Metatopia: a rumination

Anyone who's heard me talk about metatopia in the past couple days: this is not that post. Instead, this is a post about whether I'm confident that it's actually a good idea.

A quick summary: "metatopia" is an umbrella concept for (u|dys)topia stories, meant to highlight the difference between stories that are about (u|dys)topia and stories that simply contain speculative or fantastical governments. The idea is that, most of the time, when someone says "Is this a (u|dys)topia?" the answer is "That's not a metatopic story."

I'm hesitating because I'm not certain that this argument is a harmless semantic distinction. I think it would definitely improve discourse around fiction, but there's another use of (u|dys)topia in discourse that I don't want to attack: describing and critiquing atrocities in the real world.

Yesterday Sabrina Vourvoulias, the leader of the Fantastical Dystopia panel I was on (she volunteered last-minute), published a blog post called "Readercon 27: Confronting the fails." I didn't say anything about the metatopia idea in the panel -- because I came up with it during conversation afterward with Michael Deluca. 

Vourvoulias's post mostly isn't about the Fantastical Dystopia panel -- it focuses a lot more on serious problems on other panels -- but my apprehension about this topic stems directly from her comments during the panel, and what I was thinking while she was talking.

She wrote,

Fantastical Dystopia, on the other hand, was really quite awful. I took on the role of leader the day before, and consequently hadn’t organized it — and it showed. I truly value everyone’s contributions under less than optimal conditions, but things never meshed for us. On the other hand, at least nothing “outright barbarous” (to, fittingly, quote George Orwell) was said or enacted by any panelist — which reportedly happened at other panels on dystopia and apocalyptic fiction.

To the point about none of the panels doing anything "outright barbarous" -- Vourvoulias explored the question of dystopia during the panel by way of describing her own experiences of having grown up in what she described as a dystopic state. I didn't have anything to add to that line of discussion, and an attempt to tie it in to the point I had last made would have functionally amounted to "Listen, I know you're talking about your extensive experience with suffering and horror, but let me tell you how you're wrong about the semantics." And that isn't what I wanted to convey at all, but there would have been no way to make that segue that wouldn't have sounded like that.

The question I'm struggling with, then, is: 

Can I make this argument for a "metatopia" designation at all, without it constituting an attack on the ability of marginalized people to talk about their experience? Regardless of whether the concept helps keep literary discussions on the rails, will it also be a tool to derail real-world accounts of suffering?

My solution to this, I think, is going to be to write the essay I was planning on writing, and discuss this specific concern with some of my professors. In the meantime I plan on not actually sending that panel suggestion until after I decide whether I really feel okay about this concept.

Post Readercon Post

My last panel, I feel, went very well. It was on Science Fiction and Fantasy Fashion.

Overall, though: holy crap this was one of the best weekends of my life. 

The only bad thing I can think of about the entire weekend was that my debit card got rejected at McDonalds on the drive home, because the hotel was still holding the security deposit money.

This has been immensely gratifying, both because it's been a major life goal for the past several years, and because it went so well that I feel like I'm equipped to start thinking up even bigger life goals (because there are dots to connect between here and "Win a Hugo.") 

Next up on my list is to apply to be a panelist at the other Boston conventions, Arisia and Boskone, which are in January and February next year. (I can't remember which is when.) I will keep y'all updated about how that goes.

Late Post, Halfway Readercon thoughts

I have been so busy today, I literally haven't had time at my computer. I need to get sleep before tomorrow but here are some quick thoughts about the panels I've been on so far:

Bees!: This panel was great! It was my first ever and I was so into it. UNFORTUNATELY I forgot my notebook in my room, so I don't have any of the citations that accumulated during the panel -- and there were a ton.

Fantastical Dystopia: We mostly talked about the definition of dystopia, about which everyone on the panel had different opinions. My position coming out is that we need a more detailed and diverse language for describing states in literature.

Horror novels of Terry Pratchett: This was also great. I really enjoyed talking about the difference between scene trappings and emotions, and I have a big list of authors (that I'll post later) that may be accomplishing similar things, and that I'll be looking into.

Terry Pratchett and the big picture

I'm on a panel about Pratchett tomorrow, and I've been thinking a lot about what's so great about his work. I think I've landed on something: he doesn't ever focus on the big picture.

I started explaining it to myself by metaphor, and I'm going to try and make that metaphor pan out here. 

You know those pictures that are made of hundreds of smaller pictures? Imagine one of those, of a man about to throw a baseball.

Now, imagine each of the smaller pictures is a TV screen, with a movie paused somewhere so that rectangle works to make the baseball guy.

If you focus on the big picture, you'll think that when you hit play, the man will throw the ball.

But when you hit play, the man, the ball, and the whole picture disintegrate instantly -- because the big picture was always just a way of forcing unrelated things to seem unified.

Pratchett's heroes all focus on the small pictures, where outcomes are predictable, or at least within the realm of considering. Even Vetinari, the mastermind of all masterminds, doesn't plan. He "steers," and speaks out against pulling together, saying "free men pull in all directions." He doesn't try to make the city a utopia. He tries to make everyday outcomes shake out better for the people in general than they otherwise might.

The villains -- like Lord Rust, Reacher Gilt, and the dwarves from Raising Steam -- they're big picture people. They're ineffective and destructive because they try to tell the future based on an illusionary comprehension of the present. 

My Readercon Schedule

Thursday, July 7

8 p.m.  Bees! 

Erik Amundsen, Max Gladstone, Natalie Luhrs, Julia Rios (moderator), T.X. Watson.

From the serious scientific question of colony collapse disorder, through the also-serious metaphoric House of Evil Bees of Captain Awkward, to Chuck Wendig's ridiculous #facebees, bees seem to proliferate among the interests of our genre community. Why? Are we in it for the honey or the sting, or is it the combination that attracts us?

Friday, July 8

3  p.m. Fantastical Dystopia

Victoria Janssen, Ada Palmer, Andrea Phillips, Sabrina Vourvoulias, T.X. Watson.

Dystopia is popular in YA fiction for a variety of reasons, but why do authors frequently base their future dystopian society on some flimsy ideas, rather than using history to draw parallels between past atrocities and current human rights violations? Is it easier to work from one extreme idea, such as "love is now considered a disease" rather than looking at the complexities of, for example, the corruption of the U.S.S.R or the imperialism of the US? If science fiction uses the future to look at the present, is it more or less effective when using real examples from the past to look at our present through a lens of the future?

8 p.m.    The Horror Novels of Terry Pratchett

Don D'Ammassa, Jim Freund (leader), Lila Garrott, Chris Gerwel, T.X. Watson.

Laughter is surprisingly proximate to terror. Lurking beneath the humor of Discworld is some extremely effective horror, including the consumerist nightmares of Reaper Man, the eldritch creepiness in Moving Pictures, and the unnerving elves in Lords and Ladies. Whistling is always better when you're walking past a graveyard—isn't it?

Saturday, July 9

No panels.

Sunday, July 10

2 p.m. SFFF: Science Fiction and Fantasy Fashion

Lila Garrott, Liz Gorinsky (leader), Kathleen Jennings, Julia Starkey, T.X. Watson.

Let's talk about future fashion. According to Carrie Fisher in her memoir Wishful Drinking, George Lucas told her that there were no bras in space, so she wasn't allowed to wear a bra in the first Star Wars movie. He explained to her in 2012 that in space, skin expands, but a bra doesn't, so a person would be strangled by their bra. Setting aside all of the other questions this raises, what scientific and future technological oddities could end up affecting the way we dress? Many designers and writers over the years have tackled this question with clothing to protect from increased UV rays and Star Trek uniforms that include personal climate control. Do we think that future clothing will be purely functional jumpsuits, or will new technologies provide new sartorial delights and abominations? Do our aliens dress like humans or eschew clothing entirely? In fantasy, does historical accuracy matter, and does boob armor really ruin a story?

Readercon anticipation, anxiety, and plans

It's 4 p.m. on Monday. I have work in an hour. I woke up an hour ago. And I'm preoccupied by the question, "Do I really know enough about bees?"

I think it's probably too soon to make definite statements about what panels I'm on at Readercon, because the whole schedule isn't out yet, but from the back-end it looks like they've assigned Thursday and Sunday? And anyway, one of the panels I think I'm most likely on is Thursday's "Bees!"

