Educating People about Ace Fiction

This is for the June 2017 Carnival of Aces: Asexual Education.

Around October of 2016, I figured out that there had been an explosion of published ace fiction in 2015 and 2016, especially from LGBTQ+ publishers. My reaction was “What? How did I miss this? I need to learn more!” And so I embarked on educating myself on all of this new ace fiction (and a little older ace fiction). I assumed that many other aces, like myself, had missed a lot of this new published ace fiction, so that was one of the reasons I wrote so many reviews.

Now, I’ve moved away from writing reviews towards writing meta-criticism, mainly contributing to the Ace Trope series at the Asexual Agenda (at least so far), which I enjoy more than writing reviews, and I think is even better for educating people about what is out there in ace fiction than just writing reviews.

Why bother educating anybody about ace fiction?

With regards to educating myself, it was definitely a matter of curiosity, though it is fair to ask why I am so curious about ace fiction. I want there to be ace fiction because I have experiences, as an ace, which I rarely see expressed in fiction in general (unless I interpret fiction in a very metaphorical way). It’s not so much that I am interested in characters who just happen to be ace, just as I am not interested in characters who happen to have hazel eyes (even though I have hazel eyes myself), as that I am interested in ace experiences.

Why bother educating anyone aside from myself about ace fiction? Other readers, like myself, may want to find ace fiction for themselves, so I can help pave the way just as critics such as Agent Aletha helped me. And the more readers there are who support ace fiction in their own way, the more incentive writers/creators have to make more ace fiction.

So far, I have focused on reader education (especially myself), mostly ace readers. I am not sure how to go about educating a non-ace audience, or even whether that is a worthwhile goal. I would like ace fiction to be for ace audiences first. If ace fiction is primarily directed at non-ace readers, it could lead to challenges like the challenges gay men have with their representation in M/M romance, a genre which is mostly written for a female audience (Jamie Fessenden, a gay man who writes M/M romance, has a nuanced take on M/M being written for female audiences). That said, ace fiction can also be a great tool for educating non-aces about asexuality. It is also true that, the wider the readership there is for ace fiction, the more support there will be for ace fiction. I suppose my main concern is that I do not want ace fiction to cater so much to non-ace readers that it fails to cater to ace readers.

A group which I think could seriously benefit from education about ace-fiction are the writers/editors/creators who create ace fiction. I know Erica Cameron wrote some kind of guide for writing ace characters which I cannot find right now (if you have the link, please drop a comment), which was basically asexuality 101. Which is entirely necessary. And for some ace stories, asexuality 101 might be enough for a writer/editor/creator to represent asexuality properly. But even when a story gets the asexuality 101 right, or at least not wrong, it can feel … off. And there are tropes which are way overused, such as Allo Savior Complex, but one won’t learn how to use the Allo Savior Complex trope in a good way from asexuality 101 (the Allo Savior Complex trope can be used very well, but most of the time I just find it irritating, or if it’s really badly handled, offensive – so my advice to writers is, unless one has a good reason to use it, don’t use it). And just as there are tropes which are overdone in ace fiction, there are also things which a lot of ace readers want from ace fiction, but ace fiction is not delivering.

By the way, when I talk about educating writers/editors/creators of ace fiction – I’m not distinguishing between those who are ace and those who are not ace. Though I have yet to do a statistical analysis, my impression is that non-aces are much more likely to make an ace 101 level mistake than aces are, but GIVEN that a non-ace has already avoided 101 level mistakes, ace writers/etc. are almost as likely to make ace 201+ mistakes as non-aces. Though past the 101 level, it is a lot harder to determine what even is a mistake, since there is a lot less consensus about upper-division asexuality than there is about asexuality 101.

At this point, I think the best education available about ace fiction for writers/editors/creators which goes beyond asexuality 101 is the comments sections of the Ace Tropes series at the Asexual Agenda. Not so much the posts themselves – though I suppose one has to read the posts to make the most sense of the comments. I have learned a lot about how ace fiction could be improved from reading the comments. And if a writer/editor/creator came to me, and wanted to know how they could write asexuality better, my three recommendations would be a) make sure you have asexuality 101 down b) read the comments of the Ace Tropes series c) learn a lot about the real life experiences of different kinds of aces d) read a lot of ace fiction so you know what’s already out there, what is being done well, what is overdone, and what is missing.

Confusing Intelligence with Goodness

Content Note: This post discusses ableism, thus there are a few ableist slurs used as examples

The post I published couple weeks ago, “Gender, Intelligence, and Physical Beauty in the World of Jin Yong” was originally going to part of a much bigger post, but since it felt too ambitious to me at the time, I decided to break it down and focus on just a couple of ideas. However, by coincidence, I read this essay which is about one of the other points I had originally planned to discuss – namely, mistaking intelligence for goodness.

That article, like my blog post, used American political discourse as examples of how Americans tend to associate intelligence with (moral) good, even though there is no reason whatsoever to expect a ‘smart’ person to be have more moral/ethical behavior than a ‘stupid’ person. For example, there is the term ‘libtard’, and I hear/read a lot about how anyone who is Republican must be ‘stupid’ or ‘dumb’ (the main reason I hear a lot more about Republicans being ‘stupid’ or ‘dumb’ than Democrats being such is that I live in a city where the Republican party is so unpopular that they do not even bother to have candidates running in most local elections – I am sure that if I lived somewhere else I would hear a lot more about how ‘stupid’ and ‘dumb’ Democrats are).

