On Fictional History and Fictional Places

Fiction is fake, by definition. Otherwise it would be nonfiction, right? Any character you create doesn’t exist in the real world if you’re writing fiction, even if you’re writing about a historical figure. Still, a lot of fiction takes place in what we think of as the “real” world. What happens when the real world isn’t enough and you decide to create enclaves of pure fiction within it? Well, then things get interesting.

I had a chance to ponder this recently thanks to a couple of things I consumed that leaned heavily into fictional history and fictional places. Neither quite worked and I’m not sure if all that non-existent history or fake places weren’t part of the problem.

As for fake history, I finally had a chance to see Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, the latest Quentin Tarantino epic. I’m a fan of most of his stuff, and while I found a lot to admire about Once Upon a Time . . . (Brad Pitt, in particular, is as good as everybody said he was), there’s some interesting alternate history in it that didn’t really work for me.

Hollywood

Sitting alongside the story of a TV star on the downside of his career (Leo DiCaprio) and his buddy/stunt man (Pitt) in 1969 Los Angeles is the story of Sharon Tate. Tate, as you’ll recall, was married to Roman Polanski at the time (hilariously portrayed as looking almost exactly like Austin Powers and not yet a rapist) and would be brutally murdered by members of the Manson Family that August. Spoiler alert, I guess – in the world Tarantino builds, that doesn’t happen. Instead, the would-be murderers go to the house next door, where Dicaprio’s character lives and Pitt’s is on acid, and are violently dispatched with a combination of the world’s best pit bull and a flame thrower (which somehow makes sense). The movie ends with everybody else getting on with their lives, the spirit of the 1960s not yet brutally ended.

The odd thing about all this is that it seems backwards. Usually when we’re talking alternate history the pivot point – where it diverges from our reality – is at or near the beginning of the story. The rest of it is exploring the “what if this happened?” question. For a timely example, the HBO adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America begins as Charles Lindberg runs for, and wins, the presidency in 1940 on an isolationist platform bolstered by anti-Semitism. What happens next is what we’re going to find out in the next few weeks.

The closer comparison with Once Upon a Time . . . is Tarantino’s prior bit of historical revisionism, Inglorious Basterds. In that one a group of Jewish American Army soldiers during World War II put Hitler down in a bloody, fiery way. It’s clearer wish fulfillment, in my opinion, since everybody knows Hitler was a monster. It also leans heavily on the speculative fiction trope of time travelling to kill Hitler, so it makes more intuitive sense. There’s certainly some wish fulfillment in Once Upon a Time . . . – of course it’s a better world where murder victims aren’t actually murdered and the would-be killers get instant justice – but the way it comes about makes less sense. There’s nothing explaining why the Manson kids go to the wrong house and neither the DiCaprio nor Pitt characters do anything other than react to a home invasion – they aren’t heroes who intentionally foil a plot. I just don’t get the point of the exercise.

It’s easier to see the point of using completely made up geography in fiction, but even that can be tricky. Full disclosure – I’ve done it myself (Moore Hollow is set in a fictional West Virginia county), so I’m not against the idea. It does honk me off a little bit when it comes out of nowhere, though.

One of my great finds of last year was Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, a darkly funny book about a guy trying to conquer death by bringing people back from it. In that book the titular hero (I use the term loosely) has to obtain 100 souls for Satan in order to win his own back, with the devil providing a nightmarish carnival train to aid in the process. As I said, it’s funny in a dark, sarcastic kind of way (in some ways it puts me in mind of a horror version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and, so far as I can remember, takes place entirely in our world. Not our real world, obviously (see, bringing people back from the dead, Satan, souls, etc.), but at least it looks like ours. It all happens in the UK, with Cabal’s family coming from Germany.

Imagine my surprise when I dove into the sequel, Johannes Cabal the Detective, and found out that it takes place entirely in a pair of made up countries somewhere in Europe (with a third thrown in for good political measure).

CabalDetective

I understand why the author did this – the story requires particular political and military maneuvers that don’t fit established history and it’s hard to manipulate real places to do your fictional building. Nonetheless, it’s kind of a shock to have these made up places thrown at you without warning. Had the first book mentioned them or been set in them it would have been different. That neither Cabal nor his sidekick have any connection to these places doesn’t help the story, but that’s a separate issue.

Of course, there are entire genres of fantasy that take place in worlds that have no relation to this one. The Water Road trilogy takes place on another world entirely (with no human beings!), as does Gods of the Empire and its sequels. But with those you know going in what you’re getting into. Changing the game midstream seems like a miscalculation to me. The question with everything, whether it’s fake history or made up locations, is what works best for the story? What best serves the character? Sometimes the answer to both is something completely new and unexpected. But sometimes it’s not.

Plus ca change . . .

There has always been controversial art. The reasons change – whether it’s the frank depiction of sex, or violence, or challenges to religious or political orthodoxy – but the fact that words or images piss people off is as old as time. We tend to think there’s more of it going around these days because social media tends to amplify controversies when they emerge. Just because the cacophony is louder doesn’t mean it’s any kind of major change in society.

This was driven home to me by a recent article in The Atlantic. Though the current title is “The First Novelist Accused of Cultural Appropriation,” the title that shows on the browser tab, which more accurately captures the theme of the piece, is “Could My Father Have Published ‘Nat Turner’ Today?” Bucking the usual rule of headline questions, the answer, from the story itself, appears to be yes.

Some background first. The literary controversy of the year so far has been American Dirt, a novel by Jeanine Cummins. With a major push from its publisher, and a spot on Oprah’s list, it was poised to be the breakout title of the year.

AmericanDirt

It’s about a woman and her son fleeing Mexico after a drug kingpin murders the rest of their family and, ultimately, their experiences as migrants heading to the United States. This article does a good job of highlight the resulting controversy, which ranged from questions of cultural appropriation (Cummins is neither Latina nor a migrant) to how writers of color are locked out of the publishing industry to the fact that, maybe, the book just isn’t that good at what it wants to be (this is an interesting takedown along those lines ).

The merits of the arguments about the book aren’t really important. What you need to know is that some people took issue with what was set to be a wildly popular book (there was a film deal before it was even published) and weren’t silent about it. Thanks to social media, blogs and what not their complaints reached a fairly wide audience.

Back to the Atlantic piece. The subject is The Confessions of Nat Turner and the “My Father” in the title is William Styron – the author of the article is his daughter, Alexandra. The Confessions of Nat Turner came out in 1967. Turner, of course, was the leader of a slave revolt in antebellum Virginia. The book is a fictional narrative of Turner as told to a prosecutor who will try Turner after the revolt. It won the Pulitzer Prize, so it must be pretty good.

NatTurner

Nonetheless, it led to some controversy, driven largely by the fact that Styron wasn’t black, much less a slave. How could he write a narrative from the standpoint of one? If it’s a familiar objection, it’s worth looking at how familiar the arc of reaction to the book is to what happened with American Dirt.

First, there was a swell of praise from traditional sources:

Through much of 1967, he was at ease, enjoying the swell of prepublication buzz for Nat Turner. The Book-of-the-Month Club (the Oprah’s Book Club of its time) paid my father the highest price for a novel in the company’s history. The paperback, serial, and foreign rights sold in a frenzy. Hollywood came calling. That July, when riots erupted in Newark, New Jersey, and in Detroit, newspapers asked him to help white America understand what was happening. By October, when the first reviews appeared, Nat Turner was a juggernaut. ‘Magnificent,’ The New York Times declared. “A new peak in the literature of the South,’ Time wrote. ‘It will endure as one of the great novels by an American author in this century,’ the Los Angeles Times predicted. In November, my father was awarded an honorary degree by Wilberforce University, a historically black institution in Ohio.

At this point, as Styron’s daughter points out, with one exception “no black writers were invited to critique Nat Turner in any major national publication.” Slowly, however, those overlooked voices started rising:

The first signs of black dissent appeared by the new year. Articles in, among other publications, The New Leader, The Negro Digest, and Freedomways condemned the novel and the white media that endorsed it. Around the same time, an ugly spat erupted in The Nation between my father and the Marxist scholar of African-American history, Herbert Aptheker. (They both behaved like self-important assholes.) In February, The New York Times ran the first of several pieces exposing an angrier vein: ‘Styron’s Nat Turner, the house nigger,’ declared the professor Michael Thelwell, ‘is the spiritual ancestor of the contemporary middle-class Negro … [the] type with whom whites including Mr. Styron feel most comfortable.’ The writer William Strickland groused that the novel was ‘the worst thing that’s happened to Nat Turner since he was hanged.’ My father’s critics took issue with the book’s dialect and character development, with what he put in (a master who teaches Nat to read, motive for the rebellion separate from bondage) and what he left out (a black wife, unyielding conviction). But probably his greatest crime, as my father reflected 25 years later in an essay for American Heritage, was ‘apparent from the book’s first sentence: How dare a white man write so intimately of the black experience, even presuming to become Nat Turner by speaking in the first person?’ In June 1968, the backlash reached its zenith when Beacon Press published William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond. The book generated its own front-page notices, and kept the Nat Turner dispute alive well into the summer.

 

The backlash led to the film (to star James Earl Jones) to be shelved.
None of this is to say that the detractors of American Dirt or Nat Turner had the right of it. Maybe they do, but I’ve never read either book, so I don’t know. My point is that the experience of Nat Turner that Styron’s daughter lays out sounds almost exactly like what happened with American Dirt. Maybe the controversy didn’t burn so brightly, since it didn’t have social media to fan the flames, but it still burned pretty good.

Which is only to observe, as the song says, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Anyone who writes a book (or makes a movie or paints a picture) risks blowback, whether the blowback is warranted or not. The arts are simultaneously vague and subject to so many interpretations, yet stir such deep passions. It will be a change when new books are written that don’t provoke any negative reaction. Human nature being what it is, I don’t see that happening any time soon.

