Review of Skyward by Brandon Sanderson

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This is a young adult science fiction novel published by Delacorte in November of 2018. It runs 515 pages. This is described as a trilogy, and book #2 called Starsight will be released in November of 2019. This review contains spoilers.

Spensa is seventeen. She lives below ground on the world Detritus, which is a desert planet encased in space junk. Periodic openings in the junk layer allow Krell fighter ships to descend and launch attacks that could crack the caverns and destroy human habitation on the planet. The DDF is in dire need of fighter pilots to defend both the surface Alta Base and the caverns. Spensa wants to fly like her father, but he was branded a deserter and a coward after the Battle of Alta, so she has to battle a lot of prejudice to get into the pilot training program. She finally succeeds and enters a class taught by her father’s wing mate Cobb. Because of the shortage of pilots, the cadets are forced into combat almost immediately, and members of the class start to die. Spensa stumbles over an ancient, abandoned fighter ship in a cavern near the military base. When she starts to rebuild it, she finds there are a lot of questions about the situation that she needs answers to. And was her father really a coward?

The characters are very well-developed here, and we get attached to the cadets. There’s a lot of experiential time devoted to the mechanics of the fighters and the experience of flying, a la military SF, but the best thing about it is the always-dependable Sanderson themes. The first is the nature of cowardice, and the next is the issue of independent thought. Spensa is a scrappy outcast, always having to fight to get ahead, and this gives her a different perspective than the entrenched wealthy and politically powerful people she is dealing with. As her goals turn out to be questionable, she starts to think for herself about the society where she lives. Her friend FM wonders what it does to have a military government and to glorify fighting instead of building a better society. “Most people never question,” FM says, “and doggedly go through the motions of an obedient life.”

On the not so positive side, I thought the resolution to this was a trifle simplistic. Besides that, it pretty much changes the meaning of everything that’s gone before, and leaves all of Spensa’s attitude, goals and efforts in this book completely empty. There was some foreshadowing of unexplained issues, of course, but nothing to predict the extent of the lies. Do the leaders of this society even know what it’s based on? It’s like all of the fabric of reality crumbles, and we have a sudden, fairly jolting shift in perspective. Sanderson says something in the acknowledgements about this being fueled by his own experience as a kid, so I’m thinking it’s an intended symbolism. There are also a few loose ends that I’m suspicious about. We’ll have to see how this develops in Book #2.

Four and a half stars.

Are Personal Attacks Protected by Law?

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While I looking through the various developments on the efforts to silence speech, I came across some interesting cases related to “free speech” that I’d like to review. In explanation, the First Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees speech free from government interference. There are a few limitations to this; for example, when you’re a government employee. However, the First Amendment doesn’t cover speech in the private sector. That means employees are subject to the policy of their employer as far as speech goes. Also, “public” persons are subject to more stringent standards in libel or defamation lawsuits and have to show malice, rather than just negligence in order to win damages.

Looking at the cases, the NRA vs. San Francisco Board of Supervisors suit is fairly straight-forward. It’s about infringement of constitutional rights because the Board of Supervisors is a government entity. That means the NRA, in their suit, is charging the San Francisco government is interfering with their ability to advocate for their political views (okay, plus defamation).

Here’s a a more complex and interesting suit that’s currently working its way through the courts in Virginia. Edward Tayloe is currently party to a lawsuit to preserve Confederate statues in the Charlottesville downtown. University professor and activist Jalane Schmidt provided quotes to a local newspaper article in which she called Tayloe a “slavery apologist,” among other things. Tayloe responded with a defamation suit claiming Schmidt wrongly portrayed him as a racist, which hurt his reputation and his ability to do business in the city. Although Schmidt works for a government entity (a state university), the Virginia Department of Risk Management found the case fell outside of the scope of her employment. The ACLU stepped in to defend her and filed for a dismissal, arguing Schmidt’s speech is covered by the First Amendment, and labeling the suit a SLAPP (a strategic lawsuit against public participation). The motion also notes that Schmidt’s statements are opinion, “a well-protected category of speech.”

So, is any “opinion” you express about a person protected by law? Does this allow open season for personal attacks (a.k.a. author bullying)? Can you call anyone you don’t like a racist (for example) and damage their career (as a writer, for example)? This has recently developed into a common problem in publishing, especially in the Young Adult market, where “fans” attack books as racist to get them pulled from publication. Should this kind of action be protected speech?

