’t come out to anyone, at all, at the time. And while there are been some very furtive sexual relationships with a few boys my age during middle school, by the time people’s suspicions had risen to that point I was celibate, secretly praying even more fervently than they were, and doing everything I possibly could to be straight.

Which is precisely why, when I was approached about ordination, I started meeting with one of the associate pastors and studying to become a minister. Like millions of religious queers before me, for some time I thought that embracing “full-time Christian service” might be the only way to make my feelings for other guys go away.

I should mention that in Southern Baptist churches at the time, ordination was something that happened usually at your local church before you went off to Bible college. Which is the reverse of the way most other denominations do it. So I was still a teen in my first year attending community college while meeting with the pastors and deacons of our church several times a week to study and pray about my future.

I wish I could say that what caused me to back out was an epiphany about my sexual orientation resulting in self-acceptance replacing the self-loathing I had been taught all my life. That tipping point wouldn’t come for a few more years, yet. I also wish I could say that it was learning that the origins of the Southern Baptist denomination were much more racist and pro-slavery than I had been taught. That shocked me a little bit, but I was already quite familiar with the fact that only a few years before this the Southern Baptist Convention had finally denounced segregation of the races.

What did bring me to my senses were two conversations that happened close together, each with a different deacon in our church.

In the first, the elder in question took issue with my continued interest in science, particularly my interest in astronomy and evolution. He was quite unimpressed by my argument that a god who could plan and carry out a plan involved 15 billions years of stellar evolution eventually leading to humans was a far more impressive feat then simply waving a magic wand and making everything at once. While he referenced the Baptist principle that interpreting the scripture was something each person must do on their own, he also made it clear that my adherence to scientific fact was not an asset for a pastor.

In the conversation with another deacon, I mentioned an article I had read recently in which I learned that Fred Rogers, famous as Mister Rogers on PBS stations, was an ordained Presbyterian minister, who considered his work producing the children’s show his ministry. I thought it was a great example of how doing god’s work could take many forms The deacon had a very different view. First, he pointed out that (in the opinion of typical Southern Baptists), Presbyterians were “soft” on Biblical inerrancy. Further, if Rogers was actually doing god’s work, he would use that daily television show to tell children directly the story of Jesus. Since he didn’t do that, he wasn’t doing god’s work, according to this deacon. Finally, he said, “You know that Billy Graham was raised Presbyterian? He joined the Baptists because we’re actually doing god’s work.”

And those two conversations were the final nails in the coffin of me becoming a Baptist minister. The epiphany I had after those conversations was that all of the church leaders who had been urging me to become a minister didn’t really see the makings of a pastor in me. Instead, they thought that anyone who had Talent, whether it be intelligence, a gift for language, or whatever, who didn’t use that to evangelize wasn’t doing god’s work. That simply being a good person and doing what you can to make the corner of the world you were in a better place and to love your neighbors wasn’t enough.

I didn’t call things off until the end of the Sunday evening Church service where, as part of the process, I delivered a sermon and otherwise conducted the service. I still think that my John 16:33 sermon is an incredible work of art. But even as I was giving it, I knew the whole thing was a mistake. I suspect if I hadn’t called it off, that the deacon who was so concerned about my love of science would have done what he could to derail things. Regardless, there were a few more times over the next couple of years that leaders in that church and related churches came to me and asked me to prayerfully reconsider become a preacher.

I had learned my lesson: if the evangelical faith couldn’t accommodate both scientific fact and Mister Rogers, well, it didn’t have a place for me, either. I didn’t find my real place until several years later, but that’s a story for another day.


Note: The title comes from the hymn “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder” by James M. Black, hymn #482 in the 1956 Baptist Hymnal.

Great-grandma’s Gun

My sister and I with Great Grandma St, John. I'm 9, my sis is 4, and Great-grandma is 74 in this picture.

My sister and I with Great Grandma St, John. I’m 9, my sis is 4, and Great-grandma is 74 in this picture.

