How big is the doghouse?

So, Kate Paulk has been tapped as the standard-bearer of next year’s Sad Puppies campaign. She has declared that next year’s Hugo ballot-stuffing initiative will be done in a transparent and democratic manner. This does not fill one with confidence, since Brad Torgersen has made the same claims about this year’s ballot-stuffing initiative.

It also needs to be pointed out that it hardly matters who leads the Sad Puppies campaign or what they do or how they do it, as this year’s otherwise failed campaign only managed to achieve accidental relevance through the fact that the successful Rabid Puppies campaign largely copied and pasted their agenda.

With all that in mind, I have to say that I’m interested in Kate Paulk’s post about what she considers to be Hugo-worthy work only as an academic matter. If the list she assembles using it winds up being the ballot, it will likely be only because someone truly nasty as well as small-minded got behind her and started shoving, as happened this year.

But relevant or not, her list is interesting. Others have already noted that rather than being markers of excellence, her criteria seem to be more a sort of bare bones minimum quality. She even acknowledges in effect that if a book is excellent enough to pull it off, she’s prepared to be flexible.

So how do you take the entire field of science fiction short stories or novels, apply a filter this broad, and then wind up a list of five nominees? We could assume that she just intends to pick her favorites or, if she makes better on her claims to a democratic process, let the crowd pick its favorites… but she says in the same post that she judges quality separately from the question of whether she likes something, which suggests that she really does see this as a rubric for picking the nominees/winners.

All of which makes me wonder if once again we’re not looking at a failure to grasp the scale of things, the scope of the field.

Sad Puppies got started because Larry Correia conceptualized being nominated for a John W. Campbell new author award as a snub (he didn’t win) rather than a rare honor; this speaks to a sense of entitlement, but it also a kind of parochialism.

Surely he was intellectually aware that there were more new authors in the year than the ones on the ballot with him… but emotionally? Perhaps he felt that as a new author, the nomination was simply his due. Perhaps he cannot conceive of just how much competition he beat out to get there, first in having a novel published in the right year and then in having it noticed, and then making it onto the ballot.

The Sad Puppy campaigns seem to have been based around the idea that the SF/F writing world is a very small place, consisting of basically two groups of people: the authors Larry Correia, Brad Torgersen, Sarah Hoyt, et al, know and like, and the ones they don’t care for but keep unaccountably hearing about anyway. In the moments when they seem to believe their own press, they actually seem to think that the Hugo ballot has room enough for everybody… at least everybody who is not a “CHORF” or “SJW” or “affirmative action writer”. This tells you right off the bat how small their conception of “everybody” is.

So I think this is what we must takeaway when we note that Kate Paulk’s criteria could never be used to winnow down a broad field: it’s not meant to apply to such a field. It’s not meant to come near to such a field. This is a list of criteria meant to be applied in the following fashion: start with the tiny handful of works you’re prepared to accept are Hugo-worthy, then nod approvingly.

Rabid Puppies Review Books: HAROLD AND THE PURPLE CRAYON


Reviewed By Special Guest Reviewer Theophilus Pratt
(Publisher — Hymenaeus House)

This instructive tale tells of a young man who all by himself creates a road which he then travels down, makes a mountain which he climbs, then saves himself from falling by conjuring a balloon which he hangs onto until he can bring into being a basket capable of supporting himself. His boundless creativity allows him to shape a whole civilization of buildings until, amusingly, he re-creates the very house he started out from and sleeps the sleep of the just, knowing that everything he has in life was fashioned by his own hand.

Amusingly, this book was sold to me as a work of fantasy when it is in fact the most realistic work of fiction I have ever encountered. If anything, it was too realistic to be fiction, a fact I found very amusing. Flipping through its pages proved to be instructive, as I began to see it was nothing more than a thinly veiled if amusing allegory for my own inimitable life.

Did I not provide myself with the only light I ever needed to walk by, as Harold did? Have I not always made my own road, and even left it when even it proved too stifling to my boundless intellect? Has not my dizzying intellectual magnitude taken me to the height of peaks so high that even I cannot long find purchase upon them? And when I fall, whom do I rely upon to prop myself up except myself?

If I am found to be apparently sinking into a morass of intellectual quagmire as Harold found himself floundering in a sea, you can bet that it is of my own devising and for my own purposes, and I will just as quickly pull myself out when the time is right for me to strike.

