Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The SFWA Kerfuffle and Why it Matters

I'm pretty oblivious of most mainstream current events. We don't take a newspaper or have a TV. I get my news and TV from the 'net, and I'm happy with that. My Twitter feed is like a little mini news ticker tailored exactly to my interests. It evolves over time, it's flexible, and it's far more up-to-the minute than mainstream news sources. I still miss a lot, but that's fine because I can only read so much in a day and still get anything done in my own life.

A few weeks ago, maybe months, I started to register recurring mentions of some kind of sexism flap in the science fiction and fantasy writing world. You'd think that this segment of society would be long past gender bias, but human nature is what it is. If you don't think there is raging sexism in the geek world, try to function as a female in the gaming community, especially online. For more on that, see Anita Sarkeesian's video series "Tropes vs. Women".

Anyway, there was talk of sexism rearing its ugly head again in the form of some person or persons involved with the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). There was mention of some kind of backlash to complaints about an demonstration of antiquated sexist views of women in SFF writing. Re-read the previous sentence in case my clumsy writing confused you: backlash to a complaint about sexism. People, not just women, called the writers of an opinion piece on their condescending references to women and the internet exploded. This kind of thing happens, unfortunately even in this enlightened age.

I wondered what had happened and assumed it was of recent origin. No, this particular poop storm started nearly a year ago with issue #200 of the SFWA bulletin. It contained a paid article (not a letter to the editor) by two writers that reads like it fell out of the Time Tunnel from sometime in the Edwardian Era. It became the last straw in a series of eyebrow-raising choices on the part of the bulletin's editors, such as this cover art (Bikini babe barbarian? Is is meant to be ironic?) The response from the writers of the original dialogue is summed up nicely here by Kameron Hurley as "... if I punched you, and you said 'Gosh, that really hurt' and I said, 'YOU ARE FUCKING CENSORING ME YOU FUCKING COMMUNIST' you’d think I was insane." If you want the Reader's Digest version of the whole kerfuffle, this is a good start.

Why are people so upset? Why is this such a big deal? Everybody is going to have an opinion, and this is mine. I'm personally saddened by the fact that there is still so much condescension toward women in any professional field, but especially writing and especially SFF writing. In genres that look to alternate realities and often posit scenarios where gender biases are stable or non-existent (Gene Roddenberry, anybody?), it's frustrating that there are content creators who think that patronizing behavior toward women is ok or cute or funny. What's more, this is not just an "old white guy" problem, as some have suggested. There are plenty of younger creators who are just as bad.

Every generation, every new batch of children, have to be educated about morals and manners and what we've learned from the past. Just because there is no more (overt) slavery in the civilized world, and women have the vote, and segregation by race is over, and people of color have equal rights, it doesn't mean that kids are born with these ideas hard-wired in to them. Anybody who deals with little kids knows that they are born barbarians with only self-interest in mind. They have to be taught that ostracizing, taunting, or attacking somebody because they are "different" in some way is unacceptable. The difference can be body shape, color, or gender, it doesn't matter. It can be as innocuous as red hair; kids will find something to pick on somebody about.

This sandbox behavior is all over the internet. Just look at YouTube comments on literally anything. The hills are alive with trolls who sound like dimwitted teenage boys. No offense meant to all the intelligent, well-spoken teenage boys out there. Some of them could be older, but that's how they sound.

Which all brings me to why I'm writing this today. When a known adult comes across as an immature, misogynistic idiot it's really disappointing. When a group of writers struggle for decades to garner credibility for their genre and then a few throwbacks threaten that credibility for the sake of a few yuks, it's careless at best and outrageous at worst. For one thing, it's sending out the message that misogyny is acceptable, and it's not surprising that the majority of the members of the SFWA don't want to be a part of that message.

