Saturday, September 30, 2006

To our everlasting shame...

This is what waterboarding looks like.

From the article:

The similarity between practices used by the Khymer Rouge and those currently being debated by Congress isn't a coincidence. As has been amply documented ("The New Yorker" had an excellent piece, and there have been others), many of the "enhanced techniques" came to the CIA and military interrogators via the SERE [Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape] schools, where US military personnel are trained to resist torture if they are captured by the enemy. The specific types of abuse they're taught to withstand are those that were used by our Cold War adversaries. Why is this relevant to the current debate? Because the torture techniques of North Korea, North Vietnam, the Soviet Union and its proxies--the states where US military personnel might have faced torture--were NOT designed to elicit truthful information. These techniques were designed to elicit CONFESSIONS. That's what the Khymer Rouge et al were after with their waterboarding, not truthful information.

Bottom line: Not only do waterboarding and the other types of torture currently being debated put us in company with the most vile regimes of the past half-century; they're also designed specifically to generate a (usually false) confession, not to obtain genuinely actionable intel. This isn't a matter of sacrificing moral values to keep us safe; it's sacrificing moral values for no purpose whatsoever.

Please remember when the time comes to vote that a vote for a Republican is a vote for torture.

It's not a vote against Queers Ruining Marriage.
It's not a vote for Family Values.
It's certainly not a vote for Smaller Government, or Fiscal Responsibility.

It's a vote to torture human beings. To deny Constitutional rights even to American citizens, should the government choose to label them terrorists.

Go take a look at the pictures. We're already doing this to people. Our federal government just voted to make it legal, and to make government employees immune to after-the-fact prosecution, for doing it.

"I was just following orders" is apparently a valid defense for war crimes, now--if you wrap yourself in the flag, first.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Formative Reading

When I was perhaps eight or nine years old, I happened onto a battered copy of Theodore Sturgeon's collection of short stories, E Pluribus Unicorn, and promptly read it from cover to cover--then immediately went right back to the first page and read it all again.

Now, I don't know as I could comfortably recommend Sturgeon to the parents of most pre-teens, but I don't know as I wouldn't, either. They're sort of disturbing, odd, and discomfiting pieces of writing. I remember one story about a teddy bear that was really a sort of vampire alien, for instance, and I've never looked at stuffed animals quite the same way, since. On the other hand, how scarring can that be, really, if it makes a kid look out beyond her own window and really start to wonder about things? Certainly, I wasn't the only kid that Sturgeon's stories had a huge impact on--nor the only one who would grow up and write about it.

They were all stories written before I'd even been born, and originally published in Weird Tales, and F&SF, and the like. (There are Weird Tales covers posted online, by the way, which are great fun to examine and deconstruct, if you're into that sort of thing...and who isn't, really?)

Of science fiction, Sturgeon said in an interview:
I believe it is the wrong name for the field. It should have been called a number of other things - speculative fiction, for example. In many people's minds, science fiction is girls in brass brassieres about to be raped by a slimy monster, and being rescued by some guy fully dressed in a space suit with a zap gun. It is all in the future, all in space, it is all Star Wars and Buck Rogers.

Science fiction, outside of poetry, is the only literary field which has no limits, no parameters whatsoever. You can go not only into the future, but into that wonderful place called "other", which is simply another universe, another planet, another species.

It's things that happen inside your head. I've always said that there's more in inner space than in outer space. Inner space is so much more interesting, because outer space is so empty.

That really sums up the lure of specfic for me; first as a small, over-imaginative girl in eastern Montana in the 70s, then through college and grad school, and now.

So what's it mean, though, really? To some extent, shouldn't fiction explore inner space in general? Probably, yes. That doesn't mean it actually happens that way, though. The forced, artificial resemblance of some kind of objective, recognizable reality creates constraints restricting the territory explored by more mainstream genres.

As soon as a story departs those constraints, as soon as the internal reality of the story makes a leap into the unfamiliar and takes the reader with it, a panoramic view opens up, revealing just how big a place all that inner space really is. Immediately thereafter, we ghettoize that story into a niche called science fiction. Or horror. Or fantasy.

What else is one to do with, for example, a gender-bending story about characters who actually change sex midway through the story--a problem as true for the reader of Woolf's Orlando as of Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness? Because really, isn't the crux of the problem a sort of magical thinking? That if we can be persuaded to imagine something, to believe it, perhaps it becomes real in increments? And if that's so, then suddenly the horizon of our described reality seems quite distant, indeed. So literature that knocks walls out of those careful boxes--not in a humorous manner, but in a way that's direct, straightforward, and matter-of-fact--presents a quandary that may be a challenge, a promise, or a threat, depending on the reader's perspective.

Ursula Le Guin said, in "Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?":
For fantasy is true, of course. It isn't factual, but it is true. Children know that. Adults know it too, and that is precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy. They know that its truth challenges, even threatens, all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and even trivial in the life they have let themselves be forced into living. They are afraid of dragons, because they are afraid of freedom. (Le Guin, The Language of the Night, Berkley 1985, p44--I looked for the essay online for you guys, but no such luck. Buy the book. Really. It's worth every cent, and then some.)

So what of those Weird Tales covers, then? Is there something intrinsically true about those bug-eyed monsters slavering over helpless virgins? What of that vampire teddy bear? What are we to make of the need to examine the awful, alongside those ideas that are expanding and uplifting? What's that about, that need to embody our worst fears, and stand them up in the light where, yep, sometimes they really are that scary and disgusting?

More on this, I'm sure, as I poke through it. There's been so much terrific stuff written about it, and I believe more to do, still, especially as we move deeper into a seriously scary time in our country and our world.

The most important thing, of course, is that spec fic must stay true, else it loses its potency.