Wrong on the Internet

A year ago I wrote about zero tolerance, intolerance and Antjuanece Brown, the Portland teenager who was thrown in jail and labeled a felon for texting with her girlfriend. Antjuanece is out now and things seem to be better for her and Jolene; I hope they are.

Not much has changed, though: the last week saw California and Washington come dramatically closer to marriage equality even as Oregon still lags behind. In the same week, Canadian Safety Minister Vic Toews announced that anyone opposing an Internet surveillance bill there was “siding with child pornographers.” Easy targets remain easy targets.

That’s why there’s so much value in the work my friend Ben is doing at his blog Wrong on the Internet, and particularly in his latest entry:

“This is hard to deal with. I want to have the luxury of dehumanizing pedophiles and other rapists. I would like to pretend that I would never be like that, never do something like that. But I can’t. That informs a lot of my writing here.”

It’s difficult to read, a fact that has nothing to do with Ben’s considerable writing skill. At a certain point the mind flops down and demands that some things must be absolute, that you must be able to point at some set of Others and declare those are the bad guys. We’re wired for that behavior, deep in our instincts. The cognitive battle to remember the contrary is exhausting, and it never ends.

I’m not arguing for total moral relativity here: I’m arguing for vigilance, because the kind of dehumanization in which we regularly engage is a dangerous exploit for our brains. It’s one thing to say that some people do evil. But to strip the humanity from evildoers is to remove the horrible weight and substance of their acts. What if you were a survivor? What choices would you make if your survival had damaged you? “The answers are out there,” the man said, “but they will not improve your self-esteem.”

Straight By Fiat

I have this old favorite joke that almost no one else knows or gets, but I can’t stop thinking it’s funny, so I’m going to do my best to rid myself of it by the only method guaranteed to destroy humor: dissection.

Like many things stupid but great, and most things Devon Sawa, I would never have seen the 2002 comedy Slackers if not for its champion, my brother Ian. It’s a pretty slight movie and as teen comedies go it is not exactly shifting any paradigms, though it does feature some ringers in the cast, all of whom appear in the above clip. Yes, that’s Michael C. Maronna, Big Pete from Pete & Pete, playing a character (Jeff) whose sexuality is part of a slow-burning running gag throughout the movie. Here’s what makes it interesting: none of the jokes are homophobic. His friends know he’s gay and they’re fine with it. The target of the joke is repression, not sexual orientation, and it benefits greatly for that. (Note that this movie predates the genesis of Tobias Fünke by two years!)

Besides less-obvious targets, here are some things that I will always think are funny:

I don’t think the clip needs much context, but here it is just in case. Maronna, Sawa and Jason Segel are the scheming heroes, who have been milking the creepy Jason Schwartzman for money. Schwartzman comes to Maronna and Segel with evidence that Sawa has betrayed their confidence to his love interest (Jaime King). Upon seeing it, the guys are infuriated, and in a three-camera sitcom we would already know where this goes: they turn on Sawa together, then eventually they realize that Schwartzman is the real problem, kick him out and reunite. In fact, you can already see this playing out in Schwartzman’s head! Just before the clip begins, he sputters “he betrayed you! He stole my girl! He’s not our friend!” He’s transparency-oblivious character one.

Then Maronna starts his monologue, and it follows that scenario… for exactly five seconds, before veering off into his desperate fantasy of male bonding. He has rehearsed this speech, he has seen an opportunity, and now he siezes the moment to execute his pitch. He knows they will object–this sounds pretty gay!–but he has anticipated that, and before they can get a word in, addends that it is in fact not gay. Triumph. There is no way they can resist now.

In thirty seconds, Maronna covers all four of the humor angles listed above. The first three points are all basically about the tension between expectation and reality, which is also the root of all suffering, which in turn goes back to the old axiom that comedy is pain happening someone else. The magic of point four, commitment, is that he makes the other three completely implicit. Nobody hands him a straight line to set up the zinger. Nobody winks at the camera.* There’s a lot of trust in the audience here, and for me, at least, it pays off in a way that I’m still giggling at ten years later.

Okay, I think the frog is dead now. Mike Maronna is very talented and should get more work. This is all to explain why, whenever I express adulation bordering on the ecstatic for a male role model, I will make a sly face and add “but it’s not gay” after describing how I want to suck his cock.

* For a perfect example of how literally winking at the camera can undercut flawless commitment, see the last forty years of Dwight-and-Jim gags in The Office.

TETSUO MILK

This is a Constellation Games post, just so you don’t get too deep into it without realizing that. There are spoilers, but only for the chapters that have already gone out to subscribers.

In late 2001, I spent far too much time on the forums for my favorite webcomic, Checkerboard Nightmare. They were hosted on EZBoard, a free/paid service that allowed you to assign custom titles to forum members based on how often they’d posted. Kris Straub, the strip’s creator, innocently filled these in with names from the comic; one of the upper ranks was Doctor Hot, a gag character who had appeared in exactly one panel. I think I was the first one to hit that rank, which tells you a lot about my priorities in college.

I embraced Doctor Hot the way a defensive tackle embraces an unguarded quarterback, and so did the rest of the forumoids. There were even fan-created spinoff characters, including his nemesis Professor Cold and their lovechild Profoctor Hold, whose title I would eventually steal for Davey (did I mention the forums are where I first met Stephen Heintz?). Kris’s reactions wavered between resignation and outright fury, which was his response to everything on the forums, but still.

The point of the foregoing: this was my first encounter with what is now called a “fan favorite” character. A link on Checkerboard Nightmare also led me to crummy.com, which is how I started reading Leonard Richardson’s writing, which of course leads to Constellation Games and its breakout star, Tetsuo Milk.

Leonard likes Tetsuo Milk more than Kris liked Doctor Hot, because Tetsuo is a real character and also Constellation Games doesn’t have a forum to ruin everything, but you can still read a little exasperation into his chapter 11 commentary. Rachel put it to me the other day that Leonard likes to examine the emergence of agency in his characters; Ariel’s struggle to become an adult is the obvious Campbellian case, but we’re already seeing subtler examples, like Krakowski’s little independent assignment, or the way Dana (a friggin’ phone app) has started to assert her needs in a way that forces both Bai and Ariel to take significant action on her behalf.

But Tetsuo already has agency. Tetsuo has too much agency, which is how he’s able to (per Leonard) grab the plot and “run off in some weird direction.” He also has too much optimism, in contrast to Ariel (and uptight Jenny, and cautious Ashley, and fuck-the-system Curic); he’s the kind of person who actually does see every problem as an opportunity, which of course drives everyone around him crazy. The worst part is that he inhabits a postscarcity megacivilization with near-limitless resources, so he’s usually right.

Much as with the bad Doctor, I love Tetsuo Milk without reservation, and not just because he gets most of the good non sequiturs (“Hot!” would be a pretty good Tetsuo line). He’s the book’s mascot, and the recurring reminder that in spite of all the friction and pitfalls and broken partnerships, in the world of Constellation Games things do get better. Gifts fall from the sky. Refugees get rescued. You don’t even have to ask to walk on the moon.

Cognitive Pap Smears

Chapter 10 of Constellation Games is up. It features Curic informing Ariel that the alien whiteboard is for leaving messages to your other self, and then Ariel experiencing–and acting on–sudden sympathy for a phone app. Everything I said in my last CG post goes for it, but double.

Tennis for Two

This is a post about Constellation Games! If you don’t remember what Constellation Games is, it’s a very good book and you can read the first two chapters for free on that page. If you do remember but have not already subscribed to the book, you are wrong, and you should correct this situation immediately. Everyone else can keep reading.

Let’s talk about Gatekeeper.

One of the ways to slice up Constellation Games is as a book about partnership: Bai and his software girlfriend Dana, Agent Krakowski and Junior Agent Fowler, girl-Curic and boy-Curic, and Ariel + Jenny = Crispy Duck Games, among others. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that some of these pairings are less than functional—Fowler and Krakowski are arguing before they even get out of earshot in their first appearance, and Dana exists mostly as a strange loop in Bai’s head. When you observe the universe, to make sense of it, you need an origin from which to project your coordinates. Partnership is one way to set an origin. The obvious hitch is that when you do so, you’ve oriented yourself to an unfixed point.

You really should go back and click through to the link I posted in the last paragraph. Leonard’s mentioned that his reading on consciousness contributed to Constellation Games, and one of the most entertaining problems that comes up in the book is when people’s concepts of their partners—their internalized, emulated strange loops—fail to match that person’s actual behavior. Another is characters trying to apply their relationship to their own partner to someone else’s partner. You can see this disconnect at work when Ariel tries to wrangle everyone at his cookout into playing an impossibly foreign single-player video game, and ends up with what he considers a failure, even though everyone else has a great time. You can also see how seductive the projection is, though, in Ariel’s instant-message relationship with Curic. He treats Curic like he treats Jenny and Bai, sarcastically and demandingly, and they seem to hit it off right away. But if (as Leonard says) Curic’s account of her visit differs notably from Ariel’s, her interpretation of their chats must too. She doesn’t even realize he’s cursing when he says “fuck” all the time.

So: Gatekeeper. In Pong, a human game, two players manipulate reflective surfaces to keep a sphere moving back and forth. In Gatekeeper, the first Constellation Game Ariel plays, one player manipulates one reflective surface to keep certain spheres from crossing a forbidden line. The game loops forever until the player fails, and they will fail: you can’t keep a determined entity from crossing your arbitrary border (note that this book takes place in Texas), and you certainly can’t do it alone. Sometimes the partnership you earned will fail you. So what’s your recourse?

Curic: When one half of a person dies, the other half wants a refund. Otherwise the entire person will die in a few hours.
ABlum: who gives out the refunds?
Curic: There are no refunds. That’s the point of the game.

I had to finally write this up before the book got too much further because soon we’ll meet a new pair of characters who, quoth Leonard, “show up and run off with the whole damn book.” Look forward to that. Meanwhile, I don’t want to sound like I think all relationships are doomed or something, so consider that at the aforementioned cookout, Martin and Bizarro Kate “finally hook up” and drive off into the sunset. If there is hope for fratboys and catgirls, there is hope for you and me.

