Saturday, April 28, 2007

Leaving the comfort zone.

This is a 'writing' blog, whose 'direction', if you will, remains tied to the contingencies of life, external and internal, insofar as they affect what I am currently writing or planning to write. And life, external and internal, has a way of...well, being just the foggy kind of mess that I talked about in the previous blog. You come to a juncture in the path that you hadn't anticipated from a few steps back. So, are you gonna go this way or that? Or maybe none of these two, but one of the other possibles forking off from here?

Well, in life per se, there aren't usually just two possibilities at any given step, but usually a gazillion. Literally. Whatever a 'gazillion' is. I still don't know, but it's some überultramegagiga+ kind of number. Big, that is. Very.

Being of limited capacity we usually don't see most of the alternatives, but just those we're able to pay attention to; things being as and what they are. This goes, as I've said twice before already, for external and internal matters—even though often it is hard to tell the two apart, because they are so intimately connected. And in this instance they definitely are, because I can trace a chain of external causes to an internal process that ultimately led to where I am now with regards to these things I'll mention in a moment. It's a fascinating process, doing this 'tracing back' thing, and you should try it; not just sometimes, but often. Many riddles will resolve themselves, at least partially.

Anyway, we're talking about tears and comfort zones, so let's go there.

Years ago my family lived in the US. In Atlanta, to be specific, for over three years. During that time we got around a bit, inter alia visiting the Cherokee reservation in western NC. Unavoidably this led to some digging into their past on my behalf, which of course led to the history of the forced resettlement of the Eastern Indian tribes and that event known as The Trail of Tears.

I wish I could say it was an unusually brutal event—but the truth is that, within the context of not only the settlement of the Americas by Europeans but basically human settlement of any region occupied by any other humans than the invaders, such events are not only commonplace but the order-of-the-day; and they will remain that way. To speak of 'brutality' in the context of the interactions between human societies is to utter a platitude. We may be dismayed that this is so and try to imagine a world in which it might be different, but it ain't gonna happen. Period.

Still, having said all that, let me be clear about it, it was brutal, nasty, cynical, riddled with lies and false promises and a total lack of care for those who stood in the way of living space and riches. It doesn't matter that these people themselves were no bucolic angels, but fought endless bloody tribal skirmishes with their neighbors. Nor does it matter that their customs were by no means devoid of significant elements of what we, from our points of view, would rightly consider with...well, let's call it 'disapproval'. It's even possible that from some points of view—especially the Christian one—they qualified as 'uncivilized' and 'heathens'. But all of these are value judgments that should never be used to justify ill treatment of those who differ from ourselves. However, they are used. Copiously and pervasively so; mainly because it's so easy to contrive some—any, really; no matter how stupid and purely self-serving—framework that makes someone else into something less than human; or if not that, into someone who requires our corrective attention—whatever kind of 'correction' that may be.

I didn't pursue the matter while living in the US, but later came back to it—for reasons now lost even to me—when back in NZ, and did a lot more research on it, plus figured out a basic story that might allow me to make it into a screenplay. Then I put it away into a bunch of files and folders, together with my materials on other 'Western' themes, like the Wyatt Earp story, which I'd like to revisit one of these days as well, because it needs to; I just don't have quite the 'angle' I want for it yet. Reason why I put these things away was that, at least as far as the Cherokee story was concerned, what I had wasn't enough. I don't mean 'not enough material' for there's heaps of that. But you've got to have something to say, or else your fiction is just so much vapid stuff happening, no matter how interesting. It's got to be about something. And it doesn't matter if the 'about' is hidden underneath layers of action, diversions, distractions and other apparent and more overtly displayed 'abouts'. As long as it's there—and only the story-teller can sense if it really is—it will provide the motivation, the dynamic, the spine and, ultimately the characters you'll create; or, maybe it is more true that with the 'about', the characters tend to create themselves. Crappy fiction—novel, play, movie—tends to consist of lots of overtly visible stuff that looks weighty and deep and meaningful and everybody goes 'ohh' and 'ahh'. But the way I see it, whatever something critics or reviewers pick up on, it probably isn't 'it'. A bit like the Tao:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao;
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
'Essential' content is too sublime to be pinned down by analysis. Hence we often, and despite apparent satisfactory analysis of a story, told in any medium, still remain with a sense of dissatisfaction and a void lurking somewhere beyond our reach. Heed that sense, for it is more reliable than any 'analysis', no matter how apparently 'deep'.

A week ago or so something came up that re-triggered my interest in the matter. A nudge here and a nudge there from quarters that basically had nothing to do with the whole matter. For those interested in riddles, if you read my last few blogs, you'll find there a hint to the answer. Disconnected things flowing together, combining forces to generate a torrent of associations and ultimately leading to this point.

So, here we are, and it's time to move out of 'comfort zone' territory. Every story-teller should do that sometime. For, let's face it, the imagined universe of Tethys is 'comfortable'. Whatever exists there is made up, even the constraints that have been imposed from Keaen to Tethys. Going back into history, with all the pitfalls that entails—in particular the associated search/research for what constitutes 'historical fact' and what doesn't—is a different story. I also have the outline for a time-travel story to the Amarna period of ancient Egypt, but that's comparatively easy, since just about all 'historical fact' is conjecture in that context. The same is not true the past of about less than two-hundred years ago. Or, I should not, not as true.

There's also an argument that 'proper research', which evidences what nowadays is often referred to as 'respect for the culture', should include not only visits and interviews with people who are the descendants of those one writes about, but in fact ask for their permission and/or blessing to even write the story. Clearly, I cannot do this, since I have neither the time nor the funds for an extended visit to the southeastern US and Oklahoma; much as I'd love to do it. Also, there is another factor, which has to do with the 'ownership', if you will, of history. Way I see it, the history of mankind belongs to everybody and Microsoftesque notions of 'copyrighting' material, unless it relates to particular and specific symbols, is ludicrous, though it's becoming pervasive all over the world.

What is required though, is respect. Not the fawning kind, that sees no flaws in the victims, but respect for the right of certain ways of life to exist. Yet, at the same time, one also has to understand that 'change' is the one constant of human individual and social existence at all scales. And change can be tragic, when seen from the points of view of cultures. For all cultures will die, large and small, from the scope of empires to that of tribal domains. If history teaches us anything, it surely must be that. And it must also be that, human nature being what it is, such change will be driven my motivations that are deeply rooted in our evolutionary past; and it will be accompanied by inevitable conflict and the associated suffering, mostly of innocents. By and large, people are not—and will not be—ready, at a scale that matters, to execute change in other ways. Brutality, no matter how well-concealed under a multitude of euphemisms, some of them deceptively benign but no less oppressive, will be an unavoidable and dominating presence.

This is the nature and color of the background against which the drama of the settlement of the American continent by Europeans played out. A part of the drama was the destruction of other cultures, as tends to be the way of things; and a part of that process in turn was the 'resettlement', as the euphemism goes, of American Indians to places where they weren't in the way of the newcomers. Said 'resettlement' basically took on the form of driving humans like cattle across the landscape with, by and large, little or no concern for their welfare. The whole affair was about as despicable as these things can get.

The process of Eastern Indian 'resettlement' (imagine me always using that word in scare-quotes, because it belongs there) best publicized is that inflicted on the Cherokee, for whom the 'Trail Of Tears' is an essential element of their folklore, self-image and self-understanding. This much was clear after even the briefest visit to the NC reservation. Originally I was going to make this a Cherokee-oriented story, because it's maybe the best known and because the tribal politics surrounding it, before and after, provides a cornucopia of story material; with power-struggles, lots of intrigue, internecine struggle and ultimately outright murder. How can anybody resist?

Well, I decided that I can. On my perambulations through the history of these 'resettlements' I discovered something I hadn't known before, namely that the Cherokee weren't actually the first to be resettled and that the Trail of Tears was first walked by the Choctaw, a group more numerous than the Cherokee, who were herded from their homelands in Mississippi and Louisiana to Oklahoma about eight years before the Cherokee. The Choctaw, for a number of reasons I'll probably blog about in due course and when I know more, are a potentially much more interesting group of American Indians, whom I've never really heard much about, but intend to spend some time researching before writing down a single word of this story.

So, I've got to do some serious reading. There is good web-based material (like texts of dishonored 'treaties') plus a number of books that will probably require interpolation, as all historical materials do, but it should be fun.

