bloodygranuaile: (gashlycrumb clara)
The April 3 issue of The New Yorker was the "Health, Medicine & The Body" issue, and it features a number of really strong pieces of medtech-related reporting in varying degrees of not-for-the-squeamish. But for me, the most upsetting article in the whole issue was Tad Friend's excellently creepy "The God Pill: Silicon Valley's quest for eternal life," a look into the field of longevity/immortality research.

While much of what Friend reports on in the article is a little weird on its facethere are some, uh, colorful characters involved in this line of workwhat I found to be the most disturbing aspect of the 10-page longread was what wasn't discussed: The inequalities in health care access and health care outcomes in America.

The article opens at a longevity symposium held in some dude's house, and there are three types of people in attendance: Scientists, movie stars, and venture capitalists. The scientists are obviously there because those are the people who do the science, and this is a scientific topic. The movie stars... I could probably write a whole post about Hollywood culture and why these people want to be young and lovely forever, but I'll spare you that rant for now.

The venture capitalists are where it gets weird.

According to how capitalism works, it shouldn't be weird, because longevity advancement is an interesting research/technology problem, and it is the job of venture capitalists to provide capital for interesting ventures. So if you just think of the venture capitalists as sources of funding for the project, it's cool that they're there: It indicates that the project might get funded, and improving longevity is probably a better use of capital than developing
a $400 machine that squeezes bags of juice or reinventing the bus.

This, however, is a simplistic view of venture capitalists. It ignores who they are as people: mainly, really, really rich ones.

Here is a fun fact about rich people that does not appear in Friend's article but had also been making the news that week:
Rich people in the U.S. already live an average of 15 years longer than poor people. The research, published in the most recent edition of The Lancet, concluded that this was due to our inefficient, expensive for-profit health care system, and the researchers suggested that we adopt a single-payer system like a real country.

If venture-capital-funded researchers develop a way to increase longevity or induce immortality, it's likely to be a pretty expensive medical treatment, because currently all medical treatment is expensive but new stuff is the most expensive. It would possibly not even be covered by insurance, because insurance companies never cover anything if they can find a way out of it, which means it could end up being available only to people who are already wealthy enough to pay for it out of pocket.

So then the gap between the richest 1% and everyone else would expand to a lot more than 15 years, with billionaires living forever and everyone else being subjected to normal human frailty and dying of stupid things like humans have always done. The extra lifespan would allow people wealthy enough to buy eternal life even more time to work on consolidating their fortunes and other forms of power, leading to a society ruled by a small cadre of immortal oligarchs with decades or centuries of experience in squeezing every last resource from an oppressed underclass of normal humans.

This is the premise for a bunch of shitty vampire apocalypse stories.

Bill Maris, founder of Google Ventures, is interviewed in the article and gives us the closest thing to a recognition of access and distribution issues that we get, which is this quote: "This is not about Silicon Valley billionaires living forever off the blood of young people. It's about a 'Star Trek' future where no one dies of preventable diseases, where life is fair."

Neither Maris nor Friend further discuss how to get to a Star Trek future where no one dies of preventable diseases. Instead, the article goes into a discussion of the state of the field of parabiosis, an area of research in which Silicon Valley billionaires attempt to retard aging by injecting themselves with the blood of young people.

One of the most well-known wannabe vampire oligarchs is libertarian douchebro Peter Thiel, who got rich writing code for moving money around and now thinks he's the smartest dude ever. Thiel is apparently worried that one lifetime won't be enough time to cause sufficient damage to democracy,
the free press, and society in general.

The Master vampire from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Peter Thiel, basically

This brings us to my other big issue with venture capitalists: Not only do they already siphon enough years off the lifespans of the poor, but they are frequently either greedy arrogant humans, just plain fuckin' weird, or some combination thereof.

This is actually discussed at great length in the article, making it a fascinating character study as well as an interesting scientific piece. Right at the beginning, when the venture capitalists are introduced, they're not introduced as being there to consider funding: The first line we read about them is "The venture capitalists were keeping slim to maintain their imposing vitality," because venture capitalists see themselves as Randian Captains of Industry and Masters of the Universe and all that insufferable nonsense instead of as humans who have a lot of money. So apparently they feel a need to look like the Ubermenschen they think they are. (You'd think being rich as Croesus would liberate you from giving a shit what people think about your looks, but this is apparently not the case in Uncanny Silicon Valley.)

It's pretty clear that most of the folks profiled here, Maris' protest to the contrary notwithstanding, are interested in this eternal life thing because they personally want to live forever. Sergey Brin of Google is apparently determined to prove wrong a book about anti-aging research that says he's going to die (although in fairness, it must be weird to have a book single you out personally for something so universal). Other fun quotes from the piece include, from an unnamed scientist, "This is as self-serving as the Medici building a Renaissance chapel in Italy, but with a little extra Silicon Valley narcissism thrown in. It’s based on the frustration of many successful rich people that life is too short: ‘We have all this money, but we only get to live a normal life span,’" and from one Dr. Rando (who is named, it's just that his name is Rando), "I’ve had a lot of meetings with young billionaires in Silicon Valley, and they all, to varying degrees, want to know when the secrets are coming out, both so they can get in on the next big thing and so they can personally take advantage of them."

