The Whippersnappers Talk About School Reading Lists

This Sunday, the Whippersnappers will be discussing the relationships between schools and the arts, with the main focus on school reading lists. Do they hinder or help a child’s reading? What kinds of books are children being made to read today? What books should kids be reading?

We’ll have many different perspectives on this subject, including those of Orville and Juss Wright, who are still in high themselves! We have much to talk about, so come listen along and join the discussion!

Sunday, 3pm EST! Be there!

 

A great review of The Product by Marina Fontaine

Tangent Online has a great review of The Product by Marina Fontaine

I was very excited to review one of the first offerings by Superversive Press. Allow me to begin by giving a brief introduction to the Superversive movement, as it is a somewhat recent development in literary circles, and not all readers may yet be familiar with it. In their own words, “Superversive Press is a new small press that aims to publish Superversive Fiction and is an outgrowth of the Superversive Fiction movement that aims to tell stories that are uplifting and ennobling. Heroes that are heroic, beauty that is beautiful, the transcendent that is transcending, stories that say virtues are real, and that Civilization triumphs over barbarism.” To delineate further, let me add that “superversive,” (as defined by one of the movement’s founders, John C. Wright, courtesy of his wife L. Jagi Lamplighter), goes as such: “You know how subversive means to change something by undermining from below? Superversive is change by inspiration from above.” I’d like to add, in my own words, that the Superversive movement represents a shift away from recent trends in science fiction and fantasy that have resulted in overly dark and preachy fiction that can leave a reader feeling punished simply for having read the stories. By this I mean that the world is, and always has been, a chaotic and frightening place, on a scale that dwarfs the comprehension of most minds. All the negative that anyone could ever desire, if they indeed desire such, can be found in history books and the nightly news, and can be quite overwhelming when not balanced by stories of hope and virtue. While I do not suggest that literature should not sometimes reflect the darker nature of humanity and life, I am comforted and excited that there is an effort to elevate literature above the muck and grime. There is a place for literature which aspires to create hope and condemns despair as much as there is a place for gritty realism.
In that vein, and with no further introduction, the review.

