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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Gawker's gutter journalism

I have a new post about the Gawker site's gutter journalism over on the Cogito blog.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Skin Game by Jim Butcher - "Best Novel" category, Hugo Awards voting 2015

Just quickly, I was not overwhelmed Skin Game - the 15th novel in Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series - but it does show what everyone told me: that Butcher is a skilled and serious craftsman. Again and again, he brings complex situations and perceptions alive with astute first-person writing.

The story basically involves a supernatural heist, complete with backstabbings and betrayals - plus cleverly choreographed magical battles. This is not necessarily my kind of thing, though I expect I'd have found Skin Game more enjoyable if I'd come to it with a previous knowledge of the series. The character interactions are clearly important, but they'd be more meaningful for someone already familiar with these characters, and perhaps emotionally invested in them and their fates. Butcher has a monstrous fan following, and I can see why, even if this book, taken in isolation, did not strike me as so extraordinary as to merit an important international literary award.

I'd not begrudge Skin Game a Hugo Award if it works out that way. It is on the ballot at least partly because of its appearance on the "puppies" slates, but that in no way shows that either the book or its author is undeserving. I'll leave it at that, I won't be voting it down merely because of the Sad Puppies situation, but I'll see whether any of the other nominated novels strike me as more obvious winners in the category or inspire me to greater eloquence.

Friday, July 10, 2015

World Fantasy Award nominations

The nominations list has been announced for this year's World Fantasy Awards. The list includes a collection by talented Australian author Angela Slatter... and another by one of my dearest friends, Australian author/editor/critic Janeen Webb. The latter, Death at the Blue Elephant, is especially dear to my heart, not only because of my affection for its author, but also because I was honoured to launch it officially in Melbourne last year. It is a very strong collection indeed.

Note that there is little, if any, overlap between these lists and the "puppies" slates that dominate the Hugo Awards nominations this year. One item that is both Hugo nominated and WFA nominated is The Goblin Emperor. However, it was not on the slates of the "Sad Puppies" and "Rabid Puppies" groups.

As I've said before, the puppies may have had a worthwhile role if they'd genuinely been seeking out the best quality work that might normally be overlooked because of an alleged "usual suspects" mentality or even some kind of suspected or alleged bias at the Hugos against politically conservative authors.

But most of what they did was just promoting their own narrow group of preferred authors. A more genuine exercise might have thrown up brilliant new work by the likes of Angela Slatter or Janeen Webb. I have not engaged in over-the-top rhetoric attacking the political motivations and moral characters of the "puppies", and I will not do so, but I do remain unimpressed by their slate-making exercise.

Here is the complete WFA list:

Life Achievement Winners

Ramsey Campbell
Sheri S. Tepper

  • Katherine Addison, The Goblin Emperor (Tor Books)
  • Robert Jackson Bennett, City of Stairs (Broadway Books/Jo Fletcher Books)
  • David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks (Random House/Sceptre UK)
  • Jeff VanderMeer, Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux Originals)
  • Jo Walton, My Real Children (Tor Books US/Corsair UK)
  • Daryl Gregory, We Are All Completely Fine (Tachyon Publications)
  • Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen, "Where the Trains Turn" (Tor.com, Nov. 19, 2014)
  • Michael Libling, "Hollywood North" (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Nov./Dec. 2014)
  • Mary Rickert, "The Mothers of Voorhisville" (Tor.com, Apr. 30, 2014)
  • Rachel Swirsky, “Grand Jeté (The Great Leap)” (Subterranean Press magazine, Summer 2014)
Short Story
  • Kelly Link, "I Can See Right Through You" (McSweeney's 48)
  • Scott Nicolay, Do You Like to Look at Monsters? (Fedogan & Bremer, chapbook)
  • Kaaron Warren, "Death's Door Café" (Shadows & Tall Trees 2014)
  • Kai Ashante Wilson, "The Devil in America" (Tor.com, April 2, 2014)
  • Alyssa Wong, "The Fisher Queen," (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/June 2014)
  • Ellen Datlow, ed., Fearful Symmetries (ChiZine Publications)
  • George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, eds., Rogues (Bantam Books/Titan Books)
  • Rose Fox and Daniel José Older, eds., Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History (Crossed Genres)
  • Michael Kelly, ed. Shadows & Tall Trees 2014 (Undertow Publications)
  • Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant, eds., Monstrous Affections: An Anthology of Beastly Tales (Candlewick Press)
  • Rebecca Lloyd, Mercy and Other Stories (Tartarus Press)
  • Helen Marshall, Gifts for the One Who Comes After (ChiZine Publications)
  • Robert Shearman, They Do the Same Things Different There (ChiZine Publications)
  • Angela Slatter, The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings (Tartarus Press)
  • Janeen Webb, Death at the Blue Elephant (Ticonderoga Publications)
  • Samuel Araya
  • Galen Dara
  • Jeffrey Alan Love
  • Erik Mohr
  • John Picacio
Special Award—Professional
  • John Joseph Adams, for editing anthologies and Nightmare and Ligthspeed magazines
  • Jeanne Cavelos, for Odyssey Writing workshops
  • Sandra Kasturi and Brett Alexander Savory, for ChiZine Publications
  • Gordon Van Gelder, for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
  • Jerad Walters, for Centipede Press
Special Award—Non-professional
  • Scott H. Andrews, for Beneath Ceaseless Skies: Literary Adventure Fantasy
  • Matt Cardin, for Born to Fear: Interviews with Thomas Ligotti (Subterranean Press)
  • Stefan Fergus, for Civilian Reader
  • Ray B. Russell and Rosalie Parker, for Tartarus Press
  • Patrick Swenson, for Fairwood Press

