Sunday, October 21, 2007

Union Dues

Earlier today I wrote about Path of the Bold, a collection super hero fiction I finished reading this weekend. This post is about a series (four so far) of podcast super hero stories on Escape Pod called Union Dues.

Two elements of super hero fiction engage us by making the heroes accessible, turning them into characters we can understand and identify with in terms of our own lives: awakening and strife. Awakening is the hero discovering something special about themselves and finding the courage to do something good with that power. Strife is the conflict that inevitably follows, in their personal and 'professional' lives. Most adults have awakenings of some sort or another, any time we find we have some skill or talent and slowly test it out. Heroes have the same thing, only their skills and talents are flashy, giving us something to look upon with awe. We all have strife. I once heard a comedian describe life as 75 years of getting kicked in the bollocks in various interesting ways. Like the awakening, a hero's strife is markedly more exaggerated. The key to "Path of the Bold" is that it showed the personal strife as being much the same. Each story struck a chord in this way.

Union Dues is a magnificent set of Super Hero Pod cast stories written by Jeffrey R. DeRego, hosted on Escape Pod. It plays upon the same elements of awakening and strife, tones down the former and tweaks up the latter in a way I have never seen before in other fiction. Like "Path of the Bold" and so many comic books, "Union Dues" is set in a world where heroes are common, almost 'every day'. But whereas "Path of the Bold" and so many comic books show groups of super heroes in small groups like "The Guard" and "Justice League", in the Union Dues world, the heroes have a union!

Being a super hero is hard enough.

Heroes might be super agile, super strong, energy manipulators, mind readers or super strategists. Cool huh? The strife starts young: powers develop early, sometimes while the child is a toddler or baby. An energy manipulator might electrocute their parents to death in a simple temper tantrum. Like a caring Big Brother, the Union looks after heroes by taking them in as soon as their powers manifest (read: legal, mandatory adoption). It indoctrinates the young heroes so that the Union rules and regulations are imprinted on their minds. The Union is a law unto itself, and operates much as other services like the police or fire fighters. The Union provides a valuable service: with thousands of super heroes, who is going to cater to their special needs? Who can train them, provide the equipment, costumes and legal protection for when innocents are hurt? The Union.

Here is the crux of the strife. As much as people like super heroes for all the good they do, we dislike them in almost equal measure. We fear them. They are different, not like us, they think they are so much better than us! And so the stories work by putting the heroes into a contemporary scenario - a government size bureaucracy with unknowable leaders pulling strings - and throwing in a hefty dose of "X-Men" 'scary mutant' xenophobia.

This makes for a lot of well thought out tension, and the protagonists are put through their mental paces. They have to control themselves, and somehow placate themselves into dealing with the normals nicely. Like us, they are trapped - all of us, trapped, in our work-aday lives. This is a very different style of conflict to the gritty gothic darkness of Batman, the edgy uneasy balance of power and romance in Spiderman, and more cerebral than the xenophobia of X-Men. I like it a lot... yet.. I am ready for some action. We need to see the heroes kickin' ass and takin' names a bit more - that tension has to change a bit, develop and grow.

Find all the Union Dues podcasts by searching Escape Pod with key words "Union Dues". Below is a brief synopsis of the four so far in the series.

EP027: Union Dues - Iron Bars and the Glass Jaw. By Jeffrey R. DeRego. Read by Jonathon Sullivan. The introduction story to the Union Dues world. super heroes.. have a union?! I will have to ask my boss for a comic book of my own! Features an excellent intro by Stephen Eley, where he iterates over some of the differences between for a writer when choosing to set a story in an alien world or a world "like ours". This story provides a detailed exposition about the separation of super heroes and other heroes, and how hard it is for all of them to get along.

EP049: Union Dues - Off White Lies. By Jeffrey R. DeRego. Read by Scott Sigler. Now I know where the bad guys came from. I swear I saw an episode of X-Files covering this topic. With a bureaucracy as large as the Union, you have to wonder, where does all the work come from?

EP062: Union Dues - The Baby and the Bathwater. By Jeffrey R. DeRego Read by Mur Lafferty (of I Should Be Writing and Geek Fu Action Grip. Tells of the harsh cost to family of having a super-hero baby, damned either way. Somehow, us normals don't accept the realm of super heroes too well - "X-Men" anyone? What would happen if we tried to live together, I wonder? Could normals and supers really integrate?

EP080: Union Dues - Cleanup in Aisle Five. By Jeffrey R. DeRego. Read by Rich Sigfrit. Carries the same muted, somewhat dark undertones as the other three. Again, this story shows us that being a hero really isn't all that glamorous and that super powers don't make it easy being accepted.

