Why FetLife Is Not Good At Stopping Abusers

So there’s an Atlantic article going around entitled “How Kink’s Largest Networking Site Fails Its Users,” detailing how abuse, consent violation, and rape are prevalent in both BDSM and FetLife, and how FetLife’s crappy terms of service allows abusers to thrive.

This is absolutely true, but the reality’s a bit more complex.

First, my bona fides: I’ve been a member of Fet for about four years now, and I’m pretty well-connected there with about 2,500 friends and acquaintances. I blog on kinky topics there on a regular basis, and my essays routinely hit Kinky and Popular – a sort of “best of” leaderboard page, voted on by users.  Because I write on those topics, I get probably three or four emails a week from people in various forms of trouble asking me for advice.  As such, I see a lot of Fet’s flaws, and strengths, and know a lot of its core users.

And Fet encourages isolation.

This shocked me when I first got on FetLife, because I was used to an OKCupid-like experience.  I wanted to know what kinksters were in my town, so I searched in vain for a “look for people near you!” form, or in fact any friends recommendation algorithm like Facebook.  As it turns out, Fet makes it actively difficult to find people – you can look through the 800 people in your city, with the results arranged in no particular order, but that’s about it.  Everyone starts on Fet with a very small world.

That’s actually superb user design, as it turns out.  Because a lot of FetLife’s design is intended to protect the user from abuse.  Imagine if your  ex-spouse could search your town for people your age and gender in the hopes of finding dirt on you.  Or if a happy message popped up when you logged in suggesting that you friend your boss, with the sick realization that FetLife’s probably just outed you to her.  Or if your old stalker would be routinely alerted to your presence through casually unkind social networking.

Unfortunately, saying “Yeah, I’m really into fisting pretty boys’ asses” is grounds for losing child custody or a job in many places, as the outside world does not react well to many of the common things you’ll find on Fet – things like rape play, blood play, needleplay, trans identities, you name it.  FetLife understands that and does their best to make it so if you want to find friends, you have to work for it.

(And in addition to that UI issue, women routinely obfuscate their details further to avoid identification – the running gag on Fet is that Antarctica is a sexy refuge of 93-year-old women with astonishingly healthy bodies.)

That’s a good thing.  But the flip side to that is that it means that when you log into Fet, you are isolated.  It’s hard for people who might know better to find you.  FetLife suggests you join groups, which are places for people to gather, but the groups are little fiefdoms of varying quality.  Anyone can start a group.  If you join up with “Novices and Newbies,” there’s no real knowing who runs it or how creditable they are.

So when that starry-eyed 50 Shades housewife comes onto Fet, she might join a good group that encourages her, or she might join a group run by a predator who knows how to work that isolation.

Now, Fet’s taken some measures to prevent this with welcoming agents vetted by Fet, but the truth is that Fet is trying to balance one harm with another – how do you get people to know who the “good” folks are when even the “good” folks could lose their job for people in the outside world knowing their identity?

And that’s before we even get to the consent violation issue, which is complicated as heck.

Now, as I start this discussion, let’s set some clear limits: yes, a lot of abuse is easy to spot.  If you tie someone up and have sex with them against their will once they’re helpless, that’s rape.  And it happens more than anyone wants to admit.

Yet while there is jet-black abuse there is also, as they say, 50 shades of gray here.  “Negotiating a scene” is a complex skill in BDSM, because a lot of what you’re trying to do is use brutal physical sensation to induce catharsis or an altered head-state.  There’s a state called “subspace,” which is oddly druglike, where you’re floaty and find it hard to concentrate and agreeable to a lot of things that you might regret in the cold light of morning.  (Or, worse, you just drop so hard into subspace that you find it hard to vocalize objections when things start going wrong.)  There’s a lot of very person-specific markers that are hard to read – what does it mean if someone starts crying during a scene?  What does it mean if they start screaming “NO!” when the official safeword is “Red”?  For a lot of people, those violent protests and breaking down is part of their kink.