Like Harold, I am a master of fourth generational warfare honed over long epochs of electronic correspondence and nights spent around the table with my beloved custom Warhammer miniatures. Like Harold, I move in dimensions that the limited minds of the hated lying SJWs cannot fathom, though it is both amusing and instructive to watch them struggle to do so.

But as I raced back and forth through the text, admiring “Harold” and his facility with his purple poison pen, I began to wonder how this book came to be. Who could have written a book that so perfectly captures every aspect of my life in its instructive allegory? There is only one man I know who has paid such attention to my doings: that arch SJW, Johnny Con himself.

Yes, this book is clearly the handiwork of John Scalzi.

I ask you, does the man’s obsession with me know no bounds? It is as amusing as it is instructive to see what depths—or rather heights—his fascination now leads him to. Under the transparent pseudonym of “Crockett Johnson” (do I even need to begin to dissect the painfully obvious allusion?), Scalzi has published a whole series of thinly veiled paeans to the civilizing influence of my plus three standard deviation intellect and supreme force of creative will.

And is it so surprising? As amusing as it is that Scalzi plays up his apparent hatred of me, it has always been apparent to anyone with the wit to see that the root of his obsession lies in jealousy, and are we jealous of what we loathe or are we jealous of that which we admire? Here we see Scalzi’s grudging admiration of me bearing fruit in a most instructive if amusing fashion.

Well, rest assured, Johnny: your efforts have not gone unnoticed. I have added this rather instructive book to the copious other evidence I have compiled in my extensive files on your obsession with me. Most amusing!


Things I learned at WisCon39…

…About Tales of MU

First of all, there was a conversation I kept having around the subject of Tales of MU, involving people who were either lapsed readers or current readers who were far behind. Someone would ask me how often I update it, and I would say, apologetically, that I try for more, but just lately it’s been one a week most weeks.

And the response would be something like, “Oh, good, maybe I’ll start reading/catch up.”

I’ve always seen frequent updates as a key to maintaining an audience and also making sure I’m giving sufficient value for my readers’ money, but after the third time I had a conversation like that, I started to wonder if my sense of “frequency” isn’t calibrated a little high. I am an unusually fast reader, after all.

I’ve been thinking about the value I give my readers, but I hadn’t given much (or any) thought to the time investment being a reader requires of them. Maybe having 6,000-9,000 words of new story a week is too high an “engagement cost” to most readers, compared to 2,000-3,000.

So, as an experiment, I’m going to be dialing it back to once a week, intentionally. I know I’ve done this before, but always for internal reasons. Here I’m going to have a mixture of internal and external. The current book is already intended to be a good jumping-on point for new readers, so I’ll also point it out to former readers looking to ease back in without having to archive binge first if that’s not their thing. We’ll continue onward at the relatively gentle pace of one chapter a week… though not this week. My travel misadventure plus (ongoing) sickness has not given me much in the way of creative time or energy.

Second, it’s striking how frequently readers I meet in person mention how hot/well done the sex scenes are. This is something I have a great deal of insecurity/uncertainty about. The idea of writing straight out erotica with the MU characters/in the MU world (as in stand-alone shorts that don’t need to be understood in the context of the larger story) is one that is evergreen, but one that I’ve never quite been able to pull off… but I feel like there could be interest (and thus money) there.

Third, even people who have drifted away from or outgrown the series appreciate it. Multiple individuals told me words to the effect that the story was there for them when they needed it or taught them something that they needed to know. That’s a good feeling.

…About Myself

First, I am much better at moderating panels than I am at moderating forums or comments sections. I was assigned to moderate one of the panels that I was on, which gave me some concern as I’ve never counted moderation as being within my skillset. It actually went fairly smoothly, with some understandable first time hiccups that didn’t seem as noticeable to anyone who talked to me about it afterwards, and next year I intend to actually put myself forward as a moderator.

Second, I am getting much better at recognizing people. Frankly, I think this is partially down to going to WisCon every year, but I think Tumblr deserves a little bit of the credit.

…About Life

My first panel of the weekend was on the subject of managing canon, how much one cares about maintaining strict continuity. I may make a blog post summing up my feelings on this later, if I still feel like doing it when I have a more orderly brain, but one thing that came up in the panel that was sort of a theme for me for the rest of the con was the idea that we are not the same people who wrote our first books/earlier works.

And this helped slot some things into place that I’ve been trying to get a handle on in my personal life, where I spent about five years trying to live my life in a holding pattern and have been having a hard time shifting out of that. I think the major problem there is that I can’t go back to who I was in 2009 and hit resume, which is what I’ve been trying to do.

…About WisCon

As (WisCon 39 Co-Chair) Mikki Kendall has noted, the situation was never quite as dire as the mythmaking has made it out to be. WisCon 39 was always going to happen as long as enough people were willing to make it happen. Of course, “enough people” is a slippery concept… we really need to better distribute the load for next year.

While many people are understandably disappointed in some of the decisions that were made during the transition between the old guard and the new, the quiet efficiency with which certain problems were handled this year speaks to a more pro-active and nimble approach to things that I think will make for a safer and more pleasant convention all around. Many people I spoke to noted a change in the atmosphere that was hard to define, but welcome.

I don’t know. I left very hopeful for the future of WisCon. I didn’t do as much to support WisCon 39 as I’d wanted to, partially because my life was bumpy in unexpected ways but also partially because I think I misjudged where I could most easily make the largest contributions. Knowing better where my skills are needed is going to let me contribute much more to WisCon 40.

Hello, WisCon people!

Meeting people at WisCon is always interesting. There are people I know or have seen around online for years but only see in person every year or less. Prosopagnosia (face blindness) means that it doesn’t always penetrate when I have met someone before. Each year there’s a few people I have the mildly embarrassing experience of not quite remembering, but at least the WisCon crowd is pretty forgiving about that kind of thing.

This year was a little more interesting because I made a splash with something (my Sad Puppy Book Reviews) in the weeks immediately before the con, so it seemed like there were a lot more people who knew my name or had a touchstone for my work.

The main purpose of this message is to address the people who are looking me up after getting home. I had meant to put up something like this a lot sooner after the con, but… travel woes, then sickness.

First, let me say that if you just found about me and you want to know what else I do besides Puppy parodies and WisCon panels, I’ll direct you to my about page, which has some links to quite a bit of my work that’s available for free. The sidebar of this blog also has stuff you can buy. If you want to keep up with everything I do while also giving some support, I recommend my Patreon page.

Next, since you’re here, I should mention the benefit anthology Angels of the Meanwhile, which contains works by many notable past and present members of the WisCon community. This project exists to benefit Elizabeth R. McClellan (aka @popelizbet), who is both the main reason I’m still writing and the only reason I started going to WisCon.

She suffered a serious injury in the course of avoiding an auto accident earlier this year, and the expenses and complications from that have spiraled. I have put together a collection of donated poetry and prose, some brand new and some previously published, from writers who are close to her or connected to a community she belongs to.

The only way to get this multiformat, DRM-free e-book, is to pre-order now by sending Lizbet a PayPal contribution in any amount you deem fair. All proceeds go directly to her, helping her out in a time of need.

And she does need help.


The initial response was good, and the caliber of talent involved is great, but… we really need more attention for this project in the next few days, and more pre-orders. I can’t help feeling like I am failing my dear firend here. Despite being successfully self-published, I’m actually not that great a promoter or networker. I’m shy, I don’t like to make waves or feel like I’m annoying people.

So please, check out Angels‘ amazing Table of Contents, make a contribution of any amount, share the link, and encourage others to do the same. We need more eyes on it.

I’ve got a lot of cool stuff coming up in the relatively near future, though an exact timeline is going to depend a bit on my health, so I’m not going to go into specifics just yet. For the next few days at least, this blog will probably be full of WisCon recaps/reflections/post-mortems.

The Puppies come so close to getting it, so often.

While reading the linked articles on Mike Glyer’s daily round-up of Puppy and Puppy-adjacent posts, I stumbled across a post by Dave Freer from February called “To Serve One Master — The Reader“.

The major thrust of the blog post is the idea that however an author intends a work to be received is secondary to how readers receive it, which… okay. This is something that it’s taken me a long time to accept as an author, but I have to say that I am in general agreement with it.

The thing is, it’s weird to see a self-professed Puppy saying this. After all, these are the same people who, whenever someone starts talking about the racist or sexist content of a work, respond with “BUT THAT’S NOT WHAT THE AUTHOR MEANT! YOU CAN’T KNOW WHAT’S IN THEIR HEARTS AND MINDS! YOU’RE JUST READING INTO THINGS!”

Of course, predictably, to the author of this blog post, “the reader” (also referred to as “the customer”) is a monolithic if not singular entity. “The reader” has a single set of tastes, which all authors are obliged to satisfy.

According to Dave Freer, its the people who remember what one commenter calls the “SHAZAAM!” factor of Star Trek who are Star Trek’s customers, not the people who appreciate the utopian social messages and the hope for the future, or the clever dialogue and rich characterization and interpersonal relationships, or any other aspect of the show.

According to Dave Freer, when people go to a movie that features a rich fictional culture and also laser battles, it’s the people who remember the laser battles (and only those people) that are the customers who deserve to be catered to.

Freer uses the piece to berate authors who don’t write for “the reader”/”the customer”, explicitly meaning consumers who want the sorts of things Dave Freer thinks consumers should want.

He advises writers:

Of course you can just hope they like your stuff. Or you can try and write what they want. Maybe slant it a bit in the direction that you want to communicate about. Of course if that slant fails to gain traction and overwhelms what they did want… you’ve lost. And, if they’re not a captive audience, they’ll find something they do like. … It’s really important to find out what customers want, and give it to them.

So a writer’s job is to figure out exactly what readers want to read and then give it to them? Yet when readers say they want more diverse books, or they want to read books with characters they can identify with, or they want to read books that don’t use real-life sources of trauma as set decoration, that’s “political correctness run wild” or “SJW thought police” or whatever buzzwords the Sad Puppies and their ilk want to string together today.

Why? Because the people who want to read those things aren’t readers. Only the people whose tastes and preferences are Dave Freer-approved are readers. To the Sad Puppies, an author’s job is to please the Dave Freers and William Lehmans of the world, not the K. Tempest Bradfords and David Gerrolds.

It’s really striking how often the Sad Puppies claim that “the other side” is all about dictating who is and isn’t “True Fans”, given how much of their rhetoric revolves around this kind of thing. It’s also striking how much this ideology overlaps with Gamergate.

Freer repeats a common Sad Puppy talking point, that SF/F is in some kind of death spiral because so many authors refuse to cater to “the reader”. This notion—insofar as it is based on anything—is based on the fact that in a diverse field where authors are free to write whatever they want that appeals to any audience (not just Dave Freer’s idealized concept of “the reader”), a market that would otherwise belong wholly to the lowest common denominators is instead spread out among more works.

The Puppies see this as a terrifying prospect, the end of the genre as we know it. Puppy standard-bearer Brad Torgersen, in his now-infamous “Nutty Nuggets” post (which might as well be subtitled “WHY CAN’T I JUDGE BOOKS BY THEIR COVER?”), lamented a future where SF/F is everywhere: SF/F romances, SF/F mysteries, et cetera.

I don’t know what the problem with that is.

Science fiction everywhere?

I call that winning.

It might be—I’m not in a position to know, but it might be—that the “fracturing” of the field in terms of more diverse voices writing for more diverse audiences is making it harder for the big publishing houses to churn out big blockbusters. I don’t know. But as an independent author, I don’t see much percentage in measuring the health of the genre by the performance of the biggest players only. I’d rather measure the field’s growth in terms of how many people are reading and writing science fiction vs. how many copies the most popular books sell.

STATUS: Thursday, May 28th

The State of the Me

Late yesterday, I began to exhibit symptoms of having picked up a case of the creeping con crud. This is the first time in a couple of years I have succumbed to such. The “good news” in all this is that since we were all sick here so shortly before the con, we already have some supplies on hand. The bad news is that I’m already in worse shape than I was during my previous bout, when I was hit less hard than anyone else in our family circle… and even that was enough to knock me on my back for a while.

The Daily Report

I went ahead and did a Sad Puppy Book Review this morning. I’m not sure it’ll be anybody’s favorite unless they’re familiar with the specific bit of Puppy-based criticism it’s parodying, but meh. It was necessary to get my hand back in after more than a week away from it. A short review that mostly spins off one particular line of criticism is about all I can manage right now, to be honest.

Plans For Today

I’m basically up and about right now so I can make sure that I eat actual food and drink something. After I’m done with lunch, I’m going to go lay back down. I might try to do some writing from bed later on.

Sad Puppies Review Books: GOODNIGHT MOON

goodnight moonGOODNIGHT MOON

Reviewed by John Z. Upjohn, USMC (aspired)

I suppose this book is supposed to be clever in that literary way that SJWs are so fond of, but I found it to be a confusing and unholy mess. It was very hard to follow. The prose was far too clunky and the signaling was all wrong. Good stories use signaling to tell you what kind of story they are, so you will know how the story goes and not be thrown out of it when something happens that you do not expect.

If a story opens in a tavern, you know somebody is going to go off on a sword-swinging fantasy adventure. If a story opens in a detective’s office, you know that a dame is going to walk in and she is going to be trouble. These stories are good stories.