The Product takes place in the near future, presumably in the US, although the exact timeframe is unclear, and really, the location is vague enough that perhaps I’m simply seeing my own country of origin in the mirror. There are numerous similarities to our own time, especially in terms of things like technology, vocabulary, and environment, but it is not concurrent with our own timeline, inasmuch as the government has all but completely succeeded in stifling all free will, individuality, and for the most part even personality. The descriptor of drones is used frequently, and does not seem to be an exaggeration or over-simplification. Those it refers to are typical of a dystopian society: emotionless and apathetic, physically deprived and inferior, and seemingly capable of taking delight only in the suffering of others. The lack of independent thought and mindless savagery is striking, and is present in far more concentration than a lot of other stories in this genre. This story approaches alternating levels of bland apathy and vicious voyeurism seen only in the darker realms of dystopian fiction. Concepts like Re-ed (re-education) and Enforcers (brutal thugs, read: bullies on steroids) are common to dystopian fiction, as is the damage caused by living in fear that any slight word or action not in conformity will subject the individual to torture, abuse, and re-programming unthinkable, even in all but the most devolved corners of modern societies. The contrast is only made more severe by how personable and relatable the main characters are. “Users” are those who have sampled the product, and “dealers” are those who risk life and limb to bring it to them, not unlike the nomenclature of the drug world in modern society.
The main characters consist of three Dealers and one User, who are survivors of a system designed and apparently quite successful at crushing the souls of those within its grasp. The protagonists are split evenly, two male and two female, which flows nicely as far as how the four of them interact with each other, and offers varying pictures into how both sexes cope and survive in such hostile conditions. Kevin, the first of the four to whom we are introduced, is defined mostly by his determination and force of will, as shown on multiple occasions when he is subjected to abuse that would break most people I’ve ever met, yet he never yields. He approaches that chasm several times, as would anyone, but it is his force of will that keeps him from plunging headfirst into despair. Let me be clear: regardless of Hollywood interpretations, there are many unspeakable things that one human may do to another, and no one can remain unbroken forever. I appreciate how the author acknowledged this, from Kevin’s perspective, without ever giving up hope. It’s a delicate balance, and the author conveys it well. There is the knowledge and trepidation of what is to come, and the inevitability of a fate far worse than death should the Enforcers succeed in dragging him to their compound, but through it all he faces every moment with strength and conviction.
The second of the four is Lily, Kevin’s girlfriend, and the one User amongst the Dealers. She is refreshingly less hardened than the other three, surprisingly innocent and virtuous in a place where such things are by all rights impossible. There is a moment much later in the story where she finds a flower, growing healthy and free, hidden in amongst the larger weeds, that sums her up perfectly. The flower is a daylily, for which her mother named her, and the joy it brings is that of simply knowing that such a thing is possible. It is the joy of hope. It’s also appreciated that she isn’t portrayed as helpless. This is not some mockery of the virtuous, or some weeping damsel, but someone who has before now not truly walked through the fire, and when she finds herself in the flames, rises to find strength in herself, and acts in the face of danger. One criticism that seems to be constantly flung at the Superversive movement is that traditional SF/F objectifies women, being nothing more than helpless damsels waiting to be rescued by overly macho heroes, and thoroughly objectified as sexual prizes to be won in some meaningless contest of toxic masculinity. Lily is a wonderful example of how false those accusations are. Not only does she rise to action in defense of Kevin on several occasions, but she remarks casually about her proficiency with guns, and hesitates not in the slightest to put her life on the line for others, even strangers she has never met. This is a woman who refuses to be a victim, even when victimized. She is portrayed not as demanding love or sexual affection, but as being worthy of it. Not as an object of sexuality, but as an individual worthy of the love Kevin holds for her.
Justin is the third of the protagonists we meet, and is the dealer boyfriend of the fourth dealer, Gina, who is Kevin’s ex. The two of them are both gritty realists, but they are such in their own ways. Justin is quiet, reserved, with a core of tempered steel, both a tortured soul and a healthily masculine hero wrapped up in a grimly experienced visage. He reminds me of many veterans I’ve known. Haunted by the reality of things he has lived through, things he has had to do simply to survive, but resolute and full of life all the same. He is easily my favorite character, and the one that resonated most with me on a personal level. This is the sort of man I aspire to be, and hope I have become. Gina is beautiful and happily sociable, which belies the grim determination and raging fire within her soul. While perhaps not entirely rational, and indeed sometimes simply rash, her heart is always in the right place, and she follows it with the strength of her body. This is someone who can not only keep up with Justin, but push and challenge him. She manages to be feminine and sexual without ever devaluing herself, and it never defines her. It’s nice to see a woman who is defined by the virtue and strength of her soul, while being accentuated by her beauty and allure, as opposed to many so-called feminist icons, who are defined by their sexuality and allure, and are accentuated by the lack of virtue and weakness of their souls. Gina is a woman anyone would be thrilled to call a friend, but even more importantly, a woman anyone would be thrilled to have covering their six. The Product itself, which seems to have remarkably transformative properties, is none other than music. For those who doubt the legitimacy of the transformative power of sound as rivaling that of a drug, I suggest a wide array of literature and science on the subject.
All in all, this is a well-paced, descriptive offering that upholds the intent of both its publisher, and movement. The best advice I can offer is to approach it without the baggage of previous prejudices or bias, and simply enjoy it for the story it is. It is not as lengthy as many other dystopian stories tend to be, which may be the result of being an early offering, but personally I find it to be something of a blessing, insofar as it accomplishes its goals and doesn’t overly linger in an attempt to do too much. I recommend it to anyone, and I specifically recommend it to anyone who is looking for fiction from the Superversive movement, or who is interested in finding out what it are all about.

No, really, why AM I superversive?

One may – or may not – be surprised to know that despite being a part of the superversive team, I have a reputation in my family as a curmudgeon. In “real life”, distinct from my writing here and other places, I am quite cynical. I tend to believe that bad news is far more likely than good; as a Catholic, like Tolkien, I believe we’re in for the long defeat.

It was my sister who posed the question to me. I don’t remember the context, but I was complaining about something or other when she looked at me and said “Why are you even part of Superversive SF, anyway”?

It’s a great question, and the answer is somewhat personal. You see, I have a secret.

