Tuesday, April 21, 2015

An Impressionistic Painting: Thoughts on Daredevil

In the fifth episode of the new Netflix series Marvel's Daredevil, lawyer-by-day, vigilante-by-night Matt Murdoch (Charlie Cox) explains to his new friend Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) how he sees the world.  Blinded in a childhood accident, Matt discovered that his other senses had become superhumanly sharp, allowing him to perceive far more than ordinary people.  "You have to think of it as more than just five senses," he tells Claire.  "I can't see, not like everyone else, but I can feel.  Things like balance, direction, micro-changes in air density, vibrations, blankets of temperature variations.  Mix all that with what I hear, subtle smells.  All of the fragments form a sort of... impressionistic painting."  It's a speech that offers insight not only to Daredevil's title character, but to the show itself, which often feels less like a straightforward narrative than an impressionistic work in its own right, zooming in and out of its story in a way that seems almost random.  It's a novel approach, especially in genre TV, but one that hasn't entirely paid off, resulting in a series that is brilliant at points, but whose whole is curiously unsatisfying.

The third effort to bring Marvel's cinematic universe to the television medium, Daredevil is also the opening volley in a project that is the televized equivalent of the ambitious Phase I.  Over the next two years, Netflix plans to release three other series--AKA Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist--featuring Marvel characters and set in roughly the same environs as Daredevil, culminating with a team-up of the four shows' heroes in The Defenders.  While the cinematic universe has been spectacularly successful, however, Marvel has so far floundered in its TV efforts.  Agents of SHIELD remains so in thrall to the events of the larger story around it (it is currently setting up events that won't pay off until 2019) that it has yet to develop characters or a story that are compelling in their own right.  Agent Carter has a dynamite main character and spectacular action scenes, but struggled to find a story to tell with them, even when limited to only eight episodes.  Daredevil rather badly needed to make a splash, and perhaps for that reason it has struck a much darker tone than the rest of the MCU (another reason is that it draws on the work of Frank Miller, who has written some of the definitive Daredevil stories, and who acted as a consultant on the show).  The core of the series is Matt's frustration with his belief that the city he loves (specifically Hell's Kitchen, the neighborhood where he grew up and still lives) is being lost to crime and corruption, and his struggle with the question of whether the best way to address this is as a lawyer, fighting for the rights of the poor and disenfranchised, or as a masked vigilante, who beats up criminals and seriously debates killing the crimelords who control them.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Daredevil--and, initially at least, the most compelling--is how fully it takes advantage of the streaming TV model, and of the expectation that it will be watched in a single or at most a few large gulps rather than week-by-week.  Freed from the need to win over an audience with standalone episodes (which hardly any genre show does well anymore, unfortunately) or to be accessible to viewers who tune in halfway through the season, the show allows itself to be structureless.  There is no straight line running through Matt's crimefighting and his pursuit of the criminal gangs plaguing Hell's Kitchen, and the show feels free to elide the parts of the story that it finds boring or unnecessary.  The first episode ends with Matt using his super-hearing to pick up the sounds of a kidnapping in progress.  The second episode begins with Claire, a nurse, finding him badly injured in the dumpster behind her building.  As she patches him up, he explains that he's been pursuing the kidnapped child and ran afoul of some people involved in the crime, but the show trusts that we don't need to see that connective tissue.

The expectation of binge-watching also allows Daredevil to draw out explanations of its world and title character.  When we first meet Matt, he's already patrolling the streets and performing seemingly impossible feats.  It takes five episodes for us to learn what his powers are and how he uses them; seven, to learn who trained him to fight and put the idea of vigilantism in his head; and ten for him to articulate why he decided to don the mask and how he justifies his violent actions.  By the same token, the season's villain, Wilson Fisk (Vincent D'Onofrio), known in the comics as Kingpin, is only introduced at the end of the third episode, and the season's eighth episode is dedicated almost entirely to him and to laying out his past.

As the first season draws on, however, the shapelessness that was initially so intriguing becomes a burden.  It saps tension from the story, which was anyway never particularly propulsive.  Fisk actually achieves the bulk of his dastardly plan at the end of the fifth episode, when he bombs several city blocks which he plans to redevelop (as noted in this brilliant dissection of the show, Daredevil simultaneously oversells and undersells the evil of a villain whose master plan is basically gentrification).  For the rest of the season, Matt is playing catch-up, trying to either prove that Fisk is a criminal or decide whether he wants to kill him.  But instead of building to a climax, the story seems rather to stumble onto a solution that allows Matt to confront and defeat Fisk without doing most of the legwork required to bring him there.

