Book Review: Guided by the Beauty of Their Weapons by Phil Sandifer

“First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin…”

Due diligence: I am a backer of Phil’s Patreon, and received the ebook version of this for free as a backer reward.

2015 was a year of struggle within science fiction and video games, the two major topics of this book. Two bands of “puppies,” the Rabid and the Sad, tried to hijack the Hugo nominations process and stuff the lists with their preferred form of science fiction, by which we mean fiction that, at best, expresses conservative values, and at worst endorses Christofascism. Meanwhile, GamerGate, the sustained terrorist campaign against women in video games that began in late 2014, stubbornly refused to die.

Guided by the Beauty of Their Weapons: Notes on Science Fiction and Culture in the Year of Angry Dogs is author, critic, and blogger Phil Sandifer’s counterattack. It opens with a series of chapters, mostly adapted from posts on his blog, that look at science fiction in 2015 and the regressive Puppy backlash from a progressive perspective. The first chapter, which gives the book it’s title, is an analysis of the Rabid Puppies which argues, quite effectively, that they are not just regressive but fascist; in particular, Sandifer discusses their version of the stab-in-the-back myth at the heart of fascist rhetoric, and compares their movement to the criteria for fascism suggested by Umberto Eco, finding that they clearly fulfill all but one of the criteria and arguably fulfill the last as well. This is followed by an interview with the leader of the Rabid Puppies, Theodore Beale, revealing him to be at once fascinating and repulsive. Following up on the interview is a transcript of a podcast Sandifer recorded immediately after, in which the participants discuss, reframe, and joke about the interview, and then after that is Sandifer’s response to author John C. Wright (one of the Rabid Puppy authors and a commentor on Beale’s blog) calling for his death.

These initial chapters thus pass from unsympathetic analysis, to direct engagement, to mockery, to dismissal and rejection. They are intelligent, well-argued, and utterly scathing; a beautiful catharsis after a year in which the world often seemed to be sliding backwards into the void.

The book transitions over the next few chapters into a series of reviews. The first few reviews are still in the mode of responses to the Puppies: a discussion of the winner of the 2015 Best Novel Hugo, The Three-Body Problem, and the complicated question of who that’s a victory for; a review of Seveneves that brings in Beale’s attacks on the book and what they reveal about his toxic views of masculinity and involvement with GamerGate; and an utterly delightful study of Janelle Monae’s ongoing song cycle The Metropolis Suite as a work of afrofuturist science fiction. That last marks the point of transition–its only real connection to the Rabid Puppies is that it was brought up in the first chapter as an example of something wonderful that goes against everything they want and believe.

From there we get to honestly the least interesting part of the book, a series of reviews in the same style as the previous one, but lacking the edge of Sandifer’s engagingly mocking, furious hatred which enlivened the Rabid Puppy-focused chapters. There’s then a bit of a divider near the center of the book in the form of a short story, one of Sandifer’s rare forays into fiction; interesting enough, I suppose, but it’s not going to get nominated for any awards (unlike, say, the first chapter, which I would not be surprised to see nominated for a Related Work Hugo).

After the story are a series of short chapters exerpted from his ongoing Super Nintendo Project, a combination memoir and history of the Super Nintendo, which Sandifer cheekily describes as a “magical ritual to destroy GamerGate.” The second of these chapters, on Final Fantasy II, is a fascinating look at the relationship between the way games reward players, tedium, poverty, and the price points for Super Nintendo games, which contained much that rang true for me–which given that I was a child living in poverty when I first played Super Nintendo games, including Final Fantasy II, should say something. I actually have a great deal more to say on this topic than will fit in a review of the book, but it’ll all be in a future episode of re:play. (Specifically, right after I get Mog.) The other major standout from this section is its last chapter, on Mortal Kombat, which much like the earlier chapter on Seveneves takes the opportunity to look at the model of masculinity it represents, and the fetishization of pointless, empty, childish violence, as formative in the development of the attitudes that would fester and burst out 20 years later as GamerGate.

The next and longest chapter is the one where I eat crow: The Last War in Albion is, contrary to what I said in my review of Sandifer’s earlier book A Golden Thread, very good and not difficult to follow at all, as this chapter demonstrates, so long as one reads a minimum of an entire chapter in one sitting, rather than broken across fragmentary blog posts separated by days.

The final section of the book focuses on the work for which Sandifer is best known, his critical study of Doctor Who. It includes three chapters on writer Peter Harness (one analyzing his work on Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Doctor Who, and two interviews with him), and concludes with possibly my favorite thing Phil’s ever written, the complete text of his short book Recursive Occlusion, a review of the classic Doctor Who serial “Logopolis” as a microcosm of Doctor Who, framed as a mystical journey through the Tarot and Sephiroth, and structured as a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book. I’ve been clamoring for an ebook version of this since its 2014 release, and here at the end of Guided by the Beauty we finally get one.

This is a perfect ending to a book that began with a study of frightened neofascists throwing a tantrum because the world is moving on without them into something they do not understand and are too hateful to accept. We end on a deliberately outre celebration of the weird and wonderful, which simultaneously reaches into the mystical past and expands outward and upward into the future, which denies authority to the extend of not even giving it to the author, allowing instead the reader to choose their own path. It’s a brilliant juxtaposition that lends truth to Sandifer’s claim that the Puppies have already lost.

Guided by the Beauty of Their Weapons is available in print or ebook through Amazon and in ebook through Smashwords.

Froborr Watches Fringe, S1E1-4

So, over on Mark Spoils, which is a sort of shadow-site to the Mark Does Stuff empire, I’ve started blogging my way through Fringe, a show I have never seen and did not know about. So here’s the collection of entries on last week’s viewing.

So first off, here’s what I knew before I started:

  • It’s by Abrams, Kurzman, and Orci, aka The Team That Ruined Star Trek.
  • No one except Mark Oshiro has ever said anything about it, ever.
  • Mark really, really likes it.
  • Parallel universes?

Spoilers below the cut!

Continue reading

iZombie is really very good

I was hoping to have something a little more in-depth to say today, but then I got hit with a bout of insomnia last night, so I watched the first eight episodes of iZombie instead. It was good. Really good. Like, Veronica Mars when she was still in high school good. Basically Veronica Mars meets Dollhouse without the squicky consent issues of the latter. Well-written, well-performed, great balance between ongoing story and mysteries-of-the-week.

(No but seriously. “Has me thinking about my Hugo picks” level of good, here.)

That je ne sais quoi

I mentioned in my video on Gravity Falls episode 1 that it lacks a certain quality I struggled to define, but which is possessed by many other cartoons I enjoy. It is a quality possessed by several of the best cartoons, such as Adventure Time, Steven Universe, and Friendship Is Magic, but while clearly quite good, Gravity Falls seems to lack it (at least in the five episodes I’ve seen so far). On the other hand, Phineas and Ferb, which is really not a good show (although it is one I enjoy enough to have watched most of it), has the quality, whatever it is.

So this post is me trying to figure out what that quality might be by comparing shows that do and don’t have it. I’ve come up with a few possibilities–things that are shared in common between the four shows that I mentioned which possess this quality, but are not present or less present in what I’ve seen of Gravity Falls. Most likely it is a combination of multiple factors, maybe all of them, in different amounts.

What I’ve come up with:

  • Colorfulness: All four of Adventure Time, Steven Universe, Friendship Is Magic, and Phineas and Ferb tend toward bright palettes. Gravity Falls is not dark by any means, but it tends toward less saturated colors and a lot more browns; despite both it and Phineas and Ferb being set in summer, the colors of Gravity Falls make it look like fall to me.
  • Lack of cynicism: There’s no trace of cynicism in four of these shows; Gravity Falls is cynical as hell.
  • Playfulness: All of these shows can get pretty weird, but treat it differently. The weirdness in Gravity Falls is treated as portentous or uncanny, even when it’s used as a source of humor; there’s a sense of something behind the weirdness, that there is some kind of Other from which the weirdness derives. In the other four shows, weirdness is just there because someone felt like tossing it in.
  • Pacing: Phineas and Ferb, Steven Universe, and Adventure Time have 11-minute episodes. Friendship Is Magic episodes are 22 minutes, but tend to have very rapid pacing anyway. Gravity Falls tends to unfold things more slowly, taking a lot of its cues from genres that rely on slower pacing to build tension.

Again, this shouldn’t be taken as a measure of quality. Gravity Falls is a good show, and I enjoy it. Just not in the same way or to the same degree as the shows which do possess these qualities. And I still feel like I’m missing something; that je ne sais quoi remains elusive.

Age of Ultron and the Impending Collapse of the MCU

We all know the MCU is inevitably going to collapse, right? It’s a shared superhero continuity, an attempt to force an ever-expanding number of stories into the straitjacket of continuity nitpickery. It is not only deliberately encouraging the paranoid reading style and gossip about imaginary people, it wants us to see Guardians of the Galaxy and Daredevil as two windows into the same world.

So of course, sooner or later, it will do what the comics always do, and implode. The need for ever-more obscure references in order to build ever-more elaborate conspiracies for viewers to unravel, combined with the unrestrained growth of constantly adding new characters and new media–so far, in order to fully follow the MCU, it is necessary to watch two network television shows, a web-series, and five film series–and those numbers are growing allm the time.

Now of course it’s possible to follow and enjoy an Avengers movie without knowing what’s going on in Agents of SHIELD (says the person who hasn’t watched any Marvel TV shows). But remember, it is the nature of a conspiracy theory to grow more convoluted and complex with time, and a shared continuity is essentially a conspiracy theory about a group of fictional works. Right now, the MCU films spend relatively little of their time laying clues for future films or paying off clues dropped in other series–but that amount is growing.

There is a particular minor subplot in Age of Ultron (if you have seen the film, you know which I mean) which serves no purpose except to bring Age of Ultron‘s own story to a screeching halt so that it can spend a few minutes congratulating us nerds who recognized how Captain America, Thor 2, and Guardians of the Galaxy were building toward Avengers 3. (To his credit, Whedon apparently fought against including these scenes, and had to be forced into it by executives threatening to cut a major character-building sequence. But not too much credit; that sequence includes Black Widow suggesting that being unable to have children makes a woman a monster.)

This kind of thing is only going to keep getting worse. How long until plot threads introduced in Agent Carter get resolved in Ant-Man 3? Until we get entire films that exist solely as set-up and teaser for the next big crossover? Until the whole thing is just the same mess of conflicting reboots, alternate universes, and continuity lockouts as mainstream comics?

(Rhetorical questions, but I’ll answer anyway: No later than Avengers 4, and possibly much, much earlier.)