Category Archives: Ponderings

The long dark dearth of posts

So I haven’t posted in quite a while. I actually have several posts written in a Word document but haven’t gotten around to queuing them up here.

Why?

Two reasons.

One is my personal life has been abnormally hectic for almost a year now and I don’t have as much energy to devote to this blog as I used to.

The second reason is that I am still writing a lot, but that writing is actually factually getting published! I’ve been reviewing nonfiction books for an academic journal, I’m now writing all of the content for my workplace’s website, I’m working on a couple of journal articles and I’m also coauthoring a white paper* that will be published by a major professional organization.

So what writing energy I do have is primarily devoted to more “serious” academic work. It also helps that I get a much bigger, more readily definable benefit from writing that stuff than I do posting obnoxious book reviews here.

I’m planning on getting back to posting in the next couple of months, but if you were curious about why it’s been so long, that’s why.

 

*by “white paper” I mean “an authoritative report or guide that informs readers concisely about a complex issue and presents the issuing body’s philosophy on the matter” and not “a tool meant to persuade customers and partners and promote a product or viewpoint“, just to be clear.

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On silliness

Lately I’ve been rather frustrate at the books I’ve been reading. Specifically, I’ve been frustrated that every book seems to take itself so seriously. Book like Deadtown, which are hard to describe to non-genre diehards without accusations of rediculousness but who can’t seem to find room for any lightness.

I’m not saying books need to be funny, but I’m also drawing a line between repartée/the occasional joke and true silliness. It’s especially frustrating in urban fantasy since the genre is so facially absurd. But instead you end up with things like Working stiff that are unrelentingly dark despite their position as “light” reading.

I’m really just reiterating the classic criticism of most comics since the 80s, but it applies to every genre. Not everything has to be totally grim all the time. It’s part of the reason I like Séanan McGuire as much as I do. 

It’s perfectly possible for silliness and seriousness to coexist. Perhaps the best example is Saga which as I’ve mentioned before includes the most emotionally powerful single page I have ever seen. It also includes lines like “there are only three forms of high art: the symphony, the illustrated children’s book, and the board game.” Also a creation myth that is also a fart joke.

Doing silliness right is hard. It’s incredibly easy to do it badly. Sir A Propos of nothing attempts it and ends up with most of the jokes in horrifically poor taste. Ms. Marvel does it well, and Order of the stick is a masterpiece of silliness. Moving away from comics the successes are less visible. Douglas Adams is the obvious referent for sf. As far as my reading experience goes, Lois McMaster Bujold is the only sf writer that comes close to matching Saga’s blend of serious, powerful work and humor. Outside of sf, Alexandre Dumas (père, I’ve not read fils) manages it (The three musketeers is actually hilarious. The 70s Three musketeers/Four musketeers films are really the only adaptations I’ve seen that get that across). Par conséquent I’ve seen elements of silliness in Arturo Pérez-Reverted as well. In terms of fantasy, I feel like Rachel Aaron’s Eli Monpress books do a good job of not becoming too bogged down in seriousness while still telling a “straight” story. Of course, for more popular recent work, the Gentleman Bastards series does that too.

Vonnegut did it too, although aspects of his work haven’t aged well. It’s one of the reasons I love the old screwball comedies, despite the virtually omnipresent sexism and racism (His girl Friday is probably the one that holds up the best here).

The lack of silliness in most fiction is probably why I end up rereading most of the Vorkosigan saga every year. It’s also probably while I can acknowledge that Memory is probably the best book in the series the combo of Komarr and A civil campaign (as Miles in love) is actually my favorite. I unironically love the 1960s Batman series for the same reason. 

Terry Pratchett is probably the obvious author to mention here. While I enjoy reading his stuff from time to time, I could never get into it enough to really consider myself a fan. Part of it is that I lack a lot of the cultural referents, but it’s mostly that I find the vast majority of his characters unlikeable and it’s really hard for me to latch on to books without at least one marginally charming character. Also, I can only really handle so much satire. That’s my frustration in sf, that the options are frequently grimaced seriousness or satire. I’d like something in between, as the endless parade of wink-wink-nudge-nudge Flinstones-type “humor” is pretty tired by this point. 

So I’ve decided that for the foreseeable future I’m swearing off super-serious stuff. I have enough going on that unrelenting pessimism without the slightest tinge of comic relief is more wearying than I’m willing to put up with. It probably won’t affect my posts here too much beyond possibly skipping some titles in the queue (there are still more than 100 books on my “to be reviewed” list).

A confession (part 3), or, what ends when the symbols shatter?

Now it’s time for me to speak a little more abstractly.

I want to make it clear from the start that I’m not attempting to police anyone’s musical taste. I’ve been trying to explain why I became increasingly uncomfortable with a specific artist and decided that I couldn’t in good conscience continue to support them.

One clarification I’d like to add is that when I talk about having been involved in the neofolk subculture/Death in June fandom I’m talking about very peripheral involvement. I’m not really a joiner and I don’t generally like to get involved with “groups”. I frequently say (jokingly but not really) that I find people who agree on things untrustworthy. As a result none of my friends share more than a couple of my interests and I’m not one for organized group activities. 

So when I describe myself as having once been involved with the neofolk subculture that means I had a couple of friends into the genre and I commented once or twice on a blog or two about the subject. I may also have had a half a dozen conversations on tr subject with non fans. The closest I ever got to going to a show was seeing Earth at the Empty Bottle last year (Douglas P’s refusal to tour was one of the things I liked about him). So DI6 fans can say that I was never a “true fan” and that what I’m saying reflects an upstart outsider’s misperceptions.

I’m largely interested in where we should draw the line. A common theme I’ve seen in the ex neofolk crowd is rejection of artists who have collaborated with the more problematic members of the scene. I’m not sure that’s exactly productive but I understand the impulse. 

David Michael/Tibet, for instance, was intimately connected with Death in June during the relatively early part of the scene. But if we reject Current 93 because of his association with DI6/Sol Invictus/whomever we ignore that those collaborations ended decades ago, and that it becomes easy to tar other artists with that same brush. 

I interpret Tibet/Michael’s wide variety of collaborators as indicative of his friendly outlook. It’s possible I’m being too charitable here, but Current 93’s recent support of artists like Baby Dee is a great thing to my mind. Of course, Michael/Tibet was also a supporter of Tiny Tim who wasn’t really any less racist than Douglas P is, not to mention his homophobia. Still, as I’ve mentioned above I think that anyone who portrays themselves as flawless or who will only associate with people who aren’t problematic in any way is at best lying to themselves and at worst actively trying to conceal something. So I don’t really begrudge David Michael/Tibet his acquaintances.

One point where Douglas P and I are in total agreement is that the words we use are important am potentially powerful. Which is one of the reasons I don’t really listen to his music anymore. I think DI6 is carelessly using imagery and language that is potentially quite dangerous, regardless of whether or not the symbolism is sincere.

David Tibet has made similar comments about his break with the OTO: that actions and words have consequences and thoughtlessly playing around can have potentially tragic real world consequences. 

It seems like Douglas P thinks that Current 93’s music is similarly irresponsible. In the end it comes down to ideological differences. I reject Douglas P’s libertarian perspective and so see his use of fascist imagery irresponsible, whereas he sees it as an emphasis on the importance of individual responsibility and self control.

The question I end up asking myself constantly is “if I acknowledge that nobody is ideologically|morally|spiritually|whatevery perfect, where do I draw the line?”

I still listen to Pat the bunny’s early work (the pre-rehab stuff he won’t touch now) despite the fact that I have serious problems with some of the lyrics (I wait outside of a cop’s house / holding a twelve gauge). I have problems with some of his new stuff too. I don’t think fantasizing about murder is cool, and I think he ends up undermining his anarchism somewhat by drawing an arbitrary distinction between the people who hold up the current political system and everyone else. 

I justify it to myself by pointing out that Pat constantly, in lyrics and in interviews, makes it clear that he’s not actually advocating murder, that he’s really just venting his frustrations. I am somewhat suspicious that this is a pretty thin justification and that a more likely reason is that Pat’s politics are closer to mine than Douglas P’s are and so I’m willing to forgive him more.

I think that the case of Death in June is interesting because it presents a different question than with Orson Scott Card or Marion Zimmerman Bradley or Ezra Pound or Adam Baldwin. In those cases it’s a question of avoiding art that is not necessarily problematic in itself because of the problematic views of its creators. In the case of Death in June it makes me wonder about the reverse: do we avoid problematic art by people who aren’t necessarily themselves problematic? I’m not saying that Douglas P isn’t problematic, but he’s not significantly more right wing than the current Republican Party. His personal views are frequently reprehensible, and I don’t intend to whitewash that. But what if the same music was being made by somebody who wasn’t a little too close to Le Pen for comfort. 

I guess Anne McAffrey would be a good example. Some of her work is seriously questionable in its portrayal of consent (and the age thereof).

I’m tempted to say that the answer is even easier: if the work itself is problematic then there’s really no reason not to stay away. At what point do the problematic aspects overtake other positives in the work? It’s a question that comes up all the time when reading classic fiction, but it’s also less pressing because most of those authors are dead and not in a position to benefit.

It’s a question that doesn’t really have a simple answer. I nearly quit reading Apropos of nothing because of how tone deaf it got at times. Perhaps the best recent example is the work of David Dalgish, which earnestly attempts to address serious issues but ends up failing miserably. It’s possible that The warded man falls into this category.

I know people whose response has been to pirate that material so that the authors don’t benefit economically from their prejudice (A did this with NSBM), but that doesn’t address the “words have meaning and can this be dangerous” or the “creeping fascism” issues.

I don’t know. What I do know is that I was a fan of Death in June, albeit a slightly uncomfortable one, and I eventually reached a point where I was uncomfortable with my own attempts to justify the problematic stuff.

A confession (part 2), or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the reverb

In my previous post I talked about the various things that got me involved with Death in June (DI6) and the neofolk scene. Now I’m going to talk about the things that got me out.

I was always uncomfortable with some of the DI6 lyrics. At first I tried to brush it off as my failure to “get” the metaphor, or that the songs were referencing other thing (like “because I him”, where the line “helping one race, one creed, to meet their need” is a reference to either Heaven’s Gate or the Brian Jonestown thing).

The next step was to try and self justify, to tell myself that there was nothing wrong with the social Darwinism that seemed to permeate everything. Honestly, that’s the pout where I should have realize that something was wrong. I was facing a huge amount of cognitive dissonance at this point, trying to hold on to my own value structure while simultaneously attempting to accept the right-libertarianism that appears all over the genre. 

I’m kind of disappointed in myself that I just accepted feeling conflicted about the disconnect instead of actively questioning what was going on.

One of the things that delayed my move away from DI6 and the neofolk scene was the actions of their critics. I don’t have much respect for direct action Antifa types, and the accusations leveled against Boyd Rice, Douglas P, and others in the scene were so ridiculous as I be impossible to take seriously. Antifa does more to protect there opponents than they ever actually accomplish.

Just as there were musical and social reasons behind why I got into neofolk in the first place, there were also musical and social reasons behind why I “left”.

Musically, I attempted to resolve my discomfort with DI6 by seekin out other music that was satisfying in the same way but less problematic. I started doing this almost immediately, even while insisting that there was nothing problematic about DI6.

The first thing I found was Current 93. I know there are former neofolk fans that won’t listen to C93 because of David Tibet’s connections to Sol Invictus and DI6, I didn’t find nearly as much to bother me in Current 93’s music (especially once David Michael/Tibet and Douglas P had their falling out).

Part of why I found Current 93 more acceptable was that I was much more familiar with the philosophical sources they were drawing from. I wasn’t bothered by “Hitler as Kalki” because I had read enough at that point and while I can understand why the comparison is incredibly troubling from the perspective of mainstream Hinduism (conflating Hitler and Vishnu would be mindbogglingly offensive) that’s not ever how I understood the song, and David Michael/Tibet has gone to great lengths to explain it.

Still, it’s my least favorite track on that album so that’s another reason why I wasn’t so bothered.

Tibet’s connections with the OTO and thelema were way easier for me to accept than Douglas P’s Germanic paganism. The fact that David Michael eventually left the OTO helped too.

Current 93 seemed more interested in the aesthetics of weird religion than they did in perpetuating a dream of a bygone Europa. Still, C93’s more psychedelic style (in the releases I could find. This was before Bandcamp and relatively early in the iTunes era, so neofolk was hard to come by outside of mail order CDs for $60 a pop) wasn’t quite as satisfying as DI6 was.

I finally found something to replace DI6 when I started looking more heavily into French music. A student lent me the first La rue kétanou album and I was instantly hooked. That lead to Les ogres de barback and Les hurlements d’Léo and a whole wealth f French music that had everything I lined about DI6 with none of the uncomfortable lyrics. Un air, deux families is still one of my favorite albums of all time.

I also started to seek out Chinese rock and came across Liang Long’s Second Hand Rose, which helped to make it increasingly clear that it was possible to combine traditional music with rock without introducing reactionary politics.

I still occasionally returned to DI6, although without much enthusiasm. I rarely listened to whole albums anymore, picking out those tracks that seemed less problematic. I later discovered that the DI6 song I continued to listen to were the exact same ones that David Michael continues to listen to. 

The final musical nail in the DI6 coffin came from my brother in law, who introduced me to the burgeoning folk-punk scene. Pat the bunny, Andrew Jackson Jihad, and similar groups supplanted the last remaining vestiges of DI6 in my musical rotation. I still wasn’t 100% comfortable with all of their lyrics, but it was an uncomfortableness that was easier to pin down and examin.

Socially the biggest factor in my move away from neofolk was an increased widening of my social network to include people who didn’t order their lives around their musical tastes.

A graduated and moved away and I started spending time with L, a friendship that I have since neglected to my regret.

L was a member of the OTO an regular participant in the gnostic mass. They also actively avoided Death in June because they were uncomfortable about the content and, more significantly, they felt like because of their appearance and very German surname they felt it would be best to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, regardless of whether or not DI6’s use of Nazi imagery was in earnest.

At the time I shrugged and continued to be a DI6 fan, albeit a slightly uncomfortable one. I felt like L’s concerns were overblown. Still, with L I had a friend who shared my interests in weird religion who wasn’t particularly connected with the neofolk scene. 

It helped that A started waxing poetic about Whitehouse, which made me realize that his far right stances weren’t just bitterness or an attempt to shock people; they were his sincere political views.

Also around this time I started traveling much more. I spent time in China, Japan, and France. These were major formative experiences for me, and the people I met and the things I did made it really clear to me that the survival of the fittest ideology prevalent in neofolk really wasn’t for me.

I became much more confident, philosophically, and came to the realization that vulnerability is not necessarily bad. I decided that empathy was not in fact a weakness, and that weakness was not bad in itself anyways. I also really internalized the saying “when walking in the melon patch, don’t bend down to adjust your sandals”. It was a sayin I had never really understood before, but it became my own version of “avoiding even the appearance of impropriety”.

The fact that I was able to avoid internalizing that lesson until I was in my 20s really points to how privileged I am. My brother was forced to come to terms with it while still in high school.

The other thing that drove me away from DI6 was Douglas P himself. I read an interview with him after The rule of thirds was released where he talked about the inspiration behind the songs on the album. His explanation of the track “Takeyya”, which I had interpreted as a criticism of closemindedness, revealed that it was the opposite, and that Douglas P was aggressively Islamophobic.

Then, I read another interview where Douglas P repeated most of the standard racist canards about aboriginal Australians. When he released the Free Tibet EP, his comments about being adamantly opposed to forgiveness really bothered me.

Let me make this clear: I don’t think Douglas P is a neonazi or white supremacist. I do think that he’s a racist neoreactionary peddling a dangerous ideology.

There’s a lot of wiggle room between “neonazi” and “not problematic”. The “is he a nazi or not?” game that gets played regarding DI6 (and pretty much everywhere else in the neofolk scene) ends up being counterproductive, as the neonazi charge is too easy to refute and ignores that the work is still problematic for other reasons. 

To draw a comparison to criminal prosecutions, looking for clues about white supremacy in DI6 is the equivalent of charging a murderer with treason: it enables them to get away with lesser crimes because it puts all the focus on the big crime that is easier to defend against.

My next post I’ll look a little more at rejecting an artist because of their beliefs, and how acceptable it is I be a fan of problematic things.

A confession (part 1), or, I was (almost) a teenage neoreactionary

Taking a break from book reviews for a moment for something completely different.

Here’s where I alienate all the people coming here looking for parental advisories.

Anyways. I promised a confession.

Here it is: I used to be a huge neofolk fan. Death in June (henceforth DI6) in particular.

It’s not something I’m particularly proud of (at least not now), but it brings to mind a more complicated version of the “is it possible to enjoy problematic art? And what about art by people with despicable personal views?”

It’s not just a right wing thing either – there’s a radical leftist singer/songwriter that I have qualms about as well.

I’m going to get autobiographical before I get into that stuff though. This got incredibly long as I was writing it so I’m going to split it up into multiple posts.

My introduction to DI6 was two-fronted: one was a natural consequence of seeking out new music by artists I liked already. The other front was social.

Musically, the whole thing started with Bauhaus. That lead to a Cleopatra records sampler, which lead to a five dollar darkwave sampler that featured a Mission UK remix of Christian Death’s Spiritual cramp. It was obnoxious and bombastic and while I was unimpressed by the rest of the album it made me seek out more Christian Death. Unfortunately what I found was the more recent Valor-fronted band which is really just terrible. Eventually I got ahold of some of the Roz-era stuff. That lead to Boyd Rice.

I was never a big fan of Boyd Rice, to be honest. But that’s more or less what lead me to DI6 musically. This all mostly happened while I was still in high school.

The social thing was a combination of having a very compartmentalized social life, where none of the people I hung out with individually were friends with each other, and one friend in particular. 

This friend was an occasional member of the Church of Satan, so I’ll call him “A”, after Anton LeVay. A loved DI6. He came to it through black metal and was something of a neofolk evangelist. His political views varied widely from one day to the next, but looking back they were consistently right wing. If it had been a thing at the time he probably would have been a dark enlightenment type. No, I was not friends with Davis Aurini, but A had plenty in common with him.

I met A my freshman year of college. At the time I glossed over the right wing nature of A’s politics. I think it was wishful thinking, since none of the other friends I made in college were interested in talking occultism, weird politics, or weird music. The fact that I didn’t get along with the existing punk establishment didn’t help. I went to a couple of shows and got frustrated by the gatekeeping from the younger punks and the entitled upper middle class white angst of the older ones. The indie kids (what we called them at the time, they’d be recognized as hipsters now) were even worse when it came to gatekeeping, since it wasn’t enough to like the same music; you also weren’t allowed to like any other music.

So really this was the only friend I had who shared many of my passions, which meant I probably overlooked a lot more than I really should have.

I will say I wasn’t the only one who did this. He had had a hard life and was understandably bitter, so there was more than one person who was willing to write off his more problematic positions (primarily antifeminism at the time).

So it was through this friend that I actually got access to DI6 and neofolk in general. We both self identified as leftists at the time, and because this fried regularly talked about how uncomfortable he was with NSBM and the neonazi presence in the black metal scene I was inclined to believe him when he said that the accusations against Douglas P were built around misunderstandings of his lyrics and imagery.

It helped that neofolk was exactly the music I had been searching for. Largely acoustic but still not afraid of experimentation it had a lot of the things I liked about othe genres (indie, free jazz) but without the whining and gatekeeping from the indie scene while also being less aggressively atonal as more experimental stuff. Dealing with (at the time) undiagnosed depression was probably a factor as well, and it was exciting to try and catch all of the literary allusions in the lyrics.

What it comes down to is that neofolk was pretentious in a way that appealed to me and made me feel special for “getting” it. While there were definitely aspects of the music and the scene I was uncomfortable with, I wrote them off at the time as references to Maldoror, or attempts to be subversive and push artistic boundaries.

So that, more or less, is what lead me to DI6. The next post will cover my gradual disillusionment with the scene. My third (and probably final?) post about this will cover my thoughts about the issues posed, both specifically with regards to DI6 and the neofolk genre and generally with regards to art in General and where we draw boundaries of appropriateness.

Reading list analysis: gender

My decision to start tracking everything I read was largely a reaction to a blog post that my spouse shared with me (but that I haven’t read, and I don’t know where it was from or who wrote it so I can’t credit them). First, it was because my spouse said “this guy says he read 65 books last year, how many did you read?” and partially because the author of that post pointed out how tracking that information caused them to realize that the vast majority of books they read were by white men. I was intrigued and wanted to see what my numbers would look like.

So here I’m going to look at the gender breakdown. To make it clear, the numbers might be skewed one way or the other, because when I recorded the data I looked at the number of books I read that were written by men or women, not the number of men and women whose books I read. So because I read four books in the Aubrey-Maturin series, that counted as four books by a man. One author that I read uses a gendered pseudonym that doesn’t correlate to their real-life gender – I counted that individual under their “real” gender as opposed to the one implied by the author listed on the book.

I’ll note that I’m only looking at novels in this analysis – I don’t read enough short stories or what-have-yous to

One thing I’ve noticed is that the gender disparity on my reading lists is almost entirely genre-related.

In 2013, I read more books by men than by women. It was about 60/40 men-women. Not-coincidentally, 2013 was the year I read way too many naval novels. If I cut those from my analysis, it ends up being much more even. The vast majority of books I’ve reviewed on this blog are from my 2013 list, with a few outliers: books I read in 2012 or earlier that I wanted to include for stylistic reasons, books I included because they fit the theme, and books I read more recently but that someone had specifically requested.

In 2014 the gender split was almost exactly 50-50. 2014 was also the year I fell victim to the participant-observer effect and consciously tried to broaden my horizons and read a wider variety of genres. I didn’t consciously attempt to reach gender parity, but it happened.

2015 (so far) is very different: more than 75% of the novels I’ve read so far this year have been by women.  This is also the year where I’ve been visiting the local public library every week (as opposed to 2014, where I visited either the public library where I worked or, after quitting that job, where I went to one of the larger in-system public libraries). The local library’s mass market sff collection is heavily geared towards urban/contemporary fantasy especially, as one person put it “urban fantasy with a strong romantic component” (as opposed to paranormal romance).* It’s a genre I happen to enjoy, and since circumstances outside my control have lead to a pretty serious increase in my stress level, it’s a genre I frequently turn to in order to “decompress”. With the way things are going right now I don’t have the psychic energy to put up with incredibly dense philosophical tomes so a 300 page book about a woman who can make her art come to life/is secretly Lucifer’s daughter/discovers that John Constantine “Jack Winter” isn’t dead after all/has tattoos that are actually demons who emerge from her body at night/is a salsa-dancing, parkour-ing cryptozoologist/etc. etc. etc. is pretty much exactly my speed (for the time being). I’ve read some stuff in the genre by men, but in all honesty I’d much rather read Séanan McGuire than Jim Butcher. Not to generalize, but the dude stuff I’ve read has been so much more up its own ass that I rarely feel the desire to read more than the first book in any given series. The one exception so far this year has been Daniel José Older, but the first book in his series just came out in January so there hasn’t been the opportunity to fill my reading list with his work.

This imbalance actually started at the end of last year, where only 3 of the last 20 novels I read were by men.

The year is yet young so it’s likely that this will change, but considering that only 2 of the 7 novels I have out from the library are by men I doubt it will change too much.

 

*If you’re reading this and want credit, let me know.

Skill and stuff as the arbiter of goodness

One think I think about pretty regularly when reading is what separates the “good guys” from the “bad guys”. There are a couple of ways that this usually works. The simplest is by author fiat (these are the good guys because they are the heroes) but it’s actually fairly uncommon, as there are usually other signifiers. For my purposes, I’ll break them down into three general categories, although they are all fairly coextensive: relationship to the status quo, moral virtue, and skills n’stuff.

In most mystery novels the status quo is the arbiter of goodness – the good guys are the ones who protect the status quo, the bad guys are the one who threaten it. It’s one of the reasons I’m not a huge fan of the genre. There are certainly mystery novels that do otherwise (The Millennium trilogy was in some ways an explicit attempt to challenge cultural complacency about extreme ideologies) the basic mystery novel formula is deeply conservative. The superhero genre has some of the same issues, although it wasn’t always that way and authors seem equally likely to use the characters to the opposite effect. Sff as collective genera are much more willing to be subversive. Star Wars is the most well-known example of this: the heroes are the people actively fighting against the status quo.* It exists everywhere there’s an “evil empire”.

It’s probably most common to divide the good guys and the bad guys by dint of their moral behavior. The good guys are the one who exhibit “good” morality – they don’t murder, they don’t commit property crimes against innocents (usually), etc. etc. I’m planning another post on this eventually so I’m not going to go into too much depth here. I’ll just say that there are times when this trope is subverted: The chronicles of Thomas Covenant, The three musketeers, and Blood meridian come to mind immediately. I’m sure there are more. It’s a technique that is used much more often in books and movies than it is in video games, where “good guy by fiat” is pretty much the default for player characters.

It’s the third method of distinguishing the good guys from the bad guys that I’m interested in talking about here – that we know who the good guys are because they are the best at what they do or because they have the best stuff (or both). It’s something that I haven’t been able to stop noticing once I thought of it. The good guys always have the best toys. It’s almost necessary in order for the good guys to win (see Star Wars again), otherwise it would skretch** credulity to see the scrappy underdogs defeat the overwhelmingly superior force.

It happens other places, too. It’s a mainstay of naval novels, that the heroic British/Manticoreans have the superior firepower and/or much more highly skilled crews than the nefarious French/Havenites whose successes are largely attributed to running into the wall so many times it eventually collapses on them. It’s so common that the hero is extra skilled that it goes practically unquestioned.  It’s one of the things that really drew me to the October Daye books – it’s immediately made clear that Toby is vastly less powerful than the average fae citizen and is even less powerful than many changelings. This weakness forces her to behave differently, to pick her battles, and to find creative solutions and/or enlist powerful allies. It goes a long way in making the books more interesting.***

It even happens in books that explicitly pose moral questions – while I’m not very fond of Brandon Sanderson (and sometimes it feels like I’m the only one), Mistborn raises some interesting questions about the morality of the fantasy novel hero (and of the evil overlord), but even there the heroes have abilities that surpass virtually everyone else.

It’s especially common in video games, but since most video games are, in their secret hearts, power fantasies, it makes total sense. One of the strengths of the Metal Gear series is, like Mistborn and unlike the vast majority of games, it examines the differences between power and “goodness”, and it’s rarely clear whether or not Snake is actually doing the right thing or is on the right side. Like Mistborn, Metal Gear also explicitly addresses the moral context of the hero’s casual killing of the “bad guys”.**** George R.R. Martin also takes pains to avoid this trope, and it’s one of the reasons he has the reputation he does.

The hero just being “better” at whatever the plot requires seems to be pretty common, especially in genre fiction. It works because it plays on the culture of hero-worship and it provides a convenient justification for a happy ending. It’s a trope that has existed virtually forever (neither Gilgamesh nor Enkidu is exactly a moral exemplar, and the Biblical King David was essentially a bandit). Sherlock Holmes is one of the easiest “modern” literary figures to point to here, since it’s essentially his entire gimmick. It makes for exciting stories. Still, it represents a pretty significant departure from the extraliterary world.

It’s something that I enjoy pondering when I read – why are the heroes the heroes? It’s a question that books are well suited to addressing. It’s an issue that’s especially important in science fiction and fantasy, where the relationship between the literary world and the extraliterary world is more abstract than in “realistic” fiction. It’s caused me to notice how often the main characters in the books I read end up playing god, or at least stand in judgment of those who aren’t like them. It’s not exactly a comfortable realization, but I think it’s a worthwhile one.

*There’s an argument to be made that the rebels of Star Wars aren’t actually fighting the status quo, since it’s essentially a conservative rebellion, seeking to return to the old status quo rather than instituting a new one.

**That was supposed to be “stretch”. For a full fifteen minutes I was convinced that there was a k in the word stretch. I have no idea how or why that happened but I’m leaving it because skretch seems like a cool word to me. It has a Jim Henson kind of feel to me.

***I’ve read all of the books in the series that were published as of December 2014, and what I say here isn’t strictly 100% accurate for various reasons that I can’t go into without revealing way too much about the books.

****I’ll look into this in more depth if I ever write the post about the moral stuff.

Search term frenzy

So as a change of pace, I figured I’d take a look at what search terms are getting people here. Note that this is pretty much just people using Bing, since I can’t actually see what search terms people who get here from Google are using.

These are the most popular terms as of the beginning of this month.

After my username, the most popular search term is “stand on zanzibar predictions” which is okay I guess… it’s probably why my Stand on Zanzibar review is the most popular post I’ve written thusfar. It’s a popular topic and there are approximately 10,000,000 sites out there talking about the relative accuracy of Brunner’s predictions, so I guess I feel flattered that they’re ending up here?

Next most common search string is “hyperbole in maze runner series“. Considering the number of hits I’m getting for this exact phrase, I’m guessing that some teacher out there has assigned their students an essay about Dashner’s use of hyperbole. Unfortunately that’s not going to be helpful since my review makes no mention of hyperbole whatsoever. Anyways, hyperbole is literally the worst device an author could POSSIBLY use and it’s obviously a sympton of poor writing skills.

The next few terms are all pretty similar:
the maze runner seems stupid

who else hated the mazerunner

maze runner makes no sense

Yes.

Then there are a series of straight title searches, which aren’t interesting. At the bottom of the cluster we have “reader’s advisory predictions” (hey, that’s actually what this is blog “supposed” to be for!) “bloody mary wekneess” (I have no idea) “Terry brooks parental advisory” (not necessary) and “similarities between the maze runner and the hunger games” (not really that many).

 

With so many Maze runner-related search terms you’d think that it would be one of the more popular posts. It’s in the top 10, but the number of hits it gets isn’t really proportional to the percentage of search terms including it that lead here.

 

Yes, this post has been shameless filler. Some things in my personal life have temporarily reduced the amount of time I have to write blog posts and my buffer has suffered.

That demon Continuity

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”

-Self reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson

I haven’t made a non-review post and my actual reviews seem to be getting increasingly ranty so here’s a rant without a specific title in mind.

As I’ve mentioned previously, while I’ve always been a huge fan of comics I’ve been inconsistent over the years when it comes to the superhero stuff.

In my review of Identity crisis I mentioned that it was one of the titles that got me reading superhero comics again after an extended period of consuming Vertigo and Dark Horse titles more or less exclusively. I’ve been reading a lot of comic sites lately, and it seems that one of the more common criticisms of Identity crisis is that it “tainted” the characters, especially their earlier appearances. More innocent adventures took on a sinister undertone after the revelations of Identity crisis.

This is the scourge of the demon Continuity.

People also complained about Identity crisis because they felt like the characterization was inconsistent with the way those heroes were portrayed in other titles.

This is the scourge of the demon Continuity.

Continue reading That demon Continuity