Tag Archives: Can-Con

Can*Con 2018

This past weekend was Can*Con 2018, the SFF convention in Ottawa that I help to organize. As ever, it was a great deal of fun, it was tremendously inspiring to be around so many passionate readers and writers of the stories I take joy in, and it left me absolutely exhausted. Still recharging the batteries, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Each year I feel as though I’m growing into my role as an organizer a little more and figuring out the best way to be of use to the convention, to make the convention useful to me, and then also have some fun. I enjoyed Can*Con 2018 the most out of any that I’ve been to so far, and aside from a few minor glitches, really had a great weekend. A lot of that is because we have such a great group of people who all pitch in and bust their butts to make the convention work. Marie Bilodeau, Derek Kunsken, Jaggy Sue, Kate Heartfield, Cortni Fernandez, Lisa Toohey, Tyler Goodier, Marco Cultera, Dario, MP, and a great crowd of other volunteers whose names I am shamefully forgetting all put their hearts into making the con work and it is truly inspirational to be a part of that. Most important of all for me is my programming wingman Brandon Crilly, who I maintain does most of the work and who I cannot imagine doing all this without. Can*Con is a great community that, in a lot of ways, keeps going all year long, and it has become tremendously special to me.

This year’s con was also special because it was the formal launch of my friend Derek Kunsken’s first novel, The Quantum Magician. It was Derek who drafted me on to the Can*Con team, and since then he has been a great encouragement about my writing at the same time as he has pushed me to try harder and to aim a little higher. He’s become a good friend and it was an absolute delight to see that he had a packed house for his launch. Derek is a great person, a wonderful writer, and he has given so much to the Ottawa SFF community. It’s tremendously satisfying to see all of that rewarded.

I also had a chance to make what I hope may be a valuable connection for the fate of Heretic Blood; I was able to have a talk about the book with our agent Guest of Honor, Kurestin Armada, and she was kind enough to make a partial request on it. I am now furiously polishing the first pages of the manuscript so that I can send them off to her. These things are super stressful and hard to do (for me, anyway) but I’m (usually) confident that if I can get someone to read my writing, they’ll like it. Even if Kurestin turns out not to be interested in the book, this was valuable practice for how to reach out to the person who will be.

As much as I always end Can*Con profoundly tired, I know that I am extremely fortunate to be part of the team that puts it together each year. I have met amazing people who have become good friends, I have grown as a writer, and I have made connections that I know I would not have made any other way. It’s a lot of work, but it’s absolutely worth it.

I’m almost ready to get started on 2019.

Just these 50 pages to edit first.

Thanks for reading.

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The Breaks

I feel as though I moan a lot on here, so I thought this time I would acknowledge some good fortune.

I’ve mentioned several times that I help with the programming side of Can*Con, our local SFF readers’ and writers’ convention here in Ottawa. It is great fun, it is a lot of work a lot of the time, and it’s a tremendous opportunity to meet other writers and professionals in the field. I also find it a significant responsibility: we’re choosing which discussions get to happen and who gets the biggest platform in them, which is a not insignificant series of decisions in a world and a field where there are lots of voices struggling to be heard. I take it seriously and on the whole I enjoy it very much.

Working for Can*Con has also had a bunch of knock-on benefits. I have been welcomed into a wonderful community of writers and fans of speculative fiction, many of whom have become friends who mean a lot to me. I think I have already become a better writer because of it, and I have contacts that I don’t know that I would have ever made otherwise. So this is all great.

None of it would have happened if I hadn’t been invited to join the team, and I’m still more than a little hazy as to exactly why that happened. I attended Can*Con to pitch King in Darkness, had a good time, and although I don’t remember ever having a recruitment type of conversation, the following winter I got ‘drafted’. It has worked out pretty nice, and I can only look at it as a quite sizeable chunk of good luck.

I’ve heard it said by lots of people that a big part of success is just showing up; just being in the right place to get opportunities. I guess I did that by attending that first Can*Con and getting tapped to be part of the team going forward, so to some extent it’s true. I showed up, I went to the thing and made it possible that I would get selected. A lot of times, staying home is sure as shit a lot easier. So show up to places, is my advice.

At the same time, I still really can’t say that it was anything other than pure good luck that things worked out as they have. Everyone works very hard and most success flows from that, I think, but sometimes you do just get a break, and in my opinion you don’t apologize for it, you take the good luck because of all those times when you did everything you possibly could have done and things just didn’t settle out your way.

But I’m very grateful for getting the opportunity to work for Can*Con, and everything that has come out of it, and so I would like to publicly thank Derek Kunsken for taking what certainly seems as though it was a complete flier on me. It has certainly worked out for me, and I hope it continues to work out from the con’s point of view as well.

That’s it for this week, except to say that you should come join us this fall; we’re still putting the full program together but there’s already lots that I’m very excited about. Check out the Can*Con website here.

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Libraries

Since I don’t really know what to write about this week, I’m going to take inspiration from Lesley Donaldson (whose blog on the same panel is here) and spin out some of my thoughts from a Can*Con panel a couple weeks ago on books in stories. This is something I have thought about a fair bit in my history research, and I’ve continued to do so as part of a course I teach about the history of the book at Algonquin College.

I want to think a little about libraries.

As writers or readers, libraries are some of our favourite places. They’re the place we go to find stories! I certainly encountered a lot of authors I would come to be a fan of and stories that I would love at the public library in the town where I grew up. I think I worked my way through just about every book they had under ‘science fiction’ and ‘fantasy’.

The library as we think of it today is (among other things) a place we go to access things. The library is where the stories are, it’s where the information is, where learning and study happen and also (as libraries have embraced their role as providers of internet connectivity) a place where we can make connections to the world. Within certain fairly broad limitations, anyone can use it. It’s a space fundamentally about access.

But the library or the archive doesn’t have to be a space like that, and hasn’t always been. On the Can*Con panel I touched on the idea of the library – a space where a bunch of books are stored – as a containment system for knowledge. It can be, and historically sometimes was, a space where access was restricted. Only certain people allowed past the doors, to look at the books, and gradations of clearance within that. The idea here that knowledge might be dangerous, used for the wrong purposes, or that something read by the unprepared or improperly trained mind might cause harm.

The library thought of this way is not a space about access, or at least not in the same way. It’s about controlling access, and making sure that only the ‘right’ people get in touch with certain kinds of book. When I’ve travelled around as an academic, one of the comforts has generally been that I can walk into a library most anywhere and find what I’m looking for, because they’re designed to make that task easy, with classification schemes that are well-understood and tools to help you in your search.

We look at libraries that are not that way – that have no finding aids, and used their own private systems of classification and organization – and wonder what was going on. It would have been exceedingly difficult for an outsider to go into such a place and find what they were looking for, especially unaided. But that’s part of the idea, and part of the containment system. It’s not a place for strangers, it’s a place for those who are known to have been properly trained and vetted and prepared to encounter all the things that might be on the shelf. If you can’t find the book, you’re not ready to read it.

That kind of sounds like a line from a bad movie, but this kind of thinking about information, as something with potential dangers that needs to be contained and controlled, underpins a lot of our ideas about books in fantastic literature and the way they show up in our stories. Those dangerous grimoires that can scour the sanity from your mind, possess your soul, or corrupt your spirit are all these old philosophies about information taken literally.

All of this somewhat inevitably sounds negative to the modern mind, given our positive view on knowledge (more is always better) and learning (always good!), so the libraries of the past often seem ‘worse’. I’m not convinced that’s true, and perhaps I can add yet another perspective on information that I didn’t get to in the panel that might help a little.

You can also think of a library – that place where all the books are – as a place that preserves knowledge, as a lifeboat for information. We’re not used to thinking of our information as fragile; most books that we’re interested in have hundreds or thousands or millions of copies, and most of what we care about even a little bit also exists digitally in potentially as many ‘copies’ as we need it to. The idea of a story we used to have, or something we used to know, being ‘lost’ is hard for us to get our minds around. As a student first getting to grips with archival research, I struggled a bit with the idea that no, there wasn’t another copy or another version that I could check. What was there was there, and that’s all there was.

Libraries in the past were, at times, literally the place where the disappearance of books and knowlege were prevented. This was part of their reason for being; for example, it was part of the reason why keeping a library and copying books was seen as a suitable task for a medieval monastery. The preservation of knowledge was a good end in itself. Producing new copies of a book to increase the chances of it surviving for the future was a worthy purpose.

If this is your mission, the library isn’t necessarily about being easy to access or how many people you can get in the door. The primary mission is for the collection to survive. This is a slightly more comprehensible point of view when you remember that books used to be made by hand, a labour of months just for the text, each a unique physical object created from scratch almost certainly by a series of artists and craftsmen. The frustration of copyists that had to return their exemplar before their were finished is still (to me) palpable on their not-quite-finished pages.

