Thursday, June 30, 2016

Israel “Bradda Iz” Kamakawiwo’ole - a Hawaiian Superman

EDIT: A lot of people have been hitting this post lately so I re-read it. I thought I should note it was written in response to a discussion about the character Maui in the movie Moana, where some people had objected to the character's body as looking obese.  I wrote up this quick Introduction to Iz post for people unfamiliar with him.  And even though I included several Iz songs, I forgot the one actually about Maui, so here you go.

See any resemblance to the movie Maui?

While talking about Maui on File 770 and elsewhere, I made references to the song Maui Hawaiian Suppa Man that zipped right past people, so I realized I was being obscure and regional and decided to elucidate. Most people are probably more familiar with his cover of Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What A Wonderful World, which he impulsively recorded in the middle of the night when he was having trouble sleeping.

Iz might also relate to the last post, about body shame and Polynesians.  He was a very large man, and I get the distinct impression that his image was factored into the design of the character Maui. Iz was probably not a demigod but he was a mountain among men in ways that go far beyond the physical. He’s one of my heroes.

One of my prized possessions is a personal autograph from him, from the time he played the Marin Civic Center – his only mainland appearance. He sang so hard he nearly cracked the sound board in half. By the end of it he needed his oxygen tank, and he signed autographs for us while the mask was strapped onto his face. 

One thing about Hawai'i musicians is that after the show they will usually sign autographs, even if they are a great big huge deal like Bradda Iz filling up the Marin Civic Center. He had us line up and come on stage and he signed for each of us. It was an amazing show, and that massive voice was so strong and resonant it occasionally overwhelmed the sound board (those devices aren’t meant to withstand that kind of vocal power).
I distinctly remember the first time I heard him. I was in an airport-hotel shuttle van, on my first trip back to Honolulu since my childhood, and “Hele On to Kauai” came on the radio, and I heard The Voice.

I love a singer with a distinctive voice. Adele. Freddy Mercury. Barry Gibb. Tom Waits. Elvis. Sinatra. Stevie Nicks. People who can be instantly identified by a single syllable falling out of their mouth. I recognized that I was hearing one of those singers, so I did what I normally do in that situation – turn my brain into a digital recorder and memorize a chunk of melody and lyric that seems distinctive.  So I can go look it up later, or ask someone who knows.

Now this was back when there were still CD stores, so I found one. And I went up to the cashier and said I want the song that goes “la la la to Hawai’i.” The cashier instantly knew what I was singing about and sold me a cassette of E Ala E, which was a gateway drug.

I got seriously addicted to Hawaiian music. I bought everything by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, on CD, and I got into other artists like Hapa and Keali’i Reichel and Dennis Pavao and Anuhea and on and on and on and lidat. 

But Iz was special. There was nobody like Iz. He was born May 20, 1959, and he grew up in a neighborhood of Honolulu called Kaimuki which is known for deep history and good food. Possibly that’s behind the reason he topped out at over seven hundred pounds. When he was signing my autograph I was in awe because he was over three times as big as me. He was the biggest human being I have ever seen.

There’s debate to the extent to which obesity results from poor personal choices. I was an extremely overfed child, and as an adult I could only maintain a lower size by being very tough on myself – and sometimes that toughness extended my physical boundaries and manifested as judgmentalness against people that were not quite as tough.  So I definitely understand the impulse between not wanting to reward people for self-indulgence, but then I got older. And I started to chill out regarding all that judgmentalness. Partially because of this man’s voice, reminding me where I came from.

As I understood the gist of the fat-shaming controversy in the last post, it’s that we shouldn’t show extremely obese people in media because it glorifies them and makes small children want to be just like them. I think that’s kind of a specious argument, and it erases people. I will note that Iz died at age 38 due to complications related to his morbid obesity. And that his coffin lay in state at the capitol, which is not an honor awarded very often at all. I'm not sure whether that’s glorifying, but I can tell it's a sincere tribute and a great honor.

One of Bradda Iz’s most touching songs is Hawai'i 78.

The song starts out with chanting, the state motto, proclaiming that the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness. Then the singer wonders what the ancients would think of our modern world.

This song came out during what is now called the Hawaiian Renaissance. Local culture was encouraged, after far too many years of being suppressed. Not so much the hard side, with its fighting and stratification and cruelty, but the art side, the dancing and music and food, all tempered with the peaceful side of Christianity via Queen Ka’ahumanu. Embodied by this remarkable looking man with a distinctly bicultural name.

I have a whole extended rant on how rock and roll is just one of the many things that resulted from the Empire’s running up against a wall made of mana when it discovered the South Pacific. There have been many other developments, such as the fact you can now get seared ahi in Kansas City, but I’ll blather about that later. For now I’ll just offer an observation that in this particular culture war, the ideas that lost were the angry and violent ones (from all sides), and the ideas that prevailed involved binding concepts like peace and love (from all sides).

Anyway, I’ll exit out of this Bradda Iz rant by leaving you with my favorite song by him: Henehene Kou Aka.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Moana and Fat Shaming

Since my last piece about Moana I read this article accusing it of fat-shaming Polynesians by making Maui a great big dude. (Link includes cool video with Isoa Kavakimotu explaining that strongmen aren’t built like bodybuilders because the latter are more about the aesthetics, and to him, the Maui character looks more like a guy who could pull islands out of the ocean than a guy who poses while dressed in half a yard of spandex, or Kevin Sorbo.

Maui's not wearing any spandex

Kevin looks like he needs a nap
My unscientific measuring method indicates the Maui character is a little under three fists wide.  I started looking for pictures of Dwayne Johnson to derive his width in fists, and the first picture I found had some puppies obscuring his fists. Since I like puppies, I decided to go with this picture anyway, and stop trying to measure things on my computer monitor by comparing them to my pinky joints. 
Awwww puppies
I note that the original fat-shaming post, which compared poor Maui to a hippo-pig, has been taken down. And meanwhile, I’m a little perplexed about the exact nature of the shamefulness, other than it was alleged to harm impressionable children in some indetermined fashion. (Whenever I hear that particular claim, giant neon orange letters spelling out “LOOK OUT, MANIPULATIVE ARGUMENT AHEAD” start flashing through my brain, but that’s probably just me.)

I don’t think Disney is guilty of racist hippopiggery, or fat shaming, but I’m not here to be one of those jerks that goes around telling people with hurt feelings that their feelings aren’t really hurt. And that feeling hurts: “Oh hell yeah, one of my people just got a part in something big and fantastic and important and … as it turns out, they’re playing the part of the fool.” 

So as some cold, wet comfort to the people who wanted a more beefcakey and glowering hero, there's always Jason Momoa as Aquaman. 
Well ahoy there
(And the Marvel stuff will be on the opposite side of the theme park from Adventureland, where the Moana stuff will be, right next to Enchanted Tiki Room and all that delectable Dole Whip, so the Moana and Momoa fans never need to encounter each other, because it looks an aesthetics kind of fight and those can get scary.)

I’m guilty of making my own character of extremely distant and diluted Polynesian ancestry slightly chubby as the story begins, although he loses most of it by the time they get past the pliosaur fight and the trigger-happy cops. I wanted to show he lives a life of excitement and leisure, sailing around dangerous waters with his own personal chef. He’ll probably gain at least some of it back by the end of the trilogy.

But you know, one of the awesome things about books is that you can have characters that are so unusual looking they could never work in Hollywood -- you can't really pull that off with movies. Movies employ actors, who are facially and bodily neutral as part of their job. Animated movies have a little more leeway, but ultimately that's why I prefer books. Although I'll admit that occasionally it's nice to look at pictures, to help alleviate eyestrain from reading.

I’m guilty of another thing which I actually want to apologize for. “Hawaiian” is an English word and as such needs no ‘okina, unlike Hawai'i. I have readjusted my autocorrect accordingly. 

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Talking Story About Moana, and Hawai'i, and Lidat

The trailer for the new Disney film, Moana, recently came out. I am stoked.

Moana is the first Polynesian Disney Princess. I have seen some internet discussion questioning whether it is appropriate for the demigod Maui (the Hawai’ian superman) to dominate Princess Moana’s movie trailer.

I thought it was, since Maui seems to have a similar role in this movie as the genie did in Aladdin, which is one of my favorite Disney movies. Nobody got too upset about Robin Williams upstaging whatshisname in that movie, but then, there wasn’t a princess dynamic occurring.

Historical footnote: Hawai’i – and I spell it with the ‘okina thank you very much – actually had Princesses, as well as Queens. Such as Ka’iulani, who was attending school in London when her country was overthrown by US businessmen; they made a decent movie about her. Or Liliuokalani, who wrote the song Aloha Oe while imprisoned inside her own palace. Or Ka’ahumanu, who challenged the gods by eating bananas, among other things. It was Ka’ahumanu, in fact, who got me to reconsider simplistic ideas I’d once had about European contact filling in for the fall from paradise. She grew up in a brutal pagan warrior culture with a strict and stratified caste system that forbade delicacies like pork and bananas to all but men of the elite class, who could kill peasants at whim while telling them living this way was what the gods demanded. Ka’ahumanu dared the old pagan gods to strike her down for violating their taboos, and converting to Christianity. She made me reconsider some of the memes that used to circulate around the Bay Area nerd community about how pre-Christian cultures were all a bunch of matriarchal life-affirming vegan utopias before the wicked Europeans arrived with their mean sky god. Which isn’t to say that Christianity didn’t have a frequent detrimental effect on island cultures – but it did go to efforts to preserve the language and certain aspects of the culture in a way rather different than what Christian cultures had done upon encountering South and Central American cultures. 

For instance, writing things down. The Polynesians had a remarkably consistent language over thousands of nautical miles, especially impressive compared to Europeans with their multiplicity of languages packed into a small geographic space. Different clerics introduced spelling variants, such as “fah-fee-nay” versus “va-fee-nay”versus “va-hee-nay”, all of which translate to “woman.” 

I lived on the islands of Maui and Oahu until I was about ten, at which point my family moved back to the mainland and I didn’t get back to the islands for another twenty years. I happened to be present in the islands due to the decisions of four people:

My biological mother, S, decided she wanted to be Margaret Mead but her daddy refused to pay for her anthro degree, so she decided to pay for it herself by working as a dental hygienist – in Hawai'i.

My biological father, Jimmie Gooseman, decided to be an engineer sailing around on submarines carrying nuclear weapons, just in case of World War III, while marrying and seducing as many women as possible. And drinking heavily, due to regret regarding these other decisions. He and S had a fling, she tried to dump him after she found out the depths of no good to which he was, and then they ran into each other at a party in Honolulu at which both of them were drunk, and here I am. I didn’t discover that I somehow managed to name myself after his boat (the USS Charr) until he’d been dead twenty years, and I’m told I resemble him. He’s the only one of the four I’ve never met, so I’m mentioning his name. I’m told he fathered quite a few people ranging from California through Asia all along the South Pacific, and perhaps someday I’ll find some of the others. 

My adoptive mother, L, decided to adopt because her family carries Huntington’s Disease, and she didn’t want to give birth to her own children and watch them die from it.

And my adoptive father, C, decided he wanted to live in Shangri La. That’s a magical fantasy town in an old book and movie called Lost Horizon, somewhere in an inaccessible location in Asia. It’s full of peaceful, lovely people who dance and sing and treat the intrepid white explorer who discovers them like a king. Since Shangri La isn’t real, he moved to Maui instead, taking along his shy and submissive bride who wasn’t too keen on the idea. But she wanted to please her hubby, so she followed him to one of the last remaining outposts of manifest destiny. He managed various five and dime stores, and combinations of them, while trying to convince us, and himself, that he was a wise respected white patriarch in a faraway land, instead of a guy who dropped out of college to run off to the territories and feed his ego bossing non-white people around.

I grew up kind of spoiled, and therefore I was bullied, and then I got in trouble for fighting back, and as a result of all that I changed schools a lot. My childhood memories are mostly about beaches and banyan trees and playing in the sprinklers on hot days, with occasional vague faces passing through, so I can’t say I have any personal connections in the island, other than with the sand and sea and sky.

When I was ten we returned to the mainland, where I fell in with a bunch of other nerds, many of whom were into Eurocentric things that seem to fascinate a lot of mainland people – medieval recreation, and morris dancing, and stonehenge, and Celtic harps. I learned about the ancient mystic lands of the white people and their history, and I got to see the culture where I grew up exoticized through their eyes. A mysterious land full of hot ladies shaking their booties, and jungle drums, and cannibals, and surfers, and grass skirts. And I almost fell for the peaceful-matriarchies-of-the-distant-past thing, before Ka’ahumanu flung the banana peel of common sense in my direction.

I made my first trip back in my thirties. Back to the tourist trap full of superficial jocks, instead of visiting someplace with castles like a proper nerd. I found a lot of things had changed. The colonialism was being thoroughly dissected, for one thing.  I fell in love with my homeland, and I read about its history, voraciously, and educated myself about Queen Ka’ahumanu, among others.

Some of it I had learned in school. I already knew about the boats navigating across the South Pacific, carrying people who trained themselves to subsist on low rations in the direct sunlight for extended periods, following vague maps woven from seashells. I knew about ‘Iolani Palace, and what had happened there. I wasn’t quite sure when the Civil War had happened, but I knew exactly why America had thrown in for World War II, as I had stood over the corpse of the USS Arizona, watching oil continue to leak out.

I’ve found that I need to go back every few years, for some kind of inarticulable spirit nourishing that happens whenever I’m in contact with the sea and the sky and the food and the smells and the sounds, and the way the sun sets, and the way the stars glitter in the sky. In Hawai'i, these things happen in a way aligned with my personal version of normal … and like that.  (Which, in the islands is pronounced “anlidat.”)

I fantasize about moving back, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable living there. There are already way too many transplanted haoles, and I’d just be another one, working long hours and spending my weekends trying to find a beach where there aren’t too many homeless people camped out to throw me stink eye as I paddle around in the surf. So I get my air and hotel packages and schedule my vacations, and I wander around re-exploring coastlines. One time when I was doing that I wound up hanging around talking story with a lady a little older than me who was another island-born haole, and she mentioned that while she was a United States citizen, she was not an American. And that resonated with me, in that North America is my adopted land mass but I find its customs and mannerisms deeply weird in certain ways.

One of these weirdnesses has to do with how Polynesia is coded as Adventureland – a male place, for guys sailing to Shangri La.  A land where women shake their grass skirts in enticing ways. A respite for battleweary soldiers, headed back and forth from Vietnam. Pirates, and Indiana Jones, and cannibals bopping to the beat of their jungle drums. Fierce warrior cultures, venerating Kukailimoku with generous blood sacrifice. A place for the brave, the athletic, and the scantily dressed. Not really a place for ladies, let alone girls.

Lilo and Stich, believe it or not, was one of the first movies I can recall that dealt with female adventures in paradise, while refusing to turn the islands into a slice of cartoonishsly sexy danger as seen through the eyes of some intrepid white adventurer. I trust Disney to do Moana right in that respect.

