Review of Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

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This book was a finalist for the World Fantasy Awards. It’s a collection of novellas based on the different characters, but it can also be read as a novel. It’s published by HarperCollins and runs 382 pages.

The year is 1954, and African American war veteran Atticus Turner is traveling north to Chicago. His dad Montrose has disappeared somewhere in New England, and with his Uncle George and his friend Letitia, Atticus sets out to find him. They end up at Samuel Braithwhite’s manor, where they learn interesting things about Atticus’ maternal ancestry and encounter Samuel’s son Caleb, who wants to control that legacy. Atticus and his friends soon find themselves dealing with ghosts, warlocks and various arcane events as they’re caught up in the machinations of an ancient cult. Can they save themselves and return to normal lives?

This is an entertaining read, as the characters are all resourceful and end up accomplishing what they need to do through the application of determination and common sense. Regardless of the Jim Crow setting, the characters feel contemporary, as if Ruff has set characters with modern sensibilities into the Lovecraft milieu.

I’ve read some other reviews that promote this book by saying racism is the real horror in the story. I didn’t really see that. If you’re unfamiliar with the facts of Jim Crow segregation and the kind of discrimination African Americans faced in the 1950s, then I suppose this could be a surprise. Presumably Ruff set his story in this period at least partly to display the racial issues, but actually he skims over it as fairly matter-of-fact. Everybody deals and nobody gets lynched.

What really stood out for me instead was the message that these black characters read and treasure the SFF classics of the day by Lovecraft, Burroughs, Bradbury, Asimov, etc., without any disconnect because of their race. Is that so? Currently these writers are all considered to be both racist and sexist because they reflect the attitudes of their era. So, do readers of all races normally transcend racism and sexism to place themselves in a romantic character and a romantic setting? Or is this just an irony that Ruff has inserted in his story? I’d like to hear from people with an opinion.

Four and a half stars.

Intimidating people into silence

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In the last blog, I reported on a group (wisely anonymous) who advanced an article challenging Cecily Kane’s 2016 Fireside article that used a statistical analysis to show anti-black bias among SFF editors. Although the anonymous authors agreed there was a bias against black authors, they disagreed on the cause. After threats, they withdrew the article. Fireside then posted the article on their site.

So, what was the problem here? Why were these authors threatened? Was it because they challenged Kane’s specific conclusions about editorial bias? Or was it because they challenged possible gains that might have been made because of Kane’s article? Is this a political issue? Are the anonymous authors misguided statisticians? Or are they really racists trying to undermine black progress?

The interesting thing is that this isn’t an isolated case of attacking and bullying people, not just for their social/political views, but also for research that might contradict the opposition’s conclusions. It’s actually a fairly common theme in US society right now. While Charlie Rose was on medical leave recently, stand-in Dan Senor hosted social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and New York Times columnist Frank Bruni. (See brief article and video of the show  here.) They had an extended discussion about Charles Murray’s experience during a speaking engagement the first week of March at Middlebury College. Protests led college officials to change the engagement to a broadcast, but as Murray was leaving, he was physically attacked in a brawl that injured a professor. The panelists observed that we’re used to hearing about this kind of thing in the case of provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, but Murray is just an elderly academic doing research that some people don’t like–and is vilified for it. According to Haidt and Bruni, the individuals who threaten and attack like this are actually a small group who plan to gain advantage by making slurs instead of arguments (i.e. labeling and inciting against people as racists, sexists, homophobes, etc.). This makes the group a socially powerful force within a community, mainly because people are afraid of them. Think trolls.

But what happened to the research here? Can we really ignore scientific research if we don’t like the results? The anonymous authors and Kane both agreed there was an anti-black bias at work in SFF story publication, but how can we work to remedy that situation unless we have a clear understanding of the cause? Kudos to Fireside for putting up the opposing article. It makes them look gracious, for one thing, and also interested in a real discussion about the issue.

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.

Politics and Hugo Wins

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Before disappearing, I was involved in another interesting discussion at File 770. It’s pretty cold now, but I think it warrants at least a couple of blog posts. The debate was about what effect the political maneuvering related to the Sad/Rabid Puppies slates has had on who wins a Hugo Award and how people see the results.

The first point that stood out for me is that posters at File 770 seem to consider the nomination slates as a political move by the Sad/Rabid Puppies, but don’t consider countervotes like “No Award” as a political response. This is part of characterizing the Puppies as a loony, sexist, racist fringe who are only trying to sabotage the Hugo Award because they are angry about diversity, while everyone else is an “organic voter,” presumably focused only on the quality of the work. This isn’t only language used at File 770, but also on various other blog and analysis sites. It seems a curious idea to me that a counter to a political strategy isn’t itself a political strategy. Hm. Something’s wrong there.

In the wake of the recent election, it’s hard to miss the clash of ideologies that went on—Clinton veering hard left versus Trump channeling the alt-right. The interesting thing is that a day after the popular vote showed 47.7% for Clinton and 47.5% for Trump (with presumably some ballots not yet counted). To those on either the conservative or liberal side who think they are a majority, it just ain’t so. Also, the fact that the polls were so far wrong shows that shutting down the opposition can produce a surprise that comes back to bite you in the butt.

