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Archive for the ‘Assumptions’ Category

“We Are Made of Meat” McMaster University Embodiment in SFF Conference Keynote

The organizers for the McMaster University Embodiment in SFF Conference graciously invited me to give a keynote at their event. I mean… Embodiment in Science Fiction! How perfect is that?

The address I gave is rather timely, so I’m sharing the full text here. Thank you to everyone for coming, and for hosting these important conversations as we forge ahead into the future.

We Are Made of Meat: Imagining An Embodied Future

I stand before you today…. having cheated death.

I cheat death every day. See, I’m one of those folks who has to work a little harder not do die every day.

Here’s my “one weird trick for not dying today.

My body no longer produces a hormone I need to stay alive.

This was a fairly shocking realization at the age of 26, when I thought I was invincible.

A hundred years ago, I would have died as soon as my body started attacking itself, vomiting and convulsing while my body tried to eat itself.

But today: every morning, noon, and night, I make the conscious choice to continue living. I shoot myself up with a synthetic hormone.

I keep on kicking.

This experience transformed how I think about my body, and mortality. It transformed how I think about society and civilization. I became much more intimately aware of the fact that I’m only alive every day because of the people who make this drug. The regulations that make it safe. The truck drivers and mail carriers who move it around the world. The doctors who prescribe it. The pharmacists who fill it.

I began to see how interconnected we all are in a way I had willfully ignored for much of my life. I believed in the American myth of the rugged individual. The single human being who goes forth into the wilderness and overcomes all odds to achieve greatness.

Individually. Alone.

I could argue that until that terrifying moment at age 26, waking in the ICU, watching blood run down my arm as the doctor tried to get an IV in… that I didn’t truly appreciate what it is to be human. To be vulnerable. To be fragile, even. To be mortal.

And I’m sure it’s the same for many of us in this room, though perhaps not so noticeable. If you’ve ever taken antibiotics, had an appendix removed, or had to use an epi-pen, your life has been artificially extended.

Not so long ago, you wouldn’t be here.

In fact, our food system itself: our roads, our hospitals, our access to care, the introduction of sufficient hygiene and clean water, have all contributed to the extended lifespan of humanity.

And yet, access to the means to experience an extended life is a matter of luck. It’s about where you were born. How rich your parents are. How rich your grandparents were.

In a capitalist system, cheating death is big business. In the United States in particular –cheating death beyond antibiotics and vaccines is only for the very rich. Optimum health and longevity is a privilege for us, not a right.

My medication alone – even with health insurance – costs me $1500 every month. That’s more than my mortgage payment.

I tell you this so you know that I, certainly, would like nothing better than to see a future where I did not have to live with the gooey, terrifying reality of my complex body and the complex costs that come with maintaining it.

But I also know that it’s our fleshy, imperfect bodies that makes us human. It’s our fragility that has brought us together. And it’s our collaborative societies that have enabled us to proliferate and even thrive despite all the odds against it. It takes many people working together to build a bridge. To get to the moon. To map the depth of the stars.

I know we don’t all want to hear that.

We don’t like the idea that humanity is our bodies.

Instead, we want to believe we can continue to transcend the flesh. We aspire to a future that is cool. Smooth. Logical. Clean. A future of metal and gleaming white surfaces. Synthetic fibers. The smell of plastic and ozone.

Transhumanism is a social movement that seeks to use technology to radically transform the human experience. To create human beings who can live forever. No disease. No death.

To cheat the limitations of the human body, transhumanists posit that we could augment or even remove our bodies from the human experience all together.

Some go so far as to call transhumanism a “liberation” movement. A movement advocating for our total “emancipation” from biology, from evolution itself…  at which point we would of course become beholden to the limitations of our own technology.

And technology comes with costs.

And software updates.

I find it a little absurd that some believe transforming us into smooth, cool machines will enable us to live forever when I don’t have a single working electronic device that has lasted longer than my sister’s pet Guinea pig.

If you spend too much time reading about transhumanism, it can start to sound like a religion. How else do you describe a movement seeking to turn a select few into beings of pure light?

Transhumanism has never sounded, to me, like a movement that was going to include everyone. Not as long as it’s fueled by fear of death and capitalism, certainly.

But this is only its first tragic flaw.

I would also argue that our rush to divest ourselves of our biological bodies is even more problematic than dooming us all to a never-ending blue screen of death.

Why? Because no one seems to be considering what the human brain is.

Our brains? Our minds? Consciousness itself…. These are not cold, hard, logical slabs of metal. Brains are mushy organic receptors that take stimuli from the world and decode them for our bodies, enabling us to make decisions.

And those brains are made of meat.

All that makes us human… is made of meat.

What are we, if we take away the meat?

Our brains are not objective logic machines. Objectivity was never their intended purpose. The brain’s purpose was to enable us to interpret the world with greater ease so that maybe we would die less quickly. We are all just collections of atoms bumping into other collections of atoms and trying to assess whether or not those atoms are good for us or bad for us.

These curds of brain can’t even be relied upon to interpret the world, our perceptions, or events in them with any kind of objective consistency. They misfire and screw up all the time. The way they perceive the world aren’t even consistent from human to human. We see this truth every day.

My spouse and I argue endlessly about whether the color of our dining room is beige or green.

Is the dress white and yellow or blue and black? Is this sound we each hear Yanny or Laurel?

The idea that we can somehow upload our memories into a flash drive and slot it into some new body like they do in Altered Carbon is a fun thought experiment, but one completely untethered from any current theories about how the mind and consciousness are created.

At the quantum level, things get even stickier.

Quantum particles  – the absolute smallest observable objects we’ve detected – don’t move like particles. They move like waves.  And where they end up when they move varies depending on what happens along the surface they’re traveling.

An example: light is composed of these particles, right? Photons. Let’s say that we shine a light onto a transparent sheet of glass. We can see that 90% of the light goes through it and 10% is reflected back. But how do we know which photons are reflected back? We don’t. We only know the probability. Every photon that hits the glass has a 90% chance of being projected through it and a 5% chance of being reflected back.

The way each and every photon behaves, however, is completely unpredictable. We cannot say with absolute certainty which will be reflected and which will go through.

We can only predict the odds.

Physics, this most logical of all logical human constructions for how we see the universe, cannot deliver a single definite result at the quantum level. All it can do is tell us the probability of an outcome.

What quantum mechanics teaches us is that at our most basic level, the matter that surrounds us is ruled not by precise facts and logic but by probability.

Thus, it should not surprise us that in a universe ruled by probability, we ourselves are not  beings of logic and pure reason either. Not even at the quantum level.

We are reacting, always reacting, and our reactions are not hardcoded like a computer program. They are constantly in flux. A tangled mess of unreason. A complex stew of factors that we aren’t even beginning to fully comprehend.

It’s been found that people who have damage to the part of their brains that process emotions can no longer make decisions. Oh, certainly, they can tell you logically what they SHOULD be doing, but they have difficulty deciding what to eat, what to wear. Apple or banana? If you have no emotional reason to choose one over the other, you will find yourself unable to decide.

Smart negotiators understand this. If you’ve ever tried to argue with someone on the internet, bringing with you all the facts and figures and thinking that will win over the other side, well… you’ve seen this phenomenon in action, too.

So that brings us back to the “problem” of our messy brains.

We like to think that our consciousness exists outside of our brains and bodies. That consciousness is something…. A soul, a mind, a spirit… consciousness, we like to think, can be removed and uploaded to the cloud and synched up with a new body, no problem! Shouldn’t it be that easy?

But what is consciousness? Is it the ability to follow a set of logical paths to find the other side of a maze? Is it a program that can win a chess game? Is consciousness simply the ability of a computer program to fool humans into thinking it’s a human too?

There’s a powerful argument that human consciousness itself exists because of the peculiar ability of the human brain to connect meaningless events into narrative, into story.

The theory goes that what we call awareness is simply our ability to form stories out of stimuli. This is why most of us don’t have any clear memories until we’re two or three years old. We are not truly conscious until we learn how to construct a narrative.