I’m planning to visit Hawai'i in a few months, and I’m quivering with anticipation. Until then, here’s my list of

Ten Other Movies About Hawai'i and/or Polynesia to Watch Until Moana Comes Out (That Aren’t Too Bad)
  1. Lilo and Stich – I had to wait many years to see my own personal saga of being the worst hula student at the halau depicted on the screen, but it was well worth it.
  2. Blue Hawai'i – Elvis shakes his pelvis all over Oahu and Kauai, and sings a heavenly steel-guitar infused version of “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” to a sweet older Hawai’ian lady.
  3. Jurassic Park – what if there were dinosaurs on Kauai?
  4. The Descendants – George Clooney as a Hawai'i-born haole trying to live Aloha.
  5. James Michener’s Hawai'I – this extremely fat and enjoyable book was made into two films. In the first one, a New England preacher has his faith rearranged while ministering to Lahaina. In the second, a local comes down with leprosy and is sent to the notorious colony at Kalaupapa.
  6. Princess Kaiulani – I linked the IMDB for this picture up there somewhere. I recommend it because it’s a portrait of an intelligent Polynesian lady, in European-style clothes, getting a London education, reminding you that there’s a little more to islanders than grass skirts and babytalk.
  7. Picture Bride – this is the tale of a Japanese woman who goes to marry a Maui sugar cane worker, sight unseen, back in the plantation days.
  8. Whale Rider – this is a movie about Maoris, who are very different from Hawai'ians, but they’re also Polynesians. It’s a story about a little girl and her relationship with her father. 
  9. Kon-Tiki – on the surface, this is a movie about whether people could sail across the South Pacific on flimsy little boats and survive. If you start digging for deeper context and read other material about Kon Tiki and Polynesian navigation, you’ll find all kinds of craziness about “Aryan Polynesians” and you might even come across the fascinating tale of the Hōkūleʻa.
  10. The Quiet Earth – this is also on my list of Best Science Fiction Films Of All Time. Again, it’s set in New Zealand and not Hawai'i, and has to do with a haole contemplating colonialism, among other things.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Brexiting Up Is Hard To Do

I am in shock over Britain’s recent abandoning of the imperial system unifying and/or oppressing most of the planet (which they built). 

I’ve been thinking about Brexit-type situations for the past couple of years. It’s a plot point in my story, where one particularly difficult country struggles to get along with the others under an EU or UN type organization, with drastic trickledown effects on my hero. I had assumed this kind of situation would never actually happen in real life, thus making it an appropriate plot device for a kids’ adventure tale. That would never happen in real life, actual countries have smart and mature people governing them to prevent stupidness from occurring – or so I thought, back when I was more naïve.

Now I almost want to write a story in which Sony-Disney-Amazon buy England and turn it into a theme park, with fake jousting in Buckingham Palace and animated projections of dragons and pirate ships flying over London all night. With an intrepid party of five children trying to escape from it, in homage to E. Nesbit. But I can’t, because if it turned out to be prophetic I’d feel just terrible.

Fortunately Amazon settled its class action against the voracious, predatory evil corporate publishers who killed the midlist, and as a result I got a nice fat credit. That I can spend on more books, to distract me from all this current events angst. Sweet.

I’ve spent my first chunk of windfall on all the Hugo nominated novels that I didn’t already have, i.e., Butcher and Stephenson. Even though I already have my free Hugo packet copy of Seveneves. I was so impressed with the inclusion of the whole thing that I bought it anyway, just so I can read it on my phone. And I’m really falling hard for Seveneves. I’m not sure if I’ll make it through the Ancillary climax due to the mind stuff. While I could tolerate Stephen King’s recent lapse into mind stuff, I don’t know Ms. Leckie as well as Stephen King) (the gender stuff is fine, it’s the mind stuff that sets my teeth on edge).

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Two Of My Favorite Writers Interview Each Other

Wouldn’t it be awesome if they collaborated on the end of A Song of Ice and Fire? Yeah, yeah, I can dream.

Mr. King provided me with some more shining examples of role modely goodness. He admitted that he did The Dark Tower without any interference from any meddling editors, and he stressed the importance of cranking out six pages a day (geez!), and Mr. Martin talked about youthful memories of composition books with black marbled covers full of handcrafted science fiction.

They spend some time talking about the latest American mass murder committed by a deranged closet case Afghani with a high powered gun in Orlando. I mentioned in my last post that I was feeling slightly less hostile toward the Puppies this year, but after checking out their blogs following the Orlando incident, I was reminded that I disagree with them on a very fundamental level. I’m going to try not to slander them, though, because I’m Lawful and slander goes against my alignment.

I also think it’s reasonable to put a lot of obstacles in the way of people who subscribe to the chaotic and/or evil alignments and high-powered firearms.  And until humans finally succeed at developing a way to reliably distinguish those who subscribe to the good alignment from everybody else, that probably translates to putting obstacles in everybody’s way with regard to firearms. Once we have a nice consistent evilscanner, we can resume letting all the good guys who want to be good guys with guns have enough guns to massacre hundreds of innocent unsuspecting noncombatants within minutes. Assuming they still want them.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Voting for the Hugos: Abstentions, Fan Writing and Campbell

I had some kind of … is there a word for negative epiphany? There should be.  It had to do with my diminished anger for the Sad and Rabid Puppies this year.

