Dec 312016
 

I recently posted a negative review of a book that is, IMHO, bad. The author is well-known, especially for an earlier work that is very well regarded, and a commenter was wondering if they should bump it further back on their “to read” list based on the weakness of this latest work.

My short answer is No.

The longer answer is that for artistic (I) and business (II) reasons, (as well as some fears of my own (III)) it’s very hard to estimate how good one piece of art will be simply based on the fact that it was made by the same creator as a different piece of art.

I.

The artistic reason is because no one really knows what makes something resonate with people at the object level. There are a lot of hints and guidelines (“bleed onto the page”), but there is no way to evaluate a work and say “This will be known as a work of genius” short of releasing it into the wild and watching the results.

This is infuriating to artists (especially to those of us who equate love of our work with self-worth. It sucks to have your value as a human fluctuate based on criteria that are unknowable and spooky and seemingly random!) There is a famous story about Harlan Ellison that really demonstrates this. (I don’t have a cite, so consider it apocryphal until confirmed) He poured his soul into a story. It drew on everything that made him tick, so it’s hard to say how long he spent “writing” it, but in terms of working with ink and paper he spent weeks creating, revising, and polishing it, until it was perfect. It would be his masterwork, and he sent it to his publisher in the knowledge that soon his name would be cemented in SF history. That same night, he jotted off a quick story on a lark, to take a break from the serious writing, and sent that off the next day to a different market. The first story never gained any acclaim, no one remembers it, I don’t even know what it was called. The second story is “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream,” which is one of the best-known and most-reprinted SF short stories in the genre’s history.

And this sort of thing happens all the time. Every single writer in my Top 5 post has put out work that I considered sub-par, and in some cases just plain shitty. Even Vellum, which I can say probably makes up a portion of my soul, was followed-up by a sequel that was…. well, I basically just ignore that it exists. The same director that gave us Blade Runner (one of the best films to grace the screen) also gave us Prometheus (which I can’t bring myself to link).

Artists have an extremely difficult time seeing what works and what doesn’t when it comes to their own work. The fear is that this can result in great things being lost. My current go-to example is “The Fifth Season“, which is fucking amazing, and one of the best things I’ve read in at least two years. OMG it’s so good. The author, NK Jemisin, said in an interview (which I read myself, so True Fact) that she nearly threw out the entire manuscript because it was such a foaming pile of shit in her eyes that she couldn’t face putting her name on it. Her friends convinced her otherwise, and it made my year, and (perhaps more importantly) won the 2016 Best Novel Hugo. For this reason artists are told not to “self-reject.” The tragedy of a Fifth Season being lost is much worse than if a CrossTalk makes it into publication. Artists to encouraged to simply keep putting things out and let the public judge.

 

II.

The business reason is pretty straightforward. Once an artist does produce something truly amazing, they gain a fan base. Before this time, an artist is a financial risk. Editors and publishers look critically at all work from unknowns, and in theory only things of a certain minimum quality get through. There is a check on the worst stuff. Upcoming artists know this as well, and they often put a ton of effort and angst into making their work as good as it can possibly be. The Jinni And The Golem took the author seven years to write, which is a ridiculously long time. But it paid off.

Once a writer is an award-winning, best-selling author, these checks basically disappear. A publisher knows that the author’s next work will sell, period. An editor may still try their best to force improvements and changes, but the editor is employed by the publisher, and the publisher wants the next book without too much hassle, so they can make a profit. They certainly won’t accept a flat rejection from the editor. And the editor is under psychological pressure as well… they’re altering the work of an award-winning, best-selling artist. That likely causes them to overlook things simply because “maybe this is the new zeitgeist the author is tapping into,” or similar. Of course everyone involved wants the book to be GOOD! They have brands and reputations to maintain, and a good work sells better than a poor one. But the knowledge that this isn’t a major financial risk anymore, combined with the fact that no one really knows what’s good or not (as per Section I), means more mediocre stuff will get through.

 

III.

I also have a couple personal fears about causes behind this.

The first fear is that no one has more than one truly genius work inside of them. This is the terror that keeps me up at night. That everything that makes someone who they are can be best expressed in one ground-shaking work. Most people will never make their ground-shaking work. But some of them are lucky enough to make their Neuromancer or their Catcher In The Rye. And everything after that is simply chasing the dragon. It is riding on the glory of that first success. For some people this artistic climax doesn’t come until midway through their career, or maybe at the very end of it. For others it comes right at the start. I don’t know which is worse. If it comes near the start, then you can live off your art for the rest of your life, as your fans continue to buy the rest of your works. On the other hand, you will forever be striving to match that first incredible piece, and you will always fall short, for as long as you live. Oh god. :(

This is basically a “regression to the mean” effect, and one shouldn’t miss out on an artist’s fantastic outlier at their peak simply because later/earlier works have regressed to the mean.

