Monthly Archives: March 2019

Broadcasts from the Wasteland

So, this past week I have been fighting a virus and busier than I would like to be at work, and am therefore struggling for content. As a result, I’m going to tell you about the podcast I’m helping make. I didn’t actually get clearance from my broadcast partner Brandon Crilly for this, but what the heck, we’re in ‘soft launch’ territory, it’s either that or my year-late take on Infinity War, and if he wants to fight me I’ll get germs all over him.

So, podcast? Yeah, that’s what I thought. A while back my good friend and fellow author Brandon came up to me and said he wanted to start making one. I thought it was a good idea: Brandon is a great conversationalist and is quickly becoming a deft hand at interviewing. “I want you to be on it,” he said.

Wait, what?

This was unexpected. I mean, I’m always delighted to have a chance to talk with Brandon, and I always find our conversations interesting. I had just never thought about recording them. He explained that what he wanted to do was have the two of us sit down with two other creative people, and have a free-roaming chat about whatever was on our collective mind.

It sounded like a great idea. That idea – mostly through the perseverance of the aforementioned Brandon – has now become a full season of a podcast called Broadcasts from the Wasteland, which we have just soft-launched. The whole process has been very educational, at times a little freaky, and now that the end product(s) are starting to emerge, it’s exciting in that way of, say, diving from a considerable height. Some admixture of fun and terror.

You can listen to our ‘Episode 0’ chat right now at our website here, you can find us on Spotify as well, and although we are not yet up on iTunes, it’s coming. I’m truly very excited to see what people make of Broadcasts from the Wasteland, and I’m very grateful to Brandon for beaming me aboard this lunatic ship.

Thank you for reading, and for listening.

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St. Gertrude’s Story

So St. Patrick’s Day, I did the same silly tweet I did every year about St. Gertrude – March 17th is also the feast day of St. Gertrude of Nivelles, today seen as a patron of gardeners, sufferers of mental illness and cats. I am generally not a St. Patrick’s enthusiast, I find the curious world of lesser known saints interesting, and pointing out that you could celebrate St. Gertrude instead is at least arguably a joke.

This year the tweet kind of blew up for whatever reason, getting seen by (checks stats) 87,000 people. This provided me with the answer to a question I couldn’t help but have: ‘what happens when you have a tweet go (semi?) viral?’. The answer is ‘not much’, but it was fun to watch happen.

I honestly forget where I first read about St. Gertrude, but she’s an interesting figure. She was born in the early 7th century, refused marriage (shaving her head to try to put off potential suitors), eventually entered a convent (well, double monastery) and is supposed to have saved the faithful from both a storm and a sea monster. Regarded as a saint (although not recognized as such until the 17th century), she was invoked for help by people keeping gardens, travellers, and people suffering from fever.

The association with cats appears a very late addition, usually slotted into the 1980s. St. Gertrude was invoked against rodents earlier than that, at least in the 15th century against the Black Plague (spread, in part, by rats), and concern with rodents does make sense for a gardener. In addition, several depictions of St. Gertrude show her surrounded by mice or rats. There isn’t another patron saint of cats, a lot of people like them, and it’s not such a leap from invoking a saint against rodents to invoking her in favour of their classic nemesis (and our companion).

(I did find one article that said (correctly) that most monasteries and abbeys would have kept some cats to deal with the mice, and that Gertrude was known to be especially kind to the ones in her abbey. They didn’t cite a source, though, aside from mentioning the vita of her life in general, and I haven’t ever read it myself. So I’m not 100% confident on that one)

There’s another explanation out there for the mice – St. Gertrude apparently had special concern for souls in Purgatory. (imagine a sort of afterlife penalty box where you serve out the balance of your sins on earth) These souls were often represented in medieval art by mice or rats – so the depictions of St. Gertrude and the mice may have had nothing to do with actual animals at all, originally: they were about her interest in relieving souls from Purgatory, reinterpreted to be literal mice by the later Middle Ages and then to interest in cats even later.

We should note that she’s still not officially the patron of cats – the Vatican has never recognized the connection. But all of this demonstrates a lot of things about medieval religion that I find somewhat charming and endlessly fascinating, because a great many saints ended up getting their patronages due to popular connections first, and then later recognition by the institution. Popular practice was the driver a lot of the time, and people brought their own meanings to their devotions and found ways to get their needs served.