Thanks to the information superhighway, this uproar isn't just a private argument behind the closed doors of the SFWA. People have been blogging about it for the last year. Google "sfwa kerfuffle" and knock yourself out. The dust was just starting to settle when links to a conversation on the SFF.net listserv began to appear. Details here. Particularly excecrable were some comments by one Sean Fodera, directed at Mary Robinette Kowal (author and former VP of SFWA), which ammounted to childish ranting and name-calling. When Fodera noticed that links to the thread were cropping up he lost his cool and threatened all linkers with an illogical suit of libel. It's 2014, most sentient life forms have figured out that what is posted online in public forums is public. Fodera is doing his impression of the teenager caught posting drunk pics of themselves on Facebook and then moaning because "My parents saw! Oh noooooooes!"

I think the time of "ignore it and it will go away" is over. I am also fully against angry women with torches having hissy fits. There's a middle ground where people tell bullies and sexist ding dongs, "Wait a minute. What you just said/did is not OK by me." If that person reacts with venom and cries of "censorship!" or "communist!" or "crazy bitch feminist!" then it's time to say, "This conversation is over." I've done that a couple of times in my life, in person and on the 'net. Why waste your time with somebody who just wants to be hateful? Why waste your time with somebody who's looking to be offended by your being offended? Applying this to companies and clubs and organizations is more difficult, but not impossible. I was sorry to hear that a number of people have left SFWA because of all the hoo hah. Fortunately, a greater number have stayed in order to "be the change."

One of the more colorful comments on that SFF.net thread likened the folks warring against misogyny as a "vocal minority of insects" who "don’t scramble for the shadows when outside lights shines on them—they bare their pincers and go for the jugular." John Scalzi (former president of the SFWA and thoroughly caught in the middle of all the uproar) has decided to turn that insult into a rallying cry:
"Join John and Mary’s Insect Army! You must write! You must be fearless! You must stand your ground in the face of deeply silly insults, clacking your pincers derisively at them! And, if you believe that every person — writer, “insect” and otherwise — should be treated with the same dignity and honor that you would accord yourself, so much the better. Together we can swarm to make science fiction and fantasy awesome!"
This stuff won't go away. Go ahead and get angry, but don't just be angry, be the change. Call people on their nonsense. Don't get all huffy and pitch a fit or take your toys and go home, but please DO let people know when you think they've said or done something hurtful, whatever their age. I guess it's still baby steps for civilization on this planet.

10 Disastrous Panels (from Mary Robinette Kowal's Twitter feed)

I'm about to dump my Tumblr account because it's just another social media site that I don't really need, and I don't find it particularly useful for discussions. Before I do, however, I'll post this one last link to "10 Disastrous Panels You Have Been on or Seen" by Mette Ivie Harrison. If you've attended even a few conventions and participated or seen a panel or two, you'll see something you recognize here. I'm not sure I would call any of the bullet points a "disaster". Somebody having a stroke or starting a fist fight during a panel would be a disaster. Still, it's a pretty spot not, if not comprehensive, list of typical annoyances and embarrassments.

The first point is something with which I'm going to have to respectfully disagree: "Microphone Hog who will grab it every change he has. Always a he. Sad, but true."

Always a "he"? Are you absolutely sure about that? I can't speak to your personal experience, but I've seen plenty where the mic hog was a woman. Granted, these panels were at more specialized conventions like Steampunk-themed and Historically-focused cons, but I'm sure there must be female mic hogs at comics conventions and other nerd fests, as well as more average settings. With all the talk around the web currently about sexism and discrimination and all that it entails, words like "always" in this context seem a bit careless.

My sympathies are definitely with the "Moderator looks ready to walk out...because no one actually answers the questions she asks and she is working so hard to try to get the panel to address the topic the audience came to hear about." Talk about herding cats. Ugh.

