Chicks, eh?

It’s been a rough few weeks to be a woman, an Australian and a science fiction fan.

I don’t have anything to do with SFWA.  It’s the Science Fiction Writers of America, after all, and even if I was qualified to join (which would involve, for starters, finishing anything), I’m not entirely clear on what the body offers non-American authors.

But it is, effectively, the professional body for an industry I’d like to someday join, so I keep half an eye on its doings.

Suffice to say, the “professional body” has had some problems with, you know, professionalism.  Here’s a nice run-down; no need for me to sum it all up again.

It troubles me that here we have an organisation that is, in practice if not intent, only welcoming to 50% of the population.  (Technically 49%, I believe, but never trust a stat you got from Tumblr.)

The men of Mad Men, season 1.
Some people think that Mad Men is about how we need to get back to a time when workplaces looked like this. Those people are wrong.

I admire John Scalzi a lot, and I respect his efforts to move what looks (from the outside) like a toxic organisation into the twenty-first century.  But the kickback is ugly.  They say, “Don’t read the comments”, but sometimes it helps to know your enemy.  Like here.

Growing up, I didn’t believe in sexism.  When I was 12, my parents went through one of their particularly right-wing periods, and they told me one day that if my brother and I ever went for the same job, I would get it because I’m a girl.

(In reality, my brother and I did once go for the same job, albeit several years apart, and he got it and I didn’t.  But he’s also much smarter than me, and a harder worker.  Maybe because he was told he’d be competing against privileged feminazis, I don’t know.)

Parental eccentricities aside, though, I was lucky.  I came of age in the ’90s.  The most outrageous example of sexism I encountered was in 1999, when a nice lady from Sarina Russo visited my school and told us that girls shouldn’t wear trousers to job interviews, or seem too intelligent, because you didn’t want the interviewer to think you were arrogant.

(I have gotten plenty of jobs after interviewing in trousers.  Not that I wear them much any more, because apparently it’s physically impossible to make pants for my body shape, but if I could find work pants that fit, I would wear them every day.)

Somewhere along the lines, that changed.

I believe it’s fashionable to blame Britney Spears and Lady Gaga for the change, because by all means, let’s blame women for sexism.  A friend of mine attributes the shift to a decade of conservatism under Bush and Howard, the rise of the religious right and the messed up gender dynamics of abstinence-only sex education.

(I think celibacy is a dandy thing if you can do it, but it really helps if you know what you’re abstaining from, and where your boundaries lie.  Apparently these are bad things that will Destroy Children’s Innocence, just like teaching kids the proper names for their genitals.)

I’m not really interested in the whys and wherefores.  (That’s totally a tautology, by the way!)  I’d like for the tide to turn, and then the historians can get on with looking at causes, and I will read the books they publish and feel enlightened.

(Unless they blame Britney Spears and Lady Gaga.)

The business with the SFWA would just be so much background noise if not for what has been going on in Australia this week:

  • The Prime Minister – a lady politician, in the parlance of Resnick and Malzberg – makes reference to the misogyny frequently employed in criticisms of her work.  She is accused of playing the gender card.
  • Approximately 24 hours later, a menu from a Liberal Party fundraising dinner (remember, the Liberals are the conservatives here, because everything is upside down in Australia) is leaked to the press.  It includes “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail – small breasts, huge thighs and a big red box”.  Please note that in the language of high school students and dickheads, “box” is slang for “vagina”.  The media tells us this is all a lot of fuss over nothing, can’t you take a joke, etc.
  • A couple of days later, a radio presenter asks the PM if her partner is gay.  ‘Cos he’s a hairdresser, right, and ‘cos what type of bloke would be involved with a woman more powerful than he is?  The journo is fired, promises legal action.  This insult also involves a man, so it’s taken a bit more seriously.
  • About a day later, although by this point all the events were kind of merging into one, Lieutenant-General David Morrison, Chief of Army, addresses a problem of institutional misogyny in the army, and makes it clear that this is unacceptable.  He‘s hailed as a feminist hero, and there are calls for him to “run for Prime Minister”, even though that’s not actually how our system works.

And I’m just tired.  Tired because this is how our country treats a woman in power, and how many young women like me are watching this and going, “Wow, actually, you know, I don’t think I will go into politics”?  Once or twice is sexism, but this barrage is just misogyny.  Hatred and fear of women.

And what has Gillard done to deserve it?  Her government’s policies regarding asylum seekers are shameful and inhumane, but the other side’s are worse.  She doesn’t support gay marriage, but neither does the Liberal Party.  Her policies have disadvantaged single mothers in receipt of payments, but so do Tony Abbott’s.

(That both sides are terrible doesn’t make it okay.  I really despise what the Labor Party has become, and I hate that they prioritise money and xenophobia over human rights.  But it’s not as if the Liberal Party and the Murdoch press are approaching this from a position of moral outrage, you know?)

She’s a woman, and she’s in politics, and she is, despite the media’s narrative of failure, quite good at advancing policies, often through compromise and sheer bloody mindedness.  And for some reason, the Australian media just can’t wait to be rid of her.

(Remember how, before the US election, it was a dead certainty that Romney would win and Obama would be history?  That’s the same narrative playing out here, hopefully with the same result.  I for one am growing tired of the assumption that the next election is decided.  I mean, come on, guys, we actually get a say in this!)

I am so tired of feeling like I have to defend my right to be here.

It doesn’t help that I spent much of this last week transcribing the trial of an accused rapist.  There are supposed to be rules about how the defence treats the complainant, but in practice, it’s still okay to make insinuations about her style of dress, her make-up, whether she was wearing a brightly coloured bra, whether her creative pursuits indicate she doesn’t understand the difference between fantasy and reality.

I’ve been intermittently watching a J-drama called Strawberry Night, about a rape survivor who becomes a police officer.

It’s basically a series about rape culture and institutionalised sexism in Japan. Cheery stuff!

In the TV movie that precedes the actual series, there’s a flashback to the trial of her attacker.  As a teenage witness, she’s standing behind screens so the jury can’t see her.  The defence counsel trots out all the usual, horrible cliches:  you liked it, you led him on, you made it up.

And Reiko loses her temper and steps out from behind the screens, haranguing the lawyer herself: How dare you say that about me, how dare you dishonour the work of the police officers who pursued this case and the officer who died arresting this man?

It’s cathartic, but when I first watched it, I felt like it was too on the nose, too much a wish-fulfilment fantasy.

Then I started transcribing criminal trials, and now I go back and watch that scene again (even though I’m only a few episodes into the series proper) because it’s so satisfying.  It could never happen in real life, but it really is lovely to see it happen on a screen.

I am very, very tired.  And all I’ve done is watch!  But being a witness, as my therapist said last year, is traumatic in its own way.

Yesterday I burrowed in and worked on a project I have going, and then played Mass Effect and read a book for a while.  It was very soothing, except when I remembered that women aren’t welcome in gaming either, and … actually, no, I have no criticism about the book I’m reading at the moment.  Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch, number 3 in the Rivers of London series.  It’s the type of thing my parents called literary fast food, but it’s not so much McDonalds as a burger from that really excellent place that uses the best quality meat, and fresh bread and salads, and makes their own sauces.

It has been a long week.  And coming off the back of a really satisfying con where women’s voices were heard and interesting and funny things were said, it feels a bit like a punch in the face.  (I gave some serious thought to moving to Canada to escape Australia’s politics, but I don’t like the cold, I don’t understand ice hockey, and I can’t eat poutine.)  I realise I’m making a lot of things all about me, but my therapist also said that’s empathy, and I should stop criticising myself for having feelings.

ANYWAY, it’s a nice day, and I’m going to go and have brunch with my excellent friends, and then maybe look at the Mass Effect tag on Tumblr and satisfy myself that my FemShep is better than everyone else’s.  (I presume that is a natural part of the Mass Effect experience?  Seriously, why does the male version of Shephard even exist?  He’s so … well, not my type, suffice to say.)

How do I Continuum?

So, Liz, how is your Continuum going? 

Pretty good, thanks!  It’s the last day, and I’m sitting on the floor behind the reg desk, fingers on keyboard, but brain engaged in conversation.

Also I’m sleepy.

So, late nights?

I like to be in bed at 9.30!  I’m a nanna!

What are people talking about?

RaceFail, social justice and inclusiveness in fandom and the genre writing community have been coming up a lot!  Maaaaaaaaaaaaybe because I programmed a bunch of panels on the subject?  I deny all responsibility.

But we did talk about RaceFail on Social Justice 101 on Saturday morning, and a couple of hours later, N. K. Jemisin mentioned it in her Guest of Honour speech.

Cool story, Liz. What’s RaceFail?

RaceFail ’09 was a series of incidents in which prominent SF authors and editors said really stupid things about race.  It started out with a well-intentioned post by Elizabeth Bear about how to write PoC, and ended in some terrible behaviour, including the outing of a prominent Fan of Colour’s real life identity.

You can find a more detailed history here.  While it was going on, Rydra Wong maintained links to posts and discussions on the subject.

So RaceFail is still a thing?

Sadly, there are still authors and editors who say terrible things about PoC, or who write stereotypes, or who think it’s just too hard to write anything but white characters.

But RaceFail also triggered lots of wider discussions about fandom, inclusion, internalised *isms, and wider issues of social justice in the context of science fiction and fantasy fandom and publishing.

Hence the Social Justice 101 panel!

Yep!  I have an issue with a lot of fandom’s current social justice discourse, in that it uses a lot of academic concepts and terminology (much of which is apparently now obsolete in actual academic circles), yet becomes quite hostile to people who don’t understand the terminology.  There’s a dash of classism, but mostly I fear that the language of social justice is being misused as a tool for exclusion and even bullying.

In short, it’s a social injustice.

That’s a bit rough.

Yeah, well, I think it’s human nature to take good things and misuse them.  See also self-styled allies who, instead of being good allies and educating the ignorant/curious so that marginalised people don’t have to, snap, “It’s not my job to educate you!” as if they themselves were part of the marginalised group in question.

(“I don’t understaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand why it’s offensive to say there are no black SF fans!” — for example — is a common method of, at worst, derailing a conversation, or at best, taking up a person’s time and energy by asking them to justify their existence and opinions.)

“Educate yourself” and “Go and Google it” are often the responses in these situations, and I don’t think that’s a wholly useful response on the part of allies.  Not everyone has the education and intellectual capacity to seek out and critically analyse information.  And there’s a lot of bad information out there.  A friend, on being told to go and educate herself about trans* issues, went off to Google and found a whole lot of transmisogynistic and cissexist radical feminists who use the language of social justice to spread hate and intolerance.

Early on, Social Justice 101 had as its blurb, “Just this once we’re here to educate you!”  We changed that because it’s not really fair to have an in-joke on a 101 panel, but that was the intent of it.

That’s really inclusive of you.

I know, right?  I’m so great.  *hairflip*

…actually, I was afraid that either the audience would be really hostile, or I, as a product of a racist culture, would say something really offensive, but it was a great audience and a great panel.  Most people had at least a little bit of background in the concepts from observing social justice discussions online, and we defined terms like “privilege” and “oppression olympics”.

We also talked about some of the ways fandom socal justice has gone a bit wrong, like treating privilege as if having it automatically makes you a bad person.  Which is wrong — we all have privilege in different ways, and the point of social justice is to recognise that and keep in mind that our experiences are not universal, and that the default narratives of our society don’t always recognise that.

Or, being another way, being a white, middle class man does not make you a bad person, nor does it mean you automatically have an easy life with no challenges.  But the challenges you face will be different from those faced by, say, an Aboriginal woman with a disability, and it’s important to recognise that and try to create a society where it all evens out.

So nothing challenging then?

It’s really hard!  And I think there’s a fear that if we make a mistake, it will be held against us forever, so why even try?  (This, again, I believe, is a place where fandom’s social justice discourse can go wrong.)

And one thing I said, which I think is important, is that sometimes these discussions can get very fraught, and you need to look after your own mental health.  For example, I have an anxiety disorder and am very conflict-averse.  Sometimes social justice discussions make me anxious, and I have to make the conscious decision to step back and let it go on without me.

So you think people should talk about oppression, but nicely!

I hope I’m being more nuanced than that!

One thing we defined in our panel was the tone argument.  This comes up a lot in anti-oppression circles in general.  It goes like this:

Person A: Says something a bit sketchy.

Marginalised Person: Says that that was a bit sketchy.

Person A: Complains that Marginalised Person’s opinion is invalidated because they’re being rude.

No actual rudeness is necessary for the tone argument to be invoked, although quite often it ends with a marginalised person losing their temper, and the person who started the whole thing going, “See?  They really are irrational and angry and not worth listening to!”

And, needless to say, social justice discussions get fraught, and marginalised people have good reasons to be angry.

But for my own mental health, that’s usually when I close the tab.  Luckily I don’t usually participate in these conversations, so I can do that, because I’m not actually participating.  And the fandom police don’t actually come to your house and arrest you for not following every single discussion.

(Sometimes I see people remark that anyone who isn’t participating in Conversation X is automatically supporting the oppressor.  Those people must have much more spare time and energy than I do.)

Basically, I think that as long as you’re not actually telling people to be nice or you won’t follow the discussion — and why would you do that?  It’s rude.  Dickish, even — you have the right to draw your own boundaries.

(Clearly I’m writing this for an audience who are not themselves participants in social justice debates.  I lurk myself.  That’s the entire foundation of my so-called expertise.)

No one has actually called you an expert.

Shut up.

You talk about anything else?

Apparently I have a lot of opinions about Doctor Who.

You amaze me.

I know.  I was a bit shocked too.

I really like Melbourne’s fandom, though, because at ChicagoTARDIS, the older male fans talked over me, patronised me and finally ignored me.  The older male fans here were respectful, polite, and even though at least one of them is WRONG about Amy Pond, I didn’t feel like I was in a hostile environment.

Are you about to use the words “safe space”?

I think that, as much as we work really hard to make Continuum a safe space, that judgement is ultimately very personal and subjective.

Do you have any Doctor Who opinions worth sharing?

Someone asked about Amy and Clara being too mysterious, and whether that made them objects in the Doctor’s eyes.  It’s a criticism I’ve seen around Tumblr as well.

I disagree that it’s inherently bad to have a mysterious companion.  We’ve had many, many years of the show where the Doctor was a MYSTEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEERIOUS AND POOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOWERFUL ALIEN MAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN … and his companion, the everygirl.

And there’s nothing wrong with an everygirl or 30, or even an everyman or, um, four.  But to me, it is really exciting that the Doctor is as fascinated by his companions as they are by him.  And not a patronising “You sit at home and eat chips and that’s brilliant except actually the narrative repeatedly suggests I despise you for it” sort of way.

Additionally, I think that growing up involves learning about yourself, and perhaps discovering that the things you took for granted as a child or young adult aren’t actually true.  For me, it was really exciting that Amy’s story addressed that, and that she continues to be strange and mysterious even after she’s married and domestic.

I don’t think it was as effectively done with Clara, but I don’t consider it an inherently problematic trope.

And as my fellow panellist Kathryn Anderson pointed out, we’ve had 50 years of the Doctor as a mystery to be solved, and no one has said this is problematic or objectifying.  But once you give that narrative to a woman, suddenly it’s an issue.

This looks like a good segue into the Gender Bending panel!

Yeah, three panels I did on Sunday:

  • Panelbending (about Avatar: the Last Airbender, OBVIOUSLY)
  • Gender Bending
  • Racebending

Whoever programmed this convention is a — DAMN.

Anyway, yes, my friend Lucy Baker is doing a PhD on fandom, and particularly rule 63, gender bending and … I don’t know, stuff.  Academic stuff.

So Lucy, Rachel Holkner and I ran a slideshow of pictures — mostly cosplay, some fan art — and talked about a few things.

Well, that narrows it down!

Well, quite often female versions of male characters are really hyperfeminine and sexualised, even if the male version isn’t.  For example, we agreed that a female version of Tony Stark would be really sexy and sort of flashy, because Tony is already really into gender performance.  Whereas Rachel actually cosplayed the Terminator — Schwarzenegger model — for the panel, and deliberately constructed a costume that was not overtly feminine.  Except, of course, for her modest heels.

We also talked about stories that just wouldn’t work if you swapped the protagonist’s gender.  You can’t have Mad Men with Donna Draper.  You can’t have Breaking Bad with Wallis White.

We also touched on this, and it occurred to me again while I was running the vid show last night, the Marvel movieverse is full of male gender performance.  I just mentioned Tony Stark, but Captain America is basically about Steve Rogers adapting to a body that’s as masculine as his ambitions.  Natasha deliberately adopts the persona of a vulnerable woman so that she’ll be underestimated in battle.

You need to spend less time on Tumblr.

I feel like we could have said something interesting about Hannibal, but we haven’t actually watched it yet.

We did, though, talk about Elementary, and Joan Watson, and the way she is very feminine, and quite sexy in her manner of dress — short skirts (with leggings), high heels — but not sexualised.  Also, pretty amazing.

Did you hijack any other panels to talk about amazing female characters?

I just like Lin Beifong a lot, okay?

How was the vid show?

I think it went well!  I hope it went well, anyway.

One of the vids I showed was Chaila’s “Keep the Streets Empty for Me”, a Twilight vid that positions Bella as the hunter, her prey partially being Edward, but also sensuality and physical power.  There was a certain amount of sniggering when the (small) audience realised it was a Twilight vid, and certain parties may have gotten on with the serious business of sharing lollies.  But it’s such a compelling, dark vid that it sort of magnetised the audience and regained their attention.

You know, I think it must have been a successful vid show, because when I came out of the bathroom afterwards, people were serenading N. K. Jemisin with “Blue (Da Ba Dee)”, which was the song behind the penultimate vid.  (We know how to show an author a good time here!)

Anything else?

LOTS.  I think my brain is broken.

We’re back to that sleep issue. 

I love sleep so much.


Were meant to flyyyyyyyyyyyyy!

Ain’t no party like a Khan party!

‘Cos a Khan party don’t stop until it’s conquered 25% of Earth and fled justice into space!

SPOILERS: Probably safest to assume that everything after this paragraph contains spoilers up to and including Star Trek Into Darkness.  

I saw Into Darkness with my friends a couple of weeks ago, and even after I recovered from my lens flare headache, I was kind of unimpressed.  I’ve been a Trekkie since I was ten, and I don’t go to a Star Trek movie to see Spock punching a dude in the face, you know?  And it’s a shame, because I had enjoyed JJ Abrams’ first round with the franchise, and now I just want to reject everything about it, even the 100% brilliant aspects like Zoe Saldana, John Cho and Simon Pegg.

When Star Trek came out, it inspired me to go back and watch the whole of TOS and TNG.  (I got about halfway through DS9, which was great, but then I kind of got distracted.  I’ll go back to that and VOY at some stage, I swear.  As soon as I get over my fear that Voyager won’t be as perfect and brilliant as it seemed when I was 14.

(Actually, Voyager was the fandom that taught me that all showrunners hate puppies, kittens, happiness and women, which is probably why I like Steven Moffat so much — he seems to tolerate puppies, kittens, happiness and women, and that’s a big step up from Brannon Braga.  When you lower your standards, you can’t be disappointed.)

Anyway, this time around, I gathered some friends and said, “Hey, totes gonna watch ‘Space Seed’ and Wrath of Khan.  You should come over and stuff.”

And they did, even though they weren’t big Star Trek fans, and were somewhat more positive towards Into Darkness than me.

Remember how I blogged about fannish defensiveness a few weeks back?  Showing Star Trek to my friends is really nerve-wracking, because there’s always a small part of me that worries they’ll … I don’t know, hold me responsible for Shatner’s line reading?  It’s a neurosis.  And also quite silly, because my friends these days are sensible women who can cope with watching old fashioned TV, and don’t judge me for liking something that’s a bit stilted and odd.

But wow, “Space Seed” is old fashioned.  Not as shockingly as early Doctor Who — Star Trek had a much better budget, and the general film quality was higher (even setting aside the difference between colour and black and white), but the pacing is veeeeeeeeeeeeeery sloooooooooooow compared with modern television.

TOS ran four minutes longer than TNG (something I felt was quite unjust when I was young), and they really take their time setting up the plot and characters.  If this was made today, Khan would take take over the Enterprise much earlier, and the rest of the episode would be one long action scene.  As it is, the capture of the crew, torture of Kirk and defeat of Khan and reclamation of the ship all takes place in the last quarter hour.

…also if this was made today, apparently, Khan would be played by a white British actor, rather than a Mexican in brownface.  Which is also problematic, but it’s an historical artefact from 1966/67.  Ricardo Montalban spent much of his career playing men of other races, including Asian, because Hollywood’s pretty racist and a man has to eat.

The interesting thing about Khan was that the original script portrayed a Nordic superman.  And Gene Roddenberry basically went, “Well, if you’re creating a superhuman out of the best humanity has to offer, he’s probably not going to be white.”  So although there are a lot of issues with Khan, from the brownface to his relationship with McGivers, he simultaneously represents 1960s racism and progressivism.

In fact, in “Space Seed”, Scotty describes the eugenics warriors thusly:

“They’re mixed types. Western, mid-European, Latin, Oriental.”

I’m wincing and impressed at the same time.  Nice try, 1966.

It’s kind of unfortunate, then, that by 1982, this is what Khan’s people look like:

Khan's followers as they appeared in 1982. They're uniformly pale-skinned and blond.
Whitewashed AND they went the full Mad Max.

Well done on not putting Montalban in brownface this time?

According to Tumblr, incidentally (because I hit the tags in search of Carol Marcus gifs, but I’ll get to that later), casting a Mexican to play an Indian is way more racist than casting a white man to play the same Indian, and also it’s impossible for Khan to be a man of colour, because scientists are racist and would have bred their superman to be white.  To which I say, congratulations, you are officially more racist than 1966!

The other problem with “Space Seed” is that it’s also an artefact of 1960s attitudes about women.  Although it hardly seems fair describing it as such, since at the same time as Star Trek was giving us Marla McGivers, Doctor Who was adding Polly Wright to its already impressive list of brave, clever, sensible female characters.  

(Uhura is woefully underused in “Space Seed”.  IT MUST BE A DAY ENDING IN Y.  She does the comms thing, and then gets physically threatened by Khan’s henchmen until she activates the KirkTortureCam.  Nichelle Nichols does give some great Outrage Face at this treatment, though.)

Anyway, Marla.  She’s the ship’s historian, and I’d like to think that it’s awesome that history is so respected in the Federation that starships carry their own specialists, only … what do they do?  Marla betrays the ship.  The Enterprise-D had one for five minutes, but then he got shot, and never replaced.  BECAUSE WHAT DO THEY DO?  Even Kirk doesn’t seem too sure.

Marla’s not even a good historian.  She’s basically the equivalent of those women who write love letters to serial killers in prison.  Her quarters are a shrine to Great Men Who Conquered Shit And Killed People – Alexander the Great, Caesar, Napoleon – and she also paints their portraits.  And she falls for Khan because he’s a Great Man Who Conquered Shit And Killed People, not an emasculated specimen like the men of the future.

(Someone should write an essay about masculine anxieties as represented in “Space Seed”.  Someone who’s not me, I mean.)

The most interesting moment in this relationship is when Khan tells her, “Go. Or stay. But do it because it is what you wish to do.”  It makes the coercion that follows look consensual!

But my favourite scene in the whole episode is the one where Kirk, McCoy and Scotty express their admiration for Khan, and Spock is horrified and outraged that they’re being fans of a problematic person.  (Khan Noonien Singh.  Amanda Palmer.  Can you see the difference?)  Here’s a transcript:

SCOTT: I must confess, gentlemen. I’ve always held a sneaking admiration for this one.
KIRK: He was the best of the tyrants and the most dangerous. They were supermen, in a sense. Stronger, braver, certainly more ambitious, more daring.
SPOCK: Gentlemen, this romanticism about a ruthless dictator is —
KIRK: Mister Spock, we humans have a streak of barbarism in us. Appalling, but there, nevertheless.
SCOTT: There were no massacres under his rule.
SPOCK: And as little freedom.
MCCOY: No wars until he was attacked.
SPOCK: Gentlemen.
KIRK: Mister Spock, you misunderstand us. We can be against him and admire him all at the same time.
SPOCK: Illogical.

I can only assume that Spock then goes off to call them out on Tumblr.  As soon as he finds a gif that will express his lack of feels.

ANYWAY, Khan is brought to heel and sent into exile with his people, on the grounds that ’tis better to reign in hell than serve in heaven, and Marla goes with him because the alternative is (I assume) a cushy Federation jail, and who wouldn’t want choose an inhospitable, uninhabited planet over that?

And we’re left with the final mysteries:  why would a group of escaping war criminals steal the ship that signals their criminality to any passing Australian?  How can a ship called S.S. Botany Bay send up no red flags whatsoever?  I guarantee you, deep in the bowels of the Enterprise, some Aussie crewman had been singing “Bound for Botany Bay” for days by the time everyone else figured Khan was bad news.

The 1982 movie poster for Wrath of Khan
They really don’t make movie posters like they used to. I wonder what happened to all the artists whose skills are now obsolete?

The first thing to note about Wrath of Khan is that it introduces two new female characters and gives them substantial roles.  In fact, it has more female speaking parts than Into Darkness, and 100% fewer underwear scenes.  

(On the other hand, despite the presence of Carol Marcus and Saavik, Uhura is still underused. One thing I wholeheartedly love about the reboot is how it does give Uhura significant time and attention — although it’s still nothing compared with the male leads — and I just wish Nichelle Nichols had received the same kind of respect.)

Part of the reason I was so keen to rewatch Khan was Carol Marcus.  I didn’t hate her in Into Darkness, but I did hate that they took this independent, funny, super-intelligent woman who managed to be defined by neither her son nor her ex-boyfriend, and turned her into a generic Strong Female Character whose primary motivation is her daddy issues.  With a gratuitous underwear scene.

I mean, Khan!Carol is middle aged, and it makes sense that a younger version would have different priorities and maybe less confidence than her older self, but I couldn’t see a shred of the future Carol in the new version.  Alice Eve is no less competent than Bibi Besch, but the writing just wasn’t there.  New!Carol was just hollow.

And it did bug me that they took Carol Marcus, who is proudly civilian, and whose scientific drive is for the creation of life from nothingness, who regards Starfleet as a tool for the advancement of science and a necessary military evil, and turns her into … a weapons specialist.  At first this made sense, with the militarisation of new Starfleet, but then, the Starfleet of the movies is also highly militarised.

It’s significant, I think, that when David Marcus accuses Starfleet of stealing and weaponising the Genesis research, none of the other younger scientists disagree.  Only Carol, who is old enough to remember a gentler, exploration-based Starfleet, contradicts him.

That generation gap is significant, because Wrath of Khan is less about a crazy dude trying to kill everyone, and more about middle age, loss, obsolescence and facing death.  The Enterprise is full of junior officers in training, with Spock in command, and Kirk sort of flailing about in a new position as an admiral.  And then, amidst all that, his past comes back to haunt him:  an enemy he thought he’d left behind, the woman who broke his heart, the son he never knew.

And then Spock dies, and Kirk faces death and the no-win situation properly for the first time.  And, because he’s kind of an asshole, he finds it exhilarating.  Rejuvenating.  He feels young at the end.  Sad and overwhelmed with loss, but also young.  And also, Spock’s death?  All about him.

Amazingly, this coda doesn’t detract from the power of Spock’s death.  Although the truly amazing thing is that when Kirk, at the funeral, describes Spock as “the most human soul he has ever known”, Spock doesn’t rise out of his coffin and say something sarcastic. And Saavik is too grief-stricken to do it for him.


Saavik is Spock’s protege.  In terms of character types, she’s basically Romana I – a beautiful brunette ice queen with more theoretical knowledge than practical experience, and magnificent eyebrows.

They’re not very, you know, Vulcan eyebrows, though.  And she actually sheds a tear at Spock’s funeral.  See, a cut scene would have revealed that Saavik is actually half-Romulan, and not completely down with this total lack of emotion business.  But because that information was taken out, and Kirstie Alley wasn’t given the classic Vulcan eyebrows, she can come across as a bit of a half-baked Vulcan.

DOESN’T MATTER, THOUGH, ‘COS SAAVIK IS GREAT.  She challenges Kirk, making him hugely uncomfortable, while Spock just stands in the background and looks approving.  But she also respects Kirk and learns from him — she’s not just a Strong Female Character whose version of feminism is an inability to admit she’s wrong.

I mean, not that she overtly admits she’s wrong, but sometimes her eyebrows suggest that she’s taking things in.

Saavik was Kirstie Alley’s first big movie role.  By the time The Search for Spock came around, Alley asked for a huge amount of money, and Saavik promptly regenerated into Robin Curtis.

Curtis was very good in the role, and her version of Saavik was much more classically Vulcan, but she lacked the quiet sass that Alley’s version had.  Nevertheless, it’s a real shame that she barely appears in Star Trek IV, and after that she just vanishes from the Trek universe.

(But it could be worse — Valeris, the traitorous Vulcan in Star Trek VI, was originally going to be Saavik.  Hoo boy, did we dodge a bullet there!  Although we also have to put up with Kim Cattrall’s acting, which is never a highlight.)

AND THAT WAS THE KHAN PARTY.  I believe we have tentative plans for one day having a Whales and Tribble Party.  Because boy, do I know how to show my friends a good time, or what?

Books read in May 2013

FOR THE RECORD, I’m also halfway through a post about Star Trek and Khan Noonien Singh and stuff, but also I’m involved in this convention that’s a week from now, so, yeah, I’ve got stuff happening.

But not so much stuff that I couldn’t read SEVEN WHOLE BOOKS, YEAH!

Okay, so last month I read seven books and I was like, “I fail so hard!”  This month I’m practically high-fiving myself, which, also, I don’t recommend because it’s awkward and you look weird.

My excuse is that this month’s books were more substantial than April’s, in that there were no graphic novels or YA re-readds.  YEAH.

Red Dragon Thomas Harris Thriller
The Revolution Was Televised Alan Sepinwall Television
Mennonite in a Little Black Dress Rhoda Janzen Memoir
Triangle: The fire that changed America David von Drehle History
Thunderstruck Erik Larson History
Pox: An American History Michael Willrich History
The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness and Murder Charles Graeber True crime

ALSO, all but one of those books was non-fiction.  Not that NF is superior or anything, but it engages a different part of the brain.

The one novel I read:

Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, because Hannibal (the TV series, not the terrible book) fandom is hilarious, and also it looks like a really good show.  And I read Silence of the Lambs at an impressionable age (14), then held my breath until Hannibal came out.  Whereupon I turned my exhalation into a tantrum, because that was character-destroying shite and I have never forgiven Thomas Harris for what he did to Clarice.

(One of the few conversations I had with my high school crush — conversations that didn’t come to a premature end because I was hyperventilating, I mean — was about how much we hated Hannibal.)

I quite enjoyed Red Dragon, despite the complete lack of Clarice Starling (which is why I didn’t read it as a teen, because WHAT IS THE POINT?).  Will Graham is a character-type so common now as to be generic, but I could see where Thomas was reaching for something new.  Lecter himself seemed less layered and more cartoonish than he would later become, but it might be that I have rose-coloured memories of reading Silence for the first time.

What didn’t really work for me was the villain, who didn’t seem to fit any realistic psychiatric profiles (‘cos I’m an expert, you know) and wound up kind of a stereotype of the schizophrenic murderer.  Also, he eats a painting.  Well, a watercolour.  OH WAIT, YOU REALLY CAN’T MAKE THAT ANY LESS WEIRD.  And by weird, I mean that was the moment when literature jumped the shark.

The book about TV

The Revolution Was Televised by Alan Sepinwall.  A TV critic looks at the way television has evolved in the 21st century, specifically in the development of elaborate, narratively ambitious cable series.

This was pretty interesting, but what I took away from it in the end was that, coming from a critic’s perspective, Sepinwall missed both the academic and fan angles.  And that’s unfortunate, because it led to slight inaccuracies that are nonetheless grating if you’re a TV nerd.  For example, he claims that the very first TV show to be discussed on the internet was The X Files, which was more like the first show where discussion exploded and became quite mainstream.  (The first was probably Star Trek: The Next Generation — I’ve read that the cliffhanger that ended “The Best of Both Worlds” part 1 was what made TV bulletin boards explode.)  And The X Files (again) was one of the earliest and most successful shows to use ongoing mythology and an arc, but Babylon 5 debuted first, and I’d argue that even Twin Peaks paved some ground.

But that’s just little things.  If you want an overview of quite a few prestige TV series, and the network shows that preceded them, this is a good, light read.  And you get bonuses, like Ron Moore being quoted as saying Star Trek fans don’t watch The West Wing and vice versa.

The religious upbringing memoir

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen.  In which the author, after her marriage ends and she suffers a serious car accident, goes home to her parents, members of the conservative Mennonite community.

It probably says something about my upbringing that I was really struck by the lack of abuse in this book.  Actually, no, that’s not true — Janzen’s account of her time with her family also unfolds, slowly, the abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband — but the only terrible things her conservative! religious! family did to her involved making her wear nerdy clothes, and sending her out into the world with no sense of self-preservation against predators.  

I was slightly disappointed that Janzen’s family aren’t the conservative Mennonites of the kind I saw in Canada.  Her parents had that lifestyle growing up, but were liberal enough to own a car and a modern house.  And her mother had a nursing career.  (By the time Jenzen returns, they’re so liberal her mother asks why she’s not showing off her legs in attractive shorts at a Mennonite gathering.)  But if you’re coming into this book hoping for a look at the lifestyle of the very conservative and technology-rejecting, you’re going to be disappointed.  We only get glimpses of that.

On the other hand, Janzen has an amazing ear for dialogue, and every character has a distinctive voice that feels very real.  And her observations about the Mennonite church, German-American-Canadian culture, and growing up in an eccentric and loving family are really fun to read.

There’s another book in here, though, which is about Janzen coming to terms with her marriage.  At first she seems to have come out of a relatively normal marriage that ended when her husband left her for a man he met on the internet.  Then, in a trickle, we learn more about his abuse, his refusal to hold a job (because it would interfere with his creativity), his financial exploitation, threats of violence, etc.  Janzen seems at times a little too preoccupied with her husband’s sexuality and his new partner’s penis, but it’s very clear this book was written while she was still processing and coming to terms with everything.  The story is told in a very light, breezy, funny style, so it comes as a shock when her ex almost attacks her when she turns up for a court appearance (and he subpoenaed her), and her lawyer advises her to hide in the bathroom after the hearing, so he doesn’t have a chance to attack her.

The two books don’t quite sit together properly, even united by Janzen’s distinctive voice.  I enjoyed Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, but don’t feel compelled to read the follow-up.

The ones about the Progressive Age

Triangle: the fire that changed America by David von Drehle; Thunderstruck by Erik Larson; Pox: an American History by Michael Willrich.

Wanted: recommendations for books about the New Deal.  Because between these three — especially the first and last — it’s easy to forget that there was the better part of a century between the early 1900s and now, and for most of that time, America’s workers had rights and stuff.

I tweeted, you see, about the one-star review for Triangle that said it was all about the leftist notion that workplaces should be safe, and not burning to death at your job is a privilege, not a right.  I meant it facetiously, but I got all these responses from Americans who have worked or are working in warehouses with inadequate fire safety facilities, and offices without fire escapes, and so forth.

Not to single America out, but Australia frankly doesn’t get this level of popular history.  (I know, because I spent a whole afternoon looking for a book about the Bubonic plague epidemics that Sydney suffered in the early 1900s.  There was a book years ago, but it’s out of print.)

Triangle covers, obviously, the Triangle Waist Factory fire, where a large number of workers, most of them young immigrant women, burned to death due to inadequate fire safety facilities and the factory owners’ practice of locking a major exit to minimise theft.  It also covers the garment workers strike of the year before, and the campaign, after the fire, for better conditions.

Needless to say, it’s quite a harrowing read in places, but also compelling, especially the strike chapters.  The strike was overtaken to a degree by wealthy sympathisers, many of them women, which caused resentment among the Socialists, many of them men.  This third of the book is almost a diversion, since we see very few of the people involved in the strike in the fire chapters, and safety conditions weren’t on the strikers’ agenda.  But it’s a vivid introduction to the culture of New York’s immigrant classes, Tammany Hall, and the city’s conflicts.

If it had no other value — and I really do recommend it a lot — Triangle would be notable for having the most complete possible list of the fire’s victims.  The press at the time was more concerned in being first than being right, and because many of the casualties came from immigrant backgrounds, they had unfamiliar names that were often misspelled.  Von Drehle worked quite hard to find the most likely spellings and other biographical details about the dead.

Thunderstruck is much less political.  Erik Larson contrasts Hawley Harvey Crippen’s murder of his wife with Marconi’s development of the wireless, which enabled the capture of Crippen.

I’m usually a big fan of Larson’s books, but I was a bit disappointed in this one.  He continually refers to Cora “Belle Elmore” Crippen’s generous figure and sensuality, as if that somehow justifies Crippen’s murder.  He seems to regard her as a thoroughly unpleasant woman, excessively sensual, manipulative and with ambitions beyond her talents.  All of which was true to an extent, but she was also a very popular member of her social circle, well-liked by her friends, which to me doesn’t suggest she was as terrible as Larson makes out.

Marconi is an unpleasant figure, and remains so right up to his dying days (in his later years he supported Mussolini and joined the Fascists.  I don’t think that “he didn’t care for Hitler” entirely ameliorates that, you know?) but at least Larson is aware of it.

There are interesting parallels between Marconi’s work and contemporary digital rights management issues.  Marconi was paranoid about having his ideas stolen, and so, rather than selling his machines, merely licensed them, and their operators, and tried to keep wireless a closed network that he controlled.

The British government wasn’t happy about this — the post office had a monopoly on telegraphy, and regarded itself as the rightful controller of radio — and so, when the Royal Navy licensed the Marconi devices, they promptly started pirating them.  Yarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

Pox: an American History is less about smallpox in general, and more about the epidemics that swept America at the turn of the century, and how they led to the formation of a federal health system, plus debates about compulsory vaccination, medical ethics and more.

Now, smallpox was one of my big childhood fears (along with black holes and Daleks), so I started this book thinking that anyone who refused a smallpox vaccine was a dangerous idiot, same as the contemporary anti-vaxxers.  But it’s actually a lot more complicated than that:  the smallpox vaccine was (and still is!) the most dangerous, side-effect-filled one around, and for many people, the vaccine was worse than the disease.  Even if you didn’t get tetanus from an infected sample, as many children did, you might be unable to work for weeks until your body recovered.  For poor people with families to support, that was an unacceptable choice.  Oh yeah, and many states and cities had compulsory vaccination before there was a safe vaccine.

Then there’s the issue where, yeah, smallpox was basically wiped out in the Philippines, but that was because the US army were rounding people up and vaccinating them by force.  In the United States, the same treatment was meted out to African Americans and Italians, and anyone else who seemed a bit shifty.  (Spoilers!  Wealthy white people were treated differently to the poor!  I know, who saw that coming, right?)

In fact, for quite a few years, white Americans, particularly in the South, were quite convinced that smallpox was restricted to black people.  Boy, were they hilariously wrong.  There’s quite an interesting sequence about a public health official, whose name now escapes me and my Kobo is not to hand, who basically made it his mission to promote public health in the South.  And he came to the conclusion that Southerners were intelligent, sensible people who would give you a chance if you were honest with them, but their political institutions were messed up.  That seems pretty universal, really.

(This guy was also the son of a Confederate hero, a very privileged white dude who was quite pro the Jim Crow laws and other general racism, but he was also one of the few public health officials who even acknowledged that African Americans also needed support in their health issues, and he spent his later years empowering black communities to wipe out tuberculosis.  People: complicated.)

Suffice to say, things were pretty complicated and a lot of people died before matters were taken in hand.  Willrich had a lot to say about the growing power of the federal government at the time, much of which I skimmed because it was quite repetitive.  One of those books where the topic is more interesting than the writing.  But it basically boiled down to this:

The federal government finally began to oversee vaccine manufacturing, and imposed restrictions and rules, and shut down any manufacturers who weren’t doing their job properly.

This was hailed as the rise of socialism and the end of American democracy.

So far, so contemporary.  But what we don’t get these days is actual socialists taking offence and saying, nope, this is all so much capitalist bullshit, and a pox (heh) on both your houses.

The one about the serial killer

The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness and Murder by Charles Graeber.  The pox book had kind of piqued my hypochondria, so naturally I turned to a book about a nurse who kills people.

This is just straight up true crime, but meticulously researched and well-written.  The first half of the book deals strictly with Charles Cullen, the murderer in question, and frankly I found it tough going, because it’s told in tight POV (based on extensive interviews with the man), and needless to say, he’s an unpleasant character.

The second half details the investigation into his crimes, hampered by the detectives’ lack of medical knowledge, and the hospitals themselves, trying to avoid lawsuits.

You know how sometimes you’re reading a book, and a person walks into it who’s somehow radiant, even though he or she is really just words on a page?  This book has one of those people, a fellow nurse and friend of Charlie’s named Amy, who starts out as his ally and winds up risking her job and health to help capture him.  She’s a thirty-something single mother with a heart condition, an abuse survivor, the kind of woman who knows bullshit when she sees it.  And she’s so thrown when she realises what Charlie is, realising that all her well-honed instincts were completely wrong, that she has to do something.

Graeber has a good ear for dialogue — this has been a good month for those authors! — and Amy just brings the book to life.  If she was a character in a movie, you’d say she was unrealistic.  But she’s brilliant.  She’s basically my heroine.

One chilling postscript:  the final chapter deals with Cullen in jail, trying to donate a kidney to his ex’s brother.  And his chaplain recounts how she got hate mail from a Pentecostal pastor, telling her that if Charlie is saved and goes to heaven, she’ll have done a terrible thing.  That, to me, was more upsetting than the recounting of the murders, because at least Charlie Cullen knows he did something terrible and wrong.