Tag Archives: Ruminations

Perfect/Imperfect

I’ve been thinking about heroes, or I guess more properly about protagonists, the last while. I confess that a lot of the reason why is connected to The Last Jedi and the reaction to it, still. (I fired off my overall feelings about the movie a few blogs back.) A lot of the more thoughtful criticism I’ve seen of the movie (there’s a lot of it that I have no trouble dismissing out of hand) centres around Luke Skywalker, and the argument that his portrayal in Last Jedi is either inconsistent with the character we saw in the original trilogy or even a ‘betrayal’ of the character.

Mostly this is because either (depending how you look at it) Last Jedi shows us a side of Luke we haven’t seen before, or introduces a significant change to the character from the last time we saw him. Original Trilogy Luke is good at everything, and with a couple of notable exceptions, he doesn’t screw up. And even when he does screw up, it works out for the best in the end. Even when Ben and Yoda are convinced he’s wrong about Vader, nope, it turns out that Luke was right in the end. He always comes through, and he’s always up to the challenge.

There’s no question that things are different in Last Jedi. Luke has made at least one big mistake that he doesn’t know how to fix, and made a series of decisions that look, at least, pretty questionable. (Now, I think this all hangs together perfectly well, narratively, but I’m not going to dig into that seriously now, except to say that I think the basic issue is the difference between Original Trilogy Luke who Does Things and after-Original Trilogy Luke who now has to be a teacher, which is not the same at all) So, if what you need or want is for Luke to continue to be a flawless hero, then yeah, the film is not going to give you what you’re after.

Now, my reaction was that I like Luke Skywalker better as a character after getting these new parts added to his character, precisely because it makes him (more) imperfect. However, this whole issue got me to thinking about whether, on the whole, we prefer our heroes to be perfect, or not. If you look around SFF (and other kinds of fiction, really) you’ll find a lot of popular examples both ways.

In general, I like my heroes to be a little less than perfect, and I think I always have. I never really liked Superman, growing up, because he really had no downsides. (I’ve come around a bit on him in more recent years, but he’s never going to be a favourite) Easily the least interesting of the characters at Camelot is Galahad – literally the perfect knight, also indisputably the least fun of the lot of them. Give me a dozen Gawain or Palomides stories, hold the Galahad please.

I think any character that has some flaws and some things they aren’t good at and some parts of their life they struggle with is easier to identify with and easier to root for. I also think they’re a little more dramatic, because you never know exactly how the balance between positives and negatives is going to shake out. (Or at least, we can convince ourself that we don’t know long enough to enjoy the story)

On the other hand, there is something reassuring about the flawless hero. They can’t ever let you down, they can’t ever disappoint you. Whatever you need them to be, that’s what they are. It’s a lovely idea to think of having someone like that on your side. I suspect that’s a lot of the appeal of Superman, for example, and perhaps part of what people liked about flawless Luke Skywalker.

I’m not sure there’s really a right or a wrong answer here, and which sort of protagonist is appropriate probably depends a great deal on the kind of story that you’re trying to tell. I also suspect that, as usual, the thing that may really be problematic for people is change – when a character that we thought was one way is revealed to be a little different. Personally I don’t have an issue with that, as a fan or a writer, as long as the change is handled with some sensitivity and we’re given a strong reason for it, but I can understand where the unhappiness might come from.

Something worth thinking about with my own imaginary people, probably. Thanks for your time.

I’ll try to ease up on the Star Wars blogs for a while.

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Fireplace

I’ve kind of revised my life goals downwards as I’ve gotten older. When I was in Grade One I predicted being in charge of Earth Defense Command by age 21. By about 17 or so I thought I would be a world-renowned journalist. Turned out I took to journalism like a duck to lava. These days, my aim is to one day own a house with a wood-burning fireplace.

These things happen.

I’ve just gotten back from a weekend at a cabin in the Laurentians where I spent a good bit of the time burning about a cord of wood in the fireplace. It was pretty awesome. Aside from making the place warm, I find the whole experience of a wood fire very peaceful. The light from the flames, the sounds from the hearth, the smell of woodsmoke – I find it all very soothing. There’s something satisfyingly basic about it, as well – making a fire is part of how humans have been making a place ours for a very long time. Maintaining the fire feels like taking on a genuinely ancient task. That feeling of timelessness is sort of heightened by the cycle of watching the fire burn down at night, and then starting the next morning’s new one with the embers of the old.

I also enjoy the whole process of building and maintaining a fire. I was surprised, a few summers ago, to discover that my father has only the vaguest idea of how to do this. A lot of his fire-building technique involves ‘soak log with gas’ and ‘light repeatedly’. This is not very effective. I’m not sure where I learned how to get a fire going properly and keep it crackling away all day long but there’s a bit of a thing to it. How exactly I learned this is a little unclear, given that I obviously didn’t get it from Dad. I guess we’ll blame the Boy Scouts.

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You have to plan things out a bit before you start – your fire needs some structure before you’re ready to light it, with kindling and small pieces of wood. Once that’s going, you can think about adding bigger chunks of wood. If you try to start with the enormous logs, the whole thing dies before you get going, and if you try and add too much too fast you’ll kill it similarly. Once burning, the fire requires attention – you gotta keep adjusting things so that there’s a flow of air and adding more wood. If you don’t keep working at it, before long it will die down and go out. Once you get things burning properly, it’s easier to keep the fire lit than let it go out, and start again. A nice hot fire will quickly get its teeth into whatever new fuel you add in, but a mostly dead one takes time to build back up again. However, if your fire does go out, if you dig around in the ash a little bit, you’ll be surprised how long you can find embers still glowing down in there. So you’re not beginning entirely from scratch. Be patient, and start again.

That was, I swear, not a big pile of writing advice.

Thanks for reading.

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The Last Jedi

Once again I followed my absolutely watertight plan of waiting a really long time after a movie to come out to go see it and desperately ducking spoilers until finally getting into a theatre. Today I became approximately the last sentient collection of cells to watch The Last Jedi. I’ve got some thoughts. This is gonna be a long one. (Sorry, Brandon)

I did manage to go relatively unspoiled, but of course it was scarcely possible to avoid seeing at least some of the reaction to the film. It was, even more than for Force Awakens, mixed. Some people loved it. Some people hated it. So (once again) I went in with a little trepidation. I saw someone on Twitter (really can’t recall who) say it was like a Harry Potter movie except that Hogwarts turns out to have been a terrible place and Harry is now a cynical failure. (I mean, Hogwarts’ is clearly a terrible place, but never mind that for now)

I don’t get it, not really. We learn that Luke failed in training Ben Solo – which we already knew. He’s not actually wrong about the Jedi, as an institution. The Jedi have always been fuckups, since the first movie, so this revelation is also nothing new. They were supposed to be the guardians of the galaxy (heh) and they let the Empire happen. They’ve always made questionable decisions. Ben Kenobi flatly lies to Luke about his father, and when he’s caught out in it offers one of the very lamest justifications ever. Luke buys it because he’s still really an extremely innocent kid not far removed from being a Tatooine dirt farmer, and because he desperately wants to believe in the Good Guys.

And this is where some of the problem comes in – I think a lot of times Star Wars fans conflate ‘Jedi’ with ‘The Good Guys’, as though the one label necessarily means the other. One of the things I love about the Star Wars universe is that there are unambiguously Good and Evil characters and they face off. I was juuust a little concerned with some of what I had heard about The Last Jedi that they were taking that away. But they didn’t. There are still Good characters and Evil characters, it’s just that Good and Jedi aren’t necessarily exactly the same. The Jedi screwed things up in the past. Luke screwed things up again, thinking he could bring the flawed institution back.

But even the idea of using the Force for good ends is still very much there. (Are we still gonna call that being a Jedi? It seems like by the end of the film, we are, or at least Luke says so, and I’m not gonna argue with him) Luke Skywalker is still, in the end, an unambiguously heroic character. It’s okay for a heroic character to screw things up (I mean, listen to Yoda if you don’t want to listen to me) and it’s ok for Luke not to actually have all the answers. That’s how it is. We do our best – and Luke did, by any standard, very well – and sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. What he needed to learn (and I like that among the messages here is that you’re never done learning) is that failure is okay, and you pick it up and keep going on. (It’s maybe not a surprise that Luke has a problem with that, seeing as he more or less grew up surrounded by people telling him that he was the last hope and that if he dropped the ball it was all over)

So I’m perfectly fine with the movie’s take on Luke Skywalker, the Jedi, and the Force. I think it actually all hangs together really well. The Jedi were an institution that was probably past its sell-by date and weren’t doing what they were meant to be doing any longer. Great Problems Ensued. These will not be fixed by just trying to put things back the way they were. It’s gonna take a new approach, or remembering what the old approach actually was: Luke was too focused on the Jedi books and not enough on the Jedi idea. (By the way, If Luke Skywalker had showed up and fixed everything, that would be, first of all, terrible writing. You don’t create a bunch of new characters and then promptly undermine them by having them saved by one who has already done his time in the spotlight.)

Ok, so that was stuff that I kind of came into the movie thinking that I might not like and came away thinking was really good. What did I just straight up like?

I loved that there was no big clever answer to Rey’s parents. I adore that she’s ‘Rey from Nowhere’, and that’s your hero, not someone with a ‘special’ bloodline or someone long foreseen in prophecy. She’s ordinary, but she’s gonna do something special. Kylo Ren – so completely sold on the idea of destiny – tries to tell her, and probably desperately wants to believe, that she ‘has no place in the story’, but he’s wrong. It’s her story. She’s the hero. She’s the star. The person to restore the spark of hope to the Resistance isn’t Luke Skywalker, it’s Rey, or perhaps it’s the entire rag-tag band of them on the Falcon at the end. (I still kind of miss Han a little every time the Falcon is on screen.)

Now, Rey also appears to settle into this hero thing pretty easily. Just like Luke in the first trilogy, she has that perception of what needs to be done, and steadfastly goes and does it. Unlike some of our other main characters, Rey is actually right. That’s fitting for our main character. I also, however, love that in this film we have some characters learning to be heroes.

In Force Awakens, Finn mostly wants to escape the First Order and his first instinct (heh) is just to Get Away. By the opening of this film, he’s grown a bit – he’s looking to make sure he and Rey escape, but the rest of the Resistance, he’s prepared to leave – even buddy Poe Dameron, who we’ll get to in a second. It takes the events of the movie, and especially some perspective from Rose (about whom more, too) before he really buys into this cause bigger than himself, one that he’s willing to put it all on the line for. By the end of the movie, he’s proudly ‘Rebel scum’. It’s nice growth, and I expect great things in the final instalment.

Oh, Poe Dameron. What a fun character, and what a great example of a guy who has a hammer and so everything looks like a nail. He basically wants to solve every problem by blowing it up with an X-Wing (as General Organa points out) and that came across pretty positively in Force Awakens when the situation genuinely called for a lot of space fighter shoot-em-up. In Last Jedi, not so much. Poe fixates on blowing up something big in the opening scenes and sacrifices way too much to do it. (Arguably, this cues up the terrible problem the Rebel fleet ends up in afterwards) He’s still determined that there must be an Exciting Daring Plan to solve the next problem, so he doesn’t listen to Admiral Holdo, even though she’s a veteran officer and probably should know what she’s doing (and does, as it turns out). In passing, it’s certainly not a great look for him that he spends a lot of the movie not listening to qualified women and causing shit because of it. Hopefully he’s learned.

I think he has, because to Poe’s credit, as Admiral Holdo’s plan eventually unspools, though, and he sees that Holdo was far from a ditherer or a coward, and not only knew exactly what she was doing, but had the right plan for the situation (well, nearly), you can very nearly see the light come on. There are times to blow things up. There are times when that’s not how to win. Poe takes that lesson into the last set piece battle and realizes that there’s no sense in getting all his pilots killed. Time not to fight, time to live and stay in the struggle. Nice growth, again.

(I think it’s important that both Holdo, and Leia, ultimately realize that everything Poe does wrong is coming from a very good place – he wants to do well so very badly. It’s just that he’s also internalized a very dramatic, front-and-centre idea of what being a hero means, and that’s not always going to serve him well.)

Now, overall this is one of the lessons that The Last Jedi seems to want to hammer home – that we don’t necessarily win by blowing things up, as satisfying as that often is to do. It was the wrong plan in the opener. Holdo’s understated escape strategy was correct. Luke doesn’t show up to fight Kylo Ren, he shows up to stall and cover an escape. It didn’t make sense for Finn to die blowing up another piece of Imperial tech; the important thing was for him to live and stay in the fight. People matter. Surviving matters. Persevering matters. Sometimes the fight is not a literal fight.

I’m going to be very interested to see if they carry this through into the last part of the trilogy and give us a final victory that doesn’t come from a big space battle and something enormous exploding. It would kind of make sense if they did, because the Rebellion kind of already tried that and it didn’t end up really solving things. The amoral codebreaker (who I really hope we’re not actually done with) was right, in a way – one day they blow you up, one day you blow them up. The solution could be, perhaps needs to be something else. It’ll be very cool to see if, and how, they make that happen. (Of course things will still blow up. It’s Star Wars, after all)

I’ve seen several clever people say that The Last Jedi is a very 2017 movie, and in some ways I agree. Sometimes the galaxy lets you down: no-one shows up to answer Leia’s call for help. Sometimes there is no cavalry, sometimes if something’s important you gotta do it yourself. Moreover, the Resistance’s saviours are not coming from our old cast of characters – not Han, not Luke, not even (alas) Leia. The answer is emphatically not reaching back to the past, or assuming that because someone has a particular label that they’re The Answer. We need new ideas, new approaches, new heroes.

Speaking of, Rose is a great character. Like Rey, she’s not anyone Important. She’s not a Skywalker, she’s not a Princess, she’s not a flashy pilot or a cool smuggler. She’s a technician who is initially starstruck to meet Finn, but (somewhat like Bodhi Rook from Rogue One) she signs up for way more than she probably should because it’s necessary (or at least it appears to be). She’s able to convince Finn that the Resistance really is something pretty important. She saves his life for exactly the right reasons. Again, I expect great things.

I really loved a lot about this movie. I loved that ‘the worst place in the galaxy’ wasn’t another grungy dive bar, it was a glittering casino full of beautiful wealthy people who couldn’t find morality with a map. I love (as a friend of mine just pointed out to me) that the film suggests that the Force belongs to everyone, not just an elite caste of people with the right bloodlines and groovy robes. How great, not really incidentally, was that shot of the kid with the broom, almost looking like a lightsaber in the starlight, looking up into the night and dreaming of being in the fight. I love that the last shot of Luke was watching twin suns set, very nearly exactly like the first time we saw him.

Of course I have a few minor niggles with the film and places where I think perhaps things could have been done a touch better. But overall, I thought it was fantastic, far better than The Force Awakens, in large measure because it was a really different and new story. I can’t wait to see how it concludes.

Go get ’em, Rey from Nowhere.

(That’s a lot about this movie. I’m gonna stop here. I could write so much more. I’m just that excited about how good it was. Here‘s a good column that digs into some of the politics of the movie really well, and better than I really am able to.)

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Gifts

I write this amid a bunch of holiday-related runnings around so this will be another short ‘un. I suspect I’ll write rather more next week.

It’s the Christmas season, so of course there is a lot of focus on gifts, given and received. I have been fortunate enough to receive more than my fair share, this year and through my life. Hopefully I’ve given a few of value in return.

Among the very best gifts I have ever gotten is writing, wherever it came from. I don’t mean that in the sense of ‘I am good at it’, I mean that in terms of what writing does for me. It is indescribably cool (although I do keep trying) to create stories of people and things and places. I am delighted to share a great many of my stories with people, but I have stories that will never be told to anyone.

