Category Archives: Thoughts and Musings

Missy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Grenfell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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American Gods (kind of)

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

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

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

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

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

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

——-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Star Wars and the Future(s)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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John Le Carré

When I started writing this blog one of the first things I did was talk about some of the writers I particularly admire or who I think have influenced me in my own writing. I haven’t done that in a while, but as I have just started reading The Pigeon Tunnel, John Le Carré’s autobiography, I thought I would do it again.

I admire Le Carré’s work for a couple of reasons. One is that his stories are just really good stories. Most of what he writes are contemporary spy stories, and no doubt due in part to his background as an intelligence officer, Le Carré writes them very well. I guess obviously I’m not in a position to comment on how accurate or realistic the books are, but they are to me thoroughly convincing and plausible portrayal of how the secret world is likely to work. Le Carré’s perspective on this contrasts very strongly with the many more romantic versions we are given, most famously in the James Bond stories.

When I was younger I read a lot of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels, due at least in part to a massive compendium volume of them being for sale at a church garage sale, a sale at which ‘fill a bag of books for a buck’ was advertised. It probably says nothing good about me that I spent a couple of extra dollars on a massive hockey bag, packed it with books (including the Fleming) and argued that there had been no limits placed on what constituted a ‘bag’. I left with my haul, my mother’s chagrin and, no doubt, my fate in the afterlife thoroughly imperilled.

Anyway I read the Bond stories and with the flashy spectacle of the movies it is easy to forget that Fleming’s books are actually pretty solid. There are a lot of problems; they are also racist, or at least portray a very racist society, and although there are reasons for Bond’s serial misogyny, it doesn’t really change the fact that women get an extremely raw deal both from the stories’ hero and their creator. Especially from a modern point of view, Bond is difficult to actually like, and I sometimes wonder how much we’re supposed to.

Nevertheless, they are well-crafted thriller tales and teenage me read them and enjoyed them and parts of them still stick with me. There is a part of Doctor No where a badly injured Bond is trying to climb up the inside of an air shaft (best not to think about why) and is trying not to think about how far it is, just focusing on each tiny step along the way. ‘Take the silver inches one by one, and conquer them’, is how Bond envisions his task, and from time to time when I am faced with some seemingly insurmountable and endless challenge, whether mental or physical, I will say that to myself as I try to get at it.

That’s pretty good. Overall, I mention all this because Fleming’s famous spy is I guess an idealized version of the British intelligence officer, larger than life and impressively heroic. Bond is smooth and cool and deadly. By contrast, most of Le Carré’s spies are not. His most famous creation, George Smiley, is short and pudgy and socially clumsy. It’s interesting – to me, anyway, that both Fleming and Le Carré had real world experience in the world of intelligence, yet portray it so differently. I’m not sure if that speaks to their backgrounds (Fleming from a wealthy family, Le Carré from a much more troubled one), their experiences with the espionage trade, or simply their aims as authors.

On the whole, though, I suspect Le Carré’s version of espionage, ‘delivering I knew not what to I knew not whom’ is rather nearer to the truth than Fleming’s, and his flawed characters rather more like most of the spymasters of the real world. Smiley is not a lethal weapon one-on-one, struggles with his personal relationships, but his mind is a machine of tremendous precision, and he is particularly acute at discerning people’s weaknesses and how to make use of them. Smiley is not really a hero in the conventional sense, I don’t think – he does his duty and does it well, but we don’t get a great sense of idealism out of him. We see his moral and ethical struggles through many of the books, eventually ending with his determination to do what is required to defeat his opposite number on the Soviet side; whether the personal cost that Smiley paid for all this is worth it or not is left for the reader to determine. A great deal of espionage in Le Carré’s books is at best uncomfortable, and often downright unpleasant manipulations of people who may or may not deserve their fates, in the interests of powerful men and nations who may or may not deserve their defeats, and their victories.

Le Carré’s fictional worlds are less clearly divided into the good and the bad than many other spy stories, and in many of them basically decent people (like George Smiley) end up doing inarguably ghastly things to achieve their aims, leaving both them and the audience wondering if it was worth it. To me, although the secret war of Le Carré’s agents and assets comes across as fairly thoroughly awful, making it difficult to really identify with any of the factions at work, his characters are intensely human, and it is extremely easy to identify with them, and to feel their triumphs, their struggles, and their failures.

Rather than monolithically heroic and villainous sides, Le Carré gives us a rather more murky picture where fighting the struggle in the shadows exacts a massive price on everyone who participates, and I wonder if that’s one of the points he is trying to make. It seems to me one of the consistent themes of Le Carré’s stories that he appears suspicious and cynical of large and powerful organizations and institutions (of whatever kind – his Constant Gardener takes a justifiably harsh view of drug companies) but he’s immensely sympathetic towards individual people, and the dilemmas they often find themselves in. That’s a point of view that I find myself increasingly identifying with.

So, I guess obviously, I like John Le Carre’s stories quite a lot. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a wonderful novel, and The Night Manager is another particular favourite, as is The Secret Pilgrim. In addition to just (?) enjoying the books, though, I also deeply admire Le Carré as a writer. He is a fantastically skilled craftsman with words, choosing each one with what seems to be unerring precision and creating prose that conveys intense feelings of mood and emotion. Because of this, I don’t find him an easy read by any standard; because each word means so much I find I have to pay very close attention to Le Carré as I read, and so late at night when I’m growing tired and my focus is slipping, I can’t quite keep up with him. Le Carré conveys important information in what seem to be fleeting phrases and word choices, so if you miss a ‘little thing’, you’ve missed a lot. It’s interesting (I think) that that attention to precise detail is also one of the skills that are most essential to his fictional spies.

I don’t really think of this as a flaw. Not all writing needs to be an easy, relaxed read, any more than everything we eat needs to taste the same. Le Carré’s stuff demands effort, demands your entire engagement (or at least it does from me), but if you’re able to give it you are richly rewarded. I suppose there is, for a writer, some sort of practical limit here – if you make your writing too difficult to engage with and appreciate, there will be too few readers willing to rise to the challenge. There is, perhaps, some ideal balance of artistry with words and ease of access for the reader, some perfect mastery of story there to be achieved.

In my view, John Le Carré is very close to it.

—–
Literally as I wrote this, I got a news alert that Roger Moore, probably most famous for his portrayal of James Bond, has died. Due to my age, Moore was the actor that I first knew as Bond, and I think his A View to a Kill was likely the first Bond movie that I watched in its entirety. As I’ve just written, I have a lot of problems with James Bond these days, but the Moore-era Bond with the Union Jack parachute and all the rest of it was undeniably fun and Mr. Moore’s performance gave me stories that I enjoyed.

For that I will always be grateful.

——-
We also draw very close to the Limestone Genre Expo in Kingston, which runs June 3-4 and will feature many fantastic discussions on how we create and consume fiction, as well as a chance to meet writers and people who love books. I will be there for the second time, and I’m looking forward to it very much. My publishers, Renaissance Press, will also be there with their growing range of titles, so you can get yourself a copy of The King in Darkness or Bonhomme Sept-Heures if you don’t have one, and I will be at the table at various times through the weekend if you would like to say hi or have me scrawl something in your book.

Limestone was a great weekend last year, and I’m really looking forward to it again. Hope to see many of you there. Details here.

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On Cultural Appropriation

I’ve been hesitant to write about this topic because, first, there’s been a great deal written about it already, much of it by wiser heads than me and in general, on any topic the world does not tend to need more white dude opinions, and second, I think it’s important to mostly hear the voices of people from cultures that are being appropriated on this issue. And yet, I am a writer and one who writes about things I imagine, so this seems like an subject I can’t easily avoid, and I have also seen people whose opinions I usually respect thoroughly not getting the problems here, and maybe if I can help a tiny little bit.

I trust I don’t really need to explain the concept of cultural appropriation itself; it seems hardly possible to spend any time at all thinking about the creative world without having run into the discussion. The issue really burst into flames in Canada last week when Write magazine published an editorial calling (not very seriously) for an ‘Appropriation Prize’ and declaring (much more seriously) that cultural appropriation doesn’t exist (or isn’t a problem) and that writers should write about whatever different cultures they choose and imagine the perspectives of as many different kinds of people as possible. A lot of people (unsurprisingly) got upset, a small(ish) number of white industry insiders made edgy comments in favour of the idea of an Appropriation Prize, and as I write this today the guy who wrote the editorial and at least one of the edgy commenters have resigned from their jobs.

Hopefully what the whole episode of the Write editorial will be is an opportunity for everyone to hear the voices of people from cultures that are exploited via appropriation, listen to their perspectives and their concerns, and do better as we all go forward. Fortunately, there seems to be a good deal of that going on, although it is striking to hear a common theme from many of these speakers: sadness that this is still an issue that we are grappling with, rather than a problem that had been solved long ago.

This is also an issue that I have been asked about. I (currently) write fantasy, so basically making up the points of view and perspectives of people who are not like me is more or less baked into the job. So, isn’t that a problem if I’m against cultural appropriation? The first answer (which I hope is obvious) is that there’s a big difference between making up an entirely fake culture and adopting the perspective of a real one lived by real people. There is rather more tricky territory with creating a culture based upon a real-world one, or imaginary cultures that appear to (intentionally or not) mirror the relationships between groups in our real society. The more fantastic and imaginary you make something, probably the less you need to worry about the problem of appropriation, but this is not the issue that most people have a problem with. Of course fiction writers make things up. That’s not a problem.

However, of course, in the case of the stuff I’ve had published, things weren’t quite that easy. Both King in Darkness and Bonhomme Sept-Heures are set in our world, or something very close to it. My cast of characters includes people who aren’t white, aren’t male, and aren’t straight, so aren’t I engaging in appropriation? It’s not a completely unfair question, and it’s one that I’ve asked myself a bunch of times as I’ve been sitting down to write.

The answer (I think) is that diversity in writing is important both in terms of the kind of characters that get written and who does the writing. So yes, if I’m going to write (and I am), it’s important for me to value the existence of people from a variety of backgrounds, and if I’m going to do that I need to do it as respectfully and well as I can. It is one of the most challenging parts of writing for me but I also feel it’s one of the most vital ones – while it might arguably be easier to exclude characters with experiences that don’t match my own a) it would be boring b) it wouldn’t be a very good portrayal of the world we really live in and c) imagining that different groups in society aren’t there is a harmful thing to do. So it’s essential that I continue to write characters from a whole bunch of different backgrounds in our society.

A key part of doing that, though, is to listen to the people from those backgrounds when they talk about something I wrote, or things other artists created, and how they were portrayed (or not portrayed) in those pieces. What was good. What was wrong. What was hurtful. Then I need to to better the next time. I don’t think anyone is seriously suggesting that an author like me should never include people who aren’t like me in my stories (and I sure hope not!) but that when I write those different people, I try to be mindful of the differences between their experiences and mine, value those differences and portray them as well as I can. When I learn that there are things that I need to do better, I acknowledge that, try to learn more, and try to keep improving.

It’s also important that I’m not going to pretend to be of those other cultures. I can tell a story with a First Nations person in it, but I’m not going to claim that culture as my own, or to say that I am telling the story of First Nations people. Which is a fine distinction, but an important one. There was another controversy recently with a white painter who says she was inspired by the art of First Nations people and started producing art in that style. First Nations people objected, strenuously, and other people objected just as strenuously that artists should be free to express themselves.

Isn’t it ok? Can’t we be inspired by whatever we’re inspired by, as artists? Isn’t copying (or modelling) the behaviour of others pretty deep in our genes? In an ideal world where all cultures were on an equal footing and we could ignore centuries of interaction between them, I guess the answer to those questions might be ‘yes’, but they’re not and we can’t and so the answer is no.

It is deeply not ok for a white person to decide that the art and stories and culture of a people that we, as a society, spent at least the past 150 years trying to eradicate is kind of fun and cool and to claim it for our own and try to make money off it. Doing so is a continuation of the plundering of the colonial era that got us to this deeply problematic place where we are today. What about when a non-white artist uses something from (say) European culture? Isn’t that the same problem? Again, no, of course it’s not – European culture has never been in danger of being eradicated by another one. It’s never been under threat. And, it’s never been a problem for European artists (as a group) to get the attention their work deserves.

The other part of this problem and why it’s not ok for white artists to identify with whatever they identify with and start telling the stories or using the art of other cultures is that it is still so hard for people from these different cultures to get their voices heard and to get their stories told. The demographic breakdown for fiction authors getting published is still overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male. It is orders of magnitude harder for other voices to get heard.

It is, therefore, an incredible problem for white people to swoop in and start trying to tell those stories themselves. It’s super hard to get these stories in front of an audience to begin with, so to have the opportunity to tell them taken away from a person who’s actually from that culture and used by a person who is privileged in society anyway is really problematic, and (I am sure) incredibly frustrating and hurtful. People should be able to tell their own stories, because it’s theirs and they know it and know what it means and why its important. They have had their stories told for them, and stories told about them, for far too long already. They deserve a chance to be heard in their own right.

In sum, then, the problem with cultural appropriation is that it is people from a dominant culture taking advantage of and exploiting others in a variety of ways, and perpetuating their dominance of the market by sucking up the opportunities to be heard that might (and should) otherwise go to people from a more diverse backgrounds. So, I guess in some ideal situation where it wasn’t a problem for artists of different races and genders and cultures to get their voices heard, and where all the cultures of the world were on a level playing field where some hadn’t been historically oppressed and repressed and weren’t in danger of being lost, maybe cultural appropriation wouldn’t be a problem. In case it isn’t clear, that’s not where we are. It is, therefore, a big problem on a lot of levels.

Even so, it should surely just be basic human decency to listen when our fellow human beings speak up about something we did and say ‘hey, when you use that part of our culture in the way you just did, we find it disrespectful and hurtful, could you stop?’ to put aside our arrogance and self entitlement and give what has to be the only conceivable answer in my view: ‘I’m sorry, and of course I will’.

I’ve read a lot of people who seem to treat the entire issue of cultural appropriation as an intellectual exercise, as a sterile problem to pick over in an ethics or philosophy classroom. The problem with treating it that way is that there are real people in real pain involved. Those of us who occupy privileged positions in society need to, at last, stop justifying and start listening.

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Blade Runner

I had a whole other idea (well, 50% of another idea) for today and then we got a new trailer for the new Blade Runner movie. (I believe this is the second one we’ve seen, but this one is ‘official’, for whatever that may mean) I Have Thoughts, so I figured I’d write about them today.

I should start by saying that Blade Runner is one of my all-time favourite movies. This is probably not a huge surprise, given its close affinity to William Gibson’s Sprawl books, which I was deeply in love with by the time I first saw Blade Runner. (There are, of course, a surprising number of cuts of the movie that people argue stridently for and against. I tend to like the Director’s Cut one, although even the one with the voice overs that most people hate has a few saving graces. I love Deckard’s final line of ‘I didn’t know how long we had together. Who does?’. Exactly.)

Anyway, I think the movie entertaining on a surface level as a future noir-ish detective/action story, I find the quality of the acting fantastic, and the whole movie looks and sounds amazing. I’ve bought the Blade Runner soundtrack at least three different times now. There are a great many really memorable scenes (‘No, four! Two, two, four! With noodles.’ and ‘I just do eyes’) and if the pacing is a little slow by modern standards, I think it fits the overall theme of the piece. To me, it all continues to hold up quite well, even this many years later, although you need to handwave a few dates, one way or another.

Once you start digging into it, Blade Runner does have a lot of meat on the bone, too. It gets you thinking about humanity (is there, in the end, any significant distinction between a human being and an artificial creation made to perfectly mimic a human being? And if there isn’t, what does that make a guy like our hero Rick Deckard?) and mortality (is it better or worse to know precisely when your life will end? The replicants find it deeply disturbing to know that their lives have a set end date – but don’t we all, anyway? Maybe it’s that their lives are set to be so short?)

You can spend a lot of time thinking about the events of the movie from the perspective of all these different characters, trying to determine who is aware of what and how they feel about it all, and then trying to figure out how you feel about it all. I love that the movie gives you a great deal to chew over, and I enjoy thinking this stuff through every time I watch it.

Ok, so the trailer. There’s not a great deal in it, to be honest (which recalls earlier discussion over the content, or lack thereof, in the Last Jedi trailer). The visual style is promising, the soundtrack suitably Vangelis-y. And yet, I am deeply suspicious of the whole thing and kind of wish it would, somehow, abort mission. Why is that? I got reasons.

In general, I like the story from the first film so well that I think it doesn’t need a sequel. I wish, overall, that the movie industry (and the fiction industry in general) were better at leaving stories that do not need to be continued alone and not doing ‘another chapter’ just because we really liked the first one. Some stories cry out to be continued. Some are very satisfactorily complete in and of themselves and should be left by themselves. I thought (even though it isn’t at all on the same level as Blade Runner) that this was true of The Matrix, for example, and I think Blade Runner probably shouldn’t have been continued.

Accepting that we are getting a sequel, I’m still not sure how promising this trailer really is, except on a superficial level that it does indeed look and sound like it’s in the world of the first film. However, it also seems crashingly unsubtle. One of the ideas from the first movie is that you have these replicants, artificial life forms who are very nearly indistinguishable from humans, used to do humanity’s dirty work in forging its colonial space empire. They are our soldiers and our labour force. They have pre-determined levels of intelligence and physical attributes, and artificially constrained lifespans that grant them only a few years of existence, and that in service. Pris Stratton is a fully sentient being brought into existence solely to be a sex toy. That’s all disturbing enough, and then add to it that if these beings ever do anything other than what they’re ordered to do, a special unit of the police will hunt them down and summarily execute them. (By the way, Bryant’s ‘You know the score, pal! If you’re not a cop, you’re little people!’ just seems like it will unfortunately fit forever, doesn’t it?) The scene where a desperately fleeing, unarmed Zhora is shot in the back by Deckard is one of the more blatant points in which the movie makes you think about what it is that Deckard is really doing and whether it is in any way good, or even acceptable.

Blade Runner leaves that whole issue of replicants basically being a race of disposable human slaves as an uneasy undercurrent to the explicit events of the plot. None of the characters really get into it, but you can’t help but notice it and think about it, and at least some of the characters are struggling with it as well. (Deckard starts out calling Rachel ‘it’ but by the end of the movie he’s decided he’s in love with her) Basically I feel like the movie gives the audience credit that they will think about this issue without being explicitly prompted on it. (By the way, the Deckard line I said I liked earlier? I mean, I do like it, but the sentiment is covered, if not quite as directly, by Gaff’s parting shot anyway. It’s less explicit, but the idea is there.)

The new trailer does not do that. It beats you over the head with dialogue about it right out of the gate. I really feel that sometimes a softly, softly approach to conveying a message works better than screaming it and it appears that this new movie is gonna scream everything. Further to this: the original movie just sort of hints at the creepiness of people being assembled in labs with scenes like the visit to the scientist with his jar full of eyes, the new one has to give you a replicant (a nubile female replicant, natch) slithering naked out of of some sort of cocoon all covered in slime to make its point. I really feel like Blade Runner is a very carefully painted piece of art. This new film seems (from this very limited taste) as though it may be closer to the time the Mythbusters tried to paint a room with explosives.

I especially do not like the suggestion of a ‘war’ between humans and replicants (although this may be no more than a piece of dialogue). Blade Runner isn’t Terminator. We’ve got plenty of movies that have tackled an armed uprising of humanity’s creations. Part of what makes Blade Runner unique and makes it work is that the scale is intensely human. It also fits with the movie’s overall message that Roy Batty and his renegade Nexus replicants are probably not any real threat to society, or much of anyone outside of their creator, and even then only because he’s so entirely unsympathetic to their plight. They’re just people (really) trying to survive, and yet for this their death is mandated. I don’t think that would work nearly as well if Batty was trying to overthrow the whole despotic regime.

Some specifics, I guess.

Harrison Ford being back as Deckard is an interesting decision on a couple of levels. One is, of course, that it appears to answer one of the unspoken questions of the first film: ‘Is Deckard a replicant?’ I think I said in an earlier blog that I accept the answer from the evidence of the first film appears to be ‘yes’, or at least there’s a compelling case, but the easy conclusion to draw from an aged Deckard still being around in 2049 is that the answer is ‘no’. I prefer that answer, anyway, because of what it means for the last moments of Roy Batty’s life – he saves Deckard, a human, and a human sent to kill him, because as his life reaches its mandated end, he sees every other life as overwhelmingly precious.

One point that I wish I had thought of myself, but didn’t – I picked up on this from N.K. Jemisin’s Twitter here – is that everyone in the trailer is white. That’s not a great look. Blade Runner wasn’t fantastic in terms of a diverse cast, although it had Edward James Olmos and at least a few Asian characters. (Although, again, some problems with their portrayal) In this trailer, even the giant hologram lady from the advertising appears to have been swapped out for a Caucasian. N.K. Jemisin is right to call this movie out for its (apparently!) white-washed future, which we should be doing better than by now, and it’s especially distressing in a movie that is going to deal with the question of an oppressed race of beings. You really shouldn’t have this conversation any more while simultaneously erasing most of the races of humanity from the picture.

On a repeat viewing, and perhaps because I’m feeling negative about the project, a lot of the visuals seem to be sort of clunky rehashes of what we saw in the first film. It had giant hologram ads, we got giant hologram ads. (The giant Atari ad is interesting, and I guess is supposed to suggest a solution to the timeframe issue by putting this in an alternate timeline to our own) It had giant monolithic corporate HQs, we got giant monolithic corporate HQs. I suppose if things looked really different I’d be complaining about the movie not looking like Blade Runner, but somehow I feel like this movie is gonna look and sound like the first movie without understanding anything about what made it good and end up as a much louder story that says a lot less. I would very much like to be wrong.

Anyway, that’s a lot of fairly rambly stuff about Blade Runner. I am, as I said, deeply suspicious about the new movie and, on the whole, wish they weren’t making it. The trailer didn’t do much to allay those suspicions and gave me some fresh new ones, but I guess we’ll see. The good part is that even if it is terrible, Blade Runner will still be there as it is, and I can cheerfully ignore the sequel.

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

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Artists for Artists

What I’ve got for you this week is a story I found quite disheartening in a lot of ways. I was whiling away/wasting a little time on Twitter and I came across a news report of a mural of Michelle Obama that had been installed in Chicago. It turned out that the mural (and I’m not going to name the artist here because I don’t want to push any more traffic his way), which had been crowd-funded, had also been plagiarised, copied exactly from a work done by a young artist named Gelila Lila Mesfin, with no attempt at attribution or giving credit for her work. (This is a pretty good news story covering the issue)

Social media exploded (which I guess is good), the plagiarist reacted fairly badly, but last we heard the two were in some sort of negotiations over the thing, which I hope ends up with Ms. Mesfin getting both full credit for the work as well as some money. We shall see.

I found the whole thing depressing, as I said, because it was such a blatant theft and I would really have liked to believe that someone who thought of themselves as an artist would do that to another artist. I mean, I know how much of my energy and how much of myself goes into anything that I write, and I assume the same is true for the work done by other artists. As a result, I can’t imagine stealing that, or pretending that it was mine. I know how hard it is. I wouldn’t be able to take something that someone else had poured so much into and say that I had done it.

I also like to think that my writing, whatever else may be good or bad about it, is mine, and that’s important. Even leaving aside the issue of ripping off someone else’s work, I wouldn’t ever be able to say that a piece of writing done by something else was mine, because it isn’t. I would take genuinely zero satisfaction in putting out a piece of work that I hadn’t created, because no matter how much people liked it, it wouldn’t matter, because I didn’t do it.

Finally, it seems to me the whole point of being an artist (of whatever sort) is that you create. Again, whether you like what I write or you don’t, I wrote that. I made something that wasn’t there before. That’s very much the whole point of saying that I’m a writer. It would be a frankly bizarre sort of act to be claiming to be a creator when I wasn’t. I can’t imagine what the point of it all could possibly be.

I feel like all of this should be thoroughly straight-forward and obvious, but then something like this mess over the weekend happens and it makes me doubt. I think artists have more than enough challenges to deal with in society without sticking the knife into each other by stealing work. I would like to think that artists should understand better than anyone else how difficult it is to make your way in a creative field, and not sabotage a colleague’s efforts by ripping them off.

Artists need to be on each other’s side, boost each other’s work, and be each other’s support system. Artists should be the best allies other artists have. I would like to think that’s automatic, but clearly it isn’t necessarily the case. Let’s all try to do as well as we can.

Thanks for reading.

——

It’s a little bit more than a month until the 2017 Limestone Genre Expo! I attended for the first time last year and will be back again this year. Renaissance Press will be there as well, which means you will be able to buy either of my books, if you like, and I will be at the table frequently so you can come and say hi if that seems like the sort of thing you might enjoy. I will also be participating in some of the panel discussions again, and I’m already looking forward to all of it. Limestone is a growing convention for basically any time of writer or lover of writing, and I would love to see you there. Details here..

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Landmarks

I got outside for my first long run this week.

It was a lovely day and it was great to be outside rather than on the treadmill, but something was missing.

When I run on routes I use several times I look for landmarks. I don’t want to be looking at my watch all the time, because then I obsess over time, but I like to have something that gives me a sense of how far I’ve gone and how much longer I have to do. This year, one of my landmarks is gone.

For as long as I’ve been running here there has been a distinctively shaped tree by the pathway with a sign that called it ‘The Dream Tree’. It was a white elm. I noticed it because of the shape and then of course the name appealed to me a lot and gave me something to think about on my runs. Anyway the Dream Tree became one of my landmarks, and this year it is gone. This isn’t a huge surprise since it had obviously been sick the past couple of years (in fact I wrote a terrible poem about it on here once) and I guess sometime in the fall they cut it down. (Which is sad on a few levels)

It was surprisingly disorienting. I have been used to it being there for a long time, to planning my runs around it and using the sight of it in the distance as a guide to how far I was from home. I was, as I say, surprised by how much it threw me to be out and not find it there. Both on the way out and on the way home I had a genuine sense of disbelief that this part of the landscape was really gone.

However, I also figured out something else that I can use as a landmark, and if it’s a sign rather than a tree it will still work, and I’m sure after another run or two it will feel as natural as the other way did, even if it’s never quite the Dream Tree.

The reason I mention all this is that it occurred to me that these kind of things happen to us in life from time to time: we lose our landmarks. A job that we had done for a long time changes, or is taken away. A friendship we had relied on ends, or alters forever. A part of our routine is changed for reasons outside of our control. I felt that last year when I was injured and couldn’t run, and had to come up with different ways to burn off my stress and get my mind to running.

Which is kind of my point I guess: Losing a literal landmark is temporarily disorienting, we soon adjust and come up with something else that will work, even if it won’t be the same, and it’s the same with these other things that are sort of the landmarks in our lives. We lose a friend, or a job, or something else precious, and it seems as though things can’t possibly continue, but we’re pretty resilient and we come up with something, or a number of things, to fill the space and take up the weight, and on we go.

I will miss the Dream Tree though.

——

In non-running news, of course you’re probably aware that we’ve seen the first poster and trailer for the next Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi. They’re interesting studies, I think. (If you haven’t seen the trailer, it’s here.) Neither reveals very much.

The poster is kind of cool because Rey is doing the the typical fantasy hero pose, which is neat to see a female character getting to do. There’s not a lot else going on though, aside from an angry-looking Luke and Kylo Ren. The overall sense is that Luke is not going to be the unproblematic solution to everyone’s problems that the characters and audience may have assumed him to be.  The poster builds on the sense of menace and threat the filmmakers have been trying to stoke ever since they rolled out the Star Wars logo in red a few months back.

The trailer doesn’t have a great deal going on it either that you can really sink your teeth into. Rey is obviously training her Force abilities, Exciting Space Battles happen, and Poe Dameron gets another X-Wing blown up. The main thing that seems to have attracted attention is Luke line ‘It is time for the Jedi to end’.  (There are lots of other images in the background but it’s hard to say anything about them other than ‘yes, that is probably Captain Phasma.  Huh.’)

Now context is obviously important, so we don’t know why Luke is saying that, and I even read some suggestions that Mark Hamill had recorded that line specifically for the trailer, so it may not be in the movie at all. But it is interesting; they seem to be pushing the idea that Luke Skywalker may be pretty done with this whole Jedi idea and have very different ideas about how to approach stuff than the last time we saw him.  That’s probably more interesting than Luke just showing up, swatting down another couple Sith, and making everything fine again, and it also fits better with the middle movie of a trilogy, where in general Things Get Worse.

Of course you can read a *lot* into that one line, and figure that the movie is going to blow up the whole Sith/Jedi binary and give us a whole new philosophy of the Force. Or, you could figure that it’s a red herring that will ultimately mean nothing at all – movie trailers of course being famous for this kind of thing. I’m basically not ready to draw any strong conclusions from the tiny fragments the trailer showed us. (I kind of hope they *don’t* blow up the binary and introduce some kind of superior middle path, because one of the things I’ve always liked about how Star Wars presents the Force is that it is astonishingly powerful, but power has a price, one way or another. Either it requires tremendous discipline, or it tears you to shreds. Writing this brings up a potential scenario where Luke has fallen to the Dark Side off on his island and is a Sith hermit. That might be fun.)

This brought up another point that people were discussing after the trailer dropped: is a good trailer one that has *lots* of information in it, or one that tells you very little and leaves you wanting more? Watching the Last Jedi trailer doesn’t really leave you any the wiser about what happens in the movie aside from ‘it is a Star Wars movie’. That could mean that it’s a bad trailer that doesn’t inform the audience. Or, it could be exactly the right kind of trailer – it tells you what you’re going to get (more Star Wars) without giving away anything of significance about what happens in the movie.

I tend to hate spoilers, so I’m actually quite content to go into any book or movie fresh and discover everything as I go along. However, I can see the other side of the argument. Personally, I think the people who made the Last Jedi trailer knew exactly what they were doing and put out just enough to whet the appetite for the legions of Star Wars fans, refresh the hype machine for another few weeks, and keep everyone dying to have the new movie come out, or even just for the next little drizzle of information that they’ll give us.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve got for you this week. Thanks for reading.

Next week I won’t do a running analogy.

