“Let me tell you all what it’s like being male, middle-class, and white.”
– Ben Folds

The Puppies saga, Sad and Rabid, finally came to a close this weekend with the two groups’ utter defeat at the Hugo Awards in Spokane. I’ve been following the story since it started making the rounds back in April. The Hugo awards are (to me) one of the highest honors a speculative fiction writer can achieve. If I could put a value of life goals as a writer, winning a Hugo would be somewhere around “Ridley Scott optioned your book” and “HBO wants to do a seven-year show based on your series.”

Because the Hugo awards recognize excellence and the use of speculative fiction in the best of all ways: as a means to speculate (see what I did there?) about the “what if’s” and the “what abouts.” Some of the past winners are among my favorite books, SF and otherwise: The Dispossessed, two-thirds of the Mars trilogy, and Dune.

There have been millions of words written about the Puppies movement, so I don’t feel a great need to do more of that here. I highly recommend Amy Wallace’s Wired.com piece about the 2015 Hugo Awards and the defeat of the Puppies for an overview of the personalities behind the movement and the community’s response to them.

Puppies are Sad
The Puppy argument is fundamentally flawed. They want a return to the good ol’ raygun-shooting space adventure era of science fiction, which in and of itself isn’t terrible. On a personal level I struggled long and hard with the need to write something that would be considered a viable candidate for entry into the academic canon until a therapist (no, really) told me: write what you like to write, and stop worrying about that. Do you think Paul McCartney writes every song to be a great artist? Of course not. He writes what he likes.

Thus my Paul McCartney principle for writing.

So sure, if what you want to write is old fashioned raygun-toting, alien-blasting space adventures, awesome, go for it. There’s plenty of people out there who want that kind of thing. Wallace’s article notes the inherent class distinctions in what the Sad Puppies nominated: it’s more “blue collar” sci-fi in that it’s all about characters doing rather than characters feeling: the Puppies want characters that just get out and Do Stuff. Particularly fun, action-y, shoot-first-ask-questions-later stuff. If there’s Dinkum Thinkum stuff in there, fine, but only if characters are out there kicking ass.

The flaw is that these two things can’t mutually co-exist—or shouldn’t. SF is a big damn tent and there’s room for both, and no reason why a book where dudes are blasting aliens with rayguns can’t coexist with emotive, feeling characters, in stories that ask and answer the Dinkum Thinkum questions too. I operate under the assumption that the vast majority of us writers are simply writing what we want to write—whether it’s the raygun-blasting space engineer or the gender-fluid queer identity stories. We give it value because it’s important or fun to us, and important, valuable, and fun to our readers. In fact, the Eclipse Phase universe, which I’ve had the pleasure to write for, is all about both of these things coexisting.

Fiction 101
Writers are often instructed to “write what you know.” There’s a limitation to this in SF because there’s a certain amount we don’t know about things like killing dragons, living on generation ships, or traveling through time. Likewise, for those of us who identify as straight, white, cis males, there’s only so much we know about being queer, trans, female, or nonwhite (to say nothing of my middle-class upbringing). It doesn’t stop us from speculating in our fiction, but—for me, personally—there’s a fine line between speculation and appropriation.

I’m currently working on a short story with a closeted, gay main character set in the late 1940s. My knowledge of that person’s experience is largely based on reading about how gay males of that era were actively recruited by intelligence services because they were so good at hiding their tracks, and trying to imagine how a gay person living in that time period might react and respond to an incredibly homophobic (and anti-Communist) America.

I’m also working on an RPG scenario that has heavy Native American elements—not “movie” Native Americans, but modern-day Kiowa people living in a small town in Oklahoma. I have the tiniest bit of experience by proxy, but certainly not the firsthand experience a Native American writer could bring to the table.

In my weird western novel Trouble in Hangman Flats (working title), the two main characters are both straight, white males. Boring from an inclusivity perspective, but it was what I wanted to write, and the main secondary character is a woman who ends up adopting a teenaged girl (something which I have more than passing knowledge of).

Representation Without Appropriation
The point is, when you write what you want, not every character is going to end up being a minority, and I’d like to think that SWCM (straight white cisgendered male) writers (me) who are good allies will at least consider whether their minority characters are appropriating experiences. Not to say that we can’t write those characters—far from it. But we should be sensitive and aware of the nuances of doing so. And for fuck’s sake, we should do our research and let those who have lives those experiences be our primary readers.

The flip side of this is that it’s also important to increase minority representation of characters in our works, because we SWCMs are still the majority in this business. My explanations above are not an excuse for my discomfort in writing characters and situations outside of my SWCM experiences; hopefully, I’m communicating the respect I have for those people who have dealt with those experiences firsthand and my desire to allow those experiences to be their own, without trying to make them “mine.”

Stop Feeling Threatened, Morons
My final thought: I in no way feel threatened by the rise of minority representation in speculative fiction. I welcome it, specifically because reading works about minorities helps me better understand their experiences. I will never be able to change the color of my skin, my sexual orientation, or the gender with which I identify. I can read about those who are different from me and learn from them. And isn’t that the entire point of the speculative fiction genre—to read a mind-opening “what if” story that helps you see something you never saw before?

But.

When taken in the context of those in power (straight white men) feeling threatened by new people at the party, the Puppies’ hue and cry does make some sense. Wallace referred to the phenomenon as “people feeling threatened when someone else plays with their toys. It may be an extinction burst, or simply the perceived threat of loss of power. Either way, there’s no legitimate reason for them to feel upset in the first place. I’m not often in the habit of invalidating feelings, but with speculative fiction being, by nature, a pluralistic and open environment to explore ideas, the introduction of new ideas into that fracas should never be met with hostility.

We can learn from the Puppies—if only to observe how useless the whole movement is, because the tent is already large, people are writing what they like, and the more representation within our community, the better. We can have our rayguns, we can have our queer-trans-POC fiction, and we can have both (at the same time!)

That’s what makes the SF community great.

This is a historic day. Something happened this morning that will not happen again for a long, long time.

The last few weeks, my colleagues at work have been subjected to an almost nonstop barrage of images and facts from the New Horizons probe, courtesy of yours truly. Someone asked why I was so excited about this. It’s just a space probe, right? And Pluto’s not even a planet anymore, just a dwarf planet, right?

Because this is history being made. What’s happening today, July 14, 2015, will (very likely) not happen again while anyone alive right now is still around.

Pluto, yo.

Pluto, yo.

This is the very last time (for a long time) the human race is exploring a large, unexplored body in our solar system.

Some of us are old enough to remember how amazing the days, weeks, and months were following the Voyagers 1 and 2 flybys of the four giant planets and their moons. So many new worlds! So much to learn! Most of us had to wait for our issues of Space or National Geographic to roll in months later to get the full story and see all the pictures for the first time.

Now, anything from New Horizons will be shared within seconds across the entire world. We’ll see pictures on Internet-enabled devices that didn’t exist when New Horizons launched, and post them on social networks that didn’t exist when New Horizons chugged by Jupiter.

But that’s not what’s truly historic about today’s flyby. With DAWN’s earlier orbit and exploration of Ceres, all of the large, explorable objects (that we know about) in our solar system have been explored. There are a handful more: Makemake, Eris, Haumea, and Sedna. The likelihood that any of these dwarf planets will be explored with a close flyby like the inner planets, their moons, or Pluto is almost nil—at least in our lifetimes.

For those of us raised on a diet of new information from Voyagers, Galileo, and Cassini, this is the capstone on forty years of exploration and learning about our solar system. For my daughter, who was born scant months after the Sojourner lander first started exploring the Martian surface, this will be the only time she’ll experience a burst of new information like this in person.

But her generation will be treated to a different kind of exploration. I sincerely hope that she’ll be alive when human beings first set foot on Mars. Maybe she’ll even follow in their bootsteps one day.

In the next twenty-four hours, we’re going to learn about a whole new world. What is its atmosphere like? What does the surface look like? Are there large mountains? Active volcanoes that reshape the terrain? Giant canyons? Liquids that carve riverbeds or lakes? If so, what are they made of? What conclusions can we draw about the Kuiper belt and the formation of the solar system from studying Pluto and Charon? How abundant is water ice that far out? Or materials we can someday use to build or fuel a generation ship that can take our species to a new home in a new star system altogether?

That, my friends, is why I’m excited about today.

Note: the thesis, that today is historic because it’s the last time we get to experience a flyby like this, is not mine but I cannot find a source to cite. I expanded upon it as it encapsulates my feelings perfectly.

My buddies at Green Ronin launched a Kickstarter for the update of Blue Rose, a “romantic fantasy” RPG. It’s already smashed through its goals and is working on stretch goals. Blue Rose is great because it was one of the first RPGs to explore beyond the boundaries of straight white male power fantasies, and the new update promises even more inclusivity.

The Ronins have unfortunately taken (more than) their (fair) share of flack from, shall we say, some of the more regressive voices within our hobby for attempting to acknowledge that more than straight white males might want to play RPGs. I won’t link to any of that bullshit here, because it’s really nothing more than the extinction burst of people who don’t realize their outdated worldviews have already been pushed to the dustbins of history.

I was pleasantly surprised when, in the Something Awful Kickstarter thread, I came across the following posts. SA has a reputation for being one of the original “bad” sites on the Internet (before they pushed most of those shitty elements out into 4chan).

Because most of SA, including this forum, is behind a paywall, I’m copying and pasting the posts here.

Sometimes it turns out you can find hope in the most unlikely of places.

Keep up the great work, Ronins.

These posts are copied and pasted directly – I have not edited them whatsoever.

First post:

A kickstarter for a new edition of Blue Rose just launched. It’s using the AGE system from Dragon Age and Titansgrave, which admitted I don’t know anything about.

Reply:

The original has been on my list of things to check out for a while. I put it off because I am just so fucking done with d20. So I’m likely to back this.

I like their words about diversity and representation. Is there anybody familiar with the original version who can confirm that it really was as progressive as they suggest? (And from looking at the art, I have to wonder if it extends to racial diversity…)

Reply:

The original was pretty fantastic for the time, but the folks working on the remake have already admitted that it could and should be better, given that it’s almost ten years old now. Like one of the first pieces of in-game fiction in the first game was a mother praying for her son’s happiness with his new husband, which was got a whole lot of people mad because it was ‘shoving it in their face’ so they were doing something right.

Reply:

It’s hilarious and depressing that there are people who think that simply acknowledging there are non-straight non-white people in existence is “shoving a political agenda in their faces”.

Reply:

Blue Rose was a great start, since it made a point of including non-straight, non-white, non-cis people from the very beginning, including in the fiction snippets and in the example characters. There’s room to be better, but it’s a pretty good foundation of inclusiveness. That’s what drew the players of my current game to the system, moreso than the actual mechanics. This new system sounds awesome because d20 is giving me far too many headaches.

I’m hoping they give more clarity about rhydan, and maybe take a second look at adding some nuance to Jarzon.

 

How do you teach someone to play a game? Or a sport? Or anything? Teaching is a wonderful moment when you have the opportunity to impart more than just knowledge: you can pass along passion, spark something creative, and help someone start to see something new about the world.

Yesterday I experienced two very different kinds of teaching. Over my lunch hour, I taught my team, maybe half of whom are “gamers,” how to play a new board game. And in the evening, I helped teach my daughter how to bowl. Our lunch game was crashed by a very well-meaning, enthusiastic person who loved the game we played—but made it miserable for the new players. At bowling, I had a great time, and my daughter asked right away if we could do it again she had so much fun.

A half-hour of fun, lies, and backstabbing.

A half-hour of fun, lies, and backstabbing.

My work team plays board games from time to time. They’re amazing teambuilding exercises (I wrote about the power of RPGs in teambuilding before), and it’s a fun way to stimulate some creativity in the middle of the day. Yesterday we sat down to try The Resistance, a game I’ve played once and no one else had ever played. The Resistance is a rules-light game to begin with, focused mostly on social interactions. It’s a little bit like Mafia or Werewolf (OK, a lot like those games), with the hook that once you discover who the “spies” are, you keep playing—so no one is ever eliminated from the game and the whole group plays the whole time. I had a blast the first time I played it, even though I didn’t fully grasp the mechanical nuances of the game.

As we were setting up, someone from another team looked in, realized what we were playing, and asked to join. We’re an inclusive bunch so we said “why not.” He’d clearly played before. We’d just explained the basic rules, and he quickly started in telling the newcomers exactly how they should play—how to logically deduce who the spies were, how to do things, and so forth. I’ve heard this called “armchair quarterbacking” in relation to cooperative games where someone can hijack the action (ahem Pandemic ahem). In this case, it was a case of enthusiasm over reading your audience.

The experience quickly became unfun for the newbies, especially the nongamers. We were all there to have a good time. Winning wasn’t important. And no one, the first time they play a game, wants anyone telling them what to do every step of the way.

I know why he did what he did: he loved the game and wanted others to see it like he did. But it reminded me less of teaching someone a game, and more like the way my grandfather once tried to teach me how to golf: telling me every little thing I did wrong until I finally tossed the club away, Happy Gilmore-style, because goddamn it, it just wasn’t fun, and wasn’t that the point?

A typical bowling excursion.

A typical bowling excursion.

I kept that in mind last night when my daughter and I hit the bowling alley for our hang-out night. She’d been bowling once; it’s been a decade for me. I helped her choose a ball, explaining how to grip it and what to look for, and showed her the basic three-step approach to the toss. After that we just played. When she looked to me for guidance I offered it, but for the most part, I let her do her thing. It turns out she’s pretty good at realizing “hey, I need to correct this,” and we talked about overcorrecting (bowlers know what I mean), and generally had a blast.

And whether you’re the enthusiastic gamer, my grandfather, or just someone trying to teach something you like to someone else, the act of instruction is, I would guess, about 90% empathy. How would you want someone to teach you this thing? If I was not a gamer, already intimidated by playing with people I knew who were gamers, and on my back foot because the game seemed kind of complicated, would I want someone telling me every little thing to do? If I’d never bowled before and was a little anxious about the whole thing but willing to throw myself in, would I want someone pointing out everything I did wrong—or someone to show me the basics and help nudge me along the way?

I’ve been around gamers long enough to know this isn’t an isolated case. I ran more game demos than I can count at WizKids conventions a decade ago. Our one rule, no matter what, was that the other person had to have fun. It didn’t matter if that person played “right” or didn’t fully understand the underlying nuance of the game. If they had fun, that’s what matters.

Isn’t that why we play games in the first place?

Games are no fun if everyone at the table isn’t having a good time. Teaching is useless if you’re pushing your audience away rather than bringing them in. Seems obvious, and yet, so many people still don’t get it.

So the next time you’re teaching someone a game, or a sport, or anything, use this one simple rule: is everyone having a good time?

If not, you’re doing it wrong.

There’s a new Terminator film coming out and I’m really excited. From all the previews it looks like it’s going to be fantastic.

Sarah ConnorBut then again I think the entire franchise is fantastic, because the Terminator series is one of the best examples of great, shared-world science fiction. It’s got a great built-in tension premise (war in the future with killer infiltrator robots), it’s time travel provides a broad canvas for storytelling possibilities, and the combination of the two provides a vast array of sci-fi hooks—exploring social and ethical constructs.

Sure, there’s some schlocky parts, and Terminator 3 wasn’t a great film. But taken as a whole, especially the later parts of the franchise, Terminator is well above many other sci-fi worlds and deserves to be far more than to be dismissed as dumb, mindless action.

Here’s why.

The Terminator (1984)
The first film introduces Sarah Connor, the series’ protagonist. She’s a waitress and party girl who suddenly finds herself the target of a terminator—a human-looking robot sent from the future to kill her. In the future, Sarah’s son John is the leader of a band of human resistance fighters warring against the machines, lead by a murderous artificial intelligence called Skynet. If Skynet kills Sarah before she has John, the AI wins the war. The resistance sends Kyle Reese, a young soldier, back in time to protect Sarah. He ends up becoming John’s father.

Why it’s awesome.

  • The Terminator begins Sarah’s journey from meek victim to active hero. In a way, the entire franchise mirrors the empowerment of feminist politics on average women like Sarah: the shift from passive victims to full agents (Sarah was always her own agent, she’d just been gaslighted to think she wasn’t.) Reese protects her, but it’s the beginning of Sarah’s Campbellian development: she leaves home, she finds the elixir, and she realizes the strength is in her the whole time. And Reese is, ultimately, a supporting character for Sarah.
  • The sense of relentless horror as a nigh-unstoppable machine wants to kill you for reasons you cannot fathom, but must take on faith.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
The second film features a young John Connor and a far more world-weary Sarah teaming up with a reprogrammed T-800 (the original terminator) against a far more advanced shapeshifting infiltrator.

Why it’s awesome.

  • Sarah’s story goes into its middle third: she has sacrificed much to prepare John to be a future leader, and it has cost her everything: her son, her freedom, and (we find out) her sanity. The investments she’s made in John become circular, as he begins to take the reigns of leadership and develop his own agency.
  • It introduces the themes of motherhood and nurturing developed in the last third of Sarah’s story—and while they are a part of her, they do not fully define her. In fact, Terminator 2 is probably the most feminist action movie apart from Aliens, in no small part because of how Sarah’s story is treated.
  • There was never only going to be one machine sent back or one fight for the future. The only way to stop Skynet is to destroy it before it can be built (in a reverse of the plot from the first film.) And, it seems, the heroes manage to take it out.
  • But—and here’s where things get interesting—the chip and hand from the original Terminator are exactly what inspired Skynet’s development in the first place. Does that mean time is circular—that Skynet could not have developed without first being developed and sending the T-800 back in the first place?
  • “The future is not set. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.” This theme is repeated over and over, and summarized in the closing scene with a ribbon of two-lane highway in the dark, a road that leads into the unknown. This secondary theme comes back time and time again in future installments (pun intended).

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
Ten years after the last film, John Connor is living off the grid and Sarah has died from cancer. A new terminator is sent back to kill him, and yet another T-800 will protect him. This is the franchise’s weak point since it seemingly eschews the “future is not set” rule from the last two films, but what it sets up is the lynchpin of what comes later.

Why it doesn’t totally suck.

  • The T-800 doesn’t need to save John and destroy Skynet again—all it needs to do is get him to safety. That’s because in some future, in a future, Skynet still exists. OK, that’s basically a big retcon of the end of T2. Work with me here.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2007)
Not long after Terminator 2, another terminator arrives and attempts to kill John—this one very different from any seen before. Another protector arrives, a reprogrammed female terminator named Cameron that doesn’t match any other terminator’s specifications. The Connor family, plus Cameron, time travel forward to 2007, where they try once more to cut Skynet off at the source.

Why it’s awesome.

  • This is the third act of Sarah’s story, and byfar the best. Before Lena Headey was Cersei Lannister, she was kicking ass as Sarah Connor, and she plays it wonderfully. Sarah continues to wrestle with her demons and maintain her ability to be an active agent, which she not only reclaims, she takes to its logical conclusion. If you haven’t watched the show, do it—it’s some of the best-written, feminist television I’ve ever watched.
  • This is where the whole time travel / causality thing blows wide open. The Resistance has sent back many time travelers—a huge surprise to the Connors—and it appears Skynet has too. All this futzing in time has created an infinite number of alternate futures. In some, Skynet may not exist. In others, the Resistance has some unusual allies (no spoilers). But there’s one “present time” from which all these futures branch, so sending people and machines back turns 2007 into a massive battleground.
    • This can’t be overstated: this setup (and a very ‘scientific’ take on time travel) is what makes this show and future installments great, and creates the franchise’s storytelling canvas. There’s a great scene where the writers lay this out: future resistance time travellers comparing the dates of Judgment Day (“when is it in your future?”)
  • The battles aren’t just physical, although there are some impressive bits of that. The main conflict centers around what you can teach an artificial intelligence—from Cameron’s development to the training of the nascent John Henry AI, which, it’s strongly implied, is either the future Skynet (or a future Skynet). This introduces an awesome idea: that the only way to “win” the war is not to play—to fundamentally change Skynet so it never goes rogue in the first place, but can coexist peacefully with humans as some of the machines apparently do.

Terminator: Salvation (2008)
The only movie set fully in the future, this one follows a seemingly-human named Marcus who turns out to be half-machine—but still has his human memories and seems to lack any terminator programming.

Why it’s awesome.

  • This is a direct follow-up on the “multiple futures” idea, and introduces the notion that Skynet somehow understands it’s playing a four-dimensional game of chess with John Connor. The young Kyle Reese is identified by the machines as important despite him not traveling back through time.
  • Salvation also follows up on an implied plotline from TSCC: that future John Connor has made a deal with the machines in some way, or at least an element or faction of machines. Marcus, himself a machine, seems to be the introduction to breaking down John’s notions of “us vs. them.”
  • And in so doing, it runs with the notion begun in TSCC that “the only way to win is not to play.” Which sets us up for…

Terminator: Genisys (2015)

I haven’t seen this yet—no one has, because it hasn’t been released. But the previews show that the future John Connor himself appears to have come back through time—and that he is also part machine, like Marcus from Salvation. And may not have the best of intentions.

