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Posts Tagged ‘thinkiness’

religion in SF linkage

I’ve had this open in a tab for long enough that I no longer remember who I got the link from, but: back in 2009, the blog Only a Game did a series of posts on religion in various science fiction texts. Not invented religions, but real-world faiths (though sometimes in future-adapted forms), and the ways in which books or TV shows or movies either represent the practice of faith, or grapple with the concepts behind those faiths.

The series starts here with an introduction (which as a second part a few posts later); the first actual discussion of a text is here, tackling Frank Herbert’s Dune. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a good way to link to the series specifically; the only tag they have is “serial,” and since the blog seems to do a lot of serial discussions, that pulls up a whole swath of more recent posts. But if you start at one of those two points, there are links at the bottom leading you onward to later installments, so you can skip the intervening entries on other topics.

I’ve touched briefly on the subject of religion in science fiction before, noting that the dominant message sent by SF as a whole seems to be that we’ll have gotten over that religion thing by the time the future arrives. There are exceptions, of course, texts that don’t assume the future will mean jettisoning faith, but they do seem like exceptions to me. And I suppose that view makes sense if you assume the primary cause and purpose of religion is the need to explain why the world works the way it does, and if you also make the corollary assumptions that 1) eventually science will be able to explain all of those things much better and 2) we are inevitably moving toward more science, not less. But I take issue with all three of those assumptions: contra Frazer, I think religion isn’t just for explaining the world’s functioning; I also think there are issues (like ethics) that science is poorly-equipped to handle*; and I know way too much about historical instances where scientific knowledge was lost to assume we’re just going to keep climbing that hill. If you define SF narrowly as featuring more advanced tech than we have now, then sure, clearly the future as seen in SF will not have to deal with the question of a new Dark Age. But I still think it’s facile to assume the impulse toward religion will have vanished along the way.

It will have changed, certainly. I never read more than the first Dune book, so until I read these posts I didn’t know Herbert had explored “Mahayana Christianity” and “Zensunni Catholicism” as speculative fusions of current religious traditions. I’d love to see more books that do something like that, imagining futuristic Buddhism or the Church of Christ Digital or what have you. So if you know of any, please recommend them in the comments.

*Please note that I don’t think religion is the only source of ethics. Atheists are perfectly capable of coming up with reasons not to steal from or murder one another; philosophers have been hashing out the issue of ethics for ages, and not always from a religious starting point. But if people have continue to have questions about why evil exists, or what their obligation is to their fellow man, I don’t think they’re likely to find satisfactory answers in string theory.

video games as art

Link from jaylake: Roger Ebert on why video games can never be art.

I’ve got a lot of respect for Ebert, but in this instance I think he fails signally to construct a rigorous argument for his point, even as he’s taking apart Santiago for the same failure.

I could go through his article responding line by line, but that would produce an incredibly long and rambling post, so I’ll try to just hit the central points. First off, he dings Santiago for “lacking a convincing definition of art.” Given that no one has yet managed to come up with a truly convincing definition, that’s a bit unfair. And indeed, he immediately follows that criticism by asking, “But is Plato’s any better?” Okay, so he recognizes the contentious nature of definitions in the first place — but then the rest of the paragraph is spent on his own definition, which at the end, boils down to taste. Art is the amazing stuff. Everything else is . . . something else.

He clearly means “art” as a category of quality, rather than anything structurally defined. Which is an approach I fundamentally disagree with. To pick the simplest way of pointing out the flaw of that argument: Ebert says video games aren’t art (and won’t be) because none of the examples he’s seen impress him. But I guarantee you there are movies that do impress him which would bore me stiff, while there are video games I consider artful. The message I take away from his argument is that my opinion doesn’t matter; only his does, and people who agree with him. And that’s why quality as the delimiter of “what’s art?” is a bad way to go.

More ways in which he’s wrong . . . .

incentives in schooling (and games)

Time has a fascinating article up about the use of monetary incentives in schooling.

The first thing that struck me was the title: “Should Kids Be Bribed to Do Well in School?” I was glad to see my immediate response echoed during the article. As Fryer points out, we do this all the time as adults; we give bonuses and raises and other forms of monetary reward to employees who do their jobs well. So why is it “bribery” when we offer kids the same kind of incentive we give ourselves? Granted, there are differences between work and school; your son’s math test isn’t used for any purpose other than judging how well he understands math. It doesn’t feed (directly) into a larger economy of labor. And there is definitely merit in learning for the love of learning — as the article duly describes. But the difference is maybe not as absolute as people assume.

