Diversity in SF/F

Diversity in Science Fiction / Fantasy

There is quite a bit of brouhaha going on right now about diversity in our chosen sandbox.

It seems that some folks think awards are given dependent solely on “difference” instead of the quality of the actual story. In other words, a standard issue military SF novel isn’t necessarily given the same consideration as a completely fantastical world with fantastical characters doing fantastical things; similarly, an American white male author who likes to write high-octane adventure tales is believed to be less worthy than a Polish green transvestite who gets their ideas from tossing random Etch-O-Sketch patterns.

Frankly, I think this is just a stupid distraction. Please note the following definitions of our chosen sandbox, as well as the concept of diversity, and see what role you think diversity should play in SF/F (italicized and bold letters are my own, while the definitions themselves are hash-ups from Dictionary.com and Merriam-Webster).

Science Fiction: A literary genre that makes imaginative use of scientific knowledge or conjecture; dealing principally with the impact of actual or imagined science on society or individuals or having a scientific factor as an essential orienting component

Fantasy: Imagination, especially when extravagant and unrestrained; something that is produced by the imagination; an idea about doing something that is far removed from normal reality; the act of imagining something; a story about things that happen in an imaginary world

Diversity: The state or fact of being diverse; difference; unlikeness, variety, condition of having or being composed of differing elements.

Perhaps you read those definitions differently than I do; which would be a good thing, because that would indicate diversity.

The way I read them is that Science Fiction / Fantasy is DEFINED by diversity. So, should the Hugo, Nebula, et al, necessarily reward the same old same old just because the author likes it? No, because of diversity.

If you don’t like diversity, then go create your own awards. Lots of folks do it. I usually call them the Emmy’s, but that name is taken, so invent another one. I have no problem with that because it’s called diversity. Seriously, go create your own award.

Science Fiction and Fantasy REQUIRES DIVERSITY! Deal with it, or go somewhere else.

DUH!

VA

19 September 2016

 

 

The Angry Glare of Midnight Sample

The Angry Glare of Midnight

Copyright 2016 by Vonne Anton. All rights reserved.

Chapter Two

Tomorrow in Phoenix, Arizona

He sat in a little chair in a little room off a large corridor.

He watched his dead mother dying, though that wasn’t exactly a news flash. It was the second time this week. She had actually died over a year ago but her body refused to give up the already lost war. He watched it unravel over the days and weeks and months and years, over and over again.

Wasn’t he the lucky one . . .

Mom: whittled down to ninety pounds, cadaverous skin stretched over bone like blotched paper; her head turned to the other side and staring dully into the corner of the room, perhaps looking into heaven; gray hair wisped with the gentle caress of the air conditioning unit; sticks for arms ending in talons clutched at the cream-colored blanket that covered her body, no more than concealed ashes; her breath clawed its way from her throat, rattling and hoarse, staggered into the room and flittered away, transparent moths, forgotten memories.

Quiet . . . no murmur, no song, no babbling. Just Mom dying again. Wasn’t she the lucky one . . .

He buried his face in his hands and felt the blood pounding his brain.

“How is she?” someone whispered behind him. The door was opening, and a nursing aide was there, an ephemeral shadow of efficiency and objectivity.

“Okay,” he mumbled, something like that.

“Let me check her vitals.” The nursing aide moved to the machinery clustered around the bed. She took Mom’s right wrist in her hand and held it, staring off into a distant place. A flower with falling petals drooped from the end of his mother’s arm: her fingers. Mom swiveled her head to see without seeing.

He watched the aide. She was young and pretty, with Asian eyes, coffee complexion, and long brown hair pulled back into a ponytail that flung itself down her back. Slender, fit, well hidden by the oversized blue uniform they made her wear. Her left-breast tag said, “Krystal”. Krystal looked like a high school student.

She gently replaced Mom’s arm at her side. “Her blood pressure is up to 85/52, pulse up to 53, and her temp is up to 95.4.” Krystal met his gaze and smiled. “She seems to be improving this morning. You must be good for her, Mr. Lockhart.” Her amber eyes crinkled and sparkled when she smiled. “Can I get you anything?”

Manny shook his head, and she evaporated from the room.

Alone again.

Should he have The Talk? What if this wasn’t real? Did we want to have The Talk again, later, if necessary? What if he didn’t have The Talk now, and this really was it? Hell . . .

“Mom,” he began. “I promised you, when Dad died, that you would end up in a nursing home only over my dead body. That was before we knew about Alzheimer’s. We tried to keep you at home as long as we could, but the doctors finally threatened legal action if we didn’t get you into a place where you could have twenty-four hour care. So, here you are, and I couldn’t prevent it, and now . . . ” he stopped to meet her eyes. They were still staring into eternity, as if she didn’t care that he had lied to her so many years ago. In a way, it was better this way, at least for her.

Her throat still rasped with agonized breath.

A tear slipped from his right eye. “You don’t remember it, I know, but it got too dangerous at my place, what with stairs and ovens and the city and . . . ” He remembered the frantic hours searching the neighborhood for her when he got home from work; walking in to smell the oven rings blazing and a forgotten pan boiling itself into smoke; up all night afraid she would creep by his room to get a drink in the kitchen only to take a fatal fall down a steep and forgotten flight of stairs.

“I had to do this. Please forgive me.” She stared away, oblivious to his need for absolution.

Dying. Dying. Maybe finally dying. Would he be glad, sad, or just relieved? Seven years had passed and he didn’t know where her strength came from for another day. But she was enduring, and she was the sick one . . . no self-pity, kid, you’ve got the easy part of this;you only need to watch. Tears flowed as hot lava from his cheeks. No, she had the easy part.

When he looked up again, his mother was staring at him. Her blue eyes were clear and focused, blazing embers from a very old and weary flame, with understanding and recognition, her mouth curled in a joyous smile.

She said, “Don’t cry. They’ll show us the way.”

It was like that: months of incoherent babble punctuated by a few words of lucid clarity from the other universe her weary mind had hidden in.

She turned her head back to her pillows and drifted into tortured sleep, her eyelids beating hearts down to cessation. Her breath gurgled.

“Mom?” he whispered, a lonely echo in an empty room. “Mom?” She didn’t stir. “Please don’t die yet.”

Her throat constricted and a breath escaped. Her chest heaved in another one. “Mom?” She exhaled again, breath caught, inhaled, held, exhaled, gurgle, inhale, heave . . . He changed his mind.

“Mom? Please, Mom . . . Please go to sleep. Don’t worry. I’ll be okay. Sleep now, you hear?” Her shallow breathing was steady now. “You don’t have to wake up if you don’t want to.”

Did he mean for her to die? Was he wishing his beloved mother to die? Could he–dare he–was it fair and right? She had nursed him when a babe, rocked him all night when he was sick and couldn’t breathe himself, soothed his fears, kept him alive, helped him recover and gain strength, encouraged him ever onward, upward, and forward to be the man he was today. God, he was tired.

The man who would sit across from her and wish her dead. A man without the guts to just take her life. It would be so easy now. She wouldn’t even resist. Just ease the door shut, take a pillow, and in the dark, cool room show her how tender and strong his love for her was.

No, not because he hated her. Because he loved her. Alzheimer’s had eaten away her brain, leaving this empty sculpture of a human who merely existed and knew none of her family or friends. A two-dimensional husk, a cartoon living in a cartoon world. Her only holds on reality were the endless pacing of the corridors and sucking pureed food through a straw because she had forgotten how to chew.

