Bad girls, a future Earth, a nuclear hero and witches: books read

BAD GIRLS: Young Women, Sex and Rebellion Before the Sixties by Amanda H. Littauer is the flip side to Trials of Nina McCall, looking at the kind of sexually active women the American Plan longed to lock up somewhere. Littauer’s selection includes “victory girls” who partied with soldiers during WW II, lesbians, prostitutes, kids going steady (which teens rationalized made it OK to have sex) and women discussed in and responding to the Kinsey Report on female sexual activity. Informative, but Littauer’s style is stiff even for a university press book, and I can’t help feeling there’s something missing, though I’m not sure what.

EARTH’S LAST CITADEL by CL Moore and Henry Kuttner starts in 1943 as protagonist Alan helps a brilliant, crotchety scientist escape from the Nazis. As the Nazi agents (a former mob triggerman and an Karen, an adrenaline junkie who does spy work for the thrills) catch up with them, all four are trapped by an ET, then thaw out in the very, very distant future, after the ET’s race has xenoformed Earth to their liking, then died out. Exploring the strange title city, the quartet (fully aware that their political disagreements mean very little now) discover an Eloi like race, a malevolent telepath — oh, and one of the aliens may not have died after all …

This is exotic, imaginative and colorful, the kind of pulp stuff I love. However, while I enjoyed it, it’s kind of a mess; the plot changes direction so much I wonder if they were making it up as they went along and kept changing their minds (it was serialized, like a lot of SF stories at the time). Karen is an interesting character but she virtually vanishes, with more attention going to Alan’s Eloi love interest; nor do they do anything with the idea the scientist, while brilliant, would sooner party than work. by

Cary Bates redefined Charlton Comics’ Captain Atom (the prototype for Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen) in his 1980s series, turning him into a government agent posing as a superhero to infiltrate the metahuman community. Nobody who followed Bates did anything good with the character, and DC’s New 52 turned him into a Dr. Manhattan knockoff. Now comes THE FALL AND RISE OF CAPTAIN ATOM by Bates and Greg Weisman which allows Bates to reboot the character close to Bates 1980s version. In his last battle, Captain Atom apparently dies but actually gets thrown back to the past. When he returns (I’m simplifying a lot of plot here)  he presents himself as a new, improved legacy hero — but what about the family he left in the past? And can he really trust his military superiors? Nothing’s been done with it since, and I’m not sure how it works for anyone who doesn’t love the 1980s version, but I give it solid thumbs up.

Andre Norton’s WITCH WORLD was an insanely weird genre mash-up when I read it in the 1970s (about ten years after it appeared). Simon Tregarth begins as a veteran forced into a life of crime which is about to get him killed. A mysterious occultist offers him an escape via the Round Table’s Siege Perilous, which magically takes anyone who sits in it to the world they belong.

From that thriller opening (which I like enough I’m working on a variation of it) Simon arrives in Estcarp, a land ruled by a matriarchy of witches. Already surrounded by hostile nations, they’re now facing the threat of the sinister Kolder, who turn out to be a high-tech race as alien to the “witch world” (never called that, it’s just the world) as Simon.

It’s a good book with some interesting characters; I particularly like that Simon, while competent, isn’t a chosen one or a superman, he’s just a competent soldier. He doesn’t really do anything spectacular until the final section of the story. Given how many protagonists I see who are devastatingly bad-ass, this was refreshing.

#SFWApro. Top cover by Tim Hildebrandt, middle by Lawrence, bottom by Jack Gaughan

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A blonde in rapture and the rapture: movies viewed

LOVES OF A BLONDE (1965) was an early film by Czech director Milos Forman that I wanted to like more than I did. Influenced by French New Wave and Italian neorealism, Forman’s protagonist Andula (Hana Brejchova) is a small town factory worker who along with her friends sits through an unenthused flirtation with middle-aged Army reservists (the government having stationed them in town in the hopes they’ll provide the factory’s excess women with boyfriends), then strikes up a relationship with the piano player at a dance. When she impulsively follows him to Prague, it doesn’t work out well.

Forman and his cast impart a feeling of reality to everything, but while that made individual moments compelling it didn’t add up to a movie I wanted to watch. Part of it is that the guys come off a little creepy by today’s standards, from the reservists pressuring Andula and her friends to drink to the pianist with his constant “don’t you trust me?” questions as he lures Andula into bed. In short, well-made but not quite for me. “A girl’s honor really exists — it isn’t just something you talk about.”