As for point "D"? "I think that I have something interesting to say, but I’ve hooked my mouth up directly to the rambling section of my brain and it will just keep pouring out words until someone takes away the mic." That's never happened to me. Well, hardly ever.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Film Sack: "Angry Red Planet" or "The Adventures of Cpt. Smarmy"

A week ago I wrote about Autopilot, a super podcast from the super Frogpants Studio family of shows. Today's musing is on the 1959 classic (color!) sci-fi film Angry Red Planet, which I would never had heard of if I weren't a fan of FilmSack. Per the web site, "Each week, the FilmSack crew picks a strange movie from the bowels of Netflix streaming and splatters it all over your inner ear. Sometimes it’s a long forgotten horror movie from the 70′. Sometimes it’s a under the radar gem of brilliance from last year. One way or the other, this is not your typical movie show." Atypical goodness=podcast brilliance.

Anyway, I thought I'd do my homework early for once and, since I got up far too early in order to photograph cats in the snow before it melts away, watch this bad boy. It's only 83 minutes, so it's not a huge time commitment. Bonus: if you're of the drinking persuasion, there is much drinking games potential in this one, but more about that later.

The story starts out promisingly enough for a late 50s sci-fi film. Yes, there's lots of stock footage, but the editor really made an effort to blend it in with the new footage in a way that makes sense. They even looped decent sound and FX with the stock stuff. The Air Force officers are all played by actors who are firm adherents to the "look at me...I'm ACTING!" school of acting. There is one gem of on-screen talent in this cheese fest, though, and that is the supporting role of Prof. Paul Weiner, played by J. Edward McKinley. We meet him in the backstory-laden initial briefing, in the control center when the rocket is recalled and landed by remote control, and then in various moments throughout the rest of the story. He plays the character straight and natural, in contrast to the rest of the cast, pretty much stealing that opening scene and setting a serious and believable tone that, alas, doesn't last for long. If they'd sent him to Mars, instead of the four ninnies they did send, it would have been a completely different story.

That this film is a festival of tropes is no surprise, but the first five minutes or so are Citizen Kane compared to the rest of it. The character types are all stock tropey characters. Do we have a rugged, wry, vaguely (or not so much) lecherous expedition leader? Check. Vaguely European older scientist with Prussian facial hair and fatal disability? Check. Smack-talking, rough-hewn yet lovable fireplug of an engineer/security guy? Check. Token hot chick who talks tough and then screams and/or faints at the first sign of threat? Check. Superior aliens warning Earthlings that they are "not ready to leave Earth because they're too violent and stupid"? Check. Random technobabble cherry-picked from medical dictionaries and Popular Science? Check. Recycling now commonplace tech to represent Space Equipment? Check. Strange rocket design that makes no logical sense other than to make it easy to frame shots? Check. Who puts the access hatch in the engine area?! The FilmSackers think the sets look like they were assembled by kids, and they really do, at least to our 21st-century eyes, look pretty juvenile. They do get some points for using chairs that actually look like shipboard gear, unlike the hilarious deck chairs from 12 to the Moon (see the MST3k version). However, I might have to subtract those points because they are ejector seats, and when my spouse saw them he immediately said, "Where are they supposed to eject to?" Oh, well; at least they tried.

My favorite bit of set dressing is a panel over Sam's workstation labeled "Oxygen Consumption". It sports two lights, the green one marked "Normal" and the red one marked "Excessive". No guages of any kind, just sternly-labeled idiot lights. I had a vision of Mission Control calling them up on their magical instant communication radio saying, "Hey, you guys pipe down up there. Your O2 consumption is EXCESSIVE!" Obviously two-dimensional  drawings and paintings stand in for landscapes, buildings, and even the ship, and of course we can't leave out the classic "reverse the rocket launching footage to simulate a rocket landing".

Speaking of special effects, almost all the FX in this thing are appalling, with one exception: the amazing giant spider bat thing, an elaborate puppet designed by marionettist Bob Baker. It's so much better than everything else that it looks like it wandered in from another movie. The giant amoeba thing that chases them out of the lake takes us back to goofyville with it's top-mounted eye that rotates  like a tank turret on speed.

Biggest annoyance: Captain Smarmypants leching all over Dr. Redhead every minute. Seriously. He makes Cpt. Kirk seem subtle by comparison. There is more than one shot of her, say, descending a ladder backward with Cpt. Smarmy checking out her hinder, or gazing out the porthole (a popular spot on this ship) looming over her from behind.
Bonus annoyance: he insists on calling her "Irish" instead of by her actual name, "Iris". It's a joke! Get it? Har har. It just made me want to slap him. Hard. She even calls him on it at some point and he manages to turn it into yet another sleazy line, "When I call you by your name, you'll know it." Also: zip up your shirt! Nobody wants to see your scrawny, bony chesticular area. This character can basically be summed up by "Ew".

On the plus side, this movie is a goldmine for drinking games. Take a drink a) every time you see stock footage (you'll be drunk about five minutes in), b) every time Cpt. Smarmy sweeps his crew with his Colt 1911 pistol (all the astronauts carry them, along with their space machetes**) in some of the worst weapon handling I've ever seen on screen, c) every time Cpt. Smarmy committs an act of sexual harrassment (you'll be hospitalized before the end credits).

Do catch this on Netflix streaming while you can. It's a gem of an example of the tail end of the golden age of 1950s sci-fi and a time-capsule of the social climate before feminism really started taking a stand against the truly egregious sexism in popular culture.* Plus: giant bat spiders!

* It's MY run-on sentence and I stand by it. 
** 02-10-2014  Changed "sabers" to "machetes" upon further reflection and a word from the spouse.

Friday, February 07, 2014

The cheapening of the vampire

Apparently NBC has a new series about, stop me if you've heard this one, a modern-day Dracula.  Anyway, it's called (are you ready?) "Dracula"! No, wait....don't leave. It's totally original! The vampires are sexy, you see, and... Where'd you go?

Yeah, me too.

Here's a nice review of it over at Salon, and by "nice" I mean critical and unflinching.

I can't help but agree with this guy. If you're going to write about a vampire(s), then make it be for a reason that calls for vampires. There's a problem with the cheap "he's sexy because he's a vampire" trope, and this also applies to the "pirates are sexy" trope that's been going on for even longer. It doesn't mean I don't love me some Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn movies, but anybody who stops to think about what a vampire (or a pirate) really IS for half a minute is not going to find anything inherently sexy in either camp.

This doesn't mean vampire stories are passé‎ and nobody should ever write about them again, but I agree that the vampire as an instant embodiment of "brooding man with dark secret who just needs love to save his soul" has been done to, well, you know...death.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Ceiling Cat's terrible replacement

Poor Maude (a.k.a. "Granny"). She has no idea that the Devil Cat is hovering, waiting for just the right moment to... "Oh hai!" Satanic photobomb. Maybe I should sent this to Coast to Coast. Nah, lolcats is getting it.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Autopilot, from "Space: 1999" to "UFO"

Frogpants studios has some really outstanding podcasts, including Sword and Laser and Film Sack. I also really love Autopilot, which runs a bit shorter than the aforementioned shows, but is still a nice juicy nugget of audio goodness. It's basically Scott Johnson (Film Sack, Current Geek, etc.) and Tom Merrit (Sword & Laser, Current Geek, etc.) discussing one vintage TV pilot per episode. There's a lot of sci-fi in the mix, but that's understandable considering the interests of the hosts, but they've also done shows like Dragnet and Magnum P.I.. They just finished airing season two, and I've been going crazy listening my way through the episodes which runs the gamut from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the un-aired pilot that you've probably never seen) to Jason of Star Command to Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

After listening to their take on Space: 1999 (1975-77), I was motivated to watch that pilot, and luckily it's on YouTube. As they noted, it holds up pretty well. It's a British take on serious sci-fi and apparently one of the most expensive TV shows ever produced there. In an era of Star Trek re-runs, and not much else, it filled a need in the very sparse landscape of post Star Trek television. It's very talky, and feels a bit like a modern police procedural, but the sets and props are very well-designed and, for the time, pretty convincingly "futuristic" without being goofy. I also like the way that women are just "there" as crew and the story presents this as business as usual. This is not to say that there is no fraternization on this moon base. In later episodes they explore various relationships, but when it comes to work, it's all business.