No. Not his mother.

He tried to remember that she wasn’t dead yet, and so there was still joy to be found with her. That’s how all the social workers encouraged him with understanding nods and sorrow-filled eyes: think positive remember the good seek the fun make her last months enjoyable for her. There could still be laughs antics dancing; yes, dancing! She had once auditioned to be a Radio City Rockette in New York City when she was but nineteen so many decades ago. She was turned away, and always believed it was because of her Latina heritage. In those bygone days all the Rockette’s were Anglo. A Cuban girl from Miami never had a chance.

She still danced here at the nursing home, but he couldn’t hear her music, he couldn’t keep the beat so she always led and he always smiled and they laughed together and when he left she clung to him clawing like a harridan until a nurse came to take his place and he ran away from the madness. Life was just so damned good!

Damn the merriment. Damn the good life. Damn the social workers. Damn the nurses. Damn Alzheimer’s. Damn his father. Where was he? Why did he get out of all this fun? A stupid heart attack right when things with Mom were getting interesting? How convenient! Sure, drink yourself to death Manuel Lockhart, Senior; the man of the moment the tower of strength who never got mad but never got anything else either and then you left us with this little surprise. You knew Mom was losing it but you didn’t want anyone to know keeping your precious little secrets and your precious mystic control. Only your secret survived you and now no one was in control. No one knew how to be in control. We were never taught, never prepared, never . . . never a lot of things.

All you left us was . . .

The lights in the building flickered. “Beep, beep, beep . . . ” one of her monitors demanded attention.

He darted to the door and stepped into the hallway. Other monitors were complaining at fringes of the nursing home. Some dementia patients stared around themselves confusedly.

Krystal appeared at his elbow and squeezed by him into the room. “Have to re-set it, is all.” She began punching buttons and checking the display. “With our generators, that shouldn’t have happened. Weird, huh?”

He nodded and slid back into his chair. Emergency over. Krystal hustled on to the next beeping monitor down the hallway.

His mother squirmed in her sleep, and her eyes flickered, then opened and fixed on nothing across the room.

All you left me was your name, he thought, corrupted to just “Junior” by the family . . . and love for Mom. And that was enough. It would have to be enough. Who was he to wish for more? What other riches could compare? What other heritage would he trade this moment for?

He laughed to himself. He would trade this moment to have Mom’s personality, her heart and mind back. He needed her to hold him, comfort him, and whisper that everything would be all right son my beautiful little boy don’t worry Junior don’t cry I’m here and everything will be wonderful just you wait and see . . . just like always before. Only he wasn’t Junior anymore. Dad was gone so he was now just Manny Lockhart. When Senior died he took “Junior” with him into the crematorium.

That had pissed his Dad’s family off. Not the cremation; they would have done the same, but they would have done it by the old ways: on a bonfire in the outback wilderness playing their strange music, dancing their mojo, and chanting odd tales in languages and symbols while sparks flew into the night. No, his Dad got a white man’s send off, like the good Catholic his Mom had never really been.

Mom shifted, then turned her head and glared at him, obviously trying to figure out who he was. She smiled again, her eyes warmed and shone again, and she said, “Don’t worry. They’ll show us the way.” Then she drifted back into ruffled, psychotic slumber.

Again? What was this new insanity? Someone was coming to save us, were they?

If only that were possible; if only . . .

The room had two beds in it. Mom was using hers, but her roommate was out wandering the halls of the Secured Unit with the other residents. He was so tired he idly considered crawling into the empty bed for a nap.

Mom’s bed had rails on the sides. They were never pulled up to protect her from falling out onto the hard white tile floor. He had asked for them to be raised earlier in the week, and Krystal had explained that it was illegal for them to do that because the State viewed rails as “physical restraints”, and they were not allowed to use that form of control, not even to keep her from falling out of bed.

“What if there was a fire, Mr. Lockhart? She might not be able to get out fast enough,” Krystal had explained cheerily, smiled cheerily, and flounced cheerily from the room, her ponytail flicking like a horses tail. Apparently that made sense to somebody somewhere. Manny wondered which was more likely: a fire; or a frail, debilitated, weak old woman falling out of bed. That bed had to be dealt with and negotiated every day; fires didn’t, he hoped.

To the left of her bed was a small nightstand with a fluffy, brown teddy bear sitting atop it, beguiling in a large green satin bow tie. Above the nightstand hung one yellowed and grainy photograph in a simple wooden frame: Mom and Dad, in ancient sepia, on the night of their wedding; she in gown and he in a suit, both young and handsome, smiling, holding hands, anticipating a wonderful future where all their dreams would be fulfilled in each other. Fifty years and five children later, Dad was gone and Mom might as well be gone.

What a dream . . . better never to wake up from it.

He hung his head and muttered a weary prayer. He didn’t know if anyone was listening, but he fervently hoped someone would hear and act. When done, he raised his leaden head and gazed through tired, puffy eyes at his mother sleeping tranquilly.

With a sigh he pushed himself up and turned away, out of the room and into the hallway, weaving his way around shuffling elderly bodies.

One old man, his hair wild and uncombed, eyes bloodshot and glaring, right hand shoved down the front of his pants, licked his lips and leered at him. “Chester the Molester” is what Manny nicknamed him. He was harmless, but prone to masturbate in public. Chester followed Manny with his eyes, and bellowed at his retreating back, “Don’t worry, son! They’re gonna’ show us the way!”

Manny turned back, wondering if hope of mysterious salvation was somehow contagious among nursing home patients.

Chester’s glee cackled like merrily crumpling paper.

Manny hurried on, pausing only when he got to the nurse’s station. “Mom is sleeping still,” he told Myrna, the aging head nurse over the Secured Unit. “I’m gonna’ go ahead and take off.”

She smiled, blue eyes glinting through eyeglasses. “Thank you, Manuel. You take such good care of your mother!”

Right. Manny nodded, bolting for the exit. He felt for the asthma inhaler in his pant’s pocket, primed it, and sucked in deeply as it automatically fired off a dose of albuterol. In a few seconds his breathing steadied to normal.

His mind raced ahead to the rest of the day as his fingers fumbled with the security code that would unlock the inner door, and it took three attempts to hear the click of freedom. He never could remember the numbers exactly right. He hurried pulled the door closed behind him to keep wandering residents from escaping, and hustled through further corridors until bursting into bright sunshine in the parking lot.

He had to get back to work, and get his mind on other things. Better things. He had a full schedule with his students and their parents, as he had conferences half the day. Children’s things.

Don’t worry. They’ll show us the way.

God, he missed her.

He kicked his Kawasaki into life, slipped on his helmet, and roared away from the nursing home, letting hot wind whip his memories and his emotions away.

Michael Swanwick + 2

Not So Much, Said the Cat

By Michael Swanwick

Plus two personal asides by me, the Reviewer.

This is a collection of SF/F stories, 17 in all, by one of the best short story writers working today. Or, is it?

This review is going to take the collection in total, not attempting to review each story separately, though a story or three might be called out for representing the scope and wisdom of the author. This review will be more about the author than his stories. It will feature some parental advisories, as is the whole point of my reviews anyway. Finally, the question of Mr. Swanwick’s status as “one of the best short story writers working today” will be answered. Just as that last sentence quoted me, so the answer will be merely my opinion as well.