Again, these books that were precious objects are the foundations of the books in many of our stories, I think. The idea of the book as the initiator of a quest, as something to be treasured or fought over or prized or stolen all comes from periods when all of those things would have been true. The copy of a book in a library might be the only copy of that text in all the world. It’s almost impossible to put a value on such a thing.

Libraries of the past were these places of preservation, they were knowledge containment systems, and they were too places where this information could be accessed, albeit in a far less public fashion than we would expect. Most were some kind of compromise with all of these functions, and perhaps modern libraries are as well. The constant across the ages seems to me to be the recognition that the place where all the books are is a place of considerable power. How we approach that power and how we feel about it varies, but it always seems to be there.

There isn’t an ‘and therefore’ for this, just a bunch of thoughts out loud, or on the page, as the case may be. I’ll try to have something a little more directed for you next week.

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Can*Con 2017

Can*Con is over for another year and we are all getting some rest. (for ‘rest’, read ‘back at our “real” jobs’) Notwithstanding a few minor crises, the weekend went really well and it was truly very gratifying to hear from so many people that they had a good time at the con and enjoyed what we had to offer on the program. I was personally very proud of some of the panels we put together, and it was wonderful to hear that people liked them and to see that so many of them went well.

I think the whole Can*Con team is doing a fantastic job not just running an entertaining, compelling SFF convention for readers and writers, but also reflecting the diversity of the fans and creators of the stories we love in the people we have as guests and the programming we do. It’s still very much a work in progress, but I think every year gets a bit better and it meant a lot to hear people say they were happy with what we had for them this time.

I always come away from Can*Con excited about writing and about my writing in general; it’s very affirming to be surrounded by people who thing that fantastic stories are important and valuable, and that writing is important and valuable. What I need to do now is make sure that I convert that excitement into words on the page/screen, but it’s an invaluable boost right at a time when I feel like I’ve cleared a major obstacle on the current WIP.

The only other thing I want to say is of a more personal nature. I think a lot of times we can feel like we’ve got roughly a billion connections to people through all our technology, and perhaps naturally, since they light up and/or make our devices make noise, they demand a lot of attention, and it’s hard to tell which are the connections that matter. I was reminded this weekend that the people who even at a moment when they’re super tired and have their own things they should be focusing their last reserves of energy on, will take some time to sit down with you and help you get your ship righted and feeling better about yourself, those are the connections that matter. Those are the people who are really ‘with’ you in a sense that has some significance, and those are the connections where our energy should go rather than some other stuff that isn’t anything.

Some people did that for me this weekend and I am truly very grateful. Perhaps I’ll pay my debt some day.

Thank you to everyone who came out to Can*Con and made the weekend a great success. It was great to spend time with everyone that I got to spend time with, and for those that I didn’t cross paths with, my apologies and we’ll do a better job of it next year. We’re already kind of excited about 2018. You should join us if you can.

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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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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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Grab Bag

As the title suggests, this is going to be a bit of a grab-bag of thoughts I’ve had while getting back to work on the current WIP. (Which still lacks an actual title. Hmm.) I was going to follow on from writing a bit about the TV adaptation of American Gods last week by writing about the TV Handmaid’s Tale this week, but I’m not the best person to talk about it and I’m not sure that I have anything especially noteworthy to say at this point anyway. Except I guess that if you haven’t been watching it, you should a) brace yourself and b) go watch it, because it’s quite well done.

I am, as summer reluctantly comes to my part of the world, trying to get back at working on my current project somewhat systematically, with the aim (still?) being to have a complete first draft done by the fall. Part of what I’m trying to figure out is how I can make writing a scheduled part of my routine. I do much better with a lot of stuff when I have a plan to always do it at X time on whatever days of the week than when I just try to figure out when it gets done on the fly. This isn’t just the case for writing, it’s how I get myself to the gym and get my running done and a lot of other stuff. If I leave the time for things vague, they live in an eternal ‘later’, never getting actually taken care of. If I have in my mind that I do this (say) every morning starting at 9, then something takes place.

I don’t at all suggest that this is some iron rule for how to Be an Effective Writer, because that would be advice, and mostly I think everyone needs to figure out their own methods and process that works for them anyway. Some people probably do need to write every day, some people work well with specific word targets per week, some people need to Go To A Place and Work There. Despite (although also in some part because of) all the earnestly written declarations on how to Do Authoring, I think there’s no universal formula and you just gotta figure out what leads to you getting words on the page and then unapologetically do that. Of course that’s not an easy thing to figure out, but neither is trying to contort yourself to fit someone else’s process. I think I have a ‘morning writing’ thing going on now and we’ll see how that works.