Admittedly, a good top knows to quietly ask, “Is that a real no or part of this?” and check in.  But a lot of people with very good intentions can learn that in fact, a boy who they were enjoyably mistreating was, in fact, so traumatized they weren’t able to call a “Red” when they needed to, and Bad Shit Happened.  And people with very good intentions can learn that their sub thought they wanted to be whipped until they cried, and now that they’ve actually done just what was requested it’s not good catharsis but in fact just trauma uncorked, and how the hell do you fix that?

Even people with good intentions can accidentally do bad things in a world with a really weird learning curve.

And in the cracks like these, predators thrive.  Because there are so many miscommunications and mistakes and oh shit man sorry it turns out that you didn’t want that that people who are actively trying to fuck people over in order to get their kinks in can shrug and go “Whoops, my bad!” when in fact it was a carefully targeted assault designed to get them what they needed.

Then add that to the complexity that predators are charming motherfuckers.  I tell people on Fet, “Don’t trust me. People who abuse you act and react just like me.  Yes, even down to talking about how bad predators are.”  And they go, “Aww, Ferrett, you’re one of the good guys,” and I scream, “Did you learn fucking nothing?”

But no, a predator doesn’t abuse everyone – in fact, there are often lots of people they do good for in the community, targeting only specific people they desire.  They’re often pillars of the community, a social hub.  And so when an accusation of abuse is made – on FetLife or in any local dungeon – it’s not as simple as “Bungie_boy is a predator!” and everyone going “Oh, that’s bad” and figuring out what to do.  No, what invariably happens is that there’s the usual flurry of “How dare you accuse Bungie?  She’s a wonderful person, look what she’s done for me!” and “I’ve dated her for years!” and “No, you don’t understand!”

Unbelievably, that happens even when the bad shit happened with witnesses.

And again, there is clear abuse and rape in the community.  Too goddamned much of it.  But there’s also the not-common-but-also-not-unheard-of missteps created by good intentions, as outlined above, which feel no less like abuse when you’re the one who suffered at the hands of an honest mistake.  And within all of that, there are the predators stirring the pot and confusing the issue, generating good PR to cover up their fucked-up deeds, casting doubt upon the people who speak out.

So while we should do more to “out” abusers, the problem in reality is that those threads degenerate into ugly firestorms every time, just as they do in real life.  I’m not sure how you fix that, because often the only way people can remove an abuser from a community is to cause so much drama that it effectively dissolves or splits the community, and then the predator just waltzes off to somewhere else and starts over with a new crowd of ignorant people.

It’s not a good solution, but I wish there was a better one.

(And then there’s the fact that newbies to kink routinely participate in a phenomenon so well-known that it’s called “sub-frenzy,” where someone new to kink decides they need a Master right fucking now, and no matter how many people tell them “Wait, you need to choose carefully,” they find the first bozo with a paddle who’ll collar them, and often they move in with them, and then discover wait, even if you’re a slave you need to still value yourself.  The results are routinely tragic, and I’ve yet to see a good way to stop them personally, let alone on an institutional level.)

And then there’s FetLife’s legal liability.  Their attitude is, “If you have an issue with an abuser, go to the cops.  This is not the place to do this.”  Which is a shitty answer because hey, remember why everyone’s anonymous on Fet?  Because the cops don’t have much sympathy for “So you went to his house, you negotiated a scene to get tied up and beaten, you got naked…and then he raped you?”  The law is almost worthless when it comes to date rape, let alone violating the limits of something kinky.

Yet I don’t know what I’d do if I was in charge of Fet.  They force people to remove the names of abusers, fearing defamation lawsuits.  And I don’t know Canadian law (they’re located in Vancouver), so maybe that’s a real concern, maybe it isn’t.  But what people routinely forget is that you do not have to lose a lawsuit to lose your shirt.  If McDonald’s decides to drop a $5 million defamation lawsuit on your doorstep for that two-star review you left on Urbanspoon, sure, they’re gonna lose in court.  But not before you shell out lots of money for a lawyer, and have to take time off of work to go to court, and by the time all is said and done you may be in bankruptcy.

