Warning: total spoilers for Midsommar, references to suicide, incest and drug use

Midsommar is the second feature-length film directed and written by Ari Aster; the first, Hereditary, I haven’t yet seen, but on the basis of how much I enjoyed Midsommar, I’m strongly inclined to check it out.

On the surface, Midsommar is a film with a simple yet darkly compelling premise: in the wake of a family tragedy, Dani (Florence Pugh), joins her long-term boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his friends, Mark (Will Poulter) and Josh (William Jackson Harper), on a holiday organised by their third friend, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who has invited them all to his community’s midsummer celebration in Hårga, Sweden. Things are rocky at the outset: not only has Dani’s sister recently committed a horrific murder-suicide, killing both herself and their parents with carbon monoxide poisoning, but Christian is The Worst: a self-absorbed, emotionally neglectful and thoroughly disinterested partner who was planning to break up with Dani prior to her loss. But what Pelle has sold to his friends as a drug-filled festival soon turns from pastoral vacation to sinister ritual: guests start disappearing, and in a haze of horror and hallucinogens, Dani begins to realise that there’s no way to escape.

Right from the outset, Midsommar leans both narratively and thematically on the four-act, seasonal structure of its pagan mythology. Early in their arrival at Hårga, Pelle explains that his community views life as a cyclical series of stages, all marked as periods of twice-nine years: childhood, from birth until age 18, is viewed as spring; 18 to 36 is the summer of young adulthood, a time of exploration; 36 to 54 are your working, adult years, the autumn; and 54 to 72 is old age, winter. At the end of this explanation, Dani asks what happens after 72, and Pelle replies by drawing a finger across this throat, indicating death.

This cyclical, seasonal motif imbues the entire film, as do references to Swedish pagan mythology and pastoral life. In the very first scenes, a kulning – a Swedish herding call used to summon the cows home to pasture, but which can also be sung as a farewell – plays hauntingly over shots of a winter landscape, only to cut out jarringly and be replaced by the ringing of a telephone. The ringing takes us inside Dani’s parents’ house: we hear her leave a worried voice message on their answering machine as the camera pans over their sleeping (and soon to be dead) bodies before cutting back to show us Dani herself. Likewise, when the title card comes up, it does so over a depiction of the seasons – winter, spring, summer and autumn, in that order – rendered in the same traditional, Scandinavian-pagan style used throughout Hårga.

Thus: the film begins with a symbolic winter, marked by the deaths of a young woman and two elders, overlain by a song that acts as both a farewell and – crucially – a means of calling someone home, the “someone” in question being Dani. In early scenes in her apartment, the camera makes sure to show us the paintings on her wall: two different images of women wreathed in summer and autumnal flowers, vibrant yellows and oranges, and a third painting, displayed prominently over a bed where we see Dani sleeping, of a young girl holding out a burning lantern to a bear. Like the kulning, the significance of these images is not immediately apparent, but they mark a pattern of foreshadowing that continues throughout the film.

The same is also true of scenes with Christian’s friends. Prior to the revelation of Dani’s loss, Christian, Mark, Josh and Pelle are all out to dinner, with Mark encouraging Christian to break up with Dani. In retrospect, it’s telling that Pelle alone refrains from contributing to this conversation, while Josh – an anthropology major, like Christian – suggests that his friend is drawing out his relationship with Dani despite his unhappiness as a way to avoid his academic issues, such as his lack of a thesis topic. Christian is annoyed by this, but is easily sidetracked by Mark making a crass joke about all the Swedish women he could be “impregnating” on their trip to Hårga. Later on, during a trip-planning session, Mark makes a similar wish to do some sex tourism in Stockholm on route to Hårga, and is disappointed when Pelle says that they won’t be passing through Stockholm at all, as it’s in the opposite direction.

Though Christian’s lazy selfishness is already evident in his treatment of Dani, it soon becomes clear that this behaviour also extends to his friends: when Dani learns unexpectedly of his plans to go to Sweden in just two weeks, Christian responds by inviting her along, but only tells Pelle and the others of his offer when Dani is literally at the door, so that none of them can argue. While Josh and Mark are clearly bothered by this – Josh because of the awkwardness it creates, Mark because he wants it to be a boys’ trip – Pelle is almost incongruously accepting of it. He alone makes conversation with Dani, who notices him sketching, but when he mentions losing his own parents as a child, the word family becomes a trigger: she gets up abruptly to recover in the bathroom, and in a superb scene transition, the bathroom of the flat becomes the bathroom of the plane, where all of them are now en route to Sweden, the plane shaking in a brief encounter with turbulence.

Arriving in Hårga, the group takes psychedelic mushrooms together in a field with other newcomers: Dani is initially hesitant to join in, wanting to get settled first, but when Mark points out that taking the drugs at a separate times will result in them being on separate trips, Dani caves and participates. The subsequent scene is deliberately and successfully funny: as Pelle talks calmly about being one with nature, Mark freaks out that the sky is still blue at 9pm, while Christian is comically upset at the prospect of meeting new people. Dani, however, is doing just as Pelle says, watching the bark ripple on the trees as blades of grass appear to grow through her hand. It’s only when Josh starts saying that the guys are his real family that the word, once again, proves a trigger: Dani gets up and bolts, taking refuge in a wooden outhouse. There’s a brief flash of horror as she lights a candle and a face seems to appear briefly behind her in the dark, after which she runs into the woods and collapses into sleep, dreaming of her dead sister and parents.

When she wakes up again, it’s still light, and Pelle is leading the group on a hike to the actual homestead. Accompanying them are his “brother,” Ingemar, and Ingemar’s British friends Connie and Simon. There’s a moment of social awkwardness when Ingemar says he dated Connie before Simon did, only for Connie to say that they went on just one date that she didn’t even know was a date at the time. The moment passes, however, and soon the group are being welcomed to Hårga: a pastoral, low-tech setting where all the locals are dressed in white, with most of the women wearing flowers. It’s here that we get a truly fantastic trope subversion in the form of Josh, a black anthropology major, studying a “primitive” white culture: he wants to write his thesis on Hårga, and is excited to take notes on the midsummer festivities, which – we soon learn – are particularly special this year, involving rituals that happen only once every 90 years.

As Pelle – and, by extension, the cinematography – show us around the village, several unsettling things stand out. In one area, a large bear sits in a small cage, its presence deliberately unexplained; in another, the camera takes a slow pan across a tapestry which shows, in successive steps, how a woman can bewitch a man into her bed by carving a rune, feeding him a meal containing her pubic hair, and then making him drink a certain potion. It’s significant that this depiction goes chronologically from right-to-left, which would ordinarily be backwards: it’s a subtle visual cue that the expected narrative for the visitors is being upended, while the tapestry itself is a clue to later events. The same is also true of a dance on the lawn, which Pelle explains is called Skinning the Fool; and it’s here, as she dances past Christian and kicks him to get his attention, that we start to notice the interest Maja, one of Pelle’s “sisters,” has for him.

That evening, sleeping in an open, communal building whose interior walls are covered with storytelling pictures, Pelle explains that tomorrow, they’ll witness an ättestupaOnly Josh recognises the term and is stunned; Christian, despite also being an anthropology major, tries to Google the term, but misspells it and gets no results. The next day, the group participates in a solemn lunch where an older man and woman are seated at the head of a series of tables shaped to form a giant Odal rune: Josh asks Pelle if these are the ones, which Pelle confirms, but neither cues the others in to what’s happening. What follows is a shocking, gruesome scene where, after great ceremony, first the woman and then the man jump to their deaths from a cliff onto a flat rock below. While the woman dies instantly, the man survives with his legs smashed, and is effectively euthenased by three members of the community, who take turns smashing his head with a giant wooden mallet.

Prior to being killed, when the man with the smashed legs starts moaning in pain, all the Hårgans start wailing and screaming along with him, though only the horrified Connie and Simon actually try and help. This communal outpouring of emotion is repeated several times throughout the film, becoming more comprehensible in purpose – to the viewer, at least – as time goes on; but in this first instance, it feels alien and frightening, as though the man’s failure to die on impact means something has gone wrong and the Hårgans are lamenting. Instead, as we can later intuit, this is a way of showing that his pain is shared by the community: he hurts, so everyone screams as if they are hurt, too. Taken in this context, the fact that Christian lets a shaken Dani go off to grieve and process her trauma alone in the aftermath of the ritual shows a fundamental disconnect between Dani’s isolated experience of pain compared to how pain is treated in Hårga. His unconcern for her is also highlighted by the fact that, whereas he forgot her birthday the previous day and only remembered at Pelle’s prompting, Pelle drew Dani a portrait of her wearing a May Queen crown, having noticed her appreciating pictures of May Queens past.

That evening, despite being shaken by the ritual, Christian not only convinces Dani of the need to stay, but informs Josh that he’s going to do his thesis on the Hårga, too, effectively forcing Josh to split his research. That night, Dani has disturbing nightmares about Christian and the others leaving her in Hårga that intertwine with images of her dead family and the dead elders. The next morning, Josh observes Maja putting a carved rune under Christian’s bed and asks Pelle about it; Pelle replies that Maja has evidently set her sights on Christian, but is unconcerned by the implications.

It’s at this point that a true sense of unease begins to settle over the group: as their existing conflicts start to morph into bigger fractures, Dani is also aware of the fact that, according to the elders, Simon has incongruously left without Connie – a claim that Connie doesn’t believe. Dani tries to raise this with Christian, but he’s preoccupied “researching” by asking the Hårgans about their customs. Pointedly, both he and Josh ask different questions of different villagers that relate to incest: where Christian baldly asks if inbreeding is a problem in such a small community and is told no, but that interbreeding with outsiders is sometimes necessary, Josh is told by an elder that the community’s oracle, a deformed, disabled boy named Reuben, is a deliberate product of inbreeding – as are all their oracles. He also takes the time to point out one of their runes, called an affekt, which stands for grief. Later, as Dani is helping the other women in the kitchen, a scream rings out in the distance, but nobody reacts to it.

In the background of events, we see that the dead elders whose bodies were burned the night before – in one earlier shot, their pyre fades out over a shot of Dani sitting on the grass – have had their ashes poured into the roots of a fallen tree. Oblivious to this, Mark chooses this tree to piss on, and is yelled at for his disrespect to the community’s ancestors. During lunch, Dani tries once more to make Christian care about Simon’s disappearance, muttering that she could believe such a departure of him, but not Simon. Annoyed, Christian takes an early bite of his pie and finds a pubic hair in it, which Mark laughs about until a girl he’s been eyeing comes and leads him away. This same day, Pelle confronts Dani about Christian’s thoughtless treatment of her, saying that, out of everyone who came with him to Hårga, he was most excited for her to be there, because the Hårgans became his family after he was orphaned and he thinks she deserves that same sense of family and support in her life, too.

By nighttime, Mark still hasn’t reappeared from his tryst. Assuming he’s still with the girl, the others all go to sleep – all except Josh, who sneaks back out to take photographs of the Hårgan’s religious text after being forbidden to do so earlier. As he wields his camera in the dark, Josh is approached by a half-naked man he thinks at first is Mark; but as a hidden assailant smashes Josh over the head with the same sort of mallet used in the ättestupa ritual, we see that this isn’t Mark at all, but an unknown Hårgan wearing Mark’s skinned face as a mask. This is our second callback to early foreshadowing: just as Maja is steadily enacting the ritual shown on the tapestry to try and bewitch Christian, so has the dance called Skinning the Fool become literal, with hapless Mark the victim.

The next morning, the elders announce that their sacred text has been stolen, and point to the supposed overnight disappearance of Josh and Mark as proof that the pair are culprits. Dani is sceptical, but also increasingly distant from Christian, who eagerly tries to blame Josh for the crime while trying to ingratiate himself with the elders, the better to continue his research. Thus divided, when the Hårgans announce that Dani will go with the women for the day, she makes no protest, and it’s only when Christian is steered towards speaking to one of the female elders instead that he begins to sense that something is off. Even so, he continues down his assigned path, meeting with the elder in a building whose walls are covered with drawings, one of which in particular – that of bear on fire – catches his eye. While Christian sits uncomfortably, the elder informs him that he’s been approved to mate with Maja, as they are a perfect astrological match.

Meanwhile, Dani prepares to participate in the May Queen celebrations, where all the women take a psychedelic tea, then dance until they fall down, with the final woman standing to be crowned queen. Dani doesn’t understand these rules but participates regardless, and during the opening to the dance, she once more sees herself merging with nature, her feet growing roots in the grass. As the dance goes on, Dani temporarily appears able to speak and understand Swedish, conversing happily with her new friend. Pelle and Christian watch from nearby; Christian is offered a special tea by one of the girls, clearly on Maja’s behalf, and while he briefly tries to refuse, he irritably gives in and drinks it. When only eight girls are left, including Dani – a number of penultimate significance within the film, as the midsummer festivities are meant to last nine days – everyone seated cheers for those remaining; everyone except Christian, who ignores Dani’s participation completely. She sees this and is upset by it, but keeps on dancing and ends up being crowned May Queen.

As all the Hårgans cheer for Dani, she is swept up in a crowd of wellwishers while Christian stands on the outside, excluded and unhappy. Pelle, however, rushes forward and kisses Dani happily – she appears dazed but pleased by this – and in a brief moment of confusion, she thinks that one of the older women walking past her is her mother, only for the stranger to vanish back into the crowd. She is then given a massive crown of flowers, carried aloft on a wooden platform and taken to sit at the head of the table during lunch, a shot that mimics the position of honour held by the now-dead elders before their suicide. Christian appears sick and confused during the meal, while Dani sits resplendent on a throne of flowers. As the greenery pulses both in her vision and to the viewer, we see a single yellow flower irising open and shut in her headdress, as though indicating the presence of a third eye. She is then told that, as the May Queen, it is her job to bless the crops and livestock for the year to come. This involves being separated from Christian again, and while she asks if he can come with her, when she’s told no, she doesn’t protest.

As Dani goes to fulfil her duties as May Queen, an increasingly uneasy Christian is led along a path of petals to a barn, where a naked Maja – surrounded by a group of equally naked, singing women – is waiting for him on a bed of flowers. Though alarmed by this pageantry, Christian lies down to have sex with her, and continues to do so despite becoming more and more unnerved by the way the singing women mimic both Maja’s moans and his own laboured breathing. This is another example of the community’s shared expression of feeling: Maja feels pleasure, so they express pleasure, too. It’s also yet another callback to early foreshadowing, as it becomes clear that Christian is being used as breeding stock – an inverted, perverse fulfilment of the joke Mark made in America about impregnating Swedish milkmaids.

Returning from her May Queen duties, Dani hears the singing and moaning coming from the barn and, despite being cautioned not to stay away, goes to investigate. Peeping through the keyhole, she sees everything and spirals into a panic attack, much like the ones she’s experienced multiple times throughout the film. But whereas she’s previously been left to grieve alone on every occasion, this time her May Queen attendants come with her, mirroring her screams and cries while offering physical comfort. This creates a scene of simultaneous wildness and catharsis, the women offering a sympathetic expression of pain that echoes what happened during the suicide ritual: the Hårgans may have helped facilitate Christian’s betrayal of Dani, but they also offer her comfort in the aftermath.

Unaware of having been spied on, Christian finishes with Maja and reels back as she holds her knees to her chest, trying to aid conception. Naked and frightened, he runs from the barn, looking for someplace to go, but is put off by the screaming coming from Dani and her attendants in one direction and scared by the presence of Hårgans in the other. It’s then that he sees Josh’s severed leg sticking up from a garden patch, a rune carved on his foot. In panic, he runs into a chicken coop and finds Simon’s body displayed in a blood eagle for the hens to use as a perch, his eyes replaced with the same type of flower we just saw pulsing in Dani’s crown. Before he can run again, an elder appears and blows dust in Christian’s face, paralyzing him; he then closes Christian’s eyes with his thumb, which is shown as though he were smearing darkness over the camera, so that the audience is now encompassed by Christian’s point of view.

His eyes are opened again in the same fashion moments later, with a woman reaching in to thumb the camera clear. She tells Christian that he can’t move or speak, and as he – and the audience – watch, the final part of the ritual is described aloud to a crowd of onlookers by an elder. Along with four newcomers – Simon, Connie, Mark and Josh – who have been killed, four Hårgans will also die to ensure the prosperity of the community for the next 90 years: two of these latter are already dead, their bodies made into puppets with branches for arms, while one of the living two is Ingemar, who is acknowledged for bringing in two of the outsiders. Pelle, however, is praised for his insight in bringing not only a source of new blood – meaning Maja’s future child by Christian – but the May Queen, Dani, who is now considered a member of their community. All that remains is for the May Queen to choose whether the ninth and final victim will be Christian himself, or a Hårgan selected by lottery.

When Christian – and the viewer – now look at Dani, she is trapped in what is effectively a giant, triangular box-dress covered in flowers, so that only her face is visible beneath her crown. We do not see her make her choice, but we do see her gaze linger on Christian, and as Ingemar and the other live Hårgan sacrifice are taken into a ritual building – along with what remains of the bodies of the four dead outsiders and their two, pre-dead kinsfolk – the camera cuts to the body of the bear we earlier saw in a cage, now dead on a table, as an elder instructs a group of young boys on how to remove its intestines. Christian, still paralyzed, is then sewn into the body of the bear, his face peeking out while the rest of his limbs are hidden, concealing him in the skin just as Dani is concealed by flowers. He is then placed into the ritual room, and as the two other living sacrifices are given yew to stop their pain, an elder proclaims that the bear represents the greatest evil affekt, and that destroying it will cleanse the community.

As Dani and the other Hårgans watch, the building is then set alight. When one of the sacrificial Hårgans begins to scream in pain, the community – as at the suicide ritual (winter), the sex rite (spring) and during Dani’s grief (autumn) – all scream with him, including Dani herself. Unable to really run or move within the confines of her costume, we think at first that Dani is screaming in genuine fear and terror as she watches Christian and the others burn to death, but in the final shot of the film, we see her smiling. She has joined the Hårgans and been a willing participant in this final ritual, and with Christian’s death – the death of her grief, which the bear represented; foreshadowed by the affekt rune for grief, which the elder showed Josh – she is finally free.

And so the movie completes its seasonal, fulfilling what was promised by the kulning in the opening scenes: the herding call was to call Dani home, and in the end, she accepts. The painting hung over her bed in her apartment, showing a blonde girl extending a fiery lantern to a looming bear, not only presaged what was to come between her and Christian, but acknowledged the early imbalance in their roles: the girl was dwarfed by the beast. Yet at the end, Dani takes on the May Queen role and thus becomes representative of the greatest force for good in the Hårgan community, just as Christian is made representative of its greatest evil.

Why does Dani join the Hårgans? Because she’s grieving and vulnerable, mistreated by her partner, isolated from her friends and alone in the world after the recent death of her family – the perfect target, in other words, for recruitment to a cult, which the Hårgans undeniably are. The group may not have gone to Stockholm, as per Mark and Pelle’s early conversation, but Dani’s arc is ultimately one of Stockholm syndrome, a development aided, somewhat ironically, by the fact that Christian systematically ignores her early unease with what’s happening, causing her to accept the comfort of the very people she’s originally afraid of. This is paralleled in his early dismissal of her fears about her sister, who emails Dani about her intent to kill herself and their parents: though Dani is worried to tears, Christian insists that it’s just a ploy for attention and says Dani should ignore it, a misjudgement for which we never see him apologise.

And then there’s Pelle, who has clearly wanted Dani from the beginning. Though this intentions are never stated outright, it’s easy to speculate that he brought the pair along specifically so that Christian would die and Dani would then be available. This motive is paralleled by Ingemar’s unrequited feelings for Connie, who he brought along with Simon: whereas Ingemar, who ends up volunteering as a sacrifice in the wake of his failure, misjudged his targets and their feelings, causing both of them to reject the Hårgan setup and be killed instead, Pelle knew that Christian was disinterested and selfish, and that this made Dani vulnerable to an ideology which, despite its violence, would offer her the comfort and sense of belonging she craved.

And this is why it’s impossible to discuss Midsommar without running through the events of the film as a whole: though we don’t know it at the outset, the entire narrative is geared towards showing us how Dani comes to accept – and be accepted into – a cult. Over and over again, later occurrences are foreshadowed early on, and in keeping with the seasonal motif, they are often repeated in fours. The bear painting in Dani’s apartment, the live bear in the cage and the picture of the burning bear all herald the fourth and final reiteration where Christian burns in the bear-skin, just as the pictures of floral women in Dani’s apartment, the times she hallucinates the landscape of Hårga growing into her skin and Pelle’s drawing of her in a May Queen crown all presage her final capitulation.

Symbolically, Christian is tied to monstrousness while Dani is tied to growth, but while Dani ends the film accepting this imagery, the audience is aware that the two concepts are intertwined, doevetailing like the crux of the Odel rune: Christian is killed to facilitate the growth of the land, making his murderers monstrous, while Dani’s growth is dark and twisted, her final happiness growing out of blood. Likewise, Mark’s early worry about the group being on different trips becomes a different sort of prophecy: while Dani drinks one hallucinogenic tea prior to participating in the May Queen dance, Christian is separated and given a different drink at a later time, marking the point of irrevocable schism between them.

The whole film is superbly acted, scripted and shot, and will doubtless stand up to many successive viewings. I highly recommend Midsommar as both a horror film and as a superlative example of visual storytelling, and look forward to seeing what Aster does next.

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As social media platforms enter their collective adolescence – Facebook is fifteen, YouTube fourteen, Twitter thirteen, tumblr twelve – I find myself thinking about how little we really understand their cultural implications, both ongoing and for the future. At this point, the idea that being online is completely optional in modern world ought to be absurd, and yet multiple friends, having spoken to their therapists about the impact of digital abuse on their mental health, were told straight up to just stop using the internet. Even if this was a viable option for some, the idea that we can neatly sidestep the problem of bad behaviour in any non-utilitarian sphere by telling those impacted to simply quit is baffling at best and a tacit form of victim-blaming at worst. The internet might be a liminal space, but object permanence still applies to what happens here: the trolls don’t vanish if we close our eyes, and if we vanquish one digital hydra-domain for Toxicity Crimes without caring to fathom the whys and hows of what went wrong, we merely ensure that three more will spring up in its place.

Is the internet a private space, a government space or a public space? Yes.

Is it corporate, communal or unaffiliated? Yes.

Is it truly global or bound by local legal jurisdictions? Yes.

Does the internet reflect our culture or create it? Yes.

Is what people say on the internet reflective of their true beliefs, or is it a constant shell-game of digital personas, marketing ploys, intrusive thoughts, growth-in-progress, personal speculation and fictional exploration? Yes.

The problem with the internet is that takes up all three areas on a Venn diagram depicting the overlap between speech and action, and while this has always been the case, we’re only now admitting that it’s a bug as well as a feature. Human interaction cannot be usefully monitored using an algorithm, but our current conception of What The Internet Is has been engineered specifically to shortcut existing forms of human oversight, the better to maximise both accessibility (good to neutral) and profits (neutral to bad). Uber and Lyft are cheaper, frequently more convenient alternatives to a traditional taxi service, for instance, but that’s because the apps themselves are functionally predicated on the removal of meaningful customer service and worker protections that were hard-won elsewhere. Sites like tumblr are free to use, but the lack of revenue generated by those users means that, past a certain point, profits can only hope to outstrip expenses by selling access to those users and/or their account data, which means in turn that paying to effectively monitor their content creation becomes vastly less important than monetising it.