We find ourselves connecting seemingly random events every day. I was out of milk, so I drove to the store. It turns out my best friend was at the store too! She invited me to dinner. At dinner I learned about a new job opportunity from one of the dinner guests. I got the job and that’s where I met my partner. Amazing! The world really does connect us all in mysterious ways!

But the only thing that actually connects any of these events in any spooky way… is you. You experienced them. You gave them meaning. To anyone else, viewing from outside, seeing you bump into your friend, or another guest at that dinner, those interactions had little to no meaning. We created the meaning. We crave meaning.

We must create these stories because at its most basic level, our stories ARE who we are. They ARE consciousness.

This is why, when you argue with someone’s story of the world and “the way things are” or “the way things have always been” they defend that story so violently. They have lived with these stories for so long that attacking them feels like an attack of the self.

There’s a fascinating series of studies that presents two groups of students with static images. These are simply random black and white images of what we might call television static, speckled nonsense patterns on a piece of paper.

One group of students is primed to think about a time when they lacked control over a situation. Another group is asked to write about whatever they want.

When both groups are shown these same random images, the group that was primed to evoke the feeling of being out of control is more likely to believe they see patterns in the random noise than the other group.


It turns out that when we are fearful, anxious, and stressed out – when we feel we have control over our lives – our brains are more likely to find images in random noise, form correlations in stock market information that isn’t there, see conspiracies in unrelated events, and even develop superstitions.

The more out of control we feel, the more we want to assert structure to the universe around us. But as we’ve seen, the universe doesn’t work on logic or programming.

Only probability.

Our brains are not separate from our bodies. They are pieces of our bodies, uniquely created by our genetics, hormones, experiences, stories, and other stimuli they have been exposed to throughout our lives.

The brain isn’t separate.

Author Steven Erikson once described a theory of reality at a panel I was on. He said his approach to worldbuilding was to create several characters and show the world through their eyes, because in our own lives – reality is this thing at the center of a circle of human observers, and we are all standing there describing what we see. Together we come to a loose consensus about what it is we’re looking at.

Reality is what we can agree on. It’s why we become so anxious when confronted with the truth that even objectively obvious truths – what color a dress is, what sound can be heard – are not objective at all.

And yet, even if these tricky physical and biological constraints could be overcome… if you really could turn your subjective brain into a logical series of 1s and 0s that could be uploaded into a machine that lasts longer than the latest iPhone… we are still left with the question about morality. About culture. About who gets to live forever.

In discussions related to the transhumanist movement, I can’t help but notice that many of its most fervent cheerleaders are wealthy men,  usually Caucasian; they tend to be those already accorded a great deal of privilege in much of the Western world.

These are people who can already afford to prolong their lives. Even now, they can spend a few million dollars in the dubious practice of freezing their brains for later. They are the people who have spent their time on earth hoarding wealth and now, as they realize that their wealth cannot buy them more life, they seek to transcend death itself.

Transcending the limitations of the body is, for many of them, the same as transcending the limitations of not enough capital.

Every time I’m confronted with this idea of revolutionizing the human body, I can’t help but wonder: What would it cost for me to live indefinitely, as I am, at $1500 a month just for drugs? To have a limitless existence?

Already, there are some months when prolonging my life feels woefully out of reach.

Who decides who lives forever?

What happens to the rest of us?

Do parents have a moral responsibility to use CRISPR technology to edit their children’s gene code? Or is it morally reprehensible to make that decision until a child is old enough to decide for themselves?

Consider our shifting ideas around gender identity and sexuality.

Even now, many doctors encourage parents to “choose” a binary sexual identity for their children from birth. If it’s not “obvious” from external physical markers, parents can decide to “assign” a sex to their intersex children through surgery. This is all done long before the child has any sense of themselves and their bodies.

We see our intervention as taking control over biology and evolution. Yet our understanding of these incredibly complex systems is so rudimentary that we often find ourselves doing real harm.

But we’re trying to be good, we say, as parents. We want to ensure our children have a good life, a good birth.

Those seeking to engineer a “good birth” may be shocked to learn that the term “eugenics” comes from the Greek words for “good” and “origin” or “Good birth.”

The early 1900’s were a time of great technological and social change, a period often called the Second Industrial Revolution. Rapid advancements in manufacturing and production, as well as transportation, were transforming society’s belief of what was possible.

This belief in human ingenuity carried over to the rudimentary realm of genetics. The eugenics movement in the United States began with reasoned newspaper columns from men arguing that the willy-nilly breeding of humans without thought for offspring was illogical. It led to fairs and competitions for families where they could compete to earn the title of “fittest family” and “best pedigree.” The criteria were wildly subjective.

They were certainly only ever awarded to white families of a certain class.

As society’s views shifted, nudged along by inflaming existing racism and fear of the poor, government sanctioned programs were not far behind. That led to the forced sterilization of hundreds of thousands of people – largely men and women of color, the mentally ill, the poor, and those who served prison sentences.

The only thing that halted this mass eugenics movement was the revelation of its ultimate end goal. The horrors of what had been done in Nazi concentration camps and the six million people they condemned to death were too much for the burgeoning movement to survive. When faced with the real end game, society balked.

But it was a close call.

I always wonder if society would reign itself in, today, before it was too late. I wonder that as my own government rips immigrant children from their parents and plans to put them into warehouses.

It is the year 2018, but time, I fear, is a circle.

We live in an age of great technological change. As in the 1900s, we find ourselves with access to an exciting number of new tools, with the promise of greater tools on the horizon.

But what lies at the end of that road?

Yes, we can. But should we?

If we don’t want to reach that ultimate end game, the inevitable conclusion of a society fueled by fear, racism, capitalism, how do we need to change? What regulations can we put into place? What moral and social taboos should we consider? How should we re-organize our governments?

As we rush headlong into technological fields, playing with forces we ill understand, we must take a moment to look back.

Without a knowledge of the social sciences – of history, psychology, sociology, those who create and unleash these technologies do so without a sense of how those technologies could transform us.

But wait, you might say. Who wouldn’t want to have their illnesses cured? To live life just like everyone else?

First: it’s clear to me more and more as I get older that the world itself is not designed to fit us. We design the world to fit those we believe should be most visible. It’s not designed for anyone else.

I once found an old flyer in my great grandparents’ home that advertised that it was a community free of “undesirables.” Only white people were permitted to live there, and the poor could not get there – the overpasses were designed so that buses could not get to the neighborhood, limiting its accessibility to those who did not own cars.

We limit accessibility in everything we design, from streets to gaming controllers. With each of those decisions, we subtly signal who we consider human and who we do not.

“So what?” I hear the tech bros ask, in the same tone I imagine those old white men used in their eugenics columns. “Isn’t society better with only the fit, the strong?”

To which I would argue – who are we to decide who is fit, who is strong? Who are we to decide who and what society needs, when it is evolution that has proven to us that only organisms capable of change are destined to survive in the long term?

A monolithic, homogenous society is morally reprehensible. It is also reprehensible as a long-term strategy for humanity.

Hemingway had a condition called hemochromatosis; his body wasn’t able to process iron, leading to very high levels of iron in the blood that would have eventually killed him. We see this illness and say, “Wouldn’t we want to eliminate that?”

But it turns out this illness was key in helping people in Europe survive the bubonic plague. It’s why you generally only see it in those with European ancestry. It turns out the plague had a more difficult time propagating in bodies that had too much iron.

Sickle cell anemia is another disease that turns out to deliver benefits. Those whose blood cells are transformed by the disease don’t contract malaria. Even those with just one faulty copy of the gene that changes the shape of their blood cells are less likely to contract malaria.

Even prevalent diseases we are seeing on the rise in Western countries, like diabetes, exist for a historical reason. Those with higher sugar levels in their blood are more resistant to extreme cold. And of course, an intense desire for carbs and sugar in our ancestors was a tremendously good thing, long-term.

What other possible calamities await us as a species? We simply have no way of knowing.

All we have to defend ourselves are the possibilities within our own bodies.

