Criticism Archive

1

Why The Martian is Better than Gravity

Since the title of this piece speaks for itself, I think I’ll skip the clever introduction and get right into it.

I really like Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. I think it was one of the best movies of 2013, and one of the best movies of recent memory. At the same time, Gravity is also a flawed movie. After watching The Martian, those flaws now seem all the more obvious. And no, this has nothing to do with how Gravity played it fast and loose with the laws of physics and momentum. Don’t pretend you knew anything about orbital mechanics before watching Neal DeGrasse Tyson’s Everything Wrong with Gravity video.

The reason Gravity shits the bed compared to The Martian is because Dr. Ryan Stone happens to be a woman. Wait, wait, don’t start throwing things at me; I’m going somewhere with this. The problem isn’t that Dr. Ryan Stone is a woman, per se, so much as Hollywood thinks its audience can’t deal with Dr. Ryan Stone as a woman. Instead of letting Ryan Stone be a smart, if somewhat dispassionate person (i.e. an astronaut) she’s gets humanized. The vehicles for this relatability are Stone’s mommy hang-ups and the non-threatening way she does nothing exceptional in the movie.

Stone’s ability to work in space, and the unique skill set that saw her tapped as a mission specialist, are largely irrelevant to anything that happens after the movie’s first ten minutes. None of those skills, whatever they are, help her survive her orbital ordeal. Stone simply blunders from one thing to the next. She is largely the beneficiary of chance and the sacrifice of others, rather than any closely-held competence.

When Matt Kowalski (George Clooney’s character) asks Stone what she loves most about being in space, Stone responds with, “the silence.” I ask you, what sort of person wants to be an astronaut because they are on the run from their life on Earth? What kind of space agency puts a seemingly manic depressive into space? Cue the loud farting noise.

Hollywood won’t let Stone be the equal of Kowaski to the point of almost breaking the movie. <sarcasm> Because clearly the audience can’t deal with a woman acting in such a traditionally male defined role </sacasm>. The humanization of Ryan Stone makes the through-line of her story one of luck and blunders. At the end of the day, she’s a terrible astronaut (though still better than Anne Hathaway, the worst astronaut ever). Her return to Earth is the closing of a circle that said she never had any business being in space to begin with.

Now compare Stone to Mark Watney. Watney is so competent that The Martian is essentially competence porn. Luck only exists within the negative confines of a man versus nature conflict during Watney’s two-year stay on Mars. Watney’s ability to survive each ordeal is the result of a MacGyver-like force of competence.

He comes up with a way to manufacture water from rocket fuel. He repurposes half of his habitat module into a greenhouse for growing potatoes in human shit and Martian regolith. He uses a crashed Martian lander to establish two-way communications with Earth. Does Ryan Stone do anything nearly that interesting during her attempt to escape low-Earth orbit? Let’s review:

Panics and blows through all her O2.

Gets rescued by Kowalski.

Complains.

Watches Kowalski die.

Attempts suicide.

Has a vision of Kowalski.

Makes it home because today was not a good day to die.

Again, my point here isn’t to say Gravity is a bad movie. Gravity is a beautiful movie. Gravity is also an emotionally affective movie. However, after watching The Martian, I want to know what Gravity could have been if Ryan Stone was even half as competent as Mark Watney.

What if Ryan Stone’s self-pity wasn’t her defining character trait? What if studio executives trusted the audience’s ability to handle a woman character in a very professional role without burdening her with mommy issues? We could have seen a version of Gravity where Ryan Stone survived through her own ingenuity, rather than on account of George Clooney and the grace of the gods.


3

My Two Cents on the Hugos

Amid a data stream glowing with words like “Hugos” and “Sad Puppies”, enter Shaftoe, a humble purveyor of reviews and essays, with his two cents.

If I weren’t already in the thick of it as a peddler of fiction and non-fiction, I don’t know that I would want to get involved in this world. To the outsider, our genre must seem a weird and angry place. Something of a snake that eats its own tail over what should be no-brainer issues of  inclusion and basic human decency. Which is why I find it perplexing to see some people talking about the triumph of “no award” at this year’s Hugo Awards as a victory. Certainly it was a rebuke to a group of people intent on promoting their own agenda; an agenda I find at odds with my worldview. However, this “victory” doesn’t mean the end for the sad puppies. They still feel their hegemony over science fiction is threatened by progress. The Hugo nomination system isn’t being changed to prevent slates of nominations. What we have here is an impasse.

