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June 2009

Cynthia Burack: "A Note about Politics"

Burack.healing I picked up Cynthia Burack's Healing Identities: Black Feminist Thought and the Politics of Groups (Cornell University Press, 2004) on our book shopping trip to Maryland a month or so ago when we collected a debt I was owed in books.

IMG_4251.JPGI have just started reading it this morning while snapping occasional shots of this morning's Lake Champlain sunrise -- it's a cloudy day, so the good shots only happen every couple of minutes.

The book's introduction begins with "A Note about Politics," which is a cool little piece all by itself.

No less a political observer than Henry Adams remarked in the early twentieth century that politics can be understood as the "systematic organization of hatreds."1 In face, hatreds are not always terribly well organized, but Adams's comment nonetheless captures a key reality of political life. Group hatred is "like a sturdy weed: you can weed several times a day and, in the morning, there it is again."2 Groups matter in part because of the vast harm those motivated by group identifications can do.

. . . Feminists tend to stress the coalitional political and social justice opportunities created by groups, while mainstream political thinkers tend to stress violent, dangerous, and unstable aspects of groups. All are right, of course: in group relations people can exhibit both extraordinary forms of cooperation and seemingly irrational forms of contentiousness. (p. 1)

1. Henry Adams. The Education of Henry Adams: An Autobiography, vol. 1 (New York: Time, 1964), 6.
2. Andrei Codrescu, The Devil Never Sleeps, and Other Essays (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000), 129.

This passage is particularly interesting to me in that I am coming to believe that one of the primary usages of the Web 2.0-style Internet is various forms of scapegoating, in which individuals or groups are named as the cause of the problems of and as a threat to other group.  I find the emerging situation very worrisome.


The story of a thylacine

In 2005, I took a photo of the thylacine on display at the Smithsonian and posted it on Flickr.

Smithsonian Thylacine

Flickr photos sometimes accrete slow conversations about the image. This morning, someone writing as Katster54 left the following interesting story:

You know why the Smithsonian thylacine has a pretty face? Because it is one of the three living thylacines shipped to the United States from Tasmania in 1902. Photographs of them alive in the National Zoo in Washington D.C. are on the internet. They were a mother and three children. The mother, in fact, was pregnant and delivered in her crate enroute from Tasmania to the United States. She was in bad shape when she arrived in Washington D.C. in May of 1902. The baby she delivered enroute only lived a few months. She lived until 1905 and I think the last one of this group had passed on by 1909. If you look at hers and her children's photograph when she lived at the National Zoo, you will see that she and her children had beautiful faces. 

Tangent Online Relaunches. Hooray!

David Truesdale writes:

Welcome to the relaunch of Tangent Online. It's been quite awhile, hasn't it? But we're finally back, with a somewhat different look, new software fueling the enterprise, and a brand new web-hoster, Analog author Eric James Stone (whose newest story, "The Final Element," can be found in the April, 2009 issue). Eric is the person most responsible for Tangent Online even existing today. He stepped forward and offered to host the site, provided the new software, and has been more than patient with yours truly as I have learned how to use it (and which I am still learning the finer points of). Eric deserves your unqualified thanks for his selfless efforts in getting us up and running once more.

Continue reading "Tangent Online Relaunches. Hooray!" »


A man with, um, identity issues

From the BBC: US man 'posed as his dead mother'

Thomas Prusik-Parkin, 49, is accused by prosecutors of regularly dressing up in a wig, dress and make-up in order to fool the authorities.

The alleged scam has been going on ever since Mr Prusik-Parkin's mother, Irene Prusik, died in 2003 at the age of 73.

He faces charges of theft, forgery and conspiracy.

"I held my mother when she was dying and breathed in her last breath, so I am my mother," Mr Prusik-Parkin said when he was arrested, according to police.

The man had gone so far as to go through a bankruptcy proceeding in court impersonating his dead mother and went to DMV in person and renewed her driver's license.

Reminds me of the famous line:

"Be Yourself; everyone else is already taken." 
— Oscar Wilde

The Daily News has an extremely strange transcript of court testimony by Mr. Prusik-Parkin at a foreclosure hearing:

"How is your mother's health currently?" the lawyer asked.

. . .

"Fair," Parkin replied. "She had taken a stroke a few years ago. ... She can't walk properly. She can't speak."

"How does it affect her speech?"

"'Bleh, bleh, bleh, bleh, bleh,' like that."

"Slurred or unintelligible?"

"To say the least."

"You speak with her, correct? You meet with her?"

"She doesn't reply directly, really."

"How do you communicate with her? How does she respond?"

"It's one-sided."

There are more weird details in The Daily News.


Stoker weekend, day 1: a friendly pleasantly serious mellow vibe

The Horror Writer's Association Stoker Weekend started yesterday morning, and we are having a great time. People are very friendly and it has the kind of pleasantly serious mellow vibe of World Fantasy Cons and Necons I remember from about 20 years ago. There are about 250 attendees and the hotel space has areas for easy gathering both inside and out.

My Flickr photoset is HERE. Scott Edelman's photos are HERE.

First thing Friday morning, we checked out the pool.

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We talked to Scott Edelman over breakfast, and then I hung out in the lobby meeting new people before opening ceremonies. 

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At opening ceremonies the guests were introduced, including my husband, David Hartwell, F. Paul Wilson, and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. 

opening ceremonies

Afterwards, it was time for a glass of wine (Ron Larsen bought me a really nice glass of white wine) and I drew Quinn Yarbro outon the subject of how she came to be a shuttle bus driver for the 1968 WorldCon. (She'd seen a call for volunteers in IF.)