Last year, I read all the various attacks and hit pieces, and found most of them were substantiated, but not all. I gave the Puppies a fair hearing in that I read the nominated works with an open mind, but they didn’t convince me they’re part of some kind of new art trend toward dorky adrenalin-based non-dystopian sci fi. Which is a good thing, because that’s what I’m writing, and I don’t want to be part of a trend that has a bunch of people that go out of their way to hate on greater than 50% of humanity in it. I try to avoid standing next to people like that whenever possible. 

I do dislike certain of the human and corporate Puppy entities who appeared for all intents and purposes to be orchestrating the the awards last year so as to shut out the most successful indie in years while suckering innocent science fiction readers with “hugo winner” blurbs on the covers of brain-meltingly horrible prose. 

OMG!  I want that in my epitaph!  “She wrote brain-meltingly horrible prose.”  Anyway.

Since whatever new voting scheme is unveiled at Midamericon2 will negate future shenanigans, and since I'm in a good mood from not having to read anything by John C. Wright this year, I don't really care about the slates for these categories. I'm leaning more toward abstaining than no-awarding -- let the people who know/care enough to have an opinion work it out. 
BEST EDITOR – SHORT FORM (1891 ballots)
Editors are for corporate scoundrels; abstaining. 
BEST EDITOR – LONG FORM (1764 ballots)
Toni Weisskopf. This is an “okay, you were technically right” vote to compensate for my “no award” last year, which should have been an abstain. Then after I get done voting for her, I’ll get back to abstaining.
BEST SEMIPROZINE (1457 ballots)
Abstaining, but I’m really glad that I now know what semiprozines are, and have read some of them.
BEST FANZINE (1455 ballots)
  • File 770 edited by Mike Glyer
My best comment I’ve ever posted there was a filk that started “My pappy said hon, you’re gonna drive me to drinkin’ if you don’t stop clickin’ that pixel scroll linkin’ …” It wanders amidst a massive galaxy of comments even more erudite and brilliant, sucking its thumb for comfort.
BEST FANCAST (1267 ballots)
BEST FAN WRITER (1568 ballots)
  • Mike Glyer
Mr. Glyer does journalism right. He covers everything and more. He’s not afraid to post both sides of controversies and yet he stands firmly behind good ideas, such as inclusion, and not going out of your way to piss off <50% of humanity. Plus he can brain real good, and his cites are solid. If Gandalf were a Ravenclaw, he’d be Mike Glyer.

As a result, intelligent and thoughtful people comment on his news (along with a few thugs like I), making it a wonderous repository of lore. You can go there and briefly mention some fragment of a long-since-almost-forgotten speculative fiction thing and someone will pipe up with the rest of the reference. That’s what happens when you do journalism, and comment moderation, right.
  • Andy Weir *

Dammit, give him a Hugo already. 

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Review and/or Fangirling: Stephen King’s End of Watch (and also some more about Obits)

A great writer can make you emotional about people that don’t exist, and keep you focused on a tale made out of pure hogwash.

End of Watch is the end of the Hodges trilogy, a story about a cop that refuses to retire and a equally driven killer. It has science fiction parts, which make me sigh – Mr. King took some careful notes from some scientifically informed individual regarding computer attacks, and then throws in copious helpings of mind control nonsense (see previous rant). I would’ve liked it better if the evil genius had kept evilizing in his evil ways through pure computer hackery than mind stuff.

And yet, think of all the fun all the actors in the movie version will have, pretending to be mind controlled. Think of the joy in their little ascetic actory hearts, considering they all wake up at 4am to go to work (but only if they’re lucky) while subsisting on a diet of vegan protein bars and pure sunlight. We can’t deny them this meager pleasure, it would be mean.

The police procedural aspects, meanwhile, are much tighter, as are the characters – lots and lots of characters, including some extremely memorable walkons, and several that made me cry. A very important phone number is introduced. King, as always, gives us lots of diversity (including neuro-) without the slightest hint of political correctness.

Hodges battles a medical condition throughout, reminding me of King’s fragile mortality, which very nearly came to a halt in a horrible vehicle accident before he’d even finished writing The Dark Tower. I am grateful to all those fine medical professionals for patching him up to the point where he can write engrossing page-turners like this.

Speaking of engrossing page-turners, I mentioned Obits briefly while talking about the Hugos, without really saying much about it other than some fangirling. Obits is about the people who bring us clickbait journalism, and it’s got some sharp and acidic venom to it. We definitely live in trying times as far as freedom of speech goes, yet at the same time we have more opportunity to talk to each other than ever before, even as our physical wealth grows increasingly disparate. You may count me as firmly on the side that favors people being able to speak and be heard. I’m also firmly in favor of giving a time out from the conversation to people who can’t keep their aggression/manipulation/drama in check, to be judged by dispassionate robots.