From the point of view of my low and humble station, I don’t think an impasse is a good status quo. Yet both sides seem to be forming ranks for another year of “us versus them” pissing contests. I worry this meta-narrative will grow until it overshadows the works people are supposedly arguing about. I worry these sideshows to our craft will prevent new and diverse voices from wanting to join the fray. Perhaps these are unfounded worries. I wait in anticipation of an indication that things are broadly changing for the better.

Another part of this problem, again looking up at things from the bottom of the heap, is that it is too easy for both sides to dismiss anyone who dissents from their world view as an asshole worthy of scorn and contempt. I know this because I have done this. In retrospect, I wonder if my smug self-confidence at being on the right side of history might be contributing to the perception of “our side” as a seemingly insufferable and arrogant gestalt.

Likewise, no intelligent person could look at the entirety of this fiasco and accuse either side of a lack of conviction. Perhaps then it is time to cultivate something else as a virtue. Kelly Robson suggested discourse and mediation, and I’ve yet to see a better idea – even if there are some logistic challenges in bringing together the spokespeople of leaderless movements. In truth, I’m not sure that the other side has a middle ground willing to accept such an olive branch. Then again, presuming the other side is made up entirely of thoughtless radicals is a sure-fire way of precluding any sort of dialogue.

All this to say many of these problems will fade if we take a page from Bill and Ted and learn to be a little more excellent to each other. There is grace in compromise, and divinity in forgiveness. To those who feel excellence to the other side somehow weakens their position, I offer a plea for decency and discussion at the very least.

Now, notwithstanding my own nomination for a Hugo, my reviewing a Hugo nominated/winning book, or having a conversation with someone who has won/been nominated for a Hugo, this is the last you’ll hear from me on the subject.


4

On Doom, Morality, and the Video Game Hall of Fame

On June 4, 2015, six video games were inducted in to the Video Game Hall of Fame at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. A cabal of video games editors, scholars, and other notables selected this first wave of inductees, which included Pong, Pac-Man, Super Mario Brothers, World of Warcraft, Tetris, and Doom.

Before the dust could settle, the Christian Science Monitor reported on anti-video game activist Jack Thompson protesting Doom’s inclusion in the hall of fame. This from Mr. Thompson,

“It’s only a matter of time before Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty and Halo are in there. Obviously if they put Doom in there, morality is not playing a role in their selection process.”

Part of me wants to take this joker to task. I love Doom, and I won’t quietly abide somebody shitting on something near and dear to me. As a critic, I could argue for hours about Doom’s technical merit and the complexity of its level design compared to modern games (looking at you, Bioshock Infinite). Say nothing for its ability to spin-off mods and daughter projects from the fan base. If you’ve never played Brutal Doom, you should. Likewise, Doom is fantastic for its subversive use of Christianity imagery – something horror movies did for decades before I shot my first demon possessed UAC Marine.

There’s also the very simple fact of Doom being 22 years old, and we’re still having pissing contests about it. Do we need another argument in favor of this title’s significance beyond its ability to stay relevant for more than two decades? I think not.

Instead, I want to tackle the notion of morality that Mr. Thompson invokes in his criticism of Doom. The first and most obvious question, how is Doom an immoral game?

Asking the question invites a debate on the definition of morality, the likes of which could go on for pages, accompanied by endless comment threads of trolling and counter trolling. Who am I kidding, nobody reads this blog…except for you, mom. Hi mom.

Nevertheless, I’ll offer up a working definition of morality from Bernard Gert’s Morality: Its Nature and Justification.

“Morality is an informal public system applying to all rational persons, governing behavior that affects others, and includes what are commonly known as the moral rules, ideals, and virtues and has the lessening of evil or harm as its goal.”

In order for Doom to be immoral by this definition, one would have to demonstrate that it has the effect of increasing evil and harm in society. Alternatively, we could call Doom immoral if, through intention or design, it promotes evil and harm through a set of values. Finding proof that Doom contributes to harm while working within the confines of a public system applying to all rational persons sets the bar high for those out to argue for Doom’s immorality.

