Wednesday, December 30, 2015

My favorite looks back at 2015 of 2015

Well, another year has gone by, and at the end of that year, a month has gone by, and boy what a month it's been for blog posts initially just looking back at what were then the past eleven months and then, just when you thought the round-ups couldn't get any more rich, at the past eleven-and-a-half months until today, when posts began to appear looking back at a whopping eleven-and-30/31sts months. I thought I'd take the time to look over some of the very best looks back at 2015 of 2015.

See below for Aargh posts this year (plus 2015 recommendations in the new Interzone, & I wrote two bits of fiction: here & here)

Roundups, Recaps, Recollections, Reccs, Reccies & Wrecks

1. More sort of "What I Wrote"-ish

Carrie Patel
Natalie Luhrs
Sofia Samata
Emma Newman
Susan Gray
Alyssa Wong (recap & sneak preview also see eligibility post)
Peter Newman's filler episode (I love filler episodes, bring back filler episodes)
Fran Wilde
Rose Lemberg
Amal El-Mohtar
NK Jesmin
Cat Rambo
Bogi Takács
A.C. Wise
E. Catherine Tobler
Isabel Yap
Nin Harris
Alexis A. Hunter
Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Sunil Patel
Andrea Phillips
Arkady Martine
Kate Elliott
Carmen Maria Machado
JY Yang: the year I quit writing
Sarah Chorn
Mur Lafferty

2. More sort of "What I Read"-ish + misc. / uncategorized

Another busy copyright year
Nina Allan
Fran Wilde
Peter Sutton's books read in 2015
Joseph Tomaras's worst book of 2015 (plus year in review plus Tentative Nebula Nominations)
Joanne Hall ("The Year in Reading Stats")
Andrew Liptak / io9
Ken MacLeod
Books Ethan Robinson read in 2015
Strange Horizons (incl. like Nina Allan, Sofia Samatar, Carmen Maria Machado, Abigail Nussbaum, Maureen Kincaid Speller, Paul Kincaid, Christina Scholz, Aishwarya Subramanian & many more)
Adam Roberts / Guardian (notable pubs in 2015)
Elizabeth / Books & Pieces (YouTube)
Three books that disappointed Nick Mamatas this year
Jeff VanderMeer (facing the wrong direction: looking forward to 2016) (see also)
Rosie Oliver (likewise)
Yoon Ha Lee (favorite new-to-Yoon books of 2015)
Jodie's Reading Roundup at Lady Business
Sofia Samatar's books read in 2015
Cecily Kane ("Obligatory year in review/awards recommendation post. Virtually all I read was short fiction and nonfiction, so at least it’s brief!")
Ian Sales (books / films / albums experienced in 2015)
Charles Payseur
Books loved by Kat Howard in 2015
Abigail Nussbaum (Best Books of 2015)
SJ Higbee's Outstanding Reads of 2015
Rinn's Top Reads of 2015
Peter Tennant's Best in Class

Come home 2015, you're drunk. Please come home. We need you. We need you.

*   *   *

Earlier: Aargh in 2015

Listicles Updated
SFF about gamification
SFF about economics

New Genres Invented in 2015
Utopian Science Fiction
Not the Chosen One
See also earlier new genres

Hypotheses Hypothed in 2015
See also three mini-theses on epic fantasy and raceThesis on Witches' Cats, earlier hypotheses

Naming Names
Benedict Cumberbatch
George Lucas's Luke Skywalker (according to Samuel Delany)
Emma Newman's Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver (in progress)
Neal Stephenson's Bobby Shaftoe
Ann Leckie's Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen 
Ursula LeGuin's Ged
Ursula LeGuin's Shevek
Cory Doctorow's Buhle
Tom Pollock's Parva "Pen" Khan 
Tom Pollock's Beth Bradley (& one more, probably Reach, still to do from the same book)
Lucy (incl. e.g. Amal El-Mohtar's Lucyite)
Samuel Beckett's Winnie

Full text of "It's OK to Say if You Went Back in Time to Kill Baby Hitler"
Acknowledgements for "The Internet of Things Your Mother Never Told You"
Excerpt from "Interpellation" (in progress)

(See also Games tab)
Drama & Dice - free, generic, rules-lite tabletop RPG
Dreams & Dystopias - a free diceless tabletop RPG (in progress) which uses Chess mechanics (& Reddit thread)
Daiquiris & Demigods - free, generic, rules-lite tabletop RPG that uses drinking instead of dice
Signal-boosted call for submissions: How to Win at Ultravision
Sad Chess (Ten Laws is out of print for now, but email me if you want a pdf)
Sample campaign material, since been incorporated into Daiquiris & Demigods as an appendix
Skycrawl: text-based RPG created in Twine (in progress)
See also Sad PuppiesExcerpt from "Interpellation", excerpt from "Integration"gamification SFF listicle (updated)

Disjecta Membra
Hinkley Point
Star Wars tweak
Crouching Dire Haggis, Hygge Grue
Lady Windermere's Chatterbutler
From a WIP (Swift / 1001 Nights)
Jonesing (see also Nugget of Pratchettology)
The Gold Touch
Excerpt from Popular Magic
Excerpt from How to Behave

Writing, Narrative, SFF Studies, SFF Poetics
Today, Tomorrow - a talk on near future sf (direct link)
Story Sludge Redux - link to a Galen Strawson article, plus an attack on stories
Marxist Science Fiction - "... while science fiction studies has got comfortable with the idea that science fiction doesn't predict the future, the study of future-predicting practices has started investigating the ways in which they are science fiction ..."
What is a spoiler?
Also, how would you ever know how long it took you to write a book?

Economics / Money
Unequal Pricing - long post loosely based on Georg Simmel's "perfect money" thought experiment
Quick thought about Carl Menger and the social construction of economic value
Thesis on Witches' Cats
See also Note on Mieville's The City & The City, Sales-Fieconomics SFF listicle (updated)
& elsewhere: Economic Humanities scrapbook

Notes on Terry Pratchett
Nugget of Pratchettology - toward the establishment of Pratchett Studies
The ambivalent figure of the pig not-pig in Terry Pratchett's Thud!
What kind of satire is the Discworld?

Other Reviews / Notes
Sales-Fi: on David D. Levine's "Tk'tk'tk" and Cory Doctorow's "Chicken Little" (in progress)
Naomi Foyles's Seoul Survivors
Lauren Beukes's Moxyland

BristolCon - links to reports, my report on the last bit
BristolCon Fringe with Joanne Hall and Jonathan L. Howard
WorldCon 2017 site selection ballot
See also Happy Puppies

Publishing, Publicizing, Social Media
Star Star Star Star Star - a collapsing nebula of questions about reviews and ratings
What counts as "published"?
Elsewhere: five suggestions for Making Twitter Better
Podcasts - any recommendations?
Elsewhere: my Patreon
See also Happy Puppies

Prizes, Voting, Democracy
BSFA nomination process suggestion: six per member? (& see also BSFA & Hugo noms ruminations. Can you nominate a blog label?)
My Obligatory Eligibility Post
Thoughts on Eligibility Posts - if you believe in #dontselfreject, then don't let your vote get split either
Hugo Nomination Ruminations (& Nebula murmuration)
Happy Puppies: my suggestion for an improved voting system (for the Hugos or any literary prize)
Quick Hugo Thought & Stupid Obvious Hugo Question
Sketch for a new bottom-up SFF award, friendly to indie publishing
PR under FPTP: "hacking" the existing parliamentary to emulate direct democracy, probably catastrophically

link list, and some thoughts on epic fantasy and race
Big list of some short SFF I liked in 2014
See also gamification SFF (updated), economics SFF (updated)

Will try to do better next year :/

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Fuck Grimdark

Cecily Kane's Storify, Fuck Grimdark.

I haven't read a lot of Grimdark.

Two quick questions (to myself really):

* How does something like Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, or even Cervante's Don Quixote, dovetail with Grimdark? I.e. how should Grimdark be located within the larger history of chivalries and cynicisms?

* Does Mary Gentle's Ash (2000) ever get mentioned in the context of Grimdark? It doesn't have a presiding spirit of nihilism or anything like that. But it has a lot of horrible, entirely unromantic violence. It has some rape. It has a lot of dragging chivalric romance into the mundane details of managing a company of mercenaries. It has, alongside the telepathic pyramids, a lot of gratuitous realism. It has nihilistic and morally ambiguous characters, and dry sarcasm. It has people shitting themselves and things like that. I see two possibilities:

(a) it is Grimdark, and if the Grimdark canon is expanded with a few more works like it, suddenly it's more interesting and complex than its critics have been hitherto justified in says; OR
(b) perhaps fans of Grimdark aren't being entirely honest about what defines the genre?

But I haven't read a lot of Grimdark.

Pre-1950 Utopias and Science Fiction by Women

An annotated reading list of online editions, created by @MMOckerbloom. Cool resource, via @Sybylla_.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

And I Nearly Spoiled Myself

"If you don't want to negate the proairetic code, look away now."

One of the things I'd like to write, although it's a bit down the list, is something academic on literary critical terms which are used by SFF fans and writers but don't have wide circulation within academia. Any suggestions, by the way? Reboot, genderflip, relatable, squee, fangirl/fanboy, awesome, a thing. (Maybe even problematic, which has different nuance in academic contexts).

But for me the most intriguing term is spoiler. Academics don't use the term much. Or at least, it can be something of a boundary-stone, a word that suggests that the writer isn't in full scholarly mode.

What's the first spoiler you can remember? I remember mine very clearly. It was inflicted on me by my high school English teacher about sixteen or seventeen years ago. I could actually deduct weregild stars from him now if I wanted to. In our first class on Measure for Measure, he explained the entire plot of the play.

No spoiler alert, you guys.

The pedagogy behind it was quite sensible, and he was quite open about it: Shakespeare's language is difficult to understand. We were about to slowly read through the play over the course of the term, and it would be best if we were thinking about detailed meaning line-by-line -- well, some lines -- not getting distracted by detecting, assembling, remembering and/or anticipating the play's plot.

There was what I now suspect to be a faint air of New Criticism about this teaching tactic: as if the plot structure was really a bit like a biographical sketch, something pupils would seize on as an external proxy for the play itself; and/or something that would license all kinds of tangential rants about "issues arising" from the play, instead of the play itself. But damn, I still felt the dismay of luminosity extinguished. And I still think I must have been on to something.

You can spoil a joke. Why shouldn't you be able to spoil a play? (See Note 1).

Adam Roberts's meticulous Force Awakens review awakens with a brief meditation on spoilers. Critics such as Roberts, Key and Peele, and Portlandia must also be on to something. Spoiler panic is not just a techno-sociological trend driven by the shift from simultaneous broadcasts to on-demand webcasting, more intense fandom connectivity, and algorithmically curated social media intent on surfacing "content" it tactlessly imagines is "relevant" to you.

