Entries from June 2018 ↓

Pokemon and Privilege

\"\"Today, just under two years after I started playing, I reached the maximum level of 40 in Pokemon Go.

\”Wow,\” you might be thinking, if you\’re the sort of person to care about video game achievements, \”what an incredible accomplishment!\”  And maybe you might consider that accomplishment to be evidence of particular proficiency and/or effort on my part.  After all, I\’m the only level-40 player in my entire circle of friends, by a substantial margin.  But my own skill at the game, above-average though it may be, is not the only thing that has determined my success.  Let\’s talk about privilege.

According to most dictionaries, \”privilege\” can be generally defined as an advantage available only to a particular person or group.  Privilege as a societal concept encompasses everything from specific hardships that people in one group can avoid while people in another group have to contend with, to certain opportunities that one group can take advantage of much more easily than another, to the aggregate effect of those increased opportunities and decreased hardships has on a group\’s overall \”success\” by whatever metric you choose to measure.

I find concrete examples much easier to work with, though.  So let\’s look at the various factors besides my own skill and effort that have allowed me to reach level 40 far ahead of my friends.

  1. Office location.  I work in downtown Seattle.  This confers two huge advantages – the proximity to a large number of other players makes​ doing raids on a daily basis simple with a minimum of planning, and the high density of Pokestops means that I almost never run low on items.  (Both of those factors also mean that there are lots of Pokemon downtown and along my commute route.)
  2. Job schedule flexibility.  As a software engineer, much of my work time is unstructured; I can choose to go get lunch at a time that is convenient for joining a raid group while I\’m out.  With a successful legendary raid awarding 10,000 XP, the 150 legendary raids I\’ve won so far (including several under double- or even quadruple-XP conditions) account for around 10% of my XP total.  Once in a while I\’ve even been able to dodge out of the office for a quick coffee-break-length raid at a gym right by my office.
  3. Personal safety.  Specifically, the fact that I can walk down the street without having to maintain constant situational awareness.  I can spare the attention to catch Pokemon and spin stops as I walk, without worrying that someone might take advantage of my inattention.  (Don\’t worry, I still keep my head up when I\’m crossing streets.)  This is a product of both my physical presence as a six-foot white male and the fact that my office is in a rather safe part of town.
  4. Disposable income.  I haven\’t actually spent much real money on the game, since most of my purchases come out of Google Play credit I get from answering surveys, but I have on occasion spent a few real dollars to get some coins to buy some items.  Still, not everyone has the spare money to spend on something frivolous like that.

An interesting aspect of these privileges is the way they reinforce each other; each privilege strengthens the effects of others.  My schedule flexibility is a bigger benefit when combined with my office location (and access to frequent, well-populated raid groups) than it would be if I worked someplace that had only a handful of Pokestops and not much raid activity.  The large amount of activity around my office and commute route would be harder to take advantage of if I constantly had to worry about whether I was safe on the streets.  The lucky eggs I can buy with the spare cash I have available to spend on the game act as a multiplier on the increased XP I get from the other benefits.

I\’m proud of having reached level 40; it did take a lot of effort on my part.  I\’ve seen plenty of people in my raid groups that reached level 40 significantly earlier than I did, but that doesn\’t mean that I don\’t still have privileges that made it easier for me to do so.  And similarly, having reached level 40 before any of my friends does not mean that I\’m inherently better at the game than any of them.  It would be deeply deceptive – and insulting – to assume that someone else\’s failure to reach the level cap is an indication that they are incompetent at the game, or that they\’re just not bothering to do their best.  And it does not diminish the work that I\’ve put in to acknowledge that I have benefited from privilege as well.

Luckily, Pokemon Go is just a game.  The players\’ respective levels and rates of XP gain don\’t have anything to do with our ability to feed ourselves, our housing, our access to medical care, or the strength of our voices in our political system.  Ability to earn XP isn\’t a matter of life or death – or even a matter of comfort or destitution – and so the fact that some people are privileged far beyond others isn\’t something we need to spend a lot of time rectifying.

