Charlottesville

Today is a really scary day, the more I think about it. I never thought that I would be reading the news and seeing that someone was killed by Nazis in my lifetime. That’s not me being melodramatic, either – that’s just a straightforward description of what happened today in Charlottesville. Every part of what has gone on there, from the torches to the chants and the violence – call it what it is, terrorism – is terrifying.

There is a tremendous urge to do something, although I am far away and my voice isn’t particularly powerful. There are people who’s voices are more important than mine and I hope people listen to them. However, as the day ends here, and I am safe and well, I feel that I have to do something in the face of this evil, and what else shall a writer do but write?

I am also a historian, but I’m not a historian of the 20th century, and I don’t really have any useful insight into the 1930s to bring to this. What I have is mostly a layperson’s knowledge, which may be just as well – it’s often not very useful, in the end, when we try to draw parallels between present and past. However, in this case, no comparison is necessary. We are literally seeing the fascism of the 1930s in action on the streets of the United States (and I do not delude myself by thinking that we’re so very far from that in Canada either) today. This isn’t a ‘well, it’s similar, and..’ situation. These are Nazis. I’ve always known that there were white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups out there, but I never imagined that I would see their hate and violence brought out quite so openly, nor, to be honest, in such numbers.

It’s disheartening and deeply frightening. There’s a lot of words being spilled about where the root of it lies, and whose fault this may be, because we do like to apportion blame. I submit to you that this is a task perhaps best left to tomorrow’s historians. At the moment, the more pressing question is what we do about it.

I really believe that ultimately what we need to do is stop hating each other. I really believe that ultimately, we’ve got to realize that we’re all on the same side and push together against the problems the human race needs to get busy solving. In the end, I don’t think we’ll make our society better through a fight, I think we’ll do it by finding ways to stop fighting. I think, by and large, we need to talk to each other, learn from one another, and find ways to appreciate our differences rather than allowing them to make us afraid.

But.

These people are Nazis. They are carrying swastika flags and doing Hitler salutes and shouting about Jews. They are killing people. I have nothing to say to them. There is nothing to be learned from them except that sometimes, when you tolerate bad things, they grow until you finally take a stand.

The time for that stand is now. We do not need to hear these people out, we need to cast them out. We don’t need to reach an understanding with them, because their beliefs allow no understanding. We need to fight them, yes with words and a better example, but if it comes to it we gotta fight them for real too. We must protect those they want to victimize (which will, in time, be everyone if we allow it), whatever that takes. We’ve got to call out the racism and hatred when we see it, call it by its name and say ‘no not here’, every time. We’ve got to scream about their crimes at the top of our lungs and not allow this to get blurred with any ‘blame on both sides’ bullshit. The violence is because of fascism. The violence is because of the Nazis. The violence is because of the white supremacists. This is on them, absolutely, because they chose it, and they stood up to be counted with an ideology of pure hate. All that is left to the rest of us is to oppose it, uncompromisingly.

I don’t want to see one more life lost to this hateful ideology. There’s no nuance here. This is one of those relatively rare times when there is Good and there is Evil and the distinction is not particularly hard to make. No-one is neutral right now, because if you say you’re sitting this out you’re giving the evil more space to grow. Everyone is picking a side, whether they like that or not. The sides are super clear.

I know which one I’m on. It’s the one my grandfather went off to war for.

I truly believe that the ideology of division and hatred is on the wrong side of history, and that most people will choose the right side.

The time to pick is now.

Let’s get it done.

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Books in Stories

The last couple days, I’ve been thinking about books.

(What a surprise, they said)

What I mean is, I’ve been thinking about books as objects, what those objects mean, and why they end up being in the story (rather than the story being in them) so often. This is largely because we’re finishing the programming for Can*Con 2017 (and, brief aside: I’m super excited about what we’re gonna have for you this fall, so you should really check it out) and one of the things I’ve been trying to do is get a panel on these kinds of ideas written up right so it can be on the list. I’ve been struggling to come up with the right way to sell the idea, so I’m sort of hoping that by writing this I can work through my ideas a bit and either save the panel for this year or at least be ready to make a better case for it next time around.

So, books. Obviously I appreciate them because I like to read, but I think my background as a historian is part of this too. Books, through the centuries, have had their uses, appearance, audiences, and status change tremendously. (And I say that really knowing only about the differences in European culture from the Romans forward. There’s tons out there I have no idea about.) They’ve gone from being the elitest of objects, costing a fortune to create and kept in the vault with other treasures, to being so disposable we abandon them, partly-read, in airport terminals.

