I find that I fully agree with David Levine’s analysis of the cultural appropriation imbroglio. Because it’s basically the same thing that I said when a similar brouhaha came up last year.

I heard about the supposed firestorm late, after the major participants had already had their say. The only thing that I want to add is that the original Elizabeth Bear post is actually a fantastic piece of advice for writing the Other.

This may be one of the best science fiction short stories in the form of a music video that I’ve ever seen. It’s got everything!

Androids? Check.
Outlandish costumes? Check.
Social commentary? Check.
Awesome dance moves? Check.

The only thing I can’t figure out is why the future cops arrest the umbrella-wielding vampire (I think that’s a vampire, anyway) in the middle of the show. (Yes, this really happens. If your reaction to the phrase “umbrella-wielding vampire” is OMG AWESOME, then you’ll like the video.)

I’ve embedded it below, but you might do yourself a favor and click through to get the high-definition version.

HT: Eve Tushnet.

This has been around the blogosphere a couple of times, but I finally took a look, and it’s as good as promised.

Dirk Benedict, the man who played the (male) Starbuck in the original Battlestar Galactica, has written rant against the sissified, womanly reimagined Battlestar Galactica. The rant itself contains gems like this:

“If Dirk doesn’t quit playing every scene with a girl like he wants to get her in bed, he’s fired.” This was, well, it was blatant heterosexuality, treating women like “sex objects.” I thought it was flirting. Never mind, they wouldn’t have it. I wouldn’t have it any other way, or rather Starbuck wouldn’t. So we persevered, Starbuck and I. The show, as the saying goes, went on and the rest is history for, lo and behold, women from all over the world sent me boxes of cigars, phone numbers, dinner requests, and marriage proposals.

As a lifelong heterosexual and advocate of heterosexual rights, let me say that I am deeply offended by the conflation of heterosexuality and womanizing.

Wait, it gets better:

I’m not sure if a cigar in the mouth of Stardoe resonates in the same way it did in the mouth of Starbuck. Perhaps. Perhaps it “resonates” more. Perhaps that’s the point. I’m not sure. What I am sure of is this…

Women are from Venus. Men are from Mars. Hamlet does not scan as Hamletta. Nor does Hans Solo as Hans Sally. Faceman is not the same as Facewoman. Nor does a Stardoe a Starbuck make. Men hand out cigars. Women “hand out” babies. And thus the world for thousands of years has gone’ round.

Wow. I mean, wow. You can’t make this stuff up, folks. And I’m even sympathetic to the point he might be trying to make, which is that men and women have significant differences and you can’t just swap one for the other. But of course, the new BSG doesn’t do that: the neo-Starbuck’s femininity is important to her character, what with her having been sent to a pregnancy farm and thinking she was a mother for a while, among other things. Benedict is right that a female Starbuck could never have been what the old Starbuck was, but he acts like that’s a bad thing.

Anyway, the real gem is the comments, in which many of his commenters point out that he’s a whining ninny upset that he didn’t get a role in the new BSG. My favorite is this one:

Dude, Katee Sackhoff’s Starbuck has a much bigger pair than your femme, hairbrushing, mirror-loving pipsqueek ever did.


I have to mention that the current issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies is pure excellence. Do you like fantasy stories? Do you like interesting characters and riveting storytelling? Then go and read both of its current stories, now.

The first story, The God-Death of Halla is one of those “elaborate religious ritual” stories that I’ve talked about before, but completely unsubverted. That is, it turns out that the God is being manipulated, but the reality of the God is unambiguously established throughout the story. The conclusion was exciting and glowed with the numinous–something hard to do in a short story.

The second, Precious Meat could easily pass for science fiction. The narrator is non-human, and nothing magical happens. What I loved about it, though, was the fact that it takes place at the moment the narrator’s species is passing into a social mode of existence; which is to say becoming fully sentient, and becoming something that we humans can relate to.

There is a particular type of fantasy story that has at its core an elaborate religious or social ritual, the more shocking and bizarre the better. I mean things like His One True Bride by Darja Malcolm-Clarke, Break the Vessel by Vylar Kaftan, or The Chosen by Ricardo Pinto. The subtext of these stories is usually that the religious beliefs underlying the ritual are false, and that they oppress those that participate in them. The opposite type also exists, in which someone, usually an outsider, derides the poor local superstition and gets his comeuppance for it.

Kingspeaker by Marie Brennan seems to be one of this type, but its conclusion does something amazing with the trope.

(Mild spoilers follow.)

At the opening of the story we see the female protagonist being stripped of her own voice to speak with the voice of the King. This seems at first to be merely ritual–she still speaks, and even speaks to the king, though she insists that she’s only saying the king’s words back to him. At the novel’s climax, though, the king becomes psychologically unable to say what he needs to say, and in a crucial moment the protag decides to speak up without the king’s command.

But notice: the protag doesn’t speak up for herself, which would violate the ritual logic presented in the story. Instead, she speaks in the voice of the king, saying what truly are the king’s words, the words the king cannot bring himself to say. Right at the place where I expected to see the ritual subverted, it was instead affirmed in a dramatic and ironic way. I was tickled with delight.

Transcriptase has been up for a few weeks. I meant to link to it a while ago, then put it off, then decided to say something substantial about it.

My first reaction was pretty negative. I wasn’t directly involved in the debacle or the ensuing debates, but it seemed to me that a lot of people had a draconian, puritanical reaction My feeling was, yeah, what he said was reprehensible, but I support the rights of people to hold ugly opinions without having to be drummed out of polite society. The reaction to the incident should not have been to brand Sanders with a scarlet R and purge him from sff-dom. Thus, Transcriptase seemed like a bad idea.

Then I read their “About” page and the accompanying author statements. This gave me a much broader view of the controversy, and a better view of the motives of the participants. The key was seeing Sanders’ reaction to the whole thing. It’s one thing to use insulting language in a private letter; it’s quite another to act like an asswipe in public. Plus, many of the author statements up at Transcriptase said basically the same thing I just did. With that in mind, my feelings shifted: whatever the proper reaction to the first incident was, the subsequent response was just asinine. The writers at Transcriptase have every reason to want to get their work away from that.

Plus: Transcriptase has an RSS feed, and Helix doesn’t. That right there makes me about 100x more likely to read it.

Hey, so it turns out that Meghan McCarron, who wrote Tetris Dooms Itself that I briefly commented on yesterday, also wrote The Magician’s House, which appeared a few weeks ago at Strange Horizons.

If I were to analyze McCarron based on these stories, I’d suggest that she has some issues that need working out. Tetris is a story about an icky, abusive relationship centered on violence and mutilation; The Magician’s House is about an icky, abusive relationship borne of an older magician’s ability to manipulate his student. Ick and abuse all around!

But I don’t actually think she has issues, mostly because (a) I’ve never met her and know nothing about her, and (b) writers are not their stories. Item (b) is the important one, here. I hate to think what someone would think who was diagnosing me based on the stuff I’ve written.

Here’s a popular Romanian joke:

A gypsy and his neighbor set out to build their houses. They spared no expense, and they succeeded in building two identical houses, brick for brick. When they were done, they both stepped back to admire their work. “What a great house!” the one said. “I’ll bet that I can sell it for a million dollars.” “What a great house!” the gypsy said. “I’ll bet that I can sell mine for two million dollars.” “What?” the neighbor said. “Our houses are identical. Why would yours sell for twice what mine sells for?” “Easy,” the gyspy said. “I don’t live next to a gyspy.”

And here’s a true story that happened to me while I was living in Romania: I lived outside of town and had to take a bus into work. I lived near a gypsy enclave, and my bus was often filled with people bringing their wares into town. One day the bus was very crowded (as usual), and I offered my seat to a youngish gypsy woman who looked tired and weary. She took it without a word. Then, about halfway through the trip, she started harassing me to give her money. I politely ignored her, but she became increasingly strident, offering to tell me my fortune in exchange for whatever money I was willing to give her. As she grew more insistent I grew more impatient, until the bus finally arrived downtown and I hurriedly disembarked to escape. No luck. She followed me, pulling on my sleeve and almost physically attempting to keep me from leaving. In exasperation I stuck my hand into my pocket and pulled out the first thing that I found: a 1000 lei coin (a tiny pittance, since a loaf of bread cost 10,000 lei at the time). I tried to push it into her hand, but it slipped out and fell into the muck and snow at the edge of the bus stop. She dashed after it, then looked at me in disgust when she realized that she had dirtied her hands for such a pathetic sum. A cop was standing nearby, and he started laughing. He winked at me in camaraderie–he naturally assumed that I had done this on purpose to humiliate the woman. Horrified and embarrassed, I fled from the bus stop and towards downtown. I say these two things to illustrate the following points:

  • Romani (gypsies) are subjected to immense, pervasive prejudice in Romania. One simply assumes that gypsies are dirty, irresponsible, rapacious, abusive, fortune-tellers, thieves, and swindlers. Anti-Romani racism is nearly universal and almost never questioned. In this sense Romania is quite different from the US, where racism is usually covert and subtle. Romanian bias is overt, obvious, and most of all considered normal.
  • At the same time, the prejudice is not really racial. It’s cultural. Romani who adopt mainstream dress, language, and lifestyle are pretty easily integrated. My wife descends from such a family: her paternal grandparents were gypsies who settled and entered Romanian mainstream, and this heritage has had close to zero impact on her and the rest of her family. She and all of her sisters are darker-skinned than the average Romanian, but no-one cares. I knew other people who were obviously Romani, but who had no trouble integrating into normal economic life once they took up Romanian dress, religion, etc. This also contrasts with historical attitudes in the US, where one-drop rules meant that people with mixed ancestry felt the full weight of segregation.
  • Partly for this reason, official attempts to redress this situation have been entirely ineffective, from what I can see. Officially, the Romani are not țigani but romi, and public-service advertisements against racism are visible in all major cities. The result? People now tell racist jokes using the word rom instead of țigan. Progress, eh? Additionally, there’s very little political consciousness among the gypsies themselves (that I know of). This dooms any attempts to address the problem through official channels, and makes the gestures that have been undertaken seem like condescension.
  • The story of what happened to me on the bus illustrates a problem with many of the accepted narratives about why racial stereotypes exist. In this feel-good just-so story, stereotypes are a means for the privileged to keep the underclass down, and closer interaction with the oppressed shows the stereotype to be false, and so racism disappears. My experience was just the opposite. Most interactions that most people have with gypsies in Romania serve to reinforce the stereotype. Indeed, the most horrific stories of spousal and child abuse I’ve ever heard have come from my sister-in-law and her husband, who do social work in an impoverished gypsy village. Their experience working closely with the Romani has not served to create the comfortable illusion that the gypsies are “just like us” beneath their skin, but rather has deepened the impression that there are terrible dysfunctions in Romani culture and mores.
  • Since the real divide between gypsies and Romanians in Romania is cultural, some people would counsel tolerance and mutual respect. Tolerance might be possible, but it will never lead to respect, because the differences between mainstream and Romani culture are imbued with moral significance. For example, it is not uncommon for Romani women to be married in their teens, and to have a few children by the time they reach their twenties. This is combined with widespread domestic abuse and general misogyny. Is this something that should be tolerated and respected? And this is just one example that I picked as congenial to Westerners–there are many other examples of cultural differences imbued with moral significance that separate the gypsy minority from the Romanian mainstream.
  • There is a conflict between the desire to preserve and respect Romani culture and the desire to eliminate prejudice against the Romani, because the culture is largely the cause of the prejudice. Okay, we say, we’ll keep the good (or neutral) aspects of the culture and get rid of the bad ones. Keep the bright dresses and lose the child marriage. Okay, but which cultural aspects are good and which are bad? And who gets to decide? The Romani themselves, or well-meaning liberal bureaucrats in Bucharest and Brussels? I have a hunch who’s actually going to set the policies that determine the future of Romani in Romania, and I’m suspicious that it’s just another form of racism, masquerading as multiculturalism.

And yet… I don’t think that we should be complacent about the treatment of gypsies in Romania (or anywhere else). I just think that we should be realistic about the content and the causes of prejudice. If you like this, you may be interested in A visitor’s guide to Romanian racism.

Update: Here’s another article about gypsy demographics, culture, and history which is relevant to this discussion.