Why a compassionate writer is a better writer. (A somewhat roundabout discussion.)
In between working on Welcome to the Fold I've been gathering notes for the projects to come after it, many of which are not set in the here-and-now, but rather in some analogue of the past. I keep thinking of all the pitfalls involved in telling any story out of your time and place, it's the tone of the story that's one of the most underappreciated.
Are you your characters? And should you apologize for them?
Rob Barba has a post in which he talks about not being apologetic for the excesses of one's characters. I think this goes almost entirely without saying: you are not your characters, and so just because you create people a certain way doesn't mean you are advocating the kind of people they are, etc.
Writing: there's a best way, a right way, and in the end, your way.
Over at Brad Warner's blog there's a discussion of that old standby, the Right Way to Meditate. His take on it, as best I understand, is that the first mistake is assuming there's a right way, and the second mistake is assuming a right way can be taught rather than discovered independently.
2nd draft of "Welcome to the Fold" under way for real now, with a few bumps in the road.
I'm most of the way through mapping out the second draft of Welcome to the Fold, and I'm starting to feel like the guys who have been given the thankless task of tearing down the Javits Center and building something better in its place. The hard part is not getting rid of the old, although that's bad enough; it's bringing in the new without recapitulating the sins of the old.
This is not a long book, but it's a complex one, with a great many individual little details that have to function correctly for the whole thing to work. In some cases, I had the right idea for how something was meant to work, but the wrong embodiment of that idea; in other cases, I had the wrong idea entirely, but the embodiment would be worthy of re-use. Sometimes a bad idea would have a great expression, or the other way 'round. And so on.
What was heartening, though, was seeing the core ideas I'd meant to do justice to rearing their heads again and again throughout that first draft. Rough and problematic as it was, the whole reason I'd written the book in the first place was there -- visible to my eyes, at least. The trick now is to make sure everyone else who's not me also sees it.
Less urgent but still fun is the compilation of a playlist to go with the book. As with previous books, I did compile a playlist of material that did seem thematically related, but it's difficult for me to actually listen to that music while writing, as it becomes deeply distracting. Instead, I find myself listening to it at other times, and accruing ideas for the book during that away time. But a scene-by-scene playlist for Fold, one along the lines of the playlist I created for Flight of the Vajra, is in order at some point.
Among the artists included -- I don't think I'm spoiling anything by revealing this:
On ephemeral culture that never gets around to being ephemeral.
Not much time to blog the last couple of days, but I did want to circle back to Wednesday's post, where I touched on how we are creating a world in which nothing is ever really ephemeral or disposable. Culture has become like that garbage patch in the Pacific that never completely goes away, because of the disturbing preponderance of stuff flung into the ocean that doesn't biodegrade.
On the philosophy of sequels (and why I'm on the "against" side).
What else do we really need to know about the adventures of Doc Brown and Marty McFly? We spoke to Travis Knight, who runs the animation company Laika [Boxtrolls], about sequels in general. His company has never made one, and he specifically said that "when you look at a story, ideally, the story should explore a pivotal moment in the protagonists' life. If we're doing a sequel, by virtue of what it is, it's going to be a diminishment. The second most pivotal moment of his life?"
This is as succinct a statement of my own philosophy on the matter as I'm ever likely to come across or utter on my own. A story has at its center a character, and the story is about something momentous in their lives. Everything after that tends to be, as far as drama and storytelling are concerned, "the second pressing of the grape" (as John Wayne once put it so floridly in his gloriously awful Genghis Khan pico-epic The Conqueror).
On the contradictions (?) between Buddhist nonviolence and the violence that protects it.
... [Buddhist practitioners are] able to live lives that allow us to self-identify as special, peaceful people in contrast to those awful, violent people out there. ... We’re able to create the illusion that we live in a bubble of peace and we start thinking, “If only everyone else could be just like me, the world would be as one!” We fail to see how we can’t be barefoot Zen hippies unless someone else is willing to be a tough-as-nails, jack-booted cop to make sure nobody messes with our fantasy world. That’s a shame. That’s us retreating from reality rather than confronting it.
This is a fascinating insight, one Brad has raised a number of times in the past before, and one that I also think sticks in the craw of people who consciously identify with Buddhism or "peace"/nonviolence generically. We depend for protection on the very things we deplore; without them, we don't get much of a chance to do anything. How to resolve this contradiction?
Ideas of immortality, old and new, re-examined.
An article on the way Buddhism and science intersect on certain key issues features this line: "Unlike Christ, who promises eternal life, the last words of the Buddha reportedly began, 'Decay is inherent in all things.'"
It's timely and appropriate that I came across this piece right around the same time I started reading Miguel de Unamuno's The Tragic Sense of Life, that man's philosophical treatise on the collision between the romantic impulse to live forever and the grim certainty that eternal life is more of an idea than it can ever be a reality, and how that collision is vital to human life and not an obstacle to it.
How I write, and how I rewrite.
Work on the 2nd draft of Welcome to the Fold started in earnest this weekend, and to mark the occasion I have some more notes about the whole rewrite process. (Tr.: SKIP THIS POST IF YOU HATE WRITERLY MINUTIAE.)
Why great SF has typically been cautionary and not just visionary.
... Lem preferred to depict societies bogged down by excess information and technology. “Freedom of expression sometimes presents a greater threat to an idea,” he writes in his 1968 novel His Master’s Voice, “because forbidden thoughts may circulate in secret, but what can be done when an important fact is lost in a flood of impostors … ?” This observation rings eerily true today, but Lem wasn’t only trying to critique modern society. He wanted to imagine what the future might actually be like.
The reason why SF has traditionally trafficked in a cautionary view of the future is as a corrective to human hubris. I don't think having a positive, actionable vision of the future necessarily results in a positive, actionable future: you might bring to life some of the artifacts of that vision, but the vision itself is just that: a vision, not real.
Plus, once a vision leaves your hands, it's not yours anymore; it can be turned against its original conceit and wrenched out of its original context as easily as it can be deployed.
The new American man doesn't have to be a dudebro or a feminized wimp; he can be a step in the right direction.
It is now possible to conceive of adulthood as the state of being forever young. Childhood, once a condition of limited autonomy and deferred pleasure (“wait until you’re older”), is now a zone of perpetual freedom and delight. Grown people feel no compulsion to put away childish things: We can live with our parents, go to summer camp, play dodge ball, collect dolls and action figures and watch cartoons to our hearts’ content. These symptoms of arrested development will also be signs that we are freer, more honest and happier than the uptight fools who let go of such pastimes.
Most of the rest of the essay is the usual potted Hollywood sighing and hand-wringing, but this part was interesting, and I think for reasons that Scott was not himself conscious of when he wrote it. Maybe he was trying to be ironic.
My Little Insight: "'there's a point where a pleasant lack of cynicism ... becomes insular naivete.'"
A point to consider:
... there’s a point where a pleasant lack of cynicism (cited in the film as a principal reason for being a My Little Pony fan) becomes insular naivete. My Little Pony fans - as presented in A Brony Tale - are characterised by steadfast and all-consuming devotion to their fandom. Devotion is often an admirable trait, but it’s important to be able to critically analyse the entertainment you consume. Being able to pull apart your favourite pop culture is a step towards doing it to the world you live in, which I believe is absolutely vital to functioning in today’s society.
Emphasis mine. This is why I enjoy getting all these sidelong ribbings from people -- some of whom know me well, some of whom don't -- along the lines of "C'mon, it's just a [movie|book|TV show|comic|advertisement], why you gotta take it so seriously?" Well, that's the problem, isn't it? Nothing is ever just such a thing; it's a contextual part of the world it comes from, and once you've been woken up to how such a thing manifests, it's hard to close your eyes and go back to sleep.
On finishing a first draft, and my tools of the trade.
I spent most of yesterday without Internet access -- I'm reminded once again why a reliance on network-based Web apps is such an awful idea; why make the network your single point of failure when we can't even reliably guarantee how fast it runs, let alone whether or not it runs at all? -- so I had time to muse over a few things about my writing workflow. Skip this post if you find writerly minutiae numbing.
A peek at the Hieroglyph, up close.
io9 (which I normally don't read) just posted an extract from one of the stories in Hieroglyph -- "By the Time We Get To Arizona," by Madeline Ashby -- and it looks intriguing -- just edgy (I hate that word, but whatever) enough to be skeptical, and just curious enough to be optimistic. If the rest of the anthology is in the same vein, then I'll be making a meal of my previous words with a side order of crow and a helping of Werner Herzog's boiled shoe leather.
Most of my skepticism -- read: cynicism -- about the project revolves around the way technical achievements are too often by themselves taken as prima facie evidence of progress. To wit: a concept for the tallest tower on earth, one which could serve as a launch platform for sending objects into space. A discussion of something like that needs to be fully rounded: the labor issues, the dangers involved, where to put the thing in the first place -- and in a tone that's more thoughtful than "you can't make a future omelet without breaking a few present-day eggs", or something to that effect. We always need to ask where our future comes from and what cost we're willing to pay for it, and I don't just mean long green.
I've ordered the book and will be diving into it over the coming week.
Yet more on 'Hieroglyph' and a better future for all who can afford it.
More about the other day's post. I'm still stung at the tone I used to describe that stuff -- Cory Doctorow in particular -- but I suspect it's an abreaction, a consequence of being bombarded by so many we're-going-to-change-the-world-with-our-website types.
Zach Bonelli had his own take on it which is a more reasonably worded version of mine: "I’m not sure which I dislike more—wholesale acceptance of anything technological, or wholesale refusal to admit that anything technological might be of value." Some of that dichotomy was at the heart of Flight of the Vajra, too, although my feeling was that people would tilt towards technology by default anyway, because who really wants to not live with the conveniences offered by same? I was also deeply skeptical of the idea of a "post-scarcity" society, since after a certain point the concept of scarcity is more sociological and psychological than physical, and it becomes hard to tell a real scarcity (no clean water) from merely not being able to keep up with the Joneses (his broadband is 100 MB next to my paltry 20 MB).
Zach is right in that it's not about figuring out which one is right and going that road. It's about a dialogue between the two, something that doesn't end at any given moment, one where (as he put it) "one optimal human society might engage in endless self-reflection and criticism about the proper use of technologies, alongside a scientific arm endlessly churning out new theories and constructs."
My feeling is that no human society will elect to divide itself that neatly, because such a divide -- as someone else once put it about good and evil -- runs through every human heart. The struggle's going to be incarnate, first and foremost, inside each of us. Every time we wonder about what to put into our car (or our bodies), every time we choose where to live or what kind of job to work at, we're struggling with those things, even if the broader consequences of that struggle would never reveal themselves to any one of us, but only to humanity as a whole a hundred years from now.
On 'Hieroglyph', take two.
Some follow-up notes on my earlier post about Hieroglyph.
First off, I'm just as fed up as anyone else is with SF as a "wet blanket", as someone else put it. I do not believe the point of SF is to talk obsessively and commiseratively about how much the future is going to suck.
But I also don't think the point of SF is to talk about how great the future would be if only we invented this or that. The two are, I think, manifestations of the same mindset at different extremes. One is naïve optimism; the other, naïve cynicism.
There's a middle way between those two that combines both vision and skepticism, and very little such SF has ever been produced. I would further wager that very little of it will ever be produced (Sturgeon's Law), because of the gravitational pull that both extremes exert on someone trying to walk that path.
I should not have made it seem like I did not want a project like Hieroglyph to be produced at all, only that I'm skeptical of how useful it'll be if it amounts to little more than a shill for a bunch of things that haven't been sold yet.
ADDENDUM TO THE ADDENDUM: Regarding Cory Doctorow - I apologize for the acid tone of my earlier statements about his work. That said, I still plan to read the book and see how his work and everyone else's holds up in the light of what I mentioned. I'd honestly like to have my gut feelings proven wrong here.
Why an anthology of techno-positivist SF raises hackles with me.
Word reached my ears recently of a new anthology, Hieroglyph, in which a whole gaggle of SF authors have been called upon to produce bright, shiny, optimistic, smiley-faced visions of the future instead of the dystopian grimdark gloomndoom nowayout stuff crowding the shelves. The way they put it is "optimistic, technically-grounded science fiction stories depicting futures achievable within the next 50 years":
"Why do we end up with the technologies we do? Why are people working on, for example, invisibility cloaks? Well, it's Harry Potter, right? That's where they saw it," he says. "Why are people interested in hand-held devices that allow you to diagnose diseases anywhere in the world? Well, that's what Mr Spock can do. Why can't we?"
The first thing I notice about this whole endeavor is the emphasis on the technical and the technological. Well, that's SF for you, right? Yes, but only in part.
On being almost, almost, almost done with this book, and how I got here over the past year.
There's a good chance that by the time this post goes live, the first draft of Welcome to the Fold will be complete -- about six months behind schedule. But then again my self-imposed schedules have always been somewhat unrealistic.
On the creative trap of First, Second, No Good.
One of my favorite quotes from John Cage is from his Lecture on Something, in which he mentions in passing about why rankings -- "First, Second, No Good" -- of creative works amounts to being the hobgoblins of small minds.
Most of the talk about what comes first, or what is best, is little more than a way for people to find something to put on a pedestal. Perhaps they want something to look up to; perhaps they want to have other people look up to it; perhaps they want to take credit for recognizing the greatness first.
On standing on the shoulders of giants, but only to jump free.
Capping off a splendid encomium to Jack Kirby, this graf:
I can’t help but feel saddened and depressed by the notion that the greatest feeling in the world is sniveling at the feet of monolithic corporations for the privilege of aping people you admire, for twisting their work and motivations, for doing things counter to the way they would. It’s much more fulfilling and important to leave You-shaped holes in the world. Don’t crawl through the Jack Kirby-shaped ones. Build your own pyramids; building someone else’s leaves you nothing with nothing but a bad back and sore feet.
Why stop at comics when talking about this? It applies no less to other franchises that had a spark of greatness in them once but have since been bricked up inside their own legacy (Star Trek, Star Wars) and that now survive only by being fed the blood of the next generation of creators.
Are SF and literary work at odds because creators of the latter are trained not to think out of the box?
Sometimes I get the impression that the reason SF&F and the literary worlds tend to be at such odds -- with exceptions, and I'll go into one such example separately -- is because most of the folks involved with the latter surround themselves with an environment that discourages real experimentation.
This page contains an archive of posts for the month of September 2014.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind