Monday, March 26, 2018

Ayn Rand for Gay Teens

There’s no Hollywood trope that’s further from reality than the “hero teacher” story.  Movies love the idea of a Jaime Escalante or a Joe Clark dropping out of a clear blue sky and turning around a classroom or building full of troubled youth.  Teachers—myself included—know better.  We’re useful and helpful people, and we need to be competent or better for a school to be the best version of itself.  But any school that achieves anything does so because its STUDENTS are heroes.  Every high-achieving school I’ve ever been involved with (and I’ve been part of several) has risen on the tide of its students’ drive and talent.

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is…well, it’s many things, isn’t it?  An astonishing break with the moral orthodoxy of its day, for one.  Prone to interminable passages of purple prose, for another.  One of the more interesting things about Atlas Shrugged, for me, is its transgressive attitude towards labor relations.  It asks the question: what if capital went on strike, as opposed to labor? Rand posits that the people putting in the important work all along aren’t necessarily the people you’d assumed.  But she also posits a unique strike strategy.  Rand’s “men of the mind” don’t march with placards; they aren’t directly defiant in any way.  Instead, they disappear into the woodwork.  They stop innovating.  They remove themselves from the occupations in which they have talent and do menial labor, working only with their muscles.  They aren’t noncompliant, they’re hyper-compliant.  In enacting this strategy, they reveal how important their volunteerism has been all along.

As a teacher, I’ve often wondered what would happen if the uncelebrated innovators responsible for a high school’s success—the students--implemented Rand’s strategy. What would happen if a group of kids decided their efforts were being taken for granted, and took an educational approach based on the idea of doing exactly what was required of them and nothing more?  In truth, this is every teacher’s nightmare.  The power of students is in many ways invisible to them; they have no idea just how little authority over their behavior teachers really have, how much of our power is a function of willing partnership.  With the events surrounding the Stoneman Douglas shootings, students are awakening to the realities of how much power they actually hold.  If anyone ever successfully organizes them as a unified block…

I knew early on, when I made the transition to short stories, that I would at some point make an attempt to rewrite Atlas Shrugged as a story of teen rebellion.  The final product, enhanced by romantic and science fiction twists, is “Been There, Done That,” which you can read in this quarter’s issue of TheColored Lens.  I generally workshop my stories with other writers before seeking to have them published, and edit based on the suggestions I’m given.  Among these beta readers, BTDT is by far my best-received story.  I hope you’ll enjoy it as well.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Love of Craft: An Appreciation of Cirsova #5

New Pulp has no flagship. No Admiral on Earth could keep these particular frigates from sailing joyously off in whatever direction they please. But…if New Pulp DID have a flagship, it would probably be Cirsova. Under P. Alexander’s leadership, the magazine has acquired a wide enough following to lock down a Hugo nomination, and will soon publish its seventh issue. 

Issue #5 is seen by many as a particular bright spot for Cirsova, with stories nominated for both the Planetary and Ursa Major awards.  Recognizing the opportunity to achieve a wider readership, the editors elected to make the issue free via Amazon for a week.  I like New Pulp, for the most part.  I like free things even more. I jumped at the chance.

Cirsova #5 is divided more or less evenly between standard tales of pulp adventure and a thematically linked series of stories from Misha Burnett’s “Eldritch Earth” universe.  The editor describes the concept as a sort of Lovecraft-Burroughs fusion:  the setting is the Earth during the Triassic era, at the tail end of its occupation by squamous alien entities who have not yet retreated to their slumber beneath the glaciers. The Great Race are still hanging around their back porches, where they shake their pseudopods irascibly at the kids in their yards, while various subject races of their creation squabble for control of the primordial world. One of those subject races is humanity, and it’s on that basis that the writers seek to wed the “sword and planet” heroic fiction concept to the Lovecraftian milieu.

I struggle with this idea, and Mr. Alexander’s own notes at the outset of the issue anticipate my objection:

“I have found cause for gripe about a lot of fiction that’s labelled ‘Lovecraftian’—the biggest being that it is not particularly Lovecraftian at all. To a large extent, ‘Lovecraftian’ falls into the same rut as Steampunk, only instead of gluing gears to everything, it’s tentacles.”