The initial worldbuilding signals in Goodnight Moon were all for a story set backstage at a televised talk show. Right away in the first sentence we are told that it takes place in a green room, in “the great green room” so you know it’s not just a talk show but a good one. Then there’s a telephone, which is very sensible. The SJWs would never let me be on a talk show because they suppress my message at every turn, but I could believe there would be a telephone in the green room.

The next sentence is where they start to lose me. A red balloon? What does that have to do with being backstage at a television show? I had to go back to re-read the opening of the story a few times to make sure I had read it correctly, which is never a good sign. It turns out I had read it right after all, which meant the book was wrong. The red balloon was an unimportant and doubtlessly incorrect detail that could be ignored.

The next line breaks across the page, which just seems like bad editing to me especially since there was a picture on the facing page so you have to skip a whole page to find out how it ends. The picture included a young rabbit in bed staring at me in what I will characterize as an uncomfortable fashion. Between that and the unfinished sentence, I was in no hurry to study it further.

The next couple of pages simply describe the artwork on the walls of the green room. I began to form a picture of the main character, sitting idly in the waiting room of a talk show, waiting for his turn to be called out and interviewed by the host. What does he do? He looks around at the art that has been hung on the walls. The art is good, simple art. It shows cows and bears, not abstract concepts and feelings. This is going to be a conservative talk show, I decided. You can just tell.

Sadly this early promise is one the book promptly breaks, as the following pages reveal that the nonsensical addition of the red balloon was not a one-off mistake. The objects introduced include toy houses and mittens and random bowls full of mush, things I feel confident in saying would not be found in a green room.

About halfway through there is a major shift in tone. Before this the book had been concerned with introducing elements to set the stage. Right when I was sure the author must be done with all this world-building and build up, though, the book simply starts over, going back through the list of objects and saying goodnight to each of them.

Young writers, take note: this is not something you should do. The opening lines of your book forms a contract with your readers which you must not break. If you are clearly signaling in the first four pages that you are going to give them a story set around a conservative talk show, do not give them a mere bedtime story. This was so confusing I had to read back through the book several times to make sure I understood what had happened.

The mark of a good book in any genre is that you should be able to read it once, be satisfied that it did exactly what was promised, and then never read it again. You should almost not need to read it the first time. From the opening lines of Goodnight Moon I knew it was going to be about a man backstage at a conservative talk show, as surely as I know when I meet a liberal that he will start quoting Saul Alinksy chapter and verse at me.

This book was not up to the high standards I associate with storytime.

Two stars.

The State of the Me: The Post WisCon Post

Well, WisCon this year was excellent. I intend to write about specific aspects of it more fully in the near future, but this post is more about how I’m doing right now. As my Facebook friends and a couple of people I saw at the Madison airport already know, my homeward travels were anything but smooth.

I was actually pretty pleased with our itinerary. We were taking off at 6, which meant we didn’t have to go barreling out of the hotel and had a direct flight that would get us on the ground by nine, meaning that even with the commute back home to Hagestown we’d be there before midnight with very little in the way of either fuss or muss.

The long version’s not really worth recounting in full here. The short version is that our flight was delayed repeatedly and then canceled, and our choices were to stay overnight somewhere and try again tomorrow, or accept a non-direct flight with a tight connection through another airline that would have us on the ground close to 1 in the morning. Neither choice was ideal, but the first one wasn’t even workable.

We got in the door around 3:30 in the morning, after what had ended up being a longer, more stressful, and more physically demanding day than any of us had banked on.

Based on previous experience, I had planned on today mostly being recovery and reflection, but it’s wound up being more recovery than reflection. There may be more blog posts coming up today, and there may not be. Anything more “worky” is going to have to wait until tomorrow.


Of Dinosaurs, Legos, and Impossible Hypotheticals

A Super Serious Meditation on the Nature of Speculative Fiction

One of the squawking points that the Puppy campaigners keep returning to in their quest to prove the existence of a shadowy Social Justice Warrior cabal that at some point took over and subverted the Hugo awards (thus necessitating that they ride in as liberators) is the 2014 nomination of “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love“, a quirky yet haunting and deeply emotive short story by Rachel Swirsky.

The Puppies, who only understand that tastes are subjective when it’s convenient for them, take it for granted that this story is so awful the only possible reason it could have been nominated was that the SJW clique was rewarding it for pushing the “proper” message.

