Ramblings in the Halfway House

I struggled a bit to find a topic for this week. I’m somewhere past the half-way point – somewhat behind my notional ‘schedule’ of where I wanted to be at this time, but not bad – of the WIP (now tentatively titled Heretic Blood) and I’ve sent a chunk of it out to the Eager Volunteers for a check through, but ‘still writing’ doesn’t do much for a blog topic. Overall I think it’s going fine, although I’ve already done a couple of reasonably major rewrites as I come to understand the story a bit better.

One of the rewrites was deciding/discovering that a character who I had originally planned on surviving the book should probably get killed. This really wasn’t a fit of bloodthirstiness (well, not only), it was sort of the most logical or plausible conclusion to an accumulation of actions in the story that all seemed reasonably incidental at the time. Then, all of a sudden they added up to the character being quite different than I originally thought they would be, and their death became the most natural conclusion to their art.

It was one of those times when I feel like I’m discovering things about my plot and my characters rather than creating them, although I know on some level that that isn’t true. However, I’m convinced that there are subconscious processes at work and as much as I find it mildly frustrating at times – it would be wonderful to not have to make these ‘discoveries’ which require significant rewrites and just write the damn story

Maybe that’s what you get from more extensive planning than I do. I know some writers have really detailed and extensive plans of their work before they ever begin to write, either in electronic form or big charts with strings and things going on. I have honestly tried it, but there are two problems. One is that (I guess because I’m somewhat disorganized by nature) my plans tend to be kind of a disaster area, and thus more confusing than helpful about 48 hours after I’m done making them.

The other is that I find making plans boring. Writing is interesting, especially at the start of the project when I think everything about the idea is super rad. If I’m excited, I basically want to stop making the plan and start getting some of the ideas on the page. Maybe this a moment where a more professional writer would be disciplined and do the damn plan and then not have to do as much major surgery on their work once they start writing it.

I kind of suspect, though, that this is one of those cases where everyone has to find whatever process they need to Get Stuff Written and then do that. The more I learn about my own writing, talk to other writers about their writing, and read different people’s ideas about how writing works, the more convinced I become that there is no one correct and proper way to do it. There are basically no rules. There may not even be guidelines. There’s just what works for an individual artist, and you gotta figure out what that is and then do it unapologetically.

Which leaves me with my rather arcane and confusing process where I sometimes feel like I’m in a somewhat uneasy state of detente with my own brain, but it works, or at least works better than anything I’ve yet tried, and thus I continue. I do feel ever so slightly bad for my imaginary person who got flipped from survivor to horribly mangled corpse in the course of a morning writing session, though.

Hmmm. I honestly thought this was just going to be a preamble to another topic, but I should probably get back to Heretic Blood and this feels like enough to call an entry now.

I am looking forward to sharing Heretic Blood with you, since it’s really quite different from either of the books I’ve done so far, and even at this point where I’ve been working on it for quite some time, I’m not hearing too much from Statler and Waldorf yet. Which tells me that yes, somewhat incomprehensible process or not, I should keep at it while that continues to be the case.

Thanks for reading.

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Doctor 13

I was going to try to take a bit of a break from Doctor Who posts, and then they went and revealed who the Thirteenth Doctor is going to be, and it’s enough of a big deal that I felt like I should probably write a bit about it.

If you haven’t seen the news (an unlikely happenstance), with the departure of Peter Capaldi from the lead role, the BBC has cast a woman to play the Doctor for the first time, and selected Jodie Whittaker for the role. There was, I suppose predictably, A Fuss.

My first reaction, I have to admit, was to be a bit perplexed, only because I had only seen her in Broadchurch and her character there was not what I would have thought of being particularly Doctor-y. But my brain gradually lurched into action, realized that they didn’t cast Beth Latimer as the Doctor, they cast the actor, and her performance was (to the extent that I’m really qualified to judge) was really good. I’m given to understand that she’s similarly good in the other things that she’s done, so at that point I figured they’d done a good job and started trying to figure out when we’d get new episodes.

Then I started to see the reactions people were having, and I don’t mean the people having meltdowns for various reasons. I mean the reactions from people (primarily, but not only, girls and women) for whom having a woman as the Doctor clearly meant so much. People were moved to tears. People were overwhelmed with joy. It was like a tidal wave of happiness that you didn’t have to look very hard to find. I read people (former Doctor Colin Baker among them) writing about how much this meant to their daughters.

It’s not always easy to realize how significant something may be to another person who has a far different perspective on the world than you do. We can say a lot of bad things about the internet, but it was great to have this easy insight into what the casting meant to others, and I got progressively more excited about it as the reaction became clearer. It seems pretty inarguable to me that the show has done a very good thing by casting Whittaker in the role if only for the sheer amount of joy that one act created. Hopefully this will be followed up on by a really strong series of stories that can reinforce all the positives that came just from seeing a woman in the role – seeing a woman actively be the Doctor, saving worlds and thwarting Daleks and generally doing the impossible.

I do hope the stories are good. I mean, selfishly I do, because I love the show and I love good stories. I also think that the writers are under an unfair kind of pressure here, one that I don’t envy them at all. Because if the reaction to the new series is not good, there will be all too many people who will quickly say that it is because of having a female lead, just as movies with female leads have tended to carry some extra pressure with them – if it bombs, we’ll never get to make another one. (Hopefully this is a situation that is starting to change) Never mind the number of projects with male leads that get made and are terrible, with a zillion similar projects still getting greenlit. Mostly I hope that Jodie Whittaker is able to enjoy her time in the role and the writers are just able to do what they do and that it all goes very well.

I guess I have one other thought. I’ve seen several people say that they hope that the issue of the Doctor being female isn’t part of the stories, and I can kind of see what they mean. Certainly, a bunch of lame jokes about the situation won’t help anything. However, thinking about this from a writing perspective, this is a character who has been alive for centuries, and – in most interpretations of things – this is the first time they’ve ever been female. It feels like there’s got to be really good stories to tell about that.

In any case, I’m really looking forward to seeing what they come up with. It’s always fun seeing a new actor’s take on the Doctor, and the more I think about the idea of a female Doctor, the more I think that there are really exciting stories to be told, and I’m very enthusiastic to see what ideas they’ve got. Hopefully by the time the series is ready to go, most of the Fuss will have died down and people will just be ready to enjoy what they’ve done.

