Hot off the press: Ares Magazine, Issue 3

Issue 3 of Ares Magazine is now available!  My novella “Mr. Pell” (formerly titled “The Ogre on the Bus”) is featured, along with 9 other fiction selections.  Carmen, Michael, and the whole team at One Small Step Games have done a fantastic job putting the magazine together, from the artwork to the layout to the selections.  This is one you’ll keep in your collection for a long time.

My contribution “Mr. Pell” came to be waaay back in 2008, when I encountered a very unique person in green tweed sitting across from me on the UMD campus shuttle.  In short order, I decided to create a story around him, set in the future of an alternate world I’d been imagining since at least 1999.  And if that’s not enough to get you excited about it, then consider this: it’s the story that made my friend Ricky yell “Go Sweden!” at the end.

Order through the One Small Step store.

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Book Review – The Utopia of Rules

The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of BureaucracyThe Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy by David Graeber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading something by David Graeber is rewarding and incredibly maddening. Nearly every page leads to a unique insight, one that could potentially change how you and I approach modern capitalist society and our fellow humans, but the thoughts come so thick and fast, that unless one stops to process them and re-create the proofs, it is easy to finish the piece feeling dizzy. So I recommend reading, reading slowly, and re-reading. Or pulling up the wealth of lectures Graeber’s given that you can find online, to really sink into his way of thinking.

If you’re unfamiliar, Graeber is an anthropologist and an anarchist. His anthropological eye lets him analyze and draw cross-cultural comparisons of cultural artifacts that are otherwise dismissible or even invisible. His anarchist lens gives him a framework to critique the cross-currents of power at play in these artifacts. With The Utopia of Rules, he gives three expanded essays, as well as an introduction and addendum, loosely connected around the theme of bureaucracy. The book on the whole is his response to the conservative-liberal narrative of free, unregulated markets v. rule-and-regulation-bound government. As he sets up in the introduction, modern bureaucracy actually began in the unfettered corporations of the Gilded Age, whose practices governments adopted. Furthermore, wherever reforms have been introduced to ease free trade and de-regulate capitalism, such as in Thatcher’s UK, the result has not been less bureaucracy and fewer rules, but more. In fact, Graeber argues, bureaucracy is vital to keeping the wheels of capitalism turning as well as the violence that establishes and perpetuates unequal societies. We aren’t accustomed to thinking of police as bureaucrats with nightsticks (although nowadays armored cars and automatic weapons might be more accurate), but this is precisely what Graeber argues they are–enforcers of the rules and regulations, the ultimate recourse against any citizen or subject who might insist on his or her material rights even if s/he hasn’t filled out the proper paperwork and provided two forms of ID.

As elsewhere, Graeber emphasizes human capacity for productive imagination, and its role in the political structure. The first essay in The Utopia of Rules, “Dead Zones of the Imagination,” explores how unequal societies, and the bureaucracy that sustains them, handicaps this capacity:

Creativity and desire—what we often reduce, in political economy terms, to “production” and “consumption”—are essentially vehicles of the imagination. Structures of inequality and domination–structural violence, if you will–tend to skew the imagination. Structural violence might create situations where laborers are relegated to mind-numbing, boring, mechanical jobs, and only a small elite is allowed to indulge in imaginative labor, leading to the feeling, on the part of the workers, that they are alienated from their own labor, that their very deeds belong to someone else. It might also create social situations where kings, politicians, celebrities, or CEOs prance about oblivious to almost everything around them while their wives, servants, staff, and handlers spend all their time engaged in the imaginative work of maintaining them in their fantasies. Most situations of inequality I suspect combine elements of both.

The subjective experience of living inside such lopsided structures of imagination—the warping and shattering of imagination that results—is what we are referring to when we talk about “alienation.”

The second essay, “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit,” introduces the theme of science fiction and its standard tropes, exemplified by Star Trek. Here Graeber focuses on why the future that was imagined in the past—say the first two-thirds of the 20th century—has not materialized. We do not have flying cars, transporters, or robots to do our menial work. Graeber argues that this is not because such things are technically harder to accomplish than past generations thought, but because nations and elites shifted resources away from the technologies that might benefit humanity at large and toward technologies that would help them maintain control: military weapons, surveillance, and medicine. And even in these areas, the logic of bureaucratic capitalism, that insists on profitable, measurable goals, has stifled scientific research and experimentation. Again, imagination is a key factor for a different future:

At this point, the one thing I think we can be fairly confident about it is that invention and true innovation will not happen within the framework of contemporary corporate capitalism—or, most likely, any form of capitalism at all. … And if we’re going to actually come up with robots that will do our laundry or tidy up the kitchen, we’re going to have to make sure that whatever replaces capitalism is based on a far more egalitarian distribution of wealth and power—one that no longer contains either the super-rich or desperately poor people willing to do their housework. Only then will technology begin to be marshaled toward human needs. And this is the best reason to break free of the dead hand of the hedge fund managers and the CEOs—to free our fantasies from the screens in which such men have imprisoned them, to let our imaginations once again become a material force in human history.