First and foremost, Gert’s definition of morality rejects any religious argument against Doom’s morality; as I submit objections to Doom based on Judeo-Christian (or any other faith-based system) morality do not meet the burden of being public or applying to all rational persons.

At the risk of being glib, an impassioned belief in the supernatural to the point of allowing said supernatural being to proscribe corporeal behavior is not, in this critic’s opinion, a rational thing. Moreover, denominational religions do not meet my understanding of a public system. Religion, by its nature, is an exclusive system built around semiotics and metaphors. That sound you’re hearing is the god argument going up in smoke like so many plasma burned cacodemons.

With the religious definition of evil and harm taken off the table, we’re left with a question of Doom’s morality as it intersects with the physical world.

At this point, we could easily be drawn into a quagmire of trying to determine the intention of Doom’s creators. Though I doubt anybody at iD Software created Doom with the goal of producing moral rules for the promotion of harm – a point I will return to in a moment – let us suppose those desires were in play. Yet if Doom exists to promote harm and evil in the world, research from Rutgers and Villanova would suggest iD made a complete hash of their endeavour. Gamespot paraphrased the results of Rutgers and Villanova’s study below.

“Annual trends in video game sales for the past 33 years were unrelated to violent crime both concurrently and up to four years later. Unexpectedly, monthly sales of video games were related to concurrent decreases in aggravated assaults and were unrelated to homicides. Searches for violent video game walkthroughs and guides were also related to decreases in aggravated assaults and homicides two months later. Finally, homicides tended to decrease in the months following the release of popular M-rated violent video games.”

Even if Doom had the intention to create harm – a highly dubious notion – it nor any other video game has managed to bring about widespread immoral actions like assault or murder. For the record, murder happens to be the primary action available to players in Doom.

As an audience discussing morality as a public system applied to all rational people, does it make sense to interpret Doom as the spectacular failure of a group of black-hearted maleficarum intent to ruin the world? Is it not more sensible to presume the moral objections to Doom, like those witnessed from Mr. Thompson, are better seen as taste-based objections (e.g. I don’t like this and neither should you) or morality as defined by a religious dogma, which likely fails at least one test of being rational or rooted in public understanding?

Assuming no outward ill-intent on the part of Doom’s developers, we’re left with only one course in exploring Doom’s morality: taking the game at its face value. On this front, Doom’s message is as plain as a shotgun to the face. Only a critical tendency to over complicate matters obscures the fundamental fact about Doom’s moral compass.

In Doom, a player’s foes are the very embodiment of evil. They colonize humans, turning the living into zombies. These infernal forces are beyond reason or compassion. They kill everything in their path. Should this horde escape the confines of Mars, they pose a clear threat to life on Earth. Doom’s protagonist “aka Doomguy” personally resists said evil. Indeed, he quite literally reduces the evil threatening the Earth each and every righteous shot of his plasma rifle. I submit the game’s moral code is clear: resist and reduce evil in all its forms.

Doom is certainly a violent, possibly frightening affair for someone not disposed to science fiction horror. However, the challenging nature of any work of art, notwithstanding propaganda, does not amount to a code of behavior so much as an expression from the artist. Likewise, Doom has not had the effect of guiding people to harm through exposing them to challenging imagery. At its core, the game’s narrative is about the reduction of harm to humanity, using force as an absolute last resort against an utterly inhuman enemy. When individual taste and morality parsed through religious systems are set aside, Doom presents itself as a perfectly moral video game.


0

On Joss Whedon, Ultron, and the Divine Aspect of Humanity

At the time of this post, Avengers: Age of Ultron has been in theatres for a week. While I haven’t seen the second coming of Earth’s mightiest heroes, I feel like an authority on a single piece of its dialogue.

There’s little point in debating if Tony Stark made a rape joke when he commented that he would reinstate Prima Nocta – the “right” of feudal lords to take a newly married woman to bed to check her virginity – were he to become king of Asgard. In short, it is.

Likewise, there’s probably little point in my saying that most people without a graduate degree in history wouldn’t know what Prima Nocta is were it not for Braveheart. To wit, I have little reason to believe the offending joke would have made it into Mr. Whedon’s screenplay had he not seen Braveheart. Be that as it may, the joke is there, and it makes light of a woman being taken against her will. This is not something worth joking about. I’ll leave measuring the dividing line between a joke in poor taste and systemic rape culture to those better suited to said discussion.

