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Star Wars

Goofy idea postponed yet again (at this rate I may never do it!) because, as you may have seen on the Twitter, later last week I was finally one of the last sentient creatures roaming the surface of the planet to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I’m gonna ramble on about that a little bit today. In the interests of the last few entities wandering around out there who haven’t seen the movie yet, I’m going to keep this as spoiler-free as I can, including especially the part where Jabba the Hutt turns out to be the new head of the Jedi.

One of the interesting things in waiting so long (in the safe damp darkness underneath the rock where I live) to see the movie was that I got to see a bunch of reactions to it before I went myself. Overall the tone of these seemed to be positive, although there is/was a significant minority of negative outcry as well. So I was ever so slightly sceptical as the stupid preshow smartphone games and previews finally ended and the iconic Crawl O’Text began to make its stately way up the screen.

My first reaction, honestly, was relief. Star Wars was back.

I should explain. Through my teens and into my early twenties (not quite a long, long time ago but verging upon it) I was an enormous Star Wars fan, perhaps to a somewhat excessive degree. I absolutely loved the original trilogy of films, and could have done most of the dialogue from memory. I had Star Wars posters all over my walls, played all sorts of Star Wars games, and was frequently kitted out in Star Wars t-shirts. I was deeply invested in the franchise, to say the least. Then Phantom Menace came out, and some friends and I rented out a VIP screening room to watch it on the first possible day. The movie started. I still keenly remember sitting there trying to convince myself that the movie wasn’t shit, and eventually failing. I had looked forward to a new Star Wars movie so much, and it was awful.

As a result I waited for the reviews on Attack of the Clones, heard it was shit, and so … never saw it. I never even considered seeing Revenge of the Sith. The movies sold tons of tickets so I just basically filed away Star Wars as a franchise that was no longer ‘for me’ and put it away in the ‘fond memories’ category. Time passed and I thought about Star Wars less all the time (probably a good thing) until the news started to trickle out about new movies being made, and then The Force Awakens came out.

As I said, with some scepticism I (eventually) went to see it, and again, wow, Star Wars was back. Part of it was (of course) the return of familiar characters like Han Solo and Leia, but they also just got the overall tone and feel of the movie very nearly exactly right. I’ve seen the movie criticized for ‘playing things too safe’ and being too much like the original trilogy and I guess especially A New Hope, but for me a movie that looked and felt like the Star Wars movies I had loved was exactly what was necessary. Maybe the next two movies will take more ‘risks’ but I hope they don’t do too much, because fundamentally the Star Wars setup works pretty well.

One of the things I enjoy is that you have characters who are clearly Good, if somewhat flawed at times, and characters who are clearly Evil, and the story the movie tells is essentially a conflict between these. I think part of the enduring appeal of Star Wars as a setting is its (usually) unapologetic presentation of a confrontation between Right and Wrong and an overall narrative that suggests that, in the end, evil will be defeated. I think that’s a story that twangs something very deep inside us, it’s a story we’re sort of culturally primed to like, and part of why stories like Star Wars and Robin Hood and King Arthur and Beowulf are the ones that we keep coming back to.

That’s not to say that you can’t tell a good, compelling, ‘shades of grey’ story, obviously you can and I enjoy them immensely at times. (Battlestar Galactica was almost entirely shades of grey, by the end, and it was a fantastic series) At the same time, I think that not every story needs to be grey, that there’s an undeniable appeal in a story that gives you clear Good Guys and Bad Guys.* In a lot of ways, I think we ultimately want it to be true that there are truly good forces in the world, and that in the end the bad things in our society and our world can end up being defeated.**

That’s one of the things fiction can do very well: provide an inspiring or comforting vision of the way we would like things to go in the real world, something we can look at or read and think ‘yes, this is the way it should be‘. Perhaps it can be that way in the real world. Perhaps we can make it that way. I think, at times, fiction can be an aspirational text, the goal we’re aiming for, and in a very loose way Star Wars can be that for some people. Certainly I think there are examples there that can excite, motivate, and inspire you, if you let them.

I think that was part of the reason that teenage me got so into Star Wars. It was an ultimately positive vision, and I tend to like those. As I’ve said before, right now I think we get more than enough examples of it being difficult to find unproblematically good figures in the world and plenty of examples of what is wrong going unconfronted or uncorrected that it’s nice to not get that in my fiction as well. I think the new movie, in this particular way and in a lot of others, remembers what was really fun and good and enjoyable about the first trilogy of films and gives it back to you. I guess you could say that’s not very daring or ambitious, but I think it’s also very welcome.

Ok, I’ve already written a lot about this movie and I’m not going to go on very much more about it, but I want to address one of the most loudly-expressed objections to what we got in The Force Awakens at least a little.

I read a lot of criticisms of Rey’s character prior to watching the movie, primarily that she is a ‘Mary Sue’ – (briefly) one of those (often very annoying) characters who have every special talent, can do everything and handle anything. In my opinion, it doesn’t hold up. Rey does get to do a lot of cool things in the movie and is at the forefront of most of the action. However, that’s because she’s what we call the main character, or the star of the show. So of course she’s leading the way, that’s what main characters do. You can’t go into (say) an Indiana Jones movie and complain that Indy does everything; that’s what protagonists or main characters do.

