About That Star Wars Racism Fiasco That Isn’t

You may have heard about a controversial new hashtag: #BoycottStarWarsVII. In case you haven’t, the Daily Show has a pretty hilarious report on it:

The problem is that the alleged movement to boycott Star Wars VII doesn’t actually exist. And, on the opposite end of the spectrum, National Review has a pretty funny article explaining the alleged movements non-existence: The Twitterverse Strikes Back against the Phantom Menace of Anti–Star Wars Racists!

You might be wondering, of course, if this thing doesn’t really exist, then why are people sharing it? Why are we hearing so much about a controversy that doesn’t exist?

Short version: it’s a sign of the End Times. We’ve got two polar opposite tribes coexisting in the United States, and they have so little actual interaction that they believe the darnedest (and silliest) things about each other. For example, a perfect mirror opposite to the whole #BoycottStarWarsVII is the equally non-existent #PissForEquality movement. Judging by disreputable right-wing sites like InfoWars, a bunch of Internet trolls suckered mushy-brained liberals into wetting themselves (literally) in the name of gender equality. There were all kinds of apparent photographic evidence to bolster the claims, and for a while you couldn’t swing a kitten meme on Facebook without running into a conservative guffawing at those dumb liberals who will do anything in the name of social justice. Except, as abundant follow-up reporting soon showed, all those pics of women wetting themselves in the name of equality were traced back to mysteriously brand new Twitter accounts with no followers. In other words: they were fakes. Thus you had articles like this one from Vice stating quite plainly: “none of it was real.”

Well, none of the #BoycottStarWarsVII thing is real either.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t be surprised if you can find one or two real racists buried in there somewhere, but not enough to count for anything. Here’s how Larry Correia–best-selling author and the originator of the notorious Sad Puppies movement–described it on Facebook:

So at the end of the day, 99.999999% of the “boycott” hashtag is dumb asses posting about how they once saw the Loch Ness Monster too, a few dudes from 4 Chan who are having a laugh, and four actual racists, all of whom are named Jimbo.

So you might be wondering: if there is literally nothing to this, then where did it come from? I will explain, but you’ll have to be patient enough to endure some nerd-talk here.

Here’s the thing: the Imperial stormtroopers of the original films are shown in the prequels to have originated from an army of clones. That’s why the second movie was called Attack of the Clones. Because it had a lot of clones in it. These soldiers, who wore white combat armor very similar to the later stormtroopers, were called (imaginatively) clone troopers, and they were all carbon copies of one man: Jango Fett.

784 - Jango Fett

That’s actor Temuera Morrison, by the way. He’s a New Zealander with Māori, Scottish, and Irish ancestry. That movie showed what all the clone troopers looked like: lots and lots of copies of Jango Fett. Lots of people assumed that, since the clone army was clearly the origin of the Imperial stormtroopers, that this meant the Imperial stormtroopers were still populated entirely by Jango Fett clones.

783 - Lots of Jango Fetts

So, when the first teaser for Star Wars VII came out and showed John Boyega in stormtrooper armor, people were confused. because they thought that all stormtroopers looked like Jango Fett under the helmets. (Since they were his clones, after all.)

785 - John Boyega Stormtrooper

It turns out the confusion stemmed from ignorance, however. Existing Star Wars lore says that–while the white-armored soldiers from the prequels were all clones–by the time we get to the stormtroopers of the original movies (you know, the real Star Wars) things had changed.

By the time the Galactic Civil War began in earnest, Jango Fett’s clones were heavily supplanted by clones based on a variety of templates . . . followed shortly after by enlisted Humans. Thus, the Fett clones were ironically reduced to a minority status after years of virtually filling the stormtrooper ranks in its entirety. According to a stormtrooper’s entry log in the 501st Journal, none of the Fett clones were ever truly able to come to terms with serving alongside recruits and different clones, all of whom were disdainfully dubbed as the “new guys.” (Wookiepedia)

Even if you throw out all that lore, the confusion is still not very well-grounded. Episode VII takes place a few decades after Return of the Jedi which in turn took place a few decades after Attack of the Clones, so there isn’t any solid reason to expect all the stormtroopers to still be look like Jango Fett. At this point, any given stormtrooper could look like absolutely anybody, and so why not look like John Boyega? There’s no reason not to.

It’s worth pointing one more thing out about that first trailer, by the way. The thing that really upset most Star Wars fans was the unorthodox triple-bladed lightsaber. I was one of them: Force Awakens Trailer and Lightsaber Crossguards: I am Dissappoint.

2014-11-28 Useless Lightsaber Crossguard - ZOOMED

And keep in mind, it’s not like John Boyega was the first prominent Black character in Star Wars. We had Billy Dee Williams playing Lando Calrissian starting in The Empire Strike’s Back (1980) and Samuel L. Jackson playing Mace Windu in the prequels (1999). Calrissian was one of the heroes of the first trilogy (he led the fighter attack on the second Death Star) and Mace Windu was the most powerful Jedi in the prequels (the only Jedi more powerful was Yoda: neither white nor human).  It doesn’t seem at all reasonable to believe that large numbers of Star Wars fans who loved Williams as Calrissian and Jackson as Windu suddenly flipped out when they learned Boyega was going to be a lead in the new trilogy.

So now you know where this story originated. And here’s my last observation. It’s really sad to live in a country where not only are we divided by politics as deeply as we are, but that each side is so willing–so eager–to believe the worst about the other. That’s why we get nonsense like the #PissForEquality hoax and the #BoycottStarWarsVII hoax. Because we just want to think the worst of each other, and we want to be validated in our superiority.

And that’s sad.