I have also had experiences which are a bit like Rick Perlstein’s childhood experiences. In high school I had a reputation for being ‘smart’ – in fact, in the yearbook polls, I was voted ‘smartest girl’ for four years in a row. Mind you, at the time, I was not convinced that I really was the ‘smartest’ person in my year, but I was very good at making myself seem smart. I was so confident in my ability to impress my peers with my ‘intelligence’ that I did not mind at all telling them that I had been in special education in elementary school, because I knew even that fact would not dislodge their impressions that I was ‘smart’. And no, they did not believe me, even though it’s true.

Even today, I am still very good at persuading others that I am smart. However, once in a while, for whatever reason, I impress myself on people as being ‘stupid’ rather than ‘smart’, and I notice that it leads to me being treated in a significantly worse manner. When people who think I am ‘smart’ and people who think I am ‘stupid’ watch me do the exact same thing, the people who label me as ‘smart’ judge it much more favourably than the people who label me as ‘stupid’, even though, in theory, they ought to judge my action based on what actually happened rather than what kind of person I am.

And one of the reasons why life is more difficult for those who are perceived as being ‘dumb’ is that, in current American culture, ‘smart’ is associated with moral goodness, and ‘dumb’ is associated with moral badness. And this is so much easier to notice when compared to a milieu where intelligence is NOT associated with good morals.

In Jin Yong’s fiction, intelligent characters, though not necessarily evil, have a strong tendency to be amoral (Huang Rong and her father Huang Yaoshi are excellent examples, but there are plenty of others), whereas the people with good moral sense tend to be not so smart. In my earlier post on this topic, I tried to make the point that, since Jin Yong’s female protagonists tend to be more intelligent than his male protagonists, and intelligence is associated with amorality, this means that femininity is *also* associated with amorality and this has a misogynist scent. However, setting aside gender, immersing oneself in the stories of Jin Yong is a really good way to experience a mindset where the actions of intelligent characters are suspect, whereas the not-so-smart characters are more inclined to do what’s right for the world and not just themselves/closest loved ones.

Many cultures (including American culture) associate bad health and disability with immorality. This is ableist. And I think this extends to cognitive ability (or lack thereof). ‘Stupid’ people lack the level of cognitive abilities of ‘smart’ people, therefore they tend to be perceived as less moral. On the flipside, people with greater cognitive abilities are more likely to being perceived as morally good.

I strongly disagree with this view. I do not think there is much connection between one’s cognitive abilities and whether one acts in a moral/ethical manner. They are, it seems to be, independent variables. Thus, I actually also disagree with the way Jin Yong presents intelligent characters as being more likely to be amoral or immoral (unless they’ve submitted themselves to someone more moral than themselves), and not-so-intelligent characters as more likely to be moral. However, his fiction does offer the service of running counter to the prejudices of my culture, and thus makes it easier for fish to see water.

Something about Bedsharing

Over the years, the post on this blog which has gotten the most views by far is “Can we reserve ‘sleep with’ for when we literally mean ‘sleep with’?” (the blog post which is in second place has not had even half as many views, according to WordPress). It’s a blog post which fits the theme of this month’s Carnival of Aces: “Kissing, Hand Holding, Bed Sharing, etc!”, so is there anything else I have to say about bedsharing?

When I was a young child, and my nuclear family only had two bedrooms, and each of those bedrooms had only one bed, obviously at least one bed was going to be shared, so sometimes I slept in the same bed as my mother, and sometimes I slept in the same bed as my father.

This is where most people I talk about this with will go “WTF why didn’t your parents share a bed?” The answer is that my mom strongly dislikes sleeping in the same bed as my father and will only do so if it’s the only way to get any kind of decent sleep (note that when I say ‘sleeping’ I mean it in the strictly literal sense). Since I grew up with this state of affairs, it seems so obvious to me that it does not feel like it needs mentioning, but strangers understandably do not know about my mother’s sleeping preferences.

Nowadays, if the three of us had to split two beds, we would not need to discuss it – my mom and I would share a bed, and my dad would get a bed to himself. Even though we have never said it explicitly, because I am now an adult, it no longer feels alright among the three of us for me to share a bad with my father, even in the very practical situation of there being fewer beds than people. Fortunately, my mother feels that I am less disruptive to her sleep than my father is.

However, when I was a very young girl, my family felt that there was no problem with me sleeping in the same bed as my father. It meant a lot to me, because in those days, my father got up early to go to work, and he only got back home at 7pm or 8pm, and he would be tired, so sleep was the only time I really got to be with him during weekdays.

I also have fond memories of sharing a bed with my mother. I do not remember why sometimes my bedroom arrangements were changed.

This was all before I even knew what sex was, so it never occurred to me that there could be anything wrong with me sharing a bed with my father.

Eventually, we got a third bedroom, so that was the end of bedsharing at home.

