SFF Review Gender Balance Part II

I hadn’t planned on following up the last post, but the comments (and links therein) got me to thinking more. In particular, this post on Dribble of Ink attracted some heated discussion and forced me to catalog the more detailed bits of my opinion. Let me make it clear that nothing I write here is an exhortation. Instead, this is the logical progression in my head from one position (apathy) to another (cautious activism) that works for me. It may not work for anyone else, and that’s just fine with me.

The most common response to musings on the gender balance seems to be, “I choose what I read based on what I like, not the gender (or anything else) of the author. It works for me, I’m happy with my reading choices and I’m not discriminating against anyone.” This is usually followed by some variation of the hoary “none of this should matter anyway, because we’re supposed to judge books (or movies, or science papers, or whatever) by the content, not by some form of affirmative action.” Both of these are valid points, but they depend on one being a certain kind of reader, and on an assumption of underlying equality. Again, I’m not blowing up anyone else’s reading experience here or calling a great many well-intentioned readers bad names. In fact, I happen to believe that the book-centered SFF community is a tolerant, gentle, and altogether inclusive bunch of people, even while Greater Geekdom is a fetid, slimy bog of Prehistoric social attitudes.

That said, my own position as a reader dictates certain things. Everything else that I will say is based on two givens. First, seeking a greater balance in reading choices is not the same thing as altering final opinions of a book based on some factor unrelated to the book. Just because I think I should read more books by women does not mean I feel like I should give books positive reviews because they were written by women. This seems like a no-brainer, but I see a lot of arguments that conflate the two. Second, while we are making considerable progress equality-wise, only the densest of us would proclaim the battle over when The Patriarchy is still clearly in control of everything, both in the genre and in the rest of the world. If any readers have a bone to pick with these two baselines, I recommend reading no further and leaving no comments. It won’t end well for any of us.

The crux of the matter, for me, is the kind of reader I have chosen to be. If I am reading purely for fun, then I feel no compulsion to break out of my comfort zone. There are plenty of other things in life that I consume more or less indiscriminately, because I have no investment in the Platonic Ideal of whatever that is. Clothes, for example, or ice hockey. I had been, until a few years ago, a casual consumer of science fiction, reading for escape and amusement; I would no more seek out authors to make a statement than I would pick up a romance novel. To this reader I say, “Have at it! Enjoy what you read! Do whatever works for you!”

Now however, I see myself as a student of science fiction. I profess to be engaged in science fictional dialogues across time and space, excavating symbolism from the meta-contextual substrate, illuminating the threads of cliché woven throughout the grand tapestry of genre, and other such pompous hoo-haw. Imagine how deflated I was to realize that mostly I’m just reading a bunch of words written by English speaking white dudes. I feel a bit like I am writing a pretentious food blog focused primarily on Pizza Hut and Long John Silver’s. Not to put down some of what I’m reading, of course, since those white dudes are cranking out amazing books, but there’s so much more I’m missing!

Dialing up the pretentiousness even more, this blog makes me, in some small and insignificant way, an advocate for SFF. Even if the only person whose view of the genre I am shaping is my mom, that’s still one person who might skip over worthy stuff because I didn’t go to the trouble to seek it out, or worse, decided to skip it because the author didn’t fit my comfort zone. I doubt that every blogger feels this way, nor should they, but I feel some responsibility to be on the vanguard. From the first, I have tried to do this with Japanese books, but those aren’t expanding my personal horizons. As a (painfully obscure and self-appointed) part of the genre institution, I’m just propping up the privileged class if I don’t search for and amplify the marginalized voices. Self-important? Perhaps. But if someone doesn’t make an effort, how many writers will never get a chance?

I’m not instituting any quotas, I won’t harangue other bloggers, and I’m not going to force myself to read stuff that I’m not interested in. (Hello there, urban fantasy and crappy supernatural pulp!) I am however going to think a bit more about the choices I make to read and review, and make an effort to try things that others might not. At the end of the year, I’ll take stock again and see if anything has changed. After all, as a working musician, I know exactly what happens to those voices that the mainstream ignores.


SFF Review Gender Balance

I was clued in today to a post on Strange Horizons detailing the gender breakdown of SFF reviews and reviewers. Considering the rabid cesspit of racism and misogyny that is geekdom, it comes as no surprise that everything skews male. The numbers made me wonder about Two Dudes and how we measure up here. I assumed that things would be pretty heavily male here also, considering that that I (Pep) do most of the posting and my core reading is done in Hard SF. Of all the genres and subgenres of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Hard SF is the most traditionally male, except for perhaps right wing military SF. Obviously the posts on here are 100% written by men, but that is mainly because I can’t find any women who will write for free. Neither Dude has any objections to women writing for Two Dudes (despite the name) and would actually love the contrasting views. In terms of review subjects though, we have no such constraints. This is the 151st post on the site, with the following numbers:

Male authors: 105
Female authors: 17
Misc. posts, movies, announcements, etc.: 29

This is a bit of a shock. I knew that I read more books by men, but I thought that women would make up more than 15% of the reviews here. I don’t personally care much who writes my books, but numbers like this imply that I am indeed favoring the masculine side of SFF, however unconscious it may be. I don’t think of myself as part of the problem of misogyny in the SFF community, but I may not be part of the solution either. I try to bring up gender issues in my posts, encourage my daughter to explore science, and fight back against stupidity when I see it, but if I’m not supporting the women writing SFF by reading it and talking about it, I fear I’m not helping enough.

I’m not sure what to do about this. Without looking, I would guess that the majority of my 2013 Must Read List is also male. It may be time for a bit of self-reflection, a second look at my reading plans for the coming months, and some thinking time about how my underlying assumptions of SFF may be helping or hurting the rest of the community.


Yo Grandpa’s Sci-Fi: Rogue Moon

Rogue Moon
Algis Budrys

I forget how or when, but Rogue Moon somehow made its way onto my official Must Read pile. (It probably involved The Coode Street Podcast somehow.) After a recent run of epic fantasy, genre busting short stories, and occasional weirdness, a Golden Age, big mysterious object story seemed like a pleasing diversion; the “hold” button for the local library was just one click away. Soon I was curled up with Budrys, a voice from the past and renown SF critic, and expecting a quick jaunt through the Competent White Men Solving Engineering Mysteries past of science fiction. It was not to be however – confounded expectations lay in my future.

Rogue Moon is apparently the inspiration for an Alastair Reynolds short story called “Diamond Dogs.” They couldn’t be more different, even though the starting point is nearly the same. Both build themselves from an inexplicable tower on a moon (our Moon in Budrys’ case) that basically acts as a real life arcade game, though where our games are designed to separate quarters from players through constant game death, these towers are designed to separate souls from bodies with constant real death. Both presumably teach some sort of skill that, honed through constant repetition, eventually sees the player through to grand triumph. As one might expect, Reynolds’ story involves bizarre, Sterling-esque body modification, Gothic mischief, and cyborg mayhem, as though he read the Budrys book and said to himself, “Once more, with feeling.” (In this case, “feeling” means “as though David Lynch and William Gibson had a literary love child and it involved cybernetic dogs.”) Rogue Moon is, well, certainly not that.

We are dealing with the above mysterious death tower, sitting there in baffling glory on the dark side of the Moon, and we are dealing with competent white men. Beyond that however, all Hard SF bets are off. In a precursor to the New Wave, Budrys prefers to check his Golden Age tropes at the door and dig into man’s inhumanity to man. In short, this is a character sketch of four very messed up people that is catalyzed by the big mysterious object. (There is a fifth character who carries about her the whiff of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but she’s basically a potted plant who just reflects the weirdos around her. This really isn’t her story.) We watch three men struggle to justify their manliness, a woman who defines herself by manipulation and seduction, a deeply dysfunctional love triangle between all but one of them, and some form of redemption for some of them, as the crazy Moon death tower kills and maims clones of the most manly of the men. The reader can expect nothing but charm from this one.

I think that reaction to Rogue Moon is going to split cleanly along lines demarcated by SF reader expectations. Anyone wanting to read another Rendezvous with Rama is going to be annoyed. Those who prefer just a smidgen of science with their examinations of the human condition will be overjoyed. John Ringo fans may end up cross-eyed in a corner, making that “b-b-b-b-b-b-b-b” sound by wiggling a finger over their lips. Enough people consider this a classic that serious SF students should probably check it out, but it might be best to know what’s coming.

