Tag Archives: Reading

Review: The Quantum Magician

I don’t do a lot of book reviews on here, mostly because I don’t read enough of the latest stuff for it to really make sense. I am, however, going to do one today, because I just finished reading Derek Kunsken’s The Quantum Magician.

Now, full disclosure, and as you will know from previous blogs, Derek and I are friends, so factor that into your calculations as you read. However that may be, I had not read The Quantum Magician prior to it being published, and had only a very vague sense of what it was about – really just Derek’s one-sentence pitch of ‘Ocean’s Eleven in space’, which turns out to be about right.

Here’s the thing with Quantum Magician, though. Derek writes hard SF, and (as you will also know from previous blogs) I am not, in general, much of a hard SF fan. Very often when I read hard SF stories, I come away thinking that the ideas were neat but that there were no characters. All the stories I write are basically about people, and in a lot of hard SF I feel like there are hardly any actual people at all. Now, I have had this reaction to very well-loved and major award-winning stories, so I know this isn’t any kind of objective measure of quality, it’s just what I happen to like.

And The Quantum Magician definitely counts as hard SF. All of the science in it has clearly been very carefully thought through; nothing happens, and none of the characters do anything, without there being a rigorously established explanation as to how they do that thing and why that thing happens. I assume the science is all accurate. I would be lying if I said I fully understood all of it. But, after a thorough sensor sweep, we find no detectable levels of Handwavium here.

But, and here’s the big thing for me, the characters are amazing. The people we meet in this book are all really interesting and fun to spend some of your time with. I wanted to know more about all of them. A lot of love and care has very obviously gone into crafting each one of these imaginary people, and the result is a story, or interweaving of stories, that works on a human level just as much as it does on a scientific one.

So, I reckon hard SF fans will love The Quantum Magician, but if you’re like me and generally steer away from that particular flavour, I would still heartily recommend giving this one a shot. I’m not really qualified to assess whether the characters are better than the science, or vice versa, but they’re both really compelling and good. I’m already looking forward to the next book in the series.

—–

There’s been a lot of really upsetting and difficult things happen in the world since I wrote the last blog entry, and although I feel like I should write some kind of response, I’m also not sure what there is to be said about any of it. There’s a lot of darkness in the world right now, and it isn’t always easy to feel very hopeful.

I don’t have any deeply wise observations or magic solutions. About all I can think to say is that each of us can and should keep doing the best we can in the world around us, every day. We can’t single-handedly fix the big issues, but we can do little things every day. We can also call out the big problems when we see them. I think that’s important, too.

Part of doing both of those things is telling great stories. Let’s all keep doing that, too.

Thank you for reading.

Advertisements
Tagged , , , ,

Infinite Wars

This entry is not about the Infinity War trailer, although it is kind of caused by it. I’m pretty sure.

The more direct cause is a friend of mine complaining/observing on the internet that there are a great many movies about war. I guess the immediate reaction to that might be that of course there are, because wars are exciting (whether it’s a good kind of excitement or not depends on the reader/viewer) and people like to make exciting stories. It is also, of course, a weathered old chestnut that there is no story without a conflict, and a war is in a lot ways conflict writ large.

So it makes sense that there are a lot of war stories. Humanity has also, it is undeniably true, fought a great many wars, and many of those make for dramatic and exciting stories, either told as-is or used as fodder for embellishments, reweavings, and reimaginings. So again, it makes sense that there are a lot of war stories.

Particular to movies like Infinity War, superhero stories seem particularly to depend on violent conflict, good guys vs bad guys, and superhero stories are notably popular right now (although I reckon the wave is close to cresting, if it hasn’t already), so again – lots of violent stories to be told. At first glance, there isn’t much of a tale to be told about Tony Stark in a board meeting – at least, not compared to the whiz-bang-kaboom of the heroes fighting. So it makes sense, the stories that get told.

And yet.

There are of course many kinds of stories that do not include any kind of war or violence, that people find engrossing and thrilling and enjoy a great deal. There are whole genres of entertainment devoted to stories that, although they have conflict, don’t have any kind of fight. I suppose they tend not to get promoted quite as loudly as the warlike ones, which probably suits the subject matter.

This all seems relatively straightforward, and yet I don’t really think my friend was wrong in his complaint, because when you look at the particular genre of fiction that write and tend to consume the most – fantastic fiction – it does tend to skew very heavily towards stories that centre around violent conflict, in some form.

Not every story, of course, and the conflict is there to greater and lesser degrees in different stories, but it is a rare SFF story that doesn’t have a bomb go off at some point, or at least an assassin lurking in the shadows. We tend to tell fairly bloody stories, much of the time. Again, this is at least in part because conflict, violent conflict, is exciting. This has all been true for a very long time.

What I got to thinking was a very interesting question from all this, though, was whether or not there are equally exciting SFF stories to be told that are about peace rather than war. About solving problems, one would suppose, but solutions that do not involve shooting anything, hitting anything with a sword, or blowing anything up. It seems as though the answer very much should be yes – doesn’t it?

I’m sure I’m far from the first to think about this, I don’t have any good answers as to what such a story would look like, yet, and I feel ever-so-slightly hypocritical to be mulling this over at the same time as I’m finishing (he said hopefully) my tale of a rather lethal Victorian spy. But I think it’s an interesting question, I think it’s potentially an important question, as we consider what kind of stories we want to add to this intensely violent world we live in, and I’m going to keep working on it in the weeks ahead.

Maybe I can make that one friend stop complaining.

(I hope it goes without saying that if you have favourite non-violent SFF tales, shoot ’em my way. I would love to add to my mountainous ‘to read’ pile.)

Tagged , , , , ,

Discarding Asimov

If you’ve read this blog in the past, you may have seen me mention the work of Isaac Asimov. This will be the last time that I do that. I have a simple reason for it.

Isaac Asimov abused women. I’m not going to go through the details of it here; Google will turn them up easily enough. Exactly what he did isn’t entirely relevant. It’s what the consequences are, and should have been, because evidently the SF world did what far too many communities have historically done and apologized for it and covered it up.

It was something I had sort of heard hints and sideways references to, but never bothered to find out very much about. Then recently, for whatever reason, I seriously looked into it, and what I (very easily) found was horrific. Of course then comes the question: Now that you know, what do you do about it?

There isn’t a lot that I can do, obviously. Asimov died years ago and even if he was still alive my condemnation would matter very little. But, after giving it some thought, I am at least going to discard my copies of all his books that have been on my shelves for a very long while. Some of them went to university with me, all those many years ago, but even these old companions have to go.

I admit one of my first thoughts about this – and it doesn’t flatter me – was disappointment that I would never read an Asimov story again. But this is exactly the reaction that has enabled not just the abuse of women, but so many kinds of abuse, to thrive: the impulse to put one’s own career, or convenience, or even one’s own passing pleasure, above the suffering of another human being.

We must do better.

Recently a lot of people have asked whether or not it is possible to separate the artist from the art, to love and enjoy their work even while we condemn the person who made it. My problem with that is two fold. First, in accepting their art, we inevitably accept the artist. We at least imply (and I think more than that) that their behaviour is ok, because we still buy the book or go to the movie or watch the TV show. This is the opposite of what we should be doing.

My other objection is that there are so very many worthy artists out there, struggling to have their work seen, that honestly we can easily do without the art that comes from awful people who hurt their fellow human beings so profoundly. Instead of being sad that I won’t be reading Asimov again, I should be (and am, really) excited about the people I will be reading instead, because there are writers who are just as good and even far better who are also far superior human beings.

Some people object in return that if we do this we will have to discard a lot of artists, a lot of people, in general. Unfortunately, they’re probably right. But, if we want to stop having a society where women are routinely harassed and abused, well, no-one said the job was going to be a small one. So, yes, Asimov is out, along with my H.P. Lovecraft. I can find books that I will be proud to fill the space on those shelves with.

It’s probably fair to ask how much of a difference any of this makes. The books are long bought and their writer is long dead, so it isn’t even a question of ‘supporting’ anyone at this point. Is it an empty gesture?

I’m not persuaded that it is, entirely. If there is really to be lasting change for our society’s tolerance for the mistreatment of women, there have to be lasting consequences for abusers. Yes, even after they’re gone. We need to send a message, that we will not brush things under the carpet because the stories were good or they were important in their field. We won’t say kind things about them, we won’t honour their name, and their books won’t be on our shelves. If that’s all we can do at this late remove, then we shall at least do that.

Thanks for reading.

