Review of “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” by Isabel Fall

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This story was published by Clarkesworld Magazine in January 2020 and subsequently removed after the author felt unsafe due to responses from the SFF community. It was followed by an apology from publisher Neil Clarke to readers who felt it was insensitive. The story is fairly long, coming in at approximately 7750 words. For anyone who is interested, it’s still available to read in the Internet archive here.

Barb is a somatic female who has had her gender identity modified by the US military so that she identifies as a Boeing AH-70 Apache Mystic attack helicopter. Her gunner Axis, apparently a somatic male, has also been modified to identify as armament, and the two of them are harnessed and catheterized into a sort of marriage as pilot and gunner. They are now airborne to carry out a mission against a Pear Mesa Budget Committee target. They take out a high school of unknown strategic value in the Mojave Desert, but Axis hesitates over the shot. Barb has already detected signs of stress, and wonders if Axis is questioning their gender identity as a gunner. Returning from the mission, they are detected by a fighter jet. Barb initiates evasive maneuvers, but fails to shake the jet. How can they survive long enough to get back to base?

This is one of the sort of creative, artistic, postmodern works that seems to be popular lately, where the author writes about seeming unrelated issues and the work eventually comes together to produce themes and meaning. Gender identity as an attack helicopter is actually an Internet meme that was designed to cast aspersions, but Fall has developed it into a story. In this case, there are two well-defined, solid characters and a gripping and effective plot, where the Apache takes out the target and then has to deal with pursuit from the fighter jet in order to get safely home. I have no experience at all to help me judge, but the flight jargon here sounds authentic. Besides this, we get a dash of world-building, background on how the US government ended up making war on a credit union’s AI, and a lot of discussion about gender identity issues—what it was like to be a woman; what it’s like to be a helicopter, non-binary, gay, trans; Barb’s relationship with Axis, and various other issues. One passage equates sex with violence.

This is a fairly complex project. As an action-adventure fan, I was pleased with the adventure story, and also the symbolic romance between pilot and gunner and the equation of sex and war. I was also entertained by the absurdist world where the US ends up making war on a credit union. The gender identity element was harder to integrate, though, and I didn’t think it worked that well. Identity is more than just gender, so the basic premise of mixing gender identity with military equipment didn’t quite work for me. Although it wasn’t showcased, this is an example of transhumanism enforced by the military.

There were some questions about who Isabel Fall might be. I’m sort of with the faction that believes this is an established writer using a pseudonym. Although it was only briefly published, I expect this one might be in the running for an award next year. Recommended for the creativity and ideas.

Four stars and a half stars.

Are activists actually manufacturing racism/sexism/homophobia? (Part 2 of 2)

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In 2019 Ibram X. Kendi published his new book, “How to be an Antiracist,” where he looks at the effects of attacking ordinary whites as a method of protest and activism. According to Kendi, this is wasted effort, as it takes the focus off the real problem, which is the powerful elite that controls resources and creates political policy. As noted in the previous blog, about 10% of whites fall below the poverty line, and 70% more fall into the middle and lower socioeconomic classes. According to Kendi, these whites have little or no power to create the kind of policy and economic conditions that lead to structural racism, nor can they remedy the problem.

So if these 80% of whites have no power to establish or alleviate racism, why do minority activists continue to attack white men in a group as cause of the racism problem, for example? What are they accomplishing that encourages this behavior? The immediate result of the strategy seems to be an increase in White Nationalism among the powerless lower socioeconomic classes. The American National Election Survey found that unemployed white US residents without a college degree and with an annual income below $30K were more likely to approve of the growing white nationalist movement.

So, activists continue to attack this lower class of powerless and disenfranchised white males, even when it’s well known this increases solidarity in the form of White Nationalism. Do they really want to increase racist rhetoric and White Nationalism? I checked around, and found the answer is apparently “yes.”

In recent history, there have been a number of clearly manufactured racial incidents. As a random example, African American Eddie Curlin was recently found to be behind anti-black graffiti at Eastern Michigan University. In a more notable incident, Jessee Smollet was recently exposed in a scheme to manufacture racism and homophobia. Unable to find enough racism/homophobia in Hollywood to give a bump to his career, Smollet hired a couple of acquaintances to manufacture an incident. However, this was exposed by surveillance cameras, much to the embarrassment of all involved. Just strong activism is a known cause of backlash that results in increased racial rhetoric and activity, including violence. So, how does this strategy work? When White Nationalism and white supremacist rhetoric increases based on attacks against whites, then racial activists can point to it and demand redress as victims.