Rating: The Damned United. I picked it up for the football (Leeds United!) and stayed for the insane character sketch of the one and only Brian Clough.

The Emoticon Generation

The Emoticon Generation
Guy Hasson

My turn has finally come around in The Emoticon Generation Blog Tour. I highly recommend reading the other posts in this series, both for the varied perspectives other reviewers bring to the book, and because I’m going to skip over many of the basics in this post. Others have been kind enough to summarize the stories, talk a little about the author, and trade comments about who liked what, so I’m going to jump right into the bits that interest me the most and poke around those topics for awhile.

The stories in this collection are unified by the near future theme. In some cases, they are only tangentially science fiction, for two reasons. First, the stories are always character focused. This is not Analog-style Hard SF, where competent white men solve engineering problems, it is SF where some science fictional idea kicks off a story that is almost entirely about the people involved. “Science” generally takes a back seat to “fiction.” Second, whatever concept lies at the root of the story feels as though it could be hitting the real world science news tomorrow. Or yesterday. In fact, Hasson is convincing enough in some of the stories that I would not be surprised to find out that some government somewhere is actually using the technology he describes. I know I’m not alone in thinking that “Ping!” might be a real word; I felt obligated to confirm that the entirety of the first story, “Generation E,” is in fact made up. I wasn’t sure.

Four of the seven stories take on one particular cutting edge endeavor that sits at the center of a large portion of SF discourse: digitizing people. Plenty of books take downloaded personalities as a given; it’s not a new idea, though I get the feeling that it has grown more ubiquitous in recent years. Some authors use their books as proxies arguing one aspect or another of the issue (Karl Schroeder, for example, or Greg Egan), while others, like noted internet puppy Charlie Stross, advocate in real life. Hasson doesn’t take a side in the debate, instead choosing to examine the researchers, early adopters, and guinea pigs that would make such a thing possible. He seems much less interested in the hows of the thing, or the effect it would have on us some hundreds of years down the line. Instead, Hasson teases out the ethical questions that will face us tomorrow, or next year, or next decade, if it turns out we can scan our brains into computers.

Two of the stories, “Hatchling” and “Eternity Wasted,” deal specifically with, shall we say, digital personhood. If these AIs are sentient, be they created or copied, what rights do they have? Is it torture if the intelligence is just sitting in a computer somewhere? Is it murder to turn them off? Can we put these personalities to use for science? Considering the pitched battles being waged (in the US at least) over the rights of corporations and fetuses, where will people draw the line with AI? I can’t help but wonder if Kansas-based churches will picket and protest when digital people are being used as experimental subjects, or if they will just mutter about “‘dem newfangled eee-lectronics” and go about their business. What about the tech people that rise to the defense of digital rights and persecuted hackers? How will they feel about the mathematician locked away in his integrated circuit cell? Hasson has no answers, nor does he even directly ask the questions. One can sense his unease with the uses he seems to expect us to put these AIs to, however. I wonder if he read Tony Daniels’ Metaplanetary while writing? (Daniels has AIs stand in for Jews in his WWII-in-space epic.)

Two more, “All of Me” and “Her Destiny” play with even more prosaic questions. The first is pretty amusing in its way, wondering what might happen when someone’s digital copy is better than the real thing. I probably shouldn’t have been laughing at this story, but I was. (Sign of distasteful personality traits in the reviewer?) The second is a bit more fantastic, using digitized consciousness to play with ideas about fate and destiny. It walks a fine line between heartstring-tugging and mind-bending. Neither of these dig into the thorny ethical issues of uploaded intelligence, instead playing with what if questions that drift more into thought provoking entertainment.

The remaining stories maintain the similar balance of sympathetic characters and Keanu Reeves-esque “Woah” inducing concepts, but without the thematic unity of the above four. “Freedom is Only a Step Away” kept me thinking, all the moreso because I have been involved in teaching and am currently worried about my own children’s education. Hasson makes implications about the way our current society shackles us and cuts us off from our full potential, but hedges away from the anarchic premise of the story. I suspect he’s enjoying tweaking everyone, without actually making policy recommendations. “Generation E” is easily the most fun of the stories, again no doubt because my oldest child is just discovering email. As a fellow blogger said during our conversation about this, “You say your daughter is just writing gibberish, but do you really know??” Hmmm.

So these are my reactions to the stories. The book is fairly short, but there is lots to chew on. Hasson has said in other interviews that his number one goal is to blow people’s minds; I’d say he succeeds this time. Now I’m just waiting for one or another science blog to break the news that half of Hasson’s inventions are actually being put to use by Sony, the Russian government, or a start-up in Silicon Valley.

Deconstructing Tolkien

Deconstructing Tolkien: A Fundamental Analysis of the Lord of the Rings
Edward McFadden

This book is not what I expected. To a recovering academic, the title Deconstructing Tolkien: A Fundamental Analysis of the Lord of the Rings suggests certain things. While I am not a literature type, easily befuddled by discussions of lit theory, subtext, and symbolism, my political science background does mean that I tend to read things in certain ways. The intellectual toolkit once applied to economic reports and diplomatic incidents turns itself now upon science fiction. Thus, words like “deconstructing” and “fundamental analysis” make me expect a certain dry, probing dissection of the source material. Because McFadden declines to advance in this assumed line of attack, refugees from The Ivory Tower are left facing a basic question of criticism.

McFadden is an editor, not a professor, so he opens the text with a different set of tools. This is the bait and switch, as it were. He approaches Tolkien from the perspective of a fan and uses more of the editorial eye to unpack the stories. In some ways, this is unique and interesting, especially as he slips in other authors’ short stories between the analytical essays. I suspect that not everyone will appreciate McFadden’s attempt to trace lines of influence into and out of The Lord of the Rings, but it is certainly different. I most enjoyed the H.G. Wells story; in general the older works that McFadden supposes Tolkien drew on were more fun to read than later stories that obviously borrowed LOTR’s themes.

It is McFadden’s own essays that cause the consternation that worries away at my bosom. He tends to explain LOTR rather than analyze, if that can be a distinction with a difference. He manages at times to illuminate certain parts of the story, but often as not is writing opinion. There is much of what McFadden likes and dislikes, with less digging into meta-contextual ideas, the discourse of the time period, or fundamental world views. He proposes lessons to be drawn from the tale, virtues like loyalty and courage, but not what those indicate about Tolkien himself or the state of the genre at the time. McFadden tells us that Tolkien’s influence is daunting in fantasy, which it is, but does not trace themes and archetypes through modern fantasy.

What kills me is not that McFadden chose the path that he did, but that my reaction to that is so strong. In many ways this gets to the heart of literary criticism: am I to evaluate the book based on its stated goals and the accomplishment thereof, or on its potential? Or, to be blunter, do I let the author define his own success or do I get to do it for him? Deconstructing Tolkien succeeds at what McFadden wants it to do. For a certain reader at a certain time in his or her reading history, this is an ideal book. It opens up the first pages of the admittedly vast body of work on Tolkien, setting the reader on a path to a deeper reading of LOTR. A more discriminating reader, however, is going to walk away from the book disappointed. I wanted it to be more – more detailed, more demanding, more complex. I wanted Tolkien explained to me by an author with vastly more experience and wisdom than I have, to wit, someone with a PhD in lit theory rather than simply a fan.

In the end though, maybe it isn’t up to me to decide. McFadden never set out to write the book I wanted to read, so it doesn’t seem fair of me to judge him harshly for it. Taken in terms of his modest goals, the book is a modest success. Since I neither commissioned nor even paid for the book (it was a free promotional download somewhere), I probably don’t have any right to condemn it for not being what I thought it could have been. That is, I suppose, the eternal curse of the critic.

The Emoticon Generation Blog Tour

I’m a bit late with the announcement, but April kicks off The Emoticon Generation Blog Tour, sponsored by Little Red Reviewer. Here’s a blurb straight from the proverbial horse’s mouth:

“The time has come everyone, and I am thrilled to announce the beginning of Guy Hasson’s THE EMOTICON GENERATION blog tour!  During the month of April,  you’ll see book reviews, interviews of and guest posts by Mr. Hasson, and yes, giveaways too!  Our tour kicks off … right here, with an excellent interview!

