Tag Archives: psychology

200,000 Years of Mommy Madness

11 May

Motherhood!  You’d think we humans would have it figured out after 200,000 years as a species.  Apparently not.  While my mother certainly raised a perfect human specimen, thank you very much, TIME magazine’s latest cover (and the bemused, baffled, bewildered responses to it) indicates that questions about what it means to be a “good mom” are still feeding our cultural anxieties.

(Or should I say, they’re still breastfeeding our cultural anxieties?  But maybe that’s a bit much.)

The point is that TIME’s lead story on “attachment parenting,” Dr. Bill Sears, and his devotees liked the pictured mother and son in “Are You Mom Enough?” has already stirred up  controversy and brought moms and motherhood back into public discourse–if, indeed, these topics ever really left us.

In the United States today, the majority of women work.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

In 2010, there were 123 million women in the civilian noninstitutional population, and of this number 72 million, or 58.6 percent, were in the labor force—that is, classified as either employed or unemployed.

Women’s labor force participation is significantly higher today than it was in the 1970s. Women’s labor force participation rate peaked at 60.0 percent in 1999, following several decades in which women increasingly participated in the labor market.

An even greater percentage of American mothers is working also.  Again from the BLS:

The labor force participation rate–the percent of the population working or looking for work–for all mothers with children under 18  was 70.6 percent in 2011.

Cool?  I tend to think so.  My mom worked full-time from the time I was seven or thereabouts (who can remember anything before the millennium anyway?  Didn’t Y2K wipe out all those records?), and I don’t think my sisters and I can complain about much from our childhoods.  Except maybe that our mother did indeed dress a bit like the working women in this old video that we still own on VHS out among the garage spiders somewhere (though I will add that you would never see her wearing loafers with a suit.  It was heels or bust).

And surprisingly for one of my rambling posts, this video is more than a trip down memory lane–watching it now, I wonder why it is that there isn’t a corresponding video called “My Daddy Comes Back” or something.  Is it really so much scarier for children when mommy goes to work than when dad does?  Or is it us, the grown-up video-makers and video-buyers and song-writers and blog-ramblers, that continue to perpetuate that baby’s going to cry only or especially when mom heads off to the office for the day?

Whatever came first, the chicken or the ovum, it certainly seems that working mothers are taking on the burden of this cultural anxiety.  As I understand it, “attachment parenting,” the subject of TIME’s lead story, is a method of child-rearing with the aim of creating a secure bond (or attachment) between parent and child.  Because of the emphasis breastfeeding as one method of fostering that bond, AP proponents especially stress the relationship between mother and child.  And “stress” may be exactly the right word.

Reading about AP theory, I followed a hyperlink trail to Judith Warner’s book, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety.  In the book, Warner discusses the toll and burden that cultural expectations of mothers place on working and non-working moms alike:

Many women of the post-Baby Boom generation simply weren’t prepared to contemplate these kinds of choices.  They didn’t realize just how bad the incompatibility would be between the total freedom of their youth and the culture of total motherhood they’d encounter once they had children.

So while more women are working and more mothers are working women, the pressures that puts on modern women go largely unexplored.  As Warner says, parenthetically:

Happiness has never ranked high as a feminist political goal.

I’m hardly qualified to expound on my own theories of parenting (even if I had some, which I don’t), but as a woman who wants a career and may want children some day, I just want to ask: Shouldn’t it be?

The seeming impossibility of a woman “having it all” is a running joke on tv shows like 30 Rock (with Tina Fey’s career-oriented yet kind of baby-obsessed Liz Lemon).  Just last month the April 19 episode was titled “Murphy Brown Lied to Us.”

I guess I can’t be too surprised.  If the Venus of Willendorf is any indication, even people of the Upper Paleolithic had their own ideas about the feminine ideal.  And I can’t imagine it was any easier for women then.

* * *

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In Defense of Well-Read Internet Trolls*

10 May

I learned something yesterday: If you’re going to write a blog about as contentious and controversial a topic as the characterization of classic characters in American fiction (and do it with alliteration), you’ve really got to grow a thick skin.  Everyone has the right to disagree.  And that is something I will defend unto my last keystroke.  I, Isabela Morales, the Scattering’s sole author, do so swear.

See what I did there?  I used my name.  I did that because I personally believe that if I’m ashamed to put my John Hancock to something I publish, then it isn’t really worth publishing.  But hey, we can’t expect everyone to follow that rule.

Come now, does this look like the face of a “brutish faux intellectual” to you?

Anonymity is a valuable and important part of our online experience.  Why then do we, as a culture, tend to despise, denigrate, deride, and disdain people who post more-than-moderately critical comments without revealing their names?  I am here to say that I believe every would-be Internet troll has the right to write unnecessarily aggressive things about academic blog posts without inspiring offense on the part of the author.  Which is why I want to post this not-at-all-spiteful public letter of apology for forcing my objectionable prose on last night’s anonymous commenter.  You see–

In spring 2009 I was taking a course on American humor and satire at my now-alma mater the University of Alabama.  Every week, our professor assigned us brief writing assignments—analyzing either a chapter or character from the book we were reading as a class.  The essays from those classes that I’ve posted on the Scattering have consistently been some of my most popular for years now (maybe because they’re possibly the only useful things I’ve published here), and if anyone can explain why my paper on Mark Twain and religious satire has been translated into Spanish more than it’s been read in English, that would be kind of cool to know.

In any case—the last book we discussed that semester was Catch-22, the bleakly funny (anti-)war novel by Joseph Heller.  The short essay I posted from class was my comparison of leading man Yossarian and his glum number two, Dunbar.  I flatter myself that I provided a few good pieces of evidence to support my claim that Dunbar is Yossarian’s foil; and of course, like a good little college student, I used in-line parenthetical citations for all my quotes (this was before the history department converted me to CMOS).