As the season grows more slack, it also becomes easier to notice that a lot of the innovation that Daredevil supposedly brings to the MCU--the emphasis on class and on the effect that crime and corruption have on the poor, the central importance of an urban setting which the hero vows to protect, the use of rich plutocrats as villains--are things that were done just recently, in the first season of Arrow.  To be fair, this is less a case of plagiarism than of two works drawing from a common source (more precisely, Arrow's first season is a blatant riff on Batman Begins, which in turn was heavily influenced by the work of Frank Miller).  But there's no denying that there are elements in Daredevil that feel as if they were lifted directly from Arrow.  Fisk's evil plan to save the city from corruption by destroying the parts of it that he has deemed too diseased echoes both Malcolm Merlyn on Arrow and Ra's Al Ghul in Batman Begins.  The season's tenth episode, "Nelson v. Murdock," centers on the disgust and dismay felt by Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), Matt's best friend and law partner, when he learns Matt's secret.  The episode is designed to show Matt how a normal, sane person reacts when they learn that he has dedicated his life to violence, but Foggy's reaction is almost word for word the one expressed by Tommy Merlyn on Arrow when he learns Oliver's secret.

To be sure, Daredevil is often much better made than Arrow, particularly the early episodes which were quite dire (it also has an obvious advantage over Arrow in being a story about class whose characters actually come from a working class background).  But it is not so much better as to completely distract from the fact that it's retreading very familiar ground, and in some cases it actually falls short.  The most crucial of these, unfortunately, is Matt himself.  Like Arrow, Daredevil is the story of how its title character grows into heroism, but the show rarely seems willing to commit to actually depicting that process.  It spends a lot of time explaining Matt's background to us, but very little time on Matt himself.  Cox is very good at showing us the various masks that Matt presents to the world, but when it comes to the anger and ugliness that lie beneath, he's rarely given enough to work with.

Matt's character arc over the course of the first season revolves around the dilemma of whether he should kill Fisk.  That's a fairly inert plot--no story that puts so much emphasis on whether or not our hero will kill a single bad guy is going to end with him doing the deed--and made even more so by the lawyerly way in which the show phrases the question--in the second episode, Matt brutally tortures a man for information and throws him off a roof, but it's OK because he lands in a dumpster and only ends up in a coma.  Arrow was actually much smarter about this issue--it started with Oliver already an unrepentant killer, and let him slowly walk back from that state over the course of its first season.  One of the problems of telling a superhero story in a gritty, "realistic" tone is that the closer you get to setting your story in something that resembles reality, the clearer it becomes that superheroes are actually a really bad idea, and that people who choose to go out at night in masks to beat up criminals are pretty messed up.  So giving your hero some space to become a better person without actually giving up the vigilante lifestyle, as Arrow does, is a good idea.  Daredevil, in contrast, paints itself into a corner--if Matt commits this particular murder, he's damned--and has nowhere to go from that point.  It ends up embroidering around the question, sometimes in ways that are very compelling--Matt's conversations with a priest (Peter McRobbie) who challenges him to decide whether he's looking for a reason not to kill Fisk, or a justification for doing so, are a consistent highlight of the season--but never in a way that leaves him room to grow or change.

Matt's flatness stands in even sharper contrast when he's compared to Fisk, who is simultaneously Daredevil's greatest accomplishment and its biggest stumbling block.  Played to perfection by D'Onofrio, Fisk is at once ruthless and deeply vulnerable.  He is also one of the series's most emotionally available characters.  In one of his earliest scenes, he makes an awkward but extremely sweet pass at a gallery owner, Vanessa Marianna (Ayelet Zurer), whose relationship with him is the season's central romantic plotline.  He has a strong, supportive friendship with his assistant Wesley (Toby Leonard Moore), who seems to genuinely care for his boss, and whose affection is clearly reciprocated.  In a show full of masculine posturing, Fisk is the only character who allows himself to behave in decidedly unmasculine ways--when Wesley is murdered, Fisk sits for a long time holding the dead man's hand in his own, and plants a kiss on his forehead before leaving.  And yet Fisk is also a deeply damaged man, scarred by the abuse of his father, whom he murdered to protect his mother, and harboring deep reserves of rage.  When his first date with Vanessa is interrupted by one of his criminal associates, Fisk kills the man in a fit of incandescent, irrational anger, shouting "you embarrassed me in front of her!"

It's an impressive, complex portrait, and I very much hope that genre prejudice will not preclude D'Onofrio from receiving some award attention for it.  But it's also a huge problem for the show that contains it, because Fisk turns out to be massively more interesting than anything else on screen, including of course the show's titular hero.  As a lot of superhero stories do, Daredevil mirrors its hero and its villain--both come from a working class background, both had violent fathers (though Matt's father, a boxer, was never abusive towards him), both care deeply about their neighborhood and believe that it has fallen to them to save it, and both struggle with deep-seated rage.  There's even an obvious echo of Matt's condition in Fisk's defining moment, when he stares unseeing at a blank wall, unable to drown out the sounds of his mother being beaten.  But the parallel runs so deep and Fisk is such a dominant figure in the story that it feels less as if Daredevil has mirrored Matt and Fisk, and more as if it has given them the exact same character arc, and let Fisk do it better.  By the end of the season, it is Fisk, not Matt, who has had a complete character arc and experienced a transformation (and it is Fisk's decisions, not Matt's, that move the plot, his own bad choices that lead to his downfall far more than Matt's heroics).  In a way, this was inevitable the moment the show chose to center itself around the question of justified violence--Fisk, who is not a hero, can come to the logical conclusion of this dilemma in a way that Matt never could, embracing his own villainy in the season's final moments.  By the end of its first season, Daredevil feels a lot more like Fisk's story than Matt's, and though this is interesting and clearly the result of deliberate choices, it's also unsupportable, especially within a universe as fundamentally conservative as the MCU.

