To commit a war crime, press one. To commit a crime against humanity, press two. To be uncharacteristically gullible, press three.

From the earliest Mass Effect marketing to the latest attempts to pour oil on the waters of fan-anger, Bioware has made a big deal out of the game’s supposed hard choices. And they did a good job of making those choices feel hard, in the moment; or anyway risky. But they weren’t, really. If you played the game conscientiously and made sure your options were open you could make the right choice, every time, be sure that you were doing the right thing — or if not sure you were doing the right thing, at least sure you’d rather be wrong your way than the way of the people arguing against you; that you’d happily roll the dice, take your chances, and if it turned out you’d made the wrong choice, deal with the consequences.

You never did, though. The game always let you have your Krogan birthday cake and eat it, too.

So I can see why fans haven’t been entirely happy with the three choices Bioware gives you at the end of Mass Effect 3.

  • To kill an innocent friend, commit genocide against a loyal ally, save the galaxy, and live happily ever after, turn to page 63.
  • To die heroically achieving the goals you’ve shot your greatest enemies for trying to achieve, on the word of another enemy that it’ll save the galaxy and not play into that enemy’s hands in any way at all, we promise, turn to page 57.
  • To die heroically committing the worst crime imaginable against freedom of choice, bodily autonomy, and a good six or seven out of ten of Martha Nussbaum’s ten central capabilities, again on the word of an enemy that it’ll save the galaxy, and that achieving that enemy’s goals is what you really want — honest — despite having proven by your own actions earlier in the game that the enemy’s central thesis is bullshit — turn to page 60.

I chose page 63, as the least out of character of the three options. And since it turns out the murders you’re committing by making that choice don’t actually appear on the screen, you’re free to believe they never happened, and the enemy who told you the consequences of your choice was lying. But I suspect that, canonically, we’ll find out that they did happen. Or — more likely, since it’s harder to get — that page 60 was supposed to be the happy ending. Either way, I don’t really see playing any more Mass Effect games.

Which is a shame, because there was some good stuff in there, on a small scale. But the large scale never really made a lot of sense, and increasingly less (ME2 final boss fight, anyone?) as the series went on; and by the end it was all about the large scale.

I’m not saying none of these endings could be done, and done well, even the bleakest — see The Centauri Device, or Blood Music, or The Urth of the New Sun. But as talented as the Bioware team is, they’re not M. John Harrison nor Greg Bear nor Gene Wolfe, and what they do well isn’t cosmic consequence, it’s character. So I’m not surprised they wrote themselves into a corner they couldn’t gracefully get out of; it was clear early on (“You cannot grasp the nature of our existence!”) that the ending was never going to be all that intellectually satisfying. But I don’t think it was inevitable that the last ten minutes be a different game — and a different genre — from the previous hundred hours of the series.

In which the author hopes for once to avoid attacking the entire enterprise of mainstream superhero comics

So over on FB Amal posted a link to this comic strip by David Willis, to which Ben responded:

the sad thing is, it’s not that DC comics is bad at math. it’s that DC and Marvel don’t see comic books as for selling; not for selling copies of.

they see them as for generating IP to sell in more lucrative media.
misogyny is just a traditional part of that package.

I think the middle two sentences are true as far as they go, but there’s something about the last sentence that irks me, and when I started trying to explain to Ben what it was, I found I needed paragraph breaks. So here we are.

So, I think it’s true that DC doesn’t have any intention with this reboot of trying to sell Red Hood to as many readers as watched Teen Titans, and to that extent, yes, the comic is not likely to change any minds at DC. But to shrug and say “misogyny is a traditional part of the package”, to me seems dismissive to the point of unhelpfulness. That much, if true, might explain the general situation of women in comics; it doesn’t in itself explain the sudden jump in misogyny at (and sudden sidelining of creative women by) DC in particular, and by treating that jump as business as usual, it discounts criticism and invites passivity. And as the comic itself points out — however incidentally — the level of extreme misogyny in the DC reboot doesn’t necessarily fly in “more lucrative media”, broadly considered.

That said — I went to the movies last weekend and saw “Moneyball”, which on the whole wasn’t bad apart from the obligatory scene showing that our hero’s ex-wife’s new husband is an effeminate twerp. And thanks to bad timing I had to sit through a raft of ads, including ads for NBC’s entire fall lineup, and through a clutch of film previews that ran the gamut from predictable to depressing. It would be an exaggeration to say that “sexism” was the pitch for NBC’s entire fall lineup, but it started with The Playboy Club and went downhill from there, culminating in some sitcom the name of which I can’t be bothered to google about a new married couple, in which the humor apparently derives entirely from the new bride’s desperate attempts to attract her husband’s attention while he treats her like a piece of furniture. And of the previews, the one that stuck in my mind was for “50/50″, which appears to take what could have been an offbeat romantic comedy starring Joseph Gordon-Leavitt and Anna Kendrick, and stir in a big greasy bucket of Seth Rogen bromance.

So contra Mr. Willis, I have to admit that misogyny sells, or at the very least that the Powers That Entertain think it sells. It’s not that DC thinks they’re going to sell comics to every Apatovian dudebro, but if they can hook enough of them with soft porn and date rape jokes, seat those brand names deeply enough, then when these properties hit the big screen, with the misogyny toned down from the embarrassingly appalling to the merely egregious, they’ll entice their bros and drag their girlfriends to the theater. Or that’s the best theory I can come up with, at any rate.

