Eye candy for fans of Spot the Cat

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I’ve got a blank spot in the queue, so thought this might be a good time to feature Spot again.

Besides this, remember to check out my books (see front page of site). Of course, a few sales always help. 🙂

Spot sleeping

When does bullying become totalitarianism?

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I’ve been complaining for a while about the kind of author bullying that comes from cancel culture. By now, everybody should know how this goes: An author, often a young person-of-color who isn’t well established, offers a novel, and a mob on Twitter piles on with charges of racism, insensitivity and cultural appropriation. The mob keeps screaming until the author or publisher pulls the book. It may be quietly released later on, but the campaign has damaged the marketing buzz and reduces the sales and acclaim for the book. This activity recently spread to publishing when a mob incited by romance author Courtney Milan attacked a small publisher and a free-lance editor. The tactic generally works better on fairly powerless nobodies, as well-established authors can just ignore the whole thing. The question has been hanging there about whether this is just a “mean girls” sort of action where little jealousies lead to pulling people down, or whether it’s actually about something bigger.

A couple or three things have hit the news recently that are making me think this is something bigger, in fact, a symptom of larger and more dangerous social trends. The first of these is a revolutionary strain of anarcho-communist ideology running through the summer “protests against systemic racism.” In case anyone is still in the dark about this movement, it is a type of utopian communism that calls for the abolition of the state, capitalism, wage labor and private property. Supposed to “free” people from laws and government control, its goal is actually totalitarianism, where the prescribed beliefs become entrenched and are enforced by members of society as a requirement. Because of its proscriptions against capitalism, wage labor and private property, this movement means to destroy the usual avenues of success in Western societies like education, opportunity and rewards for individual hard work. That means if you’re a young person who has written a promising book, you need to be bullied into withdrawing it to keep you a nobody, and if you have a budding editing or publishing business, you need to lose it if you don’t toe the line on ideology. In case anyone is wondering what totalitarianism is about, it’s a dictatorial society that requires complete subservience to a list of stated beliefs.

So, what other evidence on totalitarianism do I have this week? I’ve just run across a proposal from academic Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, most recently noted for the 2019 book How to Be an Antiracist, where his main thesis is that antiracists should “dismantle” racist systems. Since publishing the book, Kendi has proposed a Constitutional amendment in the US to establish and fund the Department of Anti-racism (DOA). This department would be responsible for “preclearing all local, state and federal public policies to ensure they won’t yield racial inequity, monitor those policies, investigate and be empowered with disciplinary tools to wield over and against policymakers and public officials who do not voluntarily change their racist policy and ideas.” This is a huge amount of power. It sounds like embedding cancel culture as an official government function. And the big question is, what is going to constitute “racism?”

And my last bit of troubling evidence: I’ve been noting for a while the results of SFF awards that seem to trend toward particular favored groups and strongly discriminate against others. This seems to be an unwritten rule about what’s acceptable to win, however the results are managed. You’d think from the huge outcry about racism in recent years that this would promote persons-of-color, but it doesn’t look to be doing that. Instead, it has shown to benefit mostly white women. Now the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (a.k.a. the Oscars) has actually published their award requirements, setting quotas for minority inclusion and limits on theme, storyline and narrative for writers:

A3. Main storyline/subject matter
The main storyline(s), theme or narrative of the film is centered on an underrepresented group(s).
• Women
• Racial or ethnic group
• LGBTQ+
• People with cognitive or physical disabilities, or who are deaf or hard of hearing

At first glance this might not seem to be that much of a problem. More minorities are employed, yah! But the damage to intellectual freedom is something else. This is a movement toward dictating what’s acceptable for people to write about and what’s acceptable for official recognition. During the Cold War, we used roll our eyes at the USSR and Maoist ideology-controlled books and films. Do we really want to go there?

Review of The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa

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This fantasy/science fiction novel is a finalist for the 2020 World Fantasy Award, the International Booker Prize and the National Book Award. It was published in English by Pantheon/Harvill Secker in August 2019, and runs 289 pages. This is a translation of the 1994 novel Hisoyaka na Kessho from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder. I notice the Japanese title is being translated as Secret Crystallization, but what I make of it is “Quiet Confiscation of Property.” This review contains spoilers.

An unnamed narrator lives on an unnamed island where things are gradually disappearing: hats, ribbons, gems. These things disappear from daily life, but her mother hid samples away in an old cabinet so she could remember. The narrator’s father was an ornithologist, and after birds disappear, the Memory Police come for his notes, ransacking his office and taking things away. Roses disappear, the torn petals floating away on the river. The narrator is a novelist, friends with an old man. When her editor reveals he can remember, the narrator hides him from the Memory Police in a secret room in her house. Her friend the old man is briefly taken by the police, who afterward search her home, but fail to find the secret room. The calendar disappears and winter sets in. The old man dies of a brain hemorrhage and things continue to disappear. Eventually the people start to disappear, too. Will it help that some can remember what’s gone?

What stands out most in this novel is the serene, artistic, postmodern, Kafkaesque tone. The imagery is very Japanese: the vision of rose petals flowing down the river, autumn leaves on a silent fountain, an endless winter. The symbolism seems to be about how things disappear from human lives and are forgotten, including people, lost cultures, extinct animals, histories. Even the editor who can remember becomes more tenuous in hiding, as if he’s fading away himself. The narrator is a novelist and later a typist, completing something of a circle with the novel she’s writing. The typewriters she describes in her novel seem to be old manual machines with ribbons and keys on stems ( anyone remember?). Eventually they fail to work, too, and the novelist loses her voice.

On the less positive side, you need to enjoy the tone and flow of the work, because not much happens. The plot is very thin for the length of the book, and the symbolism is hard to put together. The disappearances are fairly clear, but the fascist Memory Police are a little harder to place in the structure of the novel. Are they there to insist that we ignore anything that passes away? That moving on is the same as making progress? That history has to be erased? Like many postmodern works, it’s a little hard to pin down the message.

Four and a half stars.

Review of “Read after Burning” by Maria Dahvana Headley

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This short story is a finalist for the 2020 World Fantasy Award. It was published in A People’s Future of the United States, edited by Charlie Jane Anders and issued by One World, February 5, 2019. This review contains major spoilers.

Henry lives in a world that is ending, and the story begins on the day of his father’s death, when Henry was ten years old. The setting is the US, but the republic has fallen to a civil war and those who couldn’t flee to Canada or Mexico now live under a fascist regime. Henry’s father is an assistant in the Library of the Low, a place where books are written to be burned. The Head Librarian is Needle, and she memorizes the universe. The librarians tattoo the stories on their skins and their organs, even using the bodies of the dead to make their books. When the librarians are taken, what will happen to the stories?

This an absurdist piece with a sort of stream-of-consciousness narrative that discusses libraries, how burning books makes them stronger, the stories of various people, magic, and shadowy fascist regimes, mixing all the topics together. Eventually this achieves a certain meaning. The story name-checks a number of people from current government and popular culture to indicate their stories have been told. There are various statements of theme, but not really much use of characterization, world-building or plot. There is an interesting literary device that transposes people into the sum of their knowledge. Needle tells us that only knowledge is immortal, and it’s our task to pass the words properly. People are described as having content, presumably their words and knowledge. Those shouting slogans are rendered speechless. In the end, Henry says you (presumably the reader) were born for this resistance. This all suggests a mild anxiety about current politics.

On the less positive side, like many contemporary stories written in absurdist style, the narrative mostly comes across as nonsense. It’s a fairly long story, and there’s a sort of shotgun, postmodern approach about it, where the author has sprayed out ramblings about burning and words and fascism and resistance and magic that make this hard to integrate into a real story—as if she didn’t know exactly what she was going to write about when she started and then changed her mind several times along the way. The theme and setting are clear enough, but the rest is pretty confusing. Also, I’m sure history and knowledge aren’t passed along accurately. At this point, it’s clearly subject to political reinterpretation.

Two stars.

Review of “Postlude to the Afternoon of a Faun” by Jerome Stueart

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2020 World Fantasy Award in the short fiction category, plus the Eugie Foster Award, presented annually at DragonCon. It was published by F&SF magazine 3-4/2019. This review contains spoilers.

Mr. Dance is old and joyless satyr, crippled by Billy Sunday and the Prohibition gang years ago. He uses a wheelchair and lives in a dark, messy house with the yard gone to seed. In an effort to do something different, he signs up to teach jazz clarinet through the State of Missouri’s Masters/ Apprenticeship Program. His first student, Eric Elkridge, arrives and confides that he plays football, but his heart really isn’t in it. He wants to be a musician instead. When the boy brings out his clarinet, Dance is shocked to see that it’s his own clarinet, the Shaft of Moonlight, stolen from him all those years ago by Billy Sunday. Eric has learned to play classic jazz tunes, but his playing lacks any magic, and he has no feel at all for improvisation. Dance suppresses all the issues the clarinet brings back about his past, and works hard to help the boy improve his musical sense. He eventually convinces Eric to go with him to a local bar to play jazz, but now Dance has to deal with his own loss of magic. Is there some way he can become the jazz player Moonlight Dance again?

The faun is actually a well-known character, and there are literary allusions here. The best known is “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” a.k.a. “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune,” an impressionist musical composition by Claude Debussy from 1894. This, in turn, was inspired by the poem “L’après-midi d’un faune” by Stéphane Mallarmé from 1867. Debussy’s composition is considered the moment of transition from the Romantic period to modern music. His work later inspired the ballet Afternoon of a Faun choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky (considered scandalous), followed by a later version by Jerome Robbins. There’s also a fairly well-known painting of Nijinsky as the faun, done by artist Léon Bakst for the program to Nijinsky’s ballet. Take what you will from all these works.

Besides the allusions, there’s also a subtext here about Prohibition crippling jazz music. Billy Sunday was a celebrated and influential US evangelist during the first two decades of the 20th century and was instrumental in establishing Prohibition with the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution (repealed January 16, 1919). The Amendment forbade the “manufacture, sale and transportation of intoxicating liquors,” but not their consumption, which fueled a lively trade in production and transport of illegal moonshine spirits.

Okay, about the story. This is very touching, an old man revitalized by a young student interested in his art. It’s also about life and joy and the magic of music. The characters are fairly well fleshed out, and the story develops gradually, from the first meeting on though the revitalization process where Dance cleans up his act and gets his life back in order. There is a certain sexual tension, mostly in Dance’s notice of Erik’s young, healthy body, but nothing comes of it here. The allusions do seem to fuel a few jokes about sex toward the end of the story, but that’s all.

On the less positive side (and I’m being nitpicky here), the story doesn’t flow like it might. I think the issue is a bit too much telling and not enough showing. Plus, it feels a little stilted in the beginning, where the author tries to slip in too much background information by way of adjectives, rather than, say, revealing it through events or dialog. That adjective thing always just feels really awkward to me.

Four and a half stars.

Review of The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

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This science fiction novel is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was published by Tor/Titan on 12 February 2019 and runs 348 pages. This review contains spoilers.

January is a tidally locked planet, in a synchronous rotational orbit around its sun. That means it’s divided into dark and light, a permanently frozen darkness on one side and deadly, scalding sunshine on the other. Human colonists have built two main settlements in the twilight zone in between. Xiosphant is authoritarian and highly regimented, a system that curtails individual freedoms but provides for all. Argelo is a free-wheeling party city, ruled by competing aristocratic families, and if you’re not well-connected, you starve. Sophie is a working-class student with a scholarship to the prestigious Gymnasium in the city of Xiosphant, sleepmates with her upper-class friend Bianca. Mouth is possibly the last survivor of the nomad group Citizens, who normally works as a smuggler between the two cities, and sleepmates with co-worker Alyssa. Bianca is a student subversive, working toward the overthrow of the authoritarian government of Xiosphant. When she casually steals food chits, Sophie steps in to take the fall for her and is exiled from the city. She is rescued by the Gelet, mysterious native creatures that are often hunted for meat. She sneaks back into the city and hides out, finding a job in a coffee house. Bianca, thinking her dead, moves further into subversive activities, and her group starts planning a revolution. Conditions outside the cities are worsening, and after a tough run, Mouth and Alyssa are in Xiosphant. Hearing about a Citizens artifact stored in the palace, Mouth joins the revolution to get in, but escapes as the rebellion goes bad. Her group flees and takes Bianca and Sophie with them to Argelo. Bianca establishes herself quickly in Argelo, aligning with the head of a powerful family. Still intent on overthrowing the government of Xiosphant, she plans an invasion. Meanwhile, Sophie’s contacts with the Gelet show that Mouth’s adored Citizens accidently undermined the Gelet’s climate controls that make the Twilight Zone livable, and that both cities are likely doomed as a result. If Bianca can take over the Xiosphanti government, will anything change?

So, this needs a trigger warning for anyone who suffers from depression. It’s a pretty dark work, and it was a hard slog for me to get through it. The sun never shines, and the climate is going from bad to worse. Poor Sophie starts off naive and does her best. She tries to love Bianca, and to mediate between humans and Gelet, all without much success. The theme is clearly stated: the failure of grand ideas. The students start off thinking they will change things for the better, but all their efforts are wasted. Bianca leaves a trail of death and destruction behind her, and when she takes over the government, she becomes just what they’ve hated all these years. There’s also an interesting symbolism set up with the dark and light, and the population living in the gray area in between. The City in the Middle of the Night is the Gelet city, mostly underground, where Sophie is transformed to something half Gelet and half human.

On the less positive side, this has readability issues because of the depressive atmosphere. Plus, it’s a little messy. The theme is supported very clearly through both action and pronouncements, but there are also a lot of other things going on that are less clear. One issue is Mouth’s devotion to the Citizens, who all died and left her, and how this turns to ash when she finds out more about them. Another is the presence of the Gelet, who have to represent another way of doing things, but this remains unclear. Another issue is the folk living outside the cities, the smugglers and salvage operators, and the horrific creatures that kill them off in the wastelands. And last, Sophie is transforming to an alien. Maybe this is actually about midlife crisis?

Anders is a little older than I thought, actually Gen X instead of Millennial, and if we’re going to pick out important works as part of the awards process, then this is it, a warning to all those idealistic young kids who think they can change the world and not become corrupted themselves. There’s also a message here about the results of party city versus working hard.

Five stars.

Review of “The Dead, In Their Uncontrollable Power” by Karen Osborne

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This science fiction short story is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Awards. It was published by Uncanny Magazine in March of 2019. This review contains spoilers.

The dead captain explodes at his funeral, and steerage is suspected of planting a bomb. Mey is a sin-eater on a generation ship voyaging on a search for the world Paradise. Through nanobots in her blood, she absorbs the consciousnesses of dead captains who relive their sins and try to manipulate her for their own agendas. By containing these sins, she keeps them locked away from the other inhabitants of the ship so that the voyage continues smoothly. Mey knows the captains can’t be trusted, but she is unable to communicate this—she is blocked from saying it. After the ceremony to install nanobot virtues in the new captain, Mey locates the steerage sacristy, now used as a storage room, which conceals a pile of bones and a photograph that shows the world Paradise. The ship has already been there and come away without planting a colony. The new Captain Bethen will know this. How can Mey prevail on her to give up power and admit the captains’ sins?

This is another of the artistic, difficult to follow stories that are increasingly popular. A sin-eater is a person who spiritually takes on the sins of a dead person through eating a ceremonial meal. In this case, the ceremonial meal is blood loaded with nanobots. There is something of a plot here, as well as meaning, that takes gradual shape as you work through it. It becomes clear that things are not as they should be on the ship, and values like education have fallen along the wayside. This is a dramatic scenario, where the system of nanobots frees the captain to make unhindered decisions, while the sin-eater passes judgement on the appropriateness and quality of these choices as they relate to the inhabitants of the ship. The system has gone badly wrong somewhere along the line, and Mey needs to fix it.

This is fairly free of political messages, and the system of sins and virtues is interesting and creative, but the style causes a serious readability issue. I came away with a good grasp of what it’s about, but not much in the way of details. I’d like to have a more extensive discussion of the relationship between power and sin, for example. This story would be more entertaining and meaningful with a little more structure and a little less artistic flair. Of course, it might not have been nominated that way.

Four and a half stars.

More on Sales! and other Holiday Stuff

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Am still being productive. I’ve been to the Knoxville Writers’ Guild to do a reading tonight, and tomorrow night I’m going to be at the Knoxville Arts and Fine Crafts Center, a local gallery, for their First Friday Christmas art sale, 5:00 – 8:00 p.m. EST.

Meanwhile, a couple of my recent sales are now up for reader enjoyment. Here’s “Zombie Love” a short poem in Liquid Imagination, narrated by yours truly. And here’s “Wine and Magnolias” at Mischief Media: A Story Most Queer Podcast narrated by Gwendolyn Boniface. The story takes about a half hour, but the poem is quick. Please check them out!

Also, this Sunday (December 8) I’m singing in a couple of holiday concerts. The evening concert will be at Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church and will stream from the website from 6:00 to about 7:30 p.m. EST. The link I’ve posted should go direct, but if not, from the website, click on the link that says “listen.” Trigger warning: this is a sacred concert, as you might expect from the setting, and includes two choirs and an orchestra. I sing first soprano, and assuming the after Thanksgiving cold clears up, you will hear me at one point or the other. If you’re in the area, the concert is free, but get there early to get a parking spot. Enjoy!

bells

Review of Black Helicopters by Caitlin R. Kiernan

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This is a science fiction/fantasy/horror novella published by Tor in May of 2018. According to the description it’s “the expanded and completed version of the World Fantasy Award-nominated original,” and leaning to Lovecraftian horror. The original chapbook was published in 2013 by Subterranean Press, and this version runs 208 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Near Deer Isle, off the coast of New England, a fallen star has poisoned the sea. Authorities evacuate everyone they can, blow up the bridge and fire rockets from Black Hawk helicopters, but still fail to stop the Great Old Ones from rising out of the sea. The agent Ptolema waits at a pub in Dublin for agents from the other side, who have maybe turned, but maybe not. When they arrive, she plays a recording that alarms them. In a later meeting, one of the agents identifies the important characters in the recording as psychiatrist Dr. Twisby and albino twins. The twins, Bête and Ivorie, are the result of sadistic experiments, lovers, and maybe entangled quantum particles on the run in a chaotic universe. Ptolema later assassinates the two agents she spoke with. Twisby has Ivorie killed, collapsing the twin souls into Bête. Years later, the White Woman drops the vial that poisons the sea.

On the positive side, this seems to have a theme. The agents apparently represent chaos versus order, playing a symbolic chess game with butterfly effects through the years. There are layers of post-modern symbolism where we encounter various literary allusions, a chess game, quantum entanglements and a time loop. The characters are very well developed, and given a recognizable conflict to work with, might actually be likable. The author provides chapter headings that describe place and time—somewhat helpful to track the way this skips around.

On the not so positive side, this has serious readability issues. The story gets off to a promising start with Ptolema and the two agents in Dublin, but after that, it pretty much collapses into chaos. Although there are a couple of linear threads that weave through it, most of the chapters seem nonsensical and unrelated; put together, they achieve no apparent meaning. Be prepared to break out your French language; one chapter is written almost entirely in French. There’s some gratuitous sickness here, too, where a production company streams seppuku type suicides. (The victim hesitates, maybe not sedated enough…) Ick.

Two stars.

Quick Pic of Spot

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Here’s some eye candy for fans of Spot the Cat. I have a matching dog pic, but it’s not as cute. I’m thinking of doing a painting of this one.

Spot_sleeping

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