Dear US Soccer – Please Shut Up and Settle

I practice criminal law, criminal defense to be precise. I’m glad I do, because there’s a clarity of focus in it that can be a bit hazy in other legal areas. My job is to do the best for my client in court, period – whether that means an acquittal, a better sentence, or (as in my practice, for the most part) a successful result on appeal. Very very rarely are the other considerations to worry about. That the public doesn’t like the process is irrelevant – I’m trying to keep my guy out of a cage.

Civil law is different, particularly civil defense. People who get sued are often really determined to prevail on court, to prove to the world that they’re right. But part of their lawyer’s job is to suggest that winning in court is not necessarily going to solve their problem. A criminal defendant is rarely made worse off by a bold defense in court. A civil defendant, by contrast, particularly a corporation without any real personality – well, sometimes the big machine gets it right:

WinningMove

That went through my head when I read about US Soccer’s pleading last week in its ongoing litigation with the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) over equal pay. I don’t know enough about employment law to know if the arguments made in it are legally sound or have a chance of success, but I’ll assume they do. Question is, what does US Soccer think a “win” would look like at this point?

This article at SI breaks down the federation’s latest argument, which basically has two parts. The first is one familiar to anyone who has brushed up against the legal system – non fregit eum, et emit eam (aka “you broke it, you brought it”):

Stolzenbach first asserts that the fundamental flaw of the players’ legal theory is that they compare a pay system that their own labor union, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team Players Association, negotiated with the pay of players who aren’t in their bargaining unit—players on the men’s team.

To that end, U.S. Soccer stresses that courts have consistently rejected attempts by unionized employees to compare their employment terms to employees who are outside of their bargaining unit.

This is the kind of procedural argument I’d expect any lawyer to make. It appears to be the equivalent to how plea bargains are treated in criminal law – once you sign one, you’re stuck with it. Assume A and B are charged in an indictment and A decides to get a good early plea bargain. B sticks it out and, later, either gets a better deal or goes to trial and is acquitted. Can A back out of his plea? Not a chance. Courts routinely hold that so long as you weren’t misinformed, mistaken, or misled into making a guilty plea then you won’t be able to back out of it later. Whether this is a winning argument in the context of the USWNT case I don’t know, but it seems fairly standard.

The other one, though . . . yikes. It has to do with whether the job of USWNT player is “roughly equal in terms of effort, skill, and responsibility” to that of US Men’s National Team (USMNT) player. It was bad enough to point out that in terms of “responsibility” that the USWNT may not have the same earning potential as the USMNT (while eliding the fact that the USMNT choked and missed out on its last big earning opportunity – the 2018 World Cup).

From there it got worse:

Stolzenbach attempts to supplement this argument, even wading into some territory that could be described as misogynistic.

He insists that men’s players face much more demanding working conditions and thus have fundamentally different—and, by implication, harder—jobs. He contends that men’s players encounter ‘opposing fan hostility’ in road environments, particularly in Mexico and Central America, that is ‘unmatched’ by anything experienced by women’s players. Stolzenbach stresses that the women don’t play in Mexico, Central America or the Caribbean when trying to qualify for tournament play. Further, Stolzenbach maintains that ‘science’ confirms there are different levels of speed and strength required for men’s and women’s players. He insists it is not a ‘sexist stereotype’ to recognize this distinction.

 

Now, if US Soccer was fighting to stay out of jail I might question this strategy, but you do what you have to do. But at the end of the day, US Soccer is going to have to continue to do business with the USWNT (and the USMNT, who have publicly supported the drive for equal pay) and, more importantly, the American public. Why on Earth would they want to denigrate about the only good thing coming out of American soccer at the moment?

Let’s recap. The women are undefeated in more than a dozen matches, just swept through the She Believes cup against quality competition, are the two-time defendant champions of the world (with two other World Cups prior), and are gearing up to try and win their fifth gold medal at this summer’s Olympics. By contrast, the men failed to qualify for the last World Cup (to be fair, so did traditional powers Italy, Chile, and the Netherlands), their furthest progression in the Cup came before the Second World War, and they’ve ceded the pole position in the region to Mexico. Oh, and the Olympics? The men haven’t qualified since 2008.

Whether those comparisons are apples to oranges or not is irrelevant. In the public eye, US Soccer has precisely one broadly loved group whom people outside of soccer fanatics care anything about – the USWNT. Building the game in the United States – at all levels, men’s and women’s – requires public support. Pissing off a large swath of the public with arguments like this – even if it’s a winner legally – is a long-term losing proposition. It’s not just my criminal law mind that thinks this is a bad play (in response to this tweet):

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Indeed, the backlash from this filing has been swift and fierce. US Soccer eventually apologized, but the players weren’t buying it. The president of the federation resigned and, apparently, the law firm responsible was fired.

