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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Handbasket Thing (Conclusion -2)

Claymore is ahead of the curve again.
I submit that an Animal House/Porky’s minded Jim Kirk could not become Captain Kirk.

Far be it from me to defend an old TV show, but why take the concept from bad to worse? I’d like to challenge everyone here to aim higher.

One thing the original Star Trek series had, that is all but forgotten now, was a sense of the more noble qualities like fidelity, perseverance, courage, character in the face of adversity, and self sacrifice. On the Enterprise men were men, and women were feminine. And they were explorers.

A week or two ago B questioned the moral obligations of the writer to the reader. Maybe the answer lies in whether the writer wants to make a difference for the better. Maybe it depends on the kind of legacy the writer wants to leave.
I read an interesting book recently —

That's a redundancy. I rarely read uninteresting books. If the author has not in the first chapter or ten pages or so made a compelling case for my finishing the book, I generally put it aside and forget it. After all, it's not as if there's a shortage of books waiting to be read.

But I digress.

I read this book recently: Teenagers and Teenpics: The Juvenilization of American Movies in the 1950s, by Thomas Doherty. No, not that Tom Doherty, the one who founded Tor Books; the other Thomas Doherty, the one who teaches humanities at Boston University.

Other Doherty's thing is film, and this book focuses specifically on American cinema in the 1950s, but in his thesis there are hints at a larger lesson. The main thrust of his argument is that before World War II, American pop culture was essentially a monoculture. There were subcultures, true, mostly ethnic in nature, but these were generally small, regional, and on the largest issues still in conformance with the generally accepted social norms: i.e., that men who lived by violence usually died by violence; that adultery was bad; that women who lived outside the accepted sexual norms often came to bad ends, usually via venereal disease or unwed pregnancy; that authority figures generally knew what they were doing or at least meant well; and that growing up poor, illiterate, and fatherless was a terrible handicap to be overcome, not a lifestyle to be celebrated. Certainly sex and violence were present in popular entertainment, but there was a moral dimension as well. Moll Flanders may have been a prostitute, a thief, and a con-artist, but she repented and changed her ways, and this is what saved her. The scandal of a book like Lady Chatterly's Lover was not so much the clumsily pornographic sex; it was that Lady Chatterly neither repented of nor suffered from her adulterous affair.

There were cracks in the façade, of course. For an entire generation of English-language writers, God died in the muddy trenches of The Great War, but the resulting ideas — especially those about hypocrisy, irony, nihilism, cynicism, and the competence and good intentions of authority figures — did not begin to percolate into the mainstream until after 1929.

The tectonic shift that fractured this Pangaea of popular culture began to rumble in the 1940s and struck full-force in the 1950s. Partly it was technological: after the war, television appeared, and in very short order consuming entertainment went from being a social event done with friends or family downtown to being a private activity engaged in behind closed curtains at home. Partly it was economic: after the war there were thousands of Army- and Navy-trained cinematographers on the streets looking for work, and a surprising amount of high-quality surplus equipment and film-stock on the market. Mostly it was demographic: the 1940s saw the beginnings of a Baby Boom (you may have heard of it), and by the 1950s the first Baby Boomers were beginning to enter their teenage years.

The paradigm shift was sudden and very dramatic. Before the 1950s, there was children's entertainment and there was entertainment for adults, and a reasonable person could tell the difference. Moreover, before the 1950s, teenagers were expected in the normal course of life to at some point to give up the things of childhood and become functional and responsible adults.

Sometime in the early 1950s, though, some unsung genius in Hollywood stumbled onto a new truth: that the Baby Boom teenagers had their own cars, their own money, their own tastes, and no longer depended on their parents for guidance, or even permission. Most importantly, in this new reality, it was possible to make literally mountains of money by cranking out entertainment products that catered to the tastes, conceits, prejudices, and fantasies of these often affluent and frequently spectacularly self-absorbed teens.