Those possibilities are imperfect. They can doom us or save us as both individuals and as a species.

Before the advent of antibiotics, scientists were working on more targeted drug therapies, ones that would specifically attack individual bacteria. Instead, we delivered a short-term solution that saved millions…

But we didn’t think it through. We didn’t consider the long game. And now we are faced with an increasing number of antibiotic-resistant infections. These infections will kill you no matter how advanced your access to care. No matter how much money you have.

Money and technology can’t save us if we aren’t thinking long term. If we don’t take a step back and look before we leap. If we aren’t intimately in touch with and accepting of the fact that our messy brains are not separate from our messy bodies. They are one and the same.

What does our future look like if consciousness cannot exist outside of a meaty organism?

What if the human experience is, by definition,  one universally bound to the bodies we inhabit?

And what if that’s not some kind of enslavement or a limitation to be unshackled… but a gift?

The key to our future as a species is already inside of us.

But unlocking that possibility relies on us acknowledging that our greatest strength is in our difference. In the multiplicity of possibilities lying within us.

I may not live as long as others because of my illness. But its presence in my family was beneficial, once upon a time. It could be beneficial to those who come after me someday, too. We don’t know what the future will bring.

And you cannot transcend a future you do not understand, in a vehicle you have shorn of its possibilities.

It’s funny – but I’ve learned that it’s our weaknesses that make us strong. It was understanding my own weaknesses that allowed me to become the person I am today. In my weakness, I understood our time is finite. I understood I needed to make the most of the days I had.

In facing my weakness, I faced my own mortality. In facing my mortality, I became, perhaps… more fully human. More compassionate. More kind. I realized we needed each other in order to do great things.

That’s all weakness is. An acknowledgment of our humanity. There is no shame in that.

In fact, our humanity is our greatest strength.

Let’s build a future that never, ever forgets that.

Thank you.




It’s Always Been Awful Under the Boot: On the Fatigue of Everyday Horror

In May of 1921, a group of vigilantes burned down a wealthy community in Tulsa, Oklahoma over the course of about 16 hours. More than 800 people were admitted to local hospitals and police arrested and detained more than 6,000 people. The riots left 10,000 homeless and destroyed 35 city blocks. Up to 300 people died during those 16 hours.

But you don’t hear about this 16 hours of madness in any history book – inside Tulsa or outside it.

There were no camera phones. No Twitter. Not even a fax machine. The event was purposefully omitted from local and even state histories, so that even many people living in Tulsa today have no knowledge of the events, and survivors of the events were often doubted because hey, if this was true, why haven’t *I* heard of it?

People didn’t hear about it outside Tulsa because it was physically erased from the collective memory.

It was a massive act of terror, of genocide, even, because those targeted for the slaughter were targeted because of how they’d been born.

They were targeted because they were black.

In case you missed it, the folks who burned down 35 blocks worth of homes in Tulsa were white, and the people they burned out, the 300 people who were killed, the 10,000 people left homeless – were all black. It was not until 1996 that the state even bothered to commission a proper history of the event that would be available to everyone, instead of relying on a spoken oral history maintained by survivors who were now dying.

When I heard about police cars blocking off roads and journalist access in Ferguson, Missouri last year, Tulsa immediately came to my mind, and I thought, “If you think the shit you’re seeing on Twitter is bad right now, can you imagine what they’d be doing to people right now if there wasn’t any Twitter?”


You think anyone white was prosecuted for that shit?

I’d argue right now, even after all that’s happened, that the only reason Ferguson has not become Tulsa (for all the madness that HAS gone down there) is because of Twitter, instant communication, the easier access those not in power have to create their own public record. With all eyes on Ferguson, the abuses perpetrated there were and are going to be harder to erase, to wipe away. Oh, they will certainly be rewritten. History is written by the victors, and I expect a hard long slog for folks to change anything – even blatant evidence of wrongdoing, as we’ve seen time and time again, isn’t enough to change things. It takes a tidal, epic shift in society itself.

But evidence, the inability for folks in power, or those segregated into privileged spaces, to shut their eyes and wipe it all away, that helps the shift.

I hear folks despair a lot lately, about “how much worse” things are today, and that makes me laugh, because seriously, shit is not any worse than it was yesterday. All that’s changed is that from where you’re sitting in your comfortable place of privilege in the Capital, you can’t shut your eyes anymore. What’s happening out in the Districts is streaming right to your phone, to your TV, to your iPad, directly from the people it’s happening to. You can’t shut them up or shut them out.

If you’re not someone who’s put up with this shit for years – if you’re not a person of color harassed constantly by police, or a woman harassed constantly by men, or a trans person harassed constantly by both, it’s going to look like all this stuff just started happening, like the world used to be awesome and now, wow, look how bad it is.

But it’s always been awful for people under the boot.

If the horror of the world comes as a surprise to you, you aren’t under the boot.

I got my Master’s Degree in history, in the study of resistance movements against Apartheid during the 80’s in South Africa. I’m a privileged white kid from fucking America, and the shit I saw in that historical record, in particular the testimony during the Truth and Reconciliation Committee meetings, made me despair for humanity. It was like reading something out of fucking Assyria, with its piles of bodies and piles of tongues and piles of penises after some gory battle. The shit people do and have done to other people is fucking obscene.

But just because I was in the Capital and didn’t see it, and now I saw it, didn’t make the world any better or worse than it was the day before I read it.

If children are being tortured and murdered so you can live in freedom and delight in Omeleas, and you find out about it, it doesn’t change the fact that for you to grow up as you did, children had to be murdered and tortured. Growing up in the system, you become part of it. It’s yours as much the CEO’s. You tortured innocent people in Guantanamo. It was done in your name, my name, as it has been done many times before, as it will be many times again, unless you take action. Unless you give up your privileged space, unless you become one of those under fear of the boot, too. Because when you speak up, you become the enemy.

And you must ask yourself which is worse: living in fear, becoming one of those in fear of the government as so many others have been, but speaking your mind, or shutting your eyes to the world and drinking its riches and pretending your iPhone was made by adults making a living wage and the people at Walmart can afford healthcare and innocent people aren’t choked on the street for having the audacity to walk there.

And this is what gets me with folks who are fatigued with the shit, and I get it, I do, I get fatigued and I have to take a fucking break too, but I don’t want people to shut up, I don’t want to close my eyes, because whether or not I heard about it Tulsa still happened. And I cannot sit on my hands and cheer for Katniss burning down the Capital and the folks walking away from Omeleas and then say, “Shit, could the rest of you just shut up about your problems because it sure makes me uncomfortable.”

It should make me uncomfortable. It should get me to question everything I’ve been taught. It should rouse me to take action, to not be silent, to amplify voices, to, above all, help ensure we do not erase this shit.

Whether or not you are looking, or you notice, terrible shit is happening right now, a lot of it perpetrated in your name by your country, by your government.

Closing your eyes doesn’t mean it’s not happening. It doesn’t mean the world is any better.

I get that we are all tired, and we can’t do bullshit every day – I take a lot of Twitter and news breaks, too. But I don’t pretend I once lived in a utopia that’s now going to shit.

I know very well what kind of world I live in.  What gives me hope is that it’s become harder for for those in segregated, privileged spaces to pretend otherwise, and if the privileged can no longer be fooled into thinking they’re living in a utopia, it’s far more likely they work will with those under the boot to change it.

Even if we must be pulled – kicking and wailing – into a better world.

How People Really Talk: Language and Signaling Difference

So just last week I happened across this video by Daniel José Older about why we shouldn’t italicize words in other languages while writing in English. If you have yet to see it, enjoy it here for the first time:

I laughed my ass off watching this, because anyone who’s actually known people who speak more than one language will recognize that how people talk in real life – the fluidity of language between English and Spanish, or English and Hindi or English and Zulu, or Zulu and Spanish, or any other combination thereof – is indeed exactly as Daniel describes. There’s no Pause for Effect. There’s no: AND NOW I AM SPEAKING FRENCH.