Sunday, July 05, 2015

The End: What Science and Religion Tell Us about the Apocalypse

Phil Torres has a new book due late this year from Pitchstone: The End: What Science and Religion Tell Us about the Apocalypse. You might want to watch out for it - I wrote a foreword for the book, having been provided with a copy of the manuscript. I wouldn't have done this if I didn't think it was a terrific book.

Torres has done a good job of this, discussing planetary and civilizational risks and what we might be able to do about them. His point about religion is not that any of it is true; it's that the world is full of apocalyptic ideologues who not only believe prophecies of the last days, but are actually prepared to do what they can to bring about Armageddon. He goes into this at considerable and fascinating length.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

The Trouble With “Islamophobia”

The title of this article places the word "Islamophobia" in quotation marks for the very good reason that I propose to talk about the trouble with the word itself. First, this is not an innocent word. It has a specific, very recent origin and history, particularly a history of deliberate politicking for its acceptance. It is all too easy to use this new word, "Islamphobia" - and with it the very idea of Islamophobia - as a stick to beat people who are attempting to engage in genuine dialogue about the nature of Islam, particularly its more radical and/or political forms.
This is not to deny that some dislike of Islam, or impatience with Muslims and their spiritual leaders, has a quasi-racist character, motivated by parochialism and xenophobia, and sometimes a racist dislike of Arabs in particular. "Islamophobia" is a suspect word, but there is clearly such a thing as anti-Muslim bigotry.
The bigots and the critics
It is not coincidental that so much of the public criticism of Islam as a religion, and of Muslims and their practices, emanates from European political parties and associated groups found on the extreme right. These organisations typically promote an intense, even bigoted nationalism – combined with what they portray as a defence of Christian traditions and values, and an endangered “Christian identity.” They thrive on a fear of strange cultures and a fear of change.
An obvious problem for critics of Islam who do not share these values is that they may find themselves painted with the same brush. Conversely, extreme-right critics of Islam can gain a degree of respectability by co-opting issues and adopting stances that many politicians and members of the public find compelling. E.g., extreme-right figures have attacked such practices as forced marriages, honour-killings, female genital mutilation, and highly conservative apparel for women such as the burqa and the chador. All of these are legitimate targets for criticism.

At the same time, many Muslims in Western countries continue to suffer from suspicion, cultural and personal misunderstanding, discrimination, and outright intolerance that sometimes rises to the level of harassment and violence. It’s legitimate to oppose this bigotry while also fearing Islamist groups that seek to impose some version of Islam by force.

The situation creates a complex set of advantages, disadvantages, and risks. The extreme right benefits from the availability of politically respectable criticisms of Islamic thought and associated cultural practices. As this goes on, however, there is also a risk that the word “Islamophobia” will be used to demonize and intimidate individuals whose hostility to Islamism, or even to Islam itself, is based on what they perceive as its faults. In particular, we should remember that Islam contains ideas, and in a liberal democracy ideas are fair targets for criticism or repudiation. Religious doctrines influence the social and political attitudes of their adherents in ways that merit public comment (favourable or otherwise), and many religious leaders and organizations exert immense power or influence. It is in the public interest that all this be subjected to monitoring and criticism.

Indeed, there are reasons why right-wing organizations have borrowed arguments based on feminism and secularism. These arguments are useful precisely because they have an intellectual and emotional appeal independent of their convenience to unpleasant opportunists. Regardless of who uses these arguments, they plausibly apply to certain elements of Islam, or at least to attitudes and practices associated with it. In any event, it is an inescapable fact that political Islam is a threat to global peace and to liberal ideals.
Whether or not they are put in good faith on a particular occasion, nothing precludes the arguments being put sincerely, and perhaps cogently, by individuals with legitimate concerns.
Thus, there are genuine reasons for some people who are not racists, cultural supremacists, or anything of the sort, to criticize Islam, or certain forms and manifestations of Islam, or to express hostility towards it. These relate to disapproval of various doctrines, canons of conduct, associated cultural practices, and so on, to the power wielded by Islamic leaders and organisational structures, and increasingly to the ambitions and actions of Islamists such as ISIS.
Take-home lessons
A number of lessons can be drawn from all this. One is that opponents of Islam, or some of its forms and manifestations, cannot reasonably be expected to keep quiet when accused of racism or the quasi-racism of “Islamophobia.” When these accusations are misdirected, they are likely to inflame passions even further, though they may intimidate some individuals into silence.
This suggests that we understand that racism and bigotry do not underlie all hostility to Islam. Beyond a certain point, there is too much disadvantage in walking on eggshells. We don't have to do it all our lives.
Key Words: Russell Blackford, ISIS, Islam, “Islamophobia”, honour-killings, female genital mutilation.
Note: This short article was first published by what was then the Secular Global Institute in September 2014.