——–

Today is a truly sad day for lovers of SFF and writing in general, as the great Ursula K. Le Guin has passed away at the age of 88. I’m not going to attempt to write anything about her importance as a writer or her impact on her field. Those tributes are springing up everywhere, deservedly so, and doing a much finer job of praising this wonderful writer than I would be able to.

The only thing I want to say is that I kind of encountered (not in the sense of actually meeting her, alas) Le Guin twice. I was introduced to her writing by that Prisoners of Gravity show I’ve mentioned a bunch of times, which brought up her Left Hand of Darkness I think every other episode. Again, deservedly so. So I knew she was a very good and bold writer.

I didn’t realize until much more recently that she was an equally bold and courageous thinker about writing, and about our society. She used the platform she earned for herself to try to do good and promote positive changes and that is just as great a thing as the books she wrote.

I’m very sad that she has left us, but I feel ever so grateful that she was with us at all.

Tagged , , ,

John Le Carré

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For that I will always be grateful.

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

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

Tagged , , , , , , ,

In Praise of Readers

Late last week I sent out another (by which I really mean ‘the second’) chunk of the current WIP to some Eager Volunteers to see what they thought. I’ve been finding the writing hard going of late and I hoped this might help.

It did.

The Volunteers emailed back almost right away, one having read the piece while plagued by insomnia (which is a decision that’s possible to read in a couple ways, but never mind) and sent back their usual thoughtful response, which included some useful criticism, some questions, and some compliments.

On some level the praise is most obviously useful to me in my current situation. Everyone likes a pat on the head and having someone whose opinion I respect say that they’re enjoying what I’m working on will probably always feel good. So that’s a nice shot of positivity to encourage me to keep working away. It also helps to hear that someone wants to learn more about a particular character, or to know what’s going to happen; I guess obviously a writer is always hoping to generate interest and it’s both pleasing and a relief to know that in at least a couple of cases, I’m setting the hook okay.

The criticism is very nearly as useful, though, because concrete areas where the story needs work are better than a sense of generalized unease where I know there are things that aren’t right but not exactly what they are, much less how to fix them. It’s always easier to have something like a bullet list (har) of things that need to be taken care of than a vague idea that Stuff needs to be Fixed. Having people where there’s a strong enough trust that they tell me what they really think, and they know that I really do want to know what they really think, and not just get a pat on the head, is (as I am discovering) both rare and incredibly valuable.

The questions never cease to fascinate me, because the things readers are intrigued by and want to know more about seem always to include things that I never anticipated. I wrote a while ago about how a character in The King in Darkness that I didn’t think anyone would have any particular interest in ended up getting a scene added to the final draft to finish their story, because readers kept asking about it. So it already is with this piece, and what it mostly does is make me happy that what I’m writing can be interpreted and understood in a variety of ways (because if a reader understood it exactly the same way as I do, writing it, they wouldn’t have some of these questions), which is something I always enjoy when I’m reading and very much want to create when I’m writing. It also gives me ideas for things to do next, which is also very valuable.

All of which to say that the responses I get from my Eager Volunteers is a treasure to me as a writer, and makes my task in creating the story so much easier and the final project immeasurably better. I have had a good number of genuinely well-meaning people offer to take on the task and had it not work out (which I completely understand – if nothing else, it’s not easy to devote some of one’s precious store of free time to reading something they may not even like), so that makes the people who are willing to put in the time struggling through a rough-hewn story and then also take the time to share their responses and reactions to it with me a very special breed.

I wanted to take this opportunity to thank them once again, because I appreciate what they do more than I can say. Perhaps I’ll pay my debt some day. Thank you very much indeed.

I am also aware that I owe a similar debt to each and every one of my readers, without whom my stories would be silent words on the page and none of my characters, who I love very much, would ever have a chance to live. If you’ve read one of my stories, and thereby given some of my made-up people a home in your imagination, at least for a while, I thank you as well.

It is, of course, a truism that without readers there are really no writers in a meaningful sense, but sometimes it’s the obviously true facts that need to be acknowledged. I’m grateful to everyone who has ever taken the time to read one of my stories; I can think of few better compliments for a writer than ‘I would like to spend some time with your imagination’. I am especially grateful to the readers who let me know what they thought about what they read. A lot of it makes me better, and all of it helps me want to write more. Without writers, people have nothing to read, and without readers, it would be the next thing to impossible to call oneself a writer.

