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Author of queer, wry sci fi/fantasy books. On Amazon.
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Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Wish it Away: The Dystopian Side of Positivity Culture

Hello hello!

As I tidy up the loose ends and incorporate beta-reader feedback for The Meaning Wars, the third installment in the series of the same name (also including And the Stars Will Sing and The Stolen: Two Short Stories), I find myself on Quartz and The Establishment fairly often, doing research and reading coincidental articles that often align with ideas I'm trying to express. Recently, Quartz had a piece on a psychologist's research about positivist and 'happiness culture' that struck home.  Then I saw this on Facebook, and after a short, friendly conversation on Twitter, an article was born.





What is 'positivity culture'? 


The Self-help and pop psychology industries are sources of this, but it's not without links to modern Christianity, either. "How to Win Friends and Influence People" author Dale Carnegie, and more recently, The Secret have endorsed the idea that, in a nutshell, thinking about good things makes them happen and makes bad things less likely to happen.

This sounds simple, innocent, and feasible, and that's partly why it's so popular. It's hard to object to something as inoffensive as the proposition, 'be happy to be happier'. In a world where mental health issues are at an all-time high, though, it has sinister and unpleasant ramifications. Since the self-help industry preys on people in distress, these books - and many employment policies - effectively end up telling people in bad situations to 'just think differently' to fix their problems.

This is at best, naive, and at worst, insulting. When the issue is a lack of neurotransmitters and the right chemicals, wishing them into existence doesn't do the trick. But as with eugenics in the old days, it's more pernicious than just accentuating 'good traits'. The problem comes from refusing to deal with, accept, or acknowledge negative emotions and experiences on an institutional level. When people essentially get punished at work or socially for not faking happiness, it gets difficult.

Anyone who's worked in the service or retail industries (hello!) can relate to this; faking a cheerful, peppy, or calm attitude even when one feels otherwise, and being subservient in most or all interactions causes a sensation of distress and can be triggering for those with anxiety issues or depression. More dangerously, the fake happiness can mask more severe symptoms of depression and other disorders, and train people in these situations that reaching out and being honest about their feelings is more dangerous or less safe than 'faking happiness' or normalcy. Particularly in the early stages of depression, this is a serious danger, because treating depression and anxiety early on can help prevent nervous breakdowns - like the one your dear author had a couple of years ago.


What's the worst that could happen? 


This is one of my favorite question, because it can lead to absurdist or sinister trains of thought in almost any situation. The thing is, I've had a taste of the weirdness that is extreme happiness culture. After surviving the strangely repressive experience and the weird culture of fake enlightenment that permeated the Addictions Counselling faculty where I studied for my degree, I got a taste of what the worst looked like. Even as I studied ways to make clients open up and feel safe talking about the most difficult events in their lives, myself and other students were graded on our weekly lab sessions, where we had to disclose real personal information and family trauma or risk failing the course.

Without so much as a legal waiver to protect us from gossip and each other, people learned to be selective about what they disclosed and how they protrayed events and emotions. Being comfortable with trauma was treated as 'not understanding it enough yet', but being too honest about, say, any sort of bad decision led to peer disapproval and shunning. In the context of a degree program where authenticity and acceptance were supposed to be the ideals, it was bizarre and not a little damaging.

Through my mother's social circle as well as the department, I also got a unique look into the dark side of the New Age movement. There were no sex cults or drug orgies to be found, disappointingly; no, in the realm of yoga classes taught by and for white people, positivity and motivational posters (yes, the real ones, with black borders and inspiring photos and vague captions), and wellness retreat weekends, there was only Healthy Living.

I'm not saying my childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood were entirely a wasteland of vacuous smiles, diet Buddhism, culturally appropriated rituals, and crash diet and exercise routines, but those elements were certainly omnipresent. A stint in a private school with unique and bizarre architecture - classrooms facing into windowed halls, a library that could be entirely observed through indoor windows, and a perfectly positioned stair platform, no hidden corners or stairwells - also gave me a taste of what it was like to watched constantly by professors and other students without any form of egress.



No joke, I grew up with these around the house and school. 

The dark side of 'enlightenment' 


Combined with the pervasive whiteness - both in the interior decorating sense and the cultural group context - of these settings, I got a deep look into the weirdness that is the liberal side of conservatism. In more recent times, as the 'All Lives Matter' crowd rose up and discussions of white feminism took to the air, I had another opportunity to see how certain forms of debate and discussion could be suppressed once people found them 'too unpleasant'. It's the Taylor Swift school of feminism: 'girl power' that has no impact on anything, no ramifications, no real cost. It spliced neatly with happiness culture, because discussing actual inequality issues can conflict with the goal of 'not focusing on negativity'.

What this has to do with science fiction 


It's a common element of dystopias that citizens are miserable, often in a sort of pseudo-Communist situation - highly ironic, in the context of current events and the lack of adequate housing and nutritious food for so many in America. But instead of merely swallowing their feelings for stoicism, I wanted to explore a world of vigilant attention to peacefulness. Taking inspiration from both dark sides of some North American Christian cultures and the suspiciously similar white Buddhist/spiritual movement, I merged the values to create a setting of oppressive faux-tolerance, where real inequality and deprivation were comfortably distant, but people nonetheless lived in fear of judgement from others and humiliating or dangerous punishment.

And thus, The Meaning Wars were born.

***

Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Censorship and 'Censorship': Who Gets to Speak?

Hello hello!

In the increasingly surreal absurdist comedy that is current international politics, the issue of free speech has been awfully prevalent. With the new development of sensitivity readers and an outsized backlash to their existence, as well as cries of outrage over the cancellation of Milo Yiannopoulos' book contract, a lot of people have taken these as 'attacks' on free speech. Meanwhile, Beauty and the Beast is being banned from certain theatres because the character Le Fou will be openly gay.

There will be people who say that these actions are on par. Neil Gaiman, who I love and respect, wrote an essay to that effect about nine years ago.

There was a time when I would have agreed with that essay, because after all, who does get to speak? Is there really a difference between public censorship and government censorship? Is refusal of a business to deal with an individual really censorship at all?

The thing is, all taboo or unpopular comments are not created equally. The people who would like to have the freedom, or 'freedom' to support violence and harassment against others are eager to make the claim that they're doing so for the sake of provocation, but it's funny how they never stand up for, say, the gay or 'ethnic' people who are also saying socially unacceptable things.


"Censorship" versus lack of support 


Censorship refers to the practice of an official, government-led organization removing or culling content for the sake of a moral agenda. Refusal to allow a speaker or publish a book due to protesting is not government censorship, it's a decision for the sake of consumers. That's well-trodden ground and I don't plan on tramping it into smoothness yet again. Rather, I'd like to focus on the real issue - that all 'unacceptable' speech, as I'm going to call it, is not created equally and does not come from equally supported, safely-positioned, societally enshrined sources.

Who's the target? 


For a long time, the broad left and the liberal segments of the right have grappled with the idea that people want to voice and discuss things that aren't socially rewarded. Sometimes these things are simple, like, 'black people are treated badly', and sometimes these things are basically underage teen girl porn by famous authors.

There's a certain idea that's been prevalent since the 90s; namely, that offending people is automatically good or moral in some way. In television, from my understanding, there's a weird attitude of equality in terms of who is allowed to be targeted for offensive jokes, which gives the inaccurate idea that all groups have equal weight in choosing targets. With this idea, offending everyone is fine, even moral, because it 'makes people think' or 'shakes them up'.

But pretending that all ugly speech is created equally is a fallacy that has allowed the proliferation of hate speech and violence of various kinds. It comes from the same idea that everyone is born with the same opportunities and advantages, when that simply isn't the case. Black people in the USA die four years earlier than white people, Trans people experience disproportionate rates of mental illness and violence, leading to a shockingly low life-expectancy - roughly age thirty. Simply being born or developing a particular set of circumstances has a drastic effect on people's lives.

It's an ugly but empirically proveable fact that being a woman subjects one to greater risks of sexual violence and limits career advancement, that being transgender has the same results but multiplied, that being disabled in any way  results in a lower lifespan, that being a sex worker carries both danger and stigma, and that being a person of colour, or fitting into intersections of any of these groups, has a magnified effect of inequality. I haven't cited every one of these ideas to avoid turning my post into link soup, but it's not hard to find support for them.

Who gets to say what?


The problem comes from the fact that some people are used to hearing certain things on a regular basis, and some experience disproportionate harm from these things. A black woman listening to a "n---" joke from a fellow black comedian may experience commiseration in the context of talking about a shared experience. The same joke from a white comedian plays into historic and present inequalities, and even if it's intended in a friendly way, can reinforce those inequalities.

With that in mind, considering the audience targeted by a certain piece of art is essential to deciding on whether or not to support that art's expression. The time has come for us to choose which 'free speech' we're going to support, and I personally plan to use the audience and targets to determine the people I'm going to stand behind. The idea of 'punching up' compared to 'punching down' is unquestionably vital here. Sometimes intersectional nuances can make it difficult to choose a side, and in those cases, a full-force attack is less necessary than a careful, mediated conversation. But in a lot of situations, the people experiencing blocks and resistance tend to be those disempowered by social circumstances.


"But everyone protests things!" comes the counter-argument. "We need to be able to say awful things just in case..." 


In Canada, as well as many other countries, hate speech is punishable by law and considered separately from other forms of free speech and self-expression. In the US, that is not the case, and it's because of a refusal to acknowledge that saying ugly things about people who can be harmed by them is different than annoying people.

It's really worth considering why it's so important to demonstrate one's freedoms by vocalizing aggression or violence towards others. Since white people and men in general tend to be protected by social structures and the way laws are enforced, it's vital to realise that things that hurt our feelings seldom hurt us in ways that leave a lasting impact. Feelings do matter, but in the context of violence and poverty, refusing to be criticized because it's annoying seems awfully greedy.

What does this mean for writers? 


Those of us who create content play a role in creating culture itself. Instead of being upset about sensitivity readers, it's better to embrace them and appreciate their role in helping us improve our fiction and ensure its fairness. Sure, there will be times when an issue is nuanced and sticky and effects a couple of groups of people on the sharp end of prejudice, or when people from the same group have multiple differing opinions on content. For example, Asian people are divided over Madame Butterfly and Miss Saigon, which provide casting opportunities but reinforce prejudiced ideas. While it's seldom possible to please everyone, doing the best to satisfy most people, or at least the important people, is generally advisable.

As for situations where portraying a troubled or troubling character is 'part of a story', it's important to think about one's own 'artistic integrity' in the context of the social world we live in. Where have your ideas about this character come from? Art can feel like magic sometimes, but treating it as an uncritiqueable sacred cow both cheapens its quality and lets creators get away with not challenging themselves or their beliefs. At the end of the day, it's not easy to strive for equality, but it's the right thing to do in so many ways - and that's why I support some forms of challenging media and art, and refuse to support others. Milo Yiannopoulos can get phuqued.

***

Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!

Saturday, 18 February 2017

God's Away On Business: Moral Ambiguity in Sci Fi

Hello hello!

Been a while, hasn't it? I have an enormous backlog of ideas, but I'm letting my fragile brain rest after completing a draft of The Meaning Wars, so that means it's time to return to my blog. I'd love to write more often this year, and any reader suggestions or requests for content are very welcome. What do YOU want to see?

Until I know the answer to that question, I'm going to share some thoughts that are, shall we say, pertinent to the current sociopolitical situation in the world. Specifically, when it comes to science fiction, who calibrates the heroes' moral compass? To understand authoritarian organizations and to resist them better, it doesn't hurt to look at a couple of the 'nicer' examples. It's hard to fight what one doesn't understand, and unlike a Lovecraft story, fainting isn't going to get us out of this situation. So let's talk about goodest of the bad guys!


Who are we rooting for?


Sure, it's easy to romanticize the rebels, but what are the consequences of that action? I'd argue that giving protagonists in dystopian fiction carte blanche in terms of resistance methods is a bad idea. People have to do what they have to do, but let's be honest about those actions and their cost. Still, doing the nice things or not punching Nazis isn't always an option. Every dictatorship story requires a cast of tough, ethically grey people in the spotlight, because the nice people tend to be the collaborators.

In the case of The Hunger Games, the resistance movement has some very fractious members who seem keen on seizing power. In Rogue One, it's clear that the Alliance isn't as tidy and unified as it seems in the later films. Cassian's actions, which I won't spoil, also make it clear that horrible tactics aren't out of the question. In my beloved Farscape, the storyline soon makes it clear that while Peacekeepers are sometimes hypocritical or oppressive, they do have some ethical standards, and are still often less evil than some of their employees or collaborators. However, standing up to them drives the characters to steal ships and sabotage infrastructure, as well as kidnap people. Sometimes they even just walk away from a situation when the more morally correct answer would be trying to interfere and support the people in fixing it.

However, the balance between altruism and self-preservation in dystopian settings is one of the things that makes them so captivating. Therein lies the appeal. As in real life, even good people have to make bad decisions, and the lingering popularity and love for Firefly over a decade and a half later show that people need imperfect heroes. But one of the interesting things about the show is that the organization the heroes are resisting, The Alliance, isn't...all bad, and the heroes are highly questionable.

 And Mal isn't exactly a portrait of consistent ethical actions and good decision-making, so the Firefly crew certainly count as somewhat unreliable narrators. The treatment of Shepherd and Inara is really unsettling, and the show frames them both as somewhat whiny or demanding - even when they are being reasonable.


Not bad (Or even drawn that way) 


The Alliance allows sex workers to control their own situations and at least tries to make sure colonists have food. Obviously, the secret science torture program and the initiative that created Reapers are bad, but the rest of the systems exist in a functioning democracy that doesn't have to bow to warlords like Niska, To put it another way, there aren't all that many differences between The Alliance and Starfleet.

In the context of authoritarian benevolency, Starfleet deserves a mention. They do have a lot of power within the interspecies alliance, and sure are happy to let their somewhat colonialist explorers to regularly break the Prime Directive ('we don't interfere except that it's what we do on every episode').  They have good intentions and mostly function well, but have done some really sketchy things. All governments have dirty laundry. It doesn't justify crimes against humanity, but what about times when crimes against humanity are the 'solution' to taking down an enemy? Certain events in Iraq and Afghanistan come to mind, and the Japanese internment camps of WWII or the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are vitally important real-world instances.

The ends of taking down an oppressive state may justify the means, but how far? The collaborators deserve what they get, but how far does that go? There is a point where the demand for justice shifts into a thirst for revenge, and the reasons for this are perfectly understandable. The thing is, a state IS its people. Rebelling against the state does also mean fighting people with wives and kids and pet dogs at home. Yes, they chose to be there, but questioning why and how can also help prevent further mobilization of bigotry and injustice. If, that is, the (usually white) heroes can restrain themselves from gleeful payback time.





The price of peace and stability


One of the reasons dystopian governments are often very controlling is that it's perceived as the trade off for mere survival. Warhammer 40K and the Cthulutech setting both make use of this, so that there are no 'good guys' and one ends up rooting for the totalitarian side just because they're ultimately working for preservation. In this respect, there's an uncanny overlap with a lot of rebel factions, in that ends do sometimes justify the means.

Sometimes, however, the price is far greater than the results; the populace in 1984 is in poor health, tends to die in the army, and is very ignorant. At least many dystopias, such as the one in The Giver, try to justify their techniques by pointing to the over all health and sustainability of the population. Even then, the government in 1984 is very ineffectual in its way. It's NOT a stable system. The government keeps a huge chunk of the population ignorant and keeps the intellectuals working so hard on propaganda that they can't question what's going on. The crumbling infrastructure of plugged sinks and stinking cabbage and food shortages - in contrast, to say, the Alliance's elegant infrastructure in the Core - shows how badly this particular system is running.

Are dystopias hyperbolic and foolish?


However, all of this may sound very objective and distant, a problem that does plague sci fi. Talking about monster hoards and invasive alien species and plagues and sexual and reproductive control can feel ludicrous in the context of current events, which aren't usually as lurid. And sometimes rebelling in fiction quells the urge for real action when necessary, imply naysayers.

There's a lot of salt and contempt for dystopias these days, partly because people assume that they are frivolous make-believe experiments in losing privilege for mostly white readers. That's not entirely without merit, but considering how many dystopias are aggressively post-racial and diverse, I'd argue that it's more about showing oppression in more than one context.

And finally, fiction offers opportunities to explore both sides of a discussion without having to invoke real atrocities or cheapen them, which can be stressful for survivors. Israel and Palestine's relationship certainly looks like a modern-day dystopia, not to speak of the current American government, but trying to talk about ethics in that context seems insensitive at best. Fiction allows us to explore possibilities without exacting a human cost for the experiment. And because of that safety, understanding how the rise to power happened can just be easier and less horrible when viewed through the lens of sci fi. And that is important, because seeing institutions as a group of people rather than an immobile and immortal bloc also makes them easier to defeat.


***

Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!


Monday, 21 November 2016

Speechless

I've opened my blog more than a few times in the last few weeks, trying to figure out what to say. But the American election happened, and Leonard Cohen passed away, and I don't know what to say anymore. All I have are words. I don't go out and protest, partly because I can't (for a variety of reasons). I am just a writer. Amazon's tightened up its reading and reviewing restrictions even further, something that won't exactly make it easier to spread the word about books.

What do I say in the face of this new world?

I've read some good articles lately - journalists offering sincere, grim advice on how to survive in Donald Trump's America, thinkpieces from people at intersectional breaking points, scientific journals sharing information about ancient hominids. In some ways, the world keeps marching on. In some ways, it's stopped forever. People have already died and suffered violence.

It's possible to write off my emotions as insulation from the world of violence and hate, but there's more to it than that. The legitimizing of violence and discrimination in such a public way is a new reality for all of us. It's one that I really thought years of reading and writing books would have prepared me for.

Maybe it prepared me more than I think it did, but the reality of living in a cautionary tale has not yet set in.

I am scared. Some of my favorite people have teamed up with artists to create things to sell, to help fund the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood's initiatives. From here in Canada, in this country which the rest of the world has acclaimed a sort of save haven and paradise, I remain and wait for the disaster to make its way here.

I want to offer people hope and encouragement, but I don't know if I have that right now. The only thing I can say is that I am still here. I am alive, I abide, I survive. I hope my friends and family will survive, too. There will be hope in these dark times, even if I'm too numb to have it right now.

I don't know what the use of words is right now, but words are my medium, my weapon, and they are all I have to give. Soon I may have more to give, more jokes and critiques and flakes of light.

Hang in there, survive, keep fighting, and don't be ashamed to hide if it keeps you alive. We will get through this, as many of us as can get by. Do not stop voting or protesting or just talking about democracy, no matter which country you live in. Do not allow racist, phobic people to dictate the direction of your world or to take power.

These are just words, but maybe someone can make them real, and maybe, just maybe, I can use them to give the rest of you strength or comfort. Don't be ashamed to laugh when you can. Rest, recuperate, and when you can rise, build and make what you can. Doesn't matter whether it's a sandcastle or a barricade at a protest or a scarf for someone you care about. Just make something.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Your Book is a Phoenix: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Revisions

Hello hello!

So, not long ago, I finished and published Bad Things that Happen to Girls, which will also end up in Braindemons, my next personal anthology. When is Braindemons coming out? No clue, but it's going to be a while - I need a nice big stack of stories to fill it, first. And in the meantime, that means I am preparing The Meaning Wars (The Meaning Wars, book 3) and Monsters and Fools (The Nightmare Cycle, book 2) for your eager, grasping hands, claws, and tentacles.

But BTtHtG did not arise fully-formed from my forehead, like Athena - far FROM it.

Stage 1: the bare outline of an idea 


I knew I wanted to write about two sisters, a love story with a young man from an Indian background - inspired, I must admit, by my own teenage love for a math tutor at the time - and about an abusive mother figure. I wanted at least one of the girls to be an artist, I wanted to capture the culture of suffocating, toxic religious families, and I wanted a happy ending. Snippets of scenes came together, but I couldn't get the whole thing to gel. Frustrated, I picked it up and set it aside as I worked on other things, hoping that somehow, some day, I'd be able to make it work.

Then a computer crashed and I lost my progress. I was desperate not to lose the file, even though it was corrupted beyond repair, and I rewrote as much as I could remember of the story. And there it sat for years. I pecked at it occasionally, but made little headway.

Then I had the idea of renaming it and of adding more to it, and of complicating the events. I knew I wanted the father character and daughter characters to spend time on the road, I knew I wanted the daughter in love with the young Indian man to have a second chance with her love, and I knew I wanted the other daughter to be queer. But where would I take them? I had no idea at the time. The girl in love would suffer from depression, but in high school, I had a very rough, broad idea of what that was like.

Stage 2: putting meat on the bones


The biggest problem I had with Bad Things' first drafts - back when it went by the name 'Foreverland' - was that I thought I needed to have events happen slowly. How could my readers get the sensation of a family slowly unravelling unless the pacing was equally slow? I didn't have events and revelations condensed enough, so there were these long stretches of dead space where basically nothing was happening. I have had that problem in a lot of books, so I think that's one of the reasons I've become such a parsimonious writer.

 One thing I did for Bad Things, though, to deal with the problem of the time jump, was - I DIDN'T look at my notes. It's been really useful; I based that technique on your advice to rewrite things using the original as a basis. I discovered, though, that it was better for me to just have the idea, and work from that - otherwise I tended to choke. My attempt to adhere to details was actually suffocating me.


Stage 3: doubt and denial 


Never trust the demon doubt. I've spent a few years in the trenches now, with battle scars from publishing, and one of the worst things I ever went through was a batch of negative reviews on GR. Apparently, dropping the word "cunt" under any circumstances means I have to hand in my feminist badge.

I almost stopped writing.

Finally, I published again, and moved on. I put together a collection of stories from multiple authors, and another, and entered a third collection, then a fourth.

I tried working on a story, and had an anxiety attack at the thought of publishing. My writing gathered dust for months. Even my blog had only a few peeps and snippets.

Stage 4: screw it, time to get back on the horse

Then, last month, I decided to tackle a story I'd been struggling with. I wrote 6K in one day and fired it off to my editors and mentors. Armed with their feedback, I let it sit a week, eagerly read over their critiques, and decided I'd finish the second draft by the end of the week. By the end of September, I'd finished my first draft of The Meaning Wars. 

The point of this story is: there will always be ups and downs. These stages may be inevitable. You may want to put your pen down. You may have to decide that writing needs to be a part-time thing. You may think it's time to quit, and that you can't do this. Mental health issues may leave you curled up and whimpering in the bathtub, rocking back and forth under a blanket, unable to verbalize your feelings.

But you CAN do it, oh writers and penmonkeys. You can. And eventually, the next book will stomp into your brain and demand to be written.

***

Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!
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