My grandmother was French, and moved between languages often. She did not wait to speak French until she was eating a baguette and wearing a beret(!). The same with my dad, my uncle, my aunts, my cousins – those who spoke French conversationally or fluently would flit back and forth when chatting with my grandmother without too much thought. It was just how everyone talked.

What I found interesting was the wrapper put around this conversation as it applies to how we offset these “foreign” languages in English text. The italics actually drew more attention to the words, it… othered them. When in fact, moving between and among two or more languages isn’t weird or other at all – it’s just how people talk.

Though folks may not think this is a huge deal – to italicize or not italicize – if you look at it in the context of othering, and how we normalize certain patterns of speech, and certain types of behaviors, it actually means a great deal. It signals that *this is something not like the rest.* Funny enough, words we’ve wholly adopted into English – like resume, faux pas, adobe, armada, schadenfreude – get a pass on the italics. So who decides when a word has been subsumed into the English borg collective and is no longer othered? Certainly not those who seamlessly move between languages every day.

I got my final copies of MIRROR EMPIRE a few days after watching this video, and as I flipped through it, I realized one of the last changes I made between submission and ARCs was that I got rid of all the italics on the various made-up words. There are three major languages in the book, and folks move between and among them quite often. The first few drafts of the book, I italicised all the words from one particular culture, but then not the other two, as the folks in those two cultures moved between these languages more often, and I started to wonder… who was considering which language other? Should I be italicizing all the Dhai words in the chapters from a Saiduan POV and the Saiduan words in chapters from Dhai POV or italicizing Dorinah words in a Dhai POV or… or…

It became a horrible inconsistent mess. The more appropriate thing to do, when I’m working with folks who are fluent in at least two or all three of these languages, is to just pull out the italics all together. It simply made more sense. Language is language, and they use all of.

Offsetting words implies there is one Standard. There is One True Common Tongue. But the truth is… there isn’t One True Language. There’s not Universal Common. Not in real life, and not in much fiction, either. Offsetting words which are “other” sets up reader expectations that there is one way, one real language, and that it’s your dominant culture, the dominant culture of your “hero” that decides that. But there is no One True Culture, either. And if our goal is to have more diverse, and interesting stories, we need to shed the trappings of our own preconceptions about what’s “normal” and what’s other and how we speak about that.

The Increasingly Poor Economics of Penning Problematic Stories

My spouse has been trying to get me to play Space Run for awhile. It’s just this cute little game where you build your own space ship and take it on missions. I played through the tutorial recently, only a little annoyed that I wasn’t able to choose a female gendered character. The tutorial was OK. I moved on to taking the first mission, which is given to you, the protagonist, by a female CEO. After getting the mission, my heroic avatar felt the need to comment to his android sidekick about how “hot” the quest giver was.

I turned off the game.

The reality was, I had plenty of other games to play – Portal, Skyrim, Monument Valley, The Room and replays of Mass Effect 3 and Dragon Age Origins, not to mention books to read like City of Stairs, Shield and Crocus, Hild, and Steles of the Sky – that were better entertainment and not annoying sexist face-punchy.

It was in this moment that I realized the true economics of what’s going to drive the storytelling change. See, it used to be the only media you could consume was the racist, sexist, homophobic sort. That was simply all there was. So you either ate it, grimacing the whole while, or you opted out of it (I opted out of comics. I read pretty much no comics until the last six or seven years, as finding things that weren’t punching me in the face was hard).  But these days? Well, there’s a LOT of media out there, a lot of entertainment, and there are, increasingly, more diverse stories and choices we can make.

It’s gotten to the point where I’ll actually ask before I choose a film if it’s got any sexual assault or threats of same before I decide to watch it. When I’m as annoyed, stressed and exhausted as I am, I don’t want to spend what should be entertaining downtime gritting my teeth through uncomfortable micro-aggressions aimed at women. I get enough of that all day. I want some fucking escapism. And if there are films that can give me that, I’m going to prefer those over the ones that don’t.

book_moneyI’ve been noting for awhile that it’s the changing demographics of the US that will force many media companies to make changes – by 2050, 50% of the US will be made up of people of color. But women have always been 50% of the US…  So why haven’t we seen more media treating us like humans? It didn’t occur to me until I turned off Space Run in annoyance that what’s also going to change things up is that media itself has opened up. Just about anyone can create a game and put it online. Anyone can write a book and post it on a retail platform. We’ve got far more opportunities for choice now, and though big Hollywood studios and publishers and things are still publishing primarily status-quo stuff, they’re changing, too. What they see is that when presented with more choices, less problematic choices, people are quite often choosing them over their messy face punching bullshit.

The funniest part about my experience with Space Run is that it wasn’t even egregious. I’ve gotten through far worse things – True Detective, Bioshock Infinite – that I endured because there were other aspects of the storytelling that were so good. But when you give me a mediocre experience and *then* punch me in the face, well, you know… fuck it. This is why I’ll put up with Guardians of the Galaxy having a weirdly womanizing hero and its sole female protagonist called a whore, because it offers, at least, other things that I enjoy. I will still, of course, call out this problematic behavior, but, you know, if the rest of the movie was ALSO shit, I wouldn’t bother with my dollars. What studios will start to understand, though, is that if I was given an equally good romp of a show that had more heroines, none of which were called whores, and an actual nice-guy hero who didn’t confuse women with paper towels one minute and act like a human with feelings the next, I’d choose that over the more problematic Guardians of the Galaxy anytime.

Freeing up the story platforms – video, publishing, gaming – so that more people can play has indeed given us a glut of shit. But it’s given us a glut of choice, too, and we can choose media that doesn’t insult us a lot more easily now than before. It’s not just the bullshit on the same four television stations. I can root out shows like Orphan Black and even Snowpeircer among the dreck, and turn off the stuff that annoys me. I can find other stories. As a creator, I can actively write other stories, and deliver them to people, more easily too. And, increasingly, I find that what I considered I was writing – stuff on the margins – is actually pushing in a bit toward… well… if not mainstream, then at least carving out its own niche with audiences like me who are actively turning off bullshit stuff because they know there’s more interesting work out there.

We can rant all we want about how it’s hard to find the good stuff in the bullshit – but opening up those floodgates has also made it possible for the storytelling narrative to diversify and shift. I like more choices. I like being able to choose better stories, instead of being forced to endure the shitty ones or go without.

On Becoming What You Hate

This is a late night weekend post, which I almost never write, as, you know, metrics and all that, marketing data, numbers, analysis. But sometimes you’re not posting things to be read. You’re not posting them for prime content push times. You’re posting them because you have some things to say.

I sent an email tonight cleaning up some old business. There is still a lot that needs to be done on that, but more later when it’s done. What I realized, going round and round in this messy bullshit we’d been batting back and forth for over a year, is that I was, in truth, becoming everything I hated about the person I was arguing with. Stubborn. Egotistical. Self-entitled. Most of all: unwilling to back down unless I got my due, unless I got what was owed. Anger. Bile. Gnashing of teeth. Lost revenue. A wash of ire. It stole the energy I needed to move on, to move forward, to successfully launch a new series.

In World War II, my grandfather spent much of his time stationed in Germany and France cleaning up dead bodies. Primarily from concentration camps. He hauled the bodies and drove the trucks. He watched an entire people nearly annihilated. Today, when I turn on the television, I’m watching the children of those same people annihilating another people, wiping them off the face of the earth.

trippy2bI’ll often say it takes just ten years for a generation to turn on itself. To begin eating its own tail, but it’s actually far less than that. It’s actually no more than a moment, really, a digging in of heels in the face of what one perceives to be imminent death. It’s the survival instinct in full force.

I don’t know why we murder ourselves, all of us, eventually. It’s why I wrote Mirror Empire. It’s what the whole bloody book was about, really: being confronted with an impossible choice. Knowing that in order to live, you must become everything you hate, knowing that if you back down, you’re annihilated. What will they do, in the end? What choice will they make, when it’s them against the wall, fighting themselves?

I am a book and a half into the series, and you know what?

I don’t know what they’re going to do.