So once again, I thank my readers.

Now to try to do some more of my half of the bargain.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Sherlock

Last week I mentioned the BBC TV series Sherlock in amongst all my ramblings, and as I’ve mentioned Holmes several times prior to this I thought maybe I would write a little bit about them both today. Depending where you are in the Sherlock series, there may be some spoilers – as I write this I have just watched ‘The Final Problem’, which ended the most recent series. I suppose I’ve also been thinking of Holmes more than usual in the last little while because my latest WIP is set in Victorian London and so I guess obviously has a lot of connections to these stories that I’ve loved.

As I think I’ve said here before, I have been a fan of Sherlock Holmes for a very long time. It began one summer when we were visiting my grandparents’ farm and, true to form, I ran out of things to read because I read everything I had brought too quickly. My grandmother lent me a copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes that I guess she had gotten from a book club she belonged to, and I read it the rest of that visit by the light of an oil lamp. It was a pretty good way to be introduced to Conan Doyle’s stories.

I loved them (I guess obviously) and read her copy of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes as well, and then went on to devour all the rest of the tales. I have a very battered collection of all the Conan Doyle stories that has travelled with me from place to place everywhere I have lived, and I read them through again fairly regularly (remember, I love to re-read). It’s safe to say that Holmes is one of my favorite characters, as I think I’ve said more than once before.

Part of this is because so many of the stories really do just work very well, narratively: they’re exciting and surprising and have genuine moments of horror and humour. So they are just good stories, even if (as I think I’ve mentioned before) they don’t all stand up so well when you really start picking away at them. I think also, although I wouldn’t have realized it at the time, Holmes was another character likely to resonate with me: more than a little strange, not really very good at relating to the society around him (I’m reasonably suspicious how much of his ‘disinterest’ in people is an act), probably spends more time thinking than he really should. However odd he is, Holmes is also always passionately (no really) devoted to the idea of doing the right thing and helping people who need to be helped. He’s prepared to go to prison for that, he’s prepared to die for that. So whatever else he may be, Conan Doyle’s detective is a probably implausibly heroic creation, and I think that’s part of why I like him, too, as I get older and less fond of ‘shades of grey’.

So much for the original. The Sherlock TV series was one I approached with a little bit of trepidation – the idea of a modernized Holmes seemed like something that could very easily be done wrong (I didn’t get past the first episode of the American Elementary series) but I heard good things and so I gave it a try. I liked the first series very much, and I think the writers for it did about as good a job as it would be possible to do of updating Holmes for this new century. I loved the little animations of clues flying around the screen showing Holmes’ deductive mind at work, in particular.

The show has continued, I think, to be generally good since then, although not always of exactly even quality, and I think it has gradually gotten less and less like the Conan Doyle stories as they’ve gone along, until ‘The Final Problem’, which just aired, really only has a very tenuous connection to the original source material at all. I will need to mull it over a bit more, but I think that even considered in isolation, the episode had some very real problems and it may be time to leave this version of the characters. Perhaps the writers have another surprise, although I think the fixation on surprises may be part of the problem.

No doubt some people would suggest this is the reaction of a Holmes purist, and a lot has been written about how fans of Conan Doyle can’t come to grips with the new version. I like to think that’s not true in my case. I think many of the changes made to the characters and settings were actually quite clever and appropriate (I love their version of Irene Adler), and if Cumberbatch’s Holmes is more extreme in basically all forms of his behaviour than Conan Doyle’s character, I think that’s probably necessary. I actually thought the same with Robert Downey Jr.’s movie version of the character; I think for a modern audience to get the impact of how socially inappropriate and transgressive Holmes’ actions in the stories were, the writers need to turn up the volume on them a fair bit. The handshakes he ignores, barbs he conceals in polite phrasing, and of course his general lifestyle, would have been a lot more shocking to a Victorian audience that we necessarily appreciate today, and so both newer version of the character got their eccentricities turned up a few notches. I think that works very well.

It must be an interesting challenge for a writer – not one I have yet taken on – to pick up a character that isn’t yours and try to write new stories for them. It might seem obvious that the right thing to do is to make no changes and follow the original author as closely as possible, but I think imitation is never as good as the original, and I suspect most artists kind of chafe under restrictions that keep them from expressing themselves. So the question presumably becomes how far one can alter a character and make them one’s one before you’ve changed things enough that you also lose the appeal and attraction of the original character, which is surely a big part of the reason for doing a new take on Holmes or another established fictional creation.

I haven’t tried it yet, as I say, but I suspect it’s a very difficult balance to strike. For what it’s worth I think the Sherlock series has, on the whole, done remarkably well in coming up with a version of Holmes and Watson and their cases that’s something that has features that are entirely its own but is still recognizable as being drawn from the original material. I think perhaps in the last couple series they’ve gotten a bit too focused on more and more shocking revelations, and it is somewhat hard to see where they go from here. I can’t think of another unexpected bombshell they could throw in that wouldn’t be either a letdown from what’s gone before or seem (even more?) ludicrous that what they’ve just finished doing.

I hope I’m wrong and that they’ll yet surprise me. I would love some more Holmes stories, but if this series has run its race, I think they did very well.

And the originals are always there, in a little apartment on Baker Street, waiting for me to come visit again. One day I’ll get another oil lamp and do it properly.

Thanks for reading.

Tagged , , , , , ,

Snowfall

So, snow.

(Yes, we’re continuing the streak of blog entries with very strange inspirations. At this point I’m somewhat interested to see how long I can keep the chain going)

We got a fair amount of snow over the last week, and I had to drive to and from work in it a couple of times. On the radio and TV , there was a great deal of ominous talk about the weather, and when people talked about it, it was to describe snow as an inconvenience at best, something dangerous at worst.

Driving in it, when it is really coming down and the roads haven’t been plowed yet, it’s hard not to agree. Snow is a problem. Snow might wreck your day. Snow is scary and stresses you out. In the worst case, snow might kill you.

At the same time, though, I also remember many many first snowfalls, when everyone is excited and runs out to see the flakes coming down. This went on at least as late as university, when my housemates and I were goofily delighted at the first snow of the year. Even for people that don’t react like that, many of us enjoy drawings and photographs of snow-covered landscapes, and stand and look out at the winter world and think it beautiful.

Snow is charming. Snow is beautiful. Snow is fun, and something to enjoy.

It’s the same thing.

Now, obviously context is a great deal of what is going on here – if it’s snowing, and you can go toboggan in it, you’ll feel very differently than if you have to shovel it and then try to drive someplace without sliding into a wreck. Even so, I think it’s interesting how we can, when we want, completely change our interpretation of something based on what is associated with it, how it is talked about to us and around us, and the words linked to it. A huge snowstorm can be like winning the lottery (snow day!) or a punch in the gut.

Again, a lot of this is psychology, but it also reminds me that this is part of the power and responsibility of writers, and probably art in general. People can feel completely, utterly differently about something depending how it is framed and described to them. That’s a very powerful tool in storytelling – if you do it right, you can make your readers react almost however you’d like to your setting and your characters, and change it later if you need to. It does mean you need to really think about how things are being described because depending how you set things up for your reader, their reaction may be very different than you anticipated. As ever, words matter.

This is also something I think we need to recognize and use very carefully. A good writer can make you love something or hate it, to support something or reject it, to stand up for something or turn your back on it. That means that the written word can and does do amazing things, but I think we probably need to think very thoroughly about what we use it for and, perhaps, the causes we harness our writing to. You never know exactly how big your audience is. I think you want to be sure that the reaction your writing could create is one you’re proud to stand behind.

This is now getting dangerous close to Advice, so I’ll leave it there.

Thanks for reading.

——

They’ve released a trailer for the new Blade Runner movie. You can’t really tell too too much about the movie from it, but what is there looks like it might be promising. +1 for hearing bits and pieces of the Vangelis soundtrack, any road. I still feel deeply sceptical about the whole thing, though.

Blade Runner is one of my very favourite movies of all time and I think it holds up well as a classic of SF film. I also think it has a nicely self-contained story that doesn’t really call out for a continuation or a sequel. Obviously making a new movie doesn’t affect the quality of the original, but I wish sometimes we were a little more content to let a good story be over and not try to tack on sequels just because we like it a lot, or because

Maybe the people behind the new film have a genuinely awesome story to tell. I hope they do, because I would love more Blade Runner, but it also has the potential to really, really, let me down.

We’ll see.