This all seems like a very long time ago to me, but how easily we forget that the Internet is eternal: once on Google, always on Google.  And it would seem that someone found my little essay today and didn’t find it useful at all.  In fact, he/she seems kind of pissed off that it exists.  I hope, with this letter, written as a public post for completely non-self-indulgent reasons, I can assuage some of Anonymous’s worries.

Ahem.

Dear Anonymous,

I just wanted to let you know how very appreciative I am that you took the time to peruse my “ancient” blog posts until you found one worthy, or perhaps unworthy, as you would have it, of comment—and this especially because reading my character analysis of Dunbar in Catch-22 so clearly caused you great mental agitation and psychic pain.

As an avid reader myself, how acutely do I know the distress that comes when one is thrown into collision with unpalatable prose!  Please know that I extend to you my greatest admiration and, indeed, perhaps even awe, for setting yourself at the vanguard of the Internet’s blog writing style soldiery!  I don’t think that anyone who read the remarks you left on my post of 17 March 2009 could possibly imagine you as anything other but a white knight of wordpress—charging down the RSS feeds of book reviewers with the same courage and conviction that the chevaliers of old (dare I say, of olde?) charged down the jousting lists.

But because I fear that the weight of public opinion might come down against someone who hands down breathtaking accusations and criticism under the name “Anonymous,” I have decided to publish your comments more broadly—for the sake of showing every one of my readers just how much I care what they think about my writing style.

Despite this article being ancient, the following bothers me and so i’ll comment here. I hope you have relaxed your prose by now, but I’m not going to put myself out verifying.

“second only to Yossarian as a character introduced in the book” – this is annoying. Stop trying to sound pretentious when you simply mean “the second character introduced in the book.”

It doesn’t work and is appalling. Had several complaints leading up to this point, but after this sentence I stopped reading.

That being said, it’s your prerogative to write as you will. You simply come off brutish in your faux intellectualism.

Cheers

Me being pretentious in front of a picture of UA’s founding librarian, my role model in all things, including 19th-century prose.

Anonymous, I completely understand why you wouldn’t want to put yourself out verifying whether or not I have relaxed my prose by reading any more recent posts, considering how dreadfully my writing style irks you.  In fact, I must now regretfully inform you that my prose, if anything, has only grown more contrived, affected, and overblown in the last two years.  And now that I will be entering a doctoral program in history next fall, I can only sigh and resign myself to the fact that I will doubtless be swept away by the currents of stilted academic prose by the time I’m through.

Alas!  Alack!  I should probably leave it at that, to spare you any more agony, but there’s just one thing–

I wonder how you found this post to begin with?  Were you searching for essays about Catch-22 online?  Because if that’s the case, I would trouble you just one more time to ask whether the actual substance of the essay had any bearing on your research.  I hate to think that my grandiloquent diction is getting in the way of my ideas.

Oh, and if I can keep your attention for another moment (and I only make this extended reply because your browser history certainly does not include the search “cliffnotes catch 22”), I’d like to say something about that particular line that you quoted:

Educated people like you and me have probably come across the literary technique of “parallelism” before—you know, constructing your writing in such a way that the grammar of one phrase, say, echoes an earlier sentence.  That’s what I was going for what I started my sentence with “Second only to Yossarian in alleged insanity, Dunbar…” and ended it with “… is also second only to Yossarian as a character introduced in the book.”

Clearly, I failed in that.  Oh well, we all try these things when we’re young, don’t we?

And last of all—hopefully I haven’t taken up too much more of your time or left the taste of poor diction in your mouth, giving you that fuzzy feeling on your tongue that comes when you go to sleep without brushing—I’d like to say a few words about your word choice.

You are indeed a master wit!  I don’t think I’d ever be clever enough to call a complete stranger “pretentious” while myself using terms like brutish and faux intellectualism.  I can only surmise that you wanted to use satire to comment on an analysis of satire.

Which is why I love you, Anonymous.  And how I do love you for this.

Cheers! —IM

* If you can make it through my stilted prose and pretensions to some modicum of literacy, this, Dear Anonymous, is what we faux intellectuals like to call “satire.”  Or perhaps it’s just what my mom likes to call “passive aggressive.”  Why don’t you let me know.

Confessions of a Certified Slytherin

27 Apr

Someone who (at age 21 and a half) has read the Harry Potter books innumerable times and been to every midnight showing since Order of the Phoenix is, probably, a little old to be signing up for a kids’ literary enrichment website.  Most of my peer group are the same way–I can walk into almost any classroom on campus and make a comment about the Muggle civil liberties infringements brought about by the International Statute of Secrecy to general agreement and outrage (seriously, don’t Obliviate spells strike you as incredible invasions of privacy?).

So why did we all sign up for Pottermore?

Two words: Sorting Hat.

For over a decade now, almost an entire generation of readers have been wondering what house they would be placed in, should they have been the lucky recipients of a Hogwarts letter to save them from the trials and tribulations of fifth grade and its mixed fraction computations.  Putting on a magical old hat that reads your mind and tells you about the deepest parts of your personality would be super creepy when you think about it, but way cool.  The closest thing we Muggles have to that sort of insight is psychotherapy, and, I assure you, that may be creepy and unnerving, but it’s definitely not fun.

As the series unrolled, I began to resign myself to the fact that I probably wouldn’t have been a Gryffindor.  Or if I were, I’d be like Neville in the early books (before he got super badass and faced down Voldemort and friggin decapitated Nagini).

