Saturday, October 7, 2023

Lightlark, or, How I Finally Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the AI Takeover of Mass Market Fiction

I have been thinking a lot about the pending AI Fiction Apocalypse.

Artificial Intelligence has, by some accounts, already reached the point at which it can compose entire novels. At present they are barely readable. Very quickly, however, they will improve in quality, until they become better than all but the best human authors can compose. And then, at some point, they will be better than the best human work.

The publishing industry is, they say, looking forward to this, anticipating a world full of mass-market best-sellers that can be created with the press of a button, and a set of authors who don't have to be paid royalties. The fact that this future also renders the executives and publishers economically irrelevant has perhaps escaped them.


Alex Aster, I am told, is a TikTok personality who decided to write Lightlark on, well, a lark. Based on the jacket copy, she seems almost to have been designed in a lab for perfect YA marketability--she's an attractive white girl who graduated Summa Cum Laude from an Ivy League university and achieved celebrity in a community frequented by tween readers prior to composing her book.  If she didn't exist, the publishing industry would have to invent her.

The book itself was described by early readers in apocalyptic terms--as an absolutely incompetent clusterfuck. It's not quite that. The prose is florid bur readable. The story's world has some interesting elements to it. The characters are archetypes rather than fully formed individuals, but they're not completely unrecognizable as human beings. The story itself is an amalgamation of tropes and elements lifted from better books by more talented authors.  The twist at the end is an eye-roller but it doesn't cheat; it's consistent with the facts presented up to that point.

The book is not an enjoyable read by any stretch of the imagination--I had to force myself to finish it, like a toddler choking down his vegetables--but it's not unrecognizable as YA.  What it reads like, bluntly, is a YA novel as designed by a current-generation artificial intelligence. All of the ingredients of a mass-market best-seller are here, and they're assembled, as if by a template, in a way that sort of makes sense if you don't look at the whole thing with a human sensibility. 

A human will notice that the curses as described would result in the collapse of civilization within a couple of decades at most. A human will notice that the various ceremonies of the Centennial have nothing to do with solving the curses impacting the various kingdoms and everything to do with creating conflicts between their rulers. A human will notice that everybody is talking like a character in a 1930s movie serial. A human will notice that the visual imagery is assembled like a Mad Lib from a list of random metaphors. But at its current level, artificial intelligence might miss these things.

I am told that, in terms of sales, the book is a smash hit. Sequels are imminent. The film rights were sold before the ink on the initial print run was dry. 

The early, brutally negative reviews of the book have been buried an avalanche of five-star raves by young readers arriving from TikTok. I have always believed that the opinions of young readers matter more than those of critics where the quality of a YA novel is concerned. I have to assume that these kids have actually read and enjoyed the book, that they are not just review-bombing to support the Internet Celebrity Of The Moment.

As for the bestselling YA authors who chose to blurb this book...well, their behavior is less explicable, and less forgivable. I can't bring myself to believe that they actually read this and loved it. I don't really know how blurbing works. I am assuming that many blurbs are produced as a professional courtesy by pro authors who don't actually review the work they're blurbing.  So...ignore blurbs going forward, Steve. Lesson learned, I guess.

I do not _quite_ believe that Alex Aster is a fictional creation of the YA publishing industry, a name and an image they've attached to an AI model created to churn out genre fiction. I'm about 85-90% certain she's a flesh-and-blood human being. But I don't know how much it matters. This book probably wasn't written by a machine. But it might as well have been.

And, paradoxically, this has made me less afraid of the takeover of the fiction market by AI.

Because if Alex Aster _IS_ a living, breathing human, then the massive success of her book provides a model that YA publishers are going to emulate going forward. We're going to see the industry churning out more and more work by marketable social media celebrities. Ghostwriters will spackle over the more egregious cracks in the plot and slap a new coat of paint on the prose, and if the resulting product is never better than marginal in quality...well, so what? It won't matter. It will still sell.

There won't be any more JK Rowlings in this world, let alone any Madeleine L'Engles.  There won't be any reason to encourage original young authors who don't match the marketing profile. And as the market adjusts to these new realities, I suspect that young readers will re-calibrate their tastes as well. They literally will never know what they're missing.  Not unless they do a deep dive into the library stacks. And who has time for that?

