Quote of the Moment

If you meet someone face-to-face and they don't hiss at you and bite you, does that mean you're friends?
- from Serafina and the Black Cloak, by Robert Beatty

Monday, May 28, 2018

Fannish Hearts and Firehawks

It's been a while - over a year, apparently - since I had anything to say worth posting here. But I spent the long weekend hashing through some thoughts on recent events in my life, and thought it might help to post them for posterity. (It has nothing to do at all with procrastinating on other projects...)

I was born with a fannish heart. I come by it honestly enough; both my parents are fans, and I was raised with a love of sci-fi and fantasy. Escaping into imagined worlds via books, television, or movies, falling in love with the unreal and the never-could-be… I've been doing that for as long as I can reliably remember. That sense of wonder when I find the good stuff is a joy like nothing else on Earth.

But it does not come without risks.

Sometimes, what was a source of joy becomes instead a source of pain. Series take nosedives, changing direction or simply disintegrating before my eyes. Promising new journeys are abruptly ended before they can find their audience. Re-imaginings or reboots strip out the old wonders and sometimes forget to put in new ones, or seem unclear on why the source material was interesting or popular enough to warrant a reboot in the first place. Network executives make decisions rendering the devotion of millions of viewers – not to mention the fictional universes and characters to which they are devoted – insignificant overnight. It's never personal, of course, but it still hurts. When dealing with a franchise, it's rare for a fannish love affair to come to a natural and painless conclusion.

It's picked up bruises and scars, my fannish heart. Yet I keep coming back. The good stuff, when I find it, is too sweet to let the pain stop me for long.

Recently, I was lured in again by one of SyFy's newer and most critically-acclaimed offerings: The Expanse, based upon the noir space opera novels by James S. A. Corey. The first two seasons, found and viewed via Amazon Prime, made me eager enough to overlook some old bruises and watch it as it aired on SyFy.

Now, SyFy and I have a bit of a history. They were the ones that, once upon a time, introduced me to Farscape, to the living ship Moya and her crew… and then dropped the axe after the fourth season cliffhanger, there to leave the characters in limbo until massive, focused fan outrage gave them the finale and closure they deserved. But that was twenty years ago, and The Expanse had the backing of not only a best-selling book series, but numerous high profile genre publications, not to mention celebrities and scientists and even astronauts praising its depiction of interplanetary exploration. Watch any ten minutes, and it's clear this show's a cut above on all levels. It's the good stuff, the sense-of-wonder-inducing top shelf science fiction that so rarely graces the airwaves.

So it was that, shortly after watching a new episode on May 10, I was poking about the internet when I found out that SyFy had done it again. The axe had fallen. Season Three would be the last aired on their network.

Another starship-sized bruise on my poor fannish heart.

This time, unlike my Scaper or X-Phile days, I was not part of any fanboards. I had no community with which to commiserate. I had the books, of course, but it wasn't the same. In desperation, I found my way to Twitter… where I found a veritable hornet's nest of angry, confused Expanse fans: Screaming Firehawks, they called themselves, after a line in the show. And screaming they were, and flaming mad. Among them, apparently as gobsmacked by the news as us lay viewers, were the cast and crew. But not all of them were willing to take it lying down.

Over the coming days, the fans organized. Tweetstorms and hashtags targeted likely new markets and streaming services. Led in no small part by cast member Cas "Pilot Alex Kamal" Anvar, efforts to increase live viewing numbers – and thus market potential – spread. (He also tipped off viewers that DVR views only "count" within three days, a terribly outdated notion that ignores how many people consume their entertainment.)

I added my voice, what little I have of it, to the storm, one more drop of water hoping for a flood. Deep down, I didn't hold a ton of hope. It was a numbers game, after all, and the numbers apparently just weren't good enough. But too much else has gone wrong in my world to simply let this one pass unchallenged. For the time, I was a screaming firehawk myself... or at least a whispering spark-sparrow.

Within a week, what had looked like the full-stop end had bent around into a question mark. The firehawks blazed across the internet and around the globe, and one little spark-sparrow fluttered along with them. An airplane banner was quickly crowdfunded and flown over Amazon Studios. More and more prominent names – celebrities, publications, scientists – came on board. (SyFy could only dream of this kind of publicity...) When word came down that the striking of the sets had been put on hold, a hopeful sign, efforts redoubled. The hawks screamed louder, burned hotter. By the second week, another crowdfunded publicity stunt launched a model of the spaceship Rocinante to the edge of space aboard a weather balloon. It was shocking, almost terrifying, how quickly it all came together. (I think we may have spooked the crew; it seems several of them had had little experience with this unique force of nature, the rage of angered fannish hearts. Any veteran of the battle for Farscape's finale could've warned them, though the Expanse Extinction Event was like that on steroids. Modern fandom moves much faster - and, it seems, screams much louder.)

As for me, I did what I could. I posted on my Facebook page that nobody visits. I made appeals on the writing board that's as close to a social circle as I have. Moreover, I kept watching. I kept trying. I never did get the hang of tweeting simply to tweet, but I did what I could, for what little good it made. (I've gotten used to that feeling, especially since November 2016; sometimes the only victory you can hope for is simply refusing to give in.)

On the evening of May 25, after rising viewership numbers and a clamor that was only increasing with every passing day, Jeff Bezos himself made the announcement. Season Four of The Expanse had been picked up by Amazon Prime. The good stuff had prevailed. For now, at least, the Rocinante is safe.

Yes, having a fannish heart is not without its risks. Sooner or later, pain is a given. There are no guarantees The Expanse won't eventually leave another spaceship-sized bruise, or even an outright scar. Still, I wouldn't trade my fannish heart for anything in the world, especially at times like this.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Finding Hope

Today, I was at work, trying not to think about what's coming for my country. Trying not to think about the damage an out-of-control GOP stranglehold on our nation has already done, about what a cabinet of unqualified billionaire backscratch-picks nominally led by a mentally unbalanced narcissist who very likely is compromised by foreign powers (if not voluntarily corrupted by them) will do over the next four years. Trying not to think about how our rights to speak out and protest, guaranteed by our Constitution, are already being compromised and curbed.

As you can guess, I didn't have much luck in that endeavor. One good thing about my job is that I can think while working. It's also a bad thing, in times like these. It's even worse when, with every item that passes through my hands, I find myself wondering what its fate will be if the authoritarian playbook continues to be followed. The free exchange of ideas is a hallmark of freedom, after all. Ideas balance, opinions weigh against each other, viewpoints and stories are recorded for all readers. Knowledge can flow, if one chooses to seek it out. But this free exchange is not what those in power want… particularly when so many have ties to extreme theologies that discredit science and critical thinking in their own flock and abhor such traits in others.

A picture book on racial equality? It'll go.

The story of a woman scientist? In the burn pile.

A book on finding spirituality without religion? Firestarter.

Anything in a foreign language? Not in Red America.

A book about Christianity… oh, wait, the author's name looks foreign. Burn to be safe.

And then I saw a familiar face: Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope.

Many said he couldn't do what he did. Many still say he only got to his office on a fluke, or a fix, or whatever other theory they choose to believe. A perfect man, or a perfect presidency? No – there is no such thing. But I never felt this scared under his regime. I never honestly wondered if that man knew what he was saying or doing from one minute to the next. I never feared he was trying to play mind games with me, or the rest of the country, or the rest of the world. I never thought he'd literally sell the land out from under our feet for a quick buck, as changes already passed through Congress make much easier to do.

I never would've thought we'd be where we are today, facing the threats we are, in a world where truth no longer matters if a lie plays to our innermost demons. I would've called it impossible, even after Bush's regime showed me where the Republican party was headed... and after Brexit and other world events demonstrated how Western civilization seemed to be tilting toward backward-looking xenophobic populism. But sometimes impossible good things can happen too. In his last addresses to the nation, President Obama reminded us of what we'd done, and what we can still do - if we don't give up hope.

The book was toward the bottom of the tote, and as it filled – with more books I mentally assigned to Burn or Safe piles tumbling down from the ever-moving conveyor line – I kept lifting it up whenever I passed by. I didn't want hope buried. I didn't want what he'd done, what America had been and should be again, to be forgotten and lost. Until at last the tote was full, and I finally had to send it on its way, to whatever fate might eventually await its contents… with The Audacity of Hope resting squarely on top. When that tote reaches its destination, it will be the first thing to see the light.

As gestures go, I suppose it meant less than nothing in the grand scheme. It didn't change anything. It didn't stop the power-mad rush over the cliff. If and when the book-burners come, I doubt I'll be able to stop them.

But it was what I could do, where I was, to keep hope from being buried... if only for a little while.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Bluer than Blue, Madder than Mad

Forgive me if this rambles - I haven't slept. I couldn't. The knot in my gut over what just happened to my country, to my belief in what I always thought of as my country, wouldn't go away. So I figured I'd try writing them out.

Eleven years ago, when what I thought was a routine gut bug suddenly turned into a (mis)diagnosis of malignancy and I was staring down major emergency surgery without a job or insurance, I was told by everyone from the surgeon down to the desk assistant that I'd qualify for assistance. The government had safety nets for just this reason. I'd never been on welfare, never asked for a handout, never asked for anything from them before, but boy did I need them then. I went over the forms as carefully as possible. I even called them up to be sure I was doing it right - I wasn't asking for perpetual disability, just a little help to get me through this alive so I could become a tax-generating employable citizen again.

And I was denied.

Now, of course, I didn't die. (I did realize that I never wanted to work around medicine again, and I never returned to that lousy walk-in clinic, but that's beside the point.) By what I still regard as sheer luck of the draw, I'd managed to be in the hospital's charity program, so neither I nor my family wound up homeless due to expenses. But I've never forgotten that feeling. Sick, scared, helpless, and - despite numerous assurances - being told essentially that I was worthless, I was expendable, I wasn't worth the temporary investment it would take for me to recover. My government would just have happily seen me die. I didn't matter. I wasn't worthwhile.

I haven't felt that way again until last night, when the country ran red.

I suppose it's my fault for being so naive. Oh, I knew there was injustice and prejudice and hate and corruption, but it wasn't the majority. All my life, I've thought America was the land of the free and the home of the brave, a place where justice eventually came through, a place where lies couldn't last forever, a place moving forward, a place to be proud of.

Now I'm facing an America that is none of those things.

More than half of the states watched a major political party carry out unprecedented, likely even illegal obstruction of a legally-elected president. They watched as hypocrite after hypocrite abandoned their purported beliefs and consciences and convictions to fall into line behind the single worst candidate ever to run for major office, a man who couldn't even make money in the casino industry. They watched unprecedented, 24/7 coverage of that man as he openly mocked the disabled, encouraged racism, endorsed sexism, expressed incestuous fantasies, contradicted himself on innumerable occasions, blustered and bellowed and leered and otherwise unquestionably demonstrated a personality and grasp of issues (or lack thereof) that made the thought of that man as the head of a donut cart, let alone the nation, utterly abhorrent. They saw that the next president would be in a position of tremendous power to influence the Supreme Court. They saw (or should have seen) a world in which a third world war was becoming ever more possible, if not yet (I naively hope) inevitable, where a strong and intelligent commander in chief would be absolutely vital to national survival.

And they still voted for not just him, but for his party. They saw all that... and wanted more.

This is the America they want. An America where faith trumps facts, where science is meaningless, where the environment is expendable, where basic human rights depend on one's origins, accent, skin color, and gender, where tolerance is passe, where money rules, where rape culture is openly endorsed, where we accept constant fear in lieu of freedom, where the clock rolls back fifty-odd years to a Golden Age that never existed save in a television script, where "alt-right" policies stand a terrifyingly real chance of becoming the law of the land, where the Statue of Liberty and her promise to the tired and poor and huddled masses might as well be sold for scrap metal for all the people of this country care. A land of the fearful, home of the cowards.

David Bowie, Prince, now Lady Liberty... what else will 2016 steal?

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Restless Reader Syndrome

The other day, in the break room at work, I deleted a book from my Kindle... the fourth in a row. What had been billed as a romance quickly became two characters who, though in a state of mutual loathing at first sight, could not stop fantasizing about each others' stereotypical hot bodies. These are utterly incompatible sentiments... often jammed into the same sentence. People may do this, lust over someone they despise, but simultaneously? While dealing with other, immediate emotional issues unrelated to chemistry or rampant hormones? No.

Before that, I killed a story in which every single person was an idiot to some degree, one of them (the main male lead) possibly even sociopathic in his inability to deal with emotions or consider the long-term ramifications of his actions. The only way the plot could possibly play out was for them to continually do the dumbest, most short-sighted thing possible in a given situation - and they'd have to have grown even less intelligent to facilitate the romance promised by the blurb.

Before that, I tried reading a middle-grade fantasy. The concept was interesting, and the world had intriguing points, but I felt like I was reading a checklist rather than a story. Lone, picked-on protagonist boy: check. Meets a friend on the way to Hogw- er, their new boarding school: check. An eccentric adult turning up in a way designed to let me know this man will figure in heavily with future adventures: check. Drawing out what's "different" about the main character until intrigue became annoyance: check.

And before that was a by-the-numbers light fantasy romance which not only failed to explore anything truly original or amusing about the potentially great set-up, but had an added touch of objectifying/belittling women that set my teeth on edge.

There was also a Western with an idiotic heroine and over-the-top antagonist, a fantasy starting with a wall of description like a wrought-iron fence, so ornate and solid I couldn't make it past the first page of the prologue, a young adult fantasy with such a tired opening and unremarkable main character I just walked away and didn't bother looking back, and that string I hit a while back of three titles in a row with the same exact opening: a picked-on boy sneaking down an alley/back path to avoid bullies, being caught by the bully henchman who demands the in-world equivalent of lunch money, the boy dropping the money on the ground (to demonstrate cleverness) and getting away when the henchman lets him go to grab said money - only to run head-first into the main bully during his escape. (I swear, somewhere there must be a writing course handing that opening out as a freebie...)

I didn't used to do this. I used to make myself finish every story I started. I may have ground my teeth and clawed my eyes, but if it was intriguing enough to start, I figured I should try finishing it. I still remember the first time I failed to finish a Kindle title: in the work break room, where I do much of my reading on the device. I won't name names - I still have a policy of not reviewing anything I haven't read cover to cover, so deleted books get the dignity of anonymity - but I remember that feeling: I was staring at the screen, trying to pick my way through another sentence, and it struck me that I did not care. This was not a world coming to life, characters becoming more than mere contrivances of a plot, questions I needed to know the answers to before I could walk away. It was a wall of words to which I could not, for all my efforts, form an attachment. It must have held meaning and feeling to someone, as it had gotten some excellent reviews, but for me it was empty. When I finally gave up and it vanished into Kindle oblivion, it was a tangible relief. Now, I only push myself to finish if it makes it far enough to rate mention on my book review blog's Currently Reading section - generally, 10% in, though I've been known to pull the plug a little later.

Am I getting too picky? Sometimes, when I go through cold streaks, I wonder if I'm losing it: the sense of wonder, the ability to immerse in a story, to go along for the ride. I wonder if I've become too critical, too mindful of nitpicks and flaws - the problems I try my best to avoid in my own writing efforts - to see the forest for the trees, or the book for the words. I feel restless, looking for something and wondering if I'll ever find it. I don't honestly consider myself that difficult to please; a quick look at my reviews should be ample evidence that I am hardly a literary elitist... but, then, why does it sometimes seem impossible to find something that satisfies? Does it stem with my own ongoing dissatisfaction with my writing efforts? Am I judging others more harshly because I can't seem to get the words right myself, can't seem to grow my own story-forests into anything more than a scraggly copse - if that? Am I doomed to keep deleting titles, even possibly good ones, until I manage to satisfy my own creative urges... maybe never?

Then I find a story that draws me in, words that reach that elusive, ever-shifting itch - at least, for a time. And I decide that, like so many things, I'm likely just overthinking it. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a book to read...