Our FtB man William Brinkman is dropping a novel for y’all this week – on July 13th, my birthday. But I had a birthday present in June when he made a review copy available to his people. Thanks, man. Below the fold are some very long form thoughts I had before and during my read. Above that, the review I’ll post wherever I have an account.
I had a good time reading this book, though I had some reservations before I started. As soon as the adventurous part of the story began – which was pretty quickly – you could feel the author entering his comfort zone. With all the disappointment and crap involved in Disney’s monopoly on entertainment, I’ve been hoping to see more adventurous fiction that doesn’t rely on any of their properties – in spirit, like fic with the serial numbers filed off. And being an AMAB reader over the age of forty, post-YA wasn’t going to do it for me either.
The Rift was an entertaining high speed journey into Brinkman’s “Bolingbrook Babbler” universe, inspired by the UFO / amazing bat-boy end of the tabloid spectrum, and best of all it required no prior knowledge of his oeuvre. We follow a character being introduced to the world of paranormal conspiracies and don’t have to choke on a bunch of references to deep lore.
This is one of those books that *needed* to be self-published because it’s too unconventional, too niche, to be sold to major publishers. You can have a story with wild original content, but to sell that it needs to fit into some kind of recognizable mold, like surreal literary fiction or magical realism. The Rift is genre fiction in a very functional 20th century style, without the frippery of Catherynne Valente or poetic ostentation of litfic regulars.
I’d place it in what was once called “men’s fiction” – the kind of adventure stories that once sat near the checkout stands at supermarkets, like the tabloids that provided The Rift’s milieu. Stories about spies, war, survival, treachery. And yet it isn’t a very comfortable fit for that genre either. The ladies in those stories are objects and props, and this one takes pains to establish that ladies have lives and agendas wholly independent of our adventuring protagonist.
That said, The Rift does center the perspective of a man who becomes enmeshed in the world of internet misogyny. Of course he has a shot at redemption and can change in the course of the story, but the close third person perspective on him could be off-putting to those who have been most bothered by those internet misogynists in real life – regardless of the author’s intentions and the story’s ultimate direction.
Which gets us back to the issue of niche. While this novel does not depend on prior knowledge of Brinkman’s Babblerverse, I feel it does require some knowledge of skepticism as a culture, and of the rift that brings us the title. If you don’t understand what skeptics are about, the story’s introduction to the concept might feel off-putting or confusing. If you weren’t privy to the fall-out of “elevatorgate,” when the skeptic movement split into progressive and reactionary factions, then you might have a harder time understanding the very point of the story and most of the events within it.
Even within that subculture, the book could lose audience from its concept alone. As I mentioned, the progressives burned by the IRL conflict may have very little interest in seeing a redemption tale play out. Hopefully the ten years since the furor began will help them get past that enough to read the novel. It handles the subject very well. Everything that starts to feel insensitive, or like a misstep, is ultimately redeemed through the story’s plot. It’s kind of brilliant at that, playing its hand with more subtlety than you might expect.
And all that said, maybe I’m not giving the average non-skeptic-culture reader enough credit here. If the price is right and you like the idea of a feminist sci-fi adventure in a tabloid UFO setting, give it a shot. And if you are in the book’s target demo – skeptic culture warriors – definitely pick this one up.
Full Disclosure: William Brinkman and I are both writers on the same blog network, which is for progressives within atheism and skepticism.
Now for the deeper thoughts I had, which probably make this one of my longest articles ever, haha…
This was written as I read, live-tweet style. I hope that helps make sense of my writing.
I have some questions going into this, which will make for a lengthy preface. Bear with me. My biggest question has to do with what I know of the plot. In the tradition of “ripped from the headlines” TV shows, this novel uses the situation of “Elevatorgate” as a springboard for wholly fictional events, with wholly fictional characters. Intended or not, this invites a reader to use the story to divine the author’s feelings about the real life situation and people involved. How well does he avoid any of the traps laid by his own setup?
But I have a lot of other things on my mind, going in. The Rift is a novel set in William’s “Bolingbrook Babbler” universe, which he created over years of tabloid-style articles on the internet. How much can I understand the story without having read that history? The Rift’s plot is inspired by the feminism-based rift in the atheo-skeptic community. How much can outsiders appreciate this story without having been here for that history? And as intertwined as our communities have been, William seems to come more from the skeptic side, and I’ve always come from the atheist side, so how much might I be missing in the translation?
Then there’s a question I have about William’s Bolingbrookiverse itself, and it comes from my lack of familiarity with skepticism. The skeptic movement, from my outside point of view, seems to be about debunking fringe beliefs – sometimes with bitter condescension. This can be a great service to humanity when it’s effective attack on genuinely harmful things like pyramid schemes and snake oil medicine. But when it comes to debunking stage magic, bigfoot, and UFOs, it can seem like they’re just being the “no fun” police, making the world a less magical place for regular folks.
The logical / ethical argument for being the no fun police is that accepting harmless silly beliefs opens the door to accepting harmful silly beliefs. If you can believe in bigfoot, you can believe industrial chemicals cure autism in children. That’s pretty compelling reasoning, but people can compartmentalize all kinds of beliefs. Maybe you can address the one without shitting on the other? Maybe not.
A similar argument is made in favor of atheism, though there it is usually focused on the impact on morality. If you can accept one piece of silly dogma as divine writ, you can accept all sorts of harmful “moral lessons” as the same. The corollary of the counterargument: maybe this reasoning can be used against fundamentalism / literalism without attacking people’s cultural identity and “spirituality.” Again, I have no strong opinion here, though I favor the skeptic and atheist points of view in both cases.
On a more personal level, I have an emotional inclination to atheism and skepticism. I hate being lied to. It feels like an insult to my intelligence. It feels like a con, like a threat. It doesn’t matter to me if the liar believes their lies. It makes me very uncomfortable. It makes my skin burn.
But I have been able to compartmentalize that feeling. I could watch Miracle on 34th Street as a child and take the crimbo propaganda in stride. Within that universe, the skeptics are the baddies, the santa mans are real, and that is good. Likewise, UFOs and lake monsters could have an appeal of fun and magical times without needing to be accepted as literally true. This compartmentalization was never perfect. I once had a squatcher threaten to cut me for making funny faces at those ideas. I’ve sometimes felt bitter that bullshit merchants are peddling a more magical universe than the one we actually have to live and survive in.
Bringing me back to Bolingbrook. What is the aim of William’s Bolingbrook Babbler universe? It is clearly having fun with the idea of UFOs and stranger stuff being real, within its meta-reality. What charm does the idea of a wereskunk have without the ability to let yourself be taken under that spell of suspended disbelief, enjoying the idea of the creature as being real, at least inside the bounds of the story? This enjoyment seems at odds with skepticism, in its remit as the No Fun Police. It seems to say “Look at the fun you could have if you believe” while also, knowing this is the art of a movement skeptic, saying “These kind of beliefs are absurd and you’re silly if you buy them.” At the end of the day, living the latter message, the former feels like the real mockery. The cold haze of coming home from a magic show to do your taxes.
There may be a hint of an answer for that in William’s other writing credits. He’s done work for role-playing games, in which one knowingly entertains a more magical world for funsies, knowing full well that’s all that can come of it. I am reminded, though, of the time in the ’90s when some RPG companies felt compelled to add disclaimers to their own fantasies, to discourage weirdos from drinking blood or getting lost in steam tunnels.
I haven’t been there for William’s Universe. I don’t know the BBU and what it’s about, but it does look like a good time. With all of those things in my mind, I begin to read, and maybe I can answer some of those questions…
In life I have a harder time remembering the differences between white anglo people than I do others. This isn’t a virtue brag, I think it has to do with the way I learned language by trying to pronounce unfamiliar words, reading shampoo bottles and such. Now I can remember somebody named Sampchang Bouphathong more easily than Tom Larsen. As a reasonable demography of the corresponding places and cultural situations IRL, this book is full of white people names that I am having a little trouble remembering. An author shouldn’t have to account for weirdos like me in writing, but I think this would be easier if I had stronger mental images of the people involved. This gets into a personal opinion as an author, on which I can totally see other people’s points of view. Do you keep character descriptions broad, so readers can imagine their own personal version of that character, or make them very specific? I would have been helped here by specificity, but others might not.
Early in the book we’ve got some substitutions. James Randi is fictionalized into “Reese Habenstein,” for example. I know I never would have heard of Randi in the paths I’ve walked if organized atheism hadn’t joined at the hip to organized skepticism, so it’s just as well he’s become fictional – may help an unfamiliar reader. First difference from IRL Randi that jumps out is the full head of hair… As we get into fictional versions of Skepchick and Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, I’m realizing I cannot divorce this fiction from reality, and at some point I’m going to need to do that, out of respect for the people whose real lives were messed up by elevatorgate.
I was never very familiar with the luminaries of movement skepticism, and mostly remember them as names tossed around in the “where do you stand” stage of the riftening. Did one of them have a rap CD, or is this where the divergences from reality begin? The image of the naked lady worshipping a man’s photoshopped skeptic orb has to be fake, right? Why does that sound familiar to me, like something I read about in passing more than ten years ago? William quickly sketches a picture of the boys club atmosphere of the skeptic movement, and effectively. I wasn’t there to know how sharp the satire is – or how much could just be accurate reportage.
We get to the “inciting incident” of the plot, and it doesn’t happen on the page at all. We see our protagonist follow a lady into an elevator, then transition to a new chapter, where the fallout of that moment is already in place. This could very easily have been a case of something I’ve criticized before – an author fearing to write the most uncomfortable moments of conflict. And yet, I think it actually worked here – seemed like an intentional head-spinner. Something to make the readers say “wtf” in a good way, not a “why am I reading this” way.
The squalling boy side of elevatorgate felt they were being shamed for any expression of sexual attraction to women – that they were being told to button it down, be puritans begging approval from them. But the real emotional root of that is just plain sexual shame. We all learn some amount of sexual shame at some point in our lives and when that is provoked, our reason can break down completely. Witness the grown woman writing smutty fanfic, who when called out by a thirteen year old girl, promptly produced jumped-up manifestos and doxxing and stalking and the whole nine.
Our sexual desires are always going to be a little embarrassing, but we can get into circles that cosign them, that allow us to let them off the leash. That can be good – it’s natural to feel sexual and nice to be supported in that – or it can lead to greater vulnerability to the freakout. Smut fic communities made it feel normal to that adult lady that she was writing stories about teen boys having sex with adult men. Somebody said, “hey that feels wrong to me bud,” and the writer felt like Joan of Arc.
The Rift establishes the boys club normalizing an attitude that men should have whatever freedom they feel, to express their sexuality. When a boundary is established – “hey that feels wrong to me bud” – faces flush with heat. You’re suddenly having other kids mock the way your genitals look in gym class. William writes this sort of feeling into our protagonist well enough, but I’d like to see the evidence of that sublimation made more explicit before the book is over. Reading on…
I think the biggest problem for this book in reaching the broadest audience would be a lack of cultural awareness of skepticism and humanism as ideas and as communities. I imagine a casual reader could read protagonist Tom’s intro to skepticism as a child as being an abusive introduction to a creepy cult. Within that context, the way mom comes home to find out dad has broken the philosophical materialist news to baby Tom might heighten the sense of wrongness, evoke other reasons mom might come home to dad and child, and find the child crying.
This is unfair, of course. When my sister and I were young adults and our whole fam was packed into one cheap apartment, I came home from a friend’s house one day to find her three year old daughter talking about how Jesus died for our sins. That’s fucken creepy from my point of view. But I still think that scene, in combination with all the unfamiliarity of skeptic and humanist orgs and what they’re about, in combination with the fact those orgs are barely established in the book before an antifeminist faction absorbs our hero? Mainstream readers may be confused, or just bothered. But I’m not them, and this is a guess at best. I cannot forget what I know, what I bring to the table in reading this.
I am realizing this is “men’s fiction,” like that Weasels Ripped My Flesh stuff. Of course, it is not the misogynistic pit of that genre, but the style of adventure writing is much the same.
About a third of the way through the book we get the big reveal of why, in this universe, the skeptic movement is plot central to real paranormal phenomena. This could be taken as a metaphor for how beautiful the world could be if we ditch the bad ideas holding us back, but given that the reward, in this universe, resembles the vision that the wild-eyed IRL seek, it feels kind of perverse to me.
LOL free speech zones got mentioned – I forgot this bush era fuckery. I especially like that the first mention of them has our journalist protagonist recoil in horror. Anything but that!
Just when it started to feel like the story might have gotten itself on some rails, with Tom going passive, we see that he still as agency in a darkly amusing way. That’s good writing – one little sentence of doom, that put a different light on the entire conversation that preceded it. I think my own stuff ends up on rails pretty often, don’t know that I ever really subvert the expectations that I create. In another turnaround that surprised me, it seemed like people were giving Tom too much importance, too many opportunities, but there was a story reveal to justify that, which is more than I can say for Poe Dameron in Episode VIII.
Like I said at the outset, the concept for this story is a freakin’ minefield for the very intended audience of the book. But every time I think, hm, this doesn’t seem like it’s being handled with appropriate sensitivity, something comes along to rectify that. One example I didn’t even clock until after I’d finished the book is this: The James Randi figure is shown as this revered authority and he seems like he’s (admittedly liberal-lean) espousing some both sides-ism, in a way that could almost feel like the book was favoring that view as well. But that character’s fate was ultimately decided by the flaw in that point of view. He wasn’t a reactionary shitbird, but the limited extent to which he was generous with shitbirds did not avail him well.
The tension I feel in the core of the BBU falls away the more time you spend with it. If I reflect, yes, it’s kind of weird that the reward for being a skeptic is a life of Wonka-esque pure imagination, but I can roll with it. And if I can, I bet most of you can too. Most of the writing I’ve seen in recent years is from amateurs who, whatever their talents, are hobbled by various fundamental flaws. William has his shit together. This book is professional, surely in the top 1% of quality for self-published novels.
The audience is limited, but if you’re on Freethought Blogs, you’re one of those privileged few. Give it a look! I think you’ll like it.