Review of Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor

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This novella is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s appears to be science fantasy and was published by Tor.com. It’s also the sequel to the Nebula and Hugo Award winning Binti.

Binti is finishing her first year at Oomza University where she has had problems adjusting to her new situation and the changes the Meduse made to her DNA during the eventful voyage from home. She suffers from flashbacks, mood swings and anger management issues that she doesn’t understand. She decides to return home for a break, during which she can go on the traditional pilgrimage for young women in her tribe. The Meduse Okwu plans to accompany her to Earth as an ambassador to her people. At home, her family holds a feast to welcome her, but then family members express their anger at her decision to leave home for university, considering it a betrayal. Instead of completing the pilgrimage, Binti has a vision and meets her grandmother, a member of the Desert People, whom she learns to accept as a civilized people.

This installment of the story continues to investigate the challenges of leaving family to forge a new personal path in life, where Binti leaves behind the safety and tradition of her Himba kin group to attend a multicultural university. Her interactions with her family outline the difficulties of trying to maintain traditions after she is tainted by change. Also, this book exposes the racism that her lighter-skinned tribe practices against the darker desert people, and shows the desert people to be an advanced culture, after all. This parallels the opinion the Khoush people have of the Himba, and worse, the Meduse. It suggests they are likewise worthy.

Not so good points: The first quarter of the novella is basically a rehash of the previous book, as Binti experiences flashbacks, and the story only picks up with new material when she arrives home. There’s not much in the way of plotting or world-building either one here, and I’m left without much vision of what the university is like, what it teaches or why Binti has to cross the galaxy to get to it. (Is this just a symbol of cultural distance?) The astrolabes Binti and her father manufacture look to be a sort of tablet; her use of mental math equations to generate a “current” is unexplained, and the desert people’s communications system looks like nanotech. This suggests advanced civilization and a far-future scenario, but I’ve got no idea. I’m left wondering if African tribespeople are all that have survived some cataclysm on Earth. If so, what happened to everybody else?

The result is pretty confusing, but I’ll have to give the author some credit for different themes and calling out racism in people of color.

Three and a half stars.

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Review of Wintersong by S. Jae Jones

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This book is part of my effort to review minority authors. It was published through Thomas Dunn Books/Macmillan in February of 2017. Jones is Asian, a native of Los Angeles, and this looks to be her first published novel. There’s a sequel coming in 2018 called Shadowsong. This review contains spoilers.

Liesl is the middle child, dark and plain, while her older sister Kathe is blond and beautiful and her younger brother Josef is a violin virtuoso. Liesl wants to study music, too, and dreams of being a composer, but her father only lets her play accompaniment to her brother. As a child, she finds a boy in the woods who calls himself the Goblin King, and they promise to marry, but as Liesl grows older, she has to give up her dreams to take responsibility for her family. Then the Goblin King comes for his bride. Because Liesl has rejected him, he takes Kathe instead. Can Liesl save her sister by giving up her own life?

Jones has used the German legend of the Erlkonig as the basis for her story, with some other allusions drawn from European culture and the movie Labyrinth. The story is set in the 1800s when touring violinists were the rock stars of the era. According to the Erlkonig legend, the bride gives up her life and retires to the Underground to make sure spring comes to the world above. It’s not very Asian, but somehow I haven’t heard a peep about cultural appropriation.

On the positive side, Jones has put together a really promising plot. The issue of having to give up personal dreams to take family responsibility seems to be a common theme from Asian women writers. Here, Liesl escapes the clutches of her family, but moves into another stifling situation. Her husband offers her complete freedom to play and write music, but there is no audience—she is confined to the Underground. The Erlkonig is a strong romantic interest on the one hand, but on the other, it’s clear that staying with him will slowly drain away her life. There are choices between evils here.

On the not-so-positive side, I didn’t much like Liesl or the petulant, demanding, erratic way she conducts herself around people who love her. I think her character could have been used more positively to send messages about discipline, cooperation, communication, focus and hard work to achieve what you want. Of course, this might be just my viewpoint speaking. I had similar complaints about The Last Jedi.

Three and a half stars.

Review of The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North

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This novel was the 2017 winner of the World Fantasy Award. It was published by Redhook/Orbit UK, and runs 468 pages.

Most people totally forget Hope Arden within a minute. This means she can’t hold a job or maintain any serious relationships, and she supports herself by being a world-class thief. Hope is affronted by a woman’s death in Dubai, and partially out of spite, steals the Chrysalis diamonds from the Princess Shamma bint Bandar at a party hosted by the Prometheus Corporation. Prometheus markets an app that recommends actions, purchases and treatments to achieve Perfection. Because of the power and reach of the corporation, Hope finds herself on the run. Allied with a darkweb terrorist called Byron, can she bring down Prometheus?

This is a very complex novel. It’s basically a thriller plot, where Hope and her various allies struggle against the powerful minions of the corporation. It’s also an indictment of our worship of celebrity and perfection, here summed up in the app that guides people in how to become rich and beautiful to the ultimate degree, while also making them slaves to the corporation—meanwhile the ordinary Hope remains invisible. Regardless of the thriller plot, Hope continually digresses into stream of consciousness inspection of her past and the failings of society around her. This includes several prominent cultures because of the multinational quality of the tale. Her eventual solution to the battle with Perfection isn’t simple, either, as Hope’s vulnerability and her emotional responses to the people she meets constantly affect her decisions.

Good points: It’s complex; it’s a thriller; it’s got a lot to say as a mirror for our society. There are some artful cliffhangers, beautiful images, great feelings of place and very complex and well-developed characters. The reader forms emotional bonds with these people.

Not so good points: It’s slow-moving because of all the digressions—I had a hard time getting started because of the pace. The thriller plot could have been a short story or a novella without all the asides, so it’s not the book for people who like fast, hard-hitting action.

I’m going to go five stars on this one. I was impressed.

Are Conservatism and Progressivism inborn?

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Following up on my comments about Jon Del Arroz being discriminated against for his conservative politics (regardless that he’s a marginalized minority), here’s some interesting research about political views. Wait for it—these may be inborn. That means discrimination on the basis of political views may eventually be classified the same way as discriminating against individuals for other inborn traits like sexual orientation or skin color.

In recent years, researchers have started looking at what personality and emotional responses have to do with politics. In one study Kevin Smith et al. looked for emotional responses that they could use to identify conservatives and liberals. Conservatives, on the one hand, turned out to be more easily grossed out by pictures and tended to get emotional over people they disliked. Liberals, on the other hand, were less grossed out and tended to get more emotional over people they liked. Next, James Fowler et al. identified DRD4-7R, a variant of the gene that linked to novelty-seeking behavior as being linked to liberal views when combined with early socialization. Fowler made the point that political views can’t be tied to just one gene, but it does suggest how inborn personality can affect political viewpoints. Michele Vecchione et al. conducted a study in Italy that looked at people who voted conservative or liberal and classified them according to the “big five” personality traits. The results showed that people who rated high in the “openness” trait tended to vote liberal, while those so rated high in the “conscientiousness” trait tended to vote conservative. Another study of twins by John Alford et al. found that genetics clearly had a more significant influence on politics than socialization. Because people tend to marry spouses with similar political views, the researchers surmised, these traits tend to run very strongly in families.

Another interesting support for this viewpoint is the interpretation of personality tests. The DISC system, for example, breaks personalities down into four types: dominant, inspiring, supportive and cautious. People who lean to dominant and inspiring personality traits tend to be movers and shapers of change, while the supportive and cautious people, on the other hand, tend to be conservative, valuing security and stability. Besides this, the Myers Briggs test identifies 16 personality types, some of which actually include the descriptors “conservative” and “novelty seeking.” These personality types tend to be remarkably stable over time. They’re identifiable as early as kindergarten, and don’t change much after young-adulthood.

Enjoy classifying yourself through these links. As I recall, I tested out as a dominant and an INTJ.

Discrimination in the SFF community?

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A while back I made the comment that the major SFF awards seem to be discriminating against Hispanic/LatinX/Native American authors. In the past few years, it’s been easy to run down the list of nominees and see a good representation of African American, Asian and LGBTQ authors, with a sprinkling of Arabs, Pacific Islanders, etc. However, there’s been a consistent shortage of Hispanic/LatinX/Native American names in the nominations and in the Locus reviews and other reading lists that feed into the awards. This is in spite of the fact that Hispanics are the largest US minority, and combined with Native Americans, come in at about 1/3 of the population. Comments on the blog suggested that the issue was that the people who vote for the awards just don’t like the type of fiction those people write.

The lack of representation is no surprise. Despite the large numbers of Hispanics/Native Americans in the US population, they’re still highly marginalized and discriminated against in jobs, education, housing, immigration and lots of other areas. There’s really no shortage of accomplished writers within this group, so it makes you wonder what’s been going on in the publishing and awards systems to keep the Hispanic/LatinX/Native America authors so unrecognized. Now, we have a clear case of discrimination within the SFF community that suggests what might be going on.

Jon Del Arroz is Latino and, as such, falls clearly into the marginalized minority brown author-of-color category. Like many Hispanics, he apparently also falls on the moderate to conservative side of the political spectrum. His current publisher is Superversive Press, known for pulp type fiction, but also a publisher of fairly right leaning works.

Del Arroz posted a blog here about his experiences back in the spring. According to Del Arroz, he was initially promoted at local Bay area cons as a minority author, but found himself placed in panel discussions that were political and left-leaning, rather than about SFF or promoting books. Once his politics became known, says Del Arroz, then the discrimination started, based more on his ideas than his race.

In the late summer, Del Arroz was lumped with those “middle aged white dudes” after his nomination for the Dragon Awards. This was followed by a campaign in December 2017 to try to get the SFWA management to reject his application for membership. He’s also been banned from WorldCon.

So, are Hispanics/LatinX/Native Americans being excluded from the SFF community mainly because of their political views? Clearly Del Arroz thinks politics is currently trumping his marginalized minority status as a Latino. How does a socially conscious community reconcile this kind of behavior?

Why do we need all that baggage?

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I’m feeling the need to say more about the messages embedded in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I expect I know where they come from. After the Force Awakens, there was controversy about new directions in the series. Presumably the producers were a little annoyed by this, and the result is all these messages about letting go of history. The loss of the old Star Wars is inevitable, actually, as the original characters are now too old to be dashing action figures, and the Princess is dead. As a traditional fan, I understand these messages, but how is a younger audience to take them?

The old Star Wars was about the resourcefulness, courage and discipline that it took to be a Jedi. It was about attaining wisdom and skill in the arts and sciences, and about how easy it is to slip off the narrow path and fall to the dark side. The reward for all the time and effort Luke put into his study was self-esteem, ability, adventure and success in the new world he helped to create.

To review: Most of the troubling messages in the film come from the conversations between Luke and Rey, where we see Luke has rejected his accomplishments and claims the Jedi “religion” is outdated and empty. He advises Rey to kill off history in order to reach her full potential. Rey is ambitious. She makes feeble efforts to train by herself, but blunders through obvious mistakes, while Luke still refuses to help her. We’re left in a universe of kids with no guidance, and the result is wild magic to get what they want, to defend themselves, and maybe to rescue their friends. There’s no emphasis on study, planning or organization. The message is that individual grandstanding, insubordination and mutiny against your leaders is both forgivable and all good in the end.

So, are these really good messages to send to children? I’m sure a lot of kids will love hearing they don’t need the older generation. But, should elders make a decision that the old order is dead and refuse to teach kids the skills and wisdom they’ll need to run the world by themselves? Do we really need to remember all that baggage about codes of honor, the Holocaust and the US Civil War?

I agree that there’s a certain weight to baggage like that. Minorities that see themselves only as victims of discrimination will have a hard time rising above it. If you spend all your time mired in events that ended over a hundred years ago, for example, then you won’t accomplish much that’s new. But civilization grows because we know about the past and pass on knowledge and wisdom to others. It grows because we, as a society, organize, study the mistakes of previous generations and come up with a common plan that most people support to deal with problems in our world.

Don’t grandstanding and individual self-serving only undermine this effort? Why do we, as a society, want to glorify that above study and hard work?

Virtue Signaling: Weaponizing the System

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Recently I’ve been blogging about virtue signaling, which is publicly stating your opinions on moral issues in order to show your support. Social pressure to conform leads to “MeToo” reactions, and something worse called “groupthink.” In groupthink, no one really thinks critically about issues, but instead responds to the social pressures with knee-jerk, mindless reactions.

This makes virtue signaling a powerful tool in the political arena. In fact, the dependability of the reaction it provokes makes it easily weaponized. All you have to do right now to take someone down is to call them a racist or a sexual harasser. This trend has gotten so obvious in broader US politics that I can almost see powerful and manipulative Puppetmasters pulling the strings—a war back and forth—with attacks taking down Hollywood political donors, artists, senators, members of the press, anybody who influential and on the wrong side of issues. I’m sure these Puppetmasters are laughing all the while, as mindless groupthink lemmings attack one another, doing their work for them. Anybody who questions the process gets a dose of the same.

Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly were early casualties, and conspiracy theorists immediately speculated that Weinstein was payback. It’s pretty easy to dig up questionable actions over a man’s lifetime, but women are harder. Taylor Swift was attacked as a racist by someone claiming her songs contain white supremacist lyrics. Meryl Streep is currently under attack by anonymous posters that have appeared in Los Angeles, accusing her of knowing and keeping quiet about Weinstein—complicity, in other words. Morning-after remorse has produced calls for Al Franken to unresign, and led Tavis Smiley and Joe Scarborough to wonder publicly what’s behind the attacks. Meanwhile, the Trump administration deftly avoided accusations by taking down attorney Lisa Bloom.

Bringing the focus back to the SFF community, I think these same hazards have been working in the heavy polarization of relations. Don’t get me wrong. It’s definitely important to call out people who are actually sexually abusive and racist, but because of the weaponizing, it’s gotten to be important to look critically at the accuracy of the claims and question what might be behind them.

The most obvious example is Vox Day, of course. Articles and comments consistently claim he’s anti-diversity, while a look at his publications and award nominations show clearly that he likes Chinese SF and promotes minorities. Another recent attack, of course, has been on Rocket Stack Rank as racist and sexist because of their dislike of non-standard pronouns. Wasn’t it at one time questionable to attack reviewers? Another example is last year’s attack on horror writer David Riley for holding conservative political views. Still another is the attack on editor Sunil Patel (see also here) for apparently being a jerk, while accusers couldn’t come up with anything more than vague claims about sexual harassment.

There may be questionable issues at work in all these cases, of course. Anyone has the right to feel affronted and to complain, but shouldn’t we be looking at things a little more rationally?

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