Category Archives: Ye Olde Culture Wars

The Review, The Critique

The over-democratization of reviews and critiques in venues such as Amazon and Goodreads, far from opening up a space of popular discourse, has resulted in the crudest forms of populism. While it is indeed the case that we ought to build a culture of popular criticism, it is also the case that when such popular criticism is overdetermined by capitalist ideology the result is the valorization of the lowest common denominator. The average Amazon and Goodreads reviewer, paradigmatic of reviewers of art on other popular sites, has proven to be compromised by a bourgeois subjectivity that is disciplined by the capitalist culture industry.

What we find in these so-called “democratic” review spaces is the domination of impression over substance, the conflation of personal opinion with objective standardization, and the a priori assumption that one’s feelings about a work of art are tantamount to an objective critique. The “star” rating mechanics are not helpful in this regard since the encourage readers to rate a work of art based on their subjective apprehension of this work rather than a consideration that is anterior to whether or not they personally “enjoyed” the work in question. A reader-reviewer is thus encouraged to rate, in a positivist/mechanical manner, a work according to whether they personally “enjoyed” it, and thus to collapse personal opinion with objective critique, rather than to think through the work outside of the realm of opinion.

(This is to say nothing of “brigading” review practices where individuals on platforms such as Amazon or Goodreads decide to “punish” an author they dislike for dubious political reasons by one-starring them en masse.)

There is indeed something odd about Yankee-influenced discourses of democratic critique. There is a weird populism that treats personal opinion as existing on the same level of objective assessment. USAmericans, and those devoted to the USAmerican regime, are weirdly invested in the conflation of opinion with fact. An entire species of thought regimes are based on the assumption that every opinion is equal, and those expressing these opinions should have the right to treat them as truth even if they are in opposition to science. USAmericans pat themselves on the back when they defend the right of anti-science weirdos to treat their opinions about six day creationism as fact. This understanding is translated into the so-called”democratization” of literary criticism: USAmerican subjects, and those with the same magical thinking, are rating works of art and literature based on their own ‘sacrosanct’ opinions which they have been taught to see as objective. “Every opinion is valid,” is the liberal claim when this is, in fact, not the case.

This opinion-review practice can thus result in reviews that should not even qualify as proper reviews of a work of art in that they undermine the reviewer’s very ability to speak coherently about the work in question. One cannot provide a thorough accounting of a work of art, an aesthetic interpretation that tries to understand what it means as a work of art and its importance in the history of artistic production, if it’s being treated like a choice between a banana and bowl of cereal.

For example, I’ve encountered reviews that admit to not finishing a book because they found it “difficult” and then one- or two-star the book that they did not read because they did not finish it. You would think that finishing a book should be mandatory to writing a review that possesses the right to rate. You would also think that a reader’s inability to understand a piece of literature says more about the reader than the book: it is not the book’s fault, unless it was thoroughly obscurantist for no good reason, that an individual reader lacks the attention or care to try to understand it; that one- or two-star review should apply to the reviewer’s reading comprehension and not the book. Ulysses is difficult. Hopscotch is difficult. 2666 is difficult. It is entirely laughable to imagine that the worth of these great works of literature should be decided based on their difficulty. Conversely, does the fact that the same someone can mindlessly consume a Harry Potter novel and give it five stars mean that pulp fiction possesses a higher literary quality than works that are one-starred because of their difficulty? The very idea is ludicrous and, again, speaks to the collapse of the categories of personal taste/opinion and critical assessment.

The culture industry’s reconfiguration of reading comprehension and literacy around commodification and patterns of consumption has encouraged and valorized the insipid opinion-review. The idea of thinking through a work of literature, film, art according to its own terms – its aesthetic qualities, its relation to the social-historical context of creative production, the best interpretation of its meaning as a work of art – is excluded from a practice of thinking that has been cultivated by bourgeois ideology. While there was a time when bourgeois art critics could pat themselves on the back for their understanding of culture, those days are long gone: the logic of the bourgeois order, which only cares about art and literature insofar as it can be commodified, now militates against the very culture it once pretended to represent. Bourgeois cultural education is no longer an education that teaches an appreciation of the arts (this is the residue of a time when it opposed the dregs of feudal society, when it was generating creative thinkers), but an education of commodification and mechanization in every sphere of life: Transformers movies are its apotheosis.

But to review something rigorously, to engage with a piece of art in a manner that gives your review (and even your mechanical rating) justification, requires effort beyond the one-dimensionality of personal taste. That is, critically reviewing and engaging with a piece of literature or art is not represented by the insipid populism that is centered by the Amazons and Goodreads of the world. The idea, here, is very simple: it is possible to review a work of literature and art you don’t personally enjoy and still understand and celebrate its artistic/literary merits. And this is precisely what a “good” (meaning honest and critical) review should do: suspend personal taste, recognize that consumptive patterns are the result of socialization, and attempt to think through a piece of literature, art, or film according to artistic/literary standards that, though historically inherited, lurk outside of my personal tastes.

To review critically is to suspend your personal taste and opinion, to transcend the opinion-review practice. For example I do not enjoy reading Proust but I understand that the artistic importance of Proust transcends my personal taste. If I was ever to write a review of his work I would treat it with the gravitas it deserves: I would read it fully, I would engage with it as a work of art outside of my own enjoyment of the work, and would not dare to fire off an asinine review based on my inability to actually read the text in question. I never finished Swann’s Way (though I made it halfway through), let alone the other books of Remembrance of Things Past, because I found it entirely boring – and this is why I refuse to review Proust according to my personal experience of trying and failing to read his literary output. And if I had read him thoroughly, and had still failed to personally enjoy his work, I would still be wrong to review his work solely based on my personal experience. It is possible to understand the importance of a work of art without liking it… Unfortunately the populism of reader reviews in sites such as Amazon and Goodreads encourages the opposite.

If we are ever to transcend the mechanical appreciation of literature and art that is cultivated by these populist review sites we need to also recognize that thinking through a work of art/literature requires a suspension of personal taste as well as the requirement that the reviewer fully engage with this work. I don’t have to personally “enjoy” a particular work to recognize it as important; my opinion and taste should be suspended if I aim to write a review that matters, that can speak beyond the infantile category of subjectivism. Otherwise it is the celebration of Transformers and Harry Potter all the way down.


On the Dead-Beat Dad Trope

The dead-beat dad is such a common phenomenon that it is now a pop-cultural trope. Whereas two generations earlier television and movies reified the nuclear family as a fact of nature, and one generation earlier the depiction of divorced parents became normal, no longer a sin to be overcome with a Parent Trap, the patriarchal rot at the heart of the traditional family was finally demystified. Families defined by the absent father, the single mother (sometimes struggling and sometimes not) free from an abusive spouse, and a reflection of the rejection of the world of the father was slowly normalized.  The dad as dead-beat became a trope that reflected a reality that previous family tropes had obscured.

Mens Rights Activists (MRAs) often latch onto this trope as evidence of misandry within the culture industry. Against feminist claims about sexist depictions of women in media, MRAs like to claim (either out of ignorance, dishonesty, or a combination of the two) that it is men who are depicted in a sexist manner, the dead-beat being a paradigm example. Since they also claim that men suffer in custody arrangements since more women end up as custodians of the children, the trope of the dead-beat is perhaps particularly offensive since it reveals the lie to their crude empiricism: while it is correct that in situations of divorce and separation most women retain custody of their children, it is also a fact that most of these men do not challenge custody because they are in reality dead-beats who resist paying child support. The trope thus reflects a reality MRAs (some of whom probably are dead-beat dads) work hard to suppress.

But the thing with the culture industry is that, while it cannot help but reflect certain truths about social reality, it is quite adept at remystifying its tropes according to common sense ideology. Hence the emergence of a pernicious variant of the dead-beat dad trope: the redeemed dead-beat whose shitty behaviour is justified by noble gravitas. Since it is true that a large number of fathers in the imperialist metropoles are absent dead-beats of one kind or other, the media trope exists as an entertainment verisimilitude: most viewers will not identify with depictions of stable nuclear families, a large population cannot even identify with loving cis-het male divorcees. But in order to maintain this verisimilitude without turning men into eternal villains, which would alienate a massive swathe of the male consumer population, the trope of the dead-beat dad as maverick hero has manifested.

The 2008 film Taken best encapsulates this turning point in the dead-beat trope, the moment where it is recaptured by patriarchal ideology. Although significant as the film that catapulted Liam Neeson’s acting career into the type-cast of the gruff/aging/world-weary action man, Taken‘s true importance is in the reactionary reclamation of the dead-beat trope. Indeed, the characterization that would become Neeson’s current type-cast is only interesting if we understand its necessity for the performance of an ennobled dead-beat.

In Taken Neeson is only a dead-beat because of his commitment as a patriot. As a violent enforcer of US imperialism he was forced to make a hard decision between his family and the nation and, as any patriot with his particular “skill set” should do, he committed to the latter. If he is a dead-beat it is only because his family cannot understand the deep man pain of having to violently commit to the imperial aegis, so as to give their life stability from the horrors of terrorism. The inner truth is that he is only a dead-beat because his family, who could not understand the depth of his commitment to a better life promised to all imperial families, is incapable of understanding his pain of sacrifice. He is only a dead-beat because he sacrificed his family on the altar of the greater nation. In this way he is an echo of the Homeric hero: Agamemnon literally sacrificed his daughter to appease Poseidon, a sacrifice justified by the fall of Troy and the victory of the Achaians.

We are meant to feel pathos for Neeson’s dead-beat dad who, upon retiring and returning home, discovered that his home life, like that of Odysseus, is in disarray. But in the contemporary world of Taken the absentee father (whose absence was also justified) cannot murder his wife’s suitors and reclaim his patriarchal seat. Instead, more noble than his Homeric counter-part, he is forced to be “cucked” by a substitute father who is depicted as weak and decadent. There is no examination about whether Neeson’s character, Bryan Mills, has paid child support, let alone the political questions regarding a dad murdering for imperialists. Bryan Mills is the victim, showing up at the birthday party of a daughter he barely knows like every dead-beat asshole ever and we are expected to root for him because he is the real father; his nobility has already been established.

Taken in fact works hard to convince the audience that there is a good reason for being a dead-beat dad. It’s a good thing that Neeson never paid child support, never did any child-care or house work, because he learned those very “masculine” skills required to be a true father. Good thing he was a violent imperialist dead-beat because, when his daughter is abducted, he can prove to his ex-wife that he is the real father by doing what his effete substitute cannot: using all of his skills earned as a dead-beat in service to Empire to save their daughter. He murders and tortures all of the terrorist sex traffickers, demonstrating that the dead-beat is a noble protector, to save his daughter from slavery. In the end the nuclear family is validated by the violent dead-beat. Hell, Bryan Mills doesn’t even give a shit about the abducted daughters of other fathers, who aren’t as masculine to save them, because he ignores hundreds of other victims in his singular goal to preserve the sanctity of his biological family. It is the noble dead-beat who swoops in to save a daughter he hadn’t given a fuck to raise or support––but he is the biological father, the authentic head of a family he saves from the skills earned in as an absent parent.