Doherty marks the transition point as being 1955, and the seminal event as being the film Blackboard Jungle. In its time this movie was alternately praised for its "gritty realism" and widely accused of promoting urban gang violence, and its main musical theme, a rather pedestrian slab of mock-rockabilly by Bill Haley and The Comets called "Rock Around The Clock," went on to become an anthemic #1 hit single and sell more than 25 million copies.

Whatever their other virtues or flaws, though, Doherty's point is that Blackboard Jungle and "Rock Around The Clock" were the first really hugely successful attempts by the film and music industries to package and market adolescent rebellion to Baby Boomer teens. And our culture is still reverberating from the impact.

To be continued...

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Friday Challenge Came on Sunday This Week

Sorry about last week, folks. I got into First Rule Situation with a double-scoop of deadline crunch at work, and then had to go on an ad hoc road trip. November promises more of them same: I've got two more major deadlines coming up at work, three more road trips already on the docket with a fourth possible, and while I do have a certain temptation to take my shiny new laptop along and see if my new wi-fi card is really as good as advertised, I have a much stronger temptation to leave it at home.

All of which is to say that blogging will continue to be light and sporadic in November.

As for last week's Friday Challenge: as disappointed as I am that not one of you remembered Finnegan —

You know, Finnegan, from the classic Trek episode, "Shore Leave," which was written by none other than Theodore Sturgeon? Remember now? That obnoxious Irish upper classman who made Jim's life at Starfleet Academy a living hell? The guy who was so rough on Kirk that when the Enterprise got to The Planet Where A Hidden Alien Gizmo Makes Your Deepest Fantasies Come True, it turned out Kirk's deepest fantasy was not the one about that hot babe he'd left behind long ago, but the one about beating the snot out of Finnegan?

Ah, never mind. The winner of last week's contest was clearly Boz by a wide margin. Boz, contact me to arrange delivery of your prize.

For this week's contest, I was trying to come up with some kind of story based off Paris Hilton's recent announcement that she's arranged to have herself cryogenically preserved, so that she will remain beautiful forever. Nothing really came together, though, so we'll move on to the next idea, which is that this, in some jurisdictions, is the week of Halloween. (In other jurisdictions, sadly, Halloween is now deemed too offensive or frightening or whatever to be allowed, so this is the week of the Fall Celebration, or the Harvest Fiesta, or in St. Paul, I kid you not, The Great Pumpkin Festival.) So what we're looking for this week is a good, fun, possibly mildly scary Halloween (or Fall, or Harvest, etc., etc.) story.

Preferably involving the frozen corpse of Paris Hilton.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Friday Challenge

Okay, I'm calling it. The winner by default of last week's Friday Challenge is Guy Stewart, because Knarf is under a permanent lifetime ban and he knows why. Guy, you know what to do.

This week, in recognition of the missed opportunity that is Star Trek XI, your challenge is: Given that CBS/Paramount wants to reboot the franchise, describe the Starfleet Academy film they should be making.

Starfleet Academy? You mean like, Police Academy? Or Animal House?

Yes, I mean exactly that. It's the 23rd Century. There's a whole new universe out there. And the question on everyone's mind is: what kind of trouble are those wacky guys in the Gamma Delta Hydra frat house and those naughty hotties in the Ceti Alpha Six sorority getting into this time?
Example: It's Pledge Week at the academy, and those wacky mooks in Gamma House have conspired with the Cetis to smuggle in two barrels of Romulan ale for their kegger! But lovable lush Scottie decides to "sample" the brew before the party, drinks an entire keg by himself, and winds up passed-out face down on the living room couch, so in retaliation crazy pre-med student "Big Bone" McCoy uses his magical medical whatchamajiggy thing to seal Scottie's anus shut!
Anyway, I think you get the idea. It may be the 23rd century, but we can safely assume that college students will still be college students. As always, there will be suitably appropriate prize(s), with the winner(s) to be announced next Friday. So, on your mark; get set: TOGA!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Why I Love the Internet

