Comparing Brazee’s Fire Ant to Kowal’s The Calculating Stars

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For readers following along, I’ve just finished reviewing the works on the ballot as finalists for the 2018 Nebula Award. When I started looking at patterns, I noticed that many of the authors used similar literary devices and plotlines. I’d like to take a closer look at a couple of these. In the first comparison, Jonathan Brazee and Mary Robinette Kowal have used the same plotline to write their books on the ballot this year, while expressing completely different worldviews in the results. I thought it would be interesting to have a look at what they’ve started with, what they’ve done with it, and how this affects the message they’re sending with their books.

Here’s how the plotline goes: There’s a threat to the survival of the human race. A minority woman who happens to be a pilot is front and center for the threat, and as a result gets an opportunity to advance her skills and experience in order to be instrumental in saving the human race.

Brazee’s heroine is Floribeth Salinas O’Shea Dalisay. Her name suggests mixed racial ancestry: O’Shea is of Irish origin, Salinas is Hispanic and Dalisay is Tagalog/Filipino. Floribeth seems to be from an humble background, and she works hard so she can send money home to her family. When she encounters an alien spacecraft, she uses her wits and skill to survive and escape. The company she works for refuses to believe her story and fines her for damages to their equipment. However, word gets out, and Floribeth is approached by government officials who offer her a chance to enter the Royal Navy as a pilot. Floribeth takes the chance and goes through the training. When she does poorly in the first live exercise, she acknowledges the damage to her reputation, but doesn’t let it affect her drive and belief in herself. She ignores snide comments about her qualifications and concentrates on doing her job. She goes on to heroically rescue a member of her unit as a last ditch effort in a real firefight with the aliens.

Kowal’s heroine is Elma York, a Jewish woman from a comfortable background with PHDs in physics and math. She has wartime experience as a pilot and works as a human computer for NACA, the space administration where her husband Nathaniel also works as an aerospace engineer. When a meteor strikes the Northeastern US and threatens life on Earth, NACA starts an accelerated program to develop space flight and establish a colony on the moon. Elma’s PHDs are aimed at research and teaching, but she has applied for a job well below her qualifications. She suffers from panic attacks when asked to make presentations of her work in public, takes tranquilizers and hides to puke in the bathroom. When her husband asks her to help him with a presentation before Congress, she totally freezes up and leaves him to labor through it alone. While the people around her try to give her opportunities to promote her abilities and expertise, Elma complains constantly about discrimination in the space program. When the astronaut corps is opened to women, she applies and is accepted. Once there, she carps about other women being advanced above her and bullies others in the group she feels are less qualified than she is. When an emergency arises, Elma successfully demonstrates her ability to make complex mathematical calculations in her head and is installed as pilot on the upcoming moon launch.

So, what do the writers mean to accomplish with these works? Brazee’s book has a very positive, you-can-do-it vibe. We get to follow along with Floribeth as she experiences terror in space and anger at the company. Then, given the opportunity, she takes risks and builds on her skills. She is rewarded by success and warm acceptance into her naval unit. On the other hand, Kowal’s book is meant to provoke anger at how Elma and her minority friends are mistreated by the society around them. We’re led to believe that Elma’s activism makes the space program more accepting of women, and that she ought to be recognized for her brilliance and promoted regardless of her poor career performance. Kowal has written the book as an alternate reality, drawing on real historical documents and events that blur the line between fiction and real history, and produced a very slanted story that serves as a condemnation of NASA and the US Apollo program.

Which is more fun to read? That depends on your reading taste, of course. If you want to read a success story in a universe that doesn’t discriminate based on sex or minority status, then choose Brazee’s work. It’s experiential and leaves you with a nice warm feeling that Floribeth is going to make everything okay, regardless of the huge hurdles in front of her. If you want to get angry about how women and minorities might have been treated at the end of World War II, then read Kowal’s work, which provides fictionalized examples designed to provoke you. (One note about this: It’s not that I don’t think the US space program was discriminatory in the 20th century, but any analysis of the program should include a look at World War II, the Cold War and the politics and huge societal changes that took place during these years.)

And last, which of these women characters is a better role model for young women considering military, technical or science careers? Elma and her paralyzing anxiety about performance, or Floribeth and her I-can-do-it attitude?

Are Hugo finalists suffering from affirmative action?

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Now that it looks like the cat is out of the bag on how WorldCon members feel about the Hugo finalists, maybe we can analyze what went on with the programming. For anyone who missed it, WorldCon staff sent out the following about finalists who weren’t included on the program: “There’s a generation of new Hugo finalists who are exciting to the nominators but completely unfamiliar to attendees.” Then I had a conversation with a WorldCon member who admitted she didn’t really read anything, but actually nominated and voted based on the authors’ minority status.

Because of the volume of material out there, I suspect this is a standard practice for WorldCon voters. You feel obligated, so you look through the lists of recommended works, check the biographies and pick out the writers who advertise the most minority status. This discharges your responsibility as a progressive, and then you can spend your time at the con enjoying activities and authors you really like. (In this case, that looked to be panels full of white men.)

The problem is, this leads to a reality gap. It means that various authors are being promoted by a literary award system based on who they are rather than the quality of their work. It also means that quality now means pretty much zilch in the award. Certainly as a faithful reviewer of Hugo finalists, I’ve noticed wide variance in the quality of works nominated (both by Puppies and “organic” WorldCon voters). So, do members ever get around to reading these books at all? Will they get bored and impatient if they have to listen to too much from those darn finalists? After all, they got voted in, right? What else do they want?

Meanwhile on the other side of the story, a group of authors thinks they’ve been recognized because people appreciate their work. They’re excited to go to the con and interact with their fans, and instead, they’re being brushed off into back rooms by the programming committee. This is disrespectful considering their status as finalists for a prestigious award—and they feel like their careers will suffer as a result.

So, are these finalists actually being harmed? Affirmative action has been around long enough for people to judge the results, and a few research studies have investigated both the short and long term affects. The conclusion is that affirmative action policies do generally work in increasing diversity within a population, but not always how you’d expect. For example, the most noticeable result is that affirmative action tends to strongly benefit white women. Meanwhile, minorities who are targeted by the worst discrimination, like black and Hispanic men, may actually lose ground.

Currently there’s some soul searching going on because of an Asian class-action suit against Harvard University alleging discrimination in admissions. This has brought up the topic of “mismatch,” a theory that suggests some minorities might actually be harmed by promotion into an environment where they don’t really have the skills to compete. This would be beginning authors, for example, who are nominated before they’ve really gotten control of their skills as a writer. This means people might lose respect for them, stop reading their work, etc. So, is this happening to minorities who win the Hugo?

So far, it doesn’t look that way, complaints from this year’s finalists notwithstanding. They still get the name recognition, and appealing winners have gone on to become poster children, nominated again and attractive for film and TV deals. For example, see recent winners Nnedi Okorafor, Nora Jemisin and Victor LaValle. There’s also at least a small bump in readership.

Maybe it’s a question of whether the ideas actually stand up?

Identity politics bullies versus SFF Con management 2018

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At the end of July, WorldCon became another in the list of SFF conventions that experienced partisan conflict this year about programming, guests or treatment of guests. Special interest groups have apparently moved on from insisting on strict Codes of Conduct for the conventions to insisting on excluding certain guests and demanding particular programming as part of the same agenda. The complaints flying around are the same ones honed for use in the Code of Conduct campaign, words like “unsafe,” “disrespected” and “harassment.” These loaded words are apparently based on such ordinary things as fiction releases and errors in biographies. It seems mostly a problem on the progressive left, but after conservative author Jon Del Arroz didn’t get what he wanted from a kerfluffle at BayCon, he filed suit for defamation—an indication of how far people will go to get their way.

Most of this problem is just victim/identity politics, where people maneuver for advantage through bullying tactics. If you’re a minority and want recognition, then the best way to do it these days is to make noise about being victimized and disrespected and otherwise causing a stink. Progressives are trained to respond with abject apologies and to jump to make adjustments that give you what you want. Because the cons have limited resources and can’t afford massive disturbances and bad press, most have folded to demands. This has led to complaints from other groups harmed by the changes, such as conservatives or older writers. This must have been a particularly aggressive group of activist bullies at WorldCon. See Mary Robinette Kowal comments on trying to work with them. The only failure of this strategy so far seems to have been DragonCon, which ignored guest withdrawals and fired agitators from their positions on staff.

Whatever, WorldCon management busily tried to accommodate the complaints and save their reputation as progressive. There was quite a scramble going on in the last weeks before the con, where the staff completely tore apart the programming and started over. Sensitive guests withdrew to make room for minorities. Teams were called in to help. But, the truth is, they can’t satisfy the demands because it’s not just about appearing on a panel. The progressive ground has moved out from WorldCon members’ feet. An article in the Daily Dot actually classifies their standard demographic as “overlapping” with the Sad Puppies. Who would have thought?

Next, interesting questions about the Hugo voting that emerged in the crisis.

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?

Asking for contradictory things?

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I’m probably going to get into serious trouble with this post, as it touches on third/fourth wave feminism. Various people have urged me to address the topic before and I’ve just not gotten to it. Up front, let me say I’m a second wave feminist, and I have opinions that sometimes diverge sharply from the current platform.

Here’s the issue: A while back I watched a panel discussion on the Weinstein scandal, and I was struck with some contradictions. This show was Friday, Oct. 13, Third Rail with Ozy asks: Is sexual harassment inevitable in the workplace? Along with Colorado College Professor Tomi-Ann Roberts, the panel included three younger women.

Roberts related her personal experience with Weinstein as a 20-year-old and her subsequent decision that she wasn’t cut out for work in Hollywood. The panel then went on to define sexual harassment in the workplace to include compliments on appearance and beauty. Hm. Okay, second wave question here: Roberts looks professional. She’s got on a boxy jacket and restrained hair and makeup, but the other women look like they’ve spent hours on their appearance, plus a big chunk of change. They have on form-fitting clothing, heavy make-up and trendy hair styling. Why?

If we assume appearance is expression and therefore a type of speech, what are they saying? Are they trying to provide role models for young girls with self-esteem issues? To garner compliments from other women? To gain respect from the TV host? Or are they trying to meet a standard? What standard? Dare I say this is a beauty standard? So then, who sets it? Is that in itself sexist? I know the current feminist platform says that women need to be respected regardless of what they’re wearing, but why haven’t these women copied Roberts’ restrained, professional style? What is she saying versus what they’re saying?

Next, the panel reviewed Vice President’s Spence’s policy that sets strict rules about when he will be alone with women. The consensus was that this kind of rule limits access for women and is therefore discriminatory. Reasonable person question: How can you police comments by a particular person (or group of people) and then complain when they’re careful that someone else is always there to verify what they say to you?

I have another example of this that provides a flip test. A young woman recently wrote in to an online business advice column. Her boss was a woman who had been mentoring her, offering tips and extra training. The problem was that the boss called the young woman “hon.” The younger woman called her out for this, telling her it was patronizing and that she needed more respect. The boss complied, but the mentoring stopped. The young woman wanted to know how to re-establish that relationship. Any suggestions?

At this point, I’m not even going to attempt to address the Hollywood cesspool.

Has the Hugo Turned into an Affirmative Action Award?

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Another point that came up during the recent discussion at File 770 was how the Hugo Award winners are now regarded. There was commentary on this well before the 2016 awards cycle. For example, various bloggers have noted that the awards are increasingly dominated by women and minorities. In 2015 Brad Torgersen posted his  view of this trend, which is that the Hugos are being used as an “affirmative action award”. For anyone vague on what that means, affirmative action is defined as “an action or policy favoring those who tend to suffer from discrimination.” The fact that anyone sees it this way is another suggestion (see previous blog) that the award voting has become politically motivated. Of course, any reasonable exchange on the idea is impossible. As one poster at File 770 noted, it is “inherently racist” to discuss the results in this way.

This is not to suggest that the winning works are not deserving. The makeup of the SFF community has clearly changed over the more than a century that SFF has been recognized as a genre. This means that readers’ tastes have changed, as well. I tend to lean progressive, and I love the interesting and creative elements that diverse authors bring to the genre. I reviewed all the winners this year and pointed out deserving elements well before the awards were given (as well as undeserving ones). However, the political squabble tends to obscure the positives. For an idea of how the response to this year’s awards went, check this exchange on Twitter.