I’ve never yet had a Puppy who was able to explain, when asked, exactly what the message was. Dinosaurs are more awesome and less frail than humans? Five men should not gang up on one person and savagely beat them with pool cues for being different? What’s the controversial hidden meaning of this story, exactly?

It’s worth noting that the Hugo voting community was and remains pretty sharply divided about this, and it did not win. So one must wonder what all the fuss is about, even if the story does not seem Hugo-worthy. Of course, some people might say that if it’s an honor just to be nominated, then it’s worth asking if the honor was earned… but the Puppies’ individual grievances suggest that they don’t see nomination as an honor. Both Torgersen and Correia’s Campbell nominations have been treated essentially as pledges that were not fulfilled, for instance, and Torgersen acts as though Mike Resnick’s nomination was an unforgivable snub.

But I don’t wish to focus too much on the Puppies’ problems with this story, because there are complaints against it that go beyond their borders. As I said, the community has been divided about its merits, if not as a work in general than as a speculative fiction story in particular. The common criticism amounts to the idea that it is neither a story nor SF/F.

My John Z. Upjohn’s review of If You Give A Mouse A Cookie actually plays on the logic of this: that since the whole story is inflected in the conditional case, nothing really happens within it. The narrator is not telling us what happened when the person referred to in the title was a dinosaur, but merely relating what might have happened if they were a dinosaur. So while the story is full of science fiction-y concepts (though it explicitly paints them as magical and thus fantasy, but more on that later), it’s not actually a specfic story—the reasoning goes—because none of that stuff actually happens.

As it happens, I can’t agree with this logic. I just can’t. “A text in which the narrator explains what would happen if something impossible according to our current understanding of the world happened” is a pretty decent definition of a speculative story to me. In fact, I’m not sure how it could be improved upon. If Rachel Swirsky had written an alternate version of the story that simply straight-out related the events being described as hypothetical in the extant version, they would be no less hypothetical and no more real, would they?

Speculative fiction consists of speculation; that is tautology. It answers the question “What might happen if this other, currently impossible thing happened?”

Swirsky’s story does a number of things worthy of discussion. Making the question explicit, making the speculative nature of speculative fiction part of the text rather than the subtext is simply one of them. If there’s any doubt that this skillful play on convention is not deliberate and informed, it should be laid to rest by the line which follows another impossible hypothetical introduced into the text, the line that reads:

all those people who—deceived by the helix-and-fossil trappings of cloned dinosaurs– believed that they lived in a science fictional world when really they lived in a world of magic where anything was possible.

In this line, Swirsky is commenting on the porousness of the boundaries we try to draw when it comes to speculative fiction. This is science fiction, that is fantasy; this has lasers and star ships, that has swords and sorcery. But even without getting into Arthur C. Clarke’s apt but perhaps overworked adage about sufficiently advanced science… the divide really isn’t as clear as all that.

So much science fiction never bothers to address the why or how of its hypotheticals, because the question the author wants to address isn’t (for instance) “How can we make autonomous intelligent beings to serve us?” but “What happens when we do?” Isaac Asimov’s “positronic brains” weren’t a prediction; he grabbed the most scienterrific buzzword available to him at the time and used it to explain the leap necessary to answer the question of “If We Were Robot-Makers, My Fellow Humans”.

So much of the annals of science fiction require us to imagine not just a new technological breakthrough but a specific breakthrough in our understanding of the physical laws of the universe, some principle hidden to actual real-world modern humans, which when mastered allows us to do things that seem like magic.

Similarly, there are certainly stories with fantasy trappings that dress them up with what Swirsky refers to as the “trappings” of science fiction: magic may be explained away by the wise as simply “subconscious psionic talents focused through the use of repetitive motions and chants”. Actually, I haven’t read all that much that takes that particular route, but it apparently is or was once a common enough meme that I’ve encountered readers who just assume that all well-written magic must be this, and are shocked at the idea that it might not be the author’s intent.

The point I am making here is that you can interpret nearly all of science fiction as fantasy and nearly all of fantasy as science fiction, which might be why we get so hung up on the “trappings”, on the limbs and outer flourishes. This story is science fiction because it has atomic blaster rays, or cyberspace, or nanites, according to your epoch. That story is fantasy because it has elves and dwarves and dragons. Sometimes we focus on the feel when drawing the dividing line. Even a grim and gritty science fiction story is not grim and gritty in quite the same way as a grim and gritty fantasy story, though exploring why would probably take a whole separate blog post.

This porous divide is not the major theme or focus of Rachel Swirsky’s work, and I’m not suggesting that it is only in her acknowledgment of it that the work achieves relevance or eligibility as a speculative fiction story. If talking about the nature of science fiction and fantasy made a work science fiction or fantasy, this blog post would count as speculative fiction. My point here is that there is a lot more going on in this brief piece than a “mere” chasing down of impossible hypotheticals.

But that “mere” is used advisedly, because that’s “merely” what science fiction and fantasy are.

There’s another work nominated this year that has stirred similar questions in a more limited way, perhaps more limited because the Dramatic Presentation categories are seen as less serious and crucial in a literary award than the literary categories, and perhaps because as a Sad Puppy pick it is taken less seriously to begin with.

The work in question is The Lego Movie, which contains a couple of scenes near the end that make explicit the implicit framing device for a movie about Lego characters in a world made out of Lego blocks: it’s all a child, playing with toys. It is this moment, in my opinion, that elevates The Lego Movie from merely being charming and fun to actually pretty sublimely brilliant. It explained so many of the odd quirks of characterization and storytelling earlier in the film.

I mean, it changed the movie’s version of Batman from “weirdly out of character, but okay, it’s funny” to “…that’s freaking brilliant” because it wasn’t Batman as adult comic book fans understand him but Batman seen through the eyes of a child, with way more focus on the cool factor of everything and of course he has the coolest girlfriend and of course even the grimdark angst seems kind of fun…

But that’s just one representative example. Taken as a whole, the movie reminded me of the way my brothers and I used to play with our toys, not playing with this set of characters or that but throwing them all together in an expansive world, some with the figures “playing themselves” and others being creatively repurposed.

We had one figure of a female character with green hair in a red body suit. I believe it was a Robotech character, but she often stood in for Samus Aran because we didn’t have a Samus action figure available to us, but if you unlocked the armor-less playthrough and had the Varia, Samus had green hair and a red body suit. These are the kinds of creative compromises a child’s imagination makes on the fly, and The Lego Movie nailed that.

Here’s the rub, though: a movie that is about imagination and how children play with toys isn’t speculative fiction in any meaningful sense, is it? The story that the little boy is creating for himself is both science fiction and fantasy, but the story about the little boy creating that story through play is rooted firmly in the real world, right? Anybody could do that.

Except during those scenes in the “real world”, the main character maintains his consciousness and a small amount of ability to move independently of the child. There’s no narrator relating this to us. The child is not aware it’s happening. The Lego Movie thus is a fantasy movie, because it contains this element of the unvarnished fantastical.

But look at what a whiplash, razor-thin calculation this is: if we had a cut of the movie that removed the main character’s internal monologue from the scenes taking place in the basement and replaced the character’s independent movement with being accidentally swept to the floor or something similar, the movie wouldn’t be fantasy anymore, yet if we removed those scenes entirely, it would be fantasy again?

I’m sorry, but I don’t buy it.

It’s far less ridiculous to simply declare that The Lego Movie is a fantasy movie than it is to say that it all hinges on the explicitness or lack thereof of a framing device.

To use some other examples:

The Wizard of Oz is a fantasy movie because the story we’re told from the moment that Dorothy is knocked out until the moment she regains consciousness is a fantasy movie; nobody went to the theater to see the amazing adventures of a young woman’s misfiring neurons, but her magical adventures in a land of wonder.

Big Fish is a fantasy movie because it contains a fantasy story; that this fantasy story is intertwined with a family drama makes it no less fantastical. The family drama keeps us grounded and invested, but no one went into that movie thinking, “Gee, I really hope that Billy Crudup reconciles with Albert Finney before he dies.” People might have thought that—or felt it, rather than explicitly having those words pass through their heads—while sitting there watching it, but that’s not why they showed up for it.

How about Edward Scissorhands? If you casually think about that movie, you might not even realize it has an explicit framing device. But the movie is explicitly a story we are being told, which means that any or all of the more impossible, unlikely, and phantasmagorical elements of the story might be imagined or exaggerated or just plain fabricated. The whole thing could be another “Big Fish” story.

Then there’s The Princess Bride. The heartwarming story of Columbo bonding with Wonder Years over a beloved classic story is important, sure. It adds an inflection to the other story, the story that he tells.

But when you get right down to it, what’s the difference between a fantasy story the movie tells to you directly and one the movie tells by means of addressing it to a character within the movie? Not much, by my reckoning. I’m not saying it’s not an important creative decision. The Princess Bride, The Lego Movie, and Big Fish would all be very different movies without their explicit frames. It’s hard to imagine them not being worse movies.

But every movie—every story—has at least an implicit frame. Even if a text is written in third person omniscient style with the least discursive and obtrusive voice possible, we are still being told this happened and that happened and he thought this and she said that and they did this thing. Convention dictates that an invisible narrator presented without appreciable personality or agenda should be fairly reliable, but what does “reliable” mean when we’re told the story of a thing that never happened and never could?

The lover of the narrator in Rachel Swirsky’s story never was a dinosaur, yes! And Han Solo never flew the Millennium Falcon. Captain Janeway never tricked the Borg Queen and returned to the Alpha Quadrant. Link never reunited the Triforce. These things are all both fictional and also impossible.

If you subscribe to the more SFnal-friendly versions of the multiverse theory (or to borrow the trappings of the other genre, the “all stories are true” theory of The Sandman), then of course these things did happen, somewhere, somewhen, somehow.

There is a world where Han Solo exists. In fact, there are infinite numbers of worlds in which he existed, which means that not only are there worlds in which he didn’t shoot first, there are worlds in which a trusting and slow Han Solo was shot dead by a cagey Greedo, and there are worlds in which Han Solo never owed money to Jabba because he was a vapor farmer instead of a spice smuggler.

So even allowing that there is a “real” world of Star Wars somewhere out there doesn’t let us say with any certainty or authority that any cut of a Star Wars movie or any particular of its expanded universe is “what really happened”.

All that we have in any SF/F story is the story, not the story of what really happened, just the story, or maybe more accurately, a story.

If we can imagine that any SF/F story we tell each other might be happening somewhere, we can imagine the same is true that any such story told within any story we’re telling each other.

The Great Speculative Fiction Multiverse not only demands we imagine that there actually a world where a little boy played out his frustration with his too restrictive dad using the world’s most amazing Lego set, it demands we imagine a world where conscious and autonomous Lego figures lived out that story. This demand does not change when we tell these two stories in proximity to each other, does it?

The distinction between “speculative fiction” and “not speculative fiction” is important, sure, but at the end of the day I’d say that the nature of the boundary is more something interesting to explore than necessary to pin down.

And I don’t need to know exactly where the dividing line between “fantasy” and “non-fantasy” lies to know that a story in which the narrator explains what might happen if a human being could magically transform into a human-sized T-rex is a fantasy story.

Angels of the Meanwhile goes to #WisCon39 (TEN DAYS LEFT)

angels of the meanwhile coverHey, folks! I’m Alexandra Erin, author of Tales of MU, Sad Puppies Review Books, and that blurry screenshot of a Tumblr post where Superman is singing to Batma that you saw on Facebook that one time.

Can I tell you a secret? I’m terrible at self-promotion. It’s my greatest weakness as an independent author. I’m lousy at networking, I just hate putting myself out there, I’m always worried that I’m making a nuisance of myself, that I’m annoying people, that what I’m doing is not good enough to call attention to…

Right now I’m at WisCon, and I’m doing my best to get over it because there are just ten days left to reserve your copies of Angels of the Meanwhile, an electronic chapbook of poetry and prose put together by caring friends to help Elizabeth R. McClellan (@popelizbet) with the unexpected medical expenses from the shoulder injury that has kept her from joining us.

I would not be here in Madison if she had not come first and then dragged me along with her the next year. I first met many of the people who have contributed their words to the collection here, too: people like the inimitable Amal El-Mohtar, the incomparable Saira Ali, and the unstoppable C.S.E. Cooney. Later today I’m going to be on a panel with the celebrated author and poet Ellen Kushner, who has also generously contributed a piece. Many of the other contributors are part of the larger WisCon community

The whole long list of authors and poets who have stepped up to contribute both new and previously published works is both astonishing and humbling. You can find the table of contents here, though there are also a few late additions I’m still slotting in. All the works listed there and more can be yours. How? Just make a payment in any amount you deem fair in the PayPal form below, and the money will go directly to Lizbet, helping her recoup out-of-pocket medical expenses, lost income, and other related losses from her shoulder injury.

Email Address (For Delivery)

When we’ve finished editing and formatting the final manuscript (projected for July), you’ll receive a package in your email containing the collection formatted for Kindle as well as Nook and other e-readers, and as a PDF. No e-reader? There are free apps for the e-book formats, and the PDF is readable on any computer or smart device.

We’re taking this pre-order route in order to give Lizbet the immediate financial relief she needs while still delivering a product equal to your gift and worthy of the talent that has been contributed to the cause.

Thank you for your help!