<Gonna get slightly spoiler-y here for a second>

 

 

 

Rey also does exhibit a fairly wide range of talents, although again in part that’s just a hero being a hero. However, even by the movie’s internal logic, they make sense. She’s good at fixing starships because she’s been taking them apart her whole life. Presumably that’s also why she has an idea of how to pilot one; she’s done the equivalent of growing up in an enormous junkyard and therefore having a basic sense of what to do with a car. She turns out to be really good at it because of the Force. I mean, you can hate that as an explanation but it’s imbedded in the Star Wars setting. Luke was a great starfighter pilot with no training because of the Force and does probably 98% of the things he can do because of Space Magic. Same deal with Rey, in fact if there is a criticism here it’s that it’s quite so close to Luke’s story.

 

 

 

<spoilery stuff ends>

I suspect some of the criticism of Rey comes from people trying to justify being unhappy with a female lead. That’s immensely disappointing and distressing, for reasons that I trust I don’t have to lay out here. She’s a great character, well acted by Daisy Ridley, and I’m already looking forward to the next part of her story.

All right, that really is it for this week, except to say that if you are one of the remaining sentiences out there on the planetary crust who hasn’t yet seen The Force Awakens, I’d recommend it as a good time.  Thank you for indulging what became a more than slightly bloated, fanboy-ish gush of a post. Normal service will resume next week.

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* – Yes, of course I’m aware that it’s possible to problematize Star Wars by thinking about innocent bystanders on the Death Star and that ordinary citizens might possibly like the order provided by the Empire and so on. I think it’s clear, though, that this isn’t the vision the story is intending you to pick up. It’s fun to read against texts and unravel things, of course, but you also have to be aware that that’s what you’re doing.

** – Avoiding spoilers, but of course in the original trilogy and in this new movie these victories don’t come without various kinds of sacrifice. That’s generally the way the narrative goes in these kinds of story though, isn’t it, and (without getting too anthropological) I think it’s another useful part of the message. Evil can be defeated, but not trivially, not without commitment. That’s one of those things that you sense is true as soon as it’s suggested to you.

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X-Files

All right, the goofy idea is put off for another week because today I’m going to write about The X-Files. As you are probably aware, we’re a couple of weeks out from a 6 episode miniseries that will bring the show back for the first time in a long while – yesterday (I believe) a teaser website was launched and at least the initial signs are pretty promising. As it happens, I’m also plowing through the old series at the same time, having discovered that they’re all up on Netflix. So X-Files has been on my mind the last while and I’m going to make that our subject for the week.

The first thing is that in going back to the show for the first time in a long while, I was reminded how genuinely good it was. X-Files has since been so parodied and ripped-off (and, to be fair, the series probably outlived the really good ideas that were there at its inception) that it’s easy to forget that the original source material was actually very well done. I remember really liking first season episode ‘Darkness Falls’ when it aired and man, it’s a pretty solid hour of spooky TV. As increasingly convoluted as the show’s central UFO plotline eventually became, you watch the early stages of it and are reminded why this got people hooked.

Now, X-Files definitely came too late for me to say that the show made me want to write speculative fiction (William Gibson and Doctor Who having accomplished that mission long previously), I think it did affect the kind of stories that I generally like to write, and read. I like the overlap of the bizarre and the horrific with the very ordinary, which X-Files is all about. As much as Mulder and Scully are meant to be very talented FBI agents, they are also lacking magic powers, amazing gizmos, or prophetic destiny as they try to cope with whatever ghastly thing they run into each week. Most of the time, despite being federal agents, they’re among the least powerful players on the field and have to scramble to do whatever they can, which is sometimes just survive. Relatively ordinary people grappling with the extraordinary is another idea that has had a lasting appeal for me.

I also like (although this may be more how I feel now than how I felt then) that despite being so heavily outmatched, they don’t quit. It would be entirely reasonable for either or both of our heroes to decide that look, every time we try to investigate these crazy issues we tend to end up in deadly peril, one or both of us gets injured and, oftentimes, some government agency or other swoops in to destroy, hide and discredit all the evidence and we’re left with nothing. We quit. We’re gonna work on mail fraud or something where we won’t die and may actually make some progress. Of course, if they do that there’s no show, but it’s still admirable that neither character (even Scully, the sceptic) is willing to throw in their hand. They’re still going to try to bring the truth to light. I like that a lot.

I think probably a lot of the fiction we enjoy to today and a lot of writers working today owe that kind of debt to X-Files, (really, The King in Darkness could almost be an X-File) and a lot of the popularity of speculative fiction – pretty mainstream today – can be at least partially attributed to the success of the show. I’m not enough of a TV historian to know exactly how far to push the idea, but I do know that shows like Star Trek (original flavour) and Doctor Who were far from mainstream. Most people didn’t watch them and fans of those shows were regarded as a little odd. Lots of people watched X-Files. New episodes got hyped during NFL football. At it’s peak, it wasn’t unusual if you did know what was going on with the show, it was a little unusual if you didn’t. I think that’s a change (for which Quantum Leap and Next Generation vintage Star Trek also need to get credit) that has benefited SFF ever since – it opened the genre to way more fans than it had ever drawn in before, people who discovered the astounding, challenging fun these sorts of stories have to offer and have stuck around. X-Files (in part) brought a huge amount of attention (and therefore money) to SFF that hasn’t wandered away yet, and has continued to grow. Both for fans and for writers, that’s pretty cool, and it’s not hard to find a bunch of fiction that has a lot of X-Files in its DNA.

As well as that very broad effect, X-Files altered things for fans and writers in a bunch of more specific ways as well. The most obvious of these is the idea of the ‘shadowy government conspiracy’. I don’t think you can fairly say that this really originated with X-Files – post Vietnam America was pretty rife with sentiment that the government was up to no good – but I think the show did mainstream the idea and made it the default setting of a lot of fiction from that point onwards. The assumption now (in books, movies and TV from all kinds of genres) is that the government (usually the U.S. government, but not exclusively) keeps secrets from its populace and enacts various dastardly schemes to keep the truth hidden. Government agencies are to be regarded with suspicion. In general, the authorities are not on Your Side and may in fact be working against you.

That’s a massive change from the stories, a generation earlier, which (perhaps fuelled by post WWII optimism) tended to present governments and their agencies as solutions to problems rather than being part of the problem. Generally the government was either a Good Thing to be defended or sometimes, it was the cavalry that would come sweeping in at a key moment to help do the defending. Post X-Files, if you call in the cavalry you’re not too sure who or what they might decide needs to be swept away. How much X-Files drove that change in sentiment, and how much it was a symptom of it, is more than I can say. Either way, if you look around the fiction (and not just speculative fiction) that we create these days, it’s still the operating paradigm. Whenever The Feds show up, we’re just waiting for Cancer Man to loom up out of the background.

This is all stuff that I more or less expected as I went back to the show. I want to talk a little about one thing that has been very different. When I watched X-Files as it originally aired, my favourite character was (of course?) Fox Mulder. I know at least part of the reason that I wanted to get myself a trenchcoat was that I thought (very, very wrongly) that I would look as cool as Mulder does running around in his. So there’s that, there’s also that he’s (probably?) the show’s protagonist, so you’re supposed to like him. But I think I was also sort of primed by my own life to that point to like a character who has ideas that a lot of the people around him find strange or ridiculous, who doesn’t really ‘get along’ in the systems around him particularly well, but also tends to be right, or at least closer to right than anyone else, most of the time, and looks fairly heroic in persisting in what he knows/believes to be true in the face of nearly endless opposition. To a very limited extent, if Mulder could cope with it, so could I, and I’m sure that I liked him for that reason even as I’m just as sure that I would have stridently denied it, had you asked me at the time. I do still like the character for those reasons.

However, in coming back to the show, my favourite is now Dana Scully. In part that’s just because I enjoy Gillian Anderson’s performance so much – I could watch her somewhat resigned contempt for the people who try to treat her like a fool all day – but I also think there’s a case to be made that she’s the real hero of the show. While Mulder runs around on various lunatic schemes that have, truly, no chance for success and will probably end up with him under arrest and/or being shot, Scully doggedly keeps working away at evidence she can actually get her hands on, at trying to put together a demonstrable case of what’s going on. Mulder will run off to get a glimpse of a UFO that will (after Scully rescues him) just be another wild story; Scully is looking for something solid she can point to. It doesn’t often work, of course – the show would collapse if the central conspiracy was dragged into the light – and the evidence she’s after ends up getting confiscated or destroyed or traded in to save Mulder’s life, but her approach to things is admirable. It doesn’t matter what they know, or think they know, if they can’t prove it. Mulder just needs to know things, Scully actually wants to accomplish something by being able to prove that these things are true.

It is true that her scepticism, in certain episodes, starts to seem a little contrived after all the things the character has explicitly experienced on earlier cases. Most of the time, though, I think they pitched it about right – Scully believes that there’s a dastardly government conspiracy that has involved incredibly unethical things and bizarre misdeeds. She’s seen the rooms full of files and the mass graves (I can’t believe they did a mass graves scene, with the US government as the instigators, on network TV) and the weird medical remains. She’s just not going to say ‘and therefore aliens’ until that’s clearly supported by what she can lay hands on. For now, horrifically unethical medical experimentation is probably an awful enough story to go forward with. I guess I still tend more towards the ‘I want to believe’ sentiment from Mulder’s poster than the sceptical standpoint, but I figure Scully’s point of view is usually reasonably justifiable based on what she’s actually seen tangible proof of. Plus, of course, Gillian Anderson acts the hell out of it all.  “Please explain to me the scientific nature of the Whammy.”

All right. That’s a lot about The X-Files. I could ramble on further but I’ll call it here for now.  Maybe I’ll write a little more once we’ve seen the new series. I guess needless to say, I’m really looking forward to it. Thanks for reading – I hope your truth is out there this week.

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Delays and Missed Deadlines

I had a rather goofy idea for this week’s blog, but (perhaps fortunately for you!) George R. R. Martin wrote a blog entry about how the latest volume of his Song of Ice and Fire series will not come out before the next season of the Game of Thrones TV series, resulting in the TV series passing the books, to the consternation of at least some. (If you haven’t read the post, it is here and worth a read, if only as a demonstration of how difficult writing can be, even on a very successful writer, at least some of the time) Due to the fame and popularity of the series, there’s been a lot of reaction to it all over the internet. Some has been very positive, some extremely critical, and of course lots in between.

As usual this has Gotten Me Thinking, and although I’m very young in my craft as a (theoretically) professional writer, I thought I would use this week’s entry to sort through some of those thoughts today.

Most of the criticism has centred around the idea of being a professional meaning writing constantly, steadily, and producing work at a consistent rate, presumably also making deadlines. One author who I admire a lot was recently quoted saying that if you only write when you’re inspired, you’ll never make a novelist. (In fairness he also wrote, a few years back, a fairly passionate defense of authors, and George R. R. Martin in particular, to write at their own pace, which sort of demonstrates the complexity of the issues) That’s very much in the vein of a lot of advice for writers (from various sources) that says you must write every day, you must produce X amount of work in Y amount of time, and if you don’t you’re Not Taking It Serious and will never succeed.