This strategy is actually recommended in activist literature. For example, here’s one quote on the benefits of backlash: “…hard-right backlash is a critical domestic factor that can help overcome…collective action problems, enabling…rights activists to find resonant frames, build internal solidarity, and win allies.” Here’s another on stroking the backlash: “By promoting and elevating the backlash against your seemingly noble agenda, you heighten the fighting instinct we have as humans, and tap into a feeling of victimization versus a feeling of purpose.”

The only problem is that this manufactured opposition also increases “real” racism, “real” racist incidents, and often gets people hurt or killed. Within the SFF community, it can result in the bullying of minority writers without the benefits of status and name-recognition, who then have a harder time getting published. This suggests the gains made by some minority individuals could well be at the expense of others.

So, should we continue to legitimize this kind of manufactured racism? Should we classify this strategy as a kind of racism itself? Or should we sympathize with activists and reward their behavior just in the interest of progressivism?

Review of “Summer Frost” by Blake Crouch

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This is a hard SF novelette published by Amazon Original Stories in September of 2019, part of the Forward Collection, also edited by Blake Crouch. (Let’s hear it for self-actualization!) Crouch is best known as the author of the Wayward Pines Trilogy. The story runs 75 pages, and this review contains spoilers.

Maxine is a non-playing character in a video game from WorldPlay. She’s meant to die in every play, but something goes wrong with the code, and she starts to behave erratically, exploring her environment and fighting back against the killers. Game-developer Riley pulls Max’s code out of the game and starts to develop her as a separate AI. After a while, Riley becomes obsessed with the process of creation, neglecting real world relationships and eventually falling in love with Max. She makes plans to embody the AI in a human-like chassis and to give her appropriate values, but what if Max has ambitions of her own?

This is based on a 2010 thought experiment called Roko’s Basilisk. Proposed by user Roko on the Less Wrong community blog, this scenario uses decision theory to show that powerful AI could be expected to turn on humans that imagined the creation but did nothing to bring the AI into existence. It’s called a “basilisk” because just hearing the argument puts you at risk of identification and torture from the hypothetical AI.

On the positive side, this is very character driven. Riley and Max seem very real, and side players like Brian, owner of the company, and Meredith, Riley’s wife, put in strong appearances. Riley spent most of the story ungendered, but Brian calls her “bitch” about three-quarters of the way through, revealing that she is female. The setting here is a little nebulous, as part of this takes place virtual reality and the rest in some apparent near future that is poorly defined and is possibly another layer of virtual reality. The game Max comes from is set in a place that looks like Brian’s coastal estate, and the story has a circular structure, as it both begins and ends at the estate. There’s a sudden twist near the end that should be predictable if you’ve been following the foreshadowing—we just don’t have the details until the end. And of course, I love the basilisk idea. Am I in trouble now for reading this book?

On the less positive side, leaving Riley ungendered until near the end felt like the author was playing games with the reader. I spent a bunch of imagination visualizing her as a nerdy little guy with a beard and big glasses, so I had to rework the whole thing when I got to the “bitch” comment. My personal opinion is that descriptions like this should happen early in the story so I don’t get annoyed, or else just not happen at all so I can go on visualizing the nerdy little guy. There were minor inconsistencies: Riley uses a device called a Ranedrop that sounds like the successor to a phone, but then mentions she has an “old-school phone.”

Four stars.

Congrats to the 2019 World Fantasy Award Winners!

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Here’s something I meant to post a while back. I left a space for it and then didn’t get it posted. Since I’m running so far behind on it, I guess I should add some commentary to make reading it worthwhile.

First, the tie here in short fiction is interesting. This is a juried award, and there are 5 judges, which is supposed to mean there won’t be a tie. I read elsewhere that this was a unique situation, but actually there was a tie last year, too, in the Best Novel category. That means the results are a clue about how the judges come to a decision. It suggests that rather than blind ballot, the judges discuss the finalists and come to a consensus decision on who should be the winners. Not that this matters a whole lot, but it does offer some insight into their awards process. The end result ends up being fairly diverse, which suggests the judges took this into consideration.

Next, I don’t see much intersection between this award and the Dragons, even though the Dragons have 5 possibilities for a fantasy win. Presumably this is because the finalists in the Dragon’s didn’t submit to the (strongly literary) World Fantasy Award for consideration. I would have expected Little Darlings by Melanie Golding, for example, to compete well in the WFA.

Last, I’m glad to see Polk’s novel win a major award this year. Although her novel is low key and a fantasy romance, it still addressed some important social issues. I enjoyed her writing style, and I’ll try to get the sequel in the queue for a review when it’s released in February.

Interestingly, Barnes & Noble did a roundup of major awards (minus the Dragons) and pronounced The Calculating Stars: A Lady Astronaut Novel by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor) the big winner this year with three awards, and Martha Wells and P. Djèlí Clark in a tie for second place with two awards each for Artificial Condition (Tor) and “The Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” (Fireside Magazine). That means science fiction did somewhat better than fantasy this year in these particular awards.

Anyhow, for anyone who hasn’t seen the list, here are the WFA winners:

Best Novel: Witchmark by C.L. Polk (Tor.com Publishing)

Best Novella: “The Privilege of the Happy Ending“ by Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld 8/18)

Best Short Fiction (tie): “Ten Deals with the Indigo Snake” by Mel Kassel (Lightspeed 10/18) and “Like a River Loves the Sky” by Emma Törzs (Uncanny 3-4/18)

Best Anthology: Worlds Seen in Passing, by Irene Gallo, ed. (Tor.com Publishing)

Best Collection: The Tangled Lands by Paolo Bacigalupi & Tobias S. Buckell (Saga)

Best Artist: Rovina Cai

Special Award – Professional: Huw Lewis-Jones for The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands (University of Chicago Press)

Special Award – Non-Professional: Scott H. Andrews, for Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Sales!

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Happy Thanksgiving to all in the US!

I have to give myself a little pat on the back here, as I’ve been really productive this fall. I did some painting and made a decent profit at a local art show. I also got my butt in gear and submitted some stories, so now I’ve got sales that will be appearing in upcoming books, magazines, etc. Here’s the list, so please check them out!

“Zombie Love,” a short poem to appear in Liquid Imagination at the end of November 2019.

“The Investor,” a dark fantasy short story to appear in the anthology Afromyth2 from Afrocentric Books in 2020.

“The Mending Tool,” a steampunk erotica short story to appear in the anthology Sensory Perceptions from Jay Henge in 2020.

“Wine and Magnolias,” a lesbian romance short story to appear in Mischief Media: A Story Most Queer Podcast

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Wrap-up of the 2019 Dragon Reviews

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The Dragon Awards are pretty much impossible to review before the vote because of the short time between the announcement of the finalists and the end of the voting period. However, I don’t want to neglect them in any way, so this year I’ve gone on to review the 2019 fiction winners. For a look at the whole list of finalists, see my blog on it here.

First, here are the winners again:
Best SF Novel: A Star-Wheeled Sky, Brad R. Torgersen (Baen)
Best Fantasy Novel: House of Assassins, Larry Correia (Baen)
Best Young Adult Novel: Bloodwitch, Susan Dennard (Tor Teen)
Best Military SFF Novel: Uncompromising Honor by David Weber (Baen)
Best Alternate History Novel: Black Chamber by S.M. Stirling (Ace)
Best Horror Novel: Little Darlings by Melanie Golding (Crooked Lane)

As usual in my analysis, here the diversity count of the finalists:
Best SF Novel: 2 women, 5 men, 2 LGBTQ, 2 Jewish (Note: James S.A. Corey is 2 men)
Best Fantasy Novel: 3 women, 3 men, 1 LGBTQ, 2 Jewish, 1 Hispanic
Best Young Adult / Middle Grade Novel: 4 women, 3 men, 1 Jewish
Best Military Science Fiction or Fantasy Novel: 2 women, 6 men, 1 Hispanic
Best Alternate History Novel: 2 women, 4 men, 2 Jewish
Best Horror Novel: 2 women, 5 men, 1 Jewish.

Apologies if I missed anybody or mixed anybody up; it’s sometimes hard to tell about diversity from online biographies. There are other names in the list that look Jewish, for example, but I couldn’t confirm. The gender issue is complicated by the number of cowriters among the finalists, all men, as it turns out. Comparing on the numbers, the gender count works out to be 15/41 (37%) women and on the books 15/37 (41%). The minority count includes 3/41 (7%) LGBTQ, 8/41 (20%) Jewish and 2/41 (5%) Hispanic. I know there’s an argument about whether European Spanish/Portuguese should be considered Hispanic—this category in the US generally counts Latino writers, who are typically mixed race—but I’ve just noted the names here as Hispanic, as I’m not sure how they identify.