Ultimately, as to what comes next, I think Alexi Lalas has it about right:

USSoccerTweet2

This really isn’t a legal fight. It can’t be won in a courtroom. It’s only going to be won in the court of public opinion and that’s going to require some serious groveling on US Soccer’s part. So, let’s get to it, US Soccer – shut up and settle this thing already!

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What Censorship Isn’t

For a while, back when The Water Road was finished, I tried to shop is around to agents as a first step in trying to get it published. The entire process put me off (a topic for another day) and I decided to self publish, a decision I’ve been very happy with. Still, if I’d known I had some kind of Constitutional right to a publisher, maybe I would have stuck with it a little longer.

The big literary news last week involved a new memoir by Woody Allen. Allen is, of course, a legendary director of such classics as Annie Hall and Sleeper. He’s also been accused of sexually abusing his daughter, Dylan. It doesn’t help perception that he wound up marrying a woman who was practically, if not technically and legally, his step daughter. Oh, and Manhattan, too. Suffice to say, in a #MeToo world, Allen has become a bit of a pariah.

It’s not surprising, then, that when Hachette Book Group announced the release date for Allen’s memoir Ronan Farrow, Allen’s son and one of the leading #MeToo journalists, decided to cut ties with the publisher. More surprising was that, a few days later, there was a walkout by a bunch of Hachette employees over the memoir. As a result, late last week, Hatchette announced it would not be publishing Allen’s memoirs after all. The rights revert to Allen, who’s free to find another publisher or jump into the world of self publishing.

When the news broke last Friday it was the talk of Twitter. In particular, there were lots of people complaining that Allen was being “censored” by losing his publishing deal. Comments like this (screen capped from responses to this Tweet):

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Putting to one side any breach of contract action Allen might make against Hatchette, let’s make one thing very clear – this is not an act of censorship.

Here’s the thing – so long as you’ve got some kind of outlet for the speech you want to make, you’re not being censored. Everyone has a right to speak, but nobody has a right to use any particular platform or amplification for your talk. If the government swoops down and shuts you up, that’s censorship. If private individuals decide they don’t want to be in business with you, that’s just business.

I’m open to being convinced that actual censorship can be exercised by private companies, but I’ve yet to see an example that really went beyond a private entity wanting to not do business with a particular speaker – which the private entity has a right to do as part of its own free speech. In fact, usually when people complain about companies like YouTube or Twitter taking action against hate speech or what have you and wrap themselves in the First Amendment, they’re the ones demanding state action to compel speech (as well as generally showing a poor grasp of the First Amendment).

The bottom line is this –if Woody Allen has some sort of right have his memoir published by a major publishing house, than there are thousands (if not more) of writers out there who are being repressed daily by not being given publishing deals. One cannot be true unless the other one is, which should make things pretty clear.

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On Killing Other People’s Darlings

I’ve never really understood fan fiction. That’s when people who aren’t the creators of a work – book, movie, TV series – write stories in that world using those characters. Occasionally it’s done with the permission of the original creator (such as Eric Flint’s 1632 series), but mostly it’s done in the literary equivalent of under the table.

I get the idea of wanting your favorite characters to have continuing adventures and to have such an attachment to a created world that you want to play around in it. I think if I found out people were writing fan fiction about Antrey or Aton or any of the other character’s I’ve created I’d be flattered. But it takes a lot of work to write good, interesting stories (and don’t get me wrong – some fan fiction is really good), so why not take the time and effort and direct into original characters and locations? It seems like a wasted opportunity to me.

Still, if it makes people happy to do it and they’re not making money off the work of others, have at it. As I said, I can understand wanting to continue the adventures of favorite characters and my understanding is that’s largely what most fan fiction is about.

Then I learned about deathfic.

Deathfic is fan fiction based around the death, sometimes gruesome and involved, of a character. I initially thought it involved dispatching bad guys who maybe escaped the ultimate punishment in the original work. It wouldn’t be too hard to imagine a gruesomely appropriate death for The Commander from The Handmaid’s Tale, for example. But, no, it’s something quite different:

deathfic, the kind of fan fiction in which a beloved character dies, typically in a way that is as painful for the reader as possible. ‘Sometimes I’m just in the mood to hole up and read the saddest thing I can find on the internet,’ Rachel says.

* * *

A baseline assumption of love is that a person you adore is not someone you would like to watch die. Presumably, you would also not like to be the sole architect of that person’s death. But to deathfic writers, the genre isn’t about having some kind of sick control over the life of someone else. It’s about a different kind of control entirely.

 

So, I guess that’s a thing? Again, seems like an odd thing to do to characters you care about, but whatever rocks your boat, I suppose. And I get, as the article points out, that sometimes writing fiction (even fan fiction) can be a way of working through issues happening in real life, including the deaths of loved ones.

