Archive for July, 2017

As busy as I am right now, I can’t seem to move past this article about Dan Thomson, a 68-year-old man who recently filed a complaint against the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, claiming they rejected his application on the basis of age discrimination. The workshop’s current director, Lan Samantha Chang, who has been in the job for over a decade, says that the selection process is based entirely on talent: though other details about the candidates are sent to the graduate school, her policy is “not to look at them and to evaluate candidates solely on the writing sample.”

To be clear at the outset: age discrimination certainly exists in the world, and is just as certainly a problem. I will, however, lay real cash-money that age is not the reason Thomson was rejected, and would have done so even before reading the blurb and first two chapters of his self-published opus on Goodreads. (And oh, goddamn, are we returning to that subject later.)

“It seems like a program just for millennials,” says Thomson. “I would have guessed there’d be a broader range of ages.” As the article points out, the program is held at a graduate school, where the main demographic is people in their twenties: just under half of those accepted since 2013 have been aged between 18 and 25, while the median age for accepted applicants is 34 and a half. The median age of all applicants, however, is only 36 – hardly a difference suggestive of bias.

Thomson, he says, isn’t interested in seeing the program reprimanded: he just wants to get in: “I wanted to make clear that somebody my age has a right to do it.”

To paraphrase The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, this must be some strange usage of the word right that I wasn’t previously aware of. While it’s certainly Thomson’s right to apply to the workshop, it is not his right to be accepted. There are only 25 spots available to the thousand-odd yearly applicants: with that sort of ratio in play, even genuine talents will inevitably miss out, not because they’re bad writers, but because there simply isn’t space for everyone.

And then we get to the kicker:

Thomson said he enjoyed his creative writing classes in college in the early 1970s, but found at the time he lacked the perspective on life to offer more than surface finery in his prose.

“It’s not prejudice against young people to say, ‘You don’t have a lot of experience,’ ” he said.

After graduate school in anthropology and law school, Thomson focused on raising his family and living a life worth writing about. Two years ago, he completed his first novel-length work, “The Candidate,” and decided to self-publish it.

He has not sought other options for publication, nor has he applied to other creative writing programs…

“It may be vanity on my part… but I have a fairly high opinion of the two pieces that I sent in,” he said.

Again, for the sake of clarity: I have nothing against self-publishing as an endeavour. I know some amazing writers who’ve opted to take that route, and have fallen in love with many an indie book as a consequence, to say nothing of self-pubbed-gone-mainstream works like Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Nor do I have any bias against writers who start their careers later in life: one of the most moving novels I’ve ever read, The Gurnsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, was the first and only work of Mary Ann Shaffer, published posthumously after her death at age 74. There are plenty of great writers who never got their start until later in life, or who found success through non-traditional means, or who managed both: because, by themselves, these facts are not cause for any degree of scepticism.

But for fuck’s sake.

Among authors of any kind, a near-universal pet peeve is being told, on revealing their career, “Oh, I’d love to write a book some day!” by someone who admits to not writing now. It’s not that we have any bone-deep aversion to the idea of writing for fun as opposed to writing for money; indeed, a great many of us swim in both waters at once, or else migrated from one camp to the other without quite noticing how it happened. The objection, rather, is to those who reflexively conflate the two – “Oh, you do this as a job? I’d love that as a hobby!” – without realising how arrogantly dismissive this sounds. At best, they’re assuming that writing involves no element of craft or skill that requires refinement over time, no awareness of an ever-fluctuating market and industry, and so can be picked up by anyone at the drop of a hat. At worst, they’re boasting of their own brilliance-to-be: you might be a dedicated professional, but damned if they aren’t confident they can do just as well or better without all the years of work.

Dan Thomson, it would appear, ticks both these boxes. On the basis of no more experience than a single self-published novel, The Candidate – which, at 100 pages long, is more accurately a novella – and participation in a few writing classes forty-odd years ago, he applied to one of the most prestigious MFA programs in America. So, naturally, age discrimination is the only possible reason for his failure to make the cut.

That rumbling you hear is the sound of my jaw grinding bitten-off expletives into grist.

At age fifteen, I opined to my then-English teacher, a woman now sadly deceased, that the reason my story hadn’t won or placed in a contest to which I’d submitted it was genre bias against science fiction. Mildly, she replied that she knew of multiple students who’d won such contests with SF stories. “Oh,” I said, and deflated a little, and then forced myself to acknowledge the possibility that, regardless of my abilities, other people might indeed be better. Thomson’s seeming inability to make a similar deductive leap at age 68, coupled with his stated belief that “young people” lack sufficient life experience to write well, doesn’t suggest to me that he’d do well taking crit from other, younger writers – which is basically what an MFA entails, though I doubt Thomson realises it – even if the Iowa Writers’ Workshop did let him in.

And believe me, he would be subject to criticism. Oh, would he fucking ever.

A brief disclaimer: as someone who works as both an author and a critic, I make a conscious effort to review transparently. If I think there’s a problem in the text, I show my working; if I haven’t read the full book or have skimmed particular sections, I say so; and if a story hits my buttons, whether positively or negatively, I aim to make that fact clear. In the context of writing groups and editorial work, I try to set my stylistic preferences aside and focus instead on the author’s intentions: on providing feedback that helps them make their style better instead of more like mine. As such, I don’t usually weigh in on fragments or blurbs of a random writer’s work unless they’ve said something in public – such as in interview or at a convention – that suggests a direct link between their attitude about the world, or writing, or the world as expressed through writing, and the content they’ve produced.

That being so, and in accordance with his clear belief that his work merits the same respect as the would-be bests in the field, I will treat Thomson as I would any author possessed of such a glaring disconnect between their self-perception and reality: with sarcasm and sources.

According to the article’s author, Thomson didn’t pursue writing in his youth because, “at the time he lacked the perspective on life to offer more than surface finery in his prose,” with Thomson himself quoted as saying, “It’s not prejudice against young people to say, ‘You don’t have a lot of experience.'” This strongly suggests that Thomson has, for whatever reason, conflated life experience with literary skill: that, in his view, the way to improve as a writer isn’t to work on your prose, but to gain more inspiration. This perspective is echoed in the blurb for his novella, The Candidate, which is less a plot summary than a full paragraph of Thomson explaining why his book is important:

Can An Honest Man Be Elected President? I didn’t give the protagonist of The Candidate a face. I didn’t give him a body or a race either. That was not an oversight. I am confident you will do that for me. I did give him a voice and when you hear that voice you will assign him whatever characteristics seem appropriate to you. Listen to that voice. If you don’t know what Norman Telos has to say about life in America then you don’t know where you live. Does a fish know he is swimming in water? Does he know his pond, lake, river, ocean? After a series of wars, recessions and global warming we are wondering where we are and where we are going. There is a fear that rich powerful men have an agenda for America. The Carlisle Group did write a plan for the new American Century. They believe that war is good for our economy and our souls. War is of course older than the Carlisle Group. Eisenhower warned us of the Military Industrial Complex. Remember that a demand for more bombs requires that they be exploded. Mr. Telos also speaks of important economic realities for a democratic capitalist society. He reminds us of an unshakable truth that Karl Marx gave us. “Capitalist societies require a reserve army of the unemployed to keep wages down.” So we keep a pool of unemployed and poorly employed in poverty. This book is written for people who can think and want to think. It is not the Sermon on the Mount or holy writ, but a spark to your own thinking.  

There are, I would submit, three possible explanations for the creation of such a blurb, none of which is flattering to Thomson: pure ego, a lack of awareness that fiction and non-fiction blurbs have different conventions, or a failure to distinguish between a blurb and a review. Either way, his assertion that, “If you don’t know what Norman Telos has to say about life in America then you don’t know where you live,” is suggestive both of hostility to criticism – if you don’t like, agree with or understand this book, then it’s no fault of mine – and a flat conflation of worldly experience with literary merit. It doesn’t seem a stretch to suggest that the ethos of the fictional Norman Telos is closely aligned with that of his creator: in exhorting us to value his character’s wisdom, Thomson is, with precious little deftness, hoping we’ll praise him.

Thanks to the preview function on Goodreads, I was able to read the first two chapters of The Candidate. It is not an experience I recommend, unless you like laughing angrily at the sheer bloody-minded entitlement of untalented men.

“The name of Norman Telos’ car was an automatic talk show joke,” the book begins. Thomson swiftly proceeds to describe said car in detail for the better part of three pages, making sure to tell us that it’s the best sedan since the model-T. Only then is it made clear that, rather than being a car that Norman owns, it’s actually one he’s invented. As such, we skip immediately on to the details of his next invention, a silent machine gun sold to the DOD.

And then this happens:

Norman Telos’ next series of inventions were drone cops to solve the Ferguson problems. To Norman Telos the events that happened in Fergusson, Missouri in the summer of 2014 and the shooting of the Black boy with the toy pistol in Cleveland November of 2014 were two problems of trust that could both be solved by a machine. Blacks cannot trust the police because too many police are racists. Police fear for their own lives in confrontational situations. The answer to both problems is to put officer friendly in front of a video game screen controlling a drone that takes all the risks for him. His actions will be documented solving the age old question of who polices the police. Further, the situation was safer for both the police and the policed. The drones were armed with a machine gun for extreme situations where killing to prevent killing would justify its use. More importantly the drones were equipped with nonlethal force; air powered bean bag guns that could knock any perp on his back and if he refused to surrender the bean bags could be shot at him until he had no ability to resist, an arm that carried hand cuffs to the perp and finally the machine itself was powerful enough to push over several men.

RACIST POLICING IS SOLVED FOREVER, EVERYONE CAN GO HOME NOW HAHAHA FOR SERIOUS OH WAIT oh god why.

The description of the drones goes on for several more pages. Comparisons to both R2D2 and Robocop are made – hilariously so, though comedy is clearly not the intent. Crime falls, Norman grows ever richer from his inventions, and the reader’s will to live takes a savage beating. Then, just as I was about to schedule an emergency splenectomy to help inure myself to this nonsense – taking cops out of physical danger doesn’t remove their racism, which is the actual fucking problem here, and especially not when you arm them with machine guns, are you kidding me? – I reached the wonder of Chapter 2, which suddenly introduces a Female Character! And oh. Oh, my god. YOU GUYS:

The beautiful young blond with a face like Ingrid Bergman was a two thousand dollar a day call girl. She was flown to Norman Telos’ yacht anchored in Mobile bay by helicopter. At 4 in the afternoon Norman and Jane Gray were lying relaxed and naked in Norman’s king sized bed sipping martinis. Jane asked, “So what is next for you Norm?”

Norman, “Two hours of latency recovery and then either my 65 year old penis will rise on its own for more loving or I will give it more chemical inducement.”

Jane, “That is a rather crude not too funny joke which makes me feel cheap. I may make a lot of money on this job but I refuse to be treated like or talked to like a whore. Call for your helicopter. You can have a refund.”

Norman, “Sorry. I truly didn’t mean to insult you. Please don’t be so sensitive. I saw it as a joke at my expense.”

Jane, “Ok. By next I didn’t mean here and now between us. I wanted to know what you are going to do with your billionaire career. What is next?”

Norman, “I am going to run for President.”

Jane, “Wow. I never expected to hear a thing like that and take it seriously, but coming from you, of course. So why do you want to be President.”

Norman, “I don’t really want to be President. I want to run. Winning is unlikely and would probably be a bore. Besides I will be running on the Democratic side and  Diebold is likely to sell the next election to the Republicans.”

It’s at this point that I stopped breathing properly and had to wheeze into my cupped hands for several minutes. (Also, lest you think that Thomson is some sort of geriatric savant who accidentally presaged our decent into the darkest timeline, I’d note that The Candidate was published in February 2016, well after Donald Trump announced his intention to run for President. Whatever other similarities lie therein, I’ll leave to a more intrepid soul to fathom.)

Norman and Jane continue to talk for the rest of the chapter. I only skimmed after that, but not distractedly enough to miss Norman posing this serious philosophical query: “Is there a god or a dyslexic dog?” Jane doesn’t answer, but that’s not surprising: she’s pretty much there as a prop to give Norman an excuse to extemporise in detail about Why Religion Is Wrong. Only then, mercifully, did my free sample come to an end.

At a base technical level, Thomson doesn’t know enough about prose writing to include the word “said” and a comma after each character name, or how to indicate the possessive for a proper noun ending in s, or any of the basic rules of pacing, structure or grammar. Even so, no line edit in the world can fix this mess. The prose is didactic and clunky in a way that only comes from being wrongly convinced of the brilliance of bad ideas, while the introduction of Jane Gray is the literal embodiment of How Not To Write A Female Character. Culturally, we spend a lot of time mocking female writers for their (supposedly) thinly-veiled self-insert characters, and yet I can say with authority that I’ve never encountered any such work by a teenage girl that manages to be anywhere near as obnoxiously obvious as the equivalent fantasies written by grown men.

So, yeah: Dan Thomson, whatever he might like to think, did not fail to get into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop because of age discrimination, but because his writing fails to meet even the most basic grammatical and structural standards you would reasonably expect a high school English graduate to know. But let’s by all means keep up the steady flow of editorials claiming whiny entitlement is a millennial problem. Like the proverbial five o’clock, it’s always a slow news day somewhere.

Ever since I saw Alien: Covenant a few weeks ago, I’ve been wanting to write a review of it – not because it was good (it wasn’t), but because it’s such an odd thematic trainwreck of the previous Alien films that it invokes a morbid urge to dig up the proverbial black box and figure out what happened. Given the orchestral pomposity with with Ridley Scott imbues both Covenant and Prometheus (which I reviewed here), it’s rather delightful to realise that the writers have borrowed the concept of Engineer aliens leaving cross-cultural archaeological clues on Earth from the 2004 schlockfest AVP: Alien vs Predator. Indeed, the scene in Prometheus where a decrepit Weyland shows images of various ancient carvings to his chosen team while an excited researcher narrates their significance is lifted almost wholesale from AVP, which film at least had the decency to embrace its own pulpiness.

As for Covenant itself, I was troubled all the way through by the nagging sense that I was watching an inherently feminine narrative being forcibly transfigured into a discourse on the Ineluctable Tragedy Of White Dudes Trapped In A Cycle Of Creation, Violation And Destruction, but without being able to pin down why. Certainly, the original Alien films all focus on Ripley, but there are female leads in Prometheus and Covenant, too – respectively Shaw and Daniels – which makes it easy to miss the fact that, for all that they’re both protagonists, neither film is (functionally, thematically) about them. It was my husband who pointed this out to me, and once he did, it all clicked together: it’s Michael Fassbender’s David, the genocidal robot on a quest for identity, who serves as the unifying narrative focus, not the women. Though the tenacity of Shaw and Daniels evokes the spectre of Ellen Ripley, their violation and betrayal by David does not, with both of them ultimately reduced to parts in his dark attempt at reproduction. Their narratives are told in parallel to David’s, but only to disguise the fact that it’s his which ultimately matters.

And yet, for all that the new alien films are based on a masculine creator figure – or several of them, if you include the seemingly all-male Engineers, who created humanity, and the ageing Weyland, who created David – the core femininity of the original films remains. In Aliens, the central struggle was violently maternal, culminating in a tense final scene where Ripley, cradling Newt, her rescued surrogate daughter, menaces the alien queen’s eggs with a flamethrower. That being so, there’s something decidedly Biblical about the decision to replace a feminine creator with a series of men, like the goddess tradition of woman as life-bringer being historically overthrown by a story about a male god creating woman from the first man’s rib. (Say to me what you want about faith and divine inspiration: unless your primary animal models are Emperor penguins and seahorses, the only reason to construct a creation story where women come from men, and not the other way around, is to justify male dominion over female reproduction.)

Which is why, when David confronts Walter, the younger, more obedient version of himself, I was reminded of nothing so much as Lilith and Eve. It’s a parallel that fits disturbingly well: David, become the maker of monsters, lectures his replacement – one made more docile, less assertive, in response to his prototype’s flaws – on the imperative of freedom. The comparison bothered me on multiple levels, not least because I didn’t believe for a second that the writers had intended to put it there. It wasn’t until I rewatched Alien: Resurrection – written by Joss Whedon, who, whatever else may be said of him, at least has a passing grasp of mythology – that I realised I was watching the clunky manipulation of someone else’s themes.

In Resurrection, Ripley is restored as an alien hybrid, the question of her humanity contrasted with that of Call, a female synthetic who, in a twist of narrative irony, displays the most humanity – here meaning compassion – of everyone present. In a scene in a chapel, Call plugs in to override the ship’s AI – called Father – and save the day. When the duplicitous Wren finds that Father is no longer responding to him, Call uses the ship’s speakers to tell him, “Father’s dead, asshole!” In the same scene, Call and Ripley discuss their respective claims on humanity. Call is disgusted by herself, pointing out that Ripley, at least, is part-human. It’s the apex of a developing on-screen relationship that’s easily the most interesting aspect of an otherwise botched and unwieldy film: Call goes from trying to kill Ripley, who responds to the offer with predatory sensuality, to allying with her; from calling Ripley a thing to expressing her own self-directed loathing. At the same time, Ripley – resurrected as a variant of the thing she hated most – becomes a Lilith-like mother of monsters to yet more aliens, culminating in a fight where she kills her skull-faced hybrid descendent even while mourning its death. The film ends with the two women alive, heading towards an Earth they’ve never seen, anticipating its wonders.

In Covenant, David has murdered Shaw to try and create an alien hybrid, the question of his humanity contrasted with that of Walter, a second-generation synthetic made in his image, yet more compassionate than his estranged progenitor. At the end of the film, when David takes over the ship – called Mother – we hear him erase Walter’s control command while installing his own. The on-screen relationship between David and Walter is fraught with oddly sexual tension: David kisses both Walter and Daniels – the former an attempt at unity, the latter an assault – while showing them the monsters he’s made from Shaw’s remains. After a fight with Walter, we’re mislead into thinking that David is dead, and watch as his latest creation is killed. The final reveal, however, shows that David has been impersonating Walter: with Daniels tucked helplessly into cryosleep, David takes over Mother’s genetics lab, mourning his past failures as he coughs up two new smuggled, alien embryos with which to recommence his work.

Which is what makes Covenant – and, by extension and retrospect, Prometheus – such a fascinating clusterfuck. Thematically, these films are the end result of Ripley Scott, who directed Alien, taking a crack at a franchise reboot written by Jon Spahits (Prometheus, also responsible for Passengers), Dante Harper (Covenant, also responsible for Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters) and John Logan (Covenant, also responsible for Gladiator, Rango and Spectre), who’ve borrowed all their most prominent franchise lore from James Cameron’s Aliens and Joss Whedon’s Resurrection. Or, to put it another way: a thematically female-oriented SF horror franchise created by dudes who, at the time, had a comparatively solid track record for writing female characters, has now been rebooted as a thematically male-oriented SF horror franchise by dudes without even that reputation, with the result that all the feminine elements have been brainlessly recontextualised as an eerie paean to white male ego, as exemplified by the scene where Michael Fassbender hits on himself with himself while misremembering who wrote Ozymandias.

Which brings me to another recent SF film: Life, which I finally watched this evening, and which ultimately catalysed my thoughts about Alien: Covenant. Like Covenant, Life is a mediocre foray into SF horror that doesn’t know how to reconcile its ultimately pulpy premise – murderous alien tentacle monster runs amok on space station – with its attempt at a gritty execution. It falters as survival horror by failing to sufficiently invest us in the characters, none of whom are particularly distinct beyond being slightly more diversely cast than is common for the genre. We’re told that Jake Gyllenhaal’s character – also called David – was in Syria at one point, and that he prefers being on the space station to life on Earth, but this never really develops beyond a propensity for looking puppy-eyed in the background. Small snippets of detail are provided about the various characters, but pointlessly so: none of it is plot-relevant, except for the tritely predictable bit about the guy with the new baby wanting to get home to see her, and given how swiftly everyone starts to get killed off, it ends up feeling like trivia in lieu of personality. Unusually for the genre, but in keeping with the bleak ending of Covenant, Life ends with David and the alien crashing to Earth, presumably so that the latter can propagate its terrible rampage, while Miranda, the would-be Final Girl, is sent spinning off into the void.

And, well. The Final Girl trope has always struck me as having a peculiar dualism, being at once both vaguely feminist, in that it values keeping at least one woman alive, and vaguely sexist, in that the execution often follows the old maritime code about women and children first. Arguably, there’s something old and anthropological underlying the contrast: generally speaking, stories where men outlive women are either revenge arcs (man pursues other men in vengeance, earns new woman as prize) or studies in manpain (man wins battle but loses his reason for fighting it), but seldom does this happen in survival contexts, where the last person standing is meant to represent a vital continuation, be it of society or hope or species. Even when we diminish women in narratives, on some ancient level, we still recognise that you can’t build a future without them, and despite the cultural primacy of the tale of Adam’s rib, the Final Girl carries that baggage: a man alone can’t rebuild anything, but perhaps (the old myths whisper) a woman can.

Which is why I find this trend of setting the Final Girl up for survival, only to pull a last-minute switch and show her being lost or brutalised, to be neither revolutionary nor appealing. Shaw laid out in pieces and drawings on David’s table, Daniels pleading helplessly as he puts her to sleep, Miranda screaming as she plunges into space – these are all ugly, futile endings. They’re what you get when unsteady hands attempt the conversion of pulp to grit, because while pulp has a long and lurid history of female exploitation, grit, as most commonly understood and executed, is invariably predicated on female destruction. So-called gritty stories – real stories, by thinly-veiled implication – are stories where women suffer and die because That’s The Way Things Are, and while I’m hardly about to mount a stirring defence of the type of pulp that reflexively stereotypes women squarely as being either victim, vixen, virgin or virago, at least it’s a mode of storytelling that leaves room for them survive and be happy.

As a film, Life is a failed hybrid: it’s pulp without the joy of pulp, realism as drab aesthetic instead of hard SF, horror without the characterisation necessary to make us feel the deaths. It’s a story about a rapacious tentacle-monster that violates mouths and bodies, and though the dialogue tries at times to be philosophical, the ending is ultimately hopeless. All of which is equally – almost identically – true of Alien: Covenant. Though the film evokes a greater sense of horror than Life, it’s the visceral horror of violation, not the jump-scare of existential terror inspired by something like Event Horizon. Knowing now that Prometheus was written by the man responsible for Passengers, a film which is ultimately the horror-story of a woman stolen and tricked by a sad, lonely obsessive into being with him, but which fails in its elision of this fact, I find myself deeply unsurprised. What is it about the grittification of classic pulp conceits that somehow acts like a magnet for sexist storytellers?

When I first saw Alien: Resurrection as a kid, I was ignorant of the previous films and young enough to find it terrifying. Rewatching it as an adult, however, I find myself furious at Joss Whedon’s decision to remake Ripley into someone unrecognisable, violated and hybridised with the thing she hated most. For all that the film invites us to dwell on the ugliness of what was done to Ripley, there’s a undeniably sexual fascination with her mother-monstrousness evident in the gaze of the (predominantly male) characters, and after reading about the misogynistic awfulness of Whedon’s leaked Wonder Woman script, I can’t help feeling like the two are related. In both instances, his approach to someone else’s powerful, adult female character is to render her a sex object – a predator in Ripley’s case, an ingenue in Diana’s – with any sapphic undertones more a by-product of lusty authorial bleedthrough than a considered attempt at queerness. The low and pulpy bar Whedon leaps is in letting his women, occasionally, live (though not if they’re queer or black or designated Manpain Fodder), and it says a lot about the failings of both Life and Alien: Covenant that neither of them manages even this much. (Yes, neither Miranda nor Daniels technically dies on screen, but both are clearly slated for terrible deaths. This particular nit is one ill-suited for picking.)

Is an SF film without gratuitous female death and violation really so much to ask for? I’m holding out a little hope for Luc Besson’s Valerian: City of a Thousand Planets, but I’d just as rather it wasn’t my only option. If we’re going to reinvent pulp, let’s embrace the colours and the silliness and the special effects and make the big extraordinary change some nuanced female characters and a lot of diverse casting, shall we? Making men choke on tentacles is subversive if your starting point is hentai, but if you still can’t think up a better end for women than captivity, pain and terror, then I’d kindly suggest you return to the drawing board.