The impressionistic storytelling, the shapeless plotting, the choice to humanize its villain and place his story at its center--these are all ways in which Daredevil tries to work within the conventions of prestige crime shows like The Wire or True Detective (and one of its core problems is that, well made though it is, it lacks the level of writing that can take these challenging tropes and weave them into a compelling story).  Another example is the over-emphasis on male characters at the expense of any women in the cast.  There are three women in Daredevil's main cast, and none of them feel particularly well served by the first season.  Claire appears in only a few episodes (Dawson is apparently intended as a crossover character between the different Netflix shows, and as her character in the comics has connections to Luke Cage she will probably be seen in his show) and seems to function primarily as a caretaker and sounding board for Matt, though she also has enough good sense to shut down their nascent romantic relationship when she realizes that he has no intention of stopping his vigilantism.  Vanessa gets more screen time, but her relationship with Fisk is frustratingly one-sided.  We learn enough about him to understand why he falls for her so deeply and so quickly.  But we learn almost nothing about Vanessa (who is hardly ever seen away from Fisk--there is only one scene in the first season that she does not share with him), much less anything that would explain why she's not only willing to date a man whom she knows to be a violent criminal, but so quickly ties her life to his, involving herself in her crimes and agreeing to go on the run with him at the season's end.

The one bright spot on the female character front is Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), a client of Matt and Foggy's who becomes their receptionist.  Unlike Claire and Vanessa, Karen is the driver of her own story, in which she investigates the criminal conspiracy that led to her being falsely accused of murder, and which inevitably leads to Fisk.  Woll is excellent at conveying not only Karen's determination, but the hint of mania that underpins it as she browbeats and steamrolls her way towards the answers about the events that tore her life apart.  Though driven by noble intentions, Karen's zeal to get at the truth and find justice for herself and others leads her to act recklessly and often unethically, and unlike Matt there is space in the show for her to become somewhat unlikable without completely losing her way.  Unfortunately, Karen's plot strand is also the season's least successful, least interesting aspect.  Her investigation somehow manages to be simultaneously too detailed and not detailed enough, drowning the viewers in a flood of meaningless names and places while signposting major breaks in the case that don't actually make any sense.  In the season's later episodes, Karen and her partner, the journalist Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall), discover that Fisk killed his father--not so much by being ace investigators but because the truth more or less falls in their laps--and walk around convinced that they have a smoking gun, even though it should be obvious that a twelve-year-old boy who killed his abusive father would be a figure of sympathy, not scorn.  It's a story undeserving of its main character, and it helps to cement the feeling that Daredevil is a lot less interested in the women in its story than in the men.

(Much has been made of the fact that the people behind the show's scenes are almost entirely men--only one of the season's episodes, for example, was co-written by a woman--and one of the ways in which this feels most obvious is the show's handling, or rather its failure to handle, women's relationship with violence.  Both Claire and Vanessa choose to become romantically involved with men whom they know to be violent, and at no point is it ever suggested that they fear that violence could be turned onto them.  It's obviously not unrealistic for women to ignore the danger that their romantic partners pose them, but the show itself never seems to consider that this is a questionable choice--despite showing us repeatedly that both Matt and Fisk have deep reserves of rage which they often have trouble controlling, we're apparently meant to take them at face value when they assure the women in their lives that "I would never hurt you."  Karen, meanwhile, comes to Matt and Foggy's attention after she's drugged while on a date with a man, and yet the obvious implications that such a setup would have for most women are never considered--drugging her is merely a means to framing her for her date's murder.  This is not the only way in which Daredevil's pretense of "realism" runs aground on the shoals of its limited perspective--for a show about poverty and class, it's jarring that the perspectives we see belong almost exclusively to white people, and it will be interesting to see the show analyzed from a disability rights perspective--but to me it was the most obvious.)

Sporadically brilliant but ultimately inadequate, Daredevil is a marked improvement on its predecessors, but still not the home run that Marvel needed to launch their Netflix experiment.  There's probably a longer discussion to be had about why Marvel does so well in its movies, but has so far struggled to expand its universe into television (while DC has had the exact opposite results).  My previous theory was that television series need room to grow and become their own story before being folded into a wider universe (one of Arrow's problems in its lackluster third season has been that so much of its storytelling is in service of jumpstarting more and more spin-offs set in its world).  But Daredevil is undeniably its own thing--even as it cribs to blatantly from so many sources.  Perhaps the problem is simply that Marvel's TV shows have the same storytelling flaws as their movies, which tend to half-ass their plots and cover for it with fun character moments and exciting action scenes.  That's not an approach that can work in a multi-part story, and especially not when your main character can't quite hold the spotlight.  There's still a lot here worth watching for, and certainly enough to build on in the second season, but I hope that future Marvel series have a stronger sense of their main character, and a more interesting story to build around them.

Friday, April 10, 2015

The 2015 Hugo Awards: Why I Am Voting No Award in the Best Fan Writer Category

It's been six days since this year's Hugo nominations were announced, and in fandom time that feels like an eternity.  As dispiriting as the nominations themselves were, the response to them has been gratifying--the consensus that the Sad and Rabid Puppies crossed a line in promoting a single slate of nominees has been swiftly reached (including in mainstream venues like Salon, Slate, and The Guardian), and I'm seeing a lot of support for the policy of No Award-ing all Puppy nominees.  With the shock of the nominations starting to fade, it's perhaps time to start looking at the nominees that are left to us, and to see how we can cobble from them a selection of winners that best reflects what we want to see from the field.

In several categories, the Puppies took all but one nomination, and those remaining nominees have no doubt taken a read of the situation and realized that they stand a very good chance of winning a Hugo by default, which is probably something they feel very conflicted about.  Taking a look at those nominees myself, I see some who would have seemed like deserving winners in any year (Julie Dillon for Best Pro Artist), and others that I don't know much about (Wes Chu for the Campbell Award).  I also see the Best Fan Writer category, in which Laura J. Mixon is the only non-Puppy nominee.  As difficult as this is to say, my plan at the moment is to rank Mixon below No Award, and I'd like to talk for a bit about my reasons for doing that.

Mixon is on the ballot because of a single post, "A Report on Damage Done by One Individual Under Several Names."  George R. R. Martin endorsed her for a nomination, and whether or not that played a deciding role in securing it for her (his endorsement was made only a day before the nominating period closed, but on the other hand he does have a huge megaphone and the Best Fan Writer category has a relatively low profile and would thus be susceptible to his influence), it reflects the perception that Mixon performed a public service in writing that report, and that the Best Fan Writer category can and should be used to reward such service.  I don't know whether I agree with that approach, but the fact that everyone (including Mixon herself) seems to agree that this is what happened makes it easier to discuss what message is sent by nominating and rewarding her.

The individual Mixon writes about was known variously as (to give a by no means complete sample) Wintefox, Valse de Lune, Pyrofennec, A Cracked Moon, and, most famously, Requires Hate.  Under that last name, she published a blog in which she wrote angry, often harsh critiques of genre fiction, particularly epic and urban fantasy.  She often came under fire for the angry tone of her reviews, and for her liberal use of violent rhetoric, often directed at authors or other reviewers she disagreed with.  Defenders of the blog argued that the anger Requires Hate displayed was merely a performance meant to illustrate her disgust with the sexist and racist tropes and plot elements she disdained, that her reviews served an important function in dismantling the prejudice that still lingers within the genre, and that attacking her rhetoric amounted to dismissing her arguments for not being presented in the correct, conciliatory tone.

The Requires Hate blog was allowed to fade away around 2012, more or less coinciding with a loud, public blow-out with a number of authors including Liz Williams and others.  Shortly thereafter, a young writer by the name of Benjanun Sriduangkaew began publishing well-received short stories in several major short fiction venues, even earning a Campbell Award nomination last year.  Known to a small number of people within the industry was the fact that Sriduangkaew and Requires Hate were the same person.  (Because that's the name under which she's continued to speak publicly, for the rest of this post I'm going to use the name Sriduangkaew to refer to this individual, even when referring to statements made under her other aliases; the impression I've formed, however, is that Benjanun Sriduangkaew is also a nom de plume--which, for the record, is a thoroughly legitimate and commonplace choice for which I see no reason to criticize her.)

What happens next is less easy to discern.  What does seem to have been substantiated is that Sriduangkaew got into a fight with author Tricia Sullivan over the latter's most recent novel, Shadowboxer, which Sriduangkaew felt presented a skewed, Orientalizing view of its Thai setting.  At some point she seems to have attacked the author Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, who refused to join in her excoriation of Sullivan's book.  At another point--and the timeline here has been very hard to gauge, so I have no idea what happened before what--Sullivan and, apparently, Williams began a whisper campaign linking Sriduangkaew to the Requires Hate persona.  This went on for several months and included, it has been claimed, contacting publishers and urging them not to buy stories from Sriduangkaew.  Finally, last fall, Nick Mamatas, who is close with Sriduangkaew and knew her identity, made a public post linking her with Requires Hate, in what he claimed was an attempt to get ahead of the rumor mill.  If Mamatas believed that his post would throw the burden of guilt on Sullivan and Williams, however, he miscalculated.  When James Nicoll reported on the affair, the comments to his post became inundated with anonymous respondents all saying the same thing--that during the ten years that she was switching identities and "performing" rage, Sriduangkaew was also engaged in campaigns of abuse and harassment against authors and fans, many of whom were still too frightened to accuse her publicly.