In 1999, six short stories were nominated for the coveted Hugo Award. Three of them were by Michael Swanwick. Needless to say, with odds like that, he won. In fact, several years have featured multiple stories by him nominated for the same award. He has won the Hugo five times (it says so on the cover), and yet lost more awards than others (it says so inside the cover).

It goes without saying that he is the master of his craft. And yet, I just said it. To the discerning reader that is called irony.

The most amazing thing about Mr. Swanwick is his dexterity with subject matter ranging – seemingly – across past history, future history, various cultures and nations on Earth, as well as other planets and even star systems. If we were to attribute to Mr. Swanwick the author’s maxim to “write what you know,” then we would have to assume he knows about almost everything. This is implausible, so it says more about what he can convince us he knows than what he has actually experienced. (He seems to have an affinity for Russia, as this is the context of more than one story in this collection; as do I, so those stories resonated for me.)

Parental Advisories:

Sex: Some, but not explicit.

Nudity: Rather more, but rarely explicit. Only once does he bother to describe pubic hair color, but even then, it serves the story nicely. More about this in my second aside.

Violence: Some, but only once a bit graphic. This scene is brief, so not too much to concern me.

Profanity: Yes, and here will come my first aside.

Aside Number One: I was banging along nicely through these stories, enjoying them very much, even if there were a few f-bombs sprinkled around. Then I got to story #11, named “Libertarian Russia.” This one featured a seemingly (to me) random sexual connotation, but didn’t get bothersome until a character was introduced that was immediately recognizable as the bad guy. We know he was a bad guy because he dropped the c-hydrogen-bomb-word, one of the vilest words in any language. Sure, it was used properly (if there is such a thing); as a degrading epithet, but with Mr. Swanwick’s command of his craft, this was unnecessary. He can build characters out of nothing, and doesn’t need crudity.

He dropped that word, and I dropped the book. Had to think about this now. If the author would use it once, would he use it again? I fanned through the pages remaining in the story. Didn’t see it again via that brief scan, but did that mean it wouldn’t be there in one of the six remaining stories? It was time for sleep, so I pulled my bookmark out and inserted it into my next project. I laid this book on top of our recycle bin, thinking at least the paper could be dealt with humanely, and went back to bed.

The next morning I looked meditatively at my next project, and thought about this book. Was I being fair? Shouldn’t the quality of the stories, admittedly very high, allow for me to not judge the author so quickly? Shouldn’t he get a pass, just this once? I have some authors on my reading list that have done the same thing, just once, and stayed on my list because their stories were too good to allow a single nastiness to deprive the reader of the rest of the goodness. Shouldn’t I forgive Mr. Swanwick once?

So, I pulled my bookmark and went to the recycle bin. I slipped my bookmark into the next story place – completely avoiding finishing the current story – and pulled this volume from the recycle bin. That particular story wasn’t nominated for any awards, so I don’t feel like I missed anything.

Happy to report that he did not make that same mistake again. (By the by, the last story in this collection might be the best, ending with a wry twist of humor. Be sure not to miss it.)

Aside number two: Most Americans – bewilderingly – make a big deal out of nudity. I guess it has something to do with the puritanical nature of the invasion and capturing of this country centuries ago. Mr. Swanwick treats it correctly, as just something to note and little else. I like that. Here’s a story that will present two reasons why this doesn’t bother me.

I was born in rural South Carolina, in the northwestern tip of the state, in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We moved from there when I was six, so I remember little of it. In fact, I don’t remember this story’s basis in fact, but my mother loved to tell it, and I always found it amusing, so now you get to know it.

There was a young man, perhaps in his mid-to-early twenties, whom we shall call Ben. He eschewed the rural country life-style, preferring to be “citified.” (Anyone who ever watched The Andy Griffith Show will know exactly what I’m talking about.) Ben pursued and attained a job as an insurance-salesman. Why anyone would bother with selling something no one could see baffled the simple townsfolk, but they felt affection for Ben, and tolerated his foolishness. Ben went out and bought a fine black suit to wear.

So, it’s Sunday and here comes Ben, walking into church wearing his flat black three-piece suit, black bowtie, white dress shirt, black lace up shiny shoes, and white socks. Yes, white socks. Seriously. Oh, and lots of Brylcreem in his dark hair, making it quite a shiny target. By sitting where he sat, poor Ben becomes the victim in this story.

Behind Ben sat a nice, motherly, woman named Ruth. She had a few young-uns. And, like most mothers in rural country, had developed the amazing ability to focus on one thing only, oblivious to what her young children were doing around her. So it was that she became engrossed in the sermon that day and thereby became the unwitting abettor to the crime that would do Ben in forever more.

We sat in the same row as Ruth, as she and my Mom were good friends. Mom had a passel of kids also, but had not yet developed the ability to focus, so her eyes were roaming around, constantly making sure the kids were behaving themselves.

Funny thing about rural folk in the late 1950’s or early 60’s: mothers would often breastfeed their children in public. This has become a matter of hot controversy, but at that time, it was just what someone did. A child was hungry, pop a teat in its mouth, and everyone can get back to the subject at hand. An even funnier thing, and this might disturb some tender consciences out there, they tended to wean their kids when the kids started going to school. So, it wasn’t particularly unusual to see a five-year old still getting breast milk in a pinch.

This brings us to the evil perpetrator of the crime. Young 4-year old Bobby, one of Ruth’s sons, decided he was hungry. So he crawled into Ruth’s lap, undid her buttons, pulled out a breast, latched on and began to suckle. Right there in church! Ruth remained oblivious because this was not unusual for her.

In time, little Bobby got sleepy and lolled away from his mother’s breast. But the bared breast still had his fist pressing on it. Occasionally a stream of breast milk would spurt from her nipple and hit Ben in the back of his head.

Ruth did not notice. Ben began brushing at the back of his Brylcreemed hair and looking toward the ceiling, wondering if there was a leak up there. Finally, Mom noticed and jabbed Ruth from three seats away and whispered sternly that she needed to cover up. Ruth, embarrassed, moved Bobby to sleep on the floor, and put her breast away, where it could do no more harm.

But the story got around, and poor Ben moved, thoroughly defiled as a citified country boy. The rural folk won.

As it turns out, the church taught us that God made Adam and Eve perfect, and perfectly naked, and “saw that it was good.” Quoting the Bible there. I guess it’s a combination of rural attitudes about nudity and God’s apparent idea that there’s really nothing wrong with it that influences my casual regard for the subject of nudity.

Mr. Swanwick apparently agrees.

Now, is Mr. Swanwick actually “one of the best short story writers working today?” I don’t think so. To me Ray Bradbury was the best short story writer ever. Mr. Bradbury’s prose was simply magical. I think Mr. Swanwick would agree that Ray Bradbury is the superior short story writer, probably of all time.

But Ray Bradbury is gone from us now. He is no longer working and writing.

Though Michael Swanwick doesn’t quite meet the high bar that Ray Bradbury set, his prose is still very good. Occasionally it becomes lyrical and beautiful, hitting tones sweetly.

Therefore, in my opinion, Mr. Michael Swanwick is not “one of the best,” he is currently The Best.

Parents, you know what this collection contains, so as usual read it first and decide for yourselves. But, please don’t completely cheat your young readers by keeping them from ALL of Swanwick’s work. That wouldn’t be fair to anyone.

VA

8 September 2016

Review Supernova by C. A. Higgins

Supernova
By C. A. Higgins

Before we begin this review: Please, if you have not read “Lightless,” the first novel in this series, go do so now. This review will contain spoilers of that novel, and perhaps even some mild spoilers for this one, though I will try mightily to minimize them.

We’ll start with Parental Advisories for parents, then a brief summary, some difficult portions for me (and those could be simply due to the density of my brain), concluding with a recommendation.

Parental Advisories

Profanity: Not much. An f-bomb in the beginning, another at the end, maybe one in the middle. Not enough to raise too many warnings.

Sex/Nudity: None.

Violence: A lot, but the themes herein are a violent revolution spanning many planets and moons. Also some kind of cruel psychosis, so be warned that violence is part and parcel of this novel. There is an especially gory and extended scene at the end, and all I can say about it is that it amps up the terror and horror of part of the surprise ending.

Plot Summary

This story vacillates back and forth between two different plot lines. One part (guesstimate 35%) following the interactions between Althea and her surprise AI ship Ananke who has awakened into sentience. Most of this novel follows the rebellion against the System, an interplanetary tyranny, led by the Mallt-y-Nos, Constance.

The rebellion continues through far off moons to Mars, Venus, Mercury and back to some of them but incorporating Jupiter and Saturn to mop up returning System inclined opportunistic warlords, endeavoring to assure freedom by violence. Allies betray Constance, while she gains or losses other allies.

Meanwhile Althea tries both to raise and protect her AI child. The author pulls off a pretty neat trick here: the ship is called the Ananke while the AI person is simply called Ananke. I tried hard to catch any inconsistencies here (because I can be that kind of jerk sometimes), but the only time could have gone either way. Kudos to the author!

The mood aboard the Ananke remains delightfully claustrophobic, while the revolution sprawls system-wide, diluting the tension in that struggle. Constance has to face a reality more akin to Ahab and Moby Dick, while Althea deals with a sentient glorified computer that has no comprehension of human morality.

An auxiliary teenage girl named Marisol proves to be the humane advisor to Constance and her revolution, while the (in my opinion) autistic Althea proves incapable of teaching her AI daughter basic moral concepts. The dichotomy is interesting to meditate on.

My Difficulties

All of my difficulties with this novel are with the system-sprawling revolution portions. The Ananke/Althea portions are brilliant. Even the grotesque surgery scene at the end is necessary. This is an adult novel that is not squeamish about any kind of violence.

There is a scene early on in which Constance gives a hand gun to a ten-year old girl stuck in the bombed out rubble of her war torn city so she can protect herself. The instructions given are minimal – safety off, point, pull trigger – and I wondered if this was on purpose. Certainly a young girl should be warned about recoil, and/or blowback. No such warnings are given. Is that unawareness on the author’s part, or symptomatic of Constance’s slide from reality?

Another difficulty for me was the ease of moving fleets of ships from planet or moon to other bodies in our solar system. Late in the novel a relativistic drive is briefly mentioned as the means to travel vast distances in days instead of months, but no further explanation is offered. I googled the concept and found that such a thing is improbable and hotly debated. That doesn’t spoil it for me, but the lack of explanation does. I don’t criticize books that use FTL drives, even though most scientists consider them impossible. But an earlier notice would have removed the confusion earlier.

Along these same lines, the convenient lining up of the planets on one side of the Sun for easy access destroys any hope of suspending my disbelief. That just isn’t realistic.

Lastly, how Constance can rid all the planets and moons of the dreaded System without some idea of a replacement governmental system is amazingly short-sighted. She never really gives thought to anything beyond destroying the System.

So, as a result, the story flagged for me so much that I went into “skimving” mode around page 220 of 290. “Skimving” is a copyrighted and trademarked method of reading quickly, and it’s all mine, so don’t try to use it without permission!

But, I had to drop into normal reading by page 270 because the ending goes off the HOOK! On both sides of this story!

Recommendation

Read this book. Get the sense, get the flavor, endure until the end. You might like the bits that bored me. But the ending of both parts are nigh unforgettable, and well worth the effort.

Something puzzles me: Why exactly is this titled “Supernova?” Is it a reference to Althea, Ananke, Constance, the rebellion? What exactly is that supernova-like thing that Constance sees at the end?

I have a hunch, but not much evidence to support it. Regardless, another installment would be welcome.

VA
25 August 2016

Review: Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

Ninefox Gambit

by Yoon Ha Lee

Machineries of Empire Book One

Let’s begin with Parental Advisories, as normal. Then an attempt will be made to tell you what this book is about without – oh, who am I kidding?! There will be spoilers, but you’ll be given fair warning to bail before then if you want to read this novel for yourself. This means I’ll have to change the order of things.

Parental Advisories first; THEN I’ll tell you what my own opinion about this book is; lastly it will be summarized with well advertised spoilers at the end. Agreed? (No? My website, so deal with it.)

Parental Advisories

Profanity: LOADS! I won’t say the f-bomb is pervasive, but it certainly comes close. Basically this is a war story, and (trope #1) everyone knows soldiers swear like a little blue “F-U-Elmo” when you give him the slightest squeeze.

Violence: LOADS! Grisly, gory, bloody, any way the author can depict it and MORE! He describes the viscera, brain splatters, intestinal flailing as if it’s a Rockette’s Can-Can line badly out of sync. Then he glories in it, adding sprightly poetic descriptions to evoke the sense that there is a strange beauty to the carnage.

Sex: One bizarre scene near the end. Slightly graphic, but young readers won’t know what they’re reading, so it barely achieves “mentionable” status.

Parents: It is not my place to tell you what to let your gremlins read or listen to. All I can tell you is that I wouldn’t let mine near this. Do what you want.

My Own Opinion

Well, if anyone has read the webpage here called “Vonne’s Ratings” (where I detail the rules in my universe) you already know that Mr. Yoon Ha Lee has triggered an avalanche of stuff I hate. So, we are off to a bad start.

Mr. Lee is a skilled and beautiful writer, subject matter notwithstanding. He is best known for dozens of short stories that are staggeringly imaginative and inventive. This particular novel has been anxiously awaited by the SF scene, primarily because it is Mr. Lee’s first full length novel. Many well respected SF writers have chimed in with enthusiastic reviews, marveling at its mathematical precision and world building. Google it, you’ll see.

I cannot recommend it. The calendrical culture is – in my view – merely an artifice with no more relevance than to lend an exotic air to a story that is really mundane. The caste system of the hexarchate is about the same, merely a reflection of what is probably truer than we care to admit about our own societal systems. (Americans especially would hate the idea of acknowledging any caste system here, but the wiser know it has already been that way for a very long time.)

Plot Summary

There were originally seven main castes in the hexarchate (then known as a heptarchate), but one caste became too rambunctious and started breaking a lot of rules. So, they were nearly decimated into extinction. That’s all in the past.

This story kicks off with that seventh caste (the Liozh) arising again and taking control of a very special space station that represents all of the castes (called the Fortress of Scattered Needles). Now they are imposing a “heretical calendar,” or way of living that is not in harmony with the standard calendrical way of the entire human race. This leads to “calendrical rot,” an unstable society.

What should the other castes do to take back their special space station and restore order? (No, I’m not going to tell you the names of any castes but the three main ones. The others are there for . . . well, I suspect they are there to occasionally move the plot along, but otherwise really serve no actual purpose at all.)

They get the cooperation of a Kel (the boot soldiers of the military) named Cheris, a female officer who has shown an aptitude for math far above her station in life. Then they download into her the personality of a dead, possibly insane, General of the Shuos class, named Jedao. This general has been in a sort of hibernation over the last four centuries because he is amoral, not really caring who or how many people he kills, and can’t be let loose except in very extreme situations. Like this one.

A caveat here: this General Shuos Jedao casts his own shadow around Kel Cheris, as if she has two. Only Jedao’s shadow has nine eyes of a fox that glow. Neat trick that, and it explains the title.

They are given a swarm of assault ships with exotic weaponry to go liberate the Fortress of Scattered Needles. Mayhem ensues with the occasional amusing servitor sideshow (R2-D2 and C-3PO equivalents), and some really funny message interchanges among the Liozh who are trying to figure out if they should even acknowledge, let alone try to repel, the approaching swarm. I liked them. That’s about it.

SPOILERS TO FOLLOW! DO NOT READ BEYOND THIS POINT!

What in the HELL is so great about this story? Rather bland, unimaginative, Seven Samurai, Patton, Ocean’s Eleven even! The whole “download-but-with-a-shadow” trick is unexplained, nor are any of the weapons explained, nor how the ships operate. It reeks of fantasy rather than science fiction.

And what is the message? Is the author really trying to tell me that chaos is a valuable part of culture? I learned that watching Bugs Bunny when I was a tadpole! OLD NEWS!

Alright, we find out by the end that General Jedao completely takes over Kel Cheris’ body and is implementing a centuries old plan he set in motion to breed heretic ideals throughout all of the hexarchate. We find out that the hexarchate suspected this and really sent him on a suicide mission with even his own swarm dedicated to killing him at the slightest hint of treachery, which they failed to do.

Setting up nicely the second book in this series. Which I will probably not waste my time on unless someone tells me I’m just being obstinate.

Let’s be clear: I have no bones with Yoon Ha Lee, and have enjoyed his exotic stories. But this is a vile, blood-drenched, average war story with lots of words that lack clarity. “Invariance Ice:” What comes to your mind when you hear that? “Carrion Bomb?” “Threshold winnowers?” They aren’t explained, so they mean NOTHING! Except clearly new ways humans have found to destroy each other, and the author would rather show that than explain anything.

And to think I could have been playing cribbage with my soul-mate instead of wasting so much time on this book. Now THAT I resent! Give me my time back, Mr. Lee! Certainly in your universe that’s possible.

VA

15 August 2016

Vonne’s Ten Rules of Writing

Vonne Anton’s 10 Rules of Writing

I’ve read lots of “how to write” books and/or web pages from various unknown authors; nincompoops who couldn’t sell a book even if it were dipped in chocolate. People like Stephen King, David Brin, Jack McDevitt, Poul Anderson, Harlan Ellison and others like them. You’ve probably never heard of those people, but hopefully they’ll be successful one day. I’ve boiled down their recommendations into a simple Top 10 Rules of Writing.

  1. Write, write, write every day about anything (most say this is all of the Top 3 Rules). Write letters, blogs, stories, vignettes, scratch hate messages onto bathroom stalls, “tag” your neighborhood with remarkably provocative novel concepts, re-write cereal box trivia, etc.
  2. Edit and rewrite whatever you wrote. Over and over and over and . . . I think you get the point.
  3. Establish a goal, and construct a reasonable plot to achieve it. A “goal” is defined as “What do you hope to accomplish? What message do you want to convey, if any? How far will you need to throw it to swish the trash basket?”
  4. Do research to enhance the plot’s feasibility and to assist the suspension of disbelief. There’s an old maxim: “Write what you know.” But they didn’t have Google back then. With Google and imagination, I say challenge yourself and research what you don’t know and write about it if it helps you achieve your goal. You’ll become a smarter writer. Fun fact: most successful writers pay someone to do this for them. Yeah, that’s what money can buy.
  5. Respect all of your characters; keep dialogue or clothing styles, attitudes, personalities, motivations, and goals unique to each character, while still allowing them to grow and change. Be patient with them. They’re only people. And you created them. For those who believe in God, you’re pretty glad He’s patient, right?
  6. Don’t panic when your characters change the direction of the plot on you; it’s their story and they might know better. If this happens, save the original plot for later and write characters that will actually behave themselves.
  7. Don’t challenge the vocabulary of readers before they have engaged with the characters; you can teach them new words later, and the reader will accept it because they are already invested. Some authors deliberately throw in a couple of words in the first couple of pages that cause me to scramble for the dictionary. But then I get captivated by the plot of the dictionary and never get back to that other thesaurus. And no, I am not content to wait for that fabled “Dictionary” movie.
  8. Disappear from your project. This is a blow to the writer’s ego, but your name is on the cover, so relax. If the reader keeps thinking about the author and how wondrous your writing is, ultimately they miss some of the finer points of the story, and then you failed. If the reader stays engaged with the story to the very end, they will reflectively stare at the cover name afterwards and remember you for future reads. Joy and peace fill the land.
  9. Think of a title, but don’t fall in love with it. Editors and agents may break your heart with their own ideas about the title. They aren’t always right, but they are the folks giving you money, so flex.
  10. Write, write, write.

Harlan Ellison adds: Be angry. If a writer isn’t angry they shouldn’t be writing. But Mr. Ellison has quite a reputation for being a cranky, angry, old man. Ray Bradbury was rarely angry and he wrote beautifully.

One other thing to remember (yes, James Patterson, I’m looking at you): don’t allow yourself to sink into formulaic writing habits. Grow and improve and claim victory over “different!” If the reader suspects you are merely changing the names of places and characters and hitting “Print” or “Attach” to crank out one or more novels a year, then you have lost your soul, and the reader is on to your evil machinations.

Somewhere in there you’ll need to take some time submitting your stories and arguing with editors or agents, but that is about publishing, not writing. I don’t know anything about publishing. Oops, did I just say that? I only know two sure-fire things about publishing: 1) Write really good! and 2) Pay close attention to how your target publisher wants the story formatted. The quickest way into the slush pile is to ignore their rules.

Well, there it is.

What did I miss? Don’t be afraid. Tell me.

VA 7 August 2016

Hugo’s and Jemisin’s The Fifth Season

The Fifth Season

By N. K. Jemisin

I’ve puzzled for days about writing this review, but eventually came to the conclusion my difficulties were my own biases and not relevant to this novel’s merits. So, we will begin as usual with parental advisories, then into a lame review, a discussion of my own waywardness about this novel, and finally, a discussion of all the Hugo Nominations for Best Novel this year of 2016 (predictions included).

Parental Advisories

Language: A moderate amount of the f-bomb and little else that would register very high on the “possibly offense” meter. Only a couple of references to male genitals; the occasional f-bomb is due to high-stress WTF circumstances, but most of them are used accurately to describe sex between people who don’t love each other; and perhaps a couple of times coarsely describing sex between people who DO love each other. This is a trend in SF/F these days: the idea that this word is appropriate in all situations. Personally, I disagree, but well, there it is.

Sex/Nudity: Some, usually not explicit. There is one scene that is explicit between a threesome: a man and a woman who do not love each other but are having a child because of an edict that they must, and another man that both of the others are in love with. Or perhaps, in lust with. Anyway, that menage a trois is more explicit than usual.