I do not think I will ever be innocent that way again. Even though I am asexual, I have to be aware of the perceptions of anyone who would share a bed with me, and to some extent, I have to be aware of the perceptions of third parties.

Ever since I became an adult, I have only shared beds / sleeping spaces for practical reasons.

A photo taken in Julian, San Diego County, California, USA

Usually, I do get at least something of my own sleeping space – for example, even though I slept on the same floor as a dozen other people during my night in Julian during my most recent hike, with a couple of strangers just inches away from me, I was still on my own sleeping pad and in my own sleeping bag. And the one occasion I can recall as an adult when I really did share a bed with someone, I was wishing I could have had a better defined personal space. So I think that my preference is to have always at least a minimal physical boundary marking my space when I sleep.

This is inside Seseok Shelter in Jirisan National Park, South Korea. The white marks on the floor mark where guests may lay down their sleeping bags/pads, and they are numbered. The night I stayed there, it was not full, but it was plenty crowded, and there were dozens of people sharing a (large) room with me.

During my many stays at various hostels, I have been in mixed dorms so many times I don’t think twice about, say, sleeping in the same bunk as a man I’ve never met before. Heck, I don’t mind sharing a mountain shelter with men I don’t know. I do sometimes opt for ‘female dorm’ because a) sometimes mixed dorms are not available and b) sometimes the female dorm is a better deal for some reason (I realize I have cis-privilege, and that this is more complicated for many genderqueer people).

This is Walami Cabin in Yushan National Park, Taiwan. This is the first place I ever truly slept alone, miles from any other human being. The fact that it was a building rather than a tent helped, but it was still quite an experience.

However, I do not like the opposite, which is sleeping alone. I do not mean sleeping alone in a bedroom within a unit occupied by other people – I do that all the time. I do not even mean sleeping alone in my own housing unit, since I lived like that for years – but I had to get used to it, and it was not an easy emotional adjustment at first. What I mean is sleeping when you are the only human within a mile, or within five miles. I’ve done it, and I can even sleep, but I always prefer having some people near me when I sleep. When I do a multiday hike solo, I am always relieved to find another person at my sleeping spot. And when I realize that nobody else is going to come, that I have to get through the night alone, I have to brace myself. Some of my best memories hiking the Pacific Crest trail have been getting to know the ONE person who just happens to sleeping in the same place as me, the person who spared me a night alone on the trail.

The main building of the Mount Laguna Lodge (which is also a grocery story and a post office) in Mount Laguna, San Diego County, California, USA.

When I stayed at Mount Laguna during my most recent hike, I stayed at the lodge for two nights, in a room which can occupy up to two people (they do not have any truly one-person rooms). I was hoping to get a roommate, not just to save money (though splitting the bill was certainly a major incentive to share), but so I could have a little companionship at night. That is why I chose a room with two small beds rather than a room with one big bed (the room rate was the same). The first night, I had the room to myself – which was not so bad, since it meant I had privacy – but I was happy when I got a roommate for the second night. We talked for hours.

So, I suppose I like sharing my shelter, but I am not so fond of sharing the bed itself.

What does any of this have to do with being asexual? My personal inclination is to say it does not have anything to do with asexuality. I do not have any sexual interest in bedsharing, but other people might, so I have to take that into account when I share a shelter. And I think the psychological benefits/costs which apply to me also apply to many people who are not ace. However, some potential considerations, positive (ZOMGOSH I want to be next to that hot person!!!!) or negative (I do not want to be tempted to have risky sex) may not apply to me because I am ace.

Gender, Intelligence, and Physical Beauty in the World of Jin Yong

Ah Zhu and Qiao Feng from the 1996 TV adaptation of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils. Ah Zhu is possibly the most intelligent character in the story, yet her entire agenda seems to be serving or helping male characters.

This is part of the Rambling Series about Sexism in Jin Yong Stories.

There is a rule which applies to pretty much every major female character in the fiction of Jin Yong: she must be beautiful and/or intelligent.

Most major female Jin Yong characters are both beautiful and intelligent, but some are beautiful without being intelligent, and a very few – such as Cheng Lingsu (程靈素) from The Young Flying Fox (飛狐外傳) are intelligent – without being beautiful.

This rule does not apply to major male characters – a few are described as being physically handsome, and some of them are intelligent, but many of them – even the protagonists – are neither handsome nor intelligent.

The physical appearance aspect is fairly straightforward – the female characters are meant to appealing to readers who are attracted to females, whereas Jin Yong most of the time did not offer much to readers who are attracted to males (the most notable exception is Yang Guo, the only male protagonist who is described as being handsome – in fact, he is so handsome that he wears a mask to stop women from getting crushes on him). Feminist critics generally – and in my opinion, correctly – would say this is an example of objectification of women without equivalent objectification of men.

The intelligence aspect is a little trickier. In the Anglophone world, most feminist critics say they want more intelligent women in fiction, particularly women in leadership roles. Jin Yong’s fiction is not only full of intelligent women, some of them also rise to significant leadership roles through their own merits – for example, Huang Rong becomes the leader of the Beggars’ Sect, Ren Yingying not only leads the Sun Moon Holy Cult, she also returns the Wulin back to a state of peace, and so forth.