I suspect the caretakers of FetLife have determined that they probably wouldn’t lose in court if they allowed names to be dropped, but they would have to spend so much money defending themselves from abusive doms that they’d go broke.  And that’s a reasonable concern: in my experience, the most abusive doms are the most arrogant and the most sensitive, and I think they’d be happy to file lawsuits just for the satisfaction of getting revenge on a big target.

What people get upset about at Fet is that there’s no good court for locking out abusers in the kink community, and they want Fet to be that police force.  And yes, Fet is almost certainly allowing abuse to thrive by refusing to allow abusers to be named on their site, but I’m not sure the community would be better served by having Fet slapped with a bunch of court cases and going under.  Fet’s already been in financial trouble a few times – PayPal infamously doesn’t allow you to pay for porn with it, and they’ve gone through several issues finding a bank who a) accepts credit cards, and b) will work with a porno place – and I suspect for all of their reach, they’re more of a shoestring operation than anyone would care to admit.

So the problems we’re seeing on Fet are real – but a lot of that is spillover from a culture that marginalizes kinky behavior to an extent where there is no effective help.  There’s no real government assistance if you get abused, no organizations that won’t be scorned by society, no friends or family you can turn to for support outside the community.  Kink is an inbred outpost, and Fet reflects that sad reality.

I want FetLife to be doing more to prevent abuse, I do.  They should be. I think they often don’t do enough, and the things that happen in the shadows are shameful. Painful. Unforgivable.

But then I think about the isolation when I first logged in – that immense difficulty of finding friends.  That was a purposeful design, it was a good thing that protected my anonymity until I chose to “go public” with my kink… and it had the unfortunately backfiring effect of leaving novices to stumble into predator’s lairs.

I try to imagine ways a social networking site could fix that, and still retain the critical mass of active, engaged, and satisfied customers that it would remain useful as a community. Because the size of FetLife is what makes people so critical of it – it’s huge, with hundreds of thousands of members, and the very reason people think it could be used for good is because it’s that successful.  If FetLife had 750 members total, well, it could be the best in the world at rooting out predators in its midst but then it wouldn’t actually catch that many of them.

And I don’t know how I’d fix that.  And I’m glad it’s not my full-time job to figure out how to try to engineer a social network that makes up for all the sad flaws for how we, as a society, marginalize kink.

So What’s It Like To Have Your Book Released? (Plus: An Online FLEX Read-Along!)

The “book birthday” is a lot like an extended drug trip.

“I’m used to bad reviews,” I shrugged.  “I’ve had like forty short stories published! I’ve read lots of criticism on ‘em.  I’ll be fine.”

Then my first book review was three stars, and I flipped out all evening.

See, there’s a big difference between a short story dropping and a novel from a traditional publisher landing.  (It’s almost certainly different for self-published people.)  A short story is a tiny thing; you get the acceptance, you make the OMGYAY announcement, a couple of people link to you, the magazine publishes, and Lois Tilton tells you you suck.

A novel is like a rumbling freight train.  There are hundreds of book bloggers discussing whether they’re going to read you.  Hundreds of websites announcing your book is inbound.  Goodreads has this nice little page reserved for you, and it fills up.  People you don’t even know are expressing firm opinions about you.

Short story PR feels personal. Novels feel like God is looking down at you and She is expecting damned good things.

And the thing I foolishly hadn’t considered is that a novel is all you.  If people don’t like my story in Asimov’s? Meh. It’s sandwiched between six other stories, and surely they’ll like one of them.  I’m not gonna take out Sheila Williams’ editorial career in one fell swoop.

This novel?  That’s my name.  People bought it entirely based on what I produced.  If they don’t like it, all that dislike falls on me, and it affects my career, and so about two weeks into the process I was huddled under the covers meeping and asking Gini my God why did I do this.

Fortunately, I got some early reviews that told me that some people got what I was trying to do.  Which let me breathe.  I never expected Flex to be a massive hit, but I did hope that some segment of people would love it for what it is.  It’s not trying to be great literature, but it’s got a piece of my soul in it and I hoped that soul-fragment resonated with at least somebody.  Which, even if this thing tanks utterly now, MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.

Still, having your first book is a lot like having your first kid.  You pay way too much attention to every flutter.  You check on it way more often than you should.  (Please don’t ask Google how many times I’ve looked up “Flex Ferrett Steinmetz.”  Their servers are embarrassed on my behalf.)  It seems huge, swelling to fill your world, and like a newborn really it’s one of thousands out there – you just hope it’s something special.

Just get to your release date, I said.  If you can make it to 3/3/15, you’ll be okay.

And there again, I was marvelously stupid.  3/3/15 was the release date.  That was when all the PR I’d scheduled would peak, but…

3/3/15 was merely when most of the largest PR-fireworks would go off.

That was the start of when people would read the book.

So last night was a happy flurry of texts and Tweets from people saying, “I’m halfway through!” “I’m 23% in!” “I loved the intro!”  And that was good, but I realized that the book birthday was merely a start and now I get to watch it grow.  More reviews will come in.  The attention will be more diffuse – thankfully – but I’ll be getting reactions for months afterwards, and that’ll be cool.  As it is, the reaction from folks who read my blog has largely been of the “ZOMG” variety, so I’m pretty sure at least you people reading this blog here will like it.

And speaking of reading it…

If you haven’t yet, I found out today that Dirge Magazine is holding a FLEX read-along@IAmKatyLees will be reading Flex and chronicling her reactions on Twitter, and then post weekly reactions on Dirge.  And if you haven’t bought a copy yet, they’re even holding a giveaway!  So if you’re making your way through Flex, you can do so in good company.

An Interesting Small Flaw In FLEX

Your background helps drive your strengths and weaknesses as a writer.  If you grew up in the Deep South, you’re probably going to have a good handle on describing the Appalachians.  If you grew up in lily-white Connecticut and never explored, you’ll probably have issues capturing a multicultural environment.

And my novel Flex has an interesting small failure, created by my own background.

Now, if you’re not familiar with Flex (and why would you be? It just came out yesterday! Get reading!), there’s three people who are the central family: our lead character Paul Tsabo, his ex-wife Imani, and their daughter Aliyah.

I’m getting some preliminary confusion as to what ethnicity Paul is.

Aliyah, his daughter, is clearly described as black: “His daughter appeared in her bedroom doorway, clad in her pink-and-green Kermit-hearts-Piggy nightgown. She clutched the prosthesis protectively against her chest. She had her best pouty face on, somehow adorable beneath her mop of tangled black curls – a messiness Imani would have combed flat, but Paul liked to see his daughter’s wildness made manifest. Against his daughter’s soft brown body, his artificial foot’s sharp carbon-and-titanium profile looked like a blade.”

That’s pretty clear.

Things gets wobblier when I describe his ex-wife Imani: “Imani, stylish as always, wore a long tan coat with seven onyx-black buttons. It looked both businesslike and regal, which suited her – an Egyptian princess’s stiff bearing.”  In this case, Imani’s probably black thanks to a Swahili name and an explicit call to her Egyptian heritage, but… I don’t explicitly reference that.  It’s a lazy inference.

So what’s Paul?

Paul’s ethnicity is not described.  (Well, there’s one brief referent about a third of the way in to “Paul’s hairy Greek skin,” but that far in you’ve already got your own image of Paul Tsabo, bureaucromancer.)

There’s plenty of description of Paul’s body – he’s an amputee, he’s scrawny – but I don’t really reference whether Paul’s black, or white, or what.  Which is a failure mode of me being a white guy, and buying into a culture where “white” is seen as the norm: I went “Well, most people have both legs, so I should mention that Paul is missing his right foot.”  I went, “Well, most ex-cops are pretty burly, I should mention that Paul’s kinda short and not muscular and had to work his ass off to pass the physical exams.”

And buried in a tangle of assumptions I should prooooobably unpack further was, “Well, most people are white…”

Now, that confusion only exists in the first place because I believe in multiculturalism, and as such I put a multiracial family at the heart of the book.  Honestly, if I’d just had a family of three white people, nobody would have been confused – and there’s a thought that fills me with discomfort.

Now, this flaw is subtle and doesn’t torpedo the book – mainly because the characters are written as people, with strong personalities, and race takes a back seat when the opening scene involves Aliyah stealing her father’s artificial foot because he’s fallen asleep on her again.  But it is something I’ve gotten some questioning on, and though Flex is a professionally-published novel that’s been getting some very strong reviews, that doesn’t exempt it from me going, “Hrm.  Coulda done that better.”

I’m a white guy who grew up with white guys.  I’m not used to explaining my own heritage; it’s kind of a trivia fact for me.  Hey, I’m Irish and German!  That means I drink a lot, ha ha!  Doesn’t affect my job chances at all, though, and the cops still love me.  But that means that when I write about race, even in the quasi-idealized racial world of Flex (and that’s a whole other essay in and of itself, on choosing to write a fantasy-ideal version of racial dynamics versus a more realistic version, and how that all boils down to the effect you’re striving to achieve in fiction), I often miss a beat.  I should have realized that Paul, too, needed his own identifier early on, because I’d established two black characters in a family and then left this nebulous gap when it came to Paul.

That causes some mild confusion, and regardless of how you feel about racial politics, “Confusion” is never anything you strive for as a writer.

That’s a weakness in my style injected straight from my background. I’m not going to flog myself over a detail like this – I’ll just put it in the large hopper of “Things Ferrett needs to improve upon,” and move on.  A lot of writers are all like, “I don’t wanna write about race.  What if I get it wrong?”  Well, here I am, botching it up a bit, and most people still seem to be enjoying my book.  The complaints, if you can even call them that, boil down to “So what’s with Paul…?”

So. In case it comes up, Paul is Greek, his ex-wife is black (actually a mixture of Egyptian and Swahili ancestry), and Aliyah is biracial but for all visual intents and purposes is black.  But if you read Paul as black?  I wouldn’t be offended.  And in the next book, I’ll do a little better at explicitly establishing ethnicity (and hopefully do it without anything as clumsy as “Paul examined his swarthy Greek skin in the mirror…”), and as such level up.

That’s all there is, man.

My Novel FLEX Is Out Today! Here’s What To Do If You Liked It. (Or If You Didn’t.)

After many long months of waiting, my Breaking-Bad-by-way-of-Scott-Pilgrim novel Flex is available for purchase at just about any bookstore you can name!  Which means that for the first time you, dear reader, can actually read it.   Thanks to the easy availability of Kindle books and poor impulse control, some of you may well have finished my dang book by the time I post this.

So what now?

Well, if you liked Flex and would like to help it along in its book journey, there’s a couple of things you can do:

Write A Review.
‘The two standard places that reviews help authors are the book social network GoodReads and Amazon – not that Amazon is superior to any other bookstore, but I’m told they are more likely to show a customer a book in search results if it gets over a “critical mass” of reviews.  (No, I don’t know what that number is.  And neither does any other author.)

But writing a review on your blog is also good!  Even just a Tweet or Facebook status that says, “I liked Ferrett Steinmetz’s book Flex” helps get the word out – and believe you me, “Word of mouth” is the most important part of selling any book.

Yet please don’t hype up the book. I don’t want fake reviews with engineered enthusiasm. Be honest.

Come To My Book Tour.
I’m showing up all over the East and West Coast over the next month, and I’ll be mighty lonely at some of those stores unless you show up to keep me company.  I will be thrilled to see you, I’ll hug you if you like, and afterwards I’ll be all too ready to head out for drinks.  So if you’re nearby, drop by!

Tell A Friend. 
I’m getting lots of extraordinarily kind reviews for Flex.  Yet all of those blog-posts won’t sell nearly as many copies as repeated versions of this conversation:

“Hey, have you read Ferrett’s book?”

“Yeah.”

“How was it?”

“Pretty damned good.”

Feel free to lend Flex out, if you liked it.  Give it to someone you think would dig its vibe.  If my words spoke to you, then speak to others when the topic of good books come up.  Because really, if you’re not talking to your friends about the books you liked – not just mine, but in general – then what the heck are you doing with your life?

(Also, he says, sharing this post wouldn’t hurt.)

Buy The Sequel.
The sequel The Flux, which beta readers have largely agreed is way better and more intense than Flex, is coming out in early October.  The ending of Flex has a bit of a game-changer, and The Flux rides that to new levels.  So if you liked Flex, I’m about 90% sure you’re gonna enjoy the continuing saga of Paul Tsabo.

And if you like the idea of Flex, but for some reason have yet to purchase the sucker, may I suggest now is a good time?  I’ve written about why buying as close to the release date as possible benefits the author – and since the release date is today, that’s as close as it gets.

So What Do I Do If I Didn’t Like Flex? 
Here’s the trick:

Do the exact same thing.

I want honest opinions on my book, so if you didn’t like it, write a review, tell a friend why you didn’t care for it, and if you still like me but not the book I’ll totes hug you at my book tour regardless.

(Maybe don’t buy the sequel.)

The value of most reviews is that they tell people whether they’re likely to enjoy a book or not.  Elucidating your reasons why Flex didn’t float your boat is every bit as valid as squeeing over why it hit you deep.  And if you’d like to help Flex find its natural audience, indicating that this audience is not you may alert other like-minded people that this isn’t their bag.  And that’s fine!  There’s plenty of beloved books that I didn’t like, there’s plenty of classic movies that I didn’t care for, and even Shakespeare is loathed in some circles.  The idea that everyone will love me and despair is the author’s egotistical quicksand.

So: I hereby free you from any obligations to like this book.

But.

I will say that Flex is the most purely me thing I’ve ever written.  All the other novels I wrote – you know, the endless list of ones that never sold - had these Big Commercial Elements where I thought people would like it.  Flex was written to please an audience of one – namely, the guy writing this here blog here. It’s about kinky, chubby, confident women. And parental love. And turning obsession into beauty. And the struggle to be seen as more than your handicap.

And donuts. God, so many donuts.

As such, I feel comfortable saying that if you like the sentiments and style presented in this blog, there’s a damned good chance you’re gonna like my novel.

And I hope you do.  I hope you love it enough to press it into your friends’ hands and go, “Man, I loved this, and you will, too.”

Now.  Let’s see whether that actually works.

The FLEX Book Tour Is Finalized! New Dates in San Diego And San Francisco!

Okay. This ridiculous book tour/vacation is now finalized, so many of you people on both West and East coasts can meet a Ferrett.

And what a strong ending!  Two of the best science fiction bookstores, one I thought I’d never get to sign in!  San Diego and San Francisco!

In any case, I should stress that this is a book vacation, not a book tour per se – in a book tour, the publisher pays to put you up in a hotel, whereas Gini and I are treating this like “Let’s drive up and down the West Coast and see friends and oh yeah, do some signings.”  So if there’s anyone in the Seattle or San Diego area who would be willing to let us crash at their space for a couple of days (and be okay with us getting in late as we see other people), then please let me know.  (We have Portland and San Francisco covered, thankfully.)

(Which also should answer your next question of “When are you coming to my town?” When you pay my plane fare and a hotel, I’ll cheerfully go anywhere.  Alas, this is on my dime, and more for fun than profit, so I’m surprised I have this many dates.)

(And extra-special thanks to fellow writer and Angry Robot PR man Michael Underwood, who did most of the legwork for this tour.  He is the official fairy godfather of Flex, and you should buy his books.)

Saturday, March 28th: Mysterious Galaxy, in San Diego
5943 Balboa Avenue, Suite #100, San Diego, CA 92111
2:00-3:30 p.m.

Saturday, April 4th: Borderlands Books, in San Francisco
866 Valencia St, San Francisco, CA 94110
3:00-4:30 p.m.

And in case you’re going “Aw, man, I wanted to hang out Ferrett!” and you live in New York, Boston, Seattle, Portland, or – strangely – Cleveland – then remember these dates:

Friday, March 6th: Loganberry Books, in Cleveland (register at the Facebook event here!)
13015 Larchmere Blvd., Shaker Heights, Ohio 44120
7 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.

Friday, March 13th: WORD Bookstore Brooklyn (register at the Facebook event here!)
126 Franklin St, Brooklyn, NY 11222
7 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.

Saturday, March 14th: Annie’s Book Stop Of Worcester (register at the Facebook event here!)
65 James Street, Worcester MA 01603
5:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m.

Friday, March 20th: University Book Store, in Seattle
4326 University Way NE Seattle WA 981105
7 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.

Saturday, March 21st: In Other Words, in Portland, Oregon
14 NE Killingsworth Street, Portland, OR 97211
4p.m. – 6p.m.

Tearing Beloved Characters Apart Like Scrap Paper: Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings

Stephen King once demonstrated the mastery of his craft by killing seven people in short succession.

That makes it sound like Stephen King is a serial murderer, a statement I’m not backing off of.  What he did in Under the Dome – which wasn’t even one of his better books – was to do the impossible for most writers.  Which is to say that Stephen would create a fully-fledged character in under 800 words, a grungy and real and believable and likeable hitchhiker with a backstory and a need to get out of this damned town that had blackened his eye and got the local police chief on his case.  The ideal lead for a book because even knowing them for this little time you wanted to follow him through the next 1,000 pages to see what happened to him –

– and WHAM, he got killed by the eponymous Dome.

So you got to the next character, a pilot who’s trying to wind up a messy love affair but dealing with the complexity of still being in love, and WHAM, killed by the Dome.

And the next character, what a lovely person, and WHAM, killed by the Dome.

It was like watching a masterwork artist flip through his sketchpad, scribbling in heartbreaking portraits in loving detail in less time than it took you to swig your coffee, and then he’d rip them up and toss them aside.  And it was all to good effect, ultimately – after watching that many people killed by what was an admittedly-ludicrous plot device (an alien Dome dropped over a small town!), it felt like a tragedy.  And that callousness made you jumpy for everyone else throughout the rest of the books when the true lead characters finally survived long enough for you to say “Howdy.”

But if you’re a writer, you know how damned hard it is to create someone who feels real, and is sympathetic enough that you want to see what happens to them.  Some people spend decades trying to pull that off, and never achieve it once.  And there’s Stephen King, creating people so utterly believable that he might well have crushed them personally in a car wreck, and he’s doing it so effortlessly that he can just do it at will.  As a toss-off.

I never thought I’d see anyone else do something comparable until I read Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings.

Which is not to say The Grace of Kings is like Stephen King at all – it isn’t.  It’s been compared to an Asian Game of Thrones, which is a marketing shorthand I crawl at, because Game of Thrones feels like a purposely shitty world, whereas Ken’s world has moments of genuine hope and love, it’s just ruled by increasingly dysfunctional people.

And Ken does not create characters in the way that Unca Stevie does.  Stephen King creates his characters in the moment – a blackened eye, a rustling pocket with only a crumpled dollar bill, a hopeless wave at a passing car.  Whereas Ken repeatedly stops the story and says, “Have a flashback to this character’s entire life history, from A to Z.”

Which sounds stupid and clumsy and amateurish.  According to every writing manual in existence on this planet, it shouldn’t work.  But Ken is a master writer, having won literally every science-fiction award possible for his short stories, and when he sets out to break a rule he shatters it like cordwood.

Because Ken has mastered the essentials of story.  In a few sentences, he can tell you about a character who has experienced something where you go Yes, I understand this person, I would do the same thing, and so when you hear about the second-best philosopher at the school, the one who’s studied so hard to be the best and yet is repeatedly outdone by the shining student who never works for anything and yet is just genius, you feel that tug.  And then Ken deepens this sketch by outlining the awkward ways in which people try to compliment this poor second-best schmuck, complimenting his fine form without once ever expressing any enthusiasm for the work he’s spent years creating, then suggesting he study the golden child of the school for inspiration, and you understand yes, okay, I get why this man would be seethingly obsessed.

Then you hear about how he mastered politics because philosophy wasn’t working for him, and rose high in the bureaucracy to be the second-hand man of the King himself, and when he got the opportunity he undermined his old golden boy, disfavored him in the palace, got that stupid jerk thrown into jail – and yet the Golden Boy never blamed this second-rate philosopher, in fact seemed to adore his old friend, welcomed him into his cesspit of a prison, never suspecting who was causing him all this trouble at all…

Then the second-rate philosopher gets his head chopped off by an invading barbarian force, and you find out the story is about what happens to the Golden Boy.