A BIG secret. It’s one I really don’t like to admit out loud. But here it is:

I’m not really a cynic. I’m actually a romantic. Deep down, I believe in true love, happy endings, heroism, and miracles. Or rather, I want to believe in them. I want desperately to believe they’re true.

Of course, out here in real life, we’re living in the enemy’s world. So those things don’t happen as often as they should. But they DO happen…and more importantly, they SHOULD happen. And I don’t mean that in a pathetic way, either, like it’s a fool’s dream and I’m just not willing to face reality. I mean that the world was literally created to be better than this.

And I think that in fiction, the most powerful stories are the ones that recognize we live in this horrible, messed up, dangerous world…and that we’re destined for something better. That humanity can be better. That yes, things suck, but we have the ability to rise up and change – to live for something greater than ourselves.

And that’s the heart of superversive SF, right? That we’re out here hoping and praying and living and dying not for ourselves, but for something higher and better than us.

In a world that is often terrible and depressing we need to be reminded sometimes that there’s hope. We need to remember that hope is just as real and just as important – maybe even more important – than all of those terrible things, and that we fools who strive to be better do not strive in vain.

And we go back around again to square one. Why am I, a cynical curmudgeon who complains about things all the time and picks petty fights with people for no good reason, a member of the superversive fiction movement?

Maybe it’s because guys like me need superversion most of all.

Caption This! week #6

Hey all!

I got a fun one this week! Star Wars fans raise your hands! Which….. is probably everyone here. Is there any nerd or geek that isn’t a fan of some aspect of Star Wars? If there is, I want to meet them.

Anyway, here’s your picture!

 

And the winner of last weeks caption is: 

The Mohs Scale of SF Hardness

In the ongoing discussion this corner of fandom has been having about genre, a sub-argument broke out about what counts as “hard” SF. Some people think “hardness” is a yes or no property and are indignant if some work is excluded. So it’s time to go over the Mohs Scale of SF Hardness.


(For non-geologists, the Mohs scale is a way of rating the hardness of rocks. It ranges from talc (anything can scratch it) to diamond (no lesser rock can scratch it). For genre discussions this is, of course, a metaphor.)

Disclaimers up front: “Hardness” is a separate property from whether a story is entertaining, actually science fiction, part of a particular sub-genre, or possessing the Campbellian “sense of wonder.” Yes, there are stories that are diamond-hard without stirring any sense of wonder. Us Hard SF fans call them “boring.”

Eight: Starting at the hardest level of hardness, there’s Real Life. Everything in the story exists today. SF fans consider this the least interesting level. Pulp stories with hard-boiled detectives are here.

Seven: The next level is A Simple Matter of Engineering. The gadgets in the story are compliant with known science and could be built if we put in the effort. The settings are as realistic as current knowledge allows. The Martian is at this level with the exception of its initial dust storm. The ion drive of the Hermes and automated Martian fuel manufacturing landers are just awaiting funding. The recent discovery of permafrost in the Martian soil means the hero could have dug for his water instead of messing with hydrazine (shudder) but this doesn’t make the story less hard, it just dates it. James Cambias’ Corsair is here, and hasn’t been ruined by a new discovery yet.

One problem with this level of hardness is that it only makes sense a short distance into the future. If your story is set a thousand years from now it’s ludicrous to think there will be no new rules of physics discovered in that time. If the setting isn’t as different from today’s as our lives are different from the world of 1000 AD that’s a failure of imagination.

Six: The third level is One New Thing. Invent a gadget, scientific law, or strange place, and examine the implications as it interacts with known reality. Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is level two with a spontaneously-created artificial intelligence. Niven’s “Inconstant Moon” is Real Life with an exploding sun.

Five: New Physics is where writers can invent lots of stuff. The trick to keeping it on this level is picking a few new inventions and dealing with their consequences rigorously. The Mote In God’s Eye and the related stories of Pournelle’s CoDominion series were here–Alderson drive, Langston Field shield, and weird yet plausible aliens.

Four: Artificial Gravity and Other Toys. Spaceships no longer need seat belts. This can still involve running numbers: Weber’s Honor Harrington series includes careful calculations of how much acceleration ships of each size can get from their gravitic impellers. This can still be “sense of wonder” hard SF. Ringworld had all sorts of impossible tech (teleporters, hyperdrive, invulnerable hulls, hereditary luck, and the scrith the Ringworld was made out of) but expanded our imaginations with what could be done with it.

