A Bright New Year

I used to participate in a set of newsgroups dedicated to reading and writing science fiction. It was my first experience online, just about. Sometimes it was exhilarating. Sometimes it was terrible. It foreshadowed Twitter and Facebook in a lot of ways. I made some mistakes, didn’t always behave well, but the biggest mistake I made was discounting my own intuition about a certain dynamic that I saw there.

“It’s just a bunch of crazy right-wing science fiction fans,” I muttered to myself as I withdrew from participation after being hounded one too many times for saying something so radical as I thought traffic safety engineering was a good idea (seriously, Pete McCutcheon’s response to that, as to most things I said, was to accuse me of complicity in Stalin’s purges.). It wasn’t the traffic argument–it was something later, just a long, long, exhausting, unproductive, and I thought, unimportant series of similar arguments. I thought: I can use my energy better finishing these novels that have a better view of the world. But this here is not what I’m talking about today. Nope, it’s a simple thing, a little thing, a trivial matter of taste. I had my misgivings about this stuff all along, but “it’s only pulp fiction, don’t like, don’t read.” You know, you shouldn’t dislike stuff too vehemently online because that’s tantamount to censorship (hush, never mind that people do dislike stuff vehemently online all the time).

And now–a couple decades later–the world view of those people is ascendant in the world, not just the US: over and over they “win” elections through fraud and manipulation, and even where they don’t, they find ways to dismantle everything good about civilization, every freedom, every protection, every advance in scientific thinking and every commitment to beauty and free expression.

The thing I only barely registered opposition to at the time and which I believe I ought to have made a Principled Stand against is dystopian fiction.  I’ve always thought it was cheap, unimaginative, easy to dream up, usually not well thought out even given all that. I ask myself: “Can’t they think of anything better than this? Is this all they think we’re capable of?”

Rarely does dystopian fiction strike me as a credible warning. When it is, it’s very powerful, you can see how the world in the story got that way, what the decision points were, what could have been different. Usually, it’s ahistoric, or the history in it is shallow and unconvincing, it’s just a fantasy of misery. And of course, the protagonists are the One True Somethings–they escape or they take over and we’re supposed to believe everything will be all right now, except when it’s 1984 or its imitators in which we’re subjected to watching the person we’re supposed to identify with break and wallow in his Terrible Human Condition. When we’re invited to gleefully embrace Jack London’s Iron Heel stepping on the face of everyone forever and forever.

It’s that gleeful embrace that gets to me even more than the paltry imagination. Because I also suspect that often the writers and aficionado readers of dystopian fiction are not just interested in that kind of future–they desire it. They read WHAT IF HITLER/THE CONFEDERACY WON and go “sounds great!” They read about tyranny, torture, subjugation, and they think “that’s the ticket.” They stay up at night imagining how to destroy civilization and stratify the community as rigidly as possible.

I think it’s urgent that we do better on all fronts. Let’s imagine a better future and work for it. Let’s write a better future while we make those phone calls, march those streets, talk to those people, defend those ballot boxes, whatever we have to do. But let’s not give in to despair or embrace the darkness.

I’ve seen people say “If you imagine a utopian world, though, there’s no room for a story because there is no conflict.” That also betrays a lack of imagination. Do you really believe in a world so perfect that it works to the same degree for all people and solves all problems without making any others? What makes you think people would or should settle for whatever they’ve got, once it’s better than what they had before?

A better world, a brighter future, to my mind necessarily creates new problems that demand new answers. Those stories are more work to imagine, because they’re not just replays of all the misery we’ve experienced throughout the centuries. There’s more to be found there, new things, shiny marvelous things, things you’ve never seen before.

Let’s write that, okay? Let’s write What Is To Be Done? for our age.

By the way, I made my pussy hat and I will be on the streets of my hometown January 21.


Something I wrote elsewhere: and more about Prague’s ethnicities

A while back my friend Heather Rose Jones (whose Alpennia series of lesbian-located historical fantasies you should really read for every reason: also, on her blog, she is developing a tremendous resource called the Lesbian Historic Motif Project) introduced me to her friend Alison Thurman because Alison was researching background for a novel she’s working on about the sixteenth-century alchemist John Dee when he was living in Prague. She was about to go to Prague for on-site research, and Heather knew I had done an amount of historical research in Prague as well (though mine was focused more on the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) and she thought we might like to enthuse together. Which we did.

Alison  has a blog of her own, and once when she was wondering about what to write about next, Heather and I both suggested “More about the Rudolfine Prague” (that is, Prague in the time of “Mad King” Rudolf II, the monarch John Dee and his felonious partner Edward Kelley were in Prague to get the sponsorship of). Then Alison asked me if I would like to guest blog something in that area. It so happened that I did, and in specific I wanted to write about multiculturalism in that time and place. So I did, and here it is! 

Alert readers will wonder why the Roma are not mentioned in the piece. That’s because they arrived in Prague just after the time in question! I didn’t leave them out for any other reason.  If I had extended the account to the present day, there would be even more to account for. Though the Roma people have lived in Prague since the late sixteenth century, they still face discrimination.

Prague is also home to a substantial Vietnamese population, many of whom have come there as a result of a special diplomatic relationship between Czechoslovakia and North Vietnam in the days of the Vietnam War: many have small exquisite produce stores and other work in the markets such as Pražská tržnice.

And though it is not large, there is also a very visible community of Nigerians, some of whom wear “naval uniforms”-striking because Czech Republic is landlocked except for a tiny bit of dockland, wholly unconnected to the country, given as a courtesy– and work for boat tour companies on the Vltava River. Others own “Irish” bars in town.

All of these communities living together–sometimes peacefully, sometimes not–bringing all their cultures to bear on the problems of life in this small and beautiful city, makes for a heady inspiration for a writer like me. Often Europe is presented as a place of deep, singular roots, where the same peopled have been living with the same culture and “blood” for hundreds if not thousands of years. It’s pretty clear to me that that is an erroneous and misleading view of the place. It’s in some ways a lot like California: the western end of a large continent, where migration constantly agitates the mix and the best things arise from cross-pollination (for this analogy to hold, we would have to recognize Prague as being rather like the Fresno of Europe-though it is much older and more beautiful!).

Long time gone

I just realize it’s been two years since last I posted! Welp, there’s been a lot of activity in those two years, but not a lot of publishing.

The first year was taken up with my dog dying and three surgeries–two total knee replacements and a carpal tunnel release. Also, I got a puppy in between the two knee surgeries because a person who is rehabbing from knee surgeries needs a lot of exercise.

The second year was taken up with some more surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation–I fetched up with an aggressive breast cancer, already on the move, but really tiny and it had only gotten as far as one lymph node. I remember when “it’s in a lymph node” was a death sentence, but it is no longer. It’s too early by years to say I am “cured,” but my oncology team fully expects to say that some day. This month I start on a hormone blocker I will stay on for five or ten years depending on what the current research indicates, and I may also start on another  drug depending on whether I get assigned to the experimental or the control group.

So as you can see my profession for the last two years has been mainly “patient,” but I have been writing. I finished the draft of the great big novel, but I haven’t been in a place to do the final edits before submission. I’ve written a handful of stories and made healthy starts on some novellas. I can’t tell you how destructive illness is to the part of the brain that makes stories and finishes projects. Anyway, I’ve several stories in submission now and I’m ready to blog about my writing again.

Looking forward to sharing my progress with you!


Problematic influence: H G Wells

I got reminded about HG Wells today: his birthday was a few days ago. Here are some of the H.G., Wells stories that haunt me from early childhood (from when I used to literally crawl around in front of my parents’ bookshelf and sniff out things to read). Some of these are kind of science fiction, some are kind of fantasy, and some are horror stories. I don’t love them all, but they all stick with me the way that not much else does. These are from this site: it looks like it might be an uploading of part of the big fat anthology I read when I was a kid.

The Crystal Egg this is the story that my journal title “peeking into the rock” refers to. How much I’ve loved this story I cannot even express.

The Door In the Wall Another story fo the same type: mysterious glimpse into another, possibly better, world, eventually consumes a person’s imagination and everything else.

The Flowering of the Strange Orchid When you’ve read this plant-phobic horror story you don’t need to read any of the ones that came after.

The Diamond Maker lone inventor and his troubles

Aepyornis Island Large birds and a castaway orchid hunter

The Magic Shop The literal grandaddy of this kind of story, which I never get tired of. Why haven’t I written more of them myself? The only one I wrote was about a place trhat sold porn. The story wasn’t actually porn itself, though.

The Moth scientific rivalry and madness

A Slip Under the Microscope the most agonizing horror story of a student and the conse quences of an innocent mistake

There’s one at the same site called “A Deal in Ostriches” whose narrator is the coarsest racist (unecessary even for his time, thank you, though since I’ve seen plenty of not-racist and anti-racist and barely-racist material from his time I do not give that “for his time” argument much credit) which combines large birds and diamonds. I’m not sure if the narrator of “A Deal in Ostriches” is supposed to be shockingly horrible in his racism: if he is, I think the point might be lost on much of his readership. Given that there are so very many stories set in “exotic” locations which seem to turn on the superior faculties of the English narrator or the inferior faculties of the indigenous people, I am afraid I can’t excuse Wells. I tended not to remember these like the ones without this device in them, though when I face them now I get a belly-punched feeling that is way too familiar: yes, I noticed the racism as a child, and I recoiled from it. But I must have read the few stories without such content first, because those are the ones I can remember without trying.

Actually, now that I have wasted the morning on this little sentimental journey, I’m thinking that a lot of the terrible writing in the speculative fiction world is people rehashing HG Wells without advancing a step farther than he got, as if they didn’t have HG Wells behind them.

(reposted from livejournal)