The third essay, “Utopia of Rules, or Why We Really Love Bureaucracy After All,” examines rationality—what this faculty was thought to mean—in past eras, and its connection to the imagination:

Take the notion, which we all learn as children and most of us accept as self-evident truth, that what sets humans apart from other animals is rationality… This is very much a Medieval notion. If you think about it, it also doesn’t make a lot of sense. If “rationality” is just the ability to assess reality more or less as it is and to draw logical conclusions, then most animals are extremely rational. The solve problems all the time. Most might not be nearly as good at it as humans but there is no fundamental difference in kind. There are plenty of other faculties that would make much better candidates—ones that actually do seem to be unique to humans. One obvious choice would be imagination. Animals act in what seem like rational, calculating, goal-directed ways all the time, but it’s harder to make a case that most of them engage in creating self-conscious fantasy worlds.

In fact, Graeber argues, in a discussion of “play” versus “game,” the imagination’s limitlessness thrills and frightens us, such that we take comfort in the very thing that appears as its opposite–“rationality,” or rules. He traces the ascension of rule-bound bureaucracy alongside the rise of fantasy literature (Tolkien as the epitome) in which bureaucracy and administration are wholly absent from politics. Instead, fantasy heroes attain leadership through their worthiness and the loyalty of their followers, not any kind of constitution or rule of law.

Such fantasies offer a balm to regulated real life, and finally point to Graeber’s addendum, “On Batman and the Problem of Constituent Power.” Here he turns toward the superhero genre and its limits. There, the villains are the imaginative, productive ones; the heroes are largely reactive and colorless. Like the imagination being pushed back into its box by the forces of (bureaucratic) rationality, supervillains repeatedly threaten to change the world, then get pummeled by superheroes acting in the role of the cop, who enforces the law yet doesn’t have to abide by it him/herself. Closely reading Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Graeber identifies–correctly, I think–the conservative politics of those movies, in which the villains represent anarchist demagogues, and the heroes benevolent G-men. The working class of Gotham have no role beyond the victims or dupes of the protagonist and antagonist, which, Graeber explains, makes the final film dissolve into absurdity. Lacking practice in interpretive labor and the imagination to understand their subordinates, the elite cannot comprehend of a working class who might constitute a set of rules and roles for themselves.

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It’s coming…

Issue #3 of Ares Magazine is in production, over at that delicious site of all things geeky. My short(-ish) story “Mr. Pell” will be featured, along with what looks like some pretty sweet cover art and a brand new board game. Keep your eyeballs peeled.

Book Review – The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical

The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway MusicalThe Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical by Warren Hoffman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Hoffman offers a close reading of some of the quintessential American musicals including Show Boat, Oklahoma!, Annie Get Your Gun, West Side Story, and The Music Man, to examine how each conceptualizes and engages definitions of race. At this point, you might go, “Huh? Okay, Show Boat and West Side, sure, but what’s The Music Man got to do with race? Marian the Librarian never talks about racial prejudice! Harold Hill could be any ethnicity! An interracial couple could play Zaneeta and Tommy and it wouldn’t make one difference to the script!”

Except that we all know, don’t we, given the time period, the Midwest location, and how the characters act and react to one another, that they are white.

Which is precisely Hoffman’s point — that the American musical has, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, been the province of white folks. This in turn shapes the way white people think of ourselves, and because race remains a hidden subtext when only white characters on are stage, allows us to believe our experiences generalize to the rest of humanity. Though Hoffman doesn’t make this point, I will: this makes it harder to understand people of other races, and in particular to accept that structural racism exists — because we don’t experience it, it’s hard to believe that anyone does.

Hoffman also offers broader analysis of some historical Broadway trends: all-black casts in traditionally all-white shows (Hello, Dolly!, Guys and Dolls) in the ’60s and ’70s, shows written for multicultural casts (A Chorus Line) in the ’80s, revisals — revivals with revised libretto — (Annie Get Your Gun, Flower Drum Song), and the (inevitable?) return of all-white musicals with shows that look back to the “Golden Age” (42nd Street). In some cases, Hoffman’s conclusions are surprising, as in his analysis of color-blind casting trends and the revision of older musicals to make them more palatable to modern tastes, but always thoughtful. Occasionally, I wished the author included more information to back up his point, though generally the chapters feel thorough without being tedious.

It’d be easy to cite what’s left out, such as British and other musicals that don’t originate in the U.S. I’d have loved a close reading of Miss Saigon and/or Les Miserables, or at least more mention than the off-handed dismissal of the mega-musical. Hoffman is admittedly a cranky aficionado of the Golden-Age style of musical, and it’s clear that with this book, he is focusing on the shows he loves, not simply on shows that made an artistic or market impact. Given that, I respect him more: it takes courage to critique the works that mean most to you, to see their flaws and potential danger to real-world justice.

In challenging the idea that a piece of theater only has something to say about race when minority characters appear, Hoffman offers a theoretical tool to analyze not only theater, but other forms of entertainment and art, like TV and comics, where discussions of inclusivity and fair representation run hot. Granted, musical theater is a bit niche, despite the author’s passionate argument for the relevance of musicals to the average American. I appreciate his defense but only partially accept it and I’m one of the many who love musicals; given options, I’ll probably listen to show tunes before any other kind of album. But I am just not sure I can buy into the argument that, because the songs are so detachable from the rest of the script and become known to more people than ever see the full show, that their impact on definitions of whiteness is similarly vast. I’m not sure that a song divorced from the full musical’s context can maintain that kind of ideological weight. But perhaps that’s my own desire to keep the musicals I love safe, in both meanings of the word: safe from criticism, and safe for all and any to consume, without consequence. No work of art or entertainment really is.

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No New Animal Lab

Yesterday, we entered World Week for Animals in Labs.  So I take the opportunity to ask everyone to engage in an action to improve conditions for — or free — animals living in labs around the world.  Not sure what to do?  You can start by reading up on the No New Animal Campaign at the University of Washington, which I’ve been supporting and following for the past four months.  If you are near Seattle (or you can make the trip!) consider attending these events:

Pack the Courtroom, Hearing in the lawsuit against the UW Regents
When: Friday, April 24, 9:00am
Where: King County Superior Court at 516 3rd Ave., Seattle
Facebook Event Page

March on the University of Washington
When: Saturday, April 25, 2:00pm
Where: Meet at Red Square on the UW Seattle campus
Facebook Event Page

If you aren’t in the area and can’t get there, check the campaign’s website for a local action near you.  And if there isn’t one near you, plan one!  Anyone in the DC area can contact my collective, DC Stampede.

You can also sign these petitions:

Change.org Petitions
UW & Skanska: End plans to build a new animal lab
Conservation International: Stop Board Member Orin Smith from killing UW monkeys

And, lastly but not leastly, we hope you’ll consider joining our photo campaign to express why you don’t support a new animal testing lab.

Another review!

Muchos gracias to Bethany W. Pope, over at Sabotage Reviews, who just covered Among Animals and “Meat” in particular.  Check it out!

It’s interesting that so many readers take the character Meat to be a pig, when the story never identifies Meat’s species.  Thoughts?  Leave me a message.

Among Animals reviewed!

Ashley E. Reis gave Among Animals and my contribution “Meat” a sweet review in The Goose Vol. 13 Issue 2.  Click the link to check it out.  Thanks, Ashley!

Book Review – Three Parts Dead

Three Parts Dead (Craft Sequence #1)Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bad-ass magic lady lawyers in a mystical, steampunk world, have to resurrect a dead god so he can fulfill his obligations to his followers. This is ancient, do-ut-des (“I give to you so that you will give to me”) pagan religion taken to a logical, modernist conclusion. It’s world-building after my own heart, starting with the economy and the magic system and building its way up, with a few interesting things to say about religious devotion and collective projects. Oh, and there are vampires and gargoyles and an adorable chain-smoking young priest.

The premise is so cool and the execution so good, you might miss a few of the other sweet things Gladstone throws in just because well, I assume he’s an awesome person and committed to social justice: 1) Gladstone’s world doesn’t adhere to our notions of race, and the cast of characters are diverse in color, including our main character Tara; 2) when speaking in generalities or about a person of unknown gender, both narrator and characters (with few exceptions) use “she” instead of the universal “he”; 3) in keeping with steampunk’s usual Victorian aesthetic, characters ride in horse-drawn carriages here, but without drivers. Instead, they just pay the horse (who was always doing most of the work). Lovely.

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Book Review – One Crazy Summer

One Crazy Summer (Gaither Sisters, #1)One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like Rebecca Stead, Rita Williams-Garcia has a natural feel for how kids think, feel, rationalize, and worry. This story, told in first-person by 11-year-old Delphine, tells a politically charged tale in highly personal terms. That’s what attracted me to it, and the fact that I seem to be continually seeking books and media that I’d want my hypothetical children to read, to be be sensitive, informed, and politically aware.

Delphine and her younger sisters, Vonetta and Fern, travel to Oakland for a month in 1968, to reconnect with their estranged mother Cecile (who goes by Nzila now). Within a few short pages, we understand Delphine’s position, a girl who has taken on responsibilities far beyond her years because of one parent’s absence. Vonetta is a performer who craves attention. Fern is vulnerable and innocent. Delphine shepherds both through social and emotional minefields — little realizing how much she also could use some love and guidance.

This would be enough for many a juvenile novel, but Williams-Garcia foregrounds this family drama against the broad backdrop of social justice. Almost by osmosis, the story introduces the reader to the racial and sexual politics of the time, to the Black Panthers, and the complicated social landscape that these young African American girls navigate. Through Delphine’s eyes, we learn different strategies for surviving a racist society. Back in Brooklyn, the girls’ grandmother Big Ma, who raised them with their father after Cecile left, takes an approach of accommodation and assimilation: the girls must always be on their best behavior, polite and unobtrusive, especially in the presence of white people. The Panthers and Cecile, however, are assertive. At the Panthers’ freedom school, children are taught their civil rights — lessons we hardly think are affecting cautious Delphine until she stands up to a shopkeeper who assumes the girls are thieves. Overall, the book deftly illustrates subtle shifts in Delphine, as she learns about and tries out other points of view and ideologies, coming closer to her Panther teachers Sister Mukumbu and Sister Pat.

Cecile, however, is the center of the novel as she is the central focus of the girls’ trip — and indeed, as her absence has been the central influence on much of the girls’ lives and experience. For most of the story, she is as mysterious to us as she is to her daughters. Why did this woman abandon her children? Is she just selfish, as Big Ma maintains? Slowly, we gain insight. After Delphine insists that they cannot eat Chinese take-out for another night and Delphine will cook for her sisters, Cecile relents and allows Delphine inside the kitchen, which she uses as a work space for her printing press. Here, Cecile comments that they have been fighting for freedom, while Delphine seems eager to put on a yoke again. In that simple line, we begin to grasp Cecile’s longing for self-determination in all ways, for herself as well as her daughters — but, failing her daughters, she’ll take it for herself. Later, when Cecile reveals more about her youth, we understand her even better. Here is a biological mother who isn’t willing to sacrifice all for her children. And, in the character of Delphine, we’re asked to reconcile our feelings for her with support for sexual equality as well as racial. It’s a delicate issue for any author to raise, let alone in a story for young readers, and Garcia-Williams handles it with great humanity. Cecile, a poet whose rejection of any servile position also led her to reject family responsibilities, is the counterpoint to Delphine, who up until now has accepted both her grandmother’s model of black womanhood and family ties with an almost Christ-like submission. Without simplifying the issues, the evolution of Cecile and Delphine’s relationship over the novel brings both closer to a place where responsibility to other people does not have to mean accepting a socially inferior position.

Did I mention the book is funny? While never shying away from the seriousness of the Panthers, racial injustice, and police repression, the characters are real people who do real and ridiculous things. It’s a pleasure to read. Much of the enjoyment comes from the kids’ imperfect understanding of Panther ideals, and the way Delphine comes to turn resistance techniques against the reigning power in her life — her mother. The story also gives us insight into the less dramatic moments of organizing and social movements: cooking free meals, folding newspapers, posting flyers. And the small moments that build relationships and seed political consciousness, like when “Mean Lady” Ming, who owns the Chinese take-out, turns out not to be so mean, but just a person trying to survive in an economically depressed neighborhood. A person not without compassion.

Highly recommended, for kids and adults.

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We made a comic!

Once in every fantasy writer’s life, they should get to 1) take a crack at Fairyland, 2) work on a graphic novel. Thanks to the witty, wonderful, talented J. Hollister Conroy*, I get to do both. And now….. The 13th Faery has arrived! The comic found its roots in Mr. Conroy’s artistic style and a short story by me, and continues to morph and grow in new directions through our collaboration. Vaguely, roughly, it’s the tale of thirteen faery (that’s with an “E”) sisters and the changing world they inhabit, full of spells, sprites, tree folk, mer creatures, man-ponies, and (of course) goblins.

The first installment, “Raiders from the North, Or: From Eeek! to Zut!” came to DC Zinefest on August 9th, while we debuted on Facebook and Tumblr.

2014-08-10_RFN_cover

We update on Tuesdays, so check us out and share it with your friends. If you get The Princess Bride, Neil Gaiman, or Isabel Greenberg’s Encyclopedia of Early Earth, you will get us.

For your socializing ease, you can follow us on Tumblr, like us on Facebook, tweet at us @The13thFaery, email us at The13thFaery@gmail.com.

 

*I could go on: generous, patient, inventive, curious… But I will not, at risk of embarrassing him too much.

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