Part of the interesting question here is why people care so much. Part of it, no doubt, is simply that Doctor Who is one of the most famous SF franchises of all time, and so people would like to see it continue to embrace more diversity in the characters it creates, actors it employs, and stories it tells. It’s also true that because of the in-built ‘regeneration’ mechanic, it was (or arguably, should have been) really easy to diversify the lead role. The Doctor completely redoes their body on a reasonably regular basis to begin with.*

Personally, the reason I spend as much time as I do thinking about Doctor Who is that it is one of the foundation stones of my love of SFF. I’ve spent a lot of time with all these characters and stories and so, yeah, I probably think a bit more about what it all means than is probably necessary, and I want the series to continue to do awesome stuff in the same way I want my favourite sports teams to pile up winning seasons.

That’s it. Thanks for reading. Something other than Doctor Who next week, I promise.

*-In my private version of things, the other Time Lords look on the Doctor with a kind of horror at the number of bodies they’ve run through, due to the crazy lifestyle they’ve chosen to follow. So the Doctor has regenerated a lot more than most Time Lords ever do. Except the Master, of course.

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George Romero

Today we had some really exciting news (that I’m gonna write about for the regular Tuesday blog) and some sad news with the passing of George Romero. Romero will always be best known for his zombie films, and it’s safe to say that without those movies, and the people who loved them, we wouldn’t have had Walking Dead and Shaun of the Dead and all of the many zombie-themed video games, books, comics and shows that many of us have spent way too much time on. Even if you’re getting a little tired of zombie-everything, anyone who has had a hand in bringing so much enjoyment to such a wide range of people did pretty damned well as a creator.

I remember that I *heard* a lot about Romero’s _____ of the Dead movies long before I watched them, and in large part because of that I had assumed they were stupid. It was my loss. When I finally came to watch them – through my love of the work of John Carpenter, who was influenced by and greatly admired Romero – I was very pleasantly surprised.

Because yes, there are zombies, and yes they’re looking to eat brains, and yes there’s a lot of people getting killed. But there’s consistently *more than that*, too. Romero was using his zombies to talk about issues he saw in society, and did it very well. To me the most persistent theme in his zombie films is that the real problem isn’t the zombies. Most of the time, the real problem, the real threat to the protagonists and their survival, is other humans, and their selfishness or stupidity or intolerance.  That one point, made over and over again, probably influenced the way I think about monsters and the horrific in my own writing about as much as anything else.

Anyway, most of the time, if you want to find the real monster in a Romero zombie movie, it’s the people. The zombies are more a force of nature. By Land of the Dead, the zombies and the human protagonists even reach a kind of resigned tolerance. The zombies destroy the specific people who had been trying to wipe them out, and the (now-ex) zombie hunters let them walk away: “They’re just looking for a place to go. Same as us.”

So Romero wasn’t just (or even at all) making gorefests. He made horror movies that were supposed to scare you and thrill you, but he was thinking as he did it and wanted you to think too. I thought it was really impressive to have a guy who made monster movies encouraging his audience to see the monsters as the same as them, rather than just enemies to fight. That’s what I always think about when I write my own stuff, and that’s what I’m gonna think about the next time I watch one of George Romero’s movies.

Thanks for the tales, Mr. Romero. You had a lot to say, and you said it with zombies.

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Companions

I have a couple not-really-related things for this week. It’s inelegant, but I’m sure we’ll cope.

First, although things have been a little Doctor Who heavy of late, I’m going there again; Orphan Black hasn’t thrilled me so far and I am not the right person to write about Handmaid’s Tale. The series just wrapped up giving us our next-to-last Capaldi story and (one assumes) the last to feature a companion who we really just met, Bill Potts.

The story with Bill’s exit was, I thought, pretty darned well done. The original flavour Cybermen were back and were genuinely disturbing. (Vastly superior to their newer reimaginings, but maybe that’s a whole ‘nother blog) We finally had a story with more than one incarnation of the Master in it, and it went exactly as it should, with the Masters stabbing each other in the back. I’m not sure the resolution really made a great deal of sense if you really think about it, but it’s not hard SF and you probably just shouldn’t.

Bill herself, though, went through quite the ordeal. First shot through the chest, then isolated from the Doctor for like ten years in a creepy alien hospital, then betrayed by the one friend she thought she had and horrifically transformed into a Cyberman. Oh, and then she died. There’s been some criticism of this (probably not unjustifiably so) because we had a lesbian POC character and she meets a grisly end; this seems to fit into the ‘Kill Your Gays’ trope that many writers are criticized for.

I’m not the right person to write about that either, and I’m not sure how much of a difference it makes that Bill’s consciousness survives, apparently off to explore the universe with the mind of her girlfriend from the series premiere. However that may be, the whole thing is in line with the exits of recent Doctor Who companions, who have of late ended their journeys in spectacular fashion. Clara died, or will, and the Doctor loses his memories of her. The Ponds are banished through time and stranded there. Donna gets her memories of her time with the Doctor wiped out. Rose gets sent to an alternate universe. Of revival-era companions, only Martha leaves on her own terms. Usually, the only way someone stops traveling with the Doctor is if there is some kind of traumatic, cataclysmic severing of the relationship.

It didn’t use to be this way. Ian and Barbara, the original companions, just decided they’d really like to go home. Liz Shaw got tired of being a sidekick and quit. Jo Grant decided to get married. Sarah Jane breaks the pattern a bit – the Doctor isn’t allowed to take her to Gallifrey – but then my favourite companion, Leela, starts it again. She leaves (also to get married, which is a bit ugh), and on Gallifrey, which is a great example of why you shouldn’t worry overmuch about Doctor Who continuity. On it goes: Nyssa leaves to help the sick on Terminus, Tegan just reaches a point where she can’t stand the terrors she has to face, Turlough just goes home.

Adric, of course, dies, but the point is this – it didn’t use to require a cataclysm for a companion to stop traveling with the Doctor. A lot of them just decided to do something else. As I thought about this, I wondered what the reason for the change could be, and I wonder if at least part of it has to do with how we, in the audience see things. We watch Doctor Who and think: ‘If I could travel with the Doctor, I’d never want to stop. Look how amazing!’ It’s fun and attractive to think about in the same way that a lot of fantastic scenarios are fun to think about: selling all your stuff and moving to a cabin in the woods, or an RV, joining the merchant marine, whatever. I wonder if, at least a little, the writers of the current show are putting that essentially fan-born mindset into the characters they’re creating, so that they also can’t imagine wanting to stop wandering around in the TARDIS.

I’m not sure if the older series did a better job conveying the down side of being, essentially, space vagrants, if this is a consequence of the revival show having a (generally? arguably?) lighter tone or (I think inarguably) deifying the Doctor more, or what the reason may be, but it interests me as a fan and it interests me as a writer.

As a writer, the main thing is that as much as we often need our characters to go on perilous, exciting adventures and do nerve-wracking things (that kind of thrilling, escapist experience being a big part of what fiction is for), I think it’s also important to show some of the difficulties with these things. It’s not all a fantastic adventure; it’s difficult to leave the comfortable and familiar to go do something dangerous, and most people can only take so much tension and alarm before they simply can’t do it anymore, as happened with Tegan. People also often just decide that they’re ready to Stop Doing A Thing now, no matter how much they loved the thing to begin with. Time to move on. I think that’s a useful lesson too.

Obviously different types of stories and genres will look at these issues to different extents and get into them more or less, but I think it makes things feel much more genuine if it’s at least a minor part of the story. Even The Hobbit, which is basically a lighthearted fantasy tale, has Bilbo fret about leaving home a little bit. We think as fans that if Gandalf showed up on our doorstep we’d be all ‘yes please’, but in practice if someone turned up and said it was time to Go and Do A Thing Immediately, my guess is that most of us would have at least some trepidations, and probably be glad when it was over, and we could go back to the world we understood just a little bit better.

This is not to say that I think the original series handled things better, exactly, although I think it’s less than ideal if the new series continues to have companions only leave for horrifying and/or spectacular reasons. I will also be interested to see what the writers do with the Doctor’s reaction to Bill’s departure, because (based on what we saw) as far as he knows, there was no happy ending for Bill and she’s either dead or stuck forever as a Cyberman. This, for me, is the main problem with always having companions leave mostly dead, kind of dead, or permanently damaged – the Doctor is fundamentally a decent person, and so you’d think after a good run of these he would simply say ‘no, not doing this any more. Can’t justify it.’

In any case, I await the Christmas special with interest and for what little it’s worth I’m sorry to see both Capaldi and Pearl Mackie leave. This season really worked well and I would have enjoyed more stories with the both of them. (Also, again, Michelle Gomez’ Missy.)

—–

Ok, other thing real quick. This is not (I swear) going to turn into a running analogy, but I really can’t escape the conclusion that similar to how you need to warm up before serious exercise if it’s going to go as well as it can, I sort of need to warm up to writing as well. When I first sit down to write it goes very slowly. I write, like, a sentence. Then I urgently need to go Do Another Thing. I come back. I probably erase the sentence. I try it again. Another Thing calls again. This goes on, sometimes, for some length of time.

Then, as I think I’ve mentioned before, there is very nearly an audible thunk from the mind-gears and abruptly, we are in Writing Mode and things flow much more easily. The whole process is a bit mysterious to me and vastly annoying if I have, say, two hours to get some writing in and the thunk doesn’t happen until an hour of Another Thing, but this is how it goes.

This is a consistent pattern to the point that I don’t think I can put it down to mood, state of mind, or the current project. It’s apparently just how my brain works (or fails to) and I’m sure I’m not the only person for whom this is true. No doubt there is, out there, a psychologist or similar brain science person who knows exactly what processes are going on, or failing to go on, in this situation.

I don’t mention this because I have any particular answer or method for improvement, or really any insight derived from it. I mention it because for a long while I definitely added to my stress by worrying over this whole warming-up process, and that it meant I was doing something wrong or not adequately prepared or motivated or whatever. I don’t think it does. I think it just means that your process is your process, and as much as possible you need to just not worry about whether it’s right or correct and just sort of do what works, do what gets words on the page in the end.

When I write, I gotta warm up to it. This is how it is.

This is also fearsomely close to advice, so I’ll call it here.

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Canada 150

Well, that’s over.

For those of you wondering what the heck I’m talking about (moreso than usual), this past weekend was not only Canada Day, but the much-hyped ‘Canada 150’, the 150th anniversary of Confederation and Canada becoming a (reasonably) independent nation. Since I live in Ottawa, this has been Red Alert Status stuff for what seems like the past ten years and finally, all the planning and preparations went into action.

Predictably, there was chaos and people got pissed off and probably a lot of people had fun and I avoided all of it.

I’ve written about Canada Day and what I think about where I live at least a couple times before, and usually ended up saying something about how grateful I am to live where I do (which I am) and how I think, overall, that this country is pretty great (which in a lot of ways it is). When I was younger, I would have said it was unambiguously great and said it was the best nation in the world.

As time has gone by, I guess I’ve learned more about Canada’s history, how it’s treated various different groups of people, how we haven’t always done so well, and continue to not do so well in very important ways. So, as much as I still admire a lot of what has been built here, in this place, I think there are a lot of things that absolutely need to be criticized and a lot of things that we need to insist are done differently and better. This country now both makes me very proud, and very ashamed.

I love the story about the Syrian refugees who came here and opened a chocolate business, not only supporting themselves but becoming employers in their new home. This is Canada. I really love the story about another group of refugees who, when the city of Fort McMurray was devastated by fire last year, launched a relief effort, because they knew what it was like to lose everything. This is Canada.

My friend Jay Odjick went to the opening of an exhibit at the Canadian Museum of History that he did the art for, and on what should have been a proud and special evening for him, he got hassled by security, and this is also Canada. There are over 150 communities that do not have drinkable water. Most of them are First Nations communities, and this is also Canada.

Canada is a country that does a lot of things right, in terms of rights for LGBTQ people, rights for women, a healthcare system that I am ever more grateful for as I watch the spectacular mess to our south, and in providing a place of safe refuge to people who desperately need it. All of these are things that, even as we can continue to do better at them, we can take a lot of pride in.

We do a lot of things wrong. Maybe foremost among those is our relationship with and treatment of First Nations people, for me our great national shame and something we must absolutely fix. We sell weapons to repressive regimes. We don’t do enough to safeguard our environment. These are things that we have to take our lumps for and commit to doing far better with.

As I get older, the more I see both the good and the bad in this place where I live, and so I feel less excited about Canada Day and less able to get excited about a celebration of a nation that still has so much work to do. The legacy of this place is absolutely one of peacekeeping and inclusion and achievement; it is also one of genocide and colonialism. So I end up more thoughtful and regretful on Canada Day than anything else, and especially on this Canada 150 that was supposed to be Canada Day plus plus plus.

I guess what I want to believe is that the intentions of this society are right and the trend is towards what is good and fair and just, that the forces here that are still about exploitation and division and repression are on the wrong side of history and that we will, day by day, improve this place and make it into a society we can take unqualified pride in.

The past is never going away, and we shouldn’t deny it or try to forget it. We can do better, and say that that’s not who we are any more. I would like very much to be, in whatever teeny tiny way, a part of making this place better, and there’s nowhere else in the world that I’d want to live. This land is a great blessing, the society that lives in it (I think) fundamentally has good intentions, and we need to live up to the latter so that we might be able to say we deserve the former.

Which is a lot more complicated than just saying that I live in a great place and that my country is amazing, but I think it’s closer to the truth. I feel like the truth is maybe the most important thing for us to hang on to these days, so there you have it.

I’m glad the ridiculously over-the-top Canada 150 celebrations are over, because maybe now we can focus on building a Canada that deserves a celebration.

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Missy

I have been enjoying this latest season of Doctor Who quite a bit. I think they’ve finally given Peter Capaldi a good run of solidly-written episodes to really show off his take on the character, his companion Bill has been very well done, and as a fan of the classic series I’ve enjoyed the return of some of the classic antagonists.

(We’re going to get into spoilery territory here, if you’re not caught up on Doctor Who. Proceed on your own advice)

I’ve also been enjoying the storyline with Missy, and her (apparent) desire for atonement for their past crimes and (apparent) desire to be a better person now. I said on Twitter a couple week ago that I would very much like this apparent desire for redemption to be real, and although the latest episode (ending with Missy standing, apparently thoroughly content, next to her past incarnation and Bill who has been horribly converted into a Cyberman) makes it all look very doubtful. I still want it to be true, though.

In part this is because Michelle Gomez has, I think, given a really compelling performance throughout the storyline. I should take a moment to say that after a wee bit of initial scepticism I have adored her in the role overall. Gomez channels just enough of past Masters (she gets a certain facial expression that Anthony Ainley used to use exactly right) to remind you that this is the same character, but has till carved out something entirely unique with her casual contempt for the people around her and almost bored attitude towards death. It has, then, been interesting to see her playing this character apparently regretting all this villainy, and she’s sold it very, very well. The scene where she asks the Doctor if they can now be friends again was really touching, and for a moment at least you really believed Missy wants, very badly, to have her oldest (and probably only) friend back again. You can tell that the Doctor wants to believe her as much as I do in the audience, although he doesn’t quite trust it, and the audience knows that he is probably right.

I have always kind of been a sucker for villain-redemption stories in general, though. Done well, they can provide an entirely new life for a character; in this case, a redeemed (or at least kind-of-redeemed) Master would be an intriguing character to have around. In the X-Men comics I read growing up, Magneto became (to me) much more interesting once he moved from being a villain to (sometimes reluctant) ally.   Walter Skinner was a much better character once he was, somewhat exasperatedly, on Mulder and Scully’s side than when he was trying to shut them down.  Missy (or some version of the Master, as this is apparently Michelle Gomez’ last season in the role) as a similar figure for the Doctor would be interesting territory for writers to explore, I think.

Done well, the story of a villain’s redemption is immensely satisfying. To cherry-pick a really easy example, the eventual redemption of Anakin Skywalker at the conclusion of Return of the Jedi is a wonderful ending to the original Star Wars trilogy. Even the film’s most iconic villain can be brought back to the good side in the end. I think, personally, this is part of why I like villain-redemption stories; I think I probably would like to believe that even the very worst people can eventually be persuaded that they’ve been wrong and convinced to change their ways. I don’t think I’m alone in this; one of the most beloved Christmas stories is basically this happening to Ebenezer Scrooge.

However, there are problems. On Doctor Who, we know, if we know anything, that an appearance by the Master (Missy incarnation or not) isn’t an appearance by the Master until it ends with them cackling like a maniac and revealing their diabolical plot. This is, along with some kind of disguise, one of the essential elements of a Master story, and we’ve already had the disguise.

This is part of the wider problem with redeeming villains in general. For a writer, if you turn your villain away from being a baddie, you get one compelling story out of it, but if you’re continuing to write in that world, you’ve now deprived yourself of an engaging villain, and you’ve already got a hero. Missy the antagonist, the weaver of plots and architect of horrible schemes, is far more useful to the writer than a reformed ally is ever likely to be. This, I think, is why a lot of redemption stories in comics and ongoing series tend to be temporary: however good the reformation story was, in the end the character works better as a villain, and so back they go to the other side of the chess board.

I am reminded, as well, of one of the more ‘meta’ parts of Neil Gaiman’s 1602 comic, where an alternate-universe version of Reed Richards is musing on whether Ben Grimm can ever be cured of being the Thing. Reed concludes that they live in a universe of stories (very Gaiman there) and that this unfortunately means that any cure could only be temporary, because Ben is a much better story as the Thing. Likewise, Missy is probably a better story, or makes for better stories, as a villain, and so I’m fairly confident that she’ll end up there sooner rather than later.

There’s yet another problem with redeeming villains. There is a point at which it is reasonable to question whether or not they deserve to be redeemed, whether or not they can reasonably be forgiven, and whether we can ever see them as anything but monsters. In the case of Missy, this is a character who has done evil things on an immense scale. Never mind the sheer number of beings they’ve killed, either personally or through things they’ve done, this is a person who destroyed a significant chunk of the universe through one of their anti-Doctor schemes in Logopolis. Can you ever really say to such a person, ‘well, it’s ok, we’re all good?’

I kind of touched on this a while ago in the blog regarding the controversy over Marvel’s ‘Captain America as secret Nazi’ plotline. There are some things, I think, that your characters don’t get to come back from, or at least, that your audience isn’t required to accept villains coming back from. In my view, secret Nazi Cap is one of those. Michelle Gomez’ winning performance aside, it may be reasonable enough to say that the Master is another. And yet, Darth Vader, the brutal, terrorizing, torturing, arch-villain of Star Wars, for some reason I’m all right with. It is, for me, a difficult equation to try to balance. I’d like the villains to be redeemed in the end, but as an audience it’s probably not always possible to accept and as a writer you may be pushing your luck with what you’re asking of your readers.

I guess we ask ourselves this about real world people all the time. Can people who have committed terrible acts ever be forgiven for them? Are they condemned forever? I suppose in some ways it would be comforting to think that no matter what mis-steps we make, that we can always be forgiven if we’re truly sorry for what we’ve done (thus the selling point of at least one major religion), but can we practically believe it? Is society required to actually do it?

Now, Doctor Who hasn’t come out and explicitly addressed any of this territory, and nor did Star Wars, not really, but I think one final reason why villain-redemption stories are compelling is that, done well, they make you think of all these issues. Part of the power of fiction is to thrust these conundrums upon us and ask us to wrestle with them, and the question of Missy, whether she genuinely wants to atone or is just waiting to drop her latest bomb on the Doctor, and whether her atonement could ever be enough for us, are interesting puzzles for an audience to pick at.

I don’t really have answers for the sticky questions above. Except perhaps that yes, Anakin Skywalker is redeemed for everything he did as Darth Vader, but he gives his life to earn it.

—–

I also saw Wonder Woman. It was, I thought, a really good movie, for a variety of reasons. However, I’m not going to write blog post on it. After I got home from the film I made a Facebook post about how I had liked it and a very intelligent friend of mine posted back: “What did you like about it?” This took me me back to long-ago conversations when I was doing my MA. This friend is, I have to emphasize here, a thoroughly wonderful person and an amazing companion for both serious and light-hearted times, but every so often the conversation would wander around to scholarship, and sometimes even my research, and then they would ask something like ‘what did you think about it?’ or ‘and what did you conclude?’

In that moment I was (as I guess one is) intensely aware that this person is much cleverer than me and far more well read and that I mostly didn’t want to say something that was ignorant, ill-conceived, stupid, or all of the above. I also lack(ed) the conversational artistry to extract myself from such situations with clever nothingness. In my memory, I usually said something thick and waited for oblivion to come. (I should say, too, that I know my friend was either trying to be helpful, taking an interest, or both. I knew it then. I still never did well under those suddenly serious eyes.  Squirm squirm.)

All of which to say that there has already been a good deal written about why Wonder Woman is a good and probably important movie by people who have a better perspective on it than me and articulate the arguments better than I will. It’s not terribly important that the world has my perspective on Wonder Woman, beyond that I think it’s good and that you should go see it, and I don’t want to say anything ignorant, ill-conceived, or stupid.

I did answer my friend’s post though. I hope they didn’t think I was very thick.

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Grenfell

I normally keep my politics out of this blog; this is a writing blog, not a political one, and I know you don’t come here to read about my personal views on things. Well, things other than writing. I’m going to make an exception this week, because in thinking about what I should have as a topic for this Tuesday, there was nothing I wanted to write about more than Grenfell Tower.

If you didn’t see it in the news, Grenfell Tower was an apartment building in London in which a fire broke out last week – for reasons yet undetermined – and then, with horrifying speed, the entire building was quickly ablaze. At least 79 people are known to have died (by the last count I have seen) but the number is very probably higher since there are still people missing and no realistic hope of survivors. Apparently the fire was intense enough that there may simply be no identifiable remains of everyone who perished inside.

So, Grenfell Tower was a terrible disaster, but that’s not really why I wanted to write about it for today. I wanted to write about it because what happened there was, among all the other things it was, a particularly graphic illustration of the consequences of a particular kind of politics that seems to have far more support than it should, presently. The disaster at Grenfell Tower was the result of deliberate decisions, to reduce government budgets (for things like fire departments), to cut health and safety regulations, and to loosen restrictions on corporations. All of this is supposed to be somehow beneficial, but what we got was an appalling conflagration.

Obviously this all happened in the UK, but the ideas that led to Grenfell Tower are certainly not unique to Britain. The message of cutting regulation, of lowering corporate tax, and cutting civic budgets is perfectly familiar here as well. We are told that if we do all these things on behalf the wealthy, these benefits will trickle down to the rest of us. Rich corporations hire people and buy things. Let them make money.

The problem with the message is two-fold. First, as most economists seem now to argue, trickle-down is a lie. If you make the wealthy wealthier, all you do is make rich people richer. There’s not a lot of evidence that this has any benefits beyond their bank accounts. Second, of course, is Grenfell Tower. The UK government spoke with pride about abolishing the ‘health and safety culture’ that they said was a hinderance to the economy.

Money. Money placed above people’s health and safety. This, as a policy goal.

The people who renovated Grenfell Tower apparently saved about £2 a siding panel going with the non fire-retardant panels rather than the fire-retardant ones. This is almost certainly why the building went up the way it did. I saw the total savings estimated at about £1500, for the whole building. The contractor says that they followed all regulations, which may well be true. However, the person or people who made that decision simply did not give a damn about the people who were going to live in Grenfell Tower, or what might happen to them. I have no doubt that it helped, or rather hurt, that these people were poor and mostly not white, but the overriding concern was clearly to cram a few more bills into already stuffed pockets.

There were other problems. The building had no sprinkler system and apparently the fire alarms were not working. It’s possible that fire breaks meant to stop the spread of fire from one part of the building to another, which were removed as part of the renovation, were never put back. Residents in the building had complained about all these things, with no effect, probably because the people they brought their concerns to were wealthy and powerful and also did not give a damn about the people who lived in Grenfell Tower.

The former government of David Cameron boasted of cutting the time fire safety inspections took from 6 hours to 45 minutes. Do it fast. Do it cheap. Do it well, or do it right, an increasingly alien concept, to people of this philosophy. There is a frightening truth that I think we need to come to terms with to understand how our society works, and how to make our decisions about what to do and who to support going forward. That is simply this: Corporations are not your friend. The wealthy are not on your side. They will not look after you, they are not interested in helping you. Perhaps it is necessary to be ruthless to be a success in business, but the rest of us need to absolutely recognize and keep that ruthlessness in mind. They don’t care about us, perhaps because they can’t, more likely because they simply don’t want to, but either way – they are rich and powerful and they are not on your side, not ever.

These are the terrorists that I am afraid of, the ones who will look you in the eye and tell you they’ve done their job, smile and tell you that everything is taken care of, and then turn away and let you live in a deathtrap.hey are killers drenched in blood and they do it for a buck rather than any cause that they believe in, or perhaps money is the only thing that they do believe in. They’re terrifying because, again, they don’t appear to be, will tell you with apparent sincerity what altruistic and benevolent people they are, and then make the most ghastly, heartless decisions a moment later, deny it until confronted with overwhelming evidence, and then simply shrug and say it was all perfectly normal practice. It is, really, and that is why ordinary people absolutely need a government that will be on their side to somewhat redress the balance.

I really don’t think there’s anything to be done about people who will save a few dollars getting the non fire-retardant materials for a building people will live in, except that we need our government to protect us from them. I saw a thing a little while ago arguing that we should love our regulations and love our bureaucracy because they keep us safe. They do. You don’t have to look very hard to find slag heaps of evidence that letting corporations ‘regulate themselves’ is an absolutely suicidally bad idea. (If you’re interested, maybe start with the Hanford Site and work on from there)

Corporations will not do a single thing that doesn’t directly help their bottom line unless there’s something that can force them to do so. Left to their own devices they will cut corners and cut the throats of people as long as it increases profits. One might argue that’s literally all a corporation is supposed to do, and maybe that’s true, but it’s also why we absolutely need politicians and governments who are ready and willing to put limits and controls on them. We need them to be on our side, the side of ordinary people. We need to choose allies who are explicitly on the side of ordinary people first and foremost, and we need to carefully interrogate the real policies of people who claim to be to see whose interests they are really serving.

What I mostly want to do is encourage you to remember all of this the next time someone tries to tell you that we need to cut civic services, reduce regulations, and ‘get out of the way’ of corporations. I want you to remember this the next time someone tries to tell you that we need to run government or society like a business. Tell them that you know exactly where that road leads. It leads to a tower of ash and grief.

Thanks for reading. Next week things here will be back to normal, or as normal as they ever are.

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Grab Bag

As the title suggests, this is going to be a bit of a grab-bag of thoughts I’ve had while getting back to work on the current WIP. (Which still lacks an actual title. Hmm.) I was going to follow on from writing a bit about the TV adaptation of American Gods last week by writing about the TV Handmaid’s Tale this week, but I’m not the best person to talk about it and I’m not sure that I have anything especially noteworthy to say at this point anyway. Except I guess that if you haven’t been watching it, you should a) brace yourself and b) go watch it, because it’s quite well done.

I am, as summer reluctantly comes to my part of the world, trying to get back at working on my current project somewhat systematically, with the aim (still?) being to have a complete first draft done by the fall. Part of what I’m trying to figure out is how I can make writing a scheduled part of my routine. I do much better with a lot of stuff when I have a plan to always do it at X time on whatever days of the week than when I just try to figure out when it gets done on the fly. This isn’t just the case for writing, it’s how I get myself to the gym and get my running done and a lot of other stuff. If I leave the time for things vague, they live in an eternal ‘later’, never getting actually taken care of. If I have in my mind that I do this (say) every morning starting at 9, then something takes place.

I don’t at all suggest that this is some iron rule for how to Be an Effective Writer, because that would be advice, and mostly I think everyone needs to figure out their own methods and process that works for them anyway. Some people probably do need to write every day, some people work well with specific word targets per week, some people need to Go To A Place and Work There. Despite (although also in some part because of) all the earnestly written declarations on how to Do Authoring, I think there’s no universal formula and you just gotta figure out what leads to you getting words on the page and then unapologetically do that. Of course that’s not an easy thing to figure out, but neither is trying to contort yourself to fit someone else’s process. I think I have a ‘morning writing’ thing going on now and we’ll see how that works.

Part of what caused me some difficulty recently (along with all kinds of Real Life stuff, and then also just being very tired) was the disappearance of a deadline. I’ve mentioned before that I work very well when I have a deadline (I do not miss deadlines) and that part of the adjustment from being a student to being basically employed by me post-education is not having deadlines imposed on me. Again, that eternal ‘not now, but soon’ becomes very attractive. I’m getting better at working without deadlines but if I’m being honest what I also do is seize on things that I can use as a deadline to restore that familiar motivation.

For this WIP, I had decided that I wanted to have it ready to pitch to the agent Guest of Honour that will be coming to this year’s Can*Con SFF conference in Ottawa, which seemed a solid idea. (Brief aside – I am on the programming team for Can*Con, we’ve got some very exciting stuff planned for this October, and you should definitely come if you can. All the details are not ready to release yet, but you can check out a lot about us here.) Unfortunately, I did the required research and found that she doesn’t rep the kind of thing that I’m working on. Which is of course fine, and of course she’s still an amazing Guest of Honour for Can*Con to have, but her usefulness to me as a deadline suddenly dematerialized, and not a lot got written for a while.

I really need to break myself of this deadline habit.

As I’m writing at the moment, I’m also reading, of course, and right now I’m reading the John Le Carré autobiography I mentioned a while back, and re-reading some William Gibson. They are, I guess obviously, very different writers, but to me they are also similar in that I deeply admire the way they craft with words. They’re both (to me) quite demanding writers, in that their writing requires your attention. Both can get a lot out of a little, conveying things of tremendous importance with a perfectly-chosen word or two, so you really can’t miss anything.

If you’ve been reading the blog for a long time, you’ll remember that there was a time when I tried, very hard, to write like William Gibson, and that it didn’t go very well. I don’t do that any more, but I find reading both him and Le Carré inspirational in the sense of reminding me what is possible to do with words when you put them together right, and to try to push myself to achieve something at least somewhat similar. This isn’t to say that other styles of writing can’t also be effective, can’t also be fun to read, and can’t also be artistic. But I guess the arguably subtler or more intricate mode of operation twangs something inside me just that little bit more, and is the style that I would be most content if I could produce something like. I’m not sure that I’m anywhere in that quadrant of the galaxy, but (all my wittering about struggles with the WIP notwithstanding) I am enjoying the effort.

One of the decisions I made in writing this current WIP was to write it just as I wanted to, to just really let myself use exactly the words I wanted to. I was going to thoroughly ignore the questions of ‘is this the right voice?’ and ‘what kind of audience does this appeal to’? I was just going to write something that pleased me, do it as well as I could, and then see what people thought of it. The basic idea is/was kind of crazy anyway, so if it ended up something that appealed to no-one else but me it wouldn’t necessarily be the end of the world. Fortunately for me, what I’ve heard back from the Eager Volunteers and my writers’ circle has so far been very kind and very encouraging, which of course makes me more confident to go on doing things this way. Again, I’m not suggesting this is always the right way to do things, but at the moment it’s having good results for me.

Anyway. I’ve got a little over 30,000 words (much of it non-sequential, of course) written, and if I can get down to this over the summer I should be able to finish my story in time for the autumn. Then I will begin a whole new set of challenges, but that’s something to worry about another day. That’s what I’ve got for you this week. Thanks for reading.

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American Gods (kind of)

This is one of those weeks when I had an idea for what I was going to write about, had written a good chunk of the blog in my head at least, and then just before it was time to actually do the thing, something happened that required a change. To explain – I had decided last week to write about the TV adaptation of American Gods, a novel by Neil Gaiman that I enjoyed tremendously. Partly that was because we were 5 (now 6) episodes in which seemed a fair body of work to start to talk about the series on, but mostly because there was some controversy surrounding the opening of episode 5.

To explain (further), Episode 5 opens with a segment depicting a tribe that has just crossed the Bering Land Bridge*, entered North America, and what happens to them. It’s striking, but a lot of criticism emerged about the show’s portrayal of First Nations people, the decision to use CGI characters rather than employing First Nations actors, and the (apparent) lack of consultation with First Nations people in creating the segment. I happen to agree that a lot of this is problematic, and so that’s what I was going to write about today.

However. Late on the weekend I read a reminder that people in positions of privilege (such as myself) shouldn’t speak on behalf of those from marginalized groups. We should allow them to speak for themselves, and listen. So I’m not going to write what I was going to, although I will suggest you seek out some of the critiques of Episode 5 of American Gods and read them. They’re important, especially for writers, to think about. We all want to create something cool, but we need to be very thoughtful and cautious about how we do that, always.

I will say that I think it’s unfortunate that the show made this misstep, because overall I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how American Gods has gone. I tend to be sceptical about TV or movie adaptations of favourite books, because I know it will bother me if I feel like they haven’t been done well. The movie version of Johnny Mnemonic was horrifically bad, but it was even worse for me because I had read and loved William Gibson’s short story. (And then even worse beyond that because I had persuaded friends to go to the film based on my enthusiasm for the source material)

Overall American Gods has done well, I think, in portraying Gaiman’s story. Some parts have been basically straight depictions of parts of the book, some places have diverged a little from the original, and then there have been entirely new parts and changes in direction. I’m both a little glad to see that – because it makes me feel as though I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen – and a little worried – because the book was very good and so it’s maybe natural to suspect that any changes will be for the worse.

So far, though, although I haven’t loved all the new things, the overall experience has been fun to watch. Ian McShane is an excellent Mr. Wednesday, Ricky Lovett is good as Shadow Moon, and Gillian Anderson has been an absolute delight as Media. Gaiman’s strange, sprawling story cannot be easy to adapt to television and so far this is a good effort, even if the showrunners need to be a little more careful with some of what they’re doing.

——-

Somewhat along the same lines, I spent the weekend at a writing convention. I personally enjoyed myself; I took part in really interesting panel discussions, met and renewed acquaintances with wonderful and talented people, and generally got to spend two days feeling like a writer. Which was nice.

However, at the same time that was going on, some other people had a far more negative experience, coming from a panel (which I wasn’t at) that was meant to talk about the portrayal of disabled people in genre fiction. It didn’t go well, and people I know left very upset. Again, it’s better if they speak for themselves, so you can read about one person’s experience here.

I wanted to mention it here, though, because it reminded me that as important as it is to include people from marginalized groups in our fiction and our discussions about fiction, it is absolutely crucial to do it thoughtfully and carefully and well. When it’s done wrong, it causes genuine pain and anger, and that’s obviously unacceptable.

The impulse to include people from all sorts of backgrounds and parts of society is absolutely a good one, but it is only step one of the process. The further steps require a lot of listening to those people, and a lot of letting them speak and take the lead. A lot of the time it can feel like people in privileged spots (like me!) need to be the ones taking action, but I’m increasingly learning that what we need to do is get out of the way and let others Do The Things. They’ll probably ask if they want help.

Anyway, this didn’t turn out to be the blog that I thought I was going to write this week, but it’s what I’ve got for you. Thanks for reading.

* – If nothing else, this controversy around American Gods introduced me to another, wider controversy regarding the Bering Land Bridge and how it is used to talk about human arrival in the Americas, which is both interesting and important to know about.

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Star Wars and the Future(s)

Last week was the 40th anniversary of the release of Star Wars, and since (as you will know if you read this blog much) it’s a movie series that I have loved a great deal, I thought I would write a little more about it today. I’ve written some about why I like these films so much before; I like the very clear good vs. evil of the stories and the idea that power always carries a price with it. (We saw a rather more shades-of-grey take on the setting with Rogue One, which was fun, but I hope they won’t continue that with Last Jedi.) I’m not sure I have anything new to say along those lines today, though.

Ok, so something new for this time around. I love the way the Star Wars movies (thinking primarily of the original trilogy, Force Awakens, and Rogue One) look. Specifically, I love the way the technology looks. Most of it is beat up and a lot of it is covered in grime. There’s no touchscreens and not a lot of chrome. In fact, not all that much looks shiny at all (C3P0 being the obvious exception), and the stuff that does mostly belongs to the Empire, to the bad guys. The good guys’ stuff is oil stained and scratched and dinged up, which I think helps quietly and consistently underscore the desperation of the Rebellion.

It’s pervasive through a lot of the tech in the movies, though. The outside of starships are not sleek and streamlined, and certainly don’t have giant bird paintings. There’s pipes and hatches and various flange-y bits sticking out everywhere. In general everything looks (to me, anyway) like tools rather than showpieces; this is all stuff that gets constant heavy use and is designed primarily for function rather than form. I like that a lot.

Now, there’s also arguably a bunch of stuff that is missing from the tech in Star Wars. The touchscreens are one example. There also doesn’t appear to be wifi or anything like it, R2 has to physically plug into computers with those very satisfyingly mechanical, rotate-y ports. There’s no hi-def recordings either, the very best you get is a flickery, blurry, mostly monochrome image, if you get that at all. This is, somewhat paradoxically, a retro-future, and although that sometimes ends up seeming silly, to me it works out.

Another recent example of this being done very well was the Battlestar Galactica TV series, with the corded phones and Cold War looking computers. There was an in-universe explanation for it, first of all that Galactica was an old ship, but also that the more advanced gear we’d expect was fatally vulnerable to Cylon shenanigans. That worked fine, but I don’t think it was necessary. One of the players in my Star Wars RPG likes to think about why there are no touchscreens in the game world, and although I enjoy hearing his thinking, I also don’t think I ultimately need an explanation. There isn’t because there isn’t. There isn’t because it’s cool.

That may be the reason why they continue to keep the retro-future, clunky tech in the new Star Wars movies. Consistency is of course part of the deal, and I like to think that part of it is that technology isn’t the solution to the problem in Star Wars. A lot of the time, technology is the problem, and so maybe that’s why the movies don’t glamorize it. Part of the reason, I also suspect, is that the clunkier tech tends to look more dramatic in action. There was a lot to like about Star Trek: The Next Generation, but no matter how furiously you tap on a touchscreen, it doesn’t convey a great sense of urgency, not like flipping some big chunky switches or slamming a receiver into its cradle.

I also know a lot of the props for Star Wars were scavenged or modified from real world bits and bobs, with the blasters being tricked-out pistols rather than purpose-built future guns. So some of the look is also probably practicality in set building. They used what was relatively easily available and could be used as-is (or as-was, I guess) rather than scratch-building a bunch of stuff that probably wouldn’t look as convincing in the end anyway. I really do like Star Trek perfectly well (not as much as Star Wars, but you probably knew that), but the computers and tech props made for the original series never looked like anything but props to me. Also everything is distressingly tidy. (I wonder whether part of why I like the knocked-about, messy Star Wars stuff is that my spaces tend to be cluttered, and anything owned by me tends to look beat-up in a hurry)

I also think that the way Star Wars looks reflects the way people in the late 70s and 80s imagined the future, which is probably inevitable but is kind of interesting to think about. (Now yes, of course I’m aware the movies are set in the distant past, but I think it’s reasonable to say that in imagining a world of space ships and interstellar travel and intelligent robots we’re thinking about the future of our society to some extent) First of all it’s not unreasonable to say that there are no touchscreens and no wifi in Star Wars because the people writing the scripts and making the props didn’t envision how technology was going to develop. This happens all the time, of course – in one of my very favourite books ever, Neuromancer, no-one in the ‘near future’ setting has a cell phone. That change in tech wasn’t seen coming.

That also gets me to another point, though, because Gibson is at pains to point out that he wasn’t trying to predict the future with Neuromancer, and that it was really a book about the 1980s. I think that’s almost always the case with the visions of the future that we create; they’re nearly always more about the time they were created in than any real attempt at futurism. They reflect the perspectives and assumptions that the creator was immersed in when they sat down to write. Neuromancer imagines a future where the line between technology and humanity is becoming blurry, that dehumanises people and makes the artificial closer to human. Star Wars imagines space as a place where people live and work in their regular lives, doing ordinary work; where there are working-class beings putting in a hard days’ labour. This is not a gleaming future with contemporary concerns solved, it is one that still has poverty and crime as things to be worried about as well as alarming space fascists.

Some of these visions of the future become obsolete as time goes by. I don’t think you’d get a lot of traction with a story about the gee-whiz, rockets everywhere, meals in a pill, spandex jumpsuit future of the 1950s any longer. There’s parts of it I think we actively don’t like and parts of it readers would not believe. (Although, I would also love to be proven wrong!) It’s not a version of the future that has aged very well for us. Almost universally (it seems to me), if someone does present you with this bright, shiny, perfected future, it’s because they’re setting up to jerk back the curtain and reveal some horrific underside.

It’s not always a case of future visions simply not aging well. Not all that long ago the futures we imagined seemed to almost always include the idea the virtual reality would become endemic, that we’d be constantly immersing ourselves in digitally created worlds to work and play. I don’t understand the technology enough to get why, but it didn’t happen (Gibson is interesting on the road we may have taken instead), and our VR fantasies seem vaguely silly, now.

On the other hand, we seem to like the 1980s futures a good bit more. That new Blade Runner movie that I fretted over a couple of blogs ago is very much cut from that cloth, for example. There’s something about that grim, crumbling future that still appeals to us, on some level, some part of it that fits with how we either think about our world or think about where we’re headed. You could argue that the steampunk genre takes a Victorian vision of the future as its inspiration. I don’t know why we like certain futures more than others, but it’s been something I’ve been thinking about lately, and I’m hoping to put together a discussion along those lines at Can*Con this fall. We’ll see.

However all that may be, the 1970s future portrayed in Star Wars is obviously one that works for today’s audience, or at least a good portion of it. When the two most recent movies came out, I remember hearing from more than a few people that they were glad to see that the tech was all chunky and beat the hell up. Captain Andor’s U-Wing looks like it has been used for many hundreds of hours by hundred of people and it is glorious. When we meet Rey, she lives in a junkyard of wrecked and abandoned ships. The Rebel base, when we get there, is once again in a dingy, dark concrete bunker. Saw Gerrera’s partisan stronghold was filthy and his gear looked like it might stop working any second now.

40 years is a fantastic run for any imaginary world, and it says something about the basic quality of the Star Wars story that both the original movies and the newer additions to the franchise seem to be as popular as ever. I hope they keep making Star Wars films for us as long as they have good stories to tell, and I hope all of them have that clunky, battered, busted-looking tech as part of them.

—–

If you’ve missed me talking about it before, the Limestone Genre Expo is in Kingston this weekend, and it’s not too late to register! This will be my second year attending and if last year is anything to go by it will be a marvellous weekend of time spent thinking and talking about reading and writing. I’ll be on a few panels and hanging out at the Renaissance Press booth if you’d like to say hello, and it’s a great opportunity to meet writers and fans of great fiction. Details are here.

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