Three: Who Cares How it Works? Spaceships fly, blasters zap, Death Stars blow things up. The gadgets enable the heroes to do their stuff. Numbers are a distraction. Firefly and Star Trek fall here. Most space opera is here as well, such as Lee and Miller’s Liaden series.

Two: Add A Dash of Magic. It looks like a cyberpunk or space opera setting, but some of what’s going on is just beyond physics. Star Wars Jedi can control minds, hurl objects, and create lightning with their minds.

One: Never Mind Science. Sometimes the author wants to do something and doesn’t care if it’s proven impossible. Mammals interbreed with egg-layers, rocks hang in the air, and Rule of Cool is all.

Too complicated? Oh, it gets worse. Many stories are rigorous in some areas of science and hand-wave others. An argument broke out over Dune in the CH comments. Where does it rank on this scale? The treatment of ecology is at One New Thing–a desert dominated by sandworms, with the implications for human society and future terraforming worked out in detail. Meanwhile the Bene Gesserit and Navigators Guild were effectively working by magic.

Another example of that mixed level is Bujold’s Vorkosigan series. Most tech in the stories is generic space opera, but the biological tech for reproduction, genetic engineering, and terraforming approach A Simple Matter of Engineering in the detail and accuracy provided. Whether this counts as “hard” SF depends on which aspect the viewer cares most about. If forced to assign a label I’d go with “partially hard” or “biologically hard,” which I’m sure amuses the twelve year olds in our midst.

So where is the line for defining something as “hard” SF? With most of the other things we argue about in the genre war it’s a matter of taste. I’ve noticed the most common line is artificial gravity. If the author make the crew strap in for acceleration and float the rest of the time the book will be called hard SF even if he’s resorting to blatant handwaves such as passing through a “loop of cosmic string” to travel between star systems.


This also points out the weaknesses in the definitions people are tossing around for “Campbellian SF.” Plenty of non-hard SF books such as Ringworld and Hogfather (a pure fantasy) provide the sense of wonder or “conceptual breakthrough” Campbellian fans desire.

The “hardness” of a story is just one way to describe it, separate from whether it includes any entertainment or other qualities. A hard SF story doesn’t guarantee it will provide sense of wonder. What the term “hard SF” does is give readers an idea of what to expect from the story, so they have a hint of whether it’s what they’re looking for. Which is all any genre label is really useful for.

FOOTNOTE: TVTropes has a version of this scale but I disagree with part of their analysis so I wrote this.

Corroding Empire: Amazon’s Civil War

The controversy over The Corroding Empire just gets stranger and stranger.

The Corroding Empire

Amazon KDP has given Castalia House’s new science fiction parody more green and red lights than a drag racing track.

First it was thought that the book had been pulled at the behest of Tor Books, publisher of The Collapsing Empire.

Suspicion also fell on Collapsing Empire author John Scalzi, who tweeted this message the same day:

However, details emerged last night that neither Tor, Scalzi, nor Amazon per se were to blame for The Corroding Empire’s publication delays. Castalia House Lead Editor Vox Day explained:

UPDATE: Since some people seem to want to go on the warpath, let me be perfectly clear here: Amazon is not to blame. I even suspect that it is entirely possible that Tor Books is not to blame either, based on a) when the book was pulled and b) the fact that the book has shown as Live for nearly 24 hours but still does not have a page on any Amazon site. The most likely scenario, in my opinion, is a rogue low-level SJW employee, possibly two, in a specific department.

I have already spoken to the manager of one department and they have begun to investigate why Corrosion is Live but not available. They’ve done everything we asked and we have no problem with the way we have been treated.

Today, Vox announced that Corrosion (The Corroding Empire Book 1) was finally live on KDP.

As we suspected, there appear to have been internal shenanigans taking place at Amazon, as one or more SJWs appear to have abused their positions to interfere with our ability to sell THE CORRODING EMPIRE.

We’re still working with Amazon to sort out exactly who was responsible for precisely what, and to establish what, if anything, legitimately needed to be changed according to their guidelines. This should all be nailed down by the end of the day, but in the meantime, you can now order the book and post reviews again.