Spoiler panic does tell us something important -- spoiler alert, I don't know quite what it is! -- about this cultural moment, and about the virtues and vices of cultural production and consumption. It reflects, perhaps, certain mutations in what Barthes called the proairetic and the hermeneutic codes. It reflects certain rebalancings and redivisions of how we do collective imaginings: what kinds of things we expect to be imagined/hoped/desired/feared/etc. for us so, that we can imagine/hope/desire/fear/etc. certain other kinds of interwoven things.

I suspect, for instance, that it indicates shifts in how we react to character death. But park that for now.

The hunch I want to follow here is this. I suspect that spoiler panic indicates shifts in where we tolerate certain kinds of -- for want of a better term -- recreational avant-gardeism. Formal innovation, as well as political content, and satiric relief, are largely outsourced to post-post production. The Force Awakens and then The Farce Awakens: with a big cultural-economic event like a new Star Wars, the primary cultural producers of the event have a stake in providing appropriate grist to the mills of secondary tier of freelance remixers, parodists, shippers, pundits, curators, conspiracy theorists, fansplainers, Photoshoppers and general meme-makers. Maybe Star Wars: The Force Awakens is actually one of the weirdest and creative and most risky and hit-and-miss Star Wars yet, but only if you count the post-post production. Of course, we tend not to count it, so we're probably left just making the assessment that The Force Awakens is stylish but derivative. We don't really have a critical vocabulary for how well it handles the knowledge that it will also be derived from.

I am interested in that post-post production space, of course, including the role that spoilers play in managing it. But lots of people are talking about Internet culture and remix culture. And what I'm actually more interested in is what spoilers might reveal about changes within that traditional production space. How the productive responsibilities and affordances and pitfalls are altered for J. J. Abrams et al. by the presence of an "audience" whose cultural fruitfulness matches or overpowers their own. (See Note 2).

After all, we would probably be skeptical of a big budget movie like The Force Awakens if it started trying to do the things that the secondary, symbiotic cultural producers are so good at doing. It would be a bit Jar-Jarring, really. There is already a kind of expertise or at least proficiency implied whenever a cultural producer recognizes where their remit ends, and crowdcomplexification starts. So I'm interested in how, if you're a big cultural producer, in order to plant the right seeds, you need to cultivate knowledge of what's growing there already.

Or in other words.

How does the spoiler relate to the anti-spoiler -- to those fragments of prior knowledge that supply, rather than stifle, the audience's pleasure and other libidinal investments? It's as if a spoiler is a subatomic particle which implies another kind of particle, the anti-spoiler, whose existence has yet to be experimentally proven.

Could we say that, if this is a cultural moment where the influence of spoilers is weirdly gigantic within consumption, it is also a cultural moment where the influence of anti-spoilers is weirdly gigantic in production? The Marvel Cinematic Universe is partly an enormous exercise in quasi-improvisational foreshadowing, AKA, the mass production of anti-spoilers. The importance of anti-spoilers is also particularly clear with Abrams et al. -- goodness, this has just turned into another fucking Star Wars post hasn't it, ha ha! -- because Abrams et al. had an unusually narrowly circumscribed forest in which to hunt for anti-spoilers: it is about 70% Episodes IV, V and VI; 10% Episodes I, II and III; 10% EU and SW fandom penumbra; 10% Misc. Essentially the first three Star Wars movies contain anti-spoilers for The Force Awakens.

One way of thinking about the anti-spoiler is, of course, as a constituent of genre literacy -- perhaps a little like what TV Tropes calls a "trope." A trope is an atom of culture. Just because it's citational doesn't mean it's trite. It could be trite, of course. But it doesn't necessarily have to get subverted, "averted" or "lampshaded" to avoid that triteness -- the way it works as an ingredient is highly relational, depending on how all the other ingredients fit around it, as well as the minutiae of its own execution.

Spoilers, like anti-spoilers, and perhaps also like "tropes," have a peculiar aura of apodicticity. When they've happened, they've happened. You can't unknow a spoiler, can you? And you can't degrade the validity of a semiotic code: it's there, "behind" the pattern of more or less valid meanings, structuring meaning in the first place. Here's a little discussion I had once with Sam (whose Guilty But Insane is a spoiler-respecting academic book about crime fiction, btw) which is still totally a running joke with us:

"And at the end she's dead. Dead, dead, dead, dead, dead!"
"-- haven't seen it --"
"... or is she?!"

Suggestion for a First World Problem charity: Fake Spoilers Society. They go around spreading their damn beautiful fake spoilers till they're really, really prevalent. So if you've picked up a spoiler somewhere, you have the glimmer of hope it's one of the fake ones.

*   *   *

*   *   *

Some final thoughts / questions.

Is "buzz," whether deliberately marketed or not, another kind of anti-spoiler? How about the salt-sugar/sugar dialectic of popcorn and fizzy drinks?

Does "spoiler" relate at all to the notion of spoiling a child or a pet, perhaps via treating it with a kind of supposedly pathological sensitivity?

Is literary criticism, insofar as it is meant to illuminate and/or enrich its objects, a kind of post factum anti-spoiler?

What's the difference between a fake spoiler and an anti-spoiler? And can you have a fake anti-spoiler and/or an anti-anti-spoiler? What is the ultimate Antman ante-despoiler? What is the good life?

If an anti-spoiler is a kind of knowledge, maybe a spoiler is actually some kind of loss or lack of knowledge? It is a tempting thought. To be able to do something is a kind of knowledge, a savoir faire. To be able to enjoy a book is surely a kind of knowledge. Why is it that certain people can re-read and re-read certain books, and be entirely invested and immersed in them, despite knowing everything down to a fine grain?

Spoilers as illocutionary acts?

I have been saying "we" a lot. Perhaps readers are individuated by what counts as a spoiler. I mean, they definitely are: but perhaps that's a good way of individuating them, a way which maps instructively onto the categories of intersectional analysis: class, gender, et al. This what starts to get the discussion a little political. What is the relationship between possessing an armamentarium of anti-spoilers -- all that prior tacit knowledge which turns on the pleasure tap, which helps the text to just flow over you -- and the inalienable, constitutive experience which we try to recognize by honoring people's self-identification with larger groups? And what is the relationship between a spoiler and a GamerGate bro's experience of a woman or a person of color in a particular role "spoiling" a game for him?

*  *  *

Note 1: Hypothesis. Spoilers are real. Exposure to one typically quite short text (the spoiler) can render a reader who was previously capable of fully realizing part or all of a second typically longer narrative text (the book or movie or whatever) in some sense incapable. Why, how, what are the implications? By repute, stories are rather toward the "immortal" end of the spectrum. Does this fragility of fruitful relationships between text and reader actually require us to re-assess what is going on when a story is read, or when someone is absorbed or enchanted by it? Are spoilers real because learning is dialectically implicated with stupefaction, as explored by Natalie Pollard and Keston Sutherland and others? And if spoilers are real, how good are we at recognizing them? Could we be systematically mistaken about them in some ways? How reliable an instrument is introspection? When someone tells you something that "sounds like a spoiler" while insisting it isn't, how do you feel about it, and what happens to your experience of the text? How do spoilers fit in with Kant's suggestion about the universal communicability of aesthetic judgment? If you can't prove to me that Jessica Jones is boring by rational argument, but you can actually make it boring for me, and you and I share a structure which makes it possible for you to do that, what would Kant make of that? How do spoilers relate to, for instance, eye-gouging?

Note 2: These are such crude distinctions. What I'm really interested in is how "suitability for the remix-o-sphere" plays out at as a quality of the interface between the text and the audience in the first instance, rather than (or as well as) how a movie literally begins to accumulate all kinds of interesting detritus. And how "suitability for the remix-o-sphere" takes on an ethical dimension, something to do with exemplifying the virtues of public speech. Maybe something to do with sovereignty. Hmm. Captain America: Civil War drops in 2016. Carl Schmitt, as far as I am aware, did not argue that the Sovereign is "he who decides the spoiler." Perhaps the circumstances of the contemporary large cultural producer, mindful of its hyperproductive prosumers, can be considered a kind of sovereignty, with a Hobbesy/Schmitty vibe to it: Marvel and/or Disney and/or Whoever is the sovereign insofar as it decides the exception, making slight, lumbering veers from established tropes, ideally to keep one particular version of the peace, and ensure the collective prosperity of innumerable private actors. Marvel and/or Disney and/or Whoever is the sovereign insofar as it decides the spoiler: what goes in the trailer is by definition a "glimpse" not a "spoiler." If you feel it spoiled the movie for you personally, you can't appeal to Heaven for legitimacy: although if everybody agrees, you could maybe reboot your fandom's social contract.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

BSFA noms

Just real quick: haven't fully checked out eligibility etc. but will probably nominate Sandra Newman, Country of Ice Cream Star, Adam Roberts, Rave & Let Die, Steve Aylett, Heart of the Original & others tba. Here is the list of suggestions (& here is where you can suggest eligible works).
Might try to squeeze in some haphazard short fiction reading before the end of the year: AC Wise has a pretty intriguing looking list & Ethan Robinson looked at hundreds of stories in half the year. Nina Allan has some short sf recommendations and some great non-fiction recommendations (to which you should add something by Nina Allan).

Update: Oops, Ice Cream isn't actually eligible -- seems to have been published in 2014 in the UK and 2015 in the US. I wonder about the eligibility of Adam Roberts's The Thing Itself, which was published at the very end of 2015 but says it was published in 2016? (UPDATE: It's on the longlist). Also have fixed the AC Wise link, and this from Wise is a hella useful hub.

Update: Okay, I have to admit the BSFA process confused me a bit. I am easily confused. I think this is how it works, although I sound kind of paranoid and weird even to myself.

Suggestions and round one
There is a window for both suggestions and nominations from 1 September to 31 December. Anyone can suggest anything, so long as it is eligible. Suggestions are different from nominations. You don't have to be a BSFA member to suggest something. Suggestions basically go into a big crowdsourced eligibility list, which is this Googledoc spreadsheet. Updates are more-or-less live. You could suggest your own writing if you want to. You make these suggestions using this form.

At the same time as suggestions are being gathered, BSFA members can make up to four round one nominations in each category. This is done using the form at the bottom of this page. I assume (but I can't find anything to confirm it) that the output will be a longlist of all nominations received, in order of popularity. Perhaps it will also say exactly how many people nominated each work. (UPDATE: No, it's just a big list in alphabetical order).

Round two
Then, from 1 January to 31 January, BSFA members can vote for works on the longlist to determine what actually gets onto the ballot. I'm not sure how that works: perhaps each member has four unranked votes per category, or perhaps some other system. (UPDATE: yep, the four votes thing). I assume the output will be a ballot of five works per category (unless there are ties, and/or some of the most-nominated five works get fewer than the minimum of three second round votes each). The form and the instructions will appear when they are needed, on the same page which currently hosts the round one nominations form.

