Thursday, September 27, 2012

SF tropes and the ever-shifting edge of reality

Once in a blue moon I wake up from a dream so soaked with a sense of reality that it feels less like a dream I've just had then a memory of something I've recently done. Oddly enough such dreams tend to be sfnal in character. While I'm in them, I have no perception of their being sfnal-- that only comes after I've woken up.

Such was the case this the morning. In my dream, I was writing an article on a trip I'd just to the moon for a magazine' the article would be comprised of an text, photos, and video clips. I'd decided that the article would focus on a researcher who'd been there for 23 years-- since the beginning of the settlement-- studying kinetics. In my dream, I kept reviewing the video clip of my conversation with her, in which she spoke of her distress at being dumped by her HMO-- which had been covering her for all the 23 years she'd been working on the moon-- because her health problems were different to those of women her age on earth. The image of this woman speaking is the most vivid image of my dream: she is wearing a white lab coat of course, over silk the color of autumn leaves, and small dangling earrings, and has enough ray in her hair and lines and wear in her face to be in her 50s or 60s were she to have been living all that time on earth, though I acknowledged that living in lunar gravity she might well be a good deal older. Thinking about her face, which seemed oddly familiar, after waking, it occurred to me that she might be modeled on Susan S, a dancer I'd know in the early 1970s, suitably aged. (With a personality considerably toned down.) She was someone I hadn't seen or even thought of for years and years. I'd already written the part of my article about how pedestrian travel to the moon actually was, and how surprisingly populous the place seemed, and how though the hotel accommodations were a bit cramped, weren't that much more expensive than hotels in major cities in the US. Etc. All very ordinary, even pedestrian. Which was why my article was focusing on this woman and her difficulties, partially a consequence of her never having budged from the moon for 23 years.

Mulling over the peculiar realization that my most real-seeming dreams tend to be sfnal, it struck me that coherence combined with strongly delineated detail is what makes such dreams feel real. And of course the realization that one is dreaming can occur in any kind of dream-- for me, most often in unpleasant dreams that up until that point feel very real but that I'd like not to be real. The realization is never reasoned (as in: oh, this doesn't make sense, so it can't be true-- not making sense is perfectly normal in dreams). It's when I wake up that I marvel at how coherent and real-seeming the sfnal dream had been-- after that moment of disjunction when I grasp that no, this was a dream, and not something in my actual memory. (Sometimes in fact I am imbued with a partial belief in it as memory for a long time after the dream-- as in dreams about a story I once wrote that I somehow lost and forgot about until I came upon it in a box of old papers-- a part of me somehow feels that that story must be around somewhere, and longs to see it, read it, remember it. I don't feel that way about sfnal dreams, of course, because my mind has identified them as sfnal and thus impossible as memory.)

The thinness of the membrane distinguishing the sfnal from reality has become something of a preoccupation with me lately. I know I've often said over the last ten years that I often have trouble distinguishing reports of real-life behavior and speech from satire, but it occurs to me that despite being accustomed to technological innovations that were once purely sfnal now being materially incarnate in our lives, I still find myself astonished at the thinness of the line between fiction and reality. Consider these three items appearing in the Seattle Times over the last few days:

--State's first case of 'zombie bees' reported in Kent. Honeybees, previously immune to parasitic flies called Apocephalus borealis or scuttle flies-- native to the US and apparently common-- have lately begun to be infected by them. Here's the article's description of the infection:
The fly's life cycle is gruesomely reminiscent of the movie "Alien" — though they don't pose a risk to people. Adult females, smaller than a fruit fly, land on the backs of foraging honeybees and use their needle-sharp ovipositors to inject eggs into the bee's abdomen. The eggs hatch into maggots. "They basically eat the insides out of the bee," [biologist John] Hafernik said.
Previously, these flies had only been known to infect wasps and bumblebees. They've now infected 80% of the hives in the Bay Area, and have made an appearance in South Dakota. This is particularly alarming, given the recent plummeting of honeybee populations all over the United States. The irony, of course, is that the scuttle flies are native to North American, while the honeybees are imported (or "invasive"), while the sharp point of relevance is that most pollination of fruit and vegetables is performed by honeybees. Why, you may wonder, are infected honeybees called "zombie bees"? "Unlike healthy bees, which spend the night tucked up in their hive, infected bees fly after dark and tend to congregate at lights. Hohn noticed bees buzzing around the light in his shop, flying in jerky patterns and finally flopping on the floor." (There's a video available with the Seattle Times article.) If you're interested in the knowing more about "zombie bees," check out Hafernik's website

 --And then there's the article on the California legislation, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed yesterday, allowing "autononmous" or driverless cars in California.
"Today we're looking at science fiction becoming tomorrow's reality - the self-driving car," Brown said. "Anyone who gets inside a car and finds out the car is driving will be a little skittish, but they'll get over it."
Google Inc. has been developing autonomous car technology and lobbying for the regulations. The company's fleet of a dozen computer-controlled vehicles has logged more than 300,000 miles of self-driving without an accident, according to Google. "I think the self-driving car can really dramatically improve the quality of life for everyone," Google co-founder Sergey Brin said.
Autonomous cars can make roads safer, free commuters from the drudgery of driving, reduce congestion and provide transport to people who can't drive themselves, such as the blind, disabled, elderly and intoxicated, Brin said. "I expect that self-driving cars will be far safer than human-driven cars," Brin said.
Brin predicted that autonomous vehicles will be commercially available within a decade. He said Google has no plans to produce its own cars, but instead plans to partner with the automobile industry to develop autonomous vehicles.
Why is it that this seems much more sfnal to me than smartphones do? I suppose it's because it strikes me as in some ways a more conscious technological development than the by contrast feckless, sometimes frivolous development of all the silly gadgets that distract rather than assist us. Autonomous cars seem hands-down more socially utilitarian and have the tremendous potential of saving many, many lives (and prevent many, many personal bankruptcies due to the catastrophic medical costs and chronic disability that attend most serious traffic accidents. Our (in this case visibly administered) culture tends to oppose sensible solutions for serious, large-scale problems (for instance, affordable health care). The politicians, venture capitalists, and financiers who determine which technologies are brought into existence prefer to support the development of weapons, tools of surveillance, and gadgets and toys big corporations can endlessly "upgrade" to technology that is unglamorously utilitarian. (Here in the US, from infancy most individuals imbibe their values primarily from the advertisements they consume.) Or else they're simply whacko gimmicks based on dubious notions of coolness, like Argentinean publisher Ererna Cadencia's use of ink that vanishes from books two months after the date of purchase. (The idea is that disappearing ink will force consumers to read the books they buy, in a timely fashion. It's supposed to be for the authors' benefit, though I have to say that I myself would hate to see my books vanish and be unavailable for future rereading: rendering books into utterly disposable entertainment.)

