Some Thoughts on Black Panther, from a White Dude


I love this movie. Love. I think it’s probably the best overall film Marvel’s come out with, viewed holistically. I might like a certain action scene or the humor in another movie more BUT, taken as a whole, Black Panther is STRONG. Top three, if not top of the list.

And, I have confirmed, very rewatchable.

I’ve been struggling with what else – if anything – to say about the movie, and honestly trying to decide if I should say anything about it. I love it, and I think it’s great, and I think if you haven’t seen it, and you’re someone in my circles, you probably should, because you’ll like it.

But what else?

I mean, the empowerment and representation in this movie is not mine, and that is an inarguable good, so maybe I should just shut the fuck up about it.

Maybe no one wants to hear that I think Blank Panther also has something important to say to me and other white guys. Maybe I don’t even need to step into the “what Black Panther has to say” conversation at all.

And if you feel that way, I respect that, and you should definitely tune this next bit out.

Because… this movie is about Wakanda, right?

And what’s Wakanda?

Wakanda is, by all accounts (including the exposition in the movie) a pretty blessed country. It has resources and advantages no one else in the world has. It has made advances no one else in the world has, and in fact enjoys benefits no one else in the world even imagines can be.

“You guys have hoverbikes?!?”

It has, in short, all the best stuff.

And, at the start of the movie (and throughout the fictional history of this country) what Wakanda does with these gifts is:

  • use them to protect itself
  • preserve its advantage
  • ensure that everyone else’s problems do not become its problems.

So… basically… white men in the real world.

And without discussing spoilers, I will say this.

The movie demonstrates a healthy, helpful, I think necessary path forward for anyone with those kinds of advantages.

And it’s not more guns.

It’s not war and occupation in every country we don’t agree with.

It’s not continuing the same selfish, inward-focused, personal preservation that has been our go-to move throughout history.

In a time of conflict, fools builds a wall barriers, and the wise build bridges.



Without (I hope) taking anything away from everyone to whom this movie will speak much more fully, much more emotionally, and much more personally, I hope I can say that it also has something to tell a middle-aged white dude.

And I’m going to shut up and take notes, because it’s got a hell of a good point.

The Internet is Too Big

I’ve spent the better part of two days worth of free time hunting for two posts on two unrelated subjects.

The first, older, was a really interesting discussion about how it would change werewolf stories if werewolves (and lycanthropes) weren’t tied to the lunar cycle. The idea was proposed, and the following conversation broke out what that would look like. It was good. 80% sure it was on Tumbler.1

The second, far more recent1, probably also on Tumblr2, was a shorter thing about how, given what we know about loss and depression, Bruce Wayne, having lost his parents in an event guaranteed to saddle him with CPTSD, would far more likely become an unmotivated, antisocial shut-in, rather than hitting the gym and traveling the world to study dozens of schools of hand to hand violence.3

I still haven’t found either post. It’s driving me to serious distraction.

Update: The original Batman observation was from an article on Patton Oswalt, from Oswalt himself. Thanks to Christian Griffen for the quote:

He said he now saw the lie of so many of his favorite comic books that portray the impact of a death in the family. “If Bruce Wayne watched his parents murdered at 9, he wouldn’t become this cut hero,” he said, referring to the Batman origin story. “He would become Gotham’s most annoying slam poet. How about someone dies, and they just get fat and angry and confused? But no, immediately, they’re at the gym.”

  1. There’s a better than 50% chance I dreamed one or both of these posts, and I’m searching for things that don’t exist. In which case, I should probably write it all down in as much detail as I can ‘remember’. 
  2. Because Tumblr is where fan-theories go to get exposed to gamma-radiation and hulk-out into spectacular monsters. 
  3. My own follow-up on that subject: it would be recluse-slob-billionaire’s child who’d become both a philanthropist and secret crime-fighter while presenting a public face of youthful indiscretion, because parent-issues, but that’s a whole different discussion. 4 
  4. Basically, a DC world where Bruce Wayne hits 70 with a personality somewhere between Trump and the WoW player from that one South Park episode, but his oldest child (estranged, from four marriages ago) is sort of Paris Hilton: early adult years involved a few leaked sex tapes, many tales of wild parties… yet a remarkably savvy business record since then… and maybe a few years of international travel and mystery, and now The Kid is funding urban renewal projects and job initiatives (like any billionaire who really wants to stop crime SHOULD do), and hey there’s this ninja tactician mystery woman in the Justice League. Pick your Batman-analog 

DRM vs. the Tip Jar

I am a bit of a Stoic, in the classic sense of the word.

At the risk of oversimplifying a complex philosophy, what I mean when I say this is that, in order to get the most satisfaction out of my life, I devote a certain amount of time and mental energy toward envisioning how things (anything, most things, some things) might go wrong, and how I’ll deal with it if it does.

This, I am told, is weird and counter intuitive and even sounds depressing to a non-trivial percentage of people (or at least a high percentage of vocal people), and I understand their reaction; I’ll admit this approach to the life’s daily events has a tendency to, let’s say, flatten the peaks of whatever high points come along during the day.

The flip side is that it also softens the blow of the low points, because I’ve mentally prepped myself for unfortunate events – often something far worse than what actually happens. (I have a pretty good imagination, so when I tell you I envision things going wrong, understand that I take things quite a bit further than “what will I do if I get a flat tire during rush hour?”

It may not work for everyone, but it works for me – in short, I make plans to deal with the worst that might happen, and as a result I’m generally pretty pleased with an otherwise unremarkable day: the house didn’t burn down, everyone’s healthy, and my kids didn’t run into traffic while I was getting the mail. Yay!

I will admit, there are downsides, the primary one being the fact I go through the day expecting people to, collectively, be kind of horrible.

But people aren’t entirely horrible – it’s possible they aren’t even mostly horrible – and when you prepare for the worst (as I do) and instead encounter the best, it’s worth talking about.

I want to tell you a story about people not being horrible, and how it’s changed the way I approach making stuff and putting it out in the world.

When HarperCollins published Hidden Things, I didn’t expect anyone to buy the audiobook rights – it rarely happens with first-time authors – and of course no one did.

But I still wanted an audiobook of Hidden Things to exist, so I asked the agent representing me for that book to ask HarperCollins for the audiobook rights back, once it was fairly clear nothing was going to happen on that front. They said yes, paperwork was signed, and it was done: I could do whatever I wanted with the rights, limited only by my finances and ability.

Now, I had the funds available to pay for the recording and production of an audiobook, but I didn’t like that option for two main reasons:

  1. I didn’t want to get bound up in some kind of financial bottom line with the project, where I only judged it “good” once I’d (for example) made as much money as I’d spent on the thing.
  2. It sounded boring.

So instead, I started up a Kickstarter to fund the audiobook development. (You can check out the video for the project over here.

The main reason I did this was because it meant I didn’t have to worry about the financial bottom line, because the project would be in the black from day one, thanks to backers who essentially “preordered” the audiobook through the kickstarter.

This gave me a tremendous amount of freedom, and I wanted to use that freedom to explore ideas that I believed in very strongly in theory, but which I hadn’t been able to test out where it really mattered.

Specifically, I wanted to release the audiobook in as many formats as a could, in ways that would make the story available to anyone, anywhere, without running into problems with Digital Rights Management and all that other “treat the customer like a criminal” bullshit the publishing industry does (because they didn’t learn anything from the music industry failing at the same thing, ten years previous).

In this, I took my cues from Cory Doctorow, who is something of an evangelist of the anti-DRM movement, and who makes all his books freely available for download off his personal website and yet still manages to pay the bills.

“DRM does nothing but punish honest people,” a paraphrased Doctorow might say, “so I’ll make it easy to get my stuff, no matter what, and prove ‘digital theft’ is a silly bogeyman in publishing, compared to the very real problems of inaccessibility and obscurity.”

Did I buy that? Here’s bit of my narration from that kickstarter video:

I plan to make this audiobook project a demonstration of the futility of DRM in today’s digital marketplace. I believe it is possible for a creator to ask a fair price for good work and receive that price from fans who believe in the work and want to support it.

I was pushing that line pretty hard, but you’ll notice that I was basically setting up the kickstarter to help make that happen. I didn’t say it in so many words, but the underlying message was something like this:

“Listen: if I have to pay for this myself, it’s going to go out as an audiobook, and that’s it. If the kickstarter funds it, and I know I’m not going to lose a bunch of money, then it’s happy fun peace love time in here.”


Yeah. That was me.

See, it all seemed to make sense to me, and as a reader/listener/consumer, I know first hand how much DRM infuriated and frustrated and insulted me.

But when you bring this argument up in publishing, there’s a some nodding and agreeable murmurs and then a WHOLE LOT of what I’ll call “expectation management,” and mostly it boils down to this:

“That’s a fine idea… if you’re Cory Doctorow,” they say. “Once you have a hundred thousand happy-mutant BoingBoing readers buying his stuff, even though he’s giving it away for free on his website, just to prove him right, then of course he can say DRM is bad and trusting people works better.”

And I understand that mindset – I really do. You can’t come into the publishing world with a horror novel and expect your career to describe the same basic arc as Stephen King: that would be stupid and unrealistic, but people still do that, every day, so you have agents and editors and publicists trying to help a new author understand they aren’t Stephen King. I get it.

But at the same time, this didn’t feel like a “you’re not Stephen King” situation. This wasn’t about the writer as much as it was about the readers – it wasn’t what a person could do, but what people would do.

In other words, I was pretty sure everyone who was telling me “that only works if you’re Doctorow” were wrong.

So I put my hand out, asked for some help, got it, and made the audiobook the way I wanted. I “gave it away for free” via a podcast that anyone could listen to, then remastered it and released it on Audible for what I suppose are normal audiobook prices, while continuing to make the free podcast available.

And I did more than that. Once the podcast was done, I put the whole thing up on Podiobooks. If you don’t know what Podiobooks is, it’s kind of given away in the name: audiobooks, in podcast format, and the thing with Podiobooks is, everything is free: listen all you want, and it doesn’t cost you a dime. More than that, the guys running the site even do the work of getting the stuff up on the iTunes as well, also for free.

Did you get that?

I had my book on Audible (US only, because of DRM), iTunes (ditto, I think), and Downpour (eventually) but I also had free podcast versions on my website and on Podiobooks AND AGAIN on iTunes (sitting there, free, right next to the pay remastered version).

Clearly, I’m not going to make a dime, right?

Not so.

Sales through Audible have been steady. I don’t get much of the proceeds, because everyone involved takes their cut first but, well… I don’t care – the whole project is in the black: I’m enjoying the “long tail” of digital sales, from day one. Given the option to buy something or just take it and walk off, people have been pretty nice and bought it. Yay.

But that’s not the thing I want to tell you about.

See, the people behind Podiobooks aren’t a charity. You can listen to everything for free, yes, but they do ask listeners to pay for the stuff they like. I’ve listened to Hidden Things over there, and about halfway through there’s a little reminder from the Podiobooks spokesperson saying:

“Hey guys, if you like this… you really ought to show that by giving the author something for all their work. We take a percentage, yeah, but most of it – a whopping eighty percent – goes to the author.

And then there’s a similar reminder at the end.

In short, there’s a tip jar. Just a tip jar and a reminder.

That tip jar and reminder has earned me more money than Audible by an order of magnitude – maybe several orders of magnitude; I’m kind of bad at math. It continues to earn me more, every month.

No DRM. No treating every customer like a potential criminal.

Expecting people to be awesome, and finding out that, by and large, they are.

I’m a believer.

In a few months, I’ll be releasing the last of the things funded by the Hidden Things kickstarter – an ebook + audiobook collection of short stories set in the Hidden Things world. It’s called Little Things. Again, released as a podcast, then put up everywhere, but still free if you want it that way, and available anywhere.

Because seriously: fuck DRM – I trust you guys.

You’re awesome.

Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA Student Commencement Address

Earlier this August, I and thirteen other writers received our Masters in Fine Arts degree for Creative Writing, from the Whidbey Writers Workshop and the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts.

I was selected by my peers to be the student commencement speaker, and I wanted to share what I said, both for posterity and simply because I think I have have accidentally included some pretty good advice for writers in general.

So, below, the text of the speech, and an audio recording of me, reading it.



@: commencement speech

On June third of this year, I logged into the MFA’s online campus and learned that my fellow graduates had chosen me to deliver our commencement address.

I’d like to share some of the comments that followed this announcement.

  • “I know he will do a fantastic job.”
  • “Doyce, you will rock!”
  • “Thank you for representing the graduating class to our friends and family.”
  • “No pressure, but I expect to be inspired.”

I want to thank my fellow graduates for selecting me – it was surprising, humbling, and – I think – an excellent opportunity to talk about writing, and unrealistic expectations.

During my undergraduate studies, I had an English professor – one of my favorite instructors – who, upon hearing I wanted to be a writer, asked “Do you just feel like you… have to write, all the time?”

It was, I think, the question she thought she was supposed to ask, when confronted with someone who claimed to be a writer.

And, faced with that question, I grudgingly admitted that, yes, I needed to write, to the point where it interfered with every other part of my life… which is why my paper on Catcher in the Rye was late.

I was lying, of course. My Catcher in the Rye paper was late because my roommate had subjected me to a Monty Python movie marathon that weekend… and I certainly did not “have to write, all the time.”

But just as surely as that professor thought that was the question she was supposed to ask, I thought that was what I was supposed to feel – a gravitic pull toward any keyboard or blank sheet of paper so strong it overwhelmed every other influence in my life.

That’s what I thought being a writer meant.

But I didn’t feel that pull, and it terrified me.

It took me a long time to realize being a writer is something quite a bit different, and quite a bit simpler, and not nearly as fun or as easy as a mysterious cosmic force that reaches out and grabs you and drops your butt into a chair and tunes out the world and makes you put words down on paper.

The truth goes something like this:

Writers write.

People love to label and categorize things, and it’s no different in the world of writing and publishing.

Are you published? Then you’re an author.

But, what kind of author are you? A novelist? A poet? A journalist? An essayist? A lyrical essayist?

The labels (and the qualifications) get more obscure the further down the rabbit hole you go, and in my opinion it’s all a bit boring and pointless.

Are you a writer?

“Well, what are the qualifications for that?”

Do you write?

If so, you’re a writer.

Now, some smart alec with impossibly white teeth and an MBA will smirk and tell you, by that simple criteria, almost everyone is a writer; lots of people have scribbled down an old family anecdote, or tapped out a poem that holds together as long as you sing it to the tune of Bohemian Rhapsody, or written an essay on The Catcher in the Rye.

But that’s not how it works: Writers write.

It’s not that they have written, at some point in the past.

It’s not that they will write, at some point in the future.

It’s certainly not that they intend to write, at some point in an alternate future, with jetpacks and flying cars.

This is not about the past, or the future. It’s not even about the present – it’s not a verb, it’s a description: a statement of reality.

Writers write when it is sunny, and they’d rather be outside. Writers write when they are tired, and would rather watch television, or read, or go to the movies, or browse the internet, or play a game, or just nap.

Writers write when it’s hard. Writers write when they don’t wanna.

And it’s never – almost never – because of some mystical pull toward the blank page — it is a conscious act. Call it whatever you want: Will. Determination. Desire. In my case: sheer cussedness.

Sitting up here, looking a little nervous, a little nauseous, is the largest graduating class the Whidbey Writers Workshop has ever produced.

Fourteen graduates who know the writer’s simple, painful requirement. Yes, they’ve studied their craft. Yes, they’ve put in the hours on workshops and thousands of pages of reading, but more than anything else, despite every imaginable personal conflict, and distraction, and loss, they write.

We are writers.

Those of you who smiled at that through are probably also writers.

Those of you who did not clap or smile… live with writers. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for your patience, and apologize on behalf of my fellow graduates and students.

You, our long-suffering, patient, loving family and friends have shooed the kids outside to play, or volunteered for another tedious school function, or brought in a cup of tea, or simply listened while we tried to sort out the lives of imaginary people you have never met.

More often, you’ve done the hardest thing: left us alone – in a quiet room, or our favorite chair, or a coffee shop, or a hospital bed, knowing, if not always entirely understanding, what we had to do.

Understand this: we made it here, because you were there.

On behalf of my fellow graduates, I also want to thank our our Faculty. You have the unenviable, it-would-seem impossible task of providing guidance and direction to a pack of wanderers who each see a different landscape.

You don’t know – you can’t know – what challenges any specific writer in the program might face, so you teach us the craft: you show us the tools of exploration and survival; the techniques for navigating by whatever strange stars we’ve put in our personal sky.

And, when we need it, you give us a little shove, just between the shoulder blades, to keep things moving.

That shove is, I think, the heart of this program, and it consists of two words; the same two words with which Wayne signs off every email he has ever sent, since I started this program.

“Keep writing.”

“I’m not sure this story is working.”

“Keep writing.”

“I don’t know if I really get this poetic form.”

“Keep writing.”

“I’ve graduated! It’s over! Now what to do I do now?”


You are both our mentors and our friends; we are here, because you helped us find the way and never let us stop moving.

Finally, to my fellow students and graduates, I will share this thought.

You won’t always know what you’re doing. There will be days filled with joy, pride, excitement, and hope; and there will be days filled with panic, confusion, frustration, and disillusion. Sometimes, they will be the same days.

This is what you do.

You write.

If you can’t figure out where to stand, write the ground in under your feet. If you feel like you can’t breathe, write the air. If you can’t see your next step, write the sky; write your horizon, and put it far, far in the distance.

If you don’t know the rules about this thing you’re doing, find some comfort in the fact that no one – no one – knows the rules, either.

Keep writing.

Make amazing things.

No pressure, but I expect to be inspired.


I've been thinking about this more and more as I consider the idea of friction — of resistance — in my life, and how to eliminate it.

To paraphrase and subvert the standard definition, technology is the collective term for techniques, methods, and/or processes that make an activity easier. Cooking has tech. Hunting has tech. Manufacturing, from machinery to millinery, has tech. Scientific investigation has tech.

Basically, if it's something humans do, we've come up with tech that makes it easier to do.

Sometimes, we iterate on that tech endlessly (see: ways to kill each other), sometimes, we figure out the best option right away and leave it (see: the wheel and/or lever).

Sometimes – the majority of the time, probably – an attempted improvement to existing tech fails to make The Thing easier (whatever The Thing is). In those instances, the iteration is discarded or is itself iterated on until is does improve The Thing.

This is so obvious it seems silly to say; if you do a thing that makes the existing tech worse, that is failed tech. (Maybe not a failed attempt, if it teaches us something, but it is failed tech.)

In short, good technology – functional technology – reduces friction: it makes the effort required for A Thing, less. If it doesn't do that, it is not technology.

By this definition, DRM – Digital Rights Management – as it is implemented today by various media industries, is not technology.

It's not a failed iteration of technology; if DRM were completely successful in its purpose (it isn't), it still fails to meet the one criterion for technology: it does not reduce friction for whatever Thing it affects. In a perfect world (which, again, this isn't) it might theoretically achieve a state of adding no additional friction, but it will never make friction less.

It is, in short, doing nothing but making things worse.

Today, it makes it harder to get to your stuff. Tomorrow, that difficulty increases, and as time goes on, so does that difficulty, until we reach a point where The Thing no longer works because of this anti-technology.

Until we reach a point where we've lost years or decades of our culture because we let our Things be locked in vaults we didn't control, to benefit people who only exist to sell keys.

Past vs. Present

Something I find interesting about the past-vs-present storytelling debate: despite the perceived/actual dominance of past tense in novels, many stories and anecdotes people tell each other face to face are told in present tense, even though these events obviously happened in the past.

This isn't a perfect example, but if you listen to this interview with my grandfather – – at 8:11 or so into the interview, when he's talking about going fishing with hand grenades and starts telling the story, a lot of his phrasing is in present tense.

The captain says, "I need you to get these men out of here…"

The sergeant says to me, "We can take em fishing…"

So we toss in the grenades, and they stun the fish, which just float up to the top of the water…

As I said, it's not consistent in this example, but my recollection of stories told among family and friends is that they often almost lapse into present tense naturally, to draw the listener in, perhaps, or put them in the moment, or just because it's more comfortable for the speaker.

Come to think of it, jokes are often told in present tense, too.

A man walks into a bar with a parrot on his shoulder…

Anyway, the point of this musing is that I don't personally think present tense is as unusual in storytelling as some of the essays I read seem to imply. I certainly don't think past tense is any more (or less) the 'natural mode' for such things.

Homefront South Dakota
HOMEFRONT: South Dakota Stories Russell Testerman, veteran. Miller. Russell Testerman, 2007. Audio interview. Listen to the following interview sections by scrolling forward to the time cue. 0:00 Drafted into the military at 18. Married and a father 3:14 War is over 6:14 90 day wonders …

A Disappointing Pattern I see in a subset of Doctor Who Fandom

This is something I’ve been turning over for a long while, mostly to see if it was a flash-in-the-pan thing or a real pattern. Since it keeps popping back up into my field of view, I’m going to call it a pattern at this point.

Although the title of the post is pretty clear, I want to specifically restate: this isn’t something I see in all of Doctor Who Fandom – the percentage is small, in fact, but (as is sometimes the case) very vocal and thus very visible.

So here we are. Series Eight of the new Doctor Who has wrapped up with the 2014 Christmas special and, in those eight series and assorted specials, we’ve watched five(ish) Doctors and something like nine or ten(ish) companions, if you don’t count the one-offs that came and went within a single special.

Everyone has opinions about these Doctors and these Companions. Everyone has their favorites.

But there’s a pattern I’ve seen within a vocal minority that is disappointing, and rather than drag the ‘reveal’ out, I’ll get right to it.

If a companion is smart or capable or talented and appears to know it and believe it to the point where they don’t require the validation of the Doctor’s approval, this vocal minority (hereafter: VM) does not like them.

I’ll dance down the list of Companions to quickly illustrate what I’m talking about.

  • Rose: Shop girl. Doesn’t think much of herself. A VM favorite, though not usually the #1, due to two issues: she channels the energy of the Tardis’s heart at the end of her first season to basically mess about with the Doctor’s timeline, and how dare she, and she’s apparently cool enough for the Doctor to fall in (romantic) love with her, so that’s two VM strikes against.

  • Martha: A doctor. Smart. Confident. Capable. Talks back to the Doctor and is generally very clever. All huge strikes against her with the VM.

  • Captain Jack: Clever, sexy, action-oriented time-traveler who happens to be sort of immortal, due to questionable use of Tardis/Timelord energy. Generally either not seen as a companion, or is a VM favorite.

  • Donna: Temp office worker who acts very confident but secretly (yet very obviously) isn’t, and actually thinks very little of herself. Like Rose, also channels a pile of timelord-only energy for a few moments of awesomeness at the end of her season, but pays for it in a quite horrible way. Usually the VM #1 favorite.

  • River Song: Is River Song (Clever, sexy, action-oriented time-traveler who happens to be sort of immortal, due to questionable use of Tardis/Timelord energy). Generally loathed by the VM.

  • Amy Pond, Solo: Sexy, clever, and has the audacity to mock the Doctor’s sartorial choices. Disliked by the VM from at least the second episode in which she appears (where she has the gall to wander off and start asking questions and making decisions all by herself. The nerve.)

  • Amy Pond, Married: Pretty, clever, but “settled” for Rory. Suddenly much less objectionable to the VM.

  • Rory: Sometimes not seen as a companion by the VM, or as the element that makes Amy “palatable.”

  • Clara: Clever, school teacher sexy, takes no guff from the Doctors, generally seen as pretty awesome by most characters in the show. Strongly disliked by the VM, ranging from her “Impossible Girl” stunt (stepping into the Doctor’s timeline to protect him, see Rose’s Bad Wolf trick), to (more recently) the VM-rage-inducing ploy of simply pretending to be the Doctor during an episode where the Doctor was stuck inside a shrunken Tardis.

So let me sum that up again.

If a companion is smart/capable/confident/sexy/talented and appears to know it and believe it to the point where they don’t require the validation of the Doctor’s approval, the VM does not like them.

Unless they’re Captain Jack.

So, to paraphrase:

“If a companion is a smart/capable/confident/sexy/talented woman, and does not require the Doctor’s (read: male) validation of these qualities, they are bad. If they ‘know their place’ (secretly have a poor self-image, or in Amy’s case, get married), they’re good.”

doctor umm

I doubt anyone (well: very many) in the VM would put it that way, but doesn’t in any way mean it’s inaccurate.

So… yeah.

I don’t know what can be said about this, besides point it out. It’s highly unlikely anyone in this Vocal Minority will ever even see this post.

But other people might see it, and might agree, and might encounter someone in the VM, and point it out and, by pointing it out, perhaps cause some reevaluation. I mean, hey: like who you like – everything is about personal taste, obviously – but if there’s a certain kind of pattern, it might be worth taking a hard look at the whole thing.


Hell, maybe I’m imagining the whole thing.

Though to be honest, I’m not that kind of optimist.

The Great Age Equalizer: An Examination of the Resonance of Fantasy and Science Fiction with Young Readers

[[Sometimes, I find myself writing full-on academic papers on literary stuff. Sometimes (even more rarely) I feel inclined to share them. This is one of those times. – Doyce]]

For nearly fifty years, publishers, libraries, and even readers of mainstream fiction have readily separated their stories into “adult” and “child” subsets (often depending entirely on the age of the protagonist as the key distinction). By contrast, modern science fiction and fantasy resisted this trend for several decades; both genres perpetually seen as accessible to younger readers or, less charitably, too childish for serious adults. I would like to examine the evolution of the “Middle Grade and Young Adult” subcategories of fiction, and how the themes intrinsic to fantasy and science fiction strongly parallel those of mainstream middle-grade and young adult, thus appealing to readers of all ages. I believe these common themes in fantasy and science fiction neutralized the demand for “Middle Grade” and “Young Adult” designations for decades past their common usage in other genres, while at the same times painting these genres as “childish” or “not real literature,” despite a broadly diversified field with major influences on global culture and thought.

The Evolution of Adolescent Publication

The reader should not imagine I am implying that books specifically written for young readers are in any way a new phenomena. Such a statement is, of course, ridiculous: reading material printed specifically for children dates back as far as 1440 and the creation of hornbooks, and includes such classics as The Jungle Books, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Winnie the Pooh, and Charlotte’s Web.

But these stories, wonderful as they are, stand alone in a forest of fiction written for adults. In their time, they were exceptions that proved the rule: no subset within the publication of fiction was categorically dedicated to young readers until relatively recently. Until then, many of the books most popular with child readers were written and published for adults, and include classics such as Journey to the Center of the Earth, Treasure Island, and The Hobbit. (Not coincidentally a science fiction, adventure, and fantasy story, respectively.) [Crowe, Tunnell][#history]

It wasn’t until the publication of The Outsiders in 1967 that a formal definition of young adult literature began to emerge. What separated S. E. Hinton’s story from the books people in this age range read prior to that point was simple: it was a book about young adults and written for young adults. Previously (and even contemporaneously, as with The Chosen, also published in 1967) books with young adult characters were not written for that age group [Wells][#wells].

This change was both a good and bad thing: good in that it began the shift in perception that would lead publishers to treat non-adult fiction as a special and noteworthy thing, bad in that the strong initial influence of The Outsiders and the simplistic criteria of “written about kids, for kids” led to a general guideline for identifying children’s, middle-grade, and young adult fiction based solely on the age of the protagonist, and ignoring any other factors that might be as important, or even vastly more important.

This isn’t to say The Outsiders flipped a switch and publishing suddenly perceived a new category of fiction: it took several decades for this subset of literature to reach the point where the work being put out by publishers consistently satisfied its intended audience. In mainstream Young Adult fiction, the 1970s were overwhelmed with “single problem novels”, dealing with problems young adults faced, but often in an unsatisfactory or simplistic way. The 1980s saw a boom in romance and horror fiction, but it wasn’t until the 1990s and the rise in “middle grade” literature, which expanded the publishers’ perceived audience, that YA authors were free to tackle more serious subjects and to introduce more complex characters and considerations of ambiguity. [Cart][#cart].

The Long Battles within Fantasy and Science Fiction

The genres of fantasy and science fiction had no similar watershed moment, triggered by the release of an “Elves versus Dwarves” version of The Outsiders. Luminaries in the field continued to write what they had always written, and paid no particular attention to the intended reader’s age, though they suffered no lack of popularity with young readers: Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, which was published only two years after Hinton’s classic, won the Hugo and Nebula in 1970, and remains popular with readers of all ages; Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, published in 1977 (when mainstream young adult fiction struggled with mediocre “problem novels”) features a young boy in a military organization and explored themes that simultaneously appealed to young readers and even today make it suggested reading for many military organizations, including the United States Marine Corps. [USMC][#marines]

Lacking an “Outsiders moment,” these genres were able to produce stories free from strict categorization of adult versus non-adult, which allowed each story to find its best audience on its own merits.

Rather than needing to age-market their books, writers of science fiction and fantasy instead struggled with the perception that all of their work was unsuitable both for children and adult readers: in the first case, too dark or dangerous for the young…

… one friend of mine said, “I’ll tell you something fantastic. Ten yeas ago (1964), I went to the children’s room of the library of such-and-such a city, and asked for The Hobbit; and the librarian told me, ‘Oh, we keep that only in the adult collection; we don’t feel that escapism is good for children.'” [Le Guin, Dragons][#lgd]

… while too whimsical for adults.

“A great many Americans are not only antifantasy, but altogether antifiction. We tend, as a people, to look upon all works of the imagination either as suspect, or as contemptible.” [Le Guin, Dragons][#lgd]

This paradox has plagued science fiction and fantasy writers for decades – critics dismiss the genres as vapid or trite, while at the same time denouncing them for the potential harm they can bring to impressionable younger readers introduced to serious topics before they are ready. It is not a recent development: Baum argued for the importance of imagination and the fantastic in the first introduction to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900, and Tolkien addressed the question in his essay “On Fairy Stories” decades before Le Guin wryly argued the critics were correct, but confused: the stories were both whimsical and dark, in exactly the way that made them perfect for both adults and children.

“Fantasy is the great age equalizer; if it’s good when you’re 12 it’s quite likely to be just as good, or better, when you’re 36.” [Le Guin, Dreams][#lgdr]

No Such Thing as Coincidence

It’s difficult if not impossible for any reader familiar with contemporary publishing to miss the fact these arguments (and criticisms) are remarkably similar to those leveled at Middle Grade and Young Adult writers and books today [Monseau][#monseau]. In almost every case, the top modern YA authors face marginalization and outright dismissal from “serious” critics for the same reasons (inappropriate themes, or jejune writing – the critics still can’t seem to decide [Gurdon][#wsg]), and have found themselves forced to justify their own work in the court of public opinion [Johnson][#yasaves] [Drew][#drewpop], as in this passage by Shedrick Pittman-Hasset, which could just as easily have been written by Ursula Le Guin in the mid-1970s.

The darkness exists. Always has and, [insert appropriate deity here] help us, always will. That we are now able to speak of it in the presence of those that have actually, or could actually experience it is a Good Thing. For those that have spent time in the dark places, these books demonstrate they are not alone; that with strength and perseverance, they can emerge and be free. Those that have not walked that dark path gain a degree of perspective on their own problems and also move away from the “blame the victim” mentality that often goes hand-in-hand with silence. As one fellow author brilliantly put it “We need to see someone be strong when they face their demons, so we can be strong when we do.” [Pittman-Hasset][#ph]

These commonalities between modern YA, and speculative fiction going back over a century point to clues that reveal the reason why science fiction, fantasy, and mainstream middle-grade and young adult publishing all produce stories popular with adolescents, while at the same time attracting both the scorn and censure of so-called serious critics.

The Elements of Adolescence

Adolescence can be characterized by a few key themes. Gisela Konopka of the Center for Youth Development and Research at the University of Minnesota developed a statement on the concept of normal adolescence in 1973. Out of her research with young adults, five key concepts emerged: an “experience of physical sexual maturity,” an “experience of withdrawal of and from adult benevolent protection,” a “consciousness of self in interaction,” a “re-evaluation of values,” and “exploration and experimentation” [Konopka, 298-300][#kono].

Examining these five elements as they relate to adolescent and adult fiction is enlightening.

Sexual Maturity

It’s not difficult to see the draw of this topic in fiction; “sex sells” has become more of a punchline than a guideline, but in the realm of adolescent fiction, the approach is more nuanced, and may often be one of the primary themes of the story, explored with care and consideration (rather than a way to spice up up chapter three).

“Can I hug you?”

“Do you want to?” said Bod.


“Well then.” He thought for a moment. “I don’t mind if you do.” [Gaiman, 254][#ggyb]

It’s obviously no more difficult to find examples of protagonists exploring sexual maturity in science fiction and fantasy; the surprising thing is that the topic is often handled with just as much consideration, if not in fact a sort of circumspect care.

“Then, Eowyn of Rohan, I say to you that you are beautiful. In the valleys of our hills there are flowers fair and bright, and maidens fairer still; but neither flower nor lady have I seen till now in Gondor so lovely, and so sorrowful. It may be that only a few days are left ere darkness falls upon our world, and when it comes I hope to face it steadily; but it would ease my heart, if while the sun yet shines, I could see you still.” [Tolkien, RoK, 238][#tolkienrok]

Withdrawal from Adult Protection

This theme is one we have revisited often in our study of Newbery award winning books. It is, if not ubiquitous in adolescent fiction, nearly so. Poor Meg in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time must step away from the safety of adult protection no fewer than five times in a single story, leaving behind her mother, Mrs. Who, Aunt Beast, her father and, finally, rejecting the ultimate all-encompassing adult protection personified by IT [L’Engle][#wrinkle].

Among science fiction and fantasy ostensibly written for adults, perhaps one of the most definitive stories of the withdrawal from adult protection comes to us via the classic Ender’s Game, in which Ender Wiggin is not only taken from his family and forced through a constantly escalating spiral of adult responsibilities, but ultimately reverses the adult-child protection dynamic by saving all of humankind (and sacrificing his childhood in the process) [Card][#enders].

Consciousness of Self

This concept might be difficult to define or to identify examples, were it not such a critical element in young adult fiction. The realization that you are an individual being – someone and something separate from your family and friends – is a lightning strike of awareness, and any story that truly represents adolescence will encounter it.

Aaron Starmer’s The Riverman essentially opens the book with Alistair’s moment of clarity and consciousness, bought with the life of a boy named Luke Drake, when Alistair was only three years old.

The memory of Luke may very well be my first memory. Still, it’s not like those soft and malleable recollections we all have from our early years. It’s solid. I believe in it, as much as I believe in my memory of a few minutes ago. [Starmer, 6][#starmer]

It’s fair to say that the exploration of consciousness of self is one of the core callings in science fiction; it is hardly difficult to find examples of this exploration in the genre, especially in the classics of the early twentieth century, such as Asimov’s Robot series. But within my personal timeline, the definitive example is a short story by Robert Heinlein entitled Jerry Was a Man[Heinlein][#heinlein], in which the question of the sentience and free will of a genetically modified chimpanzee is decided in a court of law. In many ways, it set the bar for the search for the meaning of consciousness in a genre uniquely equipped for the task.

Re-evaluation of Values

To be completely honest, searching for this element of adolescence in fiction, while certainly important, is almost cheating: every expert on the structure of story can agree (where they agree on little else) that the protagonist’s re-evaluation of values is an intrinsic part of the conclusion of a story. It can be a private thing, as with Miranda slowly letting her relationship with Sal change in When You Reach Me, or powerfully defiant in Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, “the revolution”.

I want to write this down, that the revolution is like
a merry-go-round, history always being made
somewhere. And maybe for a short time,
we are a part of that history. And then the ride stops
and our turn is over.

We walk slow toward the park where I can already see
the big swings, empty and waiting for me.

And after I write it down maybe I’ll end it this way:

My name is Jacqueline Woodson
and I am ready for the ride. [Woodson][#woodson]

Among the genres of fantasy and science fiction, these moments are no less important, and form some of the most memorable scenes in our favorite books, as in this conclusion to Ready Player One.

“I’ve really missed you, you know that?”

My heart felt like it was on fire. It took a moment to work up my courage; then I reached out and took her hand. We sat there a while, holding hands, reveling in the strange new sensation of actually touching one another.

Sometime later, she leaned over and kissed me. It felt just like all those songs and poems had promised it would. It felt wonderful. Like being struck by lightning.

It occurred to me then that for the first time in as long as I could remember, I had absolutely no desire to log back into the OASIS. [Cline][#cline]

Exploration and Experimentation

As with the withdrawal from adult protection, this element is almost ubiquitous in adolescent fiction. From camping out in a museum in The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler to Fiona’s life in Aquavania in The Riverman to Meg learning to “tesser well” in A Wrinkle in Time.

Likewise, the genres of fantasy and science fiction seem to embody exploration and experimentation like no others, and at more levels: certainly, the protagonists of the stories embrace this idea, but at a more meta level the readers themselves are exploring – wandering the halls of Castle Amber, walking the paths of Mirkwood, sailing starry skies on Barsoom, or diving into the endless digital seas of OASIS – all worlds beyond the norm, beyond those we might find in tamer, mainstream fiction. And this says nothing about the authors of these stories: it is called speculative fiction, after all, and its creators are experimenting almost by definition.

Bringing the Five into One

In lay terms, these five elements are, of course, most easily and simply expressed as “coming of age,” perhaps the definitive theme of adolescent fiction, but also one at the core of fantasy and science fiction.

“The most childish thing about A Wizard of Earthsea, I expect, is its subject: coming-of-age. Coming-of-age is a process that took me many years; I finished it, so far as I ever well, at about age 31; and so far I really feel rather deeply about it. So do most adolescents. It’s their main occupation, in fact.” [Le Guin, Dreams][#lgdr]

Even setting Le Guin aside, it’s a simple matter to prove that science fiction and fantasy writers have always seen these elements as important to the types of stories they were writing.

Tolkien suggested that fairy stories allow the reader to review his own world from the “perspective” of a different world. This concept, which shares much in common with “consciousness of self”, “re-evaluation of values” and “exploration and experimentation”, Tolkien calls “recovery,” in the sense that one’s unquestioned assumptions might be recovered and changed by an outside perspective [Tolkien][#tolkien]. Susan Wood, in her introduction to Le Guin’s The Language of the Night, wrote at length on the “necessity for internal exploration, provided by fantasy, to produce a whole, integrated human being.” [Wood][#wood]

Let us, as a further example, consider a simple hobbit.

Bilbo Baggins arrived on the literary scene in 1937. At the outset of his tale, he leaves the safety of the only home he has ever known (the home built by his father and mother) and steps into the larger world by signing up for a mysterious undertaking with the potential for great reward and great risk. Before he can do this, however, he must (with the help of a strong nudge from an old friend) take a hard look at his life and realize that, deep in his heart, he longs for more; only then can he race out his door without his handkerchief or any other proper preparation, and into a grand adventure There and Back Again.

Put another (much more boring) way, he experiences withdrawal from benevolent protection, a consciousness of self in interaction, a re-evaluation of values, and a great deal of “exploration and experimentation.” He is, in short, coming of age, and his story continues to resonate with readers of all ages, but most especially those going through the same sort of things in their own lives – children.

At the beginning of the story, Bilbo is fifty-five years old.

By our modern standards, this could not possibly be a story meant for children, nor was it published for children at the time.

It was published for readers, and found those who needed and wanted it most.

The Critical, Yet Censured, “Kiddy Story”

Here, then, is part of the secret of a story’s appeal to young readers, and one reason why adolescent subsets of science fiction and fantasy did not gain real momentum in publishing until the late 1990s and early 2000s: these are stories that already speak to the core experiences of adolescence; that resonate with younger readers; that create an “age barrier” so permeable as to be virtually non-existent.

In the same way that speculative fiction has always attracted younger readers alongside adults, more and more young adult and middle grade stories attract adult readers alongside children. That both categories uniformly earn the scorn of serious literary critics is more a judgement on the critics, than the stories.


“I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children. … Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading. Stop them reading what they enjoy or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like – the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian ‘improving’ literature – you’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and, worse, unpleasant.” [Gaiman][#gaiman]

As Ursula Le Guin might say, a story doesn’t have to be about real things to be about true things. This is the secret to the all-ages appeal of science fiction and fantasy – stories for adults that appeal to children, and (in the case of these newer adolescent categories) stories for children that entice all but the most jaded adult: truth. Science fiction and fantasy always, from their very inception, focused on themes that lie at the heart of the adolescence. For this, they have have always suffered casual dismissal, and enjoyed heartfelt adoration by those readers able and willing to recognize the wonder, whimsy, and (above all) childishness of their lives.

That they now have allies and companions within the mainstream is, in the opinion of this newcomer to young adult fiction, wonderful, hopeful news.

[#cart]: Cart, Michael. “From Insider to Outsider: the Evolution of Young Adult Literature.” Voices from the Middle 9.2 (2001): 95-7.

[#cline]: Cline, Earnest. Ready Player One. Random House. 2011.

[#drewpop]: Drew, Bernard A. The 100 Most Popular Young Adult Authors: Biographical Sketches and Bibliographies. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 1997.

[#enders]: Card, Orson Scott. Ender’s Game. Tor. 1977.

[#gaiman]: Gaiman, Neil. 2003.

[#ggyb]: Gaiman, Neil. The Graveyard Book. HarperCollins. 2008.

[#heinlein]: Heinlein, Robert A.. “Jerry Was a Man”. Assignment in Eternity. Fantasy Press. 1953

[#history]: Crowe; Tunnell. A chronology of history and trends in children’s and YA literature. 2012

[#kono]: Konopka, Gisela. “Requirements for Healthy Development of Adolescent Youth.” Adolescence 4 (1973): 291-315.

[#lgd]: Le Guin, Ursula. “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons”. PNLA Quarterly 38, Winter 1974

[#lgdr]: Le Guin, Ursula. “Dreams Must Explain Themselves” Algol 21, Nov 1973


[#monseau]: Monseau, Virginia. Responding to Young Adult Literature. Boynton/Cook Publishers. 1996.

[#ph]: Pittman-Hasset, Shedrick. How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace the Darkness. June 5, 2011.

[#starmer]: Starmer, Aaron. The Riverman. Farrar Straus Giroux. 2014.

[#tolkien]: Tolkien, J.R.R.. “On Fairy Stories”. Essays Presented to Charles Williams, 1947

[#tolkienrok]: Tolkien, J.R.R.. Return of the King, Houghton Mifflin. 1955.

[#wells]: Wells, April Dawn. Themes found in young adult literature, April 2003.

[#wrinkle]: L’Engle, Madeleine. A Wrinkle in Time. Macmillan. 1962.

[#wood]: Wood, Susan. “Introduction” The Language of the Night (Le Guin): 17.

[#woodson]: Woodson, Jacqueline. “the revolution”. brown girl dreaming. Penguin. 2014.

[#wsg]: Gurdon, Meghan. “Darkness Too Visible”, Wall Street Journal. June 4, 2011.

[#yasaves]: Johnson, Lucas J.W.. The YA Saves Phenomenon. June, 2011.