It’s a misconception that books were ever just for religious subjects, and I’m not even sure it’s fair to say that the number of things we write books about has increased over the centuries; there were always works of fiction, works of science, volumes of history and all the rest of it. It is certainly true that the distribution of these various genres has shifted, a lot, and there’s also been a huge shift in who writes the books.

All of this is fascinating (to me anyway) but before I shift fully into Teacher Mode I guess I should also stop and acknowledge that none of it exactly explains why we have a lot of stories that feature books as important parts of the plot. I think it’s relatively easy to understand why, if you consider the book as an object as it was in the past, they would end up as vibrant parts of stories. They took months of labour and substantial expense to create. They were often accessed by a very limited number of people: in addition to Charlemagne keeping his books in his treasure vault, Domesday book was kept in a special chest with three different locks and the keys kept by three different people, so that no one person could ever access it alone. The city records I studied for my PhD dissertation were kept in an archive that, far from being open to all readers, kept out all but the carefully approved inner circle of government from consulting the books on the city’s history, and compilations of its law.

It isn’t hard to imagine why objects like that could become potent parts of a story, these elevated, exclusive, objects that held so many answers and so much information. Of course we must add to this that most people wouldn’t have been able to read the books even if they were allowed to access them, and the intrigue grows: a source of information and power that only a select few can comprehend. Our stereotypical magical tome is pretty close. And don’t forget, they were also frequently beautiful objects of visual art, intended to impress and delight a reader visually as well as through the text (or just someone who saw the book being used), and (can’t emphasize this enough) due to all this labour, impressively expensive.

(I would love to read a story about a quest for a book in a fantasy setting, not because it was magic or had the key to destroying the necromancer, but because it was worth a fortune)

The thing is that books have always also been intimate objects, as well as being these somewhat removed, elite objects. In the Middle Ages many people had special devotional volumes called Books of Hours that they would carry around with them throughout the day, to focus and inspire prayer, provide inspiration, and also impress people with your flashy l’il book. It’s hard to think of a more personal object than a book created specifically for one person, that they then carried with them all day every day.

(I am also probably about the billionth person to want to take the name ‘Book of Hours’ and twist it into a book that somehow controls time, or contains time)

Now, of course book ownership was an elite past-time at this point, but among book enthusiasts, they traded their books back and forth (sometimes with amusing marginal notes about the content), gave them as gifts and left them as bequests. There’s even a book that contains poems written in many different hands – it appears that when the family entertained visitors, they might write a favourite verse into this book, creating a volume that both collects poetry and serves as a memorial of friendship. (It’s kind of especially cool that analysts believe most of the hands are female) So books could be intensely personal objects, ways of forging and maintaining connections between people, at the same time as being Mysterious Tomes to many.

That aspect rarely comes across in fiction, and I think it would be cool to see more of it.

So I guess I think it’s easy to understand why books of the past were powerful symbols of knowledge and power (often restricted knowledge and power) and – as with a lot of things that are powerful and hard to understand – also potentially dangerous, and then show up in that role in a lot of fiction. It’s also true that (of course) there really were books on arcane lore and alchemy and spells and things so it’s not like the idea was invented for fiction.

Has the book, in its current, disposable form, lost this potency as a symbol? I know it hasn’t for me. I still love books, I love the physical act of reading and having a printed volume in my hand. I love the way a shelf of books looks, and one of the first things I will do in someone’s house (and this is probably not a great thing to admit) is to check out their bookshelf and see what’s on it. You can learn a surprising amount, or at least I think I can. So books-as-objects continue to have power to me, beyond their content, even though the symbolism is generally one of relaxation, comfort and rather more benevolent knowledge.

However, just as people who were literate were a minority in the past, I suspect people who continue to love books are a shrinking minority today, with the proliferation of electronic media, both e-books and reading on the internet. Perhaps that means that books, which were briefly (in a historical sense) ubiquitous and commonplace in Western society, are on a journey back to being unusual curiosities, and perhaps returning to the symbolic territory they used to occupy.

That’s quite rambly, and I think I’ll stop it here for this week.

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La Machine

There were monsters in my city last weekend. Seriously.

