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G started writing Western shorts, but no markets. Change Old West to alien planet–it's science fiction! #awp14
— Nick Mamatas (@NMamatas) March 1, 2014
The G in question in that tweet is author Molly Gloss, and it came out of the guest of honor interview at the 2014 AWP Conference, held this past weekend in Seattle. The idea that westerns moved to space works in science fiction is hardly new. Gene Roddenberry famously pitched Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the stars.” Firefly was so thoroughly a western that it featured a train job episode in its short run.
However, I like the idea that intersecting the past and the future can make for compelling science fiction. It’s the genesis behind the space western. It’s the genesis behind steampunk.
Earlier this week a tweet led me to a Slate article about a 1940s French board game that taught players how best to thoroughly exploit the resources of a colony. It’s an interesting artifact from a specific point in history, sure. Maybe even a little chilling. It’s also a short step from that old game to the same game being played by kids in the 2140s.
It’s the cyclical view of history. The cynical view of history. Even those who do study it are doomed to repeat it, humanity comes to the same point, over and over again. There’s easily mined drama in the notion of our species just never learning a damned thing.
So many problems, in horror especially, can be solved by a copious application of fire. You know it, I know it, and readers know it. There needs to be a compelling reason that fire won’t work. It can’t just not occur to the characters.
I fell off the wagon a little near the end of February. February is a difficult month. It’s short, it’s cold, it’s dark. This isn’t the first time that the month has defeated me, and while I hope it will be the last…let’s be honest, it won’t be. I’m redoubling my efforts, however. Around mid-December I stopped keeping my Chain calendar. I was still keep the Chain, just not the calendar. I’ve printed out a 2014 calendar to restart the chain, and with a new month it’s time to get it going again.
Sometimes it’s important to have a visual.
Short story status: One out, one ready to go out, one being rough drafted, one running around my head to finalize a plot. I also started two new novel Scrivener files today. Not two new novels, but occasionally I get an idea that I like too much to forget about, and a new Scrivener file is the best place to put these thoughts. Doesn’t mean either will get written, but it does mean I don’t want them to go away. One is an alternate history set in the modern day, the other is a space opera. Both are of a scale that I haven’t tackled before.
State of the author’s bees: ALIVE! We had a mild weekend here in DC before getting socked by yet another snowfall, which meant the bees got out and about. My wife moved all the nice tasty reserves from the lost hive to the living one, so they have a good twenty pounds of tasty pollen and sugars to eat. If that’s not enough, I don’t know what is. That means we’ll be able to harvest some honey this year. Probably not enough to start mead making, but at least it’s a start.
March is in like a lion here in northern Virginia. Here’s hoping it goes out like a lamb. I know for a fact I’m not the only person sick of this winter.
Two new genre shows debuted on Fox this year. One was an insane notion of turning the legend of Sleepy Hollow into a weekly series. The other was a high concept future buddy cop show headlined by a successful movie star. If I had to put money on only one of the two shows succeeding, I’d have put the one starring a bankable star with the safer premise.
Which is to say, I’d have bet on Almost Human beating Sleepy Hollow.
However, we’re now in mid-February. Sleepy Hollow got a pickup for season two before any other new show this season, and Almost Human is possibly limping towards cancellation. So this raises a question, what did the one do so right, and the other do so wrong?
Let me first say, before I start digging into the shows, that I really do love both of them. Almost Human is one of the first hours of television I catch up with every week. However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty to indict the show on, nor has my enjoyment of the characters left me blind to the flaws of the show.
First, these two shows are equally weird. That I felt Almost Human was more approachable demonstrates my bias towards science fiction over fantasy. However, asking a broader audience to accept androids, quasi-sentient bullets, and sexbots is no different than asking them to accept the headless horseman, witches, and zombie George Washington. That’s right, zombie George Washington is the sexbot in this comparison. You’re welcome.
Fantasy has also been on more of a winning streak on television lately. But I don’t think that the problem comes down solely to the different genres. One of the most popular shows on television, Person of Interest, has slowly become one of the more compelling science fiction shows of the last two decades.
So what did Sleepy Hollow do right that Almost Human did wrong?