Obits is, literally, about ethics in journalism – the catch phrase of a movement that I’ll just call the “G-Word,” about which I refuse to write because it makes me very sad when mommy and daddy fight dirty over the fact they’re each about 80% wrong. I’ve got investments on either side of that battle and would really prefer it to dissolve into kumbaya, except with experience points if you kum more baya than the other players, and a multiplayer online battle arena addon with smart AIs that convert all the smacktalk into florid Shakespearean koans.  I would pwn in that game. Until they invent it, I’ll defer my political discussions to people that are good at it and enjoy that sort of thing, such as Stephen King. He was saying some wise things about politics in Rolling Stone today, which I mostly agree with.  

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Flaming Telepathy (and Mind Control and Other Weird Mind Stuff)

Occasionally I have mentioned my dislike for science fiction that has mindswapping, or telepathy, or people having their brains dominated by other people – I’ll call it “mind stuff.”  Mind stuff seems to be everywhere. I encountered it while reading Hugo nominees this year, and while reading the latest novel by Stephen King, End of Watch, (although I'm not really going to review End of Watch here, I'll note it's pretty good) and it seems to pop up in more than half the speculative fiction books I read, at least since I’ve been noticing it.

I’ve got an unpublished draft story, which I may pick up again someday, that kind of chronicles the progress of my disillusionment with mind stuff. It was a time travel story, and I came up with the idea of a character who could leap into photographs, taking over the minds of people depicted in them. Plus I gave her a love story to distract her from any meddling ideas like “hey, I can just take over Hitler’s brain and have him jump off a bridge,” or, “what if Marilyn Monroe had actually spent that night at a party surrounded by friends?”

I was trying to be all artistic and literary, fiddling with the idea of a body-swapping love story, with the woman repeatedly appearing to the man in different bodies over a long time span, as he falls in love with her personality, while she’s actually losing touch with her personality due to the experience of inhabiting different bodies.

For instance, maybe Time Traveling Protagonist [“TTP”] leaps into the body of a woman who has migraines? Extreme menstrual cramps? One who is extremely neurodivergent? The list goes on and on, including a number of things that would (a) be drastically different from the brain TTP is accustomed to inhabiting and (b) wouldn’t necessarily show on the outside. Enough to shake her worldview profoundly.

Then I started wondering what happens to the consciousness that’s already inside the body when TTP steps in. Does TTP have access to her memories, or are some of them read-only? Are we talking about some kind of shared link to the body’s owner, or does it go dormant?  Can the two of them disagree? Can the owner evict TTP from her mind? What if TTP kisses a boy and original-owner doesn’t want to? 

I’ve noticed other writers will devote pages and pages to their personal mind stuff rules – the intruder gets access to all the memories, the intruder fights a battle with the original host, the original host just goes to sleep. I kept writing in circles, trying to come up with my own workable set of rules for this fictional adventure, but I’ve got the kind of mind that insists on pointing out loopholes. It all eventually led me to question why all this mind stuff permeates science fiction and fantasy and horror in the first place. 

Especially now that we have phones and we can plug our earbuds into them and walk around all day hearing other peoples’ voices in our heads. We can’t telepathically leap into other peoples’ heads, but we can call them. We can’t telepathically project our dreams into other peoples’ brains, but we can text them a video. We can’t mentally dominate their body and walk around in it, but we can text them, “OMG watch this video right now or I am never speaking to you again” and they’ll probably do it – we might also be able to dominate them into bringing a pizza for a small fee.

This just simply isn’t good enough for most spec fic.  Apparently things like microphones and earbuds and cell phone towers ruin the pure and barrier-free notion of telepathy.

There are a lot of time-honored fictional tropes and plot devices that center around mental conditions that seem to work on a sliding scale, only rising to the diagnosable level once they increase to the point where they interfere with daily life. You can wash your hands multiple times a day without having full blown obsessive compulsive disorder. You’re not necessarily being paranoid if you cross the street to avoid some shady-looking stranger. You can be sad without being clinically depressed. 

And you can have voices in your head that aren’t telepathic in nature, without even being schizophrenic. Lots of people experience hypnagogia, and have visual and audio hallucinations while falling asleep.  I tend to get the one where I hear a voice calling my name.

Sometimes, psych symptoms that are common to some degree can drive plots, such as in Hitchcock movies. Plots like, “are the voices in my head real?” or “am I paranoid or are they really out to get me?” Or how about “is that really a big scary demon as opposed to a spell of sleep paralysis?” 
People with neurodivergent statuses like schizophrenia and psychosis can have experiences such as hearing voices or feeling externally controlled. Religious people can have similar experiences, with completely different associated emotions. All these experiences seem to be frustratingly subjective. There’s never any sense of replication potential, as in “stand right here in this corner and you’ll hear a bass voice reciting Italian poetry despite a lack of speakers” or “anyone who picks up this statue gets possessed immediately by the demon Zuul.” 

Moreover, there has been a considerable amount of fraud and coercion involving alleged mind stuff throughout the ages, such as cold readers insisting they can talk to your dead relatives for a price, or violent douchebags insisting they were possessed by demons while committing rapes and murders. People have convinced others into believing angels/demons/aliens are telepathically sending them messages about the imminent end of the world, to tragic ends.