Ottawa just finished playing host to La Machine, a street performance collective from France, and they brought a 3 day long battle between a Horse Dragon and a a giant spider to the streets. The monsters were enormous robotic creations, with (fascinatingly to me) wood making up a significant part of the construction. Long Ma (the dragon) and Kumo (the spider) were both tremendously impressive to see, whether in pictures or video or (more impactfully to me) glimpsed rather more imperfectly looming over the huge crowds that turned out to watch. Maybe my favorite image of the whole weekend was when I looked up Sussex, packed with people, and towering above it all, in the middle of the street (just like in a monster movie) was this huge creature.

LongMA

Ok, so the monsters were amazing. Long Ma roared and breathed smoke and flames. It also snored charmingly when ‘asleep’ between shows. Kumo climbed down the front of a building and shot presumably venomous water. Just seeing these things tool around the city was pretty incredible, and kind of right in my wheelhouse as someone who writes stories in which the supernatural intersects with the world with which we’re familiar. This was that idea, done on a huge scale, and so it was very fun to watch.

There was also a story to it all. Long Ma is supposed to be a cosmic force from the ninth level of heaven, watching over all humanity. Its wings are stolen and its temple robbed by a sinister force in the form of a giant spider. Long Ma tracked the spider down in Ottawa (amusingly described as ‘the mother-city of all spiders, which will resonate with anyone cynical about Canadian politics) and here they had their confrontation. Long Ma (of course?) ends up retrieving the wings and restoring things to rights.

Kumo.jpg

Pretty good, legendary-style story. I only found out about it by doing some research on the internet, though. I’m not sure it would be possible to come up with all that just watching the monsters and what they did. Obviously the two creatures were not friends – the roaring, flames and water jets when they crossed paths would tell you that – but the rest is certainly not immediately obvious.

I started to think about that from a storytelling perspective, and whether it was a problem. On one level, clearly not, because you could enjoy the spectacle of the city’s titanic visitors without knowing any of it. They were just fun to watch. It’s also possible that La Machine expected you to do the (fairly minimal) amount of research that I engaged in before going down to see the show, if you cared about the story. That’s quite possibly fair enough.

The more I think about it, though, the more I think that maybe you weren’t exactly expected to have the whole story down. Watching the show and figuring out what you thought was going on may have been the plan. There were probably parts of the ‘official’ narrative a lot of the audience would pick up on: Long Ma is clearly designed to be charming. It has big expressive eyes with long lashes, a sort of pleasantly deep rumbling voice, and an elegant stride. The giant spider – given our usual associations with spiders – seems more obviously an antagonist. When Long Ma was snoring cheerily in front of City Hall, Kumo loomed ominously from the top of a building. All of which to say, identifying the ‘good monster’ and the ‘bad monster’ from the pairing is probably fairly easy.

Fight.jpg

From there, most people could probably write their own story. One of my friends, in posting their La Machine photos, also presented their own narrative, which I really enjoyed. Their theory was that Kumo was angry with Long Ma because the dragon woke it up (which it did, on Friday afternoon), the fight and the day’s long chase through the ByWard Market proceeding from there. Suddenly, there’s a version of events where I have a lot more sympathy for the spider.

This strikes me as – potentially – a really cool way of telling a story, or causing a story to be told. Most people who saw La Machine didn’t see the whole thing; they went to one or two encounters with the creatures (although some did apparently follow them throughout), saw part of the weekend’s events, and came away with their own part of the story, their own interpretation of what it all meant, whether cosmic battle between good and evil, grumpy, sleep-deprived spider, or something entirely different.

This is, of course, the mode in which most of us learn about the real world. We almost never have all the facts and the full story about anything, at least not when events are in motion. We encounter what we encounter, experience what we experience, and construct our narratives about what it all signifies about the world, society, other people, and ourselves, from there. There are piles of studies with witness testimony to show that basically no two people are likely to come away from even the same experience with the same story about what happened, never mind each person with their own unique experiences to build from. We all write our own stories, all the time.

I’m not sure if that was really the intent of La Machine, but I think it’s both an inevitable consequence of a big, publicly performed, lengthy spectacle like their story was, and a pretty cool idea. Everyone who saw Long Ma and Kumo (and who didn’t then go and look up the ‘real story’ like I did) came away with their own version of what had happened, what was important, and what (if anything) it meant.

Fight2

This isn’t (I think) a form of storytelling that translates very well to books, although I guess some of the collected interview and diary style books along the lines of World War Z nudge somewhat into the territory. They still take all those different points of view and weave them into a ‘big picture’ for the reader, though. I’m not sure you could really recreate the La Machine experience with a written story unless maybe electronically, with the reader being presented with selected scenes from an overall whole and then having to put them together into a narrative, or not.

It probably doesn’t matter if you could do it in writing, though. One of the great things about storytelling is that it’s possible to do it in all sorts of different ways, with different techniques and technologies, and each has special possibilities. La Machine was the oft-cited “rule” of ‘show, don’t tell’ taken to its extreme extent, where you were told nothing and had to interpret the experience yourself, and (depending on how much time you wanted to spend navigating crowds on Ottawa’s streets, where summer had finally arrived) probably from a partial sample of the whole experience.

It was pretty great.

I really enjoyed the little sliver of La Machine that I got to see in person, and it’s been almost as much fun to see all the different pictures of the monsters taken by other people and to hear about what their experiences were like in different places and at different points of the weekend.

I’m really pleased that for a weekend, a fantastic, amazing story took over the city, and I hope maybe we’ll see something like it again.

This entry now includes some wonderful photos taken by my friend, Rohit Saxena.  Check out other examples of his work here and the rest of his La Machine shots here.

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Ramblings in the Halfway House

I struggled a bit to find a topic for this week. I’m somewhere past the half-way point – somewhat behind my notional ‘schedule’ of where I wanted to be at this time, but not bad – of the WIP (now tentatively titled Heretic Blood) and I’ve sent a chunk of it out to the Eager Volunteers for a check through, but ‘still writing’ doesn’t do much for a blog topic. Overall I think it’s going fine, although I’ve already done a couple of reasonably major rewrites as I come to understand the story a bit better.

One of the rewrites was deciding/discovering that a character who I had originally planned on surviving the book should probably get killed. This really wasn’t a fit of bloodthirstiness (well, not only), it was sort of the most logical or plausible conclusion to an accumulation of actions in the story that all seemed reasonably incidental at the time. Then, all of a sudden they added up to the character being quite different than I originally thought they would be, and their death became the most natural conclusion to their art.

It was one of those times when I feel like I’m discovering things about my plot and my characters rather than creating them, although I know on some level that that isn’t true. However, I’m convinced that there are subconscious processes at work and as much as I find it mildly frustrating at times – it would be wonderful to not have to make these ‘discoveries’ which require significant rewrites and just write the damn story

Maybe that’s what you get from more extensive planning than I do. I know some writers have really detailed and extensive plans of their work before they ever begin to write, either in electronic form or big charts with strings and things going on. I have honestly tried it, but there are two problems. One is that (I guess because I’m somewhat disorganized by nature) my plans tend to be kind of a disaster area, and thus more confusing than helpful about 48 hours after I’m done making them.

The other is that I find making plans boring. Writing is interesting, especially at the start of the project when I think everything about the idea is super rad. If I’m excited, I basically want to stop making the plan and start getting some of the ideas on the page. Maybe this a moment where a more professional writer would be disciplined and do the damn plan and then not have to do as much major surgery on their work once they start writing it.

I kind of suspect, though, that this is one of those cases where everyone has to find whatever process they need to Get Stuff Written and then do that. The more I learn about my own writing, talk to other writers about their writing, and read different people’s ideas about how writing works, the more convinced I become that there is no one correct and proper way to do it. There are basically no rules. There may not even be guidelines. There’s just what works for an individual artist, and you gotta figure out what that is and then do it unapologetically.

Which leaves me with my rather arcane and confusing process where I sometimes feel like I’m in a somewhat uneasy state of detente with my own brain, but it works, or at least works better than anything I’ve yet tried, and thus I continue. I do feel ever so slightly bad for my imaginary person who got flipped from survivor to horribly mangled corpse in the course of a morning writing session, though.

Hmmm. I honestly thought this was just going to be a preamble to another topic, but I should probably get back to Heretic Blood and this feels like enough to call an entry now.

I am looking forward to sharing Heretic Blood with you, since it’s really quite different from either of the books I’ve done so far, and even at this point where I’ve been working on it for quite some time, I’m not hearing too much from Statler and Waldorf yet. Which tells me that yes, somewhat incomprehensible process or not, I should keep at it while that continues to be the case.

Thanks for reading.

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Doctor 13

I was going to try to take a bit of a break from Doctor Who posts, and then they went and revealed who the Thirteenth Doctor is going to be, and it’s enough of a big deal that I felt like I should probably write a bit about it.

If you haven’t seen the news (an unlikely happenstance), with the departure of Peter Capaldi from the lead role, the BBC has cast a woman to play the Doctor for the first time, and selected Jodie Whittaker for the role. There was, I suppose predictably, A Fuss.

My first reaction, I have to admit, was to be a bit perplexed, only because I had only seen her in Broadchurch and her character there was not what I would have thought of being particularly Doctor-y. But my brain gradually lurched into action, realized that they didn’t cast Beth Latimer as the Doctor, they cast the actor, and her performance was (to the extent that I’m really qualified to judge) was really good. I’m given to understand that she’s similarly good in the other things that she’s done, so at that point I figured they’d done a good job and started trying to figure out when we’d get new episodes.

Then I started to see the reactions people were having, and I don’t mean the people having meltdowns for various reasons. I mean the reactions from people (primarily, but not only, girls and women) for whom having a woman as the Doctor clearly meant so much. People were moved to tears. People were overwhelmed with joy. It was like a tidal wave of happiness that you didn’t have to look very hard to find. I read people (former Doctor Colin Baker among them) writing about how much this meant to their daughters.

It’s not always easy to realize how significant something may be to another person who has a far different perspective on the world than you do. We can say a lot of bad things about the internet, but it was great to have this easy insight into what the casting meant to others, and I got progressively more excited about it as the reaction became clearer. It seems pretty inarguable to me that the show has done a very good thing by casting Whittaker in the role if only for the sheer amount of joy that one act created. Hopefully this will be followed up on by a really strong series of stories that can reinforce all the positives that came just from seeing a woman in the role – seeing a woman actively be the Doctor, saving worlds and thwarting Daleks and generally doing the impossible.

I do hope the stories are good. I mean, selfishly I do, because I love the show and I love good stories. I also think that the writers are under an unfair kind of pressure here, one that I don’t envy them at all. Because if the reaction to the new series is not good, there will be all too many people who will quickly say that it is because of having a female lead, just as movies with female leads have tended to carry some extra pressure with them – if it bombs, we’ll never get to make another one. (Hopefully this is a situation that is starting to change) Never mind the number of projects with male leads that get made and are terrible, with a zillion similar projects still getting greenlit. Mostly I hope that Jodie Whittaker is able to enjoy her time in the role and the writers are just able to do what they do and that it all goes very well.

I guess I have one other thought. I’ve seen several people say that they hope that the issue of the Doctor being female isn’t part of the stories, and I can kind of see what they mean. Certainly, a bunch of lame jokes about the situation won’t help anything. However, thinking about this from a writing perspective, this is a character who has been alive for centuries, and – in most interpretations of things – this is the first time they’ve ever been female. It feels like there’s got to be really good stories to tell about that.

In any case, I’m really looking forward to seeing what they come up with. It’s always fun seeing a new actor’s take on the Doctor, and the more I think about the idea of a female Doctor, the more I think that there are really exciting stories to be told, and I’m very enthusiastic to see what ideas they’ve got. Hopefully by the time the series is ready to go, most of the Fuss will have died down and people will just be ready to enjoy what they’ve done.

Part of the interesting question here is why people care so much. Part of it, no doubt, is simply that Doctor Who is one of the most famous SF franchises of all time, and so people would like to see it continue to embrace more diversity in the characters it creates, actors it employs, and stories it tells. It’s also true that because of the in-built ‘regeneration’ mechanic, it was (or arguably, should have been) really easy to diversify the lead role. The Doctor completely redoes their body on a reasonably regular basis to begin with.*

Personally, the reason I spend as much time as I do thinking about Doctor Who is that it is one of the foundation stones of my love of SFF. I’ve spent a lot of time with all these characters and stories and so, yeah, I probably think a bit more about what it all means than is probably necessary, and I want the series to continue to do awesome stuff in the same way I want my favourite sports teams to pile up winning seasons.

That’s it. Thanks for reading. Something other than Doctor Who next week, I promise.

*-In my private version of things, the other Time Lords look on the Doctor with a kind of horror at the number of bodies they’ve run through, due to the crazy lifestyle they’ve chosen to follow. So the Doctor has regenerated a lot more than most Time Lords ever do. Except the Master, of course.

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George Romero

Today we had some really exciting news (that I’m gonna write about for the regular Tuesday blog) and some sad news with the passing of George Romero. Romero will always be best known for his zombie films, and it’s safe to say that without those movies, and the people who loved them, we wouldn’t have had Walking Dead and Shaun of the Dead and all of the many zombie-themed video games, books, comics and shows that many of us have spent way too much time on. Even if you’re getting a little tired of zombie-everything, anyone who has had a hand in bringing so much enjoyment to such a wide range of people did pretty damned well as a creator.

I remember that I *heard* a lot about Romero’s _____ of the Dead movies long before I watched them, and in large part because of that I had assumed they were stupid. It was my loss. When I finally came to watch them – through my love of the work of John Carpenter, who was influenced by and greatly admired Romero – I was very pleasantly surprised.

Because yes, there are zombies, and yes they’re looking to eat brains, and yes there’s a lot of people getting killed. But there’s consistently *more than that*, too. Romero was using his zombies to talk about issues he saw in society, and did it very well. To me the most persistent theme in his zombie films is that the real problem isn’t the zombies. Most of the time, the real problem, the real threat to the protagonists and their survival, is other humans, and their selfishness or stupidity or intolerance.  That one point, made over and over again, probably influenced the way I think about monsters and the horrific in my own writing about as much as anything else.

Anyway, most of the time, if you want to find the real monster in a Romero zombie movie, it’s the people. The zombies are more a force of nature. By Land of the Dead, the zombies and the human protagonists even reach a kind of resigned tolerance. The zombies destroy the specific people who had been trying to wipe them out, and the (now-ex) zombie hunters let them walk away: “They’re just looking for a place to go. Same as us.”

So Romero wasn’t just (or even at all) making gorefests. He made horror movies that were supposed to scare you and thrill you, but he was thinking as he did it and wanted you to think too. I thought it was really impressive to have a guy who made monster movies encouraging his audience to see the monsters as the same as them, rather than just enemies to fight. That’s what I always think about when I write my own stuff, and that’s what I’m gonna think about the next time I watch one of George Romero’s movies.

Thanks for the tales, Mr. Romero. You had a lot to say, and you said it with zombies.

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Companions

I have a couple not-really-related things for this week. It’s inelegant, but I’m sure we’ll cope.

First, although things have been a little Doctor Who heavy of late, I’m going there again; Orphan Black hasn’t thrilled me so far and I am not the right person to write about Handmaid’s Tale. The series just wrapped up giving us our next-to-last Capaldi story and (one assumes) the last to feature a companion who we really just met, Bill Potts.

The story with Bill’s exit was, I thought, pretty darned well done. The original flavour Cybermen were back and were genuinely disturbing. (Vastly superior to their newer reimaginings, but maybe that’s a whole ‘nother blog) We finally had a story with more than one incarnation of the Master in it, and it went exactly as it should, with the Masters stabbing each other in the back. I’m not sure the resolution really made a great deal of sense if you really think about it, but it’s not hard SF and you probably just shouldn’t.

Bill herself, though, went through quite the ordeal. First shot through the chest, then isolated from the Doctor for like ten years in a creepy alien hospital, then betrayed by the one friend she thought she had and horrifically transformed into a Cyberman. Oh, and then she died. There’s been some criticism of this (probably not unjustifiably so) because we had a lesbian POC character and she meets a grisly end; this seems to fit into the ‘Kill Your Gays’ trope that many writers are criticized for.

I’m not the right person to write about that either, and I’m not sure how much of a difference it makes that Bill’s consciousness survives, apparently off to explore the universe with the mind of her girlfriend from the series premiere. However that may be, the whole thing is in line with the exits of recent Doctor Who companions, who have of late ended their journeys in spectacular fashion. Clara died, or will, and the Doctor loses his memories of her. The Ponds are banished through time and stranded there. Donna gets her memories of her time with the Doctor wiped out. Rose gets sent to an alternate universe. Of revival-era companions, only Martha leaves on her own terms. Usually, the only way someone stops traveling with the Doctor is if there is some kind of traumatic, cataclysmic severing of the relationship.

It didn’t use to be this way. Ian and Barbara, the original companions, just decided they’d really like to go home. Liz Shaw got tired of being a sidekick and quit. Jo Grant decided to get married. Sarah Jane breaks the pattern a bit – the Doctor isn’t allowed to take her to Gallifrey – but then my favourite companion, Leela, starts it again. She leaves (also to get married, which is a bit ugh), and on Gallifrey, which is a great example of why you shouldn’t worry overmuch about Doctor Who continuity. On it goes: Nyssa leaves to help the sick on Terminus, Tegan just reaches a point where she can’t stand the terrors she has to face, Turlough just goes home.

Adric, of course, dies, but the point is this – it didn’t use to require a cataclysm for a companion to stop traveling with the Doctor. A lot of them just decided to do something else. As I thought about this, I wondered what the reason for the change could be, and I wonder if at least part of it has to do with how we, in the audience see things. We watch Doctor Who and think: ‘If I could travel with the Doctor, I’d never want to stop. Look how amazing!’ It’s fun and attractive to think about in the same way that a lot of fantastic scenarios are fun to think about: selling all your stuff and moving to a cabin in the woods, or an RV, joining the merchant marine, whatever. I wonder if, at least a little, the writers of the current show are putting that essentially fan-born mindset into the characters they’re creating, so that they also can’t imagine wanting to stop wandering around in the TARDIS.

I’m not sure if the older series did a better job conveying the down side of being, essentially, space vagrants, if this is a consequence of the revival show having a (generally? arguably?) lighter tone or (I think inarguably) deifying the Doctor more, or what the reason may be, but it interests me as a fan and it interests me as a writer.

As a writer, the main thing is that as much as we often need our characters to go on perilous, exciting adventures and do nerve-wracking things (that kind of thrilling, escapist experience being a big part of what fiction is for), I think it’s also important to show some of the difficulties with these things. It’s not all a fantastic adventure; it’s difficult to leave the comfortable and familiar to go do something dangerous, and most people can only take so much tension and alarm before they simply can’t do it anymore, as happened with Tegan. People also often just decide that they’re ready to Stop Doing A Thing now, no matter how much they loved the thing to begin with. Time to move on. I think that’s a useful lesson too.

Obviously different types of stories and genres will look at these issues to different extents and get into them more or less, but I think it makes things feel much more genuine if it’s at least a minor part of the story. Even The Hobbit, which is basically a lighthearted fantasy tale, has Bilbo fret about leaving home a little bit. We think as fans that if Gandalf showed up on our doorstep we’d be all ‘yes please’, but in practice if someone turned up and said it was time to Go and Do A Thing Immediately, my guess is that most of us would have at least some trepidations, and probably be glad when it was over, and we could go back to the world we understood just a little bit better.

This is not to say that I think the original series handled things better, exactly, although I think it’s less than ideal if the new series continues to have companions only leave for horrifying and/or spectacular reasons. I will also be interested to see what the writers do with the Doctor’s reaction to Bill’s departure, because (based on what we saw) as far as he knows, there was no happy ending for Bill and she’s either dead or stuck forever as a Cyberman. This, for me, is the main problem with always having companions leave mostly dead, kind of dead, or permanently damaged – the Doctor is fundamentally a decent person, and so you’d think after a good run of these he would simply say ‘no, not doing this any more. Can’t justify it.’

In any case, I await the Christmas special with interest and for what little it’s worth I’m sorry to see both Capaldi and Pearl Mackie leave. This season really worked well and I would have enjoyed more stories with the both of them. (Also, again, Michelle Gomez’ Missy.)

—–

Ok, other thing real quick. This is not (I swear) going to turn into a running analogy, but I really can’t escape the conclusion that similar to how you need to warm up before serious exercise if it’s going to go as well as it can, I sort of need to warm up to writing as well. When I first sit down to write it goes very slowly. I write, like, a sentence. Then I urgently need to go Do Another Thing. I come back. I probably erase the sentence. I try it again. Another Thing calls again. This goes on, sometimes, for some length of time.

Then, as I think I’ve mentioned before, there is very nearly an audible thunk from the mind-gears and abruptly, we are in Writing Mode and things flow much more easily. The whole process is a bit mysterious to me and vastly annoying if I have, say, two hours to get some writing in and the thunk doesn’t happen until an hour of Another Thing, but this is how it goes.