Of course, there are limits on personal attacks. Some kinds of speech are not protected. In 2017 an online argument about gaming escalated to “swatting” that resulted in an innocent person’s death. Understandably, the person who initiated the call to police was convicted of charges including interstate threats and involuntary manslaughter, but two other gamers who were involved in the argument were also convicted of felony conspiracy. A similar incident happened in 2015 when Lou Antonelli swatted David Gerrold after an argument on the Hugo Awards. Luckily this incident was resolved without fatalities.

So, have personal attacks become an acceptable pattern of expression in the current political climate? Do people even realize when they’ve doing it? Should verbal bullying be protected speech?

Writer Walter Mosley Quits Star Trek: Discovery

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So, this is still a very interesting cultural collision that I think is worth discussion. Again, here’s my comment that was censored by Mike Glyer at File 770: “Normally African Americans are given a pass on the N word. The question is why someone complained about his use of it. Did they not realize he identifies as black? Is there maybe a mandatory reporting rule at the studio? I expect he’s gotten huffy because he feels entitled to use the word.” Why did Glyer think this would generate an uncomfortable discussion? One comment on the story at File 770 suggested Mosley’s reaction was about privilege and entitlement. Is this the problem we can’t talk about?

There have been previous issues with the use of abusive language at this particular studio, which may have set up, at least, encouragement by Human Resources to report any language that might lead to discomfort among the writers, if not a mandatory reporting rule. Next, Mosley has a very light complexion, so it’s possible some onlookers may not have realized he considers himself African American (and therefore, by US custom, entitled to use the N-word without sanction). Accordingly, here’s what he says about it: “If I have an opinion, a history, a word that explains better than anything how I feel, then I also have the right to express that feeling or that word without the threat of losing my job.”

If neither of these issues above supports why someone reported him to HR, then is it possible the issue is something similar to the NRA suing the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for calling them terrorists, or Ahrvid Engholm filing a complaint about Jeanette Ng’s Hugo-acceptance speech where she seemed to associate white males with the word fascist? In other words, backlash. Was the reporting co-worker annoyed that Mosley was exercising some sort of special privilege and entitlement in using the N word?

Some prominent discussions have recently emerged about the success of minority groups in American culture, in particular, and how this generates backlash. For example, over-achieving Asian students recently sued Harvard University for discrimination in Affirmative Action admissions. Jews are perennially targeted for their economic success. And, likewise, black Americans are becoming concerned that backlash from other groups will curtail some of the gains they’ve made. Some sources frankly called the Mosley case an example of cultural backlash against a minority writer. Mosley, himself, called it an action of the political culture, writing: “I do not believe that it should be the object of our political culture to silence those things said that make some people uncomfortable.”

So, how do we sort this kind of conflict out? Is Mosley responding from a position of privilege and entitlement, or does he have a real case that the N word is necessary to express his life experience? Comments?

More on Suppression of Speech

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Suppression of speech is always a danger signal that any republic is headed in the direction of totalitarianism. Control of a national conversation is one of the requirements for total power—because speech actually is dangerous. The reasons are 1) that saying something can make it real, and 2) asking questions reduces certainty and makes people think about the issues.

The reason this topic has come up again in my blog is that more examples have accumulated recently about US groups trying to 1) control public perceptions through particular speech, and 2) to control what’s said and who can say it through suppression of speech. First, here’s an example of a government entity trying to frame an activist group (with a membership of 5.5 million) as a terrorist organization. On September 3, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a resolution declaring the National Rifle Association a “domestic terrorist organization.” The officials then went on to urge other cities, states and the federal government to follow suit. So, not only has the San Francisco government body said something fairly radical about an interest group that peacefully advocates, but they’re also encouraging other government entities to say it, too (trying to make it more real). The NRA, always responsive, filed an immediate lawsuit for defamation and infringement on their constitutional rights.

Next, here’s an interesting article on the state of free speech at colleges. This is an opinion piece at Bloomberg, written by Steven B. Gerrard, who teaches philosophy at Williams College in Massachusetts. Concerned by contemporary issues in suppression of speech, Gerrard offered a course in the fall of 2018 called “Free Speech and Its Enemies.” Although he was pleased with the results among the students enrolled, he was later attacked during a faculty meeting on freedom of expression by a student group that named him an “Enemy of the People.” This group presented a letter that said: “‘Free Speech,’ as a term, has been co-opted by right-wing and liberal parties as a discursive cover for racism, xenophobia, sexism, anti-semitism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and classism.” Notice that this student group is attacking both right-wing and liberal parties with their condemnation—this suggests they see themselves as neither. Does this mean they’re anarchists? The student group went on to present demands including reparations and segregated housing.

My last example is more related to the SFF community. Walter Mosley is an African American writer most noted for mysteries, but he also writes occasional science fiction. After finishing a writing stint on the FX show Snowfall, he was hired to write for CBS’s show Star Trek: Discovery. After using the N-word in the writer’s room, Mosley received a call from Human Resources telling him he was free to write this word into a script, but that he could not say it because it had made one of the other writers “uncomfortable.” Rather than accept this attempt to “silence” him, Mosley quit. Apparently he forgot to mention this to the studio, which learned about it by way of Mosley’s op-ed piece in the New York Times detailing his experience.

This was reported at the SF newszine File 770, where editor Mike Glyer immediately applied his own suppression of speech. Intrigued by the issues in this example, I submitted this comment: “Normally African Americans are given a pass on the N word. The question is why someone complained about his use of it. Did they not realize he identifies as black? Is there maybe a mandatory reporting rule at the studio? I expect he’s gotten huffy because he feels entitled to use the word.” Alert readers may notice that the comment was never posted at File 770. It was edited out by Glyer, who said it “amounted to trolling.”

Irony, anyone?

So, I’ll end with a quote from Mosley, “The worst thing you can do to citizens of a democratic nation is to silence them.”

Is the term “racist” losing its meaning?

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One thing that’s emerged from the US political campaigning in the last week or so is the willingness of EVERYONE, to scream that the other side is racist. This is a problem that’s been growing for a while. In 2017 John Worther wrote a piece for CNN where he notes that liberals overuse both the terms “racist” and “white supremacist,” mostly as a way to shut down discussion or as a weapon to fight other social philosophies. So far, this has been fairly successful. Universities, companies, government, publishers–all have stopped what they were doing when called racist, evaluated, apologized and changed their policies in an effort to better accommodate minorities. We’ve reached the point; however, that people on all sides seem by default to call the other’s attitudes and comments racist. This suggests that the term has become just meaningless name calling.

Worse, in many cases it seems clear that people are crying “racist” when they don’t get their way, or are not allowed the additional privilege they expect based on their personal achievements and/or ethnic group. This is something that whites have been doing for a long time, but now it seems minorities are doing it, too. In 2018, for example, US African American skater Shani Davis called the results of a coin toss racist when he didn’t win the opportunity to represent the US in the Olympic opening ceremonies. About the same time, Fox News president John Moody was vilified for commenting that athlete choices for the Olympics should be based on ability rather than race, pointing out that that the Summer Olympics, for example, normally has a much higher number of black athletes than the Winter Olympics.

One of the problems with claiming “cultural appropriation” is that it defines particular elements of culture as belonging to some racial or ethnic group. This also suggests that ethnic culture should not be exchanged or modified in any way in encounters with other cultures. Doesn’t this damage everyone?

Since I mentioned attacks on Zoe Saldena for not being black enough for a movie role in the last post, I thought maybe I should go on and look at some related issues. About the same time, Scarlet Johansson withdrew from a starring role as a transgender man in the film Rub & Tug. The attacks on Saldena didn’t really start until the movie was ready for release, so were something of an embarrassment but not a deal killer. However, the Rub & Tug project seems to have stalled after Johansson withdrew. This is basic economics. A big name star attracts investors, who want to make money on their investment. If the film tanks with an unknown in the starring role, they won’t get beans. Apparently none of Hollywood’s transgender actors have been able to inspire confidence, so the movie is likely dead. Isn’t this retrograde progress for the transgender community, if not downright bad press?

Johansson said a lot of nice, politically correct things at the time, but she also mentioned that she thought actors should be able to play any role they wanted, which caused a definite kerfuffle. This same discussion about “cultural appropriation” is going on in the publishing world. What happens if we limit actors/writers/publishers to playing only to their own ethnic group?

Is the term “person of color” racist?

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Following the Yesterday review seems like a good time to consider this question. Looking through the interviews and publicity appearances after the film, I’m stuck by star Himesh Patel’s apparent discomfort during discussions of the casting decisions. This suggests that a microaggression is taking place, in other words, an uncomfortable reference to his racial/ethnic background and to himself as a “person of color.” He’s clearly a very talented actor/singer/musician, so why shouldn’t he have been cast in this role? Doesn’t his discomfort mean the whole fanfare about the casting is actually coming off as racist?

