Pokémon Go has created a new class of urban pedestrians, and as I watch them walking to hatch eggs or loitering around lured PokéStops, I have one overwhelming impression: Nineteenth-century Paris.
The nineteenth century was a slower-paced time, and if you had the luxury of being in the upper class, you enjoyed long stretches with nothing to do. In Paris, having nothing to do became a virtue in and of itself, and the fashionable solution was to go for a stroll around the city. Getting somewhere wasn’t the point, so the pace of the stroll was slow; for a while, it was fashionable to take your pet tortoise for a walk (or, in the case of poet Gerard de Nerval, your pet lobster). These Parisian amblers soon became an entire subculture, complete with a name: flâneur.
A flâneur was an idle stroller who wandered aimlessly around a city, usually alone. Not himself an object of observation, blending into the crowd with near-invisibility, he walked around looking without a plan or destination, enjoying looking at points of interest and whatever unexpected sights might present themselves. Sound familiar?
The flâneur was the essence of the everyman. Yet, as today, the nineteenth-century French image of an everyman did not apply equally to everyone. For starters, a flâneur had to live in the city. The country lacked the requisite people and points of interest for the flâneur to observe. Naturally, the domain of the flâneur was also restricted to the better parts of the city.
More importantly, the flâneur had to be the right gender, race, and social class. A woman wandering aimlessly around the city by herself sent an entirely different, and far less innocent, message. Even if she really was just out for a walk, she couldn’t fill the role of the unseen observer; she was likely to attract unwanted attention and would find amenities like restaurants closed to her, either by law or by social convention. A nonwhite man couldn’t be a flâneur either; his skin color made him an object of attention rather than an anonymous everyman. And a lower-class man who had the free time to stroll around was a good-for-nothing idler and troublemaker.
In Pokémon Go, we see those age-old cultural assumptions playing out once again. A free app is an everyman’s game, yet not everyone gets to participate in it equally. Both PokéStops and Pokémon are almost exclusively found in urban areas, even though it would make more sense to find Pokémon in wild areas, so rural dwellers effectively can’t play unless they drive long distances to the city.
Other groups of people face obstacles which are cultural, not geographical. Women may not feel safe wandering around a city alone and might feel the need to only play this fundamentally solitary game if they can get a group of people together. People of color, especially black men, don’t benefit from the assumption of innocent motives when they present themselves in public; there are already cases of police stopping them. Compounding the problem, certain Pokémon only come out at night.
Flâneur culture was a charming part of nineteenth-century history. We can benefit from a return to an understanding that we’re a part of the city we occupy, and there are more than just health benefits to going outside and simply experiencing the urban spaces around us. But we need to take steps to ensure that, this time, the flâneur’s experience is open to all.
Our attitude toward Nazis is changing, and not for the better.
Ever since World War II, Nazis have occupied a unique niche as the West’s universal standard for evil*, and as such, have been the go-to model for villains in fiction for 70 years. Countless books, movies, games, and comics use Nazis as villains, and even more feature villains overtly modeled on the Nazis in their appearance, methods, or ideology. Even during the Cold War, Communists never quite had the requisite degree of absolute soulless villainy to fill this role: Lucas didn’t model his Imperial officers’ outfits on the Red Army, for instance, and Indiana Jones wouldn’t go up against Communists until 2008.
Today, Nazis are still treated as the embodiment of absolute evil. But as the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles, it is the media, not them, who have become the primary voice influencing how we understand them. Most people today, especially young people, don’t know any Holocaust survivors personally. But we’ve all seen countless movies with Nazi villains, many of them in sci-fi or other settings strongly divorced from historical reality. The influence this shift has on our culture is subtle. After all, when Nazis show up in movies, they’re the villains almost without exception. But there’s a difference between a movie villain, however evil, and a real-life mass murderer who killed millions of actual people. There’s a growing attitude that views Nazis as evil, but evil like Darth Vader. And it’s acceptable to like and even admire and emulate a movie villain (for instance, through cosplay).
Fictional villains are abstract. No matter how immersive the story, we ultimately know it isn’t real and that gives us a comfortable distance from what’s happening (hence why movie villains often commit such over-the-top acts in order to create an emotional reaction, like blowing up entire planets). Since movie villains harm no one in real life, they’re in a sense more of an aesthetic choice or a statement of one’s attitude, an attitude which some people, often a lot of people, identify with. The villain is often a movie’s most memorable character. Villains are clever, they’re stylish, they don’t play by the rules, and they always have a plan. It’s easy to see why this style, divorced from any actual misdeeds, can be appealing, as in Tom Hiddleston’s Jaguar ads, or the countless romanticized depictions of pirates that focus heavily on hats and eye makeup and only very vaguely on what they actually do.
This villainy-as-aesthetic attitude accounts for the resurgence of overt Nazi imagery and language on the internet in communities like GamerGate, which has a mascot who is—you guessed it—a literal Nazi. And also an anime schoolgirl. (No, for you sweet summer children who have never heard of GamerGate, I am not making any of that up.) They see themselves as movie villains and therefore identify with Nazis, who have been presented to them as movie villains all their lives. Most of these people are simple trolls in it for the shock value, but the boundary between them and genuine neo-Nazis is blurry, with the muddying cultural waters providing cover for a resurgence of actual white supremacy. Those who only use the aesthetic “ironically” for shock value can claim that they’re not causing any real-life harm…but then again, so can the real neo-Nazis, since they too were raised in a world where the actual repercussions of their actions are abstract, not concrete.
Nazis as movie villains also account for the otherwise-inexplicable Case of the Nazi Romance Novel For Such a Time. Casting a real-life concentration camp commandant as not only redeemable but romantically desirable would be both impossible and obviously reprehensible. But how about a movie Nazi? Kate Breslin isn’t writing a romance about a real Nazi and a real Jew; she’s writing the equivalent of a fanfic about Rey and Kylo Ren. And Aric’s redemption at the end is not forgiveness for killing thousands of real people, but redemption in the sense of Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi. Anyway, that strikes me as both the most plausible and the most generous interpretation. (ETA: The same goes for Broken Angels, the other novel featuring a romance between a Jew and a Nazi. This is getting out of hand.)
This shift in cultural attitudes is not harmless. This abstraction of Nazis from real to fictional both provides cover for real-life white supremacist movements and blunts our reaction to the actual historical atrocities**. As a fiction writer, it’s difficult to figure out the most constructive reaction. It’s a Catch-22: Any depiction of Nazis in fiction, however careful, inherently reinforces the problem, but ignoring them clearly doesn’t help, either.
So for now, I’ll simply urge everyone to remember that, however many movies they appear in, the Nazis were real people who committed real atrocities, and this is something we can’t afford to forget.
*I’m curious about who, if anyone, occupied this niche before World War II. None of the players in World War I had the necessary nefariousness, nor did earlier conquerors like Napoleon, who always had a streak of the admirable, even from his enemies’ perspective.
**Coupled with the extremely high profile of the Holocaust relative to other historical atrocities, there’s an even more insidious possible consequence: The abstraction of genocide itself into a quasi-fictional concept. According to the media, only Nazis commit genocide, and Nazis are movie villains; therefore, genocide could pass from a real, recurrent, and critically important problem into the same sort of threat as a villain taking over the world. After all, when was the last time you read a book or watched a movie about, say, the Hutus and Tutsis?
Title comes from the TVTropes page about Nazis, another good example of diluting them into a stock type defined by their appearance and mannerisms. Star Wars is the property of Disney. Darth Vader cosplay found here (Darth Vader is, of course, the property of Disney). GamerGate Nazi mascot found on Reddit, obviously. For Such a Time is the property of Kate Breslin.
UPDATE: Among the Red Stars is now represented by the fabulous Thao Le of Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency!
UPDATE 2: Among the Red Stars has been acquired by Emilia Rhodes of HarperTeen! It will be released in the fall of 2017, but you can shelve it on Goodreads now.
Because some stories need to be told.
In 20 years of writing, I’ve never before encountered a story that demanded to be written, the sort of story where you’d actually be happy to discover that someone else had beaten you to the punch and written the exact same thing, because you just want it to be out there. But then, I hadn’t met the Night Witches.
I discovered the Night Witches by way of recon pilot and fabulous hat-wearer Eugenie Shakhovskaya after innocently asking my father-in-law, who is a war aviation buff, whether any women had flown in World War I. Not being particularly interested in World War II, I didn’t pay much attention to Shakhovskaya’s Great Patriotic War counterparts until I found myself with an orphaned plot thread about a female pilot who rescues a man. I toyed with possible settings. Why not a historical one?
Then I began reading about them. Young women 18 or 20 years old, flying slow, flammable wood and canvas biplanes designed as trainers and retrofitted to hold a few bombs. Shutting off their engines to glide over their targets making no sound except the whistle of wind through the control wires, a sound that reminded the Germans of witches’ brooms. Risking their lives to defend their beloved Motherland against invaders with the stated goal of wiping them all out. Why don’t we already have a book about this? Why don’t we have a movie about this?
The people. The stories. A navigator setting a distance record gets lost in the frozen Far East. A student sends a distraught letter to her astronomy professor after hearing that a bomb hit their observatory. A pilot has a confrontation with her commanding officer and later dies in a suspicious accident. Stories that demand to be told.
But the single biggest reason I wrote Among the Red Stars is because I made the mistake of telling my father-in-law that I was thinking of writing something about the Night Witches. He promptly told everyone he knew. At that point I had to write it.
You can see my pitch and first 250 in the Pitch Wars alternate showcase here.
Illustrations, top to bottom: Marina Raskova in the Far East; Polikarpov Po-2; Lilya Litvyak and her Yak-1. You can see the entire illustration gallery (for entertainment purposes only) here. See the rest of the blog hop after the cut.