Word on the Street 2017

I’m late writing this and I don’t expect it’s going to be a really long one, either: I had a busy weekend and then right back into teaching Monday. However, it was a good kind of busy, because for the second year I was at the Word on the Street literary festival in Toronto.

Word on the Street is a really cool open air literary festival that mixes big name writers with the lesser lights like myself, which gives it a very cool mix of attendees and makes it a great opportunity for both writers and readers to broaden their horizons some.

This year it was also roughly a thousand degrees. In Ontario we’ve (somewhat perversely) been getting our hottest weather of the summer and in Toronto it was a scorcher. Even being down by the lake didn’t really help. It was just really, really hot.

Thinking about it now I’m super impressed at the number of people who still came out to walk around and look at books. Thank you to everyone who visited the Renaissance Press booth and visited some slightly heat-delirious writers.

Also thinking about it now, although for most of the day I sort of gave in to the heat and just sat in the tent and baked, the best part of the afternoon was when I made myself get up and go walk around myself. I said hi to the folks at ChiZine, bumped into a couple of other friends, among which the force of nature Jay Odjick. I sucked up some of the generally excited, enthusiastic energy of people and came back to the Renaissance booth feeling way better.

There’s a little mini-lesson in that which I need to try to remember: sometimes it’s better, even when you don’t feel like it, to get up and do something, anything, rather than just sit there and suffer. Sometimes it feels a lot better to be taking some kind of action.

A couple people asked how the new book is going and expressed some interest in seeing it when it’s done, so that gets me (hopefully) re-energized to bust through on the rewrites and get the first pass of the MS done. So that would be another nice bonus from Word on the Street.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week; I’ll try to have something a little more substantial next Tuesday.

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Word on the Street is over but Can*Con approaches! Can*Con is the SFF writers and readers con that I help organize in Ottawa. It runs from October 13 to 15 and if I do say so myself I think we have an amazing lineup of guests and really exciting programming for you this year. There’s still time to get registered and have a great weekend of the fiction you love; details and registration here.

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Busted Up

This past weekend, I ran my half-marathon for the season. (Sorry, this is going to be another running-related post) Almost as soon as I got up in the morning I didn’t feel great about it. I’ve been having some IT band troubles the last couple weeks, and I felt kind of generally off in that way you sometimes do, just that today wasn’t a day when I was going to be at my peak.

By itself I think that’s kind of a good thing to keep in mind. As much as we’d like to think that we always perform to the best of our abilities, it’s not always the case. Some days are just a bit off, and mentally, physically, or both, we’re not quite where we could be on a usual day. That doesn’t mean we can’t still achieve things, but I think sometimes you have to recognize that it’s just not a great day and cut yourself a little slack for that.

On top of this, though, it was also one of the hottest days of the year in Ottawa. We haven’t had a very warm summer at all, so I hadn’t really done much training in heat this time around, and the race day conditions were far from optimal. So the race did not go great. I did the first quarter at roughly my planned pace, and after that I became that guy who gets busted up by the conditions.

I finished far, far slower than I had intended to, which in some ways is a disappointment. I can’t really look at my timing intervals from the race and feel a lot of pride. But I am proud of myself in one way, because busted up though I was, I finished the race. It didn’t go how I thought it would, but I didn’t quit and I got to the finish line in the end. Honestly, I’m very nearly as proud of that as I am of my PB for the half, because I know it would have been infinitely easier to quit partway through, and I really wanted to more than a couple of times, but I stuck it out and got it done.

Sometimes that’s an achievement we really should take pride in. Sometimes things don’t go according to plan, and we struggle more than we’d thought, and there end up being a lot more bumps in the road than we anticipated. But if you stick through that, and get whatever it is you’re trying to do finished regardless, I think that’s just as admirable as those times when you hit every deadline, every phase of your schedule, and sail through in peak performance. Not giving up when things go south is hard. Pushing through adversity is something everyone has to do and we should probably admire that as much as we do the occasions when things come of flawlessly.

I’m trying to remind myself of this as I continue to work on the WIP, which has also gotten a little busted up. Part of it is just the time crunch of the school semester starting up, and having to figure out how to fence off some writing time in my suddenly much more packed schedule. I’ve also realized that the book needs some reasonably major surgery already, though, and its both a little daunting and a little discouraging to have to try to get the rewrites done, even though I know the book will be better for it.

So, I rather doubt I’ll hit my (already revised) goal of having a complete first draft by year’s end.

But that’s ok. I’m not making the progress that I would have liked to have, but I know I’ll finish it in the end. Even looking back on these blogs, I’m reminded that there was a point similar to this in in the writing of Bonhomme Sept-Heures, and there was an even bigger space of time where I had sort of given up on King in Darkness entirely.

It’s ok to get a bit busted up. It happens, I suspect, to nearly everybody. It’s neither useful nor appropriate to get too negative about things not going entirely according to plan. Replan, regroup, recommit, and when the task is finished in the end, it is all the more remarkable for the added, unexpected hurdles that were overcome.

This, at least, is what I’m telling myself as I start to figure out how to get the rewriting done on the current WIP. As always, This is Not Advice, but I thank you for reading.

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I also just wanted to quickly remind everyone that I will be back at the Word on the Street festival in Toronto this upcoming weekend. Last year was a great experience and I’m looking forward to spending the day at the Renaissance Press booth once again. If you’re in the Toronto area, it would be a delight to see you.

Details about the festival are here.

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Fill the Space

Last week, one of my dear friends and fellow historians sent around a link to a column by David Perry, about how without us always noticing it, medieval history has frequently been appropriated by white supremacists as part of their world view. It’s a really good piece, and you can read it here.  (Here is a great bibliography of further reading along similar lines, if you would like.)

I’m not going to try to expand on Perry’s thoughts about history (because I don’t really think that I can) but his column did get me to thinking about the imaginary worlds we create. I often read comments to the effect of ‘Leave the politics out of your writing, I just want a good story’ directed at authors. Is it a fair criticism? Should artists provide politically-neutral entertainment for our audiences? Or do we instead have an obligation to use our platform (of whatever size it may be) to promote the values and causes we think are important?

I actually want to hit pause on the question of whether it would be desirable to write fiction that was free of political messages, and consider whether it’s even possible. I don’t think that it is. Certainly everything that I write has a large part of me in it, which includes the values I hold dear and all the assumptions and biases that are a part of me. When I create my heroes and villains, I doubt I could avoid putting my own consideration of what ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are into the mix. Whatever kind of imaginary world I’m creating will always be at least partly refracted through the prism of how I see the world around me: what I like, what I don’t like, what pleases me and what bothers me.

So I think that even if I tried to write a story that was entirely apolitical, I would probably fail. My ideas are in there, in the weave of every tale I spin, and I don’t think it could be any other way.

Even if it were possible to write a story that was somehow free, or even apparently free, of ideology, it would almost certainly be a dangerous idea. Our imaginary worlds can be the blank space that gets filled with dangerous, harmful messages just as easily as the worlds of the past can be. An imagined past, present, or future that carries no expressions of tolerance, diversity, and equality all too easily becomes an expression against those ideas. Perry mentions how we already know this happens with tales like The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, at times. I think the argument that it is the writer’s duty to counteract the use of art to spread hate is as strong as the one placing that duty upon the historian, and the teacher.

Some people suggest that artists have a special obligation to be political in this particular moment in which we find ourselves, to boost the ideas we cherish against what seems to be an increasingly negative tide. I’m not sure whether that’s true or it isn’t, but I think the idea of the writer as apolitical is a false one, unachievable and undesirable. In the end, we must write what we believe. Anything else will ring false, and we do a disservice to our values if we try to silence them. I trust my audience can consider my ideas for themselves, and take them or leave them as they choose.

