New website!

Well folks, it’s been a fun couple of years kicking it over here at my own wordpress account. But it’s like the Bible says: “When I was a child, I lived as a child and spoke as a child. But when I became a man I took that child out back and had him shot.”

In other words, it’s time to graduate to a full-on professional-ass website. Check it out here, including images of Bulikov, and its landmarks!

In the meantime, yes, it means I’ll stop posting here, and eventually close down this website entirely. Come check me out at the new site!

Some CITY OF STAIRS reviews!

CITY_OF_STAIRS coverI haven’t updated the City of Stairs page with these reviews yet, because I’ll shortly be moving to a new website. Don’t panic, it’ll be tons of fun with lots of new toys, but for now, just keep that in mind.

Anyways! Some reviews:

That’s What She Read: “Robert Bennett Jackson may be new to the fantasy genre, but one would never know it. His secondary world is easily recognizable for its similarities to the real world, but it is in his use of magic and gods and the architecture within his secondary world where the story really shines. Not only does he provide readers with an intense, magical whodunit, but he also brilliantly explores the origins of theology and belief systems. Exciting, extremely well-written, and thought-provoking, City of Stairs is a perfect example of high fantasy and in general an amazing novel.”

*

SFFWorld: “It isn’t often that I feel intimidated to put together my thoughts into review for a book that was so impressive, but I’ll admit to City of Stairs intimidating me in this fashion. There’s a lot to unpack in the novel and Bennett is such a smart and engaging writer that none of what he packs really bursts the seams; instead, City of Stairs is a smooth novel of near perfection and the best Epic Fantasy novel I’ve read this year. I cannot recommend this novel highly enough. At this point in the year, it will take a great deal for any novel to knock this one off my Top Reads of 2014 list.”

*

Ristea’s Reads: “Robert Jackson Bennet has such a brilliant authorial voice. Depth when needed, striking realism and wit otherwise. Excellent humour. A subtle plot that doesn’t feel constructed for the sake of the story, but rather naturally stems from the world and its characters. It’s simply the most fascinating style.”

*

Pop Culture-y: “Robert Jackson Bennet crafts rich characters with long back stories, interesting mythological and philosophical issues, and complex ethical problems. The resulting story is a breath of fresh air for the fantasy genre, especially considering it isn’t the usual “Western European knights in shining armour and dragons” affair.”

*

My Bookish Ways: “Bennett covers some pretty weighty issues in City of Stairs: class division, discrimination, politics, the nature of faith, and oppression. However, he’s managed to wrap up all that heavy stuff in a wondrous mystery/adventure that’s, frankly, one of the best things I’ve ever read. Shara and Sigrud are a dynamic duo, and it’s nice to see a partnership between a man and a woman that doesn’t end up between the sheets. They’re true friends, and it’s a friendship based on hard earned trust and hardship. Sigrid had some of the very, very best scenes, and Bennett’s ability to make me laugh in the midst of a bloodbath is just one of the many things that I adore about this complex, riveting, and just plain fantastic book.”

*

Drunken Dragon Reviews: “City of Stairs was one of the most fun epic fantasies I’ve read in recent months. With incredible depth, absorbing characters and an intriguing story that leaves you so hooked the book flows by and you just can’t help reading more and more, it’s definitely going to be one of the best new fantasy releases of the year. Very recommended.”

Rocket Talk Podcast

If you can stand listening to me for an hour, my Rocket Talk Podcast is now live!

I probably should have mentioned at the start that I was a stutterer, so that would explain why I talk weird. I also get a little rambly in the middle, because it is hard to discuss books you like in a coherent manner.

Two corrections:

  1. It was David Simon who wrote A Year on the Killing Streets. Not David Mitchell. I just had David Mitchell on the brain, as does the literary world, it seems.
  2. Also, I get weirdly self-important and pretentious at the end (“I CAN’T keep to genre conventions because I think of writing as a SYMPHONY!”) so yeah… that was… strange. I’m not sure what that’s about. Please disregard, if you’re willing.

SHORTGATE 2014

(Just so’s everyone knows, I really like overthinking things. I’m basically always writing thesis essays in my head. This is an example of such a thing. You’ve been warned.)

About once a year, various internet pundits will make broad, sweeping statements about various fashion elements and how they’re wholly unacceptable and should never be worn. Repeat offenders are usually flip flops, crocs, and, in this instance, shorts.

This past weekend, US foreign policy wonk Andrew Exum created the following flow chart, condemning American men for ever wearing shorts:

shortsgatwe

 

Now, at the time that I read this, I had just come in from running errands on a 102 Fahrenheit day in Austin, Texas. And yes, I was wearing shorts.

My response was not polite. In response to me, I was told that rudeness was a common characteristic of men dressed as children. I decided it must be a pretty position to be in if one could feign surprise that people do not respond well to being called children.

And normally, I would drop this. But this kept bothering me. And I wasn’t sure why.

Let’s get some of the basic stuff out of the way first.

THE UTILITARIAN ANGLE

So here’s the weather forecast in Austin, Texas:

Capture

This is actually quite balmy for us. We’ve had a cold front come through. We had 18 days over 100 this month, and today, the day I am writing this, the heat index is 107.

If I’m out running errands or going for a casual lunch, then I am not wearing jeans in this weather. Nor am I wearing slacks. I am not doing this because the sight of a grown man beet red and covered with sweat is far more unattractive than the sight of a man in shorts. And I’m also doing it because it could literally be dangerous to me. Heat stroke is real, and its chances get worse the older that you get.

For example, this past Sunday I went to a writing meeting in San Antonio. I wore jeans, because I’d be inside, and I’m not really a shorts guy. I don’t think I have badass calves, and I’m pale with long legs. That’s not my look. So I wore jeans.

BUT, when the writing group got out, I found that my wife and son had gone to the zoo. In extremely hot weather. They were dressed appropriately – loose shirts and shorts. But when I got there, I was dreading the idea of spending any time there, because – what was I thinking – I was wearing jeans. Luckily, we just rode the little train and went home. But man oh man, is wearing pants outside in public in Texas in summer just the worst idea in the world.

So, to a certain extent, telling people they can’t wear shorts in public is a little bit like saying, “I find air conditioning units unattractive. There is no way to render them attractive. As such, please remove them from all your homes.”

Anyone who said this would be a clueless, out-of-touch bastard, right? The entire thing drips of East and West Coast condescension, as if those who would wear shorts are hapless plebeians, who clearly have not received the scripture of fashion from New York or Europe – places which, I note, never really get into the 100s. And if they did, lots of people would die, because these places are wildly unequipped to handle these temperatures.

So there’s that.

But this goes further. Even I found I agreed that shorts aren’t great in all occasions, or most. But why? Why do I think this? What’s the problem? How does this rule work?

I think this is actually about our conception of how a straight, white man is supposed to look.

THE HISTORICAL ANGLE

Shorts being exclusively for kiddos isn’t a new thing. In the 1930 Laurel and Hardy short film Brats, a lot of the humor is derived from seeing the two grown men dressed like children, wearing shorts:

Annex - Laurel & Hardy (Brats)_NRFPT_01

This was tremendously amusing for people back then. The stars’ own children came to the set, and thought the sight of them was hilarious. This was because, back then, shorts were exclusively reserved for children – for male children, specifically. Girls wore dresses, naturally.

A real man did not dress like this. A real man was actually burdened with a tremendous amount of clothing, and looked more like this:

1930s_suit_03bmp

Observe the layers and layer of wool and cotton. Nearly every inch of these men’s skins are covered, with barely any flesh visible whatsoever. And usually a hat was expected as well. The only times that a man was allowed to show any skin was – as Mr. Exum cites – at play, or at the beach.

This attitude wasn’t born in 1930, though. This was a carryover from Europe in the 19th Century, where in Victorian times it was scandalous if a man of high society even took his coat off, revealing his shirtsleeves – let alone show a calf.

The same standards applied to women, though, as well. All of the mature adult form was to be veiled as much as possible. The Victorians, in short, were so devoutly terrified of sexuality (lie back and think of England, hon) that it’s had reverberations throughout our own history, and our sense of fashion.

However, the standards for women were slowly rolled back. In the 1934 film Some Like it Hot, Claudette Colbert was permitted to show her leg – something absolutely outrageous at the time.

Claudette_Colbert_in_It_Happened_One_Night

 

And things went on from there. Fashion for men changed, but with the emergence of such trends as Twiggy, short skirts, and bikinis, women were increasingly expected to show more skin. But for men, that expectation was far, far less.

Why? Well. If this is the first time you’ve ever heard of a double standard for men and women, then I’m not sure what cave you’ve been living in. Women were expected to show skin because men wanted to see it. Specifically straight, white men, who were basically running the show and calling the shots. And what are straight, white men disinterested in seeing? Other men, of course.

And that’s what this is really all about. It’s about what traditional, cisgendered men think about themselves, and what they allow each other to wear.

THE INSECURITY OF MAN

Let’s take a look at Andrew Exum’s flowchart. The chart is specifically addressed to men, and says that men are only allowed to wear shorts if they are children.

He never mentions women, though. The presumption is that women are allowed to wear shorts – and the presumption with that is it’s because we want to see their bodies. We do not wish to see the bodies of men, because we are… Well. Men.

And aren’t we all men? Aren’t we all straight men?

Wait. We’re not?

This, I think, is just another example of a really common problem: assuming that the default perspective is that of straight, white men. Many folks cheerfully refer to this as the “patriarchy,” a system in which everything is gamed to advance the interests of straight men, usually white. Including our fashion choices.

For example, what would Andrew Exum, or the people at Vox, who have supported the article, think if they saw a man in a dress? Or a skirt? As they seem to be (or think they are) generally progressive people, it seems unlikely that they would voice disapproval, or throw a rock or a bottle at him, or something along those lines.

This, it is assumed, is because a man in a dress has “opted out” of the expectations of a straight white man. Between SWM and “other,” he has selected other.

In addition, what about gay men? Popular culture – justified or not – assumes that gay men have far more fashion sense than most men, and even some women. Can gay men wear shorts? Is this permitted? Can they “pull off” shorts, whereas SWM cannot? Or are they doomed to the same failure – resembling children, by wearing shorts? Or are they too allowed to play to different expectations, solely because of their sexuality?

This strict rule about the appropriateness of male flesh seems to only apply to straight male flesh. We have no standards when it comes to male flesh of other sexual identities. Interpret that as you will.

And overlaid in it is this idea of desexualization. A straight man in shorts is a child – a male who has yet to attain the features of maturity. There is something distinctly un-masculine about shorts, to this way of thinking. To wear shorts in public would be to claim, in some ways, that you had the sexual maturity of a child, that you did not have the knowledge or even capability of sexual activity. What a terribly strange association.

And what about black men? Or Latino men? In Vox’s post, the picture is of a white male model in shorts. Would the expectations be different if the man was a person of color? Does this stock photo of a black man in shorts – one who does not seem to be at the beach, or going to the gym – look like a child?

Handsome-Black-Male-1182502

If not, why not?

And moreso, in any random list of the “Muscles that Women Love” – for example, this one from Men’s Health – glutes and calves are always prominently featured. While the authority of these articles is specious at best, it at least suggests that the legs of a cisgendered man are something some women would like to see (provided, perhaps, that they’re well developed.)

Perhaps this shorts panic is just another symptom of the wide-ranging insecurity of the modern straight white man, echoed from multiple perspectives – as the opinions of straight, white men so often are. Perhaps this is just the immediate reflex to the straight, white man’s realization that, for the first time in modern history, his opinions are no longer the majority’s.

He may be getting surpassed.  He is no longer the default victor, the usual protagonist. He is, for the first time, vulnerable – and as such, perhaps he’s doubling down on the archaic posturing of passed eras, reaching back to the 30′s and –  more popularly, recently – the 1960s*, and trying to siphon off the authority and command from models of masculinity that are, these days, hopelessly defunct.

And those guys sure as hell didn’t wear shorts.

* Though remember, when Don Draper was painting a room while wearing a pair of shorts, it was immediately commended by the woman who entered the room. While we can’t all be Jon Hamm, it isn’t the shorts alone that seem to be the issue.

The Age of Innocence

This past Sunday I was riding in a car on the way home from a longish trip and I glanced at my phone and happened to see a story unfolding.

It seemed, as I slowly learned, that one or more very dedicated and technologically apt people had ransacked the phones of several young girls, grabbed a handful of intimate photos, and put them up on the internet for all to see.

This sentence will likely fill you with disgust. However, the disgusted reaction that one would expect to see in the larger public has been quite tempered, because, it seems, these young girls happened to be famous.

This places a different set of moral strictures upon their persons and properties: the more one is known – and, really, the more one is desired – the less empathy the larger public is willing to grant you. It’s almost out of spite, it seems sometimes, as if we commoners cannot stand to see such a beautiful person doing such beautiful things, and as such we consider all aspects of their lives forfeit.

This has long been known, but as media invades our daily lives, this lack of empathy is being steadily blown up to a grand scale.

But here is the spectacularly shitty part of this, at least for me. Because of the nature of communications these days, lots of awful things become avoidable. For example, Twitter’s “preview” option has forced images of plane crashed and dead Gazan infants into everyone’s timelines whether they want to see them or not.

The internet bends to the story, like light bending around a planet. News, especially bad news, travels via osmosis, invading your pocket and your mind at a slow leak. And as such, whether I wanted to or not – and, more so, whether the young girl in question wanted to or not – I wound up tapping a tweet, and seeing a “preview” of one of these photos.