What I will comment on is all the rage surrounding this incident. Tony Stark’s shitty joke is a perfect example of how social media, and the internet at large, creates angry mobs the likes of which make the French Revolution seem like a spot of trouble for the nobility. So many people have so much indignation, righteous or otherwise, over a line in a stupid comic book movie. The rage on twitter alone borders on an Orwellian two-minutes of hate left unchecked for days.

Now here comes the part that is going to piss off some people.

Though Joss Whedon committed a sin of tactlessness (or possibly engaged in reinforcing rape culture – your call, not mine) in his writing – assuming he, himself, put it the prima nocta line in there and refused all calls to change it – his crimes are forgivable. He wrote something stupid; this is not in debate. He should he sanctioned for his transgression; this is not in debate. Assuming he apologies, what comes next? How does the internet stop trying to carve its pound of flesh? Recent history suggests the internet doesn’t forgive, it simply moves on to the next dog pile.

People fuck up, sometimes more publically and more spectacularly than others. Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook make it easy to call out the fuck-ups of others. They also make endless shaming and smearing all too easy. If only they had the same impact in cultivating aspects of humanity like charity, grace, and forgiveness. Would that apologies were met with the same enthusiasm as locking a person in the digital stocks and throwing cabbage at them.

So there’s my two cents on this particular session of, “the internet gets angry and fights among itself.” Like so many things in life, we would do well to remember the words of Bill S. Preston, Esq: be excellent to each other. More mutual excellence means less tone-deaf rape jokes. More excellence also means we’ll be faster to help each other when somebody drops the ball; whereas now we devolve into factions and yell about whose perceptions of gravity acting on the ball are most valid.

I’m Adam Shaftoe, and today I’m feeling a little more humanitarian than usual.


0

The Hugo Flap: This too shall…

On the list of things I give a toss about, the nominations for the Hugo Awards rates slightly above the Oscars, but slightly below finishing the edits on the first season of the X-Com inspired web-series I wrote a few years back. I don’t have a book. My one short-story sale from last year got pushed back to 2015-16. And I’m not going to put in more than a perfunctory effort to campaign this blog for best fan stuff. However, let it not be said that Adam can’t offer up an opinion when everybody else is doing so.

Also, if you want better opinions than mine, choose from this big list my friend Simon curated. Also, read Simon’s extensive essay on the matter. Kudos, Simon.

Frankly, I don’t think I have a lot to add to this discussion. In terms of the basic arguments, I do find it annoying that the Hugo nomination system can be gamed such that an entire slate of writers and editors make it on to the ballot. I like to believe in meritocracy as a concept – even though I know the world doesn’t work that way – and voting blocs tend to undermine said merit-based consideration.

Of course, if we want to have a meaningful conversation about what is good, in lieu of what is popular (not to suggest the two are somehow mutually exclusive i.e. something can be both good and popular) we shouldn’t waste too much air time on an award that is left open to public consideration.

Rather than going down said road, filled with landmines aplenty, and thus participating in genre literature presenting itself to the world as the snake what eats its own tail, I think we should focus on our true enemies: mainstream lit snobs.

Who among us hasn’t had to suffer the self-righteous sneering of a “lit fic” writer – or worse some chuffed-up 4th year lit undergrad – claiming that genre can’t deal with big ideas. Never mind Andrezj Sapkowski explores the politics of colonization and ethnic cleansing in The Witcher. Pay no attention to the likes of Aliette de Bodard artistically mobilizing the short story to explore notions of diaspora and gender. We genre writers are all peddlers of Gorean smut and Buck Rogers pew-pew fluff, right?

If the Sad Puppies aka “GamerGate Reads” have done anything, it’s to prove that SF/F/H is, and always has been, a political discourse. Only now we’re so political as to have the right-wing of genre make us meta. To crib a line from Community, this year’s Hugo ballot takes the politics of genre and shoves its head up its own ass.

Genre lit has transformed into a political homunculus, crab-walking about on its hands and legs absolutely unrepentant about what it is. To the outsider, it’s no longer clear where the narrative and meta-narrative begin and end. Should this not stand as the ultimate proof that genre is just as a capable of grappling with contemporary zeitgeist as any other form of written expression?

While I fully admit to partaking in a bit of knee jerk opprobrium in the wake of the Hugo announcements, on further thought I have come to two conclusions about this mobilization of right-wing shenanigans in the name of…gozer…the Father, the Son, and the holy spirit of Robert Heinlein…whatever.

Number one: this too shall pass. Suppose one of the right wing cranks actually wins a Hugo this year; are they not going to do so with a giant asterisk next to their name? The thing about stretching the rules to win is that most people don’t remember the victory so much as the means to the end. Case in point: A-Rod. I couldn’t tell you what baseball – it is baseball, right? – thing he did, but I know he cheated to do it.

Number two: If, as writers, we are capable of demonstrating our political culture through awards, then it goes without saying our works of art are aspects of the same political expression. Thus, the next time some lit-fic or can-lit jagoff says genre is fluff absent substance, we need only point to the Hugos as an elegant demonstration of just how political we are as artists.

Either way, the right side of the equation wins, even if it doesn’t seem so right now.


1

Award Season – Part 1 – Prix-Aurora Awards Best Fan Publication

A quick note on programming. Today’s post was supposed to be a review of the first book in Marie Bilodeau’s serialized novel, Nigh. A trip to the hospital (not serious, all is well) and a burst water main (again, not serious, all is well) got in the way of me doing any writing yesterday and has left me running on no sleep for about 36 hours. In this state, I wouldn’t trust myself to review Dr. Seuss, let alone a writer whose chops put me in mind of George R.R. Martin or Andrzej Sapkowski. Hey, what do you know? I bounced back.

Rather than pressing my luck, I’m going to devote today’s post to some preliminary chatter on award season. It’s a sure sign of the new year when one starts to notice writers talking about which of their works are eligible for award nomination. Last year, I was mildly disappointed when the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association’s Prix-Aurora Awards cancelled its category for “Best Fan Publication” due to lack of nominations. I’d be a lying prat if I said some part of this disappointment wasn’t wholly selfish. It’s not like I campaigned, mind you, but there’s always some very small, very vain, part of me that holds out hope. The greater loss to not seeing a Best Fan Publication award is some very fine writers missed a chance to be recognized for their efforts. Want an example?

Check out Speculating Canada: Canadian Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy. Why? Because Derek Newman-Stille is a hell of a writer. His reviews are outstanding, and his essays are the sort of thing that offer a blueprint for improving this little community of ours. Read his work, be a better person. End of line.

There should be more than enough quality fan writers to prevent us from seeing a second shutout year. I would also implore CSFFA members not to presume that the designation of “fan” constitutes a lower-tier of creative endeavour. The distinction between “professional” and “fan” is rooted in if a person is paid for their work. In terms of quality, I believe the high level of professionalism that goes into most fan work speaks for itself.

And if for some reason you, gentle reader, wanted to toss the Page of Reviews in the ring for Best Fan Publication – if only to ensure there’s an actual competition this year – I wouldn’t kick up a stink.

For your consideration, here are three of my favourite pieces from 2014.

Marginalization and Stephen King’s Rage – April 23, 2014

The Unanswered Question of Land Claims in Homeworld - July 4, 2014

Babylon 5: The Last Best Hope for Empathy – August 11, 2014

There. That’s as shameless and award-grubby as I get. Can I go to bed now?


1

Whitewashing: The New Normal in Genre Movies

Scarlett Johansson is quickly becoming the avatar of everything that pisses me off about Hollywood.  First, she was the voice of the incipit manic-pixie-dream-Cylon in the (sigh) Oscar award-winning Her. Now she’s landed the role of Major Motoko Kusanagi in an upcoming, live-action adaptation of Masamuni Shirow’s anime masterpiece Ghost in the Shell.

Nothing personal, ScarJo, but you have about as much business playing a Japanese cyborg as I would playing Detective John Shaft. Imagine the outrage at the idea of a white man playing Shaft. Now ponder why so much of Hollywood’s white washing is at the expense of Asian peoples.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again; this is why we can’t have nice things.