Small wonder, then, that individual users of social media platforms have learned to place a high premium on their ability to curate what they see, how they see it, and who sees them in turn. When I first started blogging, the largely unwritten rule of the blogsphere was that, while particular webforums dedicated to specific topics could have rules about content and conduct, blogs and their comment pages should be kept Free. Monitoring comments was viewed as a sign of narrow-minded fearfulness: even if a participant was aggressive or abusive, the enlightened path was to let them speak, because anything else was Censorship. This position held out for a good long while, until the collective frustration of everyone who’d been graphically threatened with rape, torture and death, bombarded with slurs, exhausted by sealioning or simply fed up with nitpicking and bad faith arguments finally boiled over.

Particularly in progressive circles, the relief people felt at being told that actually, we were under no moral obligation to let assholes grandstand in the comments or repeatedly explain basic concepts to only theoretically invested strangers was overwhelming. Instead, you could simply delete them, or block them, or maybe even mock them, if the offence or initial point of ignorance seemed silly enough. But as with the previous system, this one-size-fits-all approach soon developed a downside. Thanks to the burnout so many of us felt after literal years of trying to treat patiently with trolls playing Devil’s Advocate, liberal internet culture shifted sharply towards immediate shows of anger, derision and flippancy to anyone who asked a 101 question, or who didn’t use the right language, or who did anything other than immediately agree with whatever position was explained to them, however simply.

I don’t exempt myself from this criticism, but knowing why I was so goddamn tired doesn’t change my conviction that, cumulatively, the end result did more harm than good. Without wanting to sidetrack into a lengthy dissertation on digital activism in the post-aughties decade, it seems evident in hindsight that the then-fledgling alliance between trolls, MRAs, PUAs, Redditors and 4channers to deliberately exhaust left-wing goodwill via sealioning and bad faith arguments was only the first part of a two-pronged attack. The second part, when the left had lost all patience with explaining its own beliefs and was snappily telling anyone who asked about feminism, racism or anything else to just fucking Google it, was to swoop in and persuade the rebuffed party that we were all irrational, screeching harridans who didn’t want to answer because we knew our answers were bad, and why not consider reading Roosh V instead?

The fallout of this period, I would argue, is still ongoing. In an ideal world, drawing a link between online culture wars about ownership of SFF and geekdom and the rise of far-right fascist, xenophobic extremism should be a bow so long that not even Odysseus himself could draw it. But this world, as we’ve all had frequent cause to notice, is far from ideal at the best of times – which these are not – and yet another featurebug of the internet is the fluid interpermeability of its various spaces. We talk, for instance – as I am talking here – about social media as a discreet concept, as though platforms like Twitter or Facebook are functionally separate from the other sites to which their users link; as though there is no relationship between or bleed-through from the viral Facebook post screencapped and shared on BuzzFeed, which is then linked and commented upon on Reddit, which thread is then linked to on Twitter, where an entirely new conversation emerges and subsequently spawns an article in The Huffington Post, which is shared again on Facebook and the replies to that shared on tumblr, and so on like some grizzly perpetual mention machine.

But I digress. The point here is that internet culture is best understood as a pattern of ripples, each new iteration a reaction to the previous one, spreading out until it dissipates and a new shape takes its place. Having learned that slamming the virtual door in everyone’s face was a bad idea, the online left tried establishing a better, calmer means of communication; the flipside was a sudden increase in tone-policing, conversations in which presentation was vaunted over substance and where, once again, particular groups were singled out as needing to conform to the comfort-levels of others. Overlapping with this was the move towards discussing things as being problematic, rather than using more fixed and strident language to decry particular faults – an attempt to acknowledge the inherent fallibility of human works while still allowing for criticism. A sensible goal, surely, but once again, attempting to apply the dictum universally proved a double-edged sword: if everything is problematic, then how to distinguish grave offences from trifling ones? How can anyone enjoy anything if we’re always expected to thumb the rosary of its failings first?

When everything is problematic and everyone has the right to say so, being online as any sort of creator or celebrity is like being nibbled to death by ducks. The well-meaning promise of various organisations, public figures or storytellers to take criticism on board – to listen to the fanbase and do right by their desires – was always going to stumble over the problem of differing tastes. No group is a hivemind: what one person considers bad representation or in poor taste, another might find enlightening, while yet a third party is more concerned with something else entirely. Even in cases with a clear majority opinion, it’s physically impossible to please everyone and a type of folly to try, but that has yet to stop the collective internet from demanding it be so. Out of this comes a new type of ironic frustration: having once rejoiced in being allowed to simply block trolls or timewasters, we now cast judgement on those who block us in turn, viewing them, as we once were viewed, as being fearful of criticism.

Are we creating echo chambers by curating what we see online, or are we acting in pragmatic acknowledgement of the fact that we neither have time to read everything nor an obligation to see all perspectives as equally valid? Yes.

Even if we did have the time and ability to wade through everything, is the signal-to-noise ratio of truth to lies on the internet beyond our individual ability to successfully measure, such that outsourcing some of our judgement to trusted sources is fundamentally necessary, or should we be expected to think critically about everything we encounter, even if it’s only intended as entertainment? Yes.

If something or someone online acts in a way that’s antithetical to our values, are we allowed to tune them out thereafter, knowing full well that there’s a nearly infinite supply of as-yet undisappointing content and content-creators waiting to take their place, or are we obliged to acknowledge that Doing A Bad doesn’t necessarily ruin a person forever? Yes.

And thus we come to cancel culture, the current – but by no means final – culmination of previous internet discourse waves. In this iteration, burnout at critical engagement dovetails with a new emphasis on collective content curation courtesies (try saying that six times fast), but ends up hamstrung once again by differences in taste. Or, to put it another way: someone fucks up and it’s the last straw for us personally, so we try to remove them from our timelines altogether – but unless our friends and mutuals, who we still want to engage with, are convinced to do likewise, then we haven’t really removed them at all, such that we’re now potentially willing to make failure to cancel on demand itself a cancellable offence.

Which brings us right back around to the problem of how the modern internet is fundamentally structured – which is to say, the way in which it’s overwhelmingly meant to rely on individual curation instead of collective moderation. Because the one thing each successive mode of social media discourse has in common with its predecessors is a central, and currently unanswerable question: what universal code of conduct exists that I, an individual on the internet, can adhere to – and expect others to adhere to – while we communicate across multiple different platforms?

In the real world, we understand about social behavioural norms: even if we don’t talk about them in those terms, we broadly recognise them when we see them. Of course, we also understand that those norms can vary from place to place and context to context, but as we can only ever be in one physical place at a time, it’s comparatively easy to adjust as appropriate.

But the internet, as stated, is a liminal space: it’s real and virtual, myriad and singular, private and public all at once. It confuses our sense of which rules might apply under which circumstances, jumbles the normal behavioural cues by obscuring the identity of our interlocutors, and even though we don’t acknowledge it nearly as often as we should, written communication – like spoken communication – is a skill that not everyone has, just as tone, whether spoken or written, isn’t always received (or executed, for that matter) in the way it was intended. And when it comes to politics, in which the internet and its doings now plays no small role, there’s the continual frustration that comes from observing, with more and more frequency, how many literal, real-world crimes and abuses go without punishment, and how that lack of consequences contributes in turn to the fostering of abuse and hostility towards vulnerable groups online.

This is what comes of occupying a transitional period in history: one in which laws are changed and proposed to reflect our changing awareness of the world, but where habit, custom, ignorance, bias and malice still routinely combine, both institutionally and more generally, to see those laws enacted only in part, or tokenistically, or not at all. To take one of the most egregious and well-publicised instances that ultimately presaged the #MeToo movement, the laughably meagre sentence handed down to Brock Turner, who was caught in the act of raping an unconscious woman, combined with the emphasis placed by both the judge and much of the media coverage on his swimming talents and family standing as a means of exonerating him, made it very clear that sexual violence against women is frequently held to be less important than the perceived ‘bright futures’ of its perpetrators.

Knowing this, then – knowing that the story was spread, discussed and argued about on social media, along with thousands of other, similar accounts; knowing that, even in this context, some people still freely spoke up in defence of rapists and issued misogynistic threats against their female interlocutors – is it any wonder that, in the absence of consistent legal justice in such cases, the internet tried, and is still trying, to fill the gap? Is it any wonder, when instances of racist police brutality are constantly filmed and posted online, only for the perpetrators to receive no discipline, that we lose patience for anyone who wants to debate the semantics of when, exactly, extrajudicial murder is “acceptable”?

We cannot control the brutality of the world from the safety of our keyboards, but when it exhausts or threatens us, we can at least click a button to mute its seeming adherents. We don’t always have the energy to decry the same person we’ve already argued against a thousand times before, but when a friend unthinkingly puts them back on our timeline for some new reason, we can tell them that person is cancelled and hope they take the hint not to do it again. Never mind that there is far too often no subtlety, no sense of scale or proportion to how the collective, viral internet reacts in each instance, until all outrage is rendered flat and the outside observer could be forgiven for worrying what’s gone wrong with us all, that using a homophobic trope in a TV show is thought to merit the same online response as an actual hate crime. So long as the war is waged with words alone, there’s only a finite number of outcomes that boycotting, blocking, blacklisting, cancelling, complaining and critiquing can achieve, and while some of those outcomes in particular are well worth fighting for, so many words are poured towards so many attempts that it’s easy to feel numbed to the process; or, conversely, easy to think that one response fits all contexts.

I’m tired of cancel culture, just as I was dully tired of everything that preceded it and will doubtless grow tired of everything that comes after it in turn, until our fundamental sense of what the internet is and how it should be managed finally changes. Like it or not, the internet both is and is of the world, and that is too much for any one person to sensibly try and curate at an individual level. Where nothing is moderated for us, everything must be moderated by us; and wherever people form communities, those communities will grow cultures, which will develop rules and customs that spill over into neighbouring communities, both digitally and offline, with mixed and ever-changing results. Cancel culture is particularly tricky in this regard, as the ease with which we block someone online can seldom be replicated offline, which makes it all the more intoxicating a power to wield when possible: we can’t do anything about the awful coworker who rants at us in the breakroom, but by God, we can block every person who reminds us of them on Twitter.

The thing about participating in internet discourse is, it’s like playing Civilisation in real-time, only it’s not a game and the world keeps progressing even when you log off. Things change so fast on the internet – memes, etiquette, slang, dominant opinions – and yet the changes spread so organically and so fast that we frequently adapt without keeping conscious track of when and why they shifted. Social media is like the Hotel California: we can check out any time we like, but we can never meaningfully leave – not when world leaders are still threatening nuclear war on Twitter, or when Facebook is using friendly memes to test facial recognition software, or when corporate accounts are creating multi-staffed humansonas to engage with artists on tumblr, or when YouTube algorithms are accidentally-on-purpose steering kids towards white nationalist propaganda because it makes them more money.

Of course we try and curate our time online into something finite, comprehensible, familiar, safe: the alternative is to embrace the near-infinite, incomprehensible, alien, dangerous gallimaufry of our fractured global mindscape. Of course we want to try and be critical, rational, moral in our convictions and choices; it’s just that we’re also tired and scared and everyone who wants to argue with us about anything can, even if they’re wrong and angry and also our relative, or else a complete stranger, and sometimes you just want to turn off your brain and enjoy a thing without thinking about it, or give yourself some respite, or exercise a tiny bit of autonomy in the only way you can.

It’s human nature to want to be the most amount of right for the least amount of effort, but unthinkingly taking our moral cues from internet culture the same way we’re accustomed to doing in offline contexts doesn’t work: digital culture shifts too fast and too asymmetrically to be relied on moment to moment as anything like a universal touchstone. Either you end up preaching to the choir, or you run a high risk of aggravation, not necessarily due to any fundamental ideological divide, but because your interlocutor is leaning on a different, false-universal jargon overlying alternate 101 and 201 concepts to the ones you’re using, and modern social media platforms – in what is perhaps the greatest irony of all – are uniquely poorly suited to coherent debate.

Purity wars in fandom, arguments about diversity in narrative and whether its proponents have crossed the line from criticism into bullying: these types of arguments are cyclical now, dying out and rekindling with each new wave of discourse. We might not yet be in a position to stop it, but I have some hope that being aware of it can mitigate the worst of the damage, if only because I’m loathe to watch yet another fandom steadily talk itself into hating its own core media for the sake of literal argument.

For all its flaws – and with all its potential – the internet is here to stay. Here’s hoping we figure out how to fix it before its ugliest aspects make us give up on ourselves.

 

 

 

 

 

Trigger warning: referenced child abuse

In the land of Uztar, falconry is everything. From the ruling kyrgs in their castles to the commoners who trap and train birds for a living, Uztari culture is centred on birds of prey. Yet one bird is feared and revered above all others: the legendary ghost eagle, a massive raptor whose strange, psychic cry exposes the worst selves of all who hunt it. Many falconers have died in pursuit of the ghost eagle and the glory it represents – including Yzzat, an abusive drunkard whose cruelty has forever scarred his children. Now free from their father, twins Kylee and Brysen are finally close to escaping out from under the debts he left behind – until Brysen’s boyfriend, Dymian, lands in trouble with the Tamir family. To save him, Brysen makes an impulsive promise: a ghost eagle in exchange for Dymian’s life. As the threat of war between the Uztari and the feared Kartami, extremists who revile all falconry, begins to shape wider events, Brysen and Kylee must negotiate their own troubled relationship in order to save their future. But what chance do two teenagers have against the ghost eagle?

Every so often, I find myself drifting away from YA as a genre, until a book comes along that drags me back in and reminds me what I love about it. Black Wings Beating is such a book: beautifully worldbuilt, exceptionally characterised and deftly written, it packs a lot of feeling into a compact, pacey package. It also hits that (for me) perfect sweet-spot of magic fantasy adventure meets queer romantic feelings: though queerness is normative and accepted within the setting, Brysen is still allowed to struggle with romance and identity along a different axis, neatly paralleling Kylee’s quest to accept and understand her gift for the Hollow Tongue, an ancient magical language that bestows control over birds.

Told with alternating third-person focus on Kylee and Brysen and interspersed with glimpses of wider political happenings, Black Wings Beating is, at its heart, a novel about abuse, autonomy and survival. Since childhood, Kylee and Brysen were pitted against each other by their father, Yzzat, who yearned to exploit his daughter’s gifts while reviling his son’s comparative lack of talent. Though furious with and frustrated by Kylee’s disinterest in falconry and her refusal to use her magic to his advantage, Yzzat still dreamed of winning her to his cause and, through her, obtaining prestige. As such, his physical abuse was reserved for Brysen alone: whippings, beatings and worse that left Brysen desperate to prove himself useful. And so the dichotomy between the twins was set: Kylee, reluctant to use her talents and thereby see her brother further diminished, forced to carry the weight of the world along with the care and management of her family; Brysen, rushing headlong into any opportunity to shine without realistic planning, dreaming big to cover how small he feels and the knowledge that, if he stops to think, he’ll remember to hate himself.

It’s an achingly real dynamic, and one that sees the reader rooting for both siblings despite – or perhaps because of – how often their feelings and shared-yet-different experiences put them at odds. London has a nuanced grasp of psychology and characterisation that makes even his minor characters feel fleshed out, and when combined with his vivid portrayal of falconry and its place in Uztari culture, the effect is powerful. Reading Black Wings Beating, in fact, I was finally able to articulate something I’ve been struggling to pin down in terms of YA novels generally: the distinction between a story in which potentially difficult teenage behaviours are excused, and one in which they are explained.

In the former instance, neither the text itself nor the events it depicts make any real judgement or commentary about the characters’ actions: whether they’re being kind or cruel, sensible or impulsive, hesitant or brash, and if this ultimately has a positive or negative effect on those around them. Rather, we’re shown how their motives are justified to them, such that it’s easy to conflate the character’s feelings with the author’s approval of their actions – sometimes correctly, sometimes not, but in either case due to the lack of textual evidence for a different interpretation. In the latter instance, either the text or the events it depicts, or both, are used to make us think critically about the characters, such that, even when we understand their self-justifications, we’re encouraged by the text – and, by extension, the author – to form our own conclusions.

To be clear: I’m not saying that the former type of story is bad, or that this dichotomy between stories that lack or feature authorial commentary exists only in YA. However, in the specific context of the teenage characters in YA SFF, who are often called upon to act in extraordinary ways or participate in world-altering events, and whose youthful impulsiveness is often used to propel them through their adventures, reading Black Wings Beating has confirmed my preference for the latter type of story. Over and over again, both Brysen and Kylee make terrible choices while only sometimes being aware of it. But while London shows us their rationalisations, he doesn’t present them as being objectively rational. Both Kylee and Brysen are trying their best, but their abusive childhood has twisted their relationship, their judgement and their self-perception in different ways, such that, even when they know they’ve made a bad decision, they don’t always know what the right one would’ve been, or even if there was a better choice to be made at all.

Set over the course of a few days, Black Wings Beating uses Kylee and Brysen as an intimate lens through which to view the incipient struggles of Uztar as a whole. Though we only catch glimpses of the power-hungry kyrgs and the coming Kartami threat, these parts of the story all fit neatly together, so that our focus on the twins looks like a convincing telescopic zoom-in on the localised details of a wider landscape. And throughout it all, the influence of falconry – of the eternally unrequited love of a falconer for their birds – is incorporated into the narrative. Just as Brysen’s existing relationship with Dymian, a falcon master, is contrasted with his newfound bond with Jowyn, a bone-white boy who lives with the mysterious Owl Mothers, so is Kylee’s friendship with Vyvian, a spy for the kyrgs, contrasted with her feelings for Nyall, a long-time friend who loves her despite her indifference to romance.

The love a falconer has for their bird will never be reciprocated, the story tells us, and yet that love – the willingness to care for a creature that may only hurt or disdain you – lies at the heart of falconry. It is this love which the Kartami despise as weak, but it is also central to the strength both Kylee and Brysen show: the courage it takes them to love at all – to love themselves, to love others, and to contemplate being loved – despite the abuse they’ve endured.

Though Black Wings Beating is clearly the first volume in a planned trilogy, it nonetheless ends on an emotionally satisfying note. I can’t wait to see what happens in the rest of the series, and I look forward to reading whatever else London writes in the future.

As busy as I’ve been today, my attention has nonetheless been drawn to Robert Silverberg’s recent post on File 770, wherein he seeks to defend himself against charges of racism and sexism stemming from his reaction – made privately, but later reported publicly – to Nora Jemisin’s 2018 Hugo Award acceptance speech. In the spirit of full disclosure, I will say that I’m lucky enough to call Nora a friend, while Silverberg, both as man and author, is a virtual stranger to me. On the night of the Hugo Awards in question, I was briefly introduced to him by a third party as one of the nominees for the Best Fan Writer award, which category he was set to introduce. He looked at me in a way which, both at the time and on reflection, felt as if I was not so much being seen as looked through. I mention this, not to cast further aspersions on the man – Silverberg was not obliged to pay me any special attention, nor did I expect it from him – but to be honest about our limited interaction, which extended not much further than a hello and a brief period of standing in the same circle.

I do know, however, that Silverberg is a beloved figure to many fellow SFF writers, such that his original reaction to Jemisin’s speech and the things he’s written now are distressing on a personal level. Once upon a time, I might have sworn and shouted about Silverberg’s post, but 2018 has been a very long year, and I am tired. Yelling at Silverberg will not make me feel better about the state of the world, and so I will rather attempt to explain, for the sake of anyone who might want such an explanation, why Silverberg’s comments have produced such an upset reaction.

The problem, at base, stems from Silverberg’s misapprehension of four key points. Specifically:

  1. His evident failure to understand the relevance of Jemisin’s experience, and the experiences of those like her, to both the work for which she was being awarded and its context within the SFF world currently;
  2. His apparent belief that a Hugo speech should not be politicised;
  3. His mistaken belief that Jemisin was angry in the first place; and
  4. His confusion as to what, exactly, he’s being accused of.

To quote the File 770 piece:

At San Jose, the Best Novel Hugo went — for the third consecutive year — to a writer who used her acceptance speech to denounce those who had placed obstacles in her path stemming from her race and sex as she built her career, culminating in her brandishing her new Hugo as a weapon aimed at someone who had been particularly egregious in his attacks on her.  Soon after the convention, I commented, in a private chat group, that I felt that her angry acceptance speech had been a graceless one, because I believe that Hugo acceptance speeches should be occasions for gratitude and pleasure, not angry statements that politicize what should be a happy ceremony.  I said nothing about her race, her sex, or the quality of her books.  My comment was aimed entirely at her use of the Hugo stage to launch a statement of anger.

I would not presume to comment on her experience of having had racist and sexist obstacles placed in her career path.  I have no doubt that she did face such challenges, and I’m sure the pain created by them still lingers.  I in no way intended to add to that pain.  However, it seemed to me that this writer, after an unprecedented three-Hugo sweep and considerable career success otherwise, had triumphed over whatever obstacles were placed in her path and need not have used the Hugo platform to protest past mistreatment.

Beginning with my first point: by his own admission in his original comments, Silverberg has not read Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, for which she won the unprecedented three consecutive Best Novel Hugo Awards. Both individually and as a series, the Broken Earth is about exactly the issues that Jemisin raised in her speech: bigotry, prejudice, institutional cruelty, and how goddamn difficult it is to overcome all these things in pursuit of change. To everyone who has read and understood her books, Jemisin’s speech is in clear conversation with them, and therefore makes perfect thematic sense.

But at another level – that of real-world SFF politics – the points she made were also deeply relevant, not just in a general sense, but to the actual goings-on at that convention. As I’ve previously recounted elsewhere, throughout the weekend of the 2018 Worldcon, right-wing protesters affiliated with the Sad Puppy movement showed up in front of the building with the aim of harassing congoers. Some chanted actual Nazi slogans; others carried pro-Trump signs. Antifa and police showed up in response, and while the original protesters were few and handily dealt with, their physical presence was just one manifestation of an increasingly ugly culture of far-right bigotry in the SFF community: one with which Silverberg himself, as he points out, has now become unwillingly associated, as his private comments were initially posted on website run by one of the more prominent Puppies. This same man is known for casting racist abuse at Jemisin, which event she alluded to in her speech.

Which brings us to the second point: Silverberg’s seeming objection to the political content of the speech. I say seeming, because I’m not entirely sure he means this particular comment in quite the way it reads – or at least, I have difficulty believing that he thought through the full implications. Because, dear God: has there ever been a time when Hugo speeches weren’t political? I’ve been on the SFF scene for nearly a decade – which, granted, is a pittance compared to Silverberg’s tenure – and in that time, I’m pretty sure that every single Hugo Awards ceremony has featured multiple speeches whose contents touch on politics in some way, sometimes because of events surrounding the con itself, as in the Sad Puppy era, or else just due to the political nature of the work that was being awarded. Even if that’s a new development in the history of the Hugos – and I’m inclined to think it isn’t – it’s still an ample precedent for Jemisin’s speech.

The alternative explanation here is that Silverberg is using the word “politicize,” not as a literal criticism of Jemisin’s decision to reference politics, but for daring to say something that could, potentially, split the room in terms of its reception. And I just, like. Not to be all glibly millennial, but it’s a fucking awards ceremony, Robert. By definition, the choice of winner is always a bit politicised, in that individual people have different tastes and different reasons for voting for particular candidates, and the overlapping discussion of pros and cons, merits and failings, has a tendency to get heated, not to say personally felt. Name me a major awards ceremony in which, in any given year, not a single person claims that the argument for Winner X was politicised, or that there were political reasons why Nominee Y missed out, and I will fall over backwards in astonishment.

Either way, this seems like a strange and incongruous complaint to make of Jemisin in particular, as though she were the lone culprit of something unprecedented. It strikes me as being the type of complaint you’d only raise if you were disquieted by her speech and looking to blame that reaction on her, sans personal introspection as to why that might be. What Jemisin accomplished with her win was unarguably historic – and, just as unarguably, took place within a political context where there was demonstrable, immediate overlap between the issues raised in her work, the issues raised in her speech, events at the con where she was being awarded, events within the wider SFF community, and the broader political reality of living in 2018. Which is a large part of why her win, in addition to being historic, was historically meaningful – which is why, in turn, her speech was so overwhelmingly well-received by people other than Silverberg.

Which brings us to the third point: his misapprehension of Jemisin’s anger. Because Jemisin, for all that she spoke with passion, was not angry: she was triumphant. The point of mentioning everything she’d overcome to win and how bad things have been in the world – just as things had been bad in the world of her books – was to speak with hope for the future: to say that, like her characters, we can endure and make things better. She talked about working her ass off to succeed because, over and over again, the accusation flung at minority authors within the SFF community, including Jemisin herself, is that any success we have is due wholly to insincere virtue-signalling on the part of others; that we’re not really talented and deserving, but are rather the creative equivalent of an unloved diversity hire, selected for tokenism and nothing else. Jemisin knew this, as did everyone who cheered during her speech. We recognised it for what it was: a powerful, happy celebration of triumph over adversity.

Triumph, as I should not have to tell a fellow writer, is not synonymous with anger – but when you have been socially conditioned to see an outspoken, passionate black woman as an inherently angry figure, the unconscious leap is an easy one to make. Which is where we come to the fourth point: Silverberg’s failure to understand exactly what he’s being accused of, and on what basis.

In penning his self-defence piece on File 770, Silverberg goes into detail about how he cannot possibly be sexist or racist, because he has black writer friends and has published women. There are many ways to respond to such a trite assertion, the majority of which are profane, but in this particular instance, I’m going to go with this one: Silverberg has confused conscious racism and sexism with unconscious (racist and sexist) bias. Specifically: as he does not actively think of women and people of colour as inferior – and is, indeed, opposed to the logic of those who do – he believes he cannot be rightly accused of committing racist or sexist acts.

Silverberg sincerely believes this to be true – and in another decade, such a statement might well have been viewed as self-evident by those who shared his political leanings. The problem is that we now know, quite conclusively, that this belief is wrong – a fact that has been repeatedly born out by academic research into unconscious bias and related fields of study. Whether we like it or not, we all unconsciously absorb information about the world which influences our actions and reactions, particularly about groups of people to which we don’t belong or with which we have little personal experience. This is why, for instance, dogwhistling in politics is an actual thing: a bigoted speaker need only reference the myth of “welfare queens,” for instance, and even though the majority of welfare recipients in the US are white, many of them seniors, using the system out of genuine need, the image we’re meant to picture is that of a young, unmarried black mother, deliberately bearing children just to sponge more from the state.

One of the most pernicious such myths is that of the angry black woman. This myth has been deeply embedded in the cultural and political narratives of Western nations, and particularly the US, for a long goddamn time; long enough and deeply enough to have wormed its way into the subconscious of even the most well-meaning white people. The salt in the wound of this myth, of course, is that black women, both presently and historically, have suffered a great deal of mistreatment about which to be legitimately angry – but a failure to smile and a slightly raised voice is enough to see anything they say, whether actually spoken in anger or not, dismissed as unreasonable hostility.

This is why Silverberg’s comments about Jemisin’s speech were seen as racist, and why his decision to counter that accusation by saying, in essence, “but I have black friends!” both misses the point and further cements the verity of the original complaint. (As, for that matter, does his decision to double down by using phrases like “brandishing her new Hugo as a weapon,” as though she did anything with a heavy, unwieldy statue other than hold it.) Racism isn’t exclusively defined as such by intent, but by the pattern to which it contributes and the impact it has on the affected party, just as a wound isn’t only a wound if it was delivered on purpose. If a careless hand-talker flings their arm out in conversation and knocks an unsuspecting passerby into a table, that person is still injured, and the correct response is to apologise for hurting them and figure out how to prevent a recurrence – not to claim that, since you didn’t mean to do it, it didn’t really happen.

Now: in saying all this, I have one tiny sliver of sympathy for Silverberg, and that comes from having his comments in a private forum made public without his knowledge or consent. I am sympathetic, not because I think this makes a meaningful difference to their content, but because nobody likes to be on the wrong side of a breech of digital etiquette, and because there’s a difference between speaking an opinion to a close group of friends and declaring it from a public pulpit. Had his original remarks not been made public, and had he instead been called upon to speak publicly before making them, he might well have spoken less candidly and with greater thought to the impact. But the fact remains that he meant what he said, regardless of the circumstances under which he said it – something he has now confirmed by way of his self-defence essay, which rather negates my feeling sorry for him in this instance.

Do I think that Robert Silverberg is, at the core of his being, in his most deliberate acts and comments, racist and sexist? No. But do his intentions make him immune from taking racist and sexist actions, or saying racist and sexist things, out of ignorance or privilege or sheer unconscious parroting? Not in the slightest. Because – and this is the hardest truth for a lot of people to swallow – no-one is completely morally perfect. While it might behove us at times to be generous with forgiveness, and while there’s certainly many valid criticisms of online callout culture to be made – let he who is without problematic behaviours cast the first stone of discourse, etc –  acknowledging our fallibility shouldn’t stop us from trying to do better.

Silverberg is in the doghouse, not because he’s being viewed as a monster, but because he made an ignorant, hurtful comment and elected to double down on it rather than show some humility and learn from those he impacted.

Here endeth the explanation.

Warning: total spoilers for all four Scream movies. 

When I sat down this week to rewatch Scream, I did so as part of a horror-binge inspired by my first American Halloween experience. The first time I saw it, I was doubtless too young: I was ten at the time of its 1996 release, and while I was probably twelve or so before I actually watched it, I was never one of those kids with an appetite for horror. I found it gruesome and upsetting, and when I saw it again in my late teens, my reaction was much the same. Unsurprisingly, teenage-me had never seen the horror classics whose tropes and themes form the basis of Scream’s meta-narrative. This time around, however, I was fresh off watching Halloween, Halloween H20, Friday the 13th Part 1 and Part 2, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. (I also attempted A Nightmare on Elm Street, but tapped out after twenty minutes; it was too naff.)

All this being so, I expected I’d understand Scream a little better than I had in my teens, and that I’d maybe have a decent time watching it. I did not expect to stumble on what now feels like an eerily prescient glimpse into modern toxic geekdom: a weird strata of 90s cinema that moved me to watch Scream 2, Scream 3 and Scream 4 in quick succession, not because I thought they’d be any good – indeed, each film is exponentially worse than the last – but to try and work out whether what I saw in Scream was accidental, incidental or both, and to what degree.

In its now-iconic opening sequence, Scream shows us a terrified young woman, Casey (Drew Barrymore), as she’s taunted on the phone by the as-yet unknown killer/s. With her boyfriend revealed to be tied up outside, the killer/s challenge Casey to answer horror movie trivia questions. If she answers correctly, her boyfriend will live; if not, he’ll die. Though Casey correctly answers the first question – the name of the killer in Halloween – she flubs the second, mistakenly naming Jason Vorhees as the killer in the original Friday the 13th film, instead of his mother, Mrs Vorhees. Her boyfriend is then gutted, with Casey herself killed gruesomely and left to hang in a tree for her parents to find.

Watching Scream in my teens was terrifying because of the violence and jump scares. Watching now, however, that opening scene hits home in a very different way. Back in 1996, mobile phones were still so recent and uncommon that a character in Scream is asked by police, “What are you doing with a cellular telephone, son?”. That being so, it’s eerie  how the killer/s’ initial, escalating conversation with Casey reads exactly like the sort of hair-trigger, toxic misogyny that women so frequently encounter now in texts and online messages.

A man calls Casey out of the blue; she assumes it’s a wrong number and hangs up. He calls back, saying he wants to talk; she tells him there are 900 numbers for that. He calls again and asks why she doesn’t want to talk – and here, because this is a film written by a dude, Casey decides to humour him. They have an almost pleasant conversation, albeit an unrealistic one: it’s borderline flirtatious, the killer asking if she has a boyfriend, Casey lying and saying no, as though that’s in any way the usual response to an unknown, nameless creep who keeps pestering you for conversation. Eventually, though, the killer reveals that he’s looking at her; at which point, Casey understandably hangs up. He calls again; she tells him to call someone else. He calls again, and this time he’s angry: “Listen, you little bitch,” he hisses, “You hang up on me again, I’ll gut you like a fish, you understand?” 

Substitute hanging up the phone with ignoring a stranger’s increasingly aggressive texts, and a fictional conversation between a male serial killer and his female victim from twenty-two years ago is virtually identical to the kind of everyday encounters women have with men online in 2018. Throw in the killer/s need to prove their superiority over Casey by besting her in a game of pop culture trivia, and the parallel evokes the ongoing clusterfuck of toxic misogyny in SFF circles, not least because the killer/s are eventually revealed to be Billy (Skeet Ulrich) and Stu (Matthew Lillard), the respective boyfriends of protagonist Sidney (Neve Campbell) and her best friend Tatum (Rose McGowan): disaffected horror geeks whose initial, public reaction to “hearing” about the murders is laughter.

It’s so breathtakingly salient, you’d almost think that writer Kevin Williamson and director Wes Craven were trying to craft a cautionary tale about what happens when angry, sexist geekboys go bad – and yet, despite how obvious that reading of the film now seems, I’d argue that those elements were largely unintentional. Though the self-professed meta of Scream is obsessed with naming horror tropes even as it enacts them, there’s never any explicit discussion of how those tropes are frequently impacted by the misogyny of the killers, misogyny in the narrative (whether conscious or subconscious) or a combination of both. Thus: it’s clear throughout Scream that Billy and Stu are sexist, not because Williamson and Craven are telling a story about sexism, but because sexism is such a fundamental part of the tropes they’re using that they’ve imported it wholesale. This means in turn that, while misogyny is a huge part of Billy’s motive in particular, the story doesn’t really comment upon it even when given the opportunity to do so; nor does it usefully comment upon the sexism it depicts elsewhere.

For instance: during an early phone conversation with the as-yet unknown killer/s, Sidney says that she dislikes horror movies because, “They’re all the same: some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl that can’t act, running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door – it’s insulting.” Put in Sidney’s mouth, this line is the closest the film ever comes to acknowledging sexist horror tropes at the level of both creation (actresses cast for looks over talent) and characterisation (damsels who make poor choices). Moments later, however, the observation is undermined when Sidney does exactly the thing she’s just decried, running upstairs to escape the killer/s instead of heading outside. This is what we in the business call lampshading: drawing attention to an egregious fault or obvious trope-use in lieu of actually fixing or addressing it in the narrative. As lampshading can often be used to comic effect, I’d argue that this moment in Scream is meant as a type of black comedy: Sidney is aware enough to know that women in horror films are constrained by sexism, but not aware enough to keep from being constrained herself.

As such, sexism is silently reinforced as an aspect of Scream which, while integral to the horror genre, is not one of the “rules” we’re meant to examine in order to predict what happens next. Indeed, if it was, Stu and Billy’s guilt would be obvious from the get-go: the first time we meet them, they’re not only joking callously about the murder of Casey and her boyfriend – Casey rejected Stu at one point; they laugh that this gives him motive to kill her – but are doing so in front of Sidney, whose mother was murdered and raped (by them, it turns out) the previous year. Notably, it’s this conversation which contains the only explicit reference to sexism in the whole film, courtesy of Tatum. When Stu asserts that “there’s no way a girl could’ve killed them,” she replies, “That is so sexist. The killer could easily be female, Basic Instinct.” But of course, Tatum is wrong, which Stu already knows because the killer is him and Billy. Sexism is here acknowledged, but as something we’re meant to ignore, not as a rule of genre, and while it’s possible to argue that this is a deliberate red herring, given the meta-nature of the film as a whole, it therefore becomes conspicuous that the gotcha isn’t expounded upon at the finale.

What is expounded upon during Stu and Billy’s big reveal, however, is an argument that reappears at crucial moments in both Scream 2 and Scream 3: the question of whether horror movies cause real-world violence. While still technically relevant in 2018, this particular question is currently less culturally urgent than the matter of toxic misogyny, which is why it’s so tempting to think that, surely, Craven and Williamson must have been calling out sexists deliberately. But in the eighties and nineties – and, indeed, the early 2000s – the opposite was true. At the time, there was massive cultural panic over the idea that that things like violent video games, Dungeons and Dragons, rap music and horror movies were actively causing teenagers to go bad. When Billy and Stu taunt their genre-savvy friend Randy (Jamie Kennedy) about his status as a suspect on the basis of his interests, he agreed: “You’re absolutely right; I’m the first to admit it. If this was a scary movie, I would be the chief suspect.”  When Stu then asks what Randy’s motive would be, he chillingly replies, “It’s the millennium. Motives are incidental.”

And come the finale, it’s this line, not Tatum’s accusation of sexism, to which the film returns – or at least, it’s the one to which it returns overtly. With Stu and Billy revealed as the killers, not only of the current crop of victims, but of Sidney’s mother, the following exchange takes place:

Sidney: Why? WHY?

Billy: You hear that, Stu? I think she wants a motive. I don’t really believe in motives, Sid. Did Norman Bates have a motive?

Stu: No!

Billy: Did they ever really decide why Hannibal Lecter likes to eat people? I don’t think so! It’s a lot scarier when there’s no motive, Sid. We did your mother a favour. That woman was a slut-bag whore who flashed her shit all over town like she was Sharon Stone or something. Yeah, we put her out of her misery.

Stu: Let’s face it, Sid – your mother was no Sharon Stone, hmm?

Billy: Is that motive enough for you? How about this? Your slut mother was fucking my father, and she’s the reason my mom moved out and abandoned me.

[Stu looks shocked]

Billy: How’s that for a motive? Maternal abandonment causes serious deviant behaviour. It certainly fucked you up – it caused you to have sex with a psychopath!

Several things are telling here: chief among them, the incorrect claim that Norman Bates, the killer in Psycho, had no motive. In actuality, Bates was warped by maternal abuse, conditioned to a misogyny that saw part of his fractured psyche view all women as whores. If anything was going to convince me that Scream is intended as a commentary on sexism, it would be this line: for a meta film that places a high value on classic horror trivia, it’s difficult to believe that such a falsehood would be included by accident and not as an analytic Easter egg for knowledgeable fans. And yet I still doubt that sexism, explicitly labelled as such, is what Craven and Williamson are intending here. Contextually, it seems clear that the reference to Bates is meant to underscore the significance of neglectful mothers, not the misogyny of their sons, for all that the two are fundamentally linked – a pivotal difference in emphasis and interpretation.

By his own admission (and to Stu’s surprise), like Norman Bates, Billy has been “fucked up” by his mother – but while this explains some of his anger, it does not excuse his misogyny; the ease with which he reverts to violent, sexist language when women don’t do as he wants. (“Listen, you little bitch!”) Looking at the film in 2018, at a time when we’ve come to recognise violence against women as a consistent, key commonality to mass shooters, the fact that Billy and Stu’s first victim is Sidney’s mother takes on a powerful new significance. For a film released three years before the Columbine massacre, it’s frighteningly easily to view Scream as an unintentional oracle. Swap the two angry boys with knives and ghostface masks for two angry boys with guns – swap the taunting, escalating phonecalls with taunting, escalating posts online – and what differentiates Scream from other slasher movies isn’t the meta-commentary about horror tropes, but how accidentally real its killers are.

Because the other side of that motive scene – the aspect which, back in 1996, made the whole thing seem so meta, so unreal and yet so frightening – was the nihilism of it: the idea, as Randy had it, that motive, like sexism, is incidental compared to the act of killing. Just a little later in the finale, when Sidney screams that Billy and Stu have watched too many horror movies, Billy replies, “Sid, don’t blame the movies. The movies don’t create psychos; movies just make psychos more creative.” This, more than anything else, is the thesis of Scream – and, indeed, its sequels. This is what justifies the “ghostface killer” being brought back by three different copycat pairs in the subsequent movies. “Everybody dies but us,” Stu screams. “We get to carry on and plan the sequel – ‘cos let’s face it, baby, these days you’ve gotta have a sequel!”

Which is where the sequels become relevant to analysing the original: all four movies are directed by Craven, while Williamson wrote the first, second and fourth (Ehren Kruger wrote the third), which allows us to see which themes the creators thought most integral to both Scream and its success. While it’s subjective of me to claim that the subsequent three films are clearly worse than the original, it’s much less subjective to state that the themes of male entitlement, sexism and frustration that underlie the first are absent from the sequels. Instead, the themes that carry over are an evolving meta-narrative about horror movie structure, and the question of whether narrative violence influences real violence, and in what ways.

In Scream 2 (1997), a self-indulgent, overlong meta wankfest, the killers are revealed to be Billy’s mother, now posing as reporter Debbie Salt (Laurie Metcalf), and her flunkey Mickey (Timothy Olyphant). Like a reverse Mrs Vorhees, Debbie wants revenge for Billy’s death, and has convinced Mickey, a budding psychopath she recruited online, that he’ll be able to plead that the Stab movies – the in-film adaptations of the events of the first Scream – provoked him to commit murder. As he monologues as Sidney:

Mickey: Billy was a sick fuck who wanted to get away. Mickey is a sick fuck who wants to get caught!  You see, Sid, I have it all planned out. I have my whole defence planned out! I’m gonna blame the movies. It’s pretty cool, huh? It’s never been done before. And wait ’till the trial, cause these days, it’s all about the trial! Can’t you see it, Sid? The effects of cinema violence on Americans. I’ll get Cochran or Dershovitz to represent me. Bob Dole on the witness stand in my defence. We’ll hold a Christian coalition. It’s airtight, Sid!

Sidney: You’re a psychotic!

Mickey: Yeah, well, shhh! That’ll be our little secret. That’s one thing that Billy got right  – it’s all about execution.

Not long after this declaration, Billy’s mother kills her would-be accomplice – she only ever wanted him as a patsy. Laughing, she explains herself: “Talk about being rational! For Mickey, I don’t blame the movies, my god. I’m very sane, my motive isn’t as 90s as Mickey’s – mine is just plain old revenge. You killed my son! And now I kill you, and I can’t think of anything more rational.”

Skipping ahead to Scream 4 (2011), the bloated meta-story conceit is in full effect from the outset: the film opens on a scene that turns out to be from the meta-film Stab 6, which cuts to a scene that turns out to be from Stab 7, only the Stab 6 scene was actually somehow the meta-meta intro to Stab 7, which the actual characters of Scream 4 are watching, and all of these scenes feature commentary on horror as a genre. In this moment, the Scream franchise sews itself into an inhuman centipede, crawling up its own asshole to devour its contents over and over, a Frankenstein oroborous. Smartphones exist by 2011, of course, but the film has only a partial understanding of what this means, conveniently forgetting about caller ID and GPS tracking as plot devices even as characters livestream on the internet. The killers, when they’re revealed, are a terrible pastiche of the previous films: Sidney’s cousin and supposed victim Jill (Emma Roberts), working hand-in-hand with nerdy co-conspirator Charlie (Rory Culkin) are teens who want their fifteen minutes of fame – though of course, Jill murders Rory just like Billy’s mother did Mickey, tricking him into thinking they would only wound each other like Stu and Billy.

Though part of me thinks it unfair to judge Scream for the crimes of its youngest, least capable sibling, given that both films are written by Kevin Williamson, I can’t shake the bone-deep suspicion that Scream 4 is, again by accident, the key to understanding what Scream was meant to be. By which I mean: with Scream 2 set at university and Scream 3 in Hollywood, Scream 4 is where, however badly, the series returns to its origins: as a story about nihilistic teenage killers trying to control their own horror movie narrative. In 1996, Stu and Billy want to be survivors so they can plan a sequel; in 2011, Jill and Charlie want to be survivors so they can be famous. “I don’t need friends, I need fans!” Jill shouts at Sid, who can’t understand why she murdered the people closest to her. “Sick is the new sane!” she says, like a chirpy catchphrase. And then, an indictment of Sid’s career as a self-help writer that simultaneously explains her own plans for victim-stardom: “You don’t have to achieve anything – you just have to have fucked-up shit happen to you.”

In 2011, Jill is a strawman millennial, so hyper-obsessed with fame and internet glory that she’s willing to murder everyone she knows to get it. She kills her mother, her best friends, her ex-boyfriend, her co-conspirator – an act of total psychopathy that seemingly comes from a person without any history of violence or cruelty. The Jill we see on screen is a total fake: not only does she lie to us the entire film, but psychologically, she’s utterly implausible on the basis of the evidence provided. Like Randy said in the original, her motive – her real millennial motive – is incidental, in that it doesn’t really exist. She’s a bogeyman conjured up to represent the worst of what we’re meant to fear about ourselves in the present moment.

In other words, she’s exactly what Billy and Stu were meant to be in 1996.

But while Jill will be just as much a straw character in 2021 as she was in 2011, time and bitter experience has proven Billy and Stu to be much more real than they were ever meant to be. In 2018, we know those boys: those angry, entitled, sexist men who demand attention and scream threats of violence if they don’t get it; men who act first against a woman they know, progressing only later to mass carnage. Billy and Stu were meant to be strawmen, exaggerated for the screen – but in aping the casually sexist language of the time, the inherently sexist tropes of the genre, and mixing them together with a motive that encompassed aggressive misogyny, Williamson and Craven created, not the monster under the bed, but the one who sleeps in it.

Which brings us, in a dark and sideways fashion, to Scream 3, and the sexist meta-irony of the series as a whole – because, for all that I enjoyed the original Scream, I couldn’t shake my annoyance at the needless death of Tatum, played by Rose McGowan. Contextually, it’s the only death that doesn’t make sense: she’s Stu’s girlfriend, and given that Stu and Billy plan to live, there’s nothing in the narrative to explain why she has to die, nor does it make sense that Sidney never asks Billy and Stu about her best friend’s death. Of equal aggravation as the films progress is the relationship between reporter Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) and Officer Dewey (David Arquette) – not just because it comes out of nowhere and makes no sense, given their personalities, but because each film in the franchise forgets that Tatum was Dewey’s sister. Whenever it’s brought up that Dewey lived through the events of Scream, we never see any sign from him that he lost his little sister; another character mentions it once at a point where he might be expected to, and Dewey never reacts. Instead, his emotional investment is tied to Gale and Sidney: Tatum is almost completely erased.

Not being written by Williamson, Scream 3 is the odd film out: it takes place in Hollywood, where a new ghostface killer is striking at people related to the filming of meta-movie Stab 3. Though not as terrible as Scream 4, it’s largely unremarkable – until, midway through, we’re given the big reveal about Sidney’s mother, murdered before the start of the first movie. Years before Sid was born, we’re told, her mother went to Hollywood to act for two years, using the stage name Rina. In that time, something terrible happened to her. The producer of Stab 3, John Milton (Lance Henriksen) explains:

Milton: It was the 70s, everything was different. I was well known for my parties, Rina knew what they were. It was for girls like her to meet men, men who could get them parts if they made the right impression. Nothing happened to her that she didn’t invite, in one way or another, no matter what she said afterwards.

Gale: Are you saying she was –

Milton: I’m saying things got out of hand. Maybe they did take advantage of her! Maybe the sad truth is, this is not the city for innocence. No charges were brought. And the bottom line is, Rina Reynolds wouldn’t play by the rules. You wanna get ahead in Hollywood, you gotta play the game or go home.

Watching this scene – plot relevant because Rina had a son as a result of her rape, who turns out to be the director of Stab 3, and also the killer, yada yada yada – I suddenly recalled a particular name I’d noticed in the credits for Scream and Scream 2, and made a mental note to look for it in the credits to Scream 3. And there, sure enough, I found it: Harvey Weinstein, executive producer for all four films in the franchise.

Harvey Weinstein, who raped Rose McGowan a year after she appeared in Scream as Tatum.

I mention this not to assert any script-meddling by Weinstein in terms of Tatum’s portrayal; it doesn’t fit the timeline, and in any case, it would be the absolute least of his now well-documented crimes, so small by comparison as to be meaningless. Rather, it strikes me as a vicious, parallel irony that Tatum, arguably the best character in the original Scream, was erased from the narrative as pointlessly and violently as Rose McGowan was removed from Hollywood. It makes me wonder: did Ehren Kruger know, when he wrote Milton’s lines and Rina’s backstory, what had happened to McGowan? Was that scene a barb at Weinstein, or is the narrative of actresses being exploited and abused by Hollywood producers one so ingrained, so historically ubiquitous, that it was considered little more than a cliche, like the multiple adjacent “jokes” about the actress-characters in Stab 3 sleeping with their bosses for terrible jobs?

Scream 3 is not a good scary movie; and yet that one scene raises more chilling questions in 2018 than it ever did in 2000, just as Billy and Stu are more frightening now than they were in 1996. Which just goes to show you: horror is never just violence and jump scares. It’s history, knowledge and context – and, far too frequently, both in stories and real life, entitled men with a grudge against women.

 

After some recent shenanigans, the revised program for WorldCon 76 is now live, and looking very exciting! For anyone interested in my own appearances, I’m scheduled for the following events:

Original Characters: Putting the ‘Fan’ in Fantasy

Format: Panel
17 Aug 2018, Friday 10:00 – 11:00, 210C (San Jose Convention Center)

They say sharing is caring – and it’s no accident that many of the most successful story-worlds are those big enough for fans to make their own Jedi, benders, wizards, and ponies. What makes a universe ‘fan-friendly’, and what can and can’t you do with original characters?

Tex Thompson (M), Anna Meriano, Cecilia Tan, Elektra Hammond, Foz Meadows

Beyond Nuclear: Queer Families in SFF

17 Aug 2018, Friday 13:00 – 14:00, 212D (San Jose Convention Center)

Building a family is a lot like building a story — and in queer writing communities, we do a lot of both. Join our panelists for a discussion of the intersections of family, storytelling, and queer identity.

Foz Meadows (M), Bogi Takács, Rivers Solomon, Lila Garrott

Breaking Out of the Margins

Format: Panel

17 Aug 2018, Friday 18:00 – 19:00, 211D (San Jose Convention Center)

How do we get past the pernicious assumption that privileged creators can tread where they please, but marginalized creators need to stay in their lane? On this panel, marginalized creators discuss how identity informs creative output, even in stories that aren’t focused on identity issues.

Michi Trota (M), JY Yang, Foz Meadows, Caroline M. Yoachim, Sarah Kuhn

Reading: Hugo Finalist BookSmugglers

Format: Readings

17 Aug 2018, Friday 19:00 – 20:00, 211A (San Jose Convention Center)

BookSmugglers is one of the finalists for the Hugo for semi-prozine. Come hear some of the voices of BookSmugglers read.

Foz Meadows, Kate Elliott, SL Huang

Author vs Fan Ownership

Format: Panel

18 Aug 2018, Saturday 17:00 – 18:00, 210DH (San Jose Convention Center)

How much do readers “own” the books they read? Writing is a private art intended for public display. Once the story is out of the writer’s hands, it can take on a life of its own–inspiring fandoms, fantheories, and fan interpretations that can vary widely from the author’s. How much do the fans own the work? Can you (and should you) divorce the writer from their fiction? What is the writer’s role in participating via social media in debunking or encouraging fan theories? Can the author be “wrong” about their own work? Our panel of authors and expert fans discuss the various and increasingly complex interactions between work, author, and reader.

John Scalzi (M), Charles Payseur, Foz Meadows, Greg Hullender, Renay Williams, Eric Kaplan

Mythogenesis

Format: Panel

19 Aug 2018, Sunday 10:00 – 11:00, 210C (San Jose Convention Center)

Some of the great SF and Fantasy stories have their origins in myth, legend, and folklore. How have these tales grown from Yddgrasil’s roots and transformed into what we could call the mythology of today?

Heather Rose Jones, Lisa Goldstein, Roni Gosch, Tad Williams, Foz Meadows

What Does a Nontoxic Masculinity Look Like?

Format: Panel
19 Aug 2018, Sunday 14:00 – 15:00, 211C (San Jose Convention Center)

“Toxic masculinity” is one phrase for cultural norms of masculine identity and behavior that may be harmful to people of all genders and to the larger fabric of society. But if “precarious masculinity” has been the norm, what are the alternatives? Panelist discuss non-toxic, stable, positive masculinity and offer suggestions about how it manifests and who is modelling it.

Leigh Ann Hildebrand, Vanessa Rose Phin (M), Foz Meadows, Reuben Baron, Nino Cipri

Recommended Reading in Webcomics

Format: Panel
19 Aug 2018, Sunday 16:00 – 17:00, 210F (San Jose Convention Center)

Webcomics are arguably a different sequential art form, with different ways of reading, and different topics and themes. And they’re really popular. The panel recommends some of their favorite webcomics, as well as watering holes, so to speak, where you can browse through webcomics on your own while you’re on your morning commute. Check it out!

Foz Meadows (M), Aaron Duran, David Bowles, Ursula Vernon, Gonzalo Alvarez, Henry Jenkins, Der-shing Helmer

 

Hope to see you there!

UPDATE, 13 Aug 2018: I’m no longer appearing on the Mythogenesis panel.

In the past 24 hours, there’s been a significant online blowup surrounding the programming for Worldcon 76 and the convention’s treatment of marginalised creators, including those who are Hugo nominees. These problems have unfolded from several quarters, and while at this time of writing the con is taking steps to try and redress the problems, the damage they’ve done – and how it came to happen in the first place – merits significant discussion.

But first, some recent background:

On July 11, the organisers of Worldcon 76 created a minor furore when they sent out an email stating that, counter to longstanding tradition, formalwear was required for those attending the Hugo Awards. “We ask that everyone attending the ceremony wear semi-formal dress,” read the missive, sent by Jessica Guggenheim and Randall Shepherd, “as we are striving for an elegant, professional looking event.”

Affectionately described as “nerd prom” by many congoers, the fashion at the Hugo Awards ceremonies tends to be a welcoming, eclectic mixture of the sublime, the weird and the comfortable. Some people wear ballgowns and tuxedos; some wear cosplay; others wear jeans and t-shirts. George R. R. Martin famously tends to show up in a trademark peaked cap and suspenders. Those who do dress up for the Hugos do so out of a love of fashion and pageantry, but while their efforts are always admired and appreciated, sharing that enthusiasm has never been a requisite of attending. At an event whose aesthetics are fundamentally opposed to the phrase ‘business casual’ and whose members are often uncomfortable in formalwear for reasons such as expense, gender-nonconformity, sizeism in the fashion industry and just plain old physical comfort, this change to tradition was not only seen as unexpected and unwelcome, but actively hostile.

People pushed back against the change on Twitter, with the subsequent conversation revealing, rather confusingly, that the dress code email hadn’t been sent to everyone. Originally, it was thought that it must have been sent exclusively to Hugo nominees, but even within this smaller group, multiple people reported that they hadn’t received it. A week after the initial email was sent, the official Worldcon Twitter account appeared to reverse its decision, stating that formal attire isn’t required at the Hugo Awards ceremony.” However, it was notable that this statement made no reference either to the original email or to the pushback against it; rather, it was issued in response to a poll tweet by Campbell Award nominee Rebecca Roanhorse – who hadn’t received the original email and was unaware of the discourse around it – asking about what people wear to the Hugos.

As a result of all this, there’s been plenty of public discussion about clothing and the Hugos. What I have not yet seen discussed, but which strikes me as being deeply relevant to the issues that came to light yesterday, is the program participant survey.

When the link to fill in the survey was sent out in early May, I received it twice: one email, sent on the 12th, was addressed to me as a Hugo nominee, while the other, sent on the 7th, was the generic version sent to all attendees. Though I didn’t have the presence of mind to screenshot it at the time, I found it odd that the survey, in asking if members had previous experience appearing at conventions, went the extra step of requesting information about individuals who could verify that experience without expressly stating what form that information should take or how it would be used. Did they want the names of people with whom I’d previously appeared on panels, or the names of conrunners who’d greenlit my appearances previously? In either case, did they plan to contact those people? Was I meant to provide email addresses or contact details for third parties who hadn’t necessarily consented to having their details given out? Or did they just want to know that these people existed?

It was an intimidating question for even an experienced congoer to answer: I don’t keep a handy record of fellow panellists past, I’ve got no idea who ran the programming for most of the cons I’ve attended, and I felt wary of giving names in any case because I wasn’t sure whether I’d be signing someone up to vouch for me by doing so. Traditionally, if you’re asked to have a third party act as your reference in a professional context, it’s polite to give them a heads up about it; here, though, it wasn’t clear that anyone I named would actually be contacted. In the end, I settled for listing the cons at which I’d previously appeared, with an added note about why I felt the question was poorly worded. At the time, I wrote it off as an unintentional error: the sort of thing that might reasonably happen if someone had used a more business-y survey as a template without thinking through the implications. If anyone else was similarly confused by the request for references, I suspect that they, too, assumed it was just a weirdly worded question and answered as best they could.

In light of recent events, however, I’m lead to believe that the choice of wording was deliberate, after all: a way to gatekeep panellists by seeing whose “references” were names that met with the program runners’ approval.

Which leads us to what happened yesterday – or rather, to the many things that happened yesterday. Given the complicating factors of timezones, retweets and Twitter’s maddening decision to show tweets out of order, I can’t vouch for the exact chronology of events, but the order of each issue by bullet-point is an approximation how I saw the main events unfold, with the most salient responses to each issue included in its summary. So:

  • Hugo nominee Bogi Takács reported that Worldcon was using a bio for em that misspelled eir name and changed eir pronouns to he/him, which Bogi has never used. In response, div head of programming Christine Doyle rebuked Bogi for raising the issue publicly rather than in private and falsely claimed that Worldcon hadn’t changed the bio, saying instead that they’d Googled and found it that way. This is demonstrably a lie, as typing the exact wording of the bio as written by Worldcon into Google as a quote-search produces zero results. Bogi’s partner, Rose Lemberg, then reported receiving an email apologising to Bogi, but simultaneously expressing a wish that e hadn’t complained in public; in response, Rose resigned from programming. Several hours later, con chair Kevin Roche apologised to Bogi from the official Worldcon account, but made no reference either to the email received by Lemberg or to the actions of  Doyle.
  • Hugo nominee JY Yang reported that a fellow Worldcon attendee, who later identified herself as writer Nibedita Sen, had received an email from a member of the Worldcon programming team stating that:

    Finally – and this has come up a few times – there’s a generation of amazing Hugo finalists who represent a set of voices that is exciting to nominators, but completely unfamiliar to many folks who will be attending. I can give you a concrete example of this: we have no panel explaining what #ownvoices is, and I’ve had to field multiple questions essentially asking me, “What is that?” I suspect that *everyone* at Wiscon is familiar with the hashtag and its significance. I would guess maybe 20% of Worldcon 76 members know what it means.

    As this email was part of an ongoing correspondence between Sen and the programmer about the lack of #ownvoices panels and the predominance of straight white men in the programming – and as Yang had earlier reported being denied the panels they’d specifically requested and given a reading, which they’d asked not to have, instead – this was widely interpreted as an admission that the Worldcon programmers had actively denied or limited panel opportunities to marginalised writers, including some Hugo nominees, on the basis that they weren’t famous enough in the wider community. Two Hugo nominees who were initially thought to have been denied panelling were Vina Jie-Min Prasad and N.K. Jemisin; however, both clarified that they had specifically asked not to be on panels. Though Jemisin had been scheduled to give a two-hour workshop, she subsequently withdrew from programming and asked that the slot be used to showcase #ownvoices panels instead. Other writers also began to resign their programming in protest, including Charlie Jane Anders, JY Yang, Mary Robinette Kowal and Annalee Newitz.

  • Commensurate with this, I noticed that Christine Doyle, div head of programming, had assigned herself multiple programming items. Though several of these were feedback meetings directly related to her role in running the convention, others were regular panel appearances. Given that unfamiliarity to congoers was directly cited in the correspondence to Nibedita Sen as a reason for keeping new voices off the programming, this struck me as base hypocrisy: Doyle is an anaesthesiologist who also does convention administration, and while that might make her an interesting speaker, it does not make her a known, recognisable figure within the SFF community. That being so, if she was capable of acknowledging that lack of notoriety didn’t impact her own ability to contribute, she has no excuse for failing to extend the same courtesy to marginalised writers whose careers, unlike her own, could be greatly impacted by a Worldcon appearance.
  • Worldcon member Greg van Eekhout, who is a person of colour, reported that although his suggested panel description had been accepted and used verbatim, neither he nor any of his suggested panellists had been included as participants. It was similarly reported by Jaymee Goh that a panel originally proposed with a majority of POC as speakers had instead been given to speakers who were predominantly white.
  • Hugo nominee Grace P. Fong reported that Worldcon had taken her public bio, altered it for their official use, and then paired it with a photo taken from her private Facebook page, all without asking permission.

In response to all these issues and the conversations surrounding them, Kevin Roche issued a public apology and had all programming for the convention taken down, with the intention that the entire program would be redone. Speaking on both Facebook and Twitter, Roche said:

I directed the Program Division to take down the preliminary program information that was released yesterday evening. There were too many errors and problems in it to leave it up.

I am sorry we slighted and angered so many of the people we are gathering to meet, honor, and celebrate. This was a mistake, our mistake. We were trying to build a program reflecting the diversity of fandom and respectful of intersectionality. I am heartbroken that we failed so completely.

We are tearing the program apart and starting over. It was intended to be a reflection of the cultures, passions, and experiences of Worldcon membership, with room for both new voices and old. What we released yesterday failed to do that; we must do better.

Many of you have offered to help us do a better job. Thank you. We cannot accept all those offers, but yes, we will be turning to some of you to help us do it better this time.

We will continue to reach out to the Hugo Finalists we have missed connections with, to ensure any who wish to be on the program will have a place on it.

At the time of this writing, no new program has been released, nor is it clear what this will mean for those writers who stepped down from panels in protest, given that the original programming has now been scrapped. There has been no official word about who was responsible for the emails to Rose Lemberg and Nibedita Sen, nor has there been any comment on the actions of Christine Doyle, though I suspect that will eventually change.

Right now, my personal suspicion is that Worldcon 76 has been afflicted by a combination of bigotry – some likely subconscious, some very likely not – and poor coordination, with the latter significantly enabling the impact of the former. As much as I appreciate Kevin Roche stepping in to issue apologies and redo the programming, that these actions were necessary at all speaks, at absolute best, to an administrative setup wherein the right hand didn’t know what the left was doing, and at worst, to a gross case of insincere, post-facto ass-covering.

Even from the outside, it seemed clear well before yesterday that the programming for Worldcon was disorganised and running behind schedule. The “very preliminary programming” email I received on July 9 had me listed for no panels at all, confirming only that I’d be attending the Hugo Awards. When I queried whether I’d be on any panelling, the reply I received from Christine Doyle stated that, while I was “pencilled in” for some panels, “We were in the “get something out now” vs “get everyone scheduled” phase — and opted for the get something out now.” This didn’t exactly alleviate my worries, given that the con is due to start on August 16. (By comparison, the first full program schedule for MidAmericon II in 2016 was sent out on July 6, well in advance of the August 16 start date, with final corrections issued by August 4.)

I was more encouraged by the July 22 email I received from Leigh Ann Hildebrand, the LGBTQ+ content lead for programming, which listed 27 separate queer panel topics and asked which ones I’d like to be a part of. Thinking that these would be the only panels on which I might appear, I listed four but gave no order of preference; when the original program was sent out yesterday, I was therefore surprised to find that I’d been given two of the four, plus three other panels and a reading. In honesty, I was happy with the panels I’d been given – both in terms of topics and fellow panellists – but once it became apparent that other Hugo nominees had been offered far less, it was difficult not to feel angry on their behalf. Campbell Award nominee Rivers Solomon, whose expenses for attending Worldcon were crowdsourced by the SFF community, was offered only one item; to the best of my knowledge, JY Yang was given only a reading – or at least, this is what I inferred from their saying that they’d been left off the panelling items that they requested. Either way, it ought to be Worldcon 101 to try and accommodate both guests and award nominees from the outset instead of letting their contributions be afterthoughts, and whatever other factors are in play, it doesn’t escape notice that, overwhelmingly, those slighted by the programming are POC, non-American, queer or a combination of all three.

To be clear: I am deeply sympathetic to the nightmarish logistical difficulties inherent in scheduling any convention, let alone a large one. With the best will in the world, there’s a finite limit to how many people and how many events can be scheduled, which means that some people – even interesting, deserving ones – are always going to be left out, with the hows and whys of their exclusion vs the inclusion of others always up for debate. But when a member of the programming committee openly states that being Hugo nominated at the convention where those nominees are honoured isn’t enough to make you a noteworthy panel attendee, and where the white head of programming schedules herself on more panels than are given to some award-nominated people of colour, then simple logistical limits are not the problem: gatekeeping, and the bigotry which, whether openly or covertly, underlies it, are.

As more than one person pointed out on Twitter yesterday, there’s a sharp irony in claiming that Hugo nominees aren’t famous enough to attract the interest of Worldcon attendees when the former group is exclusively nominated and voted on by the latter. You literally cannot vote for the Hugo Awards without a Worldcon membership, and while there will certainly be congoers who didn’t vote for whatever reason, or who purchase their attending memberships after the voting has closed, anyone expecting to show up to a thousands-strong con and recognise the name of every single panellist on every single item is either a narcissist, a SMOF, or woefully unaware of the size of the SFF community. I’ve never been to even a small convention where I recognised every name on the menu – which is, I would argue, one of the many, crucial things that differentiates a convention from a clubhouse. You’re meant to find new people here: that’s how we grow the community.

Reading the words that Worldcon sent to Nibedita Sen, I was reminded powerfully of something once tweeted by the Merriam- Webster Dictionary:

People keep

1) saying they don’t know what ‘genderqueer’ means

then

2) asking why we added it to the dictionary

Structurally, this works as a perfect analogue to the problem of Worldcon’s attitude to marginalised creators: the programmers keep saying attendees don’t know what #ownvoices is, then asking why we want it added to the program. Personally, I cannot think of anything more boring than attending a convention that doesn’t expose me to any writers, concepts or arguments that I didn’t know already. Given the frequency with which left-leaning SFF is accused of being an echo chamber, the claim that 80% of Worldcon attendees neither know nor want to know about #ownvoices would seem to point the finger firmly in the opposite direction, if not for the fact that, by the email-writer’s own admission, they’d already been fielding multiple queries about it from newcomers to the concept. The question of what #ownvoices is and why it matters is exactly the sort of thing that a panel – or panels, even – would be well-placed to answer: instead, the programmer erred in favour of dismissal.

My first ever Worldcon was AussieCon 4, which was held in Melbourne in 2010. My very first novel, Solace & Grief, had just been released by Ford Street Publishing, a local Australian press, and even though I was certain that almost nobody would know who I was, I was thrilled to be in attendance. Conveniently, the venue was a mere half-hour’s walk from my house, and because I had no idea how exhausting big cons could be, I decided I’d get there on foot every day instead of taking the tram. I’d also applied to be on panelling, and as I was a new local voice with a book just out, I ended up with seven panel items, a reading and a signing. Giddy with excitement, I waved off more experienced friends who knew exactly how much of a workload that was, and ended up falling asleep at my signing table, dead tired. Which, to be fair, wasn’t much of a loss; only one person came to get a book signed, and that was someone I knew. But the rest of the time, I had a blast: I shared a reading space with China Mieville, was on a vampires vs werewolves team debate with George R. R. Martin, and spoke on a webcomics panel with Phil and Kaja Folio. I even managed to cozen my way into the Hugo afterparty as a friend’s plus one, and spent the whole time vibrating at the frequency of glee.

Looking back, AussieCon 4 was a landmark experience for me, both personally and professionally. I hung out with people from my writing group, met online friends for the first time IRL and made plenty of new ones, too. During the dead dog gathering at the con bar, I met two girls, long-time BFFs, who’d attended the con as fans and were planning to write a book together. We talked about writing and agents and writing in general and decided to keep in touch online. Eight years later, the average SFF reader would be far more likely to recognise their names than mine: Meagan Spooner and Amie Kaufman, who are New York Times bestselling authors.

I’ve been to two other Worldcons since then – LonCon 3 in 2014, MidAmericon II in 2016 – and plenty of other cons besides, but I’ve never forgotten how that first Worldcon made me feel welcome and important, even though I was a total newbie. That’s the sort of experience that all new writers deserve to have, especially those who’ve had to struggle to break into the industry; who are writing from traditionally marginalised perspectives. I might have been a newbie in 2010, but I still had luck and privilege on my side: luck, in that my first big con was held just down the street from where I lived around the time my book came out; privilege, in that the Australian SFF scene is comparatively small and close-knit, so that as a white, middle-class, native English speaker living in a major city, I’d found it comparatively easy to break into that social scene and make friends with other writers.

After everything that’s happened, I won’t fault anyone who chooses not to attend Worldcon 76, or who resigns from their programming even after the new program, whatever it may be, comes out; nor will I fault anyone who chooses still to go and participate. I will say, though, that it frustrates me how discrimination of this sort always ends up having a double impact on marginalised writers, as they are both the most frequently targeted and the first to resign in solidarity with the mistreatment of others. The Worldcon program is changing, but the people who stepped down from programming to force that change were overwhelmingly POC, women, queer folk, disabled folk, immigrant voices and marginalised writers from around the world – exactly the same people whose mistreatment by the programmers was the problem in the first place. Those with the fewest seats at the table shouldn’t have to step aside to effect better treatment for those who take their place while the majority, unaffected, stays where they are. That doesn’t increase the number of marginalised speakers; it just treats them as a resource to churn through, burning them out and replacing them while claiming to give them a platform.

I don’t know what the new program will look like, but I hope it will do justice to the whole SFF community – and that we’ll get it in time for those deciding whether to come to make an informed decision.