My original plan when it came to my panels was to come prepared with plenty of links and research, keep track of what I mention during the panel and what other people bring up, and post panel summaries with links afterwards. At this point, I'm beginning to feel like it might be a good idea to write coherent posts and publish them in advance, because that may be a much better way to marshal my thoughts into a form I can be confident will make a bit of sense when expressed to a crowd of strangers and acquaintances. 

In case you're wondering: yes, I've been checking the panel sign-up page about every three hours since I first filled it out.

I'm going to Readercon!

And I probably should have said something about this months ago, but I'm going to be a program participant! I'll be on panels! My name is going to go on the website! I'm super excited. 

I just finished filling in the panel interest forms -- I said I was interested in 20 panels. I imagine they probably won't put me on all 20 but I hope I get to do a lot. Also, in the coming month I'm going to be doing research to prepare, and may have things to say about the outcomes of that research, too.

Entropy and Externalization

I started writing an essay yesterday, called "Entropy and externalization in visions of utopia," but I hit a brick wall after about three pages. 

The basic idea is talking about the idea of harm in society as entropy, and externalized costs as a way of masking the inevitable increase of entropy within a closed system. My point is to argue that the idea of utopia is problematic because it breaks the laws of physics, sort of metaphorically but also sort of literally, and that it's important to focus on harm reduction rather than focusing on theoretical perfections.

My lit professor has my draft right now, she's going to give me feedback and hopefully that'll help me figure out how to keep going.

Jessica Jones is great

I may have binged the new Netflix series "Jessica Jones" this weekend. It's very good. Heads up if you're thinking of watching it: It has basically all of the triggers. If you have PTSD or are otherwise sensitive to any kind of violence, look into that before you pick it up.

Hereafter is spoilerish territory.

I thought it was really interesting how they had moral ambiguity play out in this series, versus in Daredevil. Because Jessica is a way darker character than Matt Murdock, but Murdock's approach still plays out as a lot more ambiguous than Jessica's, because the villain of Jessica Jones, Kilgrave, is so, so much more obviously, vividly evil. Like, Fisk's villainy is a morally horrific approach to political achievement. Kilgrave's villainy is a morally horrific approach to getting whatever he wants with the smallest possible degree of effort.

Idk if I'm going to have more thoughts on this to share later (I should really go through my blog some time for all those posts I ended with "more later" and expand on some) but Jessica Jones definitely gave me a ton to think about, and I am sure I'll end up watching it again.

"Kindred" by Octavia Butler, and enjoying reading

I finished reading Kindred this morning. I was reading it for a class, and I was excited for it because I hadn't read anything by Octavia Butler before and I kept putting it off.

I have a lot of thoughts about it, but I'm going to let them filter through my classwork for a while longer. 

On one hand, Kindred was hard to read. It's about the experience of slavery in 19th Century America, and I don't feel confident enough to say "It doesn't pull punches" but it did plenty to make my guts twist up for a whole variety of reasons.

On the other hand: This was the first book I really tore through in, like, months. The first book I couldn't put down. That I didn't find myself reading the same sentence over and over again.

Kindred was familiar territory: Octavia Butler is a science fiction writer. She writes in that genre-y way that I'm at home with, she gave me the information I wanted when I wanted it and made it easy to trust her about what she was withholding. The other books we've read this semester, and the other works I've read lately, mostly haven't been like that. Dracula tended to lay things out refreshingly early, but it was deeply different than the SF/F style. Never Let Me Go was just a straight-out literary novel. It occurs to me that both of those books were written with a hypothetical audience: Dracula is a collection of documents written by the characters, Never Let Me Go is the protagonist telling stories to the reader. 

In Kindred, Butler just tells the story. It's first person, but it isn't written like it's something Dana (the protagonist and viewpoint character) wrote. There's no sense of what was going on in her life when she decided to sit down and write this book, who it's for, what she'd do with it if she had the manuscript. There's no narrator's detachment from the moment of the story. Dana's not an unreliable narrator. She's barely a narrator. She's first-person as an extremely close third-person.

I hadn't realized how tired I was getting of works that perform themselves as an artifact that exists in their own worlds until I realized how much of a relief it was to read something that had no trace of that quality. It adds so many layers of things to think about: The motives of the author, and therefore their reliability; the quality of their memory, the audience they were considering. Those qualities can be worthwhile but often it feels like they're unnecessary. In Kindred it felt like Butler knew she was asking the reader to do a hard thing, to face the reality of enslaved life, and didn't ask us to do any extra work to get there. 