Did we learn nothing from M. Night Shyamalan casting a bunch of white kids for a live-action adaptation of The Last Airbender? I guess not since the majority of film critics gave a pass to All You Need is Kill Edge of Tomorrow Live Die Repeat, despite Hollywood turning the originally Japanese protagonist, Keiji Kiriya, into a white guy called William Cage played by (double sigh) Tom Cruise. Nor should we stop talking about the fact that J.J. Abrams gave us an Englishman second only to Winston Churchill in Englishness for the role of Khan Noonien Singh. The 1960s were more progressive in casting a Mexican to play Khan.

It is on that note I think we must acknowledge that we’ve reached peak-incredulity when it comes to Hollywood’s shitty casting decisions. After all, Sir Ridley Scott has very clearly illustrated the face of the shape of things to come in his explanation of why he cast an Englishman to play Moses and an Australian to play Ramses in Exodus: Gods and Kings.

“I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”

Well excuse us, Cecil B. DeMille. Does this mean we get to throw pies at Ridley Scott the next time he dares to talk about the “art” of filmmaking?

If an auteur of Scott’s caliber is content to offer up a rationalization that, in terms of cultural sensitivity, is a stone’s throw away from the “durka-durka-jihad-jihad” scene in Team America: World Police, then what hope should audiences hold for Rupert Sanders to cast an Asian Major Kusanagi? I’m sure the director of Snow White and the Huntsman is in a place where he can tell the studios to fuck off and cast whoever he likes in his movie. I can’t imagine a single scenario where doing so doesn’t get him kicked off the project and replaced by some other up-and-comer who cares more about working than he does whitewashing and cultural appropriation.

If this is the mentality within the industry, a mindset likely fueled by focus groups filled with people who don’t know any better or are too slack-jawed to care, then it doesn’t take an oracle to forecast the situation getting worse before it gets better. Katara, Kusanagi, and Khan are only the beginning of the tidal wave of whitewashing. Last year’s box office returns demonstrated Hollywood is almost exclusively interested in investing in known properties, and there’s a world of much loved anime, and non-English stories in general, waiting for their turn at a big-screen, live-action adaptation.

Macross starring Daniel Radcliffe as Hiraku Ichijyo, Nathan Fillion as Roy Fokker, Natale Portman as Misa Hayase and Liam Neeson as Admiral Gloval

Evangelion starring Jack Gleeson as Shinji Ikari, Benedict Cumberbatch as Gendo Ikari, and Kristen Stewart as Misato Katsuragi

If I thought it would make any difference, I would point out for the benefit of any Hollywood types that ever stumble across these words that I am, in fact, a 33-year-old, white, male and I’m perfectly content to see Asian people in leading roles on both the big and small screen. Alas, I’m sure said Hollywood types would quickly rebut that I, and likely you, gentle reader, are not within their target demographic; we are not “the North American Market”.

Recall the words of Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black: a person is smart; people are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals. People make up the North American Market, and said market demands endless seasons of The Bachelor, Honey Boo Boo, My Big Fat Fabulous Life, and watching a man be eaten by a snake. The North American Market is terrible, and until it does better or demands better – either option is fine with me – there’s no reason to believe the whitewashing won’t continue along its current trajectory.


0

On Writing and Meritocracy

While I’m not one to spend a lot of time talking about writing, principally because it’s far too meta to do so regularly on a website like mine, from time to time I come up with an idea worthy of a little exploration. On that note, let’s spend a few minutes on meritocracy and writing.

When it comes to finding success in writing, I am very much a product of the educational doctrine drilled into me during my formative years. The late-eighties and early-nineties did everything they could to teach a young and impressionable Adam that if he worked hard, produced good work, and played by the rules, he would eventually find success. Despite the cynicism teenage Adam began to embrace in the late-nineties, my current sense of justice, delusional though it maybe, demands at least the theory of meritocracy must be true.

A recent attempt at landing a professional writing job has given me pause to reconsider the nature of the meritocracy as applied to our current cultural economy. Obviously, I didn’t get the job. Rest assured, however, this is not a setup to me complaining about a hard-knock life.

