On jokes, and how to take them

You probably already know more about the Charlie Hebdo massacre than I do. This isn’t about that. The shooting spree is certainly the spark for what I have to say here but, aside from sharing in the grief of this senseless loss of life, it’s not exactly the point.

This is more directly a response to those people who say, “Yeah, ‘Je Suis Charlie’ is a great catch phrase but you, you left-leaning wise-asses, are in no position to state it. You’re not Charlie because, if you were, you’d have been speaking out against self-censorship for years. If it wasn’t a government or a religious order you feared, then you were tiptoeing through the minefield of political rectitude your own allies laid around you. Maybe you could cough up the courage to hurl your bile at “Repugnicans” or “Teabaggers,” but when it came time to call out overreaching leaders of feminist, gay rights, illegal alien, or umbrage-taking minority grievance merchants, you’re missing in action. You never had the balls to be Charlie, and now you must’ve rented them from somewhere to say you are.”

What can I say? Those voices are, like the allegorical broken clock, right at this particular second.

I’ll start with chastising myself. In 2005, I started work on what would be my first novel, Land That I Love, which was a thinly veiled critique of the hubris that led to the Iraq War. George W. Bush had just won a second term in the White House. (I hesitate to use the term “re-elected” which implies he was elected the first time.) It’s hard to believe now, but at that time, political humor at Bush’s expense was completely lacking in major media. You could chide him on his doofus image, but you couldn’t say anything against his policies because if you did you “were with the terrorists” or “hated our freedoms” or “didn’t support the troops”. It was all bullshit, but nobody wanted to be the first to call it. It took me a year to write LTIL, during which the Katrina response fuck-up and the now half-remembered Social Security reform gamble began the thaw. Even so, nobody would publish the book until W was out of office. I still have rejection letters from the Bush years telling me how little appetite agents and publishers had for political satire.

You’d have thought I’d learned my lesson about being more aggressive with the targets of my humor after that, but no. Whether I’m too nice a guy for this line of work or I’m just a pussy is a matter of interpretation, but I’ve demonstrated the point again as recently as last year.

There’s a speculative fiction author of great renown whom I have long respected professionally and who has on occasion provided me with valuable mentoring. Then he wrote a book which I thought really, really sucked. Now, it got great reviews and some real bigfoot novelists stood in line to blurb it. But I maintain to this day its literary quality is a mass delusion, an emperor’s-new-clothes beauty contest to see who can put the best shade of lipstick on this pig. Not to say this guy hasn’t written great stuff before and will again, but this was Book One of the What The Fuck Trilogy.

So I ping this guy offline and say that I wanted to lampoon it, a la what the Harvard Lampoon did to Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. He said yes. I offered to let him see it before anyone else. He declined, stating that it wouldn’t be in the spirit of the exercise if he held any sway over the process. Then in a post to this blog, I mentioned the project, including this author’s name.

Within 20 minutes, he’s IM-ing me to take down the post, excoriating me for making public what he considered a private conversation (which was true, but there’s a difference between private and privileged, and at no point did he tell me the conversation was not to be shared), and demanding that I immediately stop work on the parody. Bear in mind, I don’t think I got more than one or two hits on this site by the time he ordered me to take the post down. I don’t know if he was using some kind of sophisticated sniffer software or if he’s really that troll-y about his name on the web. Doesn’t really matter.

So I ceased and desisted. I like to think it’s because I felt a little guilty about blindsiding him with the announcement, and I (still) consider him a friend and didn’t want to foment any further ill will. But at some point I have to ask, was it worth stopping a creative project? And the answer is no. I didn’t want to offend a friend, but maybe I was more concerned with pissing off someone who’s in a position to do my own career a serious setback or a serious boost. And that is the absolute wrong reason to put the brakes on. I’ll say this now: I don’t know if I’m going to go back to work on that project. I don’t want to do it out of spite any more than I want to not do it out of candy-assedness. It’s a matter of whether or not it’s worth the time and effort. The author of the work to be lambasted doesn’t get a vote. You do. If you want to know more about this project or you want to encourage me to go forward, you know how to get a hold of me. (And if you don’t know how, just leave a comment here.)

But these aren’t the only example’s of the speculative fiction community’s lack of humor. You might’ve seen the internet meme about honest state mottos. A well-regarded feminist author posted it to her Facebook page (the day after I posted it to mine). It includes such bon mots as “Idaho: We’re More Than Just Potatoes. OK, Maybe Not But the Potatoes Are Real Good.” And “Illinois: Where A Politician’s Term in Office and Prison Sentence Are Roughly the Same.” But one gentle soul chided our feminist scribe because, buried somewhere in those 50 jokes, was “Hawaii: Haka Tiki Mou Sha’ami Liki Toru (Death to Mainland Scum, But Leave Your Money).” This, it was purported, cast Pacific Islanders in an unfavorable light. And to this, the author apologized profusely.

Really? “Florida: A Wonderful Place to Enjoy Pain Pills and Die of Old Age. And Vice Versa” doesn’t have a taint of agism to it? “Arkansas: Literassy Ain’t Everything” doesn’t sound like privileged elitists pissing on those with lesser formal education? “Utah: Monogamy and Cheap Drinks … Who Needs ’em?!” doesn’t perpetuate an outdated stereotype of Mormons? And then there’s my favorite: “Kentucky: Five Million People; Fifteen Last Names” which is certainly less than accurate. But these stereotypes attack white, Christian people who are, apparently, free targets while the honor of Polynesians must be defended. Or something. Maybe somebody can volunteer a clearer explanation.

Which brings me to the whole topic of ethnic humor.

I’m all in favor of it.

There is a line, of course. But it’s not a matter of good taste. There’s no reliable arbiter of that. A humorist just has to play it how he or she feels. The distinction is this: intent.

There’s nothing funny about hate. Just the other day, I reposted a photo illustrating an act of vandalism that, in itself, was harmless, but was nonetheless an apparent hate crime. I have absolutely no tolerance for that kind of intentional malice. But a day later, I reposted a link to a news story headlined “Why Women Shaving Their Faces Is Now a Thing” and added this comment: “Not judging. Know too many Italians.”

As any other New Yorker — especially those of Italian heritage — will tell you, that’s just busting balls. It’s what Italians, Irish, and Jews have been doing for a hundred years around here. We know each other well enough and long enough that nobody takes offense because nobody takes it seriously. We still eat in each others’ restaurants, drink in each others’ bars, and march in each others’ parades. We laugh at each other because we don’t mind laughing at ourselves. The Puerto Ricans have recently caught up to this too. Humor can build bridges as well as minefields.

Well, this turned into a rant, but not a pointless one, I hope. We need more humor, not less. And it needs to be a little bit dangerous.

Think of it as analogous to sports. They’re both all about aggression. Humor can be a way to get it out of our systems without devolving into full-scale conflict. But it only works if we accept the inherent risk. In sports, people get hurt physically. In humor, you could get your feelings hurt. So wear a fucking cup and take a joke.

Are We Writers or Watchers?

I came across a poignant but unsettling Paris Review article recently, via Tumblr. Author Shane Jones begins with Cyril Connolly’s rueful observation, “There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”

From there, he describes how he came to feel marginalized by his fellow writers by the sheer act of procreating.

“What’s been most difficult, really, is balancing the weird mix of father and writer online, where the community I know is mostly childless. This online world, which I love and cherish, is also detached and ironic and so image-based that being a dad doesn’t seem to fit. To age out, a writer must pass through three stages: First, you turn thirty, thus becoming ‘online old.’ Second, you get married. Third, you have a child. I’ve done all three, and now I’m having to define myself online: Am I a writer or a dad or a husband? Can I be all three?

“Shortly after my wife gave birth, I commented on a friend’s Facebook status; my friend’s response was, ‘Hey, look at this Dad on here.’ It wasn’t meant to slight me, but there was something there, something that said I was now more dad than writer. In our culture, fatherhood means baggy khakis and cars with side-impact airbags—it’s something of a joke.”

That is troubling. At a time in history when caring, involved fathers are becoming rarer and rarer, you’d think the society at large would want to do all it could to support a man like Jones who chooses to live up to his responsibilities. Yes, a child can survive, succeed and even thrive without a dad. Same can be said for growing up without financial security. Or education. But why take any of those advantages off the table or, if you will, the basinet?

Here’s part of my reply to Jones’s article online:

I didn’t become a writer until after we had children. Frankly, I didn’t have anything important to write about until then. Nothing informs my work more than the connection I have with my family — except, perhaps, the connections I made as a result of them: real people with real quirks and real struggles.

It’s a lazy writer who decides to live outside humanity. I don’t mean we all have to have kids. Or embrace any conventional politics or religion. Or even hold down a job. I just mean we need to be part of the community at-large. There’s no point to just staring into a screen all day looking for “inspiration.” It’s nothing other than masturbatory to seek out only the companionship of people who are just like us. Our characters will get stale that way, and the motivations driving our plots will get more and more strained. I have never made my protagonist or exposition character a professional writer or journalist and I doubt I ever will. Not when I know so many people with construction trade skills, hard sciences backgrounds or more specialized studies to draw on. Meeting people — through such suburban cliches as CYO basketball or the Boy Scout troop — has given me perspective into the thoughts and feelings of people I might otherwise have passed on the street without a nod. At Arisia this past month, there were panels on “Writing the Self” and “Writing the Other.” I blew off both.