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At 2PM, I was on an anthology panel moderated by Ellen Datlow with Bill Breedlove, RJ Cavender, Chad Helder, Stephen Jones, and Vince A. Liaguno. I've known Ellen and Steve for 20 years, but the rest I think I'd never met. It was a wide-ranging interesting discussion of anthologies and anthologists, one of the better panels I've been on on this subject in a number of years.

After that we headed for the Gauntlet Press Party, where Richard Matheson (in a wheel chair) and his son Richard Christian Matheson were to be found.

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At the party, I had a long intense conversation with Alan Rodgers and Amy Sterling Casil (whom I hadn't seen in ages).

We had a quiet family dinner of comfort food in the hotel restaurant (by this time we were all quite exhausted). Then we took a nap for an hour, because tehre was more to come.

The Gory Ghoul Bar was the event the kids had most been looking forward to. The kids and I put on our costumes and David put on a David outfit (it involved a purple shirt and an yellow tie). There was loud ebullient rock and roll of fluctuating key performed by mostly costumed authors and publishers. My kids danced a lot, and I danced too, mostly to help keep little girls from skinning their knees or colliding with something. 

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F. Paul Wilson did a fine job of "I'm an All Right Guy" by Tom Snyder. Scott Edelman has posted the performance to YouTube. (My daughter Elizabeth is the dancer in the unicorn pegasus costume.)

F. Paul Wilson on guitar

Peter and I both won costume prizes. he won as Goriest Ghoul or most Horribly Horrible or something, and they made up a special category for me: Best Tim Burton movie refugee. I was wearing one of my mother's 1950s party dresses (carefully preserved by my grandmother, which I received as part of the settling of her estate in 2008) plus a black velvet hat.

I am looking forward to the Non-Fiction Horror panel this morning. So far, it seems a good time is being had by all.

at the evening costume party at the stokers


A response to Hal Duncan's post "Ethics and Enthusiasm: Are We Calling This EthicsFail Yet?"

I wrote the following as a blog comment, but cannot get blogger to post properly, so I'm publishing my response to Duncan's "Ethics and Enthusiasm: Are We Calling This EthicsFail Yet?" here. Read Duncan's post first, before my response, posted below.

I love this piece, and upon printing it out and re-reading it carefully on paper, I find that I disagree with most of it. In some cases, first time around I had read you to be saying the exact opposite of what you seemed to be saying later when I read it again.

First of all, I think that media reviewing and book reviewing are really separate animals. Hollywood as an industry doesn't care what you have to say unless you have some capacity to get in the way of the making of money. (I was once the assistant to the literary division of an entertainment agency -- we were Elizabeth Taylor's and Michael Jackson's literary agents -- and I have never lost the cynicism engendered by the experience.) Reviewers can advise consumers or mediate the viewing experience of consumers, but except in rare exceptions are not participants in the game of media sf. (You can boo or cheer, but the Big Boys won't let you play the game. Some people turn to screen writing in hopes of being allowed to play; ever hear the one about the starlet who was so dumb that she slept with the writer? Sad, isn't it?)

Writing about print science fiction and fantasy is a very different enterprise: you can be and probably are part of the game of literature. And as such, you should consider your goals. I don't think that fucking good science fiction or blowing it up are particularly good goals.

One thing that has so far gone mostly unmentioned in the discussion of reviewing is that there are some of us who really like genre boundaries and think that they are aesthetically useful, and there are people who detest genre boundaries and wish they would go away and that people would stop talking about genre and let writers just write what they write. Having looked into the matter, I found that this does not cut along any predictable literary-political lines, and is pretty much an individual thing. I myself am one who likes them and finds them fascinating.

The passage I most seriously misread the first time through (I think it is your faux-marble background that is to blame) was this one:

Where Marxist or feminist or queer readings may be asking pertinent questions of the text, and on a very theoretical level, a Rationalist or Romanticist critique is actually compatibility assessment masquerading as ethical critique. The reader’s sense of what the book’s aims are clouded by a confused ethical/aesthetic notion of what they should be -- because, why the very purpose, the responsibility of fiction is to be enlightening/entertaining! -- there is little possibility of a valid evaluative critique, nor even a worthwhile critical review. The reader’s commitment to Rationalist or Romanticist aesthetics will most likely collapse the review to the lowest level as the ethical imperatives are translated into aesthetic prescriptivism.

I think you've got this exactly backwards: the various -isms, while they may raise "pertinent" questions (or impertinent ones, for that matter), are no less compatibility assessments. Science fiction has its own infield critical traditions into whose mysteries I was inducted prior to going to grad school, and I found that the outside -ism-oriented templates for evaluation were often misapplied when brought round to SF. For example, when I was in grad school, Cultural Studies was on the rise, and so finally it was supposed to be OK to talk about genre literature -- as long as you made no claims about it being any good. I think that SF's infield critical tradition has much to recommend it that you seem to be tossing in the nearest trash can.

Regarding Fail crit, Fail crit grew up in media fandom where, as I said, the Industry couldn't care less what they have to say unless they do damage. Because of this, declarations of "FAIL" imply the necessity of some form of punishment. As Claire Light explains:

. . . punishment is advocated at two places: often the remedial action is punishment of the original offender (as in asking a radio station to fire a racist DJ), and the action threatened if this remedy isn't taken up is usually a punishment as well (official complaint up the chain of command, formal boycott, or bad publicity, and the hanging of the "racist" label on the totality of the offenders.) The action is then picked up by the other bloggers and passed around.

Regardless of origins in theory, Fail crit seems to me an extreme example of compatibility assessment in which those judged incompatible are to be punished for their non-compliance.

I think you are misapplying the word template (as in template-matching). Template implies to me something like the Scott Meredith plot outline that SF novels were supposed to have, or the kind of criteria specified by romance publishers that romances were supposed to have. Genre and sub-genre are to me much more dynamic than that: genre is a conversation, genre is a cultural activity. Each new published work is a move in the game. Winning moves are those that advance the literature. When reading for an anthology, those winning moves are what I am looking for.

Returning to the subject of goals: if one's goal is to influence the literature, most of the things people think are influential mostly aren't. Declaring movements and writing manifestos almost never work. Nor does dourly seeking to destroy examples of heresy, which only makes a certain segment want to commit more heresy.

What works is publishing and praising the exemplary (even while disclosing its failings); explaining what is, for example, right about A. E. Van Vogt. I've been trying to remember who defined the novel as an extended work of prose with something wrong with it.* There is plenty wrong with A.E. Van Vogt's fiction. It's clunky, he throws in a new idea every 800 words, etc. And yet he is a writer -- like Hal Clement -- whose work is crucially important in the development of the SF aesthetic. What is right about Van Vogt turns out to be really important. What's wrong about him mostly isn't.

Make love to genre; don't just fuck it.

* Dave Langford provides the quote I was missing: “The novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it.” — Randall Jarrell


What I've been reading today: Pinkwater, Knight, & Grey Gardens

Daniel Pinkwater's The Education of Robert Nifkin (1998) • Michael Muhammed Knight's Blue-Eyed Devil: A Road Odyssey through Islamic America (2006) • Sarah & Rebekah Maysles's Grey Gardens (2009)

This is a really odd combination of books, but if you let books near each other, they establish a dialog, no matter how superficially dissimilar.

Nifkin The Pinkwater has been in a glass-doored book case in our bedroom probably for a decade, and I picked it out last night to read to Peter. In this household, we regard Pinkwater as a a genius, and he even came to David's birthday party once here, a long time ago. The book is set in the 1950s, roughly contemporaneous with when Pinkwater went to high school. For Pinkwater's sake, I hope it's not too autobiographical, even if it does have that flavor. It is written in the form of a college admission essay in answer to the question "Characterize in essay form, your high-school experience. you may use additional sheets as needed." It starts out along the lines of Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and ends up in the literary territory of Lenanora Carrington's surrealist novel The Hearing Trumpet

Nifkin's immigrant parents are casually unpleasant to him. His father's primary concern seems to be that if he is to smoke, he should smoke cigars, not cigarettes, and his mother is a terrible cook who is desperately concerned that he might be recruited by communists or maybe homosexuals:

"Just remember, those Reds are always looking for a simpleminded kid like you, without any friends. If anyone starts being nice to you, it's safe to assume they're trying to recruit you for the Party."

"Okay, Mom." (p. 69)

Nifkin's teachers at high school are amazing characatures: The gym teacher is a sadist. His homeroom teacher is most concerned with learning whether anyone at the school is distributing communist propaganda or pornography. His English teacher is a rabid anti-semite who is also terribly concerned about communism. The biology teacher talks nonsense to herself or perhaps to someone only she can see. And the history teacher is a bitter man who wants everyone to know he could be making three times as much in industry. Nifkin joins the ROTC to avoid the sadistic gym teacher. Sergeant Gunter, The ROTC teacher, is a communist who reads Karl Marx to the ROTC students and is eventually arrested. 

The book gets weirder from there: our hero ceases going to school after the arrest of Sergeant Gunter. He avoids being sent to reform school by getting his parents to send him to a strange private school in the ancestral mansion of a robber baron run by a pair of sweet older ladies and their beatnick friends.

David brought me home both Blue-Eyed Devil and Grey Gardens last night when he came back from NYC. I think he brought me the former because someone had characterized me as a "blue-eyed devil" in a recent blog post (for the record, my eyes are hazel, thank you) and the later because of my fascination with the psychological meaning of architecture.

35638603 The Guardian quote on the back of Blue-Eyed Devil characterizes Michael Muhammad Knight as "the Hunter S. Thompson of Islamic literature." Knight is a white guy in his 20s who converted to Islam as a teenager. The book is Knight's odyssey in search of the truth about W. D. Fard, founder of the Nation of Islam. From the NYT

The man who founded the Nation in 1930, W. D. Fard, spread the message that American blacks belonged to a lost Muslim tribe and were superior to the “white, blue-eyed devils” in their midst. Under Mr. Fard’s successor, Elijah Muhammad, the Nation flourished in the 1960s amid the civil rights struggle and the emergence of a black-separatist movement.

Knight, by his own account is the son of an abusive schizophrenic white-supremacist father. The description of his early childhood reads like something out of Joel Steinberg's trial for the murder of his adopted daughter. The author didn't speak until age four, several years after he and mother escaped from his father. Knight is mostly homeless, living in his car as he pursues the phantom of W. D. Fard who disappeared in 1933. He has many strange adventures and talks to many people with even stranger theories about Fard. 

As the book ends, Knight interviews Malcolm Shabazz in prison. Shabazz, grandson of Malcolm X, was diagnosed schizophrenic at age 12. While living with his grandmother, he set fire to the house, burning his grandmother so badly that she died after three weeks in critical condition. The final paragraph of Knight's book reads:

Malcolm Shabazz had quoted Ho Chi Minh as saying that when prison gates are opened, the real dragon flies out. And he told me that the race goes not to the swift but to those who can endure until the end. I think he's living his grandfather's life all over again. Every day is Ashura, every land is Karbala. Some cry tears, and some cry blood. (p. 214)

I have not read all of the Knight book. I found it hard to take at times. On the one hand, I wanted to know what Knight found out on his search, and yet he so clearly and repeatedly brands himself as an unreliable narrator, that sometimes I found the crazy conversations he got into with narrators much more unreliable than himself hard to take. Also, because he is a white guy seeking encounters with black Muslims, he repeatedly opens himself to black racism. (Though usually, people try to be nice and tend to open conversations by trying to introduce him to the basics of Islam, assuming that he has walked into a mosque out of naive post 9/11 curiosity.) I'll read more later.

Also, reading the parts about his childhood and adolescence, I found Knight's and Nifkin's fathers running together in my head, as though these were somehow accounts of the same person, told from different angles. (Pinkwater's book begins, "My father was a son-of-a-bitch from Eastern Europe.")

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And so: Grey Gardens. This book is a lavishly produced coffee-table book published by Free News Projects and priced at $45.00. It comes with an audio CD. It is about archetypal crazy cat-ladies, beautiful socialites turned recluses, retreating into mansion and trust  funds. Somewhere in there one of the Edies claims that the most cats she's ever had was 300, and that she took excellent care of them all. 

This book, which is connected to the 1974 documentary of the same name and to an HBO movie starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lang concerns two women, mother and daughter: Edie Ewing Bouvier Beale and Edith Ewing Beale, Jr., the aunt and cousin respectively of Jackie Kennedy. 

They lived in a sea-side mansion in the Hamptons, purchased in the 20s, which fell into disrepair and got filled up with ancestral possessions and other things. When in the 1970s the health department held raids, Jackie Kennedy, and her sister Lee Radizwill put up the money to save the house from further decay. The documentary about the two women and their house was released in 1976 and is an example of cinema vérité.

The book is interesting, but I suspect it would mean more if I had seen one or more of the movies. While it does contain a lot of information, the imagery of the book corresponds to meanings I find elusive, which probably relate to the original film.

As someone married to a collector personality-type in a house he spent several decades stuffing with possessions before I came along, I cringe at the mention of attics filled with old paintings and valuable antiques given over to a pack of 30 raccoons (fed on Wonderbread and honey). 

While I am willing to entertain the idea that these are fascinating women whom have recognized the emptiness of their upper-class heritage, I think that if I'd visited them, I would have found their irresponsibility in taking care of what they had in the house inexcusable. I have seen vast economically untenable mansions in the Adirondacks suffering this sort of fate, and already know how horrified I am at people who can't be bothered to replace a broken window pane in a room with a hand-painted mural on the wall (now scaled by mildew). 

Do I want to be drawn into the pathology of their story? 

In the Pinkwater novel, women like this who run an eccentric school save Robert Nifkin from the harsh realities of high school. Are benevolent eccentric old women with mansions and trust funds a fantasy of liberation? Or are they prisoners of what was given them for being beautiful in the right place at the right time? And who is more psychologically healthy? The Edies? Or Michael Knight? Or do damaged narrators like Knight deserve the Robert Nifkin solution: to be taken in by beautiful reclusive ex-socialites who take in strays and have plenty of rooms to spare? I suspect that Knight is not looking for that kind of salvation.

Epilogue: Grey Gardens was bought in 1979 by journalist Sally Quinn and former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee.


Further thoughts on Cioma Schönhaus's The Forger and other books, plus some thoughts on Internet re-socialization

This weekend, preparing to drive upstate to work on our bookstore-to-be, I brought along Joanna Russ's What Are We Fighting For? along to read. I arrived in Westport, NY at the stroke of midnight, and read until about 1AM, and then finished the first chapter in the morning. It was great to hear Joanna's voice again: she is one of those writers whose speaking voice I can hear clearly in her written prose, and I found that reunion quite delightful. Her analysis of Janice Radway's Reading the Romance is something I wish I'd read a few years before she published it back when I was assigned the book in a Sociology of Literature class in grad school. I found a lot to object to about the Radway book at the time, and having back-up from Joanna Russ would have been great.  

But nonetheless, the bell hooks style third-wave feminism in the same chapter seemed to me to make the chapter's argument a bit muddled. You can't really talk about romance readers in the same chapter as trying to decenter feminism from white upper-middle-class heterosexual feminists without leaving the impression that this generations' women who got married and had kids are simply reactionaries who have made some kind of terrible mistake. 

Perhaps this is the way you had to begin a feminist tract in the mid-90s, but I put the book aside for later reading. If Joanna were really present in that captivating narrative voice, I would have argued with her about this. But a book is only a book, and she published it 13 years ago. If I wanted to argue, I should have read it a while back.

And so emptying boxes into our store space and shelving the books, I came across Cioma Schönhaus's The Forger, which as I said in my previous post, I bought on a book buying trip on the way to Balticon. (I sold a domain name to an Internet bookseller, and part of my payment was in books, so we had to go to the store to collect.)

Structurally, The Forger, is a similar narrative to Bill Mason's Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief, which I read in April: Schönhaus lead the same kind of glamorous semi-underground adrenaline-soaked audacious lifestyle as Mason, leading -- after a while of audacity -- to major man-hunts and having to go seriously underground, except that Schönhaus's life of crime was aimed at saving the lives of Jews in Nazi Germany. (Reading these books back-to-back would be a somewhat uncomfortable experience.) The way each of them thrived was by assessing social expectations, and then confounding them. And in both books there is the issue of trust and betrayal, and how these men lived while being both socially gregarious and trusting almost no one. We give Schönhaus the moral high ground as a hero of the resistance, where as Mason is just an ex-criminal with an interesting tale to tell.

In addition to issues of pseudonymity, discussed previously, the other thing I found really fascinating about the book was the mismatch between the rapid re-socialization of the population taking place in Nazi-era Berlin, and people's disbelief and denial that this could possibly be happening; I commented upon a similar mis-match evident in Kazimierz Sakowicz's Ponary Diary 1941-1943: A bystander's Account of a Mass Murder. A key line from Sakowitcz:

Evidently, [Jewish mothers about to be thrown into mass graves with their children] expected that when the clothing was collected the children hidden in that way [under it] might be saved. Unfortunately. (p. 73)

The book I read just before coming up to Westport for the weekend was James Morrow's very well-researched novel The Last Witchfinder. Moment by moment, the re-socialization of the populace during witch hunts bears an eerie resemblance to the observed details in Holocaust accounts, which is, I guess, the phenomenon which Hannah Arendt referred to as "the banality of evil" in the context of Adolf Eichmann. But the focus on one man, Eichmann, does not give us access to the broader problem -- rapid re-socialization on a large scale that makes this more like a problem in epidemiology. Certainly, there are sociopaths in the word, but what causes epidemics of otherwise normal people who behave in a way one would expect of a sociopath?