Violence: When you think about it, there is quite a lot, but little bloodletting. This will be explained in the summary that will follow. Hint: Volcanoes and Earthquakes.

Recommendations: parents might be best off reading this first and then deciding for themselves whether it is appropriate for their yearlings.

Summary (particularly lame)

This novel insinuates more than it explains, so some of this review will include my inferred out-sinuations. The first one is that this takes place on an Earth in the far future, having been spoiled by humans to the degree that its very mantle is convulsing. (It is not clearly stated whether this is far future earth, but the inhabitants are humans, and they call it Earth, so . . . well, there it is.) Therefore, this is a dystopian future wherein mankind no longer looks to the stars because their full attention is demanded by tectonic plate shifting and continental drift and lots of earthquakes. There is basically only one continent at the time of this story (map included).

A few humans have developed a special ability – stemming from their, well, brain stem appropriately – to sense the quakes and even exert substantive force to quell them, limit them, or redirect them. Unfortunately, this ability can – and is – used as a weapon also. It is hard to wage war when the enemy has a citizen that can literally drop a mountain on you. To constrain such, there has developed a group of people called Guardians, who can render impotent that seismic ability (called orogene: you might as well get used to that word as you will see it a lot if you read this novel). Don’t bother getting a dictionary, as the author provides a nice glossary to help the reader out. (And – not one, but – TWO Appendices! Mostly boring historical background stuff.)

Then there are the stone eaters. They literally subsist on rocks. Also, they pass through rock as if melting into them and coming out the other side of that mountain; or go underground and come up where they wish, and can even drag people underground with them. These humanoids are carefully not called human. And this is where my problems begin, because they feel like “fantasy.” More on that later.

Moving on, three groups of characters, all headed up by a strong female point of view, are followed throughout this novel as they seek a way to just exist safely on this world. All three of these women/girls are orogenes with varying degrees of power to shake and bake. One is a school girl getting her training in the central government’s school for the seismically gifted called the Fulcrum. Another is searching for her lost daughter and the no-good husband who stole her and killed their baby son. The third is paired up with the most powerful orogene on the planet, a man named Alabaster, and they are seeking to stop a volcano erupting in a coastal city, as well as procreate a more perfect orogenic baby. (Rather like that name, Alabaster. Don’t you? If he dies, it might describe the baby, sorta. That was a joke. Yes, lame, but well, there it is.)

Tumultuous and surprising times occur, but protocol forbids me from telling you that [redacted for spoilers], and that will blow your mind! The only further thing I can say about [redacted] is that when you finish the book, you will start reading it over again armed with foreknowledge and delight once more!

The first couple of chapters in this are written exquisitely. As if the author chose each word carefully and precisely to reveal mysteries you did not suspect were lurking there. I couldn’t predict what the next paragraph, nor even the next sentence, nor even the NEXT WORD was going to be. Honestly, after that grandiose beginning, the rest of it settles into more easily understood and accessible adventure prose. This kept me from engaging with the characters, as I was continually thinking about the author. Rule #8 violation: The author shalt disappear from thine storeys!

My only real criticism is the tone. The future is dark and bleak again, and again, and again. I am SO TIRED of dystopian views of the future. The author has a degree in the Trick-Cyclist field (that’s what I call Psychiatrists, and is a misnomer when applied to her; she is trained in psychology and education). Please everybody, go take some Xanax and relax, or take some Zoloft and conquer your depression! You might be right: the future could be awful; but you might be wrong, too. I read for entertainment, and studiously refuse to meditate on the possible pointlessness of my existence for entertainment! Ms. Jemisin should know this!

This is the first in the series, and I am likely to read the next simply because it is called “The Obelisk Gate,” and the obelisks that float gemlike in the air over this world are never clearly explained. I want to know about them!

My Limitations

I don’t do fantasy. Not really. Exactly what category this novel is eludes many other reviewers, and that might be the point. Before I started this review, I felt it important to see what others had said. They were each as conflicted as me. I have decided to call it “science fiction fantasy” for lack of a better term. And yes, I stole that from one of those other reviewers.

When it comes to “science fiction fantasy” I am a complete hypocrite! I love Star Wars and Star Trek and they both contain fantasy elements (that whole FTL bugaboo), but because they are in space it’s okay. Here, in this novel, I really couldn’t quite get there. This problem goes back a long, long way.

A decade or more ago, booksellers started lumping Science Fiction in with Fantasy and that ticked me off! I didn’t want to read fantasy, and I didn’t want to shuffle through a bunch of zombies, unicorns, wizards, and vampires or werewolves to find the rare actual Sci-Fi book! Hours of frustration for me have been spent on this.

This novel makes me look at it differently, and somewhat more positively. Just not enough for this year’s crop of Hugo nominees. Three of the five are fantasies, including this one.

The 2016 Hugo Nominations for Best Novel

I’ve already commented elsewhere in this blog that Seveneves by Neal Stephenson is another epic doorstop and great, but derivative from Jack Williamson’s 2002 winner of the John W. Campbell Award. I don’t expect it to win. He could really use an editor. Don’t get me wrong, I love his stuff, but he evidently loves the sound of his own voice typing more than he should.

Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Mercy will likely remain unread by me. I liked the first one (Ancillary Justice), but all the gender confusion was just boring and slightly irritating in the second one (Ancillary Sword), which I didn’t bother to finish. A case of the gimmick getting overdone. Ms. Leckie won the Hugo – deservedly so – for the first one in 2014. I doubt they will give her another one in this series.

I am chagrined to admit that I have never read a single Jim Butcher novel. That fantasy thing again. He’s been around a while, so he might get it.

Naomi Novik’s Uprooted is fantasy, and I probably won’t read it. She already has the Nebula Award for this novel this year, so I’m guessing the Hugo folks will bypass her just because The Fifth Season exists as an alternate.

My money is on The Fifth Season, perhaps just because I read it, but also because there is a big controversy about diversity in science fiction that is a massive distraction. I think the Hugo will go to Jemisin just for the backlash, if not for the writing. Ms. Nora K. Jemisin is an African-American woman living in New York. Perfect statement award. That is not meant as a slam of her or this novel in any way. If it wins, I will be happy for her and glad I read it.

You will probably be glad you read it also. It has served to stretch my view of exactly what “science fiction fantasy” can be. I’ve known this for some time (way back in the early 70’s when reading Ellison’s Dangerous Visions and Again DV), but have generally tried to play in my preferred sand box. Perhaps I have been missing out on a lot of good experiences.

And finally: well, there it is.

VA – 6 August 2016

Religion in Science Fiction

Fundamentalist Christians in America believe that 6,000 years ago God created the universe in six 24-hour days.

Science has pretty much blown that idea out of most rational people’s minds.

But does that mean there is no God, Creator, or Intelligent Designer? Surprisingly,  many scientists believe there IS an intelligent designer of life, ecosystems, cosmos (in 2003, the actual figure, according to the PEW institute, was 33% believe in God, and 18% believe in a vague higher power; that equals 51%, which is rather startling). Atheists would have us believe the two main theories – evolution and creation – are mutually exclusive, and therefore all science and all religion collide and reconciliation is impossible. But, is that what most religious people actually believe? What role can religion possibly play in science fiction?

The answer to that last question depends on what the author is trying to achieve, and who the target audience is for their stories.