The Corroding Empire isn’t out of the woods yet, because following that conversation, it was blocked again, reinstated again and blocked a third time in short order.

Corrosion (The Corroding Empire Book 1)

Here is where the matter stands as of this writing:

UPDATE: Finally got to speak to a supervisor. She’s not only escalated the matter to legal, but has assured me that the book will be unblocked, stay unblocked, and that the matter will be fully investigated. It’s not just the three blocks, the culprit(s) also put the book on the Excluded list for Amazon Associates, which prevents others from being paid when someone buys the book.

The publisher insists that the issue is with rogue elements within KDP quality control and not with Amazon itself. If so, we could be witnessing a civil war within the world’s largest book distributor. However the situation gets sorted out, the resolution should be informative for publishers, authors, and readers alike.

@BrianNiemeier

Maleficent vs. Sleeping Beauty: A Lesson in Subversion

NOTE: The bulk of this article was originally posted on www.declafinn.com, almost two years ago. However, in light of the even-growing trend of “re-imagining” old stories for both children and adults, it bears repeating. This analysis also serves as a good demonstration of the differences between subversive and superversive storytelling. While Maleficent received mixed reviews from critics (50% on Rotten Tomatoes), the audience ratings were much higher (71%) and its financial success is undisputed. I therefore feel safe from any accusations of intentionally picking a modern dud to compare to a beloved classic. In my not-so-humble opinion, Maleficent’s flaws are features, not bugs, for it aspires to subversion and succeeds at that level.

One of the side effects of not growing up in the culture is that, no matter how well-assimilated, one inevitably misses some of the basics that all the native-born take for granted. Classic movies, especially those geared towards children, fall firmly in that category. So it was that after almost three decades in the U.S., I still was not familiar with one of the greatest creations of American culture. I am, of course, referring to the Disney classic movie, Sleeping Beauty. Suitably mortified, I ended up renting both the original and the “modern spin” version that is Maleficent.

I had reservations, having been burned to a crisp by the atrocity that was Ever After, but the trailers promised great visuals, plus Angelina Jolie in title role sounded intriguing.

Thus, a double-feature family movie night was on. Perhaps it is not fair to compare a modern Hollywood production to a beloved classic. On the other hand, since I had not seen either movie previously, sentimental value was a non-factor in my case and my expectations would not be unreasonably raised for one over the other.

*

First, Sleeping Beauty. In terms of storytelling, it is straightforward and honest, the way children’s tales tend to be. The rules of magic are simple, the threat and the possible salvation are laid out, all the characters are introduced in the early scenes, and we more or less know how this ends.

Yet there are layers, too, and it’s a great demonstration of how a story can be more complex than it seems while retaining its innocence. Take the scene where Aurora meets the Prince in the woods. They have, essentially, fallen in love before ever having laid their eyes on each other. The meeting is just a validation of something that is already there. How? Why? Is it magic, or destiny, or just a lucky coincidence? We don’t know, but by establishing that both had dreamed of each other before their encounter, we, even as cynical adults, are given enough reason to believe that true love is indeed in the works.

Later on, we get a surprisingly dark yet effective scene where Maleficent, having captured the Prince, torments him with visions of life wasted and love lost, but there is something else. She is mocking the traditional model of a heroic knight who defeats his foe and rescues a maiden, denying the very possibility that the good can triumph. In her world, there is only power and vengeance. No love, no hope, no joy except in denying love and hope to others—a perfect combination of ancient evil and modern nihilism.

In the end, while the Prince is the nominal hero of the story, a big chunk of the credit belongs to the good fairies. They free him not just from physical chains of the dungeon, but also from despair, give him the right tools (the Sword of Truth and the Shield of Righteousness- that’s right; in your face, nihilism!) and guide him along the way. Even in the final confrontation, where the Prince, seemingly alone, has to defeat a fearsome dragon, he is not, in fact, alone as the good fairies make sure the final strike of the sword strikes home. Is there a deeper meaning to the way this part of the story pays out? It is for the viewer to decide.