Two other main themes keep popping up in the characterization of these vampire capitalist types. One is that they are dooftastic, mediocre nerdboys. Many of them are probably pretty smart in whatever type of smart let them become rich, but since I am smart in ways that are the opposite of things that let you become richsuch as, for example, literary criticism of spec ficthe one thing I get to be really smug about when reading this is just how simplistic their sci-fi inspirations are. The vague hand-waving about a Star Trek future has already been mentioned, and I'd probably want to leave it up to the many lefties who are better versed in Star Trek specifically than I am to explain how we're never going to get to a Trek-like economy, let alone develop fully automated luxury gay space communism, if we leave stuff up to Peter Thiel. (Another article in this issue does discuss
fully automated luxury diagnostics; it doesn't talk much about health insurance either, but it doesn't seem like such a big omission there.) However, there's also a lady who has commissioned a "mindclone" robot of her wife, despite the fact that we don't have the technology to do that yet; a guy who had a 3-D scan of his brain done and a model of it made, despite the fact that we're nowhere near close to bridging the gap in understanding between the physical structure of the brain and our actual consciousness so who knows if that scan will even be good when we do understand what we're looking for; and a dude who goes on for a bit about turning people into Marvel superheroes. Maris also gives a quote about genies that serves mostly to illustrate that he's never read a single goddamn story about genies, ever, in his goddamn life:

“Imagine you found a lamp on the beach, and a genie came out and granted you a wish,” Maris said. “If you were clever,
your first wish would be for unlimited wishes.” As Doerr nodded, Maris continued, “Let’s say you’re going to live, at most, another thirty years.” Doerr had just turned sixty. “If each day is a wish, that’s only between one and ten thousand wishes. I don’t know about you, but I want to add more—I want to add wishes faster than they’re taken away.”

The other thing that keeps popping up, which could theoretically be considered a subset of them being dooftastic mediocre nerds, is an utter and all-encompassing inability to grasp the concept of something not being a computer. They just cannot do it. It's most plainly stated in this anecdote right at the beginning of the article:

Joon Yun, a doctor who runs a health-care hedge fund, announced that he and his wife had given the first two million dollars toward funding the challenge. “I have the idea that aging is plastic, that it’s encoded,” he said. “If something is encoded, you can crack the code.” To growing applause, he went on, “If you can crack the code, you can hack the code!”

And from there it just keeps going. Friend reports that most of the "immortalists" come from tech backgrounds, and that most of them view aging as "entropy demolishing a machine." The CEO of one startup profiled chirpily offers that "Biotech is something a lot of V.C.s don't understand" as part of her explanation for why she's optimistic about raising her next round of venture financing.

Some of the people interviewed here do seem willing to put their copious amounts of money where their mouths are, in a literal sense, by popping a lot of experimental pills, as well as injecting themselves with stuff. I'm not really sure if I should be giving them credit for committing to their beliefs or just appalled at the self-experimentation.

I do know that I am not comfortable with any of these folks becoming my new vampire overlords.

One of the big issues with wealth inequality is the way it snowballs. Wealth is both a reward for playing the game right and a tool that helps you play the game better and acquire more wealth. The rich, despite not needing as much government help because have their own money, already 
collect $130,000 more in lifetime government benefits than poor people due to the gap in lifespan. If immortality becomes available, but inequalities in health care access remain, it's clear that only the rich will get to be immortal, and it'll only trickle down to the rest of us as much as they think is convenient to allow. I suspect that the resource-hoarding advantage the already-wealthy early adopters will have will ensure that that's not very far.
bloodygranuaile: (caligari awkward)
Last weekend I went to Readercon, the speculative fiction literary convention in Burlington, MA. (No, not Burlington, Vermont.) I went to this convention last year, when I was very new to both BSpec and to the whole idea of paying attention to the current literary scene in general. This time I went in knowing—and knowing about—a hell of a lot more people, but I still met many awesome new ones.

This time, the hotel lobby and bar were also open (last year they were under construction). The bar was fairly snazzy in a This Is A Fancy Corporate Executive Bar sort of way, and the lobby was very spacious but only had like two couches so that there could be more modern-looking white space. Also, they renamed all the non-letter salons from states’ names to inspirational buzzwords like Enliven and Enlighten and Creative and I think one of them was actually Inspire and you get the idea.

Due to starting a new (more exciting, better paid, back in the city, sadly temporary) new job, I was unable to attend most of Friday. Robert (who I’d given a ride to) and I arrived at about seven, which was precisely the time when our posse (it is actually Gillian’s posse) went out to dinner. The end result of this is that, while I had a lovely dinner with many lovely people in our gorgeous air-conditioned hotel room, I only got to attend ONE panel on Friday. This was a bit of a bummer since Friday honestly looked like the best panels day.

On the upside, the one panel I did attend was The Gothic in Nineteenth-Century Science Fiction, a presentation by Jess Nevins, a dude I had never heard of before but who is now on my A+ list, partly because he had the grace to put the entire paper he presented online (http://jessnevins.com/blog/?p=234). Since I am a giantly giant fan of all forms of Gothic nonsense, it was somewhat inevitable that I would enjoy this talk, but whether I would learn new things was something more in question. I did, in fact, learn fun new things, particularly since I have heard the terms “male Gothic” and “female Gothic” a few times before but had never really read much that explained what they meant and tried to take a good critical look at how they function. I strongly recommend reading the entire paper, if only so you will fully appreciate the facepalm when I tell you that during the Q&A at the end, somebody asked “What do ‘male’ and ‘female’ Gothic mean?” BUT BESIDES THAT it was pretty great. If you asked me if I preferred this talk or last year’s The Fainting Narrator talk I would be hard pressed to pick one. (I thiiink I saw the guy who presented The Fainting Narrator at the bar and I almost went and fangirled at him but he was talking to people and also my drink was ready.)

After that it was party time! The Meet the Prose party is an attempt to force awkward introverted people to talk to each other by putting a bar in Ballroom F/G and giving all the authors stickers with lines from their work on them and everyone else pieces of wax paper. The object is to collect all the stickers, or, for authors, to get rid of all your stickers, or possibly the object is to have as many conversations as possible, or maybe it is to practice your ninja pickpocket skills and collect the most stickers without having any conversations. I’m not sure; the rules weren’t posted anywhere that I saw. But it was fun, and I got to talk to cool people like Neil Clarke, cyborg overlord of Clarkesworld Magazine, and Sofia Samatar, whose collection of scarves I am most envious of. Then we attended a super secret midnight speakeasy. How secret? So secret that people were yelling about its location in the hallways! That’s my kinda secret. Bo Bolander read a fragment of a piece that consisted about 50% of the word “fuck” and was pulpy and awesome. I sadly had to leave the speakeasy early because I hit the Wall and had to go to bed.

Saturday began with a visit to the dealer’s room, where all my virtuous thoughts of I Should Save Money Because I Am Young And Broke and But I Have Access To A Library and I Totally Have A System For What I Will Decide To Buy Today melted away into a sort of avariciously bibliophilic fugue state, and between ten and eleven o’clock in the morning I acquired the following:


In totally unrelated news, if anyone knows where I could grab another bookshelf for cheap, comments are open.

At noon I did start going to panels, beginning with Writing and the Visual Arts, where I learned that Greer Gilman once took a Historical Art Techniques class and it was awesome. I also learned that Shira Lipkin knits to figure out story structure and texture and otherwise un-knot her writing, which sounds so incredibly useful that it made me wish I could knit. (I cannot knit.) The people on the panel are involved in poetry, music, painting, drawing, handicrafts, cinema, basically the whole run of the arts. They are also, it seems, to a person, typography nerds, with strong feelings about paper and typeface and binding, and preferences for which fonts to work with under what circumstances. This led to a really interesting discussion of the state of the art of printing, including the rise of ebooks with their customizable fonts and letter sizes, and the physical book as an art object.

After a lunch break I went to Portrayals of Code-Switching, partly because I am all interested in language and linguistics and stuff and partly because Daniel José Older was on the panel and I remember him as being a really insightful and entertaining panelist. He did not disappoint, and neither did any of the other panelists, none of whom I was familiar with. The panel discussed a number of forms of code-switching: the moderator, Chesya Burke, brought up the idea that not all code-switching is entirely done through language; things like posture and dress are forms of code-switching, too. There was also some talk of bi- or multilingual code-switching versus code-switching within a language (register-switching). Then we got into the really fun stuff: writing and representing different codes in writing, and especially the questions of “translating” or italicizing words that aren’t SWE in a text that’s going out into an English-language market. Older gave as an example that Spanglish conversations usually do not take the sharp turn in accent and inflection between Standard American Broadcast English and perfectly correct Spanish (I do not know my Spanishes, sorry) that would be implied by putting all the English in roman type and all the Spanish in italics. (It was funnier and more illustrative when he said it with examples.) I had a thought during this panel that I wasn’t quite able to congeal into a coherent question, so I’ll burble it out here: on several occasions the panelists brought up the idea of not translating things because people from similar cultural backgrounds as the author would know what it meant and feel alienated having it explained, but people who weren’t from that cultural background can just go look it up like anything else you find in a story that you don’t know about, and that they’re OK making their readers do that tiny bit of work on their own. This made me think of a thing I ran into when studying big fat monstrous nineteenth century novels, which is the idea that Back In Ye Day, audiences couldn’t easily look shit up, and partly read fiction in order to learn more about nonfictional stuff, which is where you get those books with entire fucking essays sandwiched between the chapters (eff you, Moby-Dick), and so if, for example, you have a character who is a street kid, you follow up the introduction of this character with five chapters about the daily lives of street kids, including three about their argot, and a long essay in defense of argot as an interesting and imaginative part of culture, and then we get to poor Gavroche actually fucking doing anything (eff you too, Les Misérables). But so anyway now I have some vague and not-well-worded wonderings about the role of communications technology in the development of stories that allow larger audiences access to very culturally specific things without having to homogenize everybody or dumb stuff down the way that happens when you have solely top-down broadcasting kind of mass communication, and to allow more people to talk to each other without everyone having to give up their local culture and go totally Standard American. I’ve got a vague idea of “It sounds like the Internet has made this easier and more awesome” but I also squish other people’s text into SWE for a living so what do I know.