--The third item doesn't report on a piece of new technology, but rather on an almost seismic shift in attitude. (Like parasitic creatures wielding ovipostors, infected organisms, and driverless cars, certain attitudes, too, can be sf tropes.) In this case, the shift in attitude is striking for being found in a rather conservative source, the editors of the Seattle Times, who have a long history of endorsing Republicans, which in Washington State can mean way off the spectrum of the local norm. They certainly consider themselves a voice of the mainstream. Four days ago, they published an editorial urging the approval of Initiative 502-- to legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana. Many, many people have been urging this for a long time, including former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper. Many conservatives have even urged it. Nevertheless, US jails are crammed with offenders of the prohibition against marijuana use and sale. The editorial is reasoned and reasonable.
What would legal marijuana be like? Consider what has happened in Seattle. The city has become a sanctuary for medical marijuana, with aboveboard dispensaries. Recreational marijuana is readily available in Seattle on the illicit market, and users of small amounts are no longer prosecuted. For several years, recreational marijuana has effectively been decriminalized in Seattle, and there has been no upsurge in crime or road deaths from it.
Virtual decriminalization resulted from the force of broad public pressure on prosecutors here in King County. Several years back, while I was performing Superior Court jury service, the prosecuting attorney conducted a discussion among the jury pool of which I was a member about drugs as part of the voir dire for a drug prosecution. About three-quarters of my fellow potential jurors expressed the opinion that marijuana use ought to be decriminalized. (The prosecutor, by the way, was resigned rather than surprised by this opinion.) I read in the Seattle Times not long after that prosecution policies were going to be changed to be more in line with public opinion. I was struck by this. I'd always assumed that jury service was largely a waste of my time, since jurors have in recent years been forbidden the democratic exercise of nullification, a traditional alternative for jurors faced with rubber-stamping unjust outcomes. After that, I wasn't so sure.

The fact is, we are constantly adjusting what is real, what could be real, what probably won't ever be real. Sfnal tropes have a lot to do with the process. But I'm particularly interested these days-- because of my nearly finished novel in progress, "Deep Story"-- in what becomes real,as memory, in an individual's brain, and what the coherence of narrative has to do with the process.

 My absence over the last month from this space, by the way, has been due to a family emergency followed by illness. I'm on the mend now, though I'm still a bit shaky and weak, which forces me into making frequent retreats back to bed. I hope to resume regular posting soon.

ETA: I see that the Seattle Times has actually endorsed Obama-- and that they did so last time around, too. Pardon my misperception.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Shulamith Firestone, 1945-2012

Shulamith Firestone, author of The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, died Tuesday. This is a book that sits on a shelf in my library near Simone de Beavoir's Second Sex and Joanna Russ's What Are We Fighting For? It burst upon the world in 1970, when Firestone was only 25 years old, a radical tour de force that helped shape the lineaments of Marge Piercy's alternative Mattopisett society-- "democratic, anarchist, communist, environmentalist, feminist, non-racist," in Tom Moylan's words in Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination-- and informed feminist imaginings of the positive, liberatory possibilities of new reproductive technologies. As Firestone concluded at the end of her impassioned argument, what she called "cybernetic socialism" "would abolish economic classes, and all forms of labor exploitation, by granting people a livelihood based only on material needs." She envisaged an end to sexual monogamy and the embracing of polymorphous perversity, and a family unit "meant to serve immediate needs rather than pass on power and privilege." Her call for such a revolution-- which specified women's sharing of reproductive roles with men and children-- came in for a torrent of criticism from many feminists (particularly from essentialists). Her analysis of sexual politics (now "gender politics") was both crunchy (she bites into a lot of Marx, Engels, and Freud) and visionary. It blows my mind that she was 25 when she published it.

The Women's History site offers a concise description of Firestone's activism:
Shulamith Firestone helped create several radical feminist groups. With Jo Freeman she started The Westside Group, an early consciousness-raising group in Chicago. In 1967, Firestone was one of the founding members of New York Radical Women. When NYRW split into factions amid disagreement about what direction the group should take, she launched Redstockings with Ellen Willis.

The members of Redstockings rejected the existing political left. They accused other feminist groups of still being part of a society that oppressed women. Redstockings drew attention when its members disrupted a 1970 abortion hearing in New York City at which the scheduled speakers were a dozen men and a nun. Redstockings later held its own hearing, allowing women to testify about abortion.
Kind of makes you cringe, doesn't it, reading about that hearing on abortion. We're now back to talking about contraception-- only with men only, not even nuns allowed to talk.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Chris Barzak posts about Varo, Carrington, and Tanning

If you have any interest in the fascinating work of Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, and Dorothea Tanning, you'll probably want to catch Christopher Barzak's posts on their work. One of the posts has a wonderful You Tube clip of Leonora Carrington chatting about her teenaged self and the debutante experience interspersed with a marvelous vid of her story "The Debutante" (in which the protagonist helps a hyena attend in her place, in drag, her coming out ball). Chris also talks a little about writing the stories in Birds and Birthdays.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Joanna Russ Issue of the CSZ

I'm pleased to announce that the Cascadia Subduction Zone has just published a special issue on Joanna Russ. "This issue of The Cascadia Subduction Zone is supplemental, published without regard for our usual schedule and distributed free of charge to subscribers. For the editors, it’s an exceptionally special issue we began planning shortly after Joanna Russ’s death last year. When I think about Joanna Russ’s relationship to feminism and feminist science fiction in general and to the work the CSZ aims to nurture and provoke in particular, Christine de Pizan’s brilliant conceit of the City of Ladies comes to my mind. The medieval thinker constructed her “City” of every powerful, accomplished woman she knew of. Russ’s work, always powerful and challenging, is more than a brick in the wall of our city, though; it is a substantial element of its foundation. Foundations are tricky things, especially in the seismic times in which we live. They are invisible to those paying only casual attention to the buildings they support.
But for the inhabitants of any building, the foundation matters tremendously." (Quotation from my introductory essay)
Non-subscribers can purchase an electronic version for $4 or both the print & electronic version for $5 here

Current Issue
Vol. 2 Supplement
August 2012 

Outsider, Creative Contrarian,
Lesbian and Feminist Theorist
    by L. Timmel Duchamp

   by Farah Mendlesohn

Feminist Futures Out of Time: Reading Joanna Russ’s
What Are We Fighting For?
    by Alexis Lothian

Alienation and “the Other”
in the Short Fiction of Joanna Russ
    by Brit Mandelo

On Joanna Russ
    edited by Farah Mendlesohn
    reviewed by Candra K. Gill

Heiresses of Russ 2011:
The Year’s Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction

    edited by JoSelle Vanderhooft and Steve Berman
    reviewed by Cynthia Ward

Featured Artist
Monte Rogers

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Funny uncles

Sunday I told an old friend my family's multi-generational saga of rape and incest.  Most of it, anyway.  Into her silence at the end I asked, "Aren't all families like that?"

"No," she replied.  "No, they're not."  But I think our science fiction family might be.  At least a little.

The incident that my assertion above will bring immediately to mind for you depends on when you're reading this.  At the time I'm writing it, that's most likely the sexual harassment a congoer underwent at Readercon.  It wasn't the first incident of its kind.  It won't be the last.

I met the Readercon offender when he served as MC for the Carl Brandon Society Awards ceremony at Arisia in 2011.  I'm not shocked that he's someone I know.  That's how this sort of thing works.

The encounters that affront me are more often racial or cultural in nature than sexual.  And the people that hurt me, that stun me with their ignorance and blithe insensitivity, their privileged cluelessness, are my friends, my role models, my elders.  My tribe.

Here are two names.


Gene Wolfe was inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame this past March.  I was asked to contribute an essay to the event's program book.  I'm very proud of  "Cookies and Kindness," which describes how sweet Wolfe was to me when we first met.  He was a GOH at 1983's World Fantasy Convention, and I was a total n00b whom he rescued from utter dejection.   But I left out of the essay our last meeting, a Locus Awards Weekend panel featuring him and Greg Bear speaking at length about the nonexistence of racial profiling.  That panel I came within inches of walking out of, because both these men whom I love and respect were so wrong I couldn't bear to hear what they chose to say on a topic of which they lacked any personal experience.  Honestly, if I'd been just a little closer to the aisle....And why, you may ask, didn't I stand up and speak out if I couldn't sit calmly and listen, or manage somehow to slip away?