But structural privilege in the real world is just as strong an effect on people\’s abilities to survive and thrive.  And when people with lots of privilege ascribe their success to nothing more than their own hard work and virtue, and then assume that others\’ lack of success must therefore be the result of laziness or worthlessness, it\’s a selfish, deceptive outlook on how the world works.

Review: The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang

\"\"The beginning of JY Yang\’s The Black Tides of Heaven drops the reader straight into political intrigue in a world we don\’t really understand yet.  We learn that the kingdom is ruled by a ruthless Protector who treats her children as bargaining chips in her efforts to solidify her political power against some unknown rebellion; we know the Grand Monastery also wields some power (using, as we soon learn, the mystical \”Tensor\” power they command) and used that power to help the Protector; and we see the youngest children of the Protector, the twins Akeha and Mokoya, sent to the Monastery in return for its aid.

The world unfolds in bits and pieces from there, as the nature of the Machinists\’ rebellion against the Protector becomes better understood, as does the powers wielded by Tensors – and the power of prophecy Mokoya is discovered to have.  The story takes place in a series of vignettes over the course of multiple decades, and the readers don\’t get many explicit details about the history that passes in between each section, instead piecing it together from the way the twins interact with the world.

One particularly interesting thing we learn is the way the Tensorate society handles gender.  A child is considered ungendered until they choose their gender for themselves; they go through a ceremony of \”confirming\” their gender, and their body is modified as needed (through what seems to be a combination of tensor magic and medical surgery).  A small number of people choose to remain unconfirmed for their entire lives.  The process is considered completely normal and unremarkable, except to the extent that choosing one\’s gender and being confirmed is considered a rite of passage into adulthood.

Just because it\’s normal doesn\’t mean it\’s free of complications, though.  Akeha\’s and Mokoya\’s differing choices of gender are not the first thing that fractures their formerly-inseparable relationship as twins, but it\’s one of the strongest indications that they\’re growing apart as they\’re growing up.  And indeed, they part ways shortly thereafter, and the rest of the novella follows Akeha as he gradually becomes involved in the Machinist rebellion.  (Mokoya\’s story picks up in The Red Threads of Fortune, the simultaneously-published companion novella.)

The Protector\’s influence over Akeha\’s and Mokoya\’s lives is insidious and destructive; reading this so soon after Down Among the Sticks and Bones, there are certainly comparisons to be made between the narcissistic, emotionally abusive parents in each story.  But unlike the Wolcotts, the Protector casts a long shadow over the twins\’ lives despite being very rarely present; as the despotic ruler of their nation, the Protector\’s influence is hard to escape from, and this is a big part of what ultimately drives Akeha into the rebellion.

I enjoyed the story, but the episodic and incomplete nature of it ultimately left me unsatisfied.  Perhaps I\’d feel differently had I picked up The Red Threads of Fortune immediately afterwards, but I hadn\’t realized how tightly the novellas were paired until I was looking up information about them for writing this review.  But for purposes of the Hugo ballot, this one novella is all I had to go on.

My Best Novella ballot so far:

  1. All Systems Red, Martha Wells
  2. Binti: Home, Nnedi Okorafor
  3. Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Seanan McGuire
  4. The Black Tides of Heaven, JY Yang
  5. River of Teeth, Sarah Gailey​

Review: River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

\"\"This will be a quick review; I honestly don\’t have a lot to say about River of Teeth.  The conceit is an alternate-history counterfactual inspired by an plan that was actually proposed (but never implemented) in 1910 – what if hippopotamuses were brought to America?  The historical intent was to control invasive plants and be a source of meat, but in River of Teeth some hippos have been domesticated while others have gone feral.

Against this background we have a crew of characters all dressed up for a heist – the charming ringleader, the fiery demolitions expert, the chaotic-good con artist, the unscrupulous sharpshooter, the ruthless assassin – but the actual job they they\’re hired to do, driving a herd of feral hippos out of an area of swampy land, feels like background noise compared to the various axes the characters have to grind.  The character interactions drive a lot of the story, but I feel like it would have been more effective had they meshed better with the putative job the crew was hired to do.

The thing I had the most problem with was the sense of place.  Between the dam that somehow created a large body of water downstream and the use of explosives at the story\’s climax that somehow managed to cause effects in different places many miles apart, I just had a lot of trouble developing a mental picture of what was actually going on, and couldn\’t quite manage to maintain my suspension of disbelief as a result.  All the same, it was a fun read; the richness of the characters and their relationships make up for a lot of the plot difficulties.

My Best Novella ballot so far:

  1. All Systems Red, Martha Wells
  2. Binti: Home, Nnedi Okorafor
  3. Down Among the Sticks and Bones, ​Seanan McGuire
  4. River of Teeth, Sarah Gailey

Review: Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

\"\"Seanan McGuire\’s novella Down Among the Sticks and Bones is the second entry in her Wayward Children series, and a prequel to the first book, Every Heart a Doorway (which I reviewed here, and which won last year\’s Hugo for Best Novella).  The twin sisters Jack and Jill Wolcott were two of the most intriguing – and least well-adjusted – children in the previous book, and now we get their backstory.

Unsurprisingly, it\’s not pretty.

The story begins by relating their birth and childhood, raised (more or less) by parents far more interested in the idea of being parents to perfectly-behaved children than in the reality of nurturing actual human beings with their own opinion and desires.  Chester and Serena Wolcott are just horrible people, in an all-too-believable way – rather than the cartoonish cruelty typically exhibited by bad parents of fairy-tale children, the Wolcotts\’ personalities are a toxic mixture of narcissism, entitlement, and shallow materialism, with just a soupcon of megalomania for flavor.  They are chilling figures in the story because of how realistic they feel; while their worst behaviors might be slightly exaggerated for dramatic effect, I have heard far too many tales of emotionally abusive parents to be able to write them off as entirely fictional.

(As an aside: the portrayal of people hurting and abusing others by weaponizing human interactions and emotions is one of McGuire\’s greatest strengths as an author.  Her antagonists are scary not because we\’ve never seen their like before in our lives, but because we have.  It\’s the same reaction that made Dolores Umbridge so much more frightening a villain than Voldemort.)

Jack and Jill\’s existence effectively began as a ploy to improve the Wolcotts\’ social standing and garner attention, and it went downhill from there.  They were raised by their grandmother – possibly the only positive parental-type figure they ever had – because their parents just couldn\’t handle the realities of parenting newborns.  Or toddlers.  And yet, Chester and Serena manage to be as shitty to Chester\’s mother as they are to their kids, treating her as a hired nanny rather than as family that they needed to ask for help.

So Jack and Jill\’s childhoods are lived under the oppression of parental expectations without compassion or nurture.  When they find the doorway that allows them to escape to the Moors, an alternate world that feels something like the shared setting for every mad-scientist/monster/vampire movie you\’ve ever seen, they think they have a chance to grow without the weight of their parents\’ abuse.  And that\’s true, to some extent – but the expectations placed on them by their new guardians are just as constricting, even if they\’re better suited to Jack\’s and Jill\’s respective personalities.

Jack and Jill\’s relationship as twin sisters informs the story just as much as their relationship to their parents and guardians, and while it is at times dysfunctional as well, the story draws a clear line between the \”we don\’t always get along, but we still care about each other\” love between the sisters and the emotional abuse that passes for \”love\” from their parents.  The contrast between these two family dynamics makes up much of the heart of the story.  When the chips are down, who\’s going to be there for you?  Who will support you and who will fail you?  That is the important thing in a relationship, and no amount of shared blood can make up for a failure to care.

I have to admit that I didn\’t enjoy Down Among the Sticks and Bones quite as much as Every Heart a Doorway.  But as a parent, the depiction of the Wolcotts\’ miserable, narcissistic parenting was chilling.  It was a hard book for me to read because of how deeply angry I was at the horrendous conduct of these entirely fictional characters – and that speaks to how effective Seanan McGuire is at writing emotionally affecting characters and stories.  So while this certainly wasn\’t my favorite novella of the year, I cannot deny that it is well deserving of the nomination.

My Best Novella rankings so far:

  1. All Systems Red, Martha Wells
  2. Binti: Home, Nnedi Okorafor
  3. Down Among the Sticks and Bones, S​eanan McGuire