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Archive for March, 2014|Monthly archive page

That Fantasy Book Is A Fantasy Book

In Uncategorized on March 28, 2014 at 10:00 am

So, one of the first questions someone always asks me when I bring up magical realism is, “Is [insert book title here] magical realism?”

My first instinct is always to say no, because if it were magical realism it would be marked as such and you would know, since magical realism is pretty much unlike any other genre. But I know that it is the way people relate to a genre they’re uncertain about — they want to know if a book they’ve read is a part of that genre, because then at least they have a reference point. And magical realism is a small enough genre that plenty of people haven’t encountered it conceptually, let alone read a book in the genre.

Where this becomes a little problematic is that a great deal of magical realism is its association with specific cultures and races, and the interaction between the genre and books outside of it in that sense.

Well-known fantasy novels are the most likely to be relisted as magical realism. There is a list of magical realism novels on GoodReads that I consulted when I was recommending books to people, mainly to jog my memory, and only about half of the novels there ought to be classified as magical realism. I’m not a hundred percent certain why this is, but I suspect it’s so that fans of the genre will have more to read, or to pad out the book list — or, as mentioned above, so that people have a reference baseline from which to build their knowledge. Admittedly, a certain snobbery may be involved in the perception of “true” books in the genre; magical realism is seen as literary, while fantasy is seen as genre, a lower “class” of reading. I don’t agree that genre literature should be considered a lower art form than literary fiction, but that is a fairly widespread perception even now.

The problem with reassigning popular novels to magical realism is that magical realism is its own very specific genre, and a well-known novel may edge out a more qualified one. If you can read (for example) a Neil Gaiman novel, which are popular, easy to find, and accessible, why would you go for the cryptic, difficult, and rarer work? (Before anyone shouts, I have not read all of Neil Gaiman’s novels, so I do not know if some of them are in fact magical realism, but I know they are not officially classed as such and that his writing is ordinarily much easier to read and absorb than many magical realism novels.)

This becomes more problematic because magical realism originated in Latin@ culture. There is some Surrealist influence from writers who visited Europe in the early 20th century, but magical realism is a genre born in South America and still predominantly populated with South American (and to some extent, Southwestern-US) writers. The vast majority of magical realism novelists, whatever their nationality, are of non-white origin.

Meanwhile, many novels that are “reassigned” to magical realism are by white male writers: Neil Gaiman, Charles De Lint, Ransom Riggs. This is not necessarily appropriation by these writers, who don’t usually claim their books are magical realism, but it can be seen as an appropriation of the genre by readers and critics. Adding these books to the ranks of Isabelle Allende, Julio Cortazar, Salman Rushdie, and Haruki Murakami devaluates writers whose central genre is magical realism, not to mention diluting the genre into fantasy. Because fantasy novels are much more well-known and widely read, this can result in white writers pushing writers of colour out of their own genre. In particular, reducing magical realism to a sub-genre of fantasy is a mistake, and I think it is often done because people are uncomfortable with how inexplicable magical realism can be.

Mind you, I say all this as a white male writer. But there is nothing inherently wrong with people of any race or gender writing magical realism. The mistake is in

a) Failing to acknowledge the genre’s roots
b) failing to defend the genre when writers who are not deliberately working with magical realism are mistakenly ascribed to it, and
c) as with any genre in publishing today, giving undue attention and exposure to cishet white male writers, who are incorrectly considered a baseline of normal.

Magical realism is a great genre, in part because of how difficult it can be to read; it is a genre that is intentionally, almost universally concerned with social commentary and issues of class and race, and it is deliberately designed to make you work for it. That’s not to everyone’s taste; lord knows it’s not even always to mine. But I think the result is worth the work, and I think the work is worth protecting.

Graduate Level Fumbling

In Uncategorized on March 25, 2014 at 10:00 am

Not long ago, I posted about magical realism on my tumblr, and I got a lot of responses, many of them asking just what the definition of the genre was. Which is a good question, and one that despite having written two books in the genre I’m still not able to articulate without a lot of talking.

I’ve struggled before to define magical realism, which is a small and slippery genre that doesn’t like being defined (which you will find apt if you’ve ever read it). The best definition I’ve found for it is that it “uses magical elements to enhance the reality of the narrative”. This is, like the dictionary definition of irony, kind of useless.  There are many good criteria on Wikipedia — fantastical elements in a real world setting, hyperdetailed description, the centrality of the reader, an active political or social agenda — but any genre of fiction is never going to fully conform to a checklist, and a lot of the components listed are a lot more difficult to wrestle with than the fundamentals of the genre.

The night that I posted about it, I ended up chatting with a bunch of friends about what magical realism is and isn’t. It is a little like the famous definition of pornography — you know it when you see it — but that is of course unsatisfyingly vague and doesn’t help people who are just starting in the genre. I believe that most things in this world, tangible or otherwise, can be quantified somehow. It’s just the how that occasionally eludes us.

There room to argue, but in general I’ve found that magical realism uses unreal elements rather than incorporating them — magic is a part of the author’s message to the reader, not a driving force to the plot. The rule of thumb I quoted in the discussion was if at any point someone explains how the magic works, it’s not magical realism. Which was sort of a joke, but is also pretty profoundly true. Luis Leal, in speaking of magical realism, said, “If you can explain it, then it’s not magical realism.” This likely stems from the influence Surrealism had on the genre.