I have an outline, sure, because you have to have one to sell a book. But when I turn on the television, when I look at my own willingness to blindly forge ahead using the same tactics as the person I hated, I realize I can’t be quite sure what they will do, until the end. I’m not sure what I will do. What any of us will do, when our backs are against the wall, when we’ve dug in so deep there’s no going back.

I heard some other stuff today about so-and-so and such-and-such, stuff that would have illicited in me a deep sense of schadenfreude just a year ago. But instead of feeling smug or savage I felt deeply mournful.  Mournful for people hurt, reputations tattered, hate turned on people who spew hate. I realized that I’d have felt very differently about the whole thing before I wrote Mirror Empire, before I had these people set up in this impossible situation, where to back down meant certain death, but to live meant destroying everything they were. Impossible. No escape. No way out.

Sometimes you look at what people are about to do, what they are about to become, and you wonder if there was ever a point at which it could be stopped; if there was ever a point of return. But often, I find, that once you’re looking for the point of no return, it’s already far behind you, lost over the horizon.

It turns out that sometimes when you write a book you’re not trying to change the world. You’re trying to change yourself. 

I don’t fight so much against the world anymore as seek to actively change it; fighting leaves you bloody, bloodies another, but change is about compromise, about politics, about raising a hand and writing a story. Destroying another human being destroys me. Ostracizing them, removing them from a place they can do harm, is one thing. But destroying them? Throwing corpses into trucks and driving off with them?

That’s quite another.

It’s like peeling off your own face, and finding theirs underneath.

I hear, often, than self-annihilation is in our genetic makeup. That we are violent, hateful creatures by nature. But I don’t buy that. I don’t buy it because I learned the tactics of the people I hate by parroting what they did to get ahead. I saw how the world rewarded them, and I mimicked it. If getting ahead meant being a loving, nurturing, fabulous, kind person, I’d be that too – and, increasingly, I’ve learned to be that, in convention spaces, in social spaces. I’ve learned how to unlearn being an asshole, because if I was an asshole my whole life, I’d never be able to form a relationship with a human that wasn’t some bitter, broken thing. But different situations call for different hats, and though I hate those vapid, horrific faces, I’ll put them on myself if it means I will survive in a world that values assholes and money-hording. I will play up what the world rewards.

But with old age, and writing epic fantasies about genocide, I find my taste for putting on the grim masks of the magic-makers less and less appealing. Just like those carnival masks in that Twilight Zone episode that give those who wear them the ugly, sorrowful face of the mask itself once they take it off, you realize that every time you put on that face, it gets harder to take it off again the next time.

I don’t have any answers for myself, or for the world, or even for my characters right now. I just have this profound sense of sorrow.

Rage Doesn’t Exist in a Vacuum, or: Understanding the Complex Continuum of Internet Butt-Hurt*

I once stood at a bus stop in Durban while two young, drunk men murmured sexually explicit threats and promises to a young woman standing next to me. It was just the four of us – the woman being threatened, me, and the two perpetrators.

South Africa is not the world’s safest place, though with how often folks pull out guns to solve disagreements in the US – legally! – now, I’d argue it’s not so safe here, either. In any event, I kept my mouth shut. After all, they weren’t threatening her with an actual weapon. They were just talking about all the sexual things they wanted to do to her.

It didn’t concern me.

I didn’t want to get knifed, or attacked, or threatened in kind. Who wants that?

But after a few minutes, when they didn’t seem to tire of their threats, but instead kept at it, I finally lost my shit.

It was a fantastic losing-of-the-shit, because I’d spent the last six months hurrying back to my flat before dark, being told by every well-meaning person I knew that there were evil men waiting to rape, mutilate and murder me – maybe not even in that order! – even in broad daylight. I had one guy in a car slow down once on a sunny Sunday afternoon on the hill just outside the university where I was walking alone, who told me I best not walk alone, and best get inside, because people were likely to jump out of the woods and haul me off to the terrible fate all young white girls traveling abroad are assumed to inhabit, eventually.

I’d spent some time getting cat-called, yelled at, and solicited, though most folks in Durban were in fact quite lovely. In truth, I was to receive far more direct threats and harassment as a young woman living in Chicago than I did in Durban.

But that’s a post for another time.

To an outsider seeing my screaming meltdown at these two men, in which I raved and shouted and told them how they were utter assholes for harassing us, and they should fuck off, and who the fuck did they think they were, this might have seemed like the raving of some unhinged person. After all, from afar, all you see is two guys at a bus stop talking to a woman who seems deeply uncomfortable. But my rage, my “sudden” outburst was actually the result of the venting of six full months of increasing dread and terror inflicted on me not even so much by actual bad people, but people ostensibly concerned for my safety, whose admonitions that I “stay inside” and watch my back, and be careful, and who would then go on to talk about who’d been raped, shot, stabbed or mugged that week, had really started to get to me. It was a rage at the entire situation, at being expected to shut the fuck up and go inside all the time because I was a young woman. It was rage at the idea that the threat of violence so clearly worked to keep people in line.

After I raged for a few minutes, the guys milled about for a bit, confused, and finally wandered off. When they did, the young woman next to me breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Thank you so much. I was afraid to say something, because I was afraid they’d knife me or something.”

When the internet loses its shit over what, to many, looks like a single, insignificant incident unrelated to anything else, it’s easy to say they’re fucking nuts. They’re raging over some perceived slight that’s been blown waaaaay out of proportion. That, in truth, is the easier narrative. There’s a reason folks say things like, “Women are crazy,” to explain away some perceived hurt or slight, because it’s easier than thinking through why that rage makes one so uncomfortable (often because that person is complicit in acts that contribute to that rage in some way by perpetuating both sexism and the belittling of women’s voices). It’s easier to say people are crazy than to try and figure out why.

Especially when you’re in a place where it’s never your butt getting hurt.

Internet rage is almost never a one-off. It happens in a continuum. It’s seen as one more event in a long line of connected events.

sopa-and-pipa-protest-takes-it-to-the-streets-in-nyc-video--2ed38c9bc2About ten years ago, some dude blogger with a big following would ask, about every six months, “Where are all the women bloggers? I don’t read any women bloggers. So women must not blog!”

And the feminist blogosphere would fall on him.

Every. Six. Months.

We’d clog up his blog comments with our voices. We’d link to other women’s blogs. We’d point out that the reason he never saw women is because it was easier to not see them. It was easier to link to the dudes that he knew.

You don’t see people you don’t listen to. 

That went on for a couple of years. At some point, after Wonkette got big and Amanda Marcotte got tapped to do social media outreach for a major political candidate, these conversations stopped (now it’s “here are all the white people you should be following on Twitter” lists that don’t have a single person of color on them, even though people of color make up over 40% of Twitter users and generate the majority of tweets and some of the biggest online memes and movements have originated with influencial folks on that end. Same shit, different pocket).

We got all sorts of push back on this, about how we should be more “civil” and “settle down.” We got told we were “over-reacting.” We were being “pushy bitches” and “making something out of nothing.”

But the truth was that unless we made a big fucking stink, people went back to the status quo.

Folks will always, always, always go back to the comfortable status quo, with its silent voices and lack of conflict, if you give them the chance.

“Settle the fuck down, you got your way,” also doesn’t work after a fight is over, because though dudes may go “Yeah, we get it, women blog” unless you’re on it like a fucking trainwreck, you’ll have the conversation again six months later.

They forget. They start rewriting the narrative.

Calls for civility, as good-intention as they may be, smack to me of folks telling me I should have swallowed my tongue at the bus stop. After all, it’s not as if the men were physically harming the young woman.  And I should have held my tongue when people said women don’t blog, because obviously, if I wrote well enough, and shut up enough, and acted demure enough, people would just magically notice me, right?

Clearly, ya’ll have no idea how this works.

Oh. Wait. You do.

tumblr_lofmt8jp8W1qc7mh1If I shut the fuck up, then all the people you quote, all the people who write the post-narrative, the big pieces that folks look back on to create the history and narrative of an event, even a successful one, will be made by the powerful, influencial people who believe their hurt feelings at being called out as problematic somehow outweigh the concerns of an entire community of folks with no media pull and no platform whose voices have been marginalized their whole lives, and are now being reduced to a crazy, screaming, angry mob acting up out of nowhere, instead of a passionate community of folks reacting to an event they see as existing on a problematic continuum.

We have a strange habit of falling back on “civility” as if every social movement was entirely civil. Like unions didn’t bust up on scabs. Like Nelson Mandela didn’t blow shit up.  Like MLK would tell us all to shut the fuck up, and women never chained themselves to the fences in city squares, stormed political buildings or committed acts of arson and violence in an effort to achieve suffrage.


My specialization is in the history of revolutionary movements, and let me tell you, folks – being nice and holding hands didn’t get shit done. Or sure, it was one tactic. But never the only tactic. I wish a nice circle jerk got shit done as much as the next person, but if it were so, history would look much, much different.

Change is messy. It’s angry. It’s uncomfortable. It’s full of angry people saying angry things, because they’ve been disrespected and forgotten again and again and again and again, and they’re tired of being fucking nice because it makes you uncomfortable if they act in any way that is not deferential or subservient to you and your worldview.

I’m sorry if we’ve interrupted your latest Kickstarter, or pin-up calendar, or the purchase of your million-dollar estate in California, and you’re throwing all your Hugo pins into Mount Doom in the hopes it will shame us into silence.

That must be really, really tough.

I’m sympathetic, I really am. Because I too know what it is to be comfortable and safe and pretend everything’s fine. I’m white. My parents aren’t poor, and I make decent money now. I get how annoying it can be, to get called out on that, and to have to listen to people who have problems you don’t. Real fucking problems and issues that exist on a continuum of shame, disrespect, and forced subservience they’ve had to deal with their whole lives.

For a community of folks who grew up reading comic books and farmers-who-become heroes, we sure do balk when we suddenly go from farm boy to hero. Because that’s a heavy fucking responsibility, and it’s easier to pretend you’re still mewling Peter Parker, complaining about how no girl will fuck you. You may not feel like you have power or influence, but you do – as do I.

There are a few things we can do when we have power and influence.

We can take our toys and go home.

Or we can get the fuck up and fight for the people who are continually shit on, and act like a fucking hero would act.

I know which I’d rather do.


*others have noted use of “butt-hurt” here is really annoying, dismissive, and problematic, as discussed here. I am aware. My use of it in this post in particular is in response to this dismissive tweet about latest rage, which employs it in its generally annoying way.

What living in South Africa taught me about racism in America

I’ve talked a lot about growing up in an area that was largely full of white people (I believe 98% of the county I grew up in was white during the 80’s). The effect this had on me, growing up, was not actually the one you might expect. Instead of (I thought) teaching me explicitly to be a racist, it taught me that racism was some kind of anomalous thing. I mean, *I* didn’t notice people of color. Everybody was the same to me! Racism was a silly thing that no logical person would ever buy into. It didn’t matter what color anybody was. I treated everyone the same, because it made no difference…. To me. Because I was white. I had the privilege of being able to care – or not – about race, because I was of the “invisible” race in the country, the default.

Beach goers in Durban, South Africa.

But like my starry-eyed belief that my gender also made no difference in the way I was perceived in the world, this was a short-lived notion that didn’t last much past my teens. What I started to realize is that it didn’t matter what I thought – there was already an institutionalized system in place, and it was the same system that ensured I grew up in a county that was 98% white.

When my great grandmother died, my great grandfather was showing us some documents from around the same time he bought his house in Portland, OR. This was in the 40’s, I think? I picked up this marketing flyer for the neighborhood that basically said how it was a desirable place to live because buses didn’t go there (read: poor people) and “undesirable” people weren’t allowed to live there (read: non-white people).  The area had, of course, grown much more mixed over the years, and as far as my great grandfather was concerned, this was the first step in its demise.  I remember him grumbling over the paper, “Things were very different in this neighborhood then. Much better.”

So of course I couldn’t really see segregation, and how it worked, because I was so neatly cut off from people who were different from me. I lived in a place of invisible race, full of white folks. The people I saw everyday were mostly white. At work, at school, at the mall – I just figured this was how it was. Of course race didn’t matter and we were all the same, I told myself, but it’s a lot easier to say that when all the people you see every day look the same way you do, and are the same people making the laws, and setting down the unwritten rules. And deciding where the white and non-white people live.


Because I was a white person growing up in white suburbia, it didn’t really dawn on me how stiffly our country was still segregated until I spent a year and a half living in South Africa. In the US, about 28% of our country is non-white now. In South Africa, over 80% of the country is non-white.

That meant that the way the world was segregated, even post-Apartheid, was glaringly more obvious to me. Most of the world was non-white where I lived, in Durban. It was only when you’d walk into isolated upperclass neighborhoods, or down certain streets, that you saw these little congregations of white people sitting behind their ten-foot barbed-wire topped fences. But even then, everybody had a housekeeper, and a gardener, and a handyman, and those people – in nearly all cases – were not white.  So when you walked into a white enclave, it felt exactly like a white enclave should feel:  not “normal.” It was abnormal to be in a neighborhood primarily filled with white folks.

I remember the first time I walked into a store in downtown Durban and realized I was the only white person there, just a couple weeks after arriving. It was a startling moment of dissonance. I felt like I’d done something wrong, like maybe I wasn’t supposed to be there.  I realized I was 22 years old, and had never in my life been the sole white person… well, anywhere.  And the knowledge of that, the striking realization that, in fact, the world I grew up in was a false one, that I had grown up under the false pretense that being white was somehow the norm, and that I had somehow picked up this strange illogical notion that the rest of the world was of course mostly-white too, was absolutely shocking to me. We expect that we’re smarter than that. That knowing something intellectually – of course the world is diverse and varied and wonderful and I had “known” that since I was a child– does not translate into real knowledge of that world until you experience it, was… really depressing, actually. Because I realized how many other white people in America had grown up just like me, in these false white rural and suburban ghettos where they had absolutely no idea of the actual composition of America.

But wait, wait, a lot of other rural/suburban-grown white people might say – this isn’t fucking South Africa. Most people in the US are white! Where I grew up is just a reflection of the country. Everyone really is just like me!

Well, unless 30% of the people you see every day are non-white – no, it’s not.

And here’s why:

It was constructed that way.

It didn’t take long for me to adjust to my initial weirdness over being so white in a place where that wasn’t the norm, of course. It became really normal for the world to *not* be monochrome. It was just life. Life was really vibrant when I lived in Durban. The people were incredibly nice, and the food was amazing. Oh, certainly, there was some terror and madness – the owners of my building hardly ever sprayed for bugs, often forgot to pay their water bill, and it was considered suicidal to go outside alone after dark – but I had a sliver of a view of the Indian Ocean, went to the beach whenever I wanted, and rent was the equivalent of $150 a month. I had a new normal.

After living in Durban for eight months or so, I flew home to visit my family. I had a layover in the Minneapolis airport. I remember sitting there on a bench near the food court, scribbling in a notebook as people streamed by. After about an hour or so, I realized I felt deeply uncomfortable. Something felt very off. Very strange.

I looked up from my notebook and looked at the people streaming by… and realized what the source of my discomfort was.

Everyone was white.

Just as I’d done when I walked into that store where I was the only white person, I felt a moment of dissonance. Well, of course, I told myself – it’s Minnesota. Of course everyone is white here. My brain neatly pushed that “normal” lever, where of course 99% white everything, everywhere is just “normal.”

It wasn’t until I went to the food court to get something to eat that I was reminded of the lie.

Because the people working in the food court?

Were overwhelmingly non-white.

South Africa’s segregation was easier for me to see because it was a foreign country.  I could look at it as an outsider, and point at all the flagrant abuses and government schemes that tried desperately to keep people separated. But seeing and experiencing that – and studying it deeply, which is what I was there to do – also allowed me to come back to my own country and finally, for the first time, see our own instituitionalized segregation. I could see how our government’s programs and policies – even those from just ten or twenty or forty years ago – had totally skewed the way we all experience the world, and though one’s experience certainly relied on many factors including gender and wealth, race was a huge one.

I was reminded of this experience during a very laughable post-election moment when I was viewing this video from a Republican poll watcher in Aurora, Colorado. He was deeply concerned about the fact that the “racial mix” at the polling station he was at skewed far darker than “the mix of people at the mall.” (!!) This, he said, was evidence of some kind of Democratic conspiracy to get more non-white people to this particular polling station.

What he failed to realize is that “these people” had been in Aurora all along – they simply didn’t move in the same spaces he did. The only time he saw them was now, on election day, when they all had to come to the same place to vote.  If he hadn’t been a poll watcher, he likely would never have noticed them. Because that’s privilege. Because that’s having the ability to live in spaces that have been built to exclude others, and give you a false sense of the world.

After living in Durban, I moved to Chicago, and experienced that eerie train ride from the north side of Chicago to the south side, where the composition of people on the train changes so dramatically that it looks… planned. Because it was. Planned and enforced. Just as it had been in my great-grandfather’s neighborhood in Portland, OR.

When I read a lot of golden age SF, I think about these guys who grew up in planned neighborhoods like my great-grandfather’s, where people who were “different” from the false middle-class white “norm” were excluded. I think of television shows that still give us this narrow view of what “normal” is – so very white, so very male, with strict standards on body sizes and face shapes.

If this is the world you’re fed every day, why wouldn’t you replicate it? Of course, the future is white and male and middle class. Of course the galactic empire is white and male and middle class. It is constructed that way. Just like our cities.

But no matter how many neighborhoods we gate off, or how many white faces we hand-select to deliver our media, it doesn’t change the truth. It doesn’t alter the math. Our world is a diverse and interesting one. It’s not monochrome. To pretend otherwise is to live in a bubble of self-defeating lies and denial that serves no one, and changes nothing.

So when people tell me that including “so many” non-white characters in my fiction is “political” or that I’m trying to make some kind of “statement” I can’t help but counter with the fact that the “statement” made by every writer with a white monochrome world is also deeply political, even more so because it’s based on a false sense of normal that’s been carefully and systematically constructed for hundreds of years in this country (and others).

I like to think that some folks slowly wake up to that lie, but until we succeed in desegregating the ways we live and work and actually start populating our media with an accurate representation of what our world looks like, I figure we’re still in for another fifty years of clunky – and increasingly ridiculous-looking – whitewashing.

As a creator, as a media-maker, I know I can choose to blindly perpetuate those myths, or help overturn them. But I couldn’t make that choice until I stopped eating up the lie of what the world was really like.

Argo, and the Inconvenient Truth of Sahar

Spoilers: The hostages get away! The boat sinks! Etc.

When I saw the first trailer for Argo, I guffawed at the implausibility of the entire movie. CIA creates SF movie ruse to smuggle people out of Iran? Whatever, Hollywood. I figured it was just a good excuse for the media to fuel itself up for war with Iran (because we don’t have enough wars! And oh, those wacky Arab countries!).

It wasn’t until I looked this up on Wikipedia and saw that it was based on a true story that I realized I had to see the film. The sheer audacity of the idea knocked the breath out of me. How had I missed this story in all my reading about Iran? When I found out it’d only been declassified in the 90’s, I felt a little better about my ignorance, but only just. I still expected this to be a bit of a propaganda film, full of crazy evil terrorists and noble Americas. But SF film to smuggle out hostages! That was an epic plot, right there, and I had to see how it played out.

In fact, I didn’t realize just how much I expected evil-Arab-terrorists until I actually sat down in the theater and realized my whole body was taut and I was clasping my hands tightly, prepared to get through it with some nasty teeth gnashing over the pollution of historic events. There was a reason the Iranian revolution happened. Iranians had every right to be pissed off – we helped out a democratically elected representative and put a fucking tyrant in his place. If Iran had supported the overthrowing of our democratically elected leader, we’d be pretty pissed off at them, too.

But Argo wasn’t going to sugar coat why exactly these Americans were in this situation. The opening of the film set out explicitly why the Iranian people were so angry, and gave a good 50 year history of the events leading up to the storming of the embassy. I was incredibly shocked they did this. I wish I could say it didn’t shock me, but Hollywood can be so saccharin that I was prepared for the “oh those crazy Arab people” handwave.

Now, let’s not pretend this film doesn’t have Issues. Our primary characters are all men, and we focus heavily on the arcs for the men’s stories – Mendez’s wife doesn’t even get any lines- and Sahar, oh Sahar! Sahar about broke my heart. And though Iranians are presented as real people with real grievances, things fall apart there toward the end and we get these crazy foolish terrorist stand-ins waving guns and chasing planes (in actual fact, the embassy workers simply walked onto the plane, without all the Hollywood shenanigans at the end. But, yanno, Hollywood needs its suspense. The Arab-terrorists-chasing-planes-waving-guns thing was over the top even for them, tho).


Sahar makes a choice. For all the good it does her.

But this film knew what it was about, and had a good handle on the complexity of the situation. It doesn’t hurt that it was extraordinarily well-written – sometimes I forget Ben Affleck co-wrote an Academy-winning screenplay. The dialogue was punchy and witty, and again, the sheer craziness of this plan was so crazy that I could almost buy that it worked (I know, I know! It really *did* work! But holy crap, crazy). Affleck also brought a certain sadness and melancholy to this role that I’ve never seen him display. I usually can’t stand him because he comes across as some stupid jock, but I bought him in this role. Like others, I was also disappointed that a Hispanic actor didn’t play the part of an actual Hispanic historical figure. If we had a Hispanic guy play, say, Lincoln, can you imagine the shitstorm people would raise? Oh, whitewashing.

There was lots to appreciate in this film, though. I enjoyed how it handled the ineptitude of the CIA. “We’re going to deliver them some bicycles and have them bike out of Iran!” (this was a real plan presented at this meeting, in real life as well as this fictionalized version). It reminded me that our respective governments are full of overwhelmed, exhausted, and sometimes deeply stupid people who dig themselves and their people into deep holes without thinking about how the hell they’ll get them out. I know a few folks whose parents lived in Iran before the revolution, and mapping their experiences onto the ones presented in the film was interesting. I think it captured a lot of the fear and chaos at the time – and importantly, not just the fear and chaos for Americans, but for the Iranians themselves. Iranians who had to deal with the fallout. Foreigners could leave. But if you were Iranian, well… good luck.

Nothing illustrated this better than Sahar, the housekeeper for the Canadian ambassador, who was the only Iranian we got to know at all. When she keeps the secret of the ambassador’s houseguests despite very good reasons to give them up, I thought for sure she was going to get handed a passport and sent to Canada and safety. That would make sense, right? Exile sucks, but you’d help out people who helped you, right?

But Sahar does not get to Canada. Sahar ends the movie heading into Iraq. And if you know anything about history, you know that Iraq and Iran are about to enter a hellish bloody war – a war funded on both sides by the U.S. of A. I do not expect that Sahar’s life got infinitely better because she kept her secret and supported Americans. She just got thrown from one shitty situation created by American foreign policy into yet another shitty situation perpetuated by American foreign policy. I have a vivid memory of a relative of mine telling me nonchalantly that they were among the crews that carted weapons over to both Iraq and Iran during the war. They said it was treated as routine on both ends – both by the people who gave them the orders and by the Iranians and Iraqis who signed for the weapons on the other end.

Bikes! We’ll send them bikes! Your gov at work, kids.

Why does everyone hate Americans? Gee, I wonder. I’ve talked before about how the Iran/Iraq war was some of the inspiration for the conflict in God’s War, and it was that story of my relative’s nonchalant gunrunning that made me realize that wars could be perpetuated almost indefiniately by outsiders, and that this was actually a very common occurence.

So at the end of Argo, when everything else is neatly wrapped up, we still had this image of Sahar fleeing into Iraq, this knowledge of a loose thread, a life undone. And though I lamented this loose thread, I realized it was a purposeful one. Because while all of the hostages are eventually brought home, and yay rah-rah America, there’s Sahar still out there, displaced, walking into a war that will be perpetuated by the very people she chose to shelter.

At the end of the viewing I went to, the audience burst into a loud round of applause. Here was the heroic story American needed right now, and I felt it too – the idea that America was, in fact, still heroic and clever, even if it had to be heroic and clever because it was stupid and invasive in the first place. And it made me think about Carter, and how everybody hated him as a president because he didn’t go to war with Iran. They were angry and upset even though this was the guy who somehow – against all odds – managed to get everyone home safely (Iran-Contra was done under Reagan’s watch, not Carter’s). In fact, after getting that opening about the history of the U.S.’s involvement in Iranian politics, I remained even more astounded that anyone came home at all.

But those applause made me wonder how many people would actually remember Sahar. Did they remember the opening, and why these people were in trouble in the first place? Did they go out thinking, “Man, America should stop doing stupid things so it doesn’t have to create crazy mad movie plots to rescue people”? Like, isn’t it weird that the CIA first trained Osama bin Laden and so it’s maybe not so heroic when, later, they take him out, since they sort of helped make him in the first place?

Likely, they did not. Likely, most folks went home gleefully saying, “Argo fuck yourself!” and feeling good-hearted about all the heroic missions America’s accomplished that we don’t know about. And I won’t lie, that stuff was gleeful for me too. I loved every bit of the Hollywood scenes, of the make-believe, of the sheer audacity of the plan.

But the film itself, I felt, didn’t blindly encourage that rah-rah feeling. The theater of the make-believe film and the theater of the demonstrations and hostage situation are juxtaposed in one very effective scene, and it left me gnawing on a lot more questions than answers. It made me wonder if anything we do makes any sense at all, or if we’re just all caught in this endless cycle of reactionary craziness, acts of heroism – like the storming of the embassy (certainly viewed as heroic by some in Iran, cause hey, these people supported a guy who killed and tortured your family) and the rescue of the hostages – both reactionary, both nuts. There are no easy answers. One country’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist. It just depends on what side of history you’re sitting on. And in fact, it’s often our own actions that determine who takes up arms and who doesn’t. All those left on the other side of events can do is react to the mess that’s left behind.

That night, lying in bed, it was still Sahar and her shattered life I thought about, though. Not terrorists or freedom fighters – not who was intrinsically “right” or “wrong,” but the people who had to get up and go on and live in the aftermath of events, of the mess left behind after countries rattle their bloody chessboards.

I hope I wasn’t the only one.

Taking Responsibility for Writing Problematic Stories

NOTE: Contains a fairly major spoiler for GOD’S WAR.

I spent a lot of time this weekend on panels at WorldCon talking about the responsibilities of being a writer, and how what we put on the page can mean something very personal to people. I spend a stupid amount of time buried in research books and googling shit on the Internet and digging up first person accounts of things and evaluating my own biases, and you know, that shit can get exhausting sometimes. Sometimes you lose focus. Sometimes you forget what you’re doing it all for.

And sometimes, just like everybody else, I screw up.

After one of my panels at WorldCon, I had a reader come up to me and say that she had chosen God’s War as one of her book club’s selections. It turns out, she said, her book club had a number of gay men in it, and several of them were pretty pissed off when one of my major characters (and the book’s only gay male character) dies about three quarters of the way through the book.

Because, of course, the gay guy always dies.

I was aware of this particular problematic trope going in. Once I realized what I’d done, I picked up and rearranged all of my characters to try and re-write it. I’d already finished the first draft by that point that I couldn’t find a way to write myself out of it without completely re-tooling another character or adding in somebody else. I knew it was a cliché that the gay guy friend always dies. So I did my best to write around it. I even put in a scene between him and his boyfriend, so at least he wasn’t the only gay male character mentioned in the entire book (and of course there are plenty of lesbians in the book, but the trope still stands). I tried to find other mentions of male homosexuality in the world. Because I’d gotten rid of so many guy characters by sending them off to war, I felt like if I tried to shoehorn in anybody else it would feel forced.

And though I stood there talking to the reader about all the things I’d tried to do both here and in later books to mitigate that problematic death the gay guy still dies. I still played into the stereotype. (I don’t want to give away too much of RAPTURE, but I did compose that book from outline to “The End” with an eye toward avoiding this trope, because I’d fallen so easily into it in the first book. Of course, now that I’m looking back at it, there’s a death can could be problematic there. FUCK. GAH.)

And you know, that stereotype hurts people.

I would love to be one of those writers who just says, “Hey, it’s a brutal world! Everyone is mangled and killed equally!” but that isn’t really true. It’s like somebody saying that the reason all the female characters in their fantasy book are passive, raped damsels who exist to be saved by the hero because it’s “realistic.”

Like, what? Realistic in what world? And did you forget you were writing fantasy?

Sometimes book stuff happens because that’s why the book happens. Sometimes it so happens the character who has to die is a gay guy. The problem is when he’s the only gay guy in the book. The problem is when you read a lot of books and the only gay guy in the book is the one who dies in every other book.

Because I understand that my work –and every other writer’s work – isn’t read in a vacuum. We have to interrogate what we’re doing and understand how it’ll be read in the wider context of things.

And as much of a gut punch as it was for me to be reminded that seeing yet another gay male character thrown under the bus in service to someone else’s story hurt people, it doesn’t hurt me as much as the person who actually read it for the third, fourth, fifth time and threw it across the room because, goddammit, why the fuck does the gay guy always die?

When I challenge both myself and other writers to interrogate stereotypes, and work hard to understand how their work might be read in the context of other things – this is the reason.   Because what we do has the ability to inspire and delight – or hurt and frustrate. Sometimes in equal measure.

I fail a lot at this, as this example shows. I get caught up in the bullshit just like anybody else. There’s no excuse for it, and all I can do is endeavor to do better next time, and ensure that any time I do employ a trope, I’m acutely conscious that I’m doing it for a really fucking good reason that I don’t yet have the skill or ability to write my way out of.

Because though our stories may be fiction, the people who read them are not.

What is this Fat Woman Doing on TV?

When I rant about biases and stereotypes and authors’ blindspots, I get the impression that some people think I’m some perfect person without any biases. I’ve talked a lot about my awareness of my own misogyny and racism, but there’s other stuff that creeps up on you too, sometimes when you least expect it.

Bias does not happen in a vacuum. It’s a learned behavior. You eat it every morning with your cornflakes and simply haul it all back up the moment it’s triggered.

This truth hit me especially hard a few weeks ago when I was shopping at a local big box store and cruising past a row of televisions where a nondescript, sweater-vest wearing fat woman was talking on the screen in front of a harsh white background. My hind brain immediately sneered (despite the fact that I, as a matter of fact, am also a fat woman), “What the heck is that fat lady doing on TV? Is she talking about some new dieting show or how hard it is to be a mom?”

I kid you not. That was the insidious bullshit that popped immediately into my head. Afterall, how often did I see fat women on TV? All the fat women I see on TV are from The Biggest Loser, talking about how crappy their lives are because they can’t tie their shoes. And then they barf and scream their way to skinny and they’re allowed to smile on TV and actually talk about how great their lives are. But not until they’re skinny.

So here I was, mocking the fat woman in a sweater vest.

It wasn’t until the show continued to roll, cutting to images of said fat woman hurling a shot put in a massive stadium, that I realized she was, in fact, an Olympic shot putter.

She was an Olympic athlete. 

Biases and stereotypes do us all a disservice. In this case, I’d totally put the woman into a box without knowing anything about her but the fact that she was fat, but it also did me a disservice, because by putting her in a box, I’d put myself into one too. Fat women only get to speak when it’s about how much it sucks to be fat. That’s what TV told me. That’s what I’d lapped up with my cornflakes.

And now, random photos of buff, meaty women I wish we were all seeing a lot more of: