Secrets and Meddling and Science Gone Right

I promised something more substantial about Hide Behind, didn’t I? I should get to that. I’ll avoid major spoilers, but if you want to read the story completely cold, I’d suggest clicking the link above first and doing so. You can always come back.

Everyone good going forward? Excellent.

Given this is in part a story about secrets, how about I start with one? It may not be an especially well-hidden one, but here goes: before around August of last year, it had been a decade plus since I’d written much of any new fiction. There were occasional dalliances, mind, but nothing sustained.

Due to my previous fits without much start, going into this latest attempt I decided to try to give myself a slight leg up. Laura had been having success writing several stories which shared a world in her Teachout stories. Success both in that she was pubbing the stories and that I was digging on them.

Worldbuilding is exciting, but it can also be exhausting. Personally, I can get a bit lost in the background research and brainstorming and burn myself out before I get to the actual story. I thought doing something similar to Laura might leave me with energy to write more. I took a look at those few stories I had which I liked, and fiddled about thinking about which ones might have enough worldbuilding lying about that I could further explore.

I found two, one of which was Tall. I’d peppered Elsie’s story with a lot of background material, most of which I hadn’t dug in deep with. So I made a short list of the biggest bits of background and set about noodling them for story.

One of those bits are the Seeders (colloquially known as “tinpots”), a heretofore unseen movement peopled by folks planting fruit trees where they have no earthly right to grow, and who apparently only ask in return that folks who partake of the fruit throw the seeds to the wind to continue the process.

I knew I wanted a scientist to be butting up against the secrets of a Seeder tree. Figuring out how and in what ways science works in a world with literal magic is just too much fun to pass up, after all.

It started with one scientist, frontier doctor Yuna, but Ruthie, a botanist, showed up pretty quickly after, and I might have smiled a bit. Intrepid lady scientists versus mysterious magic! What’s not to love about that?

The pair of them diligently worked to unlock the secrets of Seeder magic, all the while facing off against some very strong resistance by locals who thought science had no place meddling with something like the pseudo-religious work of the tinpots.

And then people started dying, because if there’s one mortal enemy of a doctor, it has to be unexplained deaths, yes? Worse, what if the explanation was that aforementioned meddling?

I promised no spoilers, so that’s all the further I’ll go, but yeah: “Hide Behind” is a story about science and meddling and faith and friendship and what we know and what we think we know.

With magic trees and the autopsy of a giant.

Woman Problems

It’s been an unfortunate couple days for me as far as the depictions of women in my SFF television consumption. Not all of it surprising, mind. I’m human. I will probably always like problematic things. That doesn’t make it less disappointing.

Spoilers for the season finales of Fear the Walking Dead and The Strain, as well as a pretty late-season reveal in Dark Matter. You’ve been warned.

Regressive sexual politics in the Walking Dead franchise aren’t exactly new to me. Laurie Holden’s Andrea was constantly berated for not sticking around to do what amounted to housework while the men used the guns, for goodness’ sake. But after killing off all but one of the original female characters, oddly enough, the parent franchise seems at least mildly better with women going forward.

It was especially disappointing, then, that prequel / spinoff series Fear the Walking Dead fell right back into the same hole. For a while, I could squint and make it work:

Yes, Madison (Kim Dickens) has more experience directly working with troubled people as a guidance counselor than her boyfriend Travis (Cliff Curtis), but the hyper-macho military commander would never pick a woman to liaise with civilians.1

But the further the show went, the clearer it became that the primary characters who were meant to be learning and growing were the men. And over and over again, the lessons they learn are taught to them by hurting the women they care about.

Travis in particular seems to have a lot of “don’t touch my stuff” motivations. He has to learn that sympathy leads to pain and suffering, by having a young woman shot when he lets a soldier live. It’s that event which finally spurs his rage and fury and beating-people’s-heads-in.

And, of course, when his ex-wife Liza (Elizabeth Rodriguez) winds up with a zombie bite, guess who, after being completely incapable of shooting a full-on zombie previously, has to pull the trigger while she’s still fully human to keep her from turning?

As Travis collapses on the beach, the ocean washing over him and his more-competent-in-this-world girlfriend clinging to his side, it comes clear that the women in this show exist in service to the character arcs of the men.

But if Fear wound up a disappointment for backsliding, The Strain has been doubling down on the “don’t touch my stuff” plots.

In the first season, Cory Stoll’s Ephram is subject to round one, where his ex-wife (Natalie Brown) is turned in a bid to manipulate him. This season, antagonist Palmer (Jonathan Hyde) is similarly punished by having his assistant / lover turned after he and she make a bid for more control. And for extra redundancy, Ephram’s current love interest, Nora (Mia Maestro) is also killed — by that vampire ex-wife.

And that’s not even looking in the direction of the nearly-realized tentacle rape of the show’s other female protagonist (Ruta Gedmintas) in a bid to motivate her boyfriend and / or send her running off screen and out of the narrative.

My response to all that is probably best summed up on Twitter:

The only bright side to this is that such overt, tone-deaf writing is easy to spot and easier to dismiss. Slightly more insidious was a recent turn near the end of Dark Matter, a new SyFy series I’ve been binging via Netflix.

By and large, there’s a reasonable spread of capable women on the show. I had a minor kneejerk when I realized how often “away mission” stuff involved the guys while the women stayed on board, but it seemed pretty clear that had more to do with the men being expendable than valuable.

This is especially true of Melissa O’Neil’s Two (The conceit of the show is that the characters are named for the order they woke up from stasis, as they have no memory of life before), who takes instant leadership, facing only token resistance from spoiler Three (Anthony Lemke). She’s just as kick-ass a fighter as “sword guy” Four (Alex Mallari, Jr.), as good a shot as “gun guy” Three, and as capable a pilot as Six (Roger R. Cross, refreshingly getting to play someone who isn’t eternally dour).

Then, late in the season, we discover Two’s abilities come from Macguffin tech: she’s a manufactured human being. To be sure, this lets her be even more kick ass. But it also means two out of three of the very capable women in this crew (the other is Zoie Palmer’s Android) are artificial beings. The men get to kick ass because they kick ass. The women kick ass because they were Built That Way.

On the one hand, so far all the women here are alive. I mean, your female characters can’t accomplish anything if they’re already dead just to motivate your men. On the other, the narrative being (I can’t avoid this pun) constructed here doesn’t exactly lend itself to inherent female capability and agency, either. The metaphorical takeaway from having women be your embodiment of the “I’m more than what I was born as” themes certainly doesn’t help matters.

1. If I’m choosing, I want to spend extra time with Cliff Curtis, too, though my motivations are a bit more prurient. ;)

A New Pub Creeps up on You

Today’s the day. The Sockdolager is live with my story, “Hide Behind.”

I’ll have more to say later, but for now, the short version: “Hide Behind” is set in the same world as “Tall,” an American West where folklore is fact.

Meet Hayashi Yuna, a frontier doctor struggling to unlock the secrets of a preternatural tree alongside her research partner, Ruthie. When a local giant is murdered, the struggle to unravel buried secrets becomes far more immediate, and the potential consequences far deadlier.

You can read the story free online here. If you’re inclined to buy a copy from the wonderful folks at The Sockdolager who took a chance on it (and why wouldn’t you be?), here’s links to a bunch of different options:

In that old fashioned print thingee

You can also subscribe to The Sockdolager over on their site. Today is the day of options, I tell you.

This story isn’t a sequel. More of a meanwhile somewhere else. Having read “Tall” might make you more familiar with a world building element or two, but you absolutely don’t need to have read “Tall” to understand “Hide Behind.” (though if you’d like to, the collection it’s in is still available).

Missing by a Hair’s Breadth

I’ve started to hear a lot of applause for Bernie Sanders’ “no nonsense” response to a question about Hillary Clinton’s hair coverage by the media:

When the media worries about what Hillary’s hair looks like or what my hair looks like, that’s a real problem. We have millions of people who are struggling to keep their heads above water, who want to know what candidates can do to improve their lives, and the media will very often spend more time worrying about hair than the fact that we’re the only major country on earth that doesn’t guarantee health care to all people.

It looks good on its face, I suppose: Sanders is, in general, running on a platform that he’s not putting up with the media circus because there are stakes which deserve better than spin and calculation about the best news cycle. “Hair questions” are silly.

The big problem here is that I think someone who thinks that way ought to have more than enough insight to realize “Do you think it’s fair that Hillary’s hair gets a lot more scrutiny than yours does?” isn’t about hair. The media focus on female candidates’ appearance is the least painful symptom, surely, but nevertheless a symptom of gender inequality.

This was, then, a prime opportunity for Sanders to discuss the way women’s health is a political football or the pay gap between men and women (and, for extra intersectionality, the even larger gap for women of color).

Yes, Sanders mentions both financial distress and health care in his dismissal of the question, but because he flatly ignores the gender element (even after the interviewer explicitly says this is about gender) the whole thing winds up taking the unfortunate tone of some kind of #AllLivesMatter tweet.

Then again, in the same interview, Sanders expresses his surprise at having Black Lives Matter activists interrupt an event that was to feature him, pointing to his record on civil rights. Said record is good. I’m not trying to impugn anyone’s efforts here.

I am saying, though, that maybe the reason activists come at Sanders are the same reason a reporter who happens to be female thought she could ask him a not-particularly-coded question about gender inequality and he wouldn’t need it spelled out for him: because the people most likely to help, by signal boosting or allowing for their own errors or checking their privilege, are going to be those who’ve done so in the past.

And if we can’t get them to recognize the ongoing issues, how the hell can we expect to move the needle when it comes to those firmly entrenched in opposing rhetoric?

News-ish News

I’ll update with more specifics when things are sorted, but I wanted to pop in to let my three readers know: just signed the contract for another short story sale!

In the nigh-ish future, you’ll be seeing more of my nattering over at The Sockdolager. This time around, it’s not another Detritus story, though it is another sandbox I’ve played in before. The new story takes place in the same “tall tales and folklore come to life” world as “Tall” (in the Twice Upon a Time anthology).

As with the Detritus stuff, this story is a stand alone, though, with all new characters. No prior story reading required. It was just too fun a world not to play in again.

More details when I have them, but I figure it never hurts to dribble a little hype when it’s available. Also: it’s always exciting to share a sale.

Blunt Weapons Don’t Have Points

Spoilers for the latest episode of Game of Thrones, just in case you need them.

I’ve not really said much about the HBO Game of Thrones so far for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve not read the books, which I don’t think is any kind of requirement for criticism so much as I think it speaks to my being a more casual fan. Second, those elements which I do find problematic are, largely, being critiqued by people far better at it than I am.

I’m not even sure I’m about to launch into a critique of GoT even now so much as I am this article Eric Deggans posted over at NPR. The title itself probably tells you most of what you need to know: “Do Critics Of Violence And Sex In HBO’s ‘Game Of Thrones’ Miss The Point?”

Also, this is your last spoiler warning.

It’s an especially messy op-ed piece not least of all because it conflates criticism of GoT’s growing-infamous tendency to have its female protagonists raped with a scene wherein a young girl is murdered by her father. Which, really, seem like incredibly different arguments to me.

Whether it’s too far to kill a child character more-or-less on camera (and / or arguing that it’s a step Stannis Baratheon would never take) is a very different thing than pointing out how often GoT goes to the Rape Well when they need Something Horrible to motivate their female protagonists. About the only thing they have in common is that they’re both criticisms of the show, and they both seem to be sticking points for an irrate fandom.

That’s not nearly enough for me to buy in that the same argument works for both situations. It’s a rhetorical tactic somewhere akin to adding anti-marriage amendments to a federal budget. I’m not letting you graft them together in an effort to strong arm my support.

So, the Baratheon child has nothing to do with this, okay? Leave the girl and her father in whatever horrific version of peace they can manage.

Now we’re left with just the one charge. And its defense, at least in the most recent case:

From my perspective, the journey of Sansa Stark’s character has been completely about seeing her romantic and unrealistic vision of her world hardened by adversity – including her father’s beheading, her own kidnapping, the murder of her mother and other family members, and her forced marriage to two different men, including the sadist who now tortures her regularly.

Is that the point I was supposed to be missing? Because I didn’t miss it. Not after the beheading, not during the murders or the kidnappings, not even with the forced marriages. It’s very hard to miss that point. It’s fairly obvious, honestly. I think, rather, that apologists and counter-arguments are more missing the point of the critics.

As Deggans’ own list shows us, Sansa’s journey thus far has been dour and horrific and traumatizing in all the ways this grimdark fantasy most enjoys, and no one screamed and hollered and said “but Sansa should live in a world of butterflies and pretty flowers!” This isn’t about life in this world being awful and ruinous for just about anyone who enters it. It’s about the fact that, for female characters, the writers seem to consistently shortcut everything by adding in rape scenes.

As I said above, I think others are in a better position and possessed of more eloquence than I in discussing a lot of the inherent sexism and triggering that rape scenes evoke. What I feel entirely qualified to say about such repetitive narrative shorthand, though, is this:

It. Is. Lazy.

This is a world with ice zombies and dragon queens. Where shadow babies murder wannabe kings and the seasons don’t play fair and predictable. I’m not asking for a utopia where only pleasant things happen. I’m asking that, if you’re going to go for this grimdark worldview, if you’re going to drag me through despair and horror, the least you can do is be more imaginative than “Our female character needs horrific hardship to overcome. I know: rape! Because that’s the thing about women, they get raped, right?”

Pointed enough?

Sense8: Bedroom Backflip

I’m only about halfway through Sense8, the new Wachowski / Straczynski Netflix series, so I’m not going to say too terribly much about it yet. Since all the episodes are available, it seems a better idea for me to finish the binge and see how all the crazy-making does or does not hold together in the final analysis.

I am, however, thus far pleased that the show has done the thing that got me to buy in on How to Get Away with Murder. Namely, starting things off by making its LGBT characters the ones shouldering the bulk of the sexy time.

More than that, though, up until the middle of the series, the two LGBT couples are also doing the heavy romantic lifting. At series start, there’s only one heterosexual long-term pairing in the 8 leads, and that one isn’t what I’d call stable and supportive in the way the two gay pairings are.

This is changing as the show’s progressing, as well it should. I’m not interested in suddenly chastity-belting the straight characters as some kind of weird sexual payback for series past. It is, however, refreshing that the people we’re waiting to find love interests for are the straight people, when generally LGBT characters languish off to the side until after Tumblr has had a season or two to lament a lack of significant others through the time-tested use of animated GIFs.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say once I’ve seen it all, but that element, at least, was stand out enough that I thought it worth mentioning on its own.