The week I wrote this review, there was a national flap when the four-person “Squad” of young, liberal, aggressive, “women of color” Congresswomen (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar) got into a Twitter fight with President Trump. This let to various people airing viewpoints. For example, Tucker Carlson’s guest Roger Kimball denounced “person of color” as a racist term because “the idea is that somehow you are trapped by your skin color.”

Certainly the term sets up a division that causes discomfort within various groups. For example, Nadra Widatalla writes in the LA Times that the term is meant to be inclusive, but that means it erases the ethnic identity of persons it’s applied to. It lumps everybody not legally defined as white into a big melting pot, regardless of their status in society. It gives Asians and African Americans equal status as minorities, for example, when actually Asians are so successful in US society that they might as well be defined as white, while African Americans generally experience the greatest discrimination.

In this same interview on the Carlson show, Kimball commented that the term is also meant to give virtue to a particular group of people based on their skin color. This virtue has been apparent for a while. We can assume people like Rachel Dolezal and Elizabeth Warren wouldn’t be trying to claim “person of color” status if it didn’t confer particular advantages. Arab Americans wouldn’t be trying to withdraw from the white race and become “people of color” unless there weren’t social and political advantages to the move. And Danny Boyle wouldn’t be using a discussion of his casting decisions for publicity unless he thought it would help sell the film.

Some political commentators went further than Kimball, complaining that the four women of The Squad are actually demanding power and privilege in political decisions because of their race. This kind of identity politics goes beyond just black/white relations, too. Just a while back, Zoe Saldena was judged not black enough to play Nina Simone in the biopic of the singer’s life. This suggests that there is a hierarchy within the “people of color” community that gives greater virtue to persons with darker skin. But then, isn’t looking at skin color as a qualification inherently racist?

Maybe Ibram X. Kendi, Director of American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center on NPR, gets it right. He says we should recognize the equality of all racial groups. Does this mean getting rid of designations based on color?

Review of Someday by David Levithan

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This is young adult fantasy romance novel published by Knopf and runs 392 pages. It follows Every Day and Another Day, novels with the same characters, a prequel “Six Earlier Days” and the short story “Day 3196.” The novel Every Day was a New York Times Bestseller and nominated for a Lambda Award. It was recently made into a motion picture which is also available for rent/purchase. This review contains major spoilers.

This novel picks up where Every Day leaves off. The protagonist, who calls themself A, is a non-binary consciousness that wakes in a different body each day. They fall in love with the girl Rhiannon, and as a result, reveal too much of themself. This leads to wild accounts of demon possession and the arrival of the fundamentalist Reverend Poole, who turns out to be an evil version of A. Scared by all this, A goes on the run. A means to leave everything behind. They delete their email address and flee the Northeast for the Denver area. But A is starved for affection, and when they find a message to them on Rhiannon’s Facebook page, they are drawn back to her like a moth to a flame. Once in contact, they find the evil and dangerous Poole (also known as X) is holding their friends hostage as a way to get to A. What can they do?

I was really taken by Every Day, which develops a lot of suspense at the end very suddenly, so I’ve been waiting a while for this sequel. It continues a lot of the strong points of Every Day. It’s clear Levithan is interested in the worth of every individual, and a lot of this is about respecting others and treating them well, regardless of who they are. A’s existence is dependent on stealing bodies, but they maintain very strict rules about respecting their hosts and trying to do their best not to make anyone’s life worse during the one-day possession. This novel develops that theme further, including an equality march on Washington D.C. where a lot of the action takes place. Definitely Levithan’s strongest point in this series is how he presents the lives of A’s hosts, a one-day glimpse of each, with all their joys and problems.

On the not so positive side, this doesn’t develop much angst, conflict, drama or suspense. Early in the book A goes through some tough hosts, but this issue clears up once they are back in the Northeast and reunited with Rhiannon. It’s clear that A has to do something about X, and A does come through at the end, but there’s no buildup in the action line to this point. There is a suggestion in the text that A might go over to the dark side, but events don’t support this or provide any discussion of the morality involved. Instead, the book continues to concentrate on the “everybody’s okay” equality theme to the point that it’s intrusive. As a result, Levithan can’t resist making X a sympathetic character. Someone has apparently told Levithan A needs to use the pronoun “they,” too, which leads to the usual grammatical muddle. And last, all these people eventually started to sound the same, which means the author gave up characterization to use his own voice instead.

This isn’t the thriller sequel I’d hoped for, but it is still a valuable book for kids struggling to deal with difference.

Three and a half stars.

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