A few years ago, I viewed the Internet as a vehicle for spreading compassion, spreading empathy, allowing the possibility that someone like me from her dining room could spontaneously arrive at ways to help individual people on the other side of the world who are in many ways nothing like me; that my son could draw a cheerful picture for a little boy in Pakistan who spent four hours buried in the rubble after an earthquake (and he did).

Lately, I have come to view the Internet as a vehicle for rapid re-socialization, much of it for the worse. I see a sudden Internet-induced lack of empathy, compassion, and even basic sympathy, in what I regard as a population of normal (by which I mean not sociopathic) people. I see mean-girl behavior in adult women that would get them sent to the Vice Principal's office under no-bullying policies if they were sixth grade girls at my son's school; I see violent ideation expressed publicly; I see demonization (sometimes literally); and I see this passing by without opposition from the communities within which these are expressed. 

I find this very worrisome. None of  the theories we have about how people behave in large numbers can adequately account for behavior on the Internet because the Internet is too new. A few years ago, I thought of the Internet as a potential solution to many things, and as a tool for spreading compassion across international and cultural boundaries. Now I begin to see it as the opposite: a tool used by others for the mass elimination of empathy, and as a problem rather than a solution.

Just where is it that we are going from here?


Reading Cioma Schönhaus's The Forger: An Extraordinary Story of Survival in Wartime Berlin

Book-shopping on the way to Balticon, I picked up and advance reading copy of Cioma Schönhaus's The Forger: An Extraordinary Story of Survival in Wartime Berlin. It was first published in German in 2004, and the US edition came out DeCapo Press in 2007. In the first 90 pages, the author has managed to survive the deportations of friends, neighbors, and his family by being a highly skilled worker, eventually working in a munitions plan. Before that, he we an art student, and at page 93, is about to begin his career as a forger of the documents that will allow people to survive:

Go see [Dr. Kaufmann], work with him. But try to spell out for him that careful plotting is just as important a weapon as heroic courage. Otherwise your life as a passport forger will be a short one. Just think about it: anybody caught with an ID card you forged will quizzed by the police about where he got the pass, who swapped over the picture and who copied the stamp. There aren't many who can keep a secret when their fingers are shoved in a door jamb and the door slammed shut on them. Unless they really don't know anything, in which case there is nothing to give away. That's why nobody must know your name and address. The same goes for Dr. Kaufmann.

It's a short book -- 212 pages. The issue of identity and survival in Nazi Germany is central to it. Earlier in the book, Cioma altered Jewish mens' pants to a more Fascist style so that they would look like Nazis from a distance and be less likely to be subject to arrest. And at one of his jobs, he was issued a pseudonym by his boss upon hiring, so he could do a skilled job for which his employer was not allowed to hire Jews. By page 93, he has skirted the edge of lethal situations repeatedly, but now is about to do something much more dangerous.


Finished the book. Our narrator survives the war by escaping to Switzerland. Dr. Kaufmann is exposed in more or less the scenario described above and was executed February 17, 1944 in Sachsenhausen.


Another basement oddity: "DES RACES HUMAINES."

Among other antiquarian children's books, I found a 1929 child's science stamp book in French, LES MERVEILLES DU MONDE. The idea was that each page came with a description and a set of stamps (the types of birds, butterflies, bridges, natural formations in caves, etc.). The child was to read the section and then match the stamps to the captions. One of the sections was entitled "DES RACES HUMAINES." The stamp page had been neatly compleleted:

 racestamps


Bill Gibson: "Lovecraft & Me" (1981) & more

William Gibson

David and I have been pawing through our basement today looking for things to pack to take upstate. Cozied up to a Phil Dick manuscript, or some such, David found Gahan Wilson's bust of H. P. Lovecraft which was the original sculpture for the World Fantasy Award. (David bought it back at the beginning of time.) It's now packed up for its journey upstate.

I was looking through a box that was from the same general area, and saw that below the recent stuff was a layer of fanzines. In it I found Rich Coad's 1981 special Lovecraft issue of the fanzine Space Junk, containing Bill Gibson's "Lovecraft & Me." Here's a taste:

He feared ice-cream and loved fish, or was it  the other way around. I forget. It's been years. Nurses in black rubber invaded his dreams, as I recall, tickling and tweaking him . . . Or maybe that was Colin Wilson. Anyway, this guy's world abounds with "feminine landscapes," hillocks and mounts with holes in them, and, if you're unlucky enough  to find your way down one of these things, you'll find, too late, that it's full of rats, it's all damp and icky there, the very fabric of reality breaks own, down there, and it's just a burbling, bubbling chaos, where things with big feet dance to the music of madness, all burning-churning fish-nasty . . .

I think I was about fourteen when I discovered Lovecraft.

(Ellipses in the original.)

Now, back to the basement.


At the bottom of the stack of fanzines was something called Tumbrils (No. 13), "Published for the Vanguard Amateur Press Association by James Blish." Blish writes about a kerfuffle the name of which I don't even recognize, called the "WRL Controversy." His write-up contains this marvelous line:

If there is anything valuable to be learned from Charles Fort, it is that size and numbers count for very little in human relationships.

The fanzine appears to have been published not long after Hiroshima, which is mentioned elsewhere in the issue.


