Apollo 11, 45 years later

first-foot-step

The Universe: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

The first track still almost swings. High hat and snare, even
A few bars of sax the stratosphere will singe-out soon enough.

Synthesized strings. Then something like cellophane
Breaking in as if snagged to a shoe. Crinkle and drag. White noise,

Black noise. What must be voices bob up, then drop, like metal shavings
In molasses. So much for us. So much for the flags we bored

Into planets dry as chalk, for the tin cans we filled with fire
And rode like cowboys into all we tried to tame. Listen:

The dark we’ve only ever imagined now audible, thrumming,
Marbled with static like gristly meat. A chorus of engines churns.

Silence taunts: a dare. Everything that disappears
Disappears as if returning somewhere.

- Tracey K. Smith

On #Wiscon’s decision regarding Jim Frenkel

Wiscon was my first con, my first real con, back when I was a tender young writer just dipping my toes into being with other writers and people who read the kinds of things I write. It was also my first con on panels, and while I’d lectured as a TA in my graduate program and wasn’t especially terrified of that in particular, the entire prospect was very anxiety-making in a lot of ways. New people, new space with strange customs and rituals, new history, new discussions. For someone like me, intensely afraid of change and new things, it was a lot to face down.

And it was wonderful. For me, it was one of those experiences where you feel like you’ve come home to a place you simply forgot. People were so warm, so welcoming, panels were so awesome. I made friends, I met amazing writers, I laughed, I danced, and at the end of a very hard year in a very rough PhD program, I felt revived.

Since then – for the last three years, with one exception where I had to miss it – Wiscon has been My Con. It’s been the con I look forward to, the con that keeps me going through the slog that is the end of a spring college semester (I teach, or I did, and it’s a slog for us too). This past May, it was a con where I reached some important decisions and where I discovered some difficult things about myself. It was hard, but it was emotionally fulfilling in ways your regular con probably would not be.

So I can’t tell you how much it saddens me to say that unless there’s a massive, massive about-face on the part of the con, I will not be back next year.

There isn’t much I can say about the Jim Frenkel situation that hasn’t already been said by others, and much better than I could. I’m also not one of the people he’s hurt directly, and who have been correspondingly so poignantly hurt by the con’s decision in this matter. But I’ve been watching things unfold, and I’ve been watching people I care about in pain, and I cannot, in good conscience, support Wiscon with my money and my presence after this. Nor do I think I could enjoy myself if I went. As far as I’m concerned, this is a con that sets a toxic, dangerous narrative of redemption above the safety of its attendees, that provides a serial harasser with more recourse in terms of a process of appeal than it provides the people he has harassed.

I am not here for that. I’m here for Elise Matthesen and Lauren Jankowski. That’s why, come next May, I won’t be there.

I haven’t set this decision in stone. If the about-face I mentioned above happens, I’m willing to reconsider. I want to be able to reconsider. But here’s the thing: Even if Wiscon pulls a Readercon (why the hell should it have to, when Readercon trod this ground ahead of them? were they paying any attention at all?) the damage is still done. An enormous amount of goodwill has been lost. A lot of people appear to no longer feel that Wiscon is trustworthy where their safety is concerned. Something that people loved has been ruined in a profound way, and a quick revision of a policy decision is not going to fix that.

(Seriously, what the fuck were you guys thinking?)

As Saira Ali said on Twitter, “Harassment, the gift that keeps on giving”.

So yeah. Unless something major changes, I will most likely be at Balticon that weekend. It’s a relatively local con that a lot of local writer friends attend, and I’ve been wanting to go for a while.

I just didn’t want to go because of something like this.

Two Year’s-Bests with me in them and you can buy them now

Like it says in the title, two of the annual Best-Of collections are out today, and I’m in them. One of them I flailed about in my Readercon post – I has it and it is glorious and the contents are amazing.

So these are what they are:

  • The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-First Annual Collection (edited by Gardener Dozois) - In the new millennium, what secrets lay beyond the far reaches of the universe? What mysteries belie the truths we once held to be self evident? The world 1250046203.01._SCLZZZZZZZ_SL400_of science fiction has long been a porthole into the realities of tomorrow, blurring the line between life and art. Now, in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-First Annual Collection the very best SF authors explore ideas of a new world in the year’s best short stories. This venerable collection brings together award winning authors and masters of the field such as Robert Reed, Alastair Reynolds, Damien Broderick, Elizabeth Bear, Paul McAuley and John Barnes. And with an extensive recommended reading guide and a summation of the year in science fiction, this annual compilation has become the definitive must-read anthology for all science fiction fans and readers interested in breaking into the genre.

