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?

More on Wealth and Power

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Most people who gain wealth and power have followed some kind of career path that gives them the skills to be successful in holding onto it. However, there’s an alternate path to wealth and power that involves behaviors we generally consider morally corrupt. It’s a scenario where the end always justifies the means, and favors are more important than qualifications and skill.

Looking again at the currently popular theme of killing people and taking over their wealth and power, it can be tricky to transfer these without documents, so what the authors are having the protagonists do is resort to fraud to carry it off. There’s a long tradition in fiction of romantic thieves who make their living through trickery and clever heists, but somehow this feels different. It’s as if the authors are advising readers to cut corners to get what they want. This signals a shift in moral standards.

Examples: In The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, the protagonist January kills her benefactor William Cornelius Locke and forges documents to take over his estate so she can live in comfort and have what she wants. In Network Effect by Martha Wells, ART’s crew is forging documents to dispute ownership of worlds and displace the corporate owners. Both these instances are presented as matter-of-fact and justified because of systemic bias, therefore the right thing to do. So, is moral corruption now the approved method to achieve our various causes?

Of course, corruption has always been there in human interactions. Moral corruption is the whole basis of organized crime, which uses violence, assault, murder, extortion, and fraud to build wealth and power. These tactics also have a bad tendency to creep into politics, where the stakes for wealth and power are similarly high. The US has laws against corruption, but various investigations and charges signal that it is fairly common and ongoing in politics. Somehow it is just there, strongly associated with people who achieve positions where they see the opportunities to capture or launder money and make deals to benefit their own personal interests.

So, is this one of the opportunities that women (or minorities) have been missing in their quest for wealth and power? Is that why authors are now pointing it out as a morally justified activity? It’s true that women have a complex association with corruption. Historically they have often attached to corrupt and powerful men to share in their spoils. Research shows that (at least in democracies) more women in business and politics tends to be associated with lower levels of corruption. Plus, women see the opportunities differently. For example, women tend to evaluate the risk of corrupt behaviors more carefully than men, and may take a bribe and not follow through on the deal. This makes them less trustworthy for anyone who is offering corruption, and turns out to mean that men are approached with more and better deals. However, when there are no penalties, everybody seems equally corrupt.

On the one hand, we’ve got a human tendency to corruption, and on the other an unspoken assumption that our society has rules against corruption, and that this is the moral high ground. The question is which we’re going to choose, and where we’re going to draw the line. Another consideration is how we justify morally corrupt behaviors to ourselves and whether this is actually exculpatory. Is it okay for someone to (allegedly) lie about sexual assault for monetary or political gain as Tara Reade and Christine Blasey Ford have been accused of doing? Is it okay for somebody to manufacture a racial hate crime like Jussie Smollett or racial profiling like Rev. Jerrod Moultrie? Is it okay for Sherita Dixon-Cole to lie that Officer Daniel Hubbard sexually assaulted her during a traffic stop because of the need for police reform? These charges are consonant with political causes, so does that justify lying to manufacture incidents? Is this now the best way to get the power for the changes we want? Or not?

Charlie Jane Anders checked in with her opinion earlier this year. In City in the Middle of the Night, all the grand causes fail because corruption degrades the new order the same as the old. Would choosing a different path to wealth and power make a difference in the results?

So, who reads science fiction anyway?

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The last blog generated a discussion of whether science fiction can be called conservative at all because of its nature as speculative fiction. Following up online, I see opposing opinions about whether science fiction is inherently conservative or inherently liberal. There’s not nearly as much research on the demographics of the speculative fiction market as there should be, but in this post, I’ll try to have a look at some results.

First, what kind of people in general read science fiction? One writer-conducted market survey found that science fiction readers account for about 20% of the US population, are wealthier than the average, are about 57 percent male and tend to reduce their reading volume between the ages of 45-65. Also—no surprise—SF readers are people who read a lot. One study found that speculative fiction fans consistently consume high volumes of books, TV and films, which the authors considered “cognitively beneficial.” This study also found that SF as a genre has a strong effect on the way the public perceives and accepts science. Another study showed that science fiction in popular culture has a real effect on public attitudes. The authors suggest this is a literacy effect, where consuming scary media about “killer robots,” for example, affected opinions about development of autonomous weapons.

Other research shows that science fiction readers are more mature in their social relationships than readers of other genres. Fans who scored as knowledgeable about SF on the Genre Familiarity Test also scored higher on the Relationships Belief Inventory, while romance readers scored lower. In contrast, another study found that readers of romance and suspense/thrillers had higher interpersonal sensitivity/empathy scores than science-fiction/fantasy fans. Again, this isn’t really a surprise.