Where things get a little creepy is when the people being killed off aren’t fictional characters at all:

There is deathfic for almost every fictional character and real-life celebrity you can imagine. You can find stories in which Rihanna dies and is reborn as a modern Messiah, and hundreds in which members of the K-pop supergroup BTS haunt one another as beautiful ghosts. These can be “crack” stories, in which writers are openly striving to make the strangest fictional reality they can imagine. BuzzFeed, for instance, has documented the rise of Justin Bieber deathfic, which includes freak accidents and maimings of all kinds.

That’s just fucked up. I mean the any celebrity “reborn as a modern Messiah” angle has some possibilities, but writing death scenes for famous people is just macabre as shit. Not saying you shouldn’t be allowed to do it, but if that’s your thing, maybe you want to get some help?

An old chestnut of writing advice is to “kill your darlings.” It doesn’t necessarily mean characters – it applies to any part of your writing not being so precious that it’s off limits from being cut – but it works that way, too. Killing someone else’s darlings, well, that may be a bridge too far. In the end, though, they’re only real on paper, so I guess there’s no harm.

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Weekly Read: How Long ‘til Black Future Month?

Short story collections are weird beasts. By definition they rise and fall on the strength of each individual story, which I think makes it a little easier to notice the flaws. A dull spot in an otherwise good novel is most likely to just slip down the memory hole at the end of the day. A story that doesn’t work sticks out a little bit more. Given the number of stories in N.K. Jemisin’s first collection you’d expect more than a few duds. As the song says, “not everything everybody does works all the time, son.”. What’s amazing about Jemisin’s collection is how often everything does work.

This is a lengthy collection, so I’m not going to mention every story in it, only a few of the highlights. The first, for me, was “The City Born Great,” in which a homeless kid becomes a kind of midwife to the entire city of New York as it’s “born.” The setup is interesting and the birthing process itself is wonderfully evocative.

“The Effluent Engine” is a kind of alternate history/steampunk hybrid, where Haiti becomes this hemisphere’s leader in the dirigible race, leading a spy (of sorts) to come to New Orleans seeking aid from a famous engineer. A romantic angle cropped up here that at first made me roll my eyes (not because it involved two women – it just seemed cliché), but Jemison turned it on its head in the end, much to my delight.

My favorite title, if not my favorite story, in the collection is “Cloud Dragon Skies” (sounds like a Steve Hill age song – and, yes, I’ve got a musical idea for it in my head). Set in a future where most of humanity has moved off the poisoned Earth, the sky is now red and the clouds have become kind of sentient. Those who left try to fix it, but it doesn’t help. An interesting narrative and point-of-view in this story.

“The Elevator Dancer” is just a great, really short story about the power, or the need, to ignore something that’s right in front of you. The dystopia in which the story is set reminds me a little of the one in Zappa’s Joe’s Garage where music has been declared illegal. There are some things so essential to our humanity that no oppressive force can quash.

Of the several stories that revolve around food, my favorite is “Cuisine des Memoires,” about a restaurant that can serve any meal from any time in history, from the famous to the personal. Naturally the main character can’t leave well enough alone and wanders into a meditation on magic and memory.

In her introduction, Jemisin talks about how she same to write short stories and about how she sometimes uses them to try out worlds she’s thinking of using for novels. That comes through in “Stone Hunger,” which is set in the world of her Hugo-winning Fifth Season trilogy and “The Narcomancer,” which does the same in the world of her Dreamblood duology. I enjoyed the later one more, since it was completely new to me. The other felt a little like a demo version of a song – interesting, but not quite up to the final product. If I’m not misreading, I think “The City Born Great” I mentioned above served this purpose for Jemisin’s new novel, The City We Became.

A couple stories left me scratching my head more than anything else. The lead off, “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” is a direct consequence to the Ursula K Le Guin story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” about an apparent utopia that comes at a terrible cost. Jemisin’s story is also about a utopia maintained through a vigorous program of execution for anyone who steps out of line ideologically. It’s hard to tell whether this is an agreement with “Omelas” that utopia isn’t really possible, or if it’s arguing that it can be possible with a cost, so let the cost be borne by those who deserve it. I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Likewise “Henosis,” a dark tale about a prestigious literary award that leads to the winner’s death. I can’t decide if it’s a pitch perfect satire of writers’ desire for glory or such a silly idea that it’s nonsensical.

There are a few other stories that just didn’t work for me, although none of them are “bad” in a meaningful sense. Not because they aren’t cool ideas – “Too Many Yesterdays, Not Enough Tomorrows” in particular is very cool – but because they feel rushed, almost like they’re half stories. “Non-Zero Probabilities” feels the same way, but I see that it was nominated for a Nebula and a Hugo when it was first published (several of these stories are available online – hence the all the links, all legit), so what do I know?

All in all, How Long ‘til Black Future Month continues the serious roll Jemisin has been on the past few years. Most of these stories are great and show a great deal of range in terms of style, tone, and subject. In the introduction, Jemisin explains that she started writing short fiction in order to improve her novel writing. Other writers can only hope our exercises bear such amazing fruit.

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Come See Me at HerdCon!

Next month, Marshall University in Huntington is hosting its (second?) annual pop culture convention, HerdCon! On March 14 the Marshall Student Center will be taken over with all kinds of vendors, presenters, and other folks.

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And, yes, I’ll be one of the vendors! I’ll be there with books, of course, but there’s also folks there with art, collectibles, and other neat stuff. In addition, there’s a day full of panels on a variety of pop culture topics, one of which is being done by my writer niece and her professor boyfriend (and two other people I don’t know) on “Loss of Body, Mind, and Spirit: Cultural, Familial, and Political Trauma in Japanese Manga and Anime.” I have no idea what that really means, but I suspect I’ll find out!

Come by and check it all out.

Weekly Read: “A Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide

There is no such thing as a magic word.

As a writer, much less a writer of fantasy, that’s a hard thing to remember some times. But the reason words can hold sway in fantasy is precisely because the story being told isn’t set in the real world. Here in reality, even that most magic of all words – “Abracadabra!” – only has power because the magician uttering it has convinced the audience to buy into the trick their performing (as someone in The Prestige points out, the audience wants to be fooled).

Pro se litigants in the criminal justice system often think words have some kind of magic power. If only they can find the right sentence in a Supreme Court decision then the judge will have to overturn their conviction or vacate their sentence! I’ve seen it over and over in my years practicing law. That the law is rarely that clear and that their ultimate fate is left in the hands of another human being, with all their flaws and biases, can be hard to accept.

I thought about that a lot while reading A Problem from Hell. Samantha Powers’ 2003 Pulitzer Prize winner is an exhaustive examination of how the United States did (or, more often, did not) respond to genocidal crises that arose in the 20th Century, from the Armenian Genocide during the First World War through the multiple rounds of horribles in the former Yugoslavia.

Power spends a good amount of time on Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who fled at the earliest inklings of the Holocaust. He eventually came to the United States and made it his life’s work to create some international law that would address the systematic destruction (or attempted destruction) of an entire people. It was Lemkin who coined the term “genocide” and helped shape the Genocide Convention that was passed by the newly formed United Nations in 1948.

Make no mistake – this was a big deal. After the Holocaust and the Nuremburg Trials it wasn’t a given that the international community would make a fairly unified statement that genocide was a crime against humanity. And yet, the fact that there was a name for such horrors (along with a legalistic definition) didn’t magically change behaviors. Not only did further atrocities occur, but the international community, now committed to the idea of “never again,” nonetheless let it happen repeatedly.

One reason is that once the atrocity has a name, it gives the parties involved a way to argue that this particular set of killings or expulsions doesn’t rise to that level. In other words, if it’s not “genocide,” then there’s much less incentive to do something about it. That’s because, very often, there are other considerations in play than just stopping someone from doing evil. At best there’s the fact that exactly how to deal with genocide while it’s underway is always hard to figure out. In fact, Powers, for all her catalogs of what the United States didn’t do, doesn’t offer many alternatives, aside from the use of military force. That can be a hard ask in the 21st Century (not for nothing, but Powers’ book was written just as 9/11 happened and before US quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan). At worst, the people doing all the killing are allies, even if we’re reluctant about calling them that (US policy towards the Khmer Rouge was basically driven by “yeah, but they hate the Vietnamese, too” thinking).

As a result, a lot of time is wasted on terminology. So long as perpetrators can drag out the question of whether something is genocide or not, the killings go on and their plan comes closer to fruition. Since there are no magic words, what’s the point in wasting time making sure we’re using the right one? That dance of nomenclature is one of the themes of Powers’ book.

One of the others is how bipartisan US politics was when it came to dealing with genocide. The champions of ratifying the Genocide Convention – which the US didn’t do until 1988 – came from both parties. Indeed, in classic American fashion, the final ratification wasn’t a triumph of principle, but a political gambit to deflect from a scandal.

The other thread that I found really interesting in all of these genocides is how unready the world is to believe it’s happening. Part of that is down to people just not wanting to believe something so horrible is going on. There’s an anecdote about Lemkin trying to convince a Supreme Court Justice (I forget who, specifically) that the Holocaust is happening and the Justice’s response is, basically, “I can’t believe you – I just can’t wrap my head around the barbarity of it.” Beyond that, though, there’s two related lenses through which people look at these situations that keep prompt responses from happening.

The first is that information about atrocities often comes first from people who survive them, mostly refugees fleeing to other places. Repeatedly, authorities downplay the reports of refugees until they reach such a critical mass that they can’t be ignored. While we know more and more about how unreliable eyewitness accounts can be, it can be all too easy to let prudence and caution roll over into dug in skepticism. The second is that there are repeated examples of the outside world doubting atrocities are taking place because it’s not a logical thing for the perpetrators to do. Who would risk the opprobrium of the international community by trying to kill off or otherwise destroy an entire population? But, of course, history shows that perpetrators usually get away with it, at least to a certain extent. And for true believers, what’s the big deal about after-the-fact punishment if you succeeded in your goal?

Ultimately the problem of how to deal with genocide is the problem of international law at its most acute. Put simply, international law only works as well as the nations committed to it allow it to work. There is no outside force, no world police, to enforce promises nations make to one another if those nations aren’t willing to enforce them. One of the provisions of the Genocide Convention was to allow one state to take another to an international court to stop an ongoing genocide. It took until 2019, when The Gambia took Myanmar to the International Court of Justice on behalf of the Rohingya, for that to happen and it’s still not clear whether the court’s ruling will really have any impact.

It would be great if words were magical, but the hard truth of history is that they aren’t. It takes more than a label to get people and nations to do the right thing, even if it should be as simple as stepping up and saying, “stop killing defenseless people.” That’s why something like genocide really is a “problem from hell.”

FromHell

When The Gimmick Gets In the Way

Last year I wrote about some stories I’d come across that were told in a non-traditional that really worked well. I suppose turnabout is fair play – sometimes the gimmick just gets in the way of the story.

Daytripper is a beautifully put together graphic novel. In each chapter it tells the story of Bras, a writer (first of obituaries, later of novels), as he experiences certain turning point days in his life. It gets a little treacly and really hits you over the head with the “wonder of the everyday” stuff, but some of the individual pieces are good and the art is uniformly excellent.

Daytripper

Here’s the thing – at the end of every chapter, at the end of every vignette – Bras dies. Most of the time he does so in sudden, horrible ways, since they happen at all times of his life, from childhood on up. That’s an interesting way to structure a story, provided you do something with it. Creators Fabio Moon and Gabriel Bá don’t, however. There’s no overarching fantastic of magical realist element that gives the repeated deaths meaning. Everything just resets and we get another version of Bras – one blissfully unaware of his prior fates – to live out another last day.

Without that, the gimmick overwhelms the rest of the book. As readers, we know what’s coming at the end of every chapter. It becomes a macabre game, wondering just how Bras is going to snuff it this time, with methods ranging from the mundane (traffic accident) to the ridiculous (murdered by an old friend living in a shack in the desert). Meanwhile, frustration builds as you wonder just what the point of all this, beyond the hammering home of the tired old cliché about living every day as if it’s your last.* This is clearly a minority view when it comes to Daytripper, so take it with a gram of salt.

My point is this. It’s possible to tell perfectly good stories in the traditional, third-person POV, past tense, linear kind of way (at least I hope it is!). It’s also possible to deviate from the expected in order to throw your readers off, make them engage with the story in a different way, or what have you. But the gimmick has to serve something. Making readers struggle through a non-linear story just because you can isn’t clever, it’s just mean. If I, as a reader, am going to have to put together the puzzle pieces, the final picture better be worth it.

* I’ve never understood the wisdom of this. If it was really my last day on Earth, I wouldn’t worry about mundane shit like paying bills or going to work. But if I lived my ongoing life that way I’d quickly be homeless, unemployed, and (I suspect) divorced. Recognizing this isn’t likely to be your last day and you need to plan accordingly is part of being an adult.

Decade – Favorite Books

As 2019 wound down a lot of people took the chance to catalog the best/worst/whatever of the decade just gone by (while others noted that the new decade doesn’t really start for another year). Never one to pass up a good chance to develop some blog fodder, I’m spending this month looking back at my favorites from the 2010s.

Writers read. I’m always surprised when I find someone who writes who thinks that either reading in their genre is a bad idea or, in some cases, that reading itself just takes away from valuable writing time. You gotta do your own work, of course, but it’s critical for a writer to nourish their mind and soul with the works of others. Besides, reading is fun! So, naturally, I do a lot of it, although most of it these days is less “reading” than it is “listening” via audiobooks. Regardless, I’ve read some good stuff over the past ten years.

Here are the rules for this list . . .

1. Only works first published during the last decade are eligible.

2. Only one work per author on the list BUT (and it’s kind of a big one) I’ve included series, trilogies, and the like under one heading, so the list is actually more than ten books.

3. As with all the other lists, these are personal favorites. I don’t make any claim to these being the best, most influential, or what have you. I just really liked ‘em.

Saga (2012-present)
by Bryan K. Vaughn & Fiona Staples

 

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A couple of years ago when I wrote about why you should be reading this science fantasy space epic, I called it “the apex of what comics can be.” That’s completely true – if you’ve never read a comic or graphic novel before, you could do worse than to start with Saga. But as I also said back then, you should read it because “it’s a great story, involving people you will care deeply about, told across a stunningly inventive backdrop.” How could it not be a favorite?