It'll also be something new, trying out something more of a 'historical novel' than my usual 'imaginative fiction'.

More on the themes and whatever develops as we go further along that path.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Journey called 'Life' - Parte Tertia

In that recent edition of Scientific American: Mind I've mentioned before, in the article about why it's so difficult to be happy, there is a note about the counterproductivity, if that's the world, of goal-setting and goal-achievement. Apparently, in order to be happy, or something akin to it, goals are not the way to go about that.

I suggest strongly reading the article, if you can find the magazine in hardcopy or online. But here I want to deconstruct, if you will, the mechanism of goal-setting and achievement in the light of The Journey of Life (JoL). Doing this may, I think, reveal a somewhat different perspective to the one you're used to.

The basic rules of the JoL:
  • You can only move in one direction: forward; although you may choose different branches appearing all the time in the path ahead.
  • You cannot stop and smell the roses. You have to keep moving.
  • You're walking in a permanent fog, and can't see more than a few steps past your nose. Sometimes it's a bit more, but not much.
  • All you can do to plan your path is to draw a map of some sort, which will be based on a mix of speculation, deduction, induction, conjecture and a massive dose of ignorance of what lies ahead.
The act of goal setting and achievement consists of the following elements:
  • You have to choose someplace you want to get to on your journey. That place is known as your goal.
  • You have to create a map how to get there. This map consists of a conjectured path to the goal—in essence an outline of what branches you have to take at point on the journey.
  • You have to make and continue to make decisions on going this way or that in order to 'reach' the point you wanted to reach.
  • If the map turns out to be inaccurate, as it almost invariably will because of your basic ignorance of what will be, you will have to adjust the map.
Once you've reached your goal the following are certain:
  • You will always go past it. You cannot just stay where you are, because life won't let you.
  • The consequences of having taken the decision branches you have to get there, will have precluded you from having taken a whole lot of other paths that you can never tread.
  • Because of the Law of Unintended Consequences you will find yourself in a position that conforms, to some degree to your expectations, but which will have associated with it infinitely more 'unexpecteds'.
The most important thing to remember with all the above, insofar as goal setting and achievement is concerned, is the truth about your essential ignorance of what lies in the fog surrounding you, which prevents you as much from seeing the full extent of the complexities of the present, as much as it conceals the contingencies of the future and the landscape before you.

The map you draw is always based on a much larger degree of ignorance than it is of knowledge. The map, as the General Semantics people say, is not the territory; this map even more so than usual. And the map of what happens once you go past your goal...well, that probably hasn't even been thought of in the obsession with getting to the goal. And that is a map you should really have thought about some before setting out. For, do you really want to be in the position you're going to be in once you get there? What exactly that position is likely to be, is, of course, shrouded in fog.

Something else that often gets lost in following the map and making decision to go this way rather than that, is 'perspective'. Tunnel-vision takes over. "Ah," you say, "so I've some to this point and I want to go there, so I go that way." Never a look or peek into the fog to the other branch, to see if maybe there were outlines of interesting things that might warrant one's attention.

And so on.

Remember this very physical image of your life: fog all around you; unable to stop moving; on a path with a branch every step of the journey.

That just about sums up 'life'. And if you think you're actually 'seeing clearly' in any way, think again. For you don't. You just think you do. You mistake the map of your conjecture for the territory. Usually the map is pretty accurate for short periods of time. The human brain is, after all, largely dedicated to being a prediction machine. But it's just a map, which you follow in the blind faith that it's more than a map, because you have to.

And so you step into the fog, confident that the step isn't going to take you straight over a cliff's edge, and the fog closes in behind you and opens a bit more ahead, keeping you in its bubble of ignorance all the time. I've used that image in Seladiënna, by the way, though I suspect that, despite a previous and fairly broad hint as to its meaning, it, too, was lost on the readers.

I think I need to be less subtle. Maybe a sledgehammer would do the job better.

Land of the free. Home of the brave.

In Queen's Gardens, in Dunedin, so close that I can see it, partially obscured by trees, from the window of my office, stands a cenotaph, honoring, as it reads at its base, 'The Glorious Dead' from several wars.

And last Friday was 'Poppy Day', when a lot of, mostly younger, uniformed and semi-uniformed men and women, boys and girls, stood around the country handing out little pin-on poppies and expecting you to drop some money into a tin, which is meant to go toward benefiting returned soldiers and their families; whatever isn't swallowed up in bureaucracy, that is. And Wednesday is ANZAC Day, which is a day of remembrance—and a day off-work for most, except retailers, who are expected to open at midday.

So, it seems kind of fitting that we should end up seeing Shooter last weekend, and that last night we saw a flick called Home of the Brave; downloaded via p2p. For this isn't a movie you're going to see in wide theater distribution anytime soon, and probably never. In New Zealand, chances are, it will be seen by a handful of people at the most—ever. The copy I saw still had an occasional bit of writing at the bottom of the screen saying 'Property of MGM', so I assume it's a rip from a preview DVD. The reviews on IMDb were either scathing or overflowing with praise—which means that it's one of those movies that pushes buttons.

Again, a SPOILER warning for what follows.

HotB is about three soldiers returning back from a tour in the ongoing war in Iraq and their adjustment issues. In the leads: Samuel Jackson as army surgeon Will Marsh, who feels guilty about his powerlessness to save people and about having become desensitized to their suffering; Jessica Biel as supply runt Vanessa Price, who got her right hand blown off by a roadside bomb, triggered by a kid with a cellphone; Brian Presley as soldier Tommy Yates, who lost his best friend just days before the scheduled return home as a result of the same ambush that occasioned Vanessa's injury.

That ambush of what amounts to a humanitarian supply convoy is what loosely connects the characters; as Marsh is the first to tend to Vanessa and she briefly catches a glimpse of Yates as well, before everything goes to the dogs of war.

The first segment, in Iraq, portrays some of the pressures of being a soldier, at all levels and in all functions; always having to be on guard, because anything else will kill you. The operative term is 'always'; unrelenting tension and stress, sometimes apparently qualifying as mild, but it never leaves you. For there are people around who hate you and will kill you whenever they can. There are also those who don't hate you and who may even be glad you're there and doing what you're doing, but it's in the nature of things that they will not go out with the same fervor and try to protect you; nor will they speak out in your defense with the same vigor as your opponents. This is, after all, the nature of these things.

So, these three come home—plus a few other, more peripheral, figures—and, unlike is the case in other 'soldiers returning home' movies, nothing much actually happens. Which is part of the problem. For the normality of the life of those they are charged to defend—for whatever reason and motivation—is stifling with its normality and the complete lack of appreciation of their situation by those they return home to. So Marsh walks into a home where his son is disgusted not only at the war, but also at his father being a part of it; plus he has trouble sleeping, because he had gotten so used to not getting much sleep. Vanessa has to deal with being a solo divorced mum whose relationships with former boyfriend, Ray (James McDonald), is gone to the dogs some time ago, and who has to deal with being a one-handed cripple, who can't accept help even from friendly strangers like Cary (Jeffrey Nordling). Tommy has to deal with his father, who's a good guy but a bit dense and simple; a former buddy who's gone mentally AWOL for a number of reasons, and whose rage focuses on his former girlfriend who isn't interested in him anymore; as well as Tommy's own nagging guilt feelings at leaving his fellow soldiers behind to fight, while his own life's become 'safe'—in a manner of speaking.

The problems at home would have appeared trivial in comparison to those these three faced while in the warzone. But they're not, because all problems and their magnitude are relative. Still, all of them have this notion that they don't fit, all for apparently different reasons—which are, at heart, all the same.

Irwin Winkler's direction and the script focuses on the ways in which it might be possible to overcome those problems; the manner in which those exposed to the brutalities of war may be redeemed and become, if not 'normal', but at least 'adapted' to life outside a warzone again. In the process the movie is careful to lay open the mood in the US with regards to the Iraq war; both sides of it, and with equal and evenhanded fairness. In the process it avoids making what amounts to a judgment, because that's not what what this movie is all about. It has much more the air of Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down, which also focused on soldiers, rather than politics; all the time acknowledging that there were political issues, but they were at another level and sometimes had to be put aside—with the notable exception of a certain, entirely justified, cynicism toward all politicians; as well as all those who basically don't end up having to put themselves in harm's way—except maybe in an election, which hardly compares.

The solutions offered by the film are fairly simple, and they have to do with love, understanding, consideration and appreciation; not just as carried out by the professional machinery of organized 'rehabilitation', but by the only ones who can do this in a sustained way: family, friends, neighbors and so on, in an ever-widening circle. And this isn't happening, by and large, though the movie suggests that it might. Sometimes. For the lucky ones. Because, as far as the fate of returned soldiers these days are concerned, all three main protagonists in HotB were lucky.

The style of this film is interesting and fits with the need to follow the fates of three separate lives without too much discontinuity as the focus shifts from one person to another and another and back again. It's also difficult to tell the passage of time, but once one gets used to it it flows easily enough. The moving shots in the warzone contrast with the many static ones 'at home'. Short scenes alternate with long ones in deft timing. The pacing is thoughtful and measured. At the end there are more questions unanswered than at the beginning. Which is as it should be.

Some afterthoughts, prompted in the main by the title of the movie. For those who don't understand the reference, look here.

Only the US, due mostly to historical contingency, could have come up with the kind of self-image contained in 'home of the brave' and 'land of the free'. It's not a bad self-image, derived in the main from the time of the foundation of the nation. Unfortunately, it has become somewhat of a mockery; not because of any particular deficiencies in the American spirit—quite the contrary—but because there is a price to pay for what we call 'civilization', and especially the 'highly developed' kind. It's always been that way, and with technology being what it is, it's more so today perhaps than it could ever have been in the past.

As for 'bravery', with the advancement of urbanized civilization, the need for 'bravery' decreases with every moment. Of course people are still 'brave'—some of them—but the environmental need that tests and breeds bravery and makes it stand out as a quality in a significant proportion of people is small compared to what it would have been on a 'frontier' society. With every new element of protection from adversity comes a reduction in the need to be brave—and, by and large, people habituate to the new state and with a comparatively few exceptions are 'brave', if at all, only sporadically—or even worse, prompted by artificially created situations, which nowadays have degenerated to the levels of the abominations known as 'Reality Shows'.

And as to 'freedom'... With every law passed our freedom becomes more circumscribed. Of course, one could argue that we are 'free' in other ways now, like for example to pursue goals that we might never have had a chance to even conceive when things were...different, I guess. Roger Scruton argues, correctly I think, that 'politics' as we know it in the democracies of the West is partially a way of making those of us who choose to relegate the administration of our affairs to others, more 'free' to pursue our private goals whatever they may be and as long as they're 'legal'. But our freedoms, extensive as they are, have changed to something that's a mere shadow of what we knew them to be. In particular—and this is true especially in societies, 'left' or 'right' leaning, who pass laws that interfere in what was once considered one's 'private' life—what is taken away are what one might call out 'deepest' freedoms, whose exercise allows us to truly find out who and what we are.

Of course, we remain 'free' in the sense that we can choose to obey the laws imposed on us or not. But we are at the same time reduced to a freedom that's merely based on a choice between doing something and being punished, or not doing it. The notion that we ought to be free to choose by ourselves—and act in this way or that as a consequence—because we will it so, not because it is imposed law...all that becomes more and more diminished with every law passed, and especially with those laws relating to what goes on behind the closed doors of a home or, say, a bedroom—or any place where nobody else knows but those who act from the choices they make.

And, yes, it is true that there are good reasons for why it needs to be so. How else can we protect those who can't protect themselves, unless we visit punishment or the threat of punishment—and its enforcement!—on those who do not comply with the rules set by social consensus?

In other words, I'm not saying it is wrong that things should be so. But 'land of the free'? There is no land of the free. Civilization is, in a very real sense, the advancement of unfreedom—or maybe I should say of 'directed freedom'. Which is a variety of unfreedom. A 'land of the free' is a utopia that will never exist. Once upon a time there may have been parts of America that were, for a short while, almost 'lands of the free'; depicted, very romantically and yet tragically, in The Last of the Mohicans—which is partially about that kind of thing. But land of the free is the land of the law of the jungle. Only in developing 'society'—even if it's only in small groups—can men raise their and their families' odds of survival. And even that's no assurance—unless there's someone to stand between them an others, who have equal interests that oppose them to one another. And so on.

You can't win this one. There is no solution; except, as Plato pointed out, to eradicate all life from the planet. For it is true that only the dead have seen the end of conflict.

Freedom and bravery are only two of the 'victims' of civilization. All virtues—and 'being and acting freely' is a virtue, the way I see it; requiring, as it were, bravery—that require a serious testing ground for validation are by necessity toned down, and have, by and large and with a comparatively small proportion of exceptions, become flaccid, artificial and basically lifeless. Their backbone is gone. This is unsurprising. Comfort and security does not nurture strength, neither of body nor character.

It occurs to me that is may be true that those soldiers out there who aren't just hooligans and natural-born killers, but who still go out and put the only life they have on the line for those left behind...that they are the ones who have the best chance of displaying or being witnesses to something clearly recognizable as 'courage'. It is possible that this is one of the reasons why some seek out that profession.

It is also possible that those who condemn them for doing so, and who call them either 'simple' or 'evil' or 'stupid' or 'misguided' or 'manipulated', do so not for reasons of care, ethics and morality, but from a profound and bitter sense of envy.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Shooter (2007)

WARNING: DEFINITE AND SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS AHEAD.

Antoine Fuqua doesn't like government or politicians, and the bigger they get the less he likes them. Shooter, as if evidence were needed, is an anti-government polemic wrapped up in an action flick, with a hero (Mark Wahlberg) Bob Lee Swagger, a former sniper and a man possessed of simple ethics and deadly skills. The government is a present-day one, instantiated in a grossly-overweight 'US Senator' (Ned Beatty)—who likes to proclaim this every now and then like a creed and declaration of his license to act with impunity—plus his henchmen, led by Danny Glover, as Colonel Johnson, as an ice-cold opportunist and manipulator. Not many shades of gray here. You know who the bad guys are and who to cheer for.

Bob, after having been used and left to die by his government in a mission behind enemy lines and seeing his friend and spotter die beside him as a result, manages to escape and tries to live a life alone in the mountains somewhere. He's sought out and manipulated into becoming a patsy/fall-guy for the assassination of a foreign leader, though it looks like he was after the US President. Hunted by everyone and sundry, and with the assistance of his former partner's wife (Kate Mara) and an FBI agent (Michael Peña), whom Swagger declined to kill when he might have, and who as a result starts thinking the wrong (right) thoughts.

Though Swagger must realize in the end, as must the audience, that here indeed, as the bad guys explain several times, we don't live in a world anymore—if ever! not on the large scale anyway—where the sheriff can fix the problems of his town with a few judicious killings, he does his best to make sure that, at least insofar as he himself and one other person he might still care about is concerned, he'll make sure that things are set as much to right as they can be.

As usual—as in Tears of the Sun and King Arthur, for example—underneath the action flick there lurks a polemic that pays homage to the 'simple' soldier; the man without grand agendas, who just, for whatever reason, wants to do the job he volunteered for or was dragged into by contingency; while being deeply cynical about the motives of anybody much above the rank of the truly 'operational' soldier—that being the ones who end up in actual battle, rather than watching it from a distance—and definitely of those elevated to the status of 'leaders' of human societies; be these leaders in the nature of 'emperors', as in King Arthur, or of democratically elected politicians, as in Tears of the Sun or Shooter.

I happen to share Fuqua's cynicism of these people, and indeed of everybody in 'politics', and so sympathize with the sentiments of the movie. But I also understand that a lot of people will ultimately find it uncomfortable and therefore will probably turn off it. This might also apply to many who otherwise would agree with Fuqua when it comes to specific politicians they despise, however, because he does not proselytize and pretend that there's actually much hope to change the world either. It is what it is, and though individuals may win their personal battles, the result is at best a glitch in the system, barely glimpsed and forgotten by the next breath. As such, Shooter is a bleak vision. Very satisfying on one level, because we see the scales of cosmic justice tipped a bit closet to the point of equilibrium; but we also realize that they remain disconcertingly askew, with little hope for change.

The movie is rated 'R' (in New Zealand, where I saw it, 'R-16'); not, I suspect, just because of the violence and the heads exploding with well-placed sniper rounds; not because of the sex, of which there isn't any; but mainly because in the end Swagger does something that many, who would otherwise have sided with him, must surely find disturbing, despite all the bad things the evildoers have done, as he goes on a calculated final killing spree. It is lawless and ultimately denying that in some things there can be any hope for justice—or, in this case, the assurance of personal safety—and that sometimes there is only one solution to certain problems. The audience will have to take that home and ponder it—if they see past the action/conspiracy flick at all!—and decide how they feel about it.

Personally, I'm cool with the ending; as I agree that some things sometimes just need to be done. As such I found the end 'satisfying', and I would have been disappointed had it gone any other way; say, as in Three Days of the Condor, which is even grimmer, more claustrophobic and hope-denying, reflecting the mood of the 70s, while Shooter has a much more proactive air about it, despite its hero being pushed into action by events, rather than causing them himself. Fuqua shows a disinclination toward 'meek' protagonists, which is cool with me.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Journey called 'Life' - Parte secunda

Newsweek magazine, April 9, 2007 has an interesting set of articles on exercise, that actually made it worth my while paying money for the mag. You can also find these articles here and here, if you're willing to live with the noxiously slow feed from the Newsweek website (powered by Microsoft's network, of course—so, no surprises there!

Scientific American, Mind Feb/Mar 2007 also has some interesting reading, one of them being an unusually useful article on Why It's so Hard to be Happy.

Taken together, plus a few other things that happened here and there, reminded me that I hadn't quite finished with my cogitations on The Journey; the One and Only we'll ever get to undertake, and there ain't no other—ever.

So, here's the thing, an example that, in one form or another, should be familiar to most of you who read this blog. You have this weekend planned. Long weekend. Looking forward to it for weeks. And here it is and the sun is shining and you were going to spend all day on the beach or in the countryside, lolling about, maybe meeting people you were meaning to meet up with for a long time. Just do stuff. Let your hair hang down. Have fun after all the shitty working weeks you were having.

Thing is, you've also just come down with a stomach bug that not only makes you incapable of moving too far away from a handy toilet, but it also makes you terminally weak, lethargic and basically capable not even of holding a book, so you end up feeling miserable and awful watching every bit of crap dished out to you by the TV, which is the only thing you're able to pay any attentions to. And, yes, you spend a lot of time puking and having things come out the other end, and life just sucks!

To add insult to injury, three days later, when it's time to go back to work, you're totally fine again.

Life just sucks!

This scenario is a somewhat extended version of the why-does-it-always-rain-on-weekends experience, and don't we know it all? Murphy's Law. The Universe, God or whoever controls stuff really having a go at you, and, be sure about it and don't deceive yourself about it, because it's definitely so: having a go at you! Personally and exclusively, because as you can see, everybody else is having a good time; while your life is wasted away puking and being able to do nothing at all!

Ahh, yes; methinks we've all been there. Sometimes it's just a mild thing and at others like totally in your damn face!

There's a variant of this thing, which is more permanent. It's the one where the other guy or woman or family has more money, does more things, seems to have so much more fun, is more famous, has more 'friends' or better 'friends', and... Well, wouldn't we all like to be have the money of Donald Trump without being as tacky as he? Things we could do, because we'd know so much better what to do and how to spend it all wisely and... Ahh, yes (again), we'd be so much better off and so much more deserving. And the other man's grass is always greener.

Actually, the grass in the next field is always greener. That's because we're looking at it sideways and so just see a sea of green blades, while when we're looking down at the grass at our feet, we look right down to the much-browner parts and the soil in which the grass is rooted. And the green blades, so prominent in the neighbor's lawn, we just see them hardly at all at our feet.

Sounds like a sensible metaphor for life, don't it? But that wasn't what I was going to talk about. This. after all, is about the journey.

So, back to you puking and crapping and feeling like you're going to die—when all you have is an unpleasant, but transient, intestinal flu.

So, here's the alternative scenario. You go for your trip, maybe with family and/or friends in the car; and you're a good responsible driver, so you stick to the speed limit, in the process pissing off some road-tards behind you, who get impatient and decide to overtake you at a stupid place where they couldn't possibly see what's coming. The result: several casualties, dead and/or injured, including everybody in your car; plus in the vehicle of said road-tards and the car they ran into as they overtook you.

Not your fault, but if you hadn't been there at that time, nobody would have gotten hurt.

'Unlikely scenario,' you say. And., yes, it is true that you might have hurt yourself at home as well, tripping on the stairs or doing something else stupid in your dismal state of sickness.

But the thing is this. You don't actually know how likely or unlikely the alternative scenarios was. It's a universe never entered into; a path never walked; a branch never explored. And as for the accident you might have had at home: well, you didn't have it, because you're back at work, pissed off at being well again when you have to be back at work, but otherwise none the worse for wear, and maybe even with a well-cleansed intestine for a change.

The point is that you don't know these kinds of things. You can't. Some things can be anticipated with a fair amount of confidence. You rob that bank to get rich, and you're most likely to land in jail, if not worse. But what happens because you take an innocent trip, rather than remaining sick at home while everybody else is having fun...that you don't know. And so why moan about it? What if 'fate' or whatever you think is having it in for you, was actually being benign and protective of your health and welfare—as well as that of the road-tards and the occupants of the other car, now all dead.

It seems to me that there are only three ways in which you can look at this thing:
1) It's all chance and happenstance, in which case nobody and nothing's picking on you, and so stop complaining!
2) Fate, God, Contingency or some other willed agency capable of intentionality is picking on you and trying to give you a hard time.
3) Fate, God, Contingency or some other willed agency capable of intentionality is protecting you, despite all your moaning and groaning.

There is no way to determine which of these three is true. Period. So, for the sake of making your life look nice and positive, instead of wallowing in doom and gloom, why not assume (3) is a perfectly valid interpretation of events? Which is it. And so are (1) and (2), of course, but (2) will make you feel miserable and (1) will make everything appear pointless, and you'll probably also feel miserable, as nihilists usually do, though they seldom admit it.

Making your life look nice and positive is a proven way of, everything else being equal, being healthier and generally enjoying everything more. It also makes you a nicer person, whose social life is vastly improved over that of the (2) sourpuss and the (1) 'huh?'-'what?'-person.

Unless you want to feel like shit, of course. In that case go ahead and please do feel like shit. But remember that this is entirely—and I mean entirely, solely, completely, exclusively, uniquely—your choice. It's got nothing to do with what really is.

So, that was parte secunda.

Parte tertia will follow in due course, in which I'll rant on about the difference between having 'goals' and having a 'direction'.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Seladiënna

It's all been about the Tethys-series as of recent. Another opus, by itself the longest of all my novels, had been kind-of lurking around, waiting to be mentioned at length maybe, or just being mentioned as anything else but a peripheral thought.

The (latest) back-cover for Seladiënna reads as follows:

Toward the end of the Emperor Hadrian's reign, one half of a Roman legion disappeared in the forests now occupied by the city of London. 1800 years later their descendants were rediscovered by a man and a woman, who were stranded for a brief time in a world not our own.

There they found a sword. They took it and returned back home—followed by the emissaries of the spirits dominating the human denizens of that other realm. Some were charged with the destruction of the visitors; while another was sent to recruit them to save his world.

But how do you save a world, if first you need to destroy much of it? And how can you do that, without at the same time losing your soul—and your life?

Sam and Helen hadn’t been prepared for what awaited them when they agreed to be come world-saviors. They wouldn’t have agreed to it at all, for they had enough troubles of their own. But they were not the first who had discovered that world, and there was someone else there with whom Sam had an old score to settle.

And so they went.

Friend of mine who read Seladiënna—bought it, actually; being the nice guy he is!—asked me if I was talking about a that legion which disappeared in...

Truth is, when I wrote the book I had no idea that any legion had disappeared anywhere at any time. It was just some loose-and-fast playing around with what could be historical fact, but equally might not be; and do I care? Not! It's just a story, remember? And I needed descendants of Romans—Why Romans? Well, I just wanted Romans!—in a parallel universe. And so it goes, and so one spins the yarn of a story.

Seladiënna was written in late 2000, just about a year before 9/11, and in many ways it was a test-bed for several...well, I guess you could call them 'techniques'...for novel-writing. I also always wanted to write a novel about a parallel, rather than just a 'future', world, and I may have read one or two in the preceding year; none of which I found particularly good. The best go-with-the-flow parallel world novel, to my mind anyway, is still Stephen Gould's Wildside, a young-adult book, and yet more mature and thoughtful than most adult novels of that ilk. I had read it some time before Seladiënna, I think. (The version I've linked to has a real cool cover that captures a lot of the spirit of the novel, with even a King Kong-ish touch to it. Very nice.)

So, parallel worlds were on my mind, and there was also a revived interest in the King Arthur mythos—both, the French-soap-operatic version and the more interesting variant, which was explored in the movie King Arthur. I think I had also been reading Sarah Douglass's The Betrayal of Arthur, a truly fascinating book. Plus, the Roman element had been stimulated by Ridley Scott's Gladiator. And I very much suspect that I had also been reading or re-reading one or more Carl Hiaasen novels before that time. I'm not sure about that, but I detect something in the style in which I narrate the life-story of 'Larry Unterflug' that makes me think I might have been. I was also taken by Stephen Gould's wonderful way of taking a premise and running with it, the way he did in Wildside and Jumper and also in a much-underrated novel called Blind Waves. It's all very logical and sensible once you accept the basic premise—which he handled far better in Wildside than I did in Seladiënna, because I glossed over some serious issues with the parallel-to-real-world 'interface' and its physical consequences. But what the heck, it's a story, and, as I shall explain, it, too, might not be over yet.

BTW, I'm just telling you this, because this is a 'writing blog', and it is instructive perhaps to emphasize just how much one can be influenced by apparently disconnected things, interests, movies, political contingencies and so on, and how they can come together to make up something that's on one hand all of those and on the other hand neither. I often wonder, when reading other people's fiction what exactly was going on in their lives and minds preceding to and at the time this or that novel was written.

Turning the King Arthur story on its head was one plan. I'm not sure I did that, because the reader may rightly wonder who was King Arthur and who wasn't? Or maybe both Sam and Harry were different instances of the personage; or maybe we're talking about pretend and real heros. I don't know. Haven't made up my own mind. I also did the best I could to destroy the expectations of the reader with regards to the archetypal finding-the-magical-weapon story. I won't tell you how, because you're meant to buy the book, and please feel free to do so.

The other purpose of the book was to contrive a story which took a closer at the kind of romantic relationship that is at the heart of the Arthurian mythos. Even if we take away the French-soap elements, there is still a level of interesting ambiguity here, ethically and romantically. So I just wanted to take two people, basically strong personalities—I find the flaccid kind too boring to trouble with—and identities, but still screwed up in the head as we all are, and not just bringing them together, but also developing it to where it needs to go. As a result, as it should be, there's a plenty of sex in Seladiënna, none of which I consider gratuitous. So, be warned, it does get quite 'racy' in parts, and sex and violence often follow each other in rapid sequence. This is not a tame book.

While the world of Tethys is a RFZ (Religion Free Zone), that of Seladiënna is immersed in a weird religion of sorts, though this one seems to have a basis in 'reality'; at least the reality of the novel. I've tried there to create something I can almost consider possible, though it is, after all, just fiction, and one should remember that. There's also a goodly measure of lunatic ideology of all sorts, from the kinds we know to those that will look only too familiar. At the time I, like a lot of people, wasn't paying enough attention to the possible ramification of the rise of the likes of Bin Laden and what he represents—though, like others, I should have—and so the lunatics are instantiated by a bunch of Neo-Nazi dumb-wits; but they pretty much represent the 'X' that stands for any kind of ideologue from any side or quarter. At more than one level, Seladiënna is a tirade—often becoming acrid satire, that every single one of my readers seems to have missed; possibly because I hid it too well underneath story, devices and the more open tirades—against all kinds of behavior and thinking I consider...well, let's call it 'seriously deficient' and leave it at that. There are also concrete suggestions as to how to deal with militant and noxious ideology and religion alike. I thought a lot of the physical symbolism was pretty much in-your-face; so how people missed it is beyond me.

Oh, yes, and it must have been around the time I wrote Seladiënna that I became terminally fascinated with helicopters. So I took that fascination and 'ran' with it. As such, helicopters as machines and objects of fascination and even affection figure prominently; for a part of the book at least. And, just for the record, this was before Black Hawk Down, which was only released in early 2002 and in which helicopters figured majorly. In other words I have no idea what created this fascination. I'm sure there are good reasons, but what they are...

And, lastly because I would like to finish on that note, there was the Columbine School massacre of April 20, 1999—horribly topical again right now—which provided an element of story and substance for Seladiënna. As it provided a symbol for all the instances of children getting hurt where they are entrusted to someone to be kept safe, it also gave the protagonist, Sam, with a motive and focus of his rage, and guilt. As it should. These things make me want to go out as well and do some serious harm—to the perpetrators as much as those who betray parental trust by not standing watch and guarding over our kids as they should. Alas, these things will not change, and if there's a lesson there, it is that you cannot trust others to do what you have to do yourself. But how much can one do?

And such are the ruminations associated with Seladiënna. The sword on the cover, by the way, was fashioned by a friend and fellow swordsman, who let me take pictures of it for the cover. The cover itself has undergone a number of transformations, before settling on the stark and design you see here, and which will be the one to go with the internationally published version.

Lastly:

When I finished Seladiënna I drew fat line underneath it. The epilogue was an end. I was convinced that there was nothing more to say—that I could leave these people to themselves and all would proceed as 'normal' for them as was possible, given who they were and what they had experienced. Except that, some seven years after drawing that fat line that said 'DONE', I realize, as sometimes happens, that I was being premature. For the Law of Unintended Consequences rules just as supreme as the Law Of Cosmic Equipoise. And though something was 'fixed', it was in a state of definite flux. And, given the right circumstances, what once was benign can all-too-easily become malignant—and the political situation in the Empire of Seladiënna was anything but stable. Not that that would have made a difference. 'Stability' is always transient, and only 'change' is a constant, held in occasional check, but never for long.

There are some truly nasty possibilities for how the actions of our protagonists could backfire under the influence of the LoUC. So much so, that it's beginning to trouble me.

Therefore... Yeah I know: I shouldn't even think about it. But think I must.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

IQ

I got here via a link on Meganova (a p2p site). It asked one of these 'intelligence' multi-choice questions I normally avoid responding to; but this time the devil of temptation sat on my shoulder and whispered subliminal messages into my ear.

So I clicked and ended up on this IQ test page.

I never do IQ tests. I think lowly of them and I have no patience for the artificial kinds of problems they present. I know why they have to do this, but I still have no patience for them; like I have little patience for, for example, puzzles or chess or computer games. They all seem to take up so much time with little to show for it at the end. And life's got so many much more interesting things to offer.

Saying I 'never do IQ tests' is actually a falsehood. I did one once, when I was in my late teens. That's a few years back now. And then I did this one right now. Why? Search me. Shit happens. The motive to go from page 1 to page 2 (of 11) was to find out more about the range of questions they asked. And the only way to do that was to answer the ones on this page—so I thought I might as well do them right. Page 2 to page 3 was pretty much the same thing, and from there on it was just "aw, what the f...; why not?" So I went to page 11, duly got my results emailed and went back to look at the analysis page.

No, I won't tell you the result. You can try to figure out whether this is because I don't want to brag—I brag enough—or whether it was because I was embarrassed at my performance. Anyway, who cares.

The interesting thing is that the middle of the evaluated IQ range returned by this test is almost exactly, to within ±1, the number I remember from that test some years back. Which means, one might want to conclude, the over the years that have passed and with regards to the matters tested on, I haven't gotten any more 'intelligent' than I was then. On the bright side, I haven't gotten any less 'intelligent' either. One might draw from this sample of one person—me—the, possibly overly hasty and overly generalized, conclusion that maybe this 'kind' of 'intelligence' changes little over a person's lifetime. Or one might not. In this instance, with a two-sample baseline spanning decades, the data would support such a purely speculative theory. One might even go further and conclude that maybe this kind of 'intelligence'—and, yes, I shall continue putting the term in scare-quotes, because it belongs there—either is determined more by genes than by any 'education', or else that this is true and/or maybe the other possibility, namely that by one's late teens the level of said kind of 'intelligence' is pretty much fixed.

Yeah, I know I'm being long-winded, but I don't want to give the impression that I believe any of this; though I think it is probably true. However, I could be convinced otherwise, if evidence were forthcoming.

Still, one thing this test didn't change: my low opinion of the value of such tests in assessing 'intelligence'. The nature of the questions was the original curiosity-piquing motive for me doing it to begin with. And then I read the evaluation and indeed, here we are with the usual suspects: mathematical, visual-spatial, linguistic, logical.

BTW, I can tell you, without giving anything away, that my lowest score was on the 'logical'. And, no, I won't tell you anything beyond this, entirely relative, snippet of information.

Without wanting to start extensive gripes about the things these idiotic tests don't examine—social intelligence, contextual intelligence, 'learning' intelligence, and so forth—I would like to note that the categories examined are all completely irrelevant to what one might call the 'art of living'.

Some, like the mathematical one, presume the existence of a learned skill, which as nothing to do with intelligence of any damn kind!

e.g.
3. Which number should come next? 144 121 100 81 64 ?
17
19
36
49
50

What if someone simply doesn't know anything about 'squares'?

The same could be said for the linguistic category. Language is learned. Words are learned. Assumptions are made about a whole educational context that may or may not apply.

e.g.8.
A fallacious argument is:
Disturbing
Valid
False
Necessary

Even the evaluation page admits that this is a 'vocabulary question'. And it's relationship to 'intelligence' is...

Enough said. The bottom line is: never, never ever pay attention to IQ tests of this nature. Never allow them to enter into your assessment of your 'intelligence' in the things that matter. It's possible that some of your answers reveal deficiencies in your ways of thinking, solving problems, tackling life, learning, etc—but such correlations should not be taken to be indicators that they are anything but incidental.

The same comments apply to tests that purport to evaluate applicants for jobs for their suitability. These are sometimes called 'aptitude tests', though that kind usually is more narrow, or used to be, and focused on aptitude for the particular work to be undertaken. Like, can the guy spell, add, use a computer, use a set-square, deliver a baby? Stuff like that.

Nowadays, however, these tests have bloated to produce personality profiles of people to assess their overall suitability.

A large industry has grown up around this scam and sold itself to the credulous masses of employers, who yearn for something else than their own woefully deficient judgment ability of people to help the select their staff. As for me, I have promised myself that I will never subject myself to one of these tests. If people can't work out who and what I am from stuff they can find out without those tests, then they don't deserve to find out. And they won't.

If you want to find out whether your prospective employee—[after having passed an interview in which probably another set of truly dumb-ass questions, suggested by other members of the same scam industry, were asked, which also revealed either nothing at all, or painted a misleading picture of the candidate]—is really suitable; surprise him or her by asking questions they really don't expect; then go out and take them for coffee or lunch to a nearby cafe. If you don't know after half an hour if this is the person you want, you shouldn't be involved in the hiring. Period.

And then there's 'first impression', of course. The Blink thing, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell. (Contradicted by the Think! thing, popularized by M R LeGault—so who's 'right'; or is neither; not completely anyway?) Strong first impressions should count, especially negative ones. Not that it should count against the prospective employee as such, because he or she might be a real cool person. But one may have to work with that person. Can one work with someone for whom one has felt an instant dislike? 'Suitability' is a many-faceted concept. Besides, let's face it and based on the hiring practices I've come across, no test, no matter how positive, will over-rule the prejudices and dislikes by those empowered to make the hiring decision.

So why bother with the test? 'Validation' is the most positive reason I can think of. I can also think of many considerably more scathing ones, but shall keep those to myself.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The human body is the best picture of the human soul

...quoting, again as I'm inclined to every now and then, Ludwig Wittgenstein (from Philosophical Investigations).

"But", I can hear you object, "what about the things we find out about the soul [whatever that is, and let's leave the subject for another occasion] by people's words, actions and so on?"

Well, the words are uttered/written by a body; through sound or some other medium, take your pick. The actions similarly are all are performed by or mediated through the body, at all levels. Hence the statement is not only true, but profoundly so. I'd like to amend Wittgenstein's statement even further to read that the human body is the only picture of the human soul we have and can ever have.

It is also true, and I've mentioned this before, in another place, that, as far as social interaction is concerned, the face is even more important, maybe supremely so. If you have the time, browse through this article, to get some serious support of that assertion. It's a very touching account, and really leaves you wondering about some things that we tend to take for granted and obviously just so. But human nature and what we do and why we do it and what makes us into who we are...it's all so much more complicated and un-obvious than what passes for 'commonsense' usually tells us. That's probably because commonsense tends to be built on a foundation of ignorance of the usually un-obvious complexities underlying our existence.

Maybe you'd also like to ponder the truth of the assertion that 'beauty is skin deep' and the notion how this can be true—which is is, for everything in appearance is actually less than skin-deep—and yet how what is on the surface is actually determined by what lies underneath; e.g. bone structure, subcutaneous fat, etc. Still, everything we see is just reflections of light from a surface. Everything we hear is sound waves emitted from objects at a distance. Everything we smell is molecules transmitted over a spatial gap. And so on.

Our experience of another person is one of distance and our assessment of who and what they are is a matter first of all of assessment of information-at-a-distance. Naturally, the matter becomes more complicated than that, and ultimately involves a kind of simulation mediated by our mirror-neuron systems, but it all starts with very 'superficial' data about each other. Even if there were something like 'telepathy'—either innate or, as I have suggested in the Tethys series, mediated by some technological aid; something termed a 'tele-neural interface', and we're on the way toward implementing primitive versions of this—we'd still be talking about information that qualifies as 'superficial'; unless, of course, it involves something I don't quite believe in, but still felt free to at least suggest as a possibility in Keaen, and which finally came to a denouement of sorts in Tethys. But that was speculation and more fairy-tale than what I'd consider credible cognitive science; at least for now. Who knows what else we'll know one day?

How, you may ask yourselves, did all this come up? What possessed me to start going on about tis particular subject? What's it got to do with this 'writing blog'? And so on. Questions, questions...

Well, it's all got to do with The Illusionist; or, to be more precise, with a review of the movie in a NZ Saturday 'newspaper'—deliberate scare-quotes here!—by a (male) reviewer, who in said review, which was quite favorable, casually referred to the "Scarlett Johansson look-alike Jessica Biel".

Somehow that throwaway clause stuck in my mind, as things sometimes do which attract one's attention, quite out-of-proportion of their apparent contextual significance. This, by the way, is a result of what one might call 'inner context', which in turn serves to direct one's attention to those things, and it's an endless source of bewilderment in human interactions, especially male-female ones.

So I asked myself, is this guy just doing a reviewer-jerk-off—you know, just casually dropping a line in there that shows how cool and hip he is; or is he trying to fill in the paragraph so it type-sets better; or, and this is what I shall assume for his benefit and for the sake of the points I'll try to make, does he actually believe what he wrote? Is this his perception of these two people?

In order to find any sort of sympathy for his cognitive assessments I tried to find two static images of the people involved; two images that at least suggest a likeness—beyond that produced by the homogenizing influence of living in glitz-lala-land and having posey photos taken. Which means I went for movie stills, which are just as artificial, but in a less homogenizing way. So, here they are.

oooooo

With some stretch of the imagination you could see a likeness of features—but I'd say there are just as many differences. Anybody sensitive at all to faces—and most of us are; it's built-in—would not mistake these two for relations. The shapes and profiles of the faces are distinctly different, in all three spatial axes; as are the main 'features': noses, the eye areas and so on.

But these are static images, chosen to elicit as much suggestion of 'likeness' as possible. The moment these people are seen in motion, as in the films they've made, there is no way the label 'look-alike' is even remotely appropriate. Unless one is cognitively challenged in the facial department. That's a possibility, and it's more likely to be the case for males than females. The reviewer, or so I would judge by the name, is definitely male, and so maybe that increases the likelihood of confusion. I'm not dissing him, by the way. These kinds of limitations are probably mostly biological, though there may be definite environmental contributing factors.

There is another possibility, which is 'attention' again: this time to specific features of the faces, which, when attention-selected and with a concomitant exclusion or significance-diminishing of other features, enhance the 'likeness' assessment. I can think of several in the example images, and if someone were to focus on these the 'look-alike' comment might not even be the result of cognitive impairment, but merely of attention-focus.

All of this yet again teaches us that when assessing elements of human perception and cognition, nothing is ever easy. It also suggests that the reviewer who triggered all this has a very narrow definition of 'look-like'; almost something static. For when you consider the actresses involved, they couldn't really be more distinct. The Illusionist with Scarlett Johansson would have been a completely different movie than it is with Jessica Biel. I'm not saying it would have been worse or better; just completely different. Both have distinct personalities, and contrary to acting mythology, there is no actor, inexperienced greenie or seasoned professional, who will not influence, mold and even change the story being told. It can't be done. It's impossible because of the cognitive context of the spectator, rather than the teller.

Personally, I much preferred Biel in the role of Sophie, and I have trouble imagining what the movie would have been like with Johansson. I guess I would not have believed a Johansson-represented 'Sophie' to be that particular character we saw in the movie. This isn't a comment on the respective acting skills/merits of the two women; just on the effect their presence would have had on the story the movie told us—or told me, I guess. It may—will, no doubt!—be different for someone else; though maybe not as pronounced.

Same comments apply to Edward Norton (Eisenheim). Anybody with a more pretty-boy quality would have been quite out of place here. Norton has a certain inherent 'shifty' air about him that was just right for the role, and imbued it with just a touch of edginess—and yet not too much, as might have been the case with a more inherently intense actor.

So, how did all this start?

"The human body is the best [only?] picture of the human soul."

Something to ponder indeed.

Monday, April 16, 2007

'Vanity' Publishing?


'Vanity' (quoting Wikpedia, which is as good as any reference here) is the excessive belief in one's own abilities or attractiveness to others. According to Nietzsche "vanity is the fear of appearing original: it is thus a lack of pride, but not necessarily a lack of originality." A nice, very Nietzschean, twist.

Vanity publishing (put down in Wikipedia by phrases such as 'while a commercial publisher's intended market is the general public, a vanity publisher's intended market are the authors themselves') is a nasty term, invented, one might rightfully suspect by 'commercial' publishers—that is, publishers who publish in order to make a profit and basically that's it—with a vested interest in ensuring that anything not going through their system of approval and ultimately profit is labeled appropriately derogatorily. After all, vanity is one of the Seven Deadly Sins—which, by the way but unsurprisingly, don't include, say, bigotry, intolerance, hatred; for reasons too obvious to even mention; and with the Western geist sufficiently battered into spiritual submission by millennia of having rammed down its throats the ethos that gave rise to the 7DSs—even among that mostly-pitiful crowd calling themselves 'atheists'—the 'vanity' label is effective: damning, derogatory, dismissive.

I'm going on about this, because not only are the sequels to Keaen 'published'—at least for the moment and until I have myself organized properly—by what must surely be one of the largest organizations extant catering for 'vanity publishing' these days. Soon I will go one step further and create a system behind that imprint known currently as Owlglass SF, but which exists at this point only on the back-covers of my books as a name, together with the timeless stories for the 21st century log-line. Once the books are 'in the system', that is. Lulu, whatever their shortcomings—and lulu-printed books do have shortcomings; the quality isn't what it could be!—do provide an established mechanism to get books printed and to move them through the ISBN-getting process and insertion into the databases of the bookselling world.

It's comparatively painless, which is all good for someone like me, who doesn't want to waste his time on publishing minutiae of that nature. They also do not have 'setup fees' for the printing—sensibly so, because that's one of their major attractions for everybody and sundry. The moment you have to pay setup fees, the incentive to try and just get something into book-form becomes diminished by the disincentive imposed by 'cost'. In order to accept 'setup fees', which almost everybody else charges, one needs to be somewhat further in the process and therefore more motivated. Or else you've got to have the disposable income, of course!

Anyway, Owlglass SF is coming, and it isn't 'vanity press', because I've had my books printed already and I have no intention of giving anything away for free. Which would make this a 'commercial' enterprise, albeit one based on only one author, who happens to be me.

I've agonized over this at some length. The temptation to keep on trying to insert books into the 'accepted publishing process' is great, because it lends automatic respectability. It also makes your books cheaper, because P.O.D. is always more expensive than large-quantity printing. Its quality also varies, which is another pain in the ass. Hence my attempts to find a range of printers that provide good work without making you pay with your life and limb for the service.

Respectability is, however, the main issue with being a 'published author'. Lulu, when you're putting your PDFs for interior and cover into their system ends up with a banner saying Congratulations, you're published!, which must be the lamest bit of ego-massaging ever. But it calls upon that 'published' thing, when all that you've done is jump through some technological hoops—if you have the technology on your computer, or else you can use whatever they provide, which is OK, but not impressive—and out comes something you wrote in a particular format and appearance, which is balled a 'book' that you can have them print for and send to you.

Let's face it, at the heart of it the process of 'publishing' isn't a big deal; not anymore. It never was, really, with the only issue being the technological resources required to produce that format known as a 'book', shiny cover and all. You could have done it yourself years back as well. All you needed was something to print whatever you wrote and somebody to bind it into a book. I've had two theses bound at the local university's printery/bindery. Cost more than a lulu book, but that's about all. You could even call them 'published', I suppose.

If you're wanting to put something you wrote on your shelf among books you purchased and looking like them, well good for you. If it makes you feel better, why not? If you're doing this because you're wanting to sell a small quantity to friends or interested groups—say if you're the member of some 'society' and you've written something for them that warrants being bound nicely—or something along those lines...even better! To call that 'vanity' publishing is derogatory and mean, designed to put down the authors. Even if someone wrote a crappy novel and wanted it bound: anything wrong with that? Better s/he did that than nothing at all, but left it in a drawer to rot.

I think it was Asimov who wrote that an author should never let a work s/he considers worthy of having been written linger in a drawer. All it does there is take up space. S/he should keep it in the 'submission' loop. It should, one might say somewhat cynically but accurately, lie in somebody's slush-pile—rather than just one's own drawer—waiting not to be read. Asimov was right, of course. The minuscule chance of success of a manuscript in a slush-pile is mathematically infinitely larger than the zero chance it has in one's drawer.

But, as someone whose work has buttressed many a slush-pile, I find that the process also lacks dignity. Publishers by and large have very little respect for authors; with said respect measured out in direct proportion to the author's use as a money-earner. Nothing wrong with that, of course. Authors in turn really are only interested in publishers as a means to get famous and rich. It's a symbiotic thing, but the symbiosis can only survive if both parties find benefit in it. And with a gazillion authors around and only a few publishers what else do we expect to happen?

But nowadays Asimov's prescription has acquired a twist, provided by modern technology and industries that have sprung up to make use of it. The boundary between a manuscript lying in a drawer—said 'drawer' usually being a hard drive nowadays; hopefully backed up!—and one being bound in a readable book, has become very permeable. All it needs is some technology which heaps of people already have and said people's willingness to either do the hard typesetting and cover layout work themselves, or else farm it out to someone who does. Then send it to lulu and presto! So, the suggestion might be now that, apart from letting your stuff languish in a slush-pile, waiting for some terribly bored reader to glance at it and toss it onto the 'rejected' heap, you could also do the book-format-conversion yourself and screw 'publishers'.

If you think your stuff is good, buy an ISBN—yeah, I know it costs, but are you willing to put your money where your mouth and belief in your work is, or not?—and then send copies out to the many reviewers out there, so they can have their say?

Suppose they all declare your opus to be the best thing since...oh, say, 'Heinlein' (to go for one of the late 'greats') and rant and rave about it. Suppose people even started buying your books as a result of this, despite their heavy POD price. Armed with that, you then have the choice to either continue to publish the POD way or else approach 'commercial' publishers with suggestions to take up the book and all that stupid promotion work—promotion being a pain in the ass, better left to those who are pros at it: publishers. Of course, you'll lose control over your work that way, because they'll want all sorts of 'rights' to it that currently all belong to you. Well, I guess that's a problem one would like to have. This being a commercial issue now, it'll all be a question of how much they'll pay and what the terms are.

Suppose the response of the reviewers is lukewarm-to-vapid. Well, then you've tried and you can write something else. Unless you're not what one might call a 'passionate' author/story-teller, in which case you could give up and take up something else. Your choice, as always.

But is this 'vanity'? Or does it have to do with you wanting to see your book up there on a bookstore shelf next to the best-sellers? Your name announced as the next speaker at that writer's conference, where you give sage advice to newcomers? In other words, is it about 'validation', instead of 'the work'?

Here's a little dirty secret: it's always at least some about validation. It's natural to want it—but beware of making it a decisive factor in your motivational structure. 'Validation' is a goal that's never truly fulfilled, and the desire for it sows the seed for your downfall. Maybe that 'downfall' is never noticed until you're well dead and gone. Maybe you're going to continue to suffer validation for the rest of your days.

Maybe. But what does it signify? Merely that you've found a formula for success and a key to the current zeitgeist, and you're opening the door, go through and become a part of it. And then what? Look around, at what happens to those who found zeitgeist and became a part of it.

I completely agree with Heinlein when he wrote that...

If a writer does not entertain his readers, all he is producing is paper dirty on one side.” (Grumbles from the Grave, Ch 15)

...and...

“Any writer who forgets that his prime purpose is to wangle [money] out of a customer who need not buy at all simply does not get published. He is not a writer; he just thinks he is.
(Rumbles from the Grave, Ch 15)

...but those are admonitions for practicality in a world in which one might like to earn one's income doing something antisocial like writing, instead of something else antisocial like being a contract killer, for example—or maybe something more socially acceptable like working in an office doing work for the benefit of others, who make a hefty profit from our efforts.

And it is true that all story-telling—of which fiction writing is a subset—is directed at the recipient(s) of the stories. But Heinlein himself is a classic example of how one can follow his advice and yet not become locked in a 'dependency' relationship with one's readers. It may sound like a paradox—writing for others and yet not writing for others—but it isn't. And the way in which it isn't is something I find difficult to explain, as is the usually the case with apparently paradoxical matters.

I think it's best understood like this: you do write for others because the energy of whatever it is you're doing needs to flow somewhere, and that 'somewhere' in the instance of a 'writer' is his readership: people who take in the stories and get something out of them; entertainment, ideas, meaning, understanding of something they didn't understand before, glimpses of unexpected notions, new thoughts on the journey of their lives, whatever.

But you don't write because you're not their servant. In fact, it is your duty not to be their servant. You do this by choice. Symbiosis time. By not being their servant you actually are capable of providing them with a service they could not get anywhere else. Because if you just did what they wanted you to do, you couldn't actually provide them with many of those things you can provide them with because you don't. Storytellers need to go places and bring stuff back to those who don't have the time, disposition or opportunity to go to those places unaided.

And for all of that you quite justifiably ask for compensation, according to the inexorable Law of Cosmic Equipoise, which ordains that for every tit there's got to be a tat. In other words, you expect to be paid.

Alas, the road to being paid is hard and usually goes through crass commercialism and the endless hoops of 'commercial publishing'.

Hence Owlglass SF, which once was just a whimsical name for an imprint and something to stick on a book. Now it will become more than that. Or so one hopes...

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Conformance

So, here are some re-thought covers; this time the whole wraparound thingie, rather than just the fronts only. Note the complete turnaround to a non-serifed font. Also note that fortunately I had created the cover images at an aspect ratio that allowed me to move them all down and yet still have image-to-use left over.

Following the look-back-but-don't-stare maxim, I am herewith kissing off the former design and embracing the current one.





There can be only one

Sorry, I meant 'two'. And only one boxed set. Which means that my friend, Gary, and his now-wife, Marie, now have in their possession the only custom-made boxed set of this particular very first version of the Tethys series books, with the covers as shown here. Joel, if you're reading this: you are the only one with the other set, albeit un-boxed.

Reason for this is that I have, after a lot of soul-searching, decided to conform to competitive pressures and produce a more conventional cover design—at least as far as the lettering is concerned. Next blog, more pictures...

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Illusionist

Finally, and despite adversarial circumstances trying to prevent me and my wife from seeing it, we did manage to go, and I'm glad we saw it on a proper cinema screen. No doubt I'll get the DVD, but it's one of those flicks you'd want to see at 'the movies' at least once.

Warning: SPOILERS FOLLOW, but nothing that gives the plot away too much.

It's difficult to add to the good things said about this movie, but I'll try, leaving the most important bits till last.

About the cinematography. Beautifully done, but not cloyingly so, or in a way that makes it get in the way of the story. After the intro, which is rather long and arty—this isn't a criticism, just an observation—the images become unobtrusive. The way it was done was reminiscent of the way Ridley Scott used images in The Duellists; effectively and many had the quality of paintings, but they always enhanced and never distracted or occasioned that annoying "what great cinematography" effect, which usually takes you out of the story for sometimes distractingly long periods.

The story. It matters, but the whole effect of the 'surprise' has been overemphasized in most reviews that talk about it. It's not about sudden revelation, but about completion of a carefully spun web of deception. Personally, I wasn't surprised, and I wasn't looking to be surprised. I just loved the way things came together in complete closure—not just Eisenheim's deception, but also the strands of inevitable cosmic justice and a sense of final equipoise and closure. Anybody watching with any amount of sensitivity should see it all coming, and those who don't see it will still sense it. It's all very subtly done; and as such it creeps up on you, and you don't even know consciously that it's there. So, it's not the 'surprise', such as there is, that matters, but the wholeness of it all and the watching of it unfold.

The whole 'mystery' thing and its 'supernatural aspects was also been overemphasized in many reviews. There is, to my mind, no suggestion that an interpretation allowing for a life-after-death explication of the whole story was intended. If anybody thinks there is, they should consider themselves a part of those members of Eisenheim's audiences who thought that his tricks were evidence for the survival of the spirit. This is evidenced clearly by a single and unambiguous statement of Eisenheim to Sophie, which was as much a declaration of his love for her as it was a denial of the validity of the 'supernaturalist' or 'spiritualist' interpretation of his tricks and the denouement of the story. Reason why people miss it, is that the context of the statement distracts from its significance with regards to other areas. It's one of the ways in which this movie is very subtle and devious about revealing itself. A truly masterful script.

There's a social theme interleaved into all of this, usually described as being a 'class' issue. I would not put it that crassly. It does however have to do with democracy, in the sense of the notion that in some way everybody has a right to be heard, no matter their social standing may be. This again is brought out clearly in the Crown Prince's final soliloquy, when faced with Inspector Uhl's revelations and his imminent fall from grace. Here, too, though, subtlety and focus on character took the place of pat social proselytizing.

Romance is the driving force of the movie. Nothing at all would have 'happened', and Eisenheim would never have returned to Vienna, had it not been for Sophie.

Eisenheim: I was meant to return. I just... I kept thinking I'll find around the next corner.
Sophie: What?
Eisenheim: A real mystery. I saw remarkable things but the only mystery I never solved was why my heart couldn't let go of you.

Nothing more need to be said about that. The other stuff was just backdrop and devices. The fuel for the fire was love; not some social or spiritual agenda nonsense.

In line with the rest of the movie, the one and only love+sex scene between Eisenheim and Sophie was both subtle and yet intense, both, in terms of interaction as well as cinematography; making everything that happened there unabashedly romantic and therefore intensely erotic without requiring over-explicitness. There is an inherent difficulty in movies—and novels—where two characters come together in a love scene, as we know they must in order for things to proceed. (Unless the event is placed at the end as the denouement, but his was not the case here). The characters have to at least confess their love; probably do more and kiss; maybe go beyond that and 'consummate'. The danger of making this whole process almost perfunctory—as in it being necessary, and so it just has to be there; which takes a lot of the zing out of it—is great. And there's always the danger of there either being too little, which leaves the viewer unsatisfied, or too much—especially of explicit sex—which in this context would have been out of character for the tone of the film. There's also the danger of a love-scene just being a sex-scene; a common failing nowadays, in film and novel alike.

The Illusionist gave us exactly what was needed. A lead-up which made us expect something of what was about to happen, but nobody quite knew what shape it would take; a coming together after the briefest of recrimination for a past disappointment; a panning away from the act itself with some fairly non-explicit and very creative pans across part of nude human anatomy; and, most importantly, an after-the-fact lingering, not just on the romance, but on how it connected to everything else, past, present and future, disappointments and hopes. And never in all that was there a moment's doubt that this, and nothing else, was what the movie was all about. Which means we end up actually believing—even if a twitch of "oh, here it comes" is there at the start, with maybe a "are they going to screw this up?"—what these people are doing, and despite the apprehension lurking in some of us, like me, about being taken out of the story because this is another sex-scene, we come out of it realizing that it is in truth a love-scene and one that seamlessly connects to everything else in the story.

Lastly, cynics be warned: The Illusionist is at its core a cunningly-disguised feel-good-movie. It doesn't have a cynical bone in its body, even though it doesn't see the world through rose-colored glasses either. But one doesn't have to, and one can still not be a cynic.

There will, of course, be cynics who love this movie, though they'll probably strenuously deny that they were captured by its charm, rather than its intellectual messages, arty cinematography, crafty plot—or whatever cynics think they need to put up as good explanations for liking this flick. Sentimentality is unfashionable among the 'educated' and enlightened who know what's real and what isn't. The Illusionist is an excellent antidote to the poison of deluded intellectualism—ironically working its effect by a pretension of appeal to the intellect.