The rub here is that, whereas intelligence is generally considered to be good in the Anglophone world, it is not associated with goodness in the fiction of Jin Yong. The most intelligent protagonists are Yang Guo and Wei Xiaobao – Yang Guo is mischievous and considers helping the Mongols in their mass murder of Chinese, though in the end he works for good. Wei Xiaobao is an obviously immoral antihero, and Jin Yong himself says that it is wrong to follow his example. By contrast, the Jin Yong protagonists who are most obviously good in a moral sense are not very smart – and often need smart women to get them out of the fire. And many of the smartest characters in Jin Yong’s fiction are either morally grey or outright antagonists. In Jin Yong fiction, intelligence tends to make characters think that they don’t have to follow the rules or care about consequences to others, and if they are not restrained in some manner (by being taught Confucian principles and/or Buddhist principles, falling in love with a person more moral than themselves) they are bound to do more harm than good.

This is how the female characters get objectified for their intelligence – they are there so that the good male characters can make use of their intelligence without being tainted by the immorality which comes with intelligence. Furthermore, the female characters ‘need’ their less intelligent male lovers to offer them a moral center so that they do not sink into immorality. One of the many examples of this is Zhao Min and Zhang Wuji – Zhao Min is a badass, conniving Mongol princess who is both ruthless and clever enough to both take over her own family and rule all of China – but that all ends when she falls in love with Zhang Wuji, who is a Super Nice Guy and she wants him to like her. An even more extreme example is Ah Zi and Qiao Feng (though, to be fair, Ah Zi is not especially intelligent – but she is very sadistic) – to quote TV Tropes:

Morality Pet: A rare example of an older, stronger man being a young girl’s morality pet can be found in Demi Gods and Semi Devils. Xiao Feng is the only person who can bring out any sort of redeeming qualities in Ah Zi. Any good deed that Ah Zi ever attempts has been in the effort to seek his approval.

Meanwhile, Qiao Feng also gets a ton of use out of Ah Zi’s very intelligent (and mischievous) sister Ah Zhu.

There are, at most, two counter examples. One is maybe, maybe Wei Xiaobao and Shuang’er – Shuang’er is very subservient to Wei Xiaobao (even though he does not deserve it), but with her obedient goodness, she occasionally persuades Wei Xiaobao to be a bit less blatantly immoral. But I think this is a very borderline example. The better example is Yang Guo and Xiaolongü – he helps ground him so he is less inclined to being implusive and mischievous (and this is the only major example in Jin Yong fiction – well, except for Wei Xiaobao and some of his wives – of an intelligent male character being lovers with a not-particularly-intelligent female character).

I love the work of Jin Yong, and I love that it is full of so many complex and diverse female characters. But I cannot help but notice that the female characters are there to be used by the male characters – whether they are used for they physical appearance or used for their brains. And I am not sure that being objectified for one’s brains is much better than being objectified for one’s physical appearance.

And this raises the question: why do feminists often say they want more intelligent female characters? Do we really want more intelligent female characters, or are we really seeking something else and we just think having more intelligent female characters would be expedient to reaching that other goal?

How I Recommend Getting Access to Ace Fiction

In the past half-year or so, I ended up reading and reviewing a lot of ace fiction. Obviously, I had to gain access to it, and unsurprising, I now have Thoughts About How to Access Ace Fiction.

Generally, I recommend two methods of gaining access to ace fiction:

1) Borrowing ace fiction from libraries
2) Buying ace fiction

A method which I strongly discourage is piracy. It denies writers and publishers the income they have earned (libraries at least make some payment towards writers/publishers). First of all, it’s unfair. Second of all, writers/publishers not getting paid = less incentive to write/publish ace fiction.

A method which I neither encourage nor discourage is seeking review copies. Some writers and/or publishers are willing to formally or informally offer free copies in exchange for reviews. Since I have never tried to use this method, I cannot offer much advice.

Anyway, to my recommended methods…

Borrowing Ace Fiction from the Library

I have always lived in a place which has some kind of public library, and where I could get a library card. Thus, I do not have personal experience of living in a place without a public library, and cannot say anything useful to people in that situation.

If you are lucky, your local library already has a decent selection of ace fiction and all you have to do is borrow it like you would any other book.

However, at least in the year 2017, the odds are that you local library does not have a decent selection of ace fiction. This requires more effort on your part – specifically, requesting that your library adds more ace fiction to their shelves.

My local library’s website has a page called ‘Suggest a Title’ where I can ask them to add new titles. I fill out information such as title, author, publisher, and year of publication. They also give a little box where I can offer additional information. I always put the ISBN in this box to make it easier for the librarians to find the book, and they I put in a short blurb about why the library ought to add this book to their shelves. My blurbs typically are something like this:

I am asexual, and when I was growing up, I did not read any novels with characters who were explicitly asexual like I am. I want people like me to be able to read novels with characters like us, and right now, the library does not have a great selection of books with asexual characters. This book has an asexual character, and furthermore, it’s well-written, and that’s why it belongs on the library’s shelves.

(Feel free to copy and paste that as a template, though I recommend customizing the message for each request)

My success with getting my local library to get new ace fiction is about 50% – which means that my local library has substantially improved its selection of ace fiction since I started these requests (because the selection was not good to start with).