After that I went to Dark Fantasy and Horror, an interesting if occasionally confused discussion about what “dark fantasy” and “horror” are and how (and if) they differ from each other and the collapse of the oversaturated horror market in the eighties. Sadly I did not take too many notes on this panel! I do remember one of the speakers making the excellent point that one of the reasons genre labels like “horror” can be so tricky to suss out and apply is because we name genres after different things—so “horror” is an emotion that the text is trying to evoke, but “western” is a setting and “mystery” is a plot type. While this panel was going on, there was a panel in the salon next door about butts, and apparently it was VERY entertaining.

Then there was two hours of drinking: one in the room and one in the bar!

This meant I was ever-so-slightly tipsy for the Works of Mary Shelley panel, where I forgot to take notes because I had to put all of my brain into listening. It made me very glad I had bought The Mortal Immortal at the dealer’s room that morning, though, after I saw Adrienne Odasso with it at breakfast! The panel focused a bit more heavily on Frankenstein than I expected, although all the Frankenstein stuff was very interesting, and they did talk about the myriad other writing she’d done—I knew she’d written another novel and did a bunch of editing/curating of Percy Shelley’s work, but I didn’t realize just how much other stuff she had written and published because Frankenstein is really the most talked-about thing.

That was pretty much the end of the official intellectual programming that I went to on Saturday; a big group of us went out to dinner, including Jay, who brought a friend of his that the rest of us had never met before, and who surprised us all by paying for dinner for the whole group of us (there were like ten people at this dinner) and said it was no problem since he could write it off as a Business Expense. Turns out Jay’s friend,Warren Lapine, is actually a well-known figure in the small-press sci-fi publishing world and taking writery types out to dinner really is a business expense! (A publisher bought me dinner! I should probably go write stuff.) Then there were a bunch of parties, including one that I don’t know who was hosting but the entire back third of the room was all dudes with beards drinking scotch, which made me really happy even though I am not a dude with a beard and scotch is actually my least favorite drink in the whiskey family, but it was good socializing. Then we went to more room parties, and then we went to a sort of impromptu party in the middle of a hallway where I met Kate Baker, and then we got kicked out of the hallway so we all sat around in the lobby drinking some very, very sweet German honey liqueur out of bottles provided by this one dude (Marco something?) who just seemed to have an endless supply of it. This went until about two o’clock in the morning, which I was fairly certain I was going to regret the next morning.

Sunday morning was really not all that bad; I drank a lot of water and then was able to go to three panels and get a bunch of books signed. The 10 am panel I went to was Variations on Unreliable Narrators, which I admit I mostly went to because Theodora Goss was moderating and she is a delightful fairy princess, but unreliable narrators are also fun (except for The Turn of the Screw). We got a good basic grounding in the more “official” definitions and examples of this trope and then the conversation turned to people’s favorites, the panelists’ thoughts on the unreliability of narrative and point of view generally, and all that sort of analytical stuff that is why nerds like me go to Readercon. Adrienne Odasso talked about unreliable narrators in medieval poetry, even!

Then I went back to the dealer’s room and was very good and didn’t spend any more money, but I did get autographs from Theodora Goss and Sofia Samatar. A weird thing happened where, every time I have heard Theodora Goss say anything about her upcoming novel, I feel like she is writing it just for me, and so when I got my book signed I told her I was particularly excited about her upcoming novel, and she looks me and Lura and Andrea straight in the face and says, “I’m writing this novel for you.” So that was odd! I also got my copy of Greer Gilman’s Cry Murder! In a Small Voice signed, right after she won a Shirley Jackson award for it.

The Horror for Diverse Audiences panel was a good but I didn’t end up taking many notes on it, just that Shira Lipkin (who I was apparently stalking around all Sunday; she was on all three of the panels I attended) said she tries to create “horror through empathy,” and one of the other panelists whose name I did not write down mentioned that horror is—or should be—ultimately universal because it’s rooted in fear of death, which everyone has; it’s the specifics that get tricky.

