"Write the book you want to read." What if you don't know how?
A common bit of aspirational advice given to authors is "Write the book you want to read." It's one I've followed myself ever since I started doing this halfway seriously. Sometimes I'd encounter an idea I thought hadn't been explored properly, or wondered why a book about X didn't exist. The next step from there was obvious.
What I always wonder about is how this advice is taken by people who have all the aspiration, but none of the chops. What if you want, desperately, to write the book you want to read, but just plain don't know how?
More on why and how SF bottles itself in, unthinkingly.
A while back I came to the conclusion that the biggest reason SF is more or less off in its own ghetto of readers and producers is the same reason modern literary fiction has ended up in a similar cul-de-sac. The people responsible for it make you work so hard to be part of the club and to so little effect -- albeit in different ways -- that it's no wonder most people just give up and reach for the Dan Brown and the E.L. James. Readers have better things to do with their time than beat their heads against walls erected by the self-important. The hard part is not identifying this problem; it's doing something about it.
The only real answer may be in the form of individual pieces of work that strive as much as they can to not embody all the most overarching failures of their respective genres. I'm turned off by a lot of modern SF not because it's not SF (or even because it's SF) but because it's being written more and more in a self-sustaining vacuum. When it takes ideas from other literary paths, they're mostly stylistic rather than spiritual. Earlier SF is far more an influence on current SF than, say, The Grapes of Wrath or The Accidental Tourist are (that last book garnering my vote for the most unpretentiously successful work of literary fiction from that decade). The field is starving itself to death, but no one seems to be particularly worked up about it -- or, rather, most of the responses to such a state of affairs involve borrowing all the wrong things from all the wrong places and calling that "innovation".
Or maybe burning Java, who knows. More adventures in the jungle of bad software.
Every day I get that much more evidence thrown in my face as to why the mad rush to make every program into a web page (or every web page into a program, you choose) is a terrible, terrible idea.
On the bad rep of SF&F fans.
I keep running into the sense that many people outside of SF&F just find the whole thing fundamentally silly.
I suspect that's because they are so used to it being associated with either the types of stories that are nothing but juvenile wish-fulfillment (Renata Adler said much the same thing about 2001) -- or, maybe more importantly, where the audiences for such material themselves exude an attitude of juvenile wish-fulfillment. I suspect it's the latter: they wouldn't be caught dead with the rest of those ... nerds.
More about escapism.
My post about Jeannette Walls the other day came back to mind. She does have a point, albeit a clumsily-expressed one. The problem with escapism is not that it's escapism, but that running away from the world you're in gives you that much less to actually talk about.
Why the longing for "escapism" is problematic.
I saw Man of Steel a second time (this time in 3D) on Sunday night, a brief respite from what's become a busy work schedule. I like it even more a second time, and despite the 3D being a postconversion job it's remarkably well-done.
And in the couple of weeks since the film's release, the divisiveness over the movie -- mostly in fandom circles -- has only become all the more pronounced. It's not just negative reviews or even thoughtful criticism of the film's flaws, it's articles like "Put the hero back in superhero movies" that attack the very premise behind the movie: that a hero is most interesting when he's flawed and in conflict.
No, say the fans. Please let us have some genuine escapism. Please let us have some heroic pop mythology we can call our own. Enough with making everything into grimdarkery!
And believe me, I agree. I wouldn't pound on Game of Thrones so much if I didn't agree.
But I only agree only up to a point.
Living forever without actually growing up first seems like a non-starter.
The quest for Simplistic Immortality, that of “I stay I and no one can affect it” makes every person, every phenomena, and the entire universe either the Immortalist’s enemy or slave.
... Transhumanism that focuses on Simplistic Immortality isn’t really transhuman at all – that’s the joke, really. It’s the screaming of a child that want’s his way.
Our back-and-forth on this subject has touched on a whole slew of different issues, but it's this last line that got me thinking: What do we really mean by "growth", "maturity", "evolution", etc.? If transhumanism is about transcending, what does it mean to "transcend ourselves", other than to brag about having a spiritual trophy to polish?