My own feelings about this mess are deeply conflicted.  I never thought much of the Requires Hate blog.  I appreciate--and indeed have published--angry and performative reviews that make strident points about racism and sexism, but in Requires Hate's writing the ratio of rage to actual critique and insight didn't seem to justify the effort.  Still, it was obvious that a lot of readers got something out of her writing and valued its existence, so when the rhetoric in her reviews turned violent and began to be directed at actual people, I quietly stopped reading.  I had been vaguely aware that Requires Hate was one of several pseudonyms (which, again, I see nothing wrong with), but the only one I was aware of was the one under which she commented at Ferretbrain.  There, she struck me as a bully, someone who perceived disagreement as inherently illegitimate and ruthlessly attacked anyone who expressed it.  But, since the people on the site seemed to take this in stride, it hardly felt like my place to intervene.  When the blow-up over the Requires Hate blog happened in 2012, I was sympathetic to a lot of the criticisms raised, but it also seemed clear that to stand against Requires Hate would mean standing with people I cared for even less, who would cheerfully use her behavior as a cudgel against all anti-racist, anti-sexist writing, and who would tar any angry review with the brush of "bullying."  I was dismayed to discover that the friendly Sriduangkaew persona had been a front, but in the grand scheme of things we hadn't been friends and she hadn't owed me anything.  It did not seem obvious to me that the extent of Sriduangkaew's deception justified its exposure.

I did not know about the abuse.  When the allegations surfaced in the comments to Nicoll's LJ post, however, it seemed obvious that I should have guessed.  Not only were there multiple accounts of it, but the behavior they described was entirely consistent with Sriduangkaew's public utterances, the viciousness merely turned up.  In that light, Sriduangkaew's behavior--the multiple aliases, and even more tellingly, her consistent deletion of her internet history, especially where it could cast her in a negative light--was clearly revealed as that of a predator, who makes nice with those who have power and attacks those who don't.  Sriduangkaew's apologies--one as herself and one as Requires Hate--only confirmed that impression.  They both minimize or outright ignore her actual abuses.  She is far too busy apologizing for offending the powerful to remember that she bullied and abused the powerless.

I've said all this not only to clarify where I stand on Benjanun Sriduangkaew (which is surely not something that anyone cared about) but to make it clear that I do see the value in Mixon's report, which collates evidence of Sriduangkaew's history and actions over more than a decade and in multiple guises.  Abusers thrive when the communities around them forget who they are and what they've done.  They actively encourage that forgetfulness--as Sriduangkaew has done by switching personas and erasing her own past.  Especially in a community like ours, in which newcomers are always showing up, there is a great deal of value in having a single resource to point to whenever a certain name comes up.  And there's no denying that something like Mixon's report is exactly how people with privilege and power should use them when abuse and harassment happen in their community.  (Over at SAFE, the blog she established with Tade Thompson to provide a safe space where fans of color can hopefully be protected from abuses like Sriduangkaew's, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz writes about why she feels that this value justifies awarding Mixon the Hugo.  Obviously, we disagree, but I strongly urge you to read her take in full, because it is an argument worth considering.)


There is a huge difference between acknowledging that something has value and giving it an award.  The message that the latter sends is one that I, personally, am not comfortable with.  To begin with, there are huge problems with Mixon's report.  Some of them are not her fault--Sriduangkaew's self-editing and the fact that so many of her victims would only speak on condition of anonymity mean that Mixon lacks citations for many of her claims, and I can see feeling that the importance of her cause justified ignoring the conventions of good journalism.  Others, however, were entirely within her control.  The report consistently treats all of Sriduangkaew's excesses--her rage-blogging, her public bullying, and her private abuse and harassment--as if they were equally bad, whereas to my mind only the last one justifies the opprobrium that has descended upon her.  In a particularly ill-judged segment of the report, Mixon divides the people who have sounded off about Sriduangkaew into "pro-abuse" and "anti-abuse," even though it should be clear to anyone that this is an enormously complex situation with many nuances.  (UPDATE: I had misremembered that this segment was in Mixon's report.  It's actually in another LJ post by azarias.)  The report's emphasis on mathematical "proof"--Mixon includes charts and graphs to demonstrate, for example, that Sriduangkaew predominantly targeted women of color--feels perverse, especially given that Mixon is missing most of her sources.  Worst of all, unsurprisingly, are the comments, which confirm my impulse from back in 2012 that most of the people who would take an anti-Requires Hate stance are ones that I want nothing to do with.  It takes a mere instant for someone to show up and announce that Sriduangkaew's existence proves that all anti-racist writing is bullying.  Another wonders aloud whether Sriduangkaew is "really" Asian.  In her essay, Loenen-Ruiz writes that giving Mixon a Hugo demonstrates the genre community's commitment to protecting the weak and vulnerable.  I think the comments on Mixon's report demonstrate something very different.

