Tag Archives: Ruminations

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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Straight into Darkness

Yesterday, Tom Petty died. The frantic media rushed out with the news, then walked it back, and now finally confirmed it. I am tremendously sad at the loss of this artist whose work I have loved.

I’m not the right person to speak to his place in musical history, but in my own story his part looms large. With The Tragically Hip, his tunes were the ones I played most often all through university and have continued to listen to right up to the present day. I think I like him for many of the same reasons I like the blues – most of his songs are about things we all have experience with. Feeling like an outsider. Being let down by people you care about. The world being a place that keeps pushing you around. Petty’s lyrics are clever and fun to listen to, his music strikes me as more down to earth than anything else, and he has been among my musical companions through a lot of good and bad times.

Music has, at times, a special ability to make good times feel better and bad times not feel so bad, and Tom Petty has done that for me time and time again. Thanks for the tunes, Mr. Petty.

——

Even as the artists we love sometimes leave us, there are always new ones out there to discover. I have recently started reading The Bone Mother by David Demchuk, and although I’ve hardly cracked the thing I’m already very impressed by the quality of the writing, his skill with creating mood and conveying a sense of a time and place. I’m really looking forward to the rest of this book and need to stop myself sitting up stupidly late reading it.

Demchuk’s writing is also, undeniably, horror. From time to time I stray into thinking that what I write could be considered horror, too. Then, I will read the work of a real artist of the genre (among which I feel perfectly safe including Demchuk, already) and be reminded, that no, it really isn’t. ‘Supernatural thriller’ is a pretty fair label for my books, perhaps even ‘urban fantasy’, but they’re not horror. I hope they’re entertaining, and I hope perhaps there are some scares in there, but the stories are not horror stories.

What do you need for a horror story? It’s hard for me to really put my finger on it. In some ways, it is one of those ‘you know it when you see it’, or read it, moments. You will never have any doubt when you are reading a horror story, or watching one, or in one. It goes beyond just being frightening (because fantasy and SF can both cause fear, without being horrifying), and it doesn’t necessarily involve gore or violence. (Some good horror does, lots of stories splash blood everywhere without being the least bit horrifying.)

It’s very hard (for me, anyway), to define usefully. One thing that I think good horror has is a disturbing quality. There’s something about the characters, the situation, the resolution in a horror story that is pervasively unsettling. It challenges your comfortable assumptions about people and the world. It makes you question things that you wouldn’t ordinarily question. There are, of course, almost inevitably monsters, but the monsters may not be the real problem; it’s what the monsters reveal about ourselves and the worlds that we have built.

I think good horror makes us look at places that we’d prefer not to. That’s why it’s unsettling so much of the time; a good part of your being is telling you to look away, and you’re resisting that. Horror fiction makes you think about things you ordinarily wouldn’t.

Now, the scares are there, too. Part of the joy of horror stories is the joy of the roller coaster: the feeling of danger while knowing, ultimately, that you’re safe. The ride will end. You can close the book.

Where I think really good horror hits hard, though, is that it takes you to places, and makes you think about things, that don’t entirely go away when the book is closed. It’s made you at least reconsider some things that you would have preferred to consider immutable. It’s made your mind wander down a couple of dark and twisty paths that you would have preferred not to tread.

I’m not sure that I’ll never write a horror story, but reading The Bone Mother reminds me that no, I haven’t done it yet. I do love reading them, though.

——

Of course, the real horror story is what happened in Las Vegas on October 1st. I have, I think, nothing at all to say except that the violence is awful and the loss of life overwhelmingly sad. I don’t think I will ever understand the ‘thing’ America has with guns, and as an outsider it’s not a debate I can usefully be part of. There are lots of points of view that I disagree with, but I can at still understand where they’re coming from, and thus have some idea how to start to engage with them. In this case, though, I see people posting on friends’ social media that ‘you’ll never take our guns, and God help you if you try’ and I just don’t understand it at all. I think gun violence in the United States can never really be solved as long as that mode of thinking stays so vital to so many people, but I also just feel, as I always do, that we have to stop killing each other.

