Can*Con 2017

Can*Con is over for another year and we are all getting some rest. (for ‘rest’, read ‘back at our “real” jobs’) Notwithstanding a few minor crises, the weekend went really well and it was truly very gratifying to hear from so many people that they had a good time at the con and enjoyed what we had to offer on the program. I was personally very proud of some of the panels we put together, and it was wonderful to hear that people liked them and to see that so many of them went well.

I think the whole Can*Con team is doing a fantastic job not just running an entertaining, compelling SFF convention for readers and writers, but also reflecting the diversity of the fans and creators of the stories we love in the people we have as guests and the programming we do. It’s still very much a work in progress, but I think every year gets a bit better and it meant a lot to hear people say they were happy with what we had for them this time.

I always come away from Can*Con excited about writing and about my writing in general; it’s very affirming to be surrounded by people who thing that fantastic stories are important and valuable, and that writing is important and valuable. What I need to do now is make sure that I convert that excitement into words on the page/screen, but it’s an invaluable boost right at a time when I feel like I’ve cleared a major obstacle on the current WIP.

The only other thing I want to say is of a more personal nature. I think a lot of times we can feel like we’ve got roughly a billion connections to people through all our technology, and perhaps naturally, since they light up and/or make our devices make noise, they demand a lot of attention, and it’s hard to tell which are the connections that matter. I was reminded this weekend that the people who even at a moment when they’re super tired and have their own things they should be focusing their last reserves of energy on, will take some time to sit down with you and help you get your ship righted and feeling better about yourself, those are the connections that matter. Those are the people who are really ‘with’ you in a sense that has some significance, and those are the connections where our energy should go rather than some other stuff that isn’t anything.

Some people did that for me this weekend and I am truly very grateful. Perhaps I’ll pay my debt some day.

Thank you to everyone who came out to Can*Con and made the weekend a great success. It was great to spend time with everyone that I got to spend time with, and for those that I didn’t cross paths with, my apologies and we’ll do a better job of it next year. We’re already kind of excited about 2018. You should join us if you can.

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Busting Through

Another short one today, I fear – I am a little pressed for time as (among other things) we get geared up for Can*Con this coming weekend. It has been a lot of work (and I didn’t even do most of it!) but we’re very excited about the con this year and I’m personally very proud of what we’ve put together for our guests this year. I’m really looking forward to it (although I’m gonna be exhausted for Monday) and I will hopefully remember enough of it to write something reasonably coherent about it all afterwards.

For now, though, the main thing I achieved in the past week was finally breaking through the logjam on the WIP. Basically the problem was that I got to a point where I realized there needed to be some pretty major rewrites or at least reworks of even the incomplete first draft that I had done so far. To make the plot work I had to move some things around, create some entirely new material and then figure out where to add it in.

This is more or less the kind of thing you always have to do when working on a story, especially when hammering together the first draft, but the scale of this particular rework was pretty daunting, and the first couple of times I sat down to try to do it (way back in August) I couldn’t figure out how to make it work and ended up just sort of walking away. This happened a couple times, and I would come back to try to write some other parts of the story, but always had the ‘yeah, but you need to do that rewrite’ hanging over me and it never went very well.

I started to think about other stuff that I could write instead. New projects always seem fresh and exciting and it’s often tempting to switch. I got to thinking that maybe this whole project was flawed at its core and that I should just junk it. William Gibson said that the process of writing is, in part, overcoming your revulsion for your own work, and mine got pretty palpable over the past few weeks.

So, basically nothing got written through September, which got me to feeling that the work was Not Going Well, which is kind of discouraging in itself. I tried very hard to remind myself that this happened with Bonhomme Sept-Heures, and it got written, and it really happened with King in Darkness, which I basically did give up on until a friend talked me out of it. So I think this just is a part of the process, or at least my process, and as much as it’s not fun it’s a stage that I need to drag the whole mess through.

This past weekend I had part of an afternoon to myself, and so I told a couple of people that I was going to Solve The Problem (thus committing myself), sat down, and figured out how to make it work. In terms of actual number of words written, it wasn’t a lot for several hours work, but in terms of things moved around and plot restructured it was a successful major surgery. I now know (I’m pretty sure) where all the major pieces need to go and I feel like I can press on creating without the cloud of ‘this is fundamentally a mess’ hanging over me.

So that was a good weekend’s work. I mostly write this as a reminder to Future Me when I’m working on whatever the project after this will be that for whatever reason, this is a stage I seem to go through, and that probably the sooner I just grimly push through the apparently insurmountable issue, the better. Possibly some of you reading have similar issues and maybe this will be helpful. I think it’s very easy to get negative about ourselves and our work, and it’s good to remember that the whole thing doesn’t have to flow in an unending effortless torrent of smoothness. Sometimes it’s a struggle, and that doesn’t mean anything other than that writing is hard.

I am reminded of something someone told me about running once (sorry) – if running half-marathons was easy, everyone would do it. It’s not, it’s hard.

If writing novels was easy, everyone would do it.

The important unspoken part of that is that even though it’s hard, we can still do it.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week. See you after Can*Con.

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Straight into Darkness

Yesterday, Tom Petty died. The frantic media rushed out with the news, then walked it back, and now finally confirmed it. I am tremendously sad at the loss of this artist whose work I have loved.

I’m not the right person to speak to his place in musical history, but in my own story his part looms large. With The Tragically Hip, his tunes were the ones I played most often all through university and have continued to listen to right up to the present day. I think I like him for many of the same reasons I like the blues – most of his songs are about things we all have experience with. Feeling like an outsider. Being let down by people you care about. The world being a place that keeps pushing you around. Petty’s lyrics are clever and fun to listen to, his music strikes me as more down to earth than anything else, and he has been among my musical companions through a lot of good and bad times.

Music has, at times, a special ability to make good times feel better and bad times not feel so bad, and Tom Petty has done that for me time and time again. Thanks for the tunes, Mr. Petty.

——

Even as the artists we love sometimes leave us, there are always new ones out there to discover. I have recently started reading The Bone Mother by David Demchuk, and although I’ve hardly cracked the thing I’m already very impressed by the quality of the writing, his skill with creating mood and conveying a sense of a time and place. I’m really looking forward to the rest of this book and need to stop myself sitting up stupidly late reading it.

Demchuk’s writing is also, undeniably, horror. From time to time I stray into thinking that what I write could be considered horror, too. Then, I will read the work of a real artist of the genre (among which I feel perfectly safe including Demchuk, already) and be reminded, that no, it really isn’t. ‘Supernatural thriller’ is a pretty fair label for my books, perhaps even ‘urban fantasy’, but they’re not horror. I hope they’re entertaining, and I hope perhaps there are some scares in there, but the stories are not horror stories.

What do you need for a horror story? It’s hard for me to really put my finger on it. In some ways, it is one of those ‘you know it when you see it’, or read it, moments. You will never have any doubt when you are reading a horror story, or watching one, or in one. It goes beyond just being frightening (because fantasy and SF can both cause fear, without being horrifying), and it doesn’t necessarily involve gore or violence. (Some good horror does, lots of stories splash blood everywhere without being the least bit horrifying.)

It’s very hard (for me, anyway), to define usefully. One thing that I think good horror has is a disturbing quality. There’s something about the characters, the situation, the resolution in a horror story that is pervasively unsettling. It challenges your comfortable assumptions about people and the world. It makes you question things that you wouldn’t ordinarily question. There are, of course, almost inevitably monsters, but the monsters may not be the real problem; it’s what the monsters reveal about ourselves and the worlds that we have built.

I think good horror makes us look at places that we’d prefer not to. That’s why it’s unsettling so much of the time; a good part of your being is telling you to look away, and you’re resisting that. Horror fiction makes you think about things you ordinarily wouldn’t.

Now, the scares are there, too. Part of the joy of horror stories is the joy of the roller coaster: the feeling of danger while knowing, ultimately, that you’re safe. The ride will end. You can close the book.

Where I think really good horror hits hard, though, is that it takes you to places, and makes you think about things, that don’t entirely go away when the book is closed. It’s made you at least reconsider some things that you would have preferred to consider immutable. It’s made your mind wander down a couple of dark and twisty paths that you would have preferred not to tread.

I’m not sure that I’ll never write a horror story, but reading The Bone Mother reminds me that no, I haven’t done it yet. I do love reading them, though.

——

Of course, the real horror story is what happened in Las Vegas on October 1st. I have, I think, nothing at all to say except that the violence is awful and the loss of life overwhelmingly sad. I don’t think I will ever understand the ‘thing’ America has with guns, and as an outsider it’s not a debate I can usefully be part of. There are lots of points of view that I disagree with, but I can at still understand where they’re coming from, and thus have some idea how to start to engage with them. In this case, though, I see people posting on friends’ social media that ‘you’ll never take our guns, and God help you if you try’ and I just don’t understand it at all. I think gun violence in the United States can never really be solved as long as that mode of thinking stays so vital to so many people, but I also just feel, as I always do, that we have to stop killing each other.

——-

S.M. Carriere wrote a lovely review of The King in Darkness. You can read it here.

We’re under two weeks away from Can*Con! I’m so excited about this and looking forward to what I think will be a fantastic weekend for readers and writers of SFF. Details and registration here.

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Word on the Street 2017

I’m late writing this and I don’t expect it’s going to be a really long one, either: I had a busy weekend and then right back into teaching Monday. However, it was a good kind of busy, because for the second year I was at the Word on the Street literary festival in Toronto.

Word on the Street is a really cool open air literary festival that mixes big name writers with the lesser lights like myself, which gives it a very cool mix of attendees and makes it a great opportunity for both writers and readers to broaden their horizons some.

This year it was also roughly a thousand degrees. In Ontario we’ve (somewhat perversely) been getting our hottest weather of the summer and in Toronto it was a scorcher. Even being down by the lake didn’t really help. It was just really, really hot.

Thinking about it now I’m super impressed at the number of people who still came out to walk around and look at books. Thank you to everyone who visited the Renaissance Press booth and visited some slightly heat-delirious writers.

Also thinking about it now, although for most of the day I sort of gave in to the heat and just sat in the tent and baked, the best part of the afternoon was when I made myself get up and go walk around myself. I said hi to the folks at ChiZine, bumped into a couple of other friends, among which the force of nature Jay Odjick. I sucked up some of the generally excited, enthusiastic energy of people and came back to the Renaissance booth feeling way better.

There’s a little mini-lesson in that which I need to try to remember: sometimes it’s better, even when you don’t feel like it, to get up and do something, anything, rather than just sit there and suffer. Sometimes it feels a lot better to be taking some kind of action.

A couple people asked how the new book is going and expressed some interest in seeing it when it’s done, so that gets me (hopefully) re-energized to bust through on the rewrites and get the first pass of the MS done. So that would be another nice bonus from Word on the Street.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week; I’ll try to have something a little more substantial next Tuesday.

—–

Word on the Street is over but Can*Con approaches! Can*Con is the SFF writers and readers con that I help organize in Ottawa. It runs from October 13 to 15 and if I do say so myself I think we have an amazing lineup of guests and really exciting programming for you this year. There’s still time to get registered and have a great weekend of the fiction you love; details and registration here.

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Busted Up

This past weekend, I ran my half-marathon for the season. (Sorry, this is going to be another running-related post) Almost as soon as I got up in the morning I didn’t feel great about it. I’ve been having some IT band troubles the last couple weeks, and I felt kind of generally off in that way you sometimes do, just that today wasn’t a day when I was going to be at my peak.

By itself I think that’s kind of a good thing to keep in mind. As much as we’d like to think that we always perform to the best of our abilities, it’s not always the case. Some days are just a bit off, and mentally, physically, or both, we’re not quite where we could be on a usual day. That doesn’t mean we can’t still achieve things, but I think sometimes you have to recognize that it’s just not a great day and cut yourself a little slack for that.

On top of this, though, it was also one of the hottest days of the year in Ottawa. We haven’t had a very warm summer at all, so I hadn’t really done much training in heat this time around, and the race day conditions were far from optimal. So the race did not go great. I did the first quarter at roughly my planned pace, and after that I became that guy who gets busted up by the conditions.

I finished far, far slower than I had intended to, which in some ways is a disappointment. I can’t really look at my timing intervals from the race and feel a lot of pride. But I am proud of myself in one way, because busted up though I was, I finished the race. It didn’t go how I thought it would, but I didn’t quit and I got to the finish line in the end. Honestly, I’m very nearly as proud of that as I am of my PB for the half, because I know it would have been infinitely easier to quit partway through, and I really wanted to more than a couple of times, but I stuck it out and got it done.

Sometimes that’s an achievement we really should take pride in. Sometimes things don’t go according to plan, and we struggle more than we’d thought, and there end up being a lot more bumps in the road than we anticipated. But if you stick through that, and get whatever it is you’re trying to do finished regardless, I think that’s just as admirable as those times when you hit every deadline, every phase of your schedule, and sail through in peak performance. Not giving up when things go south is hard. Pushing through adversity is something everyone has to do and we should probably admire that as much as we do the occasions when things come of flawlessly.

I’m trying to remind myself of this as I continue to work on the WIP, which has also gotten a little busted up. Part of it is just the time crunch of the school semester starting up, and having to figure out how to fence off some writing time in my suddenly much more packed schedule. I’ve also realized that the book needs some reasonably major surgery already, though, and its both a little daunting and a little discouraging to have to try to get the rewrites done, even though I know the book will be better for it.

So, I rather doubt I’ll hit my (already revised) goal of having a complete first draft by year’s end.

But that’s ok. I’m not making the progress that I would have liked to have, but I know I’ll finish it in the end. Even looking back on these blogs, I’m reminded that there was a point similar to this in in the writing of Bonhomme Sept-Heures, and there was an even bigger space of time where I had sort of given up on King in Darkness entirely.

It’s ok to get a bit busted up. It happens, I suspect, to nearly everybody. It’s neither useful nor appropriate to get too negative about things not going entirely according to plan. Replan, regroup, recommit, and when the task is finished in the end, it is all the more remarkable for the added, unexpected hurdles that were overcome.

This, at least, is what I’m telling myself as I start to figure out how to get the rewriting done on the current WIP. As always, This is Not Advice, but I thank you for reading.

——

I also just wanted to quickly remind everyone that I will be back at the Word on the Street festival in Toronto this upcoming weekend. Last year was a great experience and I’m looking forward to spending the day at the Renaissance Press booth once again. If you’re in the Toronto area, it would be a delight to see you.

Details about the festival are here.

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Fill the Space

Last week, one of my dear friends and fellow historians sent around a link to a column by David Perry, about how without us always noticing it, medieval history has frequently been appropriated by white supremacists as part of their world view. It’s a really good piece, and you can read it here.  (Here is a great bibliography of further reading along similar lines, if you would like.)

I’m not going to try to expand on Perry’s thoughts about history (because I don’t really think that I can) but his column did get me to thinking about the imaginary worlds we create. I often read comments to the effect of ‘Leave the politics out of your writing, I just want a good story’ directed at authors. Is it a fair criticism? Should artists provide politically-neutral entertainment for our audiences? Or do we instead have an obligation to use our platform (of whatever size it may be) to promote the values and causes we think are important?

I actually want to hit pause on the question of whether it would be desirable to write fiction that was free of political messages, and consider whether it’s even possible. I don’t think that it is. Certainly everything that I write has a large part of me in it, which includes the values I hold dear and all the assumptions and biases that are a part of me. When I create my heroes and villains, I doubt I could avoid putting my own consideration of what ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are into the mix. Whatever kind of imaginary world I’m creating will always be at least partly refracted through the prism of how I see the world around me: what I like, what I don’t like, what pleases me and what bothers me.

So I think that even if I tried to write a story that was entirely apolitical, I would probably fail. My ideas are in there, in the weave of every tale I spin, and I don’t think it could be any other way.

Even if it were possible to write a story that was somehow free, or even apparently free, of ideology, it would almost certainly be a dangerous idea. Our imaginary worlds can be the blank space that gets filled with dangerous, harmful messages just as easily as the worlds of the past can be. An imagined past, present, or future that carries no expressions of tolerance, diversity, and equality all too easily becomes an expression against those ideas. Perry mentions how we already know this happens with tales like The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, at times. I think the argument that it is the writer’s duty to counteract the use of art to spread hate is as strong as the one placing that duty upon the historian, and the teacher.

Some people suggest that artists have a special obligation to be political in this particular moment in which we find ourselves, to boost the ideas we cherish against what seems to be an increasingly negative tide. I’m not sure whether that’s true or it isn’t, but I think the idea of the writer as apolitical is a false one, unachievable and undesirable. In the end, we must write what we believe. Anything else will ring false, and we do a disservice to our values if we try to silence them. I trust my audience can consider my ideas for themselves, and take them or leave them as they choose.

Finally, to my teaching, at least briefly. From when I started teaching I tried very hard to deliberately leave my politics and my beliefs out of it. For one thing, I didn’t (and don’t) believe that what I think about any particular issue is of any particular interest or import, but it was more than that. I wanted my students to reach their own conclusions, and I felt that I was there to teach history, not to teach them what to think about history. Recently, and at least in part because of other historians like Perry, I’m reconsidering. Probably my politics were already there, just as they are in my writing, in what I chose to put in my lectures and what to leave out, what to emphasize and what examples from the past to bring into the light. Somewhat amusingly to me as I write this, that was more or less the point of my PhD dissertation – that history is never neutral. I’ll never insist that my students agree with anything that I suggest to them, but I do think it’s probably my job to make sure they hear a particular side of the story.

That blank space unto which harmful views can be projected isn’t desirable in the classroom any more than it is in the world of fiction, and it’s space that will be filled if we don’t put something there.

We may as well make sure that space is occupied by something marvelous rather than something ghastly.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week. Thanks for reading.

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Lord Jericho

There was a story in the news last week that got me thinking: the author Terry Pratchett, who passed away not too long ago, had left instructions that the hard drive containing his unfinished work was to be crushed by a steamroller, and his agent was finally able to have that carried out. The drive was crushed by a vintage machine named Lord Jericho, and then fed into a stone crusher, which is pretty badass all by itself.

There was a reasonable amount of reaction from Pratchett’s fans, expressing sadness about the stories they’d never get to read, which is more than understandable. When we love an artist, we hate the thought of never getting any more of their work. We want it to keep coming forever, and the idea that there was more to be had sounds appallingly sad. This (and of course the ever-present ‘money’ explanation) has led to a long list of ‘completed’ and ‘from the notes of’ works that generally do pretty well and scratch that itch.

So I understand that reaction, but as a writer my first impulse was that I totally understand what he wanted done. Some writers I know said ‘oh god yes, I don’t want anyone seeing my first drafts’, but for me that’s not it. People look at my early drafts all the time. I tell them what they’re in for and presumably they understand the flaws they’re about to encounter. Usually, that’s the point of me showing the drafts to them.

No, my first reaction, and my objection to having anyone do anything with my unfinished work (should the situation every arise) is simply this: My stories are mine. I know my characters and I know where I want my stories to go. I know what I want to do with the parts I haven’t written yet. I know what I want them to say and how I want them to feel. I don’t always achieve those things perfectly, but the goal and the attempt are mine.

I would not be at all content with the idea of having someone else play with my imaginary people and places. I love reading the work of other writers, but I think I’d much prefer it if they did their own thing. This is probably a thoroughly narrow-minded and territorial reaction – and I’ve read enough collaborative fiction to know that artists combining their work can go very well – but it’s genuinely where I am right now.

Second reaction, though, is to think about those imaginary people and places I’ve called into being. It seems very sad to me, even wrong, to think of them not ever having their stories told and never having people know about them. Maybe that would be a greater injustice than having another artist tell part of their story.

(I write all this fully aware that there wouldn’t exactly be a long queue of people wanting to complete my works if I were to pass away, by the way.)

I guess it’s a pretty difficult question, in the end. I love the idea of people reading my stories (I imagine all writers are the same) so, yeah, I kind of want people to be able to read all the ideas I’ve had. I still really don’t like the idea of the stories being only partly mine, though. It’s probably just as well this isn’t a problem I need a solution for any time soon, and I think ultimately what any writer decides is right for them needs to be respected.

Viva Lord Jericho.

That’s all I’ve got for you this week.

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Old Futures

Last week I had a (very) minor emergency in that my laptop decided to pack it in. This wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been – it was fixable, and I had most of my important files backed up (and I am now working on changing that ‘most’ into ‘all’), and perhaps best of all, I had my old laptop around and was able to keep working on that. So this is the very definition of a First World Problem, but it did still get me to thinking.

First, it got me oversentimentalizing objects again. The old laptop is the one that I wrote my PhD dissertation on, what will probably forever be the crowning achievement of my academic career. I created hours worth of lessons and lectures that helped me teach hundreds of students about the history I love. I wrote most of King in Darkness on it, the first book I ever wrote and the first thing I ever had published. It travelled with me to many places and gave me many hours of work, diversion, and entertainment. For all that, it still works pretty well, which makes me feel more than a little guilty packing it up and putting it away on a shelf, giving up on it in a way that it never gave up on me. I know, of course, that it’s just a thing, a mechanism, and that it doesn’t feel disappointed or sad to be sidelined in favour of a newer, more powerful mechanism. But I can’t help, for some reason, to assign those feelings to it, and to imagine that maybe it enjoyed the past week of being back on the job.

However, that’s really just all my own internally-generated silliness.

I also thought, as I worked with the old laptop, how impossibly heavy it seemed to be to carry around and to have sitting on my legs, how bulky it was, how clunky some of the operations were. (I still like the way the trackpad works better though) The thing is, I also remember, very clearly, when I first got that laptop, thinking how light and compact and slick it was compared to my even-older laptop. But time has passed, and my expectations of what technology is capable of have shifted.

You run into that in SF reasonably frequently, especially if you read the older stuff. Things that seemed like the amazing tech of times yet to come now seem entirely ordinary. Sometimes tech we take for granted is conspicuous by its absence. The ‘future’, suddenly, looks very old.

The Star Wars RPG I’m running ran into an example of this recently; we were in the midst of an adventure and one of the players asked about GPS. Because of course there should be GPS in an interstellar society like the one we see in Star Wars; we can’t imagine, at this point, how you could have a modern society without GPS. The problem I had was basically this: there isn’t really any evidence of anything GPS-like in the setting, and as a result the game (which reproduces the setting) isn’t really designed to cope with the implications of GPS technology. This is one of the many times that the 1970s future of Star Wars sort of clashes with our vision and expectations of what ‘advanced’ should mean and must mean, and we’re left with a presentation of the future that seems obsolete at the same time as it claims to be ahead of us.

Personally, I find these now old-fashioned futures charming, a past time’s dreams of the days ahead, and I enjoy reading about them just as much as I do visions that are still a bit more aligned with our current technological reality and expectations. My very loose theory is that if you have a really good story, with a world and plot and characters that your reader is going to buy into and care about, it doesn’t really matter if the technology isn’t exactly right. (Somewhere, a hard SF writer just got a piercing headache and doesn’t know why) One of my prime examples is Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, the first stories of which came out before the advent of computers, and certainly before it was at all clear how ubiquitous they would become. So they’re just not there, which is both jarring to a modern reader, but then also kind of cool, and the stories still work, because the strength of them is more Asimov’s ideas about society and politics and people than it is ‘this is what the future will be like’.

I think this is really just an example of something else I’ve talked about before, the point lifted from a William Gibson interview I attended, where he pointed out that his books weren’t really attempts to predict the future at all, they used an imagined future to talk about the present as he perceived it. So, the cellphone and wireless-less future of Neuromancer was a book about the 1980s, not really Gibson’s attempt to predict the years to come, and thus the absence of computer tech that we take for granted doesn’t really matter. (I wonder if he’s off that idea just a touch with The Peripheral, and what he has to say about it, but that’s like a whole ‘nother deal)

As a result, I think Neuromancer (and Gibson’s other stuff, and so many other SF stories with their obsolete futures) still works really well as a novel, because it was never really about the tech or the future at all, it was about human beings and the worlds we make, using an imaginary place and time to talk about them. I guess those are the kind of stories I like best, so I don’t really mind if the future is a place we’ve already been or somewhere we’ll never get to.

On some level, I guess I like to hope that these obsolete futures still enjoy having us come to visit them, even if they’ll never be more than dreams, just as I guess I hope my faithful old laptop took a bit of pleasure in being back in the game, at least for a little while.

This threatens to get very silly again, so I’ll stop here. Thanks for reading.

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Statues

Along with many other things, people have been thinking a lot about history in the last week or so. My own background is as a historian, so I’m going to engage a bit with that for this week’s blog. Specifically, there’s been a lot of ink being spilled over statues, and (even more specifically) whether statues of Confederate generals and politicians should be taken down.

For just a second, I’d like to try to think about this issue in a vacuum. It’s been suggested that taking down memorial statues (presumably of whatever sort) ‘erases history’, and therefore shouldn’t be done, otherwise we (as a society) will forget our past and (presumably) whatever lessons we should have learned from it.

To a historian, the idea of ‘erasing history’ is of course instantly an alarming one, but this idea that our history, and our understanding of it, comes mostly from public memorial statues is both interesting and, I have to say, highly dubious. There are (I think) no statues of Adolf Hitler up anywhere, but you certainly couldn’t argue that he’s been in any way erased from history, or that people have forgotten about the crimes of his regime. (Yes, obviously his ideas have supporters, but I don’t think that has much to do with a lack of statuary)

That’s because our history is not only preserved (or, I would argue, even mostly preserved) in statues and public memorials. History is preserved in documents and the work of historians, in our works of art and recordings, in the memory of people. I cannot imagine anyone, interested in a period of history, first going out to see what statues were there depicting figures from that period. In part at least that’s because we recognize, perhaps without realizing it, that statues don’t really depict the past, but someone’s idea of the past, and then only of a particular piece of the past. The impression we get is filtered through the vision of the artist who created the piece, the person or group who commissioned it, and whoever made the decision to put the memorial there at all. We know that these things don’t appear without an act of will on someone’s part, and that they are not chosen based on ideas of historical objectivity. The things we make statues to are someone’s favourites.

Public memorials are interesting objects. I think primarily they speak to the part of history that we want to talk about, which is very often our first impulse of how to ‘do history’ – to tell the story we want to tell, about the things we’re happy to talk about. This is the old idea of history as told by victors. We don’t put up statues of our villains, but of our heroes. Even when we do memorialize loss of life, it is either because we valourize it (sacrifice in support of ideals we admire) or because we are (as a society) happy to talk about our regret for that time or those events.

Our public memorials are (I hope obviously) not history in it’s entirety (we’ve got books for that, among other things) but the version of history that the powerful parts of society were, at some point, eager to express. They are what society, or at least a powerful and influential part of society, wanted to hold up to be seen.

This brings us to those Confederate statues, mostly put up not immediately following the war, but in the Jim Crow era of the South. They would not have been thought of, then, as some cautionary tale about division or civil war, or loss of life. They were part of an attempt to re-establish white supremacy in the American South, to put leaders of the Confederacy on public display and thereby assert: these are our heroes. I think it’s clear that this is both a statement of intent and a statement of power; ‘we can do this, and no-one will stop us.’

In advocating for the statues’ removal, then, we’re not advocating for ‘erasing history’, but for dismantling a specific political agenda from about 100 years ago, one which (one presumes) we’re no longer in favour of. It’s also not really hard, or shouldn’t be hard, to empathize with black Americans who see these statues, raised for men who fought a war to keep their ancestors in chains, and find their continued presence in their communities hurtful.

Removing them causes no harm, except to an ideology that we should be happy to see extinguished, and can only help many people. This should not be a difficult decision. I should say that we have many similar decisions to make here in Canada; the name of Langevin was recently taken off a building on Parliament Hill due to the role of Hector Louis Langevin in the residential schools program, and the statue of Cornwallis that caused some controversy in Halifax recently should also come down.

People object that this means ‘forgetting’ history, or being ashamed of it. It means neither of those things, and in fact to me it means the opposite. It means actively remembering what happened in our past, recognizing that we have changed and progressed as a society, and making symbolic change that reflects that. It’s actively recognizing our past, admitting it, admitting the truth about it, and then doing something about it. It isn’t refusing to discuss something or trying to hide it, it’s openly saying ‘yes, this is what we were or what happened’ and marking the fact that we aren’t that, anymore.

Most Canadians, I suspect, would not have known who Hector Louis Langevin was prior to his name coming off that Parliamentary building. Perhaps, in the choice being made to take it off, and the explanation as to why, a few more do now. Sometimes, a removal in fact leads to greater remembrance.

Symbolic actions are not the most significant kind of action we can take. In Canada, there’s a lot that needs to be done to help our First Nations communities on a practical level that goes far beyond taking down some dedications. But if there is one thing I have learned as a historian, it is that we love symbols. Symbolic actions can be some of the most powerful ones we take.

It’s past time for a lot of these things to happen.

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Orphan Black

Back to more pleasant topics today, at least to the extent that saying farewell to a wonderful TV program is pleasant. This past weekend we said goodbye to Orphan Black, which ended its story after a 5 season run.

The first two seasons of the show I would put up against any other TV show in terms of the quality of the story being told as well as the level of the performance. I thought the plot wobbled a bit in this last season, which maybe shows the difficulty of maintaining a level of quality throughout the run of any serialized story, and it’s true that in the finale, the ‘plot’ part of the show was finished before the halfway mark.

But it didn’t matter. The reason it didn’t was that we got to indulge in a nice long wrap-up with the characters we’ve followed around for the past seasons, and as much as I did enjoy Orphan Black‘s plotlines and the issues of autonomy and identity that it raised, I think it was characters that I will remember most about the show. This is perhaps particularly remarkable because so many of the main characters are all played by the same actor, the remarkable Tatiana Maslany.

I could not be more impressed with how she made each of the Leda clones entirely unique in terms of their mannerisms and speech patterns (the writers obviously their share of the credit here too), so that you could easily forget that they really were all the same person. Even when one ‘sestra’ would try to disguise herself as one of the others, instead of just slipping into that character, we got an entirely new thing of ‘this person pretending to be another person’ where watchers of the show could easily still recognize the ‘real’ personality of the clone peeking through the act they were putting on.

I’m not doing justice to how amazing it was to watch. You’ve kind of got to see it.

Even leaving Maslany’s performance aside (although please give her all the awards), Orphan Black had amazing characters. I was so impressed, both as a fan and a writer, at how they took a character who we first met as (apparently) a vicious, genuinely disturbing antagonist and gradually showed you more of her story, and more parts of her personality, taking us through having sympathy for her, and then by the end of the show we (or at least I) were very much on her side. Helena was easily my favourite of all the Ledas, and if you had told me that would be the case early in Season 1 I would not have believed you. (I could not have been happier that we got one final sting of the ‘Helena kills things’ theme in that last episode. Kudos to the music composer, by the way, in creating such a distinctive theme that is basically two sounds and that’s it, but if I hear them 15 years from now I’ll still know exactly what they are)

That’s immensely hard to do as a writer; to create a character that has enough genuine depth that it’s possible for your audience to completely reassess them in the course of the story and not feel cheated either by how they first reacted to them, or at where you asked them to be at the end. The writers of Orphan Black did it just right, and I like to think I learned something from watching them do it.

I think the wrap-up of the show, and why it felt so good to me (and, judging by the bulk of the comments I’ve seen online, to a lot of others) is that we got a satisfying ending to all the stories of the women we’ve followed around for 5 years. None of it was plot-necessary, but the show asks you to get invested in these imaginary people, so I think having something that felt like a proper farewell was also warranted. Whenever I see people’s reactions to characters in books, movies, or TV shows, or feel my own, I’m reminded of how much writers can affect people with the things we create. Every time, I am also reminded that that influence isn’t something we can or should use lightly. We ask audiences to give us a lot, we need to be careful with that trust. Orphan Black did right by its audience.

So it was a wonderful farewell to Orphan Black, even if it was inevitably slightly bittersweet because we’re not going to see these characters again. I felt that the writers have told all the story that they really have to tell, though, so it’s a good place to stop. Especially for a show that I only really checked out on a whim (I really didn’t know what the heck it was about), Orphan Black is one of my very favourite TV shows of all time. If you’re reading this blog, I would suggest checking it out if you haven’t. It was really good SF and really good entertainment, and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

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