To a degree, I sympathise with this. When I wrote King in Darkness, I did it as a self-imposed challenge to write 1,000 words a day, every day, and the book got done in a hurry. I wrote a blog entry a while back about deadlines and how, in my academic life, I took pride in never having missed one. You have a set amount of time to get the work done in, and so you see it done. You put aside other stuff to make sure it happens. You keep at the task until it’s completed, because it’s important.

On the other hand (and you knew this was coming), that’s academic writing and not fiction writing. I really do believe that you want to work at writing like you work at almost anything else; you need to exercise your writing muscles on a regular basis and that that’s how you get better as a writer, by Writing Stuff and doing it often. It has (as above) worked for me. At the same time, there are days when (for whatever arcane reason), it just isn’t working, every word has to be dug out of you like a splinter and the whole thing just sucks.

I had a professor in university who told me that when you write effortlessly, it’s because you’re interested in what you’re writing about. When you’re fighting it the whole way, it’s because you’re not. I think he may be right, regarding academic writing, but I’m less convinced that it’s true about fiction writing. In part that’s because from day to day the difficulty level of writing for the same project changes a lot. I don’t think I’m any more or less interested in the work on certain days. I wish I knew why some days I struggle to get anything done, but it absolutely happens.

When I was sticking strictly to my quota system I would, on those days, stay grimly parked in front of the computer until I had written exactly 1,000 words, and then erase nearly all of them the next day because they read about like they’d felt when I wrote them. According to some, that is all Part Of The Process and it’s what you do when you’re Doing Work as a writer. I guess I’m not entirely convinced that that is true – was it really valuable time spent painfully dragging out a bunch of stuff I knew I wasn’t going to keep? Might it not have been better to recognize that today is not a writing day, go do Other Stuff, and come back and write when it was working better?

I mean, I don’t know the science (or if there even is any science) behind the reason why some days creative writing (and, I suspect, most forms of art) go really well and others don’t. Heck, it may not even be that way for everyone. However, it clearly does work that way for lots of people, of which I am one. You might argue that I, and others like me, are just Not Taking It Serious, but I have started to sympathise more with the people who say (Daniel Jose Older being the one who I remember doing it most recently) that setting ironclad quotas for yourself and demanding that you must meet them is a recipe for building negativity about your writing and, as a result, ending up reducing your productivity rather than helping it.

I think they might be right. A friend of mine got very upset with themselves this past November when it became clear (due mostly to life pressures) that they weren’t going to be able to get their NaNoWriMo writing done on schedule. My immediate reaction was that the only value in something like that is if it helps your process, if it is only serving to make you feel bad rather than helping you write, then screw it. Take a break. Realize that it isn’t a good time for you to be writing, deal with other stuff, and come back at it when it feels good and you have the energy to put your best stuff on the page.  Quotas and rules and deadlines are good if they help you produce your work; if they’re discouraging you and making you doubt yourself and adding stress (which makes it harder to work!) then they’re the last thing you need.

Obviously you have to be careful with that, at least if you want to write seriously and not just have it as a hobby. You can’t just endlessly give yourself days off because you don’t feel perfectly poised to write, or you will never ever get things done. Also, some days when I haven’t felt great about writing, once I sat myself down and started giving it a go, my brain will drop into gear with an almost audible thunk and all of a sudden it’s going great.

Maybe the answer (for me, at least) is to try to write every day but be prepared to step away if it’s clearly not happening. I’m not real convinced that writing just to write and then throwing away whatever I produced is really making me better.

I also think this is probably one of those things people need to work up to. If you’re planning on making writing your profession, you probably do need to get in the swing of producing work at least reasonably regularly, for a host of reasons (maintaining an audience being one that immediately leaps to mind) On the other hand, you don’t start a training program for a marathon by immediately running 41 kilometers. You start with something achievable and gradually build from there. Especially for people just getting started in writing, you probably need to build those writing muscles and habits in much the same way.

I guess I’m increasingly sceptical about all the people (mostly on the internet) who have Rules about how you must Do Things to be a writer, with failure guaranteed if you don’t. Increasingly, I don’t think there are rules for such a strange ephemeral creative process (more like guidelines?) and that you have to figure out what works for you. I’m very gradually doing that.

And look, I have no idea what George R. R. Martin’s particular situation is. I don’t know whether the missed deadlines for his latest book were the result of a busy schedule, laziness, fatigue, creative struggles, whatever. (I would hazard a guess that he’d love to have the book done, though.) I’m not writing this in defense of Martin (although I would think that his fans should probably make peace with the fact that for whatever reason, at this point in his career he writes at a relatively slow pace) who I suspect can look after himself anyway. I do think that there’s some value in thinking about the pressure we put on ourselves as writers and whether all of it is really valuable.

I am beginning to think (and I cannot stress enough that this is not an Expert Opinion) that the answer is finding the right balance between giving myself (and yourself) some structure, but not such an onerous one that it crushes you. The tricky part (I guess) is being honest with yourself about when you can probably push yourself a little more and when no, you really need a break. (Another thing I think I may be better at after spending time in the gym with someone who knows what they’re doing) I suppose ‘moderation’ isn’t a very exciting answer, and ‘find what works for you’ doesn’t make for a very retweetable Tweet or pithy column, but I’m starting to think it’s right anyway.

That’s more than enough of me thinking at you for a week. I appreciate your time in reading it.

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Just because I wrote a whole bunch of stuff about deadlines and process I thought I would briefly update the King in Darkness sequel – I got kind of enveloped in holiday season things and not a lot got done through the tail end of December. There isn’t a great deal more to do on the first draft, though, and I think I should still be ok to have it completed for the publishers perusal in the spring.