Really, I really do love these men.  It's so hard to tell anyone you admire they're queefing like a douchebag.  I guess I'm doing it now.  Hi, Greg.  Hi, Gene.

I understand why the Readercon ConCom made the error that they made.  They were wrong; I'm so glad they've admitted that.  Let me repeat: it was a mistake not to apply the standing sexual harassment policy to René Walling just because he was who he was.  And I get how that mistake happened.

My mother had three brothers.  They're all dead.  She has one sister.  I know she felt it her sacred duty to keep the remaining family together when, at the age of 11, she lost her own mother to rheumatic heart disease.  I understand why she felt she had to forgive her sister's rapist, their last surviving brother.  Who grew up to rape his oldest daughter before she left grade school.  My mother wasn't about to abandon him, though.  And I understand why she doesn't understand that the now-adult raped daughter won't speak with my mother or return her calls.  I understand that lack of comprehension, and I understand that lack of forgiveness.

 The hurts I've endured from racism and inappropriate cultural appropriation and the like are nonphysical, so perhaps they're not as horrific as those endured by members of our genre family suffering sexual predation.  I'm not the target in the cases I'm talking about, either.  There are a whole host of dissimilarities.  But here's what the two classes of offense share: they're committed by the opposite of strangers.

Would it help if I named more names?  The next one could be yours.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Will there be any stars in our crowns?

"Because We Are All So Royal" is my contribution to Aqueduct Press's WisCon Chronicles 2; it's about making crowns at the Carl Brandon Society's annual party.  This year CBS co-founder MJ Hardman and her husband Dimas Bautista bought the tinsel and flowers and plastic fruit and giant moths and toy motorcycles partygoers used to construct crowns.  Health issues (cancer, embolisms) have kept them at home for the last two years, but they support the event and commissioned the creation of a crown because they love being part of the creativity.

Here's what I came up with for them.  To a circular base of fluttering white hearts I added a silver purse begemmed with multi-colored plastic, a golden candelabra, and a huge honkin hibiscus.  Someone took photos of me wearing this crown, but I can't find them at the moment.  Still, you get the idea, right?  All the elements I used here are symbolic of something I wish for MJ and Dimas to have.  I'll mail the crown tomorrow and hope they get what I want to send.

Occult wisdom says you get back what you put out.  So helping others externally concretize their inherent noblesse makes MJ and Dimas true royalty. The kind without armies.  The kind we love.  The kind we can become.

Here's MJ at WisCon 33, ready to work it.

Here's Dimas with Margie Peterson at WisCon 33, enjoying their handiwork.

I wrote a picture book called "The Secret Princess" about how to do what MJ and Dimas have done.  It starts out this way:

Once there was a secret princess: Princess Herminutia.  She was a secret princess because nobody knew about her royal status.  Her mama and daddy called her Minnie and made her take out the garbage.
With the assistance of a wise costumer, her neighbor Mizz Cherry, the secret princess constructs crowns for all her family and finally receives the respect she deserves.  She gets what she gives.  What I want for us all.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Looking at looking

Late Wednesday SFSignal published short essays by me and some other writers on viewpoint in genre.  Timmi joined an online discussion of what we'd said, adding:

"I've--more times than I can count--written a second version of a story in first (if the first version was in third) or in third (if the first version was in first)--when unsure of which would best serve the story. It's an illuminating exercise in any case. And sometimes the second version really is the correct one (and brings out different sorts of details that collectively change the reader's affect)."

She rewrites entire stories to make sure she's using the correct viewpoint?  That is some mondo literary muscle.  That is the authorial equivalent of hauling pianos around with your teeth--but much more useful.

 I wish one of those SFSignal essays had been by Timmi.  I bet she would have revealed more surprises and amazements.  And I wish I'd said more in my essay about the choice of narrator, not just about styles of narration.

The story I'm revising today took me twice as long to write as I'd scheduled for it in my calendar.  Midway through the notes I kept during the writing process I recorded serious doubts about my protagonist.  "What does Trill do?" I asked myself.  "What can she do?"  And on another line, "Is this really Dola's story?"

I get into a haze when I write sometimes.  Too much sawdust in the air--I can't see what I've done.  If it's the deadline, though, I turn in what I've got.  The editors read what is actually there on the page--not the lumber of words and phrases I cut and sanded away or discarded before the glue set.  In this case they pronounced what I'd given them whole, a complete instrument.  A story.  One in need of some polish, but all there.

In the discussion after my pov essay got posted I declared that my choice of Trill as the story's pov character had worked because Dola was unconscious for the rape scene, whereas Trill was able to witness and describe it.

But if I'd written the story from Dola's perspective, maybe that scene would have arrived on the page another way?  Or maybe that plot point would have been reached without it?

I'm going to leave this particular piano where it is.  But future ones could get pulled around.  By my teeth, if that's what it takes.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Fluid identities

First the brag: I recently edited an essay by Ursula K. Le Guin for The Cascadia Subduction Zone, and afterwards she told me I was "not only a good editor but a nice one."  (Thank you, Ursula!)  Next the confession:  As a zine's "poetry editrix" I once responded to a letter from a rejected submitter by peeing on it and mailing it back.  25 years passed between these two exchanges--years during which I got a lot of experience on both sides of the editing equation.  So now I look at where I've ended up and where I started out and I feel qualified to wonder:

Do editors have mighty powers?  Do they ever use these powers for ill?  Or only for good?

 The Fem-SF list serve, on which feminist science fiction authors discuss topics of concern, once considered banning editors.  The idea was that participants would feel freer to talk about their work and careers, maybe snark about turnaround times, compare pay rates.  Editors were classified as bosses, and Fem-SF was going to be configured as a boss-free environment.

Then Nalo Hopkinson protested that she edited as well as wrote.  Turned out there were others like that.  Turns out I'm one of them.  Timmi's another.  In this day of independent small presses and multiple simultaneous career tracks, the editors-as-bosses model of publishing's hierarchy is really rather dated.

Editors who write--or writers who edit--want to do both things best.  Also, we think we know what "best" means.  Our mighty powers range from Fresh Pair of Eyes through Chicago Manual of Style to Flush Bank Account.  Our origin stories are particularly helpful for us to keep in mind when it comes to understanding what our contributors are trying to accomplish and making sure they do so.

We worry.  We're careful.  We're busy but concerned.  We don't see ourselves as villains.  We don't actually intend to do ill, and we're always as diplomatic as possible--peeing on correspondence aside.

Understand this, though: we're sweet because honey is a better lubricant than gall.  Or urine.

Another episode in the interval between my editorialistic nadir and zenith: I attended Clarion West in 1992.  There I was introduced to the Milford method of critiquing.  One of the key points I learned about this method: start out telling the writer what they did right because that shows them you know what you're talking about.  This technique doesn't just make them feel good, it makes clear your bona fides.  It gives your subsequent remarks credibility.  Credibility you as an editor will need, since you yourself can't change the text.  You can't.  It's not yours; it's the author's, and only the author can change it.  So if you want to see something revised, get out your plastic bear full of golden bee vomit and squeeze.

