For a variety of reasons — bad timing, too much work, impending cross-country move, holiday crunch, already got other projects munching on my lobes — I didn't participate in NaNoWriMo this year. No diss at all of you who did, though, and I know there's at least a couple of regular readers of this blahg who spent November bashing keys. Good going. Gold stars for the lot of ya.
Now here's a theory which may offend: I suspect I may have outgrown NaNo altogether.
Before you soak the torches in gasoline and ready the pitchforks, don't assume by this I mean that NaNo is a phase that writers should outgrow, or that everyone who does it is a bottom-runger. All I mean by this is, everything I once used NaNo for are now things I find I can do on my own without it.Read more
I've hinted before at a few other projects after Fold, so here's an updated rundown. All titles are codenames, so don't expect to see them released under those names.
Don't expect dates on any of these. I could end up working on them in any order. But isn't that half the fun?Read more
Over the weekend I decided Welcome to the Fold was ready to be written for real, and that the outlining and note-gathering phase of the project was pretty much done. After Thanksgiving weekend, I'll roll up my sleeves and get started — real life distractions be damned.
Starting any new project is always tough, because we want whatever we produce as soon as the gun goes off to be the thing we end up using. Fight that temptation, I say. I wrote the first chapter of Flight of the Vajra some four or five times before I found the voice, tone, situation, and approach the story needed — and even then I still wasn't totally happy with it, but it came closer than anything else I could come up with.Read more
In a thread over at Hacker News, someone pointed out how the "simplification of any complex subject has limits". There's only so much you can boil a subject down before you start to do it injustice. The original discussion revolved around software tools, and how some kinds of programming can only be made so simple before they become constraints on further learning. At some point you gotta take the training wheels off.
The same thing happens with writing. There comes a point when all the books, all the advice of teachers or peers, all the things (ALL THE THINGS!!!) have to be shelved in favor of making an effort on one's own.
The way I once put this to someone else was, "I know when someone's arrived if they can write something where I don't agree with a single word, but I can still admire every impeccably-assembled syllable of it."Read more
This will almost certainly destroy any claims I could lay to being part of the novelists' union, but here's a dirty, filthy, terrible little secret: Up until Flight of the Vajra, I never wrote story outlines. [Voices offstage: "Yeah, and we can tell!"]
Actually, I did do such a thing, once upon a long time ago in a galaxy far, far, etcetera, but nothing ever came of it. I'd outline, and halfway through the outline I'd find myself getting bored. Great, I'd tell myself, I went from having this terrific idea to leaving myself with a stupid fill-in-the-blanks exercise. I hated the idea of making what was supposed to be a creative act into a mere paint-by-numbers job — and even if it wasn't actually like that, that was sure how it felt.Read more
My comments about Berdyaev the other day got me thinking about the kinds of reading material I turn to when I'm in the run-up phase for a project. It's research material, but not the kind you might expect.
First off: when I'm working on a given kind of project, I read pretty much no other fiction of the same kind — assuming I can find anything that even comes close to it in my mind in the first place. Back when I was pounding out Flight of the Vajra, I didn't read other space opera, for several reasons: I didn't want to pick up ideas from those books (some of which wouldn't have belonged in my book in the first place anyway); I'd already read plenty of it in the run-up to working on the book, and had decided that stuff wasn't a model I wanted to emulate anyway, but instead look beyond; and a big part of what I wanted to bring to the material wasn't to be found in most of the rest of SF in the first place.
Second, the research material I scare up for a given project is about 50/50 factual and inspirational. The first half is "hard" stuff: historical research, real-world info about people, places, things, behaviors, etc. The second half, though, is more about the ideas behind something. Hence all of my ingestion of Aung San Suu Kyi and Thomas Merton when working on Vajra — I wanted more of that sort of thing in the book than I did David Drake (or even Heinlein, for that matter). I still think I had a little too much of the business where the way such ideas were included in the book was by simply having people sit around and talk about them — and maybe that's something I only single out for criticism in my own work because it's something I'd single out in others' works as well — but that's a discussion for another, longer essay.Read more
Turning yesterday's post over in my head left me with another issue: how interesting is it, really, to read about such a situation? I hearkened back to a criticism of Amadeus (the movie), which went "How interesting is Salieri's envy, anyway?" Meaning, can you really sustain a 2 1/2-hour film on no other fuel but a man's petty jealousy?
I imagine there's more to the film than just that alone, but those words did awaken within me a sense of how Welcome to the Fold has to be about more than just the mechanics of the frustrated politics of its players.
I also remembered United Red Army, the staggeringly boring Koji Wakamatsu movie about the self-destructing politics of Japan's left circa the late '60s. Doubly staggering since I was already fascinated by the subject, so if the movie couldn't even enlist my interest, it didn't stand an icicle chance's in a magma pool with most anyone else.
But the most glaring problem with the movie wasn't the subject matter. It was how the filmmakers assumed just putting the central subject on display — the dysfunction of radical utopian politics — would be enough by itself.Read more
I'm currently reading Nicolas Berdyaev's Slavery and Freedom, a good example of a terribly-written brilliant book. Berdyaev's ideas are stimulating stuff, but his writing style is so leaden that I'm not surprised the book has remained consistently undiscussed.
His premise is that personality is the one truly human atttribute, and through that we find God — and not the God of the Bible or even the church, but the God that those other things can only point to. He also seems to be of the same mind as Maimonides in that spiritual literalism is a mistake, that the words of prophets are actually more powerful as metaphor than they are any other way.
You're probably wondering what a staunch atheist is doing reading this material, and no, it's not a know-thy-enemy thing. Well, not that alone. If I had someone like Berdyaev on my side, I wouldn't mind, as long as he kept out of my hair about my own beliefs.
The deal is this: Both Welcome to the Fold and at least one future book I'm considering touch on many themes Berdyaev brings up, and it behooves me to be well-equipped. With Fold, it's the idea of personality as the sacred, and how dehumanization debases both the one being dehumanized and the one doing the dehumanizing. The way this unfolds is not always obvious, and I'm still digesting what the book says (again, Berdyaev's plodding prose doesn't help), but I expect a lot of what's brought up in it to be examined in Fold and beyond, even if only indirectly.Read more
The biggest problem with Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby is not that it's a bad film; it's the wrong film. F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel is so simple on the face of it that at least four different film versions, this one included, have come and gone, and they have all made the same mistake: they assume all that you need to do is film what's on the page.
But the book doesn't take place entirely on the page, and that's the problem. It exists in a privileged space somewhere between the page and the reader, and the minute you point a camera there it all turns silly and literal. So much of what happens in the story isn't in the bustle of Jay Gatsby's parties or even in the words spoken by one character to another (much of which can be found here), which is why the more of that you put on the screen in an attempt to "bring the novel to life", the less you end up with.Read more
... the whole point of a market system is supposed to be that it serves consumers, providing us with what we want and thereby maximizing our collective welfare. But the history of English food suggests that even on so basic a matter as eating, a free-market economy can get trapped for an extended period in a bad equilibrium in which good things are not demanded because they have never been supplied, and are not supplied because not enough people demand them.
You could swap "movies" for "food" in this essay — or books, or any other cultural product — and the formula would still work.
The way my friend Steven Savage put this is also illuminating. Diversity has the same function in culture that it does in a biosphere: it encourages a healthy immune system. A monoculture has no such immunity, and will happily devour itself in an attempt to deliver maximum profit off minimum diversity (and total blandness).
This is why I get uneasy about making most every movie into some variation on The Avengers, as I put it before. It's not that I think that's a bad movie; it's because that's a bad model to follow unilaterally, because it crowds everything else out, and makes everything into the same generic overstuffed, overhyped puff pastry product.Read more
If there is nothing new under the sun, if the past in some shape or another always returns, then the future when it comes will be something familiar. At any rate what will never come — since it has never come before — is that hated, dreaded thing, a world of free and equal human beings. Particularly comforting to reactionary thinkers is the idea of a cyclical universe, in which the same chain of events happens over and over again. In such a universe every seeming advance towards democracy simply means that the coming age of tyranny and privilege is a little bit nearer. This belief, obviously superstitious though it is, is widely held nowadays, and is common among Fascists and near-Fascists.
Yes, the title's a nod to Ornette Coleman, and again these are thoughts that revolve around the world being built for Welcome to the Fold. It is essentially our world, albeit inhabited by a small, self-selecting subclass of what I guess could be called aesthetic revolutionaries. They want very much for there to be something new under the sun, and they are prepared to make it happen By Any Means Necessary.
What they are not prepared to do, though, is have this come about in a way that they cannot directly and scrutinously control. They want a new world, but they want it exclusively on their terms — they want it to be unfold just so, like a stage-managed tour cruise where you're not permitted to deviate from the menu or the itinerary. And god help you if they catch you not having any fun; then you're really in for a spanking!
History can't be stage-managed or cruise-directed. But everyone thinks they can do that. They sincerely believe that with the right intelligence, the right pressure politics, the right weapons, the right technology, they can somehow succeed where previous generations or regimes did not.
[Koestler's The Gladiators] is about Spartacus, the Thracian gladiator who raised a slaves’ rebellion in Italy round about 65 B.C., and any book on such a subject is handicapped by challenging comparison with [Flaubert's] Salammbô. In our own age it would not be possible to write a book like Salammbô, even if one had the talent. The great thing about Salammbô, even more important than its physical detail, is this utter mercilessness. Flaubert could think himself into the stony cruelty of antiquity, because in the mid-nineteenth century one still had peace of mind. One had time to travel in the past. Nowadays the present  and the future are too terrifying to be escaped from, and if one bothers with history it is in order to find modern meanings there. Koestler makes Spartacus into an allegorical figure, a primitive version of the proletarian dictator. Whereas Flaubert has been able, by a prolonged effort of the imagination, to make his mercenaries truly pre-Christian, Spartacus is a modern man dressed up.
Emphasis mine. Such thoughts weigh heavily on me when I look at the notes I've collected for a future book, one which involves a man (and a society) that are many lifetimes removed from our own.
The man of the past no longer exists, not even as memory, which is why it is so difficult to say anything coherent about him. Each time we look back, we do so through the lens of our moment in time. Hence the need to make Errol Flynn's Robin Hood a dispense of social justice a la a modern "freedom fighter" (or even a Capra-esque hero). A more historically honest Robin Hood story would probably play more like Heinrich von Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas, a story about justice at any cost written in a time when such a notion could still have a romantic veneer about it.Read more
It is quite possible that man's major problems will never be solved. But it is also unthinkable! Who is there who dares to look at the world of today and say to himself, ‘It will always be like this: even in a million years it cannot get appreciably better?’ So you get the quasi-mystical belief that for the present there is no remedy, all political action is useless, but that somewhere in space and time human life will cease to be the miserable brutish thing it now is.
Who indeed would look at the world and suggest it could be no better? I doubt anyone does this consciously, but if they did, I imagine it would only be because they have a vested interest in keeping things exactly as they are.
Then again, the above-cited mystic's approach is no different in practical terms, is it? It's too easy to entertain a philosophy that insists you do nothing, and there are plenty of folks who are hoping you do as little as possible so they can keep sucking you dry.Read more
So what's the difference between a work being about something as a theme, and a work merely containing something as an ingredient? You've heard me bash on this a good deal, so I thought I'd unpack it a little further.
Most artists are not terribly original thinkers, or even terribly profound ones for that matter. It's not in their job description — or, maybe better to say, they believe they do the job of thinker just fine enough to suit their purpose, which is to bring us something new and original and exciting. A new story, usually, but just as often something current wrapped in a familiar story (or is it the other way 'round?). The ideas themselves are just the green onion sprinkled on top of that particular ramen bowl. In other words, they take the ideas just seriously enough to merit inclusion in a work or to instigate the work, but they don't always make the work about the idea.
Perhaps what's not required is being a thinker — maybe that's a little top-heavy a word to use — but simply being aware of the fact that ideas are present in one's work and that one has to do justice to their presence. That's something many artists do, but again, how they go about doing it and in what realm is what matters most.Read more
The biggest problem climate change poses isn’t how the Department of Defense should plan for resource wars, or how we should put up sea walls to protect Alphabet City, or when we should evacuate Hoboken. It won’t be addressed by buying a Prius, signing a treaty, or turning off the air-conditioning. The biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront this problem, and the sooner we realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.
Emphasis in original.
Zen Master Seung Sahn (of Dropping Ashes on the Buddha) used to tell his students to think of themselves as being dead already. "A dead man has no desires," he pointed out. It all sounded morbid until I realized he was talking about something analogous to what is being discussed here. The point isn't to wallow in death, but to understand how our ideas about life and death don't correspond to life and death as we actually experience them, and to not remain slaves to something that is simply thought and memory.Read more
Sometimes an entire work can spring from a single sentence or even a few words. In Welcome to the Fold's case, it was the words "life must be lived historically, not aesthetically", as spoken by Professor Johnston.
I understand, at least as much as many other people, the need to escape into an aesthetic mode of living life. Maybe the word "aesthetic" brings the wrong things to mind, because that escape doesn't have to confine itself to any one particular mode. Religious asceticism is just as much an aesthetic escape as artistic bohemianism — or maybe it's better to say any of those things can be perverted into mere escapism.
This is part of why stuff like monasticism doesn't work for me. It's tempting to want to escape the corruption of the world we know by simply rejecting it, but it isn't that easy. The world always finds a way back in. Even Thomas Merton couldn't hide himself away completely in his abbey; he emerged from it time and again to engage with a world that clearly needed all the help it could get.Read more
As a sequel of sorts to the other day's posts, I thought I'd cite here some of the stuff I've been reading about for Welcome to the Fold. It's a major grab bag.
Exercise for the reader: Imagine as best you can a story that involves all these elements. Note down what it might be. Return here later to see how your idea compares against mine. A $10 Amazon gift card says they aren't remotely the same.
With any project I work on, the more disparate and wide-ranging the sources that end up going into it, the more interesting the final result. For Vajra I ended up reading a good deal more Thomas Merton than I did Freeman Dyson, if you get my drift. Not to say that I was deliberately ignoring the nuts-and-bolts stuff (although I'm fairly sure the end result does tend to lean towards the lower end of the SF Hardness Scale), but that so many of the stories I've seen in that vein already cover that territory so well, why duplicate their work? If I had something to add to such a story that was mine, I'd rather it have been from a territory that complemented the uniqueness I wanted to bring to the story in the first place. (I did read a lot about programming, though, so I guess that counts.)
Time and again I've invoked the importance of getting out of one's bubble, but I don't think I talk enough about how genuinely difficult it is. Moreoever, I've always phrased it in terms of getting out by going up rather than going sideways or down. "Playing over one's head" is the term I keep using for it, but it might well be that the things we need to get out of our bubble for aren't "up there" somewhere but "down below". In the end it doesn't matter where they really sit; what matters is that you make the effort and come away with something for it.Read more
As of the end of October, I'm no longer the anime guide for About.com. I had a good run of it, but now it's time for something else.
And I do, in fact, have something else cooking up in that very vein — something I think will be of great interest to everyone who likes to have their pop-culture discussions on the brainy side without also being pretentious.
Watch this space for more announcements later!
Lots of real-life stuff, not much blogging time, but I thought I'd file a follow-up to my post from the other day about the dangers of imagination and fantasy being a one-way street. (This was originally written during my lunchbreak at a conference I was attending for work, so my apologies if it seems a bit scattery.)
It struck me on re-reading the essay that I really didn't want to construct an argument in favor of people who flip up their noses at the likes of Harry Potter and feel all the better for themselves for having done so. Not my argument at all: I have nothing but pity for the Harold Blooms of the world, who see some things as being so far beneath them they can't even be bothered to lift the lid.Read more