I have often found myself in weird discussions/arguments with people who assume that because I favor many extremely liberal policies, I must be one of those evil anti-gun people. So before I get into this tale, let me begin by saying that I used to be a card-carrying member of the NRA. I have owned guns. I have fired guns. I have almost never fired guns on a gun range, because we didn’t have many in the Rocky Mountain towns where I grew up. I was taught how to shoot a gun by being taken out into the wilderness by my father and grandfather and firing it for a couple of hours at various things we set up as targets. Then after the third of fourth weekend of doing that being told I needed to go shoot a rabbit or two if I wanted to eat that night.

Long before we got to that point there had been many, many gun safety lectures, because there were lots of guns (mostly hunting rifles) in the homes of most of my extended family. I knew how to take apart, clean, and put back together a bolt-action rifle and how to re-load bullet cases (by which I mean, measure out gunpowder, put it into a spent casing, align a new bullet and insert it with a hand operated press, and install a primer cap) years before I was allowed to hold a loaded gun and shoot it.

There were winters when the only reason there was enough food on the table for the whole family was because some of us had gotten a deer or elk during the appropriate season (not to mention rabbits, pheasants, and grouse). I should also mention that I was raised to look down my nose in disdain at people who hunted pheasant and other birds with a shotgun. As my Grandpa said, “If you can’t hit a flying grouse or dove or pheasant with a rifle, you have no business pointing a gun at anything.”

I should also mention, in case it isn’t obvious from the part about learning how to turn spent cartridges back into bullets, missing was considered wasteful. We couldn’t afford to waste a lot of bullets getting the food.

But as the title of this post suggests, today I need to tell you the story of Great-grandma’s Gun… Read More…

Confessions of a musical junkie (or, a crazy writer and his crazier playlists)

Three-year-old me at Christmas with my toy piano.

Three-year-old me at Christmas with my toy piano.

I am, indeed, one of those people who think there is a song from a musical for every situation. Some people consider this a stereotypical gay thing, but I know way more gay people who never liked theatre (musical or otherwise) than do (and there are plenty of straight people writing, performing, or buying tickets to Broadway musicals and the like). Oh, yes, there are arguments made about the kind of misfit who is drawn to the exaggerated and colorful worlds portrayed in musical theatre, and that’s why there are enough queer people into it to create the stereotype. But I think there’s more than a little bit of a chicken-and-egg aspect to that.

Regardless, I have a lot of musical soundtracks in my music collection, along with orchestral scores for my favorite movies and TV shows. And I have been known to surf to TuneFind.com while watching something when a particularly good piece of music is used to accompany a scene in one of my favorite shows, so I can buy a copy of the song for myself. And I’ve blogged before about how I create playlists specifically for certain writing projects.

I’ve had more than one friend comment, upon seeing the list of songs in one of my play lists, “How can you write while listening to songs with lyrics?” First, if a song has wound up in one of my playlists, it’s usually a song I’m already familiar enough with that I don’t have to pay attention to the lyrics to parse the meaning of the song. Even with very voice-forward songs, while I’m writing I’m not processing the music as words, but as mood music.

Second, if a song is fairly new to me—I heard it for the first time, liked it a lot, bought it, and added it to my current writing playlist—I may pause while writing the next time it comes up. Far more likely, I will have heard the song a few more times before I’m next writing because I listen to the playlists at least as often when I’m not writing as when I am. While riding the bus to work, while working at my desk at my day job, while walking in the evening before heading home I’ll be listening to the current writing playlist, in part to get my subconscious working on the story while I’m dong these other things. I’m more likely to be in the mood to be productive on a personal writing project after a long workday if I’ve been listening to a playlist that I associate with the personal writing..

I need to make a small digression about my longer bus commute. I have tried several times to write on this bus route as I used to back on the Route D—the ride’s longer; I should be able to get more writing done! Unfortunately, the other difference is that the physical road seems to have a lot more potholes and irregularities. It’s really annoying, because the bouncing and dipping is pretty much constant. So there I am, holding my phone in my hand with one of my writing apps up but we’re constantly bouncing, so my thumbs keep hitting the wrong part of the screen. I get half a word typed and then get five incorrect letters in a cluster because of a particularly bad bounce, so I try to delete and there’s a bunch of smaller bounces and half my attempts to tap the backspace hit another key near it instead.

I can read (though sometimes that’s a little difficult). I can take notes. But when I’m writing, once my head is in the scene want to just get out this sentence and on to the next and the next. But I can’t get the flow going because of the dang bouncing. I tried to ignore the wrong letters and keep going one time, but I spent way more time correcting the gibberish once I got home and transferred it to the laptop that I realized bus writing is just not possible for most of the Route E.

Which has made the writing playlists take on a new importance. Since it is very difficult to write on the new bus route, what I do instead is listen to the current project’s playlist while either re-reading recently written scenes or going through my notes on the project.

One reason I have writing playlists is because music conveys emotion. It doesn’t just convey emotion, it generates emotion. When we hear a song we know well, it may remind us about a particular event, or a person, or just a time in our lives. And it doesn’t always have to be because we are remembering that song happening to accompany a particular memory. Sometimes a song that was written long after a particular event in your life manages, somehow, to evoke your memory of the experience.

Another reason I have writing playlists is going to sound strange to some. Dialog is, in my opinion, the heart of most stories. Dialog conveys information, and illustrates relationships of the people talking, and gives you a sense of the personalities of each speaker. A good dialog is like music. It isn’t just about the literal or contextual meaning of the words, but also the rhythm. Some phrases flow easily from one’s mouth, whereas badly written dialog will tie your tongue in a knot if you try to read it aloud. For me, listening to music while I write helps me find rhythms. The dialog just works better if I have a good set of songs going.

And another reason that I have writing lists is, I don’t like to write in silence. I can write in silence. But it’s difficult, sometimes. Maybe it’s because during my childhood, when I first started writing (I literally decided that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up at the age of six, and was regularly pounding out page after page of stories on my mom’s Easter Pink Smith-Corono Silent Super typewriter by the age of ten) there was alway a lot of noise. Other people in the house doing things of their own. Dad watching a ballgame in the living room, while my sister was playing in her room and Mom was doing something in the sewing room. And there were often neighbors outside making noise.

“Jazz Hands!” - ICanHasCheezeburger.Com

“Jazz Hands!”

And for a lot of those years I would be back in my room, with the door closed, tapping away on those keys with the radio playing as I tried to learn the magic of dialog that sounded like real people, and scenes that moved the story along. Sometimes, an especially good song would come up and I might have to stop typing to sing along. And yes, sometimes I got up and danced around my room as I did so. But when the song ended, I’d go back to the typewriter. Giddy with the joy of the dancing, and feeling renewed determination for my hero to save the day.

Songs never mean the same thing to other people. So sharing my playlists probably doesn’t help any of my friends write. Though I have had one or two of them say that they were glad I introduced them to a particular song or artist when I share a list. And I know I have found great new songs when other people share their own lists. But while it may be futile to expect that one of my playlists will effect you the way they do me, I’m going to share four songs from my current novel editing playlist. The full playlist is nearly 60 songs. These aren’t a representative sample, but they are particular favorites. Three of these songs I associate with a specific character in my fictional universe–evoking a particular aspect of their personality, or even expression something that character believes are feels. One of them describes the past relationship between a pair of characters.

Enjoy!

Darling Lili– Whistling Away The Dark (HD) – JULIE ANDREWS :

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

Mame – Bosom Buddies – Angela Lansbury and Bea Arthur:

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

Bad Influence – P!nk (Music Video):

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

Shrek 2 – Holding Out For a Hero – Jennifer Saunders:

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

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