Saturday, September 20, 2014

Looking up at the universe

Been spending quite a bit of time over the last few days outside, trying to figure out the best way to take shots of that amazing view we get in the southern hemisphere of the galactic center riding high above at this time of the year.
Galactic Center (composite of ten images, Nikon D3200, 11mm wide-angle, f 4.0, ISO 3200, 25s)
Every exposure takes up to a minute (up to 30s/exposure + 30s/camera-noise-removal); and so there's plenty of time to just look up during those intervals between pushing the shutter-button and waiting for the process to finish and just be—well, I don't know what to call it. I guess it's a mix of amazement at what I see, an acute awareness of my size and utter physical insignificance, and an equal amazement at the sheer marvel of being alive and being able to experience whatever it is I'm experiencing. Plus all sorts of feelings I'm probably I'm not even conscious of.

I know, this all sounds like you've heard it all before; and it's obvious that my awe—I guess that's what it is—has probably been shared by millions of others at one time or other.

Something else is there, too, and oddly enough that is a measure of fear. Of what? I think it's mostly my utter helplessness when it comes to facing this cosmos and its power and utter indifference to what and who I am, or what I want or care about; about my utter inability to actually do anything that matters or protect those I care about, should this coldly indifferent universe unleash something lethal upon this tiny world of ours and snuff out our species and everything and everybody I hold dear.

But this fear is balanced by gratitude—to no one in particular; just 'existence' I guess—for all of these things that I am unable to protect; and which have been provided by that very same universe that might just wipe them out in a blink of an eyes. And I'd agree with those who  assert that even just a few fleeting moments of existence—or of the consciousness of existing!—are worth it, even if in those moments we may be forced into the awareness that it most certainly will end, and that we ultimately are powerless to prevent that.

I guess, looking out from the Earth like that is a bit like looking at it—like at Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot.

And, though it may seem...oh, I don't know... idealistic? unrealistic? just plain silly? ... it drives it home, at least to me, just how much people by and large have their priorities terribly, terribly wrong. Many of them of course have no choice about their priorities, but are forced by circumstances to focus on the basics of survival. But there are literally billions  who live in social and economic environments that do give them choices over what they consider important and how they choose to spend their money, what they require of their politicians, how invest their thinking time or treat their fellow humans, etc.

It is possible that we are the only form of "life' in the entire universe—at least as far as we can possibly understand it. Whatever else there is may be so different from us in form and context that contact, that is communication, with it may be utterly impossible. In that sense we, on our pale blue dot, may be completely alone among the billions and billions of galaxies in the universe—one of which we're partially seeing when we look up, like I do, when the skies are clear enough. I find that thought exhilarating and scary at the same time. And though we're just existing is less than a blink of time compared to the lifetime of the universe, that blink may indeed be the most miraculous instant in the entire history of this and any other cosmos.

Seriously, isn't it worth at least considering thinking about something else but—to name just a couple of random items from opposite ends of the human 'interest' spectrum—inane sports or plain-silly and utterly irrelevant philosophical or ideological disputes; and to focus our interest, attention and efforts on pursuits that will contribute to the goal of ensuring that we're not wiped out—just because, say, some big chunk of rock happens to be on a collision course with us or some virus has mutated into a deadly plague?






Thursday, September 11, 2014

Amazon, Hechette and the Author

For those who're not in the loop about this, here are a couple of URLs you might want to catch up on first:

Amazon and Hachette: The dispute in 13 easy steps
Dear Mr. Bezos

So, what's this all about once you dig deeper into this and weed out the personal interests and agendas involved.

Let's talk about disputers' agendas first:
  • Amazon's: Make money.
  • Hachette's: Make money.
That's it. Everything else is bullshit, spin, obfuscation of the self-evident. Whatever rationales or rationalizations are provided by either side are self-serving and utterly hypocritical.

Anybody gonna argue with me about this? — I didn't think so.

So, what's the real issue here?

Let's start with Janet Fitch's letter to Mr. Bezos, and I quote:

"As a middle-aged woman who has had some luck as a writer, I’d like this profession of author to remain a possibility for young writers in the future—and not become an arena solely for the hobbyist or the well-heeled. What will be lost when working writers no longer can support themselves pursuing their ideas, their art? What will be lost to this country, if these most talented can no longer make a living? I am making this an open letter, because I believe we are at a crossroads, and decisions are being made now which will affect our country permanently."

Seriously?

Fitch's attitude is fairly representative of the rationalizations put forward by her peers, namely those people who consider themselves to be "professionals" and "writers" or "authors".What issues do I have with it? Well, here they are.

Writers of fiction—and even more so poets—usually consider themselves 'artists' of sort, and that may be ok. And being an 'artist' shouldn't be, at least not in my view, something that entitles anyone in any way to make the activity into a 'profession'. It may be a passion and a craft, but 'profession'? I don't think so. Art, while it may arguably be necessary for artists to be able to release their passion into 'art', and for culture to have 'art' to have some substance, should be subject to ruthless evolutionary pressures.

By the way, I'm saying this as someone who isn't anywhere close to being able to earn a living as a 'writer'. But it's a passion, and the desire to get far enough with this thing that I do—and have been doing for the greater part of my life—is a powerful drive to become better at it, and at the time retaining integrity, my voice, and what I write about; not for fashion but because I believe it matters. In other words it's character-building in so many ways, and the honing of the craft and the development it's provided me with as a human being has been indispensable in forming my character. 

And I genuinely don't believe that there is even a smidgen of entitlement for me or any other 'artist' to get a chance, provided by the actions of some outside agencies, to make it into a 'profession'. If it happens, so much the better and I'd be delighted, but it's not something I'd ever claim any kind of entitlement for. In fact, this whole notion is a fairly recent concept that has a lot to do with the general, influenza-like spread of "entitlement culture" in general.

I think it's rather self-serving to call upon the putative future writers that will be 'lost'—either they or some general "what", which is even more nebulous and undefined—to the world, merely because they might have to end up having to work really hard and for a really long time before they get—if ever they do!—to a point where they make a living out of it. And that's all this is really all about; and slapping the label 'profession' on it...well, lots of bodies of people who want to be acknowledged by society in some way, clamor for being recognized as 'professions'—and the educational sector is making a packet out of that. 

The literary production-democracy introduced into the world by modern technology and the internet scares the shits out of many people, I know. The notion that a horde of hacks has effectively been let loose on the world of publishing, uncontrolled by the still-twitching elite of literary gatekeepers, is daunting, I admit. But it could also be argued that we're merely dealing with a different process of evolution, not any more controlled by the publishing industry but by the reading public directly. 

Is that a good or a bad thing? Who can tell? is it 'bad' that a lot more shit is getting published than ever before? Could it not also mean that there are more pearls there than ever to be discovered; only that the discovery mechanism has changed? What has been removed is the pre-selection mechanism formerly provided by the gatekeeper elite.  

As someone who has been exposed to the light and the dark side of traditional publishing, I am of a mind to come down on the side of telling the gatekeepers to go and shove it. Get with the program and figure out how to survive in this new style of literary evolution. 

On the other hand, however, I'm also quite disgusted at Amazon's attempt to impose its own vision on the world of publishing. How about just seeing what the reading public is willing to pay for and how all that plays out in a fair marketplace? 

Amazon is no champion of the future of publishing. Smashwords and Lulu are. They enable everyone who thinks they have something to offer to the world to offer just that and to see if the world is interested enough to read it and pay for it.

It's not about low-cost publishing, but about the possibility of the simultaneous existence of the traditional gatekeeper-controlled model, as well as the "Indie" mode—once labeled as "vanity" publishing; but over the last years it has become so much more. 

Let's see who'll be left standing at the end! Who knows? Maybe both of them will. I think if that happens, it will be to the benefit of all, but especially for the readers—who are the ones that truly matter, right?

† In the interest of full disclosure of my own 'interests', I would like to point out that I, too, am an "author". I tend to avoid the "writer" label, because I also do movies and in general think of myself more as a "storyteller" who does a lot of his telling by writing stuff down, either in prose or as screenplays. I have had one novel published 'officially' and ten more using lulu.com and smashwords.com; two organizations I can't praise highly enough for their approach to the business of indie-publishing.

†† Though if fiction writers thought more of themselves as storytellers, they probably wouldn't carry their noses quite as high up as they do. I'm saying this, because those who do, usually don't!

††† Not that this elite necessarily pre-selects on the merit of literary quality. Money always played a big part in the assessment criteria! Hypocrisy rules supreme here, too.




Sunday, August 25, 2013

Brian Cox in Brisbane

Went to see Brian Cox at QPAC in Brisbane last Tuesday. Great evening. Cosmology, particle physics, life on the planets, plus a nice bit about Brian Cox himself. He's a natural presenter and his enthusiasm is infectious—unlike the dour Richard Dawkins, who is about as uninspiring as you'll get. (I know, I know: some people just can't get enough of Dawkins. People have the strangest inclinations and predilections...)

