Science, Fiction, Life

Month: July 2017

Book Review: The Sheep Look Up

It’s strange to call a book that was published in the 70s “timely” but The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner is just that. It is a dystopian sci-fi novel about a world where there are no government regulations on pollution, so corporations are freely poisoning the air and water, making the planet unlivable. The president of the United States is an idiot who, when he can be bothered to get involved in current events at all, mostly delivers short, simplistic, often xenophobic quips that indicate that he has no idea what he’s talking about. Race and Class relations are tense and the incompetent government and ongoing environmental disasters only exacerbate them.

In the novel, the skies are perpetually overcast because of all the smog. People have to wear filter masks whenever they go outdoors, and rain comes down filthy and acidic. The Mediterranean sea and the Great Lakes are dead. Rampant pesticide use has led to an evolutionary arms race and there are now nearly-indestructible pests that destroy most crops, not to mention the resistant fleas and lice that infest the slums. Likewise with antibiotics: resistant diseases are widespread, and combined with the many diseases caused by all the pollution, most people are constantly sick with multiple ailments. All of this causes political and geopolitical unrest that grows out of control over the course of the book.

Like his other famous novel, Stand On Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up is written in an experimental style, telling a larger story through lots of small, disjointed sections. A page or two about one character, then a news report, then a few advertising jingles, then a poem, then back to a few pages about some other characters, then an emergency government bulletin, and so on. It’s an effective way to give an overall feel for events in the country and wider world, but it makes it very difficult to keep track of main characters. By the end of the book I recognized some of the names as people I’d heard about before, but had completely lost track of who was who. It doesn’t help that they are all written in basically the same 1970s slangy voice.

I remember enjoying Stand on Zanzibar, but I read it much faster (while on Christmas break in grad school) rather than the slow pace that was forced on me for The Sheep Look Up by a new baby, work, and occasionally having to return the ebook to the library because someone else put a hold on it. I almost didn’t finish, but decided that the book was so timely that I might as well power through.

The Sheep Look Up is an unusual and challenging read, and definitely feels dated, but at the same time is frighteningly relevant to current events, and for that reason I’d still recommend checking it out.

 

Patriotism, Genre Fiction, and Criticizing What You Love

In both genre fiction and politics, our culture is struggling with the idea that you can criticize something that you love.

When someone points out that many video games are disturbingly sexist, or that Lord of the Rings is kind of racist, or that the Avatar movie perpetuates the “white savior” trope, are they no longer a fan of genre fiction?

When someone points out that the United States is the only country out of the 25 wealthiest nations that lacks universal health care, or that black people are disproportionately incarcerated and killed by police, or that our wars in the Middle East are responsible for the rise of ISIS, are they no longer a patriot?

In both cases, I say that thoughtful criticism is a deeper, more meaningful expression of love than blind enthusiastic support.

Let’s take Game of Thrones as an example. I love Game of Thrones. The books are among my favorite books of all time. They’re vast and deep, with well-developed characters with unique narrative voices; exciting, twisty, satisfyingly complex plots; epic, vivid worldbuilding; and they signal a profound shift in the fantasy genre, subverting the tropes of the genre established by Lord of the Rings and beginning the modern era of more “grimdark” fantasy. Likewise, the show is excellent: visually stunning, well-acted, and it brings the books that I love to life in a way that allows many more people to experience them. Not only that, but the show has been a revolution in terms of getting excellent genre fiction onto television, demonstrating to TV channels that compelling, adult-oriented stories can be told through genre fiction, and that audiences will eat it up.

But I will readily admit that both the books and the show have major problems too. The show is famous for its gratuitous nudity, and there have been several notorious examples of changes to the original book where main female characters are raped or threatened with rape. There is also a problematic “white savior” vibe to much of Danaerys’ story line. I would argue that the books are somewhat better, but there’s still a whole lot of rape and threats of rape, which is often defended with the old “historical accuracy” argument, because apparently dragons are plausible but a medieval society that isn’t quite so horrifically misogynistic is not.

There are those who see comments like those in the last paragraph and reflexively condemn them. How dare some “social justice warrior” criticize the genre they love? Why can’t people just enjoy things without picking them apart and over-analyzing everything? Why do these SJWs have to ruin everything by insisting on political correctness? They’re clearly not real fans. They clearly hate the genre.

For those who have been paying attention, this conflict came to a head in the video game community with the “gamergate” fiasco a few years ago. Women who dared to point out that video games are full of a disgusting amount of misogyny were harassed by an army of angry, mostly white, mostly male gamers who felt that their favorite hobby and its fundamental culture were being unfairly bashed. The conflict rapidly escalated to doxing (the release of private personal information), lost jobs, lost homes, and death threats.

Later, in the speculative fiction community, a similar conflict arose when the “Sad Puppies“, a group of angry, mostly white, mostly male, readers stuffed the ballot for the Hugo Award. They were supposedly fighting back against their perception ┬áthat science fiction and fantasy were being ruined by SJWs trying to force everything to be politically correct and shoehorning women, people of color, and LGBT people into fiction, rather than trying to tell good old fashioned apolitical stories. (It apparently did not occur to them that it is possible to tell great speculative fiction about people who are not white straight men, or that all fiction carries with it political baggage.)

And then, of course, there is the 2016 election, where a group of angry, mostly white, mostly male, voters were apparently so appalled that we had a black president, and that a woman dared to run as his successor on a platform of inclusiveness and tolerance, that they instead voted for an unqualified narcissistic idiot. Trump’s campaign and its “Make America Great Again” slogan catered directly to the perception that criticizing our country is unpatriotic, and that somehow making things better for people who aren’t straight white men undermines what makes our country great.