Soviet Ray Bradbury Animations

Zdes Mogut Voditsya Tigry

I’m a fan of Soviet-era films and cartoons. The number of ham-handed, ideologically-driven films is not as great as one might think. There are plenty of faithful adaptations of western literature with high production values even on low budgets, and sensitivity to the philosophical and spiritual aspects of the stories. There also many comedies, and things like crudity and nudity are fairly rare. Plus, my wife grew up on many of these, so it has been a great way to bond. Yesterday I came across two animated shorts that I hadn’t seen before. Both are 1980s adaptations of Ray Bradbury stories (there are English subtitles). The plots are altered somewhat. Here There Be Tygers explores the beauty in life, and how our responses to that beauty reveal who we really are. Innocence and self-sacrifice are contrasted with destructive greed. There Will Come Soft Rains changes why the automated house is destroyed, introducing a darker, and more disturbing apocalyptic theme with a religious subtext. This is a good reminder that both animation and science fiction can be very serious art forms indeed, and definitely worth watching.

A New Spin on “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

So, this is awesome:

[BYU grad] Rob Gardner of “Lamb of God” fame has come together with two friends for a new project with a focus on covering iconic pop songs with a full orchestra, a choir and soloists. Gardner arranged the pieces and co-produced the project with long-time friends and collaborators, brothers Drex and McKane Davis…The project is called Cinematic Pop, and its purpose is cover well-known and popular songs using a cinematic orchestral medium to rekindle an appreciation for the value of orchestral music, both in general and especially with younger generations“One of our goals and passions for this project is to it bring young people, to get them excited about symphonic music, orchestral music,” Davis said. “Attendance to symphonies across the nation has been decreasing over the years, so to be able to bring the younger generation to that music and introduce it in a creative and impactful way is something that is really core to what we’re doing.” …At this point, the producers plan to release 10 videos total, but the project doesn’t end with the videos. Davis said they all feel passionate about the power of experiencing live music, and they plan to take the show on the road.

Here is their version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit“:


The Lost Pages of ‘A Wrinkle in Time’

The Wall Street Journal has an exciting piece on 3 newly discovered pages cut from prior to the publication of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle in Time. The pages were discovered by L’Engle’s granddaughter, Charlotte Jones Voiklis. The new pages feature a conversation between Meg and her father.

…Meg has just made a narrow escape from Camazotz. As Meg’s father massages her limbs, which are frozen from a jarring trip through space and time, she asks: “But Father, how did the Black Thing—how did it capture Camazotz?” Her father proceeds to lay out the political philosophy behind the book in much starker terms than are apparent in the final version.

He says that yes, totalitarianism can lead to this kind of evil. (The author calls out examples by name, including Hitler, Mussolini and Khrushchev.) But it can also happen in a democracy that places too much value on security, Mr. Murry says. “Security is a most seductive thing,” he tells his daughter. “I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the greatest evil there is.”

Ms. Voiklis said she wanted readers to know the book wasn’t a simple allegory of communism. Instead, it’s about the risk of any country—including a democracy—placing too much value on security. The tension between safety and personal freedom is an idea that resonates in today’s politics.

Check out the WSJ article and the pages themselves.

Some Sad Puppy Data Analysis

915 - Hugo Article Cover
Image from Flickr user Bill Lile. Click for link to original.


The list of fairly big-name outlets covering the 2015 Hugos / Sad Puppies controversy has gotten pretty long, but here’s how you know this is Officially a Big Deal: George R. R. Martin has been in a semi-polite back-and-forth blog argument with the Larry Correia for days. That’s thousands and thousands of words that Mr. Martin has written about this that he could have spent, you know, finishing up the next Game of Thrones book. I think we can officially declare at this point that we have a national crisis.

Martin’s blog posts are a good place to start because his main point thus far has been to rebut the central claim that animates Sad Puppies. To wit: they claim that in recent years the Hugo awards have become increasingly dominated by an insular clique that puts ideological conformity and social back-scratching ahead of merit. While the more shrill voices within the targeted insular clique have responded that Sad Puppies are bunch of racist, sexist bigots, Martin’s more moderate reply has been: Where’s the Beef? Show me some evidence of this cliquish behavior. Larry Correia has responded here.

As these heavyweights have been trading expert opinion, personal stories, and plain old anecdotes, it just so happens that I spent a good portion of the weekend digging into the data to see if I could find any objective evidence for or against the Sad Puppy assertions. It’s been an illuminating experience for me, and I want to share some of what I learned. Let me get in a major caveat up front, however. There’s some interesting data in this blog post, but not enough to conclusively prove the case for or against Sad Puppies. I’m running with it anyway because I hope it will help inform the debate, but this is a blog post, not a submission to Nature. Calibrate your expectations accordingly.

One additional note: unless otherwise state the Hugo categories that I looked into were the literary awards for best novel, novella, novelette, and short story. There are many more Hugo categories (for film, graphic novel, fan writer, etc.) but the literary awards are the most prestigious and also have the most reliable data (since a lot of the other categories come and go.)

Finding 1: Sad Puppies vs. Rabid Puppies

I have been following Sad Puppies off and on since Sad Puppies 2. SP2 was led by Larry Correia, and his basic goal was to prove that if you got an openly conservative author on the Hugo ballot, then the reigning clique would be enraged. For the most part, he proved  his case, although the issue was muddied somewhat by the inclusion of Vox Day on the SP2 slate. Vox Day tends to make everyone enraged (as far as I can tell), and so his presence distorted the results somewhat.

This year Brad Torgersen took over for Sad Puppies 3 with a different agenda. Instead of simply provoking the powers that be, his aim was to break its dominance over the awards by appealing to the middle. For that reason, he went out of his way to include diverse writers on the SP3 slate, including not only conservatives and libertarians, but also liberals, communists, and apolitical writers. Even many leading critics of the Sad Puppies (for instance John Scalzi and Teresa Nielsen Hayden) concede that several of the individuals on the Sad Puppies slate were not politically aligned with Sad Puppies. That fact was my favorite part about Sad Puppies: the attempt to reach outside their ideological borders demonstrated an authentic desire to depoliticize the Hugos instead of just claiming them for a new political in-group.