Magical realism does not consist of systems of magic so much as it does magical things simply happening, usually for a purpose outside the narrative. For that reason it can be exceptionally frustrating to readers, especially fantasy readers who are used to formalized structures which are explained to the reader via exposition or demonstration. Unreal elements in magical realism are part of the prose, part of the symbolism of the novel — like the glasses in The Great Gatsby, or Rosebud in Citizen Kane. These are objects which represent something, if not to the reader then to the characters in the book. If that object (or person) is “unnatural”, not rooted in reality as we know it despite existing in that reality, that’s magical realism. If it is not accepted as rational, that’s usually fantasy; highlighting the strangeness of the object isn’t necessary in magical realism, generally speaking, because it stands out without the characters having to point at it. If there is a “system” of magic or an explanation of the presence of, say, fairies or whatnot, that’s also fantasy, because in that case the unreal elements are a fitted part of the world, which means the narrative isn’t set within reality.

One of the best ways to describe this entire thing is a scene from The House Of The Spirits by Isabelle Allende. This novel is set in our reality; there are no actual mermaids. But at one point one of the daughters of the family dies, the most beautiful and beloved daughter, and when they see her body, she has a mermaid’s tail. This is accepted by the family without outrage or surprise, and is meant to be accepted by the reader as a representation of the daughter’s disconnect from mundanity; her beauty and charm was otherworldly, out of the range of the ordinary.

There is another element to the definition of magical realism, which is cultural, but I wanted to make that a separate essay; I’m going to be talking about genre and race and culture, and that’s its own kettle of fish. For now, the point I want to drive home, and which I was wrestling with during the earlier discussion, is that magical realism is as much Realism as it is Magical. The stories are rooted in our existence, our reality.

One of the people in the chat asked, “So all magic realism has to be on Earth?” which I thought was a great question because it queries whether magical realism can take place in any reality as long as the basic function of the magical elements remains the same. Could you create a reality and then set magical realism within that created reality? In theory, as long as the unreal elements were still used representationally, you could. It’s a fascinating exercise, particularly for people looking to write in the genre. And I’ll be honest — I need all the practice I can get.

Credit for this article should be shared with my Socratic interrogators: Mage, Snowy, R, Knotta, Pie, Arch, and Sci.

Rewriting Firefly

In Uncategorized on March 18, 2014 at 10:00 am

One of the questions I was asked when I was soliciting discussion topics for this site came from Ailelie on Dreamwidth (thanks Ailelie!) and read as follows:

How would you have written [X] had it been your idea/task? For X, sub The Jungle, Firefly, Emma, etc. And why?

So let’s talk a little about Firefly. Or a lot; this essay ran long.

I saw Firefly when it aired, because at the time I was a huge Buffy The Vampire Slayer fan, so I’d heard the buzz about Joss Whedon’s new show. I was looking forward to it, and while I’m aware the show was aired out of order, I actually enjoyed that. The first Firefly episode that aired was the second episode which was supposed to air, The Train Job, and I thought it was super-gutsy to jump into the action that way, without spending a long time introducing any of the characters. What an innovative pilot, I thought.

But while I appreciated the show structurally, I ended up drifting away after a few episodes, disinterested and distracted by other things. I understand intellectually why it gained such a cult following, it’s just always been one of those shows I’ve never found much appeal in.

Part of the problem was how uncomfortable I found the show’s chosen theme, a Science Fiction and Western pastiche. There’s a reason you don’t see Westerns much on television anymore, and that is because they were a flawed, misogynist, racist genre to begin with; their central purpose has usually been to justify and legitimize the genocidal colonialism of Manifest Destiny.

I also personally just don’t find the Wild West that interesting, which could be a contributing factor.

I find it perfectly acceptable that the “pioneers” of space would be the same tough survivalist types as those that colonized the American West. I believe that oral history and folk arts would be exceptionally important, and a certain level of lawlessness would be the norm. But I think there are better ways to bring the Western into a postmodern viewpoint, which is necessary for the kind of metacommentary that the show seemed to want to make. When I rewatched the series and the film a few years back (which is when the bulk of this essay was written) I often felt as though the show left holes not only in the plot but in internal logic, for the sake of “the Western”. I’m okay with there being plot holes, but these seemed to serve the gimmick of the Western rather than any cohesive narrative.

So, as I sometimes do when dissatisfied, I started watching a story in my head, and I found it much more satisfying. I’m not saying this is better than what Whedon did. But this is what I wanted to see, and what I didn’t get.

Some of the problems that led to my rewrites may have been fixed if Firefly had stayed on the air. I know this, but it’s hard to find that a legitimate excuse, because none of what I’m suggesting couldn’t have come in right from the start. And, perhaps in part because it wasn’t fixed…Firefly didn’t stay on the air.

Firefly Redux

One of the biggest problems I had with the general ‘verse of Firefly is the war. The scenes set during the war are very evocative and they’re an excellent portrait of the brutality of battle. But…why was this war fought planetside? We’ve seen that they have space weapons, so was the Alliance taking each planet individually? Were the browncoats in space at all, or just planetary defense forces loosely organized under one umbrella? The Alliance is visibly ruthless; why not just bomb them into submission from the air? A galactic revolution that does not involve the majority of the battles being fought in space doesn’t work for me. So while I appreciate the scenes as works of art, and I understand their presence as driving forces in the lives of Mal and Zoe in particular, I can’t really incorporate them into the show logically.

What I wouldn’t give for a universe in which projectile weapons were only available inside a planet’s atmosphere, and other methods were used in space. Humanity of the future have obviously become masters of gravity, since they have ships with artificial grav that doesn’t appear to involve centrifugal force. Wouldn’t it be cool to see a space battle fought with gravity hooks and physics? I think so. I’m tired of PEW PEW PEW.

I understand that the Alliance in Firefly is supposed to be evil: corrupt, inefficient bureaucrats who plunder the pioneer planets of their natural resources and cheap labor. But we have no contrast to go by — we don’t know what the situation was like before the Feds came in. I really wish we’d been shown something pre-Unification so that we could judge better whether Mal was a hero defending freedom or a whiny asshole who didn’t want to get caught being a crook. We don’t get to see some of the Alliance ineffectiveness until several episodes in, which makes it harder to sympathize with the crew’s hatred of it. Especially when Inara said she voted for the Alliance, implying that not only was there a choice, but many rational people, if not the majority (was the “vote” fixed?) chose Unification. It’s hard to find the Alliance all that much more evil than recent American domestic policy, at least until we find out about Pax in the film. At that point we begin to understand the lengths to which they were willing to go to subjugate people, but to what end? And whose benefit? They already have a practical slave-labor force in the Indentureds. And considering how accepting society was of the concept of indenture, I’m guessing that pre-Alliance society wasn’t exactly a ball.

Cast of Characters

Firefly‘s crew were witty, but they failed to engage me on a level any deeper than “that was a funny quote”. I didn’t care about most of them. I wanted so much more meat.

In my head, I made Wash a severe agoraphobic. Possibly he steals downers from whatever medication they’re smuggling on any given trip, so that he can get through the times when they make planetfall. I think it would have been interesting to see how entire generations being born and raised on ships and stations would impact how we view wide open spaces, and Wash is a great doorway for that.

I think it would be fascinating to explore the idea of new religion in space, and I think Wash, as a pilot, is an ideal vehicle for this as well. Why shouldn’t he belong to a religious outfit of some kind? Most people do. I would love to see a group like the Church of Christ Cosmonaut from Rendezvous with Rama, who believe that deity came from the stars. Imagine that the crew contracts to carry a wealthy Spacer to their burial grounds: a huge field of caskets in an empty stretch of space, where signal beacons act as gravestones blasting out messages to the stars, awaiting the day the last man leaves the last planet so that all may be resurrected as stars themselves. It’s a great image and an easy plot; the crew vs. the grave robbers. I’d like to see that.

A more intent presence of faith in the narrative would give Book a function other than Being Mysterious, too. Shepherd Book was an interesting character — older than most of the crew and a man of the cloth, not just a religious man. I’d have loved to see some real commentary on religion using him. I joked with my friends that Book is “The space pope!” but really, why shouldn’t he be? After all, we know he has quite a bit of authority, thought we don’t ever find out why. There are also accusations amongst some critics that Book is the “magical negro” of the story, and while I don’t agree with that entirely, I can see where they’re coming from enough to be uncomfortable with it.

I would like Book to be the last eminent Catholic pope, the great leader of a dying cult. Faiths grow and flower and die — that’s not theology, it’s history. So I would like to see Shepherd Book, a respected theologian of a fading faith, on a pilgrimage to find a way to revitalise his religion — or at least keep its history from falling to dust. And how great would it be to see Book lead a Catholic Outer Space Tent Revival? I would love to see that.

I wish we saw more implication that Simon and River‘s parents knew exactly what would happen to her when they sent her away. I wanted to see a River who was rebellious, smarter than her parents, someone they couldn’t control — someone who intimidated them in a way their servile son never would, so that they’d send her away to be broken. I want for them to have sent her away believing that she would be tamed, lobotomised, so that they could have their nice gentle daughter and their good obedient son. It’s the only way their apathy makes sense, and their fury at Simon’s behavior. Suddenly their doormat good-boy isn’t, and it’s still River’s fault. I wanted River to be a survivor because she was a rebel first; that would be a biting indictment of the treatment of women in our culture today, where we are only fifty years out (if that) from institutionalizing women who didn’t bow to the patriarchy.

This also isolates Simon and River fully, because they become two brilliant children whose parents wanted to brutalise them into what they “should” be instead of what they could be. I want River to have an arc where she overcomes what people want from her to be who she is, and I want Simon to struggle with her process in that too, because he also has an idea of what he wants her to be.

I love the idea of the money-driven Jayne, but I wish he were more like Kyouya Ohtori from Ouran High School Host Club, who isn’t actively malicious unless there’s concrete benefit for him. I’d like to see a Jayne with a personal moral code, albeit a code completely detached from society’s. I’d like to see hired muscle that isn’t blatantly misogynist, hired muscle that can also think for itself: when the Alliance searched the ship, I wanted them to find his false wall, and then his false wall of guns, and a huge collection of contraband books on philosophy and sociology and religion behind that. And I want to see them burn the books, because then a money-driven man has a reason to hate, and we get to see just what kinds of assholes the Feds really are.

Most of the essay you’re reading today was written directly after my rewatch, several years ago, and when I read through it, I realized I’d basically left out Mal, Zoe, and Kaylee. There is some reasoning behind this, which is basically that I adore Zoe and Kaylee and I had no notes for them. I loved them and I wish I saw more of them. Because the thing I’ve noticed about Joss Whedon is that while his shows aren’t always as feminist as we’d like (or as people think), the women in them are often spectacular.

Mal is a bit more of a cypher, in part because he’s such an easy target. He’s the straight white male lead. It’s like he’s got a bullseye painted on. But there’s a lot you can do with Mal; for one, I started out wishing he was played by someone of African descent, because African-Americans had a huge role in the colonization of the American West, a role that has been largely erased. They were cowboys, soldiers, settlers, and everything in between, in large numbers, and rarely are their voices heard or their faces seen in modern history of the era. So I say yes to Mal Reynolds, Black Space Cowboy. But you know who else was hugely present in the American west of the time?

CHINESE IMMIGRANTS.

This was the perfect, most beautiful opportunity to put at least one Chinese character into the show and to give Mal some real meat to wrestle with — a Chinese man who disagrees with a culture he came from, an outsider both to his own people and to the people he finds himself among. It also reduces the Invisible Chinese Hegemony by making the bad guys an oppressing class, rather than an oppressing race. (More on this later.)

I’m going to talk about Mal some more, but I’m going to do it in relation to Inara. There are so many clouds of fail around Inara, so let’s work through a few and see how they might be fixed.

I’m not going to give you a history of imperialism, orientalism, and the fetishism of the exotic, but Inara represents all of these things. Whedon has openly said that Inara represents “Eastern” religion and culture, in a contrast to Mal’s representation of Western culture. What this means, in the text, is that some of the oldest and most complex cultures on on Earth, cultures which are still generally misunderstood by Eurocentrists or fetishised in Western media, design, and sexuality as exotic, are bundled up together into the generic “East” and represented by a prostitute.

And before we get into the whole “Companions are respected!” thing, please. If a union card is all that apparently separates a Companion from a regular and/or illegal sex worker, and Mal (who seems very much a product of his environment, and thus indicates that environment) doesn’t respect a Companion and definitely doesn’t respect sex work in general, I find it hard to believe that Companions are more than barely socially legitimate. People might smile at Inara and find it acceptable for men and women to ask for her services, but behind their hands they whisper about the kind of person who chooses a life like that. Given that she represents a generic Eastern Cultural Ideal, and she engages in what is generally shown to be a dubious pastime on the screen and is a criminalized, stigmatized act in our culture today, fail. So right off the bat, you have to strip Inara of the weird Eastern Fetish thing that’s going on with her. You stop exoticising her. Comparing Eastern and Western cultures can be interesting, I guess, but when it’s coming from a Western position it is generally inappropriate at best.

But above and beyond that, there’s something amazing you can do with her: you can make her a man. I promise this is not as crazy or misogynist as it sounds, and at least this makes Mal’s stupid “I want you but I won’t chase you” thing much more interesting.

I’m not suggesting that making Inara a man legitimizes her position as a sex worker. I’m suggesting that we start by acknowledging the real lack of legitimacy she already has; if you make Companions visibly straddle an uncomfortable line, then you’re actually exploring cultural attitudes towards sex, instead of pretending to, and making your audience think about their own judgments in that regard. Why should, for example, the prostitutes from The Episode Of The Besieged Bordello be so cheerful? Sexual servitude might be a fun kink if you’re into that but it’s hardly a good way of life if it wasn’t freely chosen. I’m not intimately familiar with the history of sex work, but I’m pretty sure if women chose to become sex workers in any culture at any point in history, it was most frequently because the alternative was worse. Why not acknowledge that?

So you remove the veneer of legitimacy, which was never more than cosmetic in any case, and then you present Inara as something other than modern-day heteronormative. (I don’t count the one woman we see Inara with, because it’s a creepy lesbian porn gag.) Women are commonly exploited for sex on television; men very rarely. On the few occasions you do see a male prostitute on your tv screen, they’re usually being murdered in a forensic crime drama. If Inara is a male prostitute, he is no longer safe or familiar or acceptable-in-spite-of-his-job to the viewer.

Make Inara a man, and leave Mal’s attraction to him intact. Homosexuality is still obviously somewhat contested if not taboo in this culture of the future. The foundation of social unease that began with a delegitimized sex worker begins to extend to sexuality and the nature of attraction. Yes, it could be considered fanservicey, and yes, I realize Firefly aired at a time when queer sexuality was even less acceptable on network television than it is now. But wouldn’t it also be more interesting to have the designated lead character attracted to a man? That means that either we have to witness Mal repressing his wants, or we have to witness him working out what his attraction to Inara means to him in terms of identity.

I realise that this drops a woman from our cast, but I have a fix for that. I want to introduce a new character: The Professor.

I began formulating this character after the crew’s first encounter with the Reavers, and while the film demystified the Reavers that actually only increased the legitimacy of this character in my eyes. So in order to talk about the Professor, let’s talk about the Reavers.

The Reavers

I was never that put off or frightened by the Reavers. In part, I think, because they came too early and showed too sudden. They were great as a myth, as a silent ship floating in the darkness, as a story to scare children with…but super-aggressive bicycle messengers? For me, when we first saw a Reaver he ranked as slightly less scary than the Futurekind from Doctor Who a few years back. And they were not that scary.

I liked the idea of the Reavers as ghosts in vicious, impenetrable ships, encountered in person only late in the series, and rarely seen even then. I liked the idea of them leaving blood spatters and bodies so hideously disfigured that all we saw were the crew’s reactions. And then I had to fix that too, because I realized that in the “cowboys and indians” universe of Firefly, the Reavers are the Indians. And I had a real “what the hell?” moment.

I like the idea of the Reavers, the mythical madmen from the edge of the Black. But the links between the old stereotypical barbarian Western Injuns and the Reavers are there, which is racist and hugely disconcerting. If you are going to take an incredibly racist trope and insert it into a postmodern pastiche, you can’t just say they’re monsters created by a drug and then let the tiny white girl kill them all. That’s not good enough.

So I came up with the Professor.

She is a defrocked academic, an anthropologist who became interested in the mythology surrounding the Reavers. The Alliance naturally didn’t want anyone poking too deeply, so she was eventually dismissed from teaching. She is a genteel fugitive — the Feds want to find her, but she’s low on their hit list. She spends much of her time tracking down myths about the Reavers and trying to work out their social structure without ever having encountered them. (The Reavers have to have a social structure: there are too many things that don’t work if they don’t, as many arguments about Firefly down the years have proved.)

The Professor fears the Reavers, but is the only one who sees more than fear in them. She wants to know about their culture: How do they determine social rank? How do they build weapons? Flying a spaceship is complicated, and I don’t buy that mindless rage-filled cannibal rapists could do it if they didn’t have some sort of social structure. How do they raise children? How do they engage with one another?

Some of these questions, of course, are mooted by the discoveries made in the film, but others are raised by those discoveries. At least, if we have the Professor, someone in the crew is capable of feeling sorrow for the Reavers, who are also innocent victims of Pax. In earlier episodes, when we first see their handiwork, there’s the potential for a wonderful crisis of faith: oh God, this is what I’ve been pursuing? Am I able to follow it any further?

So I personally think that The Professor would be a great addition to the cast.

Fixing the Alliance

Having talked about the racism of the Reavers, let’s move on to talking about the racism of appropriating Chinese culture. You guys know how this goes; one of the most common statements about Firefly is: “For a universe where China is a dominant cultural influence, you sure don’t see many Chinese people.”

There is a reason for this: Joss Whedon isn’t interested in China, at least not in Firefly. Firefly isn’t about multi- or inter- culturalism, not about introducing Eurocentrists to Chinese culture — religion, food, language, customs, any of it. The Chinese presence in Firefly is about two things:

1. A unique design concept
2. Being able to swear without getting beeped out.

And probably more 2 than 1.

There is a long history of this in comic books and even in other science fiction television shows, notably Red Dwarf, which invented the dumbest swear word ever: smeg. It pops up in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonrider books, and in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books. I will give points to the show for not making up words that the actors would feel stupid saying. Using Chinese is a relatively aesthetic way to go about it. But it also takes some pretty intense cultural appropriation to get there.

The theory is that Chinese culture rose to dominance in the handwave between now and the future where the show is set. It’s a reasonable idea, given the population of China and its growing economic power. But the result, in Whedon’s universe, is a bunch of white people who say Chinese words, a dominant Chinese class that is never seen, and some decorative arts that may or may not have been thoroughly researched. The fact that there are no Chinese people in Firefly is pretty bad, but also irrelevant to the fact that the cast speaks Chinese, because they don’t speak Chinese in order to incorporate Chinese culture into the show. It’s about the swearing.

To  fix this, you can of course recast many of the characters both lead and supporting with Chinese actors, and write scenes where Chinese culture is more than light-some-incense-oh-wait-it’s-a-bomb-fuse. But, as I discussed in the section on Mal, you can also diffuse the idea of “Us versus the Chinese” by setting up the Alliance not as an ethnic hegemony but as an economic one.

It is totally possible and actually really interesting to predict a future where China became the global superpower. But even if that were to be the case, China is no more unified or homogenous than any other country, and exploring the idea that not every Chinese person is an invisible moneyed oligarch responsible for the current dystopia takes a lot of the racism out of the subtext of the show. If you show Chinese people being oppressed alongside other races, it becomes less us-against-China and more poor-against-rich, which gives you a wide swathe of material for actual, meaningful social commentary.

The Problem

This show would never get produced.

With a radical anti-Capitalist (or at least anti-rich) philosophy built into the universe, a Chinese lead who may or may not be queer, a pansexual male sex worker, a Pope with only a few thousand followers, and a firm, intellectual voice continually reminding viewers of the attempted genocide of America’s indigenous peoples, there is no way this show gets made ten years ago. There is no way this show gets made now.

But, twenty years ago, there is also no way my voice describing this particular show gets heard by thousands of people, either, and right now, at this moment in time, it does. We are moving towards a society that is more capable of suggesting these things on a broad band, making them legitimate and normal, making them acceptable and hopefully, one day, desirable. One of the reasons I work in self-publishing is that I could write a queer communist novel full of people of color, and I can put a cover on it and sell it to you, and nobody can stop me.

As fun as this exercise was, the actual rewrite isn’t the event; it’s collateral. Firefly is just the trimmings on the big, mind-blowing fact that if I do commit the act, I can share it with the world, and hopefully the word will get passed on and on.

Because the one thing I would never change about Firefly is that you can’t stop the signal.

Origami And The Narrative

In Uncategorized on March 14, 2014 at 10:00 am

Two years ago, I spent a year studying origami, off and on — more on than off, which I’m proud of, but not in any kind of professional sense.

I got pretty good, though it was mainly “good for an amateur”. There is a certain jump that origami enthusiasts are eventually faced with, moving from “need instructions” to “just show me the creases”. Some people make the jump; I didn’t. What MIT can do with origami is frankly amazing. Don’t talk to me about the cheaters who use fan folds, though.

Anyway, I came to the conclusion that writing was actually really good practice for origami, and vice versa. They’re very different disciplines; origami is mathematical, geometric, and spatial, while writing fiction is…generally not. And while I am pretty good at writing fiction, I am inherently awful at anything to do with mathematics.

But the discipline itself, the way one thinks about the art — for me, those are very similar.

When I started writing, I had no formal training; I still have very little. So I didn’t know about arc and development and building the narrative, I didn’t know about the structures of stories or how to plot one out. I didn’t know where a story was going until it got there. Likewise, I am very bad at pre-reading visual instructions for the creation or construction of a physical thing. I’m better than my mother and her mother, who wouldn’t read the instructions at all; I follow the steps and usually come up with, say, a bed frame that looks like its Ikea picture, or an origami duck. But I won’t bother to read all the instructions before I begin because, frankly, I won’t understand them anyway.

I mean, do you read every step in the process of folding a paper crane before folding one? I could, but it wouldn’t help.

Origami was a lot like my early writing. At first I didn’t bother looking ahead because it wouldn’t change anything, and I wouldn’t understand. I just did the step the instructions told me to do, or I wrote a scene I wanted to write. But once you get to be pretty decent at origami, which requires a lot of yelling and frustration first, you realize that sometimes, if you don’t understand the step you’re on (and some of those folds get pretty tricky), you can look ahead a few steps and you actually will understand what you’re doing better. Mainly because you’ll see the fold you’re working on from other angles, but sometimes because you’ll see the reasoning behind folding that corner this way instead of that way. I am convinced there is a step in every single origami pattern that may as well be called “Do some magic here”, but at least now I can often reverse-engineer which magic I’m supposed to be doing.

I still, often, start a story with either no inkling of how it will end or only a vague idea of how to get from where I am to the ending. I’m okay with that; it works for me, and I fix the middle-part goof ups in rewrites. But I have learned that looking ahead just a little can be a big benefit — just to see where the step you’re on now is about to take you.

Mind you, much as with origami, there’s still a lot of yelling sometimes involved.

The Future History Of The Book

In Uncategorized on March 11, 2014 at 10:00 am

The great speculative fiction writer, Octavia Butler, once did an essay for Essence Magazine in which she discussed how she studied the past and the present to predict the future, and the difficulties of predicting it accurately. She said, “How many combinations of unintended consequences and human reactions to them does it take to detour us into a future that seems to defy any obvious trend? Not many. That’s why predicting the future accurately is so difficult.”

But she also said, “I didn’t make up the problems [in my books]. All I did was look around at the problems we’re neglecting now.”

Butler was speaking of major social and economic problems that she felt could lead to the collapse of our culture, but what she said is true of attempting to predict any trend: it is difficult, but with a consciousness of the past and present, it’s certainly not impossible.

Within the publishing world there is a loud and ongoing debate about what the future of the book will be, or should be. The industry has been in flux for a good five years now, since the rise of the e-reader and tablet and the highly visible, increasingly aggressive stance Amazon has taken against “brick and mortar” bookstores. The major corporations of our lives are all a part of a data revolution: Google quietly collects user information, and Adobe is capable of rendering a generation of e-readers into bricks with a simple code change (fortunately they decided not to, this time). Netflix’s hit remake of the BBC classic House Of Cards was written using analytics on the viewing activity of Netflix users.

All of these things impact the art of storytelling, and they are changing the world very quickly. They require us to ask questions: how will we buy books in the future? How will we read them? What will become of paper books? What will become of bookstores? Of libraries? And what will become of authors, agents, editors, and publishers?

I don’t have a lot of answers about most of that; if I did it would be a book in itself. But I can talk a little about the central worry of most readers’ lives: that the book will disappear. It won’t, not in any vital sense, and I’m here to use history to tell you why.

Until the turn of the century, books had changed relatively little for hundreds of years. You can pick up a book published in 1850 and it will hold together fairly well; you read it the same way you read any modern book. Because of the seemingly eternal nature of a book, we forget that society has experienced this kind of flux before: there was a time before now when the book became cheap, accessible, easily distributed, and thus available to, as it were, the peasantry.

In China, printing presses existed as early as 1041 CE, when Bi Sheng, a “man of unofficial position” (a commoner) created clay characters, baked them, and secured them in plates covered in resin and wax. A few hundred years later, around the same time Johannes Gutenberg was developing a printing press in Europe, a Chinese printer named Hua Sui was adapting Bi Sheng’s design to include durable bronze moveable type.

In the west, the legend of Gutenberg is more well-known: Johannes Gutenberg adapted a screw-press, a device originally used for pressing wine and olive oil, so that it took trays of moveable type and pressed them to paper. A Gutenberg press could put out about 3600 pages a day, and became the dominant literary technology of Europe.

Bi Sheng and Johannes Gutenberg’s creations, a hemisphere apart, became the heart of publishing on a global scale.