The other fear is that art comes from pain. Once an artist puts out that big hit, they get acceptance, and love, and money, all of which make life suck less. Also they can often use that money to get therapy and become more complete and less-broken humans. Which also means they can’t put out work as good as they did when they were in pain. So, horrifyingly, the choice is between a good life or good art. :( Naturally, most people choose a good life.

 

IV.

So in summary, no, don’t bump something down a list just because other works by the same artist are kinda crappy. There isn’t much relation. You can certainly judge some things based on author… I’ve read a few things by Mira Grant, and despite her popularity, I really hate all of them. I will never read something she’s written again, unless I get a LOT of assurance from sources I really trust that this work is a break from the past, and actually is in-freaking-credible. And likewise, I’ll probably read everything Yudkowsky and Chiang ever put out.

But if you’ve heard a work is genuinely great, like The Doomsday Book is said to be, and it’s well-regarded by the community and/or people you trust, and it’s won awards… well, then it is very likely good, and don’t let future works affect your ordering.

 

Oct 262016
 

palace-of-solitudeFirst of all – thank you to everyone who replied to my last post. It helps. :)

 

Recently I received an email about my flash fiction piece, wherein a reader expressed appreciation for it. In addition to making me feel happy, it reminded me of something Seth Dickinson said the first time I wrote him, years ago now, about his piece “A Plant (Whose Name is Destroyed)“. He thanked me for writing, because no one ever engages with short fiction. I didn’t know what he meant by that at the time. But now I do.

It’s very hard to gauge reader reactions to stories that are published in more “traditional” venues. There normally aren’t comments/likes to give feedback, and even in venues that DO provide a comment section, the vast majority of people never post any comments at all.

The artists I know feed on validation. It could be a general artistic thing, or a general human thing, or maybe I’m just stuck in a very weird social bubble. /shrug. I almost wish I’d gone into one of the performance arts… When you act, or play music, or do stand-up comedy, you have immediate feedback from the audience. That doesn’t happen with the written word. Which means that those of us that feed on validation but don’t perform are starving.

There is some recourse. I go to WorldCon regularly now, and as Robin Hanson noted, it’s a long party to celebrate the authors we admire. But even there, interaction is a bit limited. If I had to guess, I would say this is exactly why serialized fiction has become so popular again. People actually leave feedback on serial fiction. Scott Alexander could publish Unsong as a single completed novel. But he’d never see more than the smallest fraction of the community interaction that comes from telling a story to a collective audience over time.

Fanfiction is the same, I previously quoted a friend who observed “I wrote one short little fic after I saw Thor: The Dark World and in the time since I put it online I have literally received more feedback on it than I have in total for every piece of original work I’ve ever published. It’s like pure black tar heroin for the sad little twitching addict that is a writer’s ego.”

I am also guilty of this. I’ve read stories that really moved me, and then never said a thing. Like, almost moved me to tears, and the author has no clue.

This is unfortunate, and I want to do my part to help change it. From now on, if a work takes my breath away, I will leave a comment on it, even if to say nothing more than that. If commenting isn’t an option, I’ll spend five minutes trying to find an email, website, or twitter of the author instead, and send them thanks. Reading something like that is rare, and it’s not fair for someone to not know they’re appreciated. In fact, I’m going to go back and do that right now, for several works I’ve read in the past year that I left uncommented. They deserve no less.

 

(That being said, this is not the thread to say good things about anything of mine that you’ve liked. If you agree with any of this, please find something you’ve loved by someone else, and comment/tell them instead! Spread it outward. :) Thanks!)

Aug 262016
 

lightningA very spoiler-heavy discussion of the bits I liked most about Too Like The Lightning follows.

If you have any interest in reading the book, I would suggest doing so first, as having spoilers may significantly reduce your enjoyment of the novel – more so than most novels IMHO. But OTOH it seems like a fair bit of the reading public was not as heavily affected by the mid-book Reveal as I was. Still, please consider. This post will still be here in a week, or month, or year.

 

Ahem.

 

I – Mycroft

So, obviously I have to start with the Big Reveal that made me have to put down the book for X days. Since at least one commenter said he’s not sure which one I mean (there’s lots of twists and reveals), it’s obvious not everyone is as affected. I call it the Mycroft Reveal, wherein we get actual visceral details on the horrific crimes he committed.

I am, by nature, not a very forgiving person. This is tempered by the fact that it takes a lot to actually get me to the point of hating someone. But I have an ingrained sense that while people can change, very almost never actually do. And that no matter how much you change, your crime still hurt your victim, and your changes won’t fix that.

Palmer spends much of the first half of the book making me love Mycroft. He is humble, he’s smart, he does his best to help others. He’s charming, engaging the reader in conversation directly. Once he goes off on a tangent lamenting how visor should be spelled with a ‘z’ because it’s a futuristic-sounding word, and it’s not fair that it isn’t, and then the next time you see the word “visor” in narration its spelled “vizor” and you laugh out loud at his little rebellion (or you do if you’re me). He is shown to be a good person, and I like him.

And then you see that he’s a torturer, a rapist, and a murderer. Killing his foster family, people who loved and trusted him, in the most horrific ways he can, recording parts of it for media titillation. This is a person who deserves to die. A person who deserves to die by the most painful execution method we have available. Yet he’s still alive, and mostly happy, and I do not give a single fuck that he has changed, you made me like him!!

I was so pissed. I am still pissed, actually. Because current-day Mycroft seems to be a good person, and he has unique abilities that the world needs to keep running, and sure sure, he’s not a danger to anyone anymore. I still don’t care. I want him dead, and I’m not apologizing. If current-day Mycroft has to be snuffed out for past-Mycrofts sins, I’m OK with that.

Honestly, I feel like Palmer cheated. Because in real life, no one who does that sort of thing could ever be a good person. But since she can create the entire world, and the people within it, she can create this Literally Impossible situation where the person who could do those acts can somehow also be a good person. Because he was disturbed, and emotionally shattered. Because he was driven to it by a violent sociopath. Because he literally had to do these things in order to prevent world war that would result in basically a planet-wide Rwanda-style genocide/massacre. Isn’t it worth torturing your loved ones, in order to prevent that level of planetary horror? The utilitarian answer is yes. But this would never happen, this is equivalent to the 24-style torture-apologetics. It smacks of Ender’s Game-style genocide-apologetics.  I can read about these people. But I will not sympathize with them. I reject any bid that I consider them equal human beings, and that I should forgive them. I leave that to the priests.

I was super-conflicted about this, because less than one week prior to that, I sat on the “Creating the Anti-Hero” panel at MALcon.  I put forth the proposition that a good anti-hero is someone who pursues  goals that we admire, but is forced to do so using methods we find repellant by their circumstances, and their emotional struggle with this. Firefly is the go-to example, as that show can legitimately be said to be about the villains of that universe. I always go with Watchmen, because I find both Rorschach and Ozymandias fit this perfectly, altho in opposing ways. In the end, Ozy prevents world-wide nuclear war. He saved the human race. And he only had to murder everyone in New York City to do it. I’ll be honest – I admire him. I think he is both a villain and a hero. Preserving the human race is a hell of a goal, and (to paraphrase Too Like The Lightning) you should be happy to sacrifice any subset of the world if you are literally saving the world, because you would have lost that subset anyway if the world ended PLUS everything else.

But that Mycroft seems to delight in it! Maybe I can thank him for saving the world. But I still want him dead. Call me human.

I did keep reading anyway.

Of course there’s three more books to come. Much is still to be revealed. My reactions are to this book alone. I hope they do not change though. I will have to wonder what it says about me if they do. This is what I meant when I said “this book is about your reaction to it,” altho again, it seems not everyone felt it hit home as deeply as I did.

 

II – The author as God

This novel reminded me of The Etched City in that both are about nominally mundane worlds wherein miracles suddenly occur, and people struggle to understand what the hell that means. But The Etched City takes place in a fictional world, in a pre-WW1 era. There are some simple firearms, but it’s enough in the past that it doesn’t feel contemporary. The furniture is Fantasy, not Sci-Fi. So having a miracle(s) produced by (one assumes) a god, didn’t throw me out of the story. In an Sci Fi setting, it kinda did. I finally got over this during one of the novel’s many dialogs, wherein J.E.D.D. says “the protagonist of every work of fiction is Humanity, and the antagonist is God.” (I was primed with an earlier reference to Greek Heroes being “beloved of the gods”)

I’m currently in the process of attempting to write a novel that grapples with a similar theme. So when I read this, what I saw is “the inhabitants of fictional worlds are put in awful situations by the author, for entertainment. The author has created them, and is responsible for everything in existence, and they have no say in the matter and exist in a separate reality that can never affect the author directly. The author is literally their God.” This is a massive Fourth-Wall Break, and it is done within the novel. Beautifully so. The inhabitants of this novel don’t know they are in a fictional world. The reader probably doesn’t realize they are creating that world in their mind, and that its framework was constructed by that world’s God, Ada Palmer.