What I saw was a young girl of about twenty-two or so, wearing a bathing suit and standing in a rather nondescript room, taking a photo of herself with her phone. She was looking into the phone with an expression of such earnestness, and she was really trying quite hard to be sexy, posing with the insecure manner with which the very young attempt a thing they’re not sure they can do yet. And the instant I saw it I became aware that the person she was trying to be sexy for was not me.

It’s tough to describe the sense of violation that hit me. I felt, suddenly, like a giant, and the barest misstep of my enormous feet could wreck a home or a street or a shop. Without even trying, I had elbowed my way into this terribly intimate moment, a very rare and precious young person’s moment where they lay it all on the line, exposing all their vulnerabilities to someone they trust in hopes for a moment of pure connection, this very human, very frightened, and very fragile impulse to be unveiled, and seen, and liked, if not loved.

I shut my phone.

***

The idea of “innocence,” at its heart, is about a lack of knowledge. It is an ignorance that we admire, an ignorance that almost makes that person better, or perhaps makes it easier for them to attain an ideal state, for an innocent person is ignorant of the endless disappointments the world offers, the indifference and casual cruelty with which it operates.

Those who are not innocent often wish they were. They wish they did not know these things. They might not be better off for knowing the truth.

In today’s world, though, where we are steadily emerging into “the internet of things,” and we live with censors and input and output lining our very walls, it is far easier to know a thing than ever before. That delicate wall that maintains one’s innocence is thinner and more fragile than in any preceding generation, capable of being dashed aside with the barest of gestures. And there are people devoted all over the world to doing so, to ripping it aside and plundering whatever they find on the other side, and it is surprisingly, bafflingly easy to be complicit in this theft.

Though I think most people would pause before claiming the past few decades, or even centuries, were an age of innocence, future years may prove us wrong.

This hits close to home

I’m a stutterer, and my brother, who is also a stutterer, sent me this Slate article on stuttering and the film The King’s Speech

It’s quite brilliantly written, capturing the paranoia and careful self-regard stutters are forced to practice. I think of Ethan Hawke in the film Gattaca, scouring himself of all skin flakes and hair and nails each day before going to work; in this same manner, stutterers must prune their daily routines of dangerous words or situations. For example, for a long time, my trouble sound was “d,” which meant in high school when I called my friend, Derek, and his mom answered the phone, I could not ask if he was there, but instead had to ask, “Is your son at home?” as if I had a warrant for his arrest.

My new trouble sound is “m”, which was pretty shitty for a guy with a book called American Elsewhere, that big “uh-MERI-can” always swimming out in the deeps around me, and I tended to just casually call it AE, and terrifically hate any poor soul who happened to inquire what “AE” stood for. I somewhat regret that the character I’m now writing is called “Mulaghesh,” and suspect I will absolutely fucking dread readings in the future. (Which I dreaded and hated anyway.)

This section of the article, though, was tremendously interesting to me:

When stutterers don’t succeed in sidestepping an obstacle, or aren’t comfortable living with their words at such a remove from their thoughts, there is the problem of being literally understood. Stuttering ravages the sentence, the sentiment, the idea, such that following the stutterer’s train of syntax can be like trying to parse a line of Morse code. (Biden was nicknamed Dash in high school.) If you happen to be a verbally minded stuttering person, this is something you never get used to. Part of your mind holds onto the hope of speaking clever things as effortlessly as you think of them, of being witty and charming; words you wish you had the tongue to say instead flourish inside, feeding a sort of verbal fantasy life. Everybody dreams. But stutterers, perhaps especially, dream of verbal transcendence: those rare moments when an ungainly cargo of words rattling down the runway pulls itself together, roars into a final burst of speed, and meets the sky.

Sometimes, this dream gets fixed enough to become a vocation. A disproportionate number of stutterers end up writers, actors, and other voices of public life. They tend even to “do jobs that require them to speak in public, which you would have thought they’d have avoided,” someone pointed out to the stuttering novelist Margaret Drabble. This is an irony only until you realize that the labor of a verbal craftsperson, the work of nailing words onstage or in print, is virtually coterminous with a stutterer’s inner life.

I’ve had editors and agents and PR and marketing people comment on my quick turnaround time, and I’ve never thought it was anything to speak of. I have never missed a deadline, and in fact usually beat most of them by about three months or so, and I thought it was because what I was writing took little thought. But it wasn’t until this morning that perhaps the reason I pump out words pretty quickly is that this is how I live my daily life, carefully composing endless verbiage for future interactions.

If there is a device in your brain that puts together clever sentences, mine is never turned off – because it’s also my respirator, and without it I can barely get out of bed.