So, in summary, Lightlark has helped me make my peace with AI-generated fiction. If we turn things over to the machines, our reading experience will improve over time. The human beings involved in producing YA appear to have things pointed in the opposite direction.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Joe Abercrombie's "The Wisdom of Crowds"

 The Age of Madness ends in the place that it has to end, I think.  All of the larger plot and character arcs make sense.  The Weaver's full scheme is revealed, and is utterly logical given what we know of the world of the First Law.  People suffer for reasons just and unjust, make necessary decisions that destroy their souls, and achieve long-desired goals only to discover that what they wanted and what would have made them happy are far from the same thing.  It's Abercrombie, in other words.

The plot architecture of The Age of Madness is probably the best that Abercrombie has ever produced, but despite that, I think the work as a whole is a step below the original First Law trilogy.  There's a couple of reasons for this.

The first is that, while Abercrombie's better than ever at getting the pieces where they need to go, the process of seeing them advance across the board is not quite as interesting as it has been. One of the keystones of fantasy is seeing characters reveal their natures through entertaining action. Watching Bayaz's motley crew stumble their way across the Old Empire, bickering and blundering the whole way, was some absolutely first-rate character driven adventure full of wonderfully revelatory dialogue and fascinating displays of incompetence, competence, and growth.  _A Little Hatred_ had a lot of the same fascination in its early stages as we met the colorfully-drawn characters of this new world and observed the fascinating mechanics of an industrial revolution swallowing up a fantasy kingdom.  _The Trouble With Peace_ didn't fully sustain the momentum; there was a great deal of scheming in salons and political maneuvering that, while proficiently written, didn't fully fire my imagination. I had thought that this was a middle-chapter problem, but it's back in _The Wisdom of Crowds_, and it's considerably worse.  The business involving Rikke and Black Calder in the north moves along at a fair pace, albeit with a couple of twists that are telegraphed a bit too broadly to be fully effective, but I'm afraid that the French Revolution redux in Adua bogs down pretty badly.  Part of the problem is that we've already seen much of the same in the previous book's Valbeck chapters; the horror is not fresh, even with the general violence level amped up.  Part of it is that the victims of the Burners are, for the most part, people we've never had much opportunity to identify with, and the people we HAVE been taught to care about never seem to be in meaningful jeopardy until the book's final third.

My second criticism is this.  In Abercrombie's best work--The First Law, Best Served Cold, and some of the stuff in Sharp Endings--there's a powerful sense that the characters are driving the plot. Here, as never before in my experience, there's a sense that the requirements of the plot are changing the nature of Abercrombie's characters.  In some cases this makes sense. Gunnar Broad, for example, is defined by the fact that he allows himself to be the instrument of other people's will, so it is reasonable that events would make him a different man. Rikke's personal transformation has been engineered both in overt ways by Isern and in subtler ways by her own hidden ambitions. Vick and Gorst are true to their own established natures, but also shaped by events in ways that their decisions and ultimate destinies make sense.

In other cases, the changes are jarring and hard to fully accept.  Savine dan Glokta undergoes a pretty radical personality shift in TWoC, and the explanation offered is both a bit of a cliche and (I'll be the first person ever to say these words about an Abercrombie book) a little bit twee. It's great when characters change, but in her case, the change doesn't feel fully driven by her virtues and flaws, nor by the events surrounding her; it feels like something the book needs to happen in order to get her to the place she's supposed to go.  These problems manifest in minor characters as well; Tunny's portrayal is so far distant from who he's been throughout the entirety of the First Law saga, and the reasons for the transformation are so obscure, that one has to wonder whether his role wouldn't have been better occupied by an entirely new character.

By far the worst example of this, though, is Leo.  It goes without saying that the events that occurred at the climax of TTWP would change a man, but to me, it feels as if half his brain has been amputated. It's as if I'm reading a completely different character, and a far less interesting one.  The final chapter in which we see Leo is titled "The Villain", and while Abercrombie is constitutionally incapable of making things _that_ simple, it's hard not to get the impression that Leo has been forced into a plot niche traditionally occupied by somebody else.  A fellow with more limbs and less hair.

And while we have all of this astonishing trauma working massive personality shifts in several of the dramatis personae, there's also Orso, sitting in his cage swilling wine and quipping away wittily, his character utterly unchanged. In many respects Orso is one of Abercrombie's most fascinating characters ever, a really interesting spin on the "playboy with hidden depths" archetype, and he's certainly an effective mouthpiece for some terrific one-liners. But to the extent that events changed him at all, it seems to me that those changes were more or less complete at the end of ALH.  In TTWP, he's interesting in the sense that we see his hidden strengths revealed and contrasted with Leo's more superficial strengths.  In TWoC, he's just a guy who stuff happens to.