——-

S.M. Carriere wrote a lovely review of The King in Darkness. You can read it here.

We’re under two weeks away from Can*Con! I’m so excited about this and looking forward to what I think will be a fantastic weekend for readers and writers of SFF. Details and registration here.

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Busted Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——

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

Details about the festival are here.

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Lord Jericho

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viva Lord Jericho.

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

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Old Futures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Statues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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American Gods (kind of)

This is one of those weeks when I had an idea for what I was going to write about, had written a good chunk of the blog in my head at least, and then just before it was time to actually do the thing, something happened that required a change. To explain – I had decided last week to write about the TV adaptation of American Gods, a novel by Neil Gaiman that I enjoyed tremendously. Partly that was because we were 5 (now 6) episodes in which seemed a fair body of work to start to talk about the series on, but mostly because there was some controversy surrounding the opening of episode 5.

To explain (further), Episode 5 opens with a segment depicting a tribe that has just crossed the Bering Land Bridge*, entered North America, and what happens to them. It’s striking, but a lot of criticism emerged about the show’s portrayal of First Nations people, the decision to use CGI characters rather than employing First Nations actors, and the (apparent) lack of consultation with First Nations people in creating the segment. I happen to agree that a lot of this is problematic, and so that’s what I was going to write about today.

However. Late on the weekend I read a reminder that people in positions of privilege (such as myself) shouldn’t speak on behalf of those from marginalized groups. We should allow them to speak for themselves, and listen. So I’m not going to write what I was going to, although I will suggest you seek out some of the critiques of Episode 5 of American Gods and read them. They’re important, especially for writers, to think about. We all want to create something cool, but we need to be very thoughtful and cautious about how we do that, always.

I will say that I think it’s unfortunate that the show made this misstep, because overall I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how American Gods has gone. I tend to be sceptical about TV or movie adaptations of favourite books, because I know it will bother me if I feel like they haven’t been done well. The movie version of Johnny Mnemonic was horrifically bad, but it was even worse for me because I had read and loved William Gibson’s short story. (And then even worse beyond that because I had persuaded friends to go to the film based on my enthusiasm for the source material)

Overall American Gods has done well, I think, in portraying Gaiman’s story. Some parts have been basically straight depictions of parts of the book, some places have diverged a little from the original, and then there have been entirely new parts and changes in direction. I’m both a little glad to see that – because it makes me feel as though I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen – and a little worried – because the book was very good and so it’s maybe natural to suspect that any changes will be for the worse.

So far, though, although I haven’t loved all the new things, the overall experience has been fun to watch. Ian McShane is an excellent Mr. Wednesday, Ricky Lovett is good as Shadow Moon, and Gillian Anderson has been an absolute delight as Media. Gaiman’s strange, sprawling story cannot be easy to adapt to television and so far this is a good effort, even if the showrunners need to be a little more careful with some of what they’re doing.

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Somewhat along the same lines, I spent the weekend at a writing convention. I personally enjoyed myself; I took part in really interesting panel discussions, met and renewed acquaintances with wonderful and talented people, and generally got to spend two days feeling like a writer. Which was nice.

However, at the same time that was going on, some other people had a far more negative experience, coming from a panel (which I wasn’t at) that was meant to talk about the portrayal of disabled people in genre fiction. It didn’t go well, and people I know left very upset. Again, it’s better if they speak for themselves, so you can read about one person’s experience here.

I wanted to mention it here, though, because it reminded me that as important as it is to include people from marginalized groups in our fiction and our discussions about fiction, it is absolutely crucial to do it thoughtfully and carefully and well. When it’s done wrong, it causes genuine pain and anger, and that’s obviously unacceptable.

