Tuesday, November 18, 2008

What Matters

I've been thinking about what matters to futurists. Now it's information, a fact so obvious that it's almost baffling to look at Heinlein and Clarke and see their tremendous excitement over, of all things, transport. Because that's what a lot of 20th century science fiction was about: moving faster, moving better. And that was the trajectory of the 20th century: from the train to the car to the airplane to the jet to the space-rocket. And we just kept getting faster, and our enthusiasm for speed stayed strong, until some time well after the Apollo missions.

What's interesting is that though now so many science fiction writers are focused on information, transport wasn't the first thing to fascinate science fiction. Go back to the dawn of SF and you see an even earlier fascination with production, a concern even more distant from our own time. The early 20th century Socialist SF writers were always going on about production and efficiency and labor and all that other stuff that's as boring to us now as--no doubt--our present-day SF ramblings about gigahertz and petaflops will be to readers from the next century. If there had been more SF in the 18th and early 19th centuries, no doubt they would have massively obsessed over these new speculative political developments as much as we massively obsess over spimes and cloud computing.

This opens up a number of questions for any SF writer. The obvious one is, of course, what's going to engross the next century's SF writers? Politics, production, transport, information...then...what? Some new personal-scale sociological development? The creation and proliferation of new biological or digital organisms? We probably don't even have a word for it yet. But also--and here's one of greater interest to me--with the rise of various retro-future SF tales, from steampunk to neo-post-atomic-holocaust, it behooves us to analyze what drove the speculative fevers of previous eras, to see how we can use those concerns in our own fiction, rather than overwriting what interested a previous era and replacing it with our own fascinations. Steampunk's revolutionary original conceit--industrial-age people interested in information-age concerns--has grown a bit worn since The Difference Engine. I think a re-evaluation of our retro-speculation is in order, which would allow us to mix and match eras and obsessions. I love steampunk, but I'm getting a bit tired of seeing 19th century + information. I want to see new combinations of times and interests, new ways to bring later interests to earlier times, and speculation about how later eras, even our own, could return to the obsessions of previous centuries.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Thoughts On the 40-Year Gap

A brief aside, before I return to what I've learned from other people telling bad stories. There's an old idea that SF writing lags about 40 years behind literature in terms of form and structure. The relevant quote is from Gary Westfahl:

"Thus, we find that science fiction readers of the 1960s were shocked and sometimes appalled when writers dared to try writing like James Joyce and John Dos Passos in the 1920s, and one reason that Neuromancer so stunned those readers in the 1980s was that William Gibson boldly and innovatively imported into science fiction the attitudes and style of the Raymond Chandler detective stories of the 1940s."

And I was just re-reading that and thinking, hey, I know, I can totally jump the curve by seeing what sort of SF will be coming out in about five years! It would be like the literature from the early 70s! Then I remembered, wait, what's my favorite bit of nominally "proper" literature? Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Published in 1972. So...I just spent a few minutes looking back and forth, back and forth, between Thompson's writing and my own, and the phrase "pale imitation" keeps bouncing around in my head. I'm a science fiction author lifting from literary styles that are almost exactly 40 years old.

Curses! Foiled again. Or I'm a genius. I'm not sure. No, I think it's just kind of sad and funny.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Sci-Fi Jack

Since my computer has gone kaput I've been drawing on my mother's computer. (Thanks, Mom!) This, coupled with my completing of several series on Netflix and thus needing new TV to fill the howling void in my soul that science fiction alone can fill, means that I've watched a lot of bad television over the past few weeks.

This is good. Good television--Mad Men, The Wire--mostly just makes me feel bad about my own meager talents. But bad TV, especially bad sci-fi, fills me with a combination of puerile jealousy (not so helpful) and analytical curiosity (very helpful). Examining some of these bad shows, and how they fail as art and entertainment, helps me with my own work.

Eureka was a hilarious bust, one of those shows that I had high hopes for until, let's say, 30 seconds into the pilot. However, it's also an essay in long-form about how to produce mediocre television. The funny thing is it took me weeks of analysis and the help of Kirsten to realize that I was viewing "family entertainment," and that's why it was so tepid, dull, condescending, and unimaginative. That was a depressing realization: how out-of-touch I am with market reality, even as I pride myself on my awareness of genre tropes. In that light, it feels almost unfair to analyze the show as even the sorriest attempt at speculative fiction: I'd might as well rake Wiggles over the coals for not generating an adequate secondary world in the sense Tolkien uses the term.

Still, it was an engrossingly stupid show, and helped me clarify one of the elements I've seen in a lot of televised science fiction. I've taken to calling this element Sci-Fi Jack.

