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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mortification of the Flesh

In Desolation Road, which is seriously one of the most overlooked and undervalued should-be classics of science fiction, there are a few chapters late in the book dealing with this religious cult that, much like certain medieval Christian monks and mystics, pursues the mortification of the flesh–they believe the body is sinful and evil, while the spirit is pure, and so seek to punish the body as a way of expressing the purity of the spirit. For medieval mystics, this meant stuff like living in deliberate filth, whipping themselves, starvation, and so on, while in the novel, they do it by destroying their sinful flesh and replacing it with pure, holy machinery. They are, of course, a parody of a certain kind of science fiction fan, the sort who talks about “the singularity” a lot–the end-goal of the cult is the Ultimate Mortification, a human mind in a completely robotic body.

It’s gotten me thinking a bit of how I think about my own rotting sack of vomit, and in particular how I tend to view it as not a part of me, but rather as an antagonist that holds me hostage. I am occasionally insomniac, yes, but far more often the reason I don’t sleep is stubbornness: I deliberately stay up, doing things that make it hard to sleep, because I’m sick of my body demanding I waste a third of every day doing nothing. Sleeping isn’t taking care of myself, in this mindset; it’s letting my body win.

Or there’s the time in college I kept refusing to go to the doctor while I got sicker and sicker, either though campus health services was literally across the lobby from the student newspaper offices where I spent the overwhelming majority of my time. The only reason I ever made it there was because I passed out in the office and other members of the staff carried me there. …And then a few years later more or less the same thing happened, where I had an infected cut on my face, and despite it being both painful and incredibly disgusting, I walked around with it for weeks until my fever got bad enough to make me delirious, and Viga (again, literally) dragged me to the doctor.

Or these last few weeks, where my feet have been getting steadily more painful, until last night I finally broke down and bought some arch support inserts for my shoes. And I really do experience it as breaking down, as a failure of will and a defeat. Once again, my body has defeated me and gotten its way, forcing me to alter my behavior to cater to its whims.

To an extent it runs in my family–my brother and nephew are very much the same way about sleeping. (“Runs in the family” is not, of course, the same thing as genetic–it’s quite plausible that my nephew and I picked it up from my brother as small children, imitating the attitude and behavior of a familiar adult.) But I’m rather a lot more stubborn that the rest of the family–my brother will stay up until 2 a.m. on occasion, while I’ll pull all-nighters when I’m feeling stubborn enough, and they usually don’t apply it to obvious medical issues the way I do–and I think that has to do with chronic illness.

My teen years were pretty shitty. I was already severely depressed going into them thanks to a combination of parental neglect, peer abuse, and AvPD, and then my dad died when I was 13, and put on top of that the usual problems of a shy, nerdy adolescent, and my emotional state throughout high school was basically suicidal, but too depressed to be able to put together an attempt. Also I threw up a lot.

Which, you know, when you’re fat at the beginning of freshman year, and by late sophomore year you’re pathologically skinny and publically throwing up in the middle of the cafeteria almost every day, there’s kind of an assumption people make about what’s going on. Thankfully, my parents at least believed me when I told them I wasn’t making myself throw up, it was happening on its own, and took me to a doctor instead of a therapist, because it wasn’t an eating disorder at all. It was purely neuromuscular, and curable, as long as I was willing to trade it for a near-certainty of chronic acid reflux disease. Death by starvation or chronic pain; that’s not actually a hard choice once you’ve experienced true hunger. I’ve experienced a lot of pain in my life, and nothing has been worse than the combination of agony, discomfort, and mind-numbing lethargy that was two straight weeks without anything making it into my stomach.

Add onto that what I increasingly suspect to be the case, that I’m sexually anhedonic, and the net result is that my body is basically entirely worthless to me. It is a hindrance, a hateful, demanding thing that gives nothing in return. I would love to be a brain in a jar, to be able to spend all my time on intellectual pursuits and communicating with people through text. (I mean, food is nice, but basically all food-related pleasures result in pain later, whether because of the reflux or the lactose intolerance or what I suspect is stress fractures caused by being too damn fat for my feet to support in these cheapass shoes.)

So basically, for all that I mock the singularitarians, I’m sympathetic. I can understand in wanting to believe you could be liberated from the flesh, could finally defeat it once and for all. It’s just that I’m skeptical it’s possible, hyper-skeptical it’s easy enough to happen in the fairly short timespan our civilization has left to survive, and aware that most people actually like being made of meat and would strongly prefer it not occur, which is a fairly significant factor where major social changes are concerned.

Favorite Novels

Since a while back I shared my favorite anime, and I just reorganized my bookshelves, I figured I would share my five favorite novels. Well, favorite this week, anyway; the number of novels I love is probably an order of magnitude higher than the number of anime I’ve seen, and so the category of “favorite” is ever-shifting. I am deliberately leaving out short story collections, novellas, short story collections disguised as novels by use of a framing device, and graphic novels; I may do other lists which allow those at some future date, but for now I’m sticking to clear-cut examples of prose novels. Also this is in no particular order; it’s hard enough to narrow the list to seven, let alone rank them.

