Category Archives: Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts

This is the miscellaneous category, covering whatever happens to be prancing about in my mind at the time.

The Problem With Standardized Tests: The Kobyashi Maru Theorem

This is going to be an education rant in the guise of a science fiction rant, or maybe a science fiction rant in the guise of an education rant – your choice, really. My day job is as an educator and one of my former education-related jobs was working for a test prep company, teaching students how to take the SAT. I have a lot of opinions about tests, not all of them bad, but I will say this: standardized tests, in order to function as designed, need completely unrealistic infrastructure and, for that reason, they should be universally abolished or completely changed.

By way of demonstrating what I’m talking about, let’s talk about that iconic science fiction test, the Kobyashi Maru of Starfleet Academy.

For those of you not in the know, the Kobyashi Maru is a bridge crew simulation that Starfleet runs for its cadets, placing them in an impossible, unwinnable situation for the purpose of seeing how the cadets will react under such pressures. On the surface, this is a wholly reasonable and even intelligently designed test, very much in the vein of what a standardized test aspires to be: a test that can be applied equally to everyone that will generate completely unbiased results that allow you to evaluate all students who take the test equally. It’s also the purest of test-design fiction – it literally cannot exist as displayed and actually work.

The reason for this is very simple: as soon as students learn how the test works (and they inevitably will, since students always talk to other students about tests), the test will cease to be an accurate measure of the cadet’s capabilities because they will know it’s a no-win scenario going in. This necessarily will change their behavior towards said test and will, therefore, throw off the results. So, sure, for the first few years (if we’re being generous) the Kobyashi Maru will be a perfectly reasonable test because no one will actually know it is no-win, but before long somebody will find out. Once they find out, it is in their interest that the test (1) not change and (2) they guide their friends in how to take the test. Furthermore, instructors – whose capabilities will likewise be judged by how their students perform on the test – will inevitably skew their instruction (even surreptitiously) to reflect the qualities the test aims for.

Before long, certainly long before the events of The Wrath of Khan, the test would be bracketed by

There is no way he is the ONLY person to do this.

all manner of pedagogical apparatuses that serve to help students perform well on the test, and that wouldn’t even count the cheaters, such as Kirk (who would doubtlessly be more numerous).

The solution, of course, is for Starfleet to change the test somehow, but even if they change that test, if it is designed to test the same thing (a no-win scenario), it will inevitably be vulnerable to the same kind of gaming as it was before. Test gamesters will just have to modulate their strategies somewhat, and the Academy will be right back where it started.

This is exactly the problem real world standardized testing faces. There is nothing inherently wrong with a standardized test. A standardized test is attempting to create an assessment tool that will tell you (with some degree of accuracy) the aptitude of any student in some specific set of skills, regardless of who they are or when they take the test. All SAT results, in other words, are supposed to be comparable with all other SAT results. This is a useful tool! Given that everyone comes from different school systems and are taught by different teachers and that, no matter how hard anyone tries, GPA is not and just cannot be a completely even or universally measurable kind of assessment (some people’s schools are easier/harder than others! Some schools “don’t believe” in GPA! Etc, etc.). Having some kind of universal yardstick by which to assess everybody is great!

But it can’t work! And here’s why:

1: It only works if nobody knows HOW it works

Here’s the thing: multiple choice standardized tests are a game. They are a game because they are (and sort of have to be) graded by machines and they have to assess all the exact same skills in the exact same proportions. Once you “solve” how the game works, the test becomes monumentally easier. Like the Kobyashi Maru, it is inevitable that people will figure out how the game works and, once they do that, they throw off all the results, since the results are designed to compare your performance against everyone else’s performance. So, unless you can keep the content of your test some kind of state secret (and good luck with that!), any given standardized test is only good for as long as it takes for the test takers to figure out the rules.

2: The people who know how it works will inevitably be the best connected/wealthiest people

Okay, fine – so suppose your test has been cracked by somebody. The damage, at least, would be somewhat mitigated if everyone had access to the tools needed to crack the test themselves. That’s never the case, though! The people who will be taught to crack the test will inevitable be the ones who can afford the tutors or who happen to have the connections or live in the kinds of privileged communities that get these kinds of advantages. This is NOT everyone, and this inequality automatically invalidates the test results, since some people are actually taking the test (the regular folks) and others are simply cracking the game behind the test (the test preppers). You can’t have an accurate standardized test that is testing two different cohorts of people in two different ways for two different things. Want to know something funny? The students that routinely did the worst on SAT math were almost always the best at math in all other environments. Why? They didn’t see the game. The best way to do well on SAT math is to do as little math as possible. Don’t believe me? Well, this lazy math student scored in the 95% percentile on SAT math by doing just that. And I did it several times over.

3: The test cannot be fundamentally changed without invalidating its own existence.

“Just change the test” sounds like a great plan, but if you fundamentally change how the test works, you automatically invalidate all the preceding test scores. In other words, if part of the purpose of a test like the SAT (or MCAS or TOEFL or LSAT or MCAT or whatever) is to produce scores that can be compared (and this is their purpose), then changing how the test works means your test has lost the very thing that makes it useful.

4: Testing warps instruction!

Because these tests are so important and because they are also so crackable, this means that teachers have a vested interest in teaching students to crack the test, knowing (as I point out in #2) that not all of their students will have the resources to crack it on their own. So, instead of actually learning things, they learn how to take a test. Pretty much everybody knows about this problem at this point – it’s cliche to even point it out – but it is also 100% true. Students that are taught to take tests have less knowledge, fewer skills, and impaired critical thinking when placed against previous generations who were not saddled with these things. I know this because I’ve been teaching at the collegiate level for 15 years and have watched both the amount of testing rise and the quality of incoming students drop simultaneously. Granted, that’s anecdotal – maybe I’m wrong (I hope I am!) – but I somewhat doubt it.

5: A perfect test doesn’t exist in the first place!

And all of this is just assuming the test is actually able to test the thing it claims it does! Sure, a well-designed standardized test might give us accurate picture of the average, neurotypical student, but this hardly covers everyone! Furthermore, I sort of doubt there’s any reliable way you could get a standardized test to apply equally to everybody – people, and how they think or approach test taking, are just too different.

So, if Starfleet Academy is still giving the Kobyashi Maru after however many years it takes for Kirk to go from being a cadet to being on the verge of retirement, it’s safe to assume that it is no longer performing the function it once did. It should be abolished and replaced with something new. Furthermore, we should reassess the need to compare students to other students in these kind of universal, simplistic ways. When looking to the future, we should try to imagine something more nuanced, more accurate, and fairer. You know, the sort of thing the Federation might cook up.

The Thin Skin of Worlds

Writing has been difficult of late. Stuck at home, the world aflame, so very many distractions. And yet I have much to do. Novel edits, for one thing. Story edits, for another. New stories desperate for revision, for creation. Many in new worlds, as yet fully formed.

It takes effort to remain inside a story. What I mean by inside is this: to write a strange world, you must inhabit that world. You have to take up its sights and sounds and smells and flavors as your own. You must push away the real and dwell wholly in the imaginary. No doubt there are authors – better, more disciplined authors than myself – who can sink into their world more easily than I can, but for me, it takes time. It takes silence and solitude and a mind relatively at peace. If my concentration slips, the whole world I’m building pops, like a bubble, and then where am I? In my office at home, with children downstairs needing attention, a democracy that is crumbling to ruin, a day job that is now wholly contained within my laptop and bleating for attention, regardless of the hour or day of the week. I’ve got a video game console right downstairs, I’ve books to read at my fingertips.

I remember a time this was easier, staying inside this bubble and living there. I remember daydreaming more often, letting my mind drift. I spend hours each day alone, on the train or in my office at work or in the silence of a lunch break by myself. COVID has blown all of that away. I have to re-adapt.

There is little more frustrating than wanting to write and being unable to do so. I’ve got a dark planet full of spiders and cities of spun silk that needs attention, but I just don’t have the time to find my way back there just now. Too much clamors for my attention; every bubble I blow bursts before I’ve time to find my reflection there.

I miss the calm of my former life. I miss the bustle that let the calm exist. Now, instead, there is just a dull roar – the gusting of a steady wind, blowing away dreams half-formed. Picture me, then, running down the road after them, trying to remember what they look like as they sail up and up, out of view.

The Coolness:Reality Ratio

It’s been two months since I posted here last. A lot’s been going on in my life, in the world, etc.. But I’m still around and for the first time in a while I have something I want to talk about.

Like a lot of people, I have been watching The Mandalorian. Unlike most of you, I’ve been…underwhelmed. Don’t get me wrong – I loved the first season! But this season has taken what I felt was something new and different in Star Wars and reduced to pretty much the same thing as all the other Star Wars stuff, and it’s just not for me.

I’m not here to complain about The Mandalorian, though. Trying not to rain on other people’s parades, etc, etc.. What watching this last season has shown me, though, is just how important audience buy-in is for something like Star Wars to work. And when I say “something like Star Wars,” I mean “tent-pole franchises that rely on an established fan base.” Because, let’s face it, if Star Wars didn’t have an established fanbase or a sizeable footprint in the scifi/fantasy zeitgeist, a lot of it just doesn’t stand up to even minor scrutiny.

It’s a truism at this point that Star Wars defiantly refuses to make sense at any point. Honestly, it doesn’t have to! Nobody cares that the Death Star makes no goddamned sense. The fact that there are no railings anywhere is a running joke, not an actual criticism. Stormtroopers are inexplicably punched in the helmet and for some reason this renders them unconscious and all people talk about is how cool the puncher is.

Why don’t they care? Well, because Star Wars as a franchise has already, somewhere along the line, done the work of earning the audience’s enthusiasm. For an awful lot of us, that enthusiasm was earned long, long ago when we were kids and our critical reasoning was less robust. For others of us, we stumbled across those scattered gemstones in the Star Wars canon that are honestly, legitimately good stories. And once we’re in, it can hold onto us for a goddamned LONG time.

The Mandalorian is an operative example of this phenomenon. As someone who had no interest in The Clone Wars series, the inclusion of Bo Katan was both perplexing and supremely uninteresting. Who is this person showing up Mando on his own show? Why should I give a crap about her problems? Well, if you were a pre-existing fan, then it’s great! If you weren’t? Well, tough luck, because the show is presenting you with no actual reasons to like or care about this character besides her cool outfit. If you don’t accept her coolness right off the bat, the rest of it won’t work, either.

Proving this is the inclusion of Luke Skywalker in the season 2 finale. Despite his appearance being completely random, his use as deus ex machina largely unearned, and the dialogue given to him wooden and stilted, I was still really excited to see Luke again. But that’s a cheap trick, though – it’s driven by nostalgia for how cool Luke was/might have been/is, not by anything actually present. If I didn’t know who Luke Skywalker is (somehow) and watched that episode, my reaction would probably be confusion and possibly even incredulity as he saws his way down that corridor and the Dark Troopers just sort of let it happen to them. “Why didn’t Mando just do that with the Dark Saber, then?” is one basic question one might ask. It is the purpose of a show like this to keep you from asking that question, because you are just too breathless from all the fun.

In cases like that, the “coolness” of the show exceeds the burden of realism. Star Wars is not alone here. Doctor Who does this (should have been shot by a Dalek long, long ago), every James Bond movie does this (remember in Golden Eye when Bond falls faster than the plane), Harry Potter does this (does Harry ever learn geometry?), Marvel does this (Cap’s shield makes no sense) – it’s a feature, not a bug. It’s just rare for me to experience both sides of that equation inside the same exact show or even the same episode.

Now, whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, a thing to aspire to or a thing to avoid – this I leave to you. But let me tell you, once The Mandalorian lost me, I couldn’t stop seeing all the holes in, well, everything. Even knowing what I know about Star Wars, I’d hoped for something more tangible.

Fiction as Lies

I read a really interesting article from the New York Review of Books today by Namwali Serpell titled “The Banality of Empathy.” In it, Serpell discusses the fundamental fiction of narrative empathy as imagined in literature. She writes:

This viewing experience [of Black Mirror‘s Bandersnatch] finally undid for me what I have long suspected to be a meaningless platitude: the idea that art promotes empathy. This idea is particularly prevalent when it comes to those works of art described as “narrative”: stories, novels, TV shows, movies, comics. We assume that works that depict characters in action over time must make us empathize with them, or as the saying goes, “walk a mile in their shoes.” And we assume that this is a good thing. Why?

The problem, as Serpell asserts, is that narrative empathy – the whole “walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes” – is a self-indulgent and inherently privileged act. We, the reader, wish to experience something outside of our milieu – fine – but doing so amounts to a kind of emotional tourism. Feeling that empathy for whoever it may be – a criminal, an orphan, a slave, a concubine, an assassin, a warrior – is just fun. It doesn’t translate into actual, real-world action or advocacy for criminals, orphans, slaves, concubines, assassins, or warriors. Furthermore, while doing this for fanciful characters is one thing, we start to run into real problems when we start to apply this empathy to real-world people who are suffering, down-trodden, oppressed, or marginalized. Emotional tourism as a space wizard is one thing, but emotional tourism in the shoes of a transgender person gets…reductive, even insulting.

Serpell demonstrates this with an extended analysis of Violet Allen’s “The Venus Effect,” published in Lightspeed in December, 2016 (a phenomenal and inventive story you should all read, btw). Allen deliberately breaks the narrative, over and over again, as a means of conveying a point, but also of exhaustively demonstrating the inherent falsehood of narrative itself. Stories are supposed to possess a distinct structure – a flow of rising action, climax, resolution. We want catharsis and cohesion. It’s all supposed to make sense. Of course, life does not operate by those rules. Fiction superimposes an artificial structure on reality that we inherently accept because of the parlor trick that is narrative empathy.

For some years now, I’ve struggled with reading second person narration. I’ve tried (several times now) to read Jemisin’s The Fifth Season and, being honest, the second person chapters never fail to knock all enthusiasm I have for the narrative right out of me. I find second person jarring – it draws my attention to the artificiality of the text, and it prevents me from identifying or engaging with the story. I am being addressed, but then being told I am doing things that I am not, and the effect is that I know I’m not doing these things and so, by definition, these things are not happening. It’s fingernails on a chalkboard.

I’ve been struggling to understand the why of second person. If you want to draw people in to a close relationship with the character, why not just use first person? In reading Serpell’s piece, now I’m forced to wonder if the problem isn’t just my tastes, but perhaps something larger than that – a certain kind of closeness I don’t want to have. Is it because am unwilling to alienate my own identity to the point where I can immerse myself in the text? Maybe. But then I also wonder whether that pronounced artificiality of second person is intentional. The writer wants to kick me out of my comfortable chair on my emotional vacation. Wants to wake me up and make me look at the story as a story and not a window into another world. Sure, I find this upsetting. But don’t I deserve to be upset? Shouldn’t somebody rattle our cage once in a while and make us look at what we’re doing?

Fiction is, by its nature, unreal. That’s okay! What maybe isn’t okay, though, is the ways in which we forget that and let our fiction do the work our real world selves should undertake.

Fiddling at the End of the World

And to think the landlord probably made him pay extra for the view.

In Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann,” the titular character plays alien music upon his viol to keep some kind of otherworldly horror at bay. Each night he plays more and more frantically until, at last, the Stygian horrors of Chaos claim him, compelling him to play even while dead. It’s one of my favorite Lovecraft tales.

Increasingly, I’ve been feeling a little bit like Erich Zann. I think maybe a lot of us have.

It feels as though the wheels are coming off civilization. I’ll spare you the details, but you probably know what I’m talking about. We are facing chaos and uncertainty, dealing with various kinds of trauma and suffering, and our opportunities for combating this or changing it in any substantive way are few. All we really have to keep us going is art.

I say this because, for all we can talk about fighting and working and resisting and so on, the fact remains that you can’t actually live for doing that. Not if you want to retain your sanity, anyway. We fight on the battlefields so that we may live at home, and as the battlefield and the home become increasingly the same place and exist in the same sphere, how do we or can we escape from…you know, all of this shit?

For many of us who are artists/creators of some kind, we keep creating (or try to, anyway); for those of us who are not, we consume the art with equal greed. We artists throw ourselves into our work; our audiences throw themselves into the worlds we create. For me, I don’t want to write about the real world for obvious reasons, but nevertheless I find myself writing about it anyway, in oblique ways. Like Erich Zann, I can’t keep the chaos completely at bay – I am only mortal – so it creeps in, bit by bit. Like the narrator of the story, the audience is intrigued by the glowing edge of that realness. The fictional and the factual exist in tandem, never really separated. Fiction is a way of looking at something without really looking.

I’ve been playing The Witcher III: The Wild Hunt, and as Geralt walks through Velen beneath the trees straining with the weight of hanged men, there is a certain dark parallel there to our own world. I find it soothing, though, in a way – as Geralt, I can slay the monsters and defeat the unrighteous (or try to, as best I can). If I can’t save people, maybe I can at least avenge them. In this case I am Zann’s audience, listening through the door.

But the artist – the author of The Witcher books/games, myself in my own work – we have to look out that window into the chaos. We have to face it to make the art, and we play and we play and we play and it doesn’t seem like enough. It isn’t actually enough, is it? Zann dies trying. Perhaps nothing so grandiose happens to the author who looks at the world’s ugliness and fashions it into some shadowy reflection with a lot more drama and a lot less despair, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves: very few books change the world. Very few stories rewrite history. We as a society spent 50 years screaming about Orwell’s 1984 and we went and did it anyway.

You have to look, though. You’ve no choice. The idea that we can produce works that are separate from our current times is the height of arrogance – we are, by necessity, products of the world around us. Like Erich Zann, we cannot choose what is outside our window. We can only take a hard look at it, take up our viol, and try to make it better.

Or die trying.

Filling The Bat-Shoes

Before I get going, don’t get me wrong – the Pattinson Batman looks fine. He’s a good actor, he’ll be able in the role, the production looks pretty good, the aesthetics are fine, etc, etc.

But, like, was anybody else just so…tired watching that? Every beat seems utterly predictable, the conflict seems deeply deeply familiar, and I just couldn’t summon up any excitement. Which is weird, because I’ve always loved Batman. For a long time he was my favorite superhero – clever where others are powerful, resourceful where others are simply aggressive. He was the thinking superhero, not another flying guy with laser-beam powers.

And Pattinson’s Batman seems to be that! If anything, he looks like he’ll be more of a thinker than a number of other iterations. Still, I’m just struggling to generate interest. I think I know why, too.

You know Die Hard? Sure you do. Who doesn’t love Die Hard? John McLane, the regular cop in the strained marriage, trapped in the office tower surrounded by machine-gun toting terrorists. Man, what a story. The next couple sequels were pretty good, too (though less so the fourth and fifth installments). John McLane is great!

But say, just for argument’s sake, they were to re-make Die Hard. Not a sequel – just the first one. Nakatomi Tower, Christmas party, Hans Gruber, etc. Put a different cast in there – Vince Vaughn as McLane, or Liev Schreiber. But, you know, same basic set up. Sure, you’d go.

But then say they did it again, ten years later. Different cast, same set-up. And again five years after that. And again. And again.

And AGAIN.

At what point do you stop going to see Die Hard?

Soooo many Batmen…

See where I’m going with this? Ultimately, what all the Batman remakes have degenerated to is aesthetics. What does the Batsuit look like? What about the Batmobile? Who is playing who? What’s the tone?

The story? The story is exactly the same. The themes are essentially the same, too (though they have slightly different focuses, slightly different messages they’re trying to get across). People call this Batman “a gritty take” but Batman has been a gritty, dark character for decades. What we’re talking about is not the presence of grit, but the quality and texture of said grit. This Batman wears eye-liner, you see. But not the same eye-liner as Keaton did. Messier eye-liner.

“But you like pizza and it’s just a difference of texture, right?” says you. The difference between pizza and movies is that a movie is forever. I can watch The Dark Knight any time I please and it’s just as present as The Batman will be. Food is, by its nature, more ephemeral. And anyway, don’t you get tired of eating pizza sometimes and eat other a stuff for a while. Don’t you shake up the toppings?

A friend of mine tweeted that Batman has become our modern-day Hamlet – a universal character that young actors cut their teeth on, but the story never really changes. It’s the same thing.

In that respect, Pattinson both has his work cut out for him and he doesn’t. The movie will be a success, just like Hamlet always is, but it will also be boring. Only the performances will let it stand apart. No pressure, I guess.

For me, I’m tired of Batman. I’ve been done with the character since Lego Batman so thoroughly exposed how empty and repetitive those plot beats are. That doesn’t mean I’m done with Gotham. I loved Birds of Prey and will pay money to see Margot Robbie reprise the role anytime she likes. I think we deserve a Batgirl movie. I think we should do a Batman Beyond and more with the Robins – Nightwing is particularly interesting. There’s just so many other stories to tell in that space that we just never see because we have to hear those gunshots ring out in the alley and see those pearls hit the pavement, again and again. We have to go through Commissioner Gordon learning to trust Batman, over and over. Another young actor in a cowl, punching clowns.

I don’t know if I can do it again. I mean, we’ve already seen this movie. All of us have. Is it worth the price of admission anymore? I doubt it.

When They Point the Canon at You

Since the fairly cringe-worthy Hugo Awards ceremony a few days back, there’s been a big argument in the SFF world going on about the Science Fiction Canon, such as it is. What is it? How much is it worth? Do you have to read it? So on, so forth.

I waded into this debate and, admittedly, stepped in it a bit when I was having a discussion with a friend of mine regarding whether writers need to read the classics of the genre in order to write good work today. My response was this:

“Yup! My thing about the classics is that you should read them if you want to, but they aren’t strictly relevant to what is happening now. In fact, I would ascribe *zero* relevance to anything published before 1980/1982 or so. Then it incrementally increases as you go.”

Now, this was interpreted (and understandably so, if taken out of context) to mean that no work prior to 1980 has relevance for readers or worth as literature prior to 1980, which is not my point at all. My point is, rather, that the current milieu of science fiction and fantasy as it exists in the market today begins in the early 1980s and if your intention is to publish inside of that milieu, reading stuff published prior to that time is not essential. You, as a writer, need to know what is going on now in the field, not what was going on in the field in 1965.

I had a number of productive discussions about this online with a couple intelligent people. I had a lot of retweets accusing me of ignoring history or suggesting works like 1984 and Brave New World aren’t relevant for modern readers.

How much homage must we pay to the past, exactly? And why?

Now, I would insist that many (in fact the majority) of pre-contemporary works (defined broadly as the early 1980s, where we moved away from cold war paranoia and into a more cyberpunk/environmental catastrophe/corporate capitalist villain era) do not really resonate as well with a modern audience. The sexism of Bester and Asimov and Niven and Pournelle really shows their works’ age. The writers from the 30s and 40s still hope to find canals on Mars and wonder about the jungles of Venus. Everybody thinks atomic power is the cat’s pajamas. The amount of racism and Orientalism and colonialist underpinnings is overwhelming when examined with a modern sensibility. We can learn a lot about what people thought then about the world, but how it affects our world now is less clear.

Furthermore, much of what was done back in those days had begun a trend that has carried along to this very day! If somebody asked me whether they should read Heinlein’s Starship Troopers or Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigades, it’s a no-brainer that I’d suggest Hurley. Why? Well, because it’s still military scifi and it’s still got the first person perspective and thrilling fights and cool tech, but Hurley’s book is about now and Heinlein’s book is firmly rooted in the mid-20th century Cold War (and this is above and beyond the latent fascism contained in that specific book, but that’s a topic I’ve explored before and don’t care to repeat here). You don’t have to read 1984 to understand dystopia – the modern authors who have written about it, at length and with great skill, are numerous. Can you read it? Can a modern reader still glean important and interesting lessons from reading it? Yes, of course. Go ahead and read both!

That, though, not the question I’m seeking to answer. The question I’m trying to tackle is to what extent do modern authors owe fealty to the writers of the distant past to the point where those distant works are essential for their ability to tell compelling stories in the present day. I would argue that once you go past 40 years ago, there really isn’t any requirement because the publishing universe of that era bears no similarity to the one today. They were not writing to the same kind of audience, they were not dealing with the same kind of editors, and they were not facing the same kind of marketplace. Even the ideas they pioneered have been re-imagined and re-imagined again, so that you are entering a dialogue among authors that is a half-century old by now. You don’t need to read that original foray to join that conversation, but you must read the latest entry or you won’t make any sense.

The thing about lionizing the traditional canon (in any genre) is that you are centering the voices of people who lived in worlds alien to our own and then demanding that they be paid homage, when really what they have to say can be taken or left depending on our own interests. None of it is required. It can certainly have value for the right person at the right time, but we ought not ascribe these works more importance than the ones that have followed and, most especially, by those being produced today.

Now, as is the case with all list-building and hard lines in the sand, there are plenty of works from the 70s and earlier that still stand up just as well today as they did then – people like Le Guin and Philip K Dick and so on. But those folks are the exception, not the rule.

In short, if you intend to study the field of science fiction or are just a huge fan of classic books, by all means read the classic fiction of the mid to early 20th century – you will enjoy a lot of it, for sure. However, if you plan to write science fiction or fantasy novels, you don’t owe those old novels your time if you don’t want to give it. You can do it without them, just by reading on your own without any pre-set requirements. The canon is not a law, it’s simply a recommendation list. Feel free to ignore it. Read something else. There are a lot of good books out there, and you’ll never have time to read all of them, anyway.

But hey, that’s just one white dude’s opinion.

Productivity in a Time of Madness

People have wondered how my writing is going. So, here it is:

I’ve been stuck inside my house since mid-March.

I’ve got three kids, two cats, and a dog, all trapped in said house with me.

I’ve been teaching a 7yo to read, potty training a 2yo, soothing a 10yo’s anxieties about missing a Zoom meeting and getting in trouble. There has been a lot of crying.

I’ve been making lunch for everybody, especially for my wife, who has spent about 9-10 hours a day, every day trying to make sure my state’s transportation systems are safe, funded, and provided with all the PPE necessary to save lives.

The president is a fascist traitor. No, that’s not a political opinion.

Cops are tear-gassing and beating people protesting police violence all over my homeland.

The fireworks – always prevalent – have been going off all night, every night since early May.

A global pandemic has killed 115,000 of my countrymen at this point, with only more on the way.

And during all of this, I have managed to write two short stories, a rough draft of a novel, and a textbook chapter.

So, the question is: HOW?

Let’s first recognize my privilege: I am still employed and I don’t need to worry about food or paying my mortgage or anything. My family is supportive of my writing – especially my wife. My 10yo daughter has been crucially helpful in wrangling my toddler, allowing me to spend about 4 hours any given day (in 2-hour spurts) at “work” up in my office. Oh, yeah – I live in a house large enough to have a room to myself I can call an office. I also do not suffer from any particular mental illness I am aware of – I do not battle depression or anxiety, I am not a victim of trauma. I am extremely fortunate.

Beyond this, though, I find that the global catastrophes are motivating me to write rather than preventing it. For one thing, writing is an escape for me – I crawl inside my book or my stories and live there for a while and forget about everything in the world. It isn’t that I’m not worried about the world outside, but I have found that pretty much the only thing I can do is to sit down and write through it all. I sort of need to, in order to feel normal.

I say all this not as a kind of humblebrag, mind you. If anything, doing this has made me feel strange and almost disconnected. The vast majority of people I know are having trouble staying motivated, distracted too much by the outside world to focus. It sort of makes me wonder if my capacity for empathy is broken or if I’m being unusually selfish by locking myself away as I am (to the extent that I am). But…I can’t help it. I have to write to feel normal. I have to tell stories.

And furthermore: remember that this isn’t a race. I am writing well right now, fine, but soon enough you’ll be writing better than I am. And what does better/worse even mean in this context? We are all doing what we can.  Me? I’m huddled up with my laptop in my office writing as much as I can – that’s how I’m coping. You? You might be coping some other way. Regardless of how, though, we are going to make it through this. We are all going to have stories to tell. And we are all going to have the time to tell them one day.

So, don’t measure how you’re writing against how anybody else is. As somebody who can’t write at any other time than the summer months (because of my day job), I keenly feel that sensation of falling behind, of not being able to keep up, of losing your focus. That’s me, eight months of the year. How do I deal with it then? I do a little work here, a little work there. I plug along at a snail’s pace. I focus on short fiction and editing and keep my expectations low. It’s frustrating, but I get there. You will too.

Good luck, my writing friends. It’s nuts out there. Keep dealing as best you can. You have my admiration and my support, always.

You Say You Want a Revolution…

I come downstairs to find a stranger in my house. He is uninvited. He stands in the kitchen, poking through my cabinets.

“Information wants to be free, you know,” he says. He picks up my wallet, weighs it in one hand.

“This is a service,” he says, slipping a crisp dollar bill from inside and sliding it in his pocket. “For the poor. You understand.”

He takes another dollar. And then one more. But only that much. “What’s unfortunate,” he says, opening the fridge, “is that we have a system that makes this necessary.”

He selects a beer. I, of course, do not drink, but I say, “that’s for guests.”

“So you’re going to take their side?” He says. “You’re only helping the corporations.” He opens my beer. He drinks it.

“Who are you?”

“You know what your problem is,” he says. “You’re selfish. Greedy, even.” He opens a box of cereal from the cabinet, pours some in a mug.

“Do you ever ask for things?” I say. It’s all I can muster at the moment. I’m confused. Angry.

“Oh, you’re angry now?” He dumps the cereal in the trash. “I’ve been doing this for years, and you’re angry only now, when you’ve noticed? Typical.”

“Get out!” I open the door for him.

He shakes his head. “This could have been a revolution. Now see what you’ve done.”

As he leaves, he slides his hand into my pocket and pulls out a fresh, new ballpoint pen. “Thanks for nothing, asshole.”

Within the Crumbling Imperium

There’s a kind of surrealism in the US these days. Our president is a fascist monster and hopeless incompetent, half our government are complicit toadies, the other half are arguing over the rulebook after the table has been flipped over. Then, in the fringes, you’ve got the revolutionaries who offer stirring visions of the future but no plan to achieve them that much of anybody really believes. Gangs of government-supported paramilitary groups shoot and gas unarmed civilians. Gangs of independent paramilitary groups parade around with assault weapons, threatening violence. Innocents are killed. Buildings burn. And then there’s the Plague: invisible, insidious, it sickens and kills tens of thousands all while the regional governments struggle to contain the damage and implore the ignorant and the selfish to stay home.

We’ve even got stormtroopers!

For those of us lucky enough to still have a job and to have thus-far avoided the violence and the disease, we sit at home and grip our coffee mugs a bit too hard as we listen to the news each day. “Damage Report, Mr. Scott” is the mood. One friend of mine observes: “I feel like I’m standing on a trap door every day, just waiting for it to open.”

Folks, we’re living inside a storybook. Maybe it’s a technothriller, maybe it’s a fantasy or a scifi epic, but it shouldn’t be lost on us that what is happening is the stuff epics are made of. Star WarsDuneGame of Thrones and a dozen other properties have imagined similar worlds, all of them based, at least loosely, off of reality.

I don’t say this to somehow trivialize our collective experiences, but only to contextualize how we understand these stories. The worlds depicted by these stories are terrifying. They are awful and chaotic and violent, and maybe we don’t notice it so much because of the heroes we follow along with. I mean, Han Solo’s adventures seem pretty romantic, right? Wouldn’t it be cool to live in the Star Wars world?

Well, now we know the answer: no. No, it would not.

Some of us out there – some special, courageous people – are rising to this occasion. They are fighting the disease and trying to fix the government and trying to stop the violence. They are putting their bodies in harm’s way or testing their endurance and their sanity by remaining engaged and active during this traumatic time.

For the rest of us? Well, we…aren’t. We feel useless, sidelined, helpless. We keep looking into the wings, awaiting Luke Skywalker’s entrance or the coming of Daenerys. But, we are reminded, this is the real world and things don’t really work that way, no matter what the storybooks say.

I, personally, feel paralyzed. I have three small children at home who need me, a wife who is working constantly to try and keep regional transportation systems working in a pandemic, and I’ve got a job that requires my constant attention. I can’t contribute in any way that feels meaningful. I donate what I can to the bail funds (which you should do, as well). I teach my students about social justice and ethics and help them hone their ability to express themselves. I share and I like and I read the articles. And yet it all erodes at my sense of equilibrium and undercuts my sense of self worth. I feel miserable and isolated, weak and afraid.

I have known for some time that I’m no hero, at least not in the Skywalker or Solo sense of the word. It’s quite a thing, though, to see the dramatic sweep of history happening and to watch it rumble by and find yourself powerless before it.

So I, and millions like me, sit here and try to stay calm and make lunch for my kids and help them with their homework and try and distract myself from that overwhelming sense that another shoe has yet to fall, and bring the remaining structure of my country down with it.

It’s quite a feeling, let me tell you.