Why it should be awesome.

  • It looks like the writers have continued to paint on the canvas prepped for them by TSCC and Salvation. Yay multiple futures! Yay multiple pasts!
  • It also looks like they’ve accelerated Sarah’s development, and inverted her and Reese’s roles from the first film. If anything, this is an update for third wave feminism, moving beyond a needed development of Sarah from victim to agent. She begins as an agent and (hopefully) develops from there.
  • Also, Emilia Clarke is Sarah. So that’s two Game of Thrones women who have played Sarah Connor. Now to get Linda Hamilton a guest spot on GoT.

Seriously, if you’re not into the Terminator franchise, you’re missing out.

 

Warning: Spoilers abound. If you haven’t already seen this movie go see it already.

There’s a transition moment in Mad Max: Fury Road between the second and third acts where the main character, Imperator Furiosa, drops to her lowest levels of despair. She’s fled the Citadel with five women kept only to breed “healthy babies” for its despot, the sinister Immorten Joe, promising to lead them to the “green place.“ Needless to say, it doesn’t work out exactly as planned. As Furiosa collapses in anguish and frustration, Max, in one of the rare times he speaks more than a grunt or one word, tells her (I’m paraphrasing slightly) that it’s not enough to run from the thing evil thing (Joe’s exploitive patriarchy). Hope and redemption relies on the ability to change that thing.

bridesPost-apocalyptic (PA) stories are a wonderful tapestry upon which we can explore a variety of social problems in the most extreme conditions. One of the lessons I took away from a college class on the Holocaust is that belief systems and social structures break down in extremities: how can you believe in God, for example, when evil men are murdering His chosen people in the millions? PA tales give us the chance to explore such questions in a variety of different tapestries, skipping to the logical and most extreme end. Fury Road tackles a very relevant question: what does patriarchy look like stripped of its trappings, and how do you fight against it?

Much has already been said about the film’s feminist message. Furiosa, perfectly played by Charlize Theron, is the true hero here: the eponymous Max is simply along for the ride. In fact, as you may have gathered from the above example, Max serves the purpose most women play in many action stories: he helps and guides the hero in her despair—one of the many ways Fury Road subverts action film gender tropes. Joe’s brides are each their own character, none a true damsel in distress: they’re psychologically damaged by their captivity in varying degrees but are not played simply as helpless MacGufffins. The tribe of women is presented as no better or worse than the other wasteland tribes: they’ve done what they need to do to survive, and you get the feeling that if Furiosa and the band had taken the bait when they first meet, the women would have killed them without a second thought.furiosa

Fury Road is likely the greatest feminist action/sci-fi film since Aliens. In fact, it probably surpasses Cameron’s masterpiece.

Riding back home (and trying to drive the speed limit) after seeing the film, my wife remarked to me that it’s no wonder the Men’s Rights Activists hate the movie. It isn’t necessarily because of the feminist characters—it’s because Immorten Joe and his Citadel represents their world view. Women are fine if they fight and act like the boys, but otherwise they’re simply objects to be negged into sleeping with men, or used to (literally) nurture the War Boys who do the real fighting for the tribe. Wealth (water) is the greatest thing because it represents success and the ability to control the masses. Just give them a taste, but never too much. And Furiosa—and Max—are a colossal “fuck you” to the MRAs and those who cannot see the patriarchy for the tribe.

joeDirector/writer George Miller manages to create an enormous amount of story and background by painting with a minimalist but gut-wrenching brush. A few lines of dialogue and a lot of showing rather than telling fill out the story and characterization—no mean feat for any director.

He also achieves something remarkable that, as a writer, I cannot help but respect: he goes into issues of violence, rape, and exploitation and manages to keep the story about the women and their allies rather than making it about the man in that situation. I’ve often asked “how does a male writer include something about exploitation in a story without it turning into self-serving bullshit?” The answer is Fury Road.

With GamerGate and Sad Puppies still visible in our rear view mirrors, and the next spiky car of patriarchal reinforcement gunning its engine somewhere in this wasteland, Fury Road achieves a truly monumental feat. The film is a literal example of its core message: it’s not enough to run away. You have to actively work to change the problem if you want hope.

I love the film as a gonzo action flick that’s half grindhouse, half arthouse. I love it even more as a brilliant piece of feminist work and a powerful piece of PA science fiction. I love it the most because it is poised to live out its core message: to change the action, sci-fi, and PA genres from the inside. Not by running away, but by disrupting them from within. Men and women alike will watch Fury Road and say “this is how it should be.” Other summer fare like Avengers 2 or Jurassic World or the deadful-looking San Andreas will, I suspect, pale in comparison.

Fury Road is a stake in the ground saying “hey! You out there in the wastes! It’s time to stand up and demand better from our sci-fi action!”

And now that we’ve had a taste of this water, it’s going to be very hard to live without it.

One Saturday morning early in my junior year of high school, I walked into a Tulsa Barnes & Noble and met a group of people who would change my life: the “Café Writers.” One would help me land my first job; another wrote the recommendation letter that earned me a full scholarship to college. Collectively, they listened to, encouraged, and critiqued some of my earliest writing, giving me some much-needed confidence and setting me on my path.

The group’s de facto leader was Tawna Wheeler, a woman in her mid-40s with an easy smile, a great sense of humor, and who wrote stunning little tales of love, murder, and life in Oklahoma. She was working on a project featuring the Blue Whale, a well-known landmark near Catoosa. Her stories always delighted me, and Tawna is in many ways my Platonic form of what a strong Oklahoma woman is: feisty, good-natured, with a wicked sense of humor.

After a period of unemployment, Tawna, whose day job was in HR, walked me through how I was interviewing and gave me pointers I still use today. I still hear her voice in my head when I prep and during the interview itself. I credit her advice with helping me nail several jobs in my career.

When I moved away from Oklahoma in 2003, I gradually lost contact with most of the Café Writers except for an occasional Christmas card or email. I found out last year that Tawna’s health had declined. She was relatively young (my parents age), and the specifics of her illness were frightening and tragic in equal turns.

Earlier this week, the Café Writers received an email that Tawna had passed away.

Whatever her illness did to her in the last years, in my memory Tawna will always be that perpetually spunky Oklahoma woman, unapologetically writing her brilliant stories and lighting up everyone’s life. She gave me one of the best things you give another person: inspiration and confidence.

Thank you, lady. Godspeed.

Let’s talk about feminism, hacktivism, and responsibility. A little light reading for your Thursday, right?

Avengers: Age of Ultron debuted last weekend (full disclosure: I have not seen it as I was at a funeral). Before it debuted, people already called out some of the questionable dialogue: a rape joke Tony Stark (quite uncharacteristically) cracks. I dismissed it with the same phrase I’ve used for years about AoU writer Joss Whedon: well, yeah, because he isn’t nearly the feminist he thinks he is.

Whedon has built his reputation on creating some downright amazing dialogue, and engineering a kind of dramatic tension between friends (and family) that makes you fall in love with characters because, hey, they interact like a real group of people and not some cardboard constructs. He did it in Buffy (which again I have only seen a few episodes of), he did it in Firefly (which I’ve seen front to back several times), and absolutely in the first Avengers movie. The comic book fan in me desperately wants Whedon to write a Fantastic Four film because he’d nail the family dynamic that makes the comic so great.

Let me fanboy out for a second: as a writer, his handling of dialogue is nothing short of sorcery. It’s really fucking good and it will take me a lifetime to get my prose to the level he can write in his sleep. I respect him for this ability, even more than I respect the interesting fictional universes he’s created (Firefly).

Whedon’s also built his reputation on being a feminist—and, by and large, he is. One of his oft-quoted quips, from a 2006 speech to Equality Now (an NGO dedicated to ending discrimination against women), Whedon mentioned that he’s asked “why do you write strong female characters?” His answer: “Because you’re still asking that question.” In other words, because strong female characters are still so rare that they’re remarkable.

I do not doubt Whedon’s intentions in this regard, but there are a lot of reasons to suspect that he exhibits a lot more (likely unconscious) gender bias than he thinks he does. The Mary Sue posted an essay in 2011 called Reconsidering the Feminism of Joss Whedon that goes into far more research and depth on the subject than I care to here. I will say that there were several instances of slut-shaming in Firefly that stuck out like a sore thumb, and the premise of Dollhouse struck me more as the creation of the Fighting Fuck Toy stereotype than any kind of strong, feminist, female character.

An Internet-friend of mine, Rachel Brody, posted this comment on a third party’s Facebook thread about an article from the AoU kerfuffle. It perfectly summarizes how I feel about Joss the Feminist:

“Ok, so, as someone who was feeling very mad about this yesterday and has thought about it (mostly because he made a statement re not being chased off by feminists) here is something. I don’t feel like his feminism has evolved for a while now. It was awesome feminism in 1993, but social justice demands evolution, and he is very much a third wave feminist who hasn’t quite twigged how to move into fourth wave or intersectional feminism.

Is that something he should be required to do? Actually, nope. He is absolutely within his rights to tell the stories he wants to tell. Similarly, people are allowed to react how they will.

Now, when you have a prominent man who is also a self-avowed feminist running a huge tentpole production, the thing is…feminist is going to mean different things to different people. And today’s next wave feminists simply want more from their feminist icons, and that probably means they need different feminist icons. A guy who was breaking barriers in the early 90s is going to look just as archaic nearly 30 years later as some first and second  (and honestly even third) wave feminists look today.

I agree that vilifying him isn’t the answer, but I think part of the reaction might be because people really did hope he would keep pushing boundaries and breaking barriers, and he really just hasn’t. Through the lens of today’s cutting-edge feminism, his work is problematic. But he’s not a philosopher, he’s a writer and director and producer who answers to a conservative (fiscally) entertainment machine.”

The point I’m trying to make is that Whedon isn’t the perfect feminist. None of us are. But, as Rachel said, “social justice demands evolution,” and that means creators like Whedon, who may have the best of intentions, haven’t evolved to the point where they realize that sometimes, they may be subtly reinforcing male gender bias.

But.

In true Internet fashion, after AoU came out, things took a turn. Did people turn to Twitter to try to begin a conversation with Whedon about his likely unintentional gender bias in his creation? No, they called him names (and in some rare instances resorted to threats of physical violence—even death).

Hold the phone: what was the actual ratio of people calmly saying “hey Joss, you might want to reconsider a couple of parts of your story,” versus people saying “OMG DIE IN A FIRE!” We don’t know, because, so far, the dialogue has focused on these threats and Whedon leaving Twitter. And that is a grave disservice to the people who were genuinely bothered by parts of the film.

Which brings me to my real point here: responsibility.

Creators who call themselves feminists or allies have a certain degree of responsibility to be self-reflective about their own work. If someone says, “hey, there may be some subtle bias here you weren’t aware of, you should think about that,” if the creator genuinely cares, he or she should at the very least listen and take that feedback into consideration.

Note that I’m not saying we’re obliged to act on that feedback. But if you’ve (proudly) built your reputation on being a feminist and ally, you should listen when someone tells you your privilege is showing. It’s at least worth considering.

This, incidentally, is something I tell both my editor and my Primary Reader when I complete a new bit of writing: “Check it for unintentional privilege.”

That in no way justifies the acidic reaction against Whedon. Someone (I tried but failed to find the article) noted that it’s becoming harder and harder for creators to share their work online, because of the risk of pissing someone off and that person reacting not like a human being interested in dialogue, but like a full-on attack troll. I’ve dealt with this professionally for years, as a CM and digital marketer at my day job, and it fucking wears on you. I am not looking forward to the day I collect my first troll as a creative, especially considering the levels of insecurity I’ve had to overcome around my own writing.

Mark Finn wrote a spoiler-filled takedown of the reaction against Whedon. I think he misses the boat by outright dismissing concerns around Black Widow in the film (which, again, I haven’t seen), but he makes some fantastic points about the lack of Black Widow merchandise and Disney kowtowing to traditional gender roles with their toys.

I do agree with much of what he says about people intentionally being critical of works that achieve mainstream success, and I totally agree with him about the way that any kind of outrage online can very quickly turn from “constructive conversation” to “scary witch hunt.”

His most salient point is this:

“[P]utting a sexist remark in your work does not make you a sexist. Writing misogynistic dialogue in a scene doesn’t make you a misogynist. And showing violence done to women onscreen is not an endorsement for rape. In what high school or university are young people being taught that plot, characterization and dialogue all speak to authorial intent? It’s so weird how people miss the subtext inherent to a scene and simply invent their own, based on a literal reading of the dialogue. Who does that? Please, tell me how that is now a thing. Regardless, if you go through life expecting only to consume fiction and popular culture in all of its various forms that only conforms to your internal barometer for what you consider to be good and right and fair and just, let me tell you, you’re in for decades of rage and disappointment. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to learn how to deal with something you don’t agree with.”

Yes, a thousand times yes.

But.

Creators who do deal with these issues can and do slip right back into male gender bias because it is so deeply ingrained that we do not always recognize it. To take an extreme example: was it The Bride’s near-murder and rape that demonstrated Quentin Tarantino’s misogyny in Kill Bill? No, it was the fact that the character’s response to that situation was a male response, created by a male, for a male audience, while satisfying the male gaze.

That does not excuse either the trollish behavior or the focus of the dialogue on it, to the detriment of a larger conversation about whether parts of AoU were subtly, unintentionally misogynist. For example, Finn says something that, on the surface, makes a whole lot of sense:

“We used to play this game in the 1980s—during the time when the ultra-right-wing of the church was actively campaigning against heavy metal music, Dungeons & Dragons, and Warner Brothers Cartoons. There was this dictum that Pat Robertson used to employ that boiled down to, “if it’s not For God, then it’s against God.” We got pretty good at taking anything commonplace and by the transitive or associative properties of language and numbers, proving that it was, in fact, satanic. Jello? The most popular color is red. Red is the color of the devil. It jiggles when you shake it. Much like how the body shakes while committing sin. But the real proof? How many letters are in Jello? Five. How many letters are in Satan? Five. That can’t possibly be a coincidence. Thus, if you like Jello, that’s Satanic.”

He’s not wrong. The Internet breeds witch hunts, because it’s super-easy to focus on the wrong, and super-easy to react quickly, and super-easy to insult or threaten someone you’ve never met as a result. And let’s face it, any time a response to something is comparable to Pat Robertson’s anti-D&D crusade, it’s terrible. But does it match the majority response, or is it firmly in the realm of the fringe? I strongly suspect the later, despite the focus on it.

The sad part about this situation, which I caught in a conversation yesterday, is that any opportunity for dialogue is being swallowed by focusing on this small group of people who have engaged in the vocal, acidic witch hunt. It’s easy as a creator to wag our fingers and say “nope, death threats are bad, so I’m not listening to a word you’re going to say because people with similar opinions are flat-out jerks.” Just as it’s our responsibility to listen, it’s also our responsibility to tune out the crap and not fall into the “well, it’s just a big old witch hunt” trap and put our fingers in our ears.

And, to be clear, the people spewing such crap need to take responsibility for their words and the environment of persecution it creates.

I really hope there’s something to be salvaged from all this, because Whedon is a fantastic writer whom I respect for his craft, and his heart is probably in the right place, even if he needs to revisit what feminism means now.

I’m the biggest Jurassic Park fan, like, ever. Evidence:

  • I snuck a copy of the novel into my 8th grade science textbook so I could read it in class, a full year before the film came out. My teacher, who normally didn’t like me much, allowed it because it was scientific.
  • My first marching band parade song was the Jurassic Park theme.
  • The Jurassic Park soundtrack was the 2nd CD I ever purchased, and one of the few I still own.
  • I liked The Lost World. I even liked Jurassic Park 3.
  • My wife and I went to the 20th Anniversary showing of Jurassic Park in 3D for date night. Also: I have a very understanding wife.

That being said, I have severe misgivings about Jurassic World. Well, one severe misgiving.

There’s been one incredible teaser, one brand-new trailer, and this clip of a scene from the movie. Go ahead and watch.

Chris Pratt, the sensible dino-training guy, is explaining to Bryce Dallas Howard, the stand in for the questionable capitalist ethics of John Hammond in the first film (she’s even dressed in all white), why he respects the dinosaurs and she doesn’t, even though she’s come to him for help consulting on a new project.

Pratt makes a couple of jokes clearly written for him: that kind of aww shucks humor that made his turns in Parks and Rec and Guardians of the Galaxy such fun.

But there’s a decidedly darker undertone here, and I wonder if the largely male writing staff even noticed (there’s only one female writer credited to the script- Amanda Silver). Pratt’s character, rather than entering a professional debate with Howard’s character, consistently returns to the subjects of dating and sex. It’s a subtle but powerful exertion of male privilege and power over a woman in a professional environment, and it made me extremely uncomfortable the first time I saw it.

The scene in the recent trailer, where Pratt’s character makes a sex joke to Howard’s, certainly didn’t help to diminish that fear.

I used to like and respect Michael Crichton until I realized that, while the world changed around him, he did not. He was an ardent denier of climate change, and in one particularly foul episode before he passed away, cast a journalist critical of his writing as a pedophile in one of his books.

As much as I love Jurassic Park, I had hoped that the portrayal of workplace gender dynamics in Jurassic World might be more firmly rooted in the mid-2010s rather than the late 80s, early 90s in which the novel was originally written. I know Pratt’s character is the hero. I want to root for him, not root for him in spite of him being a sexist asshole.

I certainly hope I’m wrong and these are isolated incidents they happened to cherry-pick for the trailer, and that the film’s privilege is more advanced than its initially portrayed to be.

I suspect, however, I’m going to be disappointed. I hate being right all the time.

When I applied for a full ride scholarship my senior year of high school, my grades were just good enough to squeak in under the door, Indiana Jones-style. I knew that if I had any chance of getting that scholarship, I’d need some serious voodoo. And as much as I’d love to say what happened next occurred by design, I didn’t realize the significance of it until later.

I asked one of the members of my local writer’s group to write a recommendation letter. It was fantastic. I wish I still had a copy of it, because it’s a perfect model for how to recommend someone for something. It extolled the virtues of a young writer who screwed around in school but was a good kid, and by gosh give him a chance because he would be an asset to your school—and here’s exactly why.

I got the scholarship, and in retrospect, that letter probably had a lot to do with that outcome.

Recommendation letters are one of the most important things you can do for someone else. If you’re asked to write one—and an increasing number of us are, thanks to LinkedIn—I wanted to share a few tips I’ve picked up from conversations with HR people and hiring managers over the years (and my own experiences hiring people) to help the person you’re recommending get the job they want.

  1. Be specific. Talking about how great someone is helps, but being specific is what a hiring manager is looking for. If you know what the role entails, use that language. Like a review, mention actions and results as much as is feasible. “Jen is a wizard with data. She pulls and analyzes specific requests before the deadline, and her summaries are always insightful and correct Because of Jen’s analysis, our team saved thousands of dollars in one quarter alone.”
  2. Talk about what it’s like to work with this person. This may come as a surprise, but the biggest thing a hiring manager looks for in a new hire isn’t skills or expertise, it’s team compatibility. We assume when someone’s resume lands on our desks that they’ve been vetted and can do the job. The question is, how well do they mesh with the team? We usually have just a couple of hours—a half-day if we’re lucky—to make a decision about someone we’ll likely work with for years. If we have more information, great. “Jen works hard and plays hard. She pitches in to get things done with the rest of the team, but isn’t afraid to suggest a lunch out or start a Nerf gun fight if it looks like the team needs a few minutes. She led our office’s ‘games on Friday’ initiative, introducing us all to Ticket to Ride.”
  3. Actually say whether you’d recommend this person or not, and for what kind of role. The purpose of a recommendation letter is to, well, recommend that person. If you’ve ever been a phone reference for someone, the last question is typically “would you recommend Jen for this role.” So if you’re writing a recommendation letter, don’t hold back on this. “Jen was a valued member of our team for five years. She has a bright career ahead of her, and I would hire her back in a heartbeat if we had a role here for her. I recommend her without hesitation; the team that Jen joins will be far better for it.”
  4. Don’t overdo it. Turning your friend into Superman may seem tempting, but no hiring manager is going to believe she can do everything. Keep it realistic. No need to call out negative traits, but don’t brag like you’re writing a Christmas letter about your grandkids’
  5. Keep it short, but don’t skimp. 3 paragraphs is pushing it, but don’t go lower than 2. Remember that the people reading your recommendation are scanning, which is why you slap a few key words in there. Don’t waste their time but don’t short-change the person you’re recommending either.

And now that big old call for engagement: if I missed something, by all means let me know!