The last panel I attended was Long Live the Queen, which was a great panel to end the con on, particularly because I was exhausted by this point and couldn’t have handled anything other than a truly fabulous panel about my particular interests. This panel was basically about portrayals of the Victorian era in speculative fiction, particularly steampunk. We got a lot of book recommendations about history and clothes and stuff, all of which I will have to check out at some point. The panel discussed Victorian medievalism and its effects on how we view both the medieval and Victorian periods, as well as Victorian medievalism as a forerunner to the modern fantasy genre; Victorian Arthuriana; Victorian volatility and social anxiety as opposed to the current popular view of the Victorian genre as being somehow ordered and idyllic (apparently there are a lot of wildly historically ignorant people involved in steampunk??); Victorian ideas about “culture” (singular) and their habit of plundering the entire globe for history, stories, and STUFF (Dora Goss mentioned the British Museum and ho boy do I have opinions on that place); the ways in which the Victorian British Empire was deliberately and calculatedly modeled off the Roman Empire; and Victorian progressivism. Dracula was argued to be a technological romance (a couple panels I was at actually pointed out the role of technology in Dracula, which is not something I’ve heard much about, and I’ve heard a lot of stuff about Dracula). Someone brought up that he was surprised at the Victorians’ popularity because thirty years ago they were definitely known for being a repressive, stuffy, judgmental time period with bad art. I am  always surprised to hear this because, while I am well acquainted with the Victorian’s history of being repressive, conformist prigs, I had sort of assumed that if people overlook this it is because they are bamboozled by how undeniably pretty it all is, as it is self-evident that Victorians stuff is pretty. I’m always surprised when I am reminded that a few decades ago people thought all that ruffly Victorian stuff was in terrible taste, but then I remember that a few decades ago it was the seventies and eighties, and I'm like, you’re one to talk, seventies and eighties people! I suppose I already knew that the seventies and eighties hated pretty things, but I still manage to forget. We also got into the most fun part of talking about Victorians, which is the ludicrously deadly standards of beauty (when I am participating in one of these sorts of conversations I will almost always bring up “arsenic face cream”)—in addition to a wonderful lesson about crinoline fires, there was the mandatory discussion about corsets, and we all learned that an 1840s Sears catalog once listed a device called an “organ stopper” which was basically a thing you put into the lower end of yourself so that when your corset squished all your internal organs downwards they didn’t actually prolapse and fall out of you. (My organs hurt just thinking about it.)

As that was the best possible note one could end a convention on, we then cleared out, got lunch, went home, and I promptly napped like I was getting paid for it, and also threw out half my clothes.

SO THAT WAS READERCON. I AM GOING EVERY YEAR UNTIL I DIE. In the meantime, I will endeavor to review all of the million books I bought over at my review blog, [livejournal.com profile] bloodygranuaile
bloodygranuaile: (caligari awkward)
So, I have seen a bunch of commentary lately about the term "Mary Sue," and how it has turned into a generic term for "any female character ever who I dislike, probably because she did something or was good at something or didn't get hit by a bus on Page 1 and I think this is terribly unrealistic (because we all know that real girls are never good at anything ever), and also, I detect some hint of wish fulfillment somewhere, which is self-evidently bad."

Many people smarter than I have discussed the massive, massive problems with the first parts of this definition, including such awesome ladies as Holly Black and Seanan McGuire.

But I also want to mention something that keeps cropping up about "wish-fulfillment characters," and that is: When the flying fucksticks did "wish fulfillment" become a dirty word? Especially in FANTASY? Ask nearly goddamn anybody who reads about the stories that inspired them and stuck with them and meant something to them as children and they will, at some point, mention some aspect of the story that they wished they could have in their own lives. Using storytelling to imagine fulfilling one's various wishes is a very, very old and, apparently until quite recently, fairly well respected part of the whole stories thing.

And I know that GRIMDARK and UBER GRITTY and ALL THE READERLY PAIN is very in right now, which I adore, particularly when it is done well, but even the edgiest and grittiest and grimdarkiest of stories that you can actually manage to get through and read have at least one part that makes you go "I wish I had that!" or "I wish I could do that!" Even A Song of Ice and Fire is full of food that you want to eat until you get sick (and now you can!), and witty one-liners from Tyrion that you wish you were clever enough to have thought of, and Brienne kicking so much ass and having so much strength and discipline that you only wish you could ever be that badass except you can't even get off Tumblr and go to the gym. Wish fulfillment can work perfectly well in a story and be all sorts of fun, particularly if it's supposed to be a more or less fun or fluffy story to begin with, and especially particularly if the author's wishes that they are fulfilling are similar to yours.

If they are not similar to yours, then just don't read the book/watch the movie/cosplay the lead from the TV show. Even some kinds of stories that have literally nothing what the fuck ever at all even a little bit to them except wish fulfillment can still be deep and meaningful to the people with those particular wishes. Example: Spiderman. Spiderman has, no joke, been a very important and formative and inspiring and hopeful story to legions of awkward nerdy dudes who like science and do not feel they have enough awesome to attract their sexy lamp of choice and do not feel particularly special or like they have the power to fix any of the various things in this world that need fixing. Spiderman makes these dudes feel that they can be special and powerful and fix things and acquire their preferred female-shaped life accessory. If Spiderman is not the fulfillment to your particular wishes, however, it is possibly one of the dumbest and most vacuous stories ever told. Particularly the movie version that my ex made me watch. (Watching it caused me to actually lose a lot of respect for that particular ex. He strongly believed that he was not stupid and did not like stupid things, because only stupid people like stupid things (this ex did not really believe in fun, as you can probably tell already), therefore, everything he liked was smart and objectively good, because he was a smart person with objectively good taste. So you can imagine how surprised I was that Spiderman turned out to be the most across-the-board straight up fucking stupid movie I had seen in about ten years at that point--literally nothing about it was "good" in any way outside of the wish fulfillment. It did not have clever dialogue, or a surprising plot, or good acting, or pretty costumes, or any understanding of basic physics, or ANYTHING.) The utter lack of anything whatsoever going on with Spiderman outside of the "It would be cool to be Spiderman!" aspect has not stopped it from becoming a well-beloved classic superhero and a household name. And do you know what? THAT'S OKAY. That has always been okay.