One thing that Loenen-Ruiz and I absolutely agree on: more than race or gender or anything else, this story is about power.  There is, sadly, no shortage of abusers in the genre community, and whether they get excoriated as Sriduangkaew has (deservedly) been seems to depend a lot more on their power and connections than on what they've done.  René Walling sexually harassed a female writer at Readercon.  It took tremendous community organization and outrage to get him banned from that con (and where, might I ask, is Genevieve Valentine's Best Fan Writer nomination for her fearless and oh-so-eloquent writing about the experience of the harassment and the ordeal that followed?).  Within weeks of that decision being handed down, Walling was volunteering at the 2012 Worldcon in Chicago, and being thanked from on stage by Best Novel winner Jo Walton.  Jim Frenkel harassed women from his position as an editor at Tor for decades before anyone thought to do anything about it.  Marion Zimmer Bradley sexually abused her children and enabled the abuse of countless others by her husband, Walter Breen, something that should, if we lived in a just world, have landed her in prison for life.  Instead, the genre community seems determined to forget about it.  This last year, Deirdre Saoirse Moen and James Nicoll did yeoman's work in publicizing the sordid details of Bradley's crimes--things that were known but not spoken of--but somehow no one seems to have seriously considered them for a Hugo.

I'm not trying to say that Sriduangkaew deserves a pass because so many other, more powerful (and whiter) figures in genre got one--she clearly doesn't.  But when people like Walling and Frenkel and Bradley are allowed to skate by for years, while an author of George R. R. Martin's caliber (who is, quite justifiably, a prime target for the kind of angry rhetoric about race and gender that Requires Hate specialized in, and who just yesterday published a post in which he describes all such angry rhetoric as illegitimate) takes the time to sing the praises of Mixon's report...  Well, it makes it easier to understand why so many people were willing to ignore the problems with Sriduangkaew's public behavior for so long.  Loenen-Ruiz thinks that nominating Mixon for the Hugo shows that the community is taking abuse seriously.  I think it shows that the community will happily excoriate abuse, but only when it's committed by someone of relatively low status.

Benjanun Sriduangkaew and Vox Day are two sides of the same coin.  They're both bullies and trolls, who seem to take genuine pleasure out of causing pain and destruction.  But at the end of the day, neither one of them is really our problem.  Vox Day destroyed this year's Hugos and may have done the award permanent, irrevocable damage, but he's never going to get the prestige and recognition he so clearly craves.  Sriduangkaew has hurt real people in a terrible and lasting way--and if you take nothing else away from this post, I'd like to be clear that I consider that unforgivable--but everyone now knows what she is and her career has suffered real damage (earlier this year Tor.com--whose parent company continues to publish Orson Scott Card and John C. Wright--came under fire for publishing a story by her).  Neither one of them is our problem because neither one of them is in a position to have any real power over the community as a whole.  Our problem--our real problem--is things like the inexplicable, sickening hostility directed at projects like Con or Bust, the People of Color in European Art History project, or Tempest Bradford's challenge to take a year off reading books by white men.  Our problem is that the only thing that gets fandom up in arms over the prevalence of rape in Game of Thrones is when the rapist is a beloved male character.  Our problem is that when fans of color complain about the uniform whiteness of Agent Carter they're told that what they want is "unrealistic," and criticized for harshing white fans' squee.

There's been a lot of talk in the last six days about Us and Them.  The takeover of the Hugos by a cabal of reactionary, bigoted trolls makes it very easy for us to feel righteous and just, as the standard-bearers for social justice and equality.  But the fact is that there are a lot of people on our side who don't feel like an Us, who frequently feel that their concerns, their points of view, their grievances, are not taken into account.  What sort of message does it send to those people to give a Hugo to Laura J. Mixon and her report?  Does it tell them, as Loenen-Ruiz claims, that genre is becoming a kinder, more equitable place?  Or does it tell them that if they ever fuck up, they can look forward to being pounced upon while people with more power and status who have committed far worse crimes skate by?

In writing this, I realize that I will be seen as attacking Mixon.  I'm very sorry about that and I hope that what I've written here doesn't cause her a lot of distress.  My problem, in the end, is less with her than with the people who nominated her and who will now vote for her.  (It is also worth acknowledging that I was a Best Fan Writer nominee last year and had reasonable expectations of being on the ballot again this year.  To be honest, I'm relieved that I'm not--I wouldn't want to be in the middle of this mess--but you only have my word for that.)  I also want to urge you, again, to read Loenen-Ruiz's post, because her perspective is important--arguably, more than mine.  I would also, however, like to point out this post by Kate Nepveu, another victim of witness to Sriduangkaew's bullying (she ran was a member of an online community, 50books_poc, which was destroyed by Sriduangkaew's actions) who writes about her decision not to vote for Mixon.  I'd like to encourage you to consider these perspectives and make an informed decision, rather than voting for Mixon because she's not a Rabid Puppy (one possibility, by the way, is to put No Award first and then rate Mixon below it, which would mean your vote would go to her if No Award is eliminated).  Either way, take a moment to consider the message that your vote sends, to the people within this community as well as the Sad Puppies.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