People read fiction for a variety of reasons, and escapism seems to be high on the list. Education is likely up there, too, where people are interested in broadening their horizons—science fiction is supposed to be the literature of ideas, after all. However, most of us would still like to read texts that reaffirm our beliefs and values rather than something that challenges them. That leads us to the question of worldviews (i.e. politics). So how do worldviews affect reading habits?

Here’s an interesting study that found a preference for different disciplines in science reading material. For example, liberals tend to like theoretical disciplines including anthropology, biology, astronomy, physics and (surprise) engineering. On the other hand, conservatives tend to prefer applied disciplines including medicine, law and (surprise) climate change. Analyzing the results, the authors conclude that “scientific puzzles appeal more to the left, while problem-solving appeals more to the right.”

Another study conducted on Goodreads found that conservatives tend to prefer escapist, “low-brow” genre fiction and recent book-to-movie titles, and liberals tend to read more “high-brow” novels that win prizes. According to the authors, these results support the worst, polarizing stereotypes of “sophisticated” readers (liberals) versus “simple-minded” readers of formulaic fiction (conservatives). However, the authors also discovered a sizable number of non-partisan books that bridged the gap between liberals and conservatives. And, it turned out to be generally conservatives who were more engaged in producing this space for cultural compromise.

I didn’t find anything at all about the relative size of the conservative versus liberal audience, which suggests it’s a topic for original research. Anybody?

Review of Incredibles 2 

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This is an animated film written and directed by Brad Bird, starring Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson and Samuel T. Jackson. It was produced by Pixar, distributed by Walt Disney Pictures, and released to theaters June 15, 2018. This is the second animated film in this series. For anyone who missed it, the first film titled The Incredibles was released in 2004. This review contains major spoilers.

This film picks up right where the last one left off. The Parr family are “Supers” who are hiding out under a government enforced program of secret identities called the Super Relocation Program. The Underminer bores into the Metroville Bank and the Parr family (a.k.a. The Incredibles) tries to stop him from vacuuming all the money out of the vault. There’s a lot of property damage but they fail to stop the robbery. This leads to bad press. Man-in-Black Rick Dickers informs the Parrs that the Super Relocation Program has been discontinued, which means, at this point, they’re on their own in maintaining their secret identities. The program will only pay for two more weeks at a motel, so the family is facing homelessness. Bob and Helen are approached by media mogul Winston Deavor and his sister Evelyn, who admire superheroes and want to launch a media campaign featuring Elastigirl to get them back to work on stopping crime. Bob agrees to watch the three kids, Dash, Violet and baby Jack-Jack, while Helen takes the job. This turns out to be more than Bob bargained for, as he has to deal with math homework, budding romance and Jack-Jack’s emerging powers. He gets support from his buddy Frozone and super-costume designer Edna Mode. Meanwhile, Helen finds her job isn’t what she thought. Can Bob and Helen figure out what’s going on? Can the kids save the day again?

So, Brad Bird made his point about superheroes hiding out in the first film, and the messages here are a little different, leaning heavily to the adult philosophical. Some of it comes out in straightforward conversations between Helen and tech talent Evelyn, and between Helen and Bob, while more of it is embedded in the characters and plotline.

Message #1: Can you help people too much? Evelyn thinks superheroes make everyone weak and unable to fix their own problems, while, as a Super, Helen thinks it’s right to help people in any way she can. When asked what people really want, Evelyn thinks it’s always ease over quality, and to be taken care of by Supers, which will lead to disaster. Again, I’m not the greatest on ideologies, but this looks like libertarianism vs. socialism with some overtones of Social Darwinism. How much should we help others? Does too much help really keep people from reaching success on their own?

Message #2: What should you do if laws are wrong? If laws are immoral, is it more right to follow the rules or to break the rules? Helen decides on breaking the law to appear as Elastigirl, with the hope her actions will bring about a change in government policy.

Message #3: Role reversals are tricky. Everybody needs to respect the jobs other people do to make the world run—especially moms. Bob really struggles through the family thing, but eventually gets it under control.

Message #4: Beware of social media. Evelyn turns out to be a social media activist. In her role as Screenslaver, she hypnotizes anyone who looks into her screens and forces them to become her minions in a bid to destroy the Supers. Besides this, Winston looks suspiciously like someone who recently testified before the US Congress about the use of social media in the last US presidential election.

Highly recommended. High five on the Ideation Scale.

Five stars.

Review of Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

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This novel is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It’s billed as “vintage alternate reality” and was published by Tor. Presumably this is going to be an ongoing series, as it’s described as book 1 in the Amberlough Dossier. Book 2, Armistice, is due on May 15, 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Cyril DePaul is from a wealthy family and works as a spy for the government of Amberlough. Since a mission gone wrong, he’s been working a desk at headquarters in Amberlough City and enjoying a torrid affair with cabaret performer and smuggler Aristide Makricosta. Cyril’s boss pulls him off the desk to take over an emergency assignment, and his cover is blown before he even gets started. He’s forced to make a deal with fascists agents planning to take over the government. Returning home, he breaks off his affair with Aristide and takes up with Cordelia, a stripper at the cabaret, trying to carry off a plan. Is there any way to stop the fascists and preserve Amberlough City? Can Cyril save himself, Cordelia and his lover Aristide? Can he even protect himself?

This book feels like the 1930s or 40s, and it’s notable for its detail and sensuality. We get to feel the early spring breeze, smell cologne and sweat mingled at the club, walk in a carpet of cherry petals in the park and even catch the butcher-shop scent when the dead bodies start to pile up. The story gets increasingly more gripping as the fascist’s plot advances and the main characters end up fighting for life and liberty. They’re pretty much down and out by the end of the book, but it’s clear that Cordelia, at least, is going to be real trouble for the bad guys.

Not so good points: I can’t see any science fiction or fantasy either one in this book. Also, if it’s an alternate reality, I don’t see what it’s alternate to. It’s a great intrigue set in in imaginary place, but not really SFF at all. Also, I think the sensuality is a little overdone so that it interferes with readability and obscures thin world building. I ended up with a really clear idea of who was sleeping with whom and what cologne they use, but not much about foreign politics and how this impacts Cyril’s decisions. There’s a logical issue here that makes his actions seem really questionable.

Four and a half stars (but not SFF).

Review of The Shape of Water by Guillermo del Toro

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I know, I know. I’m late again with the film review. I hadn’t really noticed this one as it went by, but since there’s a big Oscar buzz, I figured I needed to get out there and see what the fuss was about. The film was written by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor and directed by Guillermo del Toro. It has 13 Oscar nominations, another 84 award wins and 244 other award nominations.

Elisa Esposito is a cleaning woman at a secret Baltimore government facility in the early 1960s. She was a foundling with damaged vocal chords and is mute, plain and devastatingly lonely. Her only two friends are her neighbor Giles, an aging gay man, and Zelda, who looks after her at work. Colonel Richard Strickland brings a specimen to the lab—an amphibious humanoid creature captured in South America. He keeps the creature chained and uses a cattle prod to control it, leading to a violent encounter where he loses fingers. Called to clean up the mess, Elisa and Zelda find out about the creature. Elisa leaves food and makes friends with it, and when she hears the plan is vivisection, she enlists Giles and Zelda to help her free the captive. They successfully get it to Elisa’s apartment, and she plans to set it free when the canal gates open later in the month. While the creature is there, the two of them develop a closer relationship, including sex. Will Elisa be able to set the creature free? Will Strickland catch up to them?

I can see why this is in line for an Oscar. It’s a play on Creature from the Black Lagoon. It’s a beautifully made film, and the Academy seems to really like tributes to Hollywood’s past. Old film footage plays on the TV. There is a song and dance sequence where Elisa imagines herself a star. There’s sex. It has something of the feel of old fifties scifi where alien creatures wreak mayhem. There are Russian spies sneaking around. It’s also very inclusive, with disabled, gay, Hispanic and black characters.

Still, I don’t think this translates well. The script seems forced, and I can’t pull any meaning out of it that feels important. Elisa and Hoffstetler, the Russian spy, are sensitively played, and Del Toro makes an effort to develop Giles and Zelda as characters, but others are cardboard. Plus, it just doesn’t work for me. If Elisa can run away with her love, what kind of life would she have?

One thing the film does do successfully is display the attitude that “might makes right” in a glaring light. This used to be widely accepted, but is less so now, for good reason (think Nazi medical experiments). There is a lot of violence and abuse here. There is no appreciation from the military that the creature is intelligent. Everyone is caught in a cultural trap with no hope of salvation.

I don’t know what to think about this. Is it supposed to be postmodern? Kitsch?

Two stars for the logical failures. I almost left half way.

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?

Follow-up on “Little Widow,” et al.

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Since I’ve been discussing David Gerrold’s take on the requirement for virtue signaling that indicates your affiliation in the SFF community, it occurs to me that the recent spate of stories with a social/political bent are a form of virtue signaling. The writers use them to signal their political stance, and the publishers signal their own virtue by supporting the views through publication. This means that the current marketplace is heavily politicized, with no sign of the extremism letting up.

Writers seeking publication would do well to take a look at the political stances of the magazines and anthologies currently in the market and pick those that match their own philosophy and steer clear of those that don’t. From what Gerrold says, this will seriously impact both writer and publisher’s reputations, and it will be difficult to stay neutral in the culture war. For one thing, neutral stores don’t advance the publisher’s agenda, and according to Gerrold’s analysis, remaining silent on the issues just gets you lumped with the opposing side. Plus, unpublished.

Is there any room here for real freedom of expression?

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