I knew I forgot something

Love Is Not Constantly Wondering If You Are Making The Biggest Mistake Of Your Life

This is the other book I read in 2011 that pierced me like a lancet: Love Is Not Constantly Wondering If You Are Making The Biggest Mistake Of Your Life. It took me a couple months to get to the point where I could write about it, and I am still well aware that I am not doing so from an objective platform.

I noticed it on a shelf at my friend Harry’s house when I went over, a couple days after the breakup, still a bit reely. “Oh,” he said, “yeah. Yeah. You should borrow that.” I later learned he’d only received it from our mutual friend Jackson a few days before; this makes sense, as Jackson is part magical creature. I did borrow it, took it “home” to the couch at Matt and Erika’s, and read it again and again.

It’s structured and formatted like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, down to the ink-sketch art style and fonts. The conceit is this: the page numbers are ordered chronologically, so if you read it according to the instructions, you’ll skip back and forth in time. Sometimes you’ll get into loops. Sometimes, unexpectedly, you’ll reach the end. This gives you the sensation of making choices, but of course the story never changes. You are as wrapped up in the illusion of choice as the protagonist. None of your decisions make any difference in the final outcome, and neither do his.

It’s the best marriage of form and fiction in any book I think I’ve read, and I am a known weakling for narrative tricks with time, but of course that’s not what really got to me. The book is about the beginning and slow end of a relationship between a nerdy guy who doesn’t drink and his beautiful girlfriend who does. The second half even takes place in Portland. Reading it was personal and cathartic, though I don’t mean to say that our stories are parallel: his lasts eight years, for one thing; for another, Anne in the book is an alcoholic and Kara is not. But that’s how catharsis works, right? You read the bigger story to move through the pain of your own small one.

I haven’t talked much about breaking up with Kara here, a trend that will continue, but I suppose this is an opportunity to mark it in the record. It was a sad and probably good thing, and it took too long, the problem being that we were happy together until the end. You can see it in the pictures I posted from our trip to Ireland, just a month before I moved out. It was a good trip. I have few regrets.

For a somewhat more distanced (but still very positive) review of LINCWIYAMTBMOYL, see Alison Hallett at the Mercury.

My favorite book of 2011 was Constellation Games, which I am going to start writing about tomorrow, but I got more reading done this year than I have in a while and I’m glad. Much of it was crammed into fall and winter, during my Ireland trip and after my breakup, when I suddenly had a lot more time on my hands. I’m speaking specifically of Lois McMaster Bujold, whose work I’d never read before mid-September; I finished the fifteenth of her fifteen Miles Vorkosigan books at 9:00 on New Year’s Eve, because I really did get that obsessed. There’s plenty written about Bujold, you don’t need me to tell you she’s good, but: she’s good.

I already talked about Tinker Tailor. Listening to Tina Fey read Bossypants to me was a delight, and I finally backed up my assertion that I love Martin McDonagh by reading some more Martin McDonagh. Comicswise, I got on the Atomic Robo train, I snuck through Matthew G’s copy of Hark, A Vagrant because nobody can keep it in stock, and everybody is right about Anya’s Ghost.

I’ll read more in 2012. Goals: more le Carré, get back into Atwood, back up my assertions about Tiptree by reading more Tiptree, and finish at least three books I own but haven’t read (starting with Mindy Kaling, Jedediah Berry, and Iain M. Banks).

The Social Network and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

They’re both stories about white guys sitting down and quietly talking. They also both made a tremendous impact on me: one by reminding me that I must yet reckon with Sorkin, the other by making me aware that le Carré is not just another popular novelist from before my time but an outright craftmaster.

There are other similarities. Everyone is glib, but in Sorkinland people use their flip lines to express their deepest feelings, whereas in le Carré glibness is a rigid fencing match of protocol that may mean nothing or everything. They’re also both stories about a dangerous little man who doesn’t understand women, and about betrayal. But now I’m stretching the parallels out for no particular reason. Le Carré doesn’t sound like Sorkin, he sounds like (he must have been an influence on) my favorite prose stylist, William Gibson.

I didn’t realize until I went back and read the foreword that much of the trade jargon in Tinker Tailor is pure invention, or at least pure extrapolation–a sort of nadsat projected into the past. Now, because language devours itself, some of it has become real jargon. Did you know that the OED can’t find any use of the word “mole” to describe an embedded double agent before le Carré? He doesn’t think he made it up, but then Gibson didn’t really invent “cyberspace” either.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a very good book and you should read it. Then we should go see the movie together.

Technoir

Matthew is running a cyberpunk story game called Technoir for Harry, Alex and myself. It’s very good, and I’m not just saying that because it cites Brick in its inspirations. Here’s part of the mechanic for healing damage: when your character has been tagged with something that describes permanent physical, emotional or social harm to them, you have to get surgery to implant a piece of cybertech that “replaces what has been lost.”

Left implied is that of course it fucking doesn’t, nothing does, that’s not how loss works. But it is how cyberpunk works, in one elegant sentence that happens to be a functional rule. That is brilliant game design. Well done, Jeremy Keller.