Monday, October 6, 2014

Will No One Stand Up for the White Dudes?

One of the few childhood memories that I have managed to hang onto is this: an intense feeling of resentment that the date and time of my mom's wedding meant I wasn't able to watch Ren and Stimpy. Because why hold onto things like the last day I spent with my grandfather before he died--who needs that stuff, amirite? It's strange, though, because I don't really remember watching much of the show at any other point; for pretty much everything Nickelodeon ever put out, to be honest. It's probably that there wasn't much of an opportunity; in my corner of Canada in the early 1990s, the 500-channel universe was still a couple of years away from my house, and our satellite dish was one of those big backyard monsters that looked like what you'd use to beam greetings or dirty limericks to distant stars, and most of the channels ended up getting scrambled after a while anyway.

So I don't have any kind of nostalgia for Nickelodeon. But I know that's not the same for everyone in my age bracket. Recently, because James Nicoll wants to make us all suffer, I came across an interview with Matthew Klickstein, some guy I'd never heard of; at first I thought he was a former Nickelodeon star, but no, he's just the author of an "oral history" of Nickelodeon's golden age, because everything sounds more highbrow if you call it an oral history.

Some of it is pretty innocuous. But not all of it. Take this bit right here.

"[Nickelodeon series Sanjay and Craig] is awkward because there’s actually no reason for that character to be Indian — except for the fact that [Nickelodeon President] Cyma Zarghami and the women who run Nickelodeon now are very obsessed with diversity."


Or this!

"Some of these other shows — My Brother and Me, Diego, and Legend of Korra — it’s great that they’re bringing diversity into it now. Fantastic. But you know those shows are not nearly as good as Ren and Stimpy, which was made by all white people!"


Or how about this?

"That's true, that's fine, but why can't [a hypothetical Indian kid in the audience] relate to a white guy too? I was talking with the guy who wrote for DC, and he made a really good point: Why does someone who’s making something about a black person need to be black? Why does someone making a show about an Indian person need to be Indian? Why does someone making a show about women need to be a woman? If you’re making something about an alien, you don’t need to be an alien to do it. That’s ultimately what it comes down to: They will connect with the character no matter what."


First off, and I can't believe this guy is dense enough to require me saying this, but here goes: you do not need to be an alien in order to make something about aliens because, to the degree that we have thus far been able to measure, THERE ARE NO ALIENS. There are no Zeta Reticulans who have had their culture appropriated into Halloween costumes, no green people from Antares who have been the butt of joke after racist joke. Aliens are blank slates of a sort that DO NOT EXIST in reality. Aliens do not have to come with baggage, and in that, they can be liberating. When you're dealing with actual peoples that actually exist, it behooves you to not fuck things up, buddy.

Maybe the reason you don't understand why an Indian kid shouldn't have to relate to a white guy is connected to the fact that, as a white guy yourself, somewhere between A BUTTLOAD and DAMN NEAR ALL of the characters presented on TV have historically been, you guessed it, white guys! You ask why a character has to be Indian--did you ever stop to ask yourself why this other character over here has to be white? Or a guy?

The other day, on the last day of Can-Con in Ottawa, I watched the premier episode of Kagagi. It's a new superhero cartoon series airing on APTN, that stars a First Nations teenager, is built around Native mythology, and was broadcast in 20% Algonquin. You know what? It was rad. You know what's more rad, though? That First Nations kids, kids who have to deal with a historical legacy of being shat on and marginalized and dodging genocide that goes back centuries, have someone to identify with who is like them. Who knows what they're going through. Who understands.

Which is more than I can expect from this chump.

But he does provide another data point to shore up my hypothesis that anyone who throws the phrase "political correctness" about as a criticism is most likely an asshole.

(Yes, I know that I am, in fact, a white dude as well. I am often--nah, make that eternally--mortified by the actions of many of those to whom I am phenotypically similar.)

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Tailings of the Golden Age #2: In the Imagicon

"In the Imagicon," by George Henry Smith
Appeared in Galaxy Science Fiction, February 1966

Then Cecily made him feel even sillier by leaning over and kissing his right foot with passionate red lips. "Oh, Dandor! Dandor, I love you so much," she murmured.

Dandor resisted the temptation to use one of his newly pampered feet to give her a healthy kick on her round little bottom. He resisted it because even at times like this, when his life with these women began to seem unreal, he tried to be as kind as possible to them. Even when their worship and adoration threatened to bore him to death, he tried to be kind.

So instead of kicking Cecily, he yawned.

I'm gonna let that quote up there just sink in for a minute.


For a genre that spent so much time yapping on about the future, Golden Age science fiction--in this case, one of the last shoots springing up in the mid-1960s, when the old fields were beginning to wilt beneath the New Wave--spent a hell of a lot of its time rooted in the past. Yeah, I know, science fiction is fundamentally about the time it's written in, and "In the Imagicon" by George Henry Smith--who previously brought us such towering works of literature as 1963's Sexodus!--could not be more of a product of the 1960s if it tried. This is the sort of stuff that proto-nerds who aspired to become Don Draper would read. I feel like it's quintessentially of its time, to the degree that it reads almost like a parody of it.

Leaping into the story, we are introduced to the foppish, indolent Dandor, who is in the process of being fed grapes, getting a pedicure, and being generally worshipped by women--a blonde, a voluptuous brunette, and cuddly twin redheads, and yes those are how they're described and essentially the limits of their characterization, and god damn, man, am I really meant to take this at all seriously? Is this supposed to be a laff-out-loud comedy piece? I DON'T KNOW ANYMORE, SOMEONE HOLD ME

Ahem. Moving on. Dandor's problem is that he's getting awfully bored by being waited on and worshipped in his "palatial palace," because screw you guys, it's 1966, you don't need more descriptive adjectives when you're probably half-drunk by now anyway. So he leaves, back out through the imagicon of the title, and we see Dandor as he really is: a pioneer on the frozen colony world of Nestrond, home of punishing storms and snows and ice wolves, and which really begs the question of why you'd cross light-years to colonize a place that makes Antarctica look appealing. What really makes it intolerable, though, is Nona, his shrew of a wife! Am I right, fellas? The narrative lovingly details her faults--"a big, raw-boned woman with stringy black hair, a broad flat face with thin lips and uneven, yellowish teeth. God but she's ugly, he thought as he stared at her." Now that he's back in the real world, Dandor's got work to do, and he hates it! So he digs up ice moss for the fire, fixes the cattleshed roof to keep the icewolves from attacking their space cows, digs a cesspool, and so on.

Nestrond, for all intents and purposes, was settled by people who not only made it to the end of the Oregon Trail without dying of dysentery, but found a starship there waiting for them.

Disaster strikes in the night when ice wolves attack--six-legged, because alien critters gotta have six legs, otherwise how're you to know they're alien? Dandor manages to see them off thanks to his trusty laser rifle, but not before one of them takes a good chunk out of him; good enough, in fact, to demand that his entire leg be amputated. Because, sure, they have enough technological infrastructure to support stuff like laser rifles and imagicons, but not indoor plumbing or twentieth-century medicine. Presumably Nestrond's colonists are, in fact, survivors of a failed expedition. Maybe they were the advance team and the main ship blew up in orbit--they are in dire straits, with the last of the morphine gone and no anaesthetic more sophisticated than whiskey. Nobody's to say.

Dandor is aghast over the loss of his leg, of course--not because of the pain, not because of how much harder it'll make it to scratch out a life, but because now there'll be no imagicon; he'll belong only to Nona. How, he asks himself, could she treat him this way? Yeah! How could she ever stay by his side in his condition and make him face the world? One has to ask why she even bothers, on a world where there are twenty men for every woman. I mean, she obviously sees something in this guy, or she'd have just walked out while he was on one of his imagicon trips, right? Wouldn't you want to have someone standing by you at a low point like that?

Not our Dandor! He knows just what to do--escape from the dreaded barbs of reality! Half-mad with pain and bleeding out from his as-yet-uncauterized stump, he drags himself until he seals himself up into the imagicon, "more dead than alive," and slowly fades away while the soft voices of his adoring palace women brush against his ears--

Except, in a plot twist worthy of M. Night Shyamalan--who would not be born for another four years, so at least he's not responsible for this one--Dandor wakes up, good as new, in the real world. In the palace. Because, you see, Dandor's palatial palace is reality, and it's Nestrond that's the product of the imagicon! On Earth in the year 22300, Dandor is on top thanks to a plague which killed all but a handful of men--many of whom "had not been able to stand the strain... too many years of having everything and every woman they wanted." Dandor created Nestrond as a place he could find "a taste of hell," without which "how could a man appreciate heaven?"

How could a man appreciate heaven.

Because this story is really all about the mens.

As I chip away at it, I feel like there's a pool of anti-woman sentiment bubbling underneath. Look at the difference between Earth of 22300, where men are powerful through their rarity and which is depicted as a warm, peaceful, beautiful place, and Nestrond, where women are powerful through their rarity and is explicitly described as a hell on multiple occasions. On Earth, Dandor is "sweetheart" and on Nestrond, he's "idiot." On Earth, he is fed grapes; on Nestrond, he's grudgingly served thin soup, stale bread, and rancid pork.

It almost reads like it's a parody of certain attitudes now. Nestrond reads like the sort of place any given MRA would come up with to describe a feminist world, and I'm confident that what MRAs yearn for is a world where they can all be Dandors. I have to wonder what the women might say if you asked them to describe their world. Are they happy feeding this guy, rubbing his feet, servicing him, when he descends into unreality as soon as they start to bore him? From where I'm sitting, this "heaven" seems pretty damn one-sided.

As I put this together, I had a realization: unlike Nona, who is given a rather detailed description to cement the hellishness of Nestrond, we're never actually given a description of Dandor. But I have a pretty good idea.





You want to hear the real punchline, though?

This story made the first ballot for the 1967 Nebula Award.

Sheesh.

Previous Tailings
#1 - "Blitz Against Japan" (September 1942)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

This Is About Independence

I was keenly aware last month that it might well be the last time I ever visted the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Not that I had foreknowledge of my death--though I hope that's a long way off yet--but because in the not-too-distant future, there may not be a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland anymore. Not if the YES vote in Scotland gets its way. Back in August, things were still at a slow boil: the NO side was consistently polling double-digit leads, and I was one of the few on my side of the Atlantic who even knew the referendum was going ahead. The only evidence I found for it was on my last day in the country, when I found a pro-independence sticker someone had left in Victoria Station.

The red symbolizes the blood that the newborn Scottish Empire will drown its English oppressors in, no doubt.

Today, everyone's blood is hot. It's less than a week to the vote and anticipation is running high--and on the NO side, so visions of near-apocalyptic problems should Scotland go its own way. From complaints of BBC reporting bias to rumors of MI5 agents in Scotland and whistlestop tours by Westminster's premier talking heads, the English political establishment is throwing all its weight into the "Better Together" camp. No doubt the government will sponsor a last-minute love-in for the Unionist side on Tuesday or Wednesday, much like the Canadian government did in Montreal's Place du Canada just before Quebec voted in 1995.

I've seen a lot of speculation that the reason Westminster is throwing so much weight into this is down to North Sea oil, oil that would become Scottish--and that's a pretty damn good motivation for a government to be committed to the unionist side. If Montreal was afloat on a sea of petroleum, I doubt Quebec's referendum would have taken the same trajectory.

But I don't think that's the whole story. It's not just about wealth, or power, I think--it's about fear.

Fear of failure. Fear of the idea that Scotland's independence would mean that the United Kingdom, which stood for three centuries against Napoleon, the Kaiser, and Margaret Thatcher's poll taxes, has failed.

Recently, Rachael Acks wrote a piece about divorce that you should read in any event, because it's rad. As I chewed on it, I realized that with just a few word replacements, it resonates with what's going on in Scotland today. Change "divorce" to "separation" and "screaming arguments" with "civil wars," but the idea that separation means that a country has failed is a strong one. Look at the United States, for instance: in the Hotel America you can check out any time you want, but you can never leave. On the face of it, it's ridiculous--no country lasts forever, but what this policy does ensure is that when the United States does fall apart, it will be with screaming and gunfire and the throwing of dishes. I'm confident the States would never see a referendum as peaceful as Scotland's, because there is no place for it in the laws as they currently stand.

It echoes with a problem prevalent in our culture, I think; the notion that your life can be cheapened by other's choices. I'll admit there are risks inherent in Scotland going its own way, but there are risks in everything. A lot of the commentary I see from NO supporters, especially English NO supporters, revolves around how they would feel to have the United Kingdom separate--it's such a deep-seated notion that the first phrase I wrote there was "to have the United Kingdom break apart," as if the Scottish referendum is the equivalent of throwing fine china at the floor, and afterward everyone will have to sweep up and make do with what shards are left.

"We're not a failure," Rachael wrote. "Our relationship is not a failure. Because we made each other stronger, better people. We loved and supported each other through thick and thin until we reached a place in our lives where we couldn't support each other in that same way any more. It's time to continue loving and supporting each other in a different way."

Scotland and England made each other stronger, too. But just because a relationship has existed, that inertia alone shouldn't justify why it continues to exist if there's enough reason to reconsider--and with the way the polls have turned toward YES in the past months, a lot of reconsidering has been done up past Hadrian's Wall.

If Scotland chooses independence, it's not a failure of the United Kingdom. It's just a new day.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

No Vision So Dangerous...

The other day I was trying to figure out the best way, should I ever meet him, to piss off Harlan Ellison™. I mentioned this to the ever-helpful Shaun Duke, who advised me that both of the strategies I offered would likely result in (a) a chewing out--which, honestly, Harlan Ellison™ rarely needs much justification for anyway--and (b) assault, which wouldn't surprise me much either but is really far more trouble than it's worth.

You may be wondering why I would want to antagonize a figure like Ellison™. The answer is bound up in four charged words that have hummed with golden anticipation for more than forty years, even if more than a few bulbs have burned out: The Last Dangerous Visions. Never heard of it? If you're not one of the ones plugged into the history of science fiction or the fannish grapevine, there's no reason you should have. That's not how it was meant to be, though.

Let's go back briefly to 1967, when Harlan Ellison™ put out one of the most influential anthologies of the 1960s, Dangerous Visions. The thirty-three stories it contained were groundbreaking in their time, helping to define what the New Wave of science fiction literature was, and of a sort that were too "dangerous" to be published.

Today, of course, they're innocuous. Well-written, of course, but with the possible exception of one story, there's nothing that wouldn't make it into Clarkesworld or Lightspeed or even Analog today--back in 1967, they would have earned furious ten-page rejection letters from John W. Campbell--but that's the way history unfolds. Ellison™ followed up with the sequel volume Again, Dangerous Visions in 1972, which is definitely a reflection of its time; witness, for example, Kurt Vonnegut's "The Big Space Fuck," set in a world where giant mutated lampreys live in a polluted Lake Erie and the government is launching a rocket full of freeze-dried jizm to the Andromeda Galaxy. Envelope-pushing in its day, perhaps, but in a time where stories like Kij Johnson's "Spar" win Nebulas and make the Hugo shortlist, there's almost a quaintness to it.

The Last Dangerous Visions was to be the capstone of this project, a deep and towering work that would put everything that had come before to shame. Ellison™ talked the project to rarefied heights as he lined up a phalanx of everyone who was anyone in early 1970s science fiction, from old hands like Algis Budrys and George Alec Effinger to brash, young newcomers like Anne McCaffrey and Orson Scott Card. Science fiction fandom waited in anticipation...