I cannot speak from all libraries, but my local library is willing to buy books from small publishers, and I once even got the library to buy a self-published book (it wasn’t ace fiction, but it still proved that the library is willing to add self-published books to the collection).

Of course, whether a library will acquire ace fiction partially depends on local factors. For example, an underfunded library is less likely to acquire new books. Likewise, a library which, say, primarily stocks books in Chinese may be reluctant to acquire books in English or other European languages (and most of the ace fiction I know about is only available in English and/or other European languages).

Even if you decide to buy a book rather than borrow it from the library, I recommend suggesting titles to you local library anyway to help other readers access ace fiction.

Now for my other recommended method…

Buying Ace Fiction

If you are in a financial secure position, I highly recommend buying your ace fiction. It supports the writers and publishers most directly. Plus, you never have to return your copy to the library. Or, more importantly, you can get access even if it’s not available at your local library.

Most of the ace fiction I’ve read in the past year I’ve bought myself. I admit that, when it was available at the library, I generally chose to borrow it, but I still feel I’ve done my part to financially support ace fiction, and borrowing from the library helps me stretch my money for buying more ace fiction. I also think that, even if one is financially secure, but new to ace fiction and uncertain, that it’s fine to choose the library over direct purchase if that makes it easier to give ace fiction a chance.

But how to go about buying ace fiction?

First of all, for various reasons, I refuse to buy anything from Amazon unless it is something I really want and find extremely difficult to buy elsewhere. Ace fiction does not fall in this category, because I have ways of getting ace fiction without Amazon. Also, I ONLY buy eBooks which are available without DRM. There are a couple of ace fiction titles which I was interested in but are sold exclusively sold through Amazon and with DRM, therefore I did not buy them. I even contacted one of the writers, and she promised that she would soon make it available for purchase through a store other than Amazon, and over a year later it’s … still only available through Amazon with DRM. Therefore, I have neither bought nor read it.

Right now, I’m not going to persuade you to avoid Amazon in generally, but I am going to make the case that it is bad to buy ace fiction from Amazon unless it’s the only store selling it. Why? To quote the Riptide Publishing FAQ

Both our authors and ourselves get to keep a much larger share of the purchase price when you buy directly from us (or any other publisher site), which makes it easier for your favorite authors to spend more time writing new books. Third-party vendors such as Amazon may keep as much as sixty-five percent of your sale price, leaving as little as thirty-five cents on the dollar for the publisher and author to share.

That’s right, Amazon sometimes take a 65% cut of the sales price, leaving only 35% for both the writer and the publisher to split. So why to publishers still sell through Amazon? Because so many buyers will only buy through Amazon, thus they will lose out on sales if they refuse to work with Amazon. And it is precisely because Amazon has such market power that they are able to abuse small publishers this way (yes, I think Amazon taking a 65% cut of the sales price is abusive). I think there are other reasons to avoid Amazon, but I think this reason alone is pretty compelling.

As far as I know, other book retailers do not take such huge cuts, but they still take some kind of cut. I know that with small publishers in general, writers get paid the highest royalties for sales done directly through the publisher, and that publishers make more money per book from direct sales than from sales through third parties. Therefore, PLEASE buy direct from small publishers so that money goes towards the writers, editors, etc. rather than to Amazon.

To further sweeten the pot, small publishers frequently run sales to encourage readers to buy direct rather than buy through Amazon. Sometimes the discounts are as much as 40% (and more rarely, even more than 40%). Even with these discounts, the writer/publisher still makes more money than if you bought through Amazon. You save money, they make more money than if the sale had gone through Amazon, it’s a win/win. If you want to save money, it may be worthwhile to wait a while for a sale to occur (Cyber Monday tends to be a great time to get discounts, but there are often sales at other times of the year, such as holidays).

Self-published books are a little different since they rarely have a dedicated website for direct sales. When possible, I buy self-published fiction directly through Smashwords since they tend to give writers a better cut than other sellers. If it’s not available through Smashwords, I buy through the Kobo Store (which I find irritating, but given a choice between Kobo and Amazon, I will always choose Kobo). And if it’s only available through Kobo with DRM (which has happened to me once), then I refuse to buy (though I was eventually able to borrow a print copy of that book from the library, so I read it anyway).

But what if it’s legally available for free?

Well then, that makes things simpler (and much cheaper), and I don’t think you need much advice. Generally, fanfic and webcomics are free, and occasionally, prose ace fiction is also legally available for free.

Resources for Finding Ace Fiction

You could look at my book reviews, but maybe you don’t like my reviews or want to learn about ace fiction I haven’t reviewed.

A great resource is the Ace Reads tagpacker, as well as the Ace Reads tumblr with its reviews (obviously, I sometimes disagree with Agent Aletha, but I have great respect for her as a reviewer, and when we have reviewed the same work I recommend reading both of our reviews, especially if we disagree).

I also greatly appreciate the the ace fiction reviews at Just Love (though I do not always agree).

There are also the Aro and Asexual SF fiction database, these lightning reviews of ace webcomics, the Demisexuality in Fiction database, and this database of ace fanfic.