(I guess, if nothing else, the appearance of Old Deckard seems to resolve that ‘is Deckard a replicant?’ question, although, again, I thought it was fun that that question was out there without a really definitive answer.)

(I prefer the interpretation that he’s not, because it makes Roy’s decision to save his life at the end more profound – at that point, all life is precious to him, even that of a human sent to execute him – although I realize there’s solid evidence the other way)

(Stop writing about Blade Runner, Evan)

(okay)

——

In case you missed it, author Brandon Crilly posted a marvellous review of The King in Darkness over on the Black Gate fantasy site. Black Gate publishes a lot of awesome content relating to fantasy fiction, so you should probably check them out anyway, and if you would like to read Brandon’s review it is here.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Point of No Return

This is a little bit more of a reading issue than a writing issue for this week but I have writing questions about it as well, and anyway what the heck. There are no rules here.

Over the last week I’ve been enjoying a fantastic book by a friend of mine (it’s Daughter of the Wolf by Victoria Whitworth, and you should check it out) and I reached a point in the story where I knew I had to read through to the end. That meant staying up a little later than I planned, but it didn’t matter. The story had gone past some kind of tipping point where the idea of stopping was now unacceptable and I had to see how things were going to work out. Sometimes there is nothing you can do.

This doesn’t happen with every book I read. There have been plenty of stories that I have read, even ones that I enjoyed very much, where I didn’t experience this feeling of momentum or narrative gravity where going on to the end was inevitable. To be clear, I almost always finish a book once I start it, and I feel guilty on the rare occasions when I don’t. However, that doesn’t mean that I always get that feeling of ‘I must finish this story immediately’.

I’m not exactly sure what’s going on in the books where this does happen to trigger the feeling off. Most well-crafted stories have a narrative that builds towards an exciting or engaging climax and jack up the tension or stakes as they go along, so on some level you want to know what happens. A story that doesn’t do that doesn’t really work very well. So I would just say that this ‘tipping point’ I experience is just the sign of a good story, except, again – there are lots of stories that I’ve enjoyed very much overall where it didn’t happen. Like, I don’t remember it happening with Lord of the Rings, for example.

I guess there may be some arcane literary alchemy of suspense, plot, and character that generates the tipping point for me, and it likely includes something from my end of things as well. Probably my own mood and energy level are involved somehow – although again, in this most recent example it was late (for me) and my intention was (as it always is in the evening) to read a little to help me wind down and let the day go and get ready for sleep, as I’ve done for as long as I can remember. Instead I urgently needed to finish this story.

I’m not complaining – it was a great story with a good ending. I just wish I understood how it worked, both out of curiosity as a reader and also as a writer, because if I knew the trick I would love to be able to ensure that my stories all had such ‘tipping points’ where the reader is drawn irresistibly along for the rest of the ride. It’s a very fun feeling as a reader, and I guess obviously I’d like it if it was there in what I write as well.

Of course I suspect that there is no actual formula, and that it probably varies from reader to reader, and that probably some readers never experience the feeling at all. I think it’s a shame for those who never do, only because it is honestly quite exhilarating to have a story take you in its grasp and take you where it wants you to go, for a while.

I suppose it’s also better that it doesn’t always happen, because then starting a new book, I never know when, or if, I’ll hit the tipping point.

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

Tagged , , , , , ,

Unscripted

I think I’ve written something like this before, but I’ve been thinking a lot the past couple days about how very unlike a fictional story the real world is, most of the time. This is hardly an earth-shattering revelation, but hang with me. Thinking (again? still?) of the wildfire in Alberta, if this was something in a story we would reach a point where there was Stirring Music and then some character or other would figure out a solution to the problem, or a character would suddenly realize What It All Means and come away with some key lesson that would change them forever. In the real world, it’s not really the case; there are lots of stories coming out of Fort McMurray, but it’s also pretty clear that there is no dramatic solution to the problem. The people there just have to wait for it all to be over and the rest of us can try to help if we are able.

Our stories often tend to follow a general pattern – there is a stretch where things look not so good, but then there is Stirring Music and the solution is discovered, people end up in the right relationships, and lessons are learned. There’s a very good reason for this, and as much as I’m putting this in a flippant way, this is how I tend to like my stories these days too. It feels good, as a reader, to see that at the end of the story, things are better, in some fashion, than they were at the beginning. I think it especially feels good because it is so often not that way in the real world; there are plenty of times when things don’t work out for the best and I like to see the opposite when I’m taking time off from reality.