I’ve long been curious about A THIEF IN THE NIGHT (1972), a seminal film for a generation of evangelical teenagers and a landmark in evangelical pop culture. Patty (Patty Dunning) is a Christian who firmly believes she’s “good enough” to get into Heaven; while her husband completely commits himself to Jesus after a near-death experience, Patty’s faith is shallower. When the Rapture takes place (a fringe evangelical belief that Real Christians will be taken up to Heaven before the end times and the rise of Antichrist), her husband disappears (“Millions of people who were living on this Earth last night are not here this morning!”) but she’s left behind, trapped in a world where the totalitarian Imperiums requires everyone to accept the mark of the beast.

This is no worse than lots of low-budget crap I’ve seen over the years, but no better either, and the twist ending (It Was All A Dream … But It’s All Coming True!) makes no sense (if God sent her a warning, why not give her more time to act on it?). At times it comes off like the measure of true Christianity is simply whether you believe in the Rapture or not; those who believe get raptured, those who don’t are stuck here. The movie later led to several sequels but I think I can skip them. “You can be sure that the Imperium, while taking absolute control of all government during this emergency, will truly represent your feelings and needs.”

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Once again, life thwarts my plans

Which is to say, this was a busy week in the non-writing areas of my life.

Wednesday we had the electrician come out to check some of our outside lights. That turned out to be more time-draining for me than I’d expected, as it was a constant “go inside and turn on the lights … turn off the lights … turn them on again …” It paid off (he identified the problem), but it took more time than I’d expected. And left me with very little time to concentrate on anything before the dogs went on afternoon walkies (I settled for research reading, which doesn’t demand creative thought). After that we had the guy in to repair the washing machine; I’m happy to say that after dealing with two other companies, Wright Appliance finally seems to be competent.

This morning I had unexpected extra dog watching, and at noon I had one of my appointments for the Alexander Technique, the body training I’ve been doing since last year.

It’s not just the time each side activity consumes, but the time it takes to get refocused on writing again. And I’m still too slow in my Leafs. Plushie’s neediness in the evening makes it very hard to make up the time then.

I did get a bunch of Leaf articles done, and even going slow, the pay is good. I got some more work done on both Let No Man Put Asunder and Impossible Takes a Little Longer, though those were the big casualties of this week’s lost time. But Impossible definitely works better in first person, as I said last week. However both of them reached a point where the relatively slight plot changes I’ve made so far have suddenly forced big changes in the next scenes. That stumped me quite a bit.

I submitted Fiddler’s Black to a new market, which means all my shorts are out. It’s been a while since that happened. And Southern Discomfort went out to five more agents.

I rewrote Only the Lonely Can Slay a couple of times, but there’s still something missing. It might be that Heather, my protagonist, needs more at stake, or maybe something else? I feel frustratingly close to what I want but I can’t quite jump across the last mental boundary to get there. I may send it out as is to a beta reader or two to get some insight.

So that was my week. On the plus side, I’m not battling a giant monster on a Silver Age Jack Kirby cover!

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Wisp at the window

So the past month or so, Wisp looks almost like she wants to come in when we put down her food. I suspect if I just opened the door and gave her space (she’s still leery of humans) she’d happily come in and explore. Which we don’t let her, because the dogs are here and we’re not sure how they’d take it. Or how she’d take to them.

This week, she took to staring in like the world’s cutest, loneliest cat.

And bapping at the window when she saw me inside.

If it wasn’t for the dogs, she’d be welcome. But they don’t seem particularly friendly, and testing whether they could be might end up with one of them getting a bite or a scratch. So we’re trying to stay firm and not let her in, though we sure feel guilty about it.

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Assorted writing and reading links

So a writer declared on Twitter that if you’re writing while keeping your day job, you’re doing it wrong. John Scalzi disagrees.

Five red flags to look for in contracts.

A look at law and freelancing. It includes links to a 2018 California court case making it harder to classify employees as contractors and a proposed change to Texas rules that would benefit employers.

Atomic Junkshop on the excitement of reading comics and paperbacks in the 1970s. From the same site, a post of mine about the myth that successful creators are good from the start.

Why Marvel got sexier as the Silver Age moved along. Look at John Romita’s Mary Jane below for an example.

You can’t trademark a generic word like “booking” for a travel site. Unless, a court ruling says, you make it a domain name first.

A Q&A with comics veteran Roy Thomas.

For years, Disney’s comic books didn’t divulge the names of the people who worked on them (the company preferred the illusion that Walt did it all). Here’s the story of how Carl Barks, the creator of Uncle Scrooge, finally got some attention.

Captain America, horror comics host?

Hybrid authors publish traditionally and indie both. Hybrid publishing isn’t the same thing.

Brian Cronin rips into the assumption that white male leads are a natural choice, whereas anything else is suspect.