Bottom line, mind stuff is the ultimate con. “I’ve got secret subjective access to POWER, and you can’t have any!” 

Hard science has made a lot of progress as far as visualizing things that used to be based purely on subjective report, such as migraines, and various neurodivergent states. We can tell someone is dreaming, but we can’t quite push that dream into shareable media. We can implant a mechanical device which will power a cursor upon brain signals, as well as wire prosthetics to communicate directly with the central nervous system. There are probably people in your neighborhood that qualify as cyborgs, with medical implants which regulate things like insulin and pain medication and nerve signals.

I was definitely interested in including all this in my science fictional world, and elaborating on it. To me, the idea of being able to control a mouse cursor via a tiny neural pathway is encouraging, and having a wifi link so I can look up the lyrics to whatever song is playing in my head sounds very convenient. Conceivably I’d also be able to call people that also have implants in their head, and chat with them, and maybe I'd have a speaker that transmits sound up my arm bones instead of a set of earbuds. 

However, there still must be an “I”, an ego or consciousness or identity or executive function or whatever you want to call it, to decide what friends to call, and what words to send them, whether to lol or rofl or jajaja in response to what they say. We are all aware that this “I” can be compromised by stress, drugs and rock and roll, and that upon death it ceases contact with its body (and whether it goes on to do anything else has been the subject of much speculation). We fear, and probably justifiably so, that some hacker might crawl into our cyborg cell phones and repeatedly shout “no, you are actually someone else!” until we start to believe it.

Possibly the promised mind stuff will all come true. Lazy students can just think their term papers, without having to type out the cites. People who have always wanted to write a novel but don’t like typing can inject their fantasies directly into your Kindle. Lovers can tell each other “not there, to the left” without actually articulating it. Jealous and controlling people can rage at their loved ones for not thinking about them enough. Bosses can make sure you’re pondering the spreadsheet on your screen and not your weekend plans.

But the more I read, the more I found myself shifting away from ideas of bodies hosting ghosts. I linked an article earlier about how everyone localizes differently within the brain. The physical sector that controls one individual’s childhood memories might host another person’s math skills, and the location of the “I” varies depending on the individual. If I were writing about my TTP now, I might have her blundering around in an unfamiliar brain, aiming for “perky” and hitting “anxious” instead. Or maybe she’d localize consciousness in a different brain region, which means she wouldn’t be temporarily overwriting the body’s host, and could coexist with the resident consciousness. 

Stories are always talking about the resident consciousness having to “fight” with their invader … is this maybe some kind of grandiose board game like Go or Checkers with synapses at stake? It’s always written more like a wrestling match, complete with sweating and grunting.

Do we have any credible evidence that anyone, anywhere, has experienced mind stuff in real life?  Nope. The James Randi Educational Foundation offers a million dollar reward for evidence of paranormal powers; nobody has ever qualified. Spies worked diligently on nailing mind stuff during the Cold War, no results. From my personal anecdotal evidence hanging out with some of the weirder aspects of Northern California, there are definitely people who can say things like “oh, I’ll bet that’s George” when the phone rings, and it turns out to be George!  Or maybe they’ll take their umbrella to work even though it’s not raining and then at rush hour the sky unleashes a downpour! But as far as people transmitting complex thoughts to each other without electronics, it hasn't happened, or it would be all over the internet. 

And therefore, with regard to telepathy, body swapping, and psionic powers of all types, I don’t believe in them and I can’t even write about them without turning into Nancy Drew, Loophole Detective.

I decided that as far as my story was concerned, mind stuff didn’t exist. In its place is a system where flesh and thought fit together like a lock and a key. This had a surprising ripple effect on other aspects of my story. No quasi-mystical references to reincarnation. No telepathic clones. No soulless villains, no programmed henchmen, no ghosts in machines, no body-mind duality. None of that. Minds and bodies are symbiotes as far as I’m concerned.

I note that mind stuff, when depicted in comics and movies, frequently is performed with clenched teeth, accompanied by sweating and straining. Since most people don’t do that when having a conversation on their mobile phones, it’s apparent that maybe there’s a sexual metaphor happening, and that mind stuff is a stand in for intimacy, and for dominance/submission games. And maybe it’s one of those sexual metaphors that makes me, personally, say, “what? People are attracted to that? That’s the most twisted thing I’ve ever heard! Gaaaaaah!”

I think I’m a little more tolerant toward mind stuff in fantasy and horror, in which it’s a foregone conclusion that magic exists. When it pops up in science fiction, and real-time thrillers like Stephen King’s End of Watch (it’s present in the rest of the series but much lighter), I cringe a little. I can handle it on TV shows, where it’s mainly a device to showcase how adept the actors are at impersonating each other. 

If I ever end up salvaging that time-traveling protagonist story, it’ll probably turn out to be a dialogue between TTP’s consciousness and the consciousness of the girl she’s trying to invade.

Original: “So in 2016 have the scientists figured out telepathy yet?”

TTP: “Well, no. But they have these things called smart phones, and you can just call people and walk around talking to them on your, um, computerized earring. And you can also talk to the robot that lives in your phone and get it to dial people. But your words still have to pass between your brain’s speech center and your lips if you want them to come out.”

Original (pouting): “You can’t just talk to people directly with your brain? What’s the fun in that?”

Friday, June 3, 2016

Voting for the Hugos: Best Novelette

BEST NOVELETTE (1975 ballots)
  • “And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead” by Brooke Bolander (Lightspeed, Feb2015)
On the Sad Puppies’ list but not on the Rabid Puppies’ slate. A #!$@$ rageful person rages about every !$(*!#$ thing that %^!#%#$ catches her !@#$% attention, mostly while fighting. This is a well-written yet ragey story for chronically angry people. 
  • “Flashpoint: Titan” by CHEAH Kai Wai (There Will Be War Volume X, Castalia House)
On the Rabid Puppies’ slate only. China versus Japan in space. Hard sci fi for milSF afficionados.
  • “Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang, trans. Ken Liu (Uncanny Magazine, Jan-Feb 2015)
On both the Sad Puppies’ list and the Rabid Puppies’ slate.
In this eerie future-Beijing, the city routinely folds up, putting all its low caste workers into extended sleep so that the classy people can have free reign. Lao Dao is a waste worker who gets involved in a big adventure when he leaves his fold and sojourns among the VIPs. Meanwhile, I’m fascinated by the notion of an entire city folding itself like a big Transformer.
I’m also fascinated by the Chinese version of urban planning, and I’m wondering if other Chinese share this pessimistic view of class stratification taken to absurd extremes, or if this author functions as a raving lefty or a hardcore conservative in his native mileu. 
I’m going to repeat my comment under Binti – I think of myself as a globally oriented sort of person, with friends and co-workers from everywhere, and it is truly a delight to read the work of writers from outside the infuriatingly two-sided American system with its heavyhanded evangelistic underpinnings on both sides.
In fact, I’m pretty sure that getting awesome new translated novels to read is an unintended positive benefit of the US culture war. The Hugos are part of WORLDcon. If all the English-speaking literati are too busy flinging political poop at each other to produce worthy candidates, bring on the foreign storytellers.
  •   “Obits” by Stephen King (The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, Scribner)
On both the Sad Puppies’ list and the Rabid Puppies’ slate.
Meanwhile, here’s the greatest freaking writer in the whole wide world (just my opinion) with another baseball sailing beyond the stadium walls.
  • “What Price Humanity?” by David VanDyke (There Will Be War Volume X, Castalia House)
On the Rabid Puppies’ slate only.

Oh look. Here’s a slate guy, going up to bat against Stephen King (I’m including baseball metaphors because I know SK loves baseball; I personally don’t give a rat’s ass about baseball, which does technically qualify me as evil in the SKverse, I accept this judgment and prefer to move on).

Actually, wait a minute. I’m going to keep talking about Stephen King. I’ve read 98% of Stephen King’s work. He’s been my favorite since I first encountered the paperback edition of Carrie with its creepy sideways girl’s head, and I’ve been buying his books in hardback since the Stand (I get them digitally now that I’m post paper, and I pre-order them so they’ll magically appear and surprise me).

This guy VanDyke can actually pull off a similar rhythm to Stephen King; it propelled me through the story. The part where the gulf stood out had to do with the characters. King can make all kinds of characters interesting – little kids, cleaning ladies, rich writers, poor writers with drinking problems, high school girls, country doctors, retired cops, lesbians with horses, autistic spectrum people, death row convicts, housewives with crushes on Elvis, girls who love baseball – the man loves human beings, including the humble ones, and it shows.

VanDyke has a hero who is solipsistic as all get out. He has a black friend named Token (I think it’s supposed to be a South Park homage) and an ex-girlfriend who overdosed – our hero, who never noticed he was dating an addict, thinks it’s because he failed to be more entertaining than drugs, voicing that sentiment at least a couple times. Normally I would consider this a bad thing in a character, veering toward the unsympathetic.

But. This is one of those person-wakes-up-somewhere-weird-and-has-to-figure-out-where-they-are stories. And because the narrator is a solipsist who apparently feels at some level that other people exist solely to perform for him, his task is especially difficult. He’s even got a double-barreled in-universe explanation for his solipsism, being the son of a powerful politican and a white South African (plus another excuse that comes in toward the end). It’s actually got a little bit of a soulful Archy and Mehitabel vibe, as the hero tries to determine what he is with the help of an intoxicated chanteuse. This is a dark tale about a character that only loves the parts of humanity that directly benefit him, trying to find a way to win. How did he get to be a leader? Chosen because his entitled attitude suggests he’s accustomed to leadership. In a Stephen King story, this guy would be working for Randall Flagg.

Is this story good enough to overcome my bias against slates, and Castalia House, and usage of the word “engram,” and solipsists? Nope. It’s a good story, but my bias is considerable, especially against solipsists.

How I’m voting: Obits. Duh. I’ll throw in a vote for Folding Beijing right behind it, but I think this rocket will go to Stephen King. I’m not going to vote for Mr. VanDyke this time because I suspect I will prefer his future work, and if he starts getting too many awards right now he’ll never have the motivation to write it.