Redshirts (2012)
by John Scalzi

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By now even people who have never seen an episode of Star Trek know what it means to be a “red shirt” – an expendable character who gets sacrificed so the audience knows the peril our heroes are about to face (and escape, obviously). Is there something deeper there than just a cheap joke and internet meme? John Scalzi took the idea and ran with it, crafting a story about a group of low-rung characters on a suspiciously Trek-like ship who figure out the game. What follows is good fun and a meditation on what it means to live your own story and find out who you really are. Also, how can you not love a book with three codas?

The Master of Confessions (2014)
by Thierry Cruvellier

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Thierry Cruvellier’s book is not a history of what the Khmer Rouge did to Cambodia in the 1970s, nor is it a straight biography of Duch, the titular master of confessions. Rather, it’s a more freeform observation and commentary on Duch’s 8-month trial for crimes against humanity. As such, while it certainly talks about the brutal history of that era (and that place, Tuol Sleng, the former high school that still had blood on the walls when my wife and I visited in 2015), it also dives into the idea of confessions as legal proof and what happens when legal proceedings drag on an on, to the point where the defense team openly spars with each other.

I wrote a more in-depth review of the book which you can read here. Needless to say, it’s one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read.

Children of Time (2015)
Children of Ruin (2019)
by Adrian Tchaikovsky

If you had told me in 2010 that one of my favorite books in the next decade would involve sentient spiders I would have rolled my eyes. But it’s true! Children of Time begins with a disrupted experiment on a distant planet which results in spider-like beings getting infected with an uplift nanovirus. In the eons it takes for humans to make it back there, we’re treated to the evolution of the spiders and development of their own space-faring society. It’s completely brilliant, outside the box stuff. The story continues in Children of Ruin, which is almost as good.

The Fifth Season (2015)
The Obelisk Gate (2016)
The Stone Sky (2017)
by N.K. Jemisin

Broken

I generally do not buy the hype. Almost never do I read, see, or hear something that is wildly praised and think it’s as great as all that. If anything shouldn’t have met my standards it’s this trilogy – a volume of which won the Hugo award for best novel an unprecedented three years in a row. Somehow, it managed not to disappoint. The first book, in particular, is utterly brilliant for the narrative sleight of hand it pulls off. The other two don’t quite match that high mark, but are both excellent and the trilogy tells a hell of a story overall.

The Mechanical (2015)
The Rising (2015)
The Liberation (2016)
by Ian Tregillis

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“Clockmakers lie.” Not such a big deal if they’re all making timepieces, but if they’re making scores of mechanical men? It could be a big problem, particularly if some of those “clakkers” start to think for themselves. That’s the thrust of the Alchemy Wars trilogy, which is set in an alternate universe 1920s where the world is basically ruled by the Dutch as a result of their mastery of clockwork automatons. Only some, like the books’ hero Jax, aren’t content to do what they’re told. A great story set in a fascinating world that raises interesting questions about free will and such.

Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War On Drugs  (2015)
by Johann Hari

Scream

I read this book along with Sam Quinones’ Dreamland, which investigates the origin of the current opioid crisis. Chasing the Scream goes back much further and investigates the origins of the drug war itself, back in the beginning of the 20th Century. It focuses particularly on a slimy shit named Harry Anslinger, who ran the predecessor to the DEA for more than three decades. He was the prototypical drug warrior, pathologically certain of his moral correctness and impervious to evidence showing just about every assumption he had about drugs was wrong. More than that, however, the book allows Johann Hari to look at various alternatives to our current drug war, almost all of which look more promising.

The Road to Jonestown (2017)
by Jeff Guinn

RoadtoJonestown

I knew the basic story of Jonestown – the far out settlement in the jungle, the fateful Congressional fact-finding mission, the murder/suicide that ensued. What I never really knew is how things wound up that way. Guinn’s book is a fascinating and comprehensive look at a man who began life as a charismatic preacher and civil rights activist who slipped slowly into authoritarianism and paranoia. It’s frightening, yet completely understandable, how many of victims were drawn in by him and equally horrific the things so many of them eventually did in his name.

The Field of Blood: Violence In Congress and the Road to Civil War (2018)
by Joanne Freeman

FieldofBlood

I went into reading this book thinking that the incident pictured on the front – the beating of a northern Senator by a southern colleague in the Senate chamber on the eve of the Civil War – was a singular thing. I expected some interesting history you point to and say, “look out how uncivilized they all were.” Instead, I came out the other end thinking the age – which included numerous acts of inter-Congressional violence and at least one death – sounds an awful lot like ours. Given where it all led the first time, it wasn’t a comforting read.

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist (2018)
by Radley Balko & Tucker Carrington

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Radley Balko is best known for his work chronicling the rise of militarism in police procedures, but during that same time he’s done a lot of work on the hot mess that is forensic science in this country. In this book he, along with Tucker Carrington (of the Innocence Project), take one particular case study of this, chronicling the death investigation system in Mississippi. Thoroughly political and slanted towards the prosecution, it sends innocent people to prison – who then only sometimes get released, because the courts have problems dealing with stuff like this. It will make you throw the book across the room.