Atwood read the blueprint

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. [Don’t let the bastards grind you down.]
— Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale.

The Handmaids have entered the Texas legislature.
Nan L. Kirkpatrick‏ @nanarchist Mar 20:
The Handmaids have entered the #txlege. #sb415 #fightbacktx pic.twitter.com/Fpa9cNGHR0

The rate at which proposed  regulation, crafted by the American Far (“Christian”) Right, targets women’s most basic rights has been accelerating over the last several years. Bills that used to be outlandishly unthinkable are now commonplace, what with the Republican Party having wholly embraced the right-wing fringe, especially in its Dominionist flavour.

A protest against proposed draconian restrictions on abortion last week at the Texas legislature was only the most recent to draw parallels with Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel about an ultra-Christian future of gender-regulated servitude, The Handmaid’s Tale.

Of course, the upcoming release of Hulu’s series based on the novel has also brought the book to the forefront of pop culture again, but the novel has been increasingly mentioned in news, streams, threads, and conversations about the Right’s treatment of women.

Earlier this week I was reading about the original critical reception to Atwood’s landmark book. It was darkly funny to learn that some reviewers — like the New York Times’ Mary McCarthy (Feb. 9, 1986) — felt its premise was too unbelievable to be successful:

“Surely the essential element of a cautionary tale is recognition. Surprised recognition, even, enough to administer a shock. We are warned, by seeing our present selves in a distorting mirror, of what we may be turning into if current trends are allowed to continue. That was the effect of ”Nineteen Eighty-Four,” with its scary dating, not 40 years ahead, maybe also of ”Brave New World” and, to some extent, of ”A Clockwork Orange.” “

“It is an effect, for me, almost strikingly missing from Margaret Atwood’s very readable book ”The Handmaid’s Tale,” offered by the publisher as a ”forecast” of what we may have in store for us in the quite near future. A standoff will have been achieved vis-a-vis the Russians, and our own country will be ruled by right-wingers and religious fundamentalists, with males restored to the traditional role of warriors and us females to our ”place” – which, however, will have undergone subdivision into separate sectors, of wives, breeders, servants and so forth, each clothed in the appropriate uniform. A fresh postfeminist approach to future shock, you might say. Yet the book just does not tell me what there is in our present mores that I ought to watch out for unless I want the United States of America to become a slave state something like the Republic of Gilead whose outlines are here sketched out. “

It’s worth reading the entire review, it seems like a point-by-point comment on current news, 32 years after publication. It’s hard to believe these days that McCarthy found A Clockwork Orange’s dystopia more likely than the one in Atwood’s “palely lurid pages.”

[Edit: Here are some very current topics touched on in The Handmaid’s Tale which I jotted the last time I read the book:

    • Patriarchy and kyriarchy
    • Rise of religious fundamentalism
    • Feminist reactions to pornography
    • “Freedom to” versus “freedom from,” and safety versus liberty
    • Abortion, contraception, and reproductive choices
    • Self-determination, ownership of one’s body
    • Right to take one’s own life
    • Environmental degradation
    • Surveillance and information technology
    • Gun control
    • Sexual orientation and choice
    • Non-reproductive sex
    • Citizenship
    • Poverty
    • Access to education, knowledge as power
    • Status of and relationships between U.S. and Russia
    • Public apathy and the creep of authoritarianism
    • Isolationism
    • Televangelists and the Christian media industry

And I bet I missed some.]

Partisanship has been increasing over the past 25 years. The Republican Party now controls the U.S. Presidency, Senate, and House of Representatives, as well as the “trifecta” (governorship + both State congressional houses) in 25 state legislatures, the senate in 12 more states, the house of representatives in six more states, and governorship in eight more states, and soon the ninth and deciding seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. The trend is clear, and it is frightening.

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Credits: Photo by Nan L. Kirkpatrick, as seen on Vulture.

Women as Action Heroes: Supply and Demand

ST1

We’ve heard about a number of prodigiously insulting marketing decisions at the intersection of merchandising, pop culture and genre fiction, such as the disappearance of Black Widow from lines of Avengers merchandise and Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens merchandise. It’s been made clear that boys are the target market for toys. But do you ever wonder if it’s not also a deliberate ploy to manipulate supply and demand for price gouging?

We just learned that to mark the 50th anniversary of the original Star Trek series, CBS has licensed toy company Mattel to produce a line of Barbie-style dolls based on Lieutenant Uhura, Captain Kirk, and Commander Spock. I immediately checked on Amazon, because I want Lt. Uhura on my desk! But I discovered that she’s unavailable, even though the other two can be purchased just fine for $34.99 each.

Uhura-doll

StarTrek50th-dollsWhat gives?

But Amazon went on to offer me other lopsided-deals on memorabilia Barbie-like dolls. How about Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman figures based on the recent movie Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice? Hey, good news: all three are available. And priced at…

Wait, what? Continue reading “Women as Action Heroes: Supply and Demand”

“Far Beyond the Stars” yet so close

'Far_Beyond_the_Stars'_sketchLast night we watched the classic Star Trek: Deep Space 9 episode “Far Beyond the Stars” (Season 6, Episode 13, originally aired February 11, 1998.) I had never seen it before; I had entirely missed the last two seasons of DS9 and was spotty on seasons 2-5 until our current re-watch.

The episode has aged very well; nearly two decades later, it is very, very current. The premise (not a spoiler) is that Captain Benjamin Sisko has a full sensory vision of himself as an under-appreciated science fiction magazine writer in 1950s America. The cast regulars play alternate characters in this vision, all without alien prosthetic make-up.

The episode is a success that can be appreciated on multiple levels: the illustration of hope and despair, of prejudice overt and insidious, of how far we’ve come and how much further we have to go; the geeky enjoyment of the portrayals of characters based on real science fiction writers; the actors playing alternate parts with interesting symbolism in harmony or contrast with their regular parts; the musings about the relationship between ideas and change.

The story ties in painfully well with such current topics as the need to even state that Black Lives Matter, and various Sad/Rabid Puppies droppings. For my money, actor Avery Brooks, who also directs the episode, chewed the scenery too much in the climax scene; however, it remains a very strong piece.

You don’t need to be familiar with the metaplot of the show to appreciate this episode on its own; see it on Hulu, Netflix, or Amazon. Read more about the episode here and here (spoiler alert.)

Mini-review: Ex Machina (2015)

Up-front warnings: (1) This review contains spoilers. (2) I didn’t like the movie.

ex_machina_posterNot spoilers: The premise of this movie is that Main White Guy Character Caleb Smith (played by Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer at an internet-search giant, wins a competition to spend a week at the private mountain estate of the company’s brilliant and reclusive CEO, Antagonist White Guy Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Upon his arrival, Caleb learns that Nathan has chosen him to be the human component in a Turing Test, charging him with evaluating the capabilities, and ultimately the consciousness, of Nathan’s latest experiment in artificial intelligence — Sexy Fembot Ava (Alicia Vikander).

[Edit: A couple of friends have told me that Oscar Isaac, who is Hispanic, doesn’t read as white to them. That really surprised me, I read both the actor and the specific character of Nathan Bateman as white, but you may have a different impression. I have to add that if Bateman is supposed to read as a person of colour, it doesn’t help the movie for me, on the contrary.]

The movie tries to be a thriller but all the plot twists are predictable for science fiction aficionados. Nothing you haven’t read elsewhere. It also tries to be visually stylish and to feel intellectual; your mileage may vary. Mostly, Edmund and I spent our time asking the characters on screen: “Really? You didn’t see this coming?”

But I’d like to focus on the things that creeped me out, and not in a good thriller way. Spoilers begin here. Continue reading “Mini-review: Ex Machina (2015)”

Dive, Dive, Dive!

cover of Deep Dark BlueWelp, having used the example of the Frankie West character from Deep Dark Blue (Evil Hat Productions) in yesterday’s post, I was then haunted once again by the wish to play or run in that kind of setting. (I loved Fantasy Flight Games’ Blue Planet v2 way back when). I loaded the first season of seaQuest DSV on Netflix, and longingly thumbed through David Brin’s Startide Rising.

FrankieAfter the stupid kerfuffle about whether you could have a character who uses a wheelchair on a science fiction submarine, and looking at Streaker and seaQuest built to accommodate frickin’ dolphins throughout their length, I want to yell at people who lack both empathy and imagination. Even as I wish I could play right this minute!

seaQuest_layout
Darwin the dolphin swam everywhere on seaQuest!

How can you not see how great it would be to have someone like this:

Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba (SUDS) - January 2010 trip
Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba (SUDS) – January 2010 trip

Popping out on the bridge or in the lab alongside this dolphin:

Winter the dolphin with a prosthetic tail
Winter, the dolphin with a prosthetic tail

I swear as soon as I get a chance, I will play this character. How is that not the coolest thing in the middle of a big battle scene for the character to unlock their powered wheelchair from the gunner station, dive into the nearest moon pool opening, swim to the lab, get the macguffin, dive back in, zip to the torpedo bay, fix the problem, and swim back to their station?


Credits: Illustration by Arthur Asa taken from Deep Dark Blue, © 2016 Evil Hat Productions. SeaQuest layout from seaQuest V play-by-email sim by Crazynexus. Photo of diver © 2010 Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba (SUDS). Photo of Winter the dolphin © 2008 Barry Bland.

 

The Dystopian Universe RPG!

DURPG-Cover-Mockup-600pxHuzzah, I can finally talk about this project.  I’m project manager for Evil Hat Productions on a new dark science-fiction role-playing game powered by Fate Core. The setting is The Dystopian Universe, licensed from Travis Worthington at Indie Boards & Cards, and you may be familiar with it as the setting for several other games including The Resistance, Coup, Coup: Reformation, Coup: Rebellion G54, One Night Revolution, etc.

The game is written by Anna Meade and Brian Engard, with system development by J.D. Yearsley.  Applications for the first public playtest just opened today and will remain open through November 30.  (Here is a link to the application form.)

Corruption. Betrayal. Intrigue. Just another day in Paris Nouveau.

In a cyberpunk, dystopian future, the citizens of Paris Nouveau are no more than indentured servants. Virtual reality has come at a cost they can never pay, a tradeoff of freedom for technology. But there are freedom fighters who reject the system, unplugging from the illusion and working to make things right once again. They are La Résistance. Rise up and defy the corporations in the Dystopian Universe RPG, set in the same universe as The Resistance, Coup, and One Night Revolution from Indie Boards & Cards.

The Dystopian Universe RPG is a stand-alone game that uses a customized version of the Fate System. Within these pages, you’ll find:

  • Playsheets for nine character archetypes with tie-ins to the cards found in other Dystopian Universe games
  • New aspect rules to help reflect the intrigue of the Dystopian Universe, where no one is exactly what they seem
  • Two new systems to help GMs escalate conflicts based on character actions: blowback and the Vigilance Track
  • New equipment rules using Fate points from a character or from their supporters at La Résistance.
  • A streamlined modular system for creating missions, along with sample missions to get you started

The Dystopian Universe RPG: Vive La Résistance!

Dark Matter: RPG?

Dark_Matter_IntertitleThanks to the magic of the Fire TV Stick we recently bought, Edmund and I are half-way through watching the first season of the Space channel series Dark Matter (no spoilers on episodes 7 through 13, please!)  We’ve been viewing this very much as someone’s role-playing campaign, with classic players: the Fast-Talker (1), the GM’s Spouse, a.k.a. the only one that is sensible enough to be trusted as party leader (2), the Gun Bunny (3), the Ninja (4), the Weirdo (5), the Real Role-Player (6), and the GMPC (Android).

END OF EPISODE 6:

GM: OK, we’ve been playing this for a while so we’ve reached a milestone.  You guys can change one of your aspects now.  Think about taking something that will anchor your character in the story, build connections among you.

4: I change my Trouble from “Wanted for Murdering my Father” to “I Will Avenge my Father’s Death.”

GM: Uh, OK… you realize you guys are the hunted crew of a damaged ship, earning a hardscrabble existence on the edge of known space, and you won’t interact much with your family, right?

4: That’s what my character would do.

GM: (Sigh) OK.  What about you guys?

6: I took “I Must Bring the General to Justice.”

GM, weakly: OK… you realize you guys are the hunted crew of a damaged ship, earning a hardscrabble existence on the edge of…

6: Yeah. But that’s what my character would do.

GM: (Sigh) OK.  What about you, 3?  You’ve had some time to become familiar with the premise, you saw the background plots everybody else is taking. What about your own mysterious past?  You could take something to add a little depth to your character?

3: Nope.  I’m fine.

GM, looks at character sheet: Your aspects are Big Gun, Other Big Gun, and Even Bigger Gun, your High Concept is Gun Expert, and your Trouble is Trigger-Happy!

3, proudly: And I have the stunt “Two-Handed Shooting”!

GM: I fucking hate you all.

[Edited to add:]

EPISODE 7:

GM: Hey guys, 3’s player can’t make it this week but my friend Chris is in town and will play 3.  I hope no one minds?


Dark Matter Intertitle” by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

The Martian: Spoiler-Free Mini-Review

martianWe saw The Martian and found it as advertised. We liked it, it was a good choice for thrills, fear, humour, and hope.

  • Visuals and special effects: 5. It feels real through and through. I don’t recall a single moment when effects made me disconnect, and the motion shots in low gravity are very nice.
  • Soundtrack: 4. Orchestral stuff is appropriate and works fine; plus they found a way to add some songs I hate and make me like them. For a bit. In context.
  • Writing: 4. This made me want to read Andy Weir’s book, which had not made my list. It’s got vibes of Apollo 13 and Castaway, of course, and The Lonely Astronaut. It also resists the temptation to create villains when none are needed; the opposition of an uncaring universe is faceless. As a bonus, homages and Easter eggs are buried throughout for viewers to measure their nerd cred. (This is where it’s hardest to resist spoilers, when I feel like comparing notes!)
  • Casting: 4. Good choices, and I thought some of the actors might feel pleased to get some roles so different from what they often play.  Lots of familiar faces and great actors.
  • Direction: 4.5. Like in (nonfiction) Apollo 13 before, the movie steers clear of one of Hollywood’s favourite tropes, the Great Man or supergenius who single-handedly makes everything all right.  The central character of Mark Watney is obviously extremely smart, resourceful and tough, but you soon realize that he’s pictured that way not because he is supposed to be the Chosen One but because of the selection and training process that brought him to Mars.  It’s necessary that he be an exceptional individual but so are all involved, and they are all needed.  As a bonus, the right touch of humour (which I understand is in the novel) is preserved.
  • Editing: 4. Tight. The passage of time is handled pretty well; good and relatively sparing use of techniques like montages and voice-overs.
  • Science: 4.5. The most hand-wavey portions happen in the opening scenes; the reason protagonist Mark Watney is left on Mars is out of whack with what we know of the planet.  Amusingly, some of the criticism levelled at the science in some later scenes seemed to me to show the commenters’ lack of grasp of the context.
  • Diversity: 4. Some excellent choices, reflecting a good deal of real-world racial and gender diversity.  Bonus points for international cooperation.  Still centers on a white man, of course, but strong, significant roles to non-white and/or non-male people. Alas, I noticed no hint of disabled, non-hetero, or non-cisgendered characters. Only one non-white woman, with no lines in English.
  • Feminism: 4.5. It passes the Bechdel test within minutes, as well as the Strong Female Protagonist benchmark. Lead female character makes life-and-death decisions and they are respected.
  • The Bart Sibrel Award for Verisimilitude goes to Ridley Scott, Arthur Max, and Dariusz Wolski. We’ve finally reach the point where we can make really good hoax expeditions, as long as no one on the filming crew, post-production, and support team of hundreds talks, and no one notices the large mobilizations to Hungary and Jordan.

Thanks to Ridley Scott’s own Alien movie and its, ahem, progeny, we’ve had a lot of space horror movies in the last three or four decades.  But in the end, the thing that should really scare us is that the universe doesn’t give a damn.  If we are to survive, we need each other. That’s the message I took from this movie, anyway.

I will leave you with two images I really like: the cast poster, and the good ship Hermes (my new screen background).

the_martian_47_a

martian-hermes

RPG a Day: Lo, these aeons ago…

BluePlanet28. Favourite RPG you no longer play

Blue Planet (Biohazard Games/Fantasy Flight Games/Capricious Games), I think.  I love the setting, and the version 2 system (2003) is nicely playable (the original 1997 version had a very different system that I can’t recommend.)  We tried launching campaigns several times but it’s difficult to find a group interested in aquatic adventures. Over a decade ago we played in a campaign that lasted only a few months, and both my husband and I greatly enjoyed it. I’d love to try again.

#RPGaDay2015

eaglerays

Science Fiction and the Future

Now that the 2015 Hugo Awards have been awarded, it’s time for some reflections on the brouhaha, and what the voting numbers suggest.

Some Background

Hugo 2015I’m not going to recount the last six months’ worth of scheming, sniping, kvetching, and manoeuvering in the world of science fiction fandom.  So many prominent authors, fan contributors, organizers, and publishing professionals have chimed in—a simple search will generate massive hit returns; dozens, perhaps hundreds, of statements, tweets, articles, blog entries and comments were exchanged, leaving their marks. Highlights:

  • Miles Schneiderman’s recent overview on Yes! Magazine is as good a place as any to learn the core elements.
  • To understand the resulting slate of nominees, see Mike Glyer’s post on File 770.
  • Here is the official ballot after a few works were found ineligible and a couple of authors withdrew their works.
  • A quick overview and a longer explanation of how the voting works on the official Hugo Awards site.
  • The 2015 winners, as announced at last night’s ceremony.
  • The detailed voting results for 2015, as posted last night after the award ceremony.
  • A post-mortem by Amy Wallace on Wired Magazine.

The Awards Ceremony

I watched the award show live-streaming and was surprised that the high quality of the streamcast: hardly any technical glitches, except a couple of bandwidth hiccups at my end. This gave me a chance to appreciate the sterling job done by everyone at Sasquan and Worldcon. You can read Mike Glyer’s tally of the high points of the ceremony on File770.com.

I loved the hosts David Gerrold and Tananarive Due as well as the guests and presenters Connie Willis, Robert Silverberg, Linda Deneroff, Nina Horvath, Jim Wright, and a Dalek whose designation I sadly missed when it was given.  I loved the acceptance speeches, particularly those by Wesley Chu, Laura Mixon, Elizabeth Leggett, Julie Dillon; the crews of Galactic Suburbia podcast, Journey Planet, and Lightspeed Magazine; Ken Liu on behalf of Cixin Liu; and Pat Cadigan on behalf of Thomas Heuvelt.

I was personally delighted at the accolades, shout-outs, and awards for some of my favourites and even a few friends. I was moved by the tribute to those lost since last Worldcon, and I loved the genuine emotion, wit, respect, and camaraderie displayed.  This ceremony was a whole lot more fun to watch than the typical Hollywood-produced award shows: professional, yet human.

Aftermath

Let’s not play coy: yes, the voting was heavily politicized this year. The Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies’ slates were completely snubbed by fans. In fact, review of the statistics released after the show reveals that it was not even close. In just about every category except the cross-media awards (dramatic presentations, etc.), “No Award” ranked higher than any candidates from the SP/RP slates, even the poor nominees who had done nothing to associate themselves with that faction.  Of course politics were involved. Politics were precisely what the Puppies brought to the party by stacking slates of candidates.

There is a lot of discussion right now of what this all means for the future of the awards: more slate voting? New voting rules? New award categories? And so forth. But I’m much more interested in the wider picture of geekdom and even society at large that is emerging. Here are the conclusions I draw from the 2015 Hugo Awards.

1. The Geek Mind is Opening. I’ve been closely following several intersecting fandoms and geek communities over the last 35 years: science fiction and fantasy but also comic books, media, and tabletop games; freethought, atheism, and humanism; science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.  Not coincidentally, this also led to renewed interest on my part for feminism, intersectional activism, and social justice. Yup.

I’ve touched before on the changes I’m seeing; resistance to diversity (shouting down, gaslighting, ghosting, stalking, doxxing, SWATting, and so on) is becoming more vocal and aggressive as it’s becoming more isolated.  As many said yesterday, science fiction has proven that it looks towards the future.  This means that the ride ahead will continue being bumpy, but its eventual outcome is in clear sight.

2. Allies Matter. We would not have seen the numbers we saw last night, we wouldn’t get the push-back against Gamer Gate, if not for male allies, white allies, straight allies, cis allies, currently non-disabled allies, and just plain I’ll-stand-with-you-for-fairness allies.  Yes, everyone fighting against discrimination, isms, exclusion and various barriers knows that allies are precious and to be valued.

So if you count your self as an ally but every once in a while feel a knee-jerk reaction need to say things like “Not all men,” “Not all white people,”, “All lives matter,” be reassured: you don’t need to. Your help is vital and effective; we know and appreciate it. If you feel you need to distance yourself from something ugly, do it through your acts, not by whinging. When you act as an ally, you can count this as your victories. And when you act like a privileged git by making it all about you, you’re not acting as an ally, and you’re left only with a sense of unease, resentment, and guilt.

3. Desperation Makes for Allies Among Opponents Too. We’ve seen the weird aggregation of MRAs, Gamer Gate, 8Chan, Internet scammers, right-leaning celebrities, propaganda outlets like Breitbart, and more, united not because of their interest in things geeky, but because of their common dislike for diversity. I have no doubt that this trend will continue and it should be watched closely, as it provides for unexpected escalations.

4. Pick Your Battle Ground and Approach Carefully.  For example, if you are angry that a fandom doesn’t pick your books often enough for awards, proclaiming that you don’t care about them, you’re not one of them, and you don’t need their silly award BUT you’ll rig things so you can win just to show them, is not only immature, it’s just not a winning strategy.  And if you’re going to compound this by calling those you disagree “Social Justice Warriors” as if it was a slur, maybe you don’t want to make your big stand when showdown is just a few driving hours from the West Coast’s vast strategic reserves of proud SJWs.