Spawn of Mars
Don't worry. If you like your religion, you can keep your religion.
Claire Randall Is a Trollop and a Shrew
And Outlander  Cheers, "You Go Girl!"
Tuesday, November 5, 2019 11:02 am
Outlander is a TV series about Claire Randall, former war nurse, who is living in Britain in 1946 when she is magically transported to the Scottish Highlands of 1743. Outlander supposes Claire to be our heroine. But Claire is not a heroine; and there are three things that confirm this. 

Note as a preliminary that, thinking herself trapped in 1743, Claire consents to marry the sexy Scotsman Jamie, even though, back in 1946, she is already married to bookish Frank. This bigamy is not in itself the problem. There are good narrative reasons for it.

First Thing. Jamie and party are off to find a British deserter. Claire has come along because she has demonstrated (with her superior 20th-century learning) her utility as a nurse. But fearing a trap, Jamie tells Claire to hang back. He wants her safe. She promises to stay put. Once he is gone, she wanders off. She is captured by the British. Jamie and party rescue her. Once rescued, she is upbraided by Jamie for wandering off. She endangered everyone. The clan has now exposed itself to British retribution. The British commander has learned that Jamie, who is a fugitive, is hiding amongst that clan. Jamie is furious with Claire for disobeying him and breaking her promise. And what does she do? She rants about not being his property; that he can't order her around. Claire is a Strong Woman, after all. No husband, no man, can dictate to her!

Now, Claire wandered off because she sensed Craigh na Dun nearby. The standing stones of Craigh na Dun were the point of her transition to 1743 — and she wants to transit back to 1946. In other words, her reasons for disobeying Jamie were profound. Yet, instead of getting an honest character conflict (wherein Claire recognizes the enormity of her disobedience but cannot admit the time-displacement thing), we get that shrewish feminist cry "I AM NOT YOUR PROPERTY!" — as if heeding Jamie's solicitous authority and keeping her promise are equivalent to chattel enslavement. Her response is unbecoming and adolescent — as feminism be — and, what's worse, Outlander believes Claire has responded appropriately to Jamie's fury.

Second Thing. Claire has made friends with Geillis, a sassy woman who dabbles in potions and is married to a flatulent buffoon. Geillis, wanting to be with her lover, poisons her husband. Jamie tells Claire to stay away from Geillis, given the murder, the scandal, the danger from the law, and other such petty things. Again Claire promises to stay put. Then Claire gets a note from Geillis and immediately goes to see her. Does Claire ever once shrink from Geillis the murderess, the poisoner of husbands? Does she tell Geillis that maybe poisoning was a bad idea? No. Claire is only concerned for her friend. Screw the men, after all. What matters most is the happiness of Geillis, who is Claire's bestest bestie.

Outlander has no problem with Claire's myopic behavior. The sisterhood is what matters, right through the inevitable trial for witchcraft (and its attendant Christophobia).

Third Thing. Jamie, having learned that Claire is from 1946, nobly takes her to Craigh na Dun so that she might return home and reunite with Frank. At this point Jamie and Claire are in full-on monkey-sex love. As she approaches the stones it is clear that she can indeed return; the forces are calling her through. Frank, of course, is desperately unhappy in her absence; and although she can't know this, what else would he be? He's also just her husband, her proper husband, her original husband. She has some vows to uphold, I'd say. However, she stays in 1743 because, of course, it's Sexy Highlander she wants inside her.

And Outlander tells you: It's so romantic!

These three things were so off-putting that I could not accept Claire as a heroine. I kept waiting for Outlander to be honest about Claire. It never was. So never mind.

Outlander is a highbrow Harlequin Romance. It is a bodice-ripping woman's fantasy and Claire Randall is the avatar of irresponsible feminine self-centeredness.

I've got better things to watch.

A Mostly Happy Year
News of Story Submissions
Monday, September 23, 2019 12:06 pm
I submitted three stories to Stupefying Stories. Two were accepted. Weirdly I was more affected by the third being rejected. I am not a half-full kind of guy. Still, it was surely great to have two accepted.

So the story situation is as follows. 

Ambit of Charon. This is my story in the Pluto anthology. The anthology is supposedly still happening. At this point I don't believe it will ever happen. Superversive Press seems lost. One can hope, however.

Due a Hanging. This is my second Hamlin Becker story. It will be coming out (before February) in StoryHack #6.

Banana Man and Wayward Scarecrow. These are the two accepted by Stupefying. I don't know when they will come out, but I presume it will be in the coming year.

The Fourth Gift. This is the one rejected by Stupefying. It was also rejected by Superversive (from their Luna anthology, for which it was written). Indeed, this poor story has been rejected repeatedly this year. I've been submitting it, scattershot, with little concern about whether it would "fit in" (apart from targeting SF and Fantasy mags). It's actually a great story. Really. Just this morning I threw it at another mag that is sure to reject it. But hey, you never know.

That's all. If I were trying to make a living at this writing nonsense, I would be entirely impoverished. But I'm just writing to write (and to avoid squandering what talents I have). If I get published — hooray! If not — oh well.

But in fairness to the Great Balance, I concede that the news has been enough for me to declare this year to be Mostly Happy, so far as writing goes.

P.S. I have made good if unremarkable progress on my third Hamlin Becker story. I should finish it this year, in time to submit to StoryHack.

Perfect Melancholy
An Instrumental That Shouldn't Be Lost
Saturday, September 21, 2019 11:07 pm
I was in the open beta for WildStar, an SF MMO, back in 2014. I then subscribed for three months. The game had lots of good in it; but it didn't hold me. Something fundamental was missing. And it was stupid hard. You really couldn't just log in and have fun. And the game's population collapsed so quickly that the open regions were always barren. I was alone in an MMO. 

In any event, the music was part of its goodness. There was a piece that looped in your in-game house. It was beautiful. I made a point of returning to my house at the end of every session, in part to roleplay slightly, but mostly so that I could take my character home, tuck her into bed, and linger.

I found the piece on YouTube here. Do listen to it. It's so pretty. The melancholy is perfect. The composer made something wonderful — yet it was merely incidental music in a failed videogame. Who will remember it? Though it is not lost, it seems so precariously preserved.

And I think again of the status of art at the consummation of the world. In a post of mine from 2017, Superfluous in Heaven, I supposed that art (specifically music) might be pointless in the afterlife; and yet I hoped that it would be retained somehow. Will all mankind, newly resurrected, learn of every achievement of beauty, even the most minor? If a thing is genuinely beautiful, wouldn't God value it, too?

Will man's creations be not abandoned?

To be sure, it's hard to imagine God preserving Saw III or Big Mouth. Nothing would be in Heaven that God did not love; and God cannot love what is ugly. But what of MacBeth? Or The Big Sleep? Or Taxi Driver? Where is the line between being ugly and portraying ugliness? Do we value things that God cannot? Is our valuation so corrupted? Or does God love Breaking Bad as much as any right-thinking human?

I don't know. All I know is that WildStar contained a bit of art utterly without ugliness and I'd like that bit to endure.

A Nightmare of Solitude (Part 1)
The True Nature of Space:1999
Friday, September 13, 2019 9:31 pm
My father and I didn't do a lot together. In part he was simply seldom around. He was in the restaurant business — as cook, as manager, as owner — and the hours were atrocious. He was also not given to fraternizing with his children.

In fairness to him, I was a difficult and solitary nerd. 

Once, in the late 1970s, my father took me to a signing with several SF authors. My father had no taste for SF. He did this for me. Anyhow, I didn't know who would be there. As it was, I had read none of them. I think one was Frederik Pohl. Another was Ben Bova. Somehow I (and my father) ended up hanging around Bova — probably because he was the only one I really knew, since he had been Editor of Analog, to which I subscribed.

I remember only one thing that Bova said. An attending nerd (not I) brought up Space: 1999. Bova recounted some conversation he'd had with Isaac Asimov about that very subject. Seems that neither Bova nor Asimov cared much for Space: 1999. Bova's contempt was rather clear.

I loved Space: 1999. I was just a teenage boy, self-conscious beyond measure; and already disappointed by the lack of my favorite authors at this little signing, I was... well, hurt. I didn't get indignant. I didn't get angry. I was stung. And it hurt as well because Bova wasn't wrong. Space: 1999, while not contemptible, is a little bad; and I knew so even then.

I think at that point my father was waiting in the car. I hung out a while longer. Then, having half-heartedly obtained an autograph from Bova, I left. I'm grateful my father took me. But it's a melancholy memory.

Today is the 20th anniversary of the day that the denizens of Moonbase Alpha were cast into the cosmos. On September 13th, 1999, concentrated nuclear explosions on the farside of the Moon propelled the Moon out of orbit. The Alphans, unable to return to Earth, found themselves adrift on an uncontrollable Moon. They left our Solar System far behind, on a path towards — adventure!

Well, of course it's preposterous. I'm not going to go over all the stupid that is required for Space: 1999 to work. It can't work. Science is ashamed of Space: 1999. And of course you know what I'm going to say.

Who cares.

You must recognize how simply magical the premise is. We're not dealing with the plausible. Yes, the creators thought they were writing Real Science Fiction. But they were hacks; a bunch of Ed Woods. They had a cool idea and they ran with it. Because it is a cool idea. An awesome idea. You know it is. The wonder of traveling to the stars on the Moon!

You must also recognize that Space: 1999 is not Star Trek or Star Wars or Stargate. It is not an adventure show.

It is a Nightmare.

This crystallized for me only tonight. I'm embarrassed that I never had this insight. All the pieces were already there; yet only tonight did the epiphany come. I was listening to a livestream hosted by Doomcock (whose nom de YouTube is Overlord DVD). Doomcock, in honor of the date, was chatting a bit about Space: 1999. He asserted that Space: 1999 is not SF but HORROR. He really didn't elaborate a lot. He didn't have to. I knew instantly what he meant; and instantly I understood why I like Space: 1999, why it isn't complete trash, and why, despite everything, it can kind of work.

To be continued in Part 2...

In Which I Criticize the Great Stanislaw Lem
Just to Set the Internet Straight
Thursday, August 8, 2019 11:03 am
At least two people on the internet — let's call them Bob and Ted — have been dissuaded from reading Stanislaw Lem. That is a shame; not least because, as usually happens on the internet, they are reacting to something that isn't true. 

It began with a list of the best literary SF books. Lem's Solaris is on that list, and the listmaker — let's call him Harry — said this:
Lem's humans are some of the best in science fiction as well: they screw up, are late, fail to see the whole picture, act irrationally, and even the brightest of them can be swayed by vanity and pride.
To Bob, this quote is asserting that the best-written character is one who fails — indeed, that humanity itself equals failure; and who wants to read such misanthropy? To Ted, this quote is praising the irrational screw-up rather than the flawed yet ultimately competent character; and who wants to read about incompetent characters?

I'm not about to tell Bob and Ted that Lem is actually imbued with a cheerful vision or that his characters are badass heroes; because he isn't and they aren't. I suspect that Bob and Ted might dislike Lem even if they judged him by actually reading him. But it is unjust that Bob and Ted now have a distaste for Lem because of what Harry said.

You see, Harry is wrong. To say that Lem has the best humans in science fiction is to say that Frosted Flakes have the best jalapeƱos in breakfast cereals. There are no humans in Lem's books. There are barely any characters.

I've been reading Lem for over thirty years. I have read Solaris four or five times. I love Stanislaw Lem. But honestly, there is no denying the lack of characters in his work.

While it is true that one can point to Ijon Tichy, Pirx the Pilot, or the robots Trurl and Klapauscius, and one could say that each is distinctive, ultimately each is just a character type meant to sustain the type of story he appears in: SF comedy, SF adventure, or robot fable. Indeed, when someone like Tichy ends up in a non-comic tale, it becomes even clearer how merely flexible each character is: an appropriate Protagonist with, at most, a pinch of flavor.

This is especially true in Lem's serious novels. Not one of his characters is memorable as a person. I admit this has always disappointed me. Notably I consider Solaris so good because, rarely among his works, it utilizes actual human emotions. Another of his very best stories — The Mask, about a robot assassin who falls in love with her target — is best precisely because it engages one's sympathy (and has one of the best final sentences ever). But most of the time Lem doesn't care about people, nor emotions qua emotions. His concerns are philosophical; cosmic. His interest is in the man as an atom of mankind, not in the man as a fellow soul.

So does that make his work deficient? Dry? Dull? Not often. He writes wonderfully and sets your mind a-thinking. His robot fables are damn delightful. But, contra Harry, you will never find irrational screw-ups nor the proud and the vain in Lem's dramatis personae. Harry's statement asserts too much. What you will find in Lem is irrationality, screwing-up, pride, and vanity: that is, human weaknesses all but disembodied. A character in Lem is playing a fairy-tale role, at best demonstrating an aspect of human behavior, contributing to Lem's exposition of the cruel mysteries of the universe. Lem's characters are vessels with nametags.

You will find a Snow White in Lem, but never a Falstaff.

In the end I agree with Bob and Ted that Harry is wrong about the "best" humans. It is a pernicious lie that humans are most human when they fail. That is the self-serving excuse for sin, after all. But as I have tried to point out, Harry is wrong about Lem as well. In no sense does Lem contain the best "humans" in science fiction. So ignore Harry.

But read Lem. Yes, you may have to be selective, since at times he can get so philosophical the fiction disappears. Seek anything with Tichy, Pirx, or robots; read the novels Solaris, Eden, Fiasco, Peace on Earth, and above all His Master's Voice; and just be ready to focus on those nametags, because the characters won't really stand out otherwise.

P.S. Lem also wrote excellent reviews of, and introductions to, non-existent books and treatises; but of course these are even more removed from character-rich fiction.

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