Rhube’s Music for the Apocalypse, No. 1: We Are Not Going to Make It

It’s Tuesday lunchtime, but it feels like the end of the world, and this is the song to go out to.

‘We’re Not Going to Make It’, by The Presidents of the United States of America is a little known track off their  debut album, The Presidents of the United States of America. The album is better known for songs like ‘Lump‘ (inspired by composer Chris Ballew‘s benign brain tumour and a vision he had of a swamp woman) and ‘Peaches‘ (which may either be a critique of borgious capitalism, or it may be about sex, or maybe just a man who really likes peaches).

In keeping with the band’s irreverent style, ‘We’re Not Going to Make It’ is ostensibly about the band’s own failings, individually, as a band, and even within the song itself. But it’s impossible not to be swept up with the joyful embracement of failure and feel it as your own, and as society’s collectively. If we really do screw the pooch on the world, this is the song I want to go out listening to.

Buy from Amazon.

Background to Rhube’s Music for the Apocalypse

A few years ago I was involved in an awesome project called the Girls’ Guide to Surviving the Apocalypse, which was the brainchild of Adele Wearing (@Hagelrat on Twitter and Aunty Fox of Fox Spirit Books). It was basically a group blog on the theme of survival advice for girls in the apocalypse that we all know to be nigh. I’ve talked about why this was an awesome thing to do in the interview we did with Pornokitsch in 2012, and you should totally go read that if you’d like to know more.

As a part of the project, I started an article series on Music for the Apocalypse – ‘songs to kill zombies, fight robots, and outlast the plague to’. Once a week I (and sometimes other people) put up a new song with reasons why it should make your apocalypse playlist. It was a lot of fun, as most things GGSA were, and I’m sad it petered out. But it was also something I threw together in my lunch hour, week to week, in no particular order. So, I’m relaunching it.

I’m relaunching it with a view to creating a more cohesive playlist. There will be a lot of the same songs, but not in the same order, or with the same commentaries. And week by week I’ll also be building a playlist on YouTube. Where possible, there will also be links to where you can buy the songs. If you have an apocalypse song, or know one that’s not on the list yet, please do tell me about it in the comments :)

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Existentialism and the Terminator – podcast

Hey, hey, hey! I promised you a podcast version of my Existentialism and the Terminator vid aaaages ago, but life got in the way. It’s here, though! And this is my first time using this file manager doo-hickey that’s supposed to allow you to download sexy shit like this podcast, so *fingers crossed* everything works.

Are you excited? I’m excited!

Anyway, if sitting watching a YouTube video of my face for 30mins was just too long for you, you can now listen to me wittering on as you go about your daily business.

 

A full transcript, complete with notes and references, is available on the previous post.

As always, if you enjoyed this and found value in it, please consider donating via PayPal using the Tip Jar in the sidebar —>

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Proofread Along with Rhube #5: That/Which

This is one that confuses a lot of people. For many,  ‘that’ and ‘which’ seem completely interchangeable, and it can be confusing to find that in some cases they are not. Not to worry, I am here to help! Once you understand the reasons behind the differing uses, it’s actually pretty easy to work out what you need to do.

It all comes down to restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. ‘That’ is always restrictive, but ‘which’ is non-restrictive (usually).

Restrictive and non-restrictive clauses

‘But what the hell is a restrictive clause?’ you may be thinking. Restrictive clauses restrict the type of thing (noun, or class of nouns) being talked about. By contrast, non-restrictive clauses simply provide some additional information.

Take the following examples:

Moon rocks that are really made of cheese are yellow in colour.

Moon rocks, which are really made of cheese, are yellow in colour.

The first sentence contains a restrictive clause, ‘that are really made of cheese’, telling us that the ‘moon rocks’ being referred to are only those moon rocks that are made of cheese. Other moon rocks may or may not be yellow, but we’re not talking about them. We have restricted the scope of the term ‘moon rock’ to refer to only cheese-based moon rocks.

By contrast, the second sentence is saying something much larger in scope. Because ‘which are really made of cheese’ is non-restrictive, ‘moon rocks’ is unlimited in scope. We are talking about all moon rocks and asserting that they are all yellow, and merely adding the additional information that moon rocks are made of cheese.

Punctuation helps us out. Non-restrictive clauses function as ‘asides’ or parenthetical clauses – you could remove them without changing the meaning of the main (independent) clause – and this is indicated by the use of parenthetical commas: the one before ‘which’ and the one after ‘cheese’. We don’t use these with the restrictive clause because it would change the meaning of the sentence if you were to remove ‘that are really made of cheese’ – the scope of ‘moon rocks’ would no longer be limited to cheese-based moon rocks. Far more moon rocks would need to be yellow in order for the sentence to be true.

So, it’s actually a lot easier than it sounds. If you’re just adding some additional information about the thing (noun or class of nouns) you’re talking about, use ‘which’. If the extra information you’re adding restricts the meaning of the thing (noun or type of nouns) you are talking about, use ‘that’.

Using ‘which’ in a restrictive clause

Where it gets confusing is that some style guides allow for the use of ‘which’ in a restrictive clause. Oxford Dictionaries, for instance, says that both are correct. Fowler’s Modern English Usage bemoans that the distinction has not been neatly preserved, but concedes that both ‘which’ and ‘that’ are used for restrictive clauses. By contrast, Grammar Girl is very clear that ‘which’ should only be used for non-restrictive clauses.

I’m amused to have seen both US and UK grammar guides accuse the other of being more eager to exclude ‘which’ from restrictive clauses – beware of anyone who says of a grammar rule ‘Oh, it’s an Americanism’ or ‘Oh, the British do that, but we don’t’ – they’re often using the specter of trans-Atlantic conflict to support a personal prejudice. At the end of the day, there’s nothing strictly wrong with using ‘which’ in a restrictive clause, and it’s not a new, strictly British, or strictly American, habit. Fowler’s is nice for this, because it goes into a bit of history of usage, rather than simply asserting a rule, and we have this nice quote from the 1926 edition:

The relations between that, who, and which, have come to us from our forefathers as an odd jumble, and plainly show that language has not been constructed by a master-builder

quoted in R W Birchfield (1996), Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Third Edition, p. 774

Here’s what I think about it:

As a writer, one’s duty is to convey one’s ideas to the reader in the most effective way possible, which usually means as clearly as possible. Why not stick to ‘that’ for restrictive clauses and ‘which’ for non-restrictive clauses? It saves your reader the trouble of wondering if you maybe made a mistake and meant the one thing rather than the other.

As a proofreader/copy editor, my duty is to the publication. I’ll follow whatever rule they prefer. And it might surprise you. Academic publications often prefer to respect authorial choice on the basis that the writer is themselves treated as an authority. By contrast, fiction publishers often don’t say anything on the matter, or prefer whatever makes the reading experience smoother, so sometimes prefer to keep only to ‘that’ for restrictive clauses. But if I haven’t been told otherwise, I just leave it be if it’s permissible.

One thing to be clear on, though: one should never use ‘that’ in a non-restrictive clause. In the simplest possible terms: if there needs to be a comma before it, you should only ever use ‘which’. Or: if it’s an aside, not integral to the sentence, always use ‘which’ and always put a comma before it.

I hope this helps to clarify things. Once you get the hang of it, it’s dead easy, I promise. In the meantime, you can refer back to this guide when in doubt :) .

***

Index to other Proofread Along with Rhube pages.

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Existentialism and the Terminator

So, this has been a long time coming. I’ve been talking about my feelings about the Terminator movies (there are only two) for years to anyone who would listen (sorry). I once presented Terminator 2 to students as part of Nick Jones’s ‘Filmosophy’ project at the University of York, but 20mins wasn’t really enough to do it justice, and I wasn’t able to go into the more literary and visual aspects of the film. I also wrote a bit on the musical score over at the Girls’ Guide to Surviving the Apocalypse – I didn’t have space to discuss that, here, but you can go to GGSA to check it out.

But finally, finally I got my thoughts together and wrestled them into something that was more than a gush where I flail my hands and rant about lighting states. Here it is. I hope you enjoy it.

A transcript of the video is below, including full details of all texts mentioned, and I’ll be trying to get a podcast version up in the next few days – so if you don’t want to look at my ugly mug whilst learning about existentialism and robots, there are other options :) .


Existentialism and the Terminator

Hi! I’m Ro Smith, and I’m here today to talk about existentialism and the Terminator, which is just one of my favourite topics in the world, OK?

I’m going to start with a little bit about me. I’m a philosopher and a science fiction writer and maybe the world’s biggest fan of Terminator 2. I’m currently writing up my PhD at the University of York, where I taught undergraduate philosophy for five years, and where I have, in fact, lectured on Terminator 2 as an existentialist masterpiece to actual real life students. I also have a background in English Literature and Media Studies and all of this has enabled me to really put together what it was that so moved me about T2 when I first saw it as a kid in the early 90s and couldn’t have put into words why exactly I loved it so much, but I did.

This video is about how existentialist themes are explored in the Terminator movies, why, and why I think this is so effective.

Whilst the Terminator has, in some sense, become a franchise, I take it that the first two films, written and directed by James Cameron, represent a cohesive vision and development of a philosophical thesis, quite separate from the later films, and the TV show, The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Terminator 2: Judgement Day was a film that became an instant favourite for me as a young girl. I was too young to see it at the cinema, but even so, I connected to it on a visceral level – one that went quite beyond the fact that it was about robots and time travel and apocalypse (some of my very favourite things). At the time I was quite unable to articulate exactly what it was about the movie that touched me so. I just felt like it recognised something deep inside me.

One of the really wonderful things I have gotten out of studying literature and media and philosophy, is an understanding of what is going on in a true masterpiece that sets to work on one’s emotions, taps into some deep puzzle one has wrestled with, or expresses a deeply held belief. This is what Cameron’s Terminator films achieve. And I hope that in this video I will be able to show you that these are more than just action films, or Arnie films, or violent blockbusters. And for those of you who always felt like there was something special going on, I hope I can help you to piece together exactly what that is.

One need not dig into subtext to find the central message of the movies. It is John Connor’s message to himself, given to his father, passed on to his mother, and then repeated to himself, and by extension to us: ‘The future’s not set. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.’ And it’s the meaning and grounding of this thought that I’m going to explore.

On the off-chance that anyone attending this video has not seen either film, one can briefly summarise them as follows: a company named Cyberdyne Systems creates an artificial intelligence: Skynet. When Skynet becomes sentient, its creators panic – they do not trust it to make decisions that will be in favour of humanity and they try to shut it down. In response, it uses its access to military systems to spark a nuclear war between Russia and the US. Human civilisation is destroyed. Skynet creates machines to hunt down and terminate the scattered survivors. John Connor leads the resistance, and he is targeted for termination. The machines having developed the capability for time travel, send a Terminator – a cyborg killing machine that appears human – back in time to kill John Connor’s mother before he is born. John seizes the time travel technology from the machines and sends Kyle Reese back in time to protect his mother. Kyle Reese is killed, but not before he sleeps with Sarah Connor, John’s mother, conceiving of John himself. After a long and bloody pursuit, Sarah destroys the Terminator, crushing it in factory machinery.

In Terminator 2, another machine is sent back to kill John as a teenager. Sarah had raised him as a survivalist, but ultimately he was taken into the foster care system after Sarah was forced into mental treatment, her experiences of the first movie taken to be a delusion brought on by trauma. This time Future John sends back a reprogrammed Terminator to protect him, and Sarah; John and the Terminator must work together against the new Terminator, the T-1000. John and the reprogrammed Terminator (a T-800 model) go to rescue Sarah from the mental institution, and find her in the middle of escaping by herself.

They do escape, but only just, as the T-1000 has predicted John’s moves. The power of the new terminator is daunting, and contemplating the danger to her son and the apparent hopelessness of the situation, Sarah recalls John’s message to her from the future: ‘The future’s not set. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.’ Taking their future into her own hands, Sarah takes the fight to Cyberdyne itself. John and the T-800 catch up to Sarah just in time to prevent her killing Miles Dyson – the scientist most directly responsible for the development of Skynet. Together, they destroy the lab, and, following an epic chase sequence, they destroy the T-1000 itself, and Sarah aids the T-800 in ‘self-terminating’ to prevent his technology from being recovered.

In terms of the philosophy of time travel, it should be stressed, none of this makes sense. The terminators only exist because Skynet is developed based on the technology left over from the original Terminator. This is what we call a ‘bootstrap paradox’ – no one actually creates the Terminators, but their existence in time is self-creating. The same is true of John Connor himself – he only exists because he sent his own father back in time to sleep with his mother. The plot is also subject to a ‘grandfather paradox’ – if successful, Sarah’s actions in destroying the technology that arrived from the future mean that there is no war, John is not leader of the resistance, so his life is not under threat, and there is no time travel, and Kyle Reese doesn’t go back in time to have sex with his mother. The traditional grandfather paradox has one going back in time to kill one’s own grandfather, but this has the same effect – John Connor is never conceived.

Nevertheless, the very things that make the plot metaphysically implausible are thematically effective. Both John and the machines are self-actualising, quite literally. And Sarah’s self-actualising decisions to reject a future she does not choose become all the more striking against an apparent backdrop of determinism.

Let us set aside the metaphysics of time travel, then, and turn to existentialism.

Existentialism is a school of thought which came to prominence in the mid-twentieth century, especially in continental Europe. To many, it seemed nihilistic. Its thesis was that ‘existence precedes essence’, which is to say that there is no meaning to life, no significance to objects, no purpose that is predetermined. Meaning is not determined by God, or built into us by nature. This is existentialism’s negative thesis, and it shouldn’t be totally ignored. Sartre’s philosophical novel, Nausea, is named for the sense of sickening emptiness that can be provoked by confrontation with the brute existence of objects, the contemplation that the mere existence of things signifies nothing, the despair that can emerge from an understanding that there is no external force accountable for our actions or in charge of ensuring positive outcomes.

In a world that had seen the literal and metaphorical fallout of two world wars, the meaningless loss of life and destruction, the reduction of people and cities to ashes by the splitting of the atom – the breaking down of people into things – the bleakness of existentialist philosophy held a certain power for some. Whilst for others it was seen as overly negative – leading people into what was described as a ‘quietism of despair’, meaning that the despair at the lack of external purpose and meaning made people feel like there was no reason to do anything, no meaning to life at all.

Sartre’s famous lecture, ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’ argues against this, and for the positive thesis of existentialism. That because meaning is not externally imposed, we are free to determine our own meaning, and to set our own life goals. This is intimidating, because it places sole responsibility for one’s actions upon one’s self. To blame God, or one’s genetics, or other people for one’s actions is to live in Bad Faith. To live in good faith, one must own one’s own actions, concede that one always has a choice, and that choosing one course of action over another is to give that action value, to recommend that action to other people. Good and bad are not lost simply because they are not determined by God or Nature, they are determined by people acting and recommending those actions to others, and in choosing to act only in ways that one would willingly recommend to others.

Sartre writes that the first principle of existentialism is ‘Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself… man is, before all else, something which propels itself towards a future, and is aware that it is doing so’, because it is us who decide who we will be, and we do so by our actions, and those actions matter because they determine a future – for oneself and others who must live in that future.

Which brings us back to our discussion of Cameron’s Terminator movies, and their literal and metaphorical message: ‘The future’s not set. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.’ Surely it is no accident that this is so closely mirrors Sartre’s words. ‘Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself’, ‘no fate but what we make for ourselves’.

Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor in the parking lot chase scene.

TechNoir Lighting State No. 1: dark, shot through with often-strobing light.

These two aspects of existentialism – the bleakness being unable to find meaning and purpose in the world, and the positivity of self-determination, making one’s own decisions the determiners of meaning and purpose – are woven throughout the fabric of these two films. The far darker – again, literally and metaphorically – first movie, The Terminator set out to create a new genre: TechNoir – a technicolour film in which lighting states were as symbolically significant as those employed in the film noir genre; which called on the same sense of stark bleakness, and which also played on the word ‘tech’ as used to mean technology. This is a self-determining act of Cameron that creates meaning for the film, and for us, as other people exposed to that action.

Sarah Connor rides to work, oblivious of her fate.

Lighting State No. 2: sunshine.

Shot almost exclusively at night, stark neon lights in the darkness evoke the darker world of Kyle Reese’s future, lit only by its laser fire. A dark world indeed, where the only light is designed to kill you. And this is a brutal film with a high body count. It’s very title, The Terminator, is the figure of death, and not a death with an afterlife, the death of simply termination. Of stopping. Finality. The only bright, sunny lighting states are associated with Sarah Connor, at the beginning of the movie, before she has been forged by her experiences, with her fluffy 80s hair and tie-dyed pink T-shirt – pink that will look more like blood stains towards the end, as she fights for her life in the dark.

Sarah Connor from the epilogue, pregnant, asking directions at a gas station.

Lighting State No. 3: sunset.

When the light comes back again it is sunset, which will be the dominant lighting state for Termintor 2. Sarah, literally pregnant with the future, having self-actualised in choosing to trust Reese, in sleeping with him, in killing the machine, sits in a jeep. She is literally and metaphorically going somewhere, but we don’t know where. That is for her to determine – we are not privy to her future, as it has not been determined yet. All we know is that a storm is coming.

The scene of carnage outside Cyberdybe systems after Sarah & Co. attack.

Terminator 2, Lighting State 1: Night shot through with white and/or flashing lights.

Terminator 2 has three main lighting states. It has the dark-night-with-with-harsh-strobing-lights of the first movie, again recalling the doomed future of death and lasers. It also has a stark white light, associated with the clean technology of Cyberdyne and the empty clinicalness of the mental institution, in which others try to force their meanings and purposes upon Sarah, denying her respect for her rationality and ability to decide her own future. In this lighting state, the imprisoned and controlled Sarah is symbolically linked to the not-yet-conscious, controlled by others

Sarah Connor in the mental institution.

Terminator 2, lighting state 2: clean, sterile, white light.

Skynet. And, as mentioned before, there is the dominant lighting-state of strong, warm, orange light. Even when it isn’t sunset, it looks like it is. It feels like it is.

We constantly feel as though we are on the edge of night, but not there yet. It’s a lighting state full of possibility – on the edge of light and dark. It captivates the sense that the future could go either way, that it is yet to be determined. The bright white light of Cyberdyne and the mental institution do not carry the usual codes for ‘good’ and ‘safe’ that white and light usually do,

Sarah Connor stands in the sunset light, holding a gun.

Terminator 2 Lighting State No. 3: eternal sunset.

because they banish all shadows. There is no uncertainty. All is determined. They turn people – self-actualisers – into deterministic machines, devoid of free will.

In Sartre’s ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’ he contrasts human beings, for whom existence precedes essence, with articles of manufacture, whose essence is determined by humans. A knife is a knife because humans design them for a purpose: to be used to cut things. Yet, equally, such articles lose their essence in the absence of humans to use them.

Terminator 2 brings the question of articles of manufacture vs self-determining minded beings to the fore. Skynet was a self-actualising AI, but always off screen. But in T2, Sarah removes the inhibition placed on the T-800 against learning. The T-800 is allowed to explore its own self-actualisation, and in doing so it comes to affect those around it; to build relationships. The T-800 may not have the ability to self-terminate, but he’s capable of bringing the matter to the attention of Sarah Connor – that her brief fantasy of having a father figure for John cannot be allowed without consequences for the world. That is a moral action, and action that affects others, and that recommends a moral stance to others.

It’s significant, too, that the advent of John Connor, the messiah-figure, on screen does not rob Sarah of her self-determination. These two movies put a woman at the heart of the action. In both films a woman saves the day, and it is, after all, Sarah to whom the message is directed, who ponders the philosophy that there is ‘no fate’ but what we make, and who decides that it is not enough to act reactively to defend her son, that she must attack Skynet herself.

This, too, is in keeping with the philosophy of existentialism. Simone de Beauvoir’s famous work, The Second Sex explores at length what existentialism means as a philosophy for women. Women whose ‘essence’ does not lie in their biology. Sex and gender are distinct, and even though Sarah Connor’s sex – represented by her ability to reproduce – is central to the plot, her femininity is fluid. Her transformation from a soft-haired, feminine waitress in pink to a hard-bodied, single-purposed warrior woman is iconic, and one of the most striking in cinema history.

It is also so presented as to be completely believable.

Moreover, she overturns the dominant horror trope of the 70s and 80s, where the virginal woman is the lone survivor. Sarah may survive where Kyle dies, but she does so after a rather explicit, but not exploitative, sex scene. Absolutely no shame about sex, here. And no sense that the action is being led by expectations, or, again, externally imposed purpose.

Rejection of film tropes is another form of rejected fatalism. A rejection of the narrow boundary available for the fates of women, but also for the fates of people of colour, too.

I’m going to presage this next section by emphasising that the films are not without their problematic aspects, and I will get to those, but I just want to talk about their positive aspects first, and how these relate to our theme of existentialist thought.

Bearing in mind that these are films from 1984 and 1991, it’s significant that both films feature atypical black male characters, and the second film features what appears to be a stable, happy black family. This is in contrast to tropes of dysfunction in the presentation of black family groups – single mothers, abusive or absent fathers. The Dysons are functional, intelligent, wealthy suburbanites, quite in contrast to the common presentation of black people as poor, violent, uneducated and disruptive. Miles Dyson is an authority figure in his work place, but he is also mild-mannered. He is a respected innovator in his field. He is a man around whom history turns. It’s quite an exceptional character, even today, where Barack Obama has been a Kennedy-like figure in terms of historical significance and popularity.

Moreover, in the first movie we have another kind, intelligent black authority figure, in the form of the chief of police. A long step away from the comedy-sidekick that remains a common role for black men to play today.

And these men have agency. Miles’s movement from terrified victim of Sarah Connor’s attack to acceptance and owning of the responsibility of his actions – of a particularly heroic act of good faith, where he might have been forgiven for saying that he could not possibly have anticipated the events that would follow from his work at Cyberdyne – is only second in heroism to the manner of his death – his self-sacrifice in following through, not only to save others, but to own that responsibility.

Whatever you might say of his death (and we will) it is not a cheap death.

But… he is yet another dead black man.

Arnie’s terminator also dies a hero’s death, but at least he gets to wait until the end of the movie to do it. The black man in the team of legends – the legend Kyle Reese was so desperate to meet, Sarah Connor; the super-human cyborg possessed of impossible strength; and the Christ-like Messiah, John Connor – Miles Dyson doesn’t get a legend, he doesn’t get extraordinary power. Miles Dyson gets human weakness, frailty, and the guilt of damning the whole human race.

There are other people of colour – the latino survivalists Sarah and Co. flee to. But no other main characters of colour.

By similar lights, for women, Sarah Connor is great, but she’s basically holding the candle for 52% of the population. Sure, we have Miles’s wife, who exists mostly to represent the kind of mother Sarah could have been. And there are some women amongst the survivalists. Along with Sarah’s friend from the first movie. Who has basically just has sex and dies. That’s about it. And the focus on strength-through-mothering is a problem shared with the other great female led films of the period: the Alien movies. Not that representation of mothers as strong is a bad thing, but for a long time the only area in which women were allowed to show strength was in protecting their children, tying a woman’s value to her reproductive function. Her strength an expression of the unnatural force with which a woman can respond when called upon by the bonds of motherly love. A lack of other strong women in the Terminator films means we have no opportunity to see women present strength in other ways.

Equally, good luck finding any LGBT characters. There are some interesting questions raised about alternative family structures, possibly an aromantic and asexual mother-father bond between Sarah and the T-800, but that’s about it.

Nevertheless, the foundational message of the movie is powerful. That we are all in charge of our own fates. Nobody goes to their deaths simply because they are a certain type of person. And even if death is unavoidable, you can choose how you die – Miles’s dignity (however problematic the circumstances) is inspirational. We are all on a journey – a black-top highway at night. We don’t know what we may come across along the way, but we have the freedom to decide which way we are going.

This is the quintessential existentialist message, explored and expressed through every aspect of the Terminator movies, and I commend them to you. If you haven’t watched them, I hope that this video will have persuaded you to take the time. If you have and you loved them, I hope this goes some way towards explaining what was so powerful in them.

Thanks for listening. I’ve been Ro Smith, and this has been Existentialism and the Terminator.

Bibliography

Cameron, James (1984), The Terminator, Helmdale Film Corporation, Pacific Western Productions

Cameron, James (1991), Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Carolco Pictures, Lightstorm Entertainment, Pacific Western Studio Canal

de Beauvior, Simone (1949), The Second Sex, H M Parshley (trans.) for Penguin (1972); Andy Blunden (transcribed 2005), published in Marxists Internet Archive, last updated 2005, accessed on 13/10/2014 at: https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/ethics/de-beauvoir/2nd-sex/index.htm

Friedman, Josh (2008-9), Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Bartleby Company, C2 Pictures, The Halcyon Company, Warner Bros Television, 20th Century Fox Television

Sartre, Jean-Paul (2000), Nausea, James Wood (int.), Robert Baldick (trans.), London: Penguin Classics

Sartre, Jean-Paul (1946), ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’, Walter Kaufman (ed.), Philip Marriet (trans.) for Meridian Publishing Company (1989); Andy Blunden (HTML mark-up), published in Marxists Internet Archive, last updated 2005, accessed on 13/10/2014 at: https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/sartre/works/exist/sartre.htm

 

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Review: Forever, Pilot Episode

Title card for Forever.Forever is ABC’s new urban fantasy crime procedural drama, starring Ioan Gruffudd, Alana de la Garza, and Judd Hirsch.

Plot

The premise is at once right up my alley and groan-worthily tiresome.  It’s no inconsiderable credit that the show’s charm manages to overcome its less attractive elements. Dr Henry Morgan (Gruffudd) is a medical examiner who can’t die. Or rather. He has died, repeatedly, but his body always vanishes shortly afterwards, and he finds himself resurrected, always in water. As a medical examiner, this affords him a unique perspective on the myriad of ways a person can die, making his post-mortem examinations unusually accurate and effective.

This unique talent puts him in the path of Det. Jo Martinez (de la Garza) when he concludes that a train crash was not caused by the train driver’s unfortunate heart attack, but was, in fact, murder. A conclusion further complicated by the fact that Martinez discovers that Morgan himself had been on that train. At the same time, a mysterious caller lets Morgan know that he knows Morgan’s secret, and begins sending him cryptic notes. Was Morgan’s cryptic caller involved in the train crash, or is something else going on as well?

The good, the bad, the I-actually-rather-enjoyed this

Let’s start with the bad. This show is right out of the handbook for what I have previous dubbed White Male Mavericks. I wrote a whole article (‘On Being Scully‘) on what exactly is wrong with this whole sub-genre of crime shows for Hub, back in 2010. The genre is not without entertainment value, and individual shows can be quite fun, but as a deeply pervasive pattern, it’s pretty sexist, and often racist. The marks of the White Male Maverick are these: he performs some sort of investigative role, although usually he’s not a policeman himself, he:

  • is a consultant, a psychic, a doctor, a medical examiner, a forensics analyst
  • is gifted quite beyond the norm in some capacity that just makes him better at solving whatever it is he solves that anyone else
  • which is fortunate, because his methods are unconventional, and anyone who didn’t get the results he did would have been fired, disowned by his friends, and quite possibly would be in jail
  • speaking of his ‘friends’, he doesn’t have many, but those he does have are unquestioningly loyal, despite the fact that he’s socially awkward, and/or arrogant to the point of insulting everyone around him constantly – he’s a loner, but lots of people seem to hang around with him anyway
  • he has a female superior or partner, whom he is always undermining, and for some reason she lets him get away with this
  • women are attracted to him, they just are
  • oh, yeah, and he’s white, he’s male, he’s straight, he’s cis-gendered, he’s middle-class and/or independently wealthy

It’s basically a distillation of the Euro-American white male fantasy of intellectual supremacy, financial independence, and complete freedom from the strictures and responsibilities of society. Of being different and special but still loved and admired. Dr Henry Morgan fits all of these. What’s more, we find that the very first time he ‘died’ is was protecting a black man on a slaver ship. And you may be thinking ‘Surely that’s a good thing? That’s a nice thing to do, right?’ But this misses the point. The White Male Maverick is frequently cast as liberal – it’s part of his intellectual superiority – and if he does say something racist or sexist it’s presented as him speaking ‘hard truths’ because he’s so ‘rational’. But having your character’s origin story be that of him taking the role of ‘white saviour‘ is just another way of setting him up in a position of power, from which we should be grateful he is so benevolent. Just opening with your hero saving a woman from sexual assault is not so much about showing him as being against sexual assault as it is about establishing that he has the power to save people from those things from which they cannot protect themselves – he is powerful where people of colour and/or women are weak.

So, why didn’t I just turn off and vow never to watch this again? Well, some of it’s personal. The ‘can’t die/secret identity angst’ thing is right up my alley. It just pushes my buttons. But a lot of credit is due to the supporting cast and the more subtle aspects of the plotting.

Judd Hirsh is (as he always is) wonderful as Abe, Morgan’s adopted son (who now appears much older than him). And the way that relationship is explored has a relaxed charm and subtle poignance that we see all too rarely on TV. So often father-son relationships are full of conflict and resentment. It’s lovely to see one affectionate and touching, despite its unconventionality.

Alana de la Garza is also excellent as the detective who semi-relies on, semi-mistrusts Morgan. She feels somewhat more in control than women in this role (e.g. Teresa Lisbon, Lisa Cuddy) are usually allowed to be, although time will tell on that one. It’s also nice to see a woman of colour in this role, and to see that her superior officer, Lt Joanna Reese (Lorraine Toussaint), is a woman of colour also.

I also have tonnes of time for Joel David Moore as Morgan’s assistant, Lucas Wan.

In fact, it’s rather a shame that, with such a stellar supporting cast, the lead actor, Ioan Gruffudd, comes across so wooden and unconvincing. Part of it is the writing – where other characters actually speak from a sense of natural personhood, Morgan incessantly and awkwardly info-dumps about his improbable past – but I also feel that Grufford struggles a bit with the role. Nevertheless, I have hopes that this will improve. Grufford’s scenes with Hirsch stand out as more relaxed, and the odd tender moments of the unlikely father-son relationship they portray give me hope.

I can’t say that this is greatly challenging the tropes of its genre – I would much rather have a supernaturally interesting Woman of Colour Maverick procedural show! – but if you like this sort of thing, Forever is entertaining and charming and largely inoffensive.

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Proofread Along with Rhube #4: em-dashes, en-dashes, and hyphens

The three dashes.

A screencap from Word, because WordPress doesn’t believe in differentiating dashes.

If you’re anything like I was, you learned everything you know about these babies from reading, and you just think of all of these things as ‘dashes’. When you write stories or papers and you want to use a dash, you just type ‘ – ‘ and let Word either change it to a longer or a shorter dash as it wills, and occasionally wonder what kind of arcane mysteries govern its decisions. You may also have seen some people type ‘- -‘ and either not known why they were doing that, or assumed that they were privy to some mystery of Proper Writing that is lost on you.

So, here it is, I’m gonna let you in on the arcane mysteries. Like so many things, it turns out they’re pretty mundane. But you can’t know this until someone tells you.

Definitions

First up, let’s get the low-down on what terms apply to what. We’ll do this in size order (which will be a little frustrating, as Word Press only believes in one size of dash, but bear with me.)

Hyphens: ‘Smith-Jones’, ‘non-fat’, ‘well-adjusted’, ‘pp. 37-40′

Hyphens are the smallest of the dash family. Their purpose is to join two words or to suggest a very close relation between the two, whilst preserving some sense of distance. There are a host of rules of usage (some disputed), but for now, just get a hold of the kind of thing we mean – the smallest dash, used to join two or more words in a relationship closer than they would have separately.

En-dashes: ‘Jensen – for that was his name – yelled dramatically:’, ‘I don’t know – you see… I give up,’, ‘pp. 37-40′, ‘mind-body distinction’

Illustration of hyphen vs en-dash in joinging words.

Illustration of hyphen vs en-dash in joining words.

These are represented as longer than a hyphen, but shorter than an em-dash, and are usually presented with a space on either side. Their role is chiefly parenthetical, or used to indicate a break in conventional punctuation. However, they are also sometimes used in page ranges (e.g. ‘pp. 37-40′), instead of a hyphen, and they can be used to join two words in a way that indicates tension and opposition. So, if I were engaging with the philosophical debate about whether the mental and the physical are two distinct substances, I would use an en-dash for writing about ‘the mind-body distinction’, in contrast to talking about ‘mind-body identity’, where I would use a hyphen . This is one of those niceties of grammar that is rarely engaged with online, as many platforms, like Word Press, do not make it possible to visually indicate the difference between tension and association, and it can be easily worked out from context. If I’m proofreading an academic article, though, this is one of the things I look out for.

Em-dashes: ‘Jensen-for that was his name-yelled dramatically:’, ‘I don’t know-you see… I give up,’

Illustration of em-dashes in use.

Illustration of em-dashes in use.

Unfortunately, the length of the dash really is important when you get to em-dashes. An em-dash is the longest of the dashes, and is used to mark parenthetical statements and breaks in conventional punctuation. It is presented without a space on either side, which makes it look a bit strange if the programme you’re using doesn’t believe in distinguishing dashes by length. This is why you’ll see some people writing ‘- -‘ when they mean to use an em-dash. It used to be standard manuscript format to use two dashes to represent an em-dash, which is a hold-over from typewriters. Typewriters typically did not have distinct keys for the type of dash to be used, but printers still distinguished between hyphens, en-dashes, and em-dashes. So authors would use ‘- -‘ as a way of indicating to the typesetter and/or copy-editor that they meant an em-dash. This has led a lot of people to suppose that two-dashes-with-no-space is an em-dash, but it’s not. It’s a representation of an em-dash. Very few publishing houses now want to see ‘- -‘ when what the author wants is an en- or em-dash, as most writing programmes allow authors to insert the correct symbol directly into their documents. But as with anything, if you’re unsure, check what the submission guidelines say.

When to use what

We’ve covered a little of this, but there’s a difference between when you can use a symbol and when you might want to, and why.

Em-dashes are pretty straightforward. They are usually used in place of curved brackets, ‘(‘ and ‘)’, or parenthetical commas, or to indicate a break in conventional punctuation. So, let’s call these uses ‘parenthetical em-dashes’ and ‘break em-dashes’. (Note: these points also apply to en-dashs, ‘ – ‘, where the en-dash is performing a parenthetical role or grammar breaking role.)

1. Why would I use a parenthetical em-dash?

Well, a parenthetical remark is one that explains or qualifies the main subject matter of the sentence, but is set off from the main subject matter of the sentence itself. You could remove the parenthetical remark and the rest of the sentence would be unchanged. Traditionally, parenthetical remarks are indicated by parentheses, also called ‘brackets’, because they ‘bracket’ the remark as separate to the rest of the sentence. You’ll be familiar with the following brackets from your keyboard: (), {}, [], <>. In most forms of non-technical writing you will only see curved brackets, ‘(x)’, and square brackets, ‘[x]’. Square brackets are less common, and are typically used to introduce clarificatory additions to quotations whilst making it clear that the inserted text didn’t appear in the quotation itself. For example, if the quotation is ‘He said it was free!’, but I want to make it clearer who ‘he’ is, I might write, ‘[Angus] said it was free!’ or ‘He [Angus] said it was free!’.

Em-dashes cannot be used to replace square brackets – you wouldn’t be able to tell which em-dashes were originally part of the text and which were not! But you can use them to replace curved brackets. In the example above, we could just as easily have written:

Jensen (for that was his name) yelled dramatically:

This has become less fashionable. Using curved brackets has come to feel ‘formal’ and for some readers comes across as breaking up the sentence too harshly. Other writers think that em-dashes are inappropriate for formal work, and would only use parentheses. Unless your style guide says otherwise (and I’ve never seen one that did) both are fine. I use both, generally making decisions based on tone – how ‘cut off’ from the rest of the sentence do you want your aside to feel? – or clarity.

Unlike brackets, em-dashes don’t have to come in pairs, and nothing in the symbol differentiates an open-em-dash from a close-em-dash. It’s just a line. If your aside comes at the end of a sentence you can just finish with a full-stop. As em-dashes are also used for non-parenthetical reasons, the use of the em-dash is worked out from context. For these reasons, you should never use em-dashes within em-dashes. For example, this is too confusing to read:

Jensen – for that was his name – a very fine name at that – yelled dramatically:*

By contrast, with brackets, you can do this:

Jensen (for that was his name – a very fine name at that) yelled dramatically:

I mean, don’t get me wrong, this is not a great sentence and if you’re using parentheses within parentheses you should always consider whether there’s a neater way to accomplish what you’re after, but one of these sentences is easier on the eyes than the other.

Another alternative to using em-dashes for parenthetical statements is the humble comma. This is absolutely fine:

Jenson, for that was his name, yelled dramatically:

Some people have a deep aversion to anything but commas, believing that even em-dashes break up the flow of a sentence too much. For simple cases like the above, that’s fine, but for complex sentences an em-dash can be a blessed relief to a puzzled reader. The trouble is, commas perform many roles, and it isn’t always obvious whether a comma is ending a clause, separating a list item, or performing a parenthetical role. Take this, for example, from one of my WiPs:

The light level rose – courtesy of the computer, she supposed – and Verity stood and waved a hand.

If we replaced the em-dashes with commas, we get this:

The light level rose, courtesy of the computer, she supposed, and Verity stood and waved a hand.

You can read it, but it’s just more helpful for the reader if you make it clearer that the ‘and’ is conjoining ‘Verity stood and waved a hand’ to ‘The light level rose’ and not ‘courtesy of the computer’ or ‘she supposed’.

As with all writing, you want to think about the impression you want to make on your reader, and you want to convey that impression with the least interruption. Choosing commas, brackets, or em-dashes to indicate your parenthetical remark is all about what impression you want to create.

2. Why use a break em-dash?

This style of writing owes a lot to Emily Dickinson. Although dashes had been used in writing before – punctuation was pretty free-form before the 19th Century – Dickinson used dashes in her poems deliberately as a way of breaking free of the strictures of society – particularly male-defined society. This use – using dashes to indicate a deliberate break in grammatical sentence structure – has become very popular since then in fiction, although it is generally regarded as less appropriate for formal non-fiction and academic writing.

Whilst the usage is rarely an attempt to undermine the patriarchy in quite the manner Dickinson intended, using a dash to indicate a break in your character’s train of thought or speech pattern can be very effective. It can also be useful if your writing has a more poetical tone – leaping from point to point in a disconnected fashion can convey a sense of urgency, or disconnectedness, or confusion. Some examples from my WiPs:

Speech:

“I – I was gonna ask you if you were interested in catching a coffee, or something, sometime – or, well obviously not a coffee, but, you know, a drink – I could have a coffee, and you could have a frappuccino, or – or something.”

Poetic/sudden break:

Shadows shone with dry desert light in a rubbish of glass-song gibberish that clutches in the broken images and –

And gone again.

One final point: both em- and en-dashes are sometimes used to indicate a break at the end of a paragraph, usually in speech. With em-dashes, this is straightforward. You just put an em-dash immediately after the last word in the paragraph. With en-dashes, you face a choice: put the en-dash immediately after the word, or insert a space between the end of the word and the en-dash. And if it’s speech, you also have to decide whether to put the quotation mark immediately after the en-dash, or to insert a space between them:

and-

and –

and-”

and- ”

and -”

and – “

I’d say either of the first two is fine, and the third and the last are fine. You’re basically deciding between treating it like an ordinary en-dash, with a space either side, or not.  A space only on one side doesn’t make sense. Apart from that… either option is fine, but your publisher will have a preference. As a writer, just be consistent. Your copy-editor will do the rest. But I would make a plea for you to use an en-dash, and not a hyphen, in these cases.

So, that’s em-dashes (and most en-dashes) for you. Let’s talk about hyphens.

Hyphenated words. Non-fat. Well-adjusted. Anti-deontologicalism. Kestrel-like.

OK. Like so many things with grammar, there is disagreement, and if your publisher says one thing, you do that thing. Some publishers really like solid compounds and want you to use them wherever possible. Some really like hyphens, and will want you to use them wherever possible. You probably have some intuitions about this yourself. But where does this ‘wherever possible’ come from? Well, the dictionary. Some words are just solid compounds and some just aren’t. Werewolf isn’t were-wolf, but were-cat might be either, depending on preference. Well-adjusted is never welladjusted.

So, here are a few helpful rules. As usual, my touchstone is the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors.

Non-

ODWE prefers for ‘non’ to by hyphenated in most compounds, but not all. When in doubt, get down your dictionary of choice and see what it says! As a writer, consistency is what will make you look professional.

Well-

Hyphenate when attributive but two separate words when used with participal adjectives after the verb. Ugh. That’s technical. Here’s the trick: look for the verb – the doing word – and see where the ‘well’ is in reference to that. If the ‘well’ compound is after the verb, it’s two separate words, no hyphen; when it’s before, it’s hyphenated. Some examples:

He is well adjusted.

‘is’ is the verb, so two words, no hyphen.

Well-adjusted teenagers become happier adults.

‘become’ is the verb, so a hyphenated compound.

Anti-

This varies, so I really would check the dictionary when in doubt, but in general: forms a solid compound where the compound is sufficiently established to be regarded as a thing in its own right (e.g. antibody, antibiotic), but where the meaning is established purely as against some established thing, use a hyphenated compound (e.g. anti-abortion, anti-racist, anti-deontologicalism).

-like

Solid compounds where the word is established (e.g. lawlike, lifelike), except where the first part ends in an ‘l’. For novel compounds, hyphenate (e.g. Kestrel-like).

Apart from that… the dictionary is your friend. Don’t be afraid of looking things up!

But how do I make Word behave?

Word is not reliable at following the rules for hyphens/en-dashes/em-dashes. It’s just a computer programme. If you want your writing to come out neat and profressional, I recommend getting the hang of your keyboard shortcuts. These are the default keys to press:

Em-dash: ctrl, alt, and the ‘-‘ symbol on the number pad.

En-dash: ctrl and the ‘-‘ symbol on the number pad.

Hyphen… is just your usual ‘-‘ symbol on the main part of your keyboard.

Now, not every computer has a number pad, but you can set your own computer short-cut in the following way:

In Word, go to the ‘Insert’ tab and click ‘Symbol’ on the far right. Select ‘More symbols’ from the drop-down menu. A window will appear. Click the ‘Special characters’ tab. Select the symbol you want to change and click ‘Shortcut key…’. Select the shortcut you want to change, then enter the keys you want for your shortcut into the ‘Press new shortcut key’ box.  Click ‘Assign’. And you’re done.

Hopefully now you’ll be free to use hyphens, en-dashes, and em-dashes with confidence :D

*I’m using space-en-dash-space here as that’s clearer to read online.

***

Index to other Proofread Along with Rhube pages.

If you like this advice and find it useful, please consider donating using the link in the sidebar.

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Check it out: Rhubosphere Web Portal

A screencap of my website.

Hey, hey, hey! Wanna see what I get up to on the rest of the web?

I would like to cordially invite you to enjoy my website, where you will find:

For instance: did you know I had a YouTube channel? At the moment it mostly consists of a bunch of fanvids and random videos I’ve made showing people my vegetables, experimenting with my equipment, and getting drunk alone. But next year I plan to launch an introduction to philosophy webseries and other cool stuff. (And maybe learn to make better fanvids…)

Anyway, check it out, and remember, if you get kicks out of what I do and want to reward me, there’s a tip jar over over in the sidebar that would very much welcome your contribution.

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Manfeels Park

Comic panel from Manfeels Park.I haven’t reviewed a comic in a while, and given that I’m entertaining myself with this one whilst I wait for the painkillers to kick in, a review only seemed fair.

Manfeels Park is the creation of Mo and Erin. It can be viewed either on the website, www.manfeels-park.com, or on the Tumblr, manfeels-park.tumblr.com . It consists in taking found comments – ridiculous male responses to feminism – and presenting them as though spoken by Jane Austen characters, using tracings from stills of adaptations from film and TV (chiefly, but not solely, the iconic 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice).

The name, Manfeels Park, is a pun on the Jane Austen novel, Mansfield Park, and the term ‘manfeels’, used to lampoon male complaints against feminism that are distinguished by expressing exaggerated pain for minor ills and the demand that the focus of feminist campaigns be diverted to deal with male issues – sometimes also referred to as ‘male tears‘.

I’ve sometimes been on the edge about terms like ‘male tears’ or ‘manfeels’. As someone whose anti-prejudice politics stems from merciless bullying at school, I instinctively withdraw from anything that involves poking fun at the pain of others. However, I have come to understand more and more quite how much male privilege is founded upon belittling the pain and discrimination women experience, persuading us to be silent about the abuses conducted upon us, and insisting that we put the pain of others before our own. This is a theme of interaction that interferes in every aspect of life: that daughters are interrupted by their parents more than sons; that women speaking only 30% of the time are perceived as dominating the conversation; that the YA genre is dominated by cis gender male characters, but perceived as dominated by women and girls because 33% of main characters are cis girls; that Anita Sarkeesian can be driven from her house by threats against herself and her family for offering an academic critique of gaming culture; that when women are raped, the media focuses on the loss of opportunities for the rapist and blames the woman as the cause of this.

Whilst I cannot condone actively hounding an individual for behaving in a childishly selfish and sexist manner, I have come to appreciate that mocking of the ridiculousness of men who insist they are worse off than women has become a vital outlet. Just as Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto, from the 60s, should not be taken as a literal call to ‘cut up men’, feminist mocking of ‘male tears’ is not directed at minimising male pain; rather, it is a call to recognise the ridiculousness of the discrepancy between slights actually experienced by men and the assertions made by so-called ‘Men’s Rights Activists’ that they receive discrimination far in excess of women.

If we don’t laugh, we’ll cry. And we are done crying.

As far as pokes at ‘male tears’ go, Manfeels Park is light-hearted, gentle mockery, and mockery that has no need to exaggerate. The text of the comics is drawn from the words of men themselves, and occasionally from the wittily underwhelmed responses of their women conversational partners. The Jane-Austen-style regency framing for these remarks provides the perfect context to both highlight how outdated the thoughts behind them are, and for setting the viewer in the mindset of social commentary and satire.

Panel from the comic 'Legitimate snak'.It’s also empowering for the woman reader to see their own feeling of askance echoed by a raised eyebrow from no less a figure than Lizzie Bennet; to hear a witty comeback to modern misogyny in her voice, backed by the authority of the world-renowned Jane Austen; to have a comic panel dealing with street harassment express the incredulity of female observers to the ridiculous defences men give of such behaviour by presenting five women’s sceptical looks to those of three men, and to do so via the mechanism of an iconic scene.

I also enjoy that the comments section is titled ‘Next Week on Manfeels Park…’, correctly predicting that the comic will be regularly commented upon by men who exemplify exactly what is being critiqued.

If you enjoy light-hearted mocking of the patriarchy, I really can’t recommend Manfeels Park enough.

(Countdown to fulfillment of Lewis’s Law in 3, 2, 1…)

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Speculative Fiction 2012 wins British Fantasy Society Award!

Me and Speculative Fiction 2012I’m super thrilled to say that Speculative Fiction 2012 won the British Fantasy Society Award for Non-Fiction today. As regular readers will be aware, my post, ‘Remembering Margaret Cavendish‘, was published in this volume as one of the fifty ‘best online reviews, essays and commentary’ on the speculative genre in 2012. Obviously, it’s pretty awesome for me to have had my work published in a volume that has won such a prestigious award. And I’m stoked for Margaret Cavendish, as well, who only desired fame, and has been wrongfully denied her place in our memories as the first writer of science fiction (in the European tradition, at least). But more than anything, I’m thrilled for Jared Shurin and Justin Landon, our simply amazing editors.

Jared and Justin collected together a really incredible selection of essays that you really all should read. More than that, they have modestly and generously been consistent in sharing their praise with their contributors, including sending us specially commissioned artwork to commemorate the Hugo nomination. I’ve joked about sharing a 50th of a Hugo nomination, I could joke about sharing a 50th of a BFS Award, but the truth is that this is a really well deserved win for the two of them, without whom the collection would never have come into existence, and without whom my little essay would never have seen print, or had the recognition it has had since. They deserve every bit of this award, and I’m really just stoked that it has come through.

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Blog hop: Accessing The Future Fiction

The Future Fire is crowdfunding an anthology on Accessing the Future, exploring ‘disability & the intersectionality of race, class, gender & sexuality’. The Future Fire, and the editors (Kathryn Allan and Djibril al-Ayad), are pretty awesome people, with a track record for publishing interesting intersectional fiction, so it’s a really promising project, and I encourage you all to support it.

In line with that, Djibril collared me via twitter to take part in the blog-hop, ‘Accessing The Future Fiction’ to raise awareness of the Indigogo campaign. My mission is to answer for you the following questions:

  1. Tell us about your Work In Progress (WIP) / Current Read (CR) and the world it’s set in.
  2. Who are the most powerful people in this world?
  3. Where does their power come from?
  4. What physical and/or mental characteristics underpin their positions of power?
  5. How does this affect the weakest people in the world?

Tell us about your Work In Progress (WIP)

I have two main works in progress at the moment, both of which are on hold until I finish the dreaded PhD, all of which is currently being held up by both physical and mental illness (exhaustion caused by iron deficiency and depression). So for me it’s just interesting to note this real life intersection between physical impairment and fictional flights of fancy. It leaves me a question, though: do I tell you about my superhero novel? Or the one with the clones?

Let’s go with the superhero novel, as it’s the closest to completion.

The novel is set in a world very much like our own, except that somewhere in the mid-twentieth century, certain people started to develop superpowers. Or what we might call superpowers – whether their abilities and physical differences from the norm make the characters who possess them either super or powerful is up for debate.

The main character, Daniel Loxley, has both visible privilege and invisible abilities and illness. He is a white middle-class man, but he is also bisexual, and he suffers from a depression that grows to an incapacitating extent towards the climax of the novel. He is also a superhero. Danny was born with wings – wings that he can absorb into his back, so as to appear like a normal man, or have burst forth, allowing him to soar above the city and all its problems. He’s also stronger than the average bear and more resistant to injury (although by no means invincible). On evenings and weekends he is the Winged Guardian – protector of Archester. By day he works as an advertising creative, whose poor time-keeping is leaving him in hot water, both at work and amongst friends.

On Saturdays, Danny catches lunch with his superhero best buddy, Street, a black woman with superhuman strength – much stronger than Danny. By day, Street is a social worker dealing with troubled kids. By night she tackles their troubles head on. Although they are close, Danny and Street don’t talk about their real lives – each tacitly afraid to reveal too much about themselves. And when Danny is overwhelmed by an experience saving a child from a burning building, he doesn’t have Street’s phone number, doesn’t know her real name – there is no one he knows he can talk to about his problems, except for Angela, a wealthy woman and complete stranger who discovered Danny’s identity by accident.

The action of the novel takes place in the fictional city of Archester, which I wanted to present as a specifically British city in the way that Metropolis, Gotham, and so forth have come to represent American cities. It therefore combines that eclectic mix of old and new architecture that marks most British cities. It has a castle and a cathedral and old city walls, but it also has striking modern skyscrapers of metal and glass, the sumptuous modern apartments of the wealthy, the middle-class suburbs, and the inner city poverty. In this way, the world of The Winged Guardian (working title) is in many ways just like that of any British city, only, you know, some of the people have superpowers.

Who are the most powerful people in this world?

None of the protagonists. It’s not really a story about the most powerful people. If anything, power in the story rests with groups of people, not with individuals.

Danny is white and male and middle-class, but he’s also had a side of himself that has been completely ostracised his whole life. About which he has been taught from childhood he must not tell people. It means that when he is at his most vulnerable, he cannot turn to any of his friends.

Angela has wealth, but not Bruce Wayne levels of wealth. She invested a small inheritance in a friend’s internet start-up in the early naughties and has done very well by it. She has a nice apartment in a nice area of the city. She’s free to use her time to create her own art and invest in the art of others. Her wealth gives her the freedom to look after Danny when he really needs it, but she doesn’t have the kind of wealth that would enable her to single-handedly enact real change.

Street has physical strength, but feels powerless to help those in her community who really need her help in her day-to-day life.

It is his own inability to affect real change that, combined with post-traumatic stress, leads to Danny’s very public mental breakdown.

Power lies with the media, and public perception, and inaccessible politicians. On the smaller scale, friends can help one another and sometimes save individuals, but the societal roots of the problems that lead to crises persist.

Shit, that sounds a lot more negative than the book is. I think in part because I’m trying to minimise spoilers. But yeah, I guess… power lies in collective action, not individuals.

Where does their power come from?

Hmmm, tricky to answer when we’re not talking about individuals. I suppose three forms of collective power  are loosely grouped.

1. The power of the mob – public reaction, public prejudice, publish lashing out on easy targets to blame for their own pain

2. Civic power – power of the police and social services to govern the way we live and try to protect the innocent and downtrodden. It’s a power granted by our collective agreement that such services are valuable, but undercut by bureaucracy, insufficient funding, and the tide of political will

3. The power of activists – a more fragile power. Small groups of people trying to change the way we think about society and act towards each other; powered by passion and ideology and the persuasiveness of the individuals making up those groups, I suppose.

What physical/mental characteristics underpin their positions of power?

Pfffffffsdfmdm – again, this is a difficult question to answer when I don’t see any of my characters as really in positions of power. I mean, Danny’s boss has power over him, I suppose, but not so much in the wider world? I suppose that’s interesting to discuss anyway, although I’m not sure if that was quite what you were intending.

Danny’s boss is a compassionate, but organised person. She can be flexible, but also hard-edged. We first meet her early on in the novel when she calls Danny to task for being late into work, again, and letting his team down. She bears the threat of possibly firing Danny if he can’t get his shit together. But at the same time, when the crisis really hits him, she wants to work with him to get him through it. She is not without heart, and she will try to work with the rules on behalf of her people, but at the end of the day she is also working on behalf of the business.

I suppose you would say she is mentally strong and willing to make the tough decisions, but also possessed of a broader grasp of the situation and able to see those employees as people with needs that require support, too.

How does this affect the weakest people in the world?

Well, I answered that last question specific to Danny, who is not the weakest person in the world. He’s certainly vulnerable, but ultimately, he is not without friends and family, he is white and middle-class, and male. It could be worse.

I suppose his boss’s support of him when he needs it most is a real plus. It gets him going again and helping himself. But her initial critiques of him when she doesn’t know what’s going on do have a negative effect. Ultimately, though, she’s not taking action that reaches beyond helping those who are already fairly well off – working for a successful advertising company. And how could she? She doesn’t have power that extends beyond that.

Street is the person who works most closely with the most vulnerable – the poorest people, people who have very little, or no safety nets at all. People who do not have friends like Angela to take them in when they can’t look after themselves. And Street has very little power within that field. She works within the confines of the state, and the state just doesn’t care sufficiently about these people. Which is what leads to the kind of political, racial, class, and religious tensions that generate events like the bombing in which Danny gets caught up in. Street takes to the streets at night to try and make a difference she cannot behind the desk in the day, but even so, it’s hard to quantify whether she makes a real difference.

I suppose, at the heart of the novel, is a real question about power, and in whether it is something any individual can possess (outside of roles bestowed by the people as a part of their governance). I’ve become increasingly puzzled by the idea that someone like Superman could really be a ‘God among men’ just because he has superpowers. I mean, they’re pretty great superpowers, but he’s still just one man, and I don’t know that I buy into the idea that Just One Really Cool Man can save us all. Superpowers =/= power in any significant sense. Symbols have power, but even where a single person has become a kind of symbol in their own right (Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Mandela, Martin Luther King), I’m not sure how much they achieve simply through that, and a lot of that symbolism comes from being a leading light in a movement, not from some nebulous notion of personal power, and certainly not from simple physical power.

This has been an interesting exercise for me. I’d thought about the individual power dynamics, and the interplay of privilege, with regard to this novel before, but not so much in the context of the wider world. I suppose it reveals some of my own anxiety about our abilities to affect real change and help those who are really in need. As is the case with a lot of my WiPs, there’s a strong theme of the importance of sharing information – telling each other about our experiences and listening when someone does speak up. Making ourselves into the kind of people others feel safe talking to. For myself, I find being able to talk openly about mental health issues is so important, and making such subjects taboo is really damaging. Lack of understanding and misunderstanding breeds prejudice. Raising awareness and the humanising of ourselves to one another is of central importance.

So I guess that neatly rounds us off to the conclusion that anothologies like Accessing the Future play a really important role in doing that. Go support them. You know you want to.

I nominate Jessica Meats and Mina Kelly, should they choose to accept it!

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