For a few years I had my own imaginary football league filled with teams and players, each with their own tales that will always be just for me. On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve been privileged to share two big pieces of my imagination with the whole world.  Very different in many ways, but the essential process is the same.  Creating stories makes some crystal thing deep inside me hum in just the right fashion; there is no substitute and nothing I would substitute for it. There is no feeling quite like writing my imaginary people into being, and then of course there is no pleasure quite like having someone read a thing I wrote and say that they’re glad they did.

Thank you all for reading something of mine. I’ll be so very pleased if you continue.

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Just (literally) finished watching the Doctor Who Christmas Special and the exit of Peter Capaldi as the Doctor. I suspect I may have a lot of thoughts about it all eventually, but on the whole it was a different kind of exit for a different iteration of the Doctor. I look forward to the next telling of the tale.

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UFO? UFO!

I was not expecting a UFO controversy. I really, truly thought that we had had our last flurry of UFO excitement (in North America anyway) in the 90s with the black triangles and all that was immortalized in the X-Files. In more recent years the only time ‘aliens’ seemed to enter the popular consciousness was that meme with the guy with the crazy haircut on History Channel.

And then this week. Revelations of a(nother) U.S. government investigation into UFOs during the 2000s. A pretty wild video of … something, apparently shot by aircrews from the USS Nimitz. Speculation that this is all a shell game being played to distract public attention away from Trump. It’s the Good Old Days again.

The Good Old Days are really pretty old, of course – UFOs in the sense we usually think of them (things that might be alien spacecraft, in general usage) (the term, not the spacecraft) go back to the mystery airships of the 1890s*, some of which were indeed interpreted as extraterrestrial craft. There was a big surge of interest in the 1950s and 1960s, coinciding (I would hazard) both with the Space Race and the appearance of genuinely very different looking aircraft in the skies. Then that other surge in the 80s and 90s.

Basically, the idea of there being Strange Stuff in the sky that might be something really quite remarkable seems to be one that we keep coming back to, collectively. We leave it for a while, and then after some time passes, for whatever reason we pick it up again.

It’s interesting to me that the UFO question still keeps grabbing us, after so many other mysteries and myths (Bermuda Triangle, Loch Ness Monster, Sasquatch) have fallen increasingly aside. I guess part of it is that UFOs do still exist in that ‘maybe’ space where it’s just about possible that there’s something weird going on, while for a lot of other things our expanding reach has closed off the avenues of possibility. That Nimitz video is pretty weird. It could be something.

I think part of it too is that the UFO question hooks into one of our broader, probably species-wide wonderings: are we alone? Are we everything in this universe? Is there more, out there? Especially as Western society has become more and more atheist, if we’re looking for something beyond ourselves and our society and perhaps greater than ourselves and our society, we’ve gotta look off-planet, because we’ve sort of eliminated the other options, intellectually.

And it is an important, interesting question – is there other life, other than what’s on this rock? What would it be like if there was, and what would it be like if it came to visit? The very wide range of very different answers people have to this question – from ‘nothing’ to ‘space friends who want to help us’ to ‘inscrutable intellects who want to use us as lab animals’ – is fascinating, and has of course been the fodder for very many wonderful SFF stories.

We’d like to know what’s out there. We can’t go ourselves, so we imagine the sorts of things that might come to us instead, to visit, to teach, to torment, or to conquer. There’s probably a lot to be gleaned from the different types of aliens we imagine, and the different types of encounters we envision.

The UFO/government (and maybe especially U.S. government) connection in particular I think twangs another part of our understanding (or imagining) of the society we have built, here in the West. Since the 1960s or so, there’s a current of thought that the government can be relied on to be up to no good – with a certain amount of evidence in support of that feeling! When you see the things that governments really have done, and you’re maybe already thinking about alien visitors, it’s not much of a reach to think of the government in league with interests opposed to our own, on a planetary rather than class-based scale.

Anyway, I’m watching this latest wave of UFO-ery with glee and interest. I would dearly love for there to be something remarkable, exceptional, and wonderful happening Up There. Those are the kind of stories I enjoy, after all, and it would be fun to have that be one that comes true. Probably.

I’m not sure that if I had set out to write a less Christmas-y/holiday-themed post that I could have done much better than the above. I hope you all enjoy time with friends and family and get some time to rest and recuperate from all this strange old world keeps hucking at us. I’m gonna try to do some writing. Thanks for reading.