What I didn’t know until the finalists were announced just this month is that the notorious Vox Day had created his own slate: Rabid Puppies. Rather than angling toward the middle (like Torgersen), Day’s combative and hostile approach kept Rabid Puppies distinctly on the fringe. To give you a sense of the level of animosity here, several folks agreed to be on the Sad Puppies slate only on the condition that Vox Day was not. Despite this animosity and the very different tones, when it came time to pick a slate, Vox Day basically copied the SP3 suggestions and then added a few additional writers (mostly from his own publishing house) to get a full slate.

Because Torgersen and Correia are more prominent, when I did learn about RP I assumed it was a minor act riding on the coattails of Sad Puppies 3 and little more. For this reason, I was frustrated when the critics of Sad Puppies tended to conflate Torgersen’s moderate-targeted SP3 with Vox Day’s fringe-based RP. But then I started looking at the numbers, and they tell a different story.

The Sad Puppies 3 campaign managed to get 14 of their 17 recommended nominees through to become finalists, for a success rate of 82.4%. Meanwhile, the Rapid Puppies managed to get 18 or 19 of their 20 recommendations through for a success rate of 90-95%.

What’s more, however, there was one category where the SP3 and RP slates conflicted: the Short Story category. Here’s how those results ended up:

Author Source Result?
Annie Bellet Both Success
Kary English Both Success
Steve Rzasa RP Success
John C. Wright RP Success
Lou Antonelli RP Success
Megan Grey SP3 Failure
Steve Diamond SP3 Failure

In other words, whene SP3 and RP actually went head-to-head, Rabid Puppies beat SP3. It appears as though in term of raw voting power, the Rabid Puppies voters outgunned the Sad Pupppies 3 voters. I put together a simple Venn Diagram that hammers that point home by showing where each of the 20 Hugo finalists came from:

913 - Corrected Venn

If you want to know where the finalists come from, it looks like Rabid Puppies can’t possibly be ignored. For someone like me who really supported the moderate, inclusive aims of Sad Puppies 3, this is a sobering realization.

Finding 2: Gender in Sci-Fi

I put together a table of all the Hugo nominees and winners with their gender. I know that gender isn’t the only diversity issue but it’s the easiest one to find data on. Here’s what I found:

918 - Percent of Hugo Nominees Who are Male

It is easy to see how a social justice advocate would interpret this chart. In the 1960s the patriarchy reigned supreme and often 100% of Hugo nominees were male. As the sci-fi community grew more mature and progressive, however, the patriarchy’s grip weakened. More and more female nominees entered the scene. But now SP3  and RP have rolled back all that progress, and as a result the 2015 finalists are right back at the status quo: the dotted line representing about 80% male nominees on average over the entire 1960 – 2015 period. It’s a simple story: SP3 and RP are agents of the patriarchy sent to re-establish the status-quo. If you want to know why so many social just advocates are very, very angry about SP3 and RP, this is why.

But there are some serious complications to this narrative. First, the diversity of the early 2010s was not unprecedented. There wasn’t a long, slow, continuous growth of diversity. There were a lot of female nominees in the early 1990s, and this gets omitted from articles that act as though sci-fi had achieved some milestones of diversity for the first time. It’s true that the 2010s were the best yet, but the most important symbolic line was crossed way back in 1992 when 52% (more than half) of the nominees were women. Second, the rebound towards the overall average started last year, not with the 2015 finalists. In 2013 there was an all-time record percentage of female finalists (61%) but in 2014 the numbers had flipped and 62% of the finalists were male. Although Sad Puppies 2 did exist in 2014, it had very little impact and so the rebound towards the status quo cannot reasonably be blamed entirely on SP3 / RP.

While we’re at it, it’s important to note that neither SP3 nor RP were 100% male (as has been widely and erroneously reported). Those little green and red lines at the very end of the chart show what the gender ratio would have looked like if SP3 had won completely (82.4%, the green line) or if RP had won completely (90%, the red line).

But the fourth complication is by far the most important one. Back in 2013 a Tor UK editor actually divulged the gender breakdown of the submissions they receive by genre.

917 - Gender Breakdown of Tor UK Submissions

So, over the history of the Hugo awards from 1960 – 2015, 79% of the nominees have been male. In 2013, 78% of the folks submitting sci-fi to Tor UK were male.

There were a lot of very angry reactions to this post. For example, “I find this article disappointing, ignorant, and damaging,” starts one response which I found from a current Damien Walter blog post. It’s hard to see why an article that basically just presented factual information would be reviled, especially when the article concludes:

As a female editor it would be great to support female authors and get more of them on the list. BUT they will be judged exactly the same way as every script that comes into our in-boxes. Not by gender, but how well they write, how engaging the story is, how well-rounded the characters are, how much we love it.

This is an entirely moderate, reasonable position to take. Science fiction has been called “the literature of ideas” by sci-fi legend Pamela Sargent. And in a genre where ideas are paramount, so is diversity. Diversity is not an intrinsically liberal value. After all, conservatives are the ones who tend to believe in gender essentialism, which would necessarily underscore the importance of having female viewpoints since (if gender essentialism holds), female viewpoints are inherently different than male viewpoints in at least some regards, and thus you will get more perspectives if you include women as well as men. Thus: conservatives can be just as invested in welcoming women into the genre as writers and as fans.

But if you have a situation where men and women are equally talented writers and where men outnumber women 4 to 1 and where the Hugo awards do a good job of reflecting talent, then 80% of the awards going to men is not evidence that the awards are biased or oppressive. It is evidence that they are fair. In that scenario, 80% male nominees is not an outrage. It’s the expected outcome.

Of course this just raises the next question: why is it that men outnumber women 4:1 in science fiction? For that matter, why do women outnumber men 2:1 in the YA category? Why is it that only the urban fantasy / paranormal romance category is anywhere close to parity? These are all fascinating questions and also important questions. I believe we can only hope to address them in an open-ended conversation. This is my primary concern with social justice advocates. Because they are tied to a certain ideological version of feminism that views human society through a Marxist-infused lens that emphasizes power struggles between groups and sees gender as socially constructed, they are locked into a paradigm where the mere fact that 80% of sci-fi writers are male (let alone Hugo nominees) is conclusive evidence of patriarchal oppression. From within that paradigm, there’s nothing left to talk about. Anybody who wants to have a discussion (other than to decide which tactics to use to smash the patriarchy) seems like an apologist for male domination. The social justice paradigm is a hammer that makes every single gender difference look like an evil nail.

So the chart isn’t as clear as it first appears. What you take from it depends entirely on your ideological framework. If you’re a social justice advocate, it’s a smoking gun proving conclusively that sci-fi is struggling bitterly to break free from the grip of the patriarchy. If you’re not a social justice advocate it might be evidence of systemic sexism in the sci-fi community that leads to a greater ratio of male writers or it might be evidence that more men like sci-fi than women. Or both. Or neither. It’s interesting, but it’s not conclusive.

Finding 3: Goodreads Scores vs. Hugo Nominations

916 - Goodreads Scores for Hugo Winners Nominees

If the last chart depicted clearly the reasons why social justice warriors are so opposed to SP / RP, this chart depicts clearly the reasons why SP came into being in the first place. What it shows is the average Goodreads review for the Hugo best novel winners (in red) and nominees (in blue) for every year going back to the first Hugo awards awarded in 1953. The most interesting aspect of the chart, from the standpoint of understanding where SP is coming from, is the fairly extreme gap between the scores of the nominees and the winners in the last few years, with the nominees showing much higher scores than the winners. Here it is again, with the data points in question circled:

916 - Goodreads Scores for Hugo Winners Nominees ANNOTATED

Let me be clear about what I think this shows. It does not show that the last few Hugo awards are flawed or that recent Hugo winners have been undeserving. There is no law written anywhere that says that average Goodreads score is the objective measure of quality. That is not my point. All those data points show is that there has been a significant difference of opinion between the Hugo voters who picked the winners and the popular opinion. What’s more, they shows that this gap is a relatively recent phenomenon. Go back 10 or 20 years and the winners tend to cluster near the top of the nominees, showing that the Hugo voting process and the Goodreads audience were more or less in tune. But starting a few years ago, a chasm suddenly opens up.

Of course there have been plenty of years in the past where Goodreads ranked a losing finalist higher than the Hugo winner, but rarely have there been so many in a row and particularly so many in a row with such wide gaps. To a Sad Puppy proponent, this chart is just as much a smoking gun as the previous one because it shows that something has changed in just the last few years that has led to a significant divergence between the tastes reflected by the Hugo awards and the tastes of the sci-fi audience at large. Whether you chalk it up to a social clique, political ideology, secret conspiracy theories, or just plain old herd mentality, it looks like the Hugo awards and popular taste have parted ways. Which, when Correia and Torgersen talk about eltiism and insularity, is exactly the central accusation that the Sad Puppies folks are making.

Just as with the prior chart, however, closer inspection complicates the picture. First, a social justice advocate may very well reply to the chart by saying, “Gee… lots of women get nominated and win and then review scores go down for nominees and winners. Sexism, much?” Turns out that isn’t likely, however, because Goodreads readers tended to rate female authors higher than male authors (at least within the sample of Hugo nominees and winners).

914 - Average Goodreads Rating by Gender

If anything, it suggests the possibility of mild sexism within the WorldCon community since it could indicate that female writers have to achieve higher popularity in order to get nominated and win. I didn’t run any statistical tests to see if the differences were significant, however, so let’s set that aside for the time being. The point is, blaming the low scores of Hugo winners vs. nominees over the last year on sexist Goodreads reviewers is a non-starter. It’s also worth pointing out that the winner scores haven’t suddenly gotten lower just over the last few years while the proportion of female nominees has gone up. They’ve actually been in a long-term slump (relative to Goodreads ratings) going back to the early 2000s with an average of around 3.7 compared to the all-time average of 3.96. Meanwhile, a lot of the losing nominees have been off-the-charts popular with scores of 4.2 and above. This is bound to lead to some hard feelings and bitterness.

When there are this few data points it pays to start looking at individual instances, and this is where the picture does  start to get a little complicated. The most recent winner is Ann Leckie for Ancillary Justice. The rating of that book is 3.98 vs. the books with much higher ratings: Larry Correia’s Warbound(4.41 with 3.6k ratings) and Robert Jordan / Brandon Sanderon’s Complete Wheel of Time series(4.59 with just 376 ratings). Wheel of Time is a special case because it was a nominee for an entire series of books. Only the most devoted fans are likely to leave a rating on the entire series, and that’s why there are so few ratings. It’s probably also why they are so high. A better approach would be to average the individual average ratings of the books in the series, but I haven’t taken the time to do that. In any case, Wheel of Time is suspect as a comparison for that year. That leaves us with Warbound, but it’s a special case, too. Larry Correia drew a lot of fire that year for SP2, and he had no realistic chance of winning no matter how good his book was as a result. Fair or unfair as that might be, it means we can’t really conclude anything by comparing his book with Leckie’s. Take those two out, and Leckie was the highest-rated nominee. With a score of 3.98, her book was also right in line with the long-run average and significantly higher than the short-run average. After digging deeper, it’s really hard to shoehorn the 2014 results into the narrative of divergence between the Hugo winners and the general sci-fi audience.

But there is still a trend worth considering. Going back to 2013 and earlier a succession of fairly low-rated books won despite stiff competition from much more popular nominees. The 2013 and 2010 winners had some of the lowest reviews of the last half century, came last or second-to-last vs. the nominees for that year, and won out over nominees with significantly higher scores. Again: I am not making judgment call on those particular books. Merely pointing out how wide the gap is.

Another shortcoming of this approach is that I’m only comparing Hugo nominees vs. winners, and the Sad Puppies have been claiming that conservative writers can’t get on the ballot at all, not that they keep losing once they get there. The only way to really evaluate that claim would be to contrast the Hugo nominees and winners on the one hand vs. high-rated, eligible sci-fi books that never even made it onto the ballot. If most of the highest rated, eligible books made it onto the ballot in the past but more recently are being ignored, that would be strong evidence in favor of the Sad Puppies fundamental grievance. That analysis is possible to do, but gathering the data is trickier. I hope to be able to tackle it in the coming months.

Closing Thoughts

I still think that Sad Puppies have a legitimate point. Their goal was to get a few new faces out there who otherwise wouldn’t have been considered. I think that’s an admirable goal, and I think that there are some folks on the ballot today who (1) deserve to be there and (2) wouldn’t ever have gotten there without Sad Puppies. And I know that even some of the critics of SP3 agree with that assessment (because they told me so).

The critics of Sad Puppies have a couple of important points too, however. First: concern over gender representation is legitimate. Second: it’s tricky for the Sad Puppies to make their case without appearing to disparage the Hugo winners over the last few years (much as the folks on the SP3 slate are being disparaged even before we know who has won.) Combine that uncomfortable implication (even if unwarranted) with the fact that sweeping the ballot pushed a lot of deserving works out of consideration, and it’s justifiable for the critics to be, well, critical.

I hope that Sad Puppies continues, but I hope that they take steps to avoid hogging the whole ballot. They could recommend a lot more or a lot fewer folks per category. If they recommend 10 folks for best short story, for example, it forces possible voters to (1) read more sci-fi and (2) spread their votes around instead of voting en bloc. If they recommend 2 folks for best short story, any block voting will be confined to a narrow portion of the ballot. Either alternative is better than sweeping most or all of a ballot.

Finally, I’d like for some Sad Puppies folks to get together with some of their critics and see if they can hammer out their differences for the good of the awards and the community as a whole. I have to give props to Mary Robinette Kowal (very much not a Sad Puppy supporter) for being exemplary in this regard.  She has called on folks on her side to knock it off with the death threats and the hate mail, and also has started a drive to get more people supporting WorldCon memberships so that they can vote as well. For his part, Larry Correia has stepped in to stop his supporters from attacking Tor as a publisher. These are all good signs, and I hope that more moderate voices can prevail. Especially because the radicals on both sides are the ones threatening to nuke the entire award system. Social justice warriors are campaigning for Noah Ward (get it?) to shut down Sad Puppies definitively. Meanwhile, Vox Day has already pledged that he would retaliate by trying to shut down the entire award system next year with a No Award campaign of his own for Rabid Puppies 2. Given the first observation in this post, such a threat should be taken seriously.

Sad Puppies 3 was a good idea, but the execution was lacking this year. The best solution for everyone is for the voters to read each book and vote according to quality, including No Award if that’s what they genuinely feel is the right vote based strictly on the quality of the stories. And it is also for SP4 to get out ahead and take steps to avoid repeating the ballot sweep next year as well as to continue to shore up support among moderates, liberals, and apolitical folks to try and depoliticize the entire discussion a little bit.

After all the anger and vitriol over the past couple of weeks, there’s still a way for good to come of this. At the very least, I dearly hope that the legacy of the Hugo awards can be preserved.

Leonard Nimoy

I’m pretty sure that most everyone knows that “live long and prosper” is based on the Jewish priestly blessing. What seems less appreciated is just how fundamental Yiddish culture was to Leonard Nimoy’s identity as a person and as an actor. In 2013, Nimoy was interviewed for the Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project. It is a fascinating interview, even if you only watch the highlights version. Nimoy discusses his family, his life, and his love for a vanishing culture. Oh, and Hamlet’s soliloquy in Yiddish.

Why are Christian movies so painfully bad?

950 - Old Fashioned

That’s the question that Brandon Ambrosino asks at Vox. Mostly he’s talking about the movie Old Fashioned, which is a deliberate anti-50 Shades. Now, y’all know I don’t like 50 Shades. I think I made that abundantly clear. But the last possible thing that I think you can do about a movie like that is go try and make an explicit rebuttal.

Overall, I agree with Ambrosino’s assessment. Yeah, most overtly religious art is pretty painful. He is mostly talking about evangelical Christians, but I think it’s equally true of a lot of Mormon art. Second, a lot of that just has to do with lack of skill.

Director, writer, and lead actor Rik Swartzwelder might bear some of the blame here. After all, his resume, like many others in the Christian film industry, seems notably paltry. A good deal of what actors and directors know about their trade comes from on-the-job training, from working on set and in production studios under filmmakers with decades of experience. By isolating themselves from Hollywood, Christian filmmakers are passing up not only on “secular messages,” but on the mentoring that other budding talent are receiving.

There’s also a major signalling problem, which is something that G. covered at Junior Ganymede last week. Art has to push boundaries. Some Hollywood boundary pushing is good. I am not a fan of adding 3d, but I am a fan of constantly trying to refine and challenge the craft. Some Hollywood boundary pushing is bad, as the never-ending race to titillate and outrage more than the last film. In either case, however, there are forcing pushing back. George Lucas innovates on special effects, and gets hammered for short-changing story. The race to the moral bottom is at least substantially slowed by a reluctant public who always want to cross a line, but only by a small amount. But with Christian films, there’s no counteracting force to pressure the amount of Christianity in the film, and so you get the “is it Christian enough” phenomenon that Ambrosino mentions.

But here’s my major point, and it goes back to an earlier part of the article: an artist has to have something to say. And when you’re just critiquing what somebody else already said, that doesn’t cut it.

It isn’t problematic that Christians “borrow ideas” from Hollywood and put their own spin on them. Every film genre does this. But given the Christian doctrine of creation, it is certainly surprising that so many Christian filmmakers — and artists in general — would choose to mimic someone else’s vision, rather than cultivate their own.

This is my problem with negativity and reactionism in defense of religion. There is a time and a place for analyzing or rebutting what has been said in error, but it should never dominate the message. To actual create something, you can’t be looking at an opponent you want to defeat. You have to be looking at a greater vision towards which you aspire. Christians have a temptation to fight back, but it’s a temptation we’ve got to resist in almost all cases, because it will never win out in the long run. You can’t create a viable alternative by imitation. You need a truly independent vision.

DR Editors Pick Their Best Reads of 2014

989 DR Editor Fave Books COVER

I thought it would be fun to have the DR Editors pick their best reads from 2014. I’m glad I did! Looking through the lists of books and the reviews was really interesting, and it definitely shows what a diverse set of readers we have here at Difficult Run. Without further ado, here are the lists they sent in the order in which they were received.


Monica emailed me to say “I think I only read 5 or so books in 2014 anyway, and none of them were really remarkable to me. :-/.” Fair enough, and let us all wish Monica better luck in picking books to read in 2015!

Robin Givens

1. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling

Mindy Kaling gives a voice to all lady craziness.  If Tina Fey is my best friend because Liz Lemon is my spirit animal, and if Amy Poehler is my best friend because she’s all girl power, then Mindy Kaling is my best friend because she is a girly-girl (not me, but I appreciate), anxious (me), school nerd (me).  This book definitely has a particular audience which is 30-ish females who dare to be non-academic (even if some of them still get straight A’s).  Mindy Kaling is a comedian whose voice carries over entirely to the book, something I haven’t found in other comedian memoirs. Also, can Mindy Kaling PLEASE write a YA vampire romance series?!

I guess I find “Jack and Diane” a little disgusting…I wish there was a song called “Nguyen and Ari,” a little ditty about a hardworking Vietnamese girl who helps her parents with the franchised Holiday Inn they run and does homework in the lobby, and Ari, a hardworking Jewish boy who does volunteer work at his grandmother’s old-age home, and they meet after school at the Princeton Review. They help each other study for the SATs and different AP courses, and then after months of studying, and mountains of flashcards, they kiss chastely upon hearing the news that they both got into their top college choices.”

2. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (Ballantine Reader’s Circle) by Fannie Flagg

I love Southern fiction and I love crazy people, and this book is all about crazy Southern people.  This is the kind of quirky Southern fiction that will make you think “I have to stop reading Southern fiction because nothing can ever possibly compare.”  There are deep sadnesses, great triumphs, secret collaborations, hilarious anecdotes, kooky characters, ridiculous names, inspiring loves and most of all loyal friendships. Love.

“By the way, Boots died and Opal says she hopes you’re satisfied.
…Dot Weems…”

3. State of Wonder: A Novel by Patchett, Ann Reprint (2012) Paperback by Ann Patchett

This is a great read for any female in graduate school (but if you’re not in graduate school, it’s still great).  Not only is it a mystery/adventure beach read (with a hint of science fiction), but it really explores the mentor-student relationship in all of its (possible) horror.  The story is a modern, feminine retelling of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  If you hated that book in high school, you will still like this book.  The most interesting things I found with Patchett’s writing are her ability to convey the emotion of a scene through dialogue, and her great use of flashback intertwined with the current moment.   I could not put this book down!!

Walker Wright

1. The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections On the Quest for Faith by Terryl & Fiona Givens

The Givenses’ most recent work is, as Adam Miller put it, “a nearly perfect book.” Many books have been written on the nature of faith and doubt, but none (that I’m aware of) tackle it from a purely Mormon perspective. The LDS faith produces a number of somewhat unique angles and situations for doubt due to its history and theological claims. These include but are not limited to modern prophetic authority and the temptation of hero worship, the Church’s doctrines in relation to other traditions and sources of truth, and the actual role the LDS Church as an organization plays in the world today and in God’s eternal plan. The Givenses provide deep insights, workable paradigms, and new language by which to articulate the messiness of lived religion. In a culture and tradition that paradoxically teaches both progressive learning and religious certainty, this book provides a method of faithful doubting. Questions, as noted recently by President Ucthdorf, led to the Restoration. I hope that this book will begin to erode the cultural stigma toward doubt and help reestablish a culture of consistent seeking.

2. Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact by Neylan McBaine

Neylan McBaine’s book is both important and timely, offering wisdom and insight for both LDS leaders and lay members. Neylan’s ability to carefully navigate the rather heated and sensitive topic of gender roles within the LDS Church is awe-inspiring. She avoids painting women as victims or overusing buzzwords like “patriarchy,” while still pointedly addressing the sexism that is sometimes (often unintentionally) bred in Mormon culture. Her choice of stories—several from non-American settings–paints a more vivid, diverse picture of the LDS Church and the men and women within it. Neylan’s empathic take on both traditional and more critical LDS views is an excellent example of bridge building and readers will likely be influenced to adopt a more charitable approach to those they disagree with. She largely avoids the theological entanglements of gender essentialism and the like, instead relying on business-oriented studies and material to provide a realistic framework in which actual improvements can be made. The end product is inspiring, thoughtful, and often paradigm-shifting. Every LDS member, as well as outsiders looking in, would benefit from reading it.

3. Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis–Deuteronomy (Paperback) – Common by David E. Bokovoy

This book is one that, surprisingly, both LDS and non-LDS alike can benefit from. The book is written as less of an argument (even if the evidence presented within it could be used to bolster an impressive one), but as an invitation. The first five chapters focus on the Documentary Hypothesis, breaking it down in a highly accessible way. The final five focus specifically on Latter-day Saints and their holy books (i.e. the Book of Moses, the Book of Abraham, and the Book of Mormon), providing readers with an informative paradigm by which to approach scripture, revelation, and “translation.” A secularist can find value in Bokovoy’s description of the Book of Moses and Book of Abraham as modern pseudepigrapha, while an apologist will find plenty of material for ancient origins. While there is room for debate regarding David’s approach to restoration scriptures (I tend to take an eclectic approach, seeing it as a mix of pseudepigrapha, midrash, targum, history, and iconotropy), that’s the point: to think critically about these texts. Bokovoy does not offer his view as the final word, but as a possible paradigm. And it is a valuable one at that. David and Greg Kofford Books have done Latter-day Saints a great service with this publication. I hope to see its influence in future Sunday School, Institute, and Seminary classes Church wide.