The form rejection I received told me there were approximately 1300 applications for this lone position. I knew my application was a long shot, but I was surprised by the scope of the completion. 1300 applications, holy shit. Let’s work through the figure. I’ve been on the receiving side of job applications enough times to know that one can usually discount a certain percentage of the applications after about five seconds of consideration. These applicants can be categorized as having no business whatsoever applying for the job in question e.g. butchers applying to be medical doctors. For the sake of this discussion, let’s assume 50% of the 1300 applications for the writing job were cast in the bin without a second thought. Doing so still leaves us with 650 applications.

650 applications is monstrously unmanageable. This is where I expect qualifications, education, and experience to further cut the number down to useful long list, say 26 applications, as that’s the number of applicants who fall within the 98th percentile of the original 1300.

While it’s easy to say that getting a job, any job, is about being the best applicant in the pile, it’s a lot easier to be the best when the completion doesn’t number in the quadruple digits. If there were only 50 applicants for the job and I placed in the 90th percentile, I would have been among the top five candidates for the job. Whereas if I was in the 90th percentile of those who made it past the initial cull, I would still only have ranked 65th overall i.e. well below the cutoff threshold for making the long list within the confines of this particular thought experiment.

I think we may have a problem of supply on our hands. Particularly because this problem of supply has the potential to disillusion a lot of good writers. The fundamental principle of a merit based system is if a person does well, they will advance. If we assume my recent experience is indicative of larger trends, and anecdotally I don’t see a lot of evidence to contradict the idea of a buyer’s market in the writing world, then doing well isn’t nearly enough anymore.

Faced with a protracted abundance of supply (such is the consequence of the democratization of knowledge and the written word via modern technology) the model of meritocracy, the notion that good work pays off, becomes statistically harder to swallow. Even if the meritocracy ruled the day without any exception or “corruption,” the vast numbers of applicants witnessed in the above example render the good candidates and the poor ones statistically indistinguishable from each other. Can we still call it a fair system when only the outliers of excellence have a chance at making the grade?


0

The Thing I Didn’t Want to Write About

About six weeks ago a new, and now terrifying, shitstorm was visited upon the internet. This movement, in so much as a hashtag can be a movement, once seemed to have the best of intentions. Ostensibly, it was about facilitating a discussion on the relationship between the video game industry and video game media.

Note here that I’m intentionally avoiding saying the name of this movement. Whatever good it may have done, whatever positive intentions some of its members may have, are, in my estimation, completely overshadowed by the actions of those who would use it as a forum for the promulgation of hate. This hate, more often than not, is directed against women who have the audacity to produce video games and/or engage in a critical discourse about the same.

For the benefit of anybody who still doesn’t know what I’m talking about, I’ll say the name of this movement rhymes with LamerSlate and leave it at that.

Previously, I was content to offer little more than the odd tweet about LamerSlate. Whatever positive goals it may have, they are too amorphous and seemingly too undefined for my comfort. Furthermore, and from a purely philosophical point of view, I question the good that can come from a movement whose DNA is rotten in places, as illustrated in a recent piece on Deadspin. Though LamerSlate demonstrates that the internet has a great capacity for mobilizing people, and eventually starting some meaningful discussions on a topic near and dear to my heart, it has simultaneously given the spotlight to a mob that uses hate, fear, and now, terror, as their principal weapons. All we’re missing is fanatical devotion to the Pope, and it would be a great setup to a Spanish Inquisition routine.

Why then am I putting thoughts to action on this post? Because it seems like a critical mass of the internet – as seen through twitter, so a few grains of salt are called for – has had enough of LamerSlate. Personally, I think it’s about damn time.

It should not have taken the threat of a terror attack – or any other threat of violence – before people rejected LamerSlate, regardless of the good some of its members are doing. Once again, I reiterate that there is some measurable good coming out of LamerSlate. However, I can’t imagine any hashtag being worth the potential negative associative impact of LamerSlate. Further, and I’ll invoke my expertise as a historian for this part, no amount of reason in the face of concentrated bile and human misery is going to reclaim LamerSlate. Case in point, libertarians.

LamerSlate is not Idle No More.

LameSlate is not Occupy Wall Street.

LamerSlate is Chernobyl. While the good people of LamerSlate have taken it upon themselves to try and slow the reaction, we’re at a point where jamming home the control rods is only going to make things worse. It’s time to evacuate the countryside, draw a zone of exclusion around the bubbling hot mess, and start over again with the lessons we have learned. Because no group of people, no matter how talented they are, have the capacity to truly fix a structural problem by working in a disaster zone.