The 2015 Hugo Awards: Thoughts on the Nominees

If you've been hanging out on (certain parts of) twitter in the last two weeks, you probably had a sense of what was coming in this year's Hugo nominations.  The rumor storm has been brewing furiously, and yet even those dark hints were not quite enough to prepare us for just how dismal this year's nominees would be.  The organized right-wing voting campaign that last year gave us Vox Day, Hugo nominee, has largely swept this year's nominees, completely sweeping six out of seventeen categories, and dominating a further seven, including best novel and the Campbell award.  There's already been a lot of talk on this issue--this thread at Making Light, begun when the whispers of this year's results began to be deafening, is more than a thousand comments long, and Mike Glyer at File 770 has been furiously collecting responses from the campaign's instigators and supporters.  There will no doubt be more verbiage spilled on this issue in the coming weeks, and maybe nothing I have to say here is particularly new, but here are my thoughts at the moment.
  • To begin with, I'd like to discourage people from referring to the bloc-voting campaign with the moniker Sad Puppies.  Larry Correia chose that name when he started encouraging his fans to "take back" the Hugos three years ago, and Brad Torgesen adopted it for his suggested slate of nominees when he took over the project this year.  In the latter case, there seems to have been a deliberate attempt to distance the Sad Puppies from the toxicity of bigots like Vox Day (who was not on Torgesen's ballot) and to present a kinder, gentler face of right-wing bloc-voting.  Day's response to this was to post his own suggested slate, the Rabid Puppies ballot, including himself in several categories.  As this analysis by Mike Glyer shows, it was Day's choices that prevailed, with almost all Puppy nominees appearing on both ballots or on Day's alone.  Our current slate of Hugo nominees are not a Sad Puppy ballot; they're a Vox Day ballot.  They represent the views of a racist, misogynistic, homophobic troll, whose supporters solicited the help of GamerGate to achieve their goals.  Using Sad Puppies as a blanket term allows the people who helped make this happen pretend that it comes down to nothing more than a political disagreement between equally valid stances (as Torgesen has been doing in the Making Light thread) instead of what it actually is, a hate campaign.

  • Having said that, it is equally important to say (and a lot of people have already said it) that the Sad and Rabid Puppies' tactics are as legitimate as their politics, whininess, sense of entitlement, and general contempt for the award they claim to crave are risible.  I don't say this out of some noble desire to fight to the death for the rights of those I disagree with (because seriously, fuck them), but because I would really like it if this year's nominations actually spurred a meaningful discussion of how the Hugos work and how we want them to work.  Already there are multiple suggestions for introducing safeguards into the system that would (it is argued) help alleviate the influence of any single determined voting bloc.  On the other hand you have people arguing that we wouldn't be seeing this result if online campaigning of any sort--including things like my recommendation posts--had not become normalized in the last decade (I have a history of being sympathetic to that stance, but I think the ship has sailed on returning to those norms, even if we had any reason to believe that the people who voted with Vox Day would feel any need to respect them).  And on the third hand, there are those pointing out, with some justification, that any democratic system is vulnerable to those who care more about winning than about the system's well-being, and that this is simply the cost of doing business.  Since the Hugos are essentially a write-off this year (I've said several times that I'd be perfectly happy to skip the awards in favor of getting the nominating breakdowns right now instead of in August), I think we have a golden opportunity to really talk about this award and what we hope to get from it, and perhaps even come up with ways to make it better.

  • So what to do about these nominees?  Historically, the Hugos have tended to be extremely vulnerable to manipulation in the nominating phase, but extremely resilient in the voting phase.  You could usually count on the larger Hugo-voting membership, even those who aren't clued into every nuance of campaigning and strategizing, to be able to tell the astroturf nominees from the ones genuinely deserving of consideration.  This year, for obvious reasons, I don't think we can rely on that effect, which leads to the obvious question: what are people who are disgusted with this turn of events to do?  The way I see it, there are three options.

    1. Proceed as normal: read the voter packet, learn about the nominees, and vote according to their literary merits.  I can see the appeal of this approach--proceeding with dignity in the face of undignified behavior--but I have to say that, aside from any other considerations, it strike me as masochistic.  I mean seriously, three John C. Wright novellas?  Who could possibly be expected to put themselves through that?  More importantly, I don't see the merit in pretending not to smell the turd that the various puppies have left on our floor--certainly no one involved with this campaign is going to be chastened by our doing so.