I guarantee you'll be happier thinking back on having done that than if you apply another liquid.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Endarkening us all

Conversation about all things Aqueductian is this blog's remit, and for the next week or so its founder has left it in my hands, desiring me to "enlighten and entertain" you.  If my posts aren't entertaining you probably won't bother reading them.  But I would rather endarken than enlighten.
Some time shortly after the turn of the millenium, sitting in a Capitol Hill cafe with my friend and co-author Cindy Ward, I listened to Timmi Duchamp tell us how she was going to start a publishing house.  She was really serious about this idea; she'd gotten advice on buying ISBNs and everything.  My initial response--which I kept to myself--was a mixture of skepticism and provisional resentment.  I hoped she knew how much work she'd be taking on.  I didn't see why her pet project would ever have anything to do with me and my writing.  And I certainly didn't expect she would change the face of publishing--least of all that face's racial profile.

There are four books that could be called mine.  All come from Aqueduct.  Next year I'll be able to claim a fifth.  Same publisher.  So I was wrong to think Timmi's project would have no impact on my career.  And deliciously wrong in my other conclusion as well.

Aqueduct's stated mission is to provide challenging feminist science fiction to the demanding reader.  Nothing explicit in there about race or ethnicity.  But when it comes to authors, racial representation within the catalog departs from the unmarked state, which is whiteness.  I love, love, love that the press does this--and without marking that departure.  Don't believe me?  Check out this list of authors.  I count eight who aren't white--there may be more.  Eight of 50.  That's 16%--a smaller percentage than in US demographics, but it feels huge to me.  Huge in a good way.  An endarkening way.

Author An Owomoyela noted that her linguistics studies taught her that:
"gender" is just a word for "kind."
We were talking at the time about the intersection of race and gender in her story "Of Men and Wolves" and also in the excellent Cat Rambo's "Clockwork Fairies."  Talking about a certain kind of kind really doesn't keep you from talking about another kind of kind.  In fact, it can make The Grand Conversation easier to engage in.


Monday, August 6, 2012

Heads up!

Nisi Shawl will be enlightening and keeping you amused while I'm traveling. If I'm slow to respond to email, it may be because I'm under conditions of limited connectivity. (We shall see.)

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Statement by Readercon's ConCom

In the wake of the mass resignation of Readercon's Board, Readercon's ConCom has issued a statement vis-a-vis the Readercon Board's handling of the sexual harassment issue, overriding the Board's decision by permanently banning Rene Walling from attending. The ConCom also apologizes to Genevieve Valentine and Kate Kligman and notes:
by damaging the convention's reputation as a safe haven where harassment is aggressively discouraged and appropriately dealt with when it happens, we have upset many people who care about the convention and undermined our efforts to make the convention more inclusive and diverse. Women, members of minority groups, and younger people are often especially vulnerable to harassment, and many have been understandably put off by the perception that harassment is tolerated at our convention; we cannot claim to be welcoming them while creating an environment in which they feel unsafe.

We offer our heartfelt apology to everyone in our community who trusted us and has been hurt by our breach of trust; to everyone who once felt safe at Readercon and no longer does; to those who have linked Readercon's reputation with their own and now feel tarnished by association, especially our past guests of honor and anyone who has officially or informally promoted the convention; and to those who love Readercon and are heartbroken to see its leaders acting contrary to the convention's best interests.
The statement also promises to take future specified actions to address the general problem of sexual harassment. If Readercon implements all the steps they are proposing, that con will be a trail-blazer in the way WisCon has come to be. 

New e-books from Aqueduct Press

We've just released e-book editions for four volumes in our Conversation Pieces series:

Vol. 5: Rosaleen Love's The Traveling Tide ($5.95)

Vol. 15: Lesley A. Hall's Naomi Mitchison: A Profile of Her Life and Work ($5.95)

Vol. 24: Sylvia Kelso's Three Observations and a Dialogue: Round and About Science Fiction ($5.95)

Vol. 34: Christopher Barzak's Birds and Birthdays ($5.95)

You can order them now at

Friday, August 3, 2012

Christopher Barzak's Birds and Birthdays

I'm pleased to announce the release of Christopher Barzak's Birds and Birthdays, the thirty-fourth volume in Aqueduct's Conversation Pieces series. 

Remedios Varo, Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning: three of the most interesting painters to flourish in male-dominated Surrealism. This is Christopher Barzak’s tribute to them, three stories and an essay that enter into a humane surrealism which turns away from the unconscious and toward magic.

Sometimes the stories themselves seem to be paintings. Sometimes painter and writer may be characters, regarding each other through a painful otherness, talking in shared secrets. Barzak’s stories are huge with the spacious strangeness of worlds where there is always more room for a woman to escape her tormenters, or outgrow an older self. Here we find a bird-maker and a star-catcher whose shared history spills over into the birds and the stars themselves; a girl who outgrows her clothes, her house, and finally her town—and leaves to find her body a new home; a landlord, whose marriage, motherhood, separation, sexual exploration, and excursions into self-portraiture all take place within a single apartment building.

In “Remembering the body: Reconstructing the Female in Surrealism,” Barzak comments on the images that inspired these stories and discusses his own position as a writer among painters--and gender politics within the Surrealist movement.

 Here's a passage from "The Creation of Birds," the tale that engages with the paintings of Remedios Varo:
The Bird Woman hasn’t been able to make birds for a long time. Nearly four months have passed without one new bird. The birds in the next room were the last to receive the required teaspoon of moon and starlight needed to give them life. The stars and moons, a lot of them have been disappearing. It’s because of the Star Catcher—he’s been out there again, in the night sky, taking them down, so many of them, as if they were mere ornaments or lanterns. Without them, the Bird Woman won’t be able to complete even this sparrow, small and slight as it is. There isn’t enough available light to make it live. Why do I try, she wonders.  Habit, she thinks. Wishful thinking, she decides.

She tries not to attribute anything to hope.

A swan strolls into the workshop, sidling up beside the Bird Woman’s leg, attempting to view the parchment, but its neck isn’t long enough to stretch that high. “Shoo,” the Bird Woman scolds it. “Back with the others, silly swan. We’ll be leaving soon for the market.”
She strokes the top of its head before it turns to leave the room. Her fingers come away damp, sticky with ivory.
You can purchase Birds and Birthdays here.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Lesley Wheeler's The Receptionist and Other Tales

I'm pleased to announce that Aqueduct has just released The Receptionist and Other Tales, a new Conversation Pieces volume featuring narrative poetry by Lesley Wheeler. I'll let Ursula Le Guin's and Gwyneth Jones's descriptions speak for the volume:

Gwyneth Jones, author of Spirit and The Universe of Things writes: Lesley "Wheeler's The Receptionist is a delight: a stirring narrative of fantasy and derring-do, set in the ivy-clad towers and poky offices of modern academia, in which the warrior princess of an ancient line returns to the fray at last and summons ancient powers to defend the right, all told in technically assured terza rima cantos, full of ingenious rhythms. The forces of evil are all too recognizable, the bad guys satisfyingly bad and the good guys not too goody-goody. The infusion of classic children’s fantasy, and other bedtime folklore sources, is wonderful too. In the bonus package of shorter poems, “Zombie Thanksgiving” (T.S. Eliot's “The Waste Land” retold) is stunning, an absolute tour de force."

Ursula K. Le Guin, author of Lavinia and Cheek by Jowl, writes: "How much Modernism deprives us of when it declared both the fantastic in fiction and the narrative in poetry unrespectable, and what a pleasure it is now to see the exiled witches and the forbidden rhymes return. Where can an evil Dean meet his doom more fitly than in terza rima? Lesley Wheeler’s brief novel of misbehaviour in academia, subtle and funny, rashly inventive and perfectly realistic, uses all the forgotten powers of metaphor and poetry to make the mundane luminous."

Edna, the heroine of "The Receptionist," is a mother and the receptionist for an academic department. The morning after hearing a Voice telling her The first revolution: simply to refuse, going through her email inbox, "Edna thought to check her spam."

 There it was, from "Gnomic Utterance." Subject
line: Solve for X. My destiny approaches,
she thought, and chuckled like a cracked crock-pot.

 You can purchase it now, here.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Stuff of Interest

--The Weird Review has not only posted a review of The Moment of Change, but also reprinted two of its poems. Reviewer Adam Mills characterizes the anthology as "a collection of works so extensive, dense, and intense that it expands the space it is placed within and makes a territory for itself."

 --The Future Fire has posted a review of Kiini Ibura Salaam's Ancient, Ancient. Reviewer Martha Hubbard writes, "Throughout the language is stunning, like music become words. I found my own mind dazzled and my imagination stretched to keep up with the flow of images. The story that spoke most strongly to me was that of ‘Marie’, a young Creole woman who has gradually become disconnected from her Louisiana home and her family identity."

 --The AALBC has also posted a review of Ancient, Ancient. Reviewer Emanuel Carpenter is a bit uncomfortable with its fantastic and science-fictional elements-- "If you haven’t been exposed to this type of writing, which can be described as African storytelling with a touch of poetic verse, erotica, science fiction and spiritual themes, then each story may indeed have you scratching your head and asking questions. Questions like: What’s up with the moths? Was that really a part snake, part human? What’s up with all the poetry?"-- even as he likes the book (and calls it a "page-turner"): "The stories in this book are sensual, unique, and thought-provoking. In fact, it’s easy to imagine many of the stories as the basis for short films instead of a book. Many of the stories that deal with issues of sexuality, desire, and even revenge (including some not mentioned in this review) will have you wishing they were expanded into a novel."

 --Sofia Samatar has reviewed Ellen Klages's In the House of the Seven Librarians for Strange Horizons. She characterizes the physical book thus: "Since the story takes place in such a library, the illustrations are more than padding: they cast a shadow of the world we know into the enchanted realm of the rather special Carnegie Library in the tale. Even with the illustrations, however, the book is small. You could put it into the envelope of a birthday card. It feels like a gift, and it would make a good one, because the story is delightful. Like other magical small spaces—the wardrobes and rabbit holes of fantastic literature—Klages's House is bigger on the inside." -

-Wired's Recovered 1927 Metropolis Film Program Goes Behind the Scenes of a Sci-Fi Masterpiece is worth checking out: "A remarkable 32-page theater program from Metropolis’ 1927 debut has surfaced at a well-known rare book shop in London, which scanned it and shared some pages with Wired. The program was created for the premiere of Metropolis at London’s Marble Arch Pavilion, and it’s packed with firsthand anecdotes from the making of the movie, and some stunning photographs. Only three surviving copies of this program are known to exist, according to the Peter Harrington rare book shop, which has its copy on sale for 2,750 pounds ($4,244). (All 32 pages are available for viewing.) The program reveals the intriguing backstory behind the German sci-fi epic, as told from the perspective of Lang, his wife and collaborator Thea von Harbou, and several members of the cast and crew."

 --New York Magazine has posted an essay by Frank Rich on the media's reaction to actor Andy Griffith's death to mourn not Griffith's passing but his role's being "one of the last links to another, simpler time" and a repository of “values which actually transcended the deep divides which tore the nation apart during the years the show aired from 1960 to 1968.” "In reality," Rich writes, "The Andy Griffith Show didn’t transcend the deep divides of its time. It merely ignored them." Rich then examines some of the narratives of American decline now flourishing, particularly the right wing's accusations against the Obama Administration and the reintroduction of the claims for American exceptionalism by Sarah Palin in 2008:
Once Obama was elected, American exceptionalism became as Palin had defined it—a proxy for the patriotism that the new president lacked. From there, it took just a rhetorical sleight-of-hand to link Obama’s deficiency of Americanism to America’s advancing decline. The conflation was consummated by Charles Krauthammer in an influential October 2009 article for The Weekly Standard titled “Decline Is a Choice: The New Liberalism and the End of American Ascendancy.” To make his case, he leaned on an Obama quote from a press conference at a NATO conference in Strasbourg, France, that spring. In response to a question from Edward Luce, a Financial Times reporter (and himself the author of a subsequent declinist tome subtitled America in the Age of Descent), the president had answered, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” In Krauthammer’s view, this was proof that Obama was endorsing American decline, for “if everyone is exceptional, no one is.”
Since then it’s been pile-on time on the right, usually with that one Obama quote brandished as the smoking gun. The president is constantly being lashed for his lack of commitment to American exceptionalism, much as he was slapped around during the 2008 campaign for not at first slavishly donning a flag lapel pin. Newt Gingrich helped lead the way with a campaign book titled A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters; he explained that he is an “American exceptionalist” because he believes in “fundamentally rebuilding the America we inherited,” as opposed to Obama, who “believes in fundamentally undermining the America we inherited.” Mitt Romney’s contribution to the genre, No Apology, is one long dirge for how America has lost its greatness in the Obama era’s bankrupt “reorientation away from a celebration of American exceptionalism.”
“On the right, the word ‘exceptional’—or ‘exceptionalism’—lately has become a litmus test” is how the columnist Kathleen Parker accurately characterized her fellow conservatives last year when chastising Obama for not obediently saying “that word ‘exceptional’ ” during his 2011 State of the Union address and instead “studiously” avoiding “the word conservatives long to hear.” The only flaw in her argument is that no American president has ever publicly referred to “American exceptionalism” in the more than eight decades since Stalin coined it—with the sole exception of Obama. According to the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara—a repository of all the presidents’ public words, eagerly mined by fact-checking bloggers in response to exceptionalism fetishists like Parker—George W. Bush did at least use exceptional in office, albeit twice in reference to his torpedoed Supreme Court nominee, Harriet Miers.
It doesn’t take much imagination to understand why Obama, branded as an outlier to the “real America” by Palin in 2008, would be held to a different standard than his predecessors by a modern GOP that is almost as lily-white as Mayberry. But declinists not normally engaged in conservative partisan politics have fallen into the American-exceptionalism trap as well by buying wholeheartedly into the right’s elevation of Stalin’s coinage from near obscurity to a jingoistic buzz term. Murray writes that the country will be on the right track “only when we are talking again about why America is exceptional and why it is so important that America remain exceptional.” Friedman and Mandelbaum second the motion: American exceptionalism “has to be earned continually” and “is now in play.” Their intention may not be to join the right in tarring Obama with America’s collapse, but in this hothouse political climate that is the practical effect.
You can read the entire essay here.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Panel deportment and demeanor

It occurred to me, particularly after reading Nancy Jane Moore's comment on my Post Readercon report, that for most of us, signing up for and appearing on panels usually entails only a limited amount of reflection. Would it be correct to say that the only thing most people who sign up for particular panels are sure of is that they have (or might have) something to say about the proposed topic? And that that certainty is the only criterion they have for participation? And is it also true that most people sit down in front of an audience first and foremost with the purpose of talking on that subject and with the confidence (whether warranted or not) that the audience (if not the other panelists) will be interested in hearing them speak?