It is also interesting to me that St. Gertrude clearly has a great many authors to her story, and it has been continually rewritten, or at least reinterpreted, over the centuries. Unpicking what is the truth of her life is a puzzle for historians, but it probably didn’t matter to someone in 15th century Holland, looking desperately for help against a deadly disease. Their version was that St. Gertrude would help. It probably doesn’t really matter to the cat lovers who liked my tweet Sunday whether or not Gertrude of Nivelles really liked the abbey cats or not; their version is that she loved cats like we love cats.

Different people with different needs and priorities wrote the versions of St. Gertrude that they liked. I think it’s very cool that we’re still, on some level or another, working on the story of this woman from the 7th century today. It also demonstrates (I think) something else that fits more clearly into a writing blog.

Chuck Wendig wrote a blog entry last week about how, in his opinion, the people who run the Star Wars franchise should split off the movies into a separate continuity (or ‘canon’) from the books and comics, in sort of the same way that the Marvel superhero universe is similarly divided. His argument was (basically) that then writers would have more freedom to do what they wanted without worrying about whether they were fitting in with a lot of previously established (or still to come) canon. They could just write their stories, and not worry about it.

I think when you look at writing in the past, our obsession with ‘canon’ is a relatively recent development. If you look at the stories of King Arthur and his knights, it’s clear that there were a great many different writers across a great many years writing the stories they thought would be cool about these characters, and many of them do not even slightly make sense together. Even when someone tried to create a canon, like Thomas Malory, it doesn’t really work: Malory’s compilation still has two Excaliburs kicking around, and the Lady of the Lake is deeply confusing.

People at the time would have been perfectly aware of this, of course they would. This was their popular culture! But they also don’t seem to have been particular bothered about it, loved the stories anyway, and writers just wrote their tales, and didn’t worry about it.

Obviously this was a very different time, before ‘intellectual property’ was exactly a thing. And I could do a pretty deep dive into why we, as a society, might tend to gravitate towards the concept that there is a single right answer to any question (whether that be ‘what is at the centre of the Solar System’ or ‘did Han shoot first’) and are often uncomfortable with the idea that different interpretations may be equally valid for different people. Even without doing that, I think it is reasonably obvious why we tend to want at least some consistency within our stories, and to want satisfying answers to our questions about them.

However, I do think this gets carried rather too far, with expectations that each and every story set in the same universe has to fit together seamlessly and unproblematically. Heck, the stories we have about our own universe don’t even do that, so why expect it of our fictional ones? I think there’s a lot to be said for writers being able to ignore or at least greatly loosen ‘canon’ in all kinds of popular settings, write their stories, and not worry about it.

I think our stories changing depending who tells them, and who is listening, is a wonderful tradition and a great way to keep them alive. There’s centuries worth of evidence that even if there isn’t an air-tight ‘canon’, people will love them anyway.

Thanks for reading.

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Captain Marvel

Unusually for me, on the weekend I went and saw a movie that just opened! If you spend much time online, you will likely have seen that there is or was some controversy swirling around this one, part of which was an organized campaign by a bunch of tiny insecure people to tank its ratings before it even hit theatres. The main thing that did was make me (and, I do not doubt, many others) really want to throw my support behind it, so I made sure to go and see Captain Marvel.

Sure glad that I did.

It was a lot of fun, I thought the performances were great and I enjoyed the 90s throwback content (while simultaneously feeling even older than usual that we’ve hit the point where the 90s are retro). I loved the overall message of the film, that getting knocked down is not weakness: you just get the fuck back up. I loved seeing one of my favorite comic heroes on the big screen.

And yet, despite that, I know that the movie wasn’t really for me, not exactly anyway. Because sitting in the row right in front of me was a family with three little girls, who bounced up out of their seats with excitement when the ‘Captain Marvel will return in Avengers: Endgame’ card came up. Kind of like the joy from girls and women when Jodie Whittaker was announced as the 13th Doctor, I’ve been delighted to see all the similar excitement and happiness from women and girls getting to see themselves be the hero. That’s really who this movie is for, and as much as I enjoyed it, I know they enjoyed it on a level I really can’t – but I am so excited that they get to.

And look, there’s plenty there for the dudes. Leaving aside that the story is fun and Carol Danvers is a rad character, there’s Nick goddamn Fury. I’ve seen some deeply dumb takes about how Fury is done a disservice by his portrayal here, but it’s just not the case. Yes, Fury is the sidekick. That’s perfectly fine. He’s also obviously very good at his job (if in the early stages of his career), he’s funny, and seems like the kind of dude you would want on your team any day. No, he’s not very much like Fury as we see him later in life. But he’s a human being here, and Future Fury (or Present Fury, depending, I guess) should be thinking about how to get back to the place where he was great at being a SHIELD agent but also pet the cat and sang in the kitchen.