Two publishers, Less than Three Press and Riptide Publishing, also have good filters for asexual fiction: The Less than Three Press Asexual Filter and the Riptide Publishing Asexual Spectrum filter.

May you all find ace fiction that you like!

The Soundtrack of My Recent Pacific Crest Trail Section Hike

I recently returned from my trip to San Diego county. The main thing I did there was hike the southermost 101 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) (for the PCT geeks out there, I did most of Section A, but I did not hike the 8 or so miles between Barrel Spring and Warner Springs, and if you’re wondering why not, it’s because there is no public transit to Warner Springs, even though it’s actual community with a fire station, a post office, an elementary school, and a small shop, whereas Barrel Spring, which is just a water source next to a road, has public transit).

This is Barrel Spring. When I told the hikers there that a bus had dropped me off, they were astonished, because this is not at all the type of place one would expect to be accessible by public transit.

Anyway, one aspect of hiking the PCT is: playing music. A lot of hikers take music players with them, and listen while they hike. If they are really obnoxious, they play the music so loudly that other people hear them. If they are only mildly obnoxious, then they simply become dangerously unaware of their surroundings. There was one hiker listening to music who was so oblivious that he did not see that I was right in front of him until he was inches away from me and I said ‘boo’ in his ear. That turned out to be okay because I saw him and stepped out of his way, but if he could not notice a full-grown human blocking his path, I don’t know how he spots more hazardous obstacles.

That said I am fine with hikers choosing to listen to music as long as they are not obnoxious, and most are not obnoxious. However, personally, I fail to understand the point. Then again, I’ve never carried walkmans, iPods, or any other portable music playing device. I am quite capable of playing music in my head at will, and sometimes I have music playing in my head when I don’t want it. Why bother with the hassle of carrying a music player?

That said, here is the music which played in my head the most during my 101 mile hike through eastern San Diego County:

The “Raseir” theme from Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire – of all of the computer games I’ve ever played, with all of their theme music, why this theme? It’s certainly not a particularly good music theme. On the other hand, Raseir is a (fictional) city in the desert mountains, and I was hiking through desert mountains, so I suppose it might have been appropriate, but I think that this was just random.

The Anza-Borrego Desert, as seen from Mount Laguna (specifically from the Storm Canyon lookout point)

“You’re the Best in the World,” both the original Cantonese version and the new Mandarin version – yes, the Cantonese version is better, but I also like the Mandarin version, and both versions played in my head during my hike. The lyrics about the comparative heights of mountains were especially appropriate.

This is the peak which looms above Hauser Canyon. During this trip, hikers were actually comparing canyons more than mountains. Getting out of Hauser Canyon is the tough climb for northbound hikers, especially those who try to hike out of there in the afternoon when it’s hot and there is no shade (if you plan to do this hike northbound, here is my advice: DO NOT CLIMB THIS IN THE AFTERNOON! Do it in the cool, shady morning, in the late evening, or even at night, but not in the afternoon!). However, for southbounders, like myself, getting out of Hauser Canyon isn’t such a big deal – getting out of Chariot Canyon is the big uphill challenge for us. Meanwhile, none of the northbound hikers I met felt that hiking out of Chariot Canyon was notable (except that Chariot Canyon is the only place sheltered from the wind on that segment, but that’s more important for camping than hiking).

“Walker,” a Cantonese song (here is music video with graphic violence, and audio only) – sure, it’s a song which glorifies violence and dishonesty, but it’s also about being fearless and doing what it takes to reach one’s goals. Most importantly, it’s catchy, at least for me (bonus: it’s obviously not a romance song). And even the title “Walker” is fitting – I did a heck of a lot of walking!

I walked through a few burns during my hike. I don’t know what caused this specific burn, but most wildfires are started by humans.

“Roar” – you all already know about this song, right? I suppose it’s thematically appropriate, and more importantly, it’s catchy, so yes, it got stuck in my head.

I did not see any mountain lions during my trip, or any other animal which can roar (except humans), but I saw a lot of bunnies on the trail.

“Dao Jian Ru Meng” specifically the version by Dong Zhen – since I’ve already written a blog post about this song, I feel no need to say any more.

I didn’t see any swords or sabres during my trek, though I did see a few knives (I even had my own knife). There were a lot of yucca plants on the trail, and I learned through first-hand experience that the leaves are sharp enough to draw blood (thankfully, I was not seriously hurt).

The theme of the TV show Kung Fu – contrary to what the title suggests, this song is from a Hollywood Western, not an Asian martial arts drama. And I feel this was the most appropriate of all of the bits of music I frequently had playing in my head during my hike. I was, after all, trekking through the American West. Once one goes east of the San Diego metropolitan area, things get rural very fast. A local explained that it is because ‘East County’ (that is, the eastern part of San Diego county) does not have enough water to sustain a high human population density, therefore, the population density is permanently low. Historically, East County had mining booms, mining busts, bandits, gunfights, vigilantes, stagecoaches, and there still is cattle ranching (though not much, due to limited water) and the desert mountain landscape today.