To my delight Brian Cox finished the evening with a reading of Carl Sagan's moving commentary on Voyager's famous 'pale blue dot' photo.

“Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

"The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.

"Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

"The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

"It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.”


Death of a friend

Friend of mine died yesterday. Never actually met him in person, as happens these days, but he was my friend anyway. Was going to come visit us earlier this year, but then was diagnosed with cancer. A brief bout of hope for remission, but then those hopes were dashed by subsequent investigations.

Today I received an email from his daughter, telling his friends that he had died.

He was what you might call a 'God-fearing man', and I get the impression he was OK with dying; a notion incomprehensible to me, an avowed emortalist—but some people just are OK with it, and I can respect that. I have a sneaking suspicion that even if significant longevity were to become available, many people would continue to adhere to their faith. The consequences for society of this would be interesting to speculate about. (It's cropped up in my books quite a few times, for obvious reasons; especially in the Tethys prequels.)

Still, very few people will ever be truly 'comfortable' with dying, though they may talk themselves into denial of this simple but powerful instinctive reaction to the notion of their personal extinction. My friend wrote a poem that reminds us of this, and maybe also expresses our deep abiding fear of the worst thing that we can possibly imagine to happen to us after we're dead. (Yeah, I know, what can possibly happen to us at that point—right?) Still, ponder this poem, which I would find profoundly touching and revealing, even if it hadn't been my friend who wrote it.

The title says it all: what we most fear is that we are forgotten; that our death will not make a difference to the lives of those that mattered to us; that life will just carry on as if we'd never been. Of course, ultimately that will be the fate of everybody; if only because the universe won't leave us any choice.

Remember Me

I am not here, nor do I sleep
I walk not the ground beneath your feet
I breathe not the air in which you stand
No longer here, no longer man
Tis with these words I now depart
To lessen sorrow within your heart
My spirit soars now in Heaven high
For God has written that man must die
Remember me for good I’ve done
Remember me for battles won
Remember me
Remember me

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Three Most Dangerous Ideas

It's been a long time...

Well, here's something that came to mind and got onto the Want-To-Share list.

A bit of background.

I have this friend. Known him for longer than just abut anybody in Australia. In fact, the only person I've known longer is dead. That kind of puts my buddy, let's call him 'K', into the 'oldest living friend' category. He's almost exactly one year younger than I.

K has worked for all his life like a fiend. Now he's 'retired', a concept I find incomprehensible, as it implies that one's basically waiting for death. Well, I suppose, we all are in some way, whether it comes after the next heartbeat or in a much further-away future. But retirement seems to kind-of make it explicit As a seriously 'do-not-go-gentle' kind of guy, I'm not in that mind-set. In fact, I'd prefer not to go at all.

K has been 'creative' throughout his life. I'm not sure I can relate to the kinds of things he's spent his creativity on (much of it was in the public service, serving politicians), but that's none of my business. To each his own. I respect people's choices; mainly since I would like them to respect mine. Tit for tat.

In retirement, K's creative outlets have lain fallow. He immerses himself in activities, making himself so busy that he hasn't got time to breathe, but I know he's not happy doing what he's doing. (I know, I know: who is 'happy' anyway? And is happiness really a goal to aim for? A topic for another time. Maybe.) In fact, I think it's killing him; that and the smoking, which he's been trying to give up more times than I can count.

But creativity is something you can't keep down. Once you're in the habit of it (and yes, there's something like a 'habit of creativity', which is more addictive than smoking), you can't break it; unless you kill yourself, either physically or spiritually. And so, K nowadays is creative by having ideas. He just can't help it. They keep on coming. Good ideas and less edifying ideas. Most interestingly, ideas about stories that might make it into novels or screenplays. But ideas they are. No follow-through though, because somehow that's not just in him anymore.

I found myself getting angry thinking of all this. Why? Because I look at my friend and I get sad and frustrated and ultimately angry at the waste of it all. The waste of a life, which is slowly fading away, with those ideas just coming our of nowhere, only to become just another idea that'll eventually (as will all human ideas, of course) be dissipate in the endless sea of the ultimately-dying universe, together with everything that the uncounted billions, and maybe eventually even trillions, of human beings were, are and will be. Forgotten, dispersed, become nothingness.

But, damn it, until that happens, how about we shout as loud as we can and even though our defiance may be futile, it is defiance and an affirmation of our being alive.

Back to ideas, which is what this blog was supposed to be all about. Because as I was listenting to K yesterday, it suddenly occurred to me that while ideas may be powerful, some are more so than others; and I wondered what the most powerful ideas might be. And then I realized that maybe 'powerful' is harder to figure out than another category, namely 'dangerous'. In terms of human life in our world, what are the ideas that are most dangerous, in the sense that they carry within them the greatest potential for good and evil alike? The ideas that infuse the Force with power, that stir human beings into action; which, when abused, have the potential to do untold harm; and yet, in their highest expression, represent the very best our humanity has to offer.

And this, after some thought, are my top three; not in order of importance, because I'm not presumptuous enough to think I can make that judgement.

All of these ideas are at their core anti-authoritarian, anti-religious, anti-statist and focused on the individual.

Idea #1 is the concept of 'true love'.

Yeah, I know, this is Princess Bride stuff, but so bite me! It's all profound anarchistic, the notion that the obligations of love for another person (or persons) trump all the rules imposed by societies, states, ideologies, religions and what-have-you. This relates closely to...

Idea #2 is the concept of 'individual freedom' or 'liberty'.

Note that this is the 'negative' version liberty, that is, freedom from something (as opposed to its strange complement, 'positive' liberty, this being the freedom to do something.

Idea #3 is the notion that as individuals and physical beings we should live for as long as we choose, instead of being subjected to the whims of what biology appears to dictate.

This is closely associated with the idea of individual freedom, since it implies freedom from the necessity to die as ordained by evolution or by obstacles put in the way of this by others for whatever reason.

As I said before, I'm not offering a judgment on these ideas or their consequences; just as food for thought.

I know there are considerably more powerful ideas. For example the idea of 'God' in whatever incarnation (all equally daft) is very powerful indeed. It's also dangerous, but in a different way, mainly because it's grown to such monstrous proportions.

The first two ideas I mentioned on the other hand, can never become that way, because they are, in their very nature, inherently incompatible with such a development. In contrast, the last one might, one of these days, grow to significant size. In the process it will inevitably subvert fundamental assumptions about, and views of, ourselves as human beings. Should be interesting...

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Facebook and School Shootings

"How are you feeling, Till?" 
Feeling? 
You've got to be shitting me, right? I'm talking about the new prompt for Facebook's 'Update Status' box. Thing is, as T3 would say (with a thick Austrian accent of course, and sounding like a retard) "No, I am not shitting you!" 
 Because there it is, in plain sight. Not anymore "What's on your mind?" (Assuming that you have one, of course. A hairy assumption in many instances.) but about FEELINGS. Oh, man! FEELINGS! Could we get any more bleeech-blah??
"How are you feeling, Till?"

Well, I tell you how I'm feeling, Facebook! I feel combative, pugnacious, ready to rock and roll for some serious thinking—defying the urge to do some serious feeling and letting reasoned thought, the kind that takes into account the factors beyond the feelings-and-bullshit-thought, play second fiddle. Because you've got to ask the hard questions if you want to get a peek at the truth. The easy ones just give you shit. Stupid questions, stupid answers, stupid people.

In the spirit of that, I'd like to offer to those who actually want to think about stuff—instead of just rolling with the media, politicians, moralizers, know-it-alls, general speechfying and pontificating—the following two articles on a very touchy subject. Both come from writers with whose stances I often disagree, but with whom in this case I cannot disagree.

http://www.spiked-online.com/site/printable/13179/
http://www.spiked-online.com/site/printable/13183/

I have nothing to add to what they're saying regarding their topic, so let them speak for themselves.

But what I'd like to say—and this is my short post for today—is that the dumb-ass revision of the Facebook prompt is probably indicative of some of the real issues behind school shootings. Sounds like a long-shot connection? Well, think again. Think beyond the easy questions. Ask the next, harder question. Try anyway. It doesn't hurt as much as you might think.Indeed, you might find it liberating.

Oh, and following on from my previous post, here's another article for your edification. Makes you wonder about the Mayan calendar. The apocalypse comes in many guises. (Kidding! This isn't 'apocalypse'; just the predictable development of trends that have been in the making for many years.)

http://www.spiked-online.com/site/printable/13215/

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Free Speech? Not! (How the West is helping others to bring itself crashing down.)

OK, so I should really be writing my next chunk of The League of Knights-Errant, but there's something on my mind that's killing me, and though it will make its way into my work, I want to take this time out to use my tiny, tinny, wheezy blog-soapbox-voice that nobody really pays any fucking attention to—and why should they, with all those blog voices clamoring for attention and another just drowning in the hellish din?—to add my 2¢ to the kitty.