Of course, I had the consolation of relative surety that I wouldn’t be a Hufflepuff either.  I mean, no one has ever accused me of being “warm” or “kind.”  Whatever that means.

I expected Ravenclaw.  Because you see, friends, academic elitists aren’t made, they’re born.  And I’ve been correcting people’s grammar since I learned how to read.*

But as you may have guessed from the title, I’m not an eccentric, quirky, non-conforming Ravenclaw.  I’m not a noble, self-sacrificing Gryffindor.  I’m not a cheery, loyal Hufflepuff whose badger mascot is a little less lame now that the honey badger no longer has to give a you-know-what.

I’m in the house of You-Know-Who.  The house of magical racists and dungeons and snakes that turn people to stone.  I’m a Slytherin.  And as good ol’ J.K. says in her video intro to the sorting process–the decision is final.

The thing is, after a moment of stunned silence as I sat in front of my computer, I realized that it makes absolutely perfect sense.  For more than ten years I’ve avoided seeing it because, despite J.K. Rowling’s insistence that Slytherins aren’t all bad, we’ve never actually seen a good one.  Pottermore tells us Merlin was a Slytherin, which is cool, but as an historian, I’ve got to say that it’s doubtful King Arthur, Camelot, and Merlin ever existed.  It’s probably a myth some woebegone Slytherin made up so her housemates would feel better about themselves.

I should have seen the warning signs long ago, but I refused to look the basilisk in the eye.  It’s done now, and my metaphorical magical heart has turned to stone.  Some of you, dear readers, might be like me: fearing to know your true self.  Maybe you’ve been designated a Slytherin; maybe you’re afraid to put on that hat.  The following is for you.

A Guide to Accepting Your Serpentine Heritage

1. Would you describe yourself as cunning?

The first time Harry and Co. hear the Sorting Hat sing its sinister, sibilant song, the part about Slytherin goes like this:

Or perhaps in Slytherin/ You’ll make your true friends,/ Those cunning folks use any means/ To achieve their ends.

You, like me, may prefer to imagine yourself as a frank, open, straightforward person.  Certainly not deceitful in any inherent sense.  But think back to your past: at any point in your academic or workplace life did you do something like this?

A girl I know–I’m not going to give any names, but she writes some second-tier sci-fi/whatever else blog on wordpress–went to a Catholic high school.  She was diligent, hard-working, and hid her contempt for certain classmates with impressive grace and aplomb.  She had almost all of her classes with the same 20 or so girls, all of them smart, all of them hard-working.  But one in particular annoyed this friend of mine.  That girl was pathologically hard-working.  Like, obnoxiously diligent.  And my friend didn’t like being shown up.  One week near the end of their senior year, my friend’s teacher told the class that there were some extra assignments for those who wanted some points to shore up their grades.  Both my friend and the other girl had better-than-perfect grades in the class.  But that other girl said that she’d do the assignments anyway.

My friend, as I said, didn’t like being shown up.  She knew that the other girl, let’s call her Mary, because she was freakin’ perfect, would get all sorts of brownie points for being pathologically diligent.  My friend tried to explain to Mary that there was no reason to do the additional essay or whatever but no, friggin’ Mary was going to do it anyway.  My friend considered doing the extra work too, simply to keep pace.  But then she realized something: this new assignment wasn’t extra credit.  It didn’t go on top of the grade; it just got averaged in.  Which meant that someone whose grade was already an A+ could actually suffer a net loss in points by doing an extra essay that could only get her an A.

My friend encouraged Mary to write the paper.  My friend didn’t.  And my friend got the highest grade in the class.

Oh, and did I mention?  This was religion class.

I realize that that sounds kind of horrible.  But don’t judge my friend too harshly for her “cunning.”  What she did can be seen negatively, but that’s the easy answer.  If you really think about it, while her motives were hardly pure, her reasoning was perfectly sound.  My friend wasn’t going to waste her time with something that couldn’t benefit her.  Mary was so caught up in her single-minded work-work-work attitude that she didn’t actually stop to think about what was in her interest (I’m going to guess that Mary’s a Hufflepuff).  So you see–cunning isn’t evil: it’s about achieving your goals.

And speaking of goals…

2. Do you have any plans to take over the world?

Or at least, your little piece of the world?  You don’t need to build a giant laser on the moon and try to blow up the earth to be ambitious.  And besides, that’s horribly cliché.

From the Sorting Hat’s next song:

And power-hungry Slytherin/ loved those of great ambition.

There’s nothing wrong with a little ambition, you know.  It’s not all throwing money around and waving silver-headed canes in people’s faces like the Malfoys would have us believe.  Ambition takes determination, hard work, intelligence, and long-term planning.  You have to imagine what you want to be in five, or ten, or twenty years and have the discipline to make those dreams come true.  And you know why Slytherins are good at that?  I’ll tell you why: because, unlike the namby-pamby other Houses, we don’t call them “dreams.”

We call them plans.

3. Do you care about people’s bloodlines?

In its final appearance in the books, the Sorting Hat gives us this even less flattering portrait of the serpent House:

Said Slytherin, “We’ll teach just those/ Whose ancestry is purest.”

Okay… not going to bother with that part.  “Pure-blood” talk gives me the creeps.  Let’s just admit that, as a House, we’ve turned out an unfortunate number of seriously nasty characters and be done with it.

Conclusion

The point is, brother and sister Slytherins, that while we may get a bad rap, we just need to own it.  Not the Death Eater stuff, obviously, but the cunning and ambition.  That’s not a bad thing.  It’s more effective than the abstract intellectualism of the Ravenclaws, and do I really need to insult the Hufflepuffs again?  I mean, their House ghost is the Fat Friar and they live in a cellar next to the kitchens.  What else is there to say?  As for the Gryffindors, well, I’ll just quote a badger friend of mine:

“Gryffindors are like Hufflepuffs, except bro-y.”