Some authors vigorously defend evolution and – with the same intensity – rail against the inconsistencies  between religion and established scientific fact. (I call them “radicalized/militant atheists.”) Others allow religion, but give it to backwards, un-technological beings, half-savages that haven’t developed any meaningful science yet, and therefore are ignorant of reality. Their target audience evidently is those who consider themselves rational beings and look down from exalted heights at the pitiable quasi-animals that still base their civilization and ethos on mythology and folklore.

Most just ignore religion altogether in their science fiction. Perhaps they just want to avoid arguments and simply tell a story.

Then there are those rare few who acknowledge that even scientific, rational beings can believe in something grander and more intelligent than themselves, and accord religion some respect.

The biggest mistake science fiction authors make is to lump all religious people into one system of belief. Even members of the same religion may have different views of core doctrines. Just ask different ones of the Christian faith to explain the Trinity doctrine and you will likely encounter many different views, mostly personal and distinct from the official dogma, which no one can explain.

The same happens when discussing creation; there are multiple views among people of faith. To illustrate this, consider the following interview I had with someone who claims to be a Christian (we’ll call him Joe just for grins):

Vonne: So Joe, you believe in a God, a Creator, right?

Joe: Yep. Hey, are you recording this?

Vonne: You mind?

Joe: Nah. [Joe shrugs.]

Vonne: Why do you believe in some supernatural being that no one can see?

Joe: The evidence points to a Creator.

Vonne: No it doesn’t. The evidence points to a singularity of incredible mass exploding exponentially into the space time continuum that is ever expanding that rational people like me like to call The Universe, which happens to be measured at roughly 13.7 billion years old! So, when did this God create all this stuff?

Joe: In the beginning.

Vonne: Yeah, that. When was that?

Joe: I don’t know.

Vonne: Don’t know?!? You people say it happened 6,000 years ago!

Joe: No we don’t.

Vonne: Yeah, ya’ do! In just six 24-hour days the whole shebang was supposedly created by some God thingy. All Christians believe that!

Joe: That sounds absolutely ridiculous.

Vonne: Duh!

Joe: The Bible doesn’t say that, only fundamentalists do. Even Catholics don’t believe that.

Vonne: The Bible does too say that! Right there in the first part, Genesis!

Joe: Well, let’s see if that’s true. Remember I only have 15 minutes. I have my Bible right here. Genesis 1:1 reads: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

Vonne: Exactly! That’s what I said. Six thousand years ago God created all things. Only it happens be a LOT older!

Joe: Where did you see 6,000 years in this passage?

Vonne: Um . . . well, um . . . it’s not there, but it’s got to be somewhere!

Joe: Actually, the references to 6,000 years is merely a reference to the accumulated years of generations listed in the Bible back to Adam’s creation. It has nothing to do with the heavens and the earth, nor the creative process.

Vonne: Okay, so that amount of time is off by . . . what, six DAYS?

Joe: Much more than that, it seems. You see, from Genesis 1:2 all six of the creative days were focused on Earth, and what someone would see from Earth looking at their surroundings, including the night sky. When 1:1 takes place is unidentified. It could have been 13.7 billion years ago. We simply know that it happened “in the beginning” of The Universe, whenever that was.

Vonne: That’s weird. Nobody seems to talk about that.

Joe: The fundamentalists don’t, that’s for sure. Mainly because their main purpose seems to be political, and not necessarily sticking to the Bible.

Vonne: It still doesn’t explain the days.

Joe: You’re right, it doesn’t, but we do get a clue about them from the context itself. All six days come to an end, right?

Vonne: If I agree to this, you’ll understand that it’s only provisional. I’ll never agree to this nonsense.

Joe: Fair enough. But don’t you think you should know what the Bible actually says, and not what people say it says?

Vonne: (Grunt and nod)

Joe: Actually, in this case, it’s important to note what the Bible does NOT say.

Vonne: Is this going to hurt my head?

Joe: No. It’ll be painless. Right here in verse 5, it separates the day into divisions of Night and Day. That’s not confusing at all. But it does suggest that the word rendered “day” is flexible. Then we go to Genesis 2:4, where every day, including “in the beginning” is called “a day.”

Vonne: You said this wasn’t going to hurt my head. That makes no sense!

Joe: Obviously, we need to know what the original Hebrew word used in these places mean, right?

Vonne: (sigh)

Joe: That word means “a specific period of time.” So, how long is that?

Vonne: 24 hours.

Joe: How much time do I have? Do you remember?

Vonne: 15 minutes?

Joe: Right. Is that a specific period of time?

Vonne: What are you getting at?

Joe: That fundamentalists assume the creative days were 24 hours each, but the context itself gives the clue that this term is fluid. The Bible says that the 7th rest day hasn’t even ended yet. That would make that one day much longer than 6,000 years. What if they all were?

Vonne: The seventh day hasn’t ended yet?

Joe: Nope. Way in the back of the Bible, in Hebrews, Christians are told to enter into God’s rest. That’s over 4,000 years after the seventh day began. Genesis never says the seventh day ended, so there is reason to believe the days were merely specific periods of time, but very long ones.

Vonne: How do you know it has ended? That Hebrews thing was still written 2,000 years ago.

Joe: Yes, well, the rest day was specific to God resting from his own creative works. We’ll know it’s over when He starts creating again. Have you seen any new critters around lately?

Vonne: [sigh] Isn’t it time for you to go?

Joe: I have a few more minutes if yo — “

Vonne: Please go. Now.

Joe: But wouldn’t you like to know when the seventh day began?

Vonne: Will you go afterwards? Okay, when?

Joe: We don’t know.

Vonne: WHAT?!?

Joe: The sixth creative day didn’t end with Adam’s creation. It ended with Eve’s, and we don’t know how long that was.

Vonne: Is this over now? My head hurts.

Joe: But, you haven’t asked me who created God yet! I can’t wait until you ask that stupid question, because then I’ll get all quantum-physicky on you!

Vonne: GO! NOW!

Joe: See ya’ later, dude! [Clatters off on his skateboard, beard trailing behind like oily contrails]

That is really annoying. I hate it when religious people seem so . . . so . . . reasonable. Makes me sick.

So, when deciding whether or not to tackle religious subjects in your science fiction, please consider your target audience. Also, don’t assume you know what they believe just because of official dogma, nor that all religions are the same. And don’t assume their stupid. I wonder how Joe can go all quantum-physicky on me if he’s stupid.

This means it would be wiser to treat religion with respect, if you incorporate it at all into your science fiction. It is so easy to plunk all religions into one loony hat, but it is a form of bias, and it’s not very interesting. Maybe it would be easiest of all just to tell the story.

What do you think?

VA 21 July 2016

What Melania Trump Taught Us About Her Husband

Melania Trump walked confidently out onto the world stage Monday night (sure, there were only a few hundred people present, but the cameras were rolling for the world). This is amazing for many reasons: first, she usually avoids the spotlight, preferring to stay in the background; secondly, because public speaking to a large audience is one of the top five stressors to most people; lastly, because her mission was challenging.