So, I watched the video that occasioned lots of people to succumb to yet another bout of mass-hysteria—getting their adrenaline flowing and just finding that heady I'm-off-my-rocker buzz in the hubhub of others in similar states of self-intoxication—and after having forced myself to watch it to the end, despite it's complete lack of any quality, I said to myself: "Is that what the fuss is all about? WTF?"

At least Theo van Gogh's flick, the one that got him murdered by a religioid adrenaline-junkie in the street some years back, had some class, and it addressed a specific issue with a certain creed (see how politically correct I'm being here?), namely their medieval serious-dick-issues misogyny. But this one here? It's a joke. I know it isn't meant to be, except in bits and pieces; but it's funny, if for no other reason but that it's made by someone who couldn't put a dialogue together if you paid him a million bucks, had the technological film-making savvy of a flounder and whose editing capabilities would have made a baboon blush with shame.

Was it intended to be offensive? Probably. I'm guessing it was made by some fairly-low-intelligence and even-lower-competence adherent of a certain competing religion. No self-respecting atheist would have condescended to produce such an incompetent piece of shit. (On the other hand, there are some seriously stupid atheists around as well. Just sayin'. Nobody's immune.)

The French, not to be outdone by some American Idiot, decided to put the boot in and respond to the 'global outrage', or whatever you want to call it, by making a point. A satirical magazine regaled the world with a few cartoons that made those coming out of Denmark a while back appear positively benign and intellectual. Yes, I dared to have a look at the Charlie-Hebdo cartoons. So can you, thanks to Google images, though I advise against it, because I for one never ever in my whole, hopefully very long, life want to see an image of that scrotum again, even if it's is mock-censored!

However, the French, though French they may be, did make an excellent point, which I completely agree with (though they would say it if French, and probably not in direct translation):

What I say (write, draw, sing, etc) offends your tender religious or ideological sensibilities? Well, tough titty said the kitty. Cowboy the fuck up and live with it.

This is—or should be!—a fundamental tenet of that part of worldly civilization we call "Western". If there's anything concrete that we should be able to hold up and say to the rest of the world "we are worthy of being called 'civilized' because of..." it should be this.

It isn't.

We do pay lip service to it, of course—up to a point and, in the case of the recent kerfuffle there were some high-level voices using phrases including the words "freedom of speech". Of course, said phrases were always prefaced by a much more fervent declaration relating to the "deeply offensive" nature of that piece-of-incompetent-video-shit, with a direct implication that said "offensive" aspects are the reasons why it a) shouldn't have been made in the first place, and b) most certainly shouldn't have see the light of day. In comparison the subsequent advocacy of "freedom of speech" usually appears limp and emasculated (kind-of same thing, I know, but I'm trying to emphasize that, in the eyes of the major current opponents of freedom of speech a limp defense amounts to effective emasculation).

Before I go on with this, let's draw a baseline for mutual understanding here:

Complete 'freedom of speech' is unachievable.

And that's all right. Achieving it would be undesirable. Like 'freedom' itself it is a target. Not an 'ideal', though some might think of it that way, because ideals belong into another ontological category. Targets or goals, on the other hand, can be achieved, at least in principle, even though in practice they may never be. As far as freedom of speech is concerned, everybody with a modicum of intelligence should realize that 100% achievement isn't even desirable. And the oppressors might note that 0% is also unachievable and will ultimately turn out to be counterproductive to the oppressor's or oppressors' intentions.

Freedom of speech exists on a spectrum, and in different historical and cultural contexts it fluctuates between the two extremes. All this is pretty self-evident, but people seems to forget, as they tend to, especially when they defend the desirability of a state of affairs at either end of the spectrum. What really matters is how the reality of freedom of speech, or 'free speech' as it's usually abbreviated, is placed on the %-scale in any given context, and how it is trending; that is, is speech getting more or less free.

I'd also like to propose that the degree to which speech is 'free' in any given country is closely correlated to the much more complex issue of 'civil liberty'. Indeed, 'Freedom of Speech' should perhaps be better labeled as 'Liberty of Speech', since we're talking about 'negative liberty' here, that is, freedom from interference by others with our expression of a point of view—said expression being able to take a wide range of forms, from reasoned argument to cutting satire or outright mockery. The degree of (negative) liberty to express oneself is the canary in the mine of civil liberty.

Speaking from the point of view of someone living in Australia—which is, in most important aspects, representative of current trends in 'Western' culture—the current situation is iffy and the outlook is grim. Both versions of liberty are being inexorably eroded in so many insidious ways that it's hard to keep track of it all. It used to happen with glacial creep, but we're slowly getting to the point where the sheep that constitute the vast majority of all human societies are being pushed along at an ever-increasing pace, without apparently noticing it, or if they do notice they either live in a state of progressively strengthening denial or they're just too plain stupid, denialist, dull, apathetic and preoccupied with 50" LCD TVs, boats, cars with loud exhausts and sport to give a shit.

Highlights:

The erosion of the negative liberty to say freely what's one feels one needs to say, all in order, allegedly, to enhance the positive liberty of those potentially offended by said utterances, or going against what is 'publicly acceptable', is running pretty much amok. The of 'positive liberty' that really creates is one-sided. Stifling freedom of expression by imposing real or 'social' penalties upon those who would utter them if only they were allowed to stifles their freedom not only to speak out, but also to develop personally and to potentially make significant contributions to social progress. What society has ever progressed that's clamped down on its freedom of expression? I dare you to name a single instance.

My second example is 'education'. I'd absolutely hate to have young children nowadays and to have to send them to the brain-washing factories that call themselves schools, and then onward to what once upon were the bastions of learning, but which now have turned into production facilities for the kinds of people society wants to 'prosper'—all according to whatever econo-political or socio-political flavor of the day happens to rule the tax-grabbing roost. Anybody who wants to be something else, take a ticket and wait in line, possibly until you die. Anybody who thinks they can actually be different and pick some subject that would classically be associated with being different—the arts and humanities in particular—has better make sure that he or she tows the line, because even here what gets you anywhere is carefully circumscribed by, often subtly but sometimes with contemptuous obviousness, those who have the power to dictate what should be considered, say, of artistic or other cultural value.

The irony here is, of course, that this kind of crap interferes with people's negative liberties as much as it does with their positive ones; it imposes pressures on people's personal and social development that forces them to conform or else. What those in government tell the sheep their govern—in order to sell the progressive enforcement of what's risibly called 'modern education'—are prevarications and outright, deliberate, calculated, manipulative lies.


I know, I know, it's kind-of always been like that. True enough. But, looking back and comparing things to today, the degree of enforced conformity has reached grotesque proportions. That's because the power of control systems has come full circle. In the good old days you sent a bunch of thugs, disguised in uniforms, into a village or town, picked up the dissidents and their families, plus some more for good measure (maybe the whole damn village) and strung them up along the roadside on makeshift gibbets, there to rot for the scavengers to feast on. Nowadays you smother them in nanny-state care, put surveillance cameras everywhere you can, enact legislation and tools ostensibly aimed at creating 'security', force them to send their children into the public schooling system, brainwash the shits out of them until they're a bunch of declawed pussies (one of the most abhorrent, and completely legal, mutilations performed on cats).

And always—and this has not changed throughout the ages of man—make sure that the weapons of physical violence in the possession of the citizenry are pathetically ineffectual when compared to those in the hands of the 'authorities'—or preferably disarm the citizenry completely, and if that's not feasible, as much as they can be persuaded into tolerating. And in Australia the sheep by and large were only too prepared to do so, with the only weapons remaining in the hands of 'authority' and criminals (these including perfectly good people, who happen to have an unlicensed weapon of two stashed away somewhere for personal protection), plus such intellectuals as security guards and a small group of 'licenced' individuals (shooters, farmers, etc) whose bureaucratic license renewal process requirements tend to cross the line into the outright risible.

E.G.#3: One of the immediate responses to the recent random (and media-frenzy creating) killing of a lovely woman in Melbourne by a human predator instantly brought about, among other things, (a) calls for even more surveillance of public spaces in a country that already close on the heel of the UK and the US in the invasion of privacy in public spaces, and (b) a plethora of commentaries, the gist of which was that 'the authorities' basically are responsible for making sure that such things don't happen, because they shouldn't happen.

Well, of course they shouldn't happen. But they do. That's because some people are bad, dysfunctional, psychopathic, sociopathic, deluded, idiologically or religious fanatics or zealots of any kind; and there will always be such people, and unless we're going to—as it seems like we actually might and in some placed are very close to—progress into a world of Minority Report and Person of Interest, there's no way to protect personal safety except by people assuming personal responsibility for it. But, of course, it is exactly that which is systematically being bred out of us by the same 'leviathan' system that Stephen Pinker is so enamored with (The Better Angels of our Nature), because it appears, superficially at least, to continue reducing overall violence in the world. The problem that that is that the reduction of physical violence is—possibly inevitably, because of the control required to make human beings conform—accompanied by a commensurate and possibly disproportionate increase in violence being done to the very essence of what makes us human. Violence to our dignity, our freedom to speak our minds, to pursue what we feel an urge to pursue, to allow us ideals and values that aren't forced down our throats by self-righteous religious or ideological morons, self-serving opportunist politicians, or any damn do-gooder who happens to be in a position to impose his or her opinion and desires of how things should be upon the rest of us.