  • The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, 2014 Edition (edited by Paula Guran) - No matter your expectations, the dark is full of the unknown: grim futures, distorted pasts, invasions Computer designed grunge border and aged textured backgroundof the uncanny, paranormal fancies, weird dreams, unnerving nightmares, baffling enigmas, revelatory excursions, desperate adventures, spectral journeys, mundane terrors, and supernatural visions. You may stumble into obsession – or find redemption. Often disturbing, occasionally delightful, let The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror be your annual guide through the mysteries and wonders of dark fiction.

I should note that not one but two of the stories in The Years Best Science Fiction are drawn from We See a Different Frontier: Mine, and Sandra McDonald’s “Fleet”. That’s pretty high praise for that anthology alone.

These are without question the highest-profile Year’s Bests I’ve been in to date, and it feels like a pretty cool milestone. But totally aside from me, look at those lineups. These are reliably great annual anthologies, and I can’t wait to dig into my own copies. Check ‘em out.

Some thoughts on Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs and participatory storytelling

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Capitalism!

Because there’s nothing like kicking off the morning of three weeks of teaching an intensive intro-to-sociology course like writing about one of the most delightfully disturbing games I’ve ever played.

I should note that as usual, I’m behind on this. A Machine for Pigs actually came out this past fall, but – as I think I’ve said before – for a variety of reasons both temporal and financial I tend to refrain from purchasing games until they get severely discounted in Steam sales. So I finally have it, and I played it, and it’s probably among my top ten games that I’ve ever played.

I loved the first Amnesia, though it was an abusive kind of love, because I have rarely played a game that made me want to stop playing it as much as Amnesia:The Dark Descent. I don’t scare all that easily, though I used to; much of what I write these days is arguably horror – or at least could be categorized as dark-fantastic – and I watch horror flicks to relax. That said, the first Amnesia was full of more NOPE moments than I thought possible in a game (until Outlast came along and left my every nerve raw and frayed at the ends) and I thought then that in terms of sheer dreadful atmosphere, it was pretty much unsurpassed by anything else I had experienced.

Then, as I said, Outlast came along, and I was stuck with a new standard of NOPE. Outlast is not a long game, but it took me a long time to finish it on account of how many nights I simply refused to play it at all because I literally could not deal.

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I JUST

So. A Machine for Pigs.

I’m a huge, huge fan of The Chinese Room’s previous game Dear Esther (The Dark Descent studio Frictional Games essentially handed the sequel off to them). Dear Esther contains what I think is some of the best prose I’ve encountered in any game, and in fact inspired a story of mine, so I was fantastically excited when I heard they were the ones developing A Machine for Pigs, and on the writing side, I wasn’t in the least disappointed. How the writing is integrated into the game is massively important, and a massive part of why it worked so well for me; The Chinese Room went the – fairly conventional – route of leaving notes and memos around for you to find as you explore the world, that incrementally reveal who exactly you are and what exactly you’ve done. But more unconventionally – and very much like Dear Esther – the notes are frequently puzzles in themselves, and hint at horrors rather than making them explicit (except for a few wonderfully macabre instances toward the end). They’re not in order, temporally, and it’s only once you’re a good bit of the way through the game that they actually start to present a coherent picture. Dear Esther did the same thing, though in the service of a very different mood, and the result was an experience full of gentle, meditative, revelatory punches to the gut.

Dear Esther: I can't even with this game. Weather continues cloudy, wish you weren't all ghostly. XOXO

Dear Esther: I can’t even with this game. Weather continues cloudy, wish you weren’t all ghostly. xoxo

A Machine for Pigs is the same, except instead of gentle and meditative it’s all creeping dread and slowly intensifying horror. Also disgust, because while The Dark Descent made it a point to scare the everloving shit outta you, A Machine for Pigs is more about visceral vileness and dehumanization. The theme is really in the name – think about our cultural connotations of “pig”, regardless of how accurate it really is, about their social context, how we use the word and the idea, and what images are called up when we think about them as animals that exist to be slaughtered and consumed. I’m not a vegetarian by any stretch, and I love animals, and I’m very aware of the cognitive dissonance and even the hypocrisy involved in that.

The language that writer Dan Pinchbeck employs in the service of this theme is careful, and to me resonant of both things like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle – an obvious reference point – and the work people like Zygmunt Bauman and Hannah Arendt have done on the nature of dehumanization and the mechanized, industrialized erasure of the value of life. The game is in part a vaguely Marxist indictment of capitalism run amok, though one doesn’t have to be aware of that aspect in order to feel the horror Pinchbeck wants you to feel.

well let's not get carried away or anything

well let’s not get carried away or anything

Again, like Dear Esther – and like many other games that employ the same basic mechanic – these things are fragmentary, and the story you piece together is drawn from what isn’t there as much as what is. This weekend at Readercon I had a wonderful hallway conversation with fellow writer and buddy Kenneth Schneyer (he has a short fiction collection out and you should get it) about his story “Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer” and about fiction in that same basic format: found documents, descriptions of the contents of containers, emails, images, journal entries, etc. Things that reveal a story in fragments and increments, and hit you in the gut more on the basis of what’s implied than what’s straightforwardly shown. I happen to love those kinds of stories, though I have yet to do one myself in a way that I think works even a little, and I’m finding more and more that one of the media that’s doing that kind of storytelling especially well is video games. I’ve written before about how one of the major strengths of storytelling in video games is the fact that you’re not just an audience but a participant, and I think written fiction of that fragmentary kind approaches the same kind of active participation on the part of the reader and is effective for many of the same reasons. You have to work out the puzzle. You have to make sense of what you’re seeing.

And of course, it’s old wisdom that some of the greatest horror is what you never actually see but know is lurking there in the dark, red in tooth and claw.

this all looks very normal

this all looks very normal

So yeah. Basically I loved A Machine for Pigs. It’s not as scary as its predecessor, but it’s way more horrifying, and it’s a kind of horror that resonates more with me. As a work of fiction, I think it’s fantastically compelling, and the prose is a delight. I’d recommend it whole-heartedly to people who don’t normally play games, and in fact I might recommend it especially to those people. Just make sure you have a strong stomach. Or at least don’t mind when it gets turned.

so happy new year is pretty much what I'm saying here

so happy new year is pretty much what I’m saying here

Readercon recap sorta kinda not really

Because I’m too tired. Seriously. I got in this afternoon, ate a late lunch/early dinner, unpacked, and lay down for a few minutes. That was three hours ago (I was having the most delightfully surreal lucid dream when stupid husband woke me up). I’ve regained consciousness for a short time in order to do some things but bedtime is looming. And I’m probably going to be too busy to do any kind of recap the rest of this week, because every day three hour lectures omg

So instead let me just say that my first Readercon was awesome. My roommate (Natalie Luhrs) was awesome. My readings were awesome; I read with awesome people and awesome people attended and listened. I went to other awesome readings where awesome people read awesome things. The panels I went to were awesome. I met new awesome friends and had awesome food and awesome drinks with them. We had an awesome makeup and nail polish room party/SparklePonyCupcakeCon (there will be more). We crashed a wedding dance party in the bar and made it significantly more awesome. I danced in these boots and did not fall down, which was awesome:

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I stayed up until around four in the morning talking and drinking with more awesome people, and the talk and the drinks were correspondingly awesome. And then my friend Sam Miller took the Shirley Jackson award in the short story category for “57 Reasons for the Slate Quarry Suicides”, which is so goddamn awesome.

And I managed to pick up my copy of this.

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omg

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Ultimately, what was awesome about this weekend was how much I needed it. For the last month or so I’ve been feeling increasingly incompetent and incapable of dealing with things, and being with people and talking to people made me feel worthwhile again. It made me feel like I could do things and not be terrible at them. So to everyone who was welcoming to me, who was kind, who came up and said hi, who let me latch onto them for dinner or drinks or breakfast, who partied with and talked with me, thank you so much, because what you did was perhaps more meaningful than you realized at the time.

Then again, maybe you knew.

See you all next year. Some of you hopefully much sooner than that.

My #Readercon schedule

This isn’t going to be terribly involved, because I’m not technically on the program and am not doing much in an official capacity. Nevertheless, I will be there, and I have a couple of readings.

Friday 3 pm: Group Long Hidden reading (Embrace room) -
Order (at the moment) is Sofia Samatar, Claire Humphrey, Ken Liu, me, Michael Janairo, Sarah Pinsker, Sabrina Vourvoulias. It’s a quite a lineup.

Friday 9 pm: Group Circlet Press reading (Embrace room) – still not sure who all will be there, but it should be awesome. I have a story in the upcoming anthology Flesh Made Word, the theme of which is erotic fiction about writing itself. I may read from that, or from “Catch and Release”, which is in Fantastic Erotica: The Best of Circlet Press 2008 – 2012. It’s been a long time since I did an erotica reading. Hopefully I can get through it without blushing profusely.

Saturday 9 pm – midnight: Long Hidden party (Envision room) – Celebrating the entire anthology. A ton of us will be there. Snacks will be provided, including vegan and gluten-free options.

And I’ll just generally be around and about. This is my first Readercon; can’t wait to see old friends and make new ones.

On triggers and warnings and those darn kids today

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I wasn’t going to do any significant blogging this week, because I’m scrambling to A) get an intensive summer course ready to teach next Monday, and B) prepare myself for Readercon, but the Jack Halberstam essay on trigger warnings that’s been floating around, and the various excellent responses, have sort of got me worked up and I want to say something. Probably nothing that hasn’t been said by others elsewhere and better. But this is me talking for a sec, not just about what Halberstam wrote but about this whole Thing in general.

One could criticize the essay on a number of levels, and people have. Natalia Cecire writes about the problems with the ways in which Halberstam discusses neoliberalism and approaches the emotional fallout of painful history. Ari (Tumblr: navigatethestream) writes about the deep problems involved in approaching activist culture from the perspective of the academy, and Halberstam’s use of examples of transmisogyny. And as usual, Robin James has some great stuff to say about legitimacy and the performance of “resilience”. So I’m not going to deal with this on those levels but instead go after some things that are smaller and a good bit simpler but that really, really irritated me because of my particular experience.

Full disclosure: I’m not cisgender or straight, but I’m white and ablebodied and American with a decidedly upper middle class background. I have privilege out the ass. There are so many marginalized experiences I can’t speak to and wouldn’t dare to speak for. That said: There are so, so many ways in which we talk about trauma and trigger warnings – that Halberstam is reproducing here – that really, really gross me the fuck out. Probably the best articulation I’ve seen of these feelings so far is Jaqui Shine’s excellent piece “What We Talk About When We Talk About Trigger Warnings”:

How we talk about trauma survivors is what’s most troubling to me in all of this. I hear people expressing contempt for who they think survivors are: fragile, weirdly entitled, narcissistic, pathetic, weak. With outrage, people ask angry, accusatory rhetorical questions that communicate their views: Do trauma survivors expect “us” to make the world safe for them or protect them from anything scary? Why should “we” be responsible for the fact that they can’t handle reality? Can’t survivors deal with their feelings and move on with their lives? Are they really so weak that they’ll fall apart if confronted with a difficult image or idea? This is what we think trauma survivors are like.

And it’s all so, so wrong. I don’t think anyone knows better than trauma survivors do that the world isn’t safe, that we can’t be truly protected from anything (except certain communicable diseases, via appropriate vaccinations). I don’t know what other people think constitutes reality, but for me it’s included burying both of my parents and repeatedly committing loved ones to terrifying psychiatric hospitals for their own safety. I’m pretty clear on what reality can look like.

We don’t get triggered because we’re weak; we get triggered because trauma responses are physiological. They’re not imaginary or only psychosomatic, and they’re not necessarily part of a lifetime condition.  Lots of people around you are trauma survivors, but you may not know it because we’re dealing with our feelings and, exactly as you say you want us to, moving on with our lives.

Read it.

Bullet points.

  • We gender trauma in order to dismiss it. So much of the discourse that represents anti-trigger warning positions contains deeply sexist/misogynist language, even if it’s not someone explicitly saying “man up”. Trauma survivors are characterized as weak, helpless, sniffling and constantly weepy, overly emotional, and actively protecting their status as victims as if it confers some kind of privilege. This is dangerously close to the derailing tactics that get used against marginalized populations every time they demand that pain and damage and oppression be recognized. It’s really not a road one wants to go down. You end up in a bad place. Halberstam does this, and it’s very disappointing to see:

    In a post-affirmative action society, where even recent histories of political violence like slavery and lynching are cast as a distant and irrelevant past, all claims to hardship have been cast as equal; and some students, accustomed to trotting out stories of painful events in their childhoods (dead pets/parrots, a bad injury in sports) in college applications and other such venues, have come to think of themselves as communities of naked, shivering, quaking little selves – too vulnerable to take a joke, too damaged to make one.

    Yeah, I’ve heard “you just can’t take a joke!” before. Don’t do that.