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Teachers

I was going to write another very cliched topic today and do something about the New Year but then last night I got to thinking about teachers I have had instead, and teaching I have done. I’m gonna do that one instead. I’m not entirely sure what brought the topic to mind, other than perhaps thinking about all the learning I have done over the past year.

I really did need to learn a lot, especially as the publication of The King in Darkness got closer, and then happened. I had to learn about how to work with editors, and my publisher. I had to learn how to start using social media to try to market myself, and how to interact with ‘the public’ at events and book signings. That is still very much a work in progress, but it’s been a lot of fun learning as much as I have.

I have been blessed by having some excellent teachers in my life. I had an English literature teacher in high school who knew I wanted to write and wrote ‘You are a writer’ on some probably-not-very-good thing I had done for her class. Even though it took me quite a long time to prove her right I guess, I never forgot seeing those words and the encouragement they gave me that I really was ok at putting words together. She obviously didn’t need to do that but she took the time to give a not-very-confident kid a pat on the head and it helped a lot.

Teachers can have a lot of power that way. I had a student a few years back in one of my classes who would almost literally light up if you told her she had done something well. I’m not sure what had happened in her life to get her to the point where a little praise would mean so much, but I hope it helped a little to hear it a few times. I still feel that some of my problems in math trace back to a grade school teacher who told me I was really bad at it; that made Young Me want to avoid math like the plague and led to the subject not getting the attention it probably needed from me. A bad teacher can do a lot of damage. The right teacher at the right time can give you the push you need to achieve something you might not have ever done, otherwise. Sometimes they’ll change the whole direction of your life.

I was an English major at university and took a medieval history course as an elective. The professor invited me to take an advanced seminar the next semester, and after that suggested I think about changing my major. I ended up doing a double major and going on to do postgraduate history degrees. That’s a lot of influence from the person at the front of the classroom. (If it isn’t clear, I’m very glad I happened to take that elective)

Because of that, I’m very cautious about what I feel comfortable saying I can teach people. Partly, I sort of like the idea that teachers should wait for students to come to them; if you’re constantly trying to push things you’ve learned on people who don’t particularly want to learn it you’re just being annoying. On the other hand, if someone asks you a question, you share what you know. I guess obviously that model doesn’t work very well for institutional education (we think there are certain things that should be compulsory to learn. Maybe there should be? That’s probably a whole other blog entry) but I like it for my personal approach. (Before you ask, I feel all right about the blog because everyone chooses to come read the thing, or not)

I also wouldn’t want to claim to be able to teach anything that I don’t feel that I have a reasonable level of competence at and about which I can communicate that understanding well. I like to do archery. I’m nowhere near competent enough to teach it to anyone. I could probably teach something about writing, and I know I can teach history. Someone on LinkedIn claims I know about social media. I’m not entirely convinced I have anything I can teach you about that, really.

I really believe that a good teacher can make just about any subject compelling and engaging for a student, just as a bad teacher can make just about anything boring or impossible to learn. Some of it is enthusiasm for the subject, some of it depth of knowledge, and some of it is the ability to communicate that understanding in easily grasped concepts. It’s unfortunate in a lot of contexts that having a skill (say, writing) and the ability to teach that skill are not precisely the same thing. Frustratingly, sometimes people who are really good at things aren’t very good at teaching them. I know I’m not very good at teaching English grammar – I understand it in a very intuitive way (I know when a sentence looks or feels correct, and I’m usually right) but I can’t always clearly articulate why it is right or wrong, which is not very useful for teaching purposes. This was a problem trying to help fellow students work on their essays, and I know I’m still not great at giving feedback on grammar when I grade papers now. I ran into the opposite side of that trying to learn math a lot of times. My friends would intuitively know how to solve a particular problem and it would just seem like sorcery to me.

That issue taught me, quite early on, that ‘easy’ and ‘obvious’ are very fluid concepts. It’s good to keep in mind that what is dead simple for me may be really difficult for someone else to unpick. That’s important in my writing, I think – things that are to me glaringly obvious may not be that way for every reader. This is where my Eager Volunteers and Lovely Editors are absolutely invaluable, and why having extra pairs of eyes on anything we write is so important. I think it’s really very cool that people have such different perceptions of things; in my more fanciful imaginings I wonder if this is part of how human society kind of works – each different task has different people who find them easy, which allows everything to get done in the end.

Of course, they keep trying to teach people like me algebra anyway. Although there is something to be said for the experience of trying to learn something you’re not very good at, maybe especially if you’re going to be a teacher.

Teaching and learning are processes that feed into each other. Being a student helps you figure out how to teach, and vice versa. I think I learned a lot about teaching from my trainer at the gym, who is an extremely patient dude and taught me a great deal, and not just about fitness. Watching him work really hard at trying to help me learn how to deadlift gave me a whole new insight into what it is like to be a student who is not very good at what they are trying to learn (that would be me, in this example) and how the teacher can try to find ways to help them. I think I’ll be better at helping students who struggle with standard deviations (or whatever) whenever I’m back in a classroom because of this. My deadlift is better than it was, too.

All right. That’s a big blorp of words and probably everyone is still tired from the holidays. We’ll call it here for the week. I have a lot to learn as the New Year rolls up on us. I still need to work on this whole self-marketing deal.  I like to think that we’re not ever done learning, which means we also constantly need new teachers.  With luck, I’ll be both learning and teaching right up until my last day on the planet. I hope you will as well.

Good luck in the year ahead. Thanks for reading.

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Gifts for Writers

Christmas fast approaches and the malls are doubtless packed with people desperately trying to find the perfect gifts for everyone on their list. For once I am not there, for which I am grateful. I am here to help you, should you have any writers on your list that you don’t know what to get. I’m pretty sure I know what they might like. (This advice is probably reasonably portable to artists in general) Perhaps even better, you won’t have to go to the mall!

1) If you’ve read something by a writer whose work you’d like to support, write a review for it on Amazon or Goodreads or wherever else you’re comfortable with. New writers in particular may be finding it hard to get attention on their work, and reviews will help. Amazon in particular has algorithms that are based on the number of reviews a book has received, but reviews anywhere will help boost the visibility of a book, for which any author will be very grateful. People really do read these things, as well, and your good opinion can carry a lot of weight.

2) Along those lines (and maybe even simpler), if you’ve read a book and liked it, tell a friend. No-one would expect you to push it on everyone you know, but if you’ve read something and know someone who you think might enjoy it, just let them know about the book you read and why you thought it was good. There are few greater compliments you can pay a writer than to suggest their work to someone else.

3) Finally, if you’ve read a book and liked it, tell the writer! Writing is often a very solitary pursuit and although some writers are invincibly confident, many are not. It can be hard to know if what you’ve been working on is worthwhile at times, and so hearing from someone that they read your stuff and liked it can be such a valuable boost. In my own case, I had entirely abandoned The King in Darkness until someone read the manuscript and told me they really enjoyed it. That gave me enough of a boost to get it ready for publication and eventually bring the work to print. Since then, hearing from readers who liked it and tell me they’re looking forward to another story about Adam Godwinson has been really important, some days, for keeping me inspired to keep working on the sequel. (It’s going ok) I think everyone likes a pat on the head sometimes, and if you tell a writer that you liked something they wrote, I promise you’ll make their day.

Those may all seem like very simple ideas, but I promise any writer will be grateful if you do some or all of them, probably more than they might be for a chocolate orange or pair of socks. For myself, I have already received a wonderful gift this year of having my writing in print, and I’m immensely grateful for that, and all the exciting stuff that came as a result of it.

Writing is a tremendous gift to have in my life, all on its own, and I’m as grateful as I could be to have it as part of my life.

I’m also grateful for everyone who has taken some time out of their lives to read this blog. It’s great having you all. I hope you have a wonderful holiday season, however you’re spending it.

Go read something!

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Christmas Fiction(s)

After last week’s brief (I swear) foray into politics, this week we’ll do Cliched Blog Topic #286 and I’ll give a few thoughts about the (extremely) fast-approaching Christmas holiday. It is a time when lots of us will get together with friends and family to celebrate (not necessarily, or even usually, anything religious), to exchange gifts that are really (I think) tokens of our affection and appreciation for each other, and eat some special meals. For many people, it’s their favourite time of the year, and a stretch of days that is so focused on people being (in theory!) great to each other is not really that difficult to appreciate.

On the other hand, it’s well-known that a lot of people end up feeling disappointed by the holidays, and sometimes more sad and lonely than they did before. It’s not immediately easy to see how a time of year focused around celebration and joy can do that, but I can certainly attest that it can. It’s not hard to find lots of thoughtful explanations from psychologists as to why this may be. I guess I have a few thoughts of my own.

As I often do, I think about the difference between fiction and reality. Christmas (and really most holidays) are a fiction that is both created for us and created by us. We get lots (and lots, and LOTS) of representations of what Christmas is supposed to be like in books and TV shows and movies, and I think it’s nearly impossible to avoid internalizing at least some of that. Christmas, our fiction tells us, is supposed to be a time when problems get suddenly fixed. Old disputes are resolved. Separated people and communities get reunited. People find the partner they’re ‘meant’ to be with. Even problems of money or employment or places to live get abruptly solved.

It makes for lovely stories with heartwarming, hopeful endings, and I do think (as I’ve said in previous entries) that positive endings often make for good stories. Of course the tricky part is that if you’re expecting that Christmas is going to resolve all your problems, and then it doesn’t, it’s very easy to feel disappointed, and for your problems to seem all the more insurmountable. I don’t think most people honestly expect ‘Christmas magic’, but on a subconscious level we expect that Christmas (or any holiday, really) are going to be these lovely special times when everything goes well and then if things are less than perfect, we wonder what the heck went wrong.

For what it’s worth I think this sometimes happens with our fictions in general; our fictional worlds often provide portrayals of reality where things work out as we’d like them to and characters live the sorts of lives we think we’d enjoy and (often) other characters who aren’t very nice face the sorts of consequences we think they deserve. It’s easy to look at the difference between that and the real world and think that it doesn’t measure up. But, of course, it can’t – we like fiction precisely because we can arrange it (as writers) just how we want it and have things fall just how we’d like. That’s immensely satisfying (both for writers and readers) but obviously the real world isn’t under direction in that way at all, at Christmas or at any other time of the year.

Fortunately there’s lots of good advice out there about how to manage expectations as the holidays approach. My own thinking here is that it’s worth remembering that if the holidays are largely a fiction, we’re not characters in a story subject to the whims of an author. We get to decide (obviously in collaboration with all the other authors we know) how things are going to work out. We don’t have to wait and hope that a resolution is provided; we’re the ones writing our own stories and a great many things are, therefore, ours to control, at least to some extent. It’s a little more difficult to think of how to find solutions to our problems (a solution that may, sometimes, involve asking for help, as scary as that is to do) than it is to wait for a resolution to be provided, but it’s also much more likely. There’s always power in being the author, and we are all the authors of our own holiday story.

