Thursday, November 29, 2007

Sweatshop in our attic

Aviva is into sewing now. In addition to various more ambitious projects, she has been mending rips in jeans, shirts, what have you. She charges a swiss franc -- 89 cents -- a rip... which seems fair as I have to thread the needle and untangle the occasional tangle.

Recently she was in the middle of some altercation with Noah when, just as things were heating up, she noticed that he had a rip in the knee of his jeans. "Noah!" she cried. "Can I sew that?" "Sure," he said, and took off his pants. She went in search of her sewing kit.

So then we were at the church of the in-laws, at the Suppentag, drinking our soup which was, according to the placemats, to raise money to do something about child labor. I felt obligated to raise Aviva's consciousness about the issue.

Me: You know, some kids have to work every day.

Aviva: Really? Can I do that?

Me: No, I mean, not like fun work, like they have to work all day. Like, 10 hour days.

Aviva: Sounds good to me!

Me: For very little money.

Aviva: How much exactly?

Me: Like, a dollar a day.

Aviva: A whole dollar? Every day?

Me: Doing difficult work in bad conditions, like, um, sewing soccer balls in poor lighting...

Aviva: WHAT?? You can SEW soccer balls? That is AWESOME!

Me: okay, the first ten soccer balls would be fun but after a thousand soccer balls you would be wishing you were back in school!


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Only ten songs, and some notes on girls kissing

As a soundtrack while I'm coding, I've been renewing my acquaintance with contemporary pop music. The distribution of depth and superficiality, talent and schlock, doesn't seem to have changed any, at least to my not particularly sophisticated ear, in the last generation, but it's pop music's "plus ca change" quality, it's autophagic endless recycling of themes and tropes, that makes it an interesting social barometer.

Since there are really only ten songs ever (to wit:

  1. I want her/him
  2. We're so happy together
  3. Get the hell away from her/him before I break your face
  4. She/he broke my heart
  5. Get the hell out of my life
  6. Music/dancing will save us all, or at least is a worthwile way to spend the next five minutes
  7. Fuck society/my parents/the music business/religion/the state/consumerism
  8. I am the cat's pajamas and all the ladies/gentlemen/both seek my company
  9. I am a loser/drunk/drone/miserable wretch but at least I have a sense of pathos and/or humor about it
  10. watch me be arty
), they provide a framework, a kind of standard protocol, within which we can measure the drift and flow of social mores and customs, allowing us to see, in the distance between "but I'm always true to you, darling, in my fashion" and "my milkshake brings all the boys to the yard", what has changed, in a world where nothing changes.

One thing that's depressing, in a superficial browse of current music, is the degree of triumphalist misogyny: what the hell is up with "slap my bitch up" as a seemingly non-ironic lyric? Misandry lags; the female equivalent seems to be "I hate you so much right now", despite the fact that a lot of the male artists seem to cry out to be castrated with rusty shears. Meta...phorically.

But if anyone is writing a monograph called "The Queering of America" (and someone should be), surely a datapoint is to be found in the work of one Pittsburgh Slim, entitled "Girls Kiss Girls". It's not Mr. Slim is particularly clever or enlightened, or that the song is all that (though it's sort of catchy, which is pop's most critical virtue); rather, it's that we may plausibly assume that Mr. Slim represents the typical frame of mind of the typical college lad of the day. If the grandfather wore a fur motoring coat, waved a pennant heartily, ogled flappers and swallowed goldfishes, the grandson wishes in his turn to encourage girls to kiss each other, possibly at Spring Break in Florida.

It's not that the fetish is new by any means; it's the fresh-faced innocence of the song's conceit that makes it interesting. It's the song's protagonist's steady long-distance girlfriend who is successfully urged to girl-kissing, to its protagonist's great satisfaction.