The Wisdom of Crowds leaves The First Law universe in an interesting place, and it shows many of the same strengths that have made Joe Abercrombie my favorite fantasy author. But I do feel he's taken me on more interesting rides.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

The Capitol invasion and other crimes

I am a part-owner of the US capitol, as are most of the people reading this post. I am pissed right now, because a gang of thugs and morons have taken a piss on what's mine and have interrupted the business which I pay my employees in the US Congress to perform. I am eager to see them locked up for doing this.

The invaders, I mean, not the Congress.
Well, not ALL of the Congress.
I also see today's capitol invasion as similar, in some ways, to the destruction of minority-owned businesses by rioters this summer. Both were property crimes meriting prosecution of those responsible. I suspect we will see a lot more energy invested in holding today's perps accountable, though. This is not because what they did caused more harm. It is because this summer's perpetrators picked a less powerful set of victims.
I note with gladness that nobody is talking, with respect to today's events, about "the language of the unheard" or how "insurance will cover it" (side note: it won't) or that "it's just property, dude." I hope that today's events will help people understand why those are some pretty fucked-up things to say to people whose homes or businesses have been invaded or destroyed. Not much consolation when it's your business, is it?
I note also, where the magnitude of the offense is concerned, that the people working in the building that was invaded today are not going to lose their life savings or their livelihoods for the sake of somebody's infantile form of political expression. Nor will the owners. Make no mistake, what happened today was bad. But in the ways that matter most, what happened this summer was worse.
I'm against lawless vandalism, trespass, and destruction in pretty much all circumstances. That principle is grounded in a recognition of the suffering of the victims--who, today, were all of us. So let's make the suffering of the victims--not the ideology of the perpetrators--our guiding star in evaluating events of this kind. Let's remember how today felt, and let's make it a priority to keep other people from feeling this way in the future.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

2020 in Review

 I more or less stopped being a writer in 2020. Yes, there were demands on my time, particularly online teaching and the adjustments it necessitated; yes, there were occasional distractions in my personal life and other excuses. The reality, though, is that I crossed a line at some point at which fiction writing stopped being a stress reliever and became a source of stress.

I've written about this before. The main factor involved is that I have become a better and more professional writer through the last few years of polishing my craft, and the knowledge I've gained has become an enemy to productivity.  At the outset, before I knew what I was doing, I could eagerly plunge headfirst into a story concept, driven by unrealistic expectations of what I might achieve at the end, and by unrealistic assumptions about the amount of work involved.  I know better now.  I am capable of creating a high-quality short story, yes; but doing so requires weeks of painstaking work and editing.  This labor may well result in a story that I am not proud of. If I am proud of it, I will likely spend months accumulating dozens of publisher rejections before seeing it in print. Even after it makes the grade, it will be ignored by most reviewers and possibly actively scorned by those who do bother to write about it. All of this has put me in a position where story ideas have come to feel more like obligations than sources of joy. And, as I promised myself at the outset that I would never allow creative writing to become a chore, this means I take the plunge very seldom these days.  I last finished a short story this summer; I have one in process at the moment but it's proceeding in spastic fits and does not have the look of quality about it.

That said, the thing about fiction writing is that there's a huge gap between the process of creation and eventual publication, so a lot of the material I produced during my salad days is still emerging into print for the first time. In addition to a pretty substantial number of reprints, I put four new pieces of fiction out into the world in 2020.

The first of these was arguably the weirdest thing I ever wrote, the gonzo grimstick weird western "The Professionals".  The story, which reimagines modern professions as tabletop RPG character classes, appeared in the final issue of Broadswords and Blasters in January:

The Googlers came rolling up the road with rage in their eyes, fleece vests zipped tight and keyboards raised for combat, the wheels of their electric scooters bouncing over the cracked and rutted pavement.  One of them hurled a slide rule, and Hektor brought his badge up just in time. The badge pulsed, and a blue disc of translucent force—the heritage of two hundred generations of cops—intercepted his assailant’s weapon and jolted it aside. As the mounted tribesman went skittering past, Hektor brought his baton in beneath in a sweeping arc; it caught the Googler in the ribs with a sickening crunch, and he lurched aside just in time for Maxx’s axe to cleave his skull in two. The firefighter yanked the axe free with a grunt, a patter of blood droplets cascading in an arc up across the chest of his yellow rubber coat and spattering the ruggedly handsome features of his half-shaven face. Beside him, Smoky, his Dalmatian, was tearing out the throat of a second adversary. 

Two months later, my wayward son finally made it home.  After 50 rejections and two full years on the shelf, the Space Amish tale "Prodigal" landed at Planet Scumm in March:

My faith was imperfect.  But my memory was excellent.  My eyes returned to my husband’s panicked and palsied countenance.  I returned the favor he had once paid, and read aloud.
“The quality of mercy is not strained,” I intoned.  “It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.”  I paused, rubbing at his feet.  “On this world, husband, the rains come infrequently.”

In April came one of the more substantial successes of my writing career, as Baen FA finalist "The Laughing Folk", with its insidious cabal of drug-addicted demihumans, made the grade at On Spec. The story wound up being one of the most widely-read pieces of work I ever produced, and was widely and favorably reviewed.:

The stage had been set. The old stories of unfathomable and sinister faerie folk had been cast aside, replaced with popular fiction that portrayed the humanoid races as stalwart allies against dark forces.  From the moment they announced their presence, people rushed to embrace them: elves and dwarves, gnomes and pixies, sprites and sylphs and legendary creatures of all kinds. Or, for collective reference, the name they used to refer to themselves: The Laughing Folk.

Their propaganda had preceded them, setting men against one another in virulent factions. In retrospect, we should have recognized their advance agents. The disguises were weak, the glamours paper-thin. The political commentator, her books screaming “Treason!” at the party opposite--her long blonde hair, thin bony features, and icy demeanor all clearly characteristic of an elf.  The Congressman, chirping endlessly about how gold would solve every economic problem—his wizened face and stooped posture unmistakably gnomish.  The designer of tabletop roleplaying games, assigning noble motives and “good” alignments to non-human races, subtly encouraging young people to respect them--his squat form and long white beard notably dwarven.  

Also in April, JJ Outre Review found room for "Shift", an alternate history of the Apollo program with a lycanthropic twist:

The tiny vermin of this planet’s material plane came in endless, swarming multitudes, burying themselves in Ark-arr’s pelt, biting and sucking, sampling her rich, foreign blood. Scratching did little good. Shifting did better. When the itching and the irritation grew too much, Ark-arr flexed her mind, and changed, the blue skies and odd wildlife fading, replaced with a stark, sandy waste under a black sun. Ark-arr’s biology Shifted with her, her blood and breath adjusting automatically to the new atmosphere and environment. The alien parasites, she had discovered almost immediately, could not Shift. It seemed that all this world’s creatures were confined to the material. They had never known the darkside, the mirror reality to which the packs of Luna were native, and which housed the shattered remains of the voidship in which Ark-arr had traveled here. So she stepped outside of these lands, as into a cleansing bath. And under the dancing light from her still-blazing vessel, she found herself purified.

And then came May, in which I actually published, of all things, a poem; "A New Arrival's Guide to the Bottomless Pit" made the cut at Red Planet.

Were you a careless tourist, leaning on wobby railing?

Did a villain push you?  Were you are a villain yourself, pushed by a hero?

Were you overcurious?  Adventurous?  Merely clumsy?

It makes no difference, now that



is underway.

A new adventure! 

How wise you were 

to bring this guide along.


For all my unproductivity, there's still more in the queue.  In January comes my Coleridge/Joe's Apartment mashup "Warlord" at Flash Fiction Online. This will be my third credit at pro rates, and offers me the opportunity to apply for full SFWA membership, which was the goal I set for myself when I started writing short-form fiction in 2016. I'll return once again to the Australian markets in February, when Aurealis publishes my soccer ghost story "The Redemption of Declan Callahan".

And after that...silence.  I have a pretty lengthy fantasy piece which I consider to be one of the best two or three things I've ever written which is still wandering the wilderness, seeking a home.  I'm engaged in the research and drafting phase on a piece for an upcoming Ramones-themed anthology; this is pretty much the opposite of "write what you know" for me, as I enjoy the band but have no idea how music works and am pretty much the exact diametric opposite of "punk rock" personality-wise.

So a fallow period looms. But the thing about this game is, you never really know when you're out of it. The Magic Brain Elves are ever looming, waiting to descend with glorious concepts that demand to be written. Perhaps someday soon they will pay me a visit. If they do, I'll let you know.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

An Appreciation of Matthew X. Gomez's "God in Black Iron and Other Stories"


DISCLOSURE:  The author has, in his capacity as an editor, purchased and pubished my work in the past.

New Pulp features a number of gifted writers and—for now, at least—not as many enthusiastic readers. This results in an inevitable competition for attention. In some cases a writer who works to bring other contributors’ work to the public eye will pay an unfair price, as they’ll have less chance to bring attention to their own work.

Such is the case, I think, for Matthew X. Gomez. Widely known as half of the editorial team behind the celebrated periodical Broadswords and Blasters, he has also been carving out a niche of his own through stories published in Pulp Modern, Storyhack, Switchblade, and elsewhere. His richly entertaining first collection, God in Black Iron and Other Stories, demonstrates that Gomez’s gifts as a writer deserve wider acclaim.

I’ve previously encountered some of these stories in isolation, and I’d come to appreciate Gomez’s skills in terms of plotcraft and ability to establish a sense of place. Seeing his work gathered together has a different feel. Patterns emerge, and additional skills surface.

First, there’s the sheer genre range on display. From classic high fantasy to modern grimdark, light horror to weird western, cyberpunk and steampunk and whatever the hell “The Mead Trap” is, Gomez never comes across as an interloper treading cautiously in new terrain; his extensive familiarity with genre conventions not only to walk sure-footed down familiar paths, but also to make judgments as to when to most effectively break the rules and subvert reader expectations. “Comes a Slayer,” for instance, has the imaginative setting and trappings of magic you would expect in any dragon-hunt, but throws those features into sharp relief with a protagonist who’s all hard-headed practicality, obsessed with outfitting and provisioning, shunning a shining white charger in favor of a mule which he pointedly refuses to name. Paradoxically, a dragon hunter who cares nothing for style points makes for a more stylistic story.

I have also been underrating Gomez’s talent for portraying violence, and the attention he pays to detail in doing so. His characters go to war with pistols and polearms and crossbows and beer steins and axes and stun batons and scimitars and sixguns and spears both short and long and fists both fleshy and cybernetic. There are few "swords" here; instead, there are gladii, and zweihanders, and rapiers, and broadswords, and each is wielded with distinctive purpose. It is immediately apparent in every instance that Gomez has done his homework. His combatants—both heroic and villainous--have chosen their tools with care, they are familiar with the details of their use, and that their fighting styles are crafted to suit their strengths. There are no “hit points” here; each blow is calculated with anatomical purpose.  Every feint and positional gambit matters. Mistakes are punished, and expertise doesn’t grant you iron skin; Gomez’s heroes get hurt. This is handcrafted, artisanal violence, and it’s preferable to watching bladed supermen wade unscathed through scores of jumpsuited henchmen, or watching an expert marksman pick off targets while enemy stormtroopers fill the air with errant ammo (well, usually preferable; more on that later). I read this book immediately after Nicholas Eames’ Bloody Rose. And hell, I like Eames, for a variety of reasons. But strictly in terms of the texture of combat, I have no qualms about saying Gomez is better.

In terms of individual stories: “Crystal, Brass and Copper” was one of the best stories I read in 2018, either in or out of the confines of New Pulp, and if I’m picking the standout story in terms of craft, I think this is probably it.  The Saladin Ahmed-meets-steampunk aesthetic works brilliantly, but I also think this one features two of the author’s standout characters in the thief Bahar, who navigates believably from tragedy through trauma to triumph, and the inventor Ardeshir, who may or may not have a heart of gold, but is certainly capable of fashioning one on consignment. One of the best things you can say of a story is that it leaves you asking “and then what happened?” at the close. CBC has that effect.  I’d be glad of more stories involving either character, though Ardeshir seems to me to offer particularly interesting opportunities.

But “best” is not necessarily “favorite,” and my pick in that category has to be the final story, “Ashton and Marcus: The Mead Trap”, in which a couple of inter-dimensional roustabouts seek a break from their chaotic lifestyles, and don’t find it. I’ve spoken earlier about Gomez’s usual careful attention to the mechanics of violence and the importance of tactics. Ashton and Marcus represent the author reflecting on that talent, tossing it over his shoulder with a shrug, and Getting His Mayhem On.

And I’ve said I’m not generally a fan of that, but I think it might be more fair to say that it’s something I think an author has to earn. By all means, give me Bruce Campbell in Army of Darkness, wading waist-deep into undead hordes, but give me Evil Dead 2 first, so I can see the price he paid to wind up with that chainsaw prosthetic. Matthew X Gomez spends this whole book showing me an understanding of relationships, nuance, and battle planning. So, yeah, at the end, it’s OK for him to stuff Sam Raimi and Joe Lansdale and Larry Correia and HP Lovecraft into a blender and serve them to me in a bucket with a little paper umbrella on top. It’s fun, damnit. Ashton and Marcus’s interdimensional travel, and probable inability to learn from their mistakes, offers potentially infinite replay value. I could see this becoming a franchise. Think Hap and Leonard meets Bill and Ted.

So, yeah, you’ve got a tall stack of stuff to read and a limited amount of time to spend in fantasy universes at this point.  But I do believe that God in Black Iron and Other Stories is good enough that you’ll find your time well spent.  Here is a New Pulp author worthy of your attention.

Monday, June 1, 2020

The Privilege of the Anarchy Tourist

I have seen the sentiment expressed that the people who show up to protest police violence and the people who show up to break shit and steal things are two different groups. It's difficult to make an accurate assessment based on anecdotal incidents recorded on shaky cell phones, but it does seem to me that there's some truth in this claim. We've all seen the clips of white kids in masks wrecking stores while African-Americans beg them to stop.

So: if we act on the assumption that the looters are one group, and protesters are another, let's discuss how they became conflated. Because I think this is in large part the legacy of a specific kind of online commentator whose work I've encountered all-too-frequently this week. I call this person the "anarchy tourist."

The anarchy tourist sits in a quiet home, miles away from the action, raising a fist in proletarian solidarity as black communities burn. The anarchy tourist fills my social media feed with Langston Hughes poems about exploding raisins and references to "the language of the unheard" in between snacks purchased from a supermarket that the anarchy tourist knows will still be there tomorrow, and next year, and in a decade.

The anarchy tourist is the biggest badass in the world while sitting behind a keyboard. But he (it's ALWAYS a he) is behind that keyboard for a reason. Because if ever confronted by the realities he cheers on--a tear gas cannister, a burning building, an angry man wielding a fist full of rebar--the anarchy tourist would curl up in a little ball and cry.

The anarchy tourist believes property destruction is a distraction, a red herring offered up to distract us from the loss of Black Lives. Indeed, the anarchy tourist might well go further, and say that property itself is theft (this is a popular idea among those who've never lost everything).

But we have fifty years of hard-won experience with riots and their aftermath. And we've learned the hard way that a riot never really ends. Communities which experience rioting experience long-term economic devastation. Businesses that burn don't grow back, and new ones don't take their place.

The anarchy tourist doesn't like it when people talk from the perspective of the owners of these businesses. They are usually invisible victims. But many of them are people of color, and whatever their ethnicity, they lose their livelihoods, their dreams, and decades of effort and capital. Imagine serving a community for twenty years, building up networks of human connection--learning your customers' unique quirks and foibles, their hopes, the names of their children--and having it all snuffed out in seconds some pasty-faced undergrad in a black bandanna with a bottle of jellied gasoline.

But of course, it's not about the owners of the businesses primarily. In many cases we're talking about remotely owned chain stores. In these cases, when the business burns, dozens of local residents lose their source of income, and enter into the nightmare of unemployment during this second Great Depression. And their customers, many of whom lack reliable transportation, have to find new places to obtain their diapers. Their meals. Their insulin.

The owners matter. The employees matter. The customers matter.  These people matter. The anarchy tourist would likely acknowledge that, if pressed. But what matters more, to the anarchy tourist, is signalling his support for the struggle. There's no currency to be gained online through concern about property crime. So when he sees businesses and lives destroyed, the anarchy tourist screeches that it's a distraction from what really matters.

Or...what matters this week, anyway. Because last week, the anarchy tourist was up in arms about some other Greatest Outrage Ever. And next week, something new will be.

My friends on the left like to talk about "privilege". And when I watch the anarchy tourist, I think I understand what they mean. Privilege is watching somebody else's community burn on your TV, and taking pleasure in it as a necessary and desirable thing. Privilege is being able to make the carnage disappear with a flick of your remote control. Privilege is being warmed by the fire and not having to live in the ashes.