Some of the backlash against Captain Marvel is disheartening because it doesn’t make sense that people should be so insecure that they can’t handle a movie where a female character is the main character, and she gets to fly jets and punch bad guys and be the hero. It’s unfortunate to be reminded that those people are still out there. However, it is nice to also have the evidence that they’re a pretty tiny minority, even if they are loud. Captain Marvel, after all, had a huge opening weekend.

Higher.

Faster.

Further.

More.

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I hate Chekov’s Gun

I recently finished watching the most recent season of True Detective, and I’ve seen some people annoyed about it, and I have some thoughts. They are thoughts full of spoilers, so if you haven’t watched to the end of Season 3, think you might, and care about spoilers, probably just give this entry a miss for now.

Ok, for those of you still here (skipping the question of why? for a moment) – first of all, I thought the acting this season was great and I enjoyed the Ozarks setting way more than Season 2’s LA. I thought the main character’s unreliable and fragmentary memory was an impactful and clever new wrinkle to throw into the show’s established ‘multiple time frames’ format.

Now, where I saw some people getting annoyed was with how the resolution came together, and in particular that the ending violated Chekov’s Gun. I think I hate Chekov’s Gun.

To explain: we did get plenty of hints at something occult going on in the early going, with a Lovecraft reference in the first ep, creepy Blair Witch-y dolls, and a body posed on a stone slab in a cave. That, coupled with how Season One had gone (with some strongly implied Weird stuff going on) seems to have led many people to expect that dark magic was going to be part of the resolution here. And it wasn’t. We also had reason to expect some alarming child trafficking ring, and didn’t really get that either. And at least some of the audience didn’t like it.

First of all, I think some of that reaction comes from people being proud or fond of their solution to the puzzle we were presented with, and not being happy to learn that their speculation was wrong. That’s perfectly understandable, really – no-one likes to be wrong, and most people like to feel clever. However, I’ve seen a decent number of people frame their complaints through Chekov’s Gun thing: basically, that you shouldn’t introduce hints at occult magical things and then not follow through.

I am sure that the original advice behind what became the ‘Chekov’s Gun’ rule was well meant, and it probably applies decently well as a general principle (maybe especially well to a stage production? I’m not certain), but like almost every writing rule I have seen, it shouldn’t be applied as broadly as it is. Especially if you’re presenting a story about solving a problem (which a criminal investigation essentially is) – well, almost every one of those is a story of various false starts, dead ends, and things that looked important and then weren’t. Yes, in the first couple episodes of the season, the evidence for Occult Stuff looked strong. Turned out mostly to be smoke. I don’t think you want to go to the ‘fakeout’ well too often as a writer (or your audience won’t ever believe anything you present), but some misdirection is fine, and presenting the reality of any kind of investigation as a story of all the things we got wrong before we started getting things right is perfectly solid.

There were similar Chekov’s Gun complaints with the last season of The Americans (yeah, spoilers ahead) in which Elizabeth is given a suicide pill, speculation abounds about who will end up taking it or having it used on them, and then … no-one does. It gets buried in the woods as the Jennings flee the country. Again, I thought it worked great. It served to create some tension when it was introduced, and then having it come to nothing was part and parcel of how the whole world of our favorite spies was falling away. Sometimes it really is fine to introduce something intended to fizzle out, or show a road that no-one ends up taking.

Some people also objected that the non-occult resolution wasn’t as interesting. Look, I’m a huge fan of having fantastic elements in stories generally (not a shock, I am sure), but I thought what True Detective gave us this season worked pretty nicely. We saw several grandiose explanations for the murder of one child and abduction of another, but in the end it was a story about a series of reasonably humble human frailties and failings that led to it all. To me, the mundane roots of evil are at least as interesting to me as another abyss of the human soul (such as we saw in Season One) would have been.

Now, I would agree that the two massive dumps of exposition in the final episode came across as pretty clumsy, but it’s hard to see how they could have been replaced without at least another episode’s worth of action. None of this is to say that I thought Season Three of True Detective was perfect, but I think it was pretty darn good, and some of the criticisms I’ve seen of it seem to be treating yet another general principle of writing as an absolute, must never be broken, rule.

Increasingly, I think those don’t exist.

Thanks for reading.

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