But here’s the thing that the gamer-gators, sad puppies, and Trump voters don’t understand: unlike them, we don’t criticize from a place of hatred, but of love.

Sci-fi and Fantasy are supposed to push the limits of imagination, so why is it so hard to imagine that young women and people of color could be the heroes in great adventures? Video games allow the player to escape the real world and experience being powerful and “the chosen one”, so shouldn’t players be allowed to leave behind racism and misogyny when they enter the game world? And the United States is supposed to be a country where all people have unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, so shouldn’t we strive to uphold that ideal? Shouldn’t we point out where our great country does not live up to its promise for all of its citizens and then work together to form a “more perfect union”?

When you’re raising a child, you don’t praise them when they are behaving badly. You set high expectations and then help them to live up to those expectations. Why is it so hard to apply the same logic to the other things we love?

Whether it’s genre fiction, video games, or the United States of America itself, what we want is for the things that we love to live up to their true potential. To me, this is a much deeper, more meaningful way to show your devotion to something than blindly singing its praises and ignoring its flaws.

 

Thoughts on Parenting: 6 months in

It’s hard to believe, but Shane is already 6 months old! With this arbitrary milestone, I thought this was as good a time as any to write a bit about how parenting is going, compared to how I expected it to be.

The first thing is that it’s easier and less exhausting than I was led to believe. All credit for this goes to Shane, who turns out to be a remarkably well-behaved baby. I know other parents will hate me for this, but he was sleeping through the night very early, and has generally been a pretty laid-back little dude. As he gets older he is actually getting worse at sleeping than he used to be, and tends to cry and get fussy more now that he is showing interest in the world around him. When he was a little baby, he hardly cried at all, and was mostly content to just snooze on my chest (a position we refer to as “snuggle mode”). Now, he wants to be sitting up and looking around, and really resists going into “snuggle mode” even if it’s what he needs.

My biggest apprehension about parenting before Shane was born was about the first few months, aka the “Fourth Trimester”. I was sure that I would not really like this “larval” phase: the baby is still basically a helpless fetus who can’t lift his head or interact with the world very much. I figured that as he grew and became more of a little person I’d like parenting more and more. Much to my surprise, I actually really liked those first few months. Newborns are easy to deal with since all they can do is eat, sleep and poop, and it’s great to just snuggle on the couch with a tiny sleepy baby. Also to my surprise, I am finding Shane more frustrating as he becomes more mature. Of course it is wonderful to see him learning to sit up, play with solid food, make babbling noises, and all the other milestones, but in the last couple of months he has also been in a sort of limbo: he is alert and interested enough that he is no longer content to just lay on the couch, but he can’t sit up on his own or entertain himself or communicate very well, so he and I both can get frustrated. I’m looking forward to when he can sit up on his own and we have taught him some basic baby signs so that he has options other than whining to communicate that he’s hungry or needs a new diaper.

One thing that has been surprising and disappointing is my own lack of patience when Shane is upset and I can’t seem to fix it. I pride myself on generally being a very patient person (sometimes to a fault), but when Shane is fussing and resisting everything that I try to comfort him, I lose my patience much faster than I’d like. It doesn’t help that a lot of the time I get to interact with him in the evening after work, so he and I are both tired. I’m also overly self-conscious about what I’ll call the “mommy does it better” syndrome. I try to be a good dad and do everything right, but sometimes he just wants mommy. It’s amazing how quickly and effectively an infant rejecting your attempts to comfort and care for him can hurt your feelings.

Finally, one of the hardest things about parenthood has been adjusting my time management. Even before Shane showed up, I struggled with finding time in the evening and weekend to do all the things that I wanted to do (or wanted to want to do). Now (and this is no surprise) it’s even harder. As you can tell by the frequency of my posts here on the blog, it’s hard to find a stretch of uninterrupted time to just sit and write. Turns out babies need constant attention! Who knew? Evenings basically consist of coming home from work, eating dinner, giving baby a bottle, having him pass out on me, and then watching TV while trapped on the couch. Which is fine, and certainly more relaxed than most parents are able to be, but I still have the delusion that it’d be nice to spend some time on writing, or on political stuff, or on putting together a photo book of last year’s vacation, or the million other hobbies and other tasks that I want to do with my “free time” that never seem to get done. The worst part about this isn’t that I don’t get this stuff done (let’s be real, I didn’t live up to my own expectations of what I wanted to get done even before we had a baby), it’s the conflict between wanting to spend time with Shane and wanting some down time to myself to do stuff I want to do. Whichever one I choose, I feel guilty about not doing the other.

Another interesting aspect of parenting that I’ve noticed is that it seems to warp my perception of time. The last six months has been densely packed with milestones and life-changing events, but it also seems to have flown by in a heartbeat. I have no idea how it suddenly became July. Wasn’t it just February? From what I’ve heard from other parents, this is just the beginning. Tomorrow I’ll be blinking and wondering where the past 18 years went and how my kid can possibly be heading off to college.

Looking back at this post, it seems like I am mostly complaining about parenthood, so I want to conclude by saying: I love it. I have been looking forward to having kids for a while, and despite the challenges, it has been wonderful. Shane is a very easy baby, and watching him grow and learn and become more aware of the world around him makes me happier than I can express. Also, have you seen how cute he is? Multiple times a day, Erin and I just turn to each other and say “How is it even possible for him to be this cute?” Even though, as I said above, I’m looking forward to him being able to do things like sit up and communicate better, I know that as he grows, some things will get easier but other challenges will come with that. Babies change so fast, so mostly I’m trying to remember to savor every moment. I know that looking back, it will seem like the blink of an eye. So with that, I’m going to stop writing and go spend time with my baby.

 

© 2021 Ryan Anderson

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