I might have just answered my question right there. The whole point of growth is not to have to rely on obvious external rewards as a sign that you're doing the right thing.
There's always going to be something you can't do. The hard part is knowing what.
A better person than me (and everybody else) once said that "culture is what you don’t notice.” The same is true for what is much the same thing, ideology. I was reminded of this by Hopi's proposal that the Independent open a chain of coffee shops on the grounds that Indy readers love their coffee shops.
... consider what's wrong with the idea. Quite simply, it's that newspapers don't know how to run coffee shops. The Indy won't run coffee shops for ther same reason that Starbucks won't start producing tablets and smartphones even though their customers love them - they don't know how to do so.
But why can't they simply buy in such expertise? They could, but they have no more ability to identify and monitor such expertise than anyone else. For this reason, it is very rare for companies to diversify successfully out of declining industries. They are trapped by their vintage of organizational capital, by their culture.
Emphasis mine. This whole business of being trapped by unquestioned assumptions about what you can and can't do is humbling when you finally do stare it in the face. Creative folks are just as much victims of these limitations as anyone else.
My Muse Hack¹ cohort Scott Delahunt posted over at his site about his character creation process, so I thought I'd use that as the excuse I needed to say a few things in that vein. When I was a kid,...
When I was a kid, I hijacked the Art through the Ages textbook that my mother had used in college and used it to play a game akin to an inkblot-reading test. Not knowing the contexts for many of the paintings (or simply not caring about them), I'd look at the pictures and ask myself: what's going on here? Who are these people and what do they want? How do they see the world? It was hard not to look at some of them and hear how they might speak, or imagine how they might walk across a room, or speculate on how they dealt with a given problem.
The fine folks of StandoutBooks have published an interview with yours truly about Flight of the Vajra.
Go read it, duh.
Ugliness is not a total synonym for "truth".
From the comments to Why The Destruction In MAN OF STEEL Matters | Badass Digest
Superhero stories have become an insufferable drag, because far too many people involved in their creation have the mistaken idea that adult art is relentlessly violent and dark.
I know I've been burned out on such things. This isn't to say that I won't watch challenging stuff like Salò, just that I've become less and less enamored of the work involved in doing so, and less interested in the diminishing returns that come from it.
But the general idea that "adult" = "VIOLENTY G-for-GRIMDARK McDEVASTATORSON" has infected everything from young adult novels to television (cough, Game of Thrones, cough). As someone else once put it, this isn't adulthood; this is surly adolescence, showing up at the dinnertable with a mohawk and two tons of eye makeup.
Read the first chapter of my forthcoming space-opera epic "Flight of the Vajra".
I went dancing with my wife the night she died.
My wife, my daughter, and my best friend; they’d all been with me that night in the main ballroom of my luxury liner, the Kyritan.
That ship wasn’t supposed to have been their coffin, but since it had been theirs it ought to have been mine as well.
Read the rest here. Then go buy the book when it's out in September.
The most fantastic things work best when they are rooted in the most familiar.
[Man of Steel screenwriter Goyer:] The first scene I wrote was the scene in which Jor-El and Lara give up baby Kal. And I said, "Alright, I'm going to write it initially as if they're not on Krypton. I'm going to write it generically as two parents that have to give away their son. The kid could be saved from the concentration camps... whatever." I just wrote it like that. And from the emotion of "What would it be like to give birth to your son, and then half an hour later have to put him in a pod and hope that he won't get killed?" I wrote that scene, and it felt emotionally right to me. And from that point onward, anytime I was writing something that was heavy science-fiction or involved crazy superpowers, I would write the scene as if Krypton didn't exist first, and then I would go back in and add the science-fiction stuff. That was the way that I found that I could make it make sense and relatable, I guess.
Goyer's work for that scene comes through most clearly in the moment where Jor-El and Lara lament that they will never hear their son speak their names, that they will never see him taking his first steps. It works; it's one of the best little moments in a film where the little moments do more than the big ones -- to the point where when the movie tries to scale up, it almost loses its footing. But that's another criticism for another day.
The first ("male") half of Front 242's crowning moment.
Murray Roman once made an album entitled A Blind Man's Movie, which was shipped in an all-black sleeve long before Spinal Tap twigged to the idea. I laughed, but like all jokes the gag had a serious undertone: isn't the radio play that comes out of the speakers more vivid for the fact that it takes place inside our minds, and not up there on a screen somewhere?
There has always been something, for lack of a better word, cinematic about the albums I came to treasure. They aren't just collections of songs but stories, or at least the soundtracks for stories. The story may not be something spelled out in the lyrics or even in the liner notes, and it may not even have been placed there consciously by the creators -- but it announces itself all the same. Peter Gabriel's Melt album was like that; Skinny Puppy's Last Rights was like that.
06:21:03:11 UP EVIL is, no surprise, very much like that, and one of the signs of its staying power is how it has been telling me different stories in the twenty-odd years since its release. It didn't feel like an album of its moment when it came out, and in the intervening time it has proceeded straight into a kind of timelessness. The story UP EVIL has told me has waxed and waned in the specificity of its details over these past two decades, its emotions have not. They were there before the beginning and they'll be there after the end.
How the death of DVD killed Hollywood.
What killed Hollywood? Reliance on DVDs as the revenue stream, says Lynda Obst. Once that dried up, half of the profit for the studios dried up with it.
... [Without the profit margin from DVDs] [t]here was none of the extra cash that fueled competitive commerce, gut calls, or real movies, the extra spec script purchase, the pitch culture, the grease that fueled the Old Abnormal: the way things had always been done. We were running on empty, searching for sources of new revenue. The only reliable entry on the P&L was international [sales]. That’s where the moolah was coming from, so that’s what decisions would be based on.
... "The big implication is that those studios are—not necessarily inappropriately—terrified to do anything because they don’t know what the numbers look like."
Hence, tentpoles based on guaranteed properties like comic books. Hence, internationalized titles that favor action over plot over character development. Hence, the way everything feels like a copy of a copy of a copy.
Why "Man of Steel"'s Superman is a little more interesting, and problematic, than you might expect. (Warning: spoilers.)
I saw Man of Steel Friday night in the company of a whole slew of friends, and afterwards we repaired to a diner near the movie theater and hashed over what we'd just watched. We did a lot of hashing.
Let's get the obvious question out of the way: Did I like the movie? Yes -- while at the same time seeing things in it that I could see people taking exception to. I know it's not perfect, and I forgive most of its imperfections because they're part of a package I enjoyed.
But there's little question the movie has been divisive, both with mainstream audiences (and critics), and self-identified comics fans. Some people adored it, some only just liked it (and wondered why they only felt that way about it and no more), and some loathed the film to such a degree that you'd think Zack Snyder, David Goyer, and Christopher Nolan had driven over to their houses in the middle of the night, soaped their car windows, and slathered their dogs with Nair.
Whenever I come across something divisive, I collect arguments on both sides of the issue -- as many as I can pro and con -- and lay them side by side. Before I'd walked into the theater, I'd already compiled four major camps of negative criticism. After I walked back out and sat down in the diner with coffee and rice pudding, all of them had been put into perspective. Two of them were silly or just plain stupid; the third, less so; the fourth was truly problematic.
WARNING: MAJOR AND TOTAL SPOILERS follow. If you haven't seen the film, come back later.
On the canard of "Reality is just so interesting, why would you want to escape it?"
I’m not a huge fan of experimental fiction, fantasy or so-called escapist literature. Reality is just so interesting, why would you want to escape it?
I have a hard time not seeing this as a way to completely miss the point. At its best, SF&F is not about escaping from what exists, but about transmuting what exists -- allowing ourselves to see things in a new way. Reality is fascinating, but it's also only reality. The two are not zero-sum.
If other authors of straight fiction have this attitude as well -- and I have good reason to believe it's prevalent -- that goes a long way towards explaining why most attempts by litfic to borrow SF tropes and trappings fall so flat.
And some SF&F authors have the same problem, just in reverse. They see reality as being so boring that it's not worth doing anything with except escaping from. Small wonder SF&F and litfic don't think they have anything to teach each other.
The movies are their own worst (financial) enemy.
Spielberg's advice for the aspiring USC filmmakers was, well, straight out of a disaster film script:
"Eventually going to be an implosion — or a big meltdown. There's going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that's going to change the paradigm."
TechCrunch picked up the story as well, with one of their suggested remedies being not making "s**tty films". The problem with that, of course, is that no movie studio ever owns up about any of its films being junk, unless their name is Troma and they had no shame to begin with (and even then it hasn't helped). And so we have strategies like $50 mega-ticket showings being explored as a way for the studios to recoup.
No, not sustainable.
Israel's best-known contribution to "post-punk" takes the bad taste out of my mouth left by the term.
It didn’t take long for me to develop a severe allergy to the term post-punk. For the most part it ended up meaning “bands just good enough to attract attention from critics in a period of general musical malaise while not actually being all that good”. It meant, all too often, the worst of punk—musical incompetence and rejection for rejection’s sake—fused with the crass commercialism of mainstream rock.
It took Minimal Compact to take the bad taste of post-punk out of my mouth. If a big part of that is simply the fact that Minimal Compact is a great band, so be it: like all great bands, they sound pleasantly dissimilar to the music that surrounds them and which they draw on. They built a new sound on the foundations of a few other basic ones, and it's a sound I would dearly like to have heard serve as an inspiration to a broader number of bands.
Why I'm trying not to repeat myself by not writing sequels, possibly at your expense.
Not long after I wrapped work on Flight of the Vajra, a friend of mine commented that the universe I'd created was rich with other possibilities -- that it could be mined in much the same way Iain Banks (RIP) had mined his "Culture" universe for a whole slew of different stories.
"I don't think I want to do that," I said, and almost immediately felt terrible for doing so.
Two competing and conflicting impulses were at work within me. The first was the sense that he was right -- the universe of Vajra was (and is) a huge and rich one, from which any number of other stories could be derived. After all, why go through all the trouble of creating a whole new setting from scratch when I already had one all dolled up and ready to deliver?
The second was a far more complicated impulse, rooted in why I had created the Vajra universe in the first place.
Godhood without humanity: the gains hardly seem worth the degeneracy.
The transhuman desire for transcendence as a way to get away really misses what humanity is about. It’s a desire to cut ourselves off, to wrap ourselves in pleasure, to get distance, to “win.” It just makes us less human. It’s not transhumanism – it’s inhumanism.
Among the books that I have been meaning to write about for ages, and never managed to do so because I was intimidated by the prospect of having to say something coherent about it, is Barrows Dunham's Man Against Myth. I've mentioned it in passing before -- it's the work of a man who had just seen the United States and its allies emerge from WWII with both blood and dust on their hands, and was worried that a number of social myths that had been prevalent before and during the war would continue to lead men astray long after it. Among those myths: "That There Are Superior And Inferior Races", "That the Rich Are Fit And The Poor Unfit", "That You Can't Change Human Nature", "That You Have To Look Out For Yourself" -- does any of this sound familiar? (The last is particularly haunting and relevant right now: "That You Cannot Be [both] Free And Safe".)
Whenever I hear some new creed that purports to be new and courageous simply repeating the fallacies of the past, I suspect the one who devised it hasn't done his homework.
One of free music's cornerstones, an album of heedless challenges and curious pleasures.
Even for the most stalwartly adventurous ears, music is largely anchored in how it refers back to everything that's not music. Most of us hear a love song and don't pay attention to the music itself, but rather the emotional connotations we've built around it: didn't I hear that song back when I was in that crummy little diner, right when we held hands and almost spilled our coffees all over each other? And isn't that, by and large, what we want from it?
Like John Cage, Derek Bailey made music that wasn't about anything but itself, and over the years I've had a difficult relationship to both Bailey's work and everything else like it. I admire the adventure, but I also question my emotional responses to it: how can my feelings about it be communicated to others without seeming like I'm asking them to swallow scrap metal? Most people hear a record like Improvisation and wince: to them it doesn't sound like anything but the kind of skronk you'd get if you dropped a guitar down a flight of stairs.
But then I remembered Cage talking with Richard Kostelanetz about how most conventional music sounded to him: like the notes were a bunch of little children that had been forced to dress up in school uniforms and line up, all neat and orderly and dull. The emotional reactions we have to music are as much social as they are personal -- hence the way African natives responded with almost total indifference to Beethoven (as Philip Ball described in The Music Instinct). Derek Bailey's music -- and Cage's before him, and so on -- is only possible to create, and take seriously, in a society where we have developed some idea of music as a social construct in the first place. Just as there is music for romance as well as dance, this is music for those who have an emotional involvement in the very idea of music. If that's too many steps removed from what you're comfortable with, no fault lies with you.
On reissued e-books and copyediting. Or the lack thereof.
If there's one thing that has irked me non-stop about e-books, it's not the form factor, the file formats, the costs, the bottom-feeding, or any of the common rallying cries of intellectual property or freedom of information movement so beloved by digistas. It's the copyediting. More like, the lack thereof.
"I want to live forever." Yes, but which I?
A transhumanist should ask ‘What is this “me” that I’m trying to preserve and enhance? What is the point of what I’m doing? Who am I doing this for?’ The ultimate question of Transhumanism is one of identity.
The title I slapped on this is of course a callback to the magnificent David Gerrold, and the whole question of "Which 'I' am I?" is one that wove itself through most any book I found myself picking up, from Zamyatin's WE (the source of those very words, in fact) to most anything Phil Dick sneezed in the direction of.
The real issue for me here is how transhumanism too often boils down to leaving the rest of the human race behind -- that it is not about a rising tide that lifts all boats, but rather getting there firstest with the mostest, and about having yet another excuse to coddle and sanctify one's own ego above all else.
Art's not about what's sold (again).
Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong were not the first folks to point out that Adam Smith's notions of the "invisible hand" have been misquoted and used drastically out of context. Smith was making an argument against the idea that you can, in DeLong's words, "make your country wealthier by imposing tariffs and other restrictions on imports". Not, as so commonly claimed, that the market as a whole is a rational actor, because it's plain it isn't -- and neither are the individuals who participate in it. If it were all so rational, then finance would be more akin to a well-suppported computer program that only occasionally hiccups, and not the rollercoaster of risk- and profit-taking we're all too familiar with.
Given that the "invisible hand" doesn't exist in the form we think it does, why then do we put such faith in the market as an arbiter of the value of creative work? Because it's easier to do that then to assess such value for ourselves. A number means one less thing to think about.
More on imagination not just being about making stuff up.
From the comments to Science Fiction Repair Shop: Not A Soul In Sight Dept. (Genji Press)
... many magical worlds do use magic as a form of technology, and much as it suffuses our lives and our lingo, it should suffuse theirs. To leave things to just be "as is" really misses the point of writing and exploring.
This goes right back into much of SF&F being rooted in escapism rather than transcendence. Most SF&F is not written as a way to look at a counterfactual future or past as a way of imagining new aspects of the present (and future, and maybe also re-assessing the past). It's written, like most fiction, as a way to merely appeal to someone's sense of novelty. A new system of magic or a clever justification for faster-than-light travel is not why I read a book, but if the set point for people's expectations is low enough to begin with, it can become that way.
Some SF books I'd love to see filmed, even if I know the odds are slender.
It's been a while since I did a piece of this ilk: a rundown of some SF books that haven't been filmed, and that aren't likely candidates for same, but which I would love to see nevertheless.
Why do we make gods out of men?
If Karl Marx and Ayn Rand are the Gods of Economics (to whom we sacrifice George Osborne at dawn tomorrow), who else is in the pantheon? I get the feeling Marilyn Monroe and Elvis ought to be in there somewhere. Who should be in the 19th/20th century pantheon of gods and goddesses, and what portfolios should each of them have?
I sometimes wonder if a term like "god[dess]" even fits today's allegedly skeptical, rational, empirical mindset. Then I remember most of the people inhabiting this world are anything but skeptical, rational, empirical, etc. and questions like this don't seem absurd anymore.
This page contains an archive of posts for the month of June 2013.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind