The Shape We’re In

Charlie Stross nails down some thoughts on Transhumanism/Singularity, and in the process builds a near perfect summation of all that’s wrong with it:

There is a rottenness at the heart of the transhuman project, and the biggest symptom of it is blindness to its own origins: a mixture of warmed-over Christian apocalyptic eschatology (which Cory Doctorow and I poke with a stick in “The Rapture of the Nerds”) and the Just-So creation mythology of the smugly self-satisfied hypercapitalists who have unintentionally done so much to destroy so many of the moral and interpersonal values of post-Englightenment civilization.

I’m half tempted to add a sort of thematic epigraph to my novel-in-progress, in the style of Moby Dick, full of quotes that point to the themes of the story. And you can be sure this one would be right smack dab in the middle of it.

Because you see, the major problem facing the world today is not war or greed or racism. Those are horrible of course, but they are symptoms of a much larger social problem created by our cultural adherence to a fundamentally anti-human idea: that this world is broken and corrupt and we have to escape it.

The biggest problem is that there is nowhere to escape to. Religion promises some otherworldly dimension where you get to live in harmony and never have to poop. But it’s a fairy tale designed to mollify intellectual children. It’s not a real, attainable place. All paths leading toward it pass through the door of death. And there’s nothing after that but a long and empty dark corridor.

Science Fiction is supposed to be the literature of ideas. But for the last decade or so, it’s chief idea is reheated Augustinian pablum. Or as Greg Egan put it, “Uberdorks battling to turn the moon into computronium… Throwing Grey Goo around like monkeys throwing turds while they draw up their plans for Matrioshka brains.”

Some time ago we stopped believing that we could make a human future and reverted back to primitive day dreams of escaping to fairy land. But it’s the same old fear of death, just dressed up in LEDs and chrome.

As long as escape (i.e. Death) is the only promoted goal of our civilization, then we will never seriously address the concerns that make life here on Earth hard. We could spend our considerable imagination and creative power on solving the problems that vex us, and build a semi-paradise on Earth (no promises that it’ll be perfect) or we could just sit around day dreaming of a fantasy world where we don’t have to poop, while we drown in toxic shit of our own making.

Those are our only two options for our future: hard work or death. I choose hard work. What shape that work takes, now that’s the question I plan to spend the next thirty years or so trying to answer.

The Last Word

Tom Scocca puts MS Word in it’s place:

What makes Word unbearable is the output. Like the fax machine, Word was designed to put things on paper. It was a tool of the desktop-publishing revolution, allowing ordinary computer users to make professional (or at least approximately professional) document layouts and to print them out. That’s great if you’re making a lot of church bulletins or lost-dog fliers. Keep on using Word. (Maybe keep better track of your dog, though.)

For most people now, though, publishing means putting things on the Web. Desktop publishing has given way to laptop or smartphone publishing. And Microsoft Word is an atrocious tool for Web writing. Its document-formatting mission means that every piece of text it creates is thickly wrapped in metadata, layer on layer of invisible, unnecessary instructions about how the words should look on paper.

[…] Online publishing systems gag on this stuff; gremlins breed in the hidden spaces. Some publishing platforms have a built-in button especially for pasting text from Word, to clear away the worst of it, but they don’t work very well. Beyond the invisible code, there are those annoying typographical flourishes—the ordinal superscripts, the directional quotation marks, the automatic em dashes—that will create their own headaches in translation. Multiple websites exist simply to unmangle Word text and turn it into plain text or readable HTML.

When a standard tool requires this many workarounds, we need to find a new standard. Word wants to show that it knows the world isn’t merely about paper—you can make documents that have real, live hyperlinks in the text! You just can’t necessarily put those hyperlinks up on the Internet for anyone else to click on. Again and again, Word is defeated by the basic job of contemporary writing and editing: smoothly moving text back and forth among different platforms. The fundamental unit of Word is the single, proprietary file, anchored to one computer. Microsoft showed users how it feels about sharing work when it switched its default format from .doc to .docx in Office 2007, locking old and new Word customers out of each other’s files. (There are workarounds, of course. There are always workarounds.)

At my last job, My computer was upgraded and I received a shinny new version of Office 2007, which is the 2nd most user un-friendly piece of software I’ve ever had the misfortune of being saddled with.* Suddenly, all the menus were int he most counter intuitive places, buried three or four layers deep. I’ve tried just about every alternative platform known to man or best, but they are all second rate Word knockoffs. Even Open Office has turned into a buggy Word emulator that for some reason can’t even do a proper word count. I eventually did what Mr. Scocca writes in his article, and abandoned Word for Google Docs and TextEdit for office work and Scrivener for all my long form prose, which saves me the hassle of having to deal with Word at all anymore. Which is a food thing. Attempting to write fiction in Word was making me yearn for the days when writers made their own quills by strangling geese.

 

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* First prize for worthless software is Innovative Millennium,  a bloated POS Enterprise ILS, whose ostensible purpose is to run a library’s on-line catalog. It was originally designed in the 80s and you can tell, because it still uses a command line for the backend, and users need to know boolean operators to perform searches with any level of specificity beyond a subject heading or title. Subsequent upgrades are just new modules of code slapped on top of the old stuff. It works about as well as you’d imagine.

Write Before you Write

A large portion of the work of writing a story, in any medium, is usually done before you even write the first sentence.

I’ve learned the hard way that just having a good idea for a story doesn’t mean it will magically happen. You can’t sit down and start writing that first scene, guided solely by a vague notion of Cool Stuff happening. At least I can’t. Obviously this process varies widely by author but most say they do some amount of pre-writing work before they start a new project.

I have a list of things that I need to have figured out before starting a story. Usually I draw up a cast of characters list, like the kind you see in the front of a playbill. That starts building character relationships, which will inform scenes later on. It allows me to build in a sense of symmetry to the story, so I can balance the characters motivations and let each one become a facet for the story. There is usually some sot of symmetry involved in characters. Not just hero vs villain, but a mirror image of the supporting cast as well. After all, a convincing antagonist has a support staff too. Who are they? Figuring out this before hand lets you find a n organic way to introduce those characters, rather than just have them drop out of the sky.

I also need to have some idea of the themes I want to write about. Themes provide thrust for the story. If I get stuck in a scene, I can go back to that scribbled list of thematic ideas and see which one I’m missing or have put in the wrong place.

I like to have a title, at least a working one, in mind before starting as well. Titles are to stories what naes are to people. Thy identify their boundaries, or at least give yo a sense of what those boundaries are. This isn’t necessary, but experience has proven that I won’t really have a handle on the story until it has a title. Like my list of themes, this can be a beacon when you get lost in the fog that is the day-t-day process of sitting down and banging out words on a keyboard.

I also need to know where the story is going. Not necessarily a plot outline (though I usually build one of those shortly after starting) but some sort of late 4th/ early 5th Act* moment that settles things. This ensures that I have a goal, and can steer scenes, even early ones, towards that destination. The reader may not be able to see it over the horizon but I know that’s where we’re going. And knowing where you’re going is always a good idea, in life and in writing.

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* I prefer the 5 Act structure. Al ot fo writers swear by the 3 Act structure. But the 3 Act structure is crap. It forces you to stop the action and dump a bunch of exposition in Act 1, drag out Act 2 far longer than is necessary and race to have everything wrapped up in Act 3. 5 acts gives you elbow room, so that Act 3 becomes a natural climax, rather than a contrived hinge in the middle of your story.

The Power of Names

Everyone knows that Mark Twain was really Samuel Longhorne Clemens. And really, if you were born with a name like that, why change it?

There are several reasons to use a pseudonym:

Anonymity (which goes right out the window if you, like Mr. Clemens, don’t hide your birth name and prefer, in mixed company to go by it instead). Plus these days, a Google search can render anonymity moot, unless your smart, and let’s face it, people aren’t (have you met people? Generally about as smart as house cats, on a good day).

It’s a good idea to use a pseudonym if you have the same name as someone famous or infamous and want to avoid confusion. Not that there are a lot of Babe Ruth’s running about, but John Smith (no, the other one) could really have used a nom de plume. And pretty much everyone named Adolf who was born before 1945 but lived through WW II understands this reason. Except Adolfo Buey Cesarus, but really if you’re the sort of person who’d mistake a gentle-hearted Brazilian fabulist with one of history’s greatest fiends, you really are a house cat.

If you’re hiding form a past life of crime and general skulduggery, or from skull duggers who might want to do you in for something you’ve seen, a pseudonym is probably in order, the more common and nondescript the better.

And sometimes you have a respectable career as a mathematics teacher like Charles Lutwidge Dawson and you don’t want to mix circles with the fans of your silly poetry and children’s fantasy, like Lewis Carroll. Maybe it’s simply illegal for a civil servant like Brian O’Nollan to publish under his own name, and so Flann O’Brian is born.

on the other hand, some people were born with outsized personalities that their drab names simply could not contain. Marion Robert Morrison just doesn’t sound butch, but John Wayne makes the ladies smile-in-that-way, and the men stick out their chin with envy. No one was ever going to give Archie Leach a job in movies, but Cary Grant? Who doesn’t love that guy?

Stage names for actors have become so common, I bet you’d be surprised to find out just how few given names appear on the big screen. Just ask Moses Horwitz, his brother Jerome and their partner, Louis Feinburg, better known to the world as Mo, Curly and Larry.

Unfortunately, women still have problems being taken seriously as authors. Just ask George Sand, James Tiptree Jr., D.C. Fontana, J.K. Rowlings, J.D. Robb, K.A. Applegate and S.E. Hinton.

And sometimes the name your born into just doesn’t fit. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the name Edward Alexander Crowley. It’s British through and through. But it just doesn’t have the same ring to it as Aleister Crowley, and when you want to conjure an image as a master occultist, ringing the right tone is the key to the temple. Pearl Grey is a perfectly respectable name, unless you write westerns for a living, then maybe Zane Gray is a bit more appropriate. Eric Blair is a fine, if plain name, but we know him better as George Orwell, which just resonates with authorial intent.

You’ll notice I haven’t even gotten into the cultural reasons for using a collective pseudonym. We simply don’t know who the authors were of the ancient Greek epics, so we call them all Homer. In Japan, Pen Names are almost universal. Or did you think Bosho was really named after a banana plant?

All of this is the long way of saying that I’ve decided to adopt a Pen Name for my writing. So, in the (very near) future when you want to find a new piece of fiction, look for the by-line of Keith Edwards. I hear that guy’s stuff is pretty great.

A Microscope is also a Telescope, When Used Properly

Over at Charlie Stross’ blog, Cat Valente is writing up storm. This particular tempest is a great swirling discussion about the genre definitions of Science Fiction and Fantasy, but not in the old perennial argument about which authors used which tropes, and why this makes your favorite book really X instead of Y. No. None of that. This is the soup of philosophy, examination of the meat of the craft:

And to me, it’s all one. Not in a flippant way, but deep, primal, unifying. The herd-dog is an uplifted mind. The SuperLab has old, old bones. I do genuinely believe that stories save us. Over and over, narrative tells us how to get through and get beyond, how to be human and how to be inhuman, too, when it comes time to grow. We are, at our cores, narrative beings. And most especially, science fiction and fantasy save us. They tell us who we are, who we can be, who we want to be and who we don’t, what we could be and what we can reject if we are strong enough. It says all these things more boldly and yet more secretly than mimetic fiction, which does not often try to speak to the dreams and terrors of a species on the verge.

I like that. Mainly because it sums up neatly my own operational definitions:

Science Fiction is about the exterior world: culture, technology, society and what it means to be human and what those boundaries are and how they change us.

Fantasy is about the interior world: how individuals define themselves within the context of their culture and experiences and what it means to be human, the things we believe (true, false or otherwise) that shape how we define that state of being.

Both are valid for looking at the concerns of humanity across time and space (however you wish to define those two terms). I’m less concerned with defining the genres by the outer trappings, the tropes that have built up over the last century and a half. Those are incidental and interchangeable.

The purpose of literature — of art in general — is to explore what it means to be human. As such, and given my operational definitions, it’s possible for a novel, movie, short story or Video game (i.e. a narrative work) to be both science fiction and fantasy. It’s also possible to write a space opera that is a fantasy and a medieval sword and sorcery novel that is science fiction, as it is the method by which we seek to ask and answer these questions about our place in the universe that defines the work, not the stage decorations, the symbols and ephemera.

The Sandbox

Over on his blog, John Rogers is schooling us in story mechanics:

If you want to know what the creators intended a show to be “about”, you can usually go back and watch the last scene of the pilot.  In E.R., it’s Noah Wylie sitting on the sidewalk, exhausted but changed.  It’s going to be a show about how people survive this tumultuous, draining situation, and how it changes them.  I won’t spoil the last scene of the Breaking Bad pilot, but it’s stunning in its prescience right down to the final line of dialogue.  (Seriously, it makes me want to kiss Vince Gilligan on the mouth.)  The last scene of Leverage is Nate explaining the physics of Crime World, and how he and his crew are going to fuck up The Man.  This show is about those people punching rich guys in the neck.  Because they have Sinned, and Deserve It.

What’s really kind of interesting is to go back and watch the Lost pilot. (Remember, the end of the pilot is the end of Ep 2*.)  It ends with Charlie asking “Guys … where ARE we?”  That sets up the mystery of the show.  But is that really, eventually, what the show’s about?

I’d argue that’s what so infuriated many people about Lost by the end of it. (Full disclosure: I really dug the show, and am show-business friends with a fair chunk of the ex-writers).  Was Lost “about” the people on the island (emotion), or “about” the mystery of the island (the system)?   I’d guess for the writers it was about unravelling those castaways’ stories every week.  And sure, for a big chunk of the audience, that’s what got them emotionally invested.  But mysteries demand solving, and as soon as the system of the island was set up as a mystery it became part of the contract with the audience. “Oh, there are mysteries!  Puzzles!  I’ll pay attention over here, too!”  But if you don’t then satisfy the puzzle-solving part of the relationship — God help you.  Audiences are hella-smart.  Even if they’re not conscious puzzle-solvers, the lizard brain knows it isn’t getting what it wants.  That frustration feeds back into the character side, and before you know it fans are frustrated with both parts of the equation, because they’re feeling that …

… ahh … you know the best thing I ever heard, the thing I wish someone had told me when I was 20?

“Every criticism is the tragic result of an unmet need.”

He goes on to talk about how what his show, Leverage is about differs between him, co-creator Chris Downey, and Executive Producer Dean Devlin. And that the show works not in spite of this, but because of it.

The thing that makes Leverage work, is despite the differing views as to what the show is “about”, Rogers, Downey and Mr. Devlin have enough of a common ground in agreement. That common ground becomes the sandbox of the Leverage verse, in which there’s enough elbow room for them each to explore their own version of he show and have it still be Leverage. This is because they each agree on what the show is not as much as they agree on what it is.

I don’t think that was true for Lost. I think at some fundamental level, no two people running that show were able to create a common ground. The sandbox of that world had no boundaries and so the story got muddled because it could be whatever who was writing this week’s episode wanted it to be. So we got labyrinthine mysteries without satisfying answers, layer upon layer of character moments that ended up going nowhere and because no one had ever said Lost is A, B and C but not X, Y and Z, the overall story wallowed in its own potential to be anything and so was nothing. *

Tangentially, I just watched The Man With the Golden Gun the other night, which is one of my favorite Bond movies. And it occurred to me that The Man With the Golden Gun is one deeply weird movie, in a lot of ways that no other Bond movie is. But however silly and strange it got, it never became a parody of a Bond film, in the way that Casino Royal (1967) was. It stayed within the sandbox of Bond Films, it just unearthed a strange corner on the fringe full of psychadelic tropes and weirdness that most other Bond films ignore.

 

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* On the up side, there’s enough material in the six seasons of Lost that, with some judicious editing, someone could probably turn it into a dense, weird, little miniseries that could be satisfying. All it would take is someone deciding what the island is and is not.

Links for 12/19/11

A few odds and ends making their way from the internet to my brain in the last week:

>A list of defunct auto manufactures and the cool cars they used to make, mostly from the nineteen-teens. Bless Wikipedia editors and their exhaustive interests.

>A transcript of Terrence McKenna talking about the DMT cave and intelligences from outside of time. You know, the usual.

>In the Arabian Nights, there’s the story of the City of Brass, which

[…] features a group of travellers on an archaeological expedition across the Sahara to find an ancient lost city and attempt to recover a brass vessel that Solomon once used to trap a jinn, and, along the way, encounter a mummified queen, petrified inhabitants, life-like humanoid robots and automata, seductive marionettes dancing without strings, and a brass horseman robot who directs the party towards the ancient city, which has now become a ghost town.”

There’s definitely a novel in there, but it’ll have to wait until I finish the three or four other novels already taking up space in my head. So look for it sometime around 2020.

>Here’s last year’s Krampuslauf Graz parade in Austria. Why can’t we have a demonic monster parade during Christmas in this country? Oh right, fluffy Jesus people. Weirdos.

>And ever since I saw the new trailer for GI Joe: Retaliation, this pretty badass dubstep version of Seven Nation Army has been stuck in my head.

Words, Words, Words

So, the novel. As near as I can figure, after much dithering about with thorny plot issues and restructuring, plus a couple of wasted days in early November, my grand total word count for the end of National Novel Writing Month is:

The problem is that I’m not exactly sure how long the thing is going to run. My previous optimistic estimate of plus or minus 110K was, well, optimistic. 125K may even be a little short of the mark. But! Progress is being made. Slowly but surely. One of these days, I’ll have a finished novel.

Now, as previously noted, I didn’t actually participate in NaNoWriMo this year and didn’t get to use it as a pace car either. My plan still stands to do my own private NaNoWriMo for the month of December. So, keep an eye on that death bar. I suspect it’s stalking me and may try and jump me if I go to sleep.

As Goes Bella, So Goes the Nation

Over at Goodreads, they’ve discovered something interesting about the readers of the Twilight books (click the link to see the infographic):

There is no more divisive book on Goodreads than Twilight. It manages to top both our Best Books Ever and Worst Books of All Time lists. And now, surprisingly, we’ve discovered that where you live can indicate whether you’re a Twi-Hard or not.

With the release of the film adaption of Breaking Dawn (well, the first half of the film adaptation), we thought it might be fun to dive into some more of the incredible trove of data we have on the Twilight Saga and its readers.

A map of what each state thinks of Twilight ends up looking a lot like a map of the most recent election results. On the map above, the readers in the red states rated the book highly (the darker the red, the higher the rating), while readers in the blue states gave it a lower rating). The Midwest and the South represent The Twilight Belt, while the coasts were decidedly less impressed with the book.

Reviews were mostly distributed according to population, with the notable exception of Utah. Utah is the 34th most populous state in the US, but it generates the 6th most reviews of Twilight. In terms of cities, Salt Lake City—the 125th largest city in the country—is second only to New York in number of Twilight reviews. Opinion on the book is split in the Beehive state, with the average rating a pedestrian 3.64.

The series’ popularity in Utah becomes more explicable when you recall that the author, Stephanie Myers, is Mormon and so are the Cullens.

Having lived in the Twilight Belt/Red States most of my life, I find this not at all surprising.  The lack of literacy in that region is a scourge upon the land and the popularity of Twilight, like the rise of yokel-bating politics, is a direct result of the fact that the locals are a proudly ignorant folk. They like their leaders to be Good Old Boys and their entertainment a slick patina of pop culture that just barely covers a misogynistic pseudo-spiritual story that just happens to reinforce hetero-normative values and white male privilege. The popularity of both Twilight and Rick Perry are part of the same problem.

Also: If you really want o make your head spin, here’s an article praising Twilight from a feminist POV, on the grounds that Bella’s objectification is something young women can relate to, unlike the ass kickery of Buffy Summers or Lisbeth Salander, who are icky masculine girls because of pants. Or something. And also that the pregnancy is realistically depicted (except for the whole vampire eating itself out of the mother’s womb).

Anyway. In the comments of that article there’s a long digressive discussion centering on Myers’ use of blank pages to represent Bella’s heartache when her vampire boyfriend leaves her (alas, temporarily). That particular passage is one of my pet peeves as a writer. The blank pages are just a gimmick to cover up Myers’ week writing skills. A good writer doesn’t shy away from delving into the murk of touchy emotional states. If anything, they relish them as a challenge. The blank pages are Myers admitting publicly she doesn’t have the emotional maturity or writerly craft to depict a lovesick teenager. Which begs the question of what she would do if a story required her to describe the savory delight of a well prepared cheesburger, let alone the ineffable quintessence of love.

On the upside, I did come upon the realization that Bella isn’t a character, she’s a McGuffin, an object to be hoarded, fought over (by men) and fetishised. Those blank pages representing Bella’s mental state when Edward isn’t around are extremely telling. Without a man to observe her, she literally has no presence in the story. She neither thinks about her predicament nor feels anything that registers as an emotion or a thought. She has about as much agency as the Maltese Falcon* (objectively worthless except for the secret thing inside her that everyone really wants).

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*I was going to say the Ark of the Covenant in Indiana Jones, but the Ark has at least enough agency to melt some Nazis for failing to recognize its inherent inertia. The Ark will not tolerate being used crassly for the needs of men. Bella exists solely for that purpose.

NaNoWriMo Update

So. yeah. How’s your novel going? Hope you’ve been working on it harder than I have on mine.

I had a little set back, in that i wasted the first ten days of National Novel Writing Month working on a project that didn’t go anywhere and now, the month is half way through and I’m just getting up to speed. So I’m behind by 2 weeks already.

But!

Since I wasn’t officially taking part in NaNoWriMo, just using it as a pace car for the novel in progress, it’s not the end of the game for me. I intend to extend my own personal Novel Writing month into December.

As for where I’m at in said novel, let’s go to word count death bar of doom:

As you can see, I’ve just broken the spine. I’ve revised the total word count down as well — now that the midpoint is in sight, I have a much more lucid estimate of the total length.

With a bit of perseverance and a few extra cups of coffee, I should be able to bring the first draft in by the New Year.

Alright, enough blather. Back to the keyboard!