If I had to chalk it up to one factor, I would say Sleepy Hollow better compelled an audience into its world. From the word go, the show hardly let up. It trusted the audience to be willing to come along for a ride. Frankly, it had to. I was dubious going into the show, but it didn’t give me enough of an opportunity to think about what an insane piece of media I was watching.
Almost Human, on the other hand, has given the audience too many opportunities to stop and think about what they’re watching. Look, the dynamic between the two lead stars is incredible, but too often the show has relied on their dialogue in the car. The world is painted on, a thin veneer that relies on the audience to remember Blade Runner. It was only in Episode Nine when the show was willing to embrace the world, and show the audience that there was something out there beyond a familiar pastiche. Unfortunately, that’s too late for a lot of viewers. Nearly a third of the initial audience has abandoned the show.
It’s far too late to make a thesis statement now.
So what’s the lesson?
First, trust your audience. They want to be taken for a ride, take them for that ride. Don’t feel the need to apologize for a story being what you want it to be. There are so many stories and novels that someone can pick up and read, be your own.
Second, make sure you have a world. If you spend too much time giving your audience a chance to build the world on their own, many are going to fight that. Others are going to paint in another, similar world, and be upset when they get the details wrong. Don’t give them the opportunity to make the world their own, because the world is your own.
I’m still holding out hope for Almost Human. Both from the story telling department, and in my hopes that it gets a second season. Plenty of brilliant genre shows have had slow starts. If it does survive, then everyone needs to stop giving Fox shit about cancelling science fiction.
“I see you’re reading The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” [Childan] said. “I hear it on may lips, but pressure of business prevents my own attention…A mystery? Excuse my abysmal ignorance.” He turned the pages.
“Not a mystery,” Paul said. “On contrary, interesting form of fiction possibly within genre of science fiction.”
“Oh no,” Betty disagreed. “No science in it. Nor set in future. Science fiction deals with future, in particular future where science has advanced over now. Book fits neither premise.”
“But,” Paul said, “it deals with alternate present. Many well-known science fiction novels of that sort.”
–Philip K Dick, The Man in the High Castle
There’s one unavoidable name when reading the Hugo winners: Heinlein. For anyone following along at home, we’ve now made it through thirteen months and four Heinlein novels, with one coming up in December. It’s been, to be frank, a mixed bag. I know there are Heinlein devotees out there, those who devour every word he’s written and love them to pieces. With the four books we’ve read together these last few months, I’ve now read 6 Heinlein books.
I can honestly say I thoroughly enjoyed two of them. I rather liked reading Starship Troopers, though I like the movie better (sorry-not-sorry), and I loved reading Job a dozen years ago.
You’ll notice neither book from January on that list of books I loved. That’s not to say I disliked them, it’s just to say I didn’t love them.
This time around, the Hugo Awards served up one of his adult books, and the Retro Hugos served up one of his juveniles.
Stranger in a Strange Land is the most famous science fiction novel of all time. At least, that’s what my copy says on the cover. I will admit, I know no other science fiction novel name dropped in a Billy Joel song, though I do wonder what books others might think deserving of that title. The book is certainly Heinlein’s opus, and in many ways is the quintessential Heinlein book. Which is to say it delves deeply into the philosophical, allows characters to expound for chapters on end, and eventually includes a woman offering herself to a father figure.
Alright, that last one isn’t necessarily quintessential, but is something I’ve stumbled across in both this book and, more literally, in Farnham’s Freehold.
But the debates, those have shown up in several of his books. In Starship Troopers they took the form of future military history classes, expounding on the nature of force and citizenship. In Stranger it’s the nature of religion and humanity. I’m never sure where the characters end in a Heinlein novel, and the author takes over. Perhaps I don’t actually want to know.
There were some hard jumps in Stranger that didn’t sit well. There is, most startlingly, the sudden introduction of a Greek chorus looking down on the action from heaven. It’s necessary for the conclusion of the novel, but even in a book that has Martians, an element like that is a rather sudden change.
It’s an odd shift to jump from a novel postulating a religion based on group sex to one of Heinlein’s juveniles. Farmer in the Sky was originally published in Boys’ Life, the magazine for the Boy Scouts of America. Which is important, as it explains why one of the primary plot points revolves around whether or not the main character will achieve Eagle Scout status. It’s always hard to figure out what to say about novels that I liked but didn’t love. It’s a novel that I read, a novel that I put down, and a novel that I’m already having a difficult time putting thoughts together on.
What can I say? Not every novel is going to win over 100% of readers.
And so the Read pushes on, into a month of alternate history. Our primary read is one of the scions of the Nazis-win-WWII novels, The Man in the High Castle. The secondary read postulates a Confederate victory in the Civil War in Bring the Jubilee.
I’ve been beating around the bush with my recent short story sale. I like to make sure everything is nice and official before giving details about the whens and wheres. However, there’s now a live table of contents, so it’s pretty damn official at this point.
I’m going to be in the upcoming Bad-Ass Faeries 4: It’s Elemental.
This is the latest in the award-winning anthology series, and I’m excited to be part of it. More so that I’m in it with one of my best friends and writing cohort NR Brown. There will be an official launch of the anthology at this year’s Balticon with the full and proper launch date currently scheduled for some time in September.
For those unfamiliar with the series, it delivers exactly what the title promises. Each story focuses on a different faerie, and their general ass-kicking ways. This fourth edition is broken into the elements of Earth, Air, Water, Fire, and Spirit.
To go briefly behind the scenes of the anthology, each element was judged separately. My story, The Face of the Serpent, is among the Fire Element stories. NR Brown’s is among the Water. That means we weren’t in direct competition, which was a comfort, because her story is damn good.
I’ll be talking about the anthology more, worry not. I’m just excited I can get out these initial details.
Cold! The writer is god damned cold and ready for this winter to end!
That said, January was a pretty damn good month. My new writing schedule is working out. If you’re here, you’ve probably noticed the uptick in blog posts, and I’ve enjoyed having a few days a week dedicated to short stories. One is making the rounds, another got written and is an editing pass away from going into circulation. Plus there was the sale in late December, more on that later in the week.
Plus, a few days ago I wrapped up the rough draft, extremely rough draft, of the generation ship novel I’ve been working on. It clocked in at just over 70,000 words, which is a little disappointing, but it also needs a lot of work. Nothing about its current length, or arrangement, or plot is untouchable. Because isn’t editing fun?
February will present a few challenges, including a night where we’re dropping the baby off with her grandparents and just getting out for a night. I don’t want to give myself that day off, but it means finding some earlier writing time than I might normally.
State of the Author’s Bees. They’re alive! The bees are alive! We lost one hive early in the winter, but the other is hanging in there. We had a warm day this weekend (well, warm for this winter) so my wife took a look in the hives. The dead hive apparently fell victim to a mouse invasion. Which is a shame, but it’s also nice to have a specific cause to point to. The other hive is alive and kicking. So we gave that hive all the uneaten stores of the dead hive, some tasty sugar syrup, and a patty of artificial pollen.
The queen should start laying new eggs soon. They’ve only got another month until they’re through the worst of it, but it looks like we’ll actually bring a hive through the winter. First success in four tries, but we’ll take it. It means there’s also a good chance of being able to harvest some honey this summer. Not a lot of honey, but some.
So. Forward and upward! This month the Great Hugo Read delves into alternate history with Phillip K. Dick’s classic novel The Man in the High Castle, and one of the books that inspired Dick, Bring the Jubilee. The novels are at the forefront of what are now two of the standard tropes of alternate history, exploring what would happen if the Axis or the Confederacy had won their respective wars.
Disney has announced their first official princess of Polynesian descent. Yes, I watched and loved Lilo and Stitch, too. But she’s not one of the official Disney Princesses. This new character, Moana, will be the first official Disney Princess of Polynesian descent, and this is a big deal. An extremely big deal. An extremely big deal that I don’t understand in the least.
Not the Disney Princess thing. Alright, I sort of don’t understand that either. Like is Tinkerbell a princess, or is that a different thing? And why was there a period between when Brave came out and when Merida became an official Princess. Or why the two main characters from Frozen aren’t yet official Princesses. Or why Kida from Atlantis doesn’t count. Is it because only three people saw Atlantis? I’m sure I’ll learn these things over the next few years and still not understand them. But that’s not what I’m talking about.
I mean I don’t understand why it’s a big deal. Wait wait wait, stay with me. I don’t mean that in the dismissive way the internet typically means it. I mean, simply, that it’s impossible for me to understand it. It’s impossible because I’m a white male living in the United States of America. I have grown up in a culture that is based around me. My likes, my experiences, my interests. I am in all the media, television, movies.
I am Legion.
Which means I can’t possible understand what it’s like to be unrepresented in media. What it’s like to not see a face that looks like mine. Only…more attractive. When a movie starring a non white male fails, it’s because the movie going public doesn’t want to see a female lead. Or an African-American lead. Or an Asian-American lead. Or…anything that makes the lead not a white male. But no one has ever, or likely ever will, suggest that a movie failed because people don’t want to see a white male lead.
This is privilege. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it’s something that I have in bushels. I can’t escape it. I’ve had times where I’ve ripped over it without seeing it coming. I can’t get rid of it. All I can hope to do is be aware of it.
However, while I can’t possibly understand it, I’m glad to see Disney making this move. I’ve seen some accusation of tokenism, but any increased inclusion must start somewhere. So now we’ve seen a Native American princess, a Middle Eastern princess, an African-American princess, an Asian princess (yes, I get that it’s problematic trying to represent all Asian cultures with a single character), and next is a Polynesian princess.
And I know this is a big deal because, with only one piece of unofficial artwork released then retracted by Disney, there is already a proliferation of fan art on the internet.
There are people out there who have been unrepresented, or underrepresented, in film. And now they’re gaining that representation, they’re finally getting a chance to shine. Perhaps the closest I can come is when a fringe hobby or interest of mine makes its way into a movie. But I know that’s not exactly it. There’s a difference in being excited that a character in a movie is also interested in curling, and a character in a movie who looks like me.
While I can’t understand what it’s like to be suddenly represented in the media, I can understand that this is making people happy. Specifically, it’s making little girls happy. As a daddy to a little girl, I know what a great joy it is to see her happy. I will bend over backwards, do whatever it takes. With this movie, Disney is making little girls happy. Which means it’s making the mommies and daddies of those little girls happy. And that’s a net positive in the world. And a net positive that opens up narrative possibilities for the company at the same time. It’s a win for everyone, except those unfortunate grumpy souls who see inclusion as a zero sum game.
I doubt there will be a future where more and wider demographic groups won’t understand a lack of representation. Though that doesn’t mean it’s not a noble goal to work towards.
I just hope the movie is good.
Oh lord, the worlds. After I’ve finished reading through the character sheets and looking at how characters are built in the game, it’s time to look at the rest of the book. And that’s where worlds are born and live.
This is one of the power of systems designed to translate across multiple settings. It’s what GURPS tried so nobly to get right, though I found it often got lost in all the rules. It’s what Fate Core has achieved thus far.
I used to buy those old GURPS books. Never played the game much, but the books were fantastic resources. They would take a setting, such as Steampunk, or pulp adventure, or Discworld, and walk through not only new rules for the location, but go through the major points of the genre. The essential stories, the essential movies. They weren’t about creating restrictions, they were about showing how the base rules could be expanded, and how to tell stories in these worlds.
That’s what running a game is, after all. It’s telling stories. This isn’t advice to grab these books and start telling stories entirely in these worlds. Unless you’ve been properly licensed to do so, in which case you certainly aren’t reading this. But this is advice to grab books set in interesting worlds, and find the bits that interest you. Grab the books that are guides through a genre, and follow their examples.
Or, just grab the books at random. Like I’ve been doing through Bundle of Holding. Look through them, and find the bits that interest you. Find the things that make the worlds fun or unique. Take small bits, change them around, make them your own.
And then, once you’re done checking out the character sheets, creation, and reading about the world…maybe grab some dice and a pencil and actually play one of the games. Cause that’s fun, too.