In the 2016 film Deadpool Ryan Reynolds’ character, Wade Wilson, jokes about Liam Neeson being a bad father in Taken. “They made three of those movies,” Wade Wilson quips: “At some point you have to wonder if he’s just a bad parent.” The bigger joke, though, is that the audience isn’t asked to wonder if Neeson’s Bryan Mills is a bad parent before he parachutes in to rescue a daughter he has no social right to call daughter. According to the evidence supplied but suppressed by the movie, this dead-beat dad was a bad parent from the very beginning: abandoning your daughter so you can be a Yankee murderer, leaving her to be raised by a single mother without child support, should signal the behaviour of an abusive asshole. Instead, Neeson’s father in Taken is depicted with mythic grandeur: the dead-beat who justifies his absence by using the skills gained in this absence to prove fatherly machismo.

Taken is not alone in this retrograde reclamation of the dead-beat. Take 2014’s 3 Days To Kill, co-written by Luc Besson who was also behind the screenplay of Taken. (Is Besson a dead-beat dad? This seems to be a common theme in his current work.) In this film, Kevin Costner plays a CIA killer who, for reasons similar to Bryan Mills, has been absent from his daughter’s life. Hell, Costner even tries his damnedest to sound like Neeson’s gruff portrayal of the world-weary imperialist murderer. Battling against his hyper-sexed woman handler, Costner’s character must recenter himself as a father for a daughter who would lose her way without the reestablishment of the nuclear family. This daughter’s rightful resentment at his absence in her life is off-set by the fact that she needs him for stability. The tragedy is that he was only a dead-beat insofar as he chose to serve his nation, leave the child-rearing to a wife whose prime duty is to raise children, and thus the viewer is entreated to view his awkward attempts at reunion as truly parental. To be a dead-beat dad, we are meant to believe, is a supreme act of sacrifice.

This reclamation trope must necessarily brush up against the grain of reality. For in reality, dead-beat dads are not noble figures. As a father who cares about my daughter I cannot imagine abandoning her for some greater good, especially since the good I pursue is diametrically opposed to patriarchy––I can’t imagine leaving the lion’s share of childcare to my partner. Aside from these political motivations, it is hard for me to care about a father being taken seriously as a father when he hasn’t given a fuck about his daughter’s life for most of this daughter’s life. Seriously, why would any dead-beat dad who has spent the majority of his life ignoring his child suddenly become this child’s saviour? If this mythic biological impulse wasn’t enough to stay with the child, or at least to provide child support, then it probably won’t ever manifest in a meaningful way.


When the dead-beat trope is not being reclaimed and sanitized, however, it still functions to regulate our understanding of fatherhood and valorize patriarchal ideology. Since asshole fathers are so common there is a tendency to lionize a dad who manages to be a decent parent more than his mother counter-part. That is, there tends to be over-excitement around a father who cares for his kid, who does house work, who nurtures. No such excitement is accorded to mothers for doing the same thing because they are “expected” to be nurturing. In film and television the nurturing father is celebrated in a way that the nurturing mother is not; this both reflects and reinforces the way we understand parenting in reality.

All a dad has to do to qualify for a father of the year award is to not be a dead-beat. A pretty low bar to clear if you really think about it, but because so many assholes don’t clear this bar it’s seen as a victory for humanity when fathers simply succeed at being decent, equitable parents. It’s endearing and cute, like many anomalies are, prized because of its rarity. Sometimes it generates an aura of martyrdom: the man who gave up on being “masculine” (a career, maverick autonomy, etc.) for noble reasons, like Bryan Mills’ sacrifice at the altar of national security. The trope of the tragic widower (such as Jude Law’s character in 2008’s The Holiday) expresses this kind of nobility, a nobility denied to the widow.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been called a “good father” by complete strangers simply because they saw me playing with my daughter, taking her on long TTC rides, and pretty much doing what most mothers do on a regular basis. I get congratulated for being a responsible parent like I’m a hero for doing some pretty banal shit that my partner and a lot of women also do without random compliments by passersby. Being aware of this attitude, along with the fact that my partner has not received the same attention for doing identical work, prompted me to reflect on the matter a while back, so I won’t repeat myself here.

Moreover, this celebration of the father who beats the dead-beat odds is amplified for nurturing single fathers who have sole or primary custody of their children. Hell even if they have equal custody and do their part they are heroic!

Hence, even when the reality of male privilege in the context of parenting is accepted as normative, when the fact of the dead-beat dad becomes a trope, this privilege is still reinscribed. Either the dead-beat is justified with these ludicrous Taken narratives, or it becomes a low bar that, once cleared, congratulates cis dudes for being just okay. Our current understanding of the family really does need to be demolished.


Two Steps Back, One Step Forward: reflections on 2016 Hugos

Now that the 2016 Hugos have come and gone, and this year’s “puppy” slate has been defeated again, it’s worth reflecting on the state of SFF in the aftermath. On the one hand, N.K. Jemisin’s deserved victory for The Fifth Season is a lovely punch in the face to Vox Day and his supporters, particularly since Day’s genre counter-revolution was signalled by his racist comments about Jemisin. On the other hand, this victory is rather dismal: the “puppy” interference with the Hugos in fact reveals deep-seeded problems with the SFF mainstream that might in fact be reified by these liberal common fronts against obvious reactionaries.

But first the good. Victories by the likes of Jemisin and Okorafor should indeed be celebrated. The “puppy” slate functioned according to the racist proposition that works by women and people of colour were only winning awards, or even being nominated, because of some PC conspiracy: true to racist form, Day and his ilk simply assume, a priori, that any SFF book that isn’t written by a white dude could only win because of some affirmative action liberalism. Such an attitude is common to a pseudo-meritocracy approach to art where a privileged artist-to-be presumes that if there was no affirmative action or multicultural ethos affecting the cultural industry then their work would not be excluded from an establishment that supposedly is only accepting work from oppressed people groups. “If only there was a level playing field based on merit,” they crow, “Someone would look at my book/art/music/etc.” The ignorance of this attitude should be obvious to anyone who has bothered to study society, culture, and the cosmetic “affirmative action” ventures that actually do exist. There is no level playing field based on merit, the game was rigged for people who occupy sites of social privilege for a long time, and these paltry “PC” ventures are generally cosmetic attempts to make the playing field even so that merit can be considered in a broader sense – cosmetic because they really haven’t accomplished that much except open some cracks. Cracks through which thankfully creep, for example, the victories in the 2016 Hugos.

For anyone who has bothered to read the winners it should be clear that the works indeed merit the awards and that it’s only because of tireless activism amongst fans and activists who care about more voices being published and heard – who are tired of the bland work of the singular muscular male golden age voice – as well as SFF being taken seriously as a literary object. That is, the so-called “PC conspiracy” is about “merit”, the fact that other voices and their works have merit. You really have to be a committed racist to believe otherwise, although most people who push this “I-want-to-back-to-the-days-of-merit” argument pretend otherwise: unless they’re like Day and his friends, who are pretty honest about their racism (though completely dishonest about their assessment of “merit”), these kinds of people are simply average liberals who refuse to accept that the good old days of the culture meritocracy were the good old days of excluding large swathes of humanity for consideration of potential merit. The literature and arts industry does not exist in a vacuum cleansed of all the shit that determines a social formation; it operates according to the messiness of multiple social relations.

So in this context it is definitely worth celebrating the victories of the 2016 Hugo winners. Let’s be clear: the books that won deserved to win because they merited the win and not, as the “puppy” conspirators (they’re the ones who really launched a controlled conspiracy movement) would have it, because of an affirmative action attitude. For example, Jemisin’s The Fifth Season was one of the best fantasy novels in the past year: it had an extremely creative world-building conceit, it was uber-epic, it had an organic history and back story, its characters were compelling, its story punched you in the gut, and it was very well written. The real victory, here, is that we now have people who have been traditionally excluded from SFF being published and being read by the establishment… Prior to this crack opening social exclusion would have been such that similar possible works would have never been published let alone received the promotion necessary to make it to the Hugos. This is a good thing… But is it enough?

The thing with the “puppy” controversy is that in some ways it functions to help obscure a larger problem. If we’re all completely honest about Vox Day and his slate supporters we would have to admit that they don’t really represent the average SFF reader and consumer let alone critic and producer. Day runs a shitty little vanity press that puts out mind-numbingly boring, derivative, and hackneyed work that anyone who has been reading SFF seriously for even a year – even if all they read was Tolkien and Asimov – would dislike. The fact that Day’s followers are “fake sci-fi boys” was brought home by We Hunted The Mammoth‘s article on the 2016 Hugos where the authors screen-cap reddit comments from “puppy” supporters that demonstrate their ignorance of the genre: they talk about reading Asimov and Herbert as children, as if their SFF experience is in the foggy past and not contemporary; they complain that The Fifth Season was a novel about “climate change” (and by a black woman, no less, which is their real problem) when in fact the “climate change” it is about has no real world resonance; they have nothing interesting to say about the genre’s history, and most probably the old names they mention (and that they can barely remember) would hate them as well. It’s pretty easy to dismiss Day and his followers as being SFF outliers trying to “game” the SFF establishment because they’re a bunch of illiterate “philistines”.

That is, the outlier status of Day and his noxious ilk function as convenient scape-goat for the SFF establishment (of which Day was never a part, and that he is resentful of) which is generally liberal. The SFF liberals can lament how Day is ruining their game, even though he’s playing it at its utmost boundaries: “he’s gaming the Hugos,” they complain as if it was never a game to begin with, and one that should necessarily generate people like Day. It’s a bit like die-hard Hilary Clinton supporters complaining about the “stupidity” and “philistinism” of Donald Trump supporters as if US politics was not an imperialist game that always permits a troubling fascism to develop in its underbelly; an elitist and establishment imperialism pretends to be horrified by a movement that isn’t playing the game according to liberal racism but out-and-out racism. The Democrats can endorse “Blue Lives Matter” and send out drones to annihilate Third World bodies, but lord help us when a Republican openly proclaims an honestly extreme version of US capitalism and mobilizes a largely under-educated white garrison population with populist rhetoric.

In order to illustrate what I mean here, let’s think back on the 2015 Hugos where the “puppies” were first accused of “gaming” these awards much to the horror of the SFF establishment… Just like the entire rotten US political establishment reacted in horror to the “gaming” of its elite ranks by Trump’s populism. In 2015 the “puppy” takeover was also temporarily defeated. Left liberals probably congratulated themselves on beating back the reactionaries and preserving the sanctity of the Hugos by generally rejecting the “puppy” slates. The victory was more moralistic than substantial. And yet many of the same people who were opposed to the right wing “gaming” of the Hugos tended to be the very same people who voted for Laura Mixon’s Hugo in the best fan writer category. They didn’t seem to realize that the politics behind the “puppy” slates were the very same politics of Mixon’s article. The fact that they condemned the “puppies” and not Mixon means that the former was victorious, that it was justified to game the slate again, and that you don’t need reactionaries to “ruin” a prestigious genre award when social fascists will do it for you. Indeed, George R.R. Martin lamented in one breath that the Hugos was “ruined” by this “gaming” but in another breath endorsed the Mixon article (which was basically white supremacist character assassination of an author from the global peripheries using identity politics as cover) which was beloved by people who were simultaneously condemning the “puppies.” Hence the establishment can still remain an exclusive operation as long as it functions according to the logic of supposed “good sportsmanship” and not the openly racist logic the “puppies” whose real sin was breaking with said sportsmanship. Mixon’s article might as well have been a “puppy” nomination (and apparently Day liked it) and yet, with the “puppies” as the convenient enemy and Mixon as an ally of those who hated the “puppies”, it in fact represented a declaration of the SFF establishment.

The problem, then, is that we have on the one hand an explosion of SFF work that is challenging the status quo (what I have called elsewhere a new renaissance in the genre) and two responses to this eruption: i) the establishment attempt to contain it according to acceptable boundaries; ii) a reactionary attempt to denounce it entirely along with the genre history as a whole. While the first response seems preferable to the second its logic in fact permits the reactionary option: a tactic of containment and boundary preservation will always signal the supposed necessity to cleanse the contained, the nostalgia for a supposed golden era of SFF is not easily defeated. Nostalgia is most often conservative.

Hence, while we should indeed celebrate the victory of the 2016 Hugo winners over all attempts to silence excellent SFF produced from the margins (which is where, in my opinion, great literature is usually produced), we should also think through the boundaries produced by the SFF establishment. If the same people who complain about the “puppies” can also promote racist hit-pieces (i.e. Mixon’s fan fiction win in 2015) then we are dealing with an establishment that possessed problems long before the “puppies” decided to play its game.

The Strugatsky Brothers and the “Stalinist” Discourse

Recently, after reading Guatam Bhatia’s review of the Strugatsky Brothers’ Hard To Be A God, I’ve been thinking about the lack of critical literary criticism regarding genre fiction in the former Eastern Bloc.  Since I’ve wanted to reread this book after watching the recent movie adaptation, I was interested in its rerelease and review.  Unfortunately, it confirmed my suspicions that the vast majority of analysis around science-fiction from that time and context is marred by Cold War ideology, particularly common sense historical and ethical categories that are applied in such a way that books like this are not allowed to be judged on any merit aside from how they are part of some chilling, Orwellian world––how they are primarily criticisms of “Stalinism” and nothing else.


Hence, when I read Bhatia’s review I was reminded of a conversation I once overheard in a cafe, about a year ago, where I was working.  A patron was talking about Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita and how it was a critique of Stalin-era Russia.  While it is indeed the case that this book was in part a critique of the author’s time (as so many authors everywhere critique their social context), the discourse that reduces the meaning and importance of all literature (and indeed art) in the former Soviet Union to some creepy phallic signifier of “Stalinist” totalitarianism (where literary merit in this context is the work’s critique of “Stalinism”, resistance to armies of Soviet censors) is an uncritical truism that bears little investigation.  Hence the patron could actually argue that Bulgakov had not met with reprisal – had not been disappeared or gulaged – because “Stalin wanted him to feel paranoid.”  Point being: once it is assumed that all literature that is half-ways critical will face censorship, that the CPSU was suppressing all authors, then those authors who aren’t censored and imprisoned must be explained according to wild speculation.  In this case, psychologizing Stalin.

Back to the Strugatsky’s and Bhatia’s review – a review that is not as crude as the Bulgakov example, but demonstrates the same absence of critical reflection.  For Bhatia, the significance of Hard To Be A God has to do with “Stalinist totalitarianism’s sacrifice of individual freedom and autonomy to the iron constraints of the march towards an illusory utopia [that] has served as the political backdrop for a number of science-fiction novels.”  He then predictably mentions Orwell’s 1984 just as, earlier, he mentioned Arthur Koestler.

First of all, we have a discourse that has been overdetermined by a cold war conception of “totalitarianism” – not a very useful understanding of political history outside of cold war ideology – that was crystallized in and motivated by the work of George Orwell.  Elsewhere, on my other blog, I complained about “animal farmism,” where Orwell is treated as some moral authority on actually existing socialism.  This is particularly problematic now after it has become quite clear that Orwell was a pro-imperialist snitch who named names of communist supporters and sympathizers, itemizing them as “Jews” and “homosexuals” and even calling Paul Robeson “anti-white” for wanting to fight US white supremacy. Orwell’s pithy moral tales have little to do, in my mind, with the more complex work of the Strugatsky brothers.

Secondly, we have a discourse that homogenizes the complexity of the Soviet Union, as well as the former Eastern Bloc, into that measly and grey-shaded category of “totalitarianism.”  Indeed, this understanding does such damage to history that critics such as Bhatia can use the term “Stalinist” to refer to the entire history of the CPSU – from Stalin to Brezhnev – despite the fact that there were significant political differences.  Indeed, Bhatia himself seems to indicate that there were indeed such differences when we speaks of the “thaw” of the Khrushchev era, but since following this thread would force him to think of the Strukatskies beyond the “Stalinist” signifier he shies away from this fact.  Indeed, Boris and Arkady Strukatsky began to write in the Khrushchev era, so a critique of “Stalinist totalitarianism” should be a meaningless charge.  The Khrushchev era was seen, by a large faction of the international communist movement, as revisionist and a chill on world revolution.  The entire anti-revisionist Marxist-Leninist movement, following the Sino-Soviet Split (in which the Chinese would argue that the Soviet Union under Khrushchev was “state capitalism”), saw the CPSU under Khrushchev as a horrendous dislocation from socialism.  Nor was it clear, as Bhatia blithely assumes, that there was some kind of cultural “thaw” promoted by Khrushchev.  Nor is it correct, as Bhatia assumes, that Brezhnev represented a return to the Stalinism that was supposed to not go away in the first place: again, large segments of the international communist movement who were actively upholding – rightly or wrongly – the legacy of Stalin were calling Brezhnev a “Khrushchevite” and “social imperialist.”  And these are just the molar distinctions in the CPSU, and very briefly described, which say nothing to the inner complexity that Russia in that long period would have possessed.

Thirdly, such a conception of literature in the former Soviet Union does great damage to our understanding and appreciation of the literature itself.  What is extremely interesting about literature in the former Eastern Bloc is the prevalence of quality science fiction.  How could the Strugatskies, along with so many other authors, have emerged in a lifeless and grey-shaded literary world that supposedly imprisoned every creative thinker?  How could Stanislaw Lem similarly emerge in Poland?  The answer is always too easy: because they were fierce individuals, geniuses devoting to mark out their creative territory in the face of “Stalinist” oppression.  Then critics like Bhatia throw out or downplay everything otherwise interesting in these books, searching for metaphors about the ills of totalitarianism that will vindicate the capitalist end of history.

For example, what I find interesting about the Strugatsky brothers’ Noon Universe is not that it is some sort of anti-communist critique – a supposed metaphor for all that is wrong with “Stalinism” – but that it is a series of complex internal critiques of what will happen when a future classless society, that has indeed transcended so many social issues, encounters external contradictions that can only come at some point when the forces of production have been freed from predatory capitalist relations.  Indeed, the Noon Universe is a direct precursor to the late Iain M. Banks’ “Culture”, a communist space-faring society.  Banks has repeatedly said that the Culture is the best kind of society that could exist, but his books demonstrate his interest to prove that even the best societies can make mistakes, that history does not end, and that passing beyond the communist horizon does not mean a static and boring existence, that drab collectivism that Randroids babble about.

Hard To Be A God (which in many ways is the main inspiration for Banks’ Inversions) is about what happens when people in an advanced communist civilization encounter a planet where the main civilization resembles the most brutal European feudal states.  The question, here, is not whether the communist civilization making this encounter is a bad civilization in which to live – in fact it’s quite the opposite: the communist civilization is much better than the brutal feudal world, the tension is whether or not the cosmonauts from communism have any right to intervene in this brutal society: would such an intervention be social imperialism, would not intervening also be unethical.  And the fact that Bhatia wants to compare this to the events of Prague Spring is just insulting: this is not about a civilization trying to hold unto a state that is breaking away from its hegemony… if anything it is closer to what would happen in Afghanistan, but even then that doesn’t best represent the conflict.  Could it also be read as a critique of Khrushchev’s theory of peaceful coexistence? Perhaps, but again this one-to-one allegorizing is too simple and the very kind of analysis that critics of science fiction try not to level at books produced within capitalist nations.

None of this is to say that there wasn’t a problem of censorship that affected literary production, particularly during the Stalin era, but there are still problems in focusing solely on this detail: i) it’s been done to death, so there are no new insights to literary analysis that it can motivate; ii) its existence is poorly understood, particularly since it partly existed because the siege socialist mentality that was created by the fact that world imperialism wanted to annihilate the Soviet Union the moment it was founded, that the CIA was indeed funding literary journals dedicated to fighting communism; iii) much of the literature that is explained according to “Stalinist” censorship was written when this censorship was greatly relaxed; iv) many of the authors that had to deal with censorship, though rightly critical of this constraint, were far more critical of the capitalist countries.

On the fourth point, let’s take Stanislaw Lem as an example.  It’s hard for anyone to try to distort his work to the level of anti-Stalinist allegory when he spent some time trashing US science-fiction writers in general as being ideologues for US capitalism, prompting Philip K. Dick (who by then was suffering from schizophrenia) to claim that Lem wasn’t a person but a soviet bureaucratic collective.  And if we combine Lem with the Strugatskies (who were inspired by Lem) we have examples of some very different and extremely literary science fiction that – in many ways superior to what was being produced in the US – was somehow emerging in a context of “totalitarianism” that should have stamped out, if it was really that total, anything creative.  But these books were making it past the censors and being published!  How can we understand this fact if they were also completely anti-Soviet?  By claiming that the censors were all ignorant semi-literates… more ahistorical conjecture, and completely illogical: if a state is indeed “totalitarian” it would have the total control to grant itself literate censors.  And indeed, many of the men and women working for the state literary departments were trained in literature.

All in all, what I’m trying to say here is that there needs to be an assessment of Soviet science-fiction that transcends the tired cold-war discourse that only persists to remind us that capitalism is the supposed end of history.  Any time a review of classic Soviet science-fiction is written it should steer clear of making pithy historical claims and, if it must (and it should) ground a work within its social context it should spend some effort to understand the actual complexity of this context rather than relying on narratives inherited from hack writers like Orwell and Koestler.  Read some of the historical analyses of critical Sovietologists, for crying out loud, if you must!  Or maybe try to make sense of this literature according to a Soviet imaginary of space – that wild imaginary that led the space race.  Or even look at the universal tropes produced by authors such as the Strugatskies, that continue to influence science-fiction authors now and trace out the ripples of meaning (i.e. Jeff Vandermeer’s Area X trilogy, M. John Harrison’s Nova Swing, Iain M. Banks).  Avoid the words “Stalinist” and “totalitarian” which limit thought.

And with this in mind I’m going to watch, in the next few days, German’s adaptation of Hard To Be A God.

Looks pretty evocative!

Looks pretty evocative!

The Enemies of Imagination: genre fiction and me

My introduction to the world of genre fiction – more precisely the interlinked territories science fiction, fantasy, and horror – happened consciously in the summer between third and fourth grade when I convinced my grandmother to buy me a Michael Moorcock book.  My parents had already wet my appetite for fantasy, having read Lewis and Tolkien to me at bed time since the first grade, and I finally wanted to read a fantasy novel for myself.  I ended up with Moorcock by chance: my grandmother was unwilling to buy me some of the more lurid looking novels on the bookstore shelves (so many novels with scantily clad men and women posing with trolls, dragons, or what-have-you), and the only thing that looked “appropriate” to her was an omnibus edition of Moorcock’s first Corum trilogy (The Swords of Corum).  Neither she nor I realized what I was reading until it was too late: my soon-to-be fourth grade self was inundated that summer with the height of violent, anti-Tolkien fantasy.  I recall reading Corum’s long awaited revenge on the man who had genocided his people in the last chapter, complete with the description of him “gurgling blood” when the protagonist shoved his sword into his throat.


Yep, this was the edition. Loaned it to someone in the first year of my undergrad and never got it back. Re-bought a used hardcover version, because I wanted to read it again, but still miss this one…

Hence my interest in the genre was marked by one of the more transgressive authors of the time.  Like any kid-turned-fanboy, I spent the next several years reading anything and everything written by, or connected to, Michael Moorcock… Which of course led to me discovering the Science Fiction “New Wave”, non-fiction articles where Moorcock celebrated Andrea Dworkin, anarchism, and the kind of genre fiction that intentionally rejected the conservative values (though not always completely, though often still ensconced within sword and sorcery conventions) of Tolkien and his derivatives.  Not that, as a kid, I didn’t enjoy that “more conventional” fantasy and science fiction as well, just that I was drawn more to the less accommodating authors, novels, stories.

Simultaneously, like so many other genre geeks, I found my way into the world of comics.  Here, also, I was helped along by my father who had been, during his childhood, an avid collector of Daredevil (he had, and still has, the first thirty issues – and yes, if you have to ask, he loved the recent Netflix adaptation) and let me and my brothers read his old comics.  Since it was the mid-1980s, and the comic world was exploding with indie creators, I ended up collecting (mainly through the influence of one of my best friend’s older brothers) Cerebus, Frank Miller and Alan Moore stuff, and other fringe comics.  Yeah, I still read the standard super hero fare but thank god for that friend’s older brothers who, when they were my age, collected all the stuff I might have otherwise collected but didn’t care for it anymore – they let me read all their stacks upon stacks of X-Men, Avengers, Spiderman, Justice League, Fantastic Four, etc. while convincing me to read “better” things.  Spiderman seemed less exciting when one of these brothers handed me an issue of Watchmen.  I didn’t really get it, mind you, and the fact that I thought Rorschach was awesome and dressed up like him (borrowed overcoat and fedora from dad, shitty homemade felt mask) for Halloween in grade six.

I mention the way I was introduced to this geek genre world mainly to explain how I understood these things, what I saw was valuable in books and comics from a young age up to the present, and thus how I learned to conceptualize the genre(s).  Drawn to the more “fringe” (but still massively influential) tendencies, I usually possessed less interest in those books that were more about world building and less about challenging conventions and values.  (Although, in the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that Dungeons & Dragons temporarily ruined me for a few years because it drew me into the world of TSR pulp, with its Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms, which detracted from the better stuff I was reading.)  This was geek world before the internet (closest I got to that, back in the day, was Bulletin Boards, particularly the ones where we downloaded pirated software), and so never had anything to do with internet genre fandom.  Hence, when I first encountered the internet geek genre community, when I was an undergraduate with my genre tastes intact and my political values blossoming, I wanted nothing to do with it because it struck me as representing everything I had rarely found interesting since I read that Corum book.

For me, sci-fi/fantasy/horror [SFFH] and comic fandom best represented a genre that challenged conventional mores.  Tolkien derivatives, slasher horror, the boring kind of space operas, and mainstream superhero comics mainly represented things that were fun but not all that serious, nothing to defend rabidly if it came down to it.  Indeed, I was used to making caveats: “yeah I like science fiction, but really it’s good and you should check out The Dispossessed;” or “yeah that X-Men and Superman stuff is fun and all, but comics can be pretty cool – look at this issue of Cerebus: Church & State;” or “okay, Stephen King as a whole is kind of whatever, but The Gunslinger is awesome, and anyways Clive Barker is where it’s at.”

Point being, and most probably because of the first fantasy novel I read for myself, I was under the impression that the SFFH genre ought to be aimed at the more challenging avenues of imagining, that Tolkien was good for his time but his imitators were super boring, and that if you were “a real SFFH nerd” (I was too young, by the beginning of my undergrad, to know this was an “all true scotsman fallacy,” let alone that this fallacy, like so many fallacies, highly debatable) you’d care about the ways in which the genre(s) were pushing against convention, challenging thought, making you think about the world in non-conservative ways.  Maybe this was because I really took seriously the claims Moorcock and Ballard made about the “New Wave” movement, but I tended to mock people who didn’t like genre fiction as being “the enemy of imagination.”  Because that was what, in my mind, it was all about: imagination.

Sadly but predictably, in the past decade I’ve come to realize that geek genre fandom is also, on the whole, “the enemy of imagination.”  They might not be the enemies of imaginative world building, but so many of them – enthralled to bourgeois common sense – are the enemies of anything that challenges genre convention, sublimated and reified political/social values, even literary quality. That this geek genre fan community is opposed to thinking beyond the ossified conventions of their genre, beyond their most cherished authors, is pretty annoying considering that these genres were supposed to be about the limits of imagination in the first place.  I mean, let’s look at some of the more recent “controversies” that this disparate community-that-is-not-a-community has encountered.

First, there is the gaming of the 2015 Hugo Awards. Some reactionary dude-bros decided that the Hugos were getting too “political” and/or “literary” and created slates, that they got legions of organized internet fascists to vote in en masse, which is something even my fifth grade self (who barely understood feminism or anti-racism) would find weird.  I mean, these were appeals to go back to some golden age of the genre that never existed when Science Fiction and Fantasy were just about boy fun!  The claim was a denial of everything that had made me genre geek in the first place, was openly opposed to the imaginative potential of the genre, and legitimated the kind of books I found boring when I was ten.  Dude-bros!  I was reading Le Guin and Ballard before I was eleven and thinking this shit was the very definition of the genre.  Hell, I encountered Delany and Butler when I was twelve (though I did not, in the case of Delany, read Dhalgren until my MA – back then it was Nova and the Fall of the Towers trilogy), at the same time as I was reading some weird Charles Williams stuff I pulled of my uncle’s shelf.  Whatever genre past these assholes were appealing to was not a past I understood… and beyond that, their political imagination was both laughable and offensive.  No point in going into this fuckery further; N.K. Jemisin, who my fifth grade self would have also loved, summed up the poverty of their thought quite succinctly.

Secondly, there was that furor around the ways in which mainstream comics have been made more accessible for pre-teen girls.  You know, considering that this demographic makes up a possible 50% of the population that will purchase superhero comics it might be best to craft some title to them instead of horny pubescent boys?  Well fuck them for trespassing on our territory, internet geek fandom of post-20 basement dwelling man-children proclaimed, we want our superhero comics to have every woman character in porny clothing because that’s the way it’s been for a while.  For a population that thinks of itself as rather clever, they really did show the impoverishment of their imagination when they demonstrated that they were completely unaware that their love for these overtly hetero-male comic book conventions meant that they were now in the minority. The fact that there were now mainstream comics in the Marvel and DC universes aimed at girls meant that these comics were selling, better than some of the good old boy titles!  But since I wrote about this on my more popular blog, in connection to my daughter’s future, there’s no point in repeating myself here.

[Besides, as an aside, that part of me that found these superhero comics less interesting in grade school had to wonder “why do you even care?” If you really cared about comics you should care about the less corporate titles, or even those titles within the big industries of Marvel and DC that challenged, specifically in the time when I was getting into comics, these values.  Watchmen (which I use as an example because of its long popularity, because of its cult status, because of how this popularity and cult status was renewed by that god-awful movie adaptation) was important precisely because, in its own and limited way, it tried to challenge this kind of superhero bullshit… Are all you people like my sixth grade self and love Watchmen because you think Rorschach is awesome rather than, as was intended, the depiction of the kind of person who gets swept up in fascist politics?]

But, thirdly, this comic book conservatism finds an even more pernicious outlet in the boycott cults aimed at every movie adaptation that defies the 1950s values of serialized comic characters.  Like all the recent hate being directed at the upcoming Fantastic Four adaptation because the director had the audacity to cast an African American actor as Johnny Storm.  So much so that the director, after receiving a shitload of racist hate mail, bowed off of another high profile project. The same kind of racist “preservation of white characters” happened with the Thor movies as well, with the same people angry that Idris Elba was cast as a Norse god (though, as one of my friends and comrades jokingly pointed out, the racists should have been happy since Elba’s character was the Norse god version of a doorman), so this attack on Fantastic Four was predictable.  You’d think they would realize that this treatment of Fantastic Four can’t be any worse than the last version  – with the guy from Charmed playing Doom, and Captain America playing Johnny Storm (now that’s confusing for the Marvel Universe!) – which was only marginally better than that Roger Corman unreleased bootleg.  But these fans’ only problem real problem with the current iteration is that one of their beloved white characters is now black.  This shouldn’t even be seen as super transgressive after, you know, the Civil Rights movement: we’re talking about the lowest level of the political imaginary, and if they can’t get with that than they really are behind the times in term of cultural transformation.

Fourthly, due to the world of internet blogging, we have now reached a point where there are a few bloggers who possess the mental constitution (of 18!) to challenge the values of popular authors and novels.  These challenges are immediately met with trolling and an entire dedicated fanbase who feel personally violated when their favourite author, who really has nothing financially to lose, is being called to account for some of their problematic positions.  Like the Bakker debacle initiated by Requires Hate (who has now been viciously marginalized) where even the author, after his fans rallied to defend him, complained about how his sales were being hurt by a female blogger.  Or the critiques of Martin that are met with charges of “jealousy” on the part of fanboys who just can’t stand it when their fave author is being challenged. Debate, critique, challenge is considered anathema to this world of genre warriors who, for some reason, like to believe that they are somehow representing the most daring aspects of their chosen genre.  Yeah you’re defending Martin today, because Game of Thrones is on television and all and so you need to justify all the rapey-ness of it, but if you were around two decades ago you probably would be defending Dragons of Autumn Twilight or how Drizzt was fucking awesome in The Crystal Shard.

In any case, the world of the geek genre is not how I imagined it would be when I saw myself as part of this world, back in the days before internet fandom.  It probably never was how I imagined it; there’s no point in appealing to a past-perfect (as reactionaries like Vox Day do) that never existed.  Rather, the development of this genre community on the internet in the past decade and a half has taught me that there really is no commonly understood genre, that the dominant community assembled around this genre is far from thoughtful, and that even SFFH fans are, on the whole, the enemies of imagination.