The rest of the story is simplistic by today’s standards. True love’s kiss is just that. Aurora does indeed wake up, and aside from a little comic relief, the story concludes exactly in the manner we had been promised at the start. It’s not a bad lesson to modern storytellers always on the lookout for The Big Twist. Some stories are beautiful just by their essence and can be told effectively using neither irony nor misdirection.

*

And now, for Maleficent. Skeptical as I was, the visually stunning opening scenes, combined with a hypnotic voice-over asking us to challenge what we think we know of the story, gave me much hope. A part of me wondered why a beautiful girl possessed of magic powers to heal and protect all living things would have a name that literally means “causing or capable of producing evil,” but I put it aside. It did, however, set the tone for the story: hauntingly, darkly beautiful; self-aware in a detached, post-modern way; and often too clever for its own good. In other words, mostly the opposite of the original story it was meant to re-tell.

Maleficent is not the villain of old, but a horribly wronged, heartbroken woman trying to heal her physical and emotional wounds through an act of revenge. And other characters are just as unrecognizable.

The King Father is first a thief and a liar, then a cruel coward, then a full blown lunatic obsessed with killing and destruction, his daughter merely an afterthought by the time the story really gets going. The brief moments where he shows glimpses of humanity are lost because they serve no purpose to this particular version, and that’s too bad because he could have been a great tragic character if handled by a more careful storyteller.

The fairies, who in the original are comical and lovable yet powerful when it counts most, are reduced to incompetent, annoying, squabbling hags who seem to understand nothing of life, or love. They disappear for large stretches of the movie, only to come back and remind everyone how ineffectual they truly are before slinking off again, not even managing to produce comic relief, let alone serious magic.

Aurora is sweet enough, and does get a decent amount of screen time. The best scenes that could really have been the whole (much better) movie are between Aurora and Maleficent, the innocence and innate joy of the girl slowly but surely melting the heart of the bitter, vengeful woman and turning her into a loving maternal figure. But the story’s ambition is bigger, and darker, than that. The little hint of what it might have been makes the end result so much more infuriating.

What about the Prince, you ask? Well, there is a Prince. Unfortunately, he has nothing to do but look confused. He’s not heroic, or interesting, or even particularly attractive. He shows up occasionally to signal in red flashing lights that this story is oh-so-very different. I suppose the script writers think we as the audience are just that dense.

There’s also a Raven who is turned by Maleficent into a shape-shifter and spends some of his time being a semi-useful sidekick who occasionally utters a word of wisdom before being turned into yet another CGI creature.

“But, but…What about True Love’s Kiss? You promised!” says a demanding, if unsophisticated, viewer who still thinks she paid the $10 to see a fairy tale. Said viewer will, indeed witness a kiss, and the Beauty will wake up, but that is all. The Big Twist so lacking in the original is found here. I did not feel cheated, per se, only because the “surprise” was, in a way, so tediously predictable, but neither was I satisfied.

Given the thrust of the story, the ending with Aurora ruling over the newly happy magical kingdom under the wise tutelage of Maleficent should have been enough. But is it? Is there room in the story for romance, for the quaint idea of “happily ever after”? Well, the Prince shows up at the end, for now apparent reason, and all I could think about at that point was “He wants MALEFICENT for his mother in law? He must be either very brave or very stupid, and from the movie’s view of men, I’d have to put money on stupid.” Since we aren’t supposed to question such things too deeply, the movie pulls us back to the beautiful vistas and a hypnotic voice-over, and soon the end credits start rolling to a suitably macabre remake of the original Sleeping beauty love song.

I have to give the script writers credit where it’s due: the movie stayed true to its vision till the very end. Unfortunately, the vision is thoroughly at odds with the classic it was claiming to re-tell. While it is possible to create a compelling story—NOT a true fairy tale, but perhaps a dark fantasy—where the hero and the villain is one and the same, Maleficent doesn’t quite gets there. Once you look beyond the special effects and Jolie’s solid acting, this “re-imagining” eagerly tears down the original, but fails to build anything substantial in its stead. But then, knowing what we know of today’s Hollywood, perhaps that was the intention all along.

Marina Fontaine is a co-founder of Conservative-Libertarian Fiction Alliance and the author of Chasing Freedom (a Dragon Awards finalist) and The Product, a dystopian novella published by Superversive Press.