Now, if the gods are willing, this will be the last thing I have to say on the subject of LamerSlate. I await the internet’s wrath.


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From the Lower Decks: On Absurd Nomenclature in the Slush Pile

Today we’re going to have a little chat about what I do as a First Reader/Submissions Editor/Slush Monkey for Daily Science Fiction. The topic of our conversation: stories that invoke a ridiculous name or title in the first sentence. To wit, I will almost never send a story to the second round when I see a bonkers name/rank in the first sentence of a story.

Obligatory Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this post represent those of the author and are in no way endorsed by the editors or management of Daily Science Fiction.

Now, let’s get back to the business at hand. When I talk about stories that begin with an over-the-top rank/title and name, I mean something like this,

“Bongwonger First Class Hercules Jehovah MacGuyver is flying a fusion powered death rocket toward the third moon of Praxalon Seven. “

Or,

“Lord Protector Sir Malcolm Duncan Hamlet Agamemnon III contemplated the nature of the universe during his morning cup of tea.”

These are stupid names.

While they are fabrications of my own diseased imagination, they nevertheless follow the pattern of actual stories from the DSF slush pile. At this point, I imagine there’s a non-zero portion of people reading this and auditing their memories for examples of excellent stories that open with the “name and rank was doing a thing” trope. Be that as it may, exceptions are often confused for the rule in writing, and my rule, with very few exceptions, is to push the big red reject button when I see something with an insane name in the introduction.

The issue isn’t that insane names in and of themselves are problematic. Wack-a-doodle names can give a sense of otherness to a character e.g. Zaphod Beeblebrox or r. Daneel Olivaw. Insane names can also shed important details about the setting of a given story. I can think of no more accessible example of this than “The Great Humungus” in The Road Warrior. Terry Hayes’ and George Miller’s screenplay doubles down on the kooky nature of the antagonist’s name by having his herald introduce him to the gas-rich band of survivors as the “Ayatollah of Rock and Rolla.” None of this makes us, as an audience, take the Humungus any less seriously, and if it does then you’re watching the movie wrong.

The Road Warrior’s first act gives us more than enough insight into post-apocalyptic Australia to understand that the Humungus’ name is an indication of just how far into entropy the world has fallen. A man who might otherwise be called John Smith can now put on a hockey mask and some fetish wear, call himself The Great Humunugs, and still command the lives and deaths of his followers. The insane name serves to underscore the central conceit of the story: everything has gone to hell.

Now imagine that you have never seen The Road Warrior. Fade in on smoke clouding over the lone strip of road tattooing the outback. The narrator’s first words are, “The Great Humungus ruled the wasteland with an iron fist.” All other considerations being equal, is there a world where that doesn’t sound like something written by teenager intent on making a dick joke?

At that point The Road Warrior might as well be Spaceballs because the name strikes the wrong tone with the audience. It serves to confuse rather than enlighten. And if I, speaking only for myself in this case, think that someone is trying to tell me a joke, then I want to know who the comedian is before I listen to the punchline. I want to know that the person is funny before they try to make me laugh because comedy is much more in the eye of the beholder than drama.

This is why someone like Neal Stephenson can get away with a line like this as the very first words of Snow Crash,

The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed sub-category.”

No word of a lie, if this turned up in the slush pile, I would boo it and seriously contemplate rejecting it out of hand. However, Stephenson can get away with it in Snow Crash because he likely comes with foreknowledge on the part of the reader. When a person submits to a magazine, they don’t get that benefit unless they happen to be known to the individual submissions editor. Even then, I like to think that I’m fair-minded enough to apply the same standards to all writers, regardless of pedigree or notoriety.

To sum up, zany names certainly have their place in writing. However, if you are trying to sell a piece of fiction and you don’t already have a rapport with the editor (i.e. the editor liked your pitch letter and asked you to send along a manuscript) then the use of an outrageous name as the first words of a story is probably going to do more harm than good. It presumes that the person reading your story will be fascinated by the novelty, when in fact it’s probably going to evoke a tired sigh and confuse the tone of the story’s first few hundred words. Make no mistake, a lot of my decision to reject or promote a story happens in those first hundred words.

And that’s my view from the lower decks.