This is a consistent pattern to the point that I don’t think I can put it down to mood, state of mind, or the current project. It’s apparently just how my brain works (or fails to) and I’m sure I’m not the only person for whom this is true. No doubt there is, out there, a psychologist or similar brain science person who knows exactly what processes are going on, or failing to go on, in this situation.

I don’t mention this because I have any particular answer or method for improvement, or really any insight derived from it. I mention it because for a long while I definitely added to my stress by worrying over this whole warming-up process, and that it meant I was doing something wrong or not adequately prepared or motivated or whatever. I don’t think it does. I think it just means that your process is your process, and as much as possible you need to just not worry about whether it’s right or correct and just sort of do what works, do what gets words on the page in the end.

When I write, I gotta warm up to it. This is how it is.

This is also fearsomely close to advice, so I’ll call it here.

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Canada 150

Well, that’s over.

For those of you wondering what the heck I’m talking about (moreso than usual), this past weekend was not only Canada Day, but the much-hyped ‘Canada 150’, the 150th anniversary of Confederation and Canada becoming a (reasonably) independent nation. Since I live in Ottawa, this has been Red Alert Status stuff for what seems like the past ten years and finally, all the planning and preparations went into action.

Predictably, there was chaos and people got pissed off and probably a lot of people had fun and I avoided all of it.

I’ve written about Canada Day and what I think about where I live at least a couple times before, and usually ended up saying something about how grateful I am to live where I do (which I am) and how I think, overall, that this country is pretty great (which in a lot of ways it is). When I was younger, I would have said it was unambiguously great and said it was the best nation in the world.

As time has gone by, I guess I’ve learned more about Canada’s history, how it’s treated various different groups of people, how we haven’t always done so well, and continue to not do so well in very important ways. So, as much as I still admire a lot of what has been built here, in this place, I think there are a lot of things that absolutely need to be criticized and a lot of things that we need to insist are done differently and better. This country now both makes me very proud, and very ashamed.

I love the story about the Syrian refugees who came here and opened a chocolate business, not only supporting themselves but becoming employers in their new home. This is Canada. I really love the story about another group of refugees who, when the city of Fort McMurray was devastated by fire last year, launched a relief effort, because they knew what it was like to lose everything. This is Canada.

My friend Jay Odjick went to the opening of an exhibit at the Canadian Museum of History that he did the art for, and on what should have been a proud and special evening for him, he got hassled by security, and this is also Canada. There are over 150 communities that do not have drinkable water. Most of them are First Nations communities, and this is also Canada.

Canada is a country that does a lot of things right, in terms of rights for LGBTQ people, rights for women, a healthcare system that I am ever more grateful for as I watch the spectacular mess to our south, and in providing a place of safe refuge to people who desperately need it. All of these are things that, even as we can continue to do better at them, we can take a lot of pride in.

We do a lot of things wrong. Maybe foremost among those is our relationship with and treatment of First Nations people, for me our great national shame and something we must absolutely fix. We sell weapons to repressive regimes. We don’t do enough to safeguard our environment. These are things that we have to take our lumps for and commit to doing far better with.

As I get older, the more I see both the good and the bad in this place where I live, and so I feel less excited about Canada Day and less able to get excited about a celebration of a nation that still has so much work to do. The legacy of this place is absolutely one of peacekeeping and inclusion and achievement; it is also one of genocide and colonialism. So I end up more thoughtful and regretful on Canada Day than anything else, and especially on this Canada 150 that was supposed to be Canada Day plus plus plus.

I guess what I want to believe is that the intentions of this society are right and the trend is towards what is good and fair and just, that the forces here that are still about exploitation and division and repression are on the wrong side of history and that we will, day by day, improve this place and make it into a society we can take unqualified pride in.

The past is never going away, and we shouldn’t deny it or try to forget it. We can do better, and say that that’s not who we are any more. I would like very much to be, in whatever teeny tiny way, a part of making this place better, and there’s nowhere else in the world that I’d want to live. This land is a great blessing, the society that lives in it (I think) fundamentally has good intentions, and we need to live up to the latter so that we might be able to say we deserve the former.

Which is a lot more complicated than just saying that I live in a great place and that my country is amazing, but I think it’s closer to the truth. I feel like the truth is maybe the most important thing for us to hang on to these days, so there you have it.

I’m glad the ridiculously over-the-top Canada 150 celebrations are over, because maybe now we can focus on building a Canada that deserves a celebration.

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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.

—–

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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