Monthly Archives: July 2015

Pluto

Last week was a good one for people who are into science, space exploration, and then by extension SF, because we got news about a distant planet that might be rather like Earth (except with double the gravity) and those amazing pictures of Pluto and a couple of its moons. I was personally rather astonished by the pictures sent back by the New Horizons probe (which I still think is a kind of unfortunate 8th grade social science-y textbook title of a name) because of how utterly, completely wrong they were.

To explain: In my mind, for as long as I can recall, Pluto has been green. A kind of blue-green teal sort of deal. Neptune, of course, is blue. Uranus is a deep violet. I’m not sure where I got these ideas from – perhaps there was, in some long-ago classroom, a Solar System wall chart that implanted the colours in my mind – but they have been consistent in my imagination for as long as I can recall.

Now of course we get actual pictures of Pluto and it isn’t green at all, it is various shades of brown. I wouldn’t say I’m disappointed by this, exactly. I mean the stuff we learned about Pluto is pretty damn cool. Nitrogen glaciers on a planet so cold the atmosphere may be freezing to its surface, with a moon shaped like a jelly bean, are all pretty amazing discoveries.

It’s just not how I had (for whatever reason) pictured it, how my mind somehow assured me it would be, and so when I first saw the New Horizons pictures, I did a bit of a ‘waaaait a minute’. It’s often this way, I think – we imagine events or people or places to be a particular way, sometimes quite intensely, and then when we go to the actual place or talk to the actual person or experience the event we have long pictured in our minds it isn’t quite how we thought it would be. Even if the real thing was pleasant or good or enjoyable, it’s different and that can end up being vaguely disappointing. It’s even worse if things are somehow not as good or as pleasant or as rewarding as we thought they’d be. You can’t go back to the dream, now. I suppose that’s really just life and generally you just get on with it but there’s generally a tiny part of me yelling ‘but Pluto was supposed to be greeeeen’ in the background.

I can only imagine this happening on a somewhat greater scale when the first hard data started coming back from Mars. The planet that had so often been imagined as a place of life (sometimes bug-eyed threatening life), of canals and golden-eyed aliens and tentacled horrors was, in truth, a barren, frozen desert. Not how we imagined it. I won’t say it isn’t a wonderful place (because a lot of what we’ve learned about the Real Mars is, again, pretty cool) but the loss of the idea of a Mars awash in life must have taken some digesting.

We’ve actually been very slow to let go of the idea of life on Mars – leaving aside the genuine science being done to see if there ever could have been basic forms of life in the past, there is still a good amount of fiction that gets created with the idea of ancient, extinct alien life on the planet. Sometimes it wakes up or gets dug up to dangerous effect. On some level, it seems like our imaginations really want there to have been Martians. And if I close my eyes, and think of Pluto, it’s still green.

To me there is now a divergence, between my imaginary Pluto and the real one, or the Pluto I have always pictured has now been nudged out of the (arguably) real universe into a purely imaginary one, along with the Mars that has the golden-eyed people on it and all the other places that never existed. Learning about the universe is fascinating, though it forces ever more things purely into the realms of the imagination, where perhaps writers (and readers) can rescue them from time to time. I guess I have a strange nostalgia, sometimes (if you can be nostalgic for things that never were) for my green Pluto and all the things that maybe could have been, all the places that were maybe out there, until we found out they were not.

Sorry, that was all very bizarre, even for me. More concretely, the New Horizons probe is (I guess, and I will be happy to be corrected) more or less the end of a period of discoveries about of Solar System that I have been fortunate to grow up during. I remember the Voyager probes sending back their astounding pictures of Jupiter and Saturn and then later, Neptune and Uranus (also not the colour I imagined). I don’t remember the Viking probes real well (although slightly) but we have had the various Mars rovers that have sent back a seemingly endless stream of fascinating stuff. We’ve found an ocean on Europa and Enceladus. We harpooned a comet, for f’s sake. It’s all very cool.

We’ve had a good look around our immediate neighbourhood (it seems to me? I’m sure there’s lots we don’t know about) and it has been wonderful to have a reasonably steady drip of exciting, and brand new, revelations about planets and moons coming out throughout my life to this point. I wonder whether that is at least in part why I love SF and speculative fiction as much as I do.

In any case, I’m very grateful to have experienced, ever so slightly, all of these discoveries. I’m grateful to the people who have poured so much of their heart and soul into making all these missions of exploration and curiosity happen. I hope, that in a society that seems to be ever more concerned about how things look on a balance sheet, that we aren’t entirely finished with this kind of endeavour.

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PREVIEW

I’m very excited to be able to say with a reasonable amount of confidence that the editing on The King in Darkness is finished and so I am now able to share an excerpt from the book with you.  You can go check it out here.  I hope you’ll enjoy reading it.

This also means that we appear to be very well on course to have the book release on schedule in the autumn, and plans are already underway for the launch and some other promotion activity.  I’ll keep you up to date on the details as they get firmed up.  I want to thank my editors and publishers at Renaissance for making the process of getting the book ready for publication really quite enjoyable!

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Stringing my bow

I have a bow in my closet. I haven’t used it in a long while, but in a couple weeks I’m going on a little trip where I’ll perhaps have a chance to shoot some arrows, so I got it out. Mostly I wanted to do this so I could remember how to put it together and get it strung so that I won’t look like a complete bungler if and when I have a chance to shoot. It went kind of ok. The bowsight and I do not get along.

I am just weird enough, though (plenty weird enough? Probably better) to think that it’s pretty cool that I have a quiver and arrows and a bow. I need to get them out more. Getting the archery things out and sorting through them got me thinking about why I like archery (because I can indeed overanalyse any damned thing) and I thought I’d write about that today.

I should pause for a moment to point out that I am not good at archery. I mean, making the arrow go flying is not terribly difficult and you can learn to do that in about 5 minutes. Getting the arrow to go vaguely where you’d like it to is a whole ‘nother thing and I am Not Real Good at that. Even so, it’s ok to be Not Real Good at things and I do enjoy shooting some arrows despite my shocking lack of aptitude for it.

One reason is of course that I studied medieval history and I love the Robin Hood stories and thus shooting a bow and arrow was always something I wanted to try. I took some lessons and was surprised how much fun it was though. I even bought a bow (perhaps unwisely, given how much time it has spent not being shot, poor thing). It is a skill with virtually no practical applications (given that I don’t, and wouldn’t want to, hunt) – of course I like it.

There’s something very tangible about the whole process. If the problem is making the arrow hit the target, it’s relatively clear how to solve that problem. Get the stance right. Draw the bow correctly. Control your breathing. Release the arrow smoothly. Whoosh. Thunk.

The difficulty comes from actually doing all these things, and is where I am Not Good, but what needs to happen is clear. That’s a relief from struggling with other problems where the solution isn’t clear at all. How do I fix this? How do I make this situation better? What can I do? Not knowing what even might work in addressing various problems can be fairly stressful, so having a challenge where you do at least know what needs to be done is refreshing. Even if actually doing it remains, ah, a work in progress.

There’s a wonderful immediacy to it as well. Whoosh, thunk. Up and to the right. Adjust a little. Whoosh, thunk. Still a little right. Whoosh, thunk. A bit left, now. No waiting what can sometimes seem like unfairly long stretches of time to see what results your actions bring. And of course, it’s all ultimately under your control, even if that control is (ahem) not exactly perfect. There’s nothing stopping you making the perfect shot except you. Many of life’s usual problems are not exactly so easy.

This is all threatening to get a little zen and I am not going to start talking about spending one’s entire life shooting one arrow, but there is something refreshing and calming about focusing on shooting a bow, for a little while, as a break from whatever the heck else is going on. I suspect that part of it is that like a lot of tasks that demand concentration, you just can’t fret about whatever else has been gnawing at your mind while you’re focused on archery. Like writing (for me, anyway), it’s another time out.

To drag this blog screaming back to its alleged subject (writing, I swear) there is another thing about archery that strikes me just now. I know the difference between me being Not Real Good at archery and being, at least, better is simple. I need to shoot a lot of arrows. My archery teacher was in the Olympic trials and she shot several hundred arrows a week. Obviously there’s a degree to which talent or natural ability probably affects the ease at which you learn, but the only way to improve at archery is to Do Archery. It’s the same with writing. You get better at writing by doing it.

I intensely regret, now, the amount of time I left my writing ‘bow’ in the closet and didn’t write anything at all. I’m trying to make up for that now. But this is getting dangerously close to Advice again, and I still have to figure out that bowsight.

I’ll try to do better the next time.

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It happened again

Not quite awake

I move through the misty slumbering quiet

Brushed by leaves dripping with dreams

Past sleepy flowers

Insomniac moths

last night’s snails

and beaches filled with goslings

A gradual stirring, emerging

Rowers on the river

Dogs on adventures

Inevitable cyclists

Hello, city

Let’s go

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Running Poem #2

I’m very sorry.

———

The dreaming tree is dying

Leaves shrivelled brown

before spring unfurled them

Skeletal, dessicated

in summer’s lascivious swell

Does it starve from a lack of believing?

Yours

Mine

That other guy’s

Did the world kill it

or did we

I move past

Hoping I can still achieve

what I want

I need

I imagine

but the dreaming tree

is dying

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Concerning Atticus

You will no doubt have heard by now that Harper Lee is releasing what is (sort of) the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, called Go Set a Watchman. (In fact it comes out today I think) I say ‘sort of’ because she actually wrote it before Mockingbird, which adds some complications that we’ll get to in a minute. Watchman has caused, as you will have noticed if you spend any time at all on the internet, a bit of a Fuss. This is because, primarily, of the portrayal of one of Mockingbird‘s more famous characters, that of Atticus Finch.

(Before I go any further, a quick disclaimer. I have not read Go Set a Watchman yet – publishers being astonishingly lax in sending me advance copies of things – and it has been a long while since I read Mockingbird. This is not, then, going to be a deep literary analysis of either, but what we already know about Watchman brings up some issues that I think are interesting, both as a writer and a reader.)

In Mockingbird, Atticus is pretty morally unimpeachable. He fights against racial prejudice in the court trial that the book is centred around and has a number of memorable things to say about tolerance and understanding of others than have been quoted and valued by all sorts of people ever since. Atticus kind of became the idealized figure of the ‘ally’ for the struggle against many types of inequality and injustice in society.

Watchman flips that table over. Atticus in this book is explicitly a racist; he’s in favour of segregation, apparently attends a Klan meeting, and has some pretty ugly things to say. His daughter is apparently horrified to discover this about her father, and I suspect this is probably the main thrust of the novel, but the reveals about Atticus Finch have already caused a lot of, ah, vigorous reaction.

Some people feel betrayed (I read about one person who wants to rename their cat because of this) by having a character they used to like and respect ‘changed’ on them. Some people are angry that this undermines the message of Mockingbird. Some readers feel that a hero (whether Atticus or Harper Lee) has let them down.

There’s a bunch of interesting stuff going on here, to me. (And this is without any opinion from me about the portrayal of Atticus Finch – that will have to wait until I at least read the book, yeah) Harper Lee created the character and so presumably you’d think she can do what she wishes with him, but readers don’t always see it that way. Another famous example is the reaction Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got when he decided to end his Sherlock Holmes stories with the death of his detective – he got accosted in the street and people went around dressed in mourning. (Brief aside: have to see Mr. Holmes when it comes out – Ian McKellen as Holmes? Yes please.) He eventually changed his mind.

I rather doubt Harper Lee is going to do anything similar, but the way readers react to something like this shows how strongly we identify with some of the characters we read about. We feel like we know them. We admire them and take inspiration from them and, in a lot of ways, make them ‘real’ to ourselves. These imaginary people can become intensely real in the way we think about them and deal with them intellectually and emotionally. If you want a fairly common example of that, think of the popular quote from Battlestar Galactica about keeping the military and the police separate because if you don’t the enemies of the state tend to become the people. It’s a great line. It got quoted a lot recently in the civil unrest in the U.S. People always attribute it to William Adama, not the writer who wrote the dialogue. Because if you watched the show, Admiral Adama became (both due to the writing and the actor’s portrayal, of course) a vividly real character who had some points of view that were easy to admire. You might even name your cat after him.

So it’s not necessarily hard to understand why people have an emotional reaction to having a character that they feel a strong connection with suddenly change significantly, or ‘be changed’, to give the writer their agency back again. Readers liked and respected Atticus Finch. You don’t have to look very hard to find people who say the character inspired them in their real lives. )That’s a tremendous achievement for a writer, by the way. I mean wow.) Now they learn that they didn’t know Atticus the way they thought they did. Ooof.

Now, you might argue that this is exactly what Harper Lee was going for, especially given that this is (apparently) Scout’s reaction as well. She wants that horror of discovering something unpleasant about a person you thought you knew. (In which case, I have to say, well done!)  This is slightly complicated by the fact that Watchman was written first and it isn’t clear – especially given the long space of time between the publication of the two books – how much the interaction between it and Mockingbird was originally intended. It also isn’t clear how much revision/rewriting or ‘correction’ affects the different portrayals of Atticus in the two books.  However, Go Set a Watchman does what it does to Mockingbird and the character(s) we thought we knew from it now.

As an author, how much, if anything, do you ‘owe’ to your readers and their connection to what you wrote before? We often complain, as audience members, about the endings of previous movies being ‘ruined’ by sequels, a new plot development ‘spoiling’ what has happened before, and about changes to characters like the (effective) change to the character of Atticus Finch. I guess obviously every artist relies on their audience, so do writers have some responsibility to keep their audience happy, or at least relatively content, in their treatment of beloved characters and settings?

It’s a difficult question and I’ve kicked it around myself a fair bit. I’ve been disappointed by authors and filmmakers who did things I didn’t like to stories and characters I liked.  Did they do something wrong in taking their fiction in a direction their audience would not have chosen?  I think ultimately my answer is ‘no, but’.  You have to allow the writer to do what they want with the characters and imaginary worlds they created. Sometimes they may not take things in a direction you, as reader, would have chosen, but ultimately the toys have to belong to the writer if the creative process is going to work at all. The ‘but’ comes in because I do think that if, as a writer, you’re going to reveal something that fundamentally changes a character that your audience is likely to be invested in or how what you’ve previously written is understood, you’d better make sure you’re doing it for a good reason.

In other words, it better be a great story. If you’re going to kill your detective, it better be a sendoff worthy of the character. If you’re going to turn a previously sympathetic character into a villain, make sure it’s worth it, and not a cheap trick. If you’re fortunate enough to have gotten your readers invested in one of your characters, I feel like you mustn’t take that lightly; there’s trust involved in following you on the journey you’re taking them along, make sure the trip ends up feeling worthwhile. (Which is not to say ‘happy ending’ necessarily, because there is a lot of very good fiction that doesn’t do that) That said, and again without having read Watchman, I do feel like we should give Harper Lee the benefit of the doubt in this regard.

Another interesting thing (and I apologize, this is turning into a long entry) that I got from William Gibson’s Twitter is the possibility that the Atticus Finch from Mockingbird and the Atticus Finch from Watchman inhabit different ‘fictive universes’; in other words, despite having the same name and inhabiting broadly similar settings, they are not the same character and the two stories are not really meant to go together. They’re different takes or iterations of a character Harper Lee had in mind, at different points in her thinking as a writer.

This happens all the time, really, if you think of all the different ways familiar characters get interpreted in different stories about them. Depending which tales you read, you encounter quite different King Arthurs and the characters around him. The continuity of Elmore Leonard’s Raylan Givens character is sufficiently erratic that probably all the novels don’t ‘go together’. There are, at last count, approximately ten billion interpretations of Batman, many of which cannot be reconciled with each other.

This is all more-or-less fine, or has been historically. Audiences seem to be getting a little more continuity-obsessed these days so perhaps authors will be able to get away with it less. However, different takes on the same character, sometimes by different authors, sometimes by the same one, is far from an unusual thing. Maybe that’s what Lee was doing with these two novels, perhaps not.

Either way, there is a freedom we have as readers that allows us to short-circuit the whole problem, if we choose. We can cheerfully ignore any part of the imaginary world that we want to; it being imaginary, after all. As far as I am concerned, there are only three Indiana Jones movies and only one Highlander. Heck there are only three Star Wars movies and I don’t really know what all the fuss is about. The Atticus Finch people loved is still there, in Mockingbird. The words on the pages have not changed; the positive message is still there. You can choose to stop the story there.

It is the writer’s absolute freedom to take a story, its setting, and its characters in whatever direction they choose. As long as the story is a good one, it’s very hard to argue that any decision they make is ‘wrong’. It is the reader’s absolute freedom to step off the ride at whatever point they desire. Ultimately we consume art for our own pleasure and edification, and so it is equally hard to argue that any such decision is ‘wrong’.

I’ll have to read Go Set a Watchman to have any coherent thoughts about it. I find the debates surrounding it fascinating already – and there are other issues that I haven’t even gotten into here, because this thing is already long enough. The number of differing opinions and the level of passion that this book has triggered off indicates, very clearly, how strong and impact fiction has on real people and their lives. Pretty amazing.

I’m stopping myself here.

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Progress Report

Earlier this week I mentioned my visit to the Carbide Mill ruins in Gatineau Park, which wasn’t entirely done for sightseeing reasons.  I was there with my friend Rohit Saxena to shoot the photo to use on the cover for The King in Darkness.  Here’s the one I’m going with, it’s also now in the ‘About’ section of the website.

IMG_7111

I really appreciate Rohit’s artistry and his being willing to spend part of a weekend taking pictures of me in the woods.  If you’d like to see more of his work, check out his website at www.phohit.com.  Among his many projects is some great work for the Ottawa Humane Society, which is a cause well worthy of support.

Aside from the cover photo, the edits on The King in Darkness are just about done and the text is getting formatted for print.  I should have a teaser/preview section up here for you to sink your teeth into in the next little while.

I’m getting quite excited as the book gets closer to coming out; I really can’t wait to share it with you.

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Ruins

This past weekend I spent some time in Gatineau Park, at the ruins of a 100 year-old carbide mill. They’re a bit of a hike into the woods; most of the way is pretty and peaceful forest and rock faces and partridge and lakes that we are fortunate to be able to experience in a lot of places in this part of the world. Then, rather suddenly, you go over a rise and you can see the mill.

I got a bit of a ‘wow’ moment as I always do when I arrive at ruined or abandoned buildings. Perhaps it’s just me, but I kind of suspect not – ruins always seem to attract visitors, and they appear in lots of our art. There’s something compelling about them. I thought I’d think about that a little today.

carbidemill

It isn’t immediately, rationally, clear why these particular ruins would have the effect that they do. They’re not from (of? <<terminology failure>>) a prison or asylum or castle or fort that you’d automatically expect to have strong emotional associations or fire up the ol’ imagination. They’re of (from?) a chemical mill. And yet, there’s still something there.

The building is pretty thoroughly ruined. Some trees grow up in what used to be the interior of the mill – ‘inside’ seeming to be not quite the right word, given the current state of things. It’s interesting (to me, anyway) how some of the meanings we assign to things begin to work a little awkwardly as they deteriorate. But it’s a reluctant process – we (or at least a lot of us) feel that what used to be a church is still holy or at least special ground. Partly collapsed buildings still have an ‘inside’. A rusted car with no wheels is still a ‘vehicle’. Anyway, tangent aside, there’s not a lot of this mill left. All there is is the shell of a building, empty windows (with some metal frames remaining), some concreted foundations and loose masonry among the tree roots and earth. And yet, there’s still that ‘wow’, for me. Something about the ruin that makes me want to hang out and explore.

Maybe the ruin speaks of human persistence; the traces of what people built and did surviving after they are long gone. I love history, so being able to feel connected to people and societies from long ago is always a joy for me. You can stand in an old building or a ruin and imagine what it was like when the place was alive and active. Material culture does have an impact that other kinds of study (or experience) don’t quite give you, and material culture you can walk around in may be especially good at that.

Alternatively, maybe the reason ruins are striking is that they remind us of the passage of time, that essentially everything we do is temporary and the mortality of human endeavour. One day it will all be gone. Ruins are that process in action, partially complete. The deterioration is sufficient that it’s undeniable, obvious, impactful.

There’s also something about the power of nature I guess; seeing trees grow up through what used to be a stone building, roots splitting the foundations and moss encroaching over it all is a vivid demonstration that even though we tend to put our faith in our technology and our control over the world around us, given the right circumstances, and enough time, that relationship can be flipped upside down. It’s also a reminder that even something abandoned and left to collapse may still be alive, just in a different way than it originally was.

I guess all of this is a lot to say that I like old buildings quite a bit and ruins tend to get my imagination gears rumbling away. Again, I doubt I’m in any way unique for that. Probably most creative people get affected by environment in positive and negative ways.

That’s what I’ve got for this week.

(I now have a photo for this entry, which does make it work ever so much better.  Thank you to Rohit Saxena for the picture and for a good afternoon)

——

By way of an update, I’m in the final stages of editing The King in Darkness.  Everything looks good for hitting the projected October release, and we’re already starting to plan some things around that.  I’m just slightly excited. 😀

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Written While Running

I don’t write poetry very often.  What follows probably explains why.

——

Creaking limbs pass the stumps and shards

of familiar old bystanders

eradicated

by unthinking

instinctual

alien creatures

Sun beats on bodies sprayed with day-glo prison camp numbers

A soaring legion lost to time’s desert

The carnage hides in wildflowers and goslings

The sunny, scenic devastation

of another thoughtless apocalypse

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