Because of the virulence of the politics, no one these days can be sure whether they’ve won a Hugo Award based on the quality of the works or because of the politics. It looks to be a damaging experience. The Twitter exchange is another example of Internet bullying of someone who had little to do with allocation of the awards. Regardless of the Hugo committee’s efforts, you have to admit the Puppies are now right about a taint in the awards system.

Note: Mike Glyer has asked me to note that discussions that take place at File 770 don’t necessarily represent his personal views.

The politics of postmulticulturalism

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More of the ongoing discussion on social trends.

By the end of the 20th century, multiculturalism was running into serious trouble. Not only did the policy fail to bring real change, but issues like genital mutilation, forced marriage and honor killings just didn’t fit into the culture of the West very well. Problems like these led to a re-inspection of the limits and effects of multiculturalism as a policy and a change to what experts are calling postmulticulturalism. This is anything but a well-defined movement, but it seems to involve a swing away from the mosaic and back toward establishing national cultural identities. Presumably this will de-emphasize the separate identities that minority groups have established over the last few decades and trend back toward encouraging assimilation into the larger culture. Variations on postmulticulturalism include cosmopolitanism, or the idea that all humans belong to the same community, and interculturalism, which emphasizes interaction and cultural exchange.

In effect, experts note that this new postmulticulturalism includes new takes on immigration policy, racism, religious freedom and gender politics. Specifically, immigrants are viewed as a threat to national security and cultural values, and discrimination is increasing toward POC, especially from the Muslim religious tradition. US presidential candidate Donald Trump, for example, has called for a complete ban on Muslim immigration. France has passed laws directed at preventing Muslim women from wearing full-face veils. An increase in fascist activities in the US has been heavily directed toward Muslims. Even the resolution of recent court cases has swung away from policies of inclusion and back toward compliance with cultural tradition, leaving minorities without any legal recourse.

So, multiculturalism has the advantage of drawing lines about what cultural practices are unacceptable within the larger society. However, there are heavy losses for some minorities under this policy. According to Dorota Gozdecka (2014), a “new racism” is about identifying those with “transgressive” cultural values and rejecting or marginalizing these individuals into a cultural ghetto.

The politics of assimilation

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Since I mentioned the “post multicultural moment” that we might be existing in right now, I’m going to spend a few blogs in investigating the idea. Glancing at the history, I think maybe I should start by looking at the politics of assimilation. This ideology overlapped the colonial period and was popular in the US from about 1790 to 1920. It was also standard in other Western societies about this same time.

Assimilation is the policy that all of a society should have a uniform set of cultural values and practices that are held in common by its citizens. The process is often called the “melting pot,” as it results in a uniform mixture of cultures. It is blind to diversity, so there are no minorities. Everyone is expected to be an interchangeable cog in the cultural machine.

Generally, education is viewed as the way to accomplish this. The policy of assimilation still pervades our public schools, which is why the courts are willing to curtail Freedom of Speech around minor children. The schools are expected to socialize children with a particular set of skills and behavior patterns that will assist them in being successful when they enter society as independent adults. There are, of course, disagreements about what this set of skills and behavior patterns should be. Also, many parents are unwilling to have their children socialized according to the government plan. Hence the ongoing popularity of private schools and home schooling.

Assimilation as a government policy was applied to immigrants, as well as children in the schools. This meant that immigrants were expected to learn English as soon as possible and to accept the changes that living in the US brought. In general, immigrants were disrespected when they first arrived in the country. Groups as different as Irish, Italians and Asians all experienced discrimination, although people of color were more likely to experience this on a long-term basis. Ironically, during this period African Americans were barred from easy assimilation through laws mandating segregation.

The worst victims of the assimilation policy during this period were native cultures. After the Indian Wars ended in the US, the government outlawed traditional religious practices and sent Native American children to boarding schools where they learned English, Christianity and white culture. This was an attempt to force them to leave tribal customs behind and to destroy the tribal structures.