The takeaway is this: We writers are not and must not be a class unto ourselves. As we become self-referential, we become irrelevant. We’re here to reflect real life, to describe it, to amplify its failings and its successes, to posit how it could be better or what will happen if it decides to pursue its folly. We can do that through artful stories, character studies, adventures, romances, memoirs, humor or, yes, even children’s books. But if a writer feels the need to be defined as a cynical, no-strings-attached hipster, then we’re not, as a group, making ourselves useful. And that’s not to say that there isn’t room in the community for a whole lot of cynical, no-strings-attached hipsters, but it can’t be all of us and ought not be the default. Nobody should feel unwelcome in the community of writers because he’s a lifestyle-conservative family man, any more than if he was gay or poly or black or a woman.

I hope that anyone who’s ever (rightly) got on their soapbox against slut-shaming considers doing the same for dad-shaming.

A clarification and an apology

I spent a great deal of time last night acting as the piñata at a Plurk costume party.

They screamed at me, called me names (some of which I’d never heard before, which is always welcome and novel), and basically did everything internet trolls do. Gosh, they even followed through on their threat to escalate their discussion of my loathsomeness into the vast public square of (no, no, anything but …) Tumblr. Here it is, for what it’s worth. In the ten or so hours since then, I haven’t gotten one threatening email, not one comment in this space, not one nastygram on my Tumblr account. I guess they have as much suasion out in the wide world as they do in their own little echo chamber on Plurk.

Which isn’t to say they’re wrong. Not about everything. They’re wrong about how they characterize me, and they’re wrong about who the “creep” or the “coward” is: the person burrowing down deep into the cybersphere’s lowest chambers to talk anonymously behind someone else’s back, or the person they’re slandering who finds their little troll-hole and drops by to say hello at the risk of his own name and reputation.

(My favorite part of the Plurk/Tumblr exchange: “Makes me wish someone takes him up on his offer and gives him exactly the review he deserves.” Oh, and these are not the droids you’re looking for.)

But they are a hundred-percent right about one thing:

I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about.

I can’t tell black radical feminism from free radical oxidation. I was reaching for a catch-all term, and clearly over-reached. In doing so, I broke one of my own cardinal rules: Don’t skimp on the research. I did, and spoke out of ignorance and, for that, I am truly sorry and deeply disappointed in myself.

I’m not sure how much better informed the members of the Plurk pecking party are. Maybe they all got Ph.D.s in feminist theory, but you couldn’t tell from our exchange. They kept telling me “do your research,” but not one of them could recommend a starting point: an author, a book, a web site, any reference at all. One helpful soul posted a Google link with “feminism” as a search term, so I got to see the Wikipedia entry and the last nine things anyone on the Web had to say on the subject.

Well, I started there. I looked over the Wiki. The first thing that surprised me was that there are at least 41 different “variants” (Wiki’s term) of feminism, they don’t all agree, and they are sometimes hostile to each other or feel betrayed by one another.

Now that’s something I can understand. I’m not just a white guy, I’m a funny white guy, which in a lot of cases (including the current) means I’m a Jew. There are only 15 million of us in the world (Jews — there are even fewer funny white guys), to give the broadest number. Fair to say, for every one of us, there are 10 people who want to see us all dead. Not converted, not kept in our place, but taking a big, permanent, ethnic dirt nap. And yet we have at least 41 different variants ourselves and spend a lot of time talking straight past each other. They say the only thing you can get two Jews to agree on is what a third Jew should give to charity.

So it is with feminists, I surmise. It would be a mistake for you to assume that the hardcore Satmar Chassidim speak for all Jews, are the most devout, or express the purest form of our faith. Likewise, it was a mistake for me to posit that “radical, black feminist” opinions are the only ones worth soliciting. And for that I sincerely apologize with all humility and without reservation.

To take this one step further, let me open up the invitation. If you have a literary review blog that takes any feminist theory or racial theory as a primary position, please let me send you a free PDF of Mighty Mighty for your critique. I feel the need to re-clarify: I’m not looking for a favorable review necessarily (take it if I can get it), but an honest one so that my next book can be better.

I remain convinced that true feminists, true people of strong racial identity, and true people of good faith throughout the world have a sense of humor that seemed absent from last night’s chats. I also challenge that gang’s premise that “we’re not here to help you.” Yes, you are. Just as I’m here to help you. Otherwise, why are we all here, and why are we all so unique?

Of triumphs and trolls

First the triumphs.

I’ve been invited to participate on panels at both Lunacon and the inaugural LI-Con (which, I hope, will rebound again as the I-Con we all knew and loved). I’ll post my schedules as they come into focus. Let it also be said that I am a vocal and money-where-my-mouth-is supporter of my adoptive home town’s bid for the 75th WorldCon: DC in 2017!

I also had a blast at Arisia this past weekend. I posted a few vlog entries on my YouTube channel, which involved figuring out how to post directly from iPhone to YouTube (after I got it all synched up, it wasn’t hard at all). Since posting my last vid, two very surprising things happened there with regards to my work-in-progress, Pitch Ribbons: A Cantata for Four Voices. First, I gave the first public reading of excerpts from the first three chapters, and it seemed to me that people were keeping their keypads in their pockets and listening. Second, I participated in a how-to-pitch-your-novel workshop facilitated by a triumvirate of well-known agents and small-press publishers. They told me I had a strong message and that I should pitch them for-reals once I’ve heard back from my betas and completed the third draft. (Very proud of and humbled by my beta panel — anyone would be: Helen Marshall, Simon Logan, and Vince Liaguno).

So with Mighty Mighty advanced reader copies out to reviewers and a plan to soft-launch it at Lunacon and LI-Con before putting it up on Amazon, it would seem things are looking up for my too-long delayed major foray into the world of speculative fiction authorship. I truly believe they are.

So I can be philosophical about (gasp!) my reputation being impugned on the Web. Still, it’s grating.

Let’s rewind a second. Like I said, I just got back from Arisia. If anyone there thought for a second that I was racist, sexist, or homophobic, I’d have been kicked out of the Westin, if not dropped to the bottom of the Charles River. I don’t think anyone would hurl those accusations at me in public, where people could hear them and friends who actually know me could rise to my defense.

So a day and a half ago I posted a new blog entry in this space: “Seeking a radical, black feminist review of Mighty Mighty”. The headline sounds like a provocation but, if you read the article (after being provoked by the headline), you find out I’m sincere. I think I’ve got some well-drawn characters of both sexes, a spectrum of proclivities, various ethnicities, and of distinct class origins. I don’t believe any of them lapse into stereotype, or at least not for long. They all have arcs. They all change. Just like people.

But I don’t want you to take my word alone for that. I want reviews. And I don’t just want reviews from friendly quarters — that is, other white, het, cis, middle-aged men, particularly ones who also write humorous SF and who are also going to want a blurb from me one of these days. I want to hear from people who don’t know William Freedman from William Shatner and who’d be offended if I didn’t handle the characters with the care that is their due. I want to know what people who don’t have a relationship with me to lose think about my work. And if they say it sucks, that’s fine. I take feedback as a gift. If they really rip Mighty Mighty into shreds, that’s fine with me. It means my next book will be that much better.

Even so, I wouldn’t be making the invitation if I didn’t think this novel held up. I mean, what would be the point?

Funny thing happened with that blog post. This Auctor Lanx Satura blog got more views in the one hour after that post went live than it’s gotten in most months. Even funnier thing: absolutely no comments.

So hundreds of people saw that post, and nobody had anything to say about it.

Right.

Now, the reason I know how many people saw it and how many people clicked through to multiple pages is that I monitor the Stats application on my dashboard — like most WordPress bloggers do, I’m sure. That application also tells where these hits are coming from. Some of them were coming from my Facebook personal and author pages, as well as from groups where I announced the new post. And some were coming from Tumblr, one of a number of social media sites I intended to establish an account at in order to promote Mighty Mighty and subsequent works. But a bunch came from something called Plurk, which is apparently a microblogging site used mainly by people living in Taiwan and by trolls around the world who want to talk about you behind your back.

So I established both Tumblr and Plurk accounts, and started clicking on the links that had appeared under the “Referrers” heading of my Stats page. And here’s what I found (I won’t embarrass the individual involved, who obviously prizes her anonymity, by linking to her or referring to her by nom de Web):

ALERT ALERT straight white guy wants a black radical feminist to review his bullshit novel favorably because “it passes the bechdel test” and “women talk about math in it,” explains that he is not misogynistic or racist and that there is “satire” and that he totally has black and woman and gay friends and one time a famous lady novelist yelled at him on the internet and it made him a better person.fascinating, right? you should definitely give this book free publicity for being so not sexist and not racist and having ladies who don’t talk about boys in it.

If you read my original post, maybe you share my sense that she only saw the words she selectively wanted to see. So I called her out, sending her the following note via Plurk:

First of all, thank you, [name]. You’ve driven more traffic to my site in an hour than I’ve gotten in certain whole months. To clarify, I’m not asking for a favorable review, which would be presumptuous to say the least. I’m looking for an *honest* review and, based on your opinion of me at the moment, I’m sure I can count on you for that. So are you up for the challenge?

She responded in the negative, as you could predict, but then she went on to tell her friends:

oh my god so i linked the page about the black radical feminist seeking author on an entirely different (privated!!) social networking site so i could laugh about it with my friends and HE CREATED AN ACCOUNT AND TRIED TO ADD EVERY PERSON ON MY FRIENDSLIST. so fair warning to anyone who wants to link this guy’s blog, he can track links and he’s REALLY FUCKING CREEPY ABOUT IT.

But he wrote a novel that passed the Bechdel Test he can’t be creepy :((((((((

“Really fucking creepy”?

I didn’t try to add every person on her friends list. I didn’t even know they were on her friends list. They were just the ones who visited my site and whom I could identify via my (standard, free, nothing-special) Stats app. Since they read my blog, I think I’m entitled to assume they might want to (at their own discretion) be included in future signals I send out publicly via the internet. But if they really were “EVERY PERSON ON MY FRIENDSLIST” then I feel badly for her: She has only 14 friends.

“Really fucking creepy”?

Maybe I am, but if you’re anonymous, and you take your passive-aggressive acting-out all the way to Taiwan to keep it that way rather than have the guts to post comments on this blog, and you have only 14 friends, you don’t get to be the one to call me that.

For good or ill, I live out loud. I write finance and technology articles as well as genre fiction. I also contract out as an IT management consultant and financial analyst. And I’m a suburban husband, father, and assistant scoutmaster. I try to keep these spheres compartmentalized for  purposes of marketing as well as my own sanity, but I use the same name — the one I was born with — for all of them. I have a listed land-line number. Two, in fact. I have over 600 connections on both Facebook and LinkedIn. Some of these are people I’ve added as recently as today, and others I went to kindergarten with. I’m not hiding from anyone, and I have damn little to hide.

But enough about the Troll from Taipei. Fortunately, her opinion doesn’t matter to me. I figure it matters to, at most, 14 others.

Now, as for the people I know in real life from participating in convention programming, their opinion — at least in the aggregate — does matter to me. I shared a link to the controversial blog post in a number of Facebook groups, one of which was for Lunacon. That’s where somebody reported me to Principal Zuckerberg. Credit where it’s due: The group’s moderator (whom I won’t name here because I’m sure she’s catching enough flak) clicked through, looked at the blog post, found nothing wrong with it and replied publicly with the comment:

Not sure why this post was reported, but it *is* genre relevant. And while the headline may not seem appropriate, it is actually an ongoing discussion and issue within SF/F conventions and fandom.

That’s all I’m saying. Let’s talk about it. Out loud. With each other.

I’m not going to go digging too deep around my Stat app anymore. Guess I found out more than I wanted to know. And I don’t want to become a creep.

Admittedly, I’m new to Tumblr and Plurk, but I do have a Reddit account. It’s been dormant, as I haven’t really had a use for it until now. But maybe it’s about time I got it up and running.

So you can Ask Me Anything.

Seeking a radical, black, feminist review of ‘Mighty Mighty’

Yes, you read that headline right. And for most of us white, male, het, cis, privileged types, it sounds like, “Seeking a dental surgeon with the delirium tremens,” or “Nice shot, Haji, but I’m about two more yards to your right and you gotta remember to adjust for the wind.” (Apologies for the ethnic insensitivity in the preceding sentence; I should’ve expressed the distance in meters.)

So why am I, so much a part of an effete coterie of decreasing relevance in genre circles, asking to have his work excoriated by the New Guard? Let me take another shot of single-malt Scotch and I shall tell you.

(Drat! I dribbled a smidgeon on my Brooks Brothers argyle sweater-vest!)

First, I want the exposure. I don’t care if have a penis, wished you did, wished you didn’t, wished nobody did, or are quite happy without one thank you. I just want you to buy my book. Or at least talk about it. I don’t care what you say about it, as long as you say something. Then somebody else will buy it.

Second, I really think that Mighty Mighty passes some key shibboleths when it comes to appealing to the Millennium’s sensitivities. It certainly passes the Bechdel test. Don’t believe me? Here’s a conversation between two female characters:

“… So I guess that’s where the bad habits came from,” Tara confessed, lying down flat on the Audi’s back bench. “I never thought anyone recognized anything I did, so I stopped trying.”

“But as my powers faded away to nothing, yours just got stronger,” Flare Star observed. “And it’s a good thing they did.”

“Yeah,” Tara conceded. “Maybe when all this is over, I’ll give the hero thing another try.”

“You already have,” Flare Star replied. “But explain this to me: I get why you left The Crusaders. I can figure out why you went back for your Ph.D. But how did you end up working for UPS?”

“That’s the easy part,” Tara explained. “What else are you going to do with a doctorate in formal axiology?”

“I don’t know. What is formal axiology?”

“It’s the study of value. What – mathematically – makes something good.”

“As opposed to evil?” Flare Star asked.

“You make it sound like those are the only two choices.”

“They aren’t?”

“Not by a long shot,” Tara said with a smirk. “Kevin and Elias got into this predicament while they were off hunting something chaotic, which doesn’t rise to the level of either good or evil.”

“So there are at least three choices.”

“More than that,” Tara explained. “You know what’s worse than evil?”

“Worse than evil? No. What?”

“Nihilism. The idea that nothing matters and all humanity’s efforts are wasted and worthless,” Tara summarized. “At least evil has a purpose. And at least chaos can give birth to order and, maybe, to good.”

“So given the choice …”

“Between evil and nothingness? Pick evil every time.”

That’s right. In my novel, I have two women discussing the mathematical underpinnings of the entire concept of ethics. Do you have that in yours? Purists will note that other characters, who happen to be male, are mentioned briefly in that exchange, but the discourse was clearly not about those male characters.

Nor is this the only example. Two of the villains are female, and I don’t think they discuss boys even once through the whole book — despite having started out as college roommates:

“So have you made up our mind yet, Equality?” Brigitte asked as she came in one afternoon with a reusable shopping bag filled with the makings of a salad-for-two. They often ate light dinners together in their room in the former Radcliffe dorms.

Equality was sitting on her yoga mat – which she also insisted on using as a bed – wearing a Guatemalan hemp hoodie and a pair of loose-fitting Capri pants she’d sewn together from home- spun and tie-dyed herself.

“Haven’t really thought about it,” Equality replied, then belched out a cloud of white smoke. “Where’s Phish playing this weekend?”

Brigitte consulted the concert schedule stapled – they couldn’t find magnets or scotch tape – to the refrigerator door.

“New York. The Garden.”

“Oh. I’ll drop by the drycleaner tomorrow, schedule a couple interviews in Manhattan and leave a day early,” Equality said as she began going through her warm-up stretches. “I guess I’ll just go and be an investment banker on Wall Street.”

“Don’t you love going to Harvard?” 

I think that, if you read Mighty Mighty without preconceptions, you’ll find that it has a diversity of characters who are informed by, but not defined by, their sexuality, ethnicity, and class. Oh, and the action takes place over the course of 35 years and 120,000 words. Characters change, grow, learn more about each other and themselves. You might bristle when you’re first introduced to Myron Masters who, in the Mighty Mighty world, was the first African-American superhero. When he took up the mantle, he adopted the simplest, least confusing nom de guerre: Black Man. Yes, you’re supposed to squirm at that. It’s squirm humor (and if you realize he’s a send-up of Marvel’s Power Man, you’ll get the joke immediately). As the world becomes more inclusive and Myron ages out of the fight, we all discover what other abilities he has besides Being Black.

My last reason is this: personal growth. I’m from a small town that was sharply divided into white neighborhoods and a black ghetto. Then I went to college on Long Island, which back then could be as racist as anywhere in the South. The day of a young woman going to college strictly to “get her MRS” was on the wane, but far from over. And this was during the early days of AIDS — I had about a dozen LGBT friends back then, only one of whom dared be out. I didn’t have to deal diversity until I was in my late 20s and in an international program in grad school.

About ten years later, when I was first acting on my longstanding aspiration to be a science fiction novelist, I joined the Online Writers Workshop and posted in a chat  my opinion at the time on the prevalence of gay characters in the magazines. I said something to the effect that, in a short story, if it doesn’t matter to the plot what a character’s orientation is, maybe you don’t need the gay sex scene, and maybe you don’t even have to identify the character as gay or straight or anything. That was followed by about twenty minutes of radio silence on the thread, then An Author Whose Works You’ve Read tore me a new orifice, and all her friends and fans piled on. (Years later I met her at a reading. She greeted me graciously with a hug and a peck on the cheek. I’m not sure if she even connected my name with my face, or had any recollection of the exchange. Anyway, there’s no lingering hard feelings on either side.) I had a lot to learn then. I’m sure I still do now. That’s why I want some honest opinions from sources I know won’t be saying nice things to me just to make me feel comfortable.

Here’s the pitch: If you have a review blog and a radical, black, feminist perspective, I would like to send you a free advanced reader’s copy of Mighty Mighty in PDF. Just send me a note at william_freedman [at] verizon [dot] net or a PM via Facebook. I will read your review and your readers’ comments with great interest. I promise not to be among those commenters. There will be no flame war — I surrender before the first shot. If I think you’re way off base, I’ll tell you so privately. Otherwise, I’ll keep my mouth shut and my finger off the SEND key.

One other stipulation: Try reading it for the entertainment value as well as the social commentary. It’s a satire. It’s supposed to be funny. I’m trusting in the radical, black, feminist sense of humor embodied by such comic geniuses as Wanda Sykes and … uh … um … all the rest.

Con-solidation

Now that I’ve had time to digest my experience at Lunacon 2013 — which was overwhelmingly positive — it’s time to take my rambling vlog post from YouTube and refine it into a more cogent thesis. (If you only want to concentrate on my rant about what’s wrong with downstate New York genre conventions, you have to dig in almost six minutes; honestly, although I’d made a few notes about what I wanted to say about the topic, it was never intended to be the main thrust of my comments. This was supposed to be an ad for Age of Certainty and Mighty Mighty, not an exercise in bomb-throwing.)

Let me be the first to stipulate to the limits of my qualifications. I’ve never run a convention; I’ve only been attending cons for about a dozen years and have only been on “the circuit” for three or four. I come from a family of mundanes who don’t even understand the appeal.

But I have worked on other non-profit events. I do have a graduate degree in business management and do, as a function of my day job, advise C-level executives on where they need to focus. Most of these executives are smarter than me, but they’re distracted by having their attention pulled too many directions. I assume the same is also true of con-com leaders, few of whom I’ve ever actually met.

So I’m not saying anything here as an expert on cons. I’m just providing an outsider’s view. Let’s get this discussion going. I’m probably wrong about a lot here. Please correct me. Let’s refine the strategy, make the plans and rescue what I think we all agree is a much beloved but ultimately untenable status quo.

My point is this: We should consolidate Lunacon and I-Con.

I come to that conclusion after arriving at what I believe is the critical limited resource which is …  wait for it … no, you’re wrong. It’s not money. Take it from this MBA: Money isn’t the problem. (If you have a new venture, that would be the exception to the rule, but both I-Con and Lunacon are decades old.) Sure, almost any organization, or individual for that matter, can find a use for a cash infusion.Found money is always good. But the lack of it is rarely the problem in itself; more often than not, it’s a symptom of a deeper problem.

So what is the problem? It is a shortage, but not of Federal Reserve notes. This past weekend, I was on a panel called “What Will They Use for Money?” and we talked about what future cultures would think of as currency. We discussed everything from the “quatloos” used by the Star Trek universe’s Gamesters of Triskelion to the intellectual capital used not only in futuristic space opera but in Silicon Valley for the past 20 years, to biodiversity up to and including sperm samples. So let’s ask, what would a science fiction convention-based economy use as currency?

In other words, what is our most precious commodity? Time. Specifically, volunteer-hours.

In such an eCONomy (sorry), there might be tables to express the value of a planning-hour in terms of prep-hours or conweekend-hours.  Strategy-hours, coordination-hours and execution-hours could all be traded on the open market. That’s all fantasy but, in the real world, that’s where the scarcity is around cons: simply not enough dedicated arms, legs, backs and brains (which will then become the units of currency once the zombie apocalypse arrives).

So things got missed at Lunacon. Nobody’s fault, but there simply weren’t enough people with enough interest and enough experience to pull it off without more than the usual snags and hiccups. At some point, we need to examine why this is true but, for now, suffice to say it’s true. And it’s nothing unique to Lunacon. Every con has that problem.

A secondary problem — not that it should be minimized, as it’s a close second — is a lack of attendance. Lunacon doesn’t fill the Escher Hilton like it used to. I didn’t book my room until Wednesday afternoon for a Friday-Sunday stay and, if you paid the Lunacon rate, I paid $15/night less than you did. (Don’t hate the play-ah …)

Up to now, I’ve focused on my experience at Lunacon this year. Let’s talk a little about the experience of I-Con 2013 …

… OK. Now, let’s compare and contrast.

I-Con was cancelled this year. I’ve heard a lot of blame bandied around, and I’m sure there’s no shortage. The one I hear the most is, “It’s because of construction at Stony Brook.” I can believe that one time, and did. A few years ago, I-Con organizers had to move programming to another college campus. It was a logistical nightmare, but at least everyone could tell themselves, “Well, it’s just for this one time.” But then I-Con moved back to Stony Brook. Are we to believe that, after 30 years, suddenly the university is doing all this massive construction all in a short span of time? I find it difficult to believe.

What makes it even harder to believe is that the decision had already been made to move to Hofstra University. As a Hofstra alumnus and a Town of Hempstead resident, I was psyched! I sent repeated emails to the concom asking how someone with strong ties to the college, the community and the con can help. I told them I was willing to help however I can. They never responded. Instead, I received the blast email announcing the event was to be “postponed” but they’d have a presence at Lunacon. So I sought them out this past weekend in Rye and asked a comcon member eye-to-eye, how can I help bring back I-Con. His response came down to “money”.

I won’t repeat my earlier point. Rather, I’ll restate my thesis: these two cons should merge. The vendors would turn cartwheels. There’s enough money, interest and volunteer-hours for one con, but not two.

The counter-argument is that Lunacon and I-Con are two entirely different animals: I-Con is a pop-culture/media event and Lunacon is a literary event.

That is a false dichotomy.

I-Con has a literary track. Lunacon has other programming. The only con I can think of that could pass a purity test is Readercon, and that’s a special case. Boston has a different con every month or two. They each need to distinguish themselves, so Readercon stands as the relaxed, bookish weekend we all know and love. For whatever reason, we don’t presently have that frothy fan base in New York — and that’s just the reality we have to live with. For now, it makes more sense to have one con that serves the greatest number of people by catering to the widest swath of interests while deploying the most efficient use of volunteer-hours.

One of those interests is horror. Sure, there’s Chiller Theatre, which hadn’t crossed my mind when I posted the vlog stating that there are no major horror conventions in the New York area, but I stand by my broader point that the local horror community is underserved. Organizationally, I think our combined con should have a matrix organization; yes, there should be a chair for each track — literary, film, fandom, media, gaming, children, cosplay, masquerade, dealers and so on — but there should also be a cross-track chair for each genre represented — SF, fantasy, horror, comics and any subgenres organizers would care to parse out (forex steampunk, hard SF, dark fantasy, epic fantasy). These genre chairs could then ensure that each track is informed by each constituency.

Ultimately, I think the literary and cultural fandoms need each other desperately. Just as I believe that Lunacon is unsustainable without more pop culture, I believe that marginalizing the authors’ track is a major contributor to I-Con’s long slide into hiatus. The written word might no longer be the typical fan’s gateway into the genres, but it remains the starting point of every best-selling movie or video game, and it remains the institutional memory of the entire industry that is F/SF. You can’t simply cut it out like a tumor; you have to nurture it as a vital organ.

So what would happen logistically if we consolidated these two events?

First, I think we need to acknowledge that this wouldn’t be a permanent arrangement. I would hope that, after a few years (fewer=better), one (or more) cons could be spun off. Hey, it worked in Boston.

Second, we’d have to settle on a site. If it’s to incorporate all of I-Con’s programming, it would have to be big. I kind of like the idea of a con spanning a hotel and a college campus.

But it shouldn’t be Stony Brook University. The relation with I-Con has been strained too many times over too many years. It’s also in the middle of nowhere. And the nearest hotel that could function as the official hotel (lots of guest rooms and a big ballroom) is the Holiday Inn Ronkonkoma, but it’s a half hour away from campus via indirect county roads. It’s also — let’s be honest — a seedy joint with creepy clientele.

Lunacon’s current base in Rye works OK. Sure, the Escher Hilton has its own issues, but they’re not insurmountable and some of the hotel’s quirkiness is actually endearing. Assuming a combined con would fill the place, it’s great to know that there are so many other hotels along Westchester Avenue that could serve as overflow accommodations. And organizers could talk with the administrators of at least three local schools — Fordham, Manhattanville and Purchase — before selecting the optimal campus.

But maybe I-Con had the best idea. Certainly this is where my rooting interest is, but over the years I’ve demonstrated my willingness to go with other options: Hofstra. You can get there directly by mass transit — Long Island Railroad (Hofstra runs a shuttle to the Mineola station) and buses from all directions stop at or within walking distance of Hofstra: express buses from the city, local routes going as far east as Babylon — even Greyhound. There’s a Marriott less than a mile away that was good enough for Stoker Weekend a couple years back and, if we filled that, there’s a La Quinta, a Red Roof, a Hyatt Place and a Hampton not much beyond that.

Still, I live near Hofstra — I’m not married to it. Let’s open the floor to other suggestions. We need to discuss this openly, hammer out a big-animal-pictures strategy, then go into as much detail as needed.

I now renew publicly the offer I made to I-Con’s organizers privately:

How can I help?