That being the case, yes, I have to say that misogyny is part of the more-lucrative-media package. But “traditionally”? That makes it sound like there’s nothing anyone can do, that it goes back to Adam West and George Reeves. And I’m pretty sure I’ve got a few mylar bags somewhere in someone else’s attic that show it doesn’t really even go back to the 80s. At least, not to the level it’s at now. The best I think you can say for DC is that they’re reflecting a broader trend; it’d be more accurate to say they’re exploiting and amplifying it. And while I don’t think anyone should expect comic books to do better than pop culture at large, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t demand it.

And so the bird of heaven, with archangelic shrieks, and his imperial beak thrust upwards, and his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it.

Last month the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America gave a Nebula award to a piece that contained no science worth speaking of. There was very little fiction in it either, if fiction is the narrative of imagination; whatever images might have been in its author’s mind, what made it onto the page was determinedly unimaginative, and less narrated than vaguely gestured at. It put forward no fantasy, unless the fantasy that the world is an uncomplicated place populated chiefly by straw men and contrived examples is a fantasy. What writing was in it was mostly bad.

I suppose that as much as there was any of anywhere in it, there was some America. Maybe that’s something.

Let me make a point up front because if I let it go till later someone is bound to get confused. Yes, I am a Californian who deeply resents Temple Square’s interference in the affairs of my native state. Yes, I am a postmodern materialist who hasn’t been to church in twenty years, could probably count the number of times he has been on his fingers, has never believed in salvation through Christ Jesus except for a period of about twelve hours once back when the Berlin wall was still standing.

But I read Gene Wolfe, and find The Urth of the New Sun deeply moving. I read Connie Willis and rejoice with her characters at the hope of eternity offered in Passage and the hope of a compassionate divine plan offered in To Say Nothing of the Dog, even though in the bright light of day neither is a hope I share. I am in the middle of revising a novel in which an aquatic hive mind and a million-year-old alien warship are willing converts to Islam. Agnostic though I may be, I have no stones to throw here. I would welcome a thoughtful and inventive and well-crafted story of a devout Mormon standing up for his faith and in solidarity with his alien fellow believers against ancient and perhaps implacable powers far from home.

But this is not that story.

I actually find myself hoping that the reason “Leviathan” won the Nebula is that there is a constituency out there of Mormon writer-readers who are desperate for any science fiction that speaks to their experience, even when it has nothing to say beyond validating that their experience exists. That would give me some hope in turn that we might eventually see a good Mormon science fiction, a science fiction worthy of the Mormons I’ve known, who whatever our political and religious differences have been, most of them anyway, good-hearted, level-headed people whose unassuming natures often concealed a wry humor and a wealth of well-observed stories. The young men and not a few young women who carry the Mormon faith out into the world, learn difficult languages, go nearly alone into often-hostile places and make connections with people about as unlike the people they grew up with as it is possible to be — or who just go to small hostile Midwestern towns where the Methodists and Lutherans and Episcopalians and Catholics and Presbyterians can all agree to have a monthly prayer breakfast open to “any Christian denomination,” so long as that definition doesn’t include Mormons, where they happily do yard work for little old ladies about as likely to convert as the Pope — are brave souls doing what they think is right, and my hat is off to them. They deserve a science fiction that reflects the complexity of their lives and the world they’ve seen, and I hope some day they get it.

But this is not that science fiction.

And I don’t think the desire for that science fiction is enough to explain it.

Here is an interesting fact about the Nebula awards: contra what you might find implied on Wikipedia, and regardless of what you might read on the SFWA web site about the history of the award, there is nothing in the Nebula rules that says or even implies that any Nebula award is for the “best” anything. Unlike the Hugo award categories, which are established in section 3.3 of the constitution of the World Science Fiction Society as Best Novel, Best Short Story, and so on, the Nebula categories are merely Novel. Novella. Novelette. Short Story. The nominees in each category are only the otherwise eligible works that receive the most nominations from the membership, the winners the works that receive the most votes. No guidance is given to the members on what to nominate or vote for, or why.

I would like to say this explains a lot. That it explains how a story with no characters, no setting, no invention, no real speculation, very little plot and a bare sliver of theme — a story that nonetheless managed to drag itself out over 8000 words — was given one of the top awards in the field.

But I can’t. This is not the first very bad story to win a major science fiction award* in recent years (though it is, perhaps thanks to recent procedural changes, the worst to win the Nebula for novelette in many a year). It is not even a new type of bad story. It is representative of a type of story that seems to be gaining in popularity as the traditional science fiction community ages at something like a year per year.   Setting barely sketched-in, parasitic on reader memories of better-written worlds. Characters that are really just placeholders, the few who speak either author mouthpieces or caricatures of implausible opposing positions, all of them lacking substance, interiority, consistency, basic humanity.  Gestures toward “daring” that are no more than comfortable recapitulations of contrarian reader prejudices. ‘Ideas’ that were old and tired when John W. Campbell was young. Stories stripped of any complexity that would make them interesting or worthwhile, tables tilted always in the author’s favor.

If this is what we want, then we deserve every drop of the contempt we imagine the world beyond science fiction holds for us. If this is what we want, then there is something wrong with science fiction, as a community. I don’t know just what it is, if there’s more to it than fear of the future and fear of the unknown and fear of old age and fear of death; I don’t know what to do about it, or even if anything should be done about it.

I only know that if this is what science fiction is, then I won’t mourn when it passes.


* I am reminded that “Article of Faith” did not in fact win the Hugo for which it was nominated. On the other hand, “Travels With My Cats” did win in 2005. Though as depressingly derivative, inward-looking and cloyingly sentimental as “Cats” is, it is at least better-written than “Leviathan.”