extribulum

Archive for May, 2013|Monthly archive page

Embarrassments of my Youth

In Uncategorized on May 20, 2013 at 9:00 am

There is a popular saying which goes something like this: Once it’s on the internet, it’s on the internet forever. I happen to know this isn’t true; in 2008 my main online journal, Copperbadge on LiveJournal, was hacked and completely erased. Five years of journal entries and their comments were deleted. Using various caching services I managed to reconstruct about 80% of the journal posts, but some were gone forever, and most of the comments were as well.

One of the fortunate things I had done before this took place was to shift all of my fanfic, including fanfic that had been posted on my main journal, to a separate archive on a second LiveJournal account, Sam_Storyteller (this archive is now housed under the same name at Dreamwidth). So all my fanfic was preserved. I say this is fortunate, but in retrospect, I’m not entirely sure it was.

My archive houses work that began in 2003 and runs up to the current day; I just posted a story there last week, and will be posting a few more in the coming weeks. I’ve been adding these stories to my Archive Of Our Own account (I can be found at AO3 under the username Copperbadge), because it offers features like better tagging systems and the ability to download the stories as PDF files.

The problem I’m coming up against, now that I’ve added most of the stuff I’m really proud of, is what to do with the stuff that I’m…less than proud of. There are various reasons for not wanting to add certain stories. Some, by my standards now, are not very well written, though most hold up surprisingly well to the test of time. Some just don’t seem to be that entertaining. Some are so short I don’t feel I ought to bother.

And the question becomes, what do I do with these stories? I’m not especially sentimental about my work in the general sense; I’d be happy to remove them from all archives everywhere. On the other hand, it seems wrong to keep them on one archive and not on another. I know in the past I’ve gone looking for stories I really liked only to find the account deleted or the story locked, and I don’t want to deprive anyone of a story they like, even if I no longer think it’s very good. We all have different tastes, after all.

In a larger sense, there’s a question of completism, and of owning the work I did which was less, for whatever reason, than the work I do now. Is it correct to erase what I’m no longer fond of or proud of?

This is a question professionally published writers face, to be sure. Writers have tried to disown their work, or have publicly said they hated something quite popular with the reading public.  Sometimes a story comes out of a trauma or a situation that the writer would prefer to keep in the past, and the story haunts them with the memory. Sometimes they just don’t think it’s any good. Once in a while it’s a question of shifting ideology; Maurine Watkins, who wrote the play that inspired Chicago, later became a born-again Christian and spent years paying fees to prevent the production of the play because she felt guilty about making money from the stories of real-life murders. Anne Rice has never renounced any of her books, but questions about her views on her past work have arisen in the course of her public struggles with her faith.

My own dilemmas are less dramatic. I’m proud of my original work and I only put my name to work I feel is the best I could possibly do — which happily means that even if I find in later years it’s not very good, I know I was doing my best at the time. With fanfic, it’s different. Some stories I wrote just to entertain friends, or on stupid ideas that in retrospect don’t work as well as I thought they would.

I don’t really have an answer yet. For professionally published writers, the story is out there, and they can’t just pretend it isn’t. For me, I have to work out whether I want to continue to claim this work, or quietly tuck it away, or simply not move it over to the new archive, letting it languish in the convoluted navigational web of the current one.

How do you solve a problem like a Fall Out Boy/Heroes crossover? I’m still working on that one.

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Playing A Book

In Uncategorized on May 17, 2013 at 9:00 am

A couple of weeks ago, at the London Book Fair, Faber & Faber announced that it was creating a “fully playable, fully immersive product” when it came to ebooks. It was working with software publishers and a developer, The Story Mechanics, to produce a reprint of John Buchan’s early 20th-century serial novel The Thirty-Nine Steps, which most of us — if we know it at all — know from Hitchcock’s film adaptation.

My knee-jerk response was that any book which has achievements you unlock, items you collect, and music which plays at points during your reading is not a book — that’s a video game. But I reined in my what the hell is wrong with you almost immediately, because whenever I find myself saying “that’s not the thing it says it is, it’s some other thing” I usually end up having to have a long argument with myself (occasionally even other people) about definitions.

Besides, there’s nothing wrong with video games. I know I’m not the only person who does this, but I enjoy video game narratives without needing to play the game. I don’t especially want to play Assassin’s Creed, but I am entranced by the story, so I enjoy watching other people play it. If they made a movie out of the cut scenes, I would probably go to see it. I actually got frustrated that there was no way to pause the cut scenes in Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess because when I was playing that game, people would invariably try to talk to me during a really long cut scene. I failed the final level of Braid so hard and so often that it soured the whole game for me and I no longer even care how it ends (apparently it’s incomprehensible anyway) but the only reason I played it as long as I did was the story.

It’s not like a video game has never been based on a book before, either. And there are books you can “play”, like the old Choose Your Own Adventure books. But these ebooks, which have a soundtrack and achievements — and maybe levels? Do they have bosses you have to defeat? — blur the line a great deal between what a game is and what a book is.

I keep thinking about Dara O’Briain’s comedy routine about video games: no other medium prevents you from experiencing it based on skill. He points out that music doesn’t make you dance competently before playing the rest of the album; books don’t stop you after chapter three to ask you what the theme of the work is. But we now have a fairly widespread platform for reading where a book could give you a test before allowing you to go any further. Which is a little freaky.

So with the production of books-as-interactive-experiences and video-games-as-narrative-media I suppose there are two questions left to answer: where does the line between story and experience fall? And, if we can cross or blur that line, does the line matter — do we actually need to know?

I am a competitive person and I frustrate easily, so I don’t want to play a book. I just want to read it. I’m also not that keen on paying for a book that has involved a software development team, because I suspect either I’m paying more or the author of the actual story is getting less for features I will not use. But that’s not a good reason to prevent the exploration of a new medium, or a melding of two older mediums, and it’s not a good reason to say that’s not a book — because what does that prove, anyway, and who told me I got to arbitrate what a book is? People have been “playing” murder mysteries for over a century, trying to solve the case before the detective does.

There’s a lot of fear in the publishing industry right now, that ebooks are going to kill paper printing, that authors who grew up in a video-game generation (authors who are — or will be very soon — the children of the MTV generation) don’t have as much invested in the written word. I can’t speak to the former, but I’m pretty sure the latter is bunk — or we wouldn’t get awesome stories in our video games.

So as long as they warn for video games in our awesome stories, I guess I’m good. Trepidatious, but good.

Science Fiction Does Not Require Grace

In Uncategorized on May 10, 2013 at 4:30 pm

I made a post on my tumblr the other day reminding people (and informing those who didn’t know) that Ender’s Game is a great book, will likely be a great movie, and you should not pay to see it, because Orson Scott Card is a rabid anti-gay activist.

This isn’t about how Orson Scott Card has threatened to tear down the government over gay marriage. This is about the reactions I got, which were really interesting. The top two were:

1. How does a man who espouses such beliefs in real life write a book about acceptance and understanding like Ender’s Game?

2. How can a science fiction writer be so closed-minded?

I can’t answer #1. Best guess I have is “by accident” or possibly “his better nature had a brief moment of freedom”. The second question, however, I have some thoughts about. I spoke about them a while ago on LJ, but I’d like to see if I can vocalize them a little more clearly a few years on.

To be open-minded, in the way we generally define it, requires three things: imagination, empathy, and the willingness to accept you may be wrong. This is true whether you are being asked to accept two women getting married or whether you’re being asked to consider the idea that a sky-god actually did make the world in six days.

The writing of science fiction — the writing of most fiction — only requires imagination. That’s pretty much it.

Good writing generally employs a high level of empathy, of course. Not only the ability of the writer to put themselves into a situation strange to them, but to put the reader there as well. But it’s a very specific, very localized empathy, and it’s not strictly speaking necessary. If you’re a good storyteller, you can tell a story and even if it’s not true and people know it’s not true, they will still buy into it because you’re telling it in a compelling manner. Sometimes, science fiction is quite clearly a writer telling a story about something they desperately wish would happen to them — which requires very little empathy — and if they’re good at it, they get away with it. I’ve done this; I know there are professionally published writers who have. Talent can take the place of empathy when all you’re doing is sellin’ a story.

And writers of speculative fiction, of fantasy and sci fi, rarely have to entertain the idea that they might be wrong in their writing. Their world isn’t our world. If you set a story in the year 3000, you’ll be dead (presumably) by the time the year 3000 rolls around to prove you wrong. If you tell a story that opens after a massive alien attack has nearly destroyed humanity, you’re probably not going to be around when and if that actually happens. And if you are, people are going to have more pressing issues than whether or not you got the details right.

Science fiction writers don’t have to have the three key components of an open mind in order to tell a story. Some do; some don’t. But it goes beyond “people are different from each other”.

There is an expectation of science fiction writers that because they spend a lot of time thinking about potential futures, they will embrace the real future as it rushes towards us. This seems logical, but it doesn’t take into account the disconnect between what we want and what we get.

Writers like control. Even the ones who espouse chaotic theories like to hold the conversation with themselves. We call it “dialogue” but really it’s a monologue spoken by two different people. I love to write dialogue because I control both sides of the conversation, whereas in real life, about eight times in ten, I get wordless and stammery two or three sentences in. I’m not good at conversation with other people. That’s not the other person’s fault.

Science fiction writers control every aspect of an entire universe. They get to say who survives the apocalypse. They get to say who’s in space and why. They get to say whether the aliens are nice and what technology we’ve held onto. Have you ever noticed that in most scifi television shows, all aliens that come from one planet usually have the same skin colour? They have the same religion, too, and the same social structure. Minbari only have one faith. Klingons only have one social code. This isn’t a hard rule — there are exceptions. They’re just not terribly frequent.

Earth isn’t like that. We have lots of different skin tones and faiths and sexualities and social mores and clothing styles and monetary systems. But a society so vast and complex is difficult to grasp, certainly difficult to encapsulate in fiction. When you do, you end up with the imaginary Princess Bride story where the “good parts” were edited together by the narrator’s father because most of the book is about boring stuff like economics. Economics is necessary but it does not make for compelling fiction.

This is where it gets scary. Because if you control the future in fiction, eventually you forget that you don’t control the future in reality. You want the future to be one way and then it turns out, whoops, cellphones. Whoops, the internet.

Whoops, gay marriage.

Oh snap, yo. Are two dudes kissing in space? I didn’t write that. Who gave the internet permission to happen? These damn cellphones, what the hell is SMS?

You can’t control the future. There are too many variables. And if you can’t control the future, but you desperately want to, the next instinctive, illogical step is to prevent it from happening. Keep things the way they are. Maintain the status quo and you don’t have to worry.

Ray Bradbury likened social justice to censorship, and was violently opposed to his book about censorship being turned into an e-book that literally could not be burned. Orson Scott Card is terrified that legalising gay marriage is going to screw up the social fabric of the entire country, despite the fact that gay people were happily cohabitating with each other long before he was born and will be long after he is dead. Science fiction writers don’t automatically want to see the future. Some want to script it. Some think the only way to do that is to prevent it from happening.

It’s okay to love fictional futures and to write them. It’s okay to be afraid of the real future. It’s also okay to want to guide that future.

But preventing the future? In the books, that’s the province of the villain.