Because when you're tired of the humdrum and mundane, you can always find something like this:
India tail earns consolation win
India 195-8 (46 ovs) bt Australia 193 (41.3 ovs) by 2 wkts

India edged a fluctuating final one-day international by two wickets in Mumbai, as the series ended 4-2 to Australia...
Now, I know that this article is nominally written in English. And I also happen to know that a co-worker of mine was born in Mumbai and was a champion cricketeer as a young man, and if I really wanted to understand all this he'd be happy to explain it to me in more detail than I could possibly handle. Still, I think I'd prefer to let my imagination wander, as I read through paragraphs like this:
Murali Kartik took 6-27, the best ODI return by a left-arm spinner and three Australia batsmen fell first ball.

Ricky Ponting hit a 63rd one-day fifty as his team mustered 193 all out, but India were soon 8-2 inside four overs.

Robin Uthappa gave them hope with two sixes in a fluent 47, and an unbroken 52 stand between Zaheer Khan and Kartik led them home with four overs to spare.

Zaheer had earlier struck with the first delivery of the match, pitching one on middle stump and moving it in to trap Michael Clarke lbw bang in front.

Umpire Aleem Dar, at the start of his 100th one-day international, had no hesitation in sending Clarke to the pavilion for his second successive golden duck.
Ah, being sent to the pavilion for a golden duck. What wonderful possibilities those words conjure up.

Who needs quidditch when you've got cricket?

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Friday Challenge

Arrr, Mateys! Hoist the portholes and batten the landlubbers, 'cause sure if we don't have a salty seagoing Friday Challenge for you this week! We're talking a rousing tale of thud and blunder, with gold doubloons, pieces of eight, the Spanish Main, and the Twin Terrors of the Caribbean, none other than Anne Bonny and Mary Read, the absolutely historically authentic Thelma and Louise of the 1700s!

This is a tale near and dear to my heart, because it starts in the pirate haven of New Providence, the stronghold of pirate captain Henry Jennings, who apparently was some sort of shirt-tail relative of mine. Or maybe we should start it a wee bit earlier, in County Cork, Ireland, where wealthy attorney William Cormac had an affair with the family maid and produced Anne, an intelligent and attractive spitfire of a girl. When the affair became public Cormac took off to South Carolina with his new wife and daughter, where he subsequently made another fortune and became a wealthy planter, while Anne in turn took off at age 16 with a small-potatoes pirate named Jack Bonny and ended up in New Providence. (Modern day Nassau, in the Bahamas.)

It was there in New Providence, a veritable hive of scum and villainy, that Anne traded up to the far more attractive pirate "Calico Jack" Rackham, and after some unpleasantness with Bonny the pair stole a ship and went to sea, yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me! As Captain and Mistress of the Revenge they cut quite a swath across the Caribbean, stealing, looting, burning, capturing prizes and blowing all their ill-gotten gains on drunken binges, and they say Anne was a devil with the cutlass, a dead-shot with the pistol, and twice as bloodthirsty in a fight as any man!

Meanwhile, back in London, a sea captain's widow gave birth to an illegitimate daughter, and in an effort to fool the paternal grandparents into keeping the child-support money coming dressed the girl in her older, deceased, and legitimate brother's clothing and for years passed her off as the boy. (Apparently dear old grandmother had poor eyesight.) When the money finally ran out in her teenage years, Mary Read, still cross-dressing, joined the army, and in a blatant violation of the "don't ask, don't tell" rule fell in love with her tent-mate, with whom she left the army and took up life as a married woman. Shortly thereafter he died of a fever, though, so she returned to cross-dressing and went to sea as a sailor, and had the peculiar luck to be on a ship that was attacked and taken by Calico Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny!

This is where the tale takes a strange turn. The line between common sailor and pirate was very thin in them thar days, and Read chose to turn pirate and join the crew of the Revenge. For her part Bonny found herself strangely fascinated by this new "Dutch boy" on the crew, quickly discovering that he was neither Dutch nor a boy, but Calico Jack was enraged by his new romantic rival and one day burst in on Anne and Mary with gun and sword in hand, intending to kill them both. Instead, only a quick topless duo scene saved them both.

Thereafter, the story comes to a conclusion in a suitably desultory way. Read came out as a woman, took a new lover from among the crew, and the three of them continued on the path of piracy, with some notable success. Calico Jack took to drinking even more heavily, though, and in October of 1720 the Revenge was captured by surprise while Jack and most of the crew were in a drunken stupor. They were all taken in chains back to Jamaica, where the men were hanged, but Bonny and Read "pled their bellies" and were given stays of execution, because under the English law of the time it was illegal to execute an unborn child.

The parentage of the children was never settled: Bonny's child was perhaps sired by Calico Jack, or perhaps by one Dr. Michael Radcliff, a prisoner they took in one of their raids and to whom Anne had taken a fancy. Read's child was also possibly sired by Calico Jack, or perhaps another member of the crew, or perhaps even one of her gaolers, as that apparently was a common way to cheat the hangman in those days. Read died in prison, either of disease or in childbirth, while Anne simply disappears from history, with no record of her either having died in prison, been executed, or been released. There is some suspicion that her wealthy and influential father bought her release and that she lived out her days under another name, or possibly was transported to Australia, but absent the discovery of some 300-year-old "smoking gun" letter...

Wow. Heck of a tale, innit? Now here's the challenge: Starting with this as an historical model, how do you rewrite this story for the science fiction or fantasy market?

As always, we're playing for either a signed copy of Rebel Moon or what's behind Door #2. Post your entries in the Comments, and if you don't have an entry yourself, feel free to vote for and comment on the other entries. The winner will be announced next Friday.

Now, ready? Set? Weigh anchor!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Of Moral Obligations and Handbaskets, Part 6

Snowdog makes a fair cop.
Woooot! Violating your own No Politics rule! Five yard penalty! Second down!
That's probably why this series is taking so long to develop. The philosophical crosses over into the religious; the historical crosses over into political; the boundary lines are not well-marked and apt to change with the wind. I'm a science fiction writer and something of an amateur historian: I was taking graduate-level courses in anthropology when my wife informed me that it was time for me to leave the university and start killing mammoths in order to feed the baby. All this means that I tend to take the thousand-year view of things, and in the process often cross blithely over that faint barrier that separates the abstract and theoretical from the immediate and personal.

Case in point: this series seems to be veering towards becoming a critique of Feminism.

Honestly, I have little interest in writing such a critique. In the thousand-year view, Feminism is an anomaly, much like Shakerism and for roughly the same reason. In the long run, Feminism will be viewed merely as an eccentric anti-fertility cult, and possibly the reason why some sub-populations of H. sapiens went extinct in the early 3rd Millennium (CE). If there are scientists in the 4th Millennium, Feminism will be studied only by those savants unable to get nice grants to study Olmec werejaguar beliefs instead.

Certainly Feminism isn't a prime cause of any of the social dislocations we are feeling as we continue this journey in a handbasket towards an uncertain future. It's merely one of the more overt symptoms.

Still, it has its moments of interest. For example, this book wandered into the shop the other day: The Stronger Women Get, the More Men Love Football: Sexism and the American Culture of Sports, by Mariah Burton Nelson. In this book, Nelson, a former starter for the New Jersey Gems of the short-lived Women's Professional Basketball League
"...links gender-based pay and scholarship inequity with male violence and male domination in sports and society at large.
"Besides their role in reinforcing sexism, she presents the corollary argument that "manly" sports, particularly football, set the stage for violence against women. The fear of strong females, Nelson contends, is the chief reason that female athletes are unsettling to men and are discriminated against in every area from college athletic budgets to media coverage of their events. She also makes telling points about so-called male bonding on teams as socially acceptable homoeroticism. In closing, she exhorts women to keep fighting for equal treatment, to continue viewing sports as an extension of personal goals and a source of pleasure, not as a road to dominance of men or other women..."

Look, there's nothing mysterious about the behavior of H. sapiens males. Once you understand that the species was forged in the crucible of the Pleistocene and is programmed for success in the context of a paleolithic hunter-gatherer culture, male behavior makes perfect sense. Male bonding as socially acceptable homoeroticism? No, men are programmed by evolution to operate well in tribal hunting bands, and when deprived of their traditional clan-based bands will seek to form new tribes. (Or platoons. Or teams. Or gangs.) Sports as a road to dominance over other men? Yes, of course; men are programmed by evolution to question authority, since bad leadership can lead the tribe into disaster, and yet at the same time also programmed to accept authority once it has been established and to contest with their peer males in order to establish a pecking order for future leadership.

Sports as enabling and condoning violence against women and an expression of the fear of strong women?

Ehnnnt! Malfunction! Does not compute!

Male violence against women is an aberration; it's counter-evolutionary. H. sapiens males are programmed by evolution to protect and provide for women. Further, males are trained from birth to both protect women and submit to female authority. (As in: "Be nice to your sister." "Be a good boy and give grandma a kiss." Aw, Mom, grandma smells funny! "Don't you dare talk back to your mother like that!") For an H. sapiens male to overthrow 50,000 years of instinct and choose to be cruel to a female of his species requires a major emotive malfunction.

[And as a sidebar: why this specific interest in sisters? Because in a primitive culture, assuming they share a common mother, the sister's children are the only ones that the male can be certain are closely related to him.]
"The fear of strong females, Nelson contends, is the chief reason that female athletes are unsettling to men..."
I think not. We're programmed by evolution to protect our sisters and vie for dominance with our brothers. It's when our brothers want to behave like sisters or our sisters demand to be treated like brothers that things start to go haywire.

Ehnnt! Malfunction! Does not compute!

And yet science fiction, which advocates the perfectability of man, consistently presents the idea that this reaction is merely a minor glitch in the H. sapiens BIOS, and one that can be fixed with a few simple paper patches. be continued...

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A Few Last Tomatoes in the Handbasket

...and suddenly it's late Fall. Sunday morning I was walking along a beach, digging my toes into the warm sand and watching the seagulls soar on the southeast breeze. Yesterday it snowed in Thief River Falls, which is quite a ways north of here, but still close enough to get our attention so we spent the evening out in the garden, harvesting the last of the summer's tomatoes and peppers. The Romas will get made into sauce and canned. The Best Boys and Beefsteaks; maybe sauce, maybe salad, maybe chili. The Yellow Boys and jalapenos will wind up as salsa, and anything else that has a bit of a blush to it will wind up on the kitchen windowsill, ripening off the vine. The tomatoes that are too green even for that are my favorites, though; they'll wind up getting pickled with dill, garlic, and — here's the secret — one tiny red super hot chili pepper per pint. Mm-mmmm!

As we worked out in the garden in the rapidly advancing cold and dark, it occurred to me that our methods and means might have been puzzling, but this was a division of labor any paleolithic family would have understood. Mrs. Og was busy picking the fruits, vegetables, and herbs and making all the decisions as to what went into which basket and what would be done with it later. After she cleared an area, I ripped the dying vines out of the ground and hauled them off to the compost heap, Master Thistlewhacker collected the tomato cages and stacked them for winter storage, and Dimwit the Dog patrolled the perimeter, hoping we might scare up another bunny. During the lulls in the gross physical work, Thistlewhacker and I talked about our plans for the upcoming deer season.

As I said: a division of labor any band of Cro-Magnons would have understood.

The current thinking in anthropological circles, in case you missed it, is just that: that gender differentiation is why the Cro-Mags displaced the Neanderthals in such a relatively short span of time. From what we've been able to determine, the Neanderthals didn't have much specialization. All members of the band hunted; no one sewed, no one watched the kids. In contrast, our ancestors did specialize by gender, and it gave them a tremendous evolutionary advantage. A woman who is able to multitask around hearth and home, simultaneously tending the garden, cooking the food, sewing the clothing, and watching the kids so that they don't get eaten by jackals, is far more likely to be reproductively successful than one who just turns the brats loose like a bunch of apes and goes off to join the hunters. Likewise, a man who is able to monotask — to sit still, shut up, and really focus on one thing while trusting his mate to take care of the hearth and home stuff — is far more likely to be a successful provider and protector for his offspring than one who is simultaneously trying to watch the kids, clean the cave, and spear a mammoth.

This is us. This is the history of our species. This is who we are. This is also coming to be one of my main gripes with contemporary science fiction; that so many writers want to claim to be perfectly scientific and rational, and yet also want to ignore the entire history of hominid evolution up to this point, just because the results don't suit contemporary political prejudices. be continued...

Friday, October 05, 2007

And yet more handbaskets

WaterBoy rightly points out that the Warrior Woman predates Star Wars by a long shot, citing the examples of both Joan of Arc and Howard's Red Sonja. Absolutely, the Nordic and Germanic myths feature plenty of sword-maidens, shield-maidens, valkyries and the like. The Greeks had their Amazons; the Chinese and Japanese their various folk tales of warrior girls. (Mulan, anyone?) During our own Civil War, just to cite one fairly recent example, there were several well-documented cases of women cutting off their hair, dressing in men's clothing, going off to join the Army, and not being outed as women until they were wounded in battle.

But right up until about thirty years ago, these sorts of women were generally treated as freaks, sports, and prodigies. The Maid of Orleans was on a mission from God, for gosh sakes. If a woman went to war in Europe and was any good at it, she'd better be fighting in either the French Resistance or the Spanish Civil War. If an American woman was any good with a gun, she was either an evil ball-busting film noir femme fatale or else Calamity Jane or Annie Oakley. Yes, a western might end with the heroine shooting the villain in the back just as he's about to drop an anvil on the temporarily stunned hero's head, but the heroine always did so reluctantly, with a look of horror at what she'd just done, and then immediately dropped the gun from her hand as if it was a venomous insect. By and large, women's weapons in fiction were domestic items that were generally non-lethal and bordered on the comic: frying pans, empty bottles, ham hocks, etc.

Some kind of cultural change took place in the 1970s; I just picked Star Wars as the crossover point. In 1976, in Logan's Run, Jenny Agutter portrayed a fine example of the old-style leading lady. She screamed; she ran; she jiggled; she needed to be rescued; when Michael York said, "Our clothes are wet. We'd better take them all off before we freeze," she promptly obliged.

A year later, in Star Wars, Lucas somehow managed to avoid having Princess Leia do the Hollywood Obvious thing.
SOLO (emerging from garbage compactor): "Our clothes are wet. We'd better take them all off."

LEIA: "Yes, of course." (begins to strip)

CHEWIE: "Grrronkhissschnorkurgle!" (translation: "Lucky you. My fur smells like I've been rolling in bantha poo!"

And three years after that, in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Marion Ravenwood can drink, smoke, cuss, spit, and darn near fight as well as any man. Not only that, but she apparently was sexually active as a teen.
MARION: "I've learned to hate you in the last ten years."

INDY: "I never meant to hurt you."

MARION: "I was a child. I was in love. It was wrong and you knew it."

INDY: "You knew what you were doing."

Understand, my problem is not with Star Wars or the character of Princess Leia. I merely cite this as a widely known evidentiary point. Some kind of sea-change was in progress out there in the larger culture, in the late 1970s to early 1980s, and this one data point merely reflects it.

My beef isn't with Lucas or Leia. It's with all the other yutzes who saw that movie and said, "Y'know, she would have been perfect if she'd just shouted, 'F@@@ YOU, A@@HOLE!' when she capped that first stormtrooper. And if she'd had a hot roll in the hay with someone or at least a topless scene. And maybe if, in the end, instead of being in the command center, she was actually flying one of those fighters. What the heck kind of name is Wedge, anyway?"

And then they set out to write stories and make movies that redefined the Strong Heroic Woman as being someone who was just like a Strong Heroic Man, only prettier, angrier, and even more self-centered.