This is a brilliant series and I am eager to hear more. Jeffrey R. DeRego, if you are listening - well done, but I do have a suggestion. I get the gritty "hard to fit in" message. Now can we have some flashy "I love to kick butt" messages? Please? *grin*

Path of the Bold

This book has been released into the wild!

Edited by James Lowder, this anthology contains fifteen short stories about super-heroes, centred mostly around Empire City.

I was never much into comic books, but I love super-hero movies like The Hulk, Spiderman and Superman. The stories in this collection are set mostly in the same 'reality' and include some heroes and villains in common.

I enjoyed this book's consideration of heroes, as people with fears and hang ups as well as super powers and super images. They seem real in a way that Tobey Maguire's Spiderman captured well. These heroes have concerns such as how they are going to make a living and protect the ones they love.

"Fanboy" by James Lowder depicts the making of a new super villain, showing again how easy it is to find yourself on the path from Anakin to Vader. It is really hard to break into the super hero business when the market is already swamped. They really should have published his comics.

There are powerful themes echoing in different ways throughout these stories.

The theme that found most resonance with me was the awakening. Ordinary people, down-trodden people, crushed heroes or dis-heartened heroes discovering or re-discovering their special power and, more importantly, finding the desire and courage to do something with their gifts. This is what make heroic fiction so endearing. We all want to feel like we are special, and most of us want to make difference in some way.

If you are going to be caught on the news flying through the air and catching falling cars using only the power of your mind, you might as well do it while looking good, or at least .. shiny. Clothes maketh the super hero, as they say. The "Sir Spandex" image of a super hero in bright skin-tight costumes was played upon. Super-heroes are portrayed as living constantly in the spot light of media attention. Some comic books about real life heroes are created by the real life heroes themselves! A costume is important. Apart from whatever enhancements or super powers a costume grants you, it is a focus point that fuses actions with image, ego with a visualisation of self. Costumes become icons, which have a power all by themselves. There was a cool image in "R.A.O.K." by Joe Murphy: Raymond puts on a crude Sentinel mask, and the icon in place he feels like he can help out, "Do what you can...".

"Forever Young" by Lucien Soulban was something different. It stepped far away from Empire City and showed heroes of a different sort. It showed them as reflections of old myth and recent fairy tale, subtly pointing out that we have had heroes for a long time. Only recently did they start coming in skin tight spandex.

This book is one of the most enjoyable accessible and least comic book like source of super hero fiction I have ever encountered. 9/10.

Review by Nathan Brazil at SF Site.
Get a copy of this book at

What music I listened to today

Hi-Hop. I like Eminem, Ice T and Snoop Dogg for the speed, energy and rebellion in their lyrics, rhyme and melody. But I feel guilty listening to words that express little than hate and useless machismo. After the mood has worn off, I feel just a bit dirty. Don't get me wrong, everyone needs to touch their inner animal every once in a while - but in general, I want more. I want something that has that energy and leaves me feeling fulfilled, as well as drained. :)

Here is what I was listening to today - several artists that are well worth the asking price at Amazon or your local music seller - check them out, buy the ones you like!

Hilltop Hoods. Aussie hip hop group from Adelaide, South Australia. These guys drive me wild with a sense of how much they are enjoying rapping! Songs like "The Nosebleed Section" really make me want to turn it up and bang my head up and down!

The Herd. Aussie hip hop group from Sydney, New South Wales. What caught my attention with this group was their version of Redgum's "I Was Only 19 (A Walk In The Light Green)". They deliver a real punch in their lyrics and have proudly taken up the same traditions I loved Redgum for so many years ago. 77% in particular is one of my favourites.

The Streets I love the British accent here! The Streets album, A Grand Don't Come for Free is well worth a special mention as one of my favourite CDs of all time - "Fit But You Know It", "Dry your eyes" is from it. This CD is all that and a bucket of chips! It is a concept album, a story told in poetry and hip hop. The protagonist loses £1000 and it follows his adventure trying to recover the money with a bitter sweet romance thrown in.

Macromantics is an Aussie hip hop artist Romy Hoffman, based in Melbourne, woo-hooo! Check out her My Space page. Macromantics is frenetic hip-hop. There is no message in the music - instead she puts on offer a stream of words celebrating phonetics and artful alliteration. Moments in Movement is my favourite CD of hers.

Eh, got to love songs about the Devil gettin' beat!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


Would you rather be smart or happy?

*Some spoilers follow*

Written by Nancy Kress and read by Sheri Mann Stewart, Ej-Es is a slow story that truly creeped up on me and whose ending left me with a feeling of exquisite anguish.

At first I felt somewhat restless with the story because I thought it was going to be a tale of military irony - people go in with all guns blazing only to have some hidden aspect of the world or society turn the tables on them. I already got some of that this week in the disappointing Mother Tongue on Variant Frequencies. Truly loved the Rick Stringer's narration and the sound effects are tremendous, but the story felt two dimensional.

Once I could see it wasn't that type of story, I found myself caring about the protagonist, Mia. Sheri Mann Stewart made her sound bone tired but steel willed in her determination to do good while she still could. Sheri Mann Stewart's voice cracked a couple of times in the story and this added so much to the sense of determination I found in Mia's character, intended or not!

Her crew lands on a planet whose colonists underwent a massive plague some 250 years ago. The remnants of that society are now barely more than primitive humans who are under a continual, permanent delusion of literally orgasmic intensity. They can't cook, they can't build - they can't possibly be capable of looking after themselves. But the crew decides that they shall not extend a cure. It is a "biologically based cultural difference", and more importantly, they are not dying out. Somehow they are actually increasing in population.

The crew leaves and Mia arranges to be left behind with supplies - and the cure. She applies it to the one "friend" she had made, Es-Efeb. It takes days and is painful, but she is cured. Mia teaches her some basics such as water purification, sanitation, food storage and health care. Mia travels to the next place to continue with her cures. And in the night, all by herself, Es-Efeb wails out in the night, a mournful, cry of "I am alone" in her own language.

It was a damning ending. The wailing sadness of Sheri Mann Stewart's Es-Efeb made me do a complete 180 in an instant. I had been hoping that Mia could cure these people, a hope which tasted like ash in my mouth as I suddenly realised what she was taking away from them at the same time. Better happy than smart.

Escape Pod forum for this story.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Noel Pearson: White guilt, victimhood and the quest for a radical centre

I have just listened to a podcast speech given by Noel Pearson at the Art Gallery of New South Wales as part of a series called Big Ideas: Art Gallery Society of NSW in collaboration with Griffith REVIEW. This was recorded at the Art Gallery of NSW on Thursday 31 May 2007 before an audience.

Noel Pearson: White guilt, victimhood and the quest for a radical centre. Link to the mp3 file.

His ideas are confronting because they made me re-think some of my own ideas about Indigenous Australia.

Welfare. Paternalistic policies are needed, to a certain extent. Inalienable welfare doesn't work for people who have developed an addiction. Conditionality is needed on income support. Don't give money if it is going to be spent on drugs, alcohol and gambling instead of housing, food, clothing and education for yourself and your kids. Instead have structures in place where a responsible adult or welfare agency will ensure the money is used where it is needed.

What is needed is a safe place to live in which indigenous Australians can support themselves.

Victimhood. Much of white and black Australia have inculcated ourselves with the notion that indigenous Australians are victims that need to be helped.

We took the consoling hand of a kind romantic and empathetic Australia. The Australia of those Drysdale paintings with the big hats and the forlorn black figures. I just get a sense that much of that empathy [...] did us no good.

I first came across this idea in Naomi Wolf's book "Fire with Fire" (1994 - ISBN 0449909514) which spoke about women empowering themselves. The idea is that I am the only one who can improve my life. I need to make opportunities for myself. I cannot rely on being given opportunities because society owes me something.

How do these two ideas work together? This is the most valuable question I obtained from Noel Pearson's speech. The two notions of empowerment and paternalism are at odds. How can empowerment be encouraged by policies implemented by white society where, in the main, it will be white people deciding who gets the money? How do you implement paternalistic policies and allow for self determination at the same time?

I feel privileged that I have a job and resources to look after my family, and I want everybody in Australia to have the chance for the same thing. I do feel some sense of collective guilt that "white society" has a lot to answer for. We should make up for it but not by fostering a sense of indigenous Australians as victims we should send money to.

How do we, as a society, ensure that paternalism allows empowerment? I see two goals here. The first is that society has an obligation to itself to provide all members with safety and means for support. The other is that indigenous Australians have a right to maintain their own society, their own culture. Perhaps we need to start with conditional welfare. Then encourage (require?) indigenous Australians to take up those jobs of looking after their own groups. Perhaps we should not be scared to try other things like indigenous courts, ways to let indigenous Australians look after themselves, according to their own culture, to decide how they want to live responsibly for themselves.

I am going to read more by Noel Pearson. I am going to think more about this issue, and who I vote for, based on what policies they put forward for the black fella.