*-I know you can find stuff going back much, much further than that, although it’s not always entirely clear that the weird stuff in the sky is being interpreted as we do today, so I simplified a bit.

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Can of Ants

This week I want to write a little about what I felt was a really skillful piece of storytelling on the TV series Mindhunter. Some of this is a little spoiler-y so if you haven’t watched it yet, I’ll suggest you go do so (it’s really well done, although not SFF) and then maybe read this afterwards. Or maybe you don’t care about spoilers. Onwards.

Mindhunter is loosely based on the real story of the growth of ‘profiling’ as a tool the FBI used (uses?) to try to catch serial killers. One of the characters is Dr. Wendy Carr, a psychologist who gets recruited to help the two FBI agents who are the primary focus of the show, in their work. At the beginning of this relationship, you can tell she’s quite excited. She’s expecting to do work of serious scientific and academic merit, to be working with colleagues who respect her, they get an unexpectedly huge budget. She moves close to Quantico and it even seems that in her new building, there’s a stray cat that lives near her laundry room that she can charm with cans of tuna. Everything looks more or less perfect.

It all comes apart. The other agents refuse to use her methodology, and quickly change from coveting her approval to dismissing her opinions. The director starts making her do his dirty work in riding herd on the behaviour of the FBI agents. Beyond that, the actual work they’re doing seems to her to lack validity and to frequently be unethical. And then in the end, instead of a new adorable kitty friend, she ends up with a tuna can full of disgusting ants. I haven’t explained this as well as I might have (summarizing is hard) but the main point is that none of this is addressed directly.

Dr. Carr never says ‘man, this isn’t what I thought I was getting in for’. Her conversations with the FBI agents get less collegial, more curt, and more argumentative, but she never actually says ‘hey you guys are treating me like junk’. (Arguably, maybe she *should*, but that’s like a whole separate thing) And overall her optimism about the new life she things she’s getting is nicely represented by a few scenes with an off-screen cat, some cans of tuna, and some ants. You get it, but it’s never really explicit on the screen. You just come to understand that this is what’s going on. It’s really good.

Broadly I guess this falls under the umbrella of ‘show, don’t tell’, perhaps the most cliched of writing advice. Like many things pertaining to writing I think this is situationally valid. Dongwon Song put it really well on Twitter one time, basically saying that you’re a storyteller, and that if you ‘told’ rather than ‘showed’ something and readers didn’t like it the real problem is that you didn’t tell it very well – not entertainingly enough or with enough impact.

What I think is especially good about the thread from Mindhunter isn’t so much that it was show-don’t-tell but that it was done with such a precise touch. They gave you just enough to pick up on what the character was going through and really get it, but not so much that it was clumsy or overwhelmed other parts of the story. I think in general good writing is about finding that balance a lot of the time; giving your reader enough to know your characters, visualize your scenes, and follow your plot, without giving them so much that it becomes confusing, dull, or hard to follow.

I think Mindhunter did that really well, not only with the Wendy Carr character but with all the various threads of the story they wanted to tell. I should also say that none of this would work without the performances of the actors, and Anna Torv was, I thought, very good in this role. I really enjoyed her work on Fringe and it was nice to see her again. She’s very good at conveying understated details in her performances, I think. There’s a scene late in Mindhunter where she’s riding down in an elevator and doesn’t actually say anything but you can just feel the anger boiling off her.

Now, because a lot of what they did in the show was fairly understated and especially because there wasn’t a lot of repetition, you did have to pay close attention to what was happening or you’d miss important stuff. A lot of my favorite writers are that way as well – John Le Carre and William Gibson both get so much out of all their words that you really need to focus on the writing or you won’t really get what they’re trying to convey.

There’s no conclusion to all this except to say that as much as I enjoyed the plot and the performances in Mindhunter, I also did enjoy it on an entirely separate area of admiring the artistry of the writing. Sometimes, for me, that’s just as entertaining as the plot itself. Anyway, those are my thoughts for this week. Thanks for reading.