The bitter joke on all of us, who say that they want 'freedom' but instead act as it they really didn't—except maybe the freedom to choose what LCD TV or car to buy and how to spend their holidays— is that the we-are-entilted-to-some-damn-respect-or-else-we'll-just-kill-you bullies of the world do, in fact, have the full, albeit unwitting, cooperation of the western societies they are bullying. And I wonder if we can survive the onslaught of medievalism, since we're the ones who opened the drawbridges. And I also wonder if those amazing political documents (the only 'political manifestos' eliciting my personal respect and even admiration), the American Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution are going to survive the current century.

Let's face it, their spirit has already pretty much gone POOF, and I suspect that most Americans, at least those still capable of independent thought, will pretty much recognize significant parallels between their own country in the snapshots of Australia above. What's currently putting the US ahead of Australia in the 'liberty' stakes is, I think, its lack of homogeneity. While that sometimes—actually quite often!—expresses itself in bizarre ways, it also keeps the country from sliding quite as fast as Australia is into mind-numbing social and political conformity.

Most Australians would claim the exact opposite, but they're wrong. The same elements that make the US so objectionable to many are also what may yet save it. Another of the great ironies of contemporary political life on Earth.

And you know something? I wonder if the one issue that remains a major cause of other western societies looking down on the US, namely the continuing battle between the pro- and the anti-gun lobbies—with the 'pro' still ahead, and I hope it stays that way!—isn't like a pillar, a solid, concrete symbol, of that wonderful, yet scary, mix of contradictions that made America great and may yet save it from going down the drain of the kind of BLAH conformity that's slowly choking the rest of the West into oblivion.

You can't have creativity and human progress without diversity and strife, differences and conflict. Period. I don't want the world to become the 'verse of Serenity, where only outlaws and anarchists keep the spirit of the human species alive.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Tell a story to save your sanity

Writers will give you a lot of reasons why they "do it"; and, no, I'm not talking about "it" but "it", OK?

Speaking from experience, and as somebody who is considerably more aware of his own motivations, including the 'real' ones, than most people (no false modesty here!), I can assure you that the vast majority of those reasons qualify as 'reationalizations' and quite a lot of them are simply bogus. Almost all the reasons supplied though suffer from incompleteness, if only because people just don't know all the reasons that drive them to do whatever shit they're doing. Period.

In the spirit of disclosure then, I'm going to add another reason to the stack I've already unearthed for my addicion to story-telling: because it's saving my sanity.

Seriously! I have a terminal dependency on making up stories. Apart from allowing me to interact (sort of) with a whole bunch of interesting characters, they also let me imagine things that aren't real, but which are like I maybe would like things to be. They also, rather importantly, let me blow off steam about the lunacies of the world and its denizens.

Like, right now, I'm positively itching to rant and rave on about religioids and other idiots who think that they have some natural 'right' not to have their precious beliefs insulted and even ridiculed. I managed to scratch scratch the itch because I happened to have arrived at a conversation where I could let fly through the mouth of one of my characters. Much better putting it in the first draft, rather than wasting time putting it into a blog that'll piss everybody off.

Maybe it'll stay in there, or maybe it won't. That'll be up to my mood at re-write/edit time. But for right now I've written it out of my system, thus contributing to lowering my mental and physical blood-pressure. All good.

All good.

Monday, September 10, 2012

"Hurl words into this darkness"

"I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all." Richard Wright

I wish more writers felt that way about their craft. More storytellers in general; be they writers, film-makers; comic-book creators; actors (for they're storytellers, too); visual artists; and so on.

They do exist, of course, and some of them even qualify as 'famous'. When you read their work you get the sense that they do have what's commonly labeled as "something to say"; something significant that does indeed have to do with the "hunger for life" and the wonder of being alive. And you even hear them calling, like (to use a metaphor from the I Ching) "A crane calling in the shade. [Its young answers it.]", or maybe shouting—and nowadays it's likely that anybody shouting in the right places will find an echo in the vast spaces of the cyberverse; though it may turn out to be an echo produced by a smattering of lunatics. But who said that all echoes are created the same?

Wright was talking about 'words', and it is true enough: for tellers of stories, words are the tool of choice, if for no other reason but that words are the vehicles for propositional statements. Actions can only go so far, because they are proposition-less, though they may indicate propositions and may be interpreted as being 'statements'.

Interesting thing that: we need the words to make the propositions, but the words usually are about actions of some kind, though said actions in turn may contain the utterance of words, who in turn may refer to actions who in turn... You see where this is going.

The important thing here is that for a story to be told, words and actions are interlinked and interdependent. The telling of the story itself is an action to begin with, so I suppose in this chicken-egg story that's the egg. Or is it the chicken, since the storytellers had to have narrative first, running around in their heads so that the action of telling the story followed?

Back to words hurled into the darkness. It would be nice to think that most storytellers are motivated by an urge not dissimilar to that expressed by Wright. Alas, realism forces me to acknowledge otherwise. Still, maybe not everyone can be driven by such lofty motivators. For some of us it must be enough to be prompted by an inexplicable desire and need to "just do it". It's usually called a 'passion', and often taken to be a justification for the kind of narcissistic 'self'-realization that's been in fashion for some time now; in one form or another it's been around for a long time, but at the movement it appears to be reaching a peak of some kind.

I know I am driven by a 'passion', but I still haven't quite sorted out in my mind what that actually is! It's just one of those words that people use—and often those people are very intelligent, though they never appear to have the need to actually dig deeper into the word and find out where it is grounded. But what it actually represents, described, 'means'...

Being a good General Semanticist—well, my own variation upon the theme, since I always seem to find flaws in any system of thought, even the most cogent ones—I think I may have found my personal grounding of 'passion', in this is instance the one having to do with storytelling, that allows me to define at least one aspect of its meaning, and it is this: without it I am not complete. Something important and significant would be missing.

Whatever that is exactly, who knows? And ultimately, does it matter?

Sunday, September 02, 2012

The Heart of a Man

"If you would tell me the heart of a man, tell me not what he reads, but what he rereads." François Mauriac

Amen, my sisters and brothers!

Oddly enough I've been thinking of pruning down our collection of books to those that I, or my better half, are likely to re-read. And maybe our collection of DVDs (and P2P stuff) to those movies and TV series we'd re-watch (like The Unit, which is definitely on that list).

BTW, I know what (fiction) I re-read: Vance, Heinlein, Perry, Hiaasen, FABLES.

Can't think of anything more for a desert island. Plus I read my own stuff, of course, but this is usually done for proofing, though every now and then I like to revisit my characters just for the heck of it. The guilty privileges of an author: looking into his own soul, if you will.

Oddly enough there isn't much non-fiction in the re-read list, and the few included are Vance and Heinlein bios, and of course Alan Harrington's 'The Immortalist'.

So, that's some 'heart of a man' for you!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

What is Love? (¿Amor? Qué es?)

Came across this...

  • Goodreads's Quote of the Day: Love is an abstract noun, something nebulous. And yet love turns out to be the only part of us that is solid, as the world turns upside down and the screen goes black. Martin Amis
  • An article in Psychology Today (here).
  • An article on 'Inner Marriage' in PT (here).
As a storyteller I'm all 'about' human relationships, and I admit that love is right up there within my scope of interest. Way I see it, most other stuff we do is pretty much bullshit. If we don't love living and preferably also at least one other person, and if we don't love these with a passion bordering on 'consuming', then what's the point of it all?

The only reason why 'life' is at the top of the list is, of course, that without it we couldn't love anyone else, or ourselves for that matter. On the other hand, loving another person tends to make us love life more, because it adds an obvious meaning to it. At least that's how I see it.

I think it's safe to say that much—most! almost all!—of what has been said and written about what love is, is bullshit. But I think that Martin Amis may have touched on something in that first quote. s 'love' is indeed just (as the song goes) a four-letter word; and in other languages it is another word, or maybe many words, or maybe just a grunt, or maybe the language doesn't even have a word for it (whatever 'it' is, in this case whatever we call 'love'). But when we experience it, it is hyper-real to those experiencing it—and I'm talking about all the varieties of it, ranging from the romantic kind to the love felt by a parent for their offspring (well, most parents, or so one would hope).

What I ask myself though is this: do we need language to have 'love'? I mean, do we have to have a tool for propositional thought—of which a language capable of propositions is one, and there may be no others, though that may just be my limited propositional scope, imposed by the limitations of 'language'—in order to actually experience 'love'. And is love different with people who think in other languages, and who have not only a different cultural context, but also different tools for propositional thought?