Well said, friend.  Well said.

*As a side note, and further evidence that I would make an awesome Ravenclaw, I can still distinctly remember at least two years before I learned how to read and write.  My older sister, 2 years above me, was making my mother cry with her staged readings of “The Giving Tree” (friggin communist altruist hippies).**  Meanwhile, I got my hands on a little pink-and-white notebook wherein I would make scribbles and try, to no great avail, to inscribe them with meaning.  I was so jealous I wanted to papercut my sister with her precious book.***

** I apologize.  I worked a summer at the Ayn Rand Institute.  Sometimes this stuff just comes out.

*** Oh god … I totally am a Slytherin.

Cures for the Common Cult (Lenten Reading for the Non-religious)

5 Mar

As Ash Wednesday draws near, science fiction initiates may be wondering what devotional reading they can delve into this shriving season.  Accordingly, here is the Scattering’s list of the Top 10 classic irreligious SF for Easter (or Eostre, as you’ll have it) 2011:

1. VALIS, by Philip K. Dick

This one’s hard not to see coming.  Not only is it a prominent piece on Benjamin Linus’s bookshelf, VALIS is classic 1980s PKD: incoherently, barely-intelligible, highly theological, and just plain weird.  The back cover description might be a little too lucid:

This disorienting and bleakly funny work is about a schizophrenic hero named Horselover Fat; the hidden mysteries of Gnostic Christianity; and reality as revealed through a pink laser.  VALIS is a theological detective story, in which God is both a missing person and the perpetrator of the ultimate crime.

2. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, by (surprise!) Philip K. Dick

I haven’t written so many posts about my beloved PKD since my stint at OCON 2009 (Objectivist Conference in Boston)–where reality was getting so objectively rational that I had to break out the crazy.  Three Stigmata is classic 1960s PKD: visionary, genius, and a masterpiece of science fiction.  Still weird (of course), but far more understandable.

Not too long from now, when exiles from a blistering Earth huddle miserably in Martian colonies, the only things that make life bearable are the drugs.  Can-D “translates” those who take it into the bodies of Barbie-like dolls.

Now there’s competition–a substance called Chew-Z, marketed under the slogan: “God promises eternal life.  We can deliver it.”  The question is: What kind of eternity?  And who–or what–is the deliverer?

Maybe I should have made this #1, after all.

3. Dune (and the rest), by Frank Herbert

I’ll always have a special fondness in my heart for sandworms and female Jesuits of the future–the first research paper I ever wrote, after all, was a pseudo-biography of Frank Herbert (I don’t think li’l Brian did him justice).  Not to mention that he was a world builder par excellence who mastered above any other single SF author the craft of really, really elaborate backstory.

“A portrayal of an alien society more complete and deeply detailed than any other author in the field has managed…a story absorbing equally for its action and philosophical vistas.” —Washington Post Book World

Considering anyone reading this has probably read Dune and all its subsequent iterations as many times as there are incarnations of Duncan Idaho, there’s not much more I can say.  But with 40 days of penitence looming, I think the Bene Gesserit would approve of a re-read.

4. Nightfall, by Isaac Asimov

Somewhere on the books, there has to be a law that no science fiction reading list of any kind can go to print without including something by the superhumanly prolific Isaac Asimov.  His 1941 short “Nightfall” has a sort of legendary quality about it–and rightly so–but the novelization’s pretty damn good too.  Even if it was co-written with Robert Silverberg.

The planet Kalgash is on the brink of Chaos–but only a handful of people realize it.  Kalgash knows only the perpetual light of day; for more than two millennia, some combination of its six suns has lit up the sky.  But twilight is now gathering.  Soon the suns will set all at once–and the terrifying splender of Nightfall will call forth a madness that signals the end of civilization.

And you thought Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight was terrifying.

5. The Stand, by Stephen King

Yes, it’s 1,100 pages (that’s almost Atlas Shrugged status, there).  But the read is worth it–and the pace gallops along about as rapidly as the four horsemen of the apocalypse.  King called the book a “dark chest of wonders,” and I must humbly agree: this is the End of Days novel to end all End of Days novels.

In 1978, science fiction writer Spider Robinson wrote a scathing review of The Stand in which he exhorted his readers to grab strangers in bookstores and beg them not to buy it.

The Stand is like that. You either love it or hate it, but you can’t ignore it. Stephen King’s most popular book, according to polls of his fans, is an end-of-the-world scenario: a rapidly mutating flu virus is accidentally released from a U.S. military facility and wipes out 99 and 44/100 percent of the world’s population, thus setting the stage for an apocalyptic confrontation between Good and Evil.

“I love to burn things up,” King says. “It’s the werewolf in me, I guess…. The Stand was particularly fulfilling, because there I got a chance to scrub the whole human race, and man, it was fun! … Much of the compulsive, driven feeling I had while I worked on The Stand came from the vicarious thrill of imagining an entire entrenched social order destroyed in one stroke.”

There is much to admire in The Stand: the vivid thumbnail sketches with which King populates a whole landscape with dozens of believable characters; the deep sense of nostalgia for things left behind; the way it subverts our sense of reality by showing us a world we find familiar, then flipping it over to reveal the darkness underneath. Anyone who wants to know, or claims to know, the heart of the American experience needs to read this book. –Fiona Webster

Also, it will give you nightmares.

6. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes

This is, admittedly, an anomalous choice.  It’s more psychology text than science fiction (and it’s definitely not a novel), but if you’ve read anything by that most eminent Canadian Robert J. Sawyer, you’ll know that he uses his characters to mention this book in almost every single one of his own.  The WWW series, at least.  It was getting really annoying, actually, until I made my father track down Julian Jaynes for me for Christmas last year, and then I got it.  Warning: Not for the faint of heart… or the myopic.

At the heart of this seminal work is the revolutionary idea that human consciousness did not begin far back in animal evolution but was a learned process that emerged from a hallucinatory mentality only three thousand years ago.  The implications of this scientific paradigm extend into virtually every aspect of our psychology, our history, our culture, our religion–indeed our future.

Makes you wonder whether Philip K. Dick ever did emerge from that hallucinatory mentality, right?

7. Mindscan, by Robert J. Sawyer

After the star-crossed tv series FlashForward lost favor with…well, everyone, I started reading Sawyer to fill my time before V came back on air (much good that did me).  I quickly realized that, as a writer, Sawyer likes his characters to talk.  And think.  But mostly talk.  The climax of Mindscan‘s “action” is actually a really long courtroom scene, in which various individuals debate philosophy.  Which is fine with me–when the philosophy involves clones, robots, and the origin of consciousness.

Jake Sullivan watched his father, suffering from a rare condition, collapse and linger in a vegetative state, and he’s incredibly paranoid because he inherited that condition. When mindscanning technology becomes available, he has himself scanned, which involves dispatching his biological body to the moon and assuming an android body. In possession of everything the biological Jake Sullivan had on Earth, android Jake finds love with Karen, who has also been mindscanned.

Meanwhile, biological Jake discovers there is finally another, brand-new cure for his condition. Moreover, Karen’s son sues her, declaring that his mother is dead, and android Karen has no right to deprive him of his considerable inheritance. Biological Jake, unable to leave the moon because of the contract he signed, becomes steadily more unstable, until finally, in a fit of paranoia, he takes hostages. Sawyer’s treatment of identity issues–of what copying consciousness may mean and how consciousness is defined–finds expression in a good story that is a new meditation on an old sf theme, the meaning of being human. —Regina Schroeder

There was a Twilight Zone episode kind of like this, if I recall.

8. Kraken, by China Mieville

A deep and abiding love for the much-neglected Mervyn Peake (in the States, that is) led me to China Mieville’s lyrical prose and fantastic urban settings.  For the best contemporary world-building in science fiction today, I commend you to Perdido Street Station.  For the cult of the giant squid, I give you Kraken.

British fantasist Miéville mashes up cop drama, cults, popular culture, magic, and gods in a Lovecraftian New Weird caper sure to delight fans of Perdido Street Station and The City & the City. When a nine-meter-long dead squid is stolen, tank and all, from a London museum, curator Billy Harrow finds himself swept up in a world he didn’t know existed: one of worshippers of the giant squid, animated golems, talking tattoos, and animal familiars on strike.

Forced on the lam with a renegade kraken cultist and stalked by cops and crazies, Billy finds his quest to recover the squid sidelined by questions as to what force may now be unleashed on an unsuspecting world. Even Miéville’s eloquent prose can’t conceal the meandering, bewildering plot, but his fans will happily swap linearity for this dizzying whirl of outrageous details and fantastic characters.

Cthulhu might just have a run for his money.  Wait… please… I didn’t say that… have mercy O Ancient Ones!

9. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

He came to my school!  Neil Gaiman actually visited the University of Alabama last fall–and I couldn’t make it.  But I’ll make it up by adding his novel American Gods to this list, so no one else misses out on the dark fantasy writer that is Neil Gaiman.

Shadow gets out of prison early when his wife is killed in a car crash. At a loss, he takes up with a mysterious character called Wednesday, who is much more than he appears. In fact, Wednesday is an old god, once known as Odin the All-father, who is roaming America rounding up his forgotten fellows in preparation for an epic battle against the upstart deities of the Internet, credit cards, television, and all that is wired. Shadow agrees to help Wednesday, and they whirl through a psycho-spiritual storm that becomes all too real in its manifestations. For instance, Shadow’s dead wife Laura keeps showing up, and not just as a ghost–the difficulty of their continuing relationship is by turns grim and darkly funny, just like the rest of the book.

For fans of the New Weird, see Gaiman’s Neverwhere, a somewhat less intense Kraken.

10. Pandemonium, by Daryl Gregory

Julian Jaynes indicates that religiosity might be a mental illness, but Daryl Gregory takes that idea and runs.  Demonic possession has never been so scientific.

In this fascinating alternative time line, thousands of demon possessions have been carefully recorded by scientists each year since the 1950s. Each case is always the same: a recognizable, named strain of the disorder possesses a person, wreaks havoc and then jumps on to its next victim. Del Pierce’s case is unique: when the Hellion possessed him at the age of five, it never left. Now an unhappy 20-something, Del undertakes a dangerous quest to exorcise the Hellion as it fights him for control.

The trim prose keeps the pace intense and the action red hot through some emotionally disturbing scenes and heavy backstory. Absorbing psychological discussions of possession abound, from Jungian archetypes to the eye of Shiva. Readers will delve deeply into Gregory’s highly original demon-infested reality and hope for a sequel.

Scary Good Reading (Review: Bedtime Stories for the Apocalypse)

21 Nov

When I was eight or nine, Grandpa Bob gave me some books from his library.  One was called “The Heroes of Our Faith” or something (I still have it somewhere, but don’t have much need of it nowadays), my first and only hagiography.  Two more were anthologies of very early science fiction stories from the 1920s and 30s–one of them was called Before the Golden Age, and edited by Isaac Asimov.

I’m pretty sure the Before the Golden Age stories were the first place I ever read about evolution, space travel, time travel, and the dangers of “vivisection.”  And they scared the shiznat out of me.