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Ladies Day: Not what I’d expect from Robert Bloch

Robert Bloch’s social satires often veer into the sexist. He’s also extremely cynical. That made Bloch’s optimistic 1968 feminist novella, LADIES DAY (which I have as part of a double book with This Crowded Earth) a surprise — I’d have expected something closer to The Feminists.

Dale Barton, the protagonist, wakes up San Francisco and soon realizes things have changed — my god, there’s a woman over there wearing pants, smoking a cigar and showing tattoos! I imagine Bloch was shooting for the most unfeminine image he could think of, but it is amusing how well he foresaw changes in women’s styles; he later makes clear, though, that this is a working-class thing and well-bred women still dress like girly girls.

A woman, assuming Dale is a hooker, picks him up for a night of sex, which is illegal without a permit. The following morning the cops pick them both up; Dale is immediately red-flagged as a person of interest, for reasons he doesn’t understand. Eventually it sinks in that he’s 200 years in the future, courtesy of suspended animation (a successful attempt to cure his terminal illness). While he was gone, WW III broke out, and it was nasty. By the time it was over, casualties were huge, and most of them were men. Women outnumbering men three to one, they took over. They’ve completely rewritten history so that Cleopatra is now more important than Mark Antony, and Martha Washington and Abigail Adams are the real geniuses behind the American Revolution. This mirrors the way women’s contributions are often written out of history, though I don’t think Bloch meant it that way.

In the new world kids are raised in creches, there are no armies and tech research is carefully controlled; one man later describes it as keeping it to a level humans can actually control instead of vice versa. Lee, the psychiatrist who works with David (one of the rare times Bloch has anything nice to see about the profession), candidly admits it’s not utopian, but defends the problems (breeding permits for instance), as necessary until people are ready to handle a traditional family structure without getting messed up (e.g., no longer defining relationships by military metaphors like “the battle of the sexes”). While that kind of rationale in fiction (or real life often enough) is usually a mask for tyranny, here they really do intend it as a temporary measure.

Complicating things: the renegades, men and some women who want the days of patriarchy back. And with them, war: one renegade gripes to Dale that the U.S. could have won the war and taken the world under its control if the damn women hadn’t opted for peace. Johnny, the U.S. president’s husband, describes the renegades as wanting to go back to the good old days when some idiot who doesn’t know how to drive could drive a car at 100 MPH as recklessly as they wanted. Johnny adamantly opposes going back to the old days, if only because the world’s at peace. He also sees matriarchy as a good deal for men, living as comfortable and free as the stereotype of a housewife in the 1950s.

Both renegades and the government want Dale’s help. He remembers the old days of patriarchy; he can tell them how much better a world at peace is, or he can declare that the world has gone down the tubes and needs to return to the good times of male dominance. Mother Hood, the current president, has scheduled a prime time speech for him; the renegades threaten to kill him if he doesn’t spin things their way.

As he’s complicating what to do, Johnny throws in a twist: men are still in charge. They write the speeches. They put ideas into their spouses’ heads (again this reverses 1960s stereotypes of how wives manipulated husbands). They’re the brains, the women are just the hands doing their bidding.

Dale, who’s in love with Lee, sides with the government and almost dies. In the aftermath the government rounds up the renegades and Lee delivers a speech Dale supposedly wrote. Dale realizes that contrary to Johnny’s beliefs, the women still run things, they just keep the men happy with the illusion of being the man behind the women. If Dale spills the beans, perhaps he can start a new renegade movement, getting back to the way things were. Instead he decides men have had their chance, why not let the women try? And eventually, he hopes, swing the pendulum back to true equality. So he lies to Johnny about the speech and Lee, who already loves him, realizes she can trust him too.

I think that’s part of why I like it. I’ve seen futures of this sort that assume equality can’t happen: men will never accept it, or women will just abuse their power. Maybe Bloch was overly optimistic, but like fluff, optimism in fiction is nice sometimes.

#SFWApro. Cover art is uncredited, rights to images remain with current holders.

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Golden Age Wonder Woman: The Redemption of Paula von Gunther

I’ve been gradually working through the first WONDER WOMAN: The Golden Age Omnibus (by William Moulton Marston and artist Harry G. Peters), which starts with her debut in All-Star Comics #8, then movies into her lead series in Sensation Comics and then her own book (which was a big deal back then — nobody got a solo book if they weren’t A-listers). While I’m not finished the book yet — it’s large, and this is back when one issue was 64 pages — it occurred to me that I ought to give it some of the same in-depth treatment I give the Amazing Amazon’s later eras. So this post, I’ll work through the material in Wonder Woman #4, which culminates in the redemption of Nazi spymaster Paula von Gunther.

Not that the Baroness von Gunther is all that’s going in that era (1942-3). Just for openers we have Steve Trevor crashing on Paradise Island while pursing spies, Princess Diana saving his life, then winning the right to journey to Man’s World to fight for justice and women’s rights, and against the Axis. She buys the identity of nurse Diana Prince to watch over him (the real Diana needed money to leave her job and join her fiancee in South America), then transfers to military intelligence, working as secretary to Steve’s boss, Major Darnell. She also befriends Etta Candy, a Texas-born sorority girl at Holliday College. While Etta’s fat and a glutton for sweets, rereading these showed me she’s also remarkably formidable and capable in a fight.

Marston had an interest in bondage and submission, which led to some blatantly kinky stories (I cover one of them in my WTF Wonder Woman moments list at Screen Rant); slavery and dominance, practiced by a good mistress, would train the slaves into better behavior and more enlightened attitudes (this was Amazon style slavery, not American race-based slavery). The bad guys are also big on slavery; Paula keeps her own army of broken, dominated slave girls (spoiler: she’s not a good mistress).

Much like the Superman stories of this era, Marston constantly emphasizes how awesome Wonder Woman is, performing “the greatest feat of daring in human history” in one story, for instance. Most of the stories pitted her against standard Nazi spies, though (also like Superman) she tackled other issues. In one story, for instance, she helps salesclerks rally and protest against a bullying boss who underpays and abuses his workers. There’s always a feminist element to the stories; along with the sexy side of bondage, Marston, as biographer Jill LePore says, also invoked feminist images of women breaking free of their shackles.

Most of the villains are either Nazi spies or American crooks; the only costumed villain is Dr. Poison. However we do have Mars, god of war, and his three agents: Deception, Conquest and Greed. Wonder Woman #2 is a book-length battle against them, taking Diana to Mars (where Mars has his base). Having a book length arc was unusual for the day: issues of Superman and Batman had four unrelated stories.

And then there’s Baroness Paula von Gunther. First appearing in Sensation #4, identified visually by her long, gold cigarette holder (with a snake twined around it) she has the comic-book equivalent of movie actors’ screen presence: she stands out in a way none of the other Nazi spies of this era (or Dr. Poison, even if she did make it into the Wonder Woman movie) did. She’s cunning, ruthless, a scientific genius and maintains an Army of submissive slave girls; even after Diana imprisons her (more precisely one of several times), her slaves are willing to carry out her plans.

Then in #3, things change. Wonder Woman discovers Paula has been forced into Nazi spy work because her daughter, Gerta, is in the Reich’s clutches. Diana frees Gerta and Paula changes; in the final story, she risks her own life to save Wonder Woman, then submits to training on Paradise Island. This all comes a little out of the blue (it’s not like she showed any ambivalence in her previous appearances) but it worked. In #4, Paula completes her training and carries out several challenging, heroic tasks alongside Wonder Woman to prove herself an Amazon. She’d continue helping Wonder Woman through the Golden Age.

I’ll be back with the rest of the volume when I finish it in a few weeks.

#SFWApro. Covers by Peters, all rights to images remain with current holder.

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I was more tired than I thought this weekend

Trixie had the runs Friday night. Didn’t last more than 12 hours but it had me up at 10:30 pm, 12:30, and then 1:30. So I was zonked when I wrote out Monday’s politics post and it went up yesterday.

So for today, have some Plushie photos. Because I didn’t get much in the way of sleep Saturday either and I don’t feel up to composing anything coherent.

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A newspaper op-ed that doesn’t understand journalism?

Ever since the 2016 election, the “Trump safari” has been a recurring feature of newspaper journalism: let’s go talk to some Trump voters and try to understand them. Let’s explain how they’re uneasy with changes in their country and the way they’re losing ground in the economy. Let’s help big city liberals try to figure them out.

Which is not a bad thing in itself. But as countless liberal bloggers have pointed out, it results in coverage of white working-class voters and never say, what black working-class voters in rust belt cities want. Nobody ever suggests that the Trump voter needs to have their stereotypes about big-city liberals challenged. And the stories just keep coming, over and over.

In a recent Washington Post op-ed column, Jill Abramson suggests it’s all a failed effort: “there is little evidence that reporters have fulfilled their pledge to report on and reflect the interests and values of the people who voted for him. There have been some good dispatches from the heartland, but too often what is published amounts to the proverbial ‘toe touch in Appalachia.'” Why? Because they’re big city reporters coming in for a brief visit. The only way to get real answers is from someone who actually lives there, “to bring their audience up close to the different and difficult realities of life in rural America.”

Urgh. As a former journalist, I cannot begin to describe how clueless and trite I think this is. Okay, I can begin to describe it, because that’s why I’m writing this post.

First off, I agree that the loss of local coverage or locally based correspondents anywhere is a bad thing. If you don’t have someone attending city council or county commission meetings every week, and send reporters only when something major is happening, a lot of stories fly under the radar. Lots of things happen that people will never hear about. That’s bad because a lot of stuff that affects people happens in low-key meetings: development decisions, spending decisions, new policies.

And if you’re just doing a “toe touch’ yes, that can make it harder to give context. If an issue crops up again and again — in Destin, where I worked, that would have included traffic and beach erosion — a regular reporter gets perspective (institutional knowledge as they say). It’s a lot harder if you only attend meetings once in a quarter.   But that’s true of everything that doesn’t get regular coverage. Lots of regulatory agencies don’t undergo the coverage they used to. Fewer local newspapers have reporters in their state capitals. There’s no reason to single out rural America as uniquely worth of an added spotlight

And “toe touch” doesn’t automatically equal bad reporting. It’s the nature of reporting that you often have to learn about an issue/community/person really quickly to write the story; full immersion isn’t possible, or necessary. If Abramson wants to cite some examples of how Trump safaris are getting it wrong, fine … but she doesn’t. So what’s the point? Is she upset the articles aren’t sympathetic or understanding enough? Because as someone who used to live in Trump country and knows lots of Trump voters, I don’t feel any more sympathetic about them than the legendary big-city liberal reporters. And why exactly are Trump voters worthy of more coverage than, say, black workers in the rust belt? Small-town voters in Ferguson? Orthodox Jews in NYC? Homeless people in LA?

The only reason I can think of is that as Ta-Nehisi Coates put it, these people have a lot of grievances and white grievances have to be taken seriously.

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Captain America and Promiscuous Women! Books read

CAPTAIN AMERICA: The Coming of … The Falcon by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Jim Steranko and Gene Colan runs from 1968 into ’69 and despite a couple of flaws, made for very good reason. We have Sharon “Agent 13” Carter, easily the most interesting of Marvel’s Silver Age love interests (if she and Cap have to die to complete the mission, so be it) and arcs involving the Fourth Sleeper (I through III showed up in an earlier story), the Red Skull (rather overused during this period) and obviously Sam Wilson becoming the Falcon (a bigger deal back when black faces in comics were a rare sight). It also has Jim Steranko’s short run as writer/artist, during which he introduced Madame Hydra (a good foe except for her I’m Sooo Ugly motivation), made Rick Jones into Cap’s new partner and resolved Cap having his secret identity known (which Brian Cronin covers here).

On the downside, some of Kirby’s last issues show the Lee/Kirby team running out of steam (not as badly as on Thor, though). And the arc that introduces Falcon involves the Skull using the Cosmic Cube and it almost verges on parody how he uses godlike power (for those who don’t know, it’s the equivalent of the Infinity Gauntlet) to toy with Cap and give him lots of time to escape. Still, it was overall excellent.

THE TRIALS OF NINA MCCALL: Sex, Surveillance and the Deacdes-Long Government Program to Imprison “Promiscuous” Women by Scott W. Stern looks at how the United States in WW I decided to fight the risk of soldiers catching debilitating STDs by cracking down on prostitutes and STD carriers around military bases; when it turned out many doughboys had caught the clap in their home towns, the “American Plan” as it was later called broadened all over the country.

In practice what that meant was that women who were prostitutes or suspected prostitutes or simply promiscuous (despite gender-neutral language, the plan in practice targeted women) could be sent to reformatories and forced to accept dangerous chemical treatments for the diseases they supposedly had, all without any trial or hearing. Some women escaped their jails, some set fire to them, and some like Nina McCall (not a prostitute, simply a young woman alleged to have slept with a soldier, and to have gonorrhea) went to court. Usually federal pressure squashed any hope of judicial support, but in Nina’s case she won release from the oppressive post-confinement supervision. The plan however continued on at the local level even after it died out as a federal project; the freedom to round up accused prostitutes as a public health menace without having to worry about a trial was manna from heaven to local cops (much like vagrancy laws).

It’s a good book, though flawed by Stern’s efforts to make Nina the central focus. After she wins her case, Stern continues to follow her life story in detail even though it has nothing to do with the plan, nor offers anything particularly unusual; the best he can do is suggest that Nina must have been worried her female friends or relatives could be caught up in the plan like she was. It doesn’t really fit. Nevertheless, this was worth reading.

#SFWApro. Top cover by Jack Kirby, lower by Steranko, all rights remain with current holders.

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