Then the shortlist is assembled for each categories, the ballots are sent out, and BSFA members have until Eastercon (in April) to vote using a ranked preference system.

If I have got it right, there are some things I quite like about it. It's useful to throw a wide net at the suggestions stage. Then seeing the slightly more filtered longlist might be productive and fun: if there are some much-nominated things you've never heard of, you've got enough time to check them out; if something absolutely fantastic has slipped onto the lower reaches, you might have time to hose everyone down with your zeal. (UPDATE: the first bit holds true, but not really the second bit, since it's not in order of popularity after all).

An obvious question is how it would stand up to Puppy-style slating etc., though the UK doesn't really do that, or school shootings, in quite the same way yet. While we're at it, here's my proposal for reforming the Hugos. Last year, when there was only one round of BSFA nominations, I suggested four nominations per member was too few: with a small membership, and diffuse voting in the short story category, only three stories got three or more nominations. (I think that's what happened). The tweaks this time round should go some way to fixing that, if people who nominated the lower reaches in round one generally drift toward the upper reaches in round two, or seriously drum up support for their original nominations. We'll see. Maybe Marine le Pen will do really well on the longlist, but not on the shortlist. (The BSFA don't seem to be using the word "longlist," so some of this may be wrong. (UPDATE: OK, now everyone's talking about the "longlist")).

tl;dr: I think I like the new system!

Update: I've already made my noms but it just occurred to me, too late, that maybe I should have nominated this post, by Édouard Brière-Allard, a fairly numbingly persnickety and studious response to Laura J. Mixon's even more numbingly persnickety and studious Hugo-winning take-down of the collected trolls and criticism of Requires Hate. Whatever you think of the controversy, or wherever you are placed in it, or whatever personal suffering you've -- oh Gawd, I can't really avoid bringing this up without having a Stance, can I? For what it's worth, I've no clue how to navigate the huge mass of claim and counterclaim, and I basically just tend to fall back on the heuristic that Requires Hate's politics feel far more sensible to me than what I reasonably presume Mixon's politics are, together with the presumption that the conflict was surely political as well as interpersonal and/or literary-critical and/or about "how you should treat people" -- the three of us should hang out and get to the bottom of it! -- so, whatever you think of the controversy, it's possible you might admire Brière-Allard's handling of the overblown and Grand-Guignol idiom of contemporary online social justice, and the bewilderment or bad faith in which it is frequently received by liberals, and his gently relentless dismantling of Mixon's scientism and tacit claims to objective systematicity. Of course, it's a sly piece too: because its own scientism can always be disavowed as a knowing, quasi-satiric pseudo-scientism. Anyway, like a lot of us, I was brought up to believe that you can always show any tacit claim to objective systematicity to be hooey, but I think Brière-Allard has gone ahead and done it here.

But I don't know? -- I guess the only good I can really imagine coming from Brière-Allard's piece sliding onto the BSFA longlist, or even the ballot shortlist, would be if it got a few more hits, but maybe not gazillions, and if the piece's getting mildly valorized were mediated through that fairly pervasive, though probably not pervasive enough, USian perception of British eccentricity, where that perception is intermixed with a vague suspicion that those Brits might just be onto something, with their Monty Python and their anarchism and their Grimes and their NHS, as well as with the concrete comfort that if they are onto something, it will never matter, because they will always insist on "communicating" it through the discursive equivalent of a post-supernova star collapsing in under its own gravity and, especially, its own awkwardness. Because if it weren't softened in some way, it might just be reviving old griefs and fanning the wrong kind of flames. Oh I'm just vice-signalling here basically. (UPDATE: it's on the longlist).

Monday, December 14, 2015

Names in SFF #12: Luke Skywalker

From Samuel R. Delany's review of Star Wars which appeared in Cosmos Science Fiction and Fantasy in 1977:

"Etymologists take note: the relation between Lucas and Luke is obvious. But note too that the name George comes from the Greek work [word] georgos: farmer, i.e., "earth man," or "earth walker." George Lucas / Luke Skywalker, dig? The film is a blatant and self-conscious autobiographic wish fulfillment on the part of its ingenious director.


"In addition to the play Lucas makes on his own name to generate Luke, the very texture and play of the film tells us Lucas would like to live in the future. Whatever the lessons this future has to teach us, about good and evil, about growing up or accepting courage, no matter how painful or unpleasant those lessons, this future is seen as a good place to learn them, a place where one will have a chance to apply them. It is not the future so many sf films depict, where things are so inhibited that, even if we learn something about life, we never have a chance to utilize that knowledge -- short of the place's falling completely to pieces within seventy-two hours of our learning it. And assuming we are lucky enough [to] survive. In short, there are many ways in which Star Wars is a very childlike film. This is to the good.

"[...] wouldn't that future have been more interesting if, say, three-quarters of the rebel pilots just happened to have been Oriental women -- rather than just the guys who didn't make it onto the Minnisota Ag. football team. [...] In the film world in the present, the token woman, token black, or what-have-you, is clearly propaganda, and even the people who are supposed to like that particular piece of it smile their smiles with rather more tightly pursed lips than is comfortable. In a science fiction film, however, the variety of human types should be as fascinating and luminous in itself as the variety of color in the set designer's paint box. Not to make use of that variety, in all possible combinations, seems an imaginative failure of at least the same order as not coming up with as interesting sets as possible.

In any case, Star Wars is a delight. (For those people who like literary parallels, it brings the sf up to about the Lensmen stage.) But perhaps the most delightful thing about it is that it brings so forcefully to the imagination the possibility of sf films that are so much better in precisely the terms that Star Wars itself has begun to lay out."

SFF names #11: Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver
SFF names #10: Bobby Shaftoe
SFF names #9: Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen
SFF names #8: Ged
SFF names #7: Shevek
SFF names #6: Buhle
SFF names #5: Parva "Pen" Khan
SFF names #4: Beth Bradley
SFF names #3: Rumpelstiltskin
SFF names #2: Lucy
SFF names #1: Winnie

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

New Genre Wednesdays: Utopian Science Fiction

I have invented a new kind of science fiction which I am calling "utopian" science fiction after its inspiration, Thomas More's Utopia.

Utopian science fiction is a very open-ended genre, except that it must include some complaining about how difficult it is to be a courtier nowadays, a whole bit about the best way to punish thieves, and an argument between a friar and a jester.

Toward the end of utopian sf some of the characters may go on holiday somewhere nice.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Hustley Tuesdays: Storybundle

One of my favorite things pubbed in 2015 was Berit Ellingsen's Not Dark Yet. It's part of Ann & Jeff VanderMeer's "Winter Mixtape" Storybundle, which also has stuff by Eugen Egner, Leena Krohn, Michael Cisco and many others. And which is pay-what-you-want-but-you-want-to-pay-$15. Here's a review of Not Dark Yet by Bruno George.



Thursday, December 3, 2015

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

New Genre Wednesdays: The Not Chosen One

In the first act, an apparently normal teen discovers that unlike pretty much every other teen, they don't have any special ability, mutant power, magic destiny, eldritch lineage, extradimensional familiar, or the like.

In the second act, this apparently normal and also actually normal teen, who is fortunate enough to be untroubled by the numerous ethical, emotional, physiological, logistical and ontological supernormal problems facing most of this teen's peers, in relation to their abilities, powers, destinies and so forth, untroubled by supernormal problems including, but certainly not limited to, the existence of various nemesis figures with approximately equal although different supernormal abilities, powers, destinies and so forth, and who is fortunate enough to be instead troubled only by a range of normal problems, many of which can be rapidly be teased out by in a quick account of the teen's geography, legal situation, physical and mental health, wealth, sociological class, gender, education, race, religion, sexuality, familial and wider care context, and other such identity characteristics, finds that they are able, through having been so curiously skipped by all supernormal attributes, to actually work wonders upon the world, wielding quite extraordinary influence, and imposing their will by a variety of incrementally accumulating mundane means, and generally eventually improving the lives of everybody in the universe, and the lives of those closest to the teen, and their own personal life, probably either in that order of priority, or the reverse.

In the third act, it becomes apparent that this teen's power is actually "the power of having no power at all," which brings with it an attendant set of ethical, emotional, physiological, logistical and ontological supernormal problems, more-or-less undoing all the gains which were made in the second act, such that the lives touched by the teen are eventually restored to about the level they were at the opening of the short novel, and then, within the very last one or two chapters, start to slide into a still worse condition.

Obligatory Eligibility Post

In 2015 I authored the following Hugo-eligible listicles, playlists and thought lists:

Top Ten Meta-Meta Listicle Entries of 2015
Top Ten Just in Case You Know this Isn't Real Right of 2015
Top Ten Utopias It Would Just Be Okay but Nothing Special to Go Live in of 2015
Top Ten Titles that Look Really Weird if You Lowercase All Articles, Conjunctions and Prepositions of 2015
Ten Unbelievable Hexes which these High Fantasy Authors ACTUALLY Predicted! of 2015
Top Ten Indistinguishabilities of Magic and Technology of 2015
The Ten Least Influential SF Writers of 2015
Top Ten Republican Presidential Candidates of 2016 of 2015
Top Ten Recommended This Actual Specific Blog This One My Own Blog The One Called Aaaargh Or Something of 2015
Greatest Ten Popes of 2015
Top Ten Algae Bear Batchelards of 2015
Best Ten BristolCons of 2015
Greatest LonCon 2014 of 2015
Top Ten Animals That It Would Be Great If They Came Up To Bernie Sanders In A Rally Sometime Next Year of 2015
Greatest Ten Bristols of 2015
Top Infinite Ook Vloggers of 2015
Top Ten Glitterbombed Bards of 2015
Top Ten "Did You See Which Way That Elf Ran? / You're Only Lying To Yourself Fam"s of 2015
Recommended Greatest Ten Proposed Hugo Awards Nomination Systems of 2014 You Have to Try of 2015
Recommended Top Ten Interzones of 2015
Recommended Top Ten Tor.coms of 2015
Recommended Top Tentacles of 2015
Greatest Ever Ten Flights of Rapturous Passion Formally Arranged as Debunking of Thomas Piketty of 2015 of all time of 2015
Top Ten of Some Thing it is Hard to Imagine Experiencing More than about Ten Instances of During a Single Year of 2015
Top Ten NaNoWriMos no not a Book Written Then the Actual Month Itself Top Ten of Those in 2015
Top Ten Non-Complications of Sexual Consent of 2015
Top Ten No-Longer-Honored Racist Heads of 2015
Top Ten Remember Poetry of 2015
Top Ten Books of 2015 that were Published after Final Top Ten Books of 2015 List Was Finally Finalized
Top Ten Somewhat Quick Attribution of Trollhoods of 2015
Greatest Ten Suffixes for Troll to Suggest in One Word the State of Being a Troll of 2015
Top Ten Identity Characteristics Excluding Economic Class of 2015
Top Ten Nuggets of News Discovered in Actual Mainstream Newspapers like Some Kind of Ultra-Rare Drop Items in Some Kind of MMORPG of 2015
Top Ten Cory Doctorows of 2015
Best Ten Women Writers (plus one bonus fella-legion!) of 2015
Top Ten Twelve Tomorrowses 2016 with Only Eleven Tomorrows in Them of 2015
Best Ten Movies of 2015
Top Ten Names of ISIS in 2015
Ten Unmissable Trojan Relatabilities of 2015
Top Ten Elif Batumans of 2015
Top Ten Jules Verne Diesels of 2015
Top Ten Purposeless Advisory Nuggets from a Suctionless Nan of 2015
Favorite Ten Liberticides of 2015
Top Ten Small Back Gardens whose Most Rotting Qualities Strike Your Heart in a Moment of Generalized Sensory Derangement as a Kind of "Blossoming" of "Winter Foliage" this "Winter Foliage" Comprising Mud and Desiccated but Soaking Plant Matter of 2015
Top Ten Non-Twitters of 2015
Top Ten Forrealthoughs of 2015
Ten Unmissable Social Atomizations of 2015
Top Ten Neutropic Noons of 2015
Greatest Ten Handfuls of Nuts before Morning Ketamine Yoga of 2015
Top Ten Newmans of 2015
Greatest Ten Netflix Passwords of 2015 of All Time
Top Ten Views of the Time of 2015
Unbeatable Ten Named Unnameables of 2015
Favorite Ten Groups of Ten Steve Ayletts for a Total of One Hundred Steve Ayletts of 2015
All Georg Simmels Ranked from Best to Worst of 2015
Top Ten Cis Clinaman of 2015
Top Ten Lone Wolf Shooters of 2015
Top Ten Lives that Mattered in 2015
Most Perfect Ten Complete Gene Sequencing of a Micro-Aggression of 2015
Top Ten Youtube Videos that You I Found Funnier than Anything I Had Ever Experienced in my Life and Yet Still Somehow not Funny Enough for the Person who was Showing them to Me in 2015
Top Ten Terry Pratchetts of 2015
Top Ten Father Goroits Joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2015 of 2015
Top Ten Qualities of 2015
Top Ten Unaccountable Euphorias of 2015
Top Ten Mortality Mornings of 2015
Best Ten Sepp Blatters of 2015
Top Ten Totally Bizarre Reviews Written by Me whose Deformations are Partly Attributable to an Exponentially Growing and Ratcheting Fear of Spoilers and whose Subjects' Authors are Moreover Almost Certainly Talking about Even the Most Unarguable of those Spoilers to their Vast Fanbases by way of Promotional Activity on Social Media at this Very Moment
Best Ten Carious Unicorns Predicted by Charlie Stross in Equiod That Actually Came True! of 2016
Top Ten Storybundles Curated by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer Featuring Among Others Berit Ellingsen and a Bestiary with Like China Mievelle of 2015
Top Ten Start-Ups Whose Idea is that Storybundle Could be Unbundled of 2015 of Dune of 2015
Best Ten Black Vein Votives of 2015
Top Ten China Mievelles of 2015
Top Ten This is When I Admit I Always Do the Acute Accent by Copy-Pasting it of 2015
Best Ten Recommended Books I Loved this Year about a Laseriferous Organelle Cocked in a Beneficent 3-Dimensionally Convex Dalek like a Little Hatching Sun in Hammock Slingshot of 2015
Top Ten OK I Don't Know Much About China Mievelle but I Did Really Really Like The City & The City & Perdito Street Station and he is a Trotskyist or at Least Leftist in Some Way but also Someone I Can't Remember Who But I Think it Was Someone whose Judgment I Trust in Such Matters Did Mention he was Problematic for Some Reason I Can't Really Remember Either so a Balanced Attitude for me to Take Given All That Is Probably to Pretty Much Contemptuously Refuse to Spell his Name Properly from Now On at Least till he Clears this Whole Thing up of 2015
Top Ten Pig Ceremonies of 2015
Top Nine Tens of 2015
Top Ten Medical Humanities of 2015
Top Ten Powers of Storytelling of 2015
Best Ten People Getting Healed by a Kind of Misunderstanding of 2015
Favorite Ten Twitters of 2015
Top Ten Grout Crystal Klout Gris-Gris of 2015
Top Ten Landscaping Change a Series of Talks, Art, Poetry, Free Wine and More Here in Bristol the Next One Being 10 December on the Theme of "Route!" of 2015
Top Ten Favorite Ideas that the Idea is Being Creative of 2015
Top Ten Raptures of Relaxation Upon Realizing How Prohibitively High the Level of Labor Required to in Good Conscience Offer an even Tentative Semi-Informed Opinion upon Some Subject of Some Pretty Serious Moment of 2015
Top Ten Contexts of 2015
Top Ten Bit Lips of 2015
Top Ten Vin Diesel Natural 20 Critical Hits of 2015
Greatest Ten Busted Superviral Satires of 2015
Top Ten Simple Laughs With Which a Seraph Fell Tremblingly Apart in 2015
Best Ten Microscopic Gills Seething on the Sensual Margin of 2015
Best Ten Bad Sex Awards of 2015
Best Ten Bad Love Awards of 2015
Top Ten a Man
Top Ten a Face
Top Ten a Bus
Top Ten Climate Chaos
Top Ten Credit
Top Ten War

As these were all published in qualifying markets, mostly National Geographic in the Murdoch era, I would appreciate if you would consider them for nomination!

Monday, November 30, 2015

Star Star Star Star Star

Interesting post by Natalie Luhrs: Conflation of Review and Critique, or How to Annoy Me.

There's a lot in that post that I agree with, and a few things I'd probably want to respond to by embroidering them with qualifications in my own baffling idiolect, each of which would then be followed by an "or you could say" or an "or to put it another way, more-or-less," and then some more readily-recognizable and not-unreasonable and perhaps slightly-equivocal sentiment, albeit one which actually would not very well capture whatever weird hair-splitting involution I originally registered in my own baffling idiolect, but rather comprise a tacit bottom-lip-trembling invitation to forget I said anything, okay? Waaaaaah!

Or in other words, there are a few things in that post that I might disagree with!

But instead of attempting anything mildly and/or misleadingly coherent today, let me offer twelve quick sets of semi-rhetorical questions, mostly about stars:

(1) Look at this four-and-a-half star consensus on a scraped PoD "book" of Wikipedia etc. content about Neal Stephenson. "Tough read, but rewarding," says one reviewer who, like almost all the other reviewers, thinks they're reviewing something else. It's not even clear what: the entire Baroque Cycle collected in one volume? A particular Baroque Cycle novel? Cryptonomicon? Damn, maybe I'm wrong and they really mean those Wikipedia or whatever articles. Question. What's up with that?

(2) Would you ever rate something you hadn't read?

(3) If you do a lot of star-type rating, do you implicitly create certain sub-categories within the materials that you're rating? Or is everything compared to everything else? Do you imagine a reader going through all your ratings, or just encountering each rating in the context of that book? That is, do you ever try to communicate things with your ratings as a whole gestalt, or do you think of each encounter in isolation? Or something in-between?

For instance, do you tacitly judge all the books by a particular author against each other, and try to put them in the right order as carefully discriminated as possible as your priority? In other words, in what ways are your evaluations transitive? If you are confronted with the decision between either (1) signalling that Book A is better than Book B by Author X, or (2) signalling that Author X is better than Author Y, which do you tend to go for? And/or do you tend to do genre groupings together, or historical periods? If you have answered that you compare everything to everything, does that even count across different sites and platforms?

Do you ever sort of defer to local norms, clustered around a platform, or an author, or even a particular work? Or do you sort of create your own clusters of norms, perhaps according to genre or micro-genre, or perhaps according to something that is a bit harder to describe?

E.g. here's a test: how would you rate these ten works out of five stars, to best communicate what you think and feel about them: Hamlet by Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew by Shakespeare, The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, The Dispossessed by Ursula le Guin, Dune by Frank Herbert, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Seveneves by Neal Stephenson. You have to do the whole list. Can you rate them all so that no matter what pair you pick, the better work out of the two has the more stars?

(If there are some on the list you haven't read, you can swap them for another work by the same author, or use one or more of these spares: The Concept of the Political by Carl Schmitt, I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb, Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami, Carter & Lovecraft by Jonathan L. Howard, Planetfall by Emma Newman, Auora by Kim Stanley Robinson, Trouble on Triton, by Samuel R. Delany, Stone by Adam Roberts, Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskill, Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe).


Consider this Goodreads user as a specimen. It does seem strange that somebody who was so consistently disappointed by Lightspeed or Clarkesworld or Nightmare would keep coming back, issue after issue. Also he is very valiant to keep struggling through the works of so many writers of color, and so many works by those he probably considers libtards, cucks and feminazis, when he simply can't find any that he likes. Which is to say, I don't think he has actually read most of the works he has given one-star ratings to.

It should go without saying that this dude hails from the Puppies realm of fandom, and he and I probably disagree about pretty much everything. He probably thinks there shouldn't be gun control, I don't mind if there is or not.

But in the context of this post, it should also go without saying that I'm interested in his self-perception. How does this reviewer see what he is doing? Does this reviewer actually think of himself as doing something underhand, as trolling, cheating, gaming the system, meddling with the data? Is there a moment where he thinks, "the ends justify the means!"? Or does he consider his practice legitimate, an expression of the same norms that govern rating all over GoodReads, only given different opinions and information? Does he in fact believe it is enough to "know" with confidence that something is badly written, since he has sampled similar stuff in the past and finds it unreadable, and ascribes its publication to political correctness and nepotism? He probably sees himself -- in roughly Puppies lingo -- as a non-political lover of freedom and democracy standing up to the  hegemony of the Social Justice Warriors. If he were called out over it, would he disappear and try to do it again more subtly, or would he be a little confused about the substance of the challenge? Would he try to defend his practice? If so, how?

(As it happens, I think he probably does see himself as a saboteur, doing something underhand, and the reason for that are that Barack Obama gets five stars, whereas Mitt Romney and Rand Paul get just one; this really looks a lot like an attempt at muddying the waters and achieving deniability. I can maybe see him feeling that Mitt and Rand just aren't alt right enough for him, but all that love for Barack is a real tough sell. If that's the case, it's interesting that this politically motivated rater only has the courage of his convictions when it comes to cultural politics: he's very willing to betray his instincts in rating political memoirs and actual books about politics and cultural affairs, if it will slightly smooth the way for his opinions within the sphere of speculative fiction. Of course I'm speculating. Maybe he just loves those Obama books. I'm also interested, by the way, in his treatment of Stephen King, who gets the occasional two- or three-star ratings peeping out from a long gleam of one-star ratings. Mamatas also musters the occasional two- or three-star rating. Is this more muddying of the waters, a performance of even-handedness? Or is it possible that he has read, for instance, all those Stephen King books, in fact loves Stephen King, apart from King's implicit and explicit political stance? Are we seeing a grudging trade-off, where an author is punished as a public figure, but the punishment is mitigating in the case of a few books the rater found totally outstanding? Is this GoodReaders user vacillating between rating those two entangled things, the author and the author's works?).