I never read ghost stories when I was little.  I bucked the third grade R. L. Stine trend.  And I didn’t swap scary stories around a campfire (since the only camp I ever went to was a science camp on Catalina Island where we swapped scary stories about the Hapsburgs and their problematic chins).  But science fiction could always freak me out. Slogging through Amazon, I recently found a copy of the January 2003 Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine–the first and only one I ever read.  “Junk DNA” and “Pick My Bones With Whispers” were just too much to handle.

Which is partly why I, though by now grown-up-ish, still got chills reading Joel Arnold’s Bedtime Stories for the Apocalypse, a short story collection just creepy enough to be horror, just dystopian enough to be sci-fi, and just scarily well-written.

At seven or eight pages each, there wouldn’t seem to be much room for character development or world-building–but that doesn’t mean our protagonists and their environs aren’t believable.  Plenty of novels falter because they’re too ambitious, or just plain sloppy.  But Joel Arnold maintains tight, clean prose throughout; and by avoiding superfluous detail or grandiloquent phraseology, he keeps each piece focused.

But that steady hand doesn’t prevent twist endings from throwing the reader off balance and introduce that classic scary story factor of the unexpected.  I can’t think of one in nine that didn’t leave me with an unsettled feeling–you know, the kind that leaves you staring at the computer screen, eyebrows raised, mouth half-open, mind thoroughly disturbed.

And all this doesn’t mean, either, that any of these singularly unnerving Bedtime Sories for the Apocalypse are derivative (although I do wonder if “Mr. Blue” and “Harvey’s Favorite Color” take place in the same sci-fi universe).  Arnold keeps equally firm control of the plot and writing in widely different narrative styles– what a high school English teacher would categorize as first-person, third-person omniscient, third-person limited omniscient, and telephone transcripts.

How can I sum this up coherently?

End-of-the-World scenarios and dark future governments are quintessential short science fiction fodder–but unexpected twists keep the kiss-of-death cliche far, far away.

Almost as enjoyable as the stories themselves is the author’s strong, clear, clean, controlled, engaging, and just possibly flawless writing style.

Finally, if someday I give my faithful Kindle 2 to a nerdy, socially awkward grandchild, she would definitely sleep a little less restfully that night.  But more importantly–the dark visions of the future the reader sticks her toe into in this short story collection would make her think.  And that’s what scary good sci-fi is all about.

***

Bedtime Stories for the Apocalypse is available as an ebook on Amazon for $1.79.

***

Special Note for the In-Crowd: If “Ben Cleaver” is based off the author (I didn’t spot a “No character in this book is based off any person living or dead…” disclaimer), fear not!  “Narcissus” has another link to himself on the ‘Net as of today.  Mort, man–you rock.

Author Response: Faith, Science, and The Proximian

4 Aug

After I raised some objections in a review to what I see as an incongruous blending of biblical literalism in his science fiction novel The Proximian, I wanted to make sure author Dennis Phillips had a hearing too.  He felt strongly enough to leave a very generous comment on my review, and I felt strongly enough to re-publish my review of atheist Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation. But not everyone scrolls down to read the comments, so here’s Mr. Phillips’s response to an admittedly critical reception of The Proximian from the Scattering:

Thank you, Isabela for taking time to review my work, and thank you for your kind comments. You mentioned in an email to me that you are an athiest. As such, I understand that you would be biased with regard to any blending of religion in science.

You seem to believe there is some disconnect between faith and science. I do not. You seem to believe that if someone is true to science, that they cannot be religious, which is why you wrote “I find it difficult to believe that an astrophysicist like Carl Sage could accept Creationism.” Yet many like him have and do. I can no more prove the existence of God, than you can disprove it. In the end, a belief in God, like a belief in the theory of evolution, must be a matter of faith.

Many thanks again and best wishes for a successful future,

Dennis Phillips, author, The Proximian

And here’s my comment in reply:

I’d hate to get into a theological argument in a comment thread, but one thing you said in particular stuck out to me as rather off– “A belief in God, like a belief in the theory of evolution, must be a matter of faith.”

Absolutely not!

Tim Minchin said it best: “Science adjusts its views based on what’s been observed. Faith is denial of observation so that belief can be preserved.”

In regard to the “absence of evidence” vs. “evidence of absence” argument, here’s briefly what I have to say:

Observation and experimentation is the basis of science, and these pillars allow not only for dialogue but the opportunity for other scientists and researchers to disprove a hypothesis–and so get closer to the truth (knowing something is wrong is just as valuable as knowing which answer is right). The fact that one cannot, as you mentioned, disprove the existence of God only serves to highlight the very real disconnect between faith and science: that’s completely the opposite of the scientific ethos.

Sam Harris’s short “Letter to a Christian Nation” would be a great resource for anyone wishing to better understand atheism.

– Isabela Morales

Well, the debate isn’t going to be solved in the comment thread of a second-tier science fiction review blog, but I hope that gives readers a more rounded-out view of author Dennis Phillips’s philosophy and reasons for including some Genesis apocrypha in his novel.  The stakes, as he let me know, are high:

One of us is wrong. We can’t both be right. And if I’m wrong, when I die, I’ve lost nothing; but if you’re wrong, then some day, when you die, you’ve lost everything.

Damn.

Souls in a Petri Dish (Review: Letter to a Christian Nation)

4 Aug

“Atheists are the most reviled minority in America.”

Sam Harris has it exactly right.  Polls—even some taken shortly after 9/11—show that the majority of Americans would rather have a Muslim president than one who doesn’t believe in any God at all.  Maybe that seems hard to believe when we think back to the horror over our current Presidents highly suspicious middle name, but the number bear it out.  Atheists aren’t likely to achieve high office.

