Poor people deserve to taste something other than shame

“And that is what we are saying, when we talk disdainfully about poor people buying lobster and steak, or nice phones, or new clothes. We are saying, you are not sorry and ashamed enough. You do not hate your poor existence enough.

Because when you are poor, you are supposed to take the help that is never enough and stretch it so you have just enough misery to get by. Because when you are poor you are supposed to eat ramen every day and you are supposed to know that every bite of that nutrition-less soup is your punishment for bad life decisions. Your kids are supposed to be mocked at school for their outdated clothes — how else will they know to not end up like you when they grow up?

When I hear these words, I don’t think of lobster or steak, I think of Boston cream pie. ” Keep reading, it’s so good you guys

Pom-pom crabs = best crabs

Boxer crabs (or pom-pom crabs) go through their lives with an anemone in each claw. (The anemones have defensive stinging cells.) If you take one of their pom-poms away, they’ll induce asexual reproduction in the remaining one by tearing it in half. If you take both away, they’ll steal one off another crab and do the same thing, so they always have two at all times. Full article

‘Mrs’ didn’t always mean married

The Mrs/Miss distinction, which is intolerable if compulsory and we’re all glad to be rid of, is pretty new. Both are short for ‘Mistress’ and both, up until the 19th century, could refer to unmarried women. ‘Mrs’ was a mark of social status and that higher status could mean a marriage, but could just as easily mean being head housekeeper, owning a business, or being a respected scholar in a particular field.

‘Miss’ arose in the mid-18th Century as a way for upper class unmarried women to distinguish themselves from women of business – women with, god forbid, a trade.
Full article

In praise of bin animals

“We have created an ecosystem in which intelligence is prized above all else.The strength or endurance of the wolf could not save it from rifles; the rapid reproduction of the rabbit protects it only where its habitat remains intact.

The survivors are the bin animals: the ones who can extract resources from our waste products, who can outfox (so to speak) any attempts at capturing or controlling them. They are the raccoons, the bears, the rats, the pigeons, the crows, the foxes, the ibises and the gulls.” Keep Reading

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I started The Whippet because it’s getting harder and harder to find interesting articles without being swamped by Trump news, and it was doing my head in. I wanted a breather from the harrowing stuff, but I didn’t want just pictures of cute animals, either, I wanted things like:

I couldn’t find a newsletter like that so I made one myself. Sign up, see how you like it, I promise that’s the one and only time Trump gets mentioned.

Goes out 7am Thursdays AEST.

Pussy Riot, ‘tactical frivolity’, and other responses to authority

I’ve been getting pretty annoyed with the simplistic coverage of Pussy Riot – they shouldn’t be in jail, but they’re not exactly good guys, either. Most of the art they’ve been persecuted for are just regular ol’ crimes as well. Essentially, it’s complicated, but interesting. So I wrote the following article for Das Superpaper:

In response to authority

“How can you treat a police officer seriously when he is asking you: Why did you participate in an illegal meeting of gnomes?

In 1982, in Soviet-occupied Poland, Waldemar Fydrych began painting orange-hatted gnomes wherever he saw fresh paint spots on the streets – wherever the authorities had painted over anti-regime graffiti. This was the first happening of his newly-formed collective, the Orange Alternative, whose stated agenda was the use of ‘tactical frivolity’ to destabilise the authority of their oppressors.

Meanwhile in Prague, a forbidding IS-34 tank loomed on a five-metre high pedestal as a monument to Soviet tank crews. One night in 1991, artist David Černý crept up to it and painted it pink. To vandalise or destroy it would have been to acknowledge it as a legitimate opponent, to fight it as an equal. By painting it pink he made it frivolous.

Authority is not power, it is the perceived right to power, and it only exists as long as the populace chooses to believe in it. By committing ridiculous protests, the Orange Alternative forced the Soviet authorities to become ridiculous themselves in their response. This is the beautiful effect of absurd art. (In Australia, the controversy over the Skywhale resulted in some poor Hansard clerk having to make the term ‘Hindenboob’ a matter of parliamentary record.) The Orange Alternative’s comedic happenings cheered up their fellow citizens (which is far from valueless) and also attracted media attention. In Fydrich’s words, “the Western World will find out much more about the situation in Poland from hearing that I was sent to jail for handing out sanitary pads to women, than from reading books and articles”.

This is the tradition to which Pussy Riot belongs.

It has been said that the imprisonment of Pussy Riot – or rather, of 2 of its 11 members – is a telling moment for Vladimir Putin, one which reveals his unreconstructed KGB heart. And yet the sentence, two years in a penal colony, is relatively light for an alleged political persecution, and even that Putin didn’t support, remarking “I don’t think that they should be judged so harshly for this.” It’s also difficult to view it as a simple witch-hunt, given one of Pussy Riot’s previous illegal artworks, a 65-metre long penis painted on the Foundry Bridge, was awarded the Ministry of Culture’s ‘Innovation Prize’ of 400,000 rubles (approx AU$13,000). The performance in question, A Punk Prayer – Mother of God Chase Putin Away­ appears almost embarrassingly adolescent and unskilled and furthermore would have been illegal in most Western countries, albeit only as a minor public disorder offence.

So why did it become such a cause celebré with the West? Why did Madonna perform in Moscow with ‘Pussy Riot’ scrawled across her back, and not, say, the names of the 98 journalists who have been murdered since Putin came to power? (Madonna’s support for Pussy Riot, incidentally, earned her the title of ‘moralising slut’ from Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister, which I’m pretty sure is a compliment. He also told her to “either take off the cross or put on underpants”.)

As art, Punk Prayer feels a bit simplistic: straight-up blasphemy with nothing meta going on. But maybe that’s the art Russia needs right now. And maybe it’s the art the West needs right now, since it garnered so much more attention outside the country than within it. In fact, the furore around A Punk Prayer tells us far more about the West than it does about Russia. And what it does say about Russia we haven’t been much interested in hearing.

The first thing to note is that the women were charged on religious, not political, grounds. While some Russians felt that the verdict was excessive, many were outraged at the desecration of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, a symbol of both the Russian state and the Orthodox Church (of which 46% of Russians are members). Non-religious Russians also endorsed the right to peaceful worship. One commentator said “if these women wanted to protest against the authorities, they should have gone to Red Square, not the cathedral.” Russian authorities say the prosecution had no political aspect at all.

Meanwhile, Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova claims that their performance was solely political, that it was in no way intended to be disrespectful to the Church, although she must have been aware that occupying one of the most sacred places in the country and shouting “shit of God” would offend believers. I suspect both sides are being disingenuous.

Punk Prayer is fairly typical among the works of Pussy Riot (or their parent group Voina), in that it’s a simple, blatant message, expressed theatrically, with a cruel edge. Operation: Kiss Garbage consisted of kissing female police officers without warning or consent. For Fucking Prometheus they broke into a police station and set a paddy wagon on fire. In Mordovian Hour they threw live cats over the counter of a Moscow McDonalds, to “break up the drudgery of the worker’s day.” It’s all very Tyler Durden.

One of the Voina performances I find least problematic is their most infamous, brought up by the prosecution at Pussy Riot’s trial specifically to smear their characters. In How to Snatch a Chicken, an artist walked into a supermarket, took a whole chicken out of the refrigerated section, inserted it into her vagina and walked out without paying for it. This is an act with a feminism-to-ick ratio of precisely 1:1. That is, if you stand by the idea that a woman ought to have control over her own vagina, then that extends to the right to do things you find distasteful with it. Homophobes are disgusted by women putting their vaginas near other vaginas, right-to-lifers are disgusted by women having abortions through their vaginas  (or perhaps simply by women using their vaginas for non-reproductive sex), and I am disgusted by women putting whole raw chickens in their vaginas: we can all shut the hell up, as it’s none of our business. If your belief in bodily autonomy only covers things that don’t make you uncomfortable then it’s a weak principle, and some of us haven’t had ours tested in a while.

But for a self-proclaimed feminist group, some of their actions don’t hold up. The allegedly pro-lesbian work Operation: Kiss Garbage is literally indecent assault. Their 400,000-ruble winning giant bridge-cock might be funny, but it also uses the image of a penis as a symbolic violation. (I’m aware that most people who draw a penis on their passed-out friend’s face aren’t thinking “I’m symbolically violating you” but in a world where being female or gay wasn’t considered ‘lesser’ I don’t think a penis would be the sharpie-wielder’s go-to image.)

I asked earlier why Punk Prayer had captured the West’s attention when neither the other works of Pussy Riot nor the other crimes of Putin had. I think part of the reason is that so many of our current problems – the economy, immigration, climate change – seem very complicated. We want to fight for what’s right, but there’s no fight available, just letter-writing, door-knocking, enrolling to vote. No political party seems worthy of our allegiance; the bad guys are woven through every public institution and might even be ourselves. But feminist punks vs. humourless tyrant? That’s easy. There are no shades of grey, and the victory conditions are clear and tangible: the release of these young women. Much more viscerally satisfying than, say, a re-wording of the carbon tax legislation.

And, of course, ‘Pussy Riot’ looks good on a t-shirt.

Does that sound cynical? Remember that in a world where government-sponsored murder is a very real possibility, media attention can save a dissident’s life. Looking good on a t-shirt is a form of self-defence. I strongly suspect Edward Snowden, the man behind the recent NSA leaks, embarked on his string of very public interviews as a calculated strategy to make it harder for the US to disappear him. Attention-seeking instincts are survival instincts, and tactical frivolity may offer better protection than sobriety. Remember those 98 journalists.

There’s another interpretation of Pussy Riot’s actions: maybe the performances weren’t the artworks – maybe the trial was. It was certainly theatrical, with bomb threats, tearful monologues and a security dog that barked people to order when they started shouting too loudly. (The defence lawyer had the dog ejected on the fourth day of the trial.) The Orange Alternative viewed arrests as a piece of performance art on the part of the State. On one occasion they provoked the police into arresting 77 Santa Clauses. On another, they staged a sarcastic pro-Communist rally in which everyone wore red – the police not only arrested everyone wearing red, but also everyone eating pizza with red ketchup on it and the street vendor who sold it to them. When the police responded to Mordovian Hour, they arrested the participants, but they also took two cats as evidence. Maybe Pussy Riot are provocateurs in the true sense, not so much artists themselves as an incitement to art in others.

Waldemar Fydrych of the Orange Alternative said “every policeman is a piece of art.” Certainly the visual aspects of a State’s instruments do not come about by chance, whether its architecture (from Grecian columns that echo the birthplace of democracy to Soviet Brutalism), the design of its police uniforms (and how distinguishable they are from the military’s) or the names of government departments (for example, the Howard government’s change of the Department of Immigration, Multiculturalism and Indigenous Affairs to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship). They are carefully designed to create a desired emotional response: awe, pride, intimidation, fear, etc. If the people with power are using art as a tactic, people resisting them would be foolish not to.

It’s been argued that tactical frivolity is ineffective in democratic regimes, where guerrilla marketing by ‘edgy’ brands has made the public distrustful of such acts and difficult to surprise. But I think anywhere where the authorities are humourless and have an inflated sense of their own dignity and importance, it’s likely to have some power. Try it on a ticket inspector and let me know the results.

This article was originally published in Das Superpaper in July 2013.

Crowhurst article up at Cracked.com!

A Terrifying True Fable That Will Make You Never Lie Again

Have you ever been forced to tell a dumb lie to get out of trouble and then piled on even more insane falsehoods until you were crushed under a Jenga tower of your own deception? Well, no matter how screwed up your life is, know that you’re well-adjusted compared to the one-man Coen brothers movie who was Donald Crowhurst.

Warning: His story is more Fargo, less Raising Arizona.

Read more: http://www.cracked.com/quick-fixes/a-terrifying-true-fable-that-will-make-you-never-lie-again/#ixzz2ID7AudP3

Moral Absolutism in Fantasy

“There is a very interesting debate raging at the moment about the nature of sin, for example,” said [Father] Oats.
“And what do they think? Against it, are they?” said Granny Weatherwax.
“It’s not as simple as that. It’s not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of gray.”
“There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”
“It’s a lot more complicated than that—”
“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth.”

— Carpe Jugulum, Terry Pratchett

One of the accusations often levelled at the fantasy genre is that it deals in moral absolutes. I’d go further than that. I’d say fantasy is one of the few places left in contemporary fiction where we can talk explicitly about morality at all. Which is probably one of the major reasons it’s often considered childish and unsophisticated.

Moral Ambiguity

You only have to look at the prevalence of ‘morally ambiguous’ characters in the most critically acclaimed TV shows to see what I’m talking about – Breaking Bad, Dexter, Mad Men. I put that in ‘dubious quotes’ because often it’s just a character doing kind things and brutal things at arbitrary intervals. Moral ambiguity can be an easy cover for poor characterisation.

And for the most part, ‘morally ambiguous’ characters aren’t ambiguous at all. Walter White, the character most frequently tagged with the phrase, has murdered 21 people so far. The term seems to be critic-speak for ‘a bad guy that I don’t want to feel guilty about liking’. And for the most part these shows aren’t dealing with the moral complexities, they’re just showing a bunch of cool stuff, and the audience’s idea of ‘cool’ does not include ethical considerations. They’re not morally ambiguous, they’re amoral.

One of the few fantasy series to get mainstream (non-geek) success is Game of Thrones, which pretty much proves my point, although I’d say in that case they’re just throwing a bunch of sex and decapitations into the script in the desperate hope it’ll make them look grown up.

A counter-example

An example of a morally absolutist show is Doctor Who. The protagonists are very clearly designated ‘good guys’ and they spend a reasonable amount of time trying to figure out what the ethical thing is and how to do it. It’s speculative fiction, pretty far from mainstream popularity, often considered pretty naff, and in the UK is widely thought of as a children’s show.

In Defence of Moral Absolutism

People have shied away from moral absolutism partially because of its links to religion and Thou-Shalt-Nots. But believing that certain acts are always wrong doesn’t absolve you from having to make moral judgements for yourself. Quite the opposite: if killing is wrong, then moral absolutism says it’s wrong when God does it too.

This will probably seem simplistic. Isn’t killing sometimes justifiable? What about in self-defence? Yes, but necessary isn’t the same as right.

A good example is the justice system. [I believe] it’s always wrong to imprison another person against their will. [I believe] it’s also always wrong to do nothing to prevent murder and other crimes. So, we put people in prison. And that’s necessary, and the lesser wrong. But the second we start to believe it’s actually morally right to lock some people up, that’s when we become tyrants. A moral code that applies to some people and not to others is no moral code at all.

Accepting clear-eyed the fact that we often have to do something unethical to avoid a greater harm seems to me more mature than pretending that it’s all muddy and there’s no real right and wrong.

Morality vs Moralising

Granny Weatherwax, illustrated by Paul Kidby

The other major reason for associating moral fiction with childishness is that, especially in the Victorian era, stories for children were actively trying to entrench moral behaviour into children. Anyone would react against that! But preaching is optional. You can take a moral stance and write from a moral position without trying to force it on anyone else.

The fact is, just about everybody does have a moral standpoint.  They avoid certain behaviours and choose others based on what they think is right.  Like Granny Weatherwax, I think most people believe in a lot fewer shades of grey than they claim to. When critics uniformly call characters like Walter White ‘morally ambiguous’, they’re being dishonest with themselves and their readers. The decision of so many fantasy writers to expose their beliefs and values in front of their readers is one of honesty and bravery.

In Defence of Tolkien: a Rebuttal of China Miéville

Rockstar fantasy author and poster boy for the New Weird genre China Miéville attempts to slay the giant whose shoulders he stands on:

Tolkien is the wen on the arse of fantasy literature. His oeuvre is massive and contagious – you can’t ignore it, so don’t even try. The best you can do is consciously try to lance the boil. And there’s a lot to dislike – his cod-Wagnerian pomposity, his boys-own-adventure glorying in war, his small-minded and reactionary love for hierarchical status-quos, his belief in absolute morality that blurs moral and political complexity. Tolkien’s clichés – elves ‘n’ dwarfs ‘n’ magic rings – have spread like viruses. He wrote that the function of fantasy was ‘consolation’, thereby making it an article of policy that a fantasy writer should mollycoddle the reader.”

Oh my, where to start

Tolkien is the foundation of the genre in which Miéville writes, its bones. Tolkien is a pioneer of ‘second-world fantasy’ – where the setting is not earth, but a world of the writer’s own making. It’s difficult to overstate how influential he was – “you can’t ignore it, so don’t even try.” Fantasy previous to Lord of the Rings involved interactions between the real world and fantastical elements – ghosts, witches, fairies, genies. There are now thousands of ‘second worlds’,  from the Discworld to Westeros to Miéville’s own Bas-Lag. Can you imagine your bookshelf, or your childhood, without them? If anything, Tolkien is the arse on which Miéville is the boil (or the adorable freckle, if you happen to like his writing).

elves ‘n’ dwarves ‘n’ magic rings

Miéville maybe does not know which direction time flows in? Does he blame the 1819 writer of The Vampyre  for Twilight fanfiction, or Shakespeare for the decline of theatre?

Penny Arcade on Miéville

These fantasy clichés were original when Tolkien wrote them. Orcs and halflings were entirely created by Tolkien, and elves mostly so (they used to be small, shy woodland creatures, nothing like the tall melancholy things we have now). And it’s a bit much to blame him for the proliferation of magic rings, since they show up in the myths of every ringwearing culture throughout history.

boys-own-adventure glorying in war

“It was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.”

Tolkien in 1916

Translation: ‘war is rad’, apparently? Look, Tolkien fought in World War 1 – he had no illusions about glory. Unless words like “hideous” and “misery” and “oh god, so many lice” seem glorious to you. All but one of his friends were dead by 1918. War in Lord of the Rings had irreparable consequences. The plains west of Mordor, on which the battle of Dagorlad was fought, was the bleakest place the hobbits had seen. Nothing would grow on that desecrated ground ever again. And remember, it wasn’t warriors that saved Middle-Earth  – the last alliance has no hope of victory, they are only buying time for Frodo. Frodo who refused to slay Gollum, who won’t even wear a sword towards the end, and who is so damaged by his experiences that he can never really be part of a happy life again.

fantasy as ‘consolation’

Oh, now, Miéville knows better than that. ‘Consolation’ is a far more complex word than just ‘hugs and puppies’. It’s a word with centuries of thought and theology behind it. The 6th Century philosopher Boethius – and 21st Century philosopher Alain de Botton – have both written books titled “Consolation[s] of Philosophy” and neither of them were intending to mollycoddle.

absolute morality that blurs moral and political complexity

‘How shall a man judge what to do in such times?’ ― ‘As he has ever judged,’ said Aragorn. ‘Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men.’

It’s true that Tolkien is not a moral relativist. That’s easy for me to deal with because neither am I. I want to talk about ethics in fantasy in my next post, so I won’t go into it too much here, but I think it’s one of fantasy’s strengths that it’s one of the few places in literature where we can still talk about right and wrong in unambiguous terms. That said, every writer has a moral standpoint, even if that standpoint is relativism. It only becomes obnoxious when the good characters have no flaws, or their good actions never have bad consequences. That is not the case in Lord of the Rings:

  • Gollum is very close to redemption at some points in the book. Sam’s suspicion and unkindness are very likely what tip him over the edge to betrayal.
  • Frodo, of course, fails and succumbs to the ring’s power at the last.
  • Gandalf chooses not to slay Gollum out of mercy, and that turns out to be the saving of Middle-earth. Mercy compels him not to kill Saruman, and that causes enormous suffering in the Shire.
  • Aragorn told Éowyn not to go to battle. That decision was completely wrong. Luckily she disobeyed.
  • Both Boromir and Denethor commit terrible acts, but they are both considered good and noble people despite their failings.
  • “Nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so.”

In conclusion

The Miéville quote comes from a longer piece in which he tries to defend the fantasy genre by pointing out – rightly – that most of its detractors are referring solely to High or Epic Fantasy, while totally ignoring avant-garde subgenres such as New Weird, in which Miéville writes. But it’s one thing to distance himself from Tolkien’s fantasy – quite another to try and tear it down altogether. With apologies to Susanna Clarke:

It is the contention of Mr Miéville that everything belonging to Tolkien must be shaken out of modern fantasy, as one would shake moths and dust out of an old coat. What does he imagine he will have left? If you get rid of Tolkien you will be left holding the empty air.

Bonus Content: Boromir vs Faramir!

If you want to see where Tolkien’s values lay, compare the brothers Boromir and Faramir. Boromir tries to seize the Ring by force; he is killed and the hobbits are kidnapped as a result. Faramir is not tempted – he keeps his promise, “shows his quality” and aids Frodo and Sam on their journey.

So although Boromir is repeatedly referred to as the better warrior, the bolder, it is Faramir that Tolkien wants us to take for our moral example. Here’s what he has to say about war:

War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.”

 Of course, I’m talking about the book. In the movie he nearly succumbs. Peter Jackson threw away the message and the character for a cheap moment of suspense, something that angered Stephen Colbert as much as it did me.

Extra Super-Bonus Content: Dwarfs vs Dwarves!

‘Dwarves’ is the correct plural term when referring to the non-human race in Tolkien or other fantasy works. For human people with dwarfism, ‘dwarfs’ is grammatically correct, but it makes some folks unhappy, so why not say ‘people with dwarfism’? It is only two more words.

So what is even the point of the word ‘dwarfs’? For when you want a verb meaning ‘to make something appear small’ – e.g. ‘the new hotel in Dubai dwarfs the buildings around it.’ The more you know.

Subversive Fantasy (done right)

In my last blog post I asked whether the fantasy genre is fundamentally conservative. My aim was to show that regardless of content, fantasy is inherently subversive. The idea that the content of many fantasy books is liberal seemed so obvious as to not be worth stating. I was surprised to learn from the responses I got that a lot of people are actually not aware of the range of really interesting fantasy available beyond the bestseller lists.

All of the books below are not just ethically sound but are also great stories with well-rounded characters and compelling settings. They are also complete stand-alone novels, even though they are part of ongoing series.

Swordspoint (Riverside #1)
Ellen Kushner
Half Regency-era romance, half Renaissance political scheming. Love and sex between men is treated as completely unremarkable. St Vier the duellist is dashing and glamourous, and yet the reality of a man who will kill for money is not downplayed. It’s hard to really like either St Vier or his lover – and yet somehow you want them to end up together. This book also avoids one of the common missteps of fantasy – that of assuming that aristocratic blood is of any value at all. I have trouble caring about whether the ‘rightful’ king reclaims his throne. Why should the biological royal make a better ruler than the usurper? I’m rarely convinced he will. Neither is Ellen Kushner.

Jhereg (The Vlad Taltos series)
Steven Brust
Two parts Raymond Chandler-esque noir, one part Hungarian folklore. Instead of trying to solve a murder, the assassin protagonist has to figure out how to get away with one. Reads like it was fun to write. Smart. Deals with the problem of gender differences by ignoring them (sort of like Starship Troopers the movie), and it works well. Women and men are equally likely to be wise, graceful, brutish, soft, cunning – scholars, prostitutes or thugs. Brust is a Trotskyist, and while you wouldn’t necessarily be able to guess it from his writing, issues of class are definitely there in the background.

Someplace To Be Flying (The Newford Books)
Charles de Lint
Set in a fictional city in modern day Canada, characters from Celtic and Native mythology begin to bleed into the everyday world, along with creatures of de Lint’s imagination – crow girls, tumbleweed men and other genius loci. Raven and Coyote are refighting their old arguments and singing their old songs. Anyone in Newford might be an old god, but the characters de Lint loves most are ordinary: slum dwellers, social workers, artists and musicians, and most of all people who have come from violent and abusive childhoods. These people have no roots they can trust, and they have grown themselves new roots in the city of Newford, tangled up with the spirits of the place. There are no grand battles or bombastic sacrifices, even when the world is at stake – most of the good done is in thankless interpersonal kindness and gentleness. Read the first chapter here.

Guards! Guards! (Discworld series)
Terry Pratchett
Most of the Discworld books offer social commentary on things like privatisation (Going Postal) and the use of racism to promote war (Jingo), but what stands out about Pratchett is his humanism. The title of Guards! Guards! comes from the trope of the palace guards who are called for and then immediately slaughtered by the dashing hero. Who are these people? Why are they so disposable? Their job must not be very highly regarded. And so the Night Watch of Ankh Morpork (an amalgam of Dickensian London and Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar) are drunk, underpaid wretches with gimpy knees and ill-fitting armour. But they are people. Pratchett starts with a fantasy cliche (in this case a marauding dragon) and thinks “How would real people respond?” Some would try to get on with their jobs and some would figure out how to make a buck out of it. Pratchett reminds me very much of Vonnegut, in his great cynicism and affection for humanity, and who said “It now seems morally important to me to do without minor characters in a story. Any character who appears, however briefly, deserves to have his or her life story fully respected and told.”

I suggest beginning with Guards! Guards! His writing has evolved from simple genre parody to complex social satire, and that’s about the earliest book that’s still very good. People will often tell you to start with one of his earlier books, because they are chronology purists. But these are stand-alone books and you really don’t lose anything by not reading them first.

Conspicuously Absent

Books which are not generally classified as fantasy, despite obviously being so.

  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

Books in which the politics of the author appears to drive the story, rather than coming out naturally in the telling of it.

  • His Dark Materials Trilogy by Phillip Pullman

– subcategory: allegory (that dull brute)

      •  Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathon Swift (The Chronicles of Narnia are not, I think, allegorical. They were written by a Christian apologist, and his values show, but they’re also very sympathetic to paganism)

Books that are highly critical of, for example, inequality and racism, but are set in worlds in which it is rife. I tried to focus on books that show a really different sort of society.

  • the unutterably good Jonathon Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke,  and the work of Ursula le Guin.

Is the Fantasy Genre Fundamentally Conservative?

Yes, according to many theorists, or at least Tolkien-derived fantasy is.

They point to the fixation with a medieval golden age, the essentialist labelling of races as either all good (elves) or all bad (orcs), the glorification of monarchy and purity of bloodlines, stories that revolve around protecting the status quo… all of which are valid points (although more accurately applied to Tolkien’s imitators than Tolkien himself).

But they ignore Marshall McLuhan’s maxim, “the medium is the message.”

He means that the medium by which any particular message is conveyed has more of an impact on how humans think and develop than the content of the message. He gives the example of a televised news report of a horrific murder. The details of the particular report matter far less than the effect of bringing crime reports into our living rooms every evening, and how that affects our fear, our communities and our attitudes to crime and punishment.

When you read fantasy, there is more going on than the content.

Deep reading, where you actually sink into another world, forms memories as vivid as your real experiences. Your brain is basically incapable of distinguishing between real and imagined memories (which is bizarre, and fascinating, and you can read more about it here). So reading about new worlds broadens your mind in just the same way travel does.

The simplistic version of this might be “if elves and dwarves can get along, why not Muslims and Jews?” but that’s really not what I’m talking about. Experiencing any other society, good or bad, forces you to realise that the world as-it-is is just one of hundreds of possible set-ups for society. 21st Century Western Capitalist Democracy is not How Things Are, it’s one of many ways it could be.

Any High Fantasy book, no matter how regressive the world it portrays (Hello, Game of Thrones), renders itself revolutionary by the act of creating another world.

And, because this is how reading works, by making the reader a collaborator in the creation of that world.

**For the record, I love Druss. But that cover is pretty bad.

For a thorough explanation of Marshall McLuhan’s theory, watch his lecture, “The Medium Is The Message.”

‘Grist’ Shortlisted for KSP Speculative Fiction Award

 ImageEeeeeeee!! So pleased! Winners announced August 19th. I wish I could go to the awards ceremony, but it’s in WA.


I came 3rd!

1st: Siren – Catherine Moffat (NSW)
2nd: Blood Ties – Scott Ford (QLD)
3rd: Grist – McKinley Valentine (VIC)

Judges Report (PDF)


You can read it here: https://mckinleyvalentine.wordpress.com/fiction/