  • Foucalt’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco: Everything you would expect a conspiracy thriller written by a Nobel Prize-winning author/world-renowned semiotician to be. Dense, convoluted, twisty, a glorious celebration of the twin facts that conspiracy theories are fundamentally silly and the mystical is fundamentally a conspiracy theory.
  • Desolation Road, Ian MacDonald: A bizarre, largely episodic history of a small town in the Martian desert, peopled by outcasts and oddities. By turns silly and profound, and sometimes both at once. But mostly it’s just deeply, deeply weird.
  • To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis: Time-travel comedy of manners farce. In which two separate comedies of manners, one in the late 21st century and the other in the late 19th, collide gloriously. Nothing deep here, just a very funny and fun book.
  • Night Watch, Terry Pratchett: It was a very hard choice between this and Hogfather, the climax of which helped solidify a lot of my own worldview, but I think ultimately this is the better book. It’s a fascinating inversion of Les Miserables, and without the interminable boring asides that prevent that book from being on this list. Like Les Miserables, it is ultimately an exploration of what it means to be good in a fundamentally corrupt world; this has better jokes and a less ridiculously uber-competent hero, though.
  • My Name Is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok: If you’ve read one Potok book, you’ve read all of them. This is that one. The story of an artist torn between the calling of his craft and the strict rules of his insular religious community, between his own integrity and what his upbringing and everyone around him tells him is “right.”
  • VALIS, Philip K. Dick: A bizarre, hallucinatory journey, another conspiracy thriller (odd that there are two on this list; I don’t usually care for the genre) caught in a complete psychotic breakdown, a narrative collapse par excellence that, ultimately, can only be resolved by the reader’s own choices and interpretation. This is either an absolute masterpiece or a complete train wreck, and after three readings over ten years I’m leaning towards saying it’s both.
  • Magister Ludi (a.k.a. The Glass Bead Game), Herman Hesse: I cannot even begin to describe this book. It is a living book, a growing thing that keeps changing every time you go back to read it, that writhes and shifts even in your hands. A slippery thing. It’s about a guy that’s really good at this very complicated board game. It’s about academia. It’s about life in a prison that isn’t really there.

Book Review: A Golden Thread by Philip Sandifer

It should come as no surprise to long-time readers that I have been heavily influenced by Dr. Sandifer’s work; it would only be a slight overstatement to say that My Little Po-Mo is an outright ripoff of his TARDIS Eruditorum. So it should equally come as no surprise that I was quite excited by the prospect of a book by him at the intersection of two of my favorite topics, DC Comics and feminism. But A Golden Thread is not a feminist study of Wonder Woman per se; rather, much as TARDIS Eruditorum uses Doctor Who as a window through which to view British utopianism throughout its run, A Golden Thread uses Wonder Woman as a window onto the history of feminism in the U.S.

This is not, however, Themyscira Eruditorum; rather than in-depth analyses of individual Wonder Woman issues or story arcs, it takes a high-level look at different eras of the comic, studying how these eras respond to the issues of previous eras in ways that reflect or reject the feminist currents of the time. Of particular note are the early chapters on Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman, which identify, and then explicitly avoid, the usual approach of identifying him as the sexually deviant inventor of the lie detector, as if that explains all that need be explained about Wonder Woman. Instead, the book explores his professional writings and other projects, building a case that Wonder Woman was simply the most successful of multiple attempts to express Marston’s peculiar brand of utopian, gender-essentialist feminism and his vision of a matriarchal society defined by willing, loving submission rather than coercive, forceful domination.

That this vision failed, while the comic based on it succeeded, is key to the book’s premise regarding feminism, that social progress is a matter of “making new mistakes.” For example, the chapter on the “I Ching” era of Wonder Woman, in which she was depowered, becomes a chronicle of the mistakes of second-wave feminism in general and Gloria Steinem in particular. The book never quite reaches for the claim, but the suggestion that the I Ching era was foreshadowing the third wave is an easy one for the reader to fill in.

Therein lies one of the major differences between this book and Dr. Sandifer’s other work: restraint. It is a double-edged sword; on the one hand, there is nothing in this book remotely as gloriously outré as the Blakean take on “The Three Doctors” in the third volume of TARDIS Eruditorum, let alone the Qabbalistic Tarot “Logopolis” Choose Your Own Adventure in the upcoming fourth volume. On the other, it is more accessible by far than TARDIS Eruditorum or especially The Last War in Albion, his ongoing study of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison.

Which is not to say that the usual Sandifer flavor is absent! His distaste for organized fandom shows up strongly here, as he blames the emergence of such (probably deservedly) for the post-World War II decline of the comic. He also, as usual, does not shy away from mounting strong defenses of indefensible positions, in this case trying to argue that the animated Wonder Woman movie is inferior to the David Kelly-produced television pilot. His criticisms of the former are accurate and cutting—it is a far from perfect film—but he defends the latter against a strawman, ignoring the strongest criticism of the pilot, that it depicts Wonder Woman as a remorseless and unhesitating killer.

Nonetheless, the book stands as an excellent microhistory of Wonder Woman, accessible even to a reader who knows little of her comics (such as myself—I know her mostly through the DCAU, her appearances in crossovers, and the Gail Simone run), highly informative, and engaging. It is worth the price for the fresh take on Marston alone, but the rest of the book has much to offer as well.