Part of what caused me some difficulty recently (along with all kinds of Real Life stuff, and then also just being very tired) was the disappearance of a deadline. I’ve mentioned before that I work very well when I have a deadline (I do not miss deadlines) and that part of the adjustment from being a student to being basically employed by me post-education is not having deadlines imposed on me. Again, that eternal ‘not now, but soon’ becomes very attractive. I’m getting better at working without deadlines but if I’m being honest what I also do is seize on things that I can use as a deadline to restore that familiar motivation.

For this WIP, I had decided that I wanted to have it ready to pitch to the agent Guest of Honour that will be coming to this year’s Can*Con SFF conference in Ottawa, which seemed a solid idea. (Brief aside – I am on the programming team for Can*Con, we’ve got some very exciting stuff planned for this October, and you should definitely come if you can. All the details are not ready to release yet, but you can check out a lot about us here.) Unfortunately, I did the required research and found that she doesn’t rep the kind of thing that I’m working on. Which is of course fine, and of course she’s still an amazing Guest of Honour for Can*Con to have, but her usefulness to me as a deadline suddenly dematerialized, and not a lot got written for a while.

I really need to break myself of this deadline habit.

As I’m writing at the moment, I’m also reading, of course, and right now I’m reading the John Le Carré autobiography I mentioned a while back, and re-reading some William Gibson. They are, I guess obviously, very different writers, but to me they are also similar in that I deeply admire the way they craft with words. They’re both (to me) quite demanding writers, in that their writing requires your attention. Both can get a lot out of a little, conveying things of tremendous importance with a perfectly-chosen word or two, so you really can’t miss anything.

If you’ve been reading the blog for a long time, you’ll remember that there was a time when I tried, very hard, to write like William Gibson, and that it didn’t go very well. I don’t do that any more, but I find reading both him and Le Carré inspirational in the sense of reminding me what is possible to do with words when you put them together right, and to try to push myself to achieve something at least somewhat similar. This isn’t to say that other styles of writing can’t also be effective, can’t also be fun to read, and can’t also be artistic. But I guess the arguably subtler or more intricate mode of operation twangs something inside me just that little bit more, and is the style that I would be most content if I could produce something like. I’m not sure that I’m anywhere in that quadrant of the galaxy, but (all my wittering about struggles with the WIP notwithstanding) I am enjoying the effort.

One of the decisions I made in writing this current WIP was to write it just as I wanted to, to just really let myself use exactly the words I wanted to. I was going to thoroughly ignore the questions of ‘is this the right voice?’ and ‘what kind of audience does this appeal to’? I was just going to write something that pleased me, do it as well as I could, and then see what people thought of it. The basic idea is/was kind of crazy anyway, so if it ended up something that appealed to no-one else but me it wouldn’t necessarily be the end of the world. Fortunately for me, what I’ve heard back from the Eager Volunteers and my writers’ circle has so far been very kind and very encouraging, which of course makes me more confident to go on doing things this way. Again, I’m not suggesting this is always the right way to do things, but at the moment it’s having good results for me.

Anyway. I’ve got a little over 30,000 words (much of it non-sequential, of course) written, and if I can get down to this over the summer I should be able to finish my story in time for the autumn. Then I will begin a whole new set of challenges, but that’s something to worry about another day. That’s what I’ve got for you this week. Thanks for reading.

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Star Wars and the Future(s)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Relative

I had a curious moment last week, and thus a topic for this week’s blog. It was at a planning meeting for Can-Con 2017 (which, quick aside, if you haven’t already made your plans to attend, you definitely should. We’re going to have amazing stuff for you this fall, and our guests are fantastic) and the person who organizes one of our city’s writing groups said that I was one of their success stories.

Wait, what?

In recent months I have gotten to thinking that my writing hasn’t yet amounted to very much.  My friend who just signed a lucrative book deal, now there’s a success story. Another of my writer friends has newspapers wanting to do stories on her latest release. Yet another guy I know is blowing up all over the media with his latest project. When I had been thinking of ‘success stories’, those were the people that I thought of. (And, just to be clear, they are all immensely talented artists who have earned every drop of that success and I could not be happier for them)  Nothing I have done seems as though it is in the same league as that.  Thus, not a success.

And yet. I should also remember that I have two books published. There are plenty of people out there who work very hard every day chasing that dream that I am sometimes in danger of dismissing. When Renaissance agreed to put King in Darkness into print, I said it was the fulfillment of a life’s ambition, and it was. Then they did it again. What I mean is that if my point of view shifts slightly, what I’ve done with my writing changes from ‘ugh not really going that well honestly’ to ‘wow, there are really some Achievements Unlocked here’.

I don’t say this to humble-brag (honestly) but to try to remind myself that ‘success’ and ‘failure’ are not really the binary absolute standards they may appear to be or that we often think of them being. There’s a lot of space for point of view and perspective that allow those two ideas to bleed into each other, and it’s all too easy for someone like me, who tends to be one of my own worst critics, to push everything I do into the latter category, even though there are perhaps lots of people who wouldn’t put them there.

These sort of reminders are all around me, when I pay attention. At the gym where I work out, I frequently can’t help but compare the amount of weight I can lift with what other people are doing, and think ‘wow, I’m pathetically way off that’. At the same time, though, not that long ago I was talking to one of the people who lifts those alarming large amounts of weight; they asked how long a run I had just done and I said it was ‘just’ 5k. (This made sense to me because I’m training for a longer distance and from that point of view 5k is not very much) They replied that they’ve never done more than 3.

Just like with my writing, this is important for me to remember. Lots of people will never run 5k. (Perhaps even more have absolutely no ambition to do so, but never mind) Even for people who are athletic or who take up running, that may well be the longest distance they ever think of doing. I am currently aiming for a longer distance, and 5k is, from that perspective, part of a training plan rather than a goal. Neither of those things is better or worse than the other, they’re just different people with different objectives and different strengths and at different points in their process or entirely different processes.

So as with writing, how to evaluate the things we’re capable of depends very much on point of view. Perhaps in a few years it will be me with a nice payday from a book deal. Perhaps it won’t, and if I was determined to look at it that way that might be a disappointment, but one the other hand I will always have two novels in publication and that is a goal some people, including me from 10 years ago, dream of. What might be a disappointing performance for one person or in one circumstance might be an absolutely exceptional one in a different context. I think if we’re being fair, there probably really aren’t any absolute standards for things at all. I think, and try to keep reminding myself, that it isn’t a very good idea to measure what I can do against the standards of other people. No matter how well I do, there will always be someone who can do way better. There’s always something I can point to and convince myself that I don’t measure up and am not doing well. I shouldn’t do that, because there’s certainly lots of people who would trade places with me in a second. I am, in many ways, incredibly fortunate. What I should be is grateful for that, and perhaps allow myself a bit of satisfaction in what I am capable of rather than kicking myself for what I can’t do.

None of this means that I shouldn’t continue to push myself to write more, and Write Better. I should continue to work to run further and faster. However, the part I need to keep reminding myself about is that the reason to do more and better is the challenge of improving myself, testing the limits of my own abilities (which are not the same as the limits of anyone else’s) and seeing what I am ultimately capable of. In the end, the race is only with ourselves.

Thanks for reading.

(I know you are overjoyed that the running analogies are back)

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No Middle Ages

This is a topic I’ve been saving up for a week when I didn’t have a good idea to write about – and this is one of those weeks. Here we go.

You may (or may very well not!) know that I have a degree in medieval history. As a result, when a lot of people find out that I write fiction, they assume that I therefore write either historical fiction or classic fantasy (by which I mean fantasy set in some imagined society that takes medieval European society as its foundation, with castles and knights and so on). As of yet, I do not – both of my books are what I guess we could call contemporary fantasy, or fantasies set in some close analog of the modern world, rather than some version of the past societies that I study and love. My current project is set in the past, but not in the medieval past, or any version of it; this story takes place in an imaginary version of the 19th century (there is a whole question to be asked about how good an idea this is that I am cheerfully ignoring for now). I can’t argue with the idea that this seems to playing against what you might assume to be my strengths. Very often, people then ask why. I usually just say, “It’s complicated.”

This is the longer answer.

I want to make clear from the outset that I love to read both historical fiction and classic fantasy. Some of my favourite books are from those genres and some of my favourite authors work in them. There are reasons why these are enduring and popular forms of story with audiences spanning impressive distances of time and space. And yet, I’ve never seriously tried to write either kind.

I think there are two main reasons, and they kind of flow into each other. One is that I know, from talking to writers who do write historical fiction, how very hard it is to do well. An immense amount of work goes into figuring out the right vocabulary to put in the mouths of your characters, the appropriate technology to have available, the right sort of names to give them and populating the setting with the buildings, foods, animals, instruments, and a thousand other things that meet the demands of the story but also fit with the time being described. As an example, I did once try a short piece set in the Middle Ages, and ran into problems with what to call the hired muscle. Can’t use ‘thug’ (19th century). Can’t use ‘goon’ (20th century). Even ‘bully’ appears to be 16th century and thus too late. As I check now, I see I used ‘ruffian’, which also seems to be too late, although maybe I thought its Latin etymology let me get away with it.

And that’s one word. What would the food be like? Animals and their associated equipment are devilishly complicated. Ask any medieval historian about inns and prepare for a difficult answer.

So it’s very hard to do right, and I would be keenly aware, as a scholar of the past, of a need to do it right, and any mistakes (like ‘ruffian’) would bother me. I would also be concerned that people would read the thing, expecting all the pieces, large and small, to be just right, and be most displeased when they weren’t. I don’t exactly expect a thesis examination panel response to a history-based story that I might write, but I don’t exactly not expect one either. Now, it’s true that writing fantasy rather than historical fiction somewhat exempts you from all these problems – if you want your pseudo-medieval society to have had potatoes, it can just have potatoes – but I would still feel the need to portray a society that was credible based on what I know about the real past, which would be very nearly as hard.

So, part of why I don’t do it is that although it seems like it should be easy, I feel instead that there’s a great deal of pressure (most of it internally-generated) in writing about the medieval world (or something resembling the medieval world) that I don’t currently feel like tackling, or at least not until I have an idea that’s so exciting that I can’t avoid it. It’s true that I probably have more to build on than many other writers might, but I guess what I’m saying is that that also makes me aware of a great many more pitfalls that I worry about how to avoid.

However, there’s more to the problem.

Because I think I could, if I put in the spadework, produce stories set in the past, or something like it, that would be a reasonable approximation of what we think it was really like. The other trouble is that I’m not sure it’s what people really want to read. I think sometimes we (and I include myself in this) prefer our imaginary version of things to reality. It can be ever so much more fun that way, perhaps also more uplifting or comforting. I guess, on some level, I worry that if I wrote a story that closely represented medieval society the way I understand it, people would read it and think something like ‘well that’s just not very cool’.

I’m not really sure why I think that, because I think the real Middle Ages were amazingly cool, and I don’t think it was necessarily an awful grim joyless time to be alive, and I think when I teach courses on the subject I communicate that reasonably well. But stories are not lectures (or at least, I don’t think they should be), and my guess is that people may prefer the imagined past to the real one. As an example I’ve used here before: yes, it would probably be possible to write the story of the ‘real’ King Arthur, of whatever historical personage inspired some or all of the legend, but I don’t think people would like it very much because it wouldn’t have Lancelot and it wouldn’t have the quest for the Grail and so many other parts of the story that we love today. We don’t want the real story, we want the imaginary one. Which is wonderful, but then I think that if I’m not going to write something rooted in reality, then there’s no real advantage to me writing a medieval story at all, and I may as well just write another of the contemporary-rooted ones that I have rattling around my rickety brain.

(Yes, this all sits more than a little uneasily with my previously-expressed love for historical fiction and the fact that I know it is very popular. I know you can do this really well. I have never pretended that all my thoughts fit together terribly well and won’t start now. I suppose in the end what I doubt is my ability to do it really well.)

All this may just mean that I don’t have the right ideas yet, and when I do I will sit down to write about the Middle Ages, or my imagined version of them, with confidence and energy. It may be that I will never do it. I honestly don’t know, except that when I think about all the stories that I would currently like to get to writing at some time in the not too distant future, there still isn’t a medieval, or medieval-ish, one among them.

Just as honestly, I think that’s fine. There are, after all, so many people already doing it well. As ever, this is Not Advice, but I think the best thing most artists can do is do whatever work excites them and inspires them, rather than worrying about what makes sense for them to do or what they of course should be doing. Or such are the thoughts that I use to comfort myself, anyway.

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


In case you missed the announcements on social media, Can-Con, Ottawa’s Speculative Arts and Literature conference, has booked its dates for 2017.  As part of the programming team I’m already getting excited.  The con will run from October 13-15 and returns to the Sheraton Hotel in the city’s downtown.  Details and registration here.

Also in case you missed it: I will be donating all of my royalties from sales of The King in Darkness and Bonhomme Sept-Heures to the Canadian Council for Refugees from now until March 3rd.  It’s a modest gesture, but it’s something that I can do to help people who truly need the world to be just a little kind to them.  If you’d like to help people looking for safety and reward yourself with a story I think you’ll enjoy at the same time, I would be very grateful.

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