This begs the question:  what IS Lovecraftian fiction?  For me, the defining characteristic is a cosmic horror born of the sudden realization that humanity is not, in fact, at the top of the food chain; indeed, that from a universal perspective, we’re not even insects.  Lovecraft posits that entities exist whose motives are not exactly malevolent, but so far beyond our understanding that to even encounter them is a sanity-shattering experience.

Bluntly, I don’t know that this leaves much room for the heroic.  I don’t think Lovecraft’s stories would have been improved if Randolph Carter had been handed an SMG and he’d started mowing down shoggoths.  New Pulp is a celebration of human ability and potential.  Lovecraft’s message is “your abilities are irrelevant in a cosmic context, and you are potentially something’s dinner.”  I don’t think, in short, that heroic fiction can be made Lovecraftian by gluing some tentacles to it.

All the stories of Cirsova #5 are well-written on a line-by-line level, but there are times when the conceptual tensions show. The stories work least well when they try to transplant Robert E. Howard to the Triassic, with brawny iron-age heroes mowing down scads of enemy henchmen and advancing towards boss fights.  Additionally, the whole Eldritch Earth concept is still in an early stage developmentally, and as with other such experiments (notably Baen’s Grantville) there are times when the authors involved seem to be proceeding from fundamentally incompatible concepts of how the story’s world works.  I can just about buy that humanity was designed as a slave race by Mind Flayers, but what’s up with all these other late-Pleistocene mammals popping up all over the place?  The horses?  The dogs?  The tapirs?  Or even Cretaceous critters such as birds, for that matter?  These aren’t story-killers, but they’re anti-atmospheric and destructive of reader immersion, and the Eldritch Earth stories will become more fun for readers once the authorial community leaves the tropes of iron-age Earth behind.

Now, all that aside, there is some damned good stuff in here.  In fact, in spite of my conceptual misgivings, the Eldritch Earth stuff is as a whole the better half of the issue.  Three stories in particular stood out to me.  My favorite is actually not one of the two award nominees; rather, I’d opt for the Eldritch Earth creator’s own contribution, IN THE GLOAMING O MY DARLING by Misha Burnett. Burnett’s tale is, for me, the most Lovecraftian of the bunch, in the sense that it places its two young protagonists in a helpless position at the mercy of alien enemies with inhuman agendas. The pathos of their situation is well-conveyed; both characters pop as individual personalities and earn the audience’s rooting interest. In addition to being a skilled crafter of characters, Burnett shows a willingness to abandon the conventions of heroic fantasy when doing so serves the story.

Schuyler Hernstrom decidedly does not abandon the conventions of heroic fantasy. But why the hell would we want him to? Some people are just right for their role, and Hernstrom is unmistakably right as an author of New Pulp.  The Planetary Award-nominated THE FIRST AMERICAN is a story born of a genuinely brilliant twist on the Eldritch Earth formula, the nature of which is foreshadowed in the title. Unmistakably Barsoomian in its approach, the story is action-focused in the extreme, the plot not so much advanced in stages as shot out of a cannon.  And only a fool would wish it to be otherwise. In the passages above, I’ve been dismissive of the “slaughter henchmen en route to the boss” formula, but damnit, we NEED that sort of story sometimes, and there’s a huge difference between seeing that sort of story done well and seeing it done badly.  Hernstrom does it so well that I worry he may have been born seventy years too late to find his audience. Hernstrom is potentially the paradigm-defining author of New Pulp.

I was also a big fan of S.H. Mansouri’s Ursa Major-nominated BEYOND THE GREAT DIVIDE, the title of which describes the author’s daring decision to adopt the perspective of the insectile Slagborn, one of humanity’s rival races.  Looking at humanity through segmented eyes, Mansouri successfully conveys a very Lovecraftian sense of human fragility and impossible odds, but succeeds nonetheless in conveying a sense of hope. In particular I respect Mansouri’s judgment in rejecting the obvious authorial decisions—rather than going with the “hive mind” concept, he adopts a more interesting perspective that fuses individual identity with collective reasoning, and rather than rejecting emotional influences on his perspective characters, he permits them to be influenced by them in insidious ways, with full awareness, as if anger were a drug.

Cirsova #5 is, above all else, a reminder of what wonderful days these are to be an author and a reader. Even five years ago, these authors would have been scrambling to shape their unique visions to a corporate audience, and those who enjoy their work would have been subsisting on inferior scraps from other sources. Technology truly has proven liberating for both creators and their audiences. Here’s hoping that Cirsova’s still around to scratch its readers pulp itch for a long, long time.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Sneetches of Sexuality

"The Book That Turned Me Gay," a story which could well prove career-ending for me, is up at The Overcast.  Podcaster JS Arquin absolutely crushes the narration, providing wonderful character distinction and a narrative spirit entirely faithful to my vision of the story.  There's also an audio postscript to the story, narrated directly by me, which 1. explains why I wrote it, and 2. demonstrates that I really, really need to buy a new mic.

In that postscript, I reference the situation at the library at the school which employs me.  The real world version of the story has no villains, and certainly no counterpart to Weston Munsch.  The school library--er, the "learning commons"--is in capable hands, and everybody involved, from administration on down, is operating from understandable motives.  But I make no apologies for being bothered by it.  I'll always push back against the sentiment that a high school can be made a better place by having fewer books around.  God bless librarians, Little Free and otherwise.

A secondary theme of the piece, which I don't discuss in my postscript, is the fundamental futility of wondering why people develop same sex attraction.  There's a bizarre maze of arguments and agendas wrapped up in the question.  Progressives who believe in virtually no prenatal component to cognition, who would be desperately offended by the assertion that other aspects of character or ability are largely determined in the womb, suddenly assert that non-traditional sexual orientations are ENTIRELY prenatal--that kids are "born this way" and that environment plays no part at all.  Meanwhile, conservatives who believe that government is utterly incapable in every other area of human life suddenly convince themselves that government affirmation is the key to civic virtue, and moreover, that gay kids can be trained like dogs.  These intellectual contortions are amusing.  The problem is the idea that it's necessary to make these arguments in order to justify or dejustify homosexual orientation or behavior.

But it isn't necessary.  The question of where sexual attraction comes from is immaterial.  Nobody else has the right to tell you who to love.  This is equally true in a world in which nature makes people gay, in which God makes people gay, in which people become gay because it's fashionable, or in which aliens are creating homosexuals as a labor force to build landing strips outside Des Moines.  The question "why are people this way" blinds us to the more important question of "what should we do," the answer to which is, "treat people with respect regardless of how they use their genitals."  We make it more complicated than it ought to be.

The other question which readers will ask is:  who the hell am I, a straight white guy, to write about gay kids?  The short answer to which is: a human with an interest in the welfare of other humans, which is all the qualification I need.

A somewhat longer answer:  I'm a believer in imaginative empathy.  I believe that fiction can help us to appreciate the humanity of people who may not be exactly like us in terms of ethnicity, income level, or sexual orientation. I recognize that representations of experiences that aren't our own are likely to be imperfect, but I don't think that's a good reason not to write.  If our identities are defined intersectionally, then NOBODY'S experience is like our own, and memoir becomes the only legitimate form of creative expression.  The fear of imperfect representation is valuable if it causes us to try to write more accurately, but poisonous if it keeps us from writing at all.

For this reason, I choose to take risks.  I imagine life from the perspective of people who aren't me--women, LGBTQ individuals, Congolese child soldiers.  I research as thoroughly as possible and check my work, when I can, with people whose lived experiences are similar to those of my characters.  And then I turn the work loose, and subject it, and myself, to judgment.

This week I re-read A Wrinkle in Time in anticipation of the movie.  I was struck, as I did so, at the utter fearlessness of Madeleine L'Engle.  She opens the book with "It was a dark and stormy night."--the exact line Charles Schultz has Snoopy use when he's up on his doghouse being a hack writer.  L'Engle's characters are colorful in ways which other writers wouldn't dare, sometimes successfully (Charles Wallace and Meg) and sometimes less so (has any human being in history ever spoken the way Calvin O'Keefe does in this book?).  She ladles the Christianity and the techno-magic on in heaping helpings, and dares the reader to disbelieve.

I'm no Madeleine L'Engle.  I can't match her writing chops or purity of spirit.  But I can try to be more like her.  I can choose to write without shame, and to set aside my fear of judgment in order to tell my stories. 

And I do so choose.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Giving you the Finger

Greetings, readers of The Arcanist.  I promise that, despite that story, I'm not a horrible person (or a horrible anything else).  Plenty of more cheerful stories are linked in the banner at right.  And I've got another one on the market that has an adorable baby goat in it, so there's that.