You Belong Here

Co-Geeking is about the things we love: history, art, science fiction, fantasy, language, and so on. It is not about contemporary politics. We would rather just tend our geeky garden than get involved in the affairs of the big world outside.

But sometimes contemporary politics comes blundering through your garden gate and plomps itself down right on top of your petunia bed. And sometimes it proceeds to crap all over your tomatoes and puke on your antique roses. Then you gotta say something, so we’re saying it.

If you’re feeling threatened, worried, angry, or sad about the upsurge of hatred we’re seeing in current events, we’re with you. If you’re someone who loves the things we love but your history classes, SFF conventions, or geeky blogs made you feel like you didn’t belong, you belong here. If you’ve ever felt left out because of your race, religion, gender, orientation, or any other part of your identity, or if you’ve seen that kind of exclusion happen to someone you care about, we’re with you. If you don’t see yourself in the books, movies, tv shows you love, know that we want to see you there, too. If anyone has ever told you are wrong, bad, or dangerous just because of who you are, where you come from, or how you live your life, we stand with you.

Screw the fascists, racists, xenophobes, anti-Semites, Islamophobes, homophobes, sexists, transphobes, and all other flavors of bigot. Screw the people who believe that they are better than other people because of arbitrary details like race, religion, ancestry, sexuality, or gender. Screw the people are afraid of others just because of who they are. And double screw the ones who think that history supports their brand of hatred, or that they can drag it into the kind of stories we love, with a side of get stuffed.

We are in this together. Those who want to divide us will fail. Hatred and fear will fail. As we co-geeks carry on with our usual business of posting about interesting facets of history and squeeing over the latest movie trailers, know that we are here for you.

Babylon 5 s1 ep5 The Parliament of Dreams Selected Screencaps.
Selected screencaps from the Babylon 5 season 1 episode 5, “The Parliament of Dreams”, showcasing Earth’s dominant belief system: pluralism. (Delenn: What sort of demonstration does he have planned? Ivanova: He just said it’d showcase Earth’s dominant belief system. Sinclair: This is Mr. Harris. He’s an atheist. Mr Rosenthal, an Orthodox Jew. Sawa of the Jivaro tribe. Ms. Yamamoto, a Shinto. Ms. Naljo, a Maori…)

If want to get away from the problems of the big world for a little while, our garden is open. If you want to talk about what’s going on these days and how that relates to the art, stories, and history we love, we’re here for that, too. You belong here.

Image: Selected screencaps from the Babylon 5 season 1 episode 5, “The Parliament of Dreams”.

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Star Trek and Conflict

The word went out last week that Star Trek: Discovery will be ditching one of the long-standing rules of the franchise: that the main crew must not have conflicts with each other.

Good!

This rule has not only been an impediment to Star Trek‘s story-telling but represents a misunderstanding of Gene Roddenberry’s original hopeful vision for the future. Unfortunately, it is a misunderstanding perpetrated by Roddenberry himself, in his later years.

Star Trek has always been at its best when it embraced conflict among the crew. What is important is that those conflicts arise because different members of the crew honestly represent different points of view, not because they are driven by pettiness, jealousy, spite, greed, or other base instincts. The vision of Star Trek is that human conflicts driven by these basic flaws are unimportant distractions that we can overcome. When we achieve that, it doesn’t mean that we stop having conflicts, it just means that we can get down to the ones that actually mean something. We can argue passionately for our own points of view without devolving into petty sniping and backstabbing. We can disagree with someone else’s ideas and still respect and work with them.

This is why Deep Space Nine has always been my favorite version of Star Trek. It shows us characters who strongly disagree with each other, even to the point of yelling and storming out of rooms, but who still respect one another and work as a team. Their conflicts don’t get resolved at the end of the episode with one side proven right and the other wrong, because the conflicts that really matter are the ones that have no simple resolution. Exploring those kinds of conflicts is what Star Trek is about. It is why we have Star Trek. It is what Star Trek does.

If Discovery is going to give us more of that, then I couldn’t be happier. In these days of internet flame wars and political absolutism, the idea that we can argue about things that matter and still work together as a crew to escape the mysterious space energy field of the week is utopian enough for me.

Images: “Damn it, Spock” via Imgur. “No, but it is interesting” via Giphy. Sisko and Kira via Star Trek Gifs.

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Quotes: First-Name Basis with Your Information Professional

“If you are on a first-name basis with your information professional, you are one of the smartest people in your company.

“If you are on a first-name basis with your information professional, you value your time.

“If you are on a first-name basis with your information professional, you are saving your company money.

“If you are on a first-name basis with your information professional, you value accurate, timely information.

“If you are on a first-name basis with your information professional, you know the importance of information and where to get the most bang for your buck.”

– Gloria Zamora

Gloria Zamora, past President for the Special Libraries Association, counterargues the claim that knowing your librarian by name means spending too much time in the library. Humbug, I say, to that erroneous argument! Not to mention balderdash, baloney, bunk, drivel, hogwash, malarkey, and poppycock. 🙂

Zamora, Gloria. “On a First-Name Basis with Value.” Information Outlook, vol. 13, no. 07 (October/November 2009), p. 3.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Mysteries vs. Puzzles: The Problem with Sherlock

170309sherlockNote: this post contains spoilers for some of the original Sherlock Holmes stories and some episodes of Sherlock.

I’m a fan of the BBC series Sherlock. I enjoy the show and its inventive modern take on the Sherlock Holmes mythos. When I say that I have a problem with the show, it comes from a place of love. But I do have a problem with the show, and it largely comes down to this: not enough mysteries, too many puzzles.

Here’s what I mean by mysteries and puzzles. A mystery is when a real event is made obscure because we either don’t have all the facts or don’t see how the facts fit together. The pleasure of watching a mystery comes in the moment of revelation when we see past the obscurity to the truth and suddenly understand how the separate pieces fit together.

The original Sherlock Holmes stories are masterpiece mysteries. Most stories begin with a client consulting Holmes about some odd occurrence. Often, it is nothing overtly criminal or even threatening, just peculiar. In “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” a young lady comes to see Mr. Holmes because she has been woken in the night by a whistling sound followed by a clang. She had heard the same whistle years before, on the night her sister died; her sister’s last words were about a “speckled band.” Holmes investigates and finds that the bell-pull in the lady’s bedroom is a dummy hanging from a hook on the wall. At first, none of these facts makes any sense, but when the truth is revealed, everything falls into place. The client’s step-father is attempting to kill her for her inheritance, just as he killed her older sister. He has been sending a deadly snake through a grate from the adjoining room, down the fake bell-pull to her bed at night. To cover his tracks, he recalls the trained snake with a whistle, then shuts it in a safe, hence the clang. The sister’s last words were her delirious attempt to describe the creature that had bitten her. The mystery works because all of the clues turn out to have a rational basis. Once you know the truth, everything makes sense.

Sometimes, the obscurity in a mystery is deliberately created, but even then it serves a practical purpose. In “The Adventure of the Read-Headed League,” the client is lured out of his place of business by the promise of high-paying easy work in a fake company concocted by the criminals. They had a reason for getting him out of the way, though: they were digging a tunnel from his basement to a nearby bank for a robbery. Holmes easily sees through the con, but that still leaves the mystery of why the con was perpetrated in the first place.

Puzzles are different. In a puzzle, there is no reality hiding behind the obscurity, just obscurity for obscurity’s sake. When you solve a puzzle, there is no reveal. The clues don’t suddenly make sense. There is no “why” to a puzzle other than “Someone wanted to make a puzzle.”

Sherlock has a few mysteries. In “The Blind Banker,” spray-painted symbols and a disappearing bank employee eventually reveal a smuggling ring moving illicit Chinese antiquities to the European market. In “The Sign of Three,” a collection of seemingly unrelated events, including a wounded soldier and a ghost date, adds up to an attempted murder at a wedding.

Too much of Sherlock, however, depends on puzzles rather than mysteries. Once the clues are solved and the questions are answered, all we learn is that Moriarty is bored and wants to play, or that Eurus is unstable and wants a hug. There’s no satisfaction in the reveal, just some clever person expounding on how clever they are. Instead of discovering that the inexplicable pieces all mean something once you know what was behind them, we discover that they were all meaningless and there was never anything behind them at all.

Even a well done puzzle (and some of Sherlock‘s puzzles are quite well done) is still a puzzle. If I want a puzzle, I’ll do a crossword. I want mysteries in my mystery stories, not puzzles.

Image via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

For Writers of Dull Titles of Best of Books Lists

The other day I saw yet another recommended books article with a headline of the type:

  • [number] Books You Must Read
  • [number] Books Every [persontype] Should Read

Ah hah hah hah haa. No. So much no. A non-descriptive headline isn’t an attraction, it’s a turnoff.

Writing a header like that, enthusiastic as it’s probably supposed to be, just comes across as lazy, narrow-minded, lazy, self-centered, and lazy marketing-speak.

Flickr Mundo Resink Frustration Detail

It makes me think that your interests, oh dear random person on the Internet, aren’t even in the same galaxy as mine. Worse off, it sounds like you don’t care enough about your job to throw in even one modifier, not one, to narrow down the audience for your list.

There are no books you get to flat-out tell me I must or should read. For one, you’re not the boss of me. You don’t get to dictate my choices. For another, you’re not the arbiter of universal taste. What you promote is not and cannot ever be a must of anything for the rest of humankind. Furthermore, you know nothing of me; literally, not a thing. You don’t know whether I’m interested in whatever it is you’re promoting, whether I hate it, whether I’m lukewarm, or whether it might be a PTSD trigger. Assuming your recommendations are a must for everyone else is dismissive of priorities, experiences, and circumstances that differ from yours. Lastly, your puny title tells me absolutely nothing about your list. There’s not even an indication of whether we’re talking about fiction or non-fiction. I won’t waste a click on a header that’s laughably generic. Congratulations, you’ve just wasted both your time and your employer’s dollars.

Instead, tell me why I might want to have a look at your list. For example, the headlines below have a significantly higher likelihood of getting a click, provided I’m remotely interested in the topic / genre / protagonist / etc.:

  • [number] Books to Read If You Like [topic]
  • Exploring [genre] Worlds: [number] Books for Newcomers
  • [number] Books with [type of protagonists]
  • Our Favorite [genre] Books in the Style of [popular title]
  • Love [author]? You Might Also Like These [number] Books on [topic]
  • New Books for [popular title] Fans to Check Out
  • [number] Books to Consider for [topic] Enthusiasts
  • Darker, Edgier [genre] Worlds
  • The [number] Most Inventive Books that Break [genre] Barriers
  • [number] Worlds to Delve into If You Like [author]

Much, much more informative, don’t you agree?

Image: detail of photograph by Mundo Resink via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Here there be opinions!

Down with Dull Dystopias

The other day, Prof and I were at the library borrowing some light evening viewing. On my way to the circ desk my eye fell on the Just Returned cart and on a relatively recent SFF novel that I’ve heard good things about. (I always stop to check the cart. It’s often the best spot to pick up the popular new acquisitions.)

I picked it up and flipped over to the book description to remind myself what it was about. The novel is set in an apocalyptic or dystopic world with major environmental issues. And that made me promptly put it back down. I didn’t even finish reading the book description.

What my reaction made me realize is that, for now, I’ve reached my tolerance for dark storylines with brooding characters in dire situations.

Supermoon Lunar Eclipse Starting

My little episode at the library collided with two random online pieces.

I was reading Tor.com’s coverage on the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award. In his acceptance speech, winner Adrian Tchaikovsky praised the other five shortlisted nominees for a recurring theme:

“One of the things that struck me about the shortlist for this year is empathy as a theme that runs through a lot of these books. Empathy across races, across borders… One of the things [my] book is about is the ability of humanity to seize value in things that are different, and the danger when that doesn’t happen.”

Tchaikovsky’s comment made me conscious of not just how done I am with dystopia, but also how much I’ve been missing stories where the nicer aspects of humanity are clearly present. That doesn’t mean all feel-good stories all the time. It does mean that lifting the darker side of humanity up into the limelight is not enough if, at most, the positive universals get slapped on like a thin coat of paint on a dilapidated theater.

The next day, I ran into an article at Literary Hub by Brandon Taylor. “There is No Secret to Writing About People Who Do Not Look Like You” focuses on the importance of empathy as an aspect of the writing craft:

“Stories have many functions: entertainment, healing, education, illustration, explanation, misdirection, persuasion. Stories have the power to shape worlds and to change lives, and so there is a lot at stake when an author sits down to write. Many people fold stories like delicate paper ships and launch them from obscure corners of the world, hoping that their ships land on distant shores and spread some of the truth of their lives to strangers. It is an act of communion, an act of humanity, the sharing of your story with another person. We each contain within us a private cosmos, and when we write of ourselves, we make visible the constellations that constitute our experience and identity.

[…]

“There can be no story without empathy. Our stories begin because we are able to enter the lives of other people. We are able to imagine how a person might move through the world, how their family might operate, what their favorite foods might be, how their nation works, how their town works, and the smallest, most inconsequential aspects of their lives rise up to meet us at our desks. You can’t write if you can’t empathize. Solipsism is anathema to good writing.”

Taylor’s piece crystallized in my mind why dystopias drag me down. It’s because many dystopic stories ignore or trivialize humane acts or traits like cooperative labor or generosity, and in doing so, they omit crucial aspects of humanity. And that—unless extremely, extremely skillfully executed—makes dystopias unsatisfying for me, exactly as I tend to think many utopian stories boring.

Empathy

Just like darker traits, selfless characteristics exist today because in the past they helped us survive. They still do. We need them, and we’re better for it.

So much of my reading lately has included dystopic worldbuilding. I didn’t realize quite how much that’s been subconsciously bothering me. I’m full, thank you. No wonder books like The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers—one of the Clarke nominees, by the by—make such joyful reading experiences.

Images: Supermoon Lunar Eclipse Starting by Eppu Jensen; Empathy by Pierre Phaneuf (pphaneuf) on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Story Time is an occasional feature all about stories and story-telling. Whether it’s on the page or on the screen, this is about how stories work and what makes us love the ones we love.

Quotes: I Don’t Need Characters to Be Likeable

Author Chuck Wendig shared a list of reasons that will make him put down a book he’s reading. Number 16 includes this bit:

“I don’t need characters to be likable. I do, however, need them to be livable — meaning, I need to find some reason to want to live with that individual for 300+ pages. Some things are dealbreakers, though, and a character who is too vile or somehow unredeemable by my own metric… then I just can’t stay in the story.”

– Chuck Wendig

Hear, hear. Well-written characters can save an awkward plot or shoddy pacing, or make an otherwise outdated novel from the 1800s enjoyable. But even a detailed and rich world suffers if there are only unpalatable or cardboard-thin individuals inhabiting it.

Fiction—or non-fiction, for that matter—is at its best when readers form an empathic connection with one or more characters. Depend upon it, readers will notice if authors treat their cast merely as a walking, talking plot delivery system.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Quotes: Our Ability to Come Together

“Because it’s those things we celebrate as ‘other’ that make us truly human. It’s what we label ‘soft’ or ‘feminine’ that makes civilization possible. It’s our empathy, our ability to care and nurture and connect. It’s our ability to come together. To build. To remake. Asking men to cut away their ‘feminine’ traits asks them to cut away half their humanity, just as asking women to suppress their ‘masculine’ traits asks them to deny their full autonomy.

“What makes us human is not one or the other–the fist or the open palm–it’s our ability to embrace both, and choose the appropriate action for the suitable situation we’re in. Because to deny one half […] is to deny our humanity and become something less than human.”

– Kameron Hurley: The Geek Feminist Revolution

Because people are not stereotypes. Stereotypes aren’t just lazy, they’re outright dangerous if carelessly applied.

Hurley, Kameron. The Geek Feminist Revolution. New York, NY: Tor, 2016. Chapter “Women and Gentlemen: On Unmasking the Sobering Reality of Hyper-Masculine Characters.”

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Why Wouldn’t Playing Games Get You a Job?

This wall ad by the Finnish game house Remedy deserves wider circulation:

NYT Jussi Pullinen Remedy Wall Ad

“Mom always said that playing games won’t get you a job. From Espoo with love since 1995. Thank you Remedy crew, friends, families, Finnish dev community, fans and gamers around the world. This one is for you.”

Remedy (of the Max Payne and Alan Wake fame) designed this ad to celebrate their April 05, 2016, launch of a new game, Quantum Break, reportedly the most expensive entertainment production ever made in Finland.

The ad’s irony at one’s own expense sounds very Finnish to me. In Finland, it’s a little embarrassing to be successful or rich, and Finns don’t tend to draw attention to their achievements. At the same time, as a Finn, it’s very satisfying to see Finnish game companies grow up into mature businesses with large, world-wide audiences.

It’s also high time for people to recognize that storytelling is an integral part of human nature and that games are just as viable a medium for telling stories as are myths, songs, novels, image-based art, and the like.

Image by Jussi Pullinen via Nyt.

Disclosure: A friend of mine works at Remedy, but this post is in no way compensated or even requested by them.

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

Proud and Prejudiced Zombies

160212ppzI’m really the wrong person to say anything about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, since I am not a fan of zombie stories to begin with, but having a fondness for Jane Austen I went to the movie hoping for something entertaining. I was not entirely disappointed, but something about the movie bothers me.

It’s not just that it feels like a joke that has gone on too long without getting to a punchline. It is Pride and Prejudice with zombies added, exactly as advertised. The confined and unvarying quality of the movie is a feature, not a bug, and I can live with that. What bothers me about it is what it does to Austen’s characters and in particular the female characters.

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