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Thoughts for a Cooling November

This past weekend I was sick and so I spent a lot of time lying down and thinking, which is sometimes good and sometimes bad. One of the comforts whenever I’m sick is that one or both of my cats usually spends most of the day with me. It’s always good to have a warm presence when I’m not feeling well.

For whatever reason this time it really came across very clearly that one of them is getting old. He can make the jump up onto the bed if he must, but it’s also clearly not something he wants to do. Usually he’ll wait around for me to give him a lift. I remember a leap he used to make, from the floor up to the arm of my oversized armchair, that he doesn’t attempt at all any longer. He’s getting on in years.

So am I. I get sick in ways I didn’t use to when I was younger, I get injured more easily and it takes longer for me to heal. I trained this spring for a 10k and honestly thought that I hit a new PB, but then when I pulled up my race history (because of course there’s a website that tracks all these things), in fact there was this other, faster time from 8 years ago that I’m not sure I can imagine getting back to now. Father Time, as they say, is undefeated.

So, in recent weeks I have, for whatever reason, really had the understanding that I am, on the balance of probability, closer to the day of my death than the day of my birth, sloshing around among the Mind Gears and lubricating them in unusual directions.  It’s a touch sobering, if also more than a bit of a cliché, I guess.

The cat, I hasten to point out, is far from finished being a cat. He still wrassles with his brother and explores the yard and savages his corduroy mouse. He still has most of his usual cat duties to attend to, he just attends to them a little more sedately than he used to, and with rather more naps. I suppose I try to be similar – I know I’m getting older but I don’t especially mind (which is probably just as well), it’s just a thing that I have increasing amounts of evidence is happening. I still have things to do and things I want to do, my writing foremost among those, now.

I’ve worked hard in academia and on being a teacher, and in a lot of ways I’ve done rather well. I’ve studied overseas and delved in centuries-old archives. I’ve taught at universities and helped some students start their own scholarly careers. I’ve enjoyed it all, and still do. I also think (as I consider the passing years) that I may have gone about as far with it as I’m likely to, which is its own kind of somewhat-sobering realization. Again it’s not bad, I enjoy teaching and interacting with my students, but it is another increasingly apparent Thing.

Writing, on the other hand, is something where I feel I can really stretch myself and I’ve been excited with how much I have been able to learn and grow in that field over the past 4 years or so. I have a lot of work to do, but I feel like if academia turned out to be a leap that was slightly out of my reach, this might perhaps be one that I can eventually make successfully. I’m certainly enjoying trying.

It’s November, and here in Ottawa it has finally really started to get cold. We’ve had several frosts and I should probably think about using my winter coat instead of my jacket. Without realizing it at the time, I’ve almost certainly taken my last outdoor run of the season, and I need to get the winter tires on the car. Time rolls on. That’s going to be my excuse for the perhaps gloomy rambly tone of all the above. I think I’ll put a stop to it here.

I should do some writing, and pet the cat.

——

On a completely different tack, I see that Amazon has just decided to throw a bunch of money at a new series based on Lord of the Rings. In a lot of ways providers like Netflix and Amazon have been great for SFF ‘television’ (if that’s really what to call it at this point). I’m don’t know enough about the industry to completely understand why, but it’s clear that amazing new programming like Stranger Things and American Gods is increasingly finding a home in these types of places rather than on conventional TV. If nothing else, it’s wonderful for both fans and creators of fantastic stories to have another potential home for their work.

I really can’t say I understand the decision to do another LOTR thing though. There’s so many excellent fantasy (and SF, and horror) stories that have never been adapted at all that would be really fresh material for audiences to enjoy. I get that anything based on Tolkien is (theoretically) an easy sell, but I also wonder how much his fans are really dying for more when his most popular stuff has had still-pretty-recent and highly acclaimed movies done of it. There’s also the point that Tolkien’s work isn’t exactly starved for exposure, while there’s a lot of excellent writers out there who could both use and deserve a boost.