This is sadly not the case in this show's predecessor, UFO. I'd never watched it as a kid but only seen a few snippets while channel surfing on the occasional weekend. It's telling that I didn't stop to watch a whole episode, because I was hungry for good sci-fi as a pre-teen in the 70s when sci-fi fans in the USA made do with The Six-Million Dollar Man, The Incredible Hulk, and Wonder Woman (and the aforementioned Trek re-runs). I was curious, though, to give it a look after watching the Space: 1999 pilot, and sure enough it's all on YouTube.

It's not good. This is truly a textbook case of a seriously dated piece of TV history. If you're a fan of the ultra-mod aspects of the 1960s, this show is a cornucopia of style elements including furniture, gadgets, clothes, hairstyles, theatrical makeup, and super-hip cars. Princess phones are featured prominently: so mod! Mini-skirts and jumpsuits abound, hair is teased, cigarettes are smoked, sideburns are lavish, and extruded plastic chairs dot the landscape. There's more bright orange than the hunting clothes section at Cabella's, and that's just the interior decorating. All this in itself is not really bad, but it does date the show albeit in a charming way.

What I didn't find charming were things like the jarring groovy pop music score and the overtly sexual attitudes of many of the characters. Maybe it's just an Austin Powers backlash, but the music, even in tense moments, is so groove-a-licious that it really undermines the atmosphere for me. As far as the sexual tone in many of the scenes; I realize this was the "free-love" era and all that, but some of the men in at least this first episode are downright lecherous toward female co-workers. Several scenes introduce female characters with an obvious "toes to hair" look-over by some male, and there is so much sexual innuendo in many of the casual conversations I kept waiting for "Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink." In a few scenes the sleazy guy isn't even needed because the camera's POV does just as well. At one point we're offered shot of a lone woman walking away from the camera...which starts tight on her mini-skirted derriere and slowly pulls back. Later another shapely lady appears in a skin-tight, beige jumpsuit and elicits a typical clichéd innuendo from a male co-worker.

Just when you think it can't get any more sleazy, we're whisked off to the moon base where all the women have purple hair and wear tight, silver jumpsuits. At some point one of the women goes off duty and retires to some kind of communal relaxation area. At first I gave points for the very forward concept of a co-educational outpost with men and women working together in a seemingly professional way. I took the points away seconds later when the off-duty woman, whilst speaking to a male crew-member, started doing a Barbarella-style striptease, peeling off her sleeves and leggings accompanied by some downright porn-style music. I can see that the show creators were trying to be very hip and modern, but that's not really the kind of "hard" I'm looking for in my hard sci-fi, if you know what I mean.

Still, it is a fine example of the media climate of the time, and definitely a window on the not-to-distant past. TV sci-fi was still struggling for mainstream credibility, and Star Trek had blazed the trail for more serious sci-fi. Why the UK was so utterly incapable of following suit until much later I have no idea. UFO even has a lead character who keeps pronouncing the acronym "U.F.O" as a word that sounds like "oofoe". He's the only one who does it, and why the director didn't call him on it is beyond me, because the other actors manage to say it correctly. The BBC seemed to have figured things out by 1975 with Space: 1999, but three years later they were back to the usual ticky-tacky BBC TV production design with Blake's 7. It's not terrible, and it's definitely serious sci-fi, but it's a definite step backward.

It took awhile, but at least these days the UK can actually manage serious sci-fi and fantasy TV, and has some really fine programming including the ubiquitous re-boot of Doctor Who. No more tinfoil striptease, please.