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Dialogue

I have recently been struggling a bit with the current WIP (which, yes, still lacks much in the way of a title), to the extent that I described myself as ‘mired’ to a friend the other day. After some thought – along with certain other things – I decided to go back to one of the things that had gotten me excited to write a story set in Victorian London to begin with: the TV Series Ripper Street. I admit to approaching Ripper Street a bit dubiously, and I’m not sure that it’s an immortal achievement, but I do like a lot about it.

One of the things I like very much is the dialogue. The writers for the show have a very clever turn of phrase and obviously love their words. Basically all of the characters speak in these very elaborate, eloquent, complex sentences which I enjoy very much. (My love of a long twisty sentence is something any of my editors or Eager Volunteers can attest to) Now, I also doubt very much that real Victorians spoke this way, and doubt even more that the residents of impoverished Whitechapel spoke this way, but Ripper Street’s heavily embroidered dialogue nevertheless somehow, for some reason, works (at least for me), both because I enjoy the word craft and also because it somehow conveys a sense of the different mannerisms and etiquette of the late 19th century. Or so I reason, because even though it probably doesn’t make any sense, I still sit there thinking ‘this is awesome’ rather than ‘well, this is probably overdone’.

It’s a similar situation to another show I loved a while ago, the rather-more-famous Deadwood, which also put amazingly ornate dialogue in the mouths of characters who would certainly not have spoken that way. It worked, both because it was a joy to listen to and (I think) because the eloquence was a contrast to the gritty, brutal setting of the frontier town and the gritty, brutal people who inhabited it.

Anyway in the short term, watching Ripper Street worked pretty well and I’ve been back plugging away at the WIP. I also tackled a scene that I’ve been struggling to figure out how to make work for what feels like roughly forever. I’m not sure it’s exactly good, but it is written and I can move on from it. (This kind of loops back to earlier blogs in that I need to remember that not every scene needs to be the best scene I’ve ever written. Sometimes, there just needs to be a god damned scene.)

In the somewhat longer term, this all got me thinking about dialogue and how it works. It isn’t, of course, quite as simple as fancy dialogue always being better. There are plenty of times when ‘less is more’, and another of my favourite TV shows frequently serves up great examples of that. The Americans is, I think, genuinely one of the best shows on television and one of my favourites of all time, and they really know how to write over there.

One of my favourite moments was from Season 3. Philip, deep cover KGB agent resident in the U.S., spent most of that season doing increasingly awful things (which, if you’ve seen the show you will remember, and if you haven’t, I’m not going to tell you about because you should go watch it) and eventually, he’s talking to one of his assets and breaks off in the middle of trying to justify everything they’ve been doing. All he says is “I feel like shit all the time”, and you absolutely understand the amount of pain he’s in, and the toll everything is taking on him. Similarly, last episode (minor spoiler here, but whatever) Philip and his wife Elizabeth discover they killed someone who was completely innocent; Philip is once again devastated (Keri Russel’s Elizabeth has thicker skin about these things, apparently) and Elizabeth offers to leave him out of future missions that may require killing. Philip replies with “No, no. It’s us. It’s us.” Again, you completely understand that even though he hates what he’s doing, he can’t contemplate making his wife do it by herself.

Now, a lot of the effectiveness of both those scenes (and, a lot of what works on The Americans, and indeed any TV show or film) has to do with the delivery and performance from the actor. Matthew Rhys sells both those scenes tremendously. However, he’s working with what he’s been given and somehow that extremely minimal dialogue conveys a tremendous amount, in context.

So in trying to think about this in terms of ‘what makes good dialogue’, I’m not immediately left with anything too useful. Sometimes, arguably over-written dialogue is great. Sometimes, extremely minimalist dialogue is great. I suppose one might argue that context is, as usual, king in all this: some settings and characters call for one, and some for the other. Probably in some or even many cases, you don’t want to be on either extreme, but something in the middle.

The thing is that I imagine it depends very much on the author in question, as well. Some authors know how to write in the style for Deadwood. Others know how to make less words say more. I would guess that trying to do one when you’re really good at the other doesn’t produce good results.

Unfortunately what I think I’m coming away with, having spent the last couple of days thinking about dialogue, basically comes down to two things. One, that having excellent dialogue can absolutely make a piece of writing just as much as bad stuff can kill it. Two, there probably isn’t

And isn’t that insightful.

It has given me something to consider as I continue work on the WIP; I need to choose my characters’ words, and the style of those words, very carefully indeed. Since I do tend towards long, complicated sentences, I’m probably likely to stray more towards the Ripper Street end of things, but it’s valuable to remember that in some circumstances, a very few properly chosen words can say a ton.

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

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