  • Not everyone’s ways of working through trauma are the same or will work for everyone, yet we keep talking about trauma as if that was a reasonable thing to expect. Know what? No, some people can’t just “get over it,” and if you’re saying that, you’re an asshole for demanding that they should, on your schedule. And some people can. And some people can but only with some things. And some people make a lot of progress and then get shoved back ten steps. Trauma/emotional injury/mental illness is individual, and recovery is individual. Everyone’s experience of oppressive social systems and processes is individual. We cannot and should not ever lose sight of the fact that psychology is not enough to understand this by, and it’s absolutely true that with a lot of the stuff around trigger warnings, we risk focusing far too much on the individual and ignoring the larger systems and institutions that perpetuate physical and symbolic violence. But we also need to recognize that there’s no hard and fast rule for any of this. Among these groups are vast individual differences of experience, and those differences need to be respected. We ignore that at our peril.
  • Emotions are not separate from the body. Emotions are embodied, and we all experience physiological reactions to emotion, at least to some degree. Yeah, you’re goddamn right, we talk about trauma like it’s a physical injury. It is. Everyone I’ve ever heard talk about their triggers has talked about them in physiological terms, because that’s usually what happens. This isn’t about “hurt feelings”, at least not for most people, I really do not think. This is about shaking hands, numb fingers, shallow breathing, sweaty palms, racing hearts. Even if it’s not about those things, it’s about being hurt badly enough that it interferes with your life for a while. I have a couple of triggers that are upsetting to differing degrees; sometimes they give me the physiological reactions above, sometimes they make me completely unable to deal with anything for the rest of the day, and sometimes they just force me to get away from whatever the trigger is and very firmly distract myself for a while. See? Not only are triggers different for each individual, but different people can experience multiple different triggers differently. I’m sorry, we don’t all necessarily fit your academic theories of trauma. That doesn’t make the pain illegitimate.
  • Trigger warnings are not about protecting our precious fee-fees from any pain whatsoever. They are about informed consent. This gets talked about a good bit in Shine’s piece above, but it’s worth emphasizing. I’m not saying they can’t be used poorly and I’m not saying none of the pro-TW discourse does that. I’m not saying there’s no uncomfortable, unhelpful narcissism happening anywhere here, or that TW discourse can’t, as Robin James points out, “legitimate some kinds of trauma, when experienced by the ‘right’ kind of people/on the ‘right’ kinds of bodies”. What I am saying is that when used correctly, trigger warnings make it easier to approach difficult and painful things because one can make a decision about whether or not one can deal with something at a particular time and how much of it one can take. Listen, I read some sick shit as part of the work on war and genocide I’ve done in graduate school. I’ve read and written about the worst, most twisted, most disgusting atrocities you can imagine, individual acts of horrifying violence in contexts of equally violent institutionalized hatred for the bodies against which the violence is being committed. I can handle that, most days. I deserve to make that choice for myself, where possible. Trigger warnings, ideally, open up discussion. They don’t close it off. They are not “censorship”. Stop calling them that.
  • At their best, trigger warnings are community-building. Halberstam is talking about trigger warnings as weapons for use in in-fighting, and I’m sure they get used that way. But in all of my experience – and yes, like a good sociologist I realize that my anecdote is a poor dataset on which to conclude anything – that’s not what I’ve primarily seen it doing. What I’ve seen it doing is connecting people with each other, creating profoundly meaningful bonds around shared pain and also bringing into play the recognition that different and even unfamiliar forms of pain are to be respected. That we have obligations to work together with greater respect and compassion precisely so that we’re better equipped to work in coalition to fight the oppressive social systems that assail us from all sides. I’ve seen it employed as a tool we can use to care for each other. As Jenny Davis writes:

    I argue that in contrast to the oft stated fear that technologies drive humans apart, or get in the way of meaningful relationships, the trigger warning is a means by which technological developments—or at least our reaction to technological developments—create an ethic of collective responsibility for the psychological well-being of one another.

    The trigger warning is not merely a curatorial tool, but a collective curatorial tool, provided by humans, for fellow humans. Content creators may not have you specifically in mind, but when they post trigger warnings, they do so for the general You, all of the Yous who make up the Us.

  • Deciding whose pain is legitimate and whose is to be belittled and ignored is ableist and shitty and you shouldn’t do it. Seriously. It’s not hard to not do.

I’m in full agreement with everyone I linked to above that it’s not that there are no issues around trigger warnings that need major attention and discussion and it’s not that Halberstam has no good points; it’s just that they’re obscured by way too many poorly thought-out claims, incorrect assumptions, and just plain… I’m sorry, but I can’t really think of anything to call it other than smugness. Halberstam comes off as smug and superior.

And it’s unhelpful. And it’s just like no.