Speaking to the subject of the panel is, after all, what they as panelists are there to do. But it's not really just that simple, is it. Panelists are there to engage in a collective communication-- with fellow panelists, and with the audience (even when the audience isn't speaking). When you start to think about it, it's a difficult form of communication to describe. Unless, of course, you think of each panelist as present in isolation from all the others, relating singly to the audience. But what sort of experience would that be for the audience? Three or four or five different speakers, performing intermittently, like university lecturers taking turns addressing a class of students? That's not my idea of a panel.

Presuming that's not a correct description of what a panel is, let's ask ourselves just what the appropriate description for the kind of communication that panelists should be engaging in is. Andrea Hairston, in her second comment to the post, used the word "conversation." When I'm moderating a panel, I definitely think of the discussion as a conversation-- among panelists, and between the audience and the entire panel. The character of a panel discussion is significantly different when audience participation is allowed or encouraged early in the panel rather than late. (I've moderated both kinds of panels, and both are legitimate, since verbal participation by the audience, while usually desirable, is not always necessary for creating a worthwhile experience for all.) Since Readercon panels last for only 50 minutes (as opposed to WisCon's eighty minutes), it's not surprising that quite a few panels at Readercon don't allow the audience into the conversation until very near the end (if at all). This is always fine with me, as an audience member, if the panelists have interesting things to say and are engaging in genuine conversation (rather than holding forth to the audience without bothering to engage with one another).

Did you catch that I just used the expression "holding forth"? I'm sure that just about everyone reading this post will know what I mean. The problem with seeing one's purpose on a panel as primarily that of speaking--"sharing" insights or regurgitating something recently read that relates to the subject--is that it turns panelists into lecturers. Speaking for myself, I've often found that the thinking, reading, and note-taking I've done in preparation for a panel may often have nothing to do with what the other panelists are talking about. So what does a responsible panelist do? Wait one's turn and hold forth? Many do. But that's not my idea of participating in a discussion. Even when I'm the moderator of the panel, I try to take my cue from the other panelists--and sometimes the audience-- and am prepared, when necessary, to abandon my preparation and go with the flow. (I.e., as a moderator or leader of a panel, my priority is to foster and organize as best I can an engaged discussion, a priority above that of setting an agenda for the discussion. I do, of course, start out setting an agenda, particularly when it's a panel I've proposed myself, but I'm always prepared to abandon it when I can see its either unintelligible or uninteresting to the other panelists.)

There are some problems, though, in thinking of panel discussion as conversation. A panel discussion can actually become too casual and informal, encouraging certain types of people to blather on uninhibited in ways that in a more informal setting could easily be headed off by the speaker's interlocutors. Informality can encourage a loss of consciousness that you're demanding attention from a large group of people who have no way of using the usual gambits interlocutors can use in conversations involving less than, say, six people. Informality can also contribute to panelists ignoring the cues of the moderator. Even worse, I've seen panelists actually lose it when stopped mid-flow--completely oblivious to the fact that the tangent they've gone off on may not be of interest to anyone else in the room. When there's an audience, cutting off someone whose gone on and on and on can be fraught, even if everyone else in the room is just waiting for that person to stop.

Would it be unreasonable to suggest that people ought not to agree to be on a panel unless at least one or two of the other panelists are people they're interested in hearing talk and interested in engaging with? It might well be that mere interest in and knowledgeability about the topic are not  sufficient reasons for being on a panel. (They are obviously necessary reasons.) Perhaps all of us who participate in programming need to have the sense, going into a panel, that we're interested in hearing what the other panelists (or most of the other panelists) will have to say.

I strikes me that when serving on a panel we need to start from an attitude of respect for the panelists (and audience--which is something good writers will presumably already have, since you can't really be a good writer without presuming your readers are smart and perceptive), and a desire to hear what they're going to say, and of course the hope that the other panelists will be as interested in engaging with what you have to say as you are with what they have to say.

Does that sound utopian? I don't really think it is, since I've seen the difference these attitudes can make to panels I've been on. (The Imagining Radical Democracy panel at the last WisCon was a perfect example of that. I found it an electrifying experience. And I was not alone in that.) I feel pretty confident that much of the insensitive behavior of panelists at cons is a result of a particular panelist coming into the panel with a predetermined lack of interest in what the other panelists might have to say and regarding all the time on the panel when they're not talking as wasted, boring moments to be waited out.

WisCon-- and probably many other cons as well-- offers guidelines (and even a little course) on effective moderation of panels. Everyone considers panel behavior to be obvious. I wonder. Perhaps we ought to have a primer for prospective panelists. Not just on etiquette (though that would be a start, particularly in educating the clueless about what their relationship to the moderator ought to be), but also on purpose and attitude.    

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Post Readercon

I had a full, rich Readercon experience this last weekend. The panels I participated in were all lively and interesting (particularly the panel on How To Suppress Women's Writing, which was led by Andrea Hairston and included me and Brit Mandelo [whom we drafted from the audience] as well as intense participation by an engaged audience, most of whom had already read the book). Reading from my novel in progress (working title "Deep Story") brought me reassuring feedback (viz., that a middle-aged woman lacking superpowers or stunning beauty or personality, holding a gray job and without a heroic bone in her body, is an acceptable protagonist). And best of all, I made new acquaintances and got to hang out with various friends I never can get enough of.

And yet, of course, at the same time I was enjoying the con, I was aware of problems. Genevieve Valentine writes eloquently of two types of those problems here. (At the time I read her post, there were already 264 comments, including one by Nora Jemison offering an excellent analysis supplementing Genevieve's.) The first type of problem, which is condescending insensitive behavior by a male panelist incapable of taking a woman panelist seriously merely because she's female, occurs everywhere at sf cons, of course. (Yes, it occurs at WisCon, too. It has occurred to me at WisCon. And this last WisCon it even occurred to one of the GoHs, who was moderating and had to physically struggle with a male panelist over possession of the microphone.) This situation occurs most often when panels have only one woman on them, but can (and does) occur even when panels have only one man on them. As Genevieve notes and several of the commenters to her post attest, the almost inevitable result of having only one woman on the panel is to make her point of view and representation of interests nearly inaudible. It is also, as Vernoica Schanoes, my roommate at Readercon this year, observed to me, means that she ends up carrying the burden of making Feminism 101-sorts of points where necessary, meaning, of course, that all the interesting things she might have had to say get subordinated to the burden of providing remedial education to people who should by now know better.

When on Friday morning, as an audience member, I saw a USian man on a post-colonial fantastic literature panel turn to address Vandana Singh (probably telling himself he was educating the audience though he was actually looking at her) and mansplain the difference between Britain's colonization of the US and Britain's colonization of India, I instantly wondered if it was his position as a man speaking to a woman or of a USian speaking to an Indian that made him so confident that she knew less about her own country's experiences of colonialism than he did, even though she'd already referred to India's 5000 years of history. (Don't worry. I knew, of course, that it was both.) The presumption of authority some men carry around with them apparently surges irresistibly to the surface whenever they are in the presence of "others" who aren't white and male. It's the sort of presumption Jane Austen loved to skewer in both men and women. But see, not all of those presumptuous white males who can't take female panelists seriously treat other white males that way. And that's where the sexism comes in.   
This is a subject that is not going away. It's not a fun subject, I know. But it's one in which a wider, greater consciousness of it will reduce the problem's presence at cons significantly.