Sci-Fi Jack--who is, weirdly enough, often named Jack, or John--is the viewpoint-character for most middling science fiction shows. Think Stargate, Eureka, Farscape, The Invisible Man (the 2000 series), even, to some degree, G vs. E (an otherwise very good show). Sci-Fi Jack is stupid, crass, "common," and simple--even if he technically has an advanced degree or should otherwise have no business being the "salt of the Earth" type. However, he's not an old codger. Sci-Fi Jack is dim, yet virile, a man's man, a creature of action rather than thought. His only nod to intelligence is a sort of low, smarmy wit, which is used to sneer at the other characters, who may be intellectuals, bureaucrats, or ball-busting women (the ball-busting woman is almost always paired with a Sci-Fi Jack, because bickering looks like cleverness, I suppose). Sci-Fi Jack drifts through the show as the audience surrogate for anyone ashamed, at some level, of all the goings-on in these silly sci-fi shows, what with the robots and the independently-rotating gyroscopes. He sneers, he smirks, and in the end, he wins due to his vigor, street smarts, and know-how.

Now, the Sci-Fi Jack phenomenon is fascinating for a couple of reasons from my position as a writer of speculative fiction, since it seems so easy to fall into the trap--especially for me, with my fondness for Whedon. A bit of flipness (a disease that afflicts me), a bit of anti-intellectualism (which emphatically does not--at least in general--but I still worry), and I'm duplicating the sneering, glib condescension of Sci-Fi Jack. It's a bit unnerving how easy it is, and I spend a lot of time staring at my comic making sure that I don't slink into that little hole. The worst part is how close Sci-Fi Jack is to a lot of excellent SF characters. The winking arrogance of Robert Downey, Jr's Tony Stark is a hair's-breadth from Sci-Fi Jack, yet Stark is one of the best-realized movie protagonists of the past few years.

The difference between the two is narrow, but it's there, in two areas. First, there's the willingness of the character to engage in the assumptions of the setting. Stark engages the genre. Sci-Fi Jack rejects, condemns, and sneers at the genre. Second, there's the simple matter of good humor. One of the most arresting parts of Eureka, to me, was how thoroughly unlikeable all the main characters were. (By contrast, I think of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a show with dreadful plots and pacing that was saved, more often than not, by the likability of the cast.) Eureka's main characters are a smirking know-nothing, a ball-busting woman, and a snotty little kid. Tony pulls us in: his "No gang signs, please" when the soldier riding with him throws up a peace sign forces us to like the guy, with his combination of self-deprecation and absurd humor. He's a likable character--not a likable person, in the same way that Dr. House isn't a likable person--but as a character, he makes you like him.

And it's good to realize that, and to appreciate the idea that funny characters--especially funny protagonists, and especially "darkly" funny protagonists--are dangerous. Do well and you have a great, likable, funny character, someone who can carry a whole series. Screw it up by making the character reject or sneer at the genre assumptions, or just by making him an annoying git who's more of a bully than a comedian, and you're on your way to Sci-Fi Jack or some other form of botched protagonist.

Next week: what I've learned from the mistakes in Carnivale and Dark Angel.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

You Ruined Everything for Me, Lt. Worf

I blame all of my shortcomings as a writer on Lieutenant Worf from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Okay, maybe not all of them. But a significant shortcoming, which is this: I find it hard to give characters a “voice” that differs greatly from my own, and I find it hard to create characters who make predictable, inappropriate choices, even though many people in real life behave that way.

And it's Mr. Worf's fault. You remember Worf, right? The Klingon whose answer to everything was “attack it immediately,” whose motivation was some loosely-defined code of honor that made you wonder if Klingons weren't susceptible to that brain parasite that makes mice unafraid of cats so the parasite can reproduce in a feline digestive tract.

Because it was always the same damn thing, wasn't it? Picard would ask for suggestions and everyone—everyone, even Troi, another dreadful character—would be allowed by the writers to put forth interesting suggestions and solutions, but no, not Mr. Worf, for our Klingon friend it was always “Let's attack immediately.” I watched all seven years of TNG when I was a little kid and this never changed. Not once, not ever. For every situation, you could predict exactly what Worf was going to say. He was like Leonard Nimoy's poetry. And he'd never surprise you, not even within his milieu; he'd never say “The best military tactic—since I am the military-minded guy, I guess, because that's how the writers have weak-ass stereotyped me—is to stall for time in pointless negotiations until backup arrives and we can kill them easily.” No, it was always “Suggestions,” and Mr. Worf would be like “Let me float outside the hull and punch the enemy ship, Captain! Klingon fists are mighty!”