Maybe that’s why one of our most famous nonbelievers in American history, Thomas Paine, is the most notable of our founding fathers not to have a monument.  They don’t even mention him in the recent History Channel documentary America: The Story of Us(which is otherwise both moving and surprisingly objective) in the Valley Forge segment.  George Washington thought the political pamphleteer important and inspiring enough to read to his starving, freezing men at Valley Forge (and thus keep the army together through a terrible winter)—but this isn’t the Age of Reason anymore.

In high school, I was nostalgic for the political pamphlets of Thomas Paine rallying patriots to the Revolutionary cause.  Nostalgic not because I’d been there (though I’m still holding out for time travel), but because today’s political debates involve so much more mudslinging and snide soundbites than any meaningful debate, and because—to someone who compliments acquaintances on brilliant extended metaphors in emails and cries after every re-reading of Plato’s Phaedo—good rhetoric is so, so hard to find.

Especially on the issue of religion and faith.  On a small scale, the University of Alabama club “triple-A,” Alabama Atheists and Agnostics, had its chalking vandalized by devout Southern Christians about half a dozen times this past year.  Pouring slushies on a chalk portrait of Darwin is the college equivalent of a shut-down of intellectual debate, I guess—which is something atheists face in the “Christian nation” of the United States.

I can’t help but have a wonderful time reading the gleefully irreverent Christopher Hitchens.  As might be expected, I can’t say the same for my ex-roommate at UA, who never looked at me the same after she found God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything on my Kindle.  But Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation satisfied my sentimental longing for Thomas Pain-esque writing, and then some.  His short book—more a manifesto—echoes Paine’s celebrated Age of Reason in that he’s not on the defensive.  Harris explains that the New Atheism isn’t just a negative (not believing in God): it’s about a positive too, belief in science and reason.

Last fall, I awarded Thomas Paine the Scattering’s premier literary award—the Heretic Badge of Honor—for his 1794 Age of Reason.  Today, I’m awarding the Heretic Badge to Sam Harris for Letter to a Christian Nation, for taking up the torch.  He writes in his conclusion, after all, that:

“This letter is the product of failure—the failure of the many brilliant attacks upon religion that preceded it, the failure of our schools to announce the death of God in a way that each generation can understand, the failure of the media to criticize the abject religious certainties of our public figures—failures great and small that have kept almost every society on this earth muddling over God an despising those who muddle differently.”

In his letter, the New Atheist does revive for a modern audience some ideas that reminded me of past doubters very strongly.  The foundation of atheism, he argues, is a scientific mindset, but that might mean something different than many people expect:

“The core of science is not controlled experiment or mathematical modeling; it is intellectual honest.  It is time we acknowledged a basic feature of human discourse: when considering the truth of a proposition, one is either engaged in an honest appraisal of the evidence and logical arguments, or one isn’t.”

Atheists don’t revile God (although, as Harris points out, there’s a whole lot of evidence to do just that)—we respect rationality.  That’s the scientific mindset.

This definition of “intellectual honesty” struck me as particularly reminiscent of Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason, in which he wrote my favorite 18th-century quote:

“It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing or disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.”

Or for Harris, what is impossible to believe in in modern society, with so much scientific evidence stacked against the need for a God.  It’s as incongruous as, well, to use one of my favorite expressions from the Letter—“souls in a Petri dish.”

I won’t go into detail on Harris’s arguments, because I couldn’t begin to write more clearly or concisely than he does in Letter to a Christian Nation.  And personally, I wonder how many of the Christians the book’s addressed to will actually read it—but for those who do or are considering it, let me say that while it’s bold and certainly controversial, it’s written in some of the most clear, logical prose I’ve ever read.  It’s accessible, and written more to persuade than inflame (like some of Hitchens’s writings).

The book’s only 900 locations on the Kindle (as opposed to the 5-8,000 of the average novel), so I’d place it at about 100 pages.  In any case, it’s a one-afternoon read.  So head on outside on this beautiful summer (is it summer yet?  I never really know) day, relax in the sun, wear a hat or a beekeeper’s veil if you’re easily sunburned, listen to the rustle of leaves in the wind and insects buzzing in the grass, and remember that you can thank evolution for it all—not God.

Happy Pentecost, everyone!

Letter to a Christian Nation is available in paperback as well as an ebook on Amazon for $8.64

Verdict? Dream War, by Stephen Prosapio

29 Jul

The author begins his eerie tale with fact—a quote from Newsweek, in fact.

Because the CIA is secret; it is also insular; because it is elitist, it is also unaccountable.

–Newsweek, October 10, 1994

And with that in mind, readers enter into a story that—like dreams themselves—proves both frightening, otherworldly, and entirely realistic.  Part of Dream War’s appeal is the seamless manner in which Prosapio weaves history, myth, and dreamscapes into a whole that raises that classic science fiction question: Is it possible?

With a likeable, fully-fleshed hero (using the subconscious dreamscapes of a person as a tool for characterization, by the way, is brilliant) it’s impossible not to root for facing off against a bone-chilling villain from the depths of one’s nightmares (literally), Dream War takes a wild concept and keeps it grounded in the dramatis personae.  Add to that Prosapio’s strong writing and total control of the narrative and we have a spooky, imaginative novel that takes a universally-fascinating concept and turns it into a delirious adventure.  And despite a similar incarnation on the silver screen, Dream War is completely original.

Reading Time: One to two weeks.

Recommendation: Do read if you’ve ever wondered that there might be more to dreams than the random firings of synapses.  Don’t read just before bed.