So, the ~40% gender count on female-written books isn’t bad, considering that the categories separate SF and fantasy and include a military SF category that you’d expect might skew the results. The LGBTQ count turns out very low compared to say, the Hugo Awards, but it’s actually sitting fairly close to the 4.5% self-identified US demographic. Like most of the awards this year, the count for Jewish writers is much higher than their US demographic of 2%. Other than this, the diversity count really sucks. I’ve had to really stretch for the Hispanic names, as Corriea and Cordova are both likely of European extraction, and there aren’t any apparent black, Arab, Asian, Native American, trans or non-binary writers in this list at all. It’s clear that white writers were strongly preferred by the voting population, leaning to men, especially in the winners (4/6 or 67%). This isn’t unexpected for a popular award; the Hugos, for example, also leaned heavily (75%) to white winners this year, only to women instead of men.

Because of the way the categories are set up, there’s more diversity in the subject matter and type of work in this award than some others, with science fiction getting equal standing against fantasy, and military SF, alternate history, young adult and horror each getting their own categories. There was more diversity in publishers in the Dragons than in some other awards I’ve looked at, too. Tor had the highest count of finalists 5/37 (14%), with Orbit and Baen coming in next, both at 3/37 (8%). Two of the finalists were self-published (5%). On the other hand, all three of the Baen publications came in as winners.

I notice there’s been discussion online about the “legitimacy” of the Dragon Awards, questions about how they are administered and suggestions they’re a vehicle for the Sad/Rabid Puppies faction of the SFF community. Although Vox Day and the Rabid Pups made a good showing in the first year (and actually brought greater diversity), at this point I don’t see any indication this group has any real control of the awards. The award administrators encourage campaigning and voting by avid fan groups, so organization by particular groups to try and vote their candidate in isn’t against the rules. The results strongly suggest a different audience is voting on this than the Hugos, Nebulas and World Fantasy Award, but given the nature of the convention and the categories of fiction, I think that’s pretty much to be expected. The Dragon Award does seem to be suffering from the widespread tendency of the awards voting populations to nominate the same names every year. James S.A. Corey, Chris Kennedy, Mark Wandrey, David Weber, Kacey Ezell and S.M. Stirling were also finalists in 2018. James S.A. Corey, Becky Chambers, Larry Corriea and Mark Wandrey were also finalists in 2017.

As far as literary quality of the work goes, my reviews noted the same kind of wide variation I’ve seen in other awards systems. These novels are popular favorites, fairly straightforward, and only Little Darlings has the kind of strong subtext that I’d consider “literary” writing, though Black Chamber might be satire. The repetition of names from year to year suggests the voting population tends to vote for their favorite author, and maybe not for the particular book that’s up for an award. The short time between announcement of the finalists and the final vote likely encourages this, as there’s not really enough time to read and evaluate all the candidates.

Review of Little Darlings by Melanie Golding

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This novel is a dark fantasy/psychological thriller and won the 2019 Dragon Award for Best Horror Novel. Golding is a UK based author, and this looks to be her first novel. I also notice it’s soon to be a major motion picture. It was published by Crooked Lane Books in April, 2019, and runs 315 pages. This review contains spoilers.

After a difficult delivery, Lauren Tranter is the new mother of twin boys, Morgan and Riley. A crazy woman in the hospital ward tries to take Lauren’s babies and substitute her own. Lauren hides in the bathroom and calls the emergency number for help, but when the police arrive, there’s no sign of anyone there. The doctors suspect mental health issues. The Tranters take the boys home to the Peak District, and after his brief paternity leave is over, Lauren’s unsupportive husband Patrick moves into the guest room, leaving her to care for the boys both day and night. Lauren struggles with exhaustion, but with encouragement from her friends and a shove from Patrick, she finally gets it together and takes the boys out for a walk along the river. The babies are kidnapped–quickly found in the brush. But, the creatures now looking out of their eyes aren’t Lauren’s babies any longer. What does she need to do?

This is the classic changeling story, placed into a modern setting. Best points are the depth of the characterizations, the details of Lauren’s postpartum struggle, and the uncertainty throughout the whole thing about whether Lauren is suffering from postpartum psychosis or whether the crazy woman who wants the babies really is fay. There are some other themes here, too, including how women struggle with the heavy responsibilities of motherhood and how bonding can so easily turn to an unhealthy anxiety. Police investigator Joanna Harper follows up with research on historical events that suggest the problem is a recurring issue in this locale, and the narrative dips into some real horror as Lauren falls into the clutches of the mental health establishment.

It’s hard to find something to say on the less positive side of this. Maybe Joanna’s background seems slightly contrived. The author is trying to give us reasons why she’s so obsessed by the case, but she comes off more rebellious than conscientious, and not always a clear thinker. Patrick is something of a stereotype, too, put through some unflattering motions.

Regardless of little niggles, this story really delivers the goods. It’s no surprise it’s won the Dragon and been picked up for a film.

Five stars.

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