At least until something bad happens to the Golden Boy.

Grace of Kings is an epic fantasy saga, but I tend to think of it as “Poor management techniques backed up with swords.”  With so many characters, time and time again we see rulers distracted from the details that actually allow empires and armies to function – focusing on revenge instead of politics, focusing on politics instead of provisions for the army, focusing on provisions instead of strategy, focusing on strategy instead of discipline.  Running an empire is a hugely complex task in the world of Grace of Kings, and while there are a lot of idiots in the mix – as you’d expect – the challenge of the characters is getting everything right, and you can’t quite blame people for not realizing what’s important until the blade is about to fall.

More importantly, people’s mistakes and their triumphs are deeply rooted in character.  Yes, the vicious warlord may be causing problems for himself by burning the cities he conquers, thus creating greater resistance, but on the other hand if he didn’t have that ruthless willingness to drive his army into the teeth of unspeakable violence, he’d never have won any battles.  It’s a complex balance of people creating politics, and Ken pulls it off with – *cough* – grace.

Now, for me, this story was new, because it’s based on an Asian saga I am not familiar with – much like Western stories tend to be based around King Arthur.  But I’m told by people who know the original that it’s still a worthy and unique take on it.  And I enjoyed the heck out of it, because yes, like Under the Dome, there are characters who do survive – but like Game of Thrones, you’re never entirely certain which ones will make it.

It’s out in a few weeks, and I might contemplate reserving my copy now, if I were you.

On Nimoy, The World Shrinking, And Growing

So Leonard Nimoy died, and I almost called in sick and took the afternoon off.

And I worry about other people.

Me, I’ll be fine, though losing Leonard was a great loss to me.  I remember being ten and going to my first Star Trek convention – a shameful thing back then, to be held in back rooms of Shriners’ clubs, things only children and stunted adults would desire.  And my Uncle Tommy, ever fearless, went with me, and I bought Spock ears because Spock, like all of us, seemed baffled by these huge desires that swept through him.  Spock wanted to be calm and logical, but he wasn’t – and yet somehow, he was the most capable of all of the crew for that.

Now he’s gone, and that part of my childhood goes with him.

Yet I know too many people who attended those conventions, and never bothered to find anything else to love.  I have a good friend who only sees remakes of things she already knows, stuck in the past, endlessly buying deluxe versions of 1970s and 1980s movies and not acquiring anything new.

For her, Leonard Nimoy’s passing is a great loss because all her beloved heroes are so old, they can do almost nothing but die.

For me?  I’ve had lots of new and wonderful fandoms.  The Flash is a delight.  I adore Better Call Saul.  I’m still flying high on Avatar: the Last Airbender.  I am so ridiculously enamored of new shows and movies that yes, Leonard Nimoy’s passing is a great loss but I still look to the future, confident that there are still things as wondrous as Star Trek yet to be created.

For my friend?  Spock is a grave in a yard that will fill with nothing but more holes.  As she ages, the bottom will drop out for her – Shatner and Takei will pass, and she’ll complain bitterly that there’s nothing like the old days, and it’ll be like the world is crumbling around her.  Because it is.  Because she’s mired in a past where the only good shows where the ones she knows, and that sad land will only grow stonier over time.

But I think Leonard was delightful at embracing new things as he got older – he certainly seemed to love his time on Fringe – and me?  I’d rather be like Leonard.  It’s a huge world, full of wonderful things.  There are new characters to to fall in love with – maybe not filled with the same history of childhood nostalgia as Spock, but delightful nonetheless. And no one can replace Leonard, but I have far more fictional worlds to hold fast in my heart, some of them new and blossoming, all of them exciting.

When I think of Star Trek, I think to the future, and the future is one glorious now.

Don’t get me wrong: His loss is profound to me.  I haven’t stopped crying for half an hour.  But there is still such beauty in the world.

Thank God I have the eyes to see it.