The book keeps bringing us back to this theme with Jehovah, who I think has created a world of his own as well. At first I thought he was running a Reality Simulation on a supercomputer hidden somewhere. Later I thought maybe that supercomputer is his own mind, and the beings that exist in it are literally “thoughts in the mind of God”. By the end of the book I’m not sure anymore, as it is said that his powers mirror those of Bridger, and that Bridger is the God of the novel’s world.

This brings up interesting questions about Bridger. Is Bridger the author-insert in this story? Every other name in the book has major significance, and this would be the most significant naming of all – Bridger is literally the bridge that brings Ada-Palmer-The-Author from our real world, into the world she’s writing, as a character within it.

That’s why I became OK with Bridger having god-powers. Because if he is Palmer, then of course he can do anything. He is literally the author. There is no magic. There is only a reminder that these are words on a page, put there to stimulate my mind in ways the author thinks I will find enjoyable. If that means writing that plastic turns into flesh at a touch, then so be it. I accept that. It works for me.

 

III – Jehovah

Holy crap, Jehovah is awesome. Not just because he is a stone-cold  badass. Not just because he strongly reminds me of one of my favorite anime characters, L/Lawliet. But because he is the me-insert in this novel. Other characters speaking of him – “Oh yes, [Jehovah really does hate this universe that much], He just doesn’t realize yet that what He feels is named hate.” And “if He met the callous Bastard who designed this universe of suffering, He’d… criticize, protest, scream […] if He did scream, if He wore His sacred throat to blisters screaming, this universe’s Maker wouldn’t care.”  Oh. My. God. So good. All the sympathy, all the admiration. I hope to see so much more of him.

 

IV – Set-Sets

I love how Palmer whip-lashed my opinions of them. I loved them at first! They are what I aspired to be in my younger years. Renounce the flesh, live the mental life, upload if possible. I cheered at “you’ve never seen a six-dimensional homoscedastic crest up from the data sea, and you never will because you’re wasting those nerves on telling you your knee itches.” They have great personality and wit, they are people!

And then late in the book I discovered they never change. Never grow. And I was horrified. I was reminded of Diaspora, which finally truly drove home to me that Life Is Change. A person that is not changing can just as easily be replaced by a hard drive containing an archive of their thoughts. A species that doesn’t change can be replaced by a galaxy-sized statue made of memory crystal containing a saved state of all their simulated interactions. It was one of the most influential books on my personal view of what it means to be human. And these Set-Sets… they are things that were forced into mental stasis by their “parents”. They are not humans, they aren’t even people. They’re p-zombies. I shuddered.

 

OK, I think I got all of that off my chest. Whew! I’m looking forward to the next book!

Aug 012016
 

IMG_20160731_152605860I have been published again, this time in an anthology! My story “Of All Possible Worlds” appears in the Swords v Cthulhu anthology which is available now. You can get it from Amazon, or the publishers website (which has it in electronic version as well as paperback), and likely many other book sellers. I am very proud of this story, so I will talk about it a bit below. But first – what other people have said (both about the anthology, and about my contribution)


Aksel Dadswell said: “One of the best Lovecraftian anthologies out there, and one of the best anthologies this year in general” & “The truth is, there are a lot of Lovecraft-inspired anthologies oozing out of the woodwork every year, and it’s just a matter of statistics that not all of them are going to be as original or scary or fun as they could be. Some of them, though, exceed all expectations, and Swords v Cthulhu is one of them.”

He does mention my story specifically at one point, noting “Just as the protagonist walks through the world as if in a dream, so the story feels like a waking haze. Dreams ooze into reality and back again with sickening ease. At one point the narrator proclaims that “every nerve had been frayed down to its raw, bleeding quick,” and I certainly felt that way, vicariously experiencing the horror myself. There’s a pleasing kind of bloody circularity to the story that gives it that little bit of extra weight, too.”

 

Teodor Reljic reviewed every single story in the anthology here!  I think that means he liked it. In the review of “Of All Possible Worlds” he says “A story with grit and teeth, told by a surrealist street performer who would just as soon slit your throat for all your cash rather than simply accepting your busking tips.” :) I take that as praise! To dispel any doubt he mentioned on twitter “Loved this Ancient Roman mindfuck”, so there’s that.