I mean I know there’s a lot of meat on the bone with Tolkien, and I do understand the marketing thing, and I’m sure it’s way way easier to get a million-dollar budget for a fantasy epic when you can throw that name on it rather than someone the execs have never heard of. I’m sure that in the end I’ll check it out and I hope it’s really good. We can always use more good fantasy. I guess I just think that Amazon might have been able to look a little farther afield and still produced an awesome epic fantasy series, if that’s what they wanted to do.

November. Melancholy and grumpy. I’ll have something in the way of tonal shift for you next week. Thanks for reading.

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Stranger Things 2

I have finished watching the second season of Stranger Things, and so I am once again proud to be nearly the last sentient creature inhabiting the planet to bring forth my thoughts on a thing. This is probably going to be more than a little spoiler-y, so if you haven’t seen it yet, maybe go finish and then come back and read this week’s blog in a bit. Because I do recommend that you see it.

I think second seasons, and second parts in general, are difficult. One of the strengths of the first season of Stranger Things was that it was super tightly focused on basically two ideas: 1) Will Byers is missing and 2) Elle has escaped. Everything else that happened was connected to one, or both, of those things, and it made for a story that basically didn’t have any dead weight to it. There were lots of other reasons why the series was good, but that certainly helped it. I imagine that in part, it was written that way because the Duffer Brothers didn’t know if they would get any more seasons than that one, so they made a story that was nicely self-contained within the limits of what they knew they had to work with.

You can’t do that as easily with a second season, because the cast of characters you introduced now all need to be developed if they’re going to continue to be interesting (and I suspect there’s a certain amount of keeping the actors happy with their roles here too). So you have to broaden the scope of the story you’re going to tell and include a lot more threads. Probably knowing that they have several seasons to work with, the Duffers now also feel that they can spend more time setting up long-term things that won’t immediately pay off but get us ready for what we’ll see in the years to come.

All of which is basically to say that while I enjoyed this season a lot, it did feel a lot more uneven than the first one. There were parts of it that dragged for me, and parts of it that I didn’t really understand what they were for. (I’m not at all sure what the purpose of Billy’s character was. He set up a little bit of misdirection early on with dialogue that suggested that there was something odd about his situation with Max, but that didn’t go anywhere. Maybe they need him down the line.) The overall story that was told was good, but it had some weak points where Season 1 was very nearly seamless in its quality.

Still, I already want to see Season 3. I’m interested in the story that’s being told about Hawkins and this group of kids. I thought Season 2 veered more into horror territory than the first one; certainly the body count was a lot higher, we had a lot more gore, and a lot of frankly dark moments like Will’s brutal suffering under the control of the Mind Flayer. I’m not sure how much of this was a conscious tonal shift – the situation is getting worse – or how much of it can be attributed to the temptation to constantly up the ante in second parts: gotta be bigger, louder, more crowded.

From the quality of the writing to this point, I trust that the Duffers have a solid plan for where they’re taking this story and I’m looking forward to seeing it unfold. Presumably we can’t have another 2-3 seasons of Will being the victim of the threat from the Upside Down, so I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with him as a more active character going forward. Elle’s growing powers present a substantial writing challenge as well – how to create a threat that she can’t just immediately fix, and how to write a story

In a lot of ways you could argue that Stranger Things to this point has been Elle’s story: she’s the one with the cool powers, she ultimately defeats our baddie in both seasons, and most of the key relationships revolve around her. This is more than fine – she’s a compelling protagonist. (You could argue that it has also been Will’s story, but he’s been necessarily so much more passive that it doesn’t really work. People are trying to save Will, or help Will, and the story has been about that, but it isn’t about what Will does, not yet anyway) If it stays that way, then most of our other characters will necessarily have to remain more peripheral; Elle is basically a superhero and (this is one of the strengths of the show, in my opinion) everyone else is intensely ordinary. If the focus stays on her, Mike and Hopper and the rest are going to be Elle’s backup. That’s maybe the obvious way to go, to me. Shifting the story off of her would be tricky, and it’s hard to immediately think of what challenge you could create that wouldn’t have Elle as its best solution.

I guess we’ll see. I’m very much looking forward to finding out.

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Libraries

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

I want to think a little about libraries.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Can*Con 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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