(4) What if you know that a book is worth, for instance, four stars. Let's say you are very sure of it. And let's say that this book is currently sitting at an average of about two stars, after about twenty reviews have come in. Conventional wisdom is that you should now rate it four stars, its true worth to you. Right?

So what would it take for you to rate it five stars, to bring its public valuation closer to its true worth? Its just price, you could say? Would you ever be tempted?

Or perhaps this is already your practice? Archers take the prevailing winds into account, shouldn't reviewers? Doth not the responsibility of truth-telling partly imply paying attention to the context in which you speak, and ensuring that you set your meaning on a course such that, as far as you can tell from the currents and forces before you, it will eventually hit its true target as closely as possible? Does it feel slightly like I'm Lucifer? The Morning-Star Tempts the Star-Giver, etc.? What if you were absolutely resolute that it was worth two stars, but it was sitting on an average of one star, after a hundred reviews have come in? Would you give it two, three, four or five stars?

(5) To what extent when you are rating a book (or for instance a hotel or a service or a person) do you feel you are following commonly accepted norms for the generating of ratings? To what extent are the norms you are following describable? Do you think it matters if there are different norms simultaneously in operation? If there are different norms in operation, what are the ways they overlap, and what are the ways that they don't? To put that another way, what sorts of books are more likely to reveal, and what sorts of books are more likely to conceal, the difference between the norms in operation? To what extent do you think the norms you conform to are visible to others when you exemplify them? Do you ever virtue-signal with your ratings?

(6) Do the ethics of rating (OK that's probably too grand a term) actually change as more ratings are accumulated? Do you incline toward temperance / perhaps mild positivity if there are very few ratings, and then go for more extreme and potentially unforgiving ratings if there are lots of other ratings to absorb your contribution? Do you consider how many ratings a work is likely to gather over its lifetime? I.e. if you are likely to be one of only two or three people who ever rate it, or maybe the only person who ever rates it, does that change how you marshal your stars?

(7) What do you think of those people who bestow a book with only one star because it isn't about what they thought it was about?

Or those people who give it one star because it arrived late in the post, or because they thought it was too expensive and so they didn't buy it (for example, as in the sole Amazon review of this academic book, which is modestly priced for an academic book, although of course academic books are far more expensive than they ought to be), or in some other way found the book unsatisfying not in itself, but because it wasn't something they wanted it to be?

Or what do you think of those people who rate the book, rather than the marketplace seller, when they find that the quality of the copy does not match the description? I mean, how many stars would you give those people? No, that's not what I mean at all. I really mean, what's up with that? Can these practices be defended, or can parts of them be defended?

Similarly, what about people who go ahead and give a rating based on a single hated or loved feature? -- e.g. "I hate present third person tense novels. I go around giving them all one star." What about the people who give their ratings based on the same handful of somewhat flexible, extremely broadly applicable criteria, criteria that are brought to book after book, for instance, transparency of style, relatability of character, plausibility of motivation? What about the person, quoted below, who gave a book one star because their friend deeply disliked it? Is that practice defensible? (Compare liquid democracy, perhaps?) Less drastically, how much of a book do you think you need to have read before you are competent to rate it? Or alternatively, how many times do you think you have to read a book before you are really competent to rate it? Say, "in an ideal world"?

Similarly, when you buy Amazon reviews, how does that actually work? -- what parts of the process are automated? Or are there sweatshop workers writing those reviews, or what? Does anyone know?

(8) What are the truth conditions for the attribution of a certain level of stars? If the answer is "it's subjective" or "it depends how you feel," how do you know what you feel? What does a number feel like? How do you feel a number? Do a number of stars feel different from a number of hearts? How do you know you are really feeling the number, and not just mistaking some different feeling for the feeling of that number?

How is it possible for people to disagree on how many stars a book should have?

What would be necessary to make it impossible for people to disagree on how many stars a book should have? Is it possible to give a book the wrong number of stars? Is that is what implied by sites like Love Reading, Hate Books, or by authors sharing their #1starreviews on Twitter? (Answer: sometimes). Is the ascription of stars an aesthetic judgment (e.g. in a Kantian sense), and/or should it be? Would you ever go back and adjust all your star ratings to accommodate the sudden magnificent appearance of something that is greater than anything you have ever encountered, or is literally, by an order of magnitude, just the worst.

(9) Are stars scattered because books are scattered? In other words, do different star ratings tend to reflect sharply different styles of reading, and/or sharply different phenomenologies of reading, and/or the reading of different books? How real are these multiple different books ("book" in roughly the sense of "what is read") that supervene on the common book ("book" in roughly the sense of "the codex filled with words")? Are they at least real enough that we could for instance write literary scholarship about them -- that we could talk about "the one-star Aftermath" and "the four-star Aftermath" in the same way we talk about the First Quarto Hamlet and the Folio Hamlet? How do such different phenomenologies relate to the identity characteristics of intersectionalism and/or diversity discourse?

(10) There could be an algorithm which adjusts the average star rating to a targeted, weighted "average." Would you want such functionality? Would you want a targeted, weighted "average"? Obviously not. What if you could adjust the algorithm yourself, and there was an easy filter switch, to toggle between the weighted average and the unweighted average? Are you absolutely certain such an algorithm is not already in place? If it were, how would it first come to your attention? And what about if we weren't talking about books? What if we were talking about, say, Uber drivers? Would you want such functionality then?

(11) Imagine that reviews were not for authors in any sense, and also not for readers, in the sense that they were not primarily a filter for readers to decide where to focus money, attention, faith, and/or mental and emotional labor. Who or what else might reviews be for?

(12) What recipe would you use to create a useful weighted average? I.e. if you could see all the individual reviews, and could see the average star rating, but could also see another rating, "star tally tailored for me," or something?

The obvious recipe is to gradually slightly bump up the weight of reviews which people find "helpful." And vice-versa: if lots of people find a review unhelpful, perhaps it shouldn't carry so much weight. (But do you think there is something a bit seedy about that suggestion? After all, people weren't asked whether they think the star rating should have greater or lesser weight. They were asked whether they found the review -- the text in particular, you gotta imagine -- helpful).

What about a slight extra weighting according to word length -- a decent tracking variable for indicating that a reviewer might have put some consideration into their review?

How about an innocuous scan for phrases like "couldn't decide between three and four stars and eventually went for three" which will re-weight that rating as, say, 3.25 stars?

What about weighting somebody's star-giving according to how prolific they are with their stars: if I only ever give one-star or two-star reviews, perhaps my two-star reviews should be weighted as a curmudgeon's highest praise?

Are there any ways of building in tests that reduce the impact of reviewers who really have not read the book in question? Would you want them?

And what about increasing the weight of reviews by reviewers whose reviews you personally have "found helpful" in the past? Or even increase the weight of reviews by reviewers whose reviews reviewers whose reviews you have found helpful in the past have found helpful in the past?

What about going for a fully blown k-NN classification to determine how close a particular reviewer's "tastes" are to your "tastes," with taste being modeled by extracting features from a data-set including reviews you have written and reviews you have found helpful or not helpful? How would you set up the parameters in detail? What are the second-order possibilities and risks, in terms of a new incentive structure for reviewers, and for cultural production more generally?


Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Story Sludge Redux

One problem for the supporters of Narrativity is the danger of unconscious falsifying revision—fictionalization, confabulation—of one’s ‘self-narrative’. I will call this Revision for short. Revision may sometimes begin consciously, with deliberate lies told to others, e.g., and it may have semi-conscious instars, but one has not engaged in genuine Revision in the present sense unless or until one no longer has any awareness of having falsified anything. It is true that the conscious/non-conscious border is murky and porous, but cases of Revision are clear for all that—and extremely common. [...] 
Galen Strawson, "Narrativity and non-Narrativity" (2010)
For some probably dumb reason, I've adopted the love of storytelling as a pet peeve. I mean people who love storytelling: stop it you guys! I mean your love of storytelling as such. That half-awestruck, half-mischievous attitude that is mostly taken up -- as it happens -- by professional or wannabe professional storytellers, or by their closest economic allies, whenever they speak of the Power of Narrative.

Telling stories is what makes us human. Telling stories is what makes us human? Maybe it's what makes you human, humans! Unremitting and unqualified piety in the presence of storytelling per se just makes me as cross as a frog in a sock.

I've sort of done this grumble properly in a short essay in Newb Maps of Hell (subtitled, with misleading portent, "vol. I"). But the tl;dr is: (a) we should at least be open to the idea that many good stories might do bad things, and (b) given this, it's possible that when a bunch of people are nodding along in happy wonderment at the power of storytelling, each one of us may well be thinking of different powers and different stories.

To be fair, when the sentiment comes not from a storyteller, but from a reader, that does make me much less cross. Cross as a frog in some crotchless body-stockings possibly, if we're using the same scale.

Furthermore, this particular family of clichés often escapes the lips of writers who are otherwise pretty damn quick-witted and wise, I guess in the same way as do burps and sneezes. And many apparent evangelists, whether storytellers or readers, may offer more qualified and nuanced accounts somewhere, only to find that the feel-good, upbeat, up-in-the-dumps bits get sheared off and quoted and shared and made into memes. Or it's those bits that are the easiest to reach for, when there's a microphone crawling up your chin and a bunch of necks not yet nodding. Which is fair enough: almost as bad as preaching to the choir is crosspatching to the below-quorum.

But all that aside, I just came across Galen Strawson's short essay "Narrativity and non-Narrativity" (2010) which although not something that has the same pet peeve, is at least willing to come with me while I take mine for a walk and a poop. I may not agree with everything you say, Professor Strawson -- the Diachronic/Non-Diachronic "brain chemistry" bit feels pretty dubious -- but I will defend to the death your right to come with me while I take my pet peeve for a walk and a poop, if we're using the same scale. Strawson concludes that it's false that we naturally see our lives in narrative terms, or that we should see our lives in narrative terms. He sees his position as entirely consistent with the reconstructive and confabulatory aspects of memory and personal identity.

As a complete By The Way, while I'm mentioning Strawson, he has a lovely and odd chapter in Mental Reality (1994) on imaginary creatures he calls his Weather Watchers -- they're sort of his Chilled Triffid take on Chalmers et al.'s philosophical zombies -- which I bet would collide amusingly and maybe even fruitfully with some recent plant neurobiology and totally BeAble-Thing-shit crazy phenomenology-inflected ecocritical thought such as Michael Marder's Plant Thinking (2013).

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UPDATE: My friend wrote to me with a really good point. "I think my main objection is different, which is that people who tell you they are storytellers are normally so boring."