 

This is the teaser from my story that the editors posted on Facebook:

“Darkness flickered at the edge of my vision. A shadow swooped through the air, movement where there should be none. I strained to look at it but there was nothing to focus on. An inexplicable presence descended to the savage’s side, and as it touched the sand, it finally resolved into a discrete thing with surfaces and heft.

Its body was that of an ox-sized crow, but bare of any feathers. Black skin stuck tightly to jutting bones. A jagged beak took up the entire face, its upper mandible curving down from the top of the skull. The wings consisted of long arms webbed to the body in the manner of bats. Cricket-like legs folded beneath it.

The Colosseum grew still. Even the gladiators gaped at this intruder. With a shout of glee, the barbarian wizard hopped on the monster’s back, throwing his arms around its neck. It leapt upward with a beating of its wings, a deafening squawk piercing the sky.”


Alright, so about writing the story itself. I’ll make this brief and spoiler-free.

The primary plot driver is my fear and loathing of dreams. Not just nightmares—all dreams. Every dream is an epistemic nightmare to me, because they implant events into my memories that NEVER ACTUALLY HAPPENED. This is extremely disturbing to me. My memories are me. They are the most personal record I have of what I am, and I’m already well aware that they are a shitty, corruptible record. I’ve always had a poor episodic memory. I can’t recall names well. I often embarrass myself in conversation by re-asking things that people have already told me which were fairly important events to them. I’m pretty sure I will lose everything I am via Alzheimer’s some day. So the absolute last thing I want is to start generating random, non-real events on the fly and sneakily implanting them into my self-archive. You know that fear transhumanists have of an outside entity hacking into your brain and rewriting your memories to alter you? It was nicely portrayed in the opening scenes of Ghost In The Shell, to use a well-known example. I have that, all the time, and the outside entity is my own fucking brain!

Sometimes the dreams are so unrealistic I’m able to brush them off as obvious forgeries (one of them is retold almost exactly as it happened within the story). But many are realistic, and I only discover them out of luck. I don’t know how many of my memories are like this. I assume/hope only a very small percentage. But that fear is always there. How much of my life is a lie?

I tried to demonstrate that fear in the story, and maybe make the reader feel a little bit of it as well.

Influencing this fear is also the common transhumanist “What if this is all a simulation?” fear,  which I consider very related. “Wake up, Neo.”

Finally, if this is all a simulation, why is it such an awful one? Why is violence the final arbiter of all things? God could have made a world where humans were physically unable to harm each other, and he didn’t. That was just one more thing in a long litany of things that led me to doubt the God hypothesis in the first place. But if there was a God… the fact that the world is as it is says a lot about Him/Her/It.

 

My copies just arrived, so I haven’t read any of the other stories within yet, but a lot of them sound awesome, and I plan to over the next month or two! That being said, I’m kinda side-eyeing our publisher. The book seems to have had two different release dates (July 12 for Amazon, Aug 1 for all other wholesalers? Was that intentional?), and there still aren’t electronic versions available at Amazon or B&N. /shrug. Hopefully an oversight that will be resolved soon.

Jul 112016
 

sidewise logohome2007Hey, you know the short story I wrote last year, “Red Legacy”? It’s a finalist for the 2015 Sidewise Award for Alternative History!!!

It’s interesting… I didn’t originally intend for this to be an alternative history story. I was just going for supervillain origin story. But I’d long been enraptured with Lamarckian evolution. It is the perfect evolutionary theory for communism, because it’s so damn optimistic! Darwinian evolution is a horror, as I expound on in the story. You get born with random genes, and then you find out if they’re good enough by being killed by nature (or, if you’re lucky, avoiding that). The selection process is needlessly cruel, and the determination of your worth (fitness of genes) is capricious and beyond your control. It’s a lot like Calvinism. You’re already saved or damned before you’re born, which one is the case is entirely beyond your control, and you have to go through this entire painful BS “life” thing just to find out which one you were fated to. :(

Lamarckian evolution, OTOH, is quasi-fair! If you work hard, you are rewarded. It closes its eyes to the cruel nature of reality, and embraces a comforting fantasy, because that fantasy is the way the world SHOULD work. Which, IMHO, is exactly the same thing communism does. And both failed for the same reason. Reality doesn’t care about what you think is fair.

Anyway, I wrote before about how much I love that Ted Chiang takes apart the world, changes one thing, and then puts it back together to see how it would run with that one thing changed. I don’t think I did quite that, I cannot aspire to Chiang-levels of writing. But I tried. If Lamarckian evolution is true, that’s a big change. It affects a lot more than just my one scientist in her laboratory, it alters how everything on earth works. I can’t get into all of them in a short story, but how does the world look different in ways that are relevant to the plot? If societal structures stayed similar to what we’re familiar with, what effect would that have? If the world looks like how the Soviets of the 50s envisioned it, how could that be explained in Lamarckian terms?

And so you get things like Europe’s aristocratic killer-elite. :)

Anyway, I am thrilled and honored to have been selected as a finalist for this award, and I look forward to meeting my fellow nominees at WorldCon next month!

May 092016
 

philosoraptorSo um… being immersed in non-stop Hugo Controversy and Tinglers over the last two weeks does weird things to one’s brain.

Last year I wrote Amazing Man as a satirical take on the 2015 Sad Puppies fiasco, with the titular character acting as a mash-up of Larry Correia and Brad Torgerson. I never expected to re-enter that universe. But two days after reading this Tingle interview, a story of how REAL LOVE would redeem Amazing Man invaded my brain, and wouldn’t leave.

I pounded out the following story – Amazing Man 2: Love Conquers All – over the weekend. I tried to start with the violence-porn of Amazing Man, and move it into the dinosaur-porn of Tingle. I think it’s OK! I wish I could have gone with First-Person Present-Tense, as that seems soooooo ideal for erotica! Ah well.

This world isn’t very deep in the Tingleverse, so it’s not as absurd as a lot of Tingle’s stuff. I still wanted a redemption for Emilio, after all. It also assumes familiarity with Amazing Man 1. It’s 4400 words, but 1500 of it is gay erotica, so the non-erotica part comes out to right about the same length as Amazing Man 1.

Of course it does not even compare to the Tinglers of The Master. But it was a damn fun use of my weekend. :) And it makes me feel better about getting back to my novel. I’ve been hung up on it for a while lately, barely sputtering out a few hundred words a week, and this feels like it rammed clear much of the junk clogging up my brain-pipes. Sometimes you just need to have crazy, consequence-free fun with your writing!

Amazing Man 2: Love Conquers All

Jan 202016
 

star-wars-force-awakens-rey-bb8-daisy-ridley1(minor spoiler for The Force Awakens below)

I broke down and saw the new Star Wars movie, in large part so that I could participate in conversations with my friends. I was hoping I’d be surprised, but I didn’t expect to be bored. I left confused, because there’s all sorts of really great things to like about the movie, but when you put them all together, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Why was it so damn boring?

After days of pondering, I’m pretty sure the movie lost me very early on, in one fatal scene. That being the scene where Rey steals BB8 from a fellow scavenger.

Not because I have a problem with the action itself, but rather because the scavenger doesn’t react. Ray runs up, yells a few mean words at the scavenger, then rips BB8 from the scavenger’s mount to claim him. She scoots away a few steps and starts inspecting her new-found loot. The scavenger scowls and goes about his business.

This is utterly unbelievable. No way is someone going to run up to me while I’m driving, take valuables out of my car, and then wander away a few steps before settling down, without SOME SORT of reaction from me. Especially if I’m a desperate scavenger barely eking out a living. The scavenger presented in that scene is there soley to deliver BB8 to Rey. He didn’t exist before that moment and he won’t exist after it, and he knows this and accepts it.

To make matters worse, Rey is also aware of this. She doesn’t bother to flee or take a defensive position or even keep an eye on the scavenger. She accepts that his role is complete, and he can now pass gracefully from this mortal coil.

In those few seconds, the movie told me everything I needed to know to completely destroy my enjoyment. The director (or writer?) has no respect for his audience. He doesn’t care to speak with them. This is not a story. This is merely a number of set-pieces, loosely strung together. All action loses meaning, because there are no people in this movie. There are only philosophical zombies, progressing through a chronology of events without intention or awareness.

This is not a narrative, it is a 2-hour toy commercial. Made by people who have forgotten how to play with toys.

I realize that all stories are predetermined narratives, all “freely chosen actions” are contrived by the author to suit his goals. But those goals are supposed to include causing his audience to generate a model of a person in their head, and empathizing with that person. When it is clear that the author’s model of the characters aren’t living people, but rather of empty dolls that fill in the people-shaped holes in a spectacle, it becomes impossible to empathize with them. And so, watching hollow plastic pieces being continuously re-arranged in dramatic poses for the camera, I was bored.

It could have been a good story, had anyone cared to tell one.

Jan 042016
 

henry goldblattEntertainment Weekly took a GIANT SHIT all over the very concept of writing fiction of any sort, let alone fanfiction. “Submit your best fanfic” they say. From the terms and conditions: “Entries become sole property of Sponsor and none will be acknowledged or returned.” To quote Rachael Acks:

“if you EVER see anything that says anyone other than you becomes the sole owner of your writing, unless it comes with a fucking enormous check (and it better be HUGE), you say NO.

In non-abusive contracts, it’s all about the assignment of extremely specific rights (eg: first world electronic rights) with rights not negotiated still remaining with the writer. The writer still retains copyright. You as the writer still own the story; you are negotiating with the publisher for their use of it.”

It’s worth reading the rest of her post, it’s short. This is an abusive contract so bad the people who proposed it should be fired and never let near the publishing industry again. Yeah, I know, “It’s just fanfic”, right? No, screw that. It’s not about the content. No contract offered by a professional publisher should ever contain such a ridiculous rights-grab unless both parties are very aware what is going on, and there is a big payout. This is pure exploitation, and the callous indifference it requires to offer such a contract to excited new writers is disgusting. Anyone with a shred of professional integrity or self-respect would have stopped this dead in its tracks on principle.

At the very least, the person who approved this has a lot of answer for, and a hell of an apology to make. This sort of contempt of the rights of writers shows a contempt for fiction in its entirety.

EW’s editor is Henry Goldblatt, on facebook and twitter. Does he know what’s happening at his magazine?

Dec 182015
 

the-traitor-baru-cormorantThis post contains MASSIVE spoilers for The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson. Please note that this is one of the few books were that is actually a really big deal. The ending changes a lot about what you thought you knew, and knowing that beforehand changes how you will read the book. If you have any desire at all to read the book, turn back now.

If you don’t have any desire to read the book, but have time to read a short story, consider reading the short story before you continue. Because, again, the spoilers I’m going to be getting into are really big, and I would hate to deny anyone the opportunity to read such an amazing piece of fiction unspoiled.

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You know those people who go to see a movie adapted from a book, and then turn up their nose afterwards and say “The book was better”? Everyone hates those people. Of course the first medium you experienced the story in will always be better! Get over yourself! I really, really hate to be that person. But the Traitor Baru short story was better than the Traitor Baru novel. The novel was still good! Just not as good. I’ve been trying to figure out why. And I succeeded.

Well ok, I have a half-assed theory. But it’s something.

The Traitor Baru short story takes place after The Twist. We only see Baru after she’s betrayed everyone she loves for the greater good. Everyone who ever cared for her despises her now (if they’re still alive), and the populace of the country she was fighting for consider her a villain. This is all conveyed indirectly, via precision-guided sentences that get the point across as emotionally as possible with as little word-count as possible.  This leaves us to fill in all the blanks. And what do we do when we fill in the blanks? We fall back on Tropes. Or Cultural Myths, or Archetypes, or whatever you want to call them.

What this means is that Baru was the Rebel Princess in my mind. The Leia or the Xena – a shining leader, beloved by her lieutenants and loyal soldiers. When she betrayed them, it was like Leia killing Luke, Han, and Chewie in cold blood, and giving their corpses to the Emperor. It was all the people of those planets, fighting for the Rebels, suddenly under the Empire’s heel again, and he is NOT happy with what’s been going on. Seriously bad times for all.

Likewise, I filled in Baru’s relationship with her lover as deep and passionate, having withstood all the typical fantasy trials. When Baru gave Tain Hu up, Baru was The Dread Pirate Roberts/Wesley, handing over Buttercup to Humperdink.

That was why the brain injury was such a central part of the short story. It was Baru’s escape mechanism. She could turn her blind side on her betrayals, and she would forget about them. She could turn away from her lover, and she wasn’t there anymore. It was the Novocain for her soul, the past-annihilating numbness that allowed her to live with what she’d done. Without that escape mechanism, she likely would have killed herself already. At the very least, she’d be an ineffectual infiltrator, since her guilt-wracked conscience would give her away.

And that was what made the ending so simultaneously heart-wrenching and gratifying. In the end, Baru turns toward her lover. She could look away, have the execution erased from her mind, but instead she watches as Tain Hu is dashed against the rocks over and over. It is an acceptance. An acceptance of Tain Hu’s sacrifice, and her love. It it’s Baru’s moment of growth, where she realizes she is strong enough to continue forward. It is her reaffirmation that her goal (freedom from the evil empire) is worth the price she has paid and is paying. Fuck them. She can overcome even this. They will have nothing to use against her.

(I also love this story because it acknowledges that love for your loved ones is a weapon that your enemies can use against you, which is a deep and unreasonable fear of mine, and which is why I’ve kept myself emotionally isolated much of my life. This story is an affirmation that you can love, and have that love used against you, and still not be destroyed. It’s like the counter-thesis  to that Iain Banks novel that I won’t name because I don’t want to spoil yet another novel. Point is, I love this story, and I love Seth Dickinson for writing it.)

The “problem” with the novel is that it doesn’t conform to the standard fantasy tropes.

“What?” you say. “How is that a problem? I’m sick and tired of all the standard fantasy tropes!” I agree, I am too. And obviously Seth Dickinson was as well. Can you imagine sitting down to write 100,000 words of fantasy to pound out another cliché Rebels vs Empire story? Ain’t nobody want to do that, least of all an aspirational rising talent! So instead he wrote an interesting plot, full of interesting characters, with lots of intrigue and political wrangling, and very shrewd and intelligent gambits. It’s a good story, and it would make a good novel, except it is supposed to bring us back to the Baru of the short story.

I had come into the novel expecting to see some sort of Star Wars-like story, with strong bonds between the rebels, and a passionate ongoing romance with Tain Hu. Instead we see rebels that are constantly infighting, suspicious, looking to back-stab each other, and are clearly using Baru simply to further their own agendas. I don’t mind as much when these people are betrayed. The empire, rather than being typical Fantasy Nazis, are distasteful and sometime horrifying, but ultimately more pragmatic than pure evil, and they bring a lot of good things to the people they conquer to offset some of the evil & oppression. Tain Hu, rather than being the love of Baru’s life, is kept at a distance the entire book, and they don’t even confess their love to each other until just a few pages before the betrayal. That’s not Wesley and Buttercup. It’s more akin to Trinity’s confession to Neo.

I was asked in my book club “What was the brain injury in the last chapter for?”, which I think is a great encapsulation of the problem with the novel. In the short story it is a crucial aspect of the story, the characters, and the resolution. In the novel it shows up so briefly that it doesn’t have any narrative weight. It feels extraneous. The short story depends, ultimately, on a subversion of classic fantasy tropes. We already have the entire Rebel Princess story in our minds, and Traitor Baru takes that story, turns it upside down, then puts it right-side up again, while stabbing you repeatedly and telling you “This is what it takes to win in the real world. If your fantasy stories were real, these are the choices your heroes would be facing. Isn’t this a better story?” AND IT IS! When Dickinson wrote the novel, he kept that Rationalist view. He wrote a fantasy story that would make sense if it was in the real world. Not Fantasy Nazis and Shining Heroes, but real people and realpolitik. And that blunts what made the Traitor Baru story such a knife-in-the-heart to me. The betrayal at the end of the novel didn’t feel like someone amputating their own limbs. It wasn’t a loss of everything good. It was just another manipulation in a book full of manipulations and treachery. A bigger one than any we had seen previous, of course. But not unusual. It was true to character, rather than a betrayal of our ideals. I didn’t feel it would lead to suicidal levels of guilt and self-hatred.

That being said, I HATE to have said all this. I contemplated for many days before posting this. Because (as Seth has said in the past) nowadays no one engages short fiction. Traitor Baru is excellent, and I’ve recommended it a few times to people. But I’ve never posted about it at length deconstructing what made it great, until the novel came out. The Traitor Baru novel has been mentioned many times on many “Best of 2015” lists, but was the short story on any such lists? Even though the short story is better? For that matter, do you recall seeing very many “Best Short Story” lists ever, at NPR or IO9 or wherever you get your news? Nope. People simply value novels far more than short stories, and it’s a damned shame. It’s likely that the Traitor Baru novel has gotten far more reads than the Traitor Baru story, even though the story is less than 1/10th the length, has been out far longer, and is freely available to everyone online! (and IMHO is better)

I even feel guilty trying to point people at the story rather than the novel, because Dickinson has got to pay his rent and buy food, and short stories don’t pay. If you want to make a living writing, you have to write novels. Each person that I convince to read the short story instead of the novel is money I am taking out of Dickinson’s pocket. :( And, if I was given the choice to read either the story or the novel, I would tell past-me to read the story instead, and pay more for the privilege than I would have paid for the novel. It is a far more efficient use of my time, and I am willing to pay extra to get the same emotional payoff (“entertainment” as I call it) in less time. It leaves me more free time to pursue my other pursuits.

So, if you really like the Traitor Baru short story, please do not punish Seth Dickinson for his genius. Buy the novel, to say thank you, even if you don’t read it. And, next time you read a truly amazing short work, please consider purchasing something from the author, even if you’ll never read it, to support their work.