You know why this building (from the late 19th century) is built like a stone fortress? It’s because the first Gaskill Store was attacked by bandits and had multiple holes left by bullets in the walls, so the owners wanted their store to have better protection. Some of the bandits escaped, but the ones which did not were hung by cowboys passing through town from a tree which was RIGHT ON THE PRESENT-DAY PACIFIC CREST TRAIL (though the tree died in 1975 and is no longer there). That is one of the more gruesome bits of PCT lore I’ve encountered.

So, now you know what songs were getting stuck in my head as I walked a hundred and one miles through arid hills and mountains. It seems the connecting themes, aside from a vague association with arid mountains, is that most of these songs are about exerting oneself and overcoming obstacles while remembering what’s important in life. When one is carrying water (which is heavy) through heat and/or wind, either going uphill or downhill (downhill puts a different strain on the body), possibly with little shade, it’s good to have a song about overcoming obstacles and appreciating the wonders of life in one’s head.

Transportation Is a Utility: Thoughts on Airplanes and Trains (Part 2)

One of the advantages Amtrak has over domestic airlines is that passengers are treated with a lot more dignity. There is no TSA – all you have to do to board an Amtrak train is show a photo I.D. and a ticket (and conductors don’t always check photo I.D.). Baggage policy is more flexible (which, do be fair, is partially due to technological differences). While different conductors are stricter than others, they generally try to help passengers have a good experience.

Furthermore, while Amtrak employees have complaints about their work (like most workers), the general impression I’ve gotten from my conversations with Amtrak crews is that they believe they have decent jobs, and a quick internet search indicates that most Amtrak crew members are paid a living wage (unlike many airline crew members). While I have encountered Amtrak crew members of all races, a disproportionate number of them seem to be African-American. That might be partially because working on trains has historically be culturally coded as a ‘black’ job, but it may also reflect that the federal government, as an employer, tends to discriminate less on the basis of race than private employers.

Amtrak is owned by the government. It is essentially a government-owned utility with the purpose of serving the people, not making money.

The Trump administration’s attempt to cut down Amtrak is not a new trend. Some Republicans in Congress have been trying to attack Amtrak for a long time, saying that it ought to pay for itself through passenger fares. However, this reflects the views of only certain types of Republicans and other right-wingers – there is another set of right-wingers who support Amtrak.

I remember one time, when I was on an Amtrak train (one of the train lines which might be eliminated under Trump’s budget proposal), I was talking to a libertarian who told me that government is too big and ought to shrink down. I pointed out to him that he was riding Amtrak, which receives government subsidies. His response was that Amtrak was useful, unlike some other government activities, and that highways and airports are also subsidized by the government, so he couldn’t avoid using a mode of transit which is subsidized by the government. The thing was, he lived in a rural area. I suspect that, if he were a Silicon Valley libertarian rather than a rural libertarian, he would be in favor of cutting Amtrak’s subsidies.

Generally, I have found that rural people – regardless of their political affiliation – like passenger train service, and are opposed to cutting Amtrak. When riding on Amtrak, I have found that a lot of passengers live in rural areas. This is partially because a) many rural areas are not served by an airport and b) even if there is an airport, travel by train is sometimes significantly cheaper. For example, I learned that travelling between Arizona and Texas – especially if one buys tickets at the last minute – is much cheaper by train than by airplane. Now, maybe if the airline industry were not an oligopoly without sufficient public control, the airfare between Arizona and Texas would be more price competitive with train tickets. But that is how things are now.

Speaking of price, cutting Amtrak subsidies is a class issue, not just a rural issue. Aside from Amtrak crew jobs being better than airline crew jobs, people who ride Amtrak – especially the train lines which Trump’s budget might cut – tend to be poorer than airline passengers. Also, it is a disability issue, since some people, for medical reasons, cannot travel by airplane.

Anyway, back to the rural issue. Yes, it is true that some major metropolitan areas might also lose all passenger train service under the proposed budget. I find it particularly shocking that New Orleans might be completely cut out, since New Orleans is currently one of the major passenger train hubs. On the other hand, New Orleans does have a couple of airports as well as Greyhound and Megabus, so losing Amtrak would not be as devastating to NOLA as would be to a rural town.

Oh, and Greyhound? I’ve heard that their prices went way up after they bought Trailways, their main competitor. They also eliminated a lot of routes. This is another great example of how reducing competition increases prices and reduces service. Usually, travel by Amtrak is cheaper than Greyhound, though Greyhound is sometimes faster and usually has better wifi than Amtrak. If Amtrak gets seriously cut back, I predict Greyhound will become even more expensive, and their service might get crappier. MegaBus pretty much only serves major metropolitan areas because that is the most profitable market for long-distance buses.

As it so happens, last week (assuming everything went according to plan – I scheduled this post to go online about two weeks after I wrote it) I went from San Francisco to San Diego by train. Guess what? Neither of the train lines I used (the San Joaquin and the Pacific Surfliner) are directly threatened by Trump’s budget. In fact, I think the proposed cuts to Amtrak, if they come to pass, would barely affect the San Francisco Bay Area. We would still have the Amtrak lines which are not affected by the cuts, as well as Greyhound, Megabus, Caltrain, the airports, etc. The attitude of most San Franciscans towards Amtrak is that it’s nice, and they do not want to cut its subsidies, but they do not consider it particularly important.

Let’s compare that to Dunsmuir, California.

Dunsmuir is in Siskiyou County, which consistently leans Republican. Amtrak has tried to end passenger service to Dunsmuir before, but the people of Dunsmuir insisted on keeping passenger service, and eventually the City of Dunsmuir made a deal with Amtrak. Dunsmuir does not have an airport with scheduled flights, nor does it have Greyhound (and the nearest airport with scheduled flights is only served by two airlines – one of them is United Express). If Dunsmuir were to lose passenger train service, then the only remaining means of long-distance transit would be the interstate highway (technically, it would also still be accessible by freighthopping, which is illegal, and by foot and horse, but that is not enough to keep a town alive in this day and age). Losing Amtrak would be a much bigger deal to Dunsmuir than to San Francisco.

Yes, you guessed it. The proposed budget cuts to Amtrak might end Amtrak service to Dunsmuir, a town which needs it more, not to San Francisco, a city which needs it less.

Of course, though losing Amtrak would be bad for Dunsmuir economy (and Dunsmuir’s economy isn’t doing so great in the first place), the people of Dunsmuir also have cultural reasons for keeping Amtrak. Dunsmuir was founded as a railroad town, and Southern Pacific is still one of the biggest employers in town. Trains are a key part of their heritage. To them, losing passenger train service would be like San Francisco losing its cable cars. And yes, the city government tried to eliminate San Francisco’s cable cars in the 1940s and 1950s, and it took citizen activism to keep the cable cars running, just as Dunsmuir had to make a fuss in order to keep Amtrak. San Francisco cable cars have much less utility than Amtrak trains, and also require subsidies from local taxpayers to keep running, yet shutting down cable cars would be as unpopular today as it was in the 1940s/1950s because San Franciscans recognize their cultural value (and their tourist-economy value, which is derived from their cultural value).

By the way, one of the conservative/right-wing arguments for subsidizing Amtrak is that Amtrak is preserving a piece of the United States’ cultural heritage.

Though I have not done the research to confirm this, based on what I’ve read, it seems that Republicans from rural areas tend to like Amtrak and favor having Amtrak serve their communities. For example, Doug LaMalfa, the Republican who represents Dunsmuir in Congress, has voted in favor of Amtrak subsidies (he is opposed to California’s high speed rail program, but that might be because HSR, unlike Amtrak, would not serve his district). I recall reading years ago that Republicans in southern Mississippi also tend to be pro-Amtrak, and a quick internet search yielded this article (which is obviously out-of-date, but also supports my hunch than rural Republicans tend to support Amtrak). IIRC, the article I read years back quoted a Mississippi politician as saying something like “the Yankees are trying to take away our trains”.

It seems to me that Republicans who most aggressively Amtrak are from affluent-to-rich suburban or urban areas, or are just plain wealthy (Trump obviously belongs to this group).

Likewise, the politicians – both Republican and Democrat – who most favor ‘deregulation’ of the airline industry and allowing high market concentration by ignoring anti-trust laws are so wealthy that they can afford to travel by private jet, or rely on campaign contributions from people who are wealthy enough to travel by private jet.

I hope that the Democrats and rural Republicans can work together to prevent these cuts to Amtrak’s budget. Even though some Amtrak lines are not directly threatened by the budget cut, the way it works is that because Amtrak currently serves so many rural areas, there are a lot of representatives in Congress who have a stake in sustaining Amtrak service in their district. If a bunch of congressional districts lose Amtrak, then there will a bunch of members of Congress who will have much incentive to, say, vote to increase funding to the Northeast Corridor.

Yes, the national network train lines operate at a net loss, but they increase revenue on other lines thorugh connecting passengers. For example, a national network train (the Coast Starlight) might bring a passenger from Portland to Sacramento, and then they will take the San Joaquin to Fresno. Without the Coast Starlight, they probably would not choose to use the train, and thus the San Joaquin misses a potential passenger.

And we get back to national cohesion. You either have the principle that one tries to serve as much of the nation as feasible because this nation is for everybody, or you’re only going to serve the people it’s ‘profitable’ to serve, which in the case of Amtrak would mean that people in the Northeastern United States would have Amtrak service and nobody else (not even California).

And transportation supports national cohesion in another way. You probably think that there is some region of the United States where a lot of people have very messed-up ideas. If so, and you want people in that region to have less messed-up ideas, you want the United States to have a good transportation network. The better (by ‘better’ I mean affordable and convenient) the transportation network, the more people in that region will travel, the more they travel, the more ideas they will be exposed to, and the more ideas they are exposed to, the more likely they will replace some of their very messed up ideas with less messed-up ideas. Though all forms of transportation support the flow of ideas, I think that trains, because they foster more social interaction between strangers than other forms of long-distance transit (except certain types of boats), serve this purpose particularly well.

So to wrap this all up – transportation, like water and electricity, needs to be treated as a utility. This is necessary to ensure fair treatment of passengers – both in terms of price and dignity. When transportation is offered by private companies, it needs to be regulated by the public. It’s also sometimes a good idea for transportation to be delivered by a government-owned utility, like Amtrak. Sometimes, offering transportation to some places requires operating subsidies, but the benefits to society as a whole can justify the cost of those subsidies.