Negative reviewing: A guy who hates everything in Year's Best SF 13 & more

Noted without comment: Why Science Fiction Is Dead from Space Ramblings:

That and the fact that David G. Hartwell, a Tor senior editor, and Kathryn Cramer, a reviewer at the New York Review of Science Fiction, think the mess that is The Best of SF 13 actually represents the best of Science Fiction. I can only hope that this collection was the product of the old boys\girls network in SF and that Hartwell and Cramer were just playing favorites with their friends. Because the only alternative is that they genuinely think that [John Kessel's] The Last American or [Terry Bisson's] Pirates of the Somali Coast or [Marc Laidlaw's] An Evening’s Honest Peril or [Nancy Kress's] End Game really are the best that Science Fiction has to offer. And from two people in a key position to shape what printed Science Fiction actually looks like, that is a very scary thought. Scarier than anything in this volume.

I'm not clear on whether the site is a group blog for unsigned reviews or whether it is the work of one person. The site seems to specialize in reviews of TV shows.

Continue reading "Negative reviewing: A guy who hates everything in Year's Best SF 13 & more" »


That terrible Jeff VanderMeer made me squirt coffee through my nose

See Evil Monkey and People for the Ethical Treatment of SF (PETSF)

Favorite part:

Jeff:
OW! I am not a mofo. Stop!

Evil Monkey:
Oh yes you are. I can tell.

Jeff:
How?!

Evil Monkey:
You ain’t declared for our organization so you must be part of either Mofos for the Utter Destruction of SF Ethics (MUDSFE) or M@therf*ckers Who Object to the Use of Hammers! (Mwouh!).


An ethical stand, of a sort, on the future of SF and SF's lack of optimism

Noted without comment -- Andy Remic writing at SF Signal on "Why is Genre Fiction Is Bleak and What Can Be Done About It?"

I believe there's a lot of people out there sick of the constant whining and moaning and tearing down - after all, it's much easier to destroy than create. That's why myself, and so many other brilliant authors, are involved with the Science Fiction and Fantasy Ethics project (the SFFE) because we want to promote a positive attitude in the industry, and make and ethical stand against the constant poison and vitriol which, I think, has been invading and escalating for a long time.

I chose the name "Ethics" not because I wanted to explore the ethical contexts of novels or films, but because I wanted to make an ethical stand against the motherfuckers who, to my mind, are systematically ruining the SFFH genres. In short, I wanted to do what I believed was intrinsically, morally, ethically and intuitively right. I want to celebrate everything that is good in SFFH, because it's all subjective, right?? - and, hopefully, we can lead by positive example.

(I've already said what I had to say on this subject, I think.)

See also Everything Is Nice.


On why what people like about books is more interesting than what they don't like

A couple of weeks ago, Niall Harrison published something of a lament about review venues that are more inclined to publishing favorable reviews than unfavorable ones. He says:

We’ve been here before with regard to the insidiousness of “mostly positive” reviews, but this seemed worth pulling out as an example where the harm caused by the policy is more obvious than usual. It does a disservice both to readers who might have seen the review and now will not, and to the field of sf reviewing and criticism as a whole, for which full and honest discussion must be a priority; I hope, though I accept it is likely in vain, that Prominent SF Magazine Editor feels a mite embarrassed by their reviews policy today. That the writer in question has subsequently decided not to review at all, at this stage in their career, also makes me sad — it impoverishes the dialogue, in more ways than one — but it is understandable.

For the past 21 years, we have run The New York Review of Science Fiction on the principle that what people like about a book is more interesting than what they dislike, and we aim to publish reviews on the strengths and weaknesses of good books. This means that we publish reviews that are for the most part positive; occasionally publishing a truly negative review if the review itself offers significant illumination. 

There are all kinds of reasons one might react negatively to a book, many of them personal. One can be deaf to the virtues of a writer for several years before finally getting it. I would be quite embarrassed if I had been publishing my notes on stories I truly disliked over the years I've been doing Years' Best volumes. There are several really fine writers I really didn't get until the right story came along and things suddenly clicked into place for me.

We publish to promote the aesthetic advancement of the field and are not a buyers' guide. Some review venues that may think of themselves as buyers' guides may do things differently, which is fine. 

Vast numbers of books are published each year. Many of them do not merit much discussion or review attention, in our opinion.

Ideally, book reviews are about books, not about reviewers and their feelings. A review should accurately characterize the project of the book and how it fits into the genre. Whether the reviewer is in sympathy with the project of the book is secondary to its accurate depiction. 

The literary essay is a form  more suited for exploration of rifts between critics feelings and the books they encounter.

UPDATE: David points out to me that he wrote a NYRSF editorial on this general topic in 2004, entitled "Blooming" which is about negative reviewing as performance.

FURTHER UPDATE: James Nicoll thinks I missed the Fail Fandom subtext of Niall's post. I didn't: I did understand what Niall was trying to say, and I disagree. An essay is a more appropriate form for a critic who disagrees with the basic project of a book than a book review.


Great First Lines: Leah Bobet shows you how it's done!

From The Parable of the Shower by Leah Bobet from Lone Star Stories:

The angel of the LORD cometh upon you in the shower at the worst possible moment: one hand placed upon thy right buttock and the other bearing soap, radio blaring, humming a heathen song of sin.

Not only is this a terrific narrative hook, but note also that it is written in the second person, and the present tense, and in faux-Biblical prose. Thus she announces that not only will something wild and interesting happen in this story, but that this is an ambitious literary high wire act.

And the story lives up to it's opening line. Go, Leah!

David Nickle, Leah Bobet, & Peter Watts

David Nickle, Leah Bobet, & Peter Watts at Ad Astra


Gender, Identity, SF, & the Singularity ( a draft essay written 7/14/07)

The following is an unfinished essay drafted in July of 2007 in response to a panel I was on at Readercon in 2007. I could not lay hands on some crucial resources, such as the essay "Performance" by Don West (byline "D. West"). It appeared in Malcolm Edwards' fanzine TAPPEN, issue 5, 1982. Reprinted in DELIVERANCE, a 1992 collection of West's fanzine writing, in order finish it, and so I never did, though God knows, as we excavate the Hartwell basement archives, it may in time turn up.

I've decided to publish this unfinished draft, since my opinions on pseudonymity have recently attracted so much interest. 

—Kathryn Cramer



Glass21

I am pretty good at communicating my thoughts to the science fiction field most of the time, both in essays and on panels. But once is a while, I find that I've said something I thought was clear, and that it really didn't communicate. In a number of cases in the past, this has lead to book projects or essays, for example my anthologies The Architecture of Fear and The Ascent of Wonder, or essays such as "Science Fiction and the Adventures of the Spherical Cow."

I seem to have just had such an experience, given comments I've heard or read about the panel at Readercon entitled "The Singularity Needs More Women." Such comments are for the most part not hostile, and it was not a hostile panel. Rather, I gather that some substantial portion of the audience did not get the connections I was trying to make between the science fictional notion of the Singularity and the here and now, specifically in relation to people's online construction of their identity.

I'm not going to try to rehash what was said on the panel, but rather explore what I was getting at from a different angle. —K

In a way, this was an impossible panel: We were invited into the hazardous quicksand of feminist identity politics to indulge in fantasies about what things would be like if this were only cleared away, if only all gender-related constraints on our identities were removed. We mostly didn't go there. And inasmuch as we did go there, it has not made people happy.

One continuing theme I find myself wanting to talk about at Readercon is that we already live in an unrecognizably transformed world; social changes have been worked upon us that we are unable to recognize or articulate. On this panel, I used the example of online identity and pseudonymity; in previous years my example has been how suburbia as it actually exists has become unrecognizable and that its social codes have been transformed in unrecognized ways, transformations that often are not a liberation.

Both the the Singularity and Transhumanity are social concepts. The core issue of the topic of Singularity and its relationship to gender is the extent to which one believes gender can and will be transcended through technology. And a key element in these concepts is our inability to recognize a transformed society and our transformed species: The Singularity is supposed to be an unrecognizable transformation. One thing usually said on panels about the Singularity and science fiction is that if such thing is truly unrecognizable, then one can't really write fiction about it. This panel was no exception.

A couple of works I should have talked about and didn't: Frederick Pohl's story "Day Million,"  a story about social identity in the far future that David Hartwell and I described in an introduction as "a story set in a future so distant and different that we can only glimpse it in mysterious reflections and intriguing images," and Bruce Sterling's Schizmatrix. A "Day Million" moment in Schizmatrix is when a man proposes to his ex-wife and so much has changed in their post-human existence that she accepts his proposal without knowing she's married this man before.

"Day Million" is of course deeply entangled in the subculture of science fiction's Futurians, which had its geographical center in New York City, and later in Milford, Pennsylvania. The post-Futurian sf sub-culture centered around the influential Milford writing workshop, held in Milford.

For a while in the 1980s, I lived in Milford, Pennsylvania and worked for Virginia Kidd, a literary agent and the ex-wife of SF writer James Blish. Before taking the job, I read Damon Knight's The Futurians to catch up on the back gossip. (I discovered later, after many conversations, that there is no one canonical account of the Futurian era: each person has their own -- most are fascinating -- and they mostly don't match.)

One key element of Futurian society was choosing a name. Many of the Futurians changed their names in order to change their lives. Virginia Kidd's first name on her birth certificate was not "Virginia." James Allen, another agent with the Virginia Kidd Agency once told me how Virginia counseled him to change his name when he became a literary agent. Virginia's good friend and client, Judith Merril (who was also Fred Pohl's ex-wife), told me over dinner how she came to change her last name to Merril. (She subsequently wrote this up for her autobiography.)

No one knew who the heck Lester del Rey was until several years after his death. He left behind a substantial estate and after several years of attempts to sort out the inheritance, it was apparently revealed that his name was Leonard Knapp.

Such name changes were partly pragmatic, since many were Jewish and could expect a more successful career under a non-Jewish name. And at least one member of that generation was looking to avoid back child-support. But there was also a substantial element of social fantasy. One thing I tried to understand over many such conversations was exactly why the Futurians perceived changing one's name as such a powerful act. I interpret "Day Million" as a partial expression the fantasy of only apparently real identity, or perhaps of the Modernist idea of a mask identity.

I see the current popularity of the concepts of the Singularity and trans-humanity as closely tied to online experimentation with the fantasy of apparent identity. Examples I used on the panel included Wikipedia admins who insist on the use of a pseudonym and claim that all attempts to decipher it amount to stalking; and Second Life, which requires you to adopt a pseudonym when you register -- you must select your last name from a pull-down menu and may only specify a first name; and the vast social wasteland of online dating, an unfolding disaster in human relations on a huge scale. My strong anti-pseudonymity message is not something people are all that receptive to at the moment.

The science fiction community strongly influenced the early evolution of the Internet because so many techies read sf and are involved in the sf community, and sf's ideas about pseudonymity and the adoption of a fannish name and persona seem to me to have influenced Internet fashion.  Cyberpunk sf was especially influential upon the shape of Internet social space: from William Gibson we have the very name of cyberspace, which as I recall he described in the 80s as that place you are when you're on the telephone — except that now 100 million people might overhear your call,which is recorded and archived.

There is one important difference between Futurian beliefs about only apparently real identities and the current online version of disposable personae or identity: The Futurians chose a name and tended to stick with it for the rest of their lives, whereas online identities are much usually more ephemeral. Also the Futurians used such names in person, whereas online aliases are mostly intended for use in electronic communication in cyberspace.