Monday, July 16, 2012


In the new issue of the American Book Review (33,3 March/April 2012), Jeffrey  R. Di Leo's editorial-- "Another One Bites the Dust"-- notes the continuing closure of university presses. "Another one" refers to The University of Missouri Press, which was founded in 1958 and has published around 2000 titles in its life time. Di Leo notes that university presses "are non-profit enterprises. Though these presses may reach a level of financial self-sufficiency in their operation, they are by and large underwritten by their host university. This is part of the investment of higher education." Indeed. The work published by university presses could, collectively, be said to constitute the bones holding many academic disciplines together, both nourishing their development and providing them with their primary frames of reference. Di Leo also insists that "one of the measures of a great university is the strength of its press. Press strength is determined by its catalogue, and its catalogue by the choices of its editors and the impact of its authors."

Sadly, many university presses have been shut down, and some of those that haven't been shut down are now trying to be run as though they were for-profit businesses, with disastrous results for scholars and the academy generally. Why is the University of Missouri Press being shut down? Because the the people who determine the university's budget have chosen to eliminate the $400,000 a year subsidy that has allowed them to publish the titles the press's editors find worthy of publication. As Di Leo notes, in the same year that the press's subsidy was eliminated, the University of Missouri chose to give its football coach a $650,000 raise. I was shocked to read in Di Leo's editorial this: "Louisiana State University, another football powerhouse, slated its university press for closure in 2009." I was shocked, because I know that press continues to exist. Somehow, it survived its budget crisis. But for how long?

All I have to do is look at my own bookshelves to see how valuable, for me, university presses have been (including numerous volumes from both University of Missouri Press and Louisiana State University press). Di Leo says that "University of Missouri administrators are said to be hashing out ways to create a new and sustainable model to operate a university press." That sentence made my heart sink. I've heard terrible things from scholar after scholar about their experiences with presses that have "created a new and sustainable model" for operation. And I've noticed that many of these no longer non-profit presses often charge exorbitant prices for the books they do publish-- including e-book editions, which are often burdened with the same price (or only slightly lower) than that of the hard-cover edition, putting them out of the reach of even someone like me.

Di Leo closes by noting that after Rice University closed its press in 1996, they re-opened an all-digital press in 2006. The all-digital press cost Rice $150,000-200,000 a year. "What they found out was that there 'are base costs that are irreducible'-- 'and that printing is only one of them.'"

Since college football is so important to the world, why bother having a college at all, I wonder? I'm just waiting for state legislators to start asking themselves that. Once they do, you can be sure there will be proposals to eliminate every department except the athletics program (and maybe the business school) of the colleges and universities that were once actually supported by state funding (but are now mainly dictated to by state legislatures, regardless of how little support they actually provide). It seems only a matter of time, don't you think?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

I.L. Peretz and the 53%

A couple of years ago, trying to track down an old grad school classmate online, I found that he had written a dismaying manifesto about why he’d recently become a hardcore conservative. He had realized that The Left was motivated solely by a vile irrational hatred of President Bush that by 2005 had become almost irresistibly sublime. Sure, the fact that Bush’d won the presidency illegitimately and justified war with Iraq dishonestly were initially causes for concern, but he’d turned out to be a fine leader, and conversations with Iraq war veterans had persuaded my classmate that liberating the Iraqis had been worth it. But the breaking point had been the reaction of the Left to Hurricane Katrina: how, the newly conservative professor asked, could they have gone so ‘round the bend as to blame Bush for a hurricane?

I lost a lot of sleep over that. How much does one have to ignore in order to say that about Katrina? “Heckuva job,” FEMA trailers, the very existence of disaster relief, the air guitar, disaster policy in other countries and in previous years, wow. This professor’s position is well to the right of Bush’s own: Bush and his ghostwriters in Decision Points take for granted that Katrina was dealt with very badly, for all that they blame the governor of Louisiana. But I’ve heard the same “hurricanes happen” argument elsewhere, once from a guy who did not leave the Democratic Party.

In 2004, I had a little apartment in Chestnut Hill, an affluent neighborhood in the far northwest corner of Philadelphia, more Republican than the areas to its south. Lunching on the eleven-dollar bluefish special at a nice restaurant at the top of the hill, I heard loud conversation nearby. I saw a party of five or six at a round table, most of them in late middle age or older; but there was a younger guy dominating the conversation. Looking again, I saw that he was a white man with curly dark red hair and a head, wow, a head that was a dead ringer for the type that Confederate phrenologist Josiah Nott (still a hero among white supremacists) called the “Apollo Belvedere”: it was almost completely flat in the back and inclined inward as it rose, rather than being visibly convex like the skull beneath it. Nott thought this shape indicated the highest of civilized life, but if that’s so, the highest of civilized life doesn’t communicate very well. “And who is Howard Stern?” asked the older relatives. “He’s a shock jock,” said Apollo without elaboration, as if someone who hadn’t heard of Stern could know what that meant. But what Apollo and his family all agreed on was that it was disgraceful that the 9/11 commission was quizzing Condoleezza Rice as if she, or anything she knew, could suggest that the 9/11 attacks represented a failure on the Bush Administration’s part. “People keep looking for blame, or asking for explanations,” he said, “but sometimes things like that just happen.” 

Last year, in response to the Occupy-inspired tumblr “We are the 99%,” on which people describe the desperate circumstances they live in thanks to the precipitous rise in inequality in this country, conservative propagandist Eric Erickson founded a site called “We are the 53%.” The name alludes to the fact that 47% of Americans are freeloaders, too poor to owe any federal income tax. And people living under desperate circumstances sent in pictures, talking about how their lives are hard, but they don’t complain like the 99% people: they just suck it up and take pride in what they do, without any of this nonsense about blaming Wall Street, ‘cause that’s just the way things are. Here is one liberal’s attempt to rebut a 53%er, "Open Letter to that 53% Guy." Even more striking is the one described here by E.D. Kain of Forbes:

My father came to NY from Croatia in 1971, with KNOWLEDGE in his head, LOVE in his heart & the clothes on his back. 
He built up a small construction business and put me & my 4 siblings through Catholic school and college, while my mother raised us and put home-cooked meals on the table. 
Business has been steadily declining and my family (still honestly abiding by the regulations, TAXES & fees imposed by the gov’t) now lives paycheck-to-(hopefully!) paycheck. 
We found out he has thyroid cancer — had a 10-hour operation this past summer. 
He was back to work FULL-TIME (12 hrs/day, 6 days/wk) within a month, even though the doctors told him to take it easy (he works manual labor). 
The cancer still grows. 
THAT is the American dream. 
WE are the 53%.

In 1894, the great socialist Yiddish fantasist I.L. [Yud Lamed] Peretz published “Bontshe Shvayg” — the title is not quite translatable because English lacks an active verb for “to be silent” like “shvaygn”: say, “Bontshe the Silent” or “Bontshe Stayed Silent” or “Bontshe Said Nothing.” Here is a description of how two characters see it in Sarah Schulman’s second novel, Girls, Visions, and Everything.
Isabel read it then and there while Lila watched her react. It was about a guy named Bonche who never had a good moment in his whole life. People would shit all over him and he consistently took it . . . When he died, he had to be judged in the heavenly court. The defense attorney proved that no matter how much he suffered, Bonche had never cursed God . . . Bonche won the trial and could have anything he wanted in all imagination.  That was his reward. God would give him whatever he asked for.

“What I want,” said Bonche, “is, every day, a hot roll with some fresh butter.”

Then, said Peretz, the prosecutor broke out laughing . . .