The impulse to include people from all sorts of backgrounds and parts of society is absolutely a good one, but it is only step one of the process. The further steps require a lot of listening to those people, and a lot of letting them speak and take the lead. A lot of the time it can feel like people in privileged spots (like me!) need to be the ones taking action, but I’m increasingly learning that what we need to do is get out of the way and let others Do The Things. They’ll probably ask if they want help.

Anyway, this didn’t turn out to be the blog that I thought I was going to write this week, but it’s what I’ve got for you. Thanks for reading.

* – If nothing else, this controversy around American Gods introduced me to another, wider controversy regarding the Bering Land Bridge and how it is used to talk about human arrival in the Americas, which is both interesting and important to know about.

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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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On Cultural Appropriation

I’ve been hesitant to write about this topic because, first, there’s been a great deal written about it already, much of it by wiser heads than me and in general, on any topic the world does not tend to need more white dude opinions, and second, I think it’s important to mostly hear the voices of people from cultures that are being appropriated on this issue. And yet, I am a writer and one who writes about things I imagine, so this seems like an subject I can’t easily avoid, and I have also seen people whose opinions I usually respect thoroughly not getting the problems here, and maybe if I can help a tiny little bit.

I trust I don’t really need to explain the concept of cultural appropriation itself; it seems hardly possible to spend any time at all thinking about the creative world without having run into the discussion. The issue really burst into flames in Canada last week when Write magazine published an editorial calling (not very seriously) for an ‘Appropriation Prize’ and declaring (much more seriously) that cultural appropriation doesn’t exist (or isn’t a problem) and that writers should write about whatever different cultures they choose and imagine the perspectives of as many different kinds of people as possible. A lot of people (unsurprisingly) got upset, a small(ish) number of white industry insiders made edgy comments in favour of the idea of an Appropriation Prize, and as I write this today the guy who wrote the editorial and at least one of the edgy commenters have resigned from their jobs.

Hopefully what the whole episode of the Write editorial will be is an opportunity for everyone to hear the voices of people from cultures that are exploited via appropriation, listen to their perspectives and their concerns, and do better as we all go forward. Fortunately, there seems to be a good deal of that going on, although it is striking to hear a common theme from many of these speakers: sadness that this is still an issue that we are grappling with, rather than a problem that had been solved long ago.

This is also an issue that I have been asked about. I (currently) write fantasy, so basically making up the points of view and perspectives of people who are not like me is more or less baked into the job. So, isn’t that a problem if I’m against cultural appropriation? The first answer (which I hope is obvious) is that there’s a big difference between making up an entirely fake culture and adopting the perspective of a real one lived by real people. There is rather more tricky territory with creating a culture based upon a real-world one, or imaginary cultures that appear to (intentionally or not) mirror the relationships between groups in our real society. The more fantastic and imaginary you make something, probably the less you need to worry about the problem of appropriation, but this is not the issue that most people have a problem with. Of course fiction writers make things up. That’s not a problem.

However, of course, in the case of the stuff I’ve had published, things weren’t quite that easy. Both King in Darkness and Bonhomme Sept-Heures are set in our world, or something very close to it. My cast of characters includes people who aren’t white, aren’t male, and aren’t straight, so aren’t I engaging in appropriation? It’s not a completely unfair question, and it’s one that I’ve asked myself a bunch of times as I’ve been sitting down to write.

The answer (I think) is that diversity in writing is important both in terms of the kind of characters that get written and who does the writing. So yes, if I’m going to write (and I am), it’s important for me to value the existence of people from a variety of backgrounds, and if I’m going to do that I need to do it as respectfully and well as I can. It is one of the most challenging parts of writing for me but I also feel it’s one of the most vital ones – while it might arguably be easier to exclude characters with experiences that don’t match my own a) it would be boring b) it wouldn’t be a very good portrayal of the world we really live in and c) imagining that different groups in society aren’t there is a harmful thing to do. So it’s essential that I continue to write characters from a whole bunch of different backgrounds in our society.

A key part of doing that, though, is to listen to the people from those backgrounds when they talk about something I wrote, or things other artists created, and how they were portrayed (or not portrayed) in those pieces. What was good. What was wrong. What was hurtful. Then I need to to better the next time. I don’t think anyone is seriously suggesting that an author like me should never include people who aren’t like me in my stories (and I sure hope not!) but that when I write those different people, I try to be mindful of the differences between their experiences and mine, value those differences and portray them as well as I can. When I learn that there are things that I need to do better, I acknowledge that, try to learn more, and try to keep improving.

It’s also important that I’m not going to pretend to be of those other cultures. I can tell a story with a First Nations person in it, but I’m not going to claim that culture as my own, or to say that I am telling the story of First Nations people. Which is a fine distinction, but an important one. There was another controversy recently with a white painter who says she was inspired by the art of First Nations people and started producing art in that style. First Nations people objected, strenuously, and other people objected just as strenuously that artists should be free to express themselves.

Isn’t it ok? Can’t we be inspired by whatever we’re inspired by, as artists? Isn’t copying (or modelling) the behaviour of others pretty deep in our genes? In an ideal world where all cultures were on an equal footing and we could ignore centuries of interaction between them, I guess the answer to those questions might be ‘yes’, but they’re not and we can’t and so the answer is no.

It is deeply not ok for a white person to decide that the art and stories and culture of a people that we, as a society, spent at least the past 150 years trying to eradicate is kind of fun and cool and to claim it for our own and try to make money off it. Doing so is a continuation of the plundering of the colonial era that got us to this deeply problematic place where we are today. What about when a non-white artist uses something from (say) European culture? Isn’t that the same problem? Again, no, of course it’s not – European culture has never been in danger of being eradicated by another one. It’s never been under threat. And, it’s never been a problem for European artists (as a group) to get the attention their work deserves.

The other part of this problem and why it’s not ok for white artists to identify with whatever they identify with and start telling the stories or using the art of other cultures is that it is still so hard for people from these different cultures to get their voices heard and to get their stories told. The demographic breakdown for fiction authors getting published is still overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male. It is orders of magnitude harder for other voices to get heard.

It is, therefore, an incredible problem for white people to swoop in and start trying to tell those stories themselves. It’s super hard to get these stories in front of an audience to begin with, so to have the opportunity to tell them taken away from a person who’s actually from that culture and used by a person who is privileged in society anyway is really problematic, and (I am sure) incredibly frustrating and hurtful. People should be able to tell their own stories, because it’s theirs and they know it and know what it means and why its important. They have had their stories told for them, and stories told about them, for far too long already. They deserve a chance to be heard in their own right.

In sum, then, the problem with cultural appropriation is that it is people from a dominant culture taking advantage of and exploiting others in a variety of ways, and perpetuating their dominance of the market by sucking up the opportunities to be heard that might (and should) otherwise go to people from a more diverse backgrounds. So, I guess in some ideal situation where it wasn’t a problem for artists of different races and genders and cultures to get their voices heard, and where all the cultures of the world were on a level playing field where some hadn’t been historically oppressed and repressed and weren’t in danger of being lost, maybe cultural appropriation wouldn’t be a problem. In case it isn’t clear, that’s not where we are. It is, therefore, a big problem on a lot of levels.

Even so, it should surely just be basic human decency to listen when our fellow human beings speak up about something we did and say ‘hey, when you use that part of our culture in the way you just did, we find it disrespectful and hurtful, could you stop?’ to put aside our arrogance and self entitlement and give what has to be the only conceivable answer in my view: ‘I’m sorry, and of course I will’.

I’ve read a lot of people who seem to treat the entire issue of cultural appropriation as an intellectual exercise, as a sterile problem to pick over in an ethics or philosophy classroom. The problem with treating it that way is that there are real people in real pain involved. Those of us who occupy privileged positions in society need to, at last, stop justifying and start listening.

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