Honorable Mention:

Letters to a Young Mormon by Adam S. Miller

For Zion: A Mormon Theology of Hope by Joseph M. Spencer

Allen Hansen

1. Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution (Jewish Lives)  by Yehuda Mirsky

I greatly admire the Rav Kook, arguably among the most original and radical religious thinkers of all time, a man who tried to find the spark of holiness in everyone, even in his opponents. Yehuda Mirsky’s new biography traces Kook’s life from his beginnings in the traditional, conservative world of Jewish Eastern Europe to his move to Palestine in 1904 where he attempted to build bridges between that world and the young, free-thinking Zionists.  Then came the horrors of the First World War, which Kook saw in starkly religious terms. The rest of the book is taken up with Kook’s return to Palestine under the British, where he became chief rabbi. Mirsky shows how Kook could be theologically bold and psychologically incisive, yet remained politically naïve. At his best, Rabbi Kook could bridge the traditional and modern worlds in a unique, visionary way, and this biography is an excellent introduction to his pivotal impact on Judaism and the Middle East.

2. I’d Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Bluesby Stephen Calt

Skip James is my favorite bluesman. He was also a pretty appalling individual. What particularly fascinates me is how similar blues culture was to rap culture in many ways. Pimping, getting rich quick, clubbing, and violence, it is all there in the life of Skip James, so he feels surprisingly modern. Stephen Calt was one of the few people whom James considered a friend, and he shared with him many (contradictory) details of his life. Calt traces James’ life from the early 20th century to his rediscovery by white fans in the 1960s. He does so critically, so there is no getting around the fact that despite being gifted, James was also proud, paranoid, and unloving. Calt really has little patience for myth or romanticism. Calt also accepts that not all blues music was good, and shows James’ limitations as a musician. There is also a wealth of historical detail about the south, its dialects, culture and religion. Ultimately, the book is the tragic portrait of an intelligent, undeniably talented man who at the end of his life had nothing to be proud of except performing a song better than Cream’s cover version.

3. Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul (Jewish Encounters) Daniel Gordis

Menachem Begin, Israel’s sixth prime minister, was nothing if not controversial. Begin led the armed insurgency against the British in 1940s Palestine, and was considered by them terrorist No. 1. Begin was publicly denounced by Einstein, and constantly vilified by Ben-Gurion. As prime minister, Begin launched the attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor, and initiated the First Lebanese War.  Yet he also signed the peace treaty with Egypt, and he took in Vietnamese refugees when no one else did. Daniel Gordis does a superb job of putting Begin in context, highlighting how Begin’s profound attachment to his Jewish identity shaped his life and political vision. Gordis brings nuances to the moral dilemmas that Begin faced, and it is hard to walk away from this biography without gaining appreciation for Begin as a person. He made tough decisions, but did not throw anyone under the bus if things went wrong. Given his reputation, it is surprising to learn that he attempted to minimize bloodshed, and was determined to avoid a civil war among the various Jewish factions. Despite his unyielding devotion to the Jewish cause, he also believed in a universal humanism. Gordis’ biography makes it hard to accept the common wisdom which holds that religion and nationalism inevitably have a negative impact on politics. The truth is always far messier and complex.

Honourable Mention:

Terror Out of Zion: The Fight for Israeli Independence by J. Bowyer Bell

1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War by Benny Morris

Bryan Maack

1. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism by Tim Keller

I think people are rightfully calling Tim Keller the new C.S. Lewis. The pastor of a New York Presbyterian Church, he writes in a simple and short yet deeply insightful manner. His book clocks in at 250 pages, but they read easily, and every page has value. His book is broken down into two main parts. First, he covers the arguments against Christianity such as there can’t be one true religion, how a good God could allow suffering, and how science has disproved Christianity. Keller then follows up with reasons for believing in Christianity, such as the famous argument from desire, the clues to God in the human mind and the natural world, the meaning of sin, and much more. He uses citations amply, which provide both credibility and additional reading. Overall, a great book which I can’t do justice to in a short review. Go read it yourself!

2. The Shadow of His Wings: The True Story of Fr. Gereon Goldmann, OFM by Gereon Goldmann

Gereon Goldmann recalls his harrowing years up to and during WW2 as a Catholic priest-in-training who was drafted into the SS as a medic before he could finish his theological training. His autobiography paints a picture of one man, trusting in God, trying to stay alive and faithful to his beliefs through the trials of World War 2. The book reads like ‘based on a true story’ and yet *is* a true story. Goldmann defies the SS straight to their face. He meets with Pope Pius XII during the war and become a priest despite lacking years of training. He carries the Eucharist throughout the war, ministering to the fearful and dying, and at one point wades across a river above his head with only the Eucharist above water in his hand, hoping nearby British sentries don’t notice the mysterious Eucharist container moving across the river. He ends up in a French prison camp in the middle of the desert after the war with a bunch of Nazis who refuse to give up, and through faithful dedication overthrows their de facto ownership of the camp despite attempts on his life. Goldmann survives all of these ordeals and ultimately becomes a missionary to Japan! I truly have found few biographies more inspiring than Father Goldmann’s.

3. The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ (A Liguori Classic) by Saint Alphonsus Liguori

Saint Liguori set out in the mid 1700s to write a book for the poor and uneducated of Italy about the love of Jesus Christ. I love this book precisely because it is written for the simple and uneducated. I want to be taught as one would teach a peasant, starting with the simplest concepts, because I have found often that in simplicity there is the genuine love of Christ so often lacking in complex treatises. Saint Liguori pulls liberally from scripture and from other Catholic saints to teach us how much Jesus has done for us, and in return how we can best love Jesus. “For my part, I know of no other perfection than that of loving God with all the heart, because without love all the other virtues are nothing but a pile of stones.”

Nathaniel Givens

I read a lot of books in 2014 (more than 60), so picking just the top three is going to be tricky. Here we go.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

I put off reading The Righteous Mind for a while not because I wasn’t sure if it would be good or not, but because I was sure that it would be good. I was already familiar from interviews, articles, and videos with both Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory and its basic political implications. I thought it was fascinating and compelling theory, and I assumed that this book–like so many popular non-fiction books–would be a couple of hundred pages of fluff around a core idea that could be expressed in 70 pages or less. When I actually read the book, however, I was shocked and surprised to see how wrong I’d been.

There’s a lot more going on in this book than Moral Foundations Theory. There is MFT, of course, but it’s very interesting to see Jonathan Haidt put it in its historical context by writing of his own coming-of-age (as a researcher) narrative. Then, going far beyond MFT, there’s just a lot of really, really excellent discussion of the basics of human nature. There are two core ideas, and both of them are starkly post-post-modern (as N. T. Wright would say). The first critiques the model of human nature that pictures us as more or less rational and more or less monolithic. Instead, Haidt uses the metaphor of an elephant (our emotional and psychological behaviors) with a rider perched on top (our rational mind) where the rider has very limited control over the elephant and acts more as a PR firm to justify what the elephant does rather than an expert consultant to guide its behavior. The second critiques the idea of human individualism, pointing out that we are (as Haidt metaphorically puts it) 90% chimp and 10% honeybee. We have a “hive switch” that, when activated by various group religious, cultural, or military behaviors, turns a bunch of individuals into a single, cohesive whole. Taken together, these two ideas constitute one of the most important attacks on the core Enlightenment philosophical tenets that have survived into modernity, although that observation goes beyond what Haidt himself has to say. The book is fascinating, compelling, and deeply relevant to our world today.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

This is one of those books that has had a tremendous amount of positive buzz, and I was really happy that it lived up to all the good rumors I’d heard. I classify this as a work of genuinely literary sci-fi, along with books like Never Let Me Go or The Handmaid’s Tale: they come from outside the stable of authors traditionally considered to be genre writers in the sci-fi tradition, but they are books that absolutely couldn’t exist without the concepts and tropes popularized by sci-fi genre writers. They are sort of the best of both worlds: more emphasis on prose and characterization than you sometimes get from books shelved in the sci-fi section, but with that genuine spark of inquisitiveness and analysis that is the hallmark of “the literature of ideas.” In particular, The Road is a literary take on the post-apocalyptic sub-genre that simultaneously uses the apocalypse as a backdrop for an introspective father/son story (sort of a mirror image coming-of-age story, where the boy comes of age almost without the father realizing what is happening) but at the same time treats the backdrop seriously and as more than a mere prop. This is why, I think, it can satisfy both hard core sci-fi fans and also those who have never really gotten into the genre. I will add that I couldn’t fully enjoy the book as I read it through the first time because ever since I’ve had kids of my own I can’t really deal with traumatic things happening to children in fiction, and I wasn’t sure how dark this book was going to get. I won’t give any spoilers other than to say the ending wasn’t what I expected, but it worked fantastically. I want to reread this one again some day.

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English by John McWhorter

On one level, this is a book-length exposition of McWhorter’s theory of where the English language came from, written for a layperson to understand. But with this book, the journey is at least as valuable as the destination. By the time he got to his big reveal at the end, I had completely forgotten that that was the point of the book. I was simply too fascinated by his explanation of the linguistic history of English, especially as it related to the political and cultural history of Europe. But then when he did pull it all together in the end, I was excited by his theory, too. It gave the book the feel of an exciting techno-mystery where there’s some ancient, unexplained clue that–once it is unraveled–gives us fresh insight into the past. I’m definitely a huge fan of McWhorter, and I have to stress that if you’re not listening to the audiobook versions of his books (which he narrates himself), you’re missing out. With linguistics as with no other subject, there is really no substitute for the spoken word.

Honorable Mention:

Gilead: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson

What It Is Like To Go To War by Karl Marlantes

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick

Mother Night: A Novel by Kurt Vonnegut

Sauron and the Metaphysical Moscow

A friend of mine from Moscow has been posting for several days about a cool event scheduled for December 11th. The Eye of Sauron was going to appear on a tower in the Moscow-City business center. It would have been huge, and very prominent. Well, Svecheniye- the art group behind the project- have just announced that they are scrapping the whole thing. They stated that there was nothing political or religious about their Eye of Sauron project, but they received intensely adverse reactions. While the Russian article I read did not specify who pressured Svecheniye, it seemed pretty obvious. Several news articles have been more explicit.  The Russian Orthodox Church strenuously objected to prominently displaying a “demonic symbol of the triumph of evil” in Moscow because it would bring disasters upon the city. For the Russian Orthodox Church, Moscow is a profoundly holy city, the Third Rome. As an Estonian scholar noted, it is crucial to that church’s self-identity.

Moscow is not only the most important city but it is chosen by God and in a way set apart from other places on the earth. Moscow has a special religious function. It is the Christian centre. It is in some way closer to God. But that is not all… Moscow is the Third Rome and “the third stands, and there will never be a fourth.“ Moscow is the last Rome. Moscow was the centre of history and therefore its fulfilment. This means that Russia had to preserve its rich store of faith in purity in the last phase before the end of the world. And this fact puts a heavy responsibility on the shoulders of the Russians.

With this kind of metaphysics, the Tolkien fans never stood a chance. Never mind that Sauron symbolizes the hubris and ultimate futility of evil, not its triumph. The political power of the Russian Orthodox Church means that it can win these battles quite easily.