To be continued...

Thursday, October 04, 2007

More Handbaskets

I'm riding in my car. Turn on the radio. Start punching through the buttons: ads, ads, ads, ads — ah, music. On the Oldies station, Diana Ross and The Supremes, calling out to me from 1968.
You think that I don't feel love
But what I feel for you is real love
In other's eyes I see reflected
A hurt, scorned, rejected

Love child, never meant to be
Love child, born in poverty
Love child, never meant to be
Love child, take a look at me

I started my life in an old, cold run down tenement slum
My father left, he never even married mom
I shared the guilt my mama knew
So afraid that others knew I had no name

This love we're contemplating
Is worth the pain of waiting
We'll only end up hating
The child we may be creating

Love child, never meant to be
Love child, (scorned by) society
Love child, always second best
Love child, different from the rest

Mm, baby (hold on, hold on, just a little bit)
Mm, baby (hold on, hold on, just a little bit)

I started school, in a worn, torn dress that somebody threw out
I knew the way it felt, to always live in doubt
To be without the simple things
So afraid my friends would see the guilt in me

Don't think that I don't need you
Don't think I don't wanna please you
No child of mine 'll be bearing
The name of shame I've been wearing

Love child, love child, never quite as good
Afraid, ashamed, misunderstood

But I'll always love you
I'll always love you
(repeat and fade)

Shame? How quaint. This is the 21st century. We don't have "shame" any more.

This essay keeps growing and spreading like an untidy fungus. Part of the problem is that there are no hard and fast boundary lines, only slippery slopes and intersecting interests. Another part is that I'm trying to backtrace the evolution of a meme, and following the path an idea takes through society is more akin to sleuthing out the vectors of an infection than anything linear or sensible. What is the author's moral obligation to his or her audience? I have argued on many occasions that it is solely "to deliver an intellectual or entertainment experience which justifies the reader's having purchased the book."

The older I get, the less adequate that argument seems. I'm beginning to believe that Claymore is on to something; that there is another, implicit, moral obligation: to do no harm.

Harm? Shirley, you jest. We're artists. These are just words. What possible harm could we ever do?

Years ago, I used to subscribe to a magazine called World Press Review. When I read one issue, I was simply staggered by irony, to the point where I wrote them a letter, which they subsequently published and which constitutes my only appearance in print in that magazine. What set me off was a large article in their culture section, extolling the "gritty and honest" glories of the then-new Narcocorrido music scene.

The slap-you-in-the-face irony was that in the same issue, they announced their annual awards for courage in journalism, and Editor of the Year went to a man who was ambushed, gravely wounded, and whose entire family was very nearly murdered by the same narcos whose exploits were celebrated in those oh-so-popular corridos.

What harm can words do? And what on Earth does this all have to do with the Bionic Woman?

Look. As writers, we all know what sells. Sex sells. Violence sells. Alternating sex and violence sells even better. And if you can combine simultaneous sex and violence, you've really got a highly marketable entertainment experience. If this wasn't true, you wouldn't see ads like this in Shotgun News.

Or this one, which comes from (Pronounced, I believe, as "I oink". If you really like her, they've got a calendar they'll sell you).

For you gamer types, encourages you to cross over from mere silicone to pure cartoonery.

My personal favorite is this one from LaRue Tactical, which appears under the headline, "Lethality Looks Like This." But then, I've always been a pushover for brunettes.

Slippery slopes. The older I get, the more clearly it seems to me that the totally empowered heroic action/adventure woman and the totally pneumatic pornoviolent sex-object babe are not polar opposites, but merely slightly different points along the same continuum of men's fantasies.

I try to backtrace the meme through pop culture, and keep ending up in 1977, with Princess Leia in the original Star Wars. (There may have been earlier specimens of the type, but I'm having trouble finding examples.) There's this defining moment, midway through the movie: the rescue attempt has gone awry; Leia, Luke, Han and Chewie are trapped in the Death Star's prison section with no exit; the guards are swarming in in ever-greater numbers — and Leia grabs a gun, blasts a hole in the sewer grate, shouts, "INTO THE GARBAGE CHUTE, FLYBOY!", and throws the gun back to whichever ineffective male she grabbed it from as she dives into the hole.

In Star Wars, as in most other movies made up to that point, the empowered woman's heroics lead immediately to a pratfall, as the ensemble lands waste-deep in sewage and promptly revert to men's heroics and the legendary "wet white gown" scene. But nine years later there is absolutely nothing comic about Lt. Ripley as she rampages through the alien hive in her wet t-shirt, with a flamethrower on one arm and a daughter (borrowed) on the other, doing what an entire platoon of heavily armed and presumably well-trained Marines could not: kicking ass and chewing gum, and she's all out of gum.

Freeze frame. Zoom in. Not on Ripley; on Newt. She's the key.

In at least one version of the story, Ripley left a daughter back on Earth when she first shipped out on the Nostromo, which was why she was unable to return to anything resembling a normal life. In the 75 years that Ripley spent in the freezer between Alien and Aliens, her daughter had become a grandmother, and some of Ripley's descendants have shipped out to that doomed colony on Arglebargle IV. But that bit of business never made it into the movie, so instead she acquired a surrogate daughter: Newt. And that was good enough.

At first I thought it was merely an amusing role-reversal: ineffective men, heroic women. It breathed new life into old cliches. Then for a while I thought it was simply a cynical attempt to sell adventure fiction to that ten-percent of the market which has slightly more discretionary income than most, as they only buy books to read them to their cats. For a few years there it seemed you couldn't turn around at a sci-fi con without bumping into some obese Zena wannabe and her submissive little tagalong Gabrielle.

After awhile, though, I began to realize that a redefinition of "normal" had taken place. In The Wrath of Khan (1982), we learned that Captain Kirk had a son, but the entire emotional load was reduced to a passive-aggressive whine. "I did what you wanted. I stayed away." Since then, in the novels, we've learned that James Bond had a long-lost son via Kissy Suzuki, the Japanese woman he married as part of his cover in You Only Live Twice. In Superman Returns, we learned that Supes knocked up Lois Lane and then decided to split the planet for a few years. Last week, on CSI: Miami, we learned that Horatio Caine has a son he never knew about. Soon, in the forthcoming Indiana Jones movie, we'll get to meet the son that Indy and Miriam had out of wedlock after the end of Raiders of The Lost Ark.

And last week, in the premiere of Bionic Woman, we learned that this totally empowered superheroine of the 21st century is a college dropout, a bartender, a single mother — no, wait, that would make her too old. Okay, she's a twenty-something single woman raising her smart-mouthed teenage sister, because their father is an alcoholic and long-gone. And she becomes a super-hero because she's so good in bed that a brilliant 39-year-old surgeon, the world's foremost expert in cybernetic prosthetics, falls totally in love with her, and can't bear to let her die from her injuries after a terrible car accident. (And then, conveniently, he gets killed a half-hour later.)

Ahah. A principle begins to reveal itself. The strong, empowered, heroic woman: she's sexy. She's independent. She's strong. She's totally in-control. It's her sexuality that makes her powerful. She doesn't need a man; he'd just get in the way. She doesn't want a long-term relationship; it would limit her options. If she gets pregnant, she'll deal with it herself. And she'll never demand child-support payments.

Like I said: men's fantasies. At times I marvel at how well we in The Patriarchal Conspiracy have done at conning women into buying into this idea and believing that it "empowers" them, even though we know that in the real world, the norming of unwed-motherhood is the single greatest cause of long-term poverty and misery. The more empowered women are, the more freedom men have to be irresponsible.
I started my life in an old, cold run down tenement slum
My father left, he never even married mom
I shared the guilt my mama knew
So afraid that others knew I had no name

Guilt? How quaint. But this is the 21st century, and we don't have "guilt" anymore. This is a good thing, right?

To be continued...