Her mission was to let all the women voters in the US know that her husband – Donald Trump, now the Republican candidate for the Presidential election – is really a great guy. Her husband had repeatedly said dismissive, derogatory, and disrespectful things about several women during his campaign, and had engaged in Twitter-spats with a few (ironically, this includes one female anchor who works for his pet conservative news organization, FOX; you’d think they’d be great friends, but no). Melania’s job was to go before America and convince the women voters that they would be treated well by her beloved husband, and could cast their vote for him with complete confidence that  – as President – he would respect and strive to meet their needs.

Then she gave her speech.

Well, partly hers or maybe not, and partly Michelle Obama’s from eight years ago. There was an immediate flame-out on social media, and the news outlets continued for the next couple of days talking about plagiarism while the campaign went on a “whodunit” search to find out how this gaffe happened.

On the run up to this speech the official line was that Melania wrote it herself. Afterward, a staff of speech writers helped her; then two men were pointed at; then one woman offered to resign over it, but was declined. Who knows, and frankly, who cares about the speech anymore? Nobody, really. It’s a bit intriguing to see women on the floor of that convention praising Donald Trump in spite of the speech.

Because women voters were taught something about Donald Trump, if they care to learn.

He knows his beautiful wife avoids the limelight; he knows she speaks English with a cute European accent that she is self-conscious about; he knows she isn’t a political sort by nature. You would think he would have instructed his staff to treat the love of his life like all the gold he owns, to make sure her appearance before the world would be a singular success.

Nope. She was sent out on her mission equipped to fail, to be humiliated, to be dismissed by a cruel public. The scorn she suffers is so intense that when the family showed up yesterday (Wednesday) in support of Donald, she was absent. Either she didn’t want to be seen, or the campaign didn’t want her to be seen, perhaps to avoid reminders of Monday night.

I have only respect for Melania Trump. She is beautiful, smart, eloquent, multi-lingual, dignified, brave, and willing to support her husband. All the things you would want in a First Lady. I’m heartened that she likes Michelle Obama, and treats the sitting President and his wife with more respect than her husband does. Too, that she is free to express her own feelings that might be divergent from her husband’s. Too bad her husband and his staff don’t have respect for her.

Most of the “speech plagiarism hoopla” is not really the main story. It wasn’t what happened, how it happened, or who should be held accountable for the blatant plagiarism. It’s far more important to focus on WHY it happened. It happened because her husband and his staff don’t care enough about her to make sure she would succeed in her mission.

So, women voters of America, if Donald Trump and his campaign treats the most important woman in his life with such disregard and so shabbily, how do you think he’ll treat YOU?

VA 21 July 21, 2016

Cixin Liu and Enrico Fermi versus Jack McDevitt

Jack McDevitt: An SF Voice of Reason Today

Whole segments of the world’s population are either being attacked and killed for being “Other,” or are attacking and killing those who are perceived as “Other.” Race, religion, politics. Doesn’t matter.

Science Fiction has an enduring voice for us to listen to. His name is Jack McDevitt, and he’s been publishing good SF since 1986. I first picked up on him in 1995, when I saw the paperback copy of “Engines of God,” and have been reading every novel he’s written since. My lack of experience with him is that I haven’t read many of his short stories. That’s my next endeavor.

For parents: He doesn’t use anything more than mild profanity on rare occasions; not any violence except adventure style while on the run from non-sentient alien critters who are just doing what instinct drives them to do. Think angry birds or maniacal crabs, etc. Sex isn’t considered, nor nudity. All perfect for families today who are concerned for what their tweenies might be attracted to in Science Fiction.

Most of his work deals with alien artifacts, relics, or the possibility of first contact, or Otherness. There is also a sense of wonder at the universe we are privileged to be a part of, which constitutes more Otherness.

The aliens are fascinating primarily because they have usually gone extinct (perhaps annihilating themselves), moved elsewhere, or transformed into something humans can’t perceive as life. While humans explore their solar system, then the stars, they struggle to find meaning from beings they simply cannot fathom. Exciting things happen along the way.

If there is any downside, it is that sometimes he introduces dozens of characters, only some of whom are essential to the story, but all play a role of some kind. This is actually pretty good because it mirrors real life, but can be confusing trying to remember who is memorable. He seems to want us to understand everybody, whether or not they are relevant to his stories.

And that is a special reason we need to read his works today. Mr. McDevitt is a sorely needed voice of reason amid these socially, politically, and religiously contentious times. There are no bad guys. Aliens that are actually met are welcoming, friendly, curious about us, and don’t have a thought of threatening us in any way. Otherness is met cautiously by all of his characters, but is ready to welcome friendly overtures to achieve the real goal: understanding.

Why can’t we be that way for each other? Black, white, brown, yellow, red, green; Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Atheist; Left, right, center, progressives, isolationists, republican, democrat; Police, protestors, voters; Heterosexual, homosexual, transsexual, transgender.

Why are we so determined to believe that Otherness wants to hurt us? Why are we so willing to hurt Otherness?

There actually might be a scientific theory that explains it. It is called the Fermi Paradox, a thought exercise from Enrico Fermi, a noted physicist.

Recently one possibility of the Fermi Paradox is becoming more apparent as an SF meme: the idea that it is dangerous to communicate, or even attempt to communicate, to alien life signals. This idea may even demand that any such signals be completely ignored. Run silent, in other words, hide.

(Much of the next two paragraphs are quoted right off of Wikipedia.)

‘An alien civilization might feel it is too dangerous to communicate, either for us or for them. After all, when very different civilizations have met on Earth, the results have often been disastrous for one side or the other, and the same may well apply to interstellar contact. Even contact at a safe distance could lead to infection by computer code or even ideas themselves. Perhaps prudent civilizations actively hide not only from Earth but from everyone, out of fear of other civilizations.

‘Perhaps the Fermi paradox itself—or the alien equivalent of it—is the reason for any civilization to avoid contact with other civilizations, even if no other obstacles existed. From any one civilization’s point of view, it would be unlikely for them to be the first ones to make first contact. Therefore, according to this reasoning, it is likely that previous civilizations faced fatal problems with first contact and doing so should be avoided. So perhaps every civilization keeps quiet because of the possibility that there is a real reason for others to do so.’

(End of quoted portion.)

Last year, Cixin Liu, a writer from China, won the Hugo for the excellent “Three Body Problem.” He didn’t even come close in the second book in the trilogy, “The Dark Forest.” Both were reviewed earlier this year on this blog. This year the final third volume will be released, and is much anticipated.

The basics of the story plays right into the Fermi Paradox as described above. Fascinating reading, sure, but let’s all step back for a minute and look at the overall picture: An SF writer in Communist China is writing a story that demands the Fermi Paradox as the basis for the novels. Isolationist, hide, don’t get involved, everyone is dangerous.

I guess it’s no surprise he is from China, huh? That attitude is part of the history and culture of modern-day China, who is really only slightly better than North Korea, which is still controlled by China.

Are we honoring Mr. Cixin’s work because it is excellent, or because it feeds and perhaps even informs the current climate of fear and danger? Have we unwisely honored a very dangerous meme?

I want to read the last volume in the trilogy, titled “Death’s End.” It comes out in September of this year, and is being translated into English by the incomparable Ken Liu. I wonder if it will be a hopeful conclusion, or more fear.

Time will tell. So might history for all of us.

Instead of killing ourselves off, or trying to avoid contact with that we don’t fathom, Jack McDevitt repeatedly suggests we confront and try harder to understand Otherness. Only then will humans be able to help each other, and thus ourselves. I hope Jack McDevitt wins this fight.

VA, 14 July 2016