I watch those chains of African-American protesters standing between the stores at which they work and shop and a bunch of white kid cosplayers carrying garbage cans, and it seems like they maybe have something to tell me. I'm trying to listen. What I'm NOT trying to do--ever again, if I can help it--is sit behind a keyboard showing how "down with the cause" I am by playing anarchy tourist.

Anarchy tourists actively propagate structural racism under the banner of anti-racism.

Don't be an anarchy tourist.

Sunday, March 22, 2020


Faces are difficult.

I teach teenagers the art of public speaking. Most of them can, with prodding, master the fundamental mechanics of putting a speech together—assembling an argument, enhancing its credibility and clarity with supporting material, designing a “hook” at the beginning, and so on. Delivery of the speech is another matter. They’re perfect little chatterboxes in social situations, but when placed at the front of the room, with all eyes on them—no more eyes than they’d encounter at the lunch table, really—they often clam up and dissolve into squirming jelly.

It’s the faces, of course. The way a person narrows their eyes, a tiny flare of the nostrils, a tightening of the skin around the cheekbones—every little shift and twist conveys new information, and we’re trained from birth to recognize and react to it. And for someone who’s at a vulnerable age, terrified of the judgment of their peers, to have to deal with all of the difficult mechanics of giving a speech—and then to look up and see dozens of faces, each one projecting data with the intensity of a high-pressure fire hose—it’s often too much to bear.  No wonder they retreat behind their scripts! Much safer to smoothly read meticulously-crafted sentences off a notecard than to live in that terrifying moment of seeing and being seen!

I was a pretty decent public speaker even in adolescence, and developed rapidly once I made it an area of specialization. I’ve come to believe that may have something to do with my apparent position on the autism spectrum. I have always had a great deal of difficulty with faces—recognizing them, correlating them with names, understanding when they send me cues that I’m being offensive. I now think that this was my superpower as a developing public speaker. I never feared to look people in the face because I was largely blind to the sentiments those faces were expressing. I could just focus on getting my message across.

And yet, I came to realize as time went by that the ultimate goal of any really good public speaker was to achieve a sense of genuine connection with the audience, and to move past the process of “performing” into one of sharing genuine meaning. At its top level, public speaking isn’t about projecting information, it’s about exchanging information. The speaker initiates the conversation, yes, but is also receiving continual nonverbal feedback from the audience. Unspoken questions are asked. The best speakers use their eyes to listen for those questions, and seek to and answer them. Audiences broadcast emotions, and the speaker seeks to surf those emotions and to guide them. The audience’s faces are both a map of the terrain the speaker is traversing and a scoreboard assessing the speaker’s performance. And the “boss mission” of public speaking is to learn to love those faces—to look people in the eye not because you have to, but because you want to, because that is what makes the experience of speaking enjoyable.

Which brings me to the COVID-19 pandemic, and one of the weirdest situations I’ve faced (ahem) as a teacher.

Like thousands of other schools throughout the world, mine is moving classes online. Teachers are learning to master the use of new remote-learning technologies that allow us to teach kids who aren’t physically proximate to ourselves. There are some disciplines, particularly lecture-intensive ones, where this will probably work pretty well. Others, maybe not so much. God knows how phys ed is gonna operate.

Speech education, though, is going to a uniquely weird place.

As I write this, I’m sitting in front of the desktop computer monitor from which I will be teaching next week. The setup isn’t meaningfully different from your cell phone, I suppose; my web camera is positioned directly atop the monitor. So, when I teach, I’m going to be looking at the faces of my students on the screen, and they’ll be looking at mine, and those of their peers. But here’s the rub:  in order to maintain the appearance of eye contact, these quaran-teens will need to be looking not at the faces on the screen, but at the camera lens above them.

A paradox: the moment the speaker dares to look the listener in the eye, the listener sees the speaker look away.  After spending the first nine weeks of the semester training students to look at, and to enjoy looking at, the faces of their audience, I will now have to train them to specifically avoid that habit.

And I find myself wondering about the long-term consequences of this kind of social distance. I wonder what sort of speakers we will become if we learn that communication is the art of dodging the listener's face. I stare at the future through a glassy lens, and I worry. For all my lack of social aptitude, I have thrived in the proximity of my audience, in the realization that they are, like me, beasts of temperate flesh. I fear a world in which they devolve from that form into shapes on a screen, blobs of color in a black expanse.