    2. Write this year off: forget about the Hugos, enjoy the Worldcon if you're going, and try again next year.  Again, I can see the appeal--as someone who loves the award, I was hoping to vote on this year's ballot out of love and enthusiasm, not beleaguered resentment.  Those $40 would have been a lot easier to spend in the former case.  But taking this approach means leaving the Hugos to those who want to destroy them (or, in the best case, those who are blissfully unaware of this fracas and may hand Vox Day and his ilk a Hugo simply because they've chosen the best of a raft of bad options).  Especially given how likely it is that the puppy campaigns and their GamerGate supporters will try to influence the winners as they did the nominees, I don't think we have the right to cede the field.

    3. No Award: place every Sad/Rabid Puppy nominee under No Award, even if it means choosing it as your first choice.  (Deirdre Saoirse Moen has a handy guide for how to do this.)  To be clear, trying to achieve this result will take some doing.  It will mean not only voting that way yourself, but publicizing the fact that you've done so and why.  No Award has only won a category once in the Hugo's history.  To achieve that result six times in a single year will be no small matter.

  • Having read the above, it probably won't surprise you that I've chosen door number three (except for the Best Dramatic Presentation categories, where I honestly don't see the point).  When I stated this on twitter last night I got the predictable whining about how I was being unfair and not judging works according to their quality.  I think that my response at the time probably says all that needs to be said on this issue:

  • Some people have been making the point that people who were on the Sad and Rabid Puppy ballots may not have been informed of that fact, and their permission not solicited.  Despite Torgesen's claims to the contrary, this does appear to be the case.  Some nominees, having been informed of how they got their nominations, declined to accept them.  Others, obviously, did not.  Some are only now realizing what the score is.  I feel sorry for nominees who were overjoyed to receive what they thought was genuine recognition only to realize that they've been embroiled in a political fight not of their making.  I feel less sorry for those whose response to that situation has been to pretend that they are not being used as a shield by bigots and hate groups.  Nevertheless, I stand by my decision that all Puppy selections, willing or unwilling, should go below No Award.  It's the only way to register my disgust at this behavior, and, if it causes people to be extra-cautious about associating themselves with Vox Day and his ilk next year, then all the better.

  • One extra point in favor of becoming a supporting member of Sasquan in spite of the horrible Hugo ballot: supporting members are eligible to vote for site selection, even if they aren't on-site for the convention.  This year the convention will be voting on the location of the 2017 Worlcon, and if, like myself, you're very eager to see the Helsinki bid win, it might be worth your money just for that.  There are more details about how to vote here, and the exact process will be clearer once Sasquan opens the site selection ballot.

  • And speaking of next year, what of it, and the future of the Hugos in general?  I've been seeing a lot of people assuming that the Rabid Puppies' success will result in a counter-slate by their ideological opponents, and that the Hugos will devolve into pure bloc voting.  What I haven't seen is anyone standing up to produce such a slate, and I don't think that I will.  People who vote out of a genuine love for the award and the field will inevitably be a lot harder to corral than those who vote out of hate and resentment.  I think that next year those of us who care about the Hugos will do exactly what we did last year--produce dozens of lists of interesting, diverse work for people to consider and hopefully nominate.  But what does that mean for the future of the award?  The way I see it, only two things can happen: either Vox Day and GamerGate stop what they're doing and let the Hugos go back to being what they were, or the award will die.  Once again, the Hugo-voting Worldcon membership is neither passive nor stupid.  They will notice if the award becomes the fiefdom of a bunch of politically-motivated bloc voters, and they will stop taking it seriously.  This is what happened to the Nebula award ten years ago: once it became clear that the award's shortlist had no bearing on anything except who was better at logrolling, the award quickly became a joke.  The SFWA had to work hard to rehabilitate it, and it still doesn't have anywhere near the cachet it did in the early 00s.  I don't say this because I have a solution, or because I believe a hate group like GamerGate cares that the only possible outcome of its actions will be to burn the Hugos down, but because I honestly don't see another possible outcome.

  • That said, it is worth remembering that the Hugos aren't the only award out there.  Alongside their nominations, yesterday also saw the announcement of the winners of the James Tiptree Jr. Award and the Philip K. Dick Award, both of which delivered interesting winners and honors lists.  We should be seeing the Clarke shortlist soon enough, and the list of submitted novels certainly suggests some intriguing possibilities.  I have my (loudly-stated) problems with the Locus Award, but if you're looking for an alternative to the Hugos that is still a popular vote award, you could certainly do worse.  2014 was a fantastic year for genre writing.  It's a shame that the Hugos aren't going to acknowledge that, but that doesn't meant no one else has.

  • Some interesting links on this issue: I like Nicholas Whyte and Andrew Hickey's takes on the situation.  Jason Sanford looks at how well the nominated novels have sold to see if the Puppy selections truly represent the "real" genre (spoiler: they do not).  Stats-maven Niall Harrison has got an analysis of the number of votes needed to get on each of the ballots this year and last, which suggests some interesting conclusions.

  • I will have some more to say about the Best Fan Writer ballot later in the week.