Here’s the schedule, go ahead and bookmark all these folks:

Little Red Reviewer – April 2nd
Over the Effing Rainbow – April 4th
Dab of Darkness – April 6th
Attack of the Books! – April 8th
Postcards from La La Land – April 10th
My Bookish Ways – April 12th
Lynn’s Book Blog – April 14th
Two Dudes in an Attic – April 16th
A Fantastical Librarian  – April 18th”

Note that we’re slated for mid-month with a review. I’m also up for an interview, so I need to get my crap together and have that ready to go towards the end of April. I’ve finished the book already and am excited to write about it. Here is Little Red’s review, just to get things started.

It’s going to take some doing on this end to make sure we’re on schedule, what with US-based family visiting, Japan-based family visiting, and a sudden explosion of gigs. I’ll be splitting book reviewing time with horn section arrangements for Billie Jean, of all things, so there may be a run of shorter posts in the near future. It will all be worth it though, so tune in, check out these other fine blogs, and let’s do what we can to launch Mr. Hasson into worldwide celebrity. We’ll know our job is complete when he is on Dancing With the Stars next month.

The Stone of Farewell

The Stone of Farewell
Tad Williams

Moving right along through both my epic fantasy fix and my 2013 reading goals, I have now finished volume two of Williams’ acclaimed and lengthy creation. Middle books being what they are, this post isn’t really the place to launch into an in-depth exploration of the series; instead this is more of a checkpoint, an appraisal of how far we have come and how much we have yet to travel. In particular, the following questions presented themselves as I started into the next 700 or so pages of Williams-ian adventure:

1. Is Simon still a pantywaist?

2. Does the second book maintain the momentum of the first?

3. Does Williams wander off on too many tangents for his own good?

4. Can we still spot the ghost of J.R.R. Tolkien marauding o’er the land?

5. On a scale of Errrrghgh to Magically Fabulous, how is this holding up?

And on to the answers.

1. Pretty much, yes. He’s getting better though, and starting to listen to other characters when they tell him to man up. He shows promise as things move forward, but I don’t expect him to ever be anything but completely hopeless with the ladies.

2. For the most part. Much like the first book, there is a certain ebb and flow to the pace that asks some patience of the reader. Williams isn’t doing anything crazy here, this isn’t James Joyce, but there are long periods where he is laying the groundwork for, presumably, later excitement. Even two thirds into the series I am still waiting for multiple payoffs.

3. It may still be too early to tell. That by itself is kind of frightening, but I won’t be able to answer this accurately until the very end. He lays down the terms of the debate quite clearly though – one man’s world building is another’s boredom. I just don’t know yet if there are too many side stories here, or if they will all tie together at the end, with each little bit a critical part of the interconnected whole. At the moment, I have a lurking suspicion that entire character arcs could be excised from the text without any great loss. I am willing to be persuaded however.

4. Yes, clearly. Aside from the whole Dark Lord bringing destruction to us all parts, it is primarily characters and places that I see. Eowyn is definitely present. Helm’s Deep as well, though it fell quite dramatically. Something eerily reminiscent of the Paths of the Dead goes down, and of course the whole Sithi thing is spot on for Tolkien’s elves. None of this is blatant of course, and Williams makes most of it his own, but the master’s shadow lies long upon the land.

5. Fairly well. There’s a lot of ground to cover in volume three, but that’s probably alright because he seems to have a massive page count to work with. If I was the author, I would be uneasy with the amount of heavy lifting yet to be done. There are many plot threads dangling and new characters still popping up at the end of volume two, all of which have to be straightened out in the space of a single book. I expect Williams brings it all off with flying colors, but the possibility of crashing and burning is very real. (I am assured by others that there is no such thing, but I think any astute reader in my position would agree with me.)

So onward we go. In fact, I am just about to download a copy of the final volume from the public library; we’ll know the final answer to all these questions and more in the next few days. It will certainly be exciting.