Finally, to my teaching, at least briefly. From when I started teaching I tried very hard to deliberately leave my politics and my beliefs out of it. For one thing, I didn’t (and don’t) believe that what I think about any particular issue is of any particular interest or import, but it was more than that. I wanted my students to reach their own conclusions, and I felt that I was there to teach history, not to teach them what to think about history. Recently, and at least in part because of other historians like Perry, I’m reconsidering. Probably my politics were already there, just as they are in my writing, in what I chose to put in my lectures and what to leave out, what to emphasize and what examples from the past to bring into the light. Somewhat amusingly to me as I write this, that was more or less the point of my PhD dissertation – that history is never neutral. I’ll never insist that my students agree with anything that I suggest to them, but I do think it’s probably my job to make sure they hear a particular side of the story.

That blank space unto which harmful views can be projected isn’t desirable in the classroom any more than it is in the world of fiction, and it’s space that will be filled if we don’t put something there.

We may as well make sure that space is occupied by something marvelous rather than something ghastly.

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

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Lord Jericho

There was a story in the news last week that got me thinking: the author Terry Pratchett, who passed away not too long ago, had left instructions that the hard drive containing his unfinished work was to be crushed by a steamroller, and his agent was finally able to have that carried out. The drive was crushed by a vintage machine named Lord Jericho, and then fed into a stone crusher, which is pretty badass all by itself.

There was a reasonable amount of reaction from Pratchett’s fans, expressing sadness about the stories they’d never get to read, which is more than understandable. When we love an artist, we hate the thought of never getting any more of their work. We want it to keep coming forever, and the idea that there was more to be had sounds appallingly sad. This (and of course the ever-present ‘money’ explanation) has led to a long list of ‘completed’ and ‘from the notes of’ works that generally do pretty well and scratch that itch.

So I understand that reaction, but as a writer my first impulse was that I totally understand what he wanted done. Some writers I know said ‘oh god yes, I don’t want anyone seeing my first drafts’, but for me that’s not it. People look at my early drafts all the time. I tell them what they’re in for and presumably they understand the flaws they’re about to encounter. Usually, that’s the point of me showing the drafts to them.

No, my first reaction, and my objection to having anyone do anything with my unfinished work (should the situation every arise) is simply this: My stories are mine. I know my characters and I know where I want my stories to go. I know what I want to do with the parts I haven’t written yet. I know what I want them to say and how I want them to feel. I don’t always achieve those things perfectly, but the goal and the attempt are mine.

I would not be at all content with the idea of having someone else play with my imaginary people and places. I love reading the work of other writers, but I think I’d much prefer it if they did their own thing. This is probably a thoroughly narrow-minded and territorial reaction – and I’ve read enough collaborative fiction to know that artists combining their work can go very well – but it’s genuinely where I am right now.

Second reaction, though, is to think about those imaginary people and places I’ve called into being. It seems very sad to me, even wrong, to think of them not ever having their stories told and never having people know about them. Maybe that would be a greater injustice than having another artist tell part of their story.

(I write all this fully aware that there wouldn’t exactly be a long queue of people wanting to complete my works if I were to pass away, by the way.)

I guess it’s a pretty difficult question, in the end. I love the idea of people reading my stories (I imagine all writers are the same) so, yeah, I kind of want people to be able to read all the ideas I’ve had. I still really don’t like the idea of the stories being only partly mine, though. It’s probably just as well this isn’t a problem I need a solution for any time soon, and I think ultimately what any writer decides is right for them needs to be respected.

Viva Lord Jericho.

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

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Old Futures

Last week I had a (very) minor emergency in that my laptop decided to pack it in. This wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been – it was fixable, and I had most of my important files backed up (and I am now working on changing that ‘most’ into ‘all’), and perhaps best of all, I had my old laptop around and was able to keep working on that. So this is the very definition of a First World Problem, but it did still get me to thinking.

First, it got me oversentimentalizing objects again. The old laptop is the one that I wrote my PhD dissertation on, what will probably forever be the crowning achievement of my academic career. I created hours worth of lessons and lectures that helped me teach hundreds of students about the history I love. I wrote most of King in Darkness on it, the first book I ever wrote and the first thing I ever had published. It travelled with me to many places and gave me many hours of work, diversion, and entertainment. For all that, it still works pretty well, which makes me feel more than a little guilty packing it up and putting it away on a shelf, giving up on it in a way that it never gave up on me. I know, of course, that it’s just a thing, a mechanism, and that it doesn’t feel disappointed or sad to be sidelined in favour of a newer, more powerful mechanism. But I can’t help, for some reason, to assign those feelings to it, and to imagine that maybe it enjoyed the past week of being back on the job.

However, that’s really just all my own internally-generated silliness.

I also thought, as I worked with the old laptop, how impossibly heavy it seemed to be to carry around and to have sitting on my legs, how bulky it was, how clunky some of the operations were. (I still like the way the trackpad works better though) The thing is, I also remember, very clearly, when I first got that laptop, thinking how light and compact and slick it was compared to my even-older laptop. But time has passed, and my expectations of what technology is capable of have shifted.

You run into that in SF reasonably frequently, especially if you read the older stuff. Things that seemed like the amazing tech of times yet to come now seem entirely ordinary. Sometimes tech we take for granted is conspicuous by its absence. The ‘future’, suddenly, looks very old.

The Star Wars RPG I’m running ran into an example of this recently; we were in the midst of an adventure and one of the players asked about GPS. Because of course there should be GPS in an interstellar society like the one we see in Star Wars; we can’t imagine, at this point, how you could have a modern society without GPS. The problem I had was basically this: there isn’t really any evidence of anything GPS-like in the setting, and as a result the game (which reproduces the setting) isn’t really designed to cope with the implications of GPS technology. This is one of the many times that the 1970s future of Star Wars sort of clashes with our vision and expectations of what ‘advanced’ should mean and must mean, and we’re left with a presentation of the future that seems obsolete at the same time as it claims to be ahead of us.

Personally, I find these now old-fashioned futures charming, a past time’s dreams of the days ahead, and I enjoy reading about them just as much as I do visions that are still a bit more aligned with our current technological reality and expectations. My very loose theory is that if you have a really good story, with a world and plot and characters that your reader is going to buy into and care about, it doesn’t really matter if the technology isn’t exactly right. (Somewhere, a hard SF writer just got a piercing headache and doesn’t know why) One of my prime examples is Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, the first stories of which came out before the advent of computers, and certainly before it was at all clear how ubiquitous they would become. So they’re just not there, which is both jarring to a modern reader, but then also kind of cool, and the stories still work, because the strength of them is more Asimov’s ideas about society and politics and people than it is ‘this is what the future will be like’.

I think this is really just an example of something else I’ve talked about before, the point lifted from a William Gibson interview I attended, where he pointed out that his books weren’t really attempts to predict the future at all, they used an imagined future to talk about the present as he perceived it. So, the cellphone and wireless-less future of Neuromancer was a book about the 1980s, not really Gibson’s attempt to predict the years to come, and thus the absence of computer tech that we take for granted doesn’t really matter. (I wonder if he’s off that idea just a touch with The Peripheral, and what he has to say about it, but that’s like a whole ‘nother deal)

As a result, I think Neuromancer (and Gibson’s other stuff, and so many other SF stories with their obsolete futures) still works really well as a novel, because it was never really about the tech or the future at all, it was about human beings and the worlds we make, using an imaginary place and time to talk about them. I guess those are the kind of stories I like best, so I don’t really mind if the future is a place we’ve already been or somewhere we’ll never get to.

On some level, I guess I like to hope that these obsolete futures still enjoy having us come to visit them, even if they’ll never be more than dreams, just as I guess I hope my faithful old laptop took a bit of pleasure in being back in the game, at least for a little while.

This threatens to get very silly again, so I’ll stop here. Thanks for reading.

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Statues

Along with many other things, people have been thinking a lot about history in the last week or so. My own background is as a historian, so I’m going to engage a bit with that for this week’s blog. Specifically, there’s been a lot of ink being spilled over statues, and (even more specifically) whether statues of Confederate generals and politicians should be taken down.