...and waited, and waited. You may note, from your privileged viewpoint here in the 21st century, that of all the ways you might describe writers like McCaffrey and Card, "newcomer" is not one of them. You may also note that with the exception of Card, all those writers have died. In fact, I've gone through the list of contributors that's up on the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, and of the one hundred and two names, forty-six are definitely dead as of 2014. Many more authors are flagged as having been born in the 1920s and 1930s--Harlan Ellison™ himself turned 80 earlier this year--and it won't take much longer for The Last Dangerous Visions to be a book of ghosts. If you're interested in all the sordid details of its stubborn non-existence, check out Christopher Priest's The Last Deadloss Visions.

"So what?" you might say. Vaporware isn't anything new; look at Duke Nukem Forever, for example. No, really, look at Duke Nukem Forever. It was to be the pinnacle of a well-liked, boundary-pushing game series, intended to reach new heights of popularity and so on... and look what happened. After fifteen years of being a punchline, it actually came out--something that still surprises me from time to time, honestly--but it couldn't live up to itself. What's more, it had been left behind.

The Dangerous Visions series was intended to be the vanguard of a new way of looking at things, an ambassador to show the world that science fiction didn't have to be just about rockets and rayguns and square-jawed white male engineers solving technical problems. But if The Last Dangerous Visions came out tomorrow, it would be a wet firecracker. Sure, the individual stories still have relevance and quality--but not in the context that the book was meant to provide. If anything, the book as a whole would be a time capsule of 1970s science fiction; of interest to a particular subset of fans, sure, but not much more than that.

It's possible to judge the quality of The Last Dangerous Visions to a degree; a handful of authors did recall their stories from Ellison™ and actually allowed the world to see them, but not many; by my search, there are fifteen ex-TLDV stories out there whose authors lived to see their publication in other places. But only to a degree. The kicker of it is that all these stories exist, sure--in a box in Harlan Ellison™'s house somewhere, for only Harlan Ellison™'s eyes. For any stories, this would be bad enough--but remember that Ellison™ was looking for the best of the best, the state of the art as it was in 1973.

There's a hole in science fiction that can be felt only by its absence. A hole that Harlan Ellison™ has refused to sew shut for forty fucking years. He had the capstone of his drive in hand, but for whatever reasons, he fumbled. He fucked it up. Today, The Last Dangerous Visions is irrelevant as anything but a historical curiosity. Given the degree of cultural shift, I'm confident that there is nothing in its evanescent pages that would not pass muster in a magazine today.

Beyond that, The Last Dangerous Visions was meant to be a showcase of up-and-coming authors with new perspectives... and that's another thing that hurts. Going through the ISFDB list, I found five authors whose only credit was the story that never appeared in TLDV, and many more whose careers seemed to hit a brick wall in the 1970s. TLDV, had it come out in 1973, would have been groundbreaking, a landmark, something to propel its writers to greater heights. How many stories could have been written, but now never will, because it never materialized?

Again, TLDV would be a forty-year-old snapshot. Writers like Ann Leckie and Seth J. Dickinson, N.K. Jemisin and Benjanun Sriduangkaew--they are some of the people on the genre's forefront today, they are the sort of authors that TLDV was made to showcase. But it didn't, and it never will. At this point I am confident that Harlan Ellison™ will die without completing The Last Dangerous Visions.

It's ridiculous. Let me put it into a bit of perspective here: had The Last Dangerous Visions come out when it meant to, all the way back in 1973, this year's Campbell Award winner, Sofia Samatar, would have been two years old. Ann Leckie, who swept every major award for Ancillary Justice this year, was seven. For many other people who are making their mark on the genre today, they wouldn't even be born for years to come.

That's why I want to piss him off. Because it would move the equation ever-so-slightly back into balance, after what he's done to science fiction.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Tunnel Visions: The Detroit People Mover

Every once in a while I hop out of Toronto, land in some other city with some other light- or heavy-rail transit system, and look around at different ways of getting around by rail, whether it's on the ground, under it, or above it all.




It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that Detroit has historically been a bit ambivalent toward higher-order transit. In the early 20th century, when cities like New York, Chicago, and Boston were investing in heavy transit systems, Detroit deftly dodged efforts to build a subway. Early plans to run trains in the medians of the city's major arteries never left the paper they were written on, and by 1956--when Detroit was the fifth-largest city in the United States and even Cleveland was laying rails in the ground--the city's last streetcar line was replaced by buses, since that sort of thing was in style at the time.

Detroit's transit deficit wasn't helped by the suburban exodus that took off after the Second World War, and which to some degree continues to this day. Higher-order transit didn't make inroads in the city until 1975, when it joined the Downtown People Mover Program. The notion of a downtown circulator isn't an unusual one--the Chicago Loop is one of North America's earlier examples, and the closely-spaced stations along the Yonge-University-Spadina line fulfill a similar role in downtown Toronto. Detroit was one of many cities that applied for federal grants through the program, and in the end it was one of only three left standing.1

Today, the Detroit People Mover chugs along, gliding above the streets of downtown Detroit with a sound familiar to those who've ridden the rails in Vancouver or Scarborough, like a whisper from another world about what might have been.


System


The Detroit People Mover track parallels Beaubien Street in the eastern portion of downtown.

In terms of architecture and general layout, Detroit and Chicago are closely reminiscent of each other; not surprising, as they're both Midwestern cities that first came to prominence during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. That similarity with Chicago--if you've been there, or if you've read my earlier Tunnel Visions article about it--can also help ground the nature of the Detroit People Mover. Imagine the Loop in downtown Chicago, where trains from half a dozen lines roll in from the outer city and suburbs to deliver their passengers to the core--now remove all of those extra lines that feed passengers into it.

The total length of the DPM is barely three miles, strung in a loop that weaves through the skyscrapers of downtown Detroit from GM's headquarters at the Renaissance Center on the riverfront and goes as far north as Grand Circus Park, though it's still well removed from the section of highway that surrounds downtown and is only about a fifteen-minute walk from the river anyway. Also, when I say the route goes through the buildings, I'm being literal--aside from some stations that are built into the sides of certain larger buildings, a significant section of track is entirely enclosed within Cobo Center, an experience that reminded me of the coincidentally-named Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover at Disney World and how it passes inside Space Mountain.

The system also operates unidirectionally: when it was first opened the trains ran counter-clockwise, but as posters still visible across the network trumpet, it now runs clockwise "and even faster!" While the half-as-wide trackbed makes it easier for the People Mover to filter through downtown Detroit, it does introduce something of a calculus to using it--if you want to go somewhere nearby, but you'd have to ride around the entire loop to reach it, it might just be easier to walk it.

One of the things that struck me as odd about Detroit was how Michigan Central Station, the city's former rail hub and now well-known for its "ruin porn" qualities, was rather isolated from downtown. It's 2.5 kilometers from Campus Martius--for a Toronto comparison, it would be as if Union Station was at King and Strachan--and though it was served by streetcars on Michigan Avenue back in the day, and Amtrak ran commuter trains to it until declining ridership forced their cancellation back in 1984, it feels cut off from the fabric today. That leads into one of the big things keeping the People Mover from being anything more than it is: aside from a stop near Rosa Parks Transit Center, where local and suburban buses and even the tunnel bus from Windsor take on passengers, nothing feeds into the People Mover. Even the prospective commuter rail link between Detroit and Ann Arbor would only go as far as the Amtrak station, and would be dependent on the M-1 streetcar line--which started construction just last week--to connect people with downtown.

As it is, though, a lot of those streetcar riders might just bypass the People Mover anyway.


Stations



Bask in the 1980s ambience of the People Mover's Broadway station.


There are thirteen stations--for good luck, of course--strung along the Detroit People Mover like pearls, but I don't know many people who board trains via crystallized calcium carbonate retreived from some kind of mollusk, and if you know any pearls that have their own turnstiles you're odder off than even I am. They're all rather small, considering they only have one track to worry about, and are rather short as well. It felt to me like there was the room to maybe squeeze a third car in there, even if passenger numbers justified it, which they don't, and then you'd have to worry about whether or not you should warn alighting passengers to mind the third rail.

Once you're inside, there's not much to them; granted, I didn't visit every station Detroit has to offer, but I think the ones I ended up at were representative. They're entirely unstaffed, which the SkyTrain back west has in common, and each station is well-appointed with public art, but to me they felt somewhat... hollow. Quiet. They're not built with significant traffic in mind, and though stations do have their architectural flourishes, they struck me as rather bare-bones and minimalistic. The ones I travelled through were pretty spotless, but then, it's a lot easier to keep something clean when you don't have a constant stream of people coming through and scuffing things up. 

Still, the stations often didn't feel connected to the surrounding neighborhood--this is partially an artifact of how so many of them are built into or adjoining larger buildings, and partially because some of them seem to have been designed specifically so that they don't have to interact with what's around them. My prime experience with this was at Greektown Station, which serves one of downtown Detroit's more touristy enclaves. From the platform there's a staircase that leads down to street level, but when I'd done what I went to Greektown to do and headed back to the People Mover, I found that the door I'd come through was exit-only. There's another entrance, an elevated one connected to the building across the street that houses the Greektown Casino, but for the life of me I could not find it--in the end, it was easier for me to follow the track to the next station. 

I only encountered other people on the platforms a handful of times, and Renaissance Center Station was the only one where there would reliably be others waiting with me--and since the RenCen includes a 70-storey hotel, and two different conventions were going on the week I was there, I'm not sure it's representative either. I don't think the GM employees make that much use of it either, given the 1970s-level profusion of parking lots and parking structures nearby. The rest of them made Toronto's Ellesmere Station look like Grand Central.


Equipment


An ad-wrapped People Mover train glides over the streetscape.

Detroit is one of three cities that makes use of ICTS2 as the foundation of its rail transit network, and of those it was the most recent to start them rolling. It uses the same 1980s-era Mark I trains that Vancouver started with and which the Scarborough RT still relies on, but in exclusively two-car trains. Inside the cars seem like they've been left the way they came from the factory, with the walls and seats all resolutely beige, and the exteriors are all taken over by whole-car wrap advertisements. Detroit's cars do have small plastic "armrests" that divide the otherwise wall-length bench seating into groups of ones and twos, something I've never encountered in Vancouver or Scarborough. The operators also seem unusually obsessed with making sure riders don't lean on the doors--one set I found had no fewer than three stickers to that effect, but let's be honest; most people probably don't bother to read them anyway.


Ease of Access and Ease of Use



One would be forgiven for mistaking this for an entrance to Greektown station. It isn't--it really isn't.


One thing that surprised me right off about the People Mover was that unlike transit systems in most other cities I've been to, signage wasn't primarily in the dominant language of the area. There are plenty of examples of trilingual signage on the People Mover, written in English, Spanish, and Arabic--which isn't surprising, given the size of the Chaldean-Assyrian diaspora community in the Detroit area. But there's not much to read, though. System maps seemed few and far between, but then, it's not particularly easy to get lost on a line that loops back on itself again and again.

Access to the stations is governed by turnstiles that exclusively eat Detroit People Mover tokens--about the size of a quarter, and one can be yours for the low, low price of $0.75. I can't remember the last time I rode anything with a fare under a dollar... those kiddie back-and-forth rides you'd find in front of mall arcades, maybe. The token vending machines themselves look like the arcade change machines I used as a kid--hell, considering the People Mover opened in 1987, they were probably manufactured by the same company.

As far as my observations went, accessibility was pretty universal across the People Mover stations, with elevator access from street level to the platform. Considering the system was built in the late 1980s, it better have such access--it's not as if it's a product of the benighted, barbarous 1950s.


Conclusion


The Detroit People Mover is, fundamentally, a mover constantly searching for people--and it doesn't always find them. One of my rides was at 10:45 AM on a weekday, through Financial District Station, and aside from me the train was completely empty. During the course of my background research, I found a few sources indicating the People Mover has come close to being shut down, and it wouldn't surprise me if it yet came to pass. I mean, Detroit is full of potential, but right now it's held back by a mountain of problems. When you watch a train glide by a grand, towering, turn-of-the-century skyscraper that is in fact completely empty, or when you look past the platform at a building that's as thoroughly decked out in graffiti as is possible for one that probably doesn't have working elevators anymore, sometimes it feels like you're looking between universes--where the People Mover is an artifact of a city that could have been, quietly rolling above the city that is.

1 The other two are the Metromover in Miami and the Jacksonville Skyway. Like Detroit, the Jacksonville system lacks major transit connections outside its service area.
2 Yeah, I know they're calling it "INNOVIA Metro" now, but that's just rebranded corporate bafflegab anyway.


Previous Tunnel Visions

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Fresh Appearance

There may be one or two of you out there who're interested in what I'm on about. If that's the case, great! My latest short story--well, novelette, really--"Each Night I Dream of Liberty" is now available in the October 2014 issue of Analog. You can find it in bookstores and online, and if you're in Toronto you can also pick it up from the Union Fruit Market in Union Station or borrow an electronic copy from the Toronto Public Library.

Also, I've just come back from Detroit and Detcon1. It was pretty rad. Here, I brought back this photo of a seagull for yinz.


Fly!

Monday, May 19, 2014

Tailings of the Golden Age #1: Blitz Against Japan

"Blitz Against Japan," by Robert Moore Williams
Appeared in Amazing Stories, September 1942

"Who thought he had developed a secret weapon that was going to end the war," York harshly corrected. "He talks some politician into using pressure in Washington so he could get a trial. He brings his weapon out of Hawaii and installs it on two battleships. He says it will knock planes out of the sky as far as they can be seen, that it will smash the biggest battleship that was ever floated. He takes the battleships out for tests. Blooie! Two battleships gone. Only they were our battleships, the ones on which the weapon had been installed. This might not have been fatal if only the Japs had not chosen the very next day to attack the islands, with every carrier, every cruiser, every destroyer, and every battleship they had, not to mention a couple of hundred transports loaded with troops. We were two battleships short, two ships that might have meant the difference between victory and defeat. That's why we lost the Hawaiian Islands. That's why I'm damning Riemann..."


Here's a fun fact--I bought this issue of Amazing Stories specifically because this was the cover story. I knew it would not be particularly pleasant, and I was not proven wrong.

Picture this: it's Monday, December 8, 1941, smoke is still rising after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and just like that the war that's been raging for two years already has pulled the United States in. It was a conflict that some saw coming--hell, the October 1933 issue of Wonder Stories includes a story that posits the eruption of a war between the US and Japan in 1940--but even if you see the punch coming, that won't make it hurt any less if it hits. That's when you start smarting over it, maybe wondering why it happened at all, but more importantly figuring out how you're going to get back at the guy who swung at you.

That's the atmosphere in which Robert Moore Williams wrote the novelette "Blitz Against Japan," a story you've probably never heard of. Appearing as it does in the September 1942 issue of Raymond Palmer's Amazing Stories, which would itself have hit the stands by August at the latest, fresh wounds ooze through this story. Palmer himself called it "inspired and smashing." With the bright light of morning seventy-two years later falling on it, though, its more problematic aspects are thrown into sharp relief--and damn if there aren't a lot of them.

"Blitz Against Japan" is set in a dark, unpleasant future: specifically, 1943. The Pacific War, at least, is not going well for the United States--Hawaii has been captured, the Pacific Fleet has been sunk, and a gigantic Japanese invasion force is bearing down on the West Coast. We're introduced to our protagonist, Lieutenant Dave York, as he discovers the invasion fleet in a scout plane with a radio shattered in a dogfight with Zero fighters, races to bring the news back to the last American carrier in the Pacific only to find it sinking, runs out of gas within sight of the California coast, and ditches in the water rather than leave his back-seat buddy Red Johnson afloat and alone. They get picked up by a fortuitous seaplane, at least, so it's all good--I mean, except for the whole "the good guys are up against the wall" theme, which is hardly unique to this story. In fact, one of the things that came to mind while reading this story was that this was reminiscent of The Last Starfighter, except with less CGI and a hell of a lot more casual racism. 

Aside from the near-future setting, the story's main science-fictional element comes after York and Johnson return to land, when Johnson lets slip that his uncle, an inventor and scientist named Reimann, is looking for pilots for a secret weapon project that's so secret not even the US government knows about it--shades of the Manhattan Project, certainly. Reimann, we were told earlier to fill space before York and Johnson were picked up by the seaplane, had invented a weapon--the "radium projector"--capable of destroying planes and battleships with equal ease, but the weapon ended up destroying two US battleships instead... and wouldn't you know it, the Japanese attacked literally the next day and conquered Hawaii! The fact that York blames the conquest on Reimann, and not the monumentally massive intelligence failure that allowed the entire Imperial Japanese Navy to attack Hawaii with complete surprise, says a lot about the care with which this story was put together--though it could also be Williams commenting on Pearl Harbor.

So, Riemann has this secret weapon, but he's persona non grata among the military brass because of the battleship incident, and so York and Johnson decide to go AWOL--a capital offense during wartime!--and track down Riemann's secret laboratory, hidden at a horse ranch near San Francisco that Riemann himself owns, because who would ever think to look there? It's there that York discovers the secret weapon: a refined version of the radium projector, a radiation beam which can "accelerate the action of the forces normally present in the metal that cause it to disintegrate." These whiz-bang ray guns come mounted on rocket ships, because in 1942 everyone knew that rocketry was the wave of the future, even if they weren't sure how exactly it would come about. Riemann's rockets, despite having no wings--hell, from the bit visible on the cover, they don't have any control surfaces at all--will be enough to turn the tide of the war.

Then the Nazi saboteurs, fresh from sabotaging the original radium projectors, show up. That's right, what the hell did you expect? This is a war story after all. Here we also see the only female character in the story, York's girlfriend Rita, who exists primarily to sob, be called "kitten," and follow York to the secret laboratory, thereby leading the Nazi saboteurs right there as well. Thankfully, York received literally seconds of training on these experimental aircraft that bear no resemblance to anything he's ever flown before. It's just in time, because the big Japanese invasion of Los Angeles is proving to be only a feint, but before he can launch the Nazis invade the lab and start monologuing! They even let the characters listen to radio reports about how the Japanese are attacking San Francisco with poison gas--specifically, poison gas "released from thousands of hidden generators," only released after all the Japanese residents were evacuated, and the result of a plan that had taken years of preparation. Because, you know, every Japanese person in the United States was a deadly danger and a sleeper agent for Tokyo. The United States would never do anything so heinous as put innocent civilians in internment camps behind barbed-wire fences, so obviously those civilians must not be innocent at all! Everything falls into place, and the American people can believe they're doing the right thing.

That's hardly the way to go, though! The good guys manage to get the upper hand long enough for York to hop into one of these experimental rockets, fire up the engines, induce an oscillation because he's got no idea what he's doing, and slam into the side of a mountain. Wait, no, that's what would really happen.


 
Video: what really happens when you put an untrained person behind the wheel of a rocket.

Nevertheless, York manages to get the rocket in the air and keep it there. The Japanese fleet has assembled off San Francisco for the invasion, but with almost every plane on the West Coast fighting at Los Angeles, it's up to York to defend the Frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada. He gets a carrier in his sights, triggers the radium projector--and nothing!

Then there's one of the mid-scene scene breaks that happened all the goddamn time in 1930s and 1940s pulp stories, and we find it in fact did something. Then we encounter the Japanese, who start talking like characters from racist propaganda, or racist shoe advertisements. ("What happened to honorable carrier?" "Regret that this lowly one must report to honorable admiral that one carrier has been sunk.") I know that the Japanese language is really up about honorifics, but seriously, people. We then get reflections on how one 1940s destroyer could have sunk the Spanish Armada, and seeing as how the only danger York is in comes from his own skill at piloting, Williams had to throw in a final enemy worthy of his newfound power: the head Nazi spy, who appears in one of the other rockets. This epic duel of the fates lasts for an astonishing six paragraphs before the Nazi is shot down, and afterward the conclusion is obvious. The Japanese fleet is annihilated, and with its newfound advanced technology America is on the march for Tokyo.

In all, not exactly the sort of story that had a lot of staying power. Like the pulps themselves were seen by many, it's fundamentally disposable: meant to be read and then chucked away, tied absolutely to its time. It's not particularly strong, science-fictionally speaking--aside from the rockets and the radium projector it's just invasion literature, though SF has historically owed a lot to that genre. Kenneth Hite once described Gernsback's Amazing Stories as being filled with "odes to antigravity machines," and that's the sort of viewpoint that's echoed in "Blitz Against Japan." It's an entire story about how no matter how much we may screw up and get things wrong, if we put our faith in Blast Hardcheese--by which I mean technology--we'll make it through in the end.

Beyond that, it's just weird. The key to suspending any disbelief whatsoever for this story is to understanding the viewpoint of early 1942. In the United States, Japan was by and large a mystery--in his editorial, Palmer mentions that not even photos of the Zero fighter were available for artist Robert Fuqua to use as reference, though aside from minor details in the wing shape it's remarkably accurate. People were willing to believe that Japan was a juggernaut that would roll across the Pacific, that fifth columns of spies and saboteurs would hamper the war effort, and that the United States was weak and vulnerable. From a modern, historical perspective, it's flatly impossible. Japan did not have the resources to overwhelm the United States, but worst-case scenarios will always prosper in wartime.

This story did get one thing right, though: Japan's defeat came by way of nuclear weapons. Just not the kind you're thinking of.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Tailings of the Golden Age: Introduction

Recently there's been a lot of talk about the Golden Age of Science Fiction, and how the field has changed since the days of Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein. That it has changed is something everybody agrees on; it's the nature of that change that feeds modern fires. Beyond that, though, the nature of the Golden Age is harder to pin down than a smeerp in heat. There are plenty of folks who look back to it as a grand, idealized time when arguments like those we deal with didn't happen.

Golden ages aren't just about what we remember, lionize, or pine for, however. What's just as illuminating is what we choose to forget, and god damn have we forgotten a lot about the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Not entirely without reason, in some respects--while editors of the time did print things that are still talked about today, if you open a Golden Age magazine at random you're not likely to find a table of contents filled with familiar names. Fact is, you're going to find things that might challenge your view of what it was like.

Myself, I keep my eyes open for pulp magazines still in readable condition--you'd be surprised how well eighty-year-old pulp paper holds up under the right conditions--so that they can illuminate history. I'll be starting a new series of reviews using them as a source, looking at science fiction published between 1931 and 1964 that catches my attention. Look for it here soon.


history: it's rad

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

I've Got A New Project

I'm not going to tell you what it is yet--it's only just begun to take shape--but you'll start seeing it here once it's ready to be seen.

Here's a hint, though.

I'm excited.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Politics of Science Fiction

It felt like I'd had just enough time to catch my breath before yet another controversy enveloped science fiction. I swear, sometimes it makes me pine for days past, when I was bashing my keyboard just because and I was entirely ignorant of what all those Real Writers were up to in their golden palaces flying through the rarefied heights.

Except there never was a time like that. Nor was there ever a time before politics in science fiction. But that didn't stop Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds from weighing in in USA Today of all places recently, in a column about how, in his mind, there's no place for politics in science fiction.

My brief rebuttal: bullshit.

My longer rebuttal: this is some bullshit, man.

First off, for the record, I speak as a writer who's recently published a blatantly political science fiction story: "Three Years of Ashes and Twenty Years of Dust" in Strange Bedfellows. I tell you, it was hard coming up with a proper mode for that, but only because Hayden Trenholm was looking for stories in which politics and ideology were front-and-center. Politics are never strangers to science fiction, or writing of any kind--most often they're just hanging back in the shadows, lurking at the edge of the page, guiding the author's arm as the story takes shape. Hell, I have personal experience with that as well: my upcoming story, "Each Night I Dream of Liberty," is set on a sea-based libertarian community. I'm no libertarian, and that absolutely colors the work. I'm pretty confident that if the same notion the story runs on was taken up by a libertarian author, it would not particularly resemble what I produced.

Fish don't notice the water, except when they find themselves flopping on the bottom of a boat. People don't notice the air, except when we take a walk through the airlock without a spacesuit. In that vein, readers don't notice politics in science fiction, so long as those politics match their own.

Politics has always been with science fiction. For someone who knows the sordid history of science fiction fandom, the notion of it being otherwise is ridiculous: the very first World Science Fiction Convention, way back in 1939, was characterized by the wholesale ejection of multiple members of the Futurians, one of the New York fan groups active at the time, after the distribution of a pamphlet that railed against how "the event was run by coercion and dictators."

The problem with politics are the assumptions you carry along with them, that are hidden beneath them like contraband under blankets. Take how Reynolds starts off his column, about how in the Good Old Days™ when Men were Men (and when Women often had to write under Male Pseudonyms to be taken seriously), science fiction was open and diverse, headlined by people as varied as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein.

Because if a bunch of white men doesn't represent diversity, really, what does?

Reynolds mentions Larry Correia, one of this year's Hugo nominees, that he's been getting a lot of blowback. Thinking about it, though, considering that he posted a recommended nomination slate that included Toni Weisskopf, editor at Baen Books and whose post a while back fanned the flames with its talk of cultural divides between "us" and "them," and swine-that-walks-like-a-man Vox Day, aka Theodore Beale, who was kicked out of SFWA last year for using its Twitter feed to disseminate one of his racist screeds... well, what the hell conclusion did he expect me and others to draw? Something other than the winks and nods that say "come on, let's really get those lefties spun up in a tizzy."

Working to nominate people to the Hugo slate who are widely known specifically because of political stances they have taken is not an apolitical act.

there must be a controversy, I'm posting again