Before the advent of the printing press in Europe, block-printing and hand-copying were the only ways to produce manuscripts, and thus books were rare, expensive, and heavily “gatekept” — only someone with the economic means to employ a copyist or print a book could distribute it widely, reinforcing the domination of the moneyed classes. What the Gutenberg printing press did, more or less immediately, was make the printed word accessible to vast numbers of people at a relatively low cost. It was a new distribution channel, and it totally messed up every previous tradition associated with the written word.

That was roughly five hundred years ago. When was the last time you encountered someone who either owned or made hand-copied books? People do still produce them, but they’re generally…short. And made in very small runs. Even self-publishers use copy machines, or lulu.com.

So, five hundred years from now, will books still be printed? Presuming we don’t encounter another dark age, what will the book look like when our descendants are as far from us as we are from Gutenberg?

Well, we’ve seen the result of that revolution: hand-written and block-printed books became the province of the artisan, the hobbyist. The end of hand-copying signalled the reduction of visual expression in most literature, such as the beautifully illuminated manuscripts of the middle ages. Any illustrations for a mass-printed document had to be carved to be inserted into the press, and one-color printing became the standard because mass production didn’t allow for multi-colored pressings except in very expensive editions. You can still see the habits of the last fifty years of printing when you pick up a modern book. We have the capability now to easily insert images directly into text, but most books printed in the last ten years still insert any images they may have into a special section in the middle, or specific designated pages throughout the book.

But is all this automatically a bad thing? The book as a physical cultural item is important, and can be beautiful, but I think it is generally agreed that the contents of a book are more important than the container. Mass production saved many books that might otherwise have fallen to dust long ago. And the question of whether the physical book will indeed fade away depends on whether e-readers can be made so affordable as to be common, even disposable, items — we may think the preponderance of e-readers is a sign of things to come, but for many they are still fiscally well out of reach. The day an e-reader is as common and as cheap as a wristwatch is the day we really need to worry for physical books. That day may never come.

Perhaps most importantly, the printing press encouraged the spread of information and knowledge. We know the internet does this; it is literally a data-based world. It makes books easy and cheap to acquire, both print books shipped from a warehouse and e-books downloaded from a server. E-readers have also, in some ways, made the very act of reading easier. There is some evidence, for example, that people are more ready to read certain genres of book, generally genres such as fantasy and romance which have been marginalized in the past as “trashy”, if they can read them on an e-reader, where nobody can see the cover.

Of course, the data flow goes both ways. When you’re reading an e-book, that e-book may be reading youMost new e-readers are capable of recording how fast you read, what passages you highlight or linger on, and what your taste in books is like. Publishers receiving that information can use it in aggregate to direct the kind of books they choose to publish; authors, if they are allowed to see it, can use it to direct the kind of books they write. Textbook publishers already use this information to dictate content; it won’t be long before a novel publisher tries to, if they haven’t already.

On the one hand, it’s a strike against original, innovative work. An author who has been dictated a framework must either work genius within it or fail. If the data is faulty and the framework is bad, they may fail anyway. On the other hand, all this data offers authors insight into what their readers want, and how best to communicate their ideas within a structure that makes their readers want to read them. There is some pretty strong kick against this among authors, but the final verdict on its usefulness hasn’t yet been made.

There is, as with any major cultural sea-change, a spectrum of use for these new tools in this new world. Perhaps books will fall by the wayside, becoming dusty museum pieces and craft hobbies as digital books take over. Perhaps those digital books will be regimented and restricted by analytic guidelines set with user data, devoid of originality.

But it is a mistake to believe that The Book is a monolith, and that authors and novels can all be swept up in one broad stroke. Even publishers, dominated by six large corporations which believe they set the standard for all, have a wide array of philosophies. Novelists, certainly, are highly diverse and individual, and our culture has both celebrated and condemned that individuality. The public, connective nature of the internet has already begun removing certain outdated gatekeepers that have kept marginalized voices from being heard.

So perhaps books will return to a time when they were visual as well as literary works of art. Perhaps literature will experience a resurgence in popularity when books become even more inexpensive to produce and easy to distribute.

In dozens of centuries of the written word, across cultures and eras, through revolutions in communication and dark ages, the ethos of the novelist seems likely to remain: independent, defiant, and original for some, others guided by the rule of culture, others still as formulaic as they’ve ever been.

It’s always been hard to keep a good book downor even a bad one. I don’t give the next five hundred years good odds of succeeding where the last few thousand have failed.

This essay was written in response to a request from Flat Earth Theatre, currently in the final stages of production for What Once We Felt, a science-fiction exploration of the schisms in society and technology.

The Analytics Of Art

In Uncategorized on March 7, 2014 at 10:00 am

Recently, the Telegraph ran a news story headlined Scientists Find Secret To Writing A Best-Selling Novel.

My first thought on reading the headline was Well, there’s a genie that’s never going back in the bottle. It wasn’t even negative so much as…cynical.

I could pretty accurately predict the premise of the news story, because at my day job I work in a field that is very heavily analytical, a field in which analytics has created a revolution in the last five years.  I work for a not-for-profit entity in their fundraising unit, though I don’t do any fundraising myself. I manage operations for an office full of people who essentially perform one of two tasks:

— Providing actionable intelligence on potential donors that fundraisers are about to go hit up for cash.
— Discovering new sources of money by finding new potential donors.

When people began to apply analytical thought to the latter task, the whole industry changed. The idea was that you could look at, say, a sample of donors who had given over ten thousand dollars in a single gift, and from that sample draw characteristics that you could use to comb your database for similar people who hadn’t yet given you money. That’s grossly simplifying things, but at its most basic, that’s what it is. You could look at the way a donor moved through a set process from identification to solicitation to “reward” (anything from a thank-you letter to their name on a building) and predict how other donors would react to the process. They do this in the entertainment industry all the time, too — they pick a demographic and then figure out what that demographic wants to see. And if they don’t make something that demographic wants to see, they at least package something else so that it looks like it in a film trailer.

So I could see where analytics plus publishing was going: market-driven novels written to specification, new analytics divisions in publishing houses, and the homogenization of the novel. After all, the tools are already in place — your ebook reader comes with a host of analytical functions you may never even see.

But then I took a step back, because essentially that’s what I’ve been doing with extribulum all along — finding out what my readers want and giving it to them. There is a fine line between “give them what they want” and “give them something that looks like what they want” — not to mention “tell them what they want” — but essentially, I’d been doing market research all along anyway. The difference is, of course, that I’m not industrialised; extribulum dominates zero industry sectors.

Still, I was interested enough, and newly unafraid enough, to have a look at the article, and I’m really glad I did. Because what’s awesome to me is that these scientists, employing “statistical stylometry”, figured out that “bad prose doesn’t sell”.

Here are the elements of a good book according to the stylometry: complex prose (“heavy use of conjunctions”), descriptive prose (“large numbers of nouns and adjectives”), and thoughtful narration (“verbs that describe thought processes”). The analytics didn’t address the topics of these books, whether they had sad or happy endings, who their characters were, or what their plots were — just the use of language involved, the frequency of certain forms of word and what those frequencies indicated.

Now, on the one hand, this does rule out writers whose style of prose may not rigidly fit the statistics that Science has laid out for our convenience. And that may mean that writers who are experimental, who write in dialect or who have different things to say in different ways, may be in peril when it comes to publishing. On the other hand, I think it means we’ll have a few less true stinkers becoming bestsellers because a publishing house pushed them, and more books making it on their own merits.

So it is a genie, and it’s definitely not going back in the bottle — but where it does end up going we don’t yet know, and it’ll be fascinating to find out.

Murder, He Groaned

In Uncategorized on March 4, 2014 at 10:00 am

Please note: there are spoilers in this essay for Rise Of The Guardians and the novel Dracula. If you do not like to be spoiled, please go watch the movie and/or read the book and then come back, because you’ve been missing out not doing that before at any rate.

There’s been a trend in media lately that I can’t say I’m on board with; the concept has been around forever, but it’s been on the upswing lately, and I kind of can’t wait until it’s back on the downswing.

I blame George RR Martin, and not just because his blog on LJ is more popular than mine.

There’s a pervasive idea in both professional writing circles and in fan circles when discussing writing, the idea that death automatically equals both immediacy and relevance. The fact that any character can die at any time means that as a reader, you are uncertain; you can never be sure anyone in a perilous situation is safe, or what will happen next.

I don’t like this idea, admittedly, in large part because I do not cope well with death. I won’t apologise for that; I want my favourite character to live, and I have a strong enough anxiety reflex that if I don’t, for example, know if the dog will live, I can’t enjoy the story. All I can do is worry about the dog. Or horse, or child, or what have you. When I watched Catching Fire recently, I got worried about whether they’d forgotten the goddamn spile.

In part it’s also that they keep killing my favourites. When I watched the children’s film Rise Of The Guardians last year, I picked a favourite very early on, and sure enough halfway through the movie, they offed him. (Spoiler: he got better, and my rage was assuaged.)

But a huge part of it is the arrogance of the statement, that somehow if you don’t support the killing of characters you are shallow, or lesser, or immature for forming emotional attachments and having a negative view of death instead of embracing its supposed beauty or pain or whatever, I cannot even be bothered with that bullshit. And this arrogance is all the more grating because it’s really a thin membrane of bravado suspended over a vast sea of insecurity and laziness.

Yeah, you heard me, laziness. Because if you can’t make your writing compelling without resorting to random murder, that’s lazy writing.

Recently a friend of mine read Dracula, and she was talking about how enjoyable she found Bram Stoker’s prose. She said to me, “It’s not like I didn’t know how it was going to end; everyone knows Dracula doesn’t win. But there was a chase down a mountain on horses and it was so exciting and I kept turning the pages like I thought the ending my be different if I didn’t read it hard enough.”

Nobody who has ever re-read a book gets to talk to me about the positive effect of unexpected death in prose. Because the truth is, while there are books I’ve read to find out “what happens next”, they are usually not the books I re-read. Because I now know what happens. The books that I return to, over and over, are the ones with compelling prose, with characters I love and wish to reconnect with, with plots that are intricate where I can see something new each time. Sometimes those are also “what happens next” books, but they have a depth that lasts beyond it.

I’m not saying you should never kill anyone in a book. Sometimes death is necessary. But you shouldn’t use “being interesting” as an excuse to do so — even if your prose is excellent, even (especially) if your story doesn’t need all that death. If you’re good enough not to kill, don’t kill. Death matters less when a story is full of it; death matters more when it is the absolute last resort of a writer who has poured the rest of their heart into making their prose live.