Blur's 1994 "Girls & Boys", with its "girls who are boys who like boys to be girls who do boys like theyre girls who do girls like theyre boys", was self-congratulatorily risque and avant-garde, flaunting its progressive nonchalance about gender borders; fourteen years later, "Girls Kiss Girls" is unabashedly sexist and conservative on close to the same territory. As of 2008 (we conclude) the ideal girlfriend of the frat boy with the Heineken babe poster on his dorm room wall is an avowed bisexual.

That wasn't the case in 1988; I'd say it represents a shift of the same kind whereby that same frat boy's ideal girlfriend was sexually experienced, in 1988, in a way she wouldn't have been (or he wouldn't have been able to admit she was) in 1958.

I'm not sure any of this is cause for hope -- the sexual revolution and Stonewall here serve, after a generation's lag, simply to make our hypothetical lad feel threatened about fewer things in his self-indulgent mastery fantasies -- but it's interesting.

Now how long before we get a female artist to cover the song, swapping the genders? (I'd like to see Pink do it. Maybe Madonna, though it is hardly news that she likes when boys kiss boys. If Britney does it, the revolution will be at hand). It would also be interesting to see Tori Amos's (unregendered) feminist deconstruction a la "97 Bonnie & Clyde"...

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Thursday, November 8, 2007

Further Notes Towards A Genre Slapfight

Okay, and while I'm grousing about the Old Masters, a lot of the things in the Turkey City Lexicon strike me as a little off. Check this, in the middle of a list of loser "Common Workshop Story Types", all of the others of which are clearly No-Nos:

The Slipstream Story

Non-SF story which is so ontologically distorted or related in such a bizarrely non-realist fashion that it cannot pass muster as commercial mainstream fiction and therefore seeks shelter in the SF or fantasy genre. Postmodern critique and technique are particularly fruitful in creating slipstream stories.

Uhh... what? You say that like it's a bad thing. "Cannot pass muster"? "Seeks shelter"? And I cannot but read "particularly fruitful" here as all snidey-pants, like "postmodern critique... snort... get it? snigger snigger."

Now, maybe I'm reading too much into this, but this seems as if, you know, you went to Milford back in the day, with a crazy-ass surreal Link/Bender/McCarron/DeNiro story, ol' Damon would hold up a hand imperiously, mid-reading, and shake his head, saying, "no, no, no, no, no. That is a slipstream story. Seek shelter elsewhere, please." And point firmly at the door.

Also, check this one:

The Tabloid Weird

Story produced by a confusion of SF and Fantasy tropes -- or rather, by a confusion of basic world-views. Tabloid Weird is usually produced by the author's own inability to distinguish between a rational, Newtonian-Einsteinian, cause-and- effect universe and an irrational, supernatural, fantastic universe. Either the FBI is hunting the escaped mutant from the genetics lab, or the drill-bit has bored straight into Hell -- but not both at once in the very same piece of fiction. Even fantasy worlds need an internal consistency of sorts, so that a Sasquatch Deal-with-the-Devil story is also "Tabloid Weird." Sasquatch crypto-zoology and Christian folk superstition simply don't mix well, even for comic effect. (Attr. Howard Waldrop)

Dude, Howard, what? Sasquatch Deal-with-the-Devil is a great idea for a story. Might you not be misdiagnosing as "the author's own inability to distinguish between" what is actually, say, "the author's refusal to confine herself to a dichotomy between"? Whence this prissiness?

Also, speaking seriously, do you think folk traditions invested in the notion of magic are incapable of adapting themselves to new information presented by the Einsteinian-Newtonian worldview? The idea of making a strict distinction between "hard, shiny SF stories" and "quaint, mystical, dewy-eyed fantasy stories" smacks of a certain kind of fetishizing, orientalizing, othering treatment of those goofy, silly believers in the supernatural. This can only lead, I fear, to a Disney view of worldviews -- shiny Robots of the Future in the Hall of Science, Turks in turbans sitting on the oriental rugs of Aladdin's Tent, quaint Germans in Trachten with beer steins in the Octoberfest pavillion, witches cackling on broomsticks in Halloweenland -- which ignores the vibrant hybrids of the real world, the fact that the real München Oktoberfest of our real 2007 is chock full of Wiccan robotics engineers of Turkish ancestry.

Now, there's nothing wrong, I suppose, with making a snarky and biting list of funny names for bad workshop story types that you are sick of seeing. One could compare the Strange Horizons list, and not myself having ever had to read slush, I do not wish to judge those who, in slush-crazed frenzy, lance their festering, aching boils with the sweet, sweet relief of mockery. The folks to whom these Turkey City quotes are attributed have written some amazing, moving, masterful and brilliant fictions. And, no doubt, the stories that inspired these categorizations really were bad.

Nonetheless, one cannot avoid the sense of a bunch of folks who've mastered, oh, let's say, twenty-three of the proverbial nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, who are gathered together to snort milk out of their collective nose, laughing at the fumbling attempts of newbies to grope toward the other, missing, forty-six...

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Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Begin Genre Slapfight #34702

So there's this venerable tradition of criticism, teaching, and praxis within speculative fiction that says that the true speculative fiction story is one that "could not be told otherwise".

You know, the SF story that could not be told other than in the future, the fantasy story that could not be told other than with magic. If you could replace your smeerps with rabbits, or your murder aboard a space station with a murder aboard a steamer ship, then, we are assured by John W. Campbell, Damon Knight, the Turkey City Lexicon, and the other Ghosts of Our Genre Fathers and Mothers (I imagine them hovering holographically above the dashboard of Billy Batson's big white RV from the groovy 1970s TV version of Captain Marvel, in place of Solomon, Hercules, and the other heroes and sages of the Hellenic-Judaic Pantheon), it is Not The True SF.

What, I wonder aloud provocatively, does this actually mean? I mean, I understand this as a specific criticism directed at some specific piece of amateurish prose under workshopping -- "these exotic steeds upon which your heroes canter are clearly actually horses, please call them horses." Sure. I'm down.

But I've also seen this elevated into a higher virtue, into the notion that what a story in Our Beloved Genre is worthy to the extent that you could not tell "the same story" out of it.

I find this odd. In some, trivial but perhaps not actually all that trivial, sense, you can't tell "the same story" if you change even one word -- Delany makes this point eloquently in About Writing. The story is not the plot summary, it is the aggregate effect of all those words, one after another, building structures in your brain.

If we are, though, going to admit the idea of "equivalent" stories, those in which our smeerps are called rabbits and so on, couldn't you, in the manner of Shakespeare companies everywhere nowadays, set The Lord of the Rings in World War II? Or Dune in T.E. Lawrence's Arabia? Or "The Cold Equations" in a lifeboat in the Polar Seas, cut off from Nelson's navy?

And would that, you know, be so bad? There always seems to be a hint of beleaguered self-justification about the claim that "it could not be done elsewhere", as if that answered some accusation regarding it being done at all. Why should the past be an inevitable default setting, the future only admissible with a permission slip? Why do I need a hall pass signed by Mother Necessity to get out of the classroom of the mimetic? Why can't I put in villanous polymorphic tapirs just because villanous polymorphic tapirs are cool, while gangsters are, you know, boring?

I recall having related discussion with Ted a while ago -- can't find it online now (O fickle internet!) -- and I seem to recall that (shockingly) we agreed: that the issue was whether you took your premises seriously, whether you followed your own logic. If your story is set on Jupiter, things follow from that, and you should address them, if it is not to be an ungainly wreck. Moving a story from a cell beneath the Hall of the Mountain King to a cell beneath the Ministry of Love should have consequences, and they should be carried out. Sure. I'm not arguing against that -- just against the notion that there is something particularly to be sought in a story which cannot be so moved, a story which would (supposedly) be destroyed by such a move.

Are there any such stories, really? And are they a gold standard? Weigh in.

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