Monday, November 23, 2015

Names in SFF #11: Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver

Here be spoilers.
I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds, and bowers,
Of April, May, of June and July flowers;
I sing of youth, of love too, and I write
How roses first came red, and lilies white:
I write of groves and twilight, and I sing
The court of Mab, and of the Fairie King. 
-- Robert Herrick
I guess what I'll do is this. I'll send the British Royal Legion a donation, along with a note explaining why there's no way I could wear a red poppy, and that's a shame because I'd quite like to. And I'll ask them to please, please team up with the white poppy people (they're called the Peace Pledge Union apparently), and both sell both kinds of poppy. Because if two charitable organizations (I'll say) who both agree we ought to support veterans, commemorate all those who have lost their life in war, work constantly toward peace, and never glamorize, romanticize, or celebrate war, if they can't get along and work together for a good cause, then what chance do any of us have?

Or just swap, one year. You sell red and I'll sell white, kind of thing. There are some economic obstacles. One brand is worth a lot more than the other. Hmm. Got to think it through.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

There is a kind of garden growing through the names of Between Two Thorns (2013), the first novel of Emma Newman's Split Worlds urban fantasy trilogy. You know: a serene spread of plant color, neatly bedded to belie its rooty intrigues for nutrients and choked struggle for sun.

We need a little background here. Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver ran away from Nether to Mundanus in hope of leading a normal life. But now she's been found, forcibly returned to Nether, and betrothed to William Reticulata-Iris without so much as a by-your-sepal. And if you think that's unceremonious, get this: Nether society is itself agitated, what with the arrival of the Alba-Rosa family in Aquae Sulis, a city supposed to be free of Rosa influence, and the mysterious disappearance of the Master of Ceremonies, the very person Aquae Sulis desperately needs to keep the peace at a time like this.

A Master of Ceremonies is (as Mundanus-dweller Joseph Moser put it around the turn of the Nineteenth Century) obliged to at least:
[...] introduce regularity into large assemblies, to keep order, to repress the ebullitions of passion, to banish, if possible, that contraction or thrusting out of the lips which Shakespear calls duckface selfie; to prevent violent suffusions or flushings in the female countenance; to keep the ladies from tossing, and their noses from turning up, when precedence, partners, and people that nobody knows, with a hundred other serious circumstances, excite those emotions. He has also annexed to his office something clerical, it being his business to join hands: but he goes still farther, he frequently procures partners, who sometimes under his banners enlist for life [...]
OK yeah it's "pouting" not "duckface selfie." Sorry.

It's not precisely clear what the Nether Master of Ceremonies does, but he does seem to be more of a big deal than his Mundanus namesake. He emanates an aura of authority, security, and law and order, perhaps more in a Confucian harmony-through-cultivating-virtue kind of way than either a despot or a highest court of appeal kind of way.

Meanwhile, back in Mundanus, sinister and bloody events are unfolding ... but I don't think we don't need to get into that gargoyle stuff now: that's enough background.

So let's stay with Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver, who has a fancy-pants name, as befits the highborn Fae-touched, although often she's just plain "Cathy."

In a moment, I'll think about why double-barrel names are so fancy-pants. But for now, what might that name remind of, at first blush? Rhoeas could suggest a corrupted rose, perhaps an English rose, and the word papa is discernible as an ominous gardener or florist looming over her. Maybe it would be easy to tease and wind up Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver by calling her Catherine the Corrupt and Papa-Averse English Rose?

But rose may also be a little misleading here: really rhoeas is just "red" from the Greek and papaver is the Latin word for "poppy," perhaps from the root pap, to swell, and/or pappa, food or milk. And in fact Rhoeas-Papaver is, unmistakably, a re-working of Papaver rhoeas, which is the taxon of the common poppy, aka the corn poppy, the corn rose, Flanders poppy, or the remembrance poppy.

I say "unmistakably," because Between Two Thorns has a pretty systematic naming convention for its Fae-touched characters. Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver is one of the Fae-touched, from one of the Great Families that populate the Nether, an interstitial worldlet betwixt Mundanus, where you and I live, and Exilium, where the powerful pixies live. For somewhat nebulous reasons, the fairies are actually supposed to be exiled to Exilium, although this containment strategy seems to be having mixed success.

Anyway, all the Fae-touched go by the about-faced technical terms for flowers. Every Great Family is superintended by one of these terrifyingly potent and trans-moral patrons -- or perhaps, less kindly, puppeteers -- and you can tell immediately which family goes with which fairy, simply by their name.

Lady Rose is the patron of the Alba-Rosas and Gallica-Rosas.

Lord Iris is the patron of the Reticulata-Irises.

And so on.

This is the main way in which names work in Between Two Thorns. These relatively legible power relationships re-create an archaic connection between name and status, the sort of thing a good edition of a Nineteenth-Century novel might include in the footnotes, making seemingly pointless conversations suddenly light up with connoted cut-and-thrust. Such names also vouchsafe a sort of pre-liberal sense of being utterly embedded in the fate of your lineage. To keep this sense sharp, the rising and falling fortunes of kin become transposed, in Between Two Thorns, into the favors and furies of the pixie patrons.

In other words, to be a Rhoeas-Papaver is to be connected to the fate of your family -- okay, whatever, we get that -- but it is also to be inescapably, suffocatingly connected to the wonderworkings and the whims of Lord Poppy. A concrete agent, not a vague abstraction like "the fate of your family." Someone from the Great Families, particularly a woman from the Great Families, does not write her own history. She is trapped in fate. "Of Flowers, so much has been said and sung, that it were impossible to write any thing new," as Francis S. Osgood writes in The Poetry of Flowers and Flowers of Poetry.

Fairy is probably from fāta, the Fates. And as it happens, the personality of Lord Poppy -- if personality is the right word? -- recalls the more louche and unpredictable of Neil Gaiman's Endless, or possibly Loki at his most jaded and frivolous, or perhaps the Ancient Greek pantheon at their squabbliest and most squee-tastic-est, just as they're really getting stuck in around Troy. I want to go further: there is also a sense that Poppy's capacity for boredom is the radical unknowability of fairy, imperfectly translated into something mortal minds can deal with. Lord Poppy is, like Fortuna, the the vicissitudes and vagaries of what's coming, personified and given an uncomfortably intimate grin.

What first strikes us as fairyland's "radical unknowability," of course, might be developed into a critique of our customary modes of knowledge, and perhaps eventually an expansion of their limits. At the same time, even this early talk of constructive criticism in hope of an upgrade, and thereafter to increased technical capacity and newly conquered territories, feels inimical to any fairy way of knowing. That is, perhaps even to talk of different ways of knowing is already only a metaphor for whatever it is fairyland demands of us. One might compare Michael Marder's Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (2013). I have added words like fairies: 
Because fairies do not appear, they bestow on us the problem of representing them both in the theoretical sense of representation faithful to their ontology and in the strictly political sense of representation as delegation, claiming the right to speak as though bewitched by fairies. Perhaps to encounter fairyland without distorting it through the mangles of mortal hyper-familiarity, it becomes necessary to take up some trick, cheap glamor, or changeling substitition. By means of this clinaman, whose status is that of thievery, or of the forged or deliberately misleading, our encounters with fairies are temporarily jogged from their justifiable trajectories. Because the absence of visitation by fairies does not proclude their spatial, material self-expression: it only poses additional hurdles to the ethical treatment of fairyland. 
If ethics, understood à la Levinas, is the relation to the other, then it must be rooted in the ontology of fairy life, heteronomously defined by a striving to alterity. The heteronomous decorum of fairyland, or more precisely, the heteronomous decorum of the Seelie Court, is therefore a kind of homecoming, a harkening of ethical discourse back to the domain of life wherein it originated. On the one hand, the open-endedness, or the essential incompletion, of wish-granting and of other fairy functions subtracts fairies from the logic of actualization they have been often called upon to illustrate. On the other hand, the infinite possibilities of fairyland correspond to its countless ends.
Honestly though, brushes with fairy can be stressy.

To a lesser extent, the same flowerbed of names, Rhoeas-Papaver, Californica-Papaver, Alba-Rosa, Gallica-Rosa, Reticulata-Iris, and so on, also advertizes horizontal associations: the Rhoeas-Papavers and the Californica-Papavers are not only tied by a common fairy patron, but also likely more closely-related to each other than the Rhoeas-Papavers and the Alba-Roses, for instance. Such blood ties are more understandable, since they involve only mortal power-differentials, rather than fealty to something nebulous and numinous. But these blood ties are also ambiguous and flexible in their own little ways. Close names connote close histories, but tell us little about what those histories are. Are the various Papavers more likely to be allies and kissing cousins? Or is whatever forked the dynasty in the first place still lodged there, wedging the lines apart?
He looked down at the wedding ring. “That’s one of the things that happened whilst you were missing.”
“Lucy Californica-Papaver.”
“A Californica? I don’t understand.”
“It was to end the feud.”
Then there's Catherine. 

The name Catherine is at once queenly and unassuming. Catherine is a name ready for any weather, ready to boom at bad guys down two barrels -- or wielding some suitably grand identifier by the ligature of an "of" or a "the" like a cat-'o'-nine-tails -- yet ready too to grin and turn out nuances of cheerful competence as Cathy, of glamor and rubby intimacy as Kitty, or of wayfaring and subtlety as Cat. The name may even go all mousy, by some mysterious dialectics of cats and mice, although always the mousiness of a brave mouse, always the mouse of a Mouse-cat-teer, of a mouse that is probably really just a mini-cat. Remember Katherina Minola, the titular shrew of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew. Catherine is a name at home among crenels or taking tea. Shirley Jackson's Mary Katherine "Merrikat" Blackwood has always lived in the castle. There are Jane Austen's Catherine Morland from Northanger Abbey and Catherine "Kitty" Bennett from Pride and Prejudice -- women with whom Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver has some context in common, being like them stuffed into impractical pouffiness and somewhat aggressed by fairylands. Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights has Catherine Earnshaw and she has Cathy. It seems remarkable, an oversight, even an outrage, that there is no Catherine Pevensie. It is the name of a midfielder, a captain. It is is a name that holds the centre, it contains the letters "c-e-n-t-r-e" and in English it is an intuitive core to a cloud of cognates, the Karens and Katyas, Caitlins and Catrinas, the Ecaterinas et cetera.

Catherine comes from the Greek Αικατερινη, "Aikaterine," to which is grafted the Greek καθαρος, "katharos," meaning "pure," as in cathartic as purifying. One intriguing source for Aikaterine are five nymphs, the Ἑκατεριδες, "Hekaterides," or their dad Ἑκατερος, "Hekateros," whose name roughly connotes "each of two" or perhaps "with both hands." There is some intricate finger-related stuff there, but for the sake of Between Two Thorns, in which places in the Nether are anchored in Mundanus, so that London is mirrored by Londinium, Bath by Aquae Sulis, it is mostly the doubling that is interesting. Another intriguing derivation is from the Greek αικια, "aikia," meaning unfair, unreasonable, unjust, an insult, an outrage, an affront, suffering, torture.

Like the purr of a cat, the purity of a Catherine is a throaty sound, ribbed and knurled with harmonics and overtones. I'm not being funny, but the term pure is mixed in its meanings: what counts as pure alters according to context and purpose, so that there can be no pure pure. The heroin which comes to you from a poppy may be pure as regards adulterants, but impure as regards consumer ethics. In economics and finance, in particular, pure profit must be calculated by consulting a recipe with several ingredients. In Scotland pure is an intensifier hospitable to anything and everything: and though ma heid's pure mince the day, I wonder if there's even a little connotation of "ex nihilosine causa, just because" about the Scottish pure, like "just totally" or like the South African sommer. Collocations like "vengeance, pure and simple," or "pure chaos" or "pure mayhem," or "pure outrage" or "pure rage," -- one of the few instances of the word in the novel is in "pure fury" -- all bring to mind complexity, obscurity and cloudedness, like the conflating, concealing and co-mingling dust clouds of cartoon punch-ups.

Tanners used to use an infusion of pigeon, hen or dog poop called pure or puer to strip away fur. Papas on the topic of daughters' purity are often full of shit, as we can see as a piece of it escapes Polonius: "Affection! pooh! you speak like a green girl!" Brothers are not much better:
"Look, when I went up to Cambridge, you didn't think Father trusted the chaperone and the minder, did you? He put a curse on me, to make sure I didn't lose my market value." 
"Catherine! What a way to speak of your own purity." 
"Oh, please. I'm not stupid, that's what it comes down to, isn't it? Have to guarantee the goods are pure and unsullied when selling them off to the highest bidder."
Do unicorns count frotting? I wonder if the later novels reveal anything about the no-doubt hugely heteronormative fae algorithm glowing within Will Reticulata-Iris and his father's virginity-detecting gizmo.

Exercise: how would you program such a thing, pixies? I see most of you have gone for, "If she believes she is a virgin," which is a solid B+. Who handed this one in, with the tech-tree diagram? It hasn't got a name on. And whose is this, stating "And the commoditie be valued as chast within the market, it is the Opal's duety but to giue confydence to mens' iudgement"? You lot are weird.

Above all, no matter what the regime of measurement and control, pure and innocent are far from synonymous. Innocence conveys untried and untested. Purity equivocates between the purity of isolation and the purity of homeostasis: between being sheltered, and being experienced but incorruptible. Our sense of this distinction may be confused by a certain kind of strong innocence, which filters evil at the outermost fringes of experience: such innocents may come through trials not only uncorrupted but in a certain sense untried. Sometimes this filtering is something we can do for or to each other.

Roses may also be symbols of purity, especially through their association with the Virgin Mary. William Blake wanders through worlds of purity, of innocence, and of experience, in search perhaps of other worlds, in his Songs of Innocence and Experience, which includes the fruitfully resilient poem of corruption "The Sick Rose." The fairy lord Harold Bloom even more-or-less manages to make the rose into the corrupting factor, a worm-tease possessed of a "jealous lust," although he's being a bit contrarian. What I find odd is that there appear to be two worms in the picture:

You can try out "innocence and experience" as the plaintext of Blake's "rose and flying invisible worm" respectively. I sort of think that, whatever else is going on in that poem, Blake is proposing airborne microorganisms as a vector of plant blight. I think that all the ingredients were available to him: the notion of human diseases carried by infinitesimal spores; the notion that insects were responsible for plant disease; the homunculi and animalculae of preformationism; the scattering of panspermism.

If rose customarily denotes earthly beauty and fragility, mortality, corruptibility, and inevitable decay, it is also a word which can intimate recovery, return, or even resurrection, in its five red petals' correspondence to five wounds on Christ's body, and in the faith "that He was buried, that He rose again on the third day."

In the Child Ballad 166A, the rose that is thoroughly trampled and rooted out by a wild boar, representative of the House of York, is a hardy plant that finds its way back:

Wend away, messenger, with might and maine;
Itt’s hard to know who a man may trust;
I hope the rose shall flourish againe,
And haue all things att his owne lust.

Then Sir Rice ap Thomas drawes Wales with him;
A worthy sight itt was to see,
How the Welchmen rose wholy with him,
And shogged them to Shrewsburye.

I like that: "How the Welchmen rose wholy with him." Just one more thing about roses. Listen to this creep fucking neg:

There is something of the rose about Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver. The poppies of Between Two Thorns are pepped up, glamorous poppies. "In Mundanus the red poppy was scentless, but in Exilium it smelt divine." In a way, they are a bit like red roses without all the hokiness of red roses. They are stealth red roses.

I've talked too much about roses. I've talked a bit about poppies, and I'll talk a lot more about them soon. But it's worth emphasizing that her name is not Catherine Rose, or Catherine Poppy, or Catherine Papaver Rhoeas. Her name is Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver. What difference does that make?

Rhoeas-Papaver. Stare at it long enough, it starts to look like an articulated lorry trying collidingly to reverse into a space -- reverse, as in the swappage of "Papaver" and "Rhoeas" to make "Rhoeas-Papaver"; reverse as in the word reverse, a word almost audible among the incessant pa! pa! of the heavy duty vehicle reversing alarm -- but the really important bit isn't that swappage, it's the hyphen.

Double-barreled surnames have long been an affable compromise between class-based domination and gender-based domination: if a chap married up, he couldn't very well lose his name, but he wouldn't want to throw away a boon like his wife's (father's) name. Alternatively, a chap with only daughters, the poor chap, might have insisted no chaps should marry those daughters unless these chaps agreed to double-barrel, thereby carrying on his horrible illustrious name. Double-barreling also became an affectation of the upwardly mobile middle classes, particularly in Victorian Britain as the law around name-changes became clearer and more forgiving.

So double-barreling usually suggests aristocracy, although perhaps -- with the current spate of couples who double-barrel out of an urge to merge non-hierarchically -- it is on the verge of losing that association.

(That, and the coming bloodbath. Anyway, we'll see!)

What is interesting about the Rhoeas-Papaver double-barrel is that it suggests a marriage, some time in the past, between, let's say, Goodman Joseph Rhoeas and Mistress Josephine Papaver. Now, I'm not saying that the novel wants us to think that this has literally taken place within its story-world. I'm speaking strictly non-canon now. But the suggestion is there -- because that is how double-barrelling normally works -- even if it's a suggestion that eventually gets obliterated by seething bolts of worldbuilding.

Yet the name's unmistakable meaning -- if we simply flip it to Papaver rhoeas -- suggests an altogether different taxonomy, and an altogether different history. That is a history whose dominant event is the split, not the merger. Papaver is the genus, and Papaver rhoeas is the species: the common poppy. A rhoeas is not a rhoeas is not a rhoeas: taxonomically, a rhoeas always implies and is contained by its genus. My imaginary couple, Joseph Rhoeas and Josephine Papaver, are impossible: they can't have met, because they are just different ways of slicing the same evolutionary story.

You can say the same thing about Catherine's fiance, William Reticulata-Iris: although his name suggests some past union of the Reticulatas and the Irises, the Iris reticulata is the netted iris, a plant with its own evolutionary history. It's not something you get every time you cross a net with an iris. Taxonomy is not just synchronic nomenclature, not just a snapshot of distinguishing features at the present moment: taxonomy has a relationship, albeit a fraught one, with phylogeny; in other words, it conveys, in an uncluttered and imperfect and highly reductive way, the ramified structures of cladogenesis and anagenesis, it hints at the reproduction and reshuffling and flow and drift of genetic material, clumped more-or-less into organisms, stretching back millennia.

There are a lot of ways we could go from here. In imagining the reconciliation of this contradiction, an image of supreme nominocracy, rule by names, could be teased out: as if the Rhoeas and the Papaver families had to unite on the social plane, because they had already emerged co-evally on the biological plane. That might be a particularly intriguing incarnation of the fateful power so often welded into names in fantasy narratives. I'm not sure.

But can we bring it back to those poppies? On the one hand, Rhoeas-Papaver seems to be the outcome of Rhoeas plus Papaver; on the other, it seems to be the outcome of the evolution of Papaver rhoeas and other Papaver species in different directions from some likely common ancestor. In other words, the name Rhoeas-Papaver expresses a struggle about different ways of reading the past, or of rendering the past legible in the first place. In other words, it expresses a struggle about remembrance.

The semiotics of the lapel poppy are disastrously, dishearteningly jumbled and impure. We wear red remembrance poppies to honor and commemorate those who have died in war. We remember all those who have died in all wars, but particularly we remember the servicemen and women of Britain and of the countries of the former British Empire who have died since 1914. We honor those whose acts incarnate a kind of courage whatever bravery or fear or otherwise may have filled their hearts, and many of whom died.


Perhaps Remembrance Sunday should have a tidge more War Awareness Day to it. Commemorate is a funny word. The closest synonym is remember, and of course remember is equivocal. Most people don't recall, for instance, fighting in World War II. Some people recall hanging out with somebody who did. Maybe hanging out with them on Remembrance Sunday. A sense of strengthened continuity with ancestral suffering springs up around Remembrance Sunday. Suddenly personal reflective nostalgia gets ambiguously blurred with restorative nostalgia violently fixated on a mythical golden age. And/or (usually or) personal reflective nostalgia gets ambiguously blurred with a righteous fixation on reparations, or some form of restorative justice, or at least accurate, appropriately publicized history.

From the little I know about my ancestors, I suspect they were usually committing the massacres.

And a sense of humble prayer hangs over Remembrance Sunday. Specifically, the sense of a performance before the divine that is oddly evacuated of meaning, because even though you attach significance to its symbols, whatever significance you attach is subsumed in what the Almighty knows those words to really mean.

This year, the Royal British Legion suggests, "Take a photo of yourself with a poppy held to your lips," visually reflecting, of course, the paltry two minute silence. It should be two days. But it is also, I think, a subtle borrowing of a semiotic idiom associated with pacifist, radical and/or Leftist protest.

The quality of silence itself has changed in recent years -- silence now exists visually on Twitter, for instance -- and this year, it seems like the British Legion is experimenting with adapting to more recent versions of silence. In particular, the poppy-to-your-lips campaign feels like an allusion to activist art and protest which seeks to draw attention to oppressive silencing. Asylum seekers have sewn their lips together, for instance. The undercurrent of this campaign can't be anything but: we will not be silenced!

And that in turn implies: "It's those Guardianistas, those authoritarian metropolitan elites, those ivory tower trustafarians, those Political Correctness fetishists, those head-in-the-clouds attention-seeking crusties, those foreigners (like, idk, Greeks) or spawn-of-foreigners with their weird perspectives, who are trying to silence the poppy and everything it stands for. They are the appropriators, they are the revisionists, and they have the cheek to call me that! But they're the ones trying to erase the sacrifice of our parents and grandparents. Try telling them a simple fact about Britain's sacrifice standing up to the Nazis, and they'll derail the conversation, with something about Britain and British colony's 1% killed against the Soviet Union's 12%-13%. Or even worse, something about British colonial administrators shipping grain out of India and outlawing relief efforts during the late 19th century famines that killed more people than either world war. It's not that it's not true or anything: it's just, that's not what this is about. They can barge in with their agendas the rest of the year, but not November: not while we're mourning."

By the way. The presence of Maharaj Kumari Rani Nucifera-Nelumbo in Between Two Thorns is a little mysterious. Her appearance is a status coup for the Alba-Rosas, of course. "The Albas brought an Indian princess to impress the Censor into letting them in." And I suspect it may be of some intertextual importance, setting up the character for the sequels, or perhaps calling back to some of the earlier Split Worlds short fiction. Nevertheless she dangles a little, conspicuously enough that I almost want to say her real function in the novel is to raise in a more explicit way the theme of empire.

Yet ... having a pop at the poppy still feels like a trap.

That is, to articulate the despoiled symbolism of the red poppy, which does not mean what it officially means, feels like walking into a trap.

That flash of red is the red of red-bait. That is the flapping red corner of the matador's cape. Without constant vigilance and creativity, the voice which leaves your lips will default to the voice of the Left as the Left is imagined by the Right. You become your own stereotype. Almost anything that you don't "agree" with is something that "offends" you and something that you want to "ban." You are a strain of paranoid, sneering and sniveling refusenik, crossbred out of Vyvyan and Neil from the 1980s sitcom The Young Ones. You think you are the only one who sees what a hard world this is, and you can't help but ruin the few things about it that are good. You pretend to care about everyone to conceal your inability to care for those closest to you. You trample the poppy because your flower is the narcissus. At the very best, you have no tactics or common sense either: even if you're not really authoritarian, you'll come across that way (meta: you'll come across as someone who will come across as authoritarian), you'll alienate the people you need by your side. Also, you're a bad Kantian, because the maxim you're acting on isn't universalizeable: when somebody (militaristic racists for instance) appropriate a symbol, do you just go ahead and surrender it to them? Where would it end, hmm?

What is the title of Between Two Thorns about? Any between-ness immediately suggests Nether, suspended between Mundanus and Exilium, but I don't think it's about that. I wonder if the Alba-Rosas and the Gallica-Rosas can each lay claim to one of the title's thorns. Alba-Rosa and Gallica-Rosa suggest respectively the white rose of York and the red rose of Lancaster (or Gallic rose). Perhaps Between Two Thorns -- or at least, the Nether version to which it is tethered -- re-stages the War of the Roses as the War of the Poppies, red and white.

Civil war in England!

There is, of course, another remembrance poppy. The white poppy.

The white poppy was introduced by the Women's Co-operative Guild in 1933, about ten years after the red poppy, and is now mostly sold by the Peace Pledge Union. The motto of the Peace Pledge Union is, "War is a crime against humanity. I renounce war, and am therefore determined not to support any kind of war. I am also determined to work for the removal of all causes of war." I've never worn one. Maybe I'll start, even though -- well, I don't know. It also feels a little bit like the semiotics of the white poppy are, "Debate me bro!"

Turns out there are purple poppies to remember animals killed at war! But not in a big way.

And in Between Two Thorns this is the story: neither side is the good guys. The Gallica-Rosas seem to be good guys, but they're actually in league with the bad guys. Pretending to feud between themselves, they conspire to attack on two flanks: the Alba-Rosas with arrogance and aggression, the Gallica-Rosas with persuasion and seduction.

Can you see where that might be going, with respect to poppies? Maybe?

And yet, that just seems like such a smug, dialectic-er-than-thou, academic Marxist bro thing to say: that the white poppies are the problem as much as the red poppies! Like, oh my God. Who can really believe such a thing? Believe that there is no special or unusual hypocrisy, or complicity, in wearing the symbol whose non-appearance on a lapel is most energetically criticized and policed by the same people who want to violently repel people who are fleeing from war?

Of course, I know lots of people don't care half a hoot if I wear a red poppy or not, but the ones who care the most -- who in a certain way care much more than the Royal British Legion actually care -- are definitely the ones who are happy with refugees drowning. On balance, they're happy with that. Starting wars is fine and dandy, so long as it's Over There.

Surely that must count for something? I think those guys are wrong about drowning refugees, should they nevertheless be my self-appointed sartorial go-to guys?

The earliest known stem-word of rose is, funnily enough, the Parthian wâr.

And can I really believe -- oh, I'm not sure how to put this -- can I really believe that there is no special or unusual hypocrisy, or complicity, in commemorating the sacrifice of those who fought fascism by using literally the closest thing these isles have to a living fascist symbol?

Perhaps not that close, but closer than anything else. Top of the leaderboard. The swastika is too niche and anyway it's German af. St George's Cross is never noticeable by its lack, the way the red poppy is. All those eagles with lightning beaks and whatever are too frikkin awesome to be properly fascist. The poppy is the closest thing there is. And of course it is still entirely justifiable to wear a red poppy, 110% justifiable, I could justify it for you right now. But I don't want to. But I could. But I really don't want to.

Given all that, why would the white poppies be problematic, as much as the red? Because ... I forget. I am ensorcelled into forgetfulness by all this remembrance. Poppy may also suggest poppet or puppet. The Fae-touched are referred to, rather dismissively, as puppets by the Arbiters and Sorcerers, those charged with defending Mundanus from the fairies of Exilium.

Puppetry and pageantry. Well, the white poppy might be a problem because -- even though it forswears it, as much as the red poppy forswears its racist militarism -- the white poppy represents the hectoring arrogance of the Left, our incapacity to accommodate meanings other than our own.

No, that's not quite right! The white poppy represents the Left's inability to set that something free, to set free that red spark, or whatever it is, that red spark of something so necessary and so good, that goes swimming around somewhere inside the red poppy, that goes trickling around inside all its solemnity, and sorrow, and joy in community, and sense of history, and sense of kinship, and sense of place, and resistance to being told what things mean, and all those memories of childhood, or of a lost grandparent or parent or brother or sister, and all that willingness to link your sorrows to larger sorrows, and the ferocity of your love to a larger ferocity and a larger love, and all that pride, and defiance, and nationalism, and patriotism, and jingoism, and er xenophobia, and er justifiable national security concerns, and er racism, and er fascism-ish er empire-ish genocide-ish. Can't blame us, but can't not blame us, for not seizing that strange red spark. The Left's inability to encounter racism in its most triumphant of all outfits, the one it wears when it drowns vermin while dictating exactly the expression you should adopt while you watch it drown vermin, the Left's inability to encounter that and be all like, Wait, I mustn't blow this. We have stuff in common. We can figure this out.

No, that's not quite right! The point would be, I suppose, that the very practice of contesting the meaning of the red poppy -- "It's you being racist," "No, it's me thinking about my granddad" -- ends up being a kind of pageantry whose sum total effect is a kind of nil, that is to say, a kind of default to the status quo, which is a preference for mass murder, over the risk of slight loss to personal material advantage or slight adjustment to personal worldviews.

But can I really believe that? Do I really believe that those who ostentatiously support pacifism, and those who ostentatiously support whatever multifarious and muddled but broadly nationalist referent the red poppy is about ... that these two factions are in practical terms in league with each other, working to sustain and strengthen imperialist and capitalist patterns of domination, oppression and mass murder ... only they're too hazy-headed to recognize it?




Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy, is responsible for associations of ensorcelled slumbers and fey reveries. From poppies (mostly the seed pods) you get opium, from opium you get morphine, codeine and (with a synthetic sprinkling of two acetyl groups) heroin. The opium poppy might be a reminder of imperialism: the British Empire used to grow opium and sell it to China, and when China tried to kick the habit, Britain invaded. I believe David Cameron was asked not to wear a poppy during some Sino-diplomatic shenanigans, but he did anyway? China lost a few chaps in World War II too, so no doubt they forgave him. Nowadays Afghanistan is totally blanketed with poppies.

Does Cathy have a poppy held up to her lips?

It could be helpful to think about the story that Between Two Thorns is not. It's not the story of an ordinary girl who -- after first brushes with fairy, and a confesh to her BFF that she might be going maaaad! -- enters an enchanted alternate world, a world filled with fairies, wishes, curses, and danger, a world where little is as it seems, a world that exists on top of and set somehow also alongside the mundane world, a world which reflects and estranges the mundane world, and which in certain weird ways satirizes and clarifies it.

It is not the story of this girl discovering that the society of this enchanted alternate world, despite its marvels, is trapped in the past, and is, in particular, way sexist. It is not even the story of an ordinary girl finding out that she is not so ordinary after all, for fey blood rushes in her arteries, nor the story of how this not-so-ordinary girl's secret tyrant extended family tries to embroil her in their fairy affairs, and their (un)seelie sexism, insisting that she wear stupid clothes, speak in florid circumlocutions, fulfill her destiny and marry a fairy dickhead.

It is not about this not-so-ordinary-girl's klutzy early attempts to fit in, nor her masochistic micro-ecstasies when she does fit in, nor her outbursts and decisions to be true to herself, nor her wit and fury poured in the pointy ear of pixie patriarchy, nor her thought-provoking encounters with her oppressed and repressed fairy sisters, nor the virality of her simple, unpretentious everyday feminism. It is not the story of the eventual transformations and syntheses and compromises and reconciliations, which promise that even though fairyland cannot be beyond the remit of the modern liberal West, loosening the laces on those whaleboned-in ribs does not have to mean total disenchantment: it is not the story of ultimately, through courage and a strong personal brand, having it both ways.

Why not? That sounds awesome!

Because it is something more uncomfortable than that. Sometimes, when you're in two minds about a story, homing in on the thing that is discomfiting you or failing to satisfy you, and taking it seriously as itself, rather than a crushed version of whatever you want it to be, can set off chain reactions throughout your experience

First, because there are three worlds, not two.

Second, because this is not a portal fantasy. It is a petal fantasy. Cathy is not the us-among-the-aliens, not the ingénue enveloped by strangeness, not the alchemical additive that catalyzes worldbuilding into storytelling. If anyone fulfills that role, it's the mortal bloke Sam, for whom Cathy plays Mr Exposition.

Cathy has always known fairyland. She is a fish-out-of-water not on dry land, but there in the sea.

But ... I don't know, actually I'll think I'll leave it there. A few loose threads, but this thing is long enough as it is.

One last loose thread. I suppose I'll write to the British Legion every year, and to the other ones as well. They seem to be the ones best-placed to do something about it all. If the Royal British Legion would consent to sell the white poppy alongside the red ... well. And in the meanwhile I'll wear the white, or nothing, and if it does spark off any little chitchat, try to wear my wokeness lightly, and laugh it off, ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Ha ha ha. Ha ha. ha.