“You get it Isabel?” Lila was hysterical with enthusiasm. “In the end, the prosecutor really won. Bonche was turned into such a schmuck from never tasting anger or desire or revenge that when his moment finally came, his spirit was too dead to be able to do anything . . . “

By contrast, look at what Alfred Kazin, a revered figure in literary criticism, had to say about Bontshe in 1960:  
But in his technique of ambiguity [Isaac Bashevis] Singer speaks for our generation far more usefully than the old ritualistic praise of Jewish goodness. While Bontsha and Tevye are entirely folk images, cherished symbols of a tradition, Gimpel . . . significantly has to win back his faith . . . 
Doubtless Peretz and Sholem Aleichem liked folk images, but I look in vain for “ritualistic praise of Jewish goodness” in their stories. The 1950s U.S., as I learned from Delany’s “Midcentury,” had forgotten a lot of turn-of-the century radicalism; but it still seems bizarre to me that Kazin thought Peretz was praising Bontshe’s humility. The old Yiddish writers were not running a Sunday School.  

The late Harvey Pekar seems to have thought that one of them was. In his and Paul Buhle’s 2011 Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular and the New Land, he argues that Peretz is overrated:   
. . . some of his stories seem based on folk tales and are excessively sentimental [true, but what does Pekar use as an example?] I refer to such pieces as “Buntcheh the Silent” . . . When he gets to Heaven . . . He is offered everything he sees. Is he greedy? No! He only wants a roll with butter for breakfast daily. There’s irony here, but it’s overwhelmed by schmaltz.  
The Peretz of Pekar’s imagination is a 53%-er: Bontshe has suffered immeasurably, been unpaid and sick and humiliated and trampled in the gutter, but he doesn’t blame Wall Street! He is happy with simple things! In fact, it is Bontshe’s own vitiated imagination that recalls the pathos of the 53%-ers; and Peretz isn’t commending that.

Last week, I had the privilege of attending a presentation called “Continuities: from World War 3 Illustrated to Occupy Comics,” hosted by Seth Tobocman and featuring artists from both journals. And the Occupy Comics creators gave an impassioned talk about how we have to create new myths and offer different narratives to people in order to fight the power and attain more social justice; and I thought of how Aqueduct Press and most radical SF has that among its goals as well. And I know that Occupy did change the discourse, and millions of Americans do regard Katrina as a failure on the part of the Bush Administration, and scores of Sunday Schools actually have taught “Bontshe Shvayg” as a story of protest. But the task of offering alternative narratives sometimes seems overwhelming in the face of mindsets that see explanations as paranoid or resentful acts ‘cause sometimes things just happen, that resist the idea of causal connections between societal events, or that sees the highest virtue in slogging along and accepting Things As They Are.
How hopeful can one be when otherwise-astute writers see a celebratory or sentimental ending in a scene where the angels hang their heads in shame and the only sound in Heaven is the laughter of the Adversary? 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


I'll be attending Readercon this year (which I only very occasionally do), which falls this year on July 13-15. I seem to be scheduled for a lot of programming. I did think, when I saw how much I'd been scheduled for, of dropping a panel, but I couldn't bring myself to give up any particular one, so promising do the panel descriptions sound. In fact, there's a good deal of programming this year that I'm also keen to attend. How, I'm wondering, will I get in all the conversations I'm eager to have as well as all the alluring programming?

Several other Aqueduct authors will be attending, by the way. Here's my own schedule:

Friday, 2:00 PM   G   Evaluating Political Fiction. L. Timmel Duchamp, Alexander Jablokov (leader), Robert Killheffer, Vincent McCaffrey, Anil Menon, Ruth Sternglantz. This panel examines the intersections among story as political expression, story as entertainment, and story as art and craft. When an author takes a clear political stance within a work of fiction, how does a reader's perception of that stance–and the extent to which we find it compelling or intriguing–affect our sense of whether the work is entertaining or well-crafted? Given the diversity of opinions among readers and the ways that judgments of quality are necessarily influenced by culture and personal experience, should readers aim to achieve consensus about a political work's merits and meanings, or do we need to embrace a more pluralistic understanding of how literary works are both experienced and evaluated? What are best practices for critics, academics, and other professional readers as we navigate these tricky waters?

Friday, 3:00 PM   ME   Readercon Classic Nonfiction Book Club: How to Suppress Women's Writing. Samuel R. Delany, L. Timmel Duchamp, Gwynne Garfinkle, Andrea Hairston (leader). First published in 1983, How to Suppress Women's Writing remains a touchstone for many people, the sort of book often passed from one reader to another with the words, "You have to read this!" Tansy Rayner Roberts wrote of it in 2010, "This is not an angry book. It is not a book that condemns men. It is a book that shows how our culture's traditional (patriarchal) way of reading and studying and archiving literature has forced limitations upon all of us, preventing us from understanding the importance of a huge percentage of the work written in our language. Men and women both have been convinced that women's writing (and indeed, art in general) is less valuable and less significant." How do we read Joanna Russ's work now, nearly 30 years after the book first appeared? Which of her ideas remain the most potent? Has it become, as critic Niall Harrison said in 2005, "a book that is most often referenced by its soundbites"? Do the soundbites do justice to the complexity of Russ's analysis?

Because I'll be participating in this panel, I've been doing a re-read of the book, which I've read several times since I first read it in 1983. Needless to say, I'm doing a lot of remembering of what the book meant to me at the time, as well as the difference between my first reading and this one. The most obvious difference is that my first reading was in a single sitting-- lying on the made bed in our first New Orleans' apartment on Hampson St., avid and devouring, unwilling to stop reading until I'd read the very last word. Apart from its effect on me as a writer (I was one year from starting the Marq'ssan Cycle), it rendered some of the most terrible aspects of being a graduate student in the mid-1970s from a sharp new perspective. 

Friday, 5:30 PM   NH   Reading. L. Timmel Duchamp. L. Timmel Duchamp reads from her novel in progress.

Unfortunately for my reading, Jeff VanderMeer's reading has been scheduled at the same time. Will even one person come to mine? That's how it goes, though, at multi-track cons. There are always trade-offs.

Saturday, 11:00 AM   G   Samuel R. Delany's Golden Jubilee. Matthew Cheney, Ron Drummond (leader), L. Timmel Duchamp, Elizabeth Hand, Donald G. Keller, Jo Walton. 2012 can be seen as a milestone year in the career of Samuel R. Delany: his 70th birthday; the 50th anniversary of his first novel, The Jewels of Aptor; the 35th anniversary of his classic critical work, The Jewel-Hinged Jaw; the 24th anniversary of being GOH at Readercon 2. Few writers have contributed so much over so long to all aspects of our field—science fiction, fantasy, critical theory, comics, autobiography, editing, teaching, even a documentary film. And he's still going, with a new novel out this year! This panel will celebrate Delany’s past, present, and future contributions to the field.

Saturday,  1:00 PM   G   Why Am I Telling You This (in the First Person)? Richard Bowes, Helen Collins, L. Timmel Duchamp (leader), Caitlín R. Kiernan, Kate Nepveu. In some narratives it is clear why and how a first-person narrator is telling their story (the tale is a found document, a club story, etc.); in some narratives the reasons for the telling must be deciphered (Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun) or the revelation of the reasons forms a key part of the story itself (N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms). But in some cases it seems counterproductive or otherwise quite unlikely that a narrator would be telling us the secrets they want to keep hidden, their plans for world domination, etc. What do we make of this question of narrator motivation? To what extent should we read the telling as part of the tale, a chosen act of character, versus simply an extra-textual conceit required for the story to exist? Is this different for present vs. past tense? And to the extent that authors consider these questions when choosing a narrative point of view, what are some interesting examples of how they've used the fact of the telling of a story to affect how that story is read?

Hope to see some of you-all there.