What really gets fascinating is the finer-grained material, the evidence for what works and what doesn’t. Rewarding kids for good test grades? Not helpful. Not because they don’t care enough to try and earn the reward; they do. But they don’t know how. Test scores, to the type of kids this study worked with, are not sufficiently under their control. They don’t see how to get from where they are to where they want to be, because the educational system has already failed them on that front. It appears to be more useful to target the things the kid knows are under her control, like attendance, good behavior, and the successful exercise of skills she already possesses. That lays the groundwork for the belief that other things — like test scores — can also be controlled. Education is a game she can win.

I use that phrasing because this morning’s blog-crawl produced a semi-terrifying juxtaposition between that article and a piece on Cracked.com, about 5 Creepy Ways Video Games Are Trying to Get You Addicted. It lays out how MMOs (which operate on a subscription model) use psychological tricks to make you keep playing, even when it isn’t fun. Which is all about incentives and reward.

Maybe if we ran our schools more like MMOs . . . ?

a question for those in the romantic know

My understanding of romance subgenres is that Regencies are a separate category from historicals. So not counting those — what time period/place combinations are the most commonly depicted in historical romance novels?

(My money’s on Scottish highlands of whatever period as the runaway winner, but feel free to tell me I’m wrong.)

epic pov

A topic of conversation from ICFA: I’ve noticed that one of the things which makes it hard for me to get into various epic-fantasy-type novels lately is the way point of view gets used. As in, there are multiple pov characters, and shifting from one to the other slows down my process of getting invested in the story.

But hang on, you say; why “lately”? Why didn’t that bother you in your epic-fantasy-reading days of yore?

Because — and this was the ICFA epiphany — the epic fantasies of yore weren’t structured like that. Tolkien wasn’t writing in close third person to begin with, but he pretty much just followed Frodo until the Fellowship broke at Amon Hen; he didn’t leap back and forth between Frodo in the Shire and Aragorn meeting up with Gandalf and Boromir over in Minas Tirith and all the rest of it. David Eddings’ Belgariad, if I recall correctly, is almost exclusively from Garion’s pov, with only occasional diversions to other characters when the party splits or Eddings needs to briefly show a political development elsewhere in the world. My recollection of early Terry Brooks is much fuzzier, and I’ve almost completely forgotten the one Terry Goodkind book I read, but again, I don’t recall their narratives being multi-stranded from the start.

Even the Wheel of Time, which is pretty much the standout example of Many Points of View, wasn’t like that initially. The first book is all Rand, all the time, until the party splits; then it picks up Perrin and Nynaeve for coverage; then it goes back to Rand-only once they’re back together again. Eventually the list gets enormous, but you start out with just your one protagonist, and diversify once the story has established momentum.

The examples I’ve tried lately that present multiple povs from the start — Martin, Abercrombie, Reddick, others I’ve forgotten — are all more recent. And with the exception of Martin, I’ve had a hard time getting into them. Because character is my major doorway into story, and if I’m presented with three or four or five of them right at the start, I don’t have a chance to build investment in anybody. Martin is probably the exception because his different points of view overlap; the characters are not off in separate narrative strands, but rather interact with one another. It’s less fragmented.

Mind you, it’s funny for me to be criticizing this approach when I appear to have an obsession with dual-protagonist structures in my own books, and my pairs are not always connected at the start of the story. But I think this is a new development in the subgenre of epic fantasy, generally speaking, and it might explain why I’ve been less interested — despite the fact that the new epic fantasies often have more originality going on than the books I loved as a teenager. They jump around too much, try to present me with too many threads at the outset. I’d rather read a story that starts small, then builds. I’m curious to know what other people’s mileage is on this particular question, though.

a genre question

I’ve started reading Dorothy Sayers recently, and it made me reflect on something.

In the genre of romance, the vast majority of the writers, and especially the big-name ones, are women — to the point where (so I’ve heard) a man who decides to write romance will almost invariably do so under a female pseudonym. In fantasy and science fiction, the big names in genre history skew male instead, and we still have periodic slapfights about insufficient recognition for female writers.

In mystery, it seems to me that there’s something more like balance.

You still get splits along subgenre lines; noir is more associated with men, cozies with women. But in the genre as a whole, if you start lining up the big names both past and present, you’ve got Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett and Dorothy Sayers, Elmore Leonard and Sue Grafton, and many, many more. There are a lot of acknowledged and admired female writers, without mystery/crime/detective fiction being viewed as inherently a “female” genre.

Or maybe not. I’ve taken occasional dips in the mystery pool, but it isn’t a genre I read extensively. So tell me if I’m wrong. But it really does seem like mystery, of all the genre categories out there, does the best job of balancing this factor. Does anybody else think the same?

Alice in Wonderland

Spoilery thoughts will go behind the cut, but the exterior thought is this: that Tim Burton, working from a base of freaking ALICE IN WONDERLAND, has done a better job with the notion of “strong-minded female protagonist does protagonisty things, up to and including saving people and kicking ass” than most directors who set out to tell a story about a Strong Woman Kicking Ass.

The movie has flaws, but this aspect pleased me quite a bit.

Now, on to the spoilers.

today’s mental writing exercise

This is totally cat-vacuuming — it’s unproductive speculation on something that probably won’t ever happen, and even if it did, I certainly wouldn’t be involved — but I started it on my walk to and from the post office, to keep myself occupied, and it’s an interesting exercise in thinking about story structure. Spoilers for the video game Dragon Age: Origins follow below the cut.

How would you go about making DA:O into a movie?

There are reasons for this.

So I’ve been kicking myself lately about how few short stories I have in circulation. At my high point, Back In The Day, I think I had eighteen out at once — something like that, anyway. Enough that they were almost never all really out at once, because of the logistics of shuffling them around the first- and second-tier markets while accounting for what had already been where and what was closed right now and how long they took to respond. And certainly it is true that the drop owes a lot to a drop in how many short stories I’m producing. (You can’t sell what you haven’t written.)

But I was reminded, when looking at the file I use to log my submissions, that there’s another cause, one worthy of celebrating instead of bemoaning.

Since the beginning of 2008, I’ve put seven stories into circulation, and of those seven, four have sold to the first or second market I sent them to.

Three of the four — the ones that sold on their first try — were more or less written for the markets in question (two for Clockwork Phoenix and one for Running with the Pack). So they never even started on my usual list of places to submit, which includes markets like F&SF that I keep trying because hey why not even though I don’t actually expect they’re going to buy it. Still, the point holds true: over time, I’ve started selling stories faster. Which is exactly what one hopes for. I’ve become a better writer, with better credits to my name, and better judgment as to what I should send where. Result? My submissions queue gets shorter because things stay in it for much less time.

I bring this up because we often have metrics for success (whether it’s “success” in the sense of things not entirely within our control, like sales, or in the sense of goalposts of our own efforts), but sometimes they don’t measure what we think they do. The number of stories I’m sending around is partly a gauge of how much work I’ve been doing, but not precisely; I could be working my butt off and have only two stories out there. (I think this is more or less the state of jaylake, actually.) Likewise, I wrote only four things in 2008 — but two of them were novels, so that’s hardly a light year. So before I shake a reprimanding finger at myself, I need to think about what the numbers actually mean.

Having said that — back to the metrics of “pages of page proofs proofed,” and “pages of research book read,” and maybe “revision of short story” so that I can get something else out onto the market to hopefully sell really fast.

time lapse

Driving around today, my brain wandered — like it does — and this time it wandered onto the topic of time elapsing in fiction.

Twenty-seven years go by between the beginning and ending of In Ashes Lie. I noticed, while working on that book, how few models I had for stories like that: even on a series level, genre fiction tends toward plots that zoom by much more quickly. It’s a function of the type of stories we tell; lit-fic may explore one person’s growth over their lifetime, the gradual change of their relationship with a family member or whatever, but fantasy and SF usually feature a more immediate conflict, one which must be resolved soon or the consequences will be dire.

I think one of the things that endears Mercedes Lackey’s Last Herald-Mage trilogy to me, unexpectedly, is the way it breaks that model. Sure, in the first book Vanyel is an angsty teenager with incredible power — you could so turn that into an anime without half-trying — but when he shows up in the second installment, it’s twelve years later and he’s an actual adult. One with responsibilities and experience, who’s grown into his power and discovered what problems it can’t solve for him. I don’t know what the causal order was, whether the time-lapse created the Stefan plot or the Stefan plot required the time-lapse, but I honestly think the passage of those years is what redeems the series from being purely standard-issue crackfic. The changes with Jervis and Withen always struck me as particularly satisfying, and I think it’s because they aren’t sudden conversions. The moment of transformation may be sudden, but it’s years in the making, as both characters see what kind of man Vanyel has grown up to be, and weigh that against the prejudices they began with. Likewise, I much more readily buy Vanyel as the legendary Herald-Mage half the Collegium’s afraid of, because half the Collegium’s too young to remember his days as a snot-nosed brat. It’s harder to make that kind of role pay off believably in the short term.

But the tradeoff, of course, is that you lose the sense of conflict immediacy if you have years flying by. Also, you can (paradoxically) get away with either an essentially static character, or one who suddenly undergoes a major change of heart, if only a month or two elapses within the story. If a decade passes, on the other hand, you have to find ways to show the effect of that on your protagonist and those around her, and those effects will be both small and gradual-large. It’s all the challenge of writing an adult with a real history behind him, plus the challenge of showing that history in progress.

So who are some authors that do this, and do it well? I don’t mean stories like the Wheel of Time, where maybe a year or two has gone by but it’s all continuous plot; I’m looking for books or series that leap over intervening spans to show you a real percentage of a character’s life. Fantasy and science fiction books, specifically — I know lit-fic does this a lot, but it just doesn’t hold my interest.