Monthly Archives: November 2015

Magnificent Seven

It snowed today so I think (outdoor) running season is probably over and so this seems as good a time as any to call a halt to one of my thought exercises while running and (because I can?) share the results. My mind goes all over the place during a two or three hour run, and this summer (among other things) I thought about putting together a crew of fictional characters that could handle any situation. This is what I came up with, and it’s my blog entry for today.

I went with seven spots because of course ‘Magnificent Seven’ and also Seven Against Thebes and because why not. I didn’t pick any superheroes because once you start doing that you pretty much go all superhero. I didn’t pick anyone who can do actual magic because that tends to invalidate every other skill pretty quickly. The picks are also not necessarily about the strength of these character’s story arcs or the depth of their writing (although I do think they are all, in their way, well-written), they were primarily about how useful they would be in my notional super-elite team.

There is no need to point out that this was an immensely dorky thing to do. I’m aware. On with the picks.

These are in no particular order.

1) Kara Thrace (Battlestar Galactica)

We might need someone who can fly … something … and we’re not going to get anyone better at it than this. Also she’s great at shooting Cylons and mutineers if it comes to that. Basically, anyone who’s motto is “Fight ’em till we can’t”, I want on my team.

2) Walter Bishop (Fringe)

We’re gonna need to do some science at some point. Walter can do interdimensional portals and telepathy and whatever the heck else we need. If we need to analyze some hideous creature or obscure technology, Walter’s got us covered. If we need LSD, Walter can do that too. Also, yes he made some bad mistakes but he was willing to cut out parts of his brain to make up for them. I’ll take that on my team all day as well.

3) Imperator Furiosa (Fury Road)

We need a driver, because you always do. She drives modified death rigs across a post-apocalyptic desert. Check. Also, another tremendous no-quit badass. Got your artificial arm ripped off? Beat ’em with the stump. Strap that thing back on. Keep fighting until the arm gets torn off *again*. Even then, don’t take a break until blood loss makes you. Yeah. All day.

4) Sherlock Holmes (Conan Doyle version)

Probably gonna need to solve some puzzles or figure out what some clues mean at some point. Holmes is still the king. Give him a speck of cigarette ash and a toe clipping and he’ll identify the culprit, the culprit’s accomplices, and the culprit’s mother. Also, great at disguises, boxing, fighting with whatever a single stick is, and pistol-shooting. May need to keep him from spending too much time with Walter, though.

5)Leela of the Sevateem (Doctor Who): My all-time favorite Doctor Who setup is still Tom Baker’s Doctor and Leela. I loved her character from the first adventure I saw her in (not her first appearance but w/e) when she threatened to cut the heart out of someone who wouldn’t listen to the Doctor. It was a great contrast from previous companions who had mostly been there to scream and need rescuing. I love that Leela f’n decided she was travelling with the Doctor and jumped in the TARDIS even after he said ‘maybe not’. She copes with threats way out of her comfort zone and experience with nothing but a knife (but it’s a good knife!). Her assumption about how her relationship with the Doctor will work is that she will protect him. Book it. Walter is going to have a blast with her.

6) Henry Dorsett Case (Neuromancer)

Perhaps a bit of a nostalgia pick, given my absolute love for the novel, but come on, at some point someone is going to have to Do Computers and although Case might not want to do it, he’ll be awfully good at it. Adapts with a uniquely charming resignation to whatever weird situation gets dropped on him, which is going to be good for this. Also if he really needs drugs, again, we’ve got Walter!

7) Sir Gareth, the Knight of Many Colours

Might need a sword-fighting, lance-tilting specialist as well, and Gareth is pretty good at that. But the real reason he is here is that Gareth was the glue that kept Camelot together; Lancelot loves him like a brother, which keeps Gawain (his actual brother) from denouncing Lancelot and Gawain keeping their other jealous jerk brothers in check. When Gareth dies, it’s all downhill from there. Sir Gareth will keep this whole team together. Always assuming he knows what to make of Leela.

Didn’t make the cut:

Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer version): a specialist gunfighter seems like a good idea, and I like the idea of having a guy on the team who will go on a vendetta ride through the wilderness while dying of tuberculosis and the only reason he has or needs is ‘Wyatt Earp is my friend’. However, honestly with Kara, Furiosa and Holmes we’re pretty set for shootists.

Molly Millions (Neuromancer): Another tremendous badass, whether in close combat or with a gun, but we’ve got got lots of shooters again, Leela can cut the heart out of things, and things might get awkward with Case on the team.

Indiana Jones: I love all three (emphasis there) movies, and this was close because you never know when you’ll have to deal with some long lost temple or arcane relic. On the other hand, if we need obscure knowledge Holmes probably has it covered, and if we need to throw down we’ve got Furiosa, Kara and Leela. And Gareth. And kind of Holmes. Plus there’s that whole theory where Indy doesn’t actually affect the events of Lost Ark at all. Sorry, Dr. Jones.

Leda clone Helena (Orphan Black): Sometimes you just need crazy on your side. Plus, if she gets taken prisoner (and someone always gets taken prisoner) she’ll end up killing everyone there and burning the place down. Kind of a risky pick due to being really unstable, but her being on the other side is a pretty big risk too. Might be able to cheat and get favours from the other Leda clones with her on the team. It basically came down to her or Leela and in writing my ‘missed the cut’ entry for Leela I talked myself into making the swap. Now I gotta hope Helena doesn’t come after me with the business end of a paper slicer.

Robert Hawkins (Jericho): Season One Jericho was a fantastic treasure of a show and Hawkins was one of my favorite parts of it. Reluctant CIA agent Hawkins can be relied on to have a U-Stor-It full of weapons nearby, a zillion fake identities prepared, and knows six ways to kill you with whatever objects you’ve got in your pockets. While he can get satellite reconnaissance data in the post-apocalypse, he does smile like he’s out of practice at it. However, a lot of the crew is plenty dangerous already, and between Case and Walter I figure we have gizmos and information covered. It’s ok though because Hawkins really just wants to be left alone anyway.

So those are my picks, established over a summer’s worth of running, so of course they are clearly Correct. On the other hand if you want to point out my obvious unforgivable omissions or argue about my choices, have at it in the comments.

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I had a blast at Ottawa Pop Expo last weekend; there were amazing costumes and meeting everyone who came by the Renaissance Press booth was a lot of fun. The energy at conventions is something I’m still getting used to and I’m already looking forward to the next one!

Work on The King in Darkness sequel continues – the first super-rough draft is very nearly done. There’s a special, cool kind of feeling when you know a story is nearly finished and I can feel it coming on. I’m pretty excited and I can’t wait to share this one with you as well. Of course, if you haven’t read King in Darkness you should probably do that first.

I’m just saying.

Thanks for reading. I’ll try to do better the next time.

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Fortunate

So it’s been a heck of a week. I wasn’t sure what I should write about at all, and then I had something sort of fall together around a book I’m reading at the moment. The book is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (and this entry would be far tidier if I had finished it, but I haven’t and the usual mess will prevail) which is – at least in part – a dystopian or post-apocalyptic story looking at society in the aftermath of a great plague. (The author spends a good amount of time with her characters prior to the outbreak, so you might be justified in saying it’s only about 50% post-apocalyptic. Maybe.) In any case it’s mostly about how these people cope in their various realities, so as we discussed last week, it is extremely my thing.

One of the things that came up in a panel at Can-Con (yes, I’m going there again) was the popularity of dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction, currently. Western society, anyway, certainly does read and watch a lot of it, in recent years – Walking Dead and Hunger Games I guess being two obvious big-ticket examples, but you’ll easily think of many more. Exactly why these kinds of stories have such an appeal at the moment is an interesting question that I’m going to wrestle with a bit today.

The theory on the panel I attended was that late 20th/early 21st century society doesn’t have the optimism about the future that previous generations had. We no longer assume that our descendants will live in a better society than we currently do, or that the advance of human knowledge is leading us to better and better things; in fact (with some evidence) we often assume the reverse. Dystopian fiction certainly reflects this sensibility, but you might also expect an substantial amount of work that reacts against those ideas, or provides escape from the pessimism, which isn’t obviously the case. There’s probably more going on.

One additional idea we might bolt on is the idea of these stories as cautionary tales, revealing the imagined fate of human society if we continue on as we currently do. Hugh Howey’s Sand stories, set in a world overwhelmed by desert, seem to fall into this category, even if it isn’t made explicit how his planet ended up as it did. I’m not sure how many writers are really looking to Teach A Lesson in quite this direct a way, overall. Also, not everyone enjoys or identifies with the bleak outlook. For example, while I did have my grimdark phase, I now generally (as I’ve discussed on here before) like a story that, to some extent, can be summed up with: “and afterwards, things were better.” And yet I still enjoy post-apocalyptic stories.

I’ve often seen the theory that post-apocalyptic stories also allow the reader a kind of escapist fantasy themselves, imagining life without all the constraints of contemporary life that may annoy us, and imagining what we would do with ourselves if we could start life from scratch, or nearly so. I think for some people, imagining what their various survival strategies and tools would be is also a fun part of the equation. I, on the other hand, am very well aware that with my various health problems I would last about two and a half days removed from the support of modern society, so that’s not the appeal for me. Because I do enjoy post-apocalyptic stories.

So why do readers like me like them? I’m going to digress a bit and come at the answer from a different direction.

Last Wednesday was Remembrance Day here in Canada. It is a day to remember the men and women who put their lives on the line in service of our country and our values, and especially the sacrifice of those who were hurt or killed doing so. I always have so many feelings on Remembrance Day, but one of them is always gratitude. I am grateful to live in a society where I live in peace, where I can write and express my ideas safely, where my days are primarily cups of coffee, cats that need petting, and ideas that I need to write down. We are extraordinarily fortunate, and should be grateful to those who helped make that fortune possible.

We all got, I think, a stark reminder along those lines on Friday, with the terrible events in Paris. I don’t have anything especially eloquent to say about what happened, or its aftermath, except that having us resort to fear and hatred and exclusion and division is precisely the result that the perpetrators of crimes like these hope for. We must find the courage to disappoint them, to not allow their atrocious acts to take away our empathy and our sense of community with fellow human beings. We win by continuing to be awesome to each other.

On a extremely selfish level, of course, the Paris attacks also remind us how fragile the society that we are fortunate to live in is. Every day we get in these wonderful places, with these wonderful people, is a gift that could be taken away very quickly, whether by zombies or something more mundane. I think that’s part of what is going on with post-apocalyptic stories as well; part of their appeal is the same appeal that has always been part of horror stories. It is fun to be frightened when you know you can close the book and be safe, or get off the ride and it will be over. When you put down Station Eleven, the world hasn’t really been devastated by a plague. Close Day of the Triffids and civilization hasn’t been wiped out by carnivorous plants. You can make another cup of tea and pet the cat.

Post-apocalyptic stories, or the good ones anyway, carry with them that thrill of danger without actual danger, but I think they also remind us, on another level, of how fortunate we are to have the world we have. It isn’t perfect, of course, and there are great and daunting challenges requiring our energy and our intelligence to find solutions. However, we are still immensely lucky. There is a great deal to lose. I think that on some level we like stories that remind us of the good fortune of our existence, even if that is through contrast with some far less palatable alternative.

Well, that got a bit more philosophical than originally intended. I think I’ll stop it here.

—–

Ottawa PopExpo is this weekend! They have a whole myriad of cool stuff relating to SFF going on, among which is the Renaissance Press booth, where you can pick up The King in Darkness along with all the other exciting stuff Renaissance is bringing out. I will be there all weekend as well, hanging out and soaking in the strangeness of it all, so if you’d like to come say hi, I would be delighted.

Work on The King in Darkness sequel is proceeding fairly well. I still think I should have a complete draft ready for the Eager Volunteers by the end of the month, or shortly thereafter. I think that will be a very good thing to do because my internal critics have gotten pretty loud about it. Writing more about Adam Godwinson and Alex Sloan has been undeniably a lot of fun, though. Again – I’m very fortunate.

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Overtime

I’m going to be extraordinarily selfish today and continue a couple of thoughts I had from Can-Con panels a couple weeks back, today. (Who knows, maybe I can keep mining Can-Con for blog topics until the new year!) The panel discussions – both when I was on the panel and in the audience – were really engaging for me and it always felt, at the end of the hour, that it could easily go on for a good deal longer. I guess I’m going to give myself a little bonus time today.

One panel was a reader’s panel on SF and one of the questions was along the lines of ‘what makes great SF for you?’. I had to think about it, because I like all different kinds of SF writers and stories, but eventually I got it figured.

I guess the defining characteristic of SF is that it includes some kind of future technology or alien world, but for me a really great SF story is still ultimately about people. I want to see how these things affect individual characters, or human society, or I guess ideally both. My favourite SF writer (who you will guess if you’ve read back in the blog) is William Gibson, and although his stories are filled with intriguing speculations about future uses of technology, the meat of the thing is always about what that tech, and what that world, does to the people in it.

SF is an interesting genre in having a big fissure right down the middle of it between ‘soft’ SF (which I have clumsily just described) and ‘hard’ SF in which the science is often the star and the human characters have a secondary role. I read hard SF stories, and often enjoy them. One from way back that I still reread from time to time is Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, which is a fascinating book about humanity’s encounter with what they first think is an asteroid, but quickly turns out to be a dormant alien spacecraft. It is a wonderful imagining of what such a ship might be like, how it might work and ideas about a society that is (from the hints we get) truly alien. The human characters, though, are primarily just there to walk around inside the ship and allow all this stuff to unfold, and none are especially deep or memorable. It’s a good story, but I’m not sure I would call it great,for me, because I want the people to be the star, not the alien ship.

This reminds me, now, of a column that was on the Guardian website last week which posited that most famous SF includes massive, impersonal technological constructs (this was in connection to the recent speculation about megastructures – or whatever the objects are – apparently orbiting around a distant star) and not much in the way of humanity. It’s certainly easy to think of examples of this: another Clarke story, 2001, features the famous massive, implacable monoliths and the most intriguing character is a computer. So it’s certainly true, some of the time.

I don’t think I agree overall, though. I suppose it depends in part what you’re defining ‘famous’ as. Gibson’s Neuromancer is one of (if not the) most influential SF books ever written, and it’s far from impersonal. I guess it may not count as ‘famous’, though. Does Ray Bradbury? John Wyndham? A lot of Asimov is primarily about people rather than technology, even if ‘robot’ is in a lot of titles. Hell, E.T. is one of the biggest (in terms of money) SF movies ever, and it’s not about massive impersonal things at all. Those are just off the top of my head, and why I don’t agree with the premise that ‘famous’ SF is impersonal SF but I do accept that that is ‘SF’ to a lot of people. It’s a part of SF to me. It’s not my favourite part, though.

It came up on a separate panel that for a while, SF stories generally involved some sort of problem – often involving space travel or an alien world – which was solved by human ingenuity and the application of technology. This became less the case as we (Western society, anyway) got less optimistic about technology as necessarily being the solution to every situation, and sometimes being the problem, so we don’t see as many of these ultimately optimistic stories any more. There certainly is a great deal of dystopian or post-apocalyptic SF being written and read these days, which may just be the fashion or may reflect broader trends in society; I suspect it’s a combination of both. I like to hope that there’s some room for optimism in our fiction today, though. Certainly another thing about the stories I like best have some sort of positive development in them – you can generally say ‘and afterwards, things were better’ in summation. That’s what I enjoy reading most these days (I get more than enough situations that don’t work out as I or we would like in the real world) and that’s very broadly the kind of thing I like to write at the moment.

I was going to transition over to a point from yet another panel but I think instead I’ll touch on something that just dropped while I was writing this blog – the World Fantasy Convention announced that the recently-distributed World Fantasy Awards will be the last set that will come with trophies modelled on H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft, of course, is an undeniably influential figure in fantastic writing, and some (certainly not all) of his stories are very creative and chilling. Just as undeniably, though, his stuff is also rife with distressingly racist ideas, ideas that he apparently stuck to his guns on even as the world around him was moving forward. While I don’t think this necessarily means everyone has to throw their copies of Lovecraft into the trash (although if you want to, that’s certainly understandable too), it does mean that there’s no way he’s the right emblem for an organization to be using in 2015, so this is unquestionably, I think, the right move.

I suppose some people will moan about ‘political correctness’ but I really don’t think it should be a controversial stance for any group to say that they aren’t going to have a racist as the trophy they hand out as an award any longer. I doubt there was any racial agenda when Lovecraft was picked as the model for the trophy, but since the connotations of his image have been pointed out, and people have said, loudly and eloquently, that it upsets and offends them, it’s a good step for any organization to simply admit that the way they’ve been doing it is wrong and make a change. I’m sure getting rid of the Lovecraft trophy (which is a kind of odd pick for a World Fantasy award anyway) will make things more comfortable and feel more inclusive for writers (and probably fans) from diverse backgrounds going forward.

Also now I guess they’ll have to pick something new for the trophy, and everyone will get to argue about that for a while. With how broad and diverse fantasy has become as a genre, it’s going to be pretty hard to pick something that encompasses all of it, and it might be impossible. For what it’s worth, I don’t think they should do another author head because I don’t think there’s any one author that really works as the figurehead for all of fantasy. (Although if you have suggestions I’d love to hear) I’m going to predict they go with a dragon, because dragons are cool and not too many people would likely raise too much objection to it. If it was left entirely up to me I’d probably do a sword in a stone, in part because of my affection for Arthurian stuff and in part because everyone who gets an award is, in that moment, the chosen one, and so the sword in the stone would be kind of appropriate. But I get that that is pretty ethnically and culturally specific and probably wouldn’t work out. Good thing it’s not up to me.

I’m glad they’ve made the change, for what that’s worth, and I hope it’s part of helping to increase the diversity in speculative and fantastic writing going forward. It can only help the fields we love so much. I also look forward to seeing what the new trophy will be.

And now this is maybe enough for one entry and I’ll leave the other stuff for next week. I’m continuing work on my next book and I feel like it’s progressing reasonably well. I’ve been excited and flattered to have several readers ask if there is a sequel to The King in Darkness coming and I’ve been pleased to be able to say that yes, that’s what I’m working on right now. Hopefully there won’t be too long to wait.

Details on PopExpo in Ottawa are still to come, but they are coming!

Thanks for reading once again.

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Can-Con

Last week’s entry was very grumpy but I have fuel for a much more upbeat entry this week. (Also presumably a subject upon which Wil Wheaton will not immediately release a column, but if he does it will be a cool trick) This past weekend I attended the Can-Con SFF convention in Ottawa and I had such a groovy time I wanted to talk about it a little today.

This was my first convention as a panelist and ‘guy with something to sell’ so it was all a very new experience. Getting to be a part of discussions that were all about the weird stuff I write, having intelligent, passionate people want to discuss them as well, was very cool and felt good. It was also just fun to get to sit around and talk about books and authors and ideas we all love for a while without feeling like there was something else that I was really supposed to be doing.

I had a good time hanging out at the Renaissance Press booth, meeting other writers and readers, and I got an amazing amount of support for my book. I hope everyone who picked up The King in Darkness enjoys the read and I hope to hear what they all think of it when they’re done.  I spoke with people who have been at the stage of things that I’m at, and had great advice.  I got my picture taken with the same crochet TARDIS that has posed next to Sylvester McCoy and Neil Gaiman.

I met Peter Halasz, who works with the Sunburst Awards and (I learned) is an amazing advocate of Canadian speculative fiction. He was also enthusiastic about The King in Darkness, which meant a lot to a beginning writer, even if he promised to hunt me down if he doesn’t like it. I also got to say a ‘thank you’ in person to Hayden Trenholm of Bundoran Press, whose comments on a ‘how to pitch’ panel at last year’s convention fixed mine and helped me find a home at Renaissance Press. Those are just two of the highlights but I met people that I am proud and pleased to share (in some fashion) a community with and it was immense fun.

Ultimately it was just very good to be surrounded by people who are writers and/or love writing and fans of fantastic fiction. It’s very energizing to be around people who value the same things you do and think that the kind of stuff I’m working on is (on some level) interesting and exciting. There is a lot of talk about validation and so forth that often ends up sounding very new-agey and motivation poster-y but I think it is true that sometimes you need a pat on the head or a slap on the back to redouble your efforts, and Can-Con was a big weekend long slap on the back for me.

So, because of all that, thank you to all the volunteers who worked hard making the weekend happen, to Derek Kunsken and Marie Bilodeau and all the other people who I don’t yet know who organized the con and did a fantastic job creating such a lovely environment for lovers of strange stories. I hope to be part of it again next year, and I’ll be there one way or the other!

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——

Work continues on the sequel to The King in Darkness and early returns from the Eager Volunteers are positive on what I have done so far. I’m hoping to perhaps have a manuscript ready for the publishers by March, and then perhaps the new book will be out next autumn. We’ll have to see.

I will be at PopExpo in a couple weeks – details still to come.

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