'Love' (and it's other-language equivalents) may be the most confusing concept(s) ever constructed and given a label by the human mind. The fact that almost all languages, and certainly all the dominant ones, have a term for this...whatever it is...could have been caused by history and intermingling of peoples. But it could also be an indication that there was a void in our human concept space that needed to be filled by some symbolic representation. And so, 'love' is kind of a placeholder for something that, in its manifold nature, we simply don't understand.

Have a look at the last article in the list above. It's a bit of narcissist claptrap that seems to me to be very indicative of the bullshit of our times (and other times as well, when you really think about it, only it was phrased a bit differently). I find it hard to believe that anybody with more than one neuron interacting with another can actually conceive of this kind of crap. What it all boils down to is this sentence at the end:

"...the need for a romantic partner wanes as the inner marriage approaches consummation, and harmonious relationships turn out to be a byproduct of this larger process."

This 'inner marriage' is supposed to be the union between the 'male' and 'female' part of our psyches, which is thought of as the ultimate goal of personal development—implying, apparently that personal development culminates in a lack of any need for a romantic partner to complete oneself. Relationships—'harmonious' ones, just like the one we're supposed to have achieved between our internal male and female selves—thus end up as a 'byproduct' of a 'larger' process.

Put plainly, this is pure narcissicm, period.

Unfortunately, it's a way of thinking that's widely accepted and built into a lot of pop-psychology and culture, and not just the 'western' variety.

There are a number of variations upon the theme of 'inner harmony', not just the conflicting-gender ones. Most come from religious traditions. Buddhism is one obvious and explicit example. Judaism and its perpetually-warring offsprings, Christianity and Islam are others. All the major religions, however, have at their core some notion that 'harmony' between conflicting aspects of one's being, or between one's being and some imagined deity, is and should be the ultimate goal of any personal development. And the conclusion, that in consequence human relationships will also end up harmonious, is almost invariably tacked on.

Of course, it gets out of hand here and there, because said 'harmony' is often considered to be achievable only by, for example, convincing others to think the same as oneself, and never mind how that is done.

The point I'm trying to make here—if a 'point' there is, and this isn't just some free consciousness flow thing—is that maybe we're tackling this all wrong, and romantic relationships are one obvious way of understanding this. I think that romantic relationships are a manner of completing ourselves by way of connecting to someone who provides that completion. There are a lot of aspects to that 'completion' and nobody says that, in any given relationship it will last. Indeed, transience is a frequent hallmark of 'romance'. But we don't require permanence to accept that completion may indeed come through a joining with others in a romantic relationship, which is the most intense form of 'relationship' that I, myself, can imagine. And I cannot conceive of any form of spiritual auto-eroticism that will ever come close to the completion I've felt and feel as the result of loving someone romantically.

Maybe it's just my limited capabilities for internal self-satisfaction, but I cannot see how spiritual auto-eroticism, and the spiritual orgasms found in states like religious ecstasy, can in any way compare to those of a satisfying and loving sexual encounter. I know, "it's all in the head", and, yes, that's no doubt true. But a connection with a real other human being, including all one's senses—for we are 'sensual' beings—and involving our bodies as well as our minds, must ultimately be more 'complete', if you will, than spiritual jerking off.

We are social beings and, all the so-called 'wisdom' of all those wise men—for men they usually were—over the ages, who told and keep telling us us that the mind ('soul', whatever) is greater and more significant than the body, to my, possibly limited, mind is just so much bullshit from people who actually lack some basic understanding of what 'human nature' really is. They've been carrying the flag of 'harmony' for a long time, and using that banner to try and lead us into a world that is ultimately solitary—though it may have a union with some imagined deity that may or may not be entirely benign, and often is just plain childish and very very narcissistic, as all monotheist deities are!—and very, very empty, because it is populated by just one.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The long and the short of it

OK, so I'm somewhat more sociable now that I've finished the first draft of a previously unfinished novel. Didn't know how long it was going to be, but it ended up over 100k words, which was more than I had expected.

This story started off as a romance with no particular plot except the beginning. Reason for that was that I just wanted to write a novel that was a romance and clearly and without doubt had everything else tacked onto it as 'context', the framework within which whatever happens between two people plays out. If I had been Nora Roberts, which I'm not, I would have had this book with half again the length, with all the backstory, which was revealed during the course of the novel, actually played in real-(story)-time, as it were.

Come to think about it, I might just go back and, in a few months or so, and revisit the whole tale and do it that way, rather than starting it in what, in relationship terms, is the last quarter or so on the way to the denouement. But sometimes you have to let first drafts rest for a while, so they can mature in your head. At least you've got the story down—and at 100k words it's a solid tale—and that gets the obligation toward your characters out of the way. You haven't left them in the lurch, but you've accompanied them to a place whence they can proceed on their own and without your helping hand.

Taking backstory-exposition out of the novel would reduce it by anything up to 4k words max, but there's at least 20k words, and probably more, in the telling of the back-story itself.

As I said, thinking about it. Right now I'm content.

Back to writing romance. It's been suggested to me several times that, if I really wanted to make a living out of writing fiction, hell, why don't I write for a market with a wide guaranteed readership: romance fiction.

Reason is, I can't. M&B or anything that's soaked in syrupy stereotypical 'romance' formula just doesn't cut it with me. Can't read that stuff. Give me a bucket. I'm not knocking it, but it's for other people to tell. Besides, I hate anything that smacks of imposed formula. If I want to write stereotypes, I'd like to write them my own way.

I admit that I can consume a fair amount of Nora Roberts, but I have to choose carefully from the mass of books she's written or I get the drowning-in-girl-syrup sensation again. And the sexual 'feasting' and 'crushing lips' metaphors are getting a bit tiresome after a while. Also, I do have issues with exactly the same story told just in different settings, with displays of erudition on particular activities taken on by the female characters replacing variability in the romantic tales. Cleverly done, I admit, but I tend to skim-read over the excessive details of said activities to get to the bits that I'm interested in, which don't have to do with displays of how competent females can be in their chosen professions and how they can do anything guys can do. I know that, because, like that other great admirer of female competence, the late Robert Heinlein, I suspect that women are the stronger sex.

Right now I'm reading Chasing Fire, which ostensibly is all about smoke jumpers (though it really is all about sex and the get-to-marriage game), and it has some appreciated tweaks on the male-female relationship angle, but there's still a rhythm in the sequence of how things happen that's a repeat of quite a few other Nora Roberts novels I've read—and I'm very selective about which I spend time with and would like to think that these are the less stereotypical ones.

There's got to be a way to do this better; though obviously it satisfies the public, because NR sells a shitload of books—and good on her, by the way, because she tells good stories, and by and large they have good female role models in them. And Chasing Fire even describes sex by people over the age of 55, which is pretty daring.

So, my practice-romance, which isn't like your normal romance—if only because it's written by a straight male, who will usually try to hide in some way that he's writing a romance because that's really a girly thing, right?—may still have some time to go before it's finished. As usual, I'm doing a Terry Goodkind and packing a lot of general life-philosophy into it, without overloading it and making it tedious. It's a fine balancing act.

Oh, yes, and almost all of the last 2/3 of this novel, whose title is Your Choice (how absurdist can you get?) were written on the train to (usually) and from (occasionally) my day-job. Since I have a 50-60 minute train ride to my work, that's usually a long-enough period to get something down. I was working it out the other day: an average of 800 words per trip.

Same goes for this blog, by the way. Started at 05:35h and finished at 06:15, and it's over 800 words.

So, there's a lesson here for those who claim not to have any 'time' to write. It can be done. You can surely find the 45 minutes to hammer out those 800 words. Or maybe just 500? Who cares? 500 words every weekday, that's 2,500 words per week, 10,000 words per month and a dazzling 120,000 words a year. If you manage 1000 (at the other end of the productivity scale, and by the time this trip on the train is done I will have written closer to 1000 than 800 words) we're talking 20,000 words a month and a 100k word novel in a mere five months.

Writing novels part time is doable, and don't you forget it. It doesn't have to be a masterpiece, but everything you write has the potential, upon re-visitation (and rewriting if necessary) to become salable. Better to write the not-so-great novel than not to write at all, wouldn't you say?

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Back to "Who Owns the Story"

The topic isn't finished and never will be. Just read an article on the deviantart website, which raised the topic again.

Some of the comments triggered what you might call a 'desire for a public response', and here it is.

The comments:

"In the modern day, where interaction on a global level happens in seconds, involving the audience while a work is in progress seems to be the best way to ensure success, so long as the writer makes an effort to consider all of the feedback they get, in addition to considering what story they intend to tell themselves."

and

"People who create to be consumed would care about pleasing the audience, people who are consumed by their creation quite frankly care only to please themselves."

and

"Writers have editors, but who says the editors can't be the audiences themselves? If I were writing a story mostly for my own enjoyment, then I have no obligations to please the audience. However, if I am creating something with the main purpose of marketing to the masses, then my work should reasonably meet their expectations, and the best way to do that would be to listen to their opinions."

I am very passionate about storytelling: as an activity (I am addicted to it like a smoker to his cigaret, and one of the reasons why I haven't blogged recently is that I'm about to finish the first draft of a 100k-word novel; always a delicate time); as a tradition that has been instrumental in shaping human civilization, culture and the very structure of the human mind; and as an art-form (yeah, I know, I hate the much-abused word 'art' myself, but I can't find a better term right now).

What I want to add to what I already said here is this:

I have no respect for people who prostitute themselves for the sake of 'success'. I refuse to become one of them. If it means that I shall not have 'success', so be it. At least I still have my integrity and my pride.

I've been taken to task about this by people I know and who thought they were making helpful suggestions about how to further my 'career' as a writer or film-maker. Some of these people are close to me and really wanted to help me with this, because they know how I feel about storytelling—and how much I would have loved to make this into my main source of income, rather than working in paid employment jobs that, at best, I endure (and happen good at!), but get no real pleasure or satisfaction out of. I'd rather be at home and write, and maybe learn the difficult skill of visual storytelling as well (I admire 'pictorial' storytellers!) or make movies. Or something along those lines.

It's a choice, I know, and I'll never end up economically secure by telling stories through whatever medium happens to come along. That's a tough one to learn to live with, but these days—or is it just making a grim reality into a virtuous one?—I wear it with pride, and I can live with that. I'm not sure I could have lived with the alternative, knowing deep down that I did prostitute myself; that my stories were fabricated from recipes imposed by the requirements of success, industry, public demand, etc. With my skills, mind you; but still, if the stories and characters don't come from the heart and yourself—if you're not, as that one commentator cited above wrote, you weren't "consumed by [your] creation"—then what's the bloody point? You'd be just another flunky-for-hire by people who, despite their PR-department designed public pronouncements, don't give a shit about the story, but just want to make money.

Yeah, I know. You gotta be realistic.

But you also have to make choices.

And consider this: no good story has ever come out of a fucking committee. The ones that really grab us are almost universally created by sole individuals, who had it somewhere inside them and needed to get it out.

Yes, the energy ultimately has to flow from the creator to an audience, but for it to even qualify as truly 'interesting' it needs something that no 'public feedback' can ever provide. For the public is about the worst and most destructive and unproductive 'committee' you can possibly get. And exactly because of that, and since they are also the ultimate recipients of your story, you actually owe it to them not to allow them to force you into creating shit; and instead to remain (here's another overused word, but I use it with the greatest respect) 'authentic'. Remain yourself. And maybe—is this heresy right now and in the current climate?—not listen to what they are saying say.

But let me tell you: sometimes prostitution looks like a very, very tempting alternative. There's this sneaky voice that whispers sweet rationalizations about why it really isn't prostitution and how you can make this work in your favor. And I know all the arguments for and against. And ultimately it always comes down to the Absurdist's favorite word:

Choice.

Sometimes I hate choice.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Missing the truth

Continuing...

To propose that "everything" is fiction (everything written or told or shown that is) is either semantically empty (this applies to all "everything is X" statements) or wrong. However, I can understand why one might claim it is. Any report by anyone about a cognitive event is going to be distorted, incomplete and/or embellished by the the reporter. And anything admittedly 'opinion' or 'analysis' is inherently 'fictional', even though it may contain elements of 'truth' and map accurately on whatever 'really' was, is or will be.

It's even not quite as clear cut as one would like it when defining fiction by 'intent' (in creation and reception alike). For what about historical novels, which often contain a mixture of fiction and fact? Or 'true crime' novels, who take what was a 'known' event, and add a narrative framework of fiction around what's considered established 'facts' to fill in the gaps? Is the intent in such cases to produce fiction of non-fiction. Or what about books or movies 'based on a true story'? What do you call this kind of hybrid? And what the hell is a 'true story' anyway?

And let's pursue this thought further, for in the above examples we're talking about mixing 'truth' (whatever that may be) with 'confabulation', 'conjecture' and/or maybe just a plain bit of narrative zing. But what 'truth' are we talking about and what kind of truth has the required status to qualify as lending a book the status of being 'non fiction'? Truths about physical events? About the actions of people and their motivations for acting as they did?

Even if we bought into the notion that we can assign a higher 'truth' value to any of these than to, say, that of events described in (plug) Seladiënna—which is, after all set in a world that's pretty much our 'real' world—we'd still, if we're intellectually honest, must ask ourselves, whether there aren't, wrapped in events that have never happened, except in my imagination, 'truths' that are as 'real' as those purportedly being displayed in works that claim to be 'non-fiction'. After all, what is a 'truth', but—and I'm simplifying for the sake of brevity—a statement, expressed in any propositional system of communication, that maps onto some aspect of experiential or empirically testable 'reality'—in what, in my philosophically more pompous moments, of which there are many, I think of as an 'ontological isomorphism'.

Anyway, this whole thing about why some people read fiction while other don't—or don't anymore—isn't as neatly wrapped up as one might want, so that one can use it as a means to pass judgment upon people. The way I think it plays out is that there is a spectrum of reasons, motivations and dispositions here, as per usual when it comes to human beings. Some of the colors in that spectrum we can identify clearly enough, while others may yet be hidden and the rest are blends of the identifiable colors.
 
For example there's the kinds of people who basically aren't interested in fiction at all. No particular motive here; nothing intellectual or reasoned; fiction just doesn't 'do' it for them. These folks can't relate to written words that describe things which are obviously not real, and the more obviously not-real they are, the less they can relate to it.

This is not necessarily connected with age. I remember having a conversation with a under-20 female shop assistant in a toy store one day when I bought myself a Yoda figurine; during this, with relation to the Star Wars series, she expressed her disconnect from things that "just aren't real". While her disconnect evidently was not motivated by anything even remotely intellectual (the water in that brain was so shallow you couldn't wash your big toe in it), there are others, usually older people of real or at least self-proclaimed intellect, who will rationalize the very same disconnect as something actually desirable or even intellectually advanced.

On the other hand, there are also those who don't even think about why they don't read fiction, but who might still happily watch fictional movies with significant 'non-real' elements or premises. I know several of them, and they are all perfectly nice people of well above average intelligence. That they are also disinterested in anything too deeply 'philosophical' is also true (though they have a tendency toward religiosity, which is supremely ironic, given how utterly fictional that is!); but then again, there are others, who are philosophically inclined, highly intelligent by most standards, but who just wouldn't ever think of wasting their time with reading fiction—and usually avoid fictional movies as well, unless those are labeled as being and an intellectual 'must see'. (Give me a bucket!)

There are many ways, I'm sure, how an older person might get to be that way; human life is too varied and colorful to squeeze everything into a bunch of facile pigeonholes. But I think that maybe the reasons why a young person should already have the disconnect I spoke of earlier, are easier to discern. I think they might be connected with something as simple as not having been read to when little, and later not having had a significant exposure to imaginative tales within the context of 'reading'. Reading fairy tales forces the mind to engage more resources than anything else we have to offer: exercise of the reading capability and all that comes with it, including vocabulary, grammar, style, propositional complexity; exercise of the imagination to support the words in the creation of the world, characters and events being read about; intellect to connect the elements of the story into a coherent, logical whole; emotion to provide deep engagement with the story's characters and their feelings, thoughts, decisions, etc.

I understand the power of movies, and I'm all for telling stories cinematographically, but despite all this, watching a movie—or anything on TV—is a less mentally taxing exercise than reading, simple because it does not require the simultaneous engagement of the same vast range of mental faculties. Said simultaneous engagement—and I'm talking here about that required to support the reading and mental processing of fiction!—is integrative. An early and extensive exposure to the reading of imaginative literature will create connections in the brain that no other activity can create; not movies, not video games, not fantasy cartoons, not even Sesame Street (which once upon a time was an amazing program).

If the sounds like I'm harking back to old times; well, I'm not. It's just that reading about the  imaginary happens to be an activity that has developmental benefits that no other activities are able to provide. And continuing to do this is even better, because it ensures that the abilities thus acquired to not atrophy and get battered into submission by 'reality'. Which is exactly what is happening to day; only that said 'reality' has become defined by our cultural brainwashing as something that's not actually conducive to the development and maintenance of healthy human beings.

You could argue that this really isn't any different from the way it used to be, and I suppose that's true enough. But it's also true that we have been fortunate enough to obtain a tool (reading), which is incredibly powerful at shaping us into something more—and complete, if you will—than we are without it; a tool that, when combined with a long, long tradition, ranging across all cultures, of imaginative storytelling, of any kind of deliberately fictional narration, takes us into a realm far above the level of 'animal'; in terms of scope, vision, capability, potential. A synergy whose power is rarely, if ever, thought about. In fact, I haven't seen or heard anyone putting it together in just that way. So, maybe this was even an original thought. Stranger things have happened.