I think that’s also part of the joy of being an author; you get to decide how things are going to work out for your characters. You can create that good ending if you want one (and I do sometimes hear Stirring Music while I’m writing, a little) and have things in the story you create end up just as you would have it, a satisfaction that you will basically never have in the real world. I haven’t consciously done it myself, but I know that some authors also enjoy taking people who have annoyed or upset them in their real lives, dropping them as characters into a story, and taking authorial revenge.

Both things sound more than slightly Dr. Doom-ish, I guess, but I don’t think there’s anything fundamentally different in how authors enjoy getting to create the endings they want to see and how readers enjoy experiencing those endings, except for the level of control over the process. The chance to take a step away from reality and check out an imaginary world where things work a little differently is the attraction.

Of course one of the good parts about there being no scripts or storylines in the real world is precisely that there are no endings pre-written for us. We can each decide how our own story is going to end; obviously not to an unlimited extent, but to a significant one. If there is an author of our personal story, it is us, and that’s pretty cool.

I hope your story this week is a good one.

——-

I’m looking forward to Ottawa ComicCon this weekend; as I mentioned last week I will be at the Renaissance Press table all day Sunday, but you can drop by any time through the weekend (in between doing all the other rad stuff at this year’s con) to pick up something to read, and I’d be delighted if you chose The King in Darkness.

I am counting purchases at the con towards my contributions to the Red Cross for Ft. McMurray relief as well (details in the previous blog entry) so you’ll even be providing aid to victims of a terrible disaster at the same time as you grab something new for your bookshelf. I have had a lovely response to this initiative so far, and I’d love to see it continue right through the month. Although the worst threat of fire to the city seems to be over, it will be weeks until they even start to make a plan to get people back in their homes, and then of course there will still be lots of clean up to do. On top of that, far too many lost everything they had and have nothing to go back to. Everything we can do helps.

Tagged , , , , , ,

Spooky Action at a Distance

More feedback continues to come in for Bonhomme Sept-Heures and I’m incredibly grateful to the Eager Volunteers for that – having people willing to read my stuff and help me make it better is a tremendous resource and I’m very fortunate to have them on my side. There’s a lot to think about as always, but some comments in particular kind of stick out.

One Volunteer said that there were a couple of scenes that creeped them out. This reminded me of hearing that a friend of the family read King in Darkness and it gave them nightmares. I know the proper response to this would probably be to say ‘oh I’m sorry’, but somewhere deep inside I always do a little fist pump and thing ‘yesssssss’.

I don’t think this means I’m a sociopath.

What I think it is is that it’s satisfying to know that something I wrote caused a real reaction in someone. Both King in Darkness and Bonhomme Sept-Heures inhabit a space that’s close to the borders of horror, if they’re not actually inside, so it is a kind of success if people who read them find them scary or disturbing. It’s also neat to know that something I wrote is capable of having an effect on someone who reads it.

I think this is one of the satisfactions of writing, and probably art, in general – you get to express something from inside yourself and have an impact on other people with that. Being able to reach out and touch a reader – wherever they may be – through the words I put together is powerful, in a way, and its also very cool. It’s a kind of connection being formed between my imagination and the imagination of the reader and when I hear that that worked effectively it’s very cool. If I can lead you into creating a scene in your mind well enough that it becomes scary or creepy, that’s pretty fun and it’s cool to think that you and I were, at least for a little, on the same mental wavelength.

I’ve had people tell me that they found something I wrote inspirational, or that it made them laugh, and that feels amazing too. I suppose everyone likes validation, and the it’s extremely validating as a writer to hear that what you wrote had an effect on your reader, even if it’s something as simple as ‘hey, I really enjoyed reading that’. In a lot of ways I don’t think there’s a greater compliment than someone saying they read what I wrote and that it entertained or amused them for a while.

So I don’t think I just like making it hard for people to sleep at night.

Thanks for reading, this blog and other things I write.

—–

I had a good time at Ottawa Geek Market this past weekend – it was lovely to meet new people and to have some of you who read King in Darkness come by to tell me what you thought of it! There are lots more Renaissance Press events to come through the spring, summer and fall and I’m excited to both return to some venues we did last year and hit up some new ones.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,