But suddenly now it is so not okay that people aren't even bothering to argue WHY it's not okay; they just say "Wish fulfillment" and everyone gravely nods that yes, truly, that is a terrible, terrible thing that shouldn't be happening anywhere near storytelling of any kind. (I suspect the not-okayness of wish fulfillment may have something to do with the increased visibility of stories wherein it is ladies' wishes that are being fulfilled, and if our wishes are fulfilled in fiction, maybe we will want them to be fulfilled in real life next, and then we might turn into feminists or something! Quelle horreur!)

I would like to posit that there is actually only one wish that is incompatible with good storytelling, although it is, sadly, a common one: The wish that everything be easy and free of conflict.

This is a problem because conflict is the basis of all stories. Non-completely-shitty English classes will teach you this somewhere around fourth grade.

This was also one of the major problems with Mary Sues back in the day when Mary Sue was a term only used in fanfiction to describe author self-insert characters who fulfilled all of the author's wishes at once, including the one to just have a nice time farting around in the fandom-land of choice and not having to go through the stress and mess of actually having the adventures. The problem with Mary Sue wasn't that she had powers, it was that she had such awesome and outsize powers that she was able to instantly neutralize the entire plot. And while I sympathize with the wish to be able to clean shit up quickly and not spend a lot of time fighting and worrying and being miserable, that is also fucking boring to read. Back before the flood of specifically female self-inserts by young writers into largely male-populated fandoms (I am looking at you, all the LotR Tenth Walker fics) gave us reason to come up with a speshul name that implied this was some sort of ladies-only thing, this was called "immature writing" or simply "bad writing," as it is an extremely common mistake of young writers to make their heroes super awesome but their villians/plots/marine-life-filled-tornados really wimpy, so the hero beats them too easily and there is no tension and basically a weak or nonexistent plot. I have read quite a few dude-authored original fiction pieces by teens where the hero was too awesome to get or stay in enough trouble to make any kind of story, particularly in my time as a school literary magazine editor. I rejected them all for being boring.

So, as Holly Black points out, there are some major issues with applying the term "Mary Sue" to any non-fanfiction character, but if we're going to do so, I wouldn't ask "Does this character have power/talent/the ability to get out of bed in the morning without concussing herself?" or "Does this character have anything going on that would be fun to have going on myself?", but "Is this character's power so disproportionate to everything else in the universe that it cuts the plot off at the knees?" because that is basically where any of this "wish fulfillment" or "has powers" or "is special" stuff becomes a problem.

I do think the last Twilight book runs close to Mary Sue-ness not just because it's hip to bash on Twilight or even because, as [livejournal.com profile] cleolinda says, Bella Swan Vampires Better Than You, but because the plot is resolved pretty much by the main characters being so awesome that their mere existence causes their enemies to stop being their enemies anymore, because nobody can resist their total awesomness, and that shit was boring. I remember when Breaking Dawn came out there was a pretty big outcry of disappointment from the fanbase because it was so anticlimactic; like, the whole book was gearing up for a big showdown, and the fight just never happened because they were too awesome for anyone to fight them, and the only reason the book was as long as it was was apparently because it takes the Volturi forever to get their immortal asses to Seattle.

In contrast, I have heard some people complain that Daine from Tamora Pierce's The Immortals Quartet is "a bit of a Mary-Sue," by which they mean that they think the rare and exceptionally strong magical powers and divine background are a bit much. However, I think this is rather bogus, because Daine is far from the only absurdly super-powered entity running around the Tortallverse. Her big antagonist through the series, Emperor Ozorne, is a well-matched adversary in terms of absurd superpoweredness: he is one of the most powerful mages in the world in his own right, AND he is the emperor of a very large and wealthy empire, meaning he has large numbers of other powerful mages at his disposal, plus money, armies, ships, etc. And he never gives up on making everybody else's lives hard. If Daine had showed up in Carthak at the beginning of Emperor Mage and just been like "Ozorne, sweetie, could you stop being a power-mad murderer and just, like, abdicate your throne to a democratic parliament and go play with your birds?" and Ozorne said "Of course! You're so amazingly persuasive, and the purity and goodness that shines out of your face has caused me to repent my villianous ways, and also I would do anything to make you happy because you've been here for thirty whole seconds and that is just more awesomeness than I can take"... well, that would be some bullshit Mary-Sue-ness. (And one of the things people forget when calling published characters Mary-Sues is that the fanfics that inspired this term REALLY WERE THAT BAD, because writing is hard, and therefore a lot of the young and inexperienced writers mucking about in fanfiction are veeeeeeeeeeery bad at it, and that is okay, in the same way that it is okay that the picture frame you made out of popsicle sticks for your mom in third grade is of inferior woodworking quality to the beautiful, useful, and sturdy dryhutch that my adult uncle with the carpentry hobby made twenty-five years ago and that I am still using as furniture.) But instead, we get two ridiculously high-powered characters who never give up on trying to defeat each other, and Ozorne keeps managing to put Daine into shitty situations that she actually has to work to get out of, like when she thinks he killed her best friend and teacher and she goes on a destructive rampage with her army of resurrected dinosaur skeletons, which, on the one hand, is conflict-ful and unpleasant for Daine because she is REALLY UPSET ABOUT NUMAIR in that scene; I hope to not have to be that upset about anything anytime soon!, but on the other hand, I challenge anyone to look me in the eye and tell me with a straight face that they do not wish to be able to command an army of rampaging dinosaur skeletons.  Rampaging dinosaur skeletons ARE AWESOME, and their awesomeness should not be a complaint, unless you are straight up allergic to fun.

So I say, BRING ON THE WISH FULFILLMENT! Just don't leave out the plot while you're at it, and mix it up with plenty of readerly pain.
bloodygranuaile: (Default)

This morning, I tried an Experiment!

My Experiment was to see if I can utilize some of the time I spend on the train each day to more productive ends than just reading, because as much as I like having three hours a day to read, it is resulting in getting through a LOT of reading and having no time left to review them, or do my freelance assignments, and also I end up checking my email in the evening and then whoops, all my time is gone and I didn't do anything else I was planning to do. So this morning I brought along my netbook to see if this trial they are running of free wi-fi in the train cars is any good.

For the record: I adore the notion of free wi-fi in train cars. For some reason I always associate train use with being somewhat old-fashioned, probably because most of the rail systems in the US were built like a hundred years ago and I think most of the train cars are at least as old as I am. Trains have become sort of a second-teir mode of travel since their golden age, and the commuter rail systems very clearly reflect last century's urban-and-suburban job structure, so I always associate trains with being in some odd way historical curiosities. Even though they are still being used. But anyway, trains with wireless Internet just seem sort of weirdly steampunky to me. Perhaps I am just completely bananas, though.

Anyway. I got online successfully this morning, answered some emails, and opened up LJ to do my review of Desert Queen. I wrote the whole thing, and then, in a moment of thoughtlessness, hit the “tags” button to add tags, which causes a pop-up box these days, and the MBTA's wi-fi is basic enough that that was a really bad idea. Attempting to open the fancy pop-up window took about ten minutes, during which time the tag window never loaded, I was just unable to access the regular posting. Had to shut the window and hope I could auto-recover before getting into Back Bay; alas, it only auto-recovered the first paragraph or so. So I decided I should probably just write the things in OpenOffice and copy-paste from now on. So I started draft #2 during lunch, and finished it on the train ride home, which is where I am now. I'll post it and add the links and tags and stuff when I get back to Worcester, I suppose.

But at least I know I can do some basic Internetting before and after work!

In other news, I looked at a sublet today, and I will look at another one tomorrow, and I think I may bring my regular laptop on the train for that so I can do some of my Elance reformatting work on that trip. I am trying to talk myself into finding it possible to go to the gym first things in the morning, too. Tonight, I am going to read silly fantasy and brainstorm my Brilliant Business Idea with Liz (I am not telling you what it is) and maybe even get some Elance work done if not being Busy for ten minutes starts to wig me out, which it might. I am sorry about yesterday's stress-bomb; I got to the bank this morning so I am sure it will all work itself out. I just need to keep busy and keep writing.

Also in the past few weeks, I read a book about ambition, read two vampire books, went to see Jane Eyre, and watched the first two episodes of Game of Thrones. I will review Game of Thrones eventually, I promise. Perhaps after the third episode.

Happy Friday!

P.S. I refuse to either rant about being sick of the Royal Wedding or make a joke about not being invited to it. I will only say this: Where was our media when Kronprinsesse Victoria of Sweden got married last summer? I had to go to Sweden to hear about it. I mean, do we like fancy princess weddings or don't we? Or would having subtitles on the TV give Americans hives?

bloodygranuaile: (Default)
I just finished watching Lone Wolf and Cub 2: Baby Cart at the River Styx, which I would put on my reviewing-things journal, except I do not have much of a review. I really liked it! I particularly liked the evil lady ninjas. Also the special effects are hilariously cheesy. And the baby is adorable.

My brain is dead, so I'm just going to go back to reading this book on whaling that I started reading yesterday. (It's like an April Fools joke I played on myself. I'm not sure what else I could have been thinking.) (It is actually really interesting, though!)
bloodygranuaile: (Default)
So I've been sitting here sorting through the giant stack of miscellaneous paperwork that I have accumulated since coming to college, separating the pay stubs from the medical bills from the letters from the silly birthday cards and cheap Valentines, and I discovered that holy fuck, there's really quite a number of letters in there. From my parents, from Kat, from Leah, some random ridiculous letter from Laura (my pirate wife, not the Laura whose room I stole).

I have all the letters Jim sent me freshman year, and now I have all the letters I sent him as well. He sent them back to me in a packet a few months ago. I stopped the correspondence last summer, not really on purpose, just because I didn't have anything to say because the summer was boring. I kind of wish I hadn't--he sent really good care packages. Always included books, tea, Post-It notes, and those blue pens I use for everything. Apparently it is weird to be receiving care packages from random middle-aged librarian men, which sucks, because I like getting random books from people. And seriously--free tea. Free tea cannot be a bad thing.

I have notes that were stuck on my door freshman year, and a letter from a friend from when our friendship hit the rocks and I didn't realize why. I'm very glad I kept that one.

That's about when I dug out my binder of letters from high school. Man, was that an embarrassing trip down memory lane. Letters, printed out AIM conversations and LiveJournal entries, all those god damn emails from Matt that were the only way he could ever express anything, dithering on about how he knew what true love was and this wasn't it but he still needed me around to cling to when he was lonely, which was always. Also a whole crap-ton of stuff by me reminding me of what a lonely, pretentious drama queen I was then, which is probably why we did get along so well for so long. I decided to take this binder off the shelf of stuff I use, and stuck it on the top shelf of my closet with all the diaries I've kept since fourth grade that I've filled up, where it belongs. That file is freaking closed.

There were some good things in it, too. Letters from my mom and brother when I was at German camp, some really weird conversations with Lindsay.

I have a habit of writing letters and not sending them. Some are love letters (for a more general definition of "love" than is usually associated with that phrase), some are hate letters, a lot of them are apology letters. There are a bunch in the high school binder; there are a couple in the sophomore year end of the college pile. I recall writing a few freshman year when some short-lived friendships started going sour, but apparently I threw those drafts out when I decided the friendships weren't worth saving. Letters I don't send seem to generally be me trying to get all the messy out and organize my thoughts as preparation for actual conversations I figured I'd need to have with people, so that I could feel like I'd said everything I'd wanted to say, and then could hopefully figure out and manage to just say what I needed to say, and semi-articulately. So far, it seems to sort of work. (Ether might be slowly destroying this habit, however. Stay tuned.)

I've always wondered if my diaries would be different, or if I would write in them more, if I wrote them as collections of letters to people. I read a lot of books in diary form when I was younger (the Dear America series was the big one), and a number of those diaries were set up as being for the benefit of some friend or family member who had given them the diary, or moved away/been moved away from, etc. Simply naming your diary isn't the same thing. I've always kind of wanted to keep a diary that was written to somebody, but I haven't had anybody to write an entire goddamn diary to. I wonder if I'd make more of an effort to make sure I filled in the stuff that had happened in the gaps between entries, if I'd explain things better instead of just emoting about them, if I'd bother describing people more, if I'd make sure my handwriting was occasionally legible (somehow, I doubt that last one). Or maybe I'd just get more guarded, trying to make myself look good.

I also like the idea of constantly sending off letters to some totally random person, a la The Perks of Being a Wallflower. If I'd read that book in high school I probably would have done it, at least until my shrink would have told me to stop. Unfortunately, I am now old enough and sane enough to realize that that would be a really creepy thing to do, at this point. Bah.

I really love writing letters. Some of my friends in high school and I would write each other letters all the goddamn time, even though we'd see each other nearly every day (I'm looking at you, Leah). I remember getting really bored one day in eighth grade and writing a bunch of my friends long rambly letters during class, including a few friends who did not yet know this about me and gave me funny looks when I gave them theirs. Unfortunately, due to reading too many silly old books from when novels in epistolary form were popular, my letter-writing style is even more long-winded and pretentious than this LiveJournal.

I also really love getting letters. And by letters, I strictly mean stuff written on paper. I hate email. Email is for school and business and for sending people files. It is not classy to use email for personal things. It is not classy to dump (for lack of a better term) your best friends over email, which happened to me once in elementary school, which is probably why I feel so strongly about it. It is also not classy to dump your girlfriend over email, which also happened to me once (upset me much less, though), nor is it classy to ask someone out over email, which has happened to me three times (was only dumb enough to accept the first one).

But getting a physical letter, on paper, that somebody has written or at least (and more likely, these days) signed by hand, feels much more personal. And concrete. It has tradition behind it, which I rather like. And I can stick it in a folder and go back and reread it whenever I like, which I can't do with a face-to-face conversation. I also just still have a small child's excitement at getting things in the mail (unless it's medical bills).

I also just really like paper. And pens. Every time I wander into a stationary store I stay there drooling and going "These are so pretty, I wish I had a use for them!" until somebody drags me out. I stole turquoise paper from the Hanover office the other day. I think this makes me weird.

I want a mail correspondence with somebody again. Summer kind of killed me and Leah writing letters, now that I'm coming home every couple weeks or so and actually see her. And being able to talk to pretty much everyone I know on the Internet tends to make letter-writing kind of an extraneous secondary communication: anything important gets communicated in a faster medium. Sad.

I think I need to go to bed now before you all unfriend me for clogging up your flists with all this random crap. ;)

<3 you all

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