Dream War is available as an ebook on Amazon for $2.99

Things that go bump in the night (review: Dream War)

29 Jul

Leonardo DiCaprio calls the process of implanting the seeds of ideas into a person’s subconscious “inception,” but in Stephen Prosapio’s hair-raising novel Dream War it has another name, perhaps even more sinister: Injection.  And when it’s a top-secret CIA operation taking place in a tricked-out dentist’s chair under the aegis of a wild-eyed, slightly disheveled genius named Dr. Hyde (of all things), it’s hard to imagine something creepier.

But that’s the job description for Hector Lopez, Senior Agent at the Reagan-era Oneirology Institute of America, just another classified project from our shadowy puppet masters in the federal government.  As Lopez knows:

Rumors about the CIA delving into paranormal technologies circulated both the military and popular culture frequently.  One suggested that the government was using astral projections to keep tabs on the Russians…

Having just read and reviewed Ed Morawski’s remote viewing romance View, we know that too.  But author Prosapio’s novel takes a different tack: Dream War is a spooky journey through the nightmare realm of the subconscious, an adventure on a much wider scale than the blockbuster generating so many bewildered Twitter updates about whether or not Leo’s little metal top ever did stop spinning.

Stepehn Prosapio sets the tone of the novel with a thoroughly ominous introduction, reviewing in a page and a half our near-universal fascination with the darker places in the human mind and all the mysteries therein.  And this isn’t all speculation—Prosapio’s right to point out the astonishing, inexplicable historical power of the subconscious.  Want proof?  See: In hoc signo vinces on Wikipedia, the dream angel’s message to Constantine that he would conquer in the sign of the chi rho (minor historical correction for the novel—it wasn’t the cross).  Or the dreams of Mohammed and other Abrahamic visionaries.

Dreams have power.  No wonder the CIA was interested.

Unlike Inception, Dream War gives readers a surprisingly believable technical explanation of how one “dream-links” to a given target.  The key is the “dream-print,” a REM cycle fingerprint of sorts, made of endorphins and an electrochemical element unique to each individual’s brain.

But like the psychics and Project Star Gate, information about NOCTURN (Night-Oriented Connection To Uncover and Retrieve iNformation) stop surfacing after experiments in the 1970s and 80s.  And whether you’re a conspiracy theorist or not, Prosapio does make a pretty convincing case for special agents “dream-linking” to terrorists and other targets to extract information from the unguarded sleeping mind.  Who’s to say, after all, that some of that defense spending ramped up by Reagan didn’t go to paranormal projects?

The novel begins with these end days of NOCTURN and the Oneirology Institute of America.  And here’s where the story begins to accelerate—the reason for its death isn’t an executive order or lack of results: it’s the fact that while CIA agents are “injecting” ideas of suicide into the minds of America’s most wanted, a more sinister REM cycle traveler has found a way to do the same, and not just to terrorists.

Meet Luzveyn Dred, the eldritch master of the Spatium Quartus, a dimension parallel to both the waking and dreaming world—a space between (a bit like Inception’s limbo), the origin of all nightmares where the dream death is the true death and the aptly-named, Roman-era Dred is determined to stage an assault upon the subconscious of non-CIA trained geologists and their young daughters, along with everyone else in the world.  And the only thing standing between him and the creation of a nightmare empire is Hector Lopez, the smartass special agent who wears his reflective sunglasses indoors because Chicas think these look cool.  Or something.

Lopez finds himself at the center of Dred’s plan to “inject” the Spatium Quartus into the real world and turn life into a waking nightmare—literally.  Trained by Dr. Hyde and the CIA’s OIA, Hector’s in a perfect position to become Luzveyn Dred’s baleful lackey.  But our irreverent hero fends off this supernatural devil’s temptations with strength of will and a couple clever quips.  His first reaction to finding himself in the stormy, noxious SQ?

“Well, Toto, I guess we ain’t in Tijuana no more.”

And neither are we in Hollywood—Stephen Prosapio’s novel is a gripping, frightening, thoroughly disquieting novel that’s hard to put down, thanks to an arresting plot, superior writing style, and the thought that Luzveyn Dred might just show up once the lights go down.

Now Reading: Dream War, by Stephen Prosapio

24 Jul

Just a couple weeks ago, Inception hit the big screen–flooding Facebook and Twitter with obscure, dream-related references as awestruck audiences fuzzy on exactly what had just happened left the theaters.  Something about Leonardo DiCaprio infiltrating people’s dreams and extracting information, anyway.  That was two weeks ago.

Three years ago, Stephen Prosapio’s science fiction thriller Dream War made the final five in Gather.com’s 2007 “First Chapters” conference.  Dream War in it’s full form hit the presses on July 14, 2010, just two days before the U.S. Inception premiere.  From the product description on Amazon:

Decades ago, the CIA developed the technology to enter our dreams and extract information. It was just a matter of time before they took things a little too far…

1980. Hector Lopez joins a CIA enterprise capable of entering dreams and extracting information. Lopez saves hundreds of hostages’ lives by dream-linking to terrorists and foiling their plans. When the Red Brigades, an Italian terrorist group, kidnaps a US General, Lopez and his team execute every technique available for extracting information—including one that links our world to a dimension never meant to be discovered.

Present Day. The Sogno di Guerra—a Red Brigades sect—plans the slaughter of millions. And they’ve the help of Luzveyn Dred, the entity ruling the dimension the CIA inadvertently opened a portal to—the Spatium Quartus.

Aided by an aging expatriate, a recovering alcoholic, and a mysterious girl, Lopez must overcome memories of past failures and defeat evil—in this world as well as in a dimension of nightmares.

the Scattering will let you know how like or unlike Inception this oneiric novel of former fantasy football sports reporter Stephen Prosapio turns out to be.