Monthly Archives: November 2013

In which I come out as a YA SF reader…

I’m an adult fan of young adult (YA) fiction, in particular YA fantasy and science fiction. To those who would suggest I’m enjoying a prolonged adolescence, indulging in nostalgia or yearning to return to my teenage years I will simply point you towards the famous words of one Cher Horowitz.


In the words of Cher Horowitz…

There’s been quite a bit written about the reasons adults read YA fiction and paegns to the rising quality of genre. I just like it. I love the intensity and urgency of YA fiction. The slow emergence of moral grey from a sea of black and white. The understanding that good people can do bad things. That your family shapes but does not define who you are. That sex and attraction and romance can be both scary and wonderful, sometimes simultaneously. That choices have consequences, sometimes large, life-changing ones. That bad things can happen. That life is complicated and messy and glorious and filled with great things, just waiting for you.

But one of the main reasons I like YA fiction is that it deals with identity formation in a way that more ‘adult’ books often do not. An adult novel can rely on job descriptions for cultural short hand (perky NYC publicist, West Coast computer programmer, etc). In contrast, YA novels have high school, a physical location that almost everyone attends, where the major differences are social.  Because of this ‘blank slate’, there may be cross-cultural friendships and relationships that are skipped in works targeted at older readers or Taken Very Seriously. In YA, the tension and challenges faced by first generation migrants, emerging awareness of gender discrimination, teens struggling to reconcile bicultural identities and unconventional sexualities are fair game for discussion (although some characters are only granted minority feisty status).

Sadly, incorporating diversity not universally done well. Crimes range from using using ‘almond shaped eyes’ as a ‘subtle’ code for Asian ethnicity, (read this hilarious take down on the practice) to the horrific and lazy practice of describing skin colour in ‘Starbucks’ terms (read another awesome take down on why describing people as chocolate/mocha/caramel/cinnamon/nutmeg is a really bad idea). But sometimes it is done astoundingly well, in ways that challenge and enrich the reader.

Even though I have some major problems with current approaches to diversity in YA literature as a whole, I have never forgotten the jolt that Ursula Le Guin gave me around age 11 when I realized that Ged, the wizard of Earthsea was not white. From memory, the realisation hit around book 3 or 4. I felt mad. That wasn’t how Ged was supposed to be. She tricked me. But she hadn’t. Tracing back, I was confronted by the fact that despite the clear description of Ged’s red-brown skin, I had assigned whiteness to Ged. Because… why exactly? Because that way he was more like me. Because that’s the default in our culture. Because he was the hero and heroes are white, aren’t they? (The fact that my edition had been whitewashed by putting Ged in silhouette on the cover did not help). I had read at least two books from the perspective an ‘other’, without noticing, because it that world, it wasn’t a big deal. Probably because we’re all human in a world filled with wizards and demons. But realizing that you carry some racial baggage  is an uncomfortable moment. And one that I’m glad I got to have in the privacy of my home as an kid. Because good YA fiction helps you grow and confront your prejudices, without having to hurt anyone in the process (or look like a dumb-ass).

I think my fascination with identity is why I also enjoy supernatural and fantasy themes. My theory is that the rise in popularity of supernatural themes can be traced back  to two underlying reasons.

Firstly, emerging supernatural identities act as a coded way of exploring the tension of multiple-identity formation and maintenance that so many people experience through external social pressure (ie anyone who has a prefix or hyphen in front of an aspect of their identity eg Arab-Australian, female architect, Australian-born Chinese) . The vampire/werewolf/witch both knows our ways and yet is inexplicably alien. The newly “doubled” identity gives them the alternatives of ‘passing as human’ or completely withdrawal into a smaller social circle. The supernatural society is frequently presented as one in which the initiate must be groomed to understand new rules, rituals and norms, often by a romantic partner or social group. This group will often become a ‘family of choice‘. This echoes the experience of enculturation in a new identity as well as paralleling the teenage experience of faux pas through incomplete understanding and the gradual supplementing or replacing of family of origin through new peer and romantic relationships.

Secondly, fantasy allows us to deal with socially institutionalised fears. In particular, the current penchant for creatures of conversion (vampires, werewolves) clearly act as a stand in fears relating to sleeper agents/terrorists/religious converts. Spec fiction allowing us to explore the anxiety that someone who was one of us, who looks like us and knows what we value could turn out to be  unalterably, inexplicably, potentially voluntarily otherIn writing these social anxieties into a supernatural (and therefore fictional and controllable) world, there is the chance for every individual vampire/werewolf/terrorist etc to be redeemed by choosing to respect the sanctity of human life and love. This serves a double purpose: subduing fear of the other while simultaneously championing the cultural myths of individual exceptionalism, self-determination and free will.

Taken together, these underlying principles allow the reader to simultaneously transgress cultural norms (you are not wholly human/one of us) while reinforcing individual agency as the path to acceptance (but through making the ‘right’ choices we may accept you anyway).

[Incidentally, the appeal of teen dystopian fiction is much less complicated. Taken objectively, most teenage lives are dystopian: school is represented by arbitrary rules imposed by authority figures, parents  either condone or are complicit in the control apparatus of the society, there are limited forms of democratic representation, the protagonist is forced to reliance on an external agent for basic food and shelter, dissent can be punished ruthlessly. The much more interesting part of dystopian fiction is the history of them. Are they based on scientific advances, resource scarcity, political chaos, population explosion, alien invasion, artificial intelligence gone wild, intelligence services out of control, corporate takeover of the functions of government, natural disasters, post-war apocalypse, ruthless militarisation of a society… What each of these look like and the unique challenges they present are awesome.]

Laser tag, architecture and urban warfare.

Lego Laser Darth [technically a lightsaber]

I got this from the interwebz. If it’s yours, happy to add attribution/remove.

Every so often, I like to go and get my nerd on. This impulse manifests in a variety of ways, but of late, I’ve been getting my laser tagging butt handed to me by teenagers on the regular. Being a geek and a nerd means that I like to spend the time while I wait for reanimation thinking about the spatial implications of laser tag, architectural theory and military strategy. Because I’m cool like that.

I’ve been to a range of laser tag venues, and they tend to have common features. Arenas are often in spaces that are effectively a secondary enclosure in a larger building (such as a shed or shopping centre). As a result, they are usually completely internal (no external aperatures or light) and can be sunk into semi-darkness at will. In addition to the the hard boundaries that this secondary enclosure represents, there are often a range of smaller insertions. These take a range of forms and include fixed insertions such as columns and walls, (usually slit to provide apertures through which you can shoot and be shot); enclosures (areas bounded by a perimeter hard wall, an insertion wall and usually incorporating overhead horizontal elements); movable cover (such as inflatable opaque balls) and ramps to access elevated areas (anywhere between a full story above or a mere half meter).

Less tangibly, the ambient noise of electronic music and the artificial ‘explosions’ and updates that issue from your equipment distract you from the faint smell of sweat (or if you’re particularly unlucky, Lynx deodorant) of your equipment. Some venues will also pump smoke machines periodically, which allow you to follow the line of your laser rather rely on the small dot it makes on your target [nerd fact: most indoor laser tag games are actually infrared with laser targeting systems]. Due to the health and safety concerns innate in an activity that require you to move around in a gloomy obstacle strewn room, glowing tape and padding are used liberally. This covers the physical elements of the arena.

The second element of laser tag is the strategic element. The characteristics of the laser tag encounter are usually negotiated between participants prior to commencement. Options include dividing into equal two groups (A vs B, a symmetrical warfare scenario in which friendly fire is impossible), dividing into small teams (A v B v C…, multiple opponent mode, usually symmetrical and friendly fire is impossible), or simple ‘every man for themselves’ scenarios (where shifting alliances may emerge, but all fire is hostile). ‘Base protect’ versions of the team games are also popular. Further variations are possible to ensure that players of different skill levels can play together (eg more skilled players may need to shoot a beginner several times to deactivate them), while higher skill level players may have a reduced number of ‘lives’. The type of match selected (as well as personal game play preferences) can have a profound effect on the use of space in the arena.

Eyal Weizman has written extensively on the Israeli Defence Force’s (IDF) concept on “walking through walls”, the result of the rather unlikely union of architectural theory and modern urban warfare. This approach includes several elements, but in particular relies on drastically reconfiguring the concepts of movement. Soldiers avoid open spaces such as roads and paths instead travelling by erupting into private apartments through walls and roofs and emerging unexpectedly through party walls and floors. For example, it is possible for the IDF to subvert a planned ambush by literally cutting through a building to emerge behind a group located around a corner, rather than following conventional paths.

While the goals of laser tag players are often geared around maximising the number of encounters (and thereby points) rather than systematically and physically advancing through and occupying territory to assert control, the basic premise that abandoning preconceptions about how space can be used or occupied and replacing it with a creative approach holds.

Despite the fact that laser battles take place in small, purpose built arenas where there is either arbitrary or no territory to defend and there are no pre-existing assumptions regarding thoroughfares or public/private spaces to disrupt, a lifetime of expectations and conditioning on how to use space and evade physical projectiles is still evident. You cannot lob a laser ‘over’ or around something and walls can obstruct as much as they protect. Skilled laser tag players quickly learn that proximity can provide safety by making shot angles too tight, while distance offers no protection from a light beam. A deactivated player can be used as a physical shield (thank you Ender Wiggin) or use the temporary increase in stealth and mobility that a darkened vest offers to relocate. Everywhere hides a potential enemy – and every enemy is a potential target. In a multiple opponent game, your side is someone else’s front and you can never be sure whether you’re ‘behind’ a column – or if someone else is behind you.

Since playing laser tag, my understanding of what role simple architectural elements like narrow windows, sill heights, ramps, corridors, balustrade walls, tapered columns and zigzagged corners has rapidly expanded. An enclosure with two exits may be easier to escape – but harder to defend. Ramps and doors are natural constriction points and are thus easier to defend single handedly. A change of direction or a zigzag can offer safe haven and elevation is almost always your friend. And just as important are the abstract lessons. Doing the simple things well can be the difference between triumph and disaster. Switching between two ideas half way through because you got ‘bored’ will only result in chaos. There’s a time to be creative and a time to learn from history. And so on. But now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to a dark room to point glowing sticks at people. I’ll be the one walking through walls.

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