For just a second, I’d like to try to think about this issue in a vacuum. It’s been suggested that taking down memorial statues (presumably of whatever sort) ‘erases history’, and therefore shouldn’t be done, otherwise we (as a society) will forget our past and (presumably) whatever lessons we should have learned from it.

To a historian, the idea of ‘erasing history’ is of course instantly an alarming one, but this idea that our history, and our understanding of it, comes mostly from public memorial statues is both interesting and, I have to say, highly dubious. There are (I think) no statues of Adolf Hitler up anywhere, but you certainly couldn’t argue that he’s been in any way erased from history, or that people have forgotten about the crimes of his regime. (Yes, obviously his ideas have supporters, but I don’t think that has much to do with a lack of statuary)

That’s because our history is not only preserved (or, I would argue, even mostly preserved) in statues and public memorials. History is preserved in documents and the work of historians, in our works of art and recordings, in the memory of people. I cannot imagine anyone, interested in a period of history, first going out to see what statues were there depicting figures from that period. In part at least that’s because we recognize, perhaps without realizing it, that statues don’t really depict the past, but someone’s idea of the past, and then only of a particular piece of the past. The impression we get is filtered through the vision of the artist who created the piece, the person or group who commissioned it, and whoever made the decision to put the memorial there at all. We know that these things don’t appear without an act of will on someone’s part, and that they are not chosen based on ideas of historical objectivity. The things we make statues to are someone’s favourites.

Public memorials are interesting objects. I think primarily they speak to the part of history that we want to talk about, which is very often our first impulse of how to ‘do history’ – to tell the story we want to tell, about the things we’re happy to talk about. This is the old idea of history as told by victors. We don’t put up statues of our villains, but of our heroes. Even when we do memorialize loss of life, it is either because we valourize it (sacrifice in support of ideals we admire) or because we are (as a society) happy to talk about our regret for that time or those events.

Our public memorials are (I hope obviously) not history in it’s entirety (we’ve got books for that, among other things) but the version of history that the powerful parts of society were, at some point, eager to express. They are what society, or at least a powerful and influential part of society, wanted to hold up to be seen.

This brings us to those Confederate statues, mostly put up not immediately following the war, but in the Jim Crow era of the South. They would not have been thought of, then, as some cautionary tale about division or civil war, or loss of life. They were part of an attempt to re-establish white supremacy in the American South, to put leaders of the Confederacy on public display and thereby assert: these are our heroes. I think it’s clear that this is both a statement of intent and a statement of power; ‘we can do this, and no-one will stop us.’

In advocating for the statues’ removal, then, we’re not advocating for ‘erasing history’, but for dismantling a specific political agenda from about 100 years ago, one which (one presumes) we’re no longer in favour of. It’s also not really hard, or shouldn’t be hard, to empathize with black Americans who see these statues, raised for men who fought a war to keep their ancestors in chains, and find their continued presence in their communities hurtful.

Removing them causes no harm, except to an ideology that we should be happy to see extinguished, and can only help many people. This should not be a difficult decision. I should say that we have many similar decisions to make here in Canada; the name of Langevin was recently taken off a building on Parliament Hill due to the role of Hector Louis Langevin in the residential schools program, and the statue of Cornwallis that caused some controversy in Halifax recently should also come down.

People object that this means ‘forgetting’ history, or being ashamed of it. It means neither of those things, and in fact to me it means the opposite. It means actively remembering what happened in our past, recognizing that we have changed and progressed as a society, and making symbolic change that reflects that. It’s actively recognizing our past, admitting it, admitting the truth about it, and then doing something about it. It isn’t refusing to discuss something or trying to hide it, it’s openly saying ‘yes, this is what we were or what happened’ and marking the fact that we aren’t that, anymore.

Most Canadians, I suspect, would not have known who Hector Louis Langevin was prior to his name coming off that Parliamentary building. Perhaps, in the choice being made to take it off, and the explanation as to why, a few more do now. Sometimes, a removal in fact leads to greater remembrance.