I think I'm kind of coming back to something I said a couple of blogs ago when talking about 'reality sclerosis'. Never mind the rationalizations of those who think they have a rational basis of some sort for their rejection of fiction. Every damn thing can be rationalized; this is a basic axiom of human existence, at least for those humans whose brains have been imprinted with a system of propositional thought, which in turn requires a supporting language.

What lies at the heart of this though is, I think, maybe a loss of heart, and a falling into lockstep with the kind of 'reality' imprinted into us by the current Zeitgeist, especially in the Western world. And in that reality there is less and less space and time for imagination, except the synthetic, sanitized, cultured or pretentiously arty variety considered suitable for human consumption by this age.

I know that it may not look that way, what with all the fantasy movies and books around; but it's a trend that's gathering a momentum, which, I hope, will not end up swamping us completely, leaving only a few desperadoes or anarchists to carry on the flame of the ancient tradition of storytelling and not just getting children to go "Ahhh..." and suspend their disbelief for long enough to become a participant in some Neverending Story.

Friday, June 29, 2012

To fiction

"Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures." Jessamyn West
 
Let's face it, I don't have much respect for what you might call the life-skill-intellects of most people. I suspect I never had, not really, but that's another matter. Truth is, most people, take the easiest way from A to B, instead of the best one. And if A=Birth and B=Death, then, well...

While unsurprised at the mush-brains of most people, it's something else altogether to find those who've actually done some serious 'optional' thinking—that's thinking about stuff they didn't have to think about for the purpose of staying alive and functioning within the parameters of 'normality', whatever these might be—and still ending up making really dumb statements. Or maybe that's a tad judgmental; let's call them 'insightless' (there's a quickie neologism for you).

Philip Roth, for example, (as quoted here) when asked why he said “I’ve stopped reading fiction,” purportedly replied “I don’t know. I wised up …

Hmmm. No. Wised up he has not. (As—the entirely fictional character—Yoda, might have said.) Wised down he has.

Let's admit though, that at least the first part of the reply was true, for Roth really doesn't know and even less understands, and that's probably because he, like the common ruck of lazy-ass humans, is taking the easiest path from whatever A is to B, which is probably his fictionless reading future. And that easiest way is often marked by statements of supposed importance without the statement-maker having looked carefully at what one s/he talking about.

In this instance that would be 'fiction'.

Since we're word-mongering here, let's take a stab at a definition, and I find that Wikipedia's is as good or better than most, so here it is:

Fiction is the form of any narrative or informative work that deals, in part or in whole, with information or events that are not factual, but rather, imaginary—that is, invented by the author. Although fiction describes a major branch of literary work, it may also refer to theatrical, cinematic or musical work. Fiction contrasts with non-fiction, which deals exclusively with factual (or, at least, assumed factual) events, descriptions, observations, etc. (e.g., biographies, histories).

Good enough for our investigative purpose, but let's look at the definition of its antonym as well:

Non-fiction (or nonfiction) is the form of any narrative, account, or other communicative work whose assertions and descriptions are understood to be factual. This presentation may be accurate or not—that is, it can give either a true or a false account of the subject in question—however, it is generally assumed that authors of such accounts believe them to be truthful at the time of their composition or, at least, pose them to their audience as historically or empirically true. Note that reporting the beliefs of others in a non-fiction format is not necessarily an endorsement of the ultimate veracity of those beliefs, it is simply saying it is true that people believe them (for such topics as mythology, religion). Non-fiction can also be written about fiction, giving information about these other works.

Note that I don't endorse these two definitions, because when juxtaposed they provide clear contradictions to each other and leave huge logical gaps. But they're just about as good as it gets.

To make what is actually a very complicated relationship simple, let me sum it up like this:

Fiction actually differs from non-fiction in one aspect only, namely that its 'fictionality', if you will, is (usually) intentional, while that of non-fiction isn't. If you deconstruct all the bullshit written about the difference between fiction and non-fiction, that's what it distils down to.

And, yes, by saying that, I'm also saying that basically every "narrative or informative" work ('narrative' and 'informative' being the same thing, but that's another lengthy topic) is fictional to a greater or lesser degree—in the sense that it is, as the Wikipedia entry says, "invented by the author" or authors. Everything that doesn't strictly report utterly unassailable 'facts' without the slightest embellishment, ideally using a language designed purely to represent 'facts', qualifies as having been "invented by the author".

So, what is the difference between 'fiction' and 'non-fiction' then, and what do those who "don't read fiction" actually "not do"?

Next blog, sorry. Train's pulling into the station and I have to get to work.

Friday, June 22, 2012

To fiction or not to fiction

Every now and then I come across an instance of that strange breed who don't read fiction. They may read books, lots of them even; and they may watch an occasional movie ("Oh yeah, I saw Avatar, and that was quite cool, though I don't really go in for that 3D shit."), but if they have disposable book-time they'll never read fiction.

The reason was clearly and lucidly articulated by a work buddy of mine, who, prompted by my question "Why not?", made a complicated compound gesture that was a mixture of shrug, head shake, general arm-twitch and an inarticulate mutter that might have meant something like "I just don't."

Reminded me a bit of what another, similarly disposed buddy of mine (a very intelligent mathematician/physicist) said quite a few years ago: "I just don't see the point." And then there's that silly atheist guru and wonderboy, Richard Dawkins, who told an interviewer that all fiction stories are lies and should be banned, initially from schools, and then people should educated not to promulgate these lies at home. The whole enlightened enterprise would be helped along by removing all fiction for young impressionable minds from libraries (and bookshops, I suppose). Ultimately we would only have 'true' stories, in the sense that anything not considered as 'real' by the likes of RD would have been eliminates from all stories.

Ridley Scott, in his recent flick, 'Prometheus' had something to say about that kind of scenario, and I'm inclined to agree with him 100%. Nobody's damn business what I believe to be 'true' but my own. Only my actions potentially are of any concern to the rest of the world.

Back to the original topic. The reasons given in almost all articles I found on the topic, some of which have a smooth rational air about them (might call it a 'Dawkins Finish'), are bogus. The real reason is a combo of reality-sclerosis (that's what you get when you pay too much attention to what you think is 'real' and therefore significant, but which actually might not be) and a lack of exposure to stories (not just 'literature') during one's formative years. Especially fairy and fantasy tales, which aren't only important but essential for the formation of a balanced human being.

That may sound like a huge generalisation. Maybe it is, and maybe it isn't. But in my experience people who didn't believe on monsters under the bed and fairies in the woods (or something ontologically equivalent, which by the way excludes most religious stuff, because that's something very different!) end up as adults without the capacity for at least considering one impossible possibility at least once a day. They also end up incapable of that magical activity called 'daydreaming', and that is sad indeed, even though they'll never know what they're missing.

They'll also end up 'old', which is probably the saddest thing of all. Losing the capacity to get lost in a story is a sure sign that a lot of other capabilities have also either disappeared or atrophied.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Who 'owns' the story?

...and its characters; the future of said characters, as well as their past, with events possibly untold in the original; the world the story is set in; any 'creatures' that may be inhabiting it; the architecture; the clouds and stars in that world's skies for that matter?

Are storytellers at liberty—or should they be? ethically, existentially, legally—to tweak as they see fit even a 'published' story (i.e. a story that has actually been presented to a non-negligibly-sized audience) should they feel so inclined or have reasons to think that it needs to be done?

I'm bringing this up because it was just one of these things that came up, prompted by confluences of this, that and the other.

'This' was a discussion (lost the URL) about whether writers should not only pay attention, but adjust their stories, based on 'feedback', as they call it, from their audience.

'That' were a bunch of TV series 'based on' novels by famous authors; like Pillars of the Earth and Game of Thrones. (Both were based on voluminous novels. Both made significant changes in the adaptation. Both did so with the assent of the author of the novels.) I haven't yet seen the film adaptation of Hunger Games, though I've seen and heard scathing reviews and personal comment by armchair critics. (At this point I'm withholding my own views of these three adaptations. Might get back to them in another blog.)

'The other' were George Lucas's tweaks to this Star Wars movies, and especially 'Episode 4' (the very first ever). These qualify as 'story modifications'; received by many with livid anger, dismay and often vitriol. "How dare he?!"

There are other instances of course. One could argue that the sanitizing and bowdlerization of fairy tales falls into the domain of who-owns-the-story. On the flip-side of this, the fairy tale and mythological characters in the Fables series also represent significant deviations from the originals, and one might ask whether we're talking about some kind of narrative offense.

Let me be clear about this: I'm not talking about IP or copyright or anything that has 'commercial' or even 'cultural' written all over it, but of the existential aspects of this; connecting with the topic of my previous post. And I think it's time we took this, somewhat lofty I suppose, point of view, because there has to be a serious counter-initiative to the trivialisation implicit in the crass materialism of 'business' and lawmongering. Stories are not about making money, though they are used to make money, and this confuses people.

As to who owns a story 'existentially', well, when it comes to mine, I have a profound sense that I do and nobody else in the world. My stories and characters are mine, and the rest of the world can follow their lives, but there's line here that they are not entitled to cross. Not in my world anyway.

By the same token, I find it almost impossible (I've tried and given up on it) to write stories involving characters and worlds I haven't created. I'll never end up wasting my time (that's just me, mind you, and I'm not denigrating those who do and who are not wasting their time doing so) writing stories set in Star Wars or Star Trek universes, or even less episodes for TV series already in existence, no matter how much I love watching them or appreciate and occasionally admire the the stories. From a purely technical point of view I could, of course, but that would just be another job using a skill I have, not a passion. Just the same as what I do now for a day job, which is 'technical' writing and general document development.

This attitude, which isn't commercially very useful, probably also explains why I don't work well with what you might call 'invasive editors', who feel the need to micromanage the story and want to change the characters to what they think they ought to be, all in the name of 'improving' the story, for whatever purpose. Many (I suspect 'most') haven't written a truly 'creative' (in the original sense of the word, not as it's used in fashionable parlance these days) story in their lives. For there is an existential abyss between the craft of writing and the process of creation of a story that actually lives inside the storyteller.

If there's a serious plot deficiency somewhere, I'm perfectly fine with having an editor point it put. But plot is incidental. I know that doesn't sound right, but what I am saying is that in most cases there are many ways to journey from A to B, and one MacGuffin is usually just as useful as another. What really matters though is what the journey does to the characters (plus that it holds the audience's interest) and how whatever happens reveals what their characters are. And that part of the story is mine and no damn editor has the right to screw around with it. And they will try to and they believe, with the patronising certainty of the zealot, that do indeed know better. And I'm unwilling to let them. Because the story and characters came from my head (are still in there) and editors definitely do not have access to my internal life beyond the clues provided by my stories.

I guess that, like so many things, the answer to the question posed in the title is personal and doesn't allow a general answer. Which is fine with me, but I thought a quickie rant about my position regarding this would do me good.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

What writers owe their characters...

Now, it may sound like I've gone a bit nuts here, and maybe I have. But, hell, I'm a story-teller and writer, mostly of novels that have a 'fantastic' element in them. So sue me for considering notions that, on the surface at least, appear 'fantastic' or possibly just plain incredible. After all, it's what keeps me sane.

Robert Heinlein, in his 1980 novel The Number of the Beast—not one of his greatest works, but for the first 80% of it I remember not being able to put it down; though I became disconnected when the whole thing turned into a parody and satire—proposed that somewhere, in some universe of their own, every character and fictional event that's ever been written about does indeed exist (or has existed, whatever 'tense' we want to apply to this) and continues to exist; except that what happens after whatever story that created that universe and its denizens ends, is something we don't actually know, mainly because the story hasn't been written to cover it.

Andrew Greeley, in the 1986 novel God Game, proposed a similar notion, only here it was a universe created by a computer game. As of late, the movie The 13th Floor mapped the same notion onto virtual-reality 'worlds', whose simulated 'characters' were done so well that they were indistinguishable, at least at a psychological level, from real human beings. And then there's Jack Vance's 1945 short story The World Thinker, of course.

There are other examples, I'm sure, but these are my personal favourites. The notion shared in all this fiction—and I emphasize that it is fiction!—is that somehow a process of 'creative thought' can indeed 'create'—worlds in some cases. A bit like, in some physics models, every quantum event creates new universes. I know it's not the same thing, and physicists—and by (academic) training I am one of them; as well as a cognitive scientist—will possibly grimace with puckered faces like they're sucking lemons at the notion. Still, the parallels are, at the very least, suggestive and maybe shouldn't be glibly and off-handedly dismissed.

Back to me and my characters. As of right now, consulting my list of unfinished works, I come up with:
  1. Four novels that exist as partial first drafts.
  2. Four novels that need to be copy-edited, have covers created, and laid out, so that I can get them to lulu for public exposure.
All of them trouble me, though I'm not sure which bother me most. I'm trying to work according to the Modified Maxims of Robert A Heinlein, which loosely state that:
  1. You must finish your novels.
  2. You must ensure that your finished novels are available to the public.
The elements of item 1 have to pass through becoming elements of item 2 in order to complete the maxims' requirements. And I'm conflicted, people; like seriously f*ing conflicted, because it looks like I've clocked up implicit debts to the characters of 8 (finished and unfinished) novels here, and that's damn serious, especially since two of the finished-but-still-to-be-copyedited novels have been lying around for the best part of a decade. I take that back: one of them (Coralia) was actually serialized in the VIE's Cosmopolis Literary Supplement some years back, and so has had some 'public' exposure. Still, the guilt is slowly weighing me down...

OK, OK, I hear you say (think, whatever), what the f*'s he on about? What 'guilt'? These 'characters' are completely imaginary!

Psychoanalysts and the likes of Richard Dawkins would have a field day with this. The former would label me either as a prankster or someone with several serious cognitive disorders with long and pretentious names. The latter would call me a pathological liar; since he has stated, quite clearly, that he can't see the difference between 'fiction' and 'lies'. (Moron!)


Way I see it, it could just be all in my head. In fact it is in my head, because I am the god of these universes I create; sort of. The Creator, definitely. Metaphorically and in deed as well. And, assuming that my head is kind of essential in this, if I suddenly died without having given my imagined characters some kind of existential foundation, they'd just go POOF. Of course, the moment I write down their stories, I have effectively done so—even if incompletely in some cases; and in those, I'd be leaving them hanging in the middle of a shitload of unfinished business.

Not fair. Definitely not.

The very least I owe my characters is the denouement I had in mind for them in the stories I'd written them into. Whatever happens after that—well, life goes on and I have this idea that I can probably let them take it from where I decide to leave them at the end of my story. I mean, that's what storytellers do, and have done since time immemorial, right? It's what happens when, at the end of the fairytale it's "they lived happily ever after", whatever "happily" means—if there is a "happily": a moot point since everybody eventually dies, and that isn't exactly something qualifying as 'happiness'.

If all that sounds like I have a very intense and close relationship with my characters, it sounds like what it is. Truth is I never realized just how far this goes until I went and, not so long ago, converted all those unfinished and unpublished novels into eBooks (purely for my own use and using a very nifty program called 'Calibre') and spent some quality-time re-reading them on my iPhone during my idle hours traveling to and from work. As I mentioned before, some of this unpublished material is quite old (dates back to the early 21st century). I'd forgotten just how close I had gotten to these folk; especially since in some cases they're actually inhabiting the same universe as the Tethys series, only that they lived a some centuries earlier.

Sidebar: Fascinating isn't it, how one gets wrapped up in one's creations! I used to take the piss out of people who spoke that way about their gaming-universes, but here I am using the same kind of language, referring to things that are usually classified as entirely imaginary as if they were historical fact. A part of me at least tells me that I am getting a tad dysfunctional here! On the other hand, huge numbers of people treat Star Wars, Star Trek or Firefly 'verses just the same way, except that they didn't create them, but are just tuning in, so to speak.

Strange world we live in, is all I can say to this. Who is 'sane' here and who isn't? What's 'real' anyway—and what, to really throw the cat among the pigeons, does 'real' actually mean? What I'm asking about here is the 'grounding' of the term 'real'? Are we talking about physical reality; and if so, which part of it and how to we define 'physical'? Or are we talking about anything that exists at all, including non-quantifyable and non-localizable, but also definitely not epiphenomenal 'imaginary' objects?

Within my 'reality', I have come to the conclusion—actually it was more an epiphany, that hit me right between the eyes—that my characters qualify as 'real' enough to warrant respect and consideration; that I have obligations toward them. And once they've been given some kind of existence, I have assumed a responsibility to see them through the story I have concocted for them and thereby defined who and what they are. I allowed them to become entities of their own (think of them as fetuses) rather than remaining unborn (exisiting in 'potential' land only, like an egg never fertilized). Now I must see them through their gestation period (finish their stories, edit and re-edit them until they are as they were meant to be; or sometimes made themselves into), and allow them to become born into this world (make the story available to the world through the process of publication).

It's all not unlike the existential conundrums laid bare in The 13th Floor. The questions I asked myself—and which I have answered, at least to my own satisfaction—are fundamental to our very understanding of what it means to 'be' (or in Spanish: 'ser', as opposed to 'estar'). Of what it means to be a creature with an identity and capable of reflecting on that identity. Is a physical creature of that kind more 'real' than one in a computer simulation? A creature in a computer simulation more real than one in the mind of a storyteller, or in the minds of all those who receive the story, through whatever medium?

Is a character in a story any less real than a 'real' human character or person? Or, to rephrase the question in terms of 'value': is a character (for example) in a book of less existential value and significance than a real human being, just because he or she is just a character in a book?

I really don't know how to answer that.