A significant transitional figure is James Tiptree, Jr. (aka Alice Sheldon aka Racoona Sheldon), a mother of the cyberpunk movement. She was a client of Virginia Kidd's. After her death, I accepted a couple of her posthumous awards on behalf of the Kidd agency. My husband, David Hartwell, was her editor and one of the few people in science fiction who ever met her in person. (Philip K. Dick, another writer who prefigured cyberpunk, is in some ways an opposite figure to Tiptree. He was concerned with distinguishing the authentic from the "only apparently real." )

Alice Sheldon used her real name in her everyday life, but used an alias for her writing and correspondence in the science fiction field. Her true identity and gender were only revealed after the death of her mother, a well-known writer. Her fascination with the power of pseudonymity seems to have its origins not in the Futurian subculture, but in that of the CIA. She was briefly employed by the CIA and was the wife of a high ranking CIA official, Huntington Sheldon. The Sheldons were part of the intelligence subculture that founded the CIA.

(Perhaps the origin of the false identity as it is used in the "intelligence" community is the Romantic spy and criminal fiction of the 19th and early 20th century: in the Robin Hood stories, Richard the Lion-Hearted supposedly sneaked back into England to depose the bad king.)

Tiptree had a tremendously seductive literary voice and persona. But while the science fiction field may have benefited from her adoption of an alias, since it arguably enabled her to write a highly regarded body of fiction, it is not clear that she herself benefited. Her adoption of the Tiptree pseudonym apparently started as a joke, and took on the role in her life of an addictive drug. Her life did not end well: She had chronic problems with depression and ended her life by shooting her husband and then herself. Tiptree is an icon in feminist sf as someone who liberated her writing voice by adopting a male pseudonym. In the context of a discussion of trans-humanity and gender, she perhaps represents feminist hopes for liberation from the constraints of older constructions of female social identity.

Though Tiptree and Phil Dick are in some ways opposites as literary figures -- Tiptree as icon of the power of pseudonymity, and Dick as an icon of the technological relevance of Kierkegaardian authenticity -- both writers are intensely concerned with alienation, which seems to me one of the core issues of Internet constructions of personal identity.

The argument can be made that the adoption of the alias James Tiptree, Jr. allowed Alice Sheldon a truer expression of her inner voice than society would have allowed for someone named Alice Sheldon, and that the adoption of an alias was a form of authenticity. This argument is rarely used with regard to adoption of aliases today, with one notable exception: The strange case of Laura Albert aka J. T. Leroy. Albert, an author who lost a civil suit claiming fraud brought by a movie company, gave some very interesting testimony:

Ms. Albert herself, in testimony from the stand, suggested that JT LeRoy was far more than a pseudonym in the classic Mark Twain-Samuel Clemens mold. She offered the idea that JT LeRoy was a sort of “respirator” for her inner life: an imaginary, though necessary, survival apparatus that permitted her to breathe.

The portrait of Alice Sheldon in her biography suggests some similarities to Albert. Interestingly, the end of the New York Times article about the ruling against Albert suggests that she is now "liberated" from her pseudonym.

Despite the many arguments that are made about the necessity of Internet pseudonymity for reasons of privacy, alienation is much more important to the core ethical issues of online communities and their strivings toward a trans-humanity, a transcendence of all constraining circumstance. While we are no more intelligent and perhaps no less powerful online than we are in person, we can certainly make ourselves seem  unrecognizable and estrange ourselves from our genders of birth, our ages and educational levels (see the Essjay controversy), our marital status (as is widely practiced on dating sites), etc. While this is not true trans-or post-humanity, it represents at least a kind of fantasy of trans-human existence, easier than a make-over or reinventing yourself under your own name. Much as we would like science fiction to be about the future, it is so often about the present. 

For the most part, writers such as Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow who are concerned with the Singularity subject matter, do not try to conceal the connection of their writing to the here and now.

We did, I think, get at that issue toward the end of the panel: How gendered popular types of Internet communications truly are; how much more flamboyant gender expression sometimes is online than in real life, and on the darker side, how much more overt and nasty online enforcement of gender codes can be.

Backlash is at least as characteristic as liberation of rapid social change generated by technological change. Is the Internet fad for pseudonymity a form of backlash or of liberation? The popular claim that a protected pseudonymity is necessary to protect people from stalking suggests that pseudonymity is a backlash against unwanted transparency. David Brin claims that transparency is "freedom's best defense." I think I agree with him.

Before the panel, I was asked by the convention program chair whether I was pro- or anti- the notion of the Singularity, ostensibly because this was anticipated to be an anti-Singularity panel. I'm not sure whether the above discussion makes me pro- or anti-Singularity. I believe we are already in the midst of rapid transformation that is rendering the world unrecognizable, already in the midst of a rising inadequation of the mind to the world.

There is another word for this: alienation. And perhaps that is what we should be talking about.

Or maybe not. From Charles Stross's Singularity! A Tough Guide to the Rapture of the Nerds, a definition of the Singularity:

The SIingularity is what happens when reality throws a divide-by-zero error or you extrapolate a curve to a straight line. Or something. Maybe it's what an Italian rock star says when you give him a wedgie. Who knows? All I know is that Vernor Vinge invented it -- damn him! (If it wasn't for those meddling computer science professors I could still be writing about PixieDust ...)

Anyway. You don't need to understand all that stuff to write about the SIngularity. What you need to understand is that after the SIngularity things will be cool. We'll all be PostHumans or UpLoading ourselves into our pocket calculators, there'll be lots of ArtificialIntelligence to help fight outbreaks of GreyGoo, and if there are annoying folks you don't want to have around you can just tell them to go TRanscend.

It's the hot new topic for wish-fulfillment adventure and escapism. And there'll be jam for tea every day.

As the Mad Hatter said, "Have more tea."

(to be continued at some point  . . .)