Symbolic actions are not the most significant kind of action we can take. In Canada, there’s a lot that needs to be done to help our First Nations communities on a practical level that goes far beyond taking down some dedications. But if there is one thing I have learned as a historian, it is that we love symbols. Symbolic actions can be some of the most powerful ones we take.

It’s past time for a lot of these things to happen.

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Orphan Black

Back to more pleasant topics today, at least to the extent that saying farewell to a wonderful TV program is pleasant. This past weekend we said goodbye to Orphan Black, which ended its story after a 5 season run.

The first two seasons of the show I would put up against any other TV show in terms of the quality of the story being told as well as the level of the performance. I thought the plot wobbled a bit in this last season, which maybe shows the difficulty of maintaining a level of quality throughout the run of any serialized story, and it’s true that in the finale, the ‘plot’ part of the show was finished before the halfway mark.

But it didn’t matter. The reason it didn’t was that we got to indulge in a nice long wrap-up with the characters we’ve followed around for the past seasons, and as much as I did enjoy Orphan Black‘s plotlines and the issues of autonomy and identity that it raised, I think it was characters that I will remember most about the show. This is perhaps particularly remarkable because so many of the main characters are all played by the same actor, the remarkable Tatiana Maslany.

I could not be more impressed with how she made each of the Leda clones entirely unique in terms of their mannerisms and speech patterns (the writers obviously their share of the credit here too), so that you could easily forget that they really were all the same person. Even when one ‘sestra’ would try to disguise herself as one of the others, instead of just slipping into that character, we got an entirely new thing of ‘this person pretending to be another person’ where watchers of the show could easily still recognize the ‘real’ personality of the clone peeking through the act they were putting on.

I’m not doing justice to how amazing it was to watch. You’ve kind of got to see it.

Even leaving Maslany’s performance aside (although please give her all the awards), Orphan Black had amazing characters. I was so impressed, both as a fan and a writer, at how they took a character who we first met as (apparently) a vicious, genuinely disturbing antagonist and gradually showed you more of her story, and more parts of her personality, taking us through having sympathy for her, and then by the end of the show we (or at least I) were very much on her side. Helena was easily my favourite of all the Ledas, and if you had told me that would be the case early in Season 1 I would not have believed you. (I could not have been happier that we got one final sting of the ‘Helena kills things’ theme in that last episode. Kudos to the music composer, by the way, in creating such a distinctive theme that is basically two sounds and that’s it, but if I hear them 15 years from now I’ll still know exactly what they are)

That’s immensely hard to do as a writer; to create a character that has enough genuine depth that it’s possible for your audience to completely reassess them in the course of the story and not feel cheated either by how they first reacted to them, or at where you asked them to be at the end. The writers of Orphan Black did it just right, and I like to think I learned something from watching them do it.

I think the wrap-up of the show, and why it felt so good to me (and, judging by the bulk of the comments I’ve seen online, to a lot of others) is that we got a satisfying ending to all the stories of the women we’ve followed around for 5 years. None of it was plot-necessary, but the show asks you to get invested in these imaginary people, so I think having something that felt like a proper farewell was also warranted. Whenever I see people’s reactions to characters in books, movies, or TV shows, or feel my own, I’m reminded of how much writers can affect people with the things we create. Every time, I am also reminded that that influence isn’t something we can or should use lightly. We ask audiences to give us a lot, we need to be careful with that trust. Orphan Black did right by its audience.

So it was a wonderful farewell to Orphan Black, even if it was inevitably slightly bittersweet because we’re not going to see these characters again. I felt that the writers have told all the story that they really have to tell, though, so it’s a good place to stop. Especially for a show that I only really checked out on a whim (I really didn’t know what the heck it was about), Orphan Black is one of my very favourite TV shows of all time. If you’re reading this blog, I would suggest checking it out if you haven’t. It was really good SF and really good entertainment, and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

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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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