As a policy, assimilation does have its good points. It provides a uniform work force for industrialization and generally a good opportunity for immigrants who are willing to work hard and take advantage of opportunities. It has the drawbacks of destroying culture, preventing diversity and stamping out differing viewpoints.

A pound of flesh: Mark Oshiro and con harassment policies

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I should probably keep out of this argument, as I don’t go to cons much. However, there looks to be a conflict going on between con management and their employees/guests related to harassment policies that deserves a mention.

A while back I featured Megan Frank and her complaints about Lou Antonelli that led to her resignation as a volunteer from Sasquan. She went on to publish the private emails of the committee, which I thought was a form of harassment. Now Mark Oshiro has published complaints about ConQuesT 46 on his Facebook page. This appears to be the new paradigm in dealing with complaints. When the offended individuals don’t get the results they want, they go public, exacting their pound of flesh by bad-mouthing the con and its management. That’s not to say their complaints are unfounded. It’s also not to say I wouldn’t do the same thing myself. In my previous blog on this, I recommended personal self-defense rather than expecting a committee to handle things for you. Still, there are issues.

The first issue is actual offenses. In this case Oshiro has identified a lot of stuff as harassment that looks like just typically rude and overbearing people at the con, but he does have two complaints that are serious. One of these is repeated, unwanted and unsolicited physical contact from another panelist, and the other is being treated as a second-class Guest of Honor by con management. When Oshiro filed complaints in accordance with the con’s policies, it became clear over several months that the committee was paralyzed, unable to act and hoping he would forget about the whole thing. This is wrong. When there have been actual infringements, then the committee needs to get off their butts and do something.

The other issue is why there was no action on Oshiro’s complaints. For one thing, he might have overreached, expecting the committee to censure people who are only being their rude, micro-aggressive selves. I haven’t seen the complaints, of course, but no amount of policy is going to reshape people into something they’re not. On the serious complaints, the question is whether the con’s policies are actually workable. I discussed the possible consequences of zero tolerance policies a while back. Here’s an example of the boondoggle. When there’s a zero tolerance policy and the con management is at fault, what are they going to do? Ban themselves?

Harassment committees need to have policies that allow discretion and intelligent, reasonable responses. Otherwise they’re going to end up useless.

Protecting our youth

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If you read my review of Sarah Monette’s “The Goblin Emperor,” I commented on the warm, fuzzy feel and the way the book totally failed to recognize issues like discrimination and social disadvantage in any realistic way. This isn’t the first young adult novel I’ve read recently that does this. Plus, in the last blog I mentioned Lutgendorff’s negative reaction to fictional rape and violence against women situations. The plan seems to be creation an idealized environment where there really aren’t any real, serious problems in life. Issues like bullying, rape, racial discrimination, LGBT bashing, or sexual harassment are soft-pedaled so the readers don’t encounter anything that might be upsetting. Since I personally prefer insightful social commentary, I’m interested in what’s behind this trend. With a little research, I’ve found some clues.

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have published an article called “The Coddling of the American Mind” in the September 2015 issue of The Atlantic. You can find the article here.

Lukianoff and Haidt call our attention to the issues of micro-aggression and triggers which are currently of great concern in places like schools and college campuses. Micro-aggressions are actions or word choices that don’t have malicious intent, but still make someone uncomfortable. Trigger warnings are supposed to be issued by instructors like TV ratings to let students know when some element of study may have emotional content, such as mass shootings, racial violence, misogyny or domestic abuse. This viewpoint means that instructors can have Title IX complaints filed against them for just discussing issues like gender politics or rape law. It also means that someone is engaging in racial prejudice by asking a person of color “Where were you born?”

This is a matter of nit-picking speech to identify anything which might possibly in any stretch of the imagination be offensive to any person or group and calling it out. This follows up on past SJW efforts to address hate speech and biased language, shaming the users and calling for their ostracism from society. Going further, the new political correctness aims at protecting young people from any kind of offensive reality. It means that their emotional well-being is more important than recognition of the evils that exist in society. It means that words have a potential for violence and revelation that has to be strictly controlled. It’s a really weird trend when this shows up in SF and fantasy.

It’s an extensive article. More on this later.

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