I think, also, reaching back to another earlier blog entry, it does help to recall how immensely fortunate most of us are. Sure, there are things we’d change, there are issues we’ve got to deal with, and things about our lives we’d change if we could (and perhaps we will!). However, I know that as I sit here fretting a little about Christmas, I am also living a life that huge numbers of people would jump on in an instant. Every day we live in these tremendously affluent, extraordinarily free and exceptionally safe societies is a huge gift. That’s not to minimize the problems we have (they’re real, they often really suck) but it’s something to put in the balance.

Anyway, thanks for reading another very rambly entry. Hopefully there was something that worked in there for you. Whatever holiday traditions you may or may not observe at this time of year, I hope you all enjoy yourselves and have some wonderful times with people who are important to you. Be kind to each other. Reach out for help if you need it; there are people who want to give it to you. If you happen to see or talk to someone who seems to be having a rough time at the holidays, give them whatever warmth you can. I can attest, again, that even a little thing can help a lot. Overall, things probably won’t be perfect, but I hope you’ll find plenty of good things to take pleasure in. Go write yourselves a good story for the end of this year.

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Fascism

One of the things about being a writer, perhaps obviously, is that I spend a lot of time working with words. I’ve always enjoyed it, and I’ve always enjoyed learning new ones and all their different shades of meaning and how you can use them to express exactly the right thing if you put them together right. I think that’s probably why I tend to find it slightly annoying when words get used incorrectly or imprecisely – words mean things, they convey specific meanings and communication can quickly become incomprehensible if we start using them wrong.

If you get me in the right (wrong?) mood I can go on about how the meaning of ‘tragedy’ – as deployed especially by the media – has strayed quite far from what the word used to mean (I think we have to accept this as a lost battle though). I am frequently dismayed at how almost no-one who uses the term ‘deus ex machina’ seems to have any idea what that actually means. Do not ever get me started on the uses of the word ‘medieval’.

Most of the time this is, in the grand scheme of things, not very important (and arguably just me being a grumpy old pedant) and people get by just fine even if they’re not using the word ‘literally’ completely wrong. Sometimes it really does matter, though. I was reminded of this yesterday when a friend sent me a video put together by Neil Gaiman about the current refugee crisis, about the difference between a ‘refugee’ and a ‘migrant’, and why it is important. The argument is itself an important one, and probably the best thing is just if you go watch the video yourself, if you haven’t.

Of course the more important thing is that we then all try to be kind in our responses and reactions to the plight of these people as they seek somewhere safe to live. I’m pleased that Canada is trying to help.

I guess maybe it also primed me to think about another word that often gets used, shall we say imprecisely, in conversation and in the media – that word is ‘fascism’. I guess we tend to throw that on anything vaguely authoritarian that we don’t like, and certainly any use of force by authority tends (with varying degrees of justification) to attract the fascist label. It’s a word that is much in the media as I write this this morning, but this time (perhaps deliberately, and perhaps not) it is being used correctly.

I am referring of course to Donald Trump. He’s being called a fascist, and for whatever it may be worth I want to add my voice to those pointing out that this isn’t sophistry or hyperbole. His policies really, truly are fascist. It’s important, I think, to say this, to shine that light on what he’s doing, and make it clear that this is what he’s offering to his followers. It’s frightening to watch unfold.

How is Trump fascist? I suspect there’s a very long analysis that could be done. But briefly, if you go through the speeches he’s making, he ticks all the basic checkboxes of the fascist message. ‘Make America Great Again’ is the classic appeal to the golden past of a chosen people who have fallen on hard times in the present. For Mussolini it was the Roman Empire, for Trump I suspect it’s the 1950s. Of course their decline is not their fault – these chosen people have been undermined and sabotaged by enemies; for Trump, these are immigrants and now especially Muslims. But he can fix it, and part of fixing it means excluding those who are not in the chosen few, by closing the borders, by marking out who does and doesn’t belong and restricting the rights of those who are ‘other’. To begin with.

Last night Trump’s campaign manager made a favorable comparison between his candidate’s policies and the decision to put Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War II, a decision (I had thought) was universally decried as unfair, unjust, and racist, and for which the American (and indeed the Canadian) governments have since apologised. But it shows where Trump’s thinking is apparently going. This morning I see he is also ridiculing the idea of ‘free speech’ as something important as he calls for ‘closing up the internet’ (as goofy an idea as that sounds) to control what people can read and say. If it wasn’t for the clumsy way he says some of these things (a clumsiness that I now suspect is probably calculated), this would be chilling. According to Trump, if you value freedom of speech, you are ‘foolish’. Again, right from elementary fascism – individual rights mean nothing, the interests of the state mean everything.

Fascism is probably the most destructive ideology human society has yet created. It led to probably the most enormous crime against humanity we have ever seen, in the Holocaust. This was the ideology that the world united against in the Second World War. The ‘Greatest Generation’ that contemporary society currently praises went off to fight precisely against that evil. The threat of fascism was seen as sufficiently awful that Churchill and Roosevelt were prepared to ally with Stalin (himself a terrible figure) so that it might be defeated. The fight against fascism is one that we (rightly, to at least some extent) lionize in the stories we tell to this day, and that we honour on Remembrance Day.

When I have taught about fascism in my history classes, my students typically have trouble understanding how it took hold, and how people (very many of them) could line up behind its ideas of division and hate and endless conflict. And yet here it is again, and if the poll numbers from the United States are to be believed (and I think at this stage we have to give them at least some credence) it is working once again. That’s the most frightening part. I think the Marxist-Leninist candidate in my riding got about 14 votes in the last election, but in one of the countries that led the fight against fascism the last time around, a very nearly explicitly fascist candidate is not only far from marginal, but seems to be thriving.

I think it’s time that everyone who can, speaks out and makes it clear that this is not okay and that the societies we have build won’t tolerate this. We can’t. The cost is simply too high. I’m glad to see many Republican candidates directly and unequivocally rejecting Trump and his ideas, although it would also be good if they would say that they won’t support him should he win the nomination. It’s alarming that some have not.

There’s already a lot of damage that has probably been done; it’s been pointed out that the Trump candidacy has done a lot to normalize the use of racist arguments as ‘tough talk’ or ‘straight talk’ that would probably have been political suicide just a few months ago. There’s much worse that can come if these ideas are allowed to continue to grow. I’m not sure how much I can really do, but I’m going to do what I can. I’m not an American, but I’m a human being, and I can’t stay silent on this.

I know you don’t come here for my political ideas and I promise this is not going to become a political blog. In most cases, there are people who write on politics and social issues much more eloquently and effectively than I will ever do. I think, though, that this particular issue is important on a scale that goes beyond most political issues, and thus today’s blog. I’ll be back to writing about books and things next week.

Thanks for reading. Don’t let this go unchallenged, please.

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Author Moment

I’m going to have a bit of a Moment this week, so if you were expecting whatever it is I usually do on the blog, I apologize in advance.

The thing is that after what I know was a lot of hard work, my publishers at Renaissance have gotten our books on the shelves of some local bookstores here in Ottawa: Octopus Books and Books on Beechwood. This, of course, led to me dashing over to one of the stores in question like a goof and taking the following picture:

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I think the people at the store now believe they are stocking a book written by a certifiable loon, but never mind. For a long time, when I thought about writing and Things I Would Like to Happen, one of the big ones was walking into a bookstore and seeing my book there on the shelf. That happened yesterday and so I’m very very pleased.

I’m not entirely sure why that moment or that image were quite so important to me. Having the book in some physical stores is significant in a practical sense; although lots of people now buy their books online, places like Amazon are not easily browseable in the way a shelf of books is, and some of their content gets filtered by various algorithms that tends to keep stuff by small presses from showing up. Getting on the shelf of actual stores is a big deal because you’re getting in front of the eyes of people who are not specifically looking for your book, but are looking for something to read, and now they might decide that thing is the thing you wrote. So, this is a good deal for me and for Renaissance and so it’s a good reason to get excited.

I know that’s not why I was excited though. I mean, I hadn’t even really thought about those kinds of issues until fairly recently, and I have wanted to see a book I wrote on a bookstore shelf for a very long time. I think it’s more that having one’s book on a bookstore shelf is one of the indicators that one is an Author; and that’s really what I have wanted to be since I was the kid skipping doing my math problems to write more stories about Earth Defence Command. Even with the book published and all, I still seem to keep looking to reassure myself that this really has happened, and yesterday did that very well.

I remember reading an article not long ago about people in my other field of academia, talking about the prevalence of a thing called Impostor Syndrome where people feel as though they, and they alone, are unqualified frauds just waiting to be exposed and expelled by all their colleagues. Having suffered through that as well, I wonder (first of all) if there isn’t a similar thing going on with writing that is (at least temporarily) counteracted by things like seeing your book on a shelf or having someone buy something you wrote at a convention. I also wonder if it might be the case that people in many walks of life suffer from their own versions of Imposter Syndrome and need these little reassurances as well.

No doubt there are plenty of hyper-confident, self-assured folks who never doubt themselves or their own position in life even a little bit. For the rest of us, I guess look for those reassurances when you can find them, enjoy them when they’re there, and then try not to kick yourself too hard the rest of the time. You’re probably much more clever and talented than you give yourself credit for, and you’re probably surrounded by a bunch of other self-described Impostors as well. (Oooh, there’s a story idea in this somewhere now)

I think that’s about all I’ve got for this week. I know it’s a little short. I’ll try to have something more substantial for you next week.

—–

I should of course thank my publishers at Renaissance for their hard work in getting the books into the stores, and thank Octopus and Books on Beechwood for their support of local artists and small press publishing. They are great independent bookstores that have served their neighbourhoods for a long time and deserve your support if you can give it to them. Obviously there’s only so many copies of The King in Darkness that anyone needs to own but they have lots of other great books to sell you; check them out if you’re in the area.

I should also say that Renaissance is having an immense holiday sale on all the products in their webstore (including The King in Darkness if by some vanishingly small chance you haven’t bought it yet) so if you have some spots to fill on your Christmas list (or just, you know, need to feed your book addiction) you should check it out.

Still plugging away on the sequel project. It keeps growing new scenes! I’m going to have to put a stop to this process eventually. 🙂

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Magnificent Seven

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

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

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

These are in no particular order.

1) Kara Thrace (Battlestar Galactica)

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

2) Walter Bishop (Fringe)

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

3) Imperator Furiosa (Fury Road)

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

4) Sherlock Holmes (Conan Doyle version)

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

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

6) Henry Dorsett Case (Neuromancer)

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

7) Sir Gareth, the Knight of Many Colours

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

Didn’t make the cut:

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

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

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

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

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

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

—–

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

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

I’m just saying.

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

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Fortunate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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