Even as I write this, I fear I'm over-stating the case against texts that exist within themselves. Maybe it really is just that I'm sick of them right now. But I think there's more to this thought, and it's an aspect of works that I'll be keeping an eye out for now, as much when it's absent as when it's present.

Solarpunk Press episode 1

The first issue of Solarpunk Press came out today -- it went very smoothly and I'm very excited. 

The story we released today is "Riley Marigold and the Winged Lizards of Tel Aviv," by Kayla Bashe. It's available online for free in text form and audio.

Here's the text

Here's the podcast

A fun word game

I had a very stressful evening so to distract myself (and play with my new pen, a fine nib charcoal black Lamy Safari, which is amazing and which I think I'll review soon) I started playing a game, that's a ton of fun, if you're a huge nerd.

First, you write the alphabet down the side of a piece of paper. Then, you make up plausible-sounding words for all of them. You're going for things that aren't words, but sound like they could be. Then, you google all of them to find out how well you did at actually making up new words.

I got as far as googling "G" before I remembered that I hadn't blogged, and here's what I've got so far:

  • Adrivant is someone's username.
  • Bosquire is a misspelling of a French surname, Bosquier.
  • Crainery appears to be either a first name or a last name. 
  • Dinfaile is a fake word.
  • Edile means building or construction in Italian, or is an alternate spelling of Aedile, an ancient Roman word for an inspector of buildings.
  • Finoil is a fake word, I think: a result for words in Hindi came up, but when I clicked it it showed me a page that had autocorrected to Final.
  • Gosper is a surname.

Once you get to the end of the sheet, you go back and come up with definitions for all the words that were actually fake. Then, you put them in a file and save them for when you're writing fantasy and science fiction stories.

I may report back tomorrow on what fake words I come up with.

(Disclosure: The pen link is an Amazon Affiliate Link.)

Sense8: impressions

I just finished watching Season 1 of Sense8, and I'm glad I got around to it -- I really enjoyed it.

I haven't spent a lot of time with the philosophy and metaphysics of the series, so I may ultimately change my mind. (I'm particularly aware of that possibility with a film by the Wachowskis, because of The Matrix, which has more narrative holes than narrative.)

But I am absolutely in love with the relationship that the series has to its medium. It's like they built the metaphysics of this universe backwards from the question "What can we do with a camera?" It's a really, amazingly, brilliantly film-based series.

(Spoilers hereafter)

In the last handful of episodes, I started to realize that the mechanics also justify the series's action-movie-style events. The standard-issue action hero seems to have several careers' worth of professional experience, including more than one kind of martial skillset, plus the backstory of a normal, well-adjusted person, and a perspective and goals within the realm of sympathy for a standard human adult.

In Sense8, this wild inconsistency of persona vanishes in what becomes eight separate narratives about individuals with their own coherent pathos, plus seven other people's worth of skill sets and temperaments. 

When Wolfgang couldn't lie to get himself another couple inches to reach his gun, Leto -- a professional actor -- took over. When Whispers played chicken with Will's sense of moral obligation to human life, Will let Wolfgang take the wheel (figuratively and literally), granting him a moment of plausible utter disregard for human life without destroying Will's character.

I've only watched through once, but I was paying careful attention when I did, and I noticed a lot of places with blurry material continuity -- like, sensates who are not physically present picking up and handling things when they aren't embodying the present character in the scene. But I don't remember ever seeing a moment where it was consequential -- like, in Episode 12, Kala makes a bomb for Wolfgang and prepares a shot for Will, when she isn't present. The two men just sit there, but Kala noticeably doesn't help by manipulating materials until after they're in a position where they can do it themselves. 

Which is a long way of saying I'm really impressed with the attention to detail they give to their visual abstraction of the sensates' abilities.

Sense8 reminded me most vividly of two other peices of media: Inception, which also used an elaborate metaphysics to explore filmmaking, and the short story "'Run,' Bakri Says," available for free in audio and text at that link, published by Escape Pod in 2012. That story uses a metaphysical conceit to explore the mechanics of video games.

I'm excited for season 2, which I heard got picked up, and I'm excited to start digging into commentary by other people on the show. 

Short story: Smaug, MD

I was poking through my old posts and I came across this one, from the first few days of my 2013 reboot. I was glad I came across it, because this story has been floating to mind lately. It's a great dragon story, and I was thinking about digging it up to post on Tumblr.

The post was called "Smaug, MD via Daily Science Fiction." Here it is, reproduced in its entirety:

Want a good, fast short story about dragons that doesn't involve any burning villages?  Smaug, MD by Andrew Kaye is one of the coolest short stories I've read recently, and it's up at Daily Science Fiction for free.

Doctor Longtooth tapped at the x-ray images with a single gold-sheathed talon. A troubled series of clicks rattled at the back of his throat. Smoke dribbled from the corners of his mouth. "I am sorry, Mr. Callahan," his voice rumbled. "It is at stage four. And the tissue is dying."

My father stared at the images. What should have been the black shadows of his lungs were instead a foggy white reminiscent of frosted glass. "That's it then," he said, taking my hand and squeezing. "It's over. It was a good life while it lasted."

(Keep reading...)

Wayward Pines is boring

I'm all caught up on Wayward Pines, because OnDemand is unnavigable and the backlog of episodes of The Daily Show is unacceptably small. So, like, spoilers.

Oh my god Wayward Pines is SO BORING. It's basically Lost: people are stranded in a strange place under strange circumstances and maybe there's magic or sinister government or something but basically things are BAD for REASONS.

I kept with it because I thought there was a chance they were going to come up with something really clever to tie together all the strangeness in the world. But -- and here come the spoilers -- the secret of Wayward Pines was revealed in the latest episode, and it sucks.

It turns out, it's 2000 years in the future, and everyone who got in car accidents and ended up in Wayward was actually, like, selected to be cryogenically frozen to preserve the human race against a future radical divergence. Wayward Pines is a replica 20th century suburb behind an electrified fence surrounded by a wilderness filled with a species of mutant subhuman super-predators.

And, by the same logic employed by the unplugged cast of the Matrix, only the children are told the truth: the adults, apparently, can't handle it, and being informed is guaranteed to trigger suicide.

Instead, all the adult citizens are coerced into participating in a paranoia-fueled Kafka-esque police state, turning on each other's attempts to escape in order to preserve their own chance at a dash for freedom later.

I'm so sick of apocalypse stories. I'm especially sick of apoclaypse stories where the only humans who get to keep living are the ones who immediately go full-scale totalitarian or are otherwise blatantly hostile to basic human rights and dignity.

I'm probably going to keep watching it, because whatever network is airing it is pushing it hardcore and I'm vaguely amused by the fact that I can keep up with a plot that's trying as hard as it can to be inscrutable while also fighting dragons in a video game. (Though, full disclosure, I lost that fight. Badly.) Also it looks like there might be time travel so maybe this is just the first of several nested OMG HUGE TWISTS. Plus, Game of Thrones is about to end. I have zero confidence that it's going to get better, though.

River doesn't have psychic powers in Firefly

I just spent all morning watching episodes of Cracked's series Today's Topic, because having spent the last several days marathoning episodes of Hypnotizd's modded Minecraft Let's Play I'm a little burnt out on long-form YouTube. And anyway, I just got to the one about Firefly, "Why the 'Firefly' Crew Were the Bad Guys," and it reminded me of a thought I've had that I can't remember having actually written down. I'm assuming since Serenity came out 10 years ago, and River's powers are addressed in the first, like, 10 minutes of the movie, it's not a spoiler that she's psychic, even though it's not addressed outright in the TV show until the last few episodes. Still, if you haven't watched Firefly yet, and you're avoiding spoilers, I'm going to address specific details below so skip today and come back.

Firefly is pretty hard science fiction. It all takes place in one solar system, so while the mechanics of space flight are never made explicit, it's possible that it's not faster-than-light. Medical technology is extraordinarily advanced, but still requires professionals and goes wrong, especially in low-resource environments like the outer planets. There are no laser guns, tractor beams or teleporters.

The only significant exception to that trend is River's psychic powers. The show lampshades that at the end of the series --

Wash: Psychic, though? That sounds like something out of science fiction. Zoe: We live on a spaceship, dear.

-- but her abilities are otherwise straightforward. She can read people's minds, which seems like a complete departure from any known human ability. Except, like, empathy.

River was presented as an extraordinary person, a prodigy even compared to her brother, who was also absurdly smart. And we learn in the series that what the Alliance did to her wasn't adding anything to her brain, it was removing. They stripped away her ability to suppress emotional experience. Possibly, they removed her ability to hold anything back out of her consciousness.

I think all of River's abilities can be reasonably attributed to taking one of the most perceptive people in a sample size of like a hundred billion, and removing their ability to stop paying attention. After a couple minutes in a room with someone she can perfectly match their mannerisms; by watching their expressions she can fluidly intuit their approximate motives, interests, weaknesses and fears; her fighting ability is her pre-existing talent for dance plus an ability to read her opponent as well as an expert martial artist (plus probably some Alliance training); I'd say "And so on," but that pretty much covers everything she accomplished. Even the stuff she appears to have gleaned from the minds of Alliance officials could just be, like, the ability to successfully approximate the content of a conversation through lip reading and expressions. If there were any hint at all in the environment of the landing site on Miranda, she could put together a mental picture of exactly what had happened. She wouldn't be able to help it. She'd be like an overclocked Sherlock Holmes.

So... yeah. No psychic powers in Firefly. I think this is really fun to think about, because it's a serious development of science fiction ideas based on a cutting-edge understanding of the mind, rather than a half-century-old one.

Nightvale Book available for preorder

Welcome To Night Vale has a book coming out! It's released in October, and it's called "Welcome to Night Vale." I have already preordered it. You should also preorder it. And if you don't already listen to Welcome to Night Vale, you should start. It's a podcast about a strange, mysterious desert town that is fantastic in many ways. (Though if you've got any strong common triggers that might be a problem. Personally I just shout "NOPE" over and over again in the car whenever I hear Cecil begin to mention spiders. Sure, I probably miss some stuff, but spiders have never been the whole plot of an episode so it's okay.) Upcoming posts: Tomorrow is thoughts on Community, season 6 having premiered on Yahoo Screen today. Thursday is on the Subbable Patreon merger.

Terry Pratchett died today

I don't have a lot to say. That's not true. I have a huge amount to say. Terry Pratchett was, and will continue to be, one of the most important writers in my life. Apart from 1984 no book has had a greater influence on me than Going Postal, and Going Postal edges out 1984 for favorite book on account of it being a lot funnier.

I've made myself cry a whole bunch today imagining --

well, I wanted to write something there, that I'm sure other Pratchett readers can easily guess. But I'm writing this post at work, and I don't want to start crying in my cubicle.

I don't have a lot to say that won't reduce me to a shaking, wet-faced puddle, and I need to get at least a little bit of work done today before that happens.

I'll miss Terry Pratchett, now that he's gone. And I'm really, really glad that he existed in the first place.

Jupiter Ascending: a quick review

I really liked Jupiter Ascending. It had almost everything I look for in a Space Opera: an interesting and coherent plot, an internally consistent setting and science, and the force of evil is capitalism. (Like, really explicitly. It was great.) I remember reading somewhere on Tumblr that someone was disappointed in the movie: that they were expecting to go and see something that was so-bad-it's-good, and what they got was just a regular good movie. And that's what it was like for me -- as a concept, it looks like it should be a hilarious flop. It's totally tone-deaf to the kind of plot that's fashionable right now, it's packed with explosions, the cast are often cartoonish, and it just looks like it cost a ton of money and wasn't going to make any. (It didn't, but that's beside the point.)

The thing is, the writers, cast and crew really did work hard to make this movie the best it could possibly be of what it is: a space opera. Jupiter Ascending is a really good space opera.[1. The  phrase "Heartland science fiction" comes to mind, but I'm too tired to explicate what I mean by that, and I'm sure I'm gonna forget it. So I'm just going to leave it here, hoping that the context of the post is enough to remind me what the hell my point was there.] It's funny in the right places, dramatic in the right places, incredibly thick with pathos, as high stakes as it can possibly be.

My only criticisms are the lack of queer representation, and that the action scenes ran long enough to bore me.

Go read or listen to 'The Apartment Dweller's Bestiary' by Kij Johnson

There are many great Clarkesworld stories. This is one of them. (There are also many great writers. Kij Johnson is one of them.) "The Apartment Dweller's Bestiary" details the traits of a variety of strange creatures that might, for various reasons, share your living space. They're mostly adorable, and definitely worth listening to. Here's that link again.