And how does that apply to the SFF community? If we accept that the clash of ideologies we’ve just seen in the US election is also playing out in other segments of society, it’s likely that the Sad/Rabid Puppies are representing a valid social/political argument in their complaints about SFF publishers and the SFF awards system. This is quite probably a response to extremism on the left, as described by the various manifestos put out by the Puppies. So what does that make the political reaction from the SFF community? Is it about shutting down the discussion with a club of moral censure? About refusing to listen to heartfelt concerns because they run counter to the reigning ideology?

Shouldn’t we be looking at that roughly 50/50 split that Clinton and Trump achieved in the electorate an applying it to the conflict within the SFF community? Wouldn’t it be helpful if the community were to move a little more toward the center?

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

Thoughts on the Election

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flag-clip-art-bcyEppqcLSince I see a lot of other bloggers checking in on this topic, maybe it’s time I put together something in response. This week we’re living in a brand new world. The US voters have given everyone a dose of how reality works. They passed over an experienced, highly qualified candidate for president and chose someone with no political experience and very little apparent aptitude for the office, based on…what?

That’s the burning question of the hour, of course. The campaigns have been very vitriolic, which nobody liked. Besides that, the candidates have represented the two rising ideologies of this decade, the new left on the one side and the angry alt-right on the other. Clinton started out fairly moderate, but veered further left to pick up Sanders’ followers—if you’ve forgotten, he’s the man who promised free college tuition and free health care to all. That made Clinton more extreme. On the other hand, Trump pretty much exemplified the standard for the alt-right, not caring a whit if he came across racist or sexist, as long as he won the point. He attacked Clinton as “crooked” while characterizing his own questionable activities as “brilliant business strategy.” So why did the voters pick him?

I have a sneaky idea it’s to give the Republican Party complete control of the executive and legislative branches of government. Congress has spent the last eight years being obstructionist, so now let’s see what they’ve got. Trump promised to fix things. Let’s see how it goes.

David Riley on charges of racism

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FeatherPenClipArtI thought the issues related to suppression of free speech on File770 were more important than the charges of racism against David Riley that drove the campaign to have him removed from the HWA jury. Since I’m not familiar with Riley’s history, I’ve kept out of the debate about whether he really is “racist” or not based on his position on immigration. However, others have moved to support Riley by investigating the complaints. Here’s an excellent interview with Riley from David Dubrow. Dubrow has also written a perceptive blog about the File770 dustup.

Thanks for the comments on the last couple of blogs, folks. Following up on some of these comments, I’ll plan to investigate a couple more social trends when I can get around to it. Again, Mike Glyer has asked that I note the discussion that took place here at File 770 does not reflect his opinions.

Related to this discussion, I’ve also had an interesting exchange by email about some cities trying to ban particular words, for example “faggot.” This brings a number of other words to mind that would be on the same list. If we try that on for size, how does it feel? What if certain words were criminalized? What if they were criminalized only if said by certain groups? Would that be appropriate?

How does this look in fiction?

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royalty-free-writing-clipart-illustration-1146779 Not pretty, actually. I’ve been basing my blogs mostly on research and supporting statements, but now I’ll discuss my personal reactions a bit.

Example 1: I’ve been offended by an influx of this kind of writing into the hit CBS show The Good Wife this season. This year has seen the introduction of several new minority characters. That’s great—they’re wonderful characters. However, a new set of writers seem to have been itching to take down the powerful white characters on the show. Law firm Lockhart, Agos & Lee have to cater to minority job applicants after an investigation for discriminatory hiring practices. Peter Florrick and Eli Gold become sniveling apologists. Alicia Florrick falls into paralyzing depression. This doesn’t work—these are the characters that made the show what it was. The network has announced the show won’t be renewed for next year.

Example 2: I suspect Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory has been shaped by the discussion that took place in RaceFail2009. I already discussed some of the reasons I didn’t care for it in the review I did. It seems messy and forced. A seemingly athletic white female protagonist is described as “plump,” and has a lesbian relationship with an East Indian woman. The straight, white men are villains, inconsequential or stupid, while minority men fill the lead roles. I know these role reversals may be the point, but still it looks like a sexist, racist attack on straight, white men.

Example 3: Ann Leckie’s Ancilliary Mercy also seems to be infected with this kind of ideology. It’s harder to identify in this case, because of the all-female pronouns, but does anyone really think Breq is a man or that Seivarden is a woman? Seivarden is already struggling because of the disappearance of his wealthy and powerful family while he was in sleep storage. In this episode, he is bullied by other crew members into assuming blame for the ancient colonial tradition of privilege. Seivarden isn’t personally to blame for this. Again this looks to be a thinly veiled attack on (white) men.

Is this white guilt literature? Does the new ideology translate to advancing minority interests at the expense of white men? Somehow it looks a bit smug. I can consider these are points to illustrate how insidious privilege can be, but still this marks the resulting works as racist and sexist. The new ideology seems to be quite powerful, too. Both these novels were high in the reading list for Nebula consideration.

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