And it screwed me up, because I'm always looking to avoid a Mr. Worf; I always pore over my writing and make sure there's not some guy whose answer is always the same thing—or if it is the same thing, that it's not always stupid and inappropriate. It was like Worf was that chevalier kid from the D&D cartoon, written in to teach the viewer a valuable lesson about not being an artificially constructed dipshit with no character depth. And now I keep reacting against Worf, and I'm worried that I'm stripping the archetypal weight away from my characters. And avoiding stereotypes is good, but turning every character into a fully rational actor is terrible even in hard science fiction, and I don't write anything close to hard science fiction. So now I'm going the other way with my work, going back through it and making sure that all my characters have unique voices and approach situations from their unique point of view, because I spent so many years making sure I didn't produce another Mr. Worf that I inadvertently went too far in the opposite direction.

So my writing is worse because of you, Mr. Worf. Thanks.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Recipe: 2/3 cup lame jokes, 2 tbsp Star Wars reference...

Writing a webcomic is one of the most cynical things I've ever forced myself to do.

Lemme explain. Right now I'm working on chapter 6 of my comic, and the actual creation process is worse than laws or sausages. Basically, I have this file on my computer, and it's a big unfocused slurry of quotes, jokes, and half-baked ideas, sorta vaguely organized by subject matter, and in order to write a chapter, I come up with a vague idea, then I stick the quotes or gags in, one page at a time, until I've used 30 or so ideas and I have 30 or so pages of comic. It doesn't feel very artistic. In fact it feels like some kind of "extruded entertainment project," pressed into neat molds. There's even a bit of gooey conceptual runoff, but I sort of wipe that stuff up with my fingers and flick it back into the vat for reprocessing.

It's not exactly raw creative output, fingers streaming over the keyboard--livewire voodoo, Gibson called it--and I haven't decided if I'm just a new sort of writer, one comfortable with the complete breakdown of sequential development forced on previous writers by the nature of paper as a medium, or if I'm just a dreadful hack. Mostly I'm a hack, okay, I know--but someone who's good, I think, would really be able to explore the possibilities of cut-and-paste story writing.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Writing in the Ousands

I never liked "The Oughts" as a name for the current decade. Sounds like a bad indie band with a reedy female lead and not enough percussion. Of course my replacement isn't much better.

It just occurred to me a few days ago that my comic, Broken Space, is being written in the 2000s, which immediately dates it. When I was younger I'd get neurotic about writing science fiction because it'd look dated after a few years, especially when compared to fantasy. What got me was the extrasolar planets and new theories of planetary formation: those damn real scientists were taking away one of the SF writer's last vestiges of totally-made-up-bullshit, weird alien planets, and replacing them with actual data! So now I hide safely in the world of fantasy and space opera.

But that's started to change now that I've begun to appreciate eras and decades as artistic movements, rather than merely statements about what science doesn't know yet. And it's left me wondering what sort of cultural crest I'm riding here in 2008. While Broken Space isn't big, webcomics sure are; they're a phenomenon right now, and I find myself trying to figure out how people are going to look back at the current crop. It seems strange to think of my comic as a product of the 21st century, especially in light of the fact that the two biggest influences on the comic (and, I sometimes worry, on everything I write) are two products of the 90s: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Babylon 5. I like to think of myself as on the "cutting edge of retro"--I like that term more than "out-of-date and uncool" for some reason--because everyone else is obsessed with the 80s nowadays, just like everyone in the 80s was obsessed with the 50s. (Seriously, go back and watch those old 80s music videos; they're ga-ga for that vintage look. Hell, look at Back to the Future.)

Of course, I have no answers. I keep trying to get a perspective on the current movement in webcomics, not least because I'd like to be able to predict and exploit trends, but it's like trying to get a glimpse of the back of your head. I'll have to wait for VH1's Behind the Webcomics some time around 2020.

"And then began the long, slow decline into drugs and Naruto references...next, on VH1."

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

AV Geeks Everywhere

In my neverending quest to improve my knowledge of inane culture, I've found myself watching the MTV Yearbook, starting with 1981. And one of the things that most impressed me is that almost everyone making music videos in 1981 is a huge dork. I mean, wow, these guys aren't cool.

Don't get me wrong: I like The Buggles and Elvis Costello and Talking Heads and Devo--who doesn't like Devo?--but they're not what we, or anyone, would call "cool." It surprised me, though in retrospect it makes sense: who else is making music videos in 1981 except for the geeks? But it came as a shock to realize that these guys are basically Revenge of the Nerds-style AV Dorks (you know the type: tediously lampooned in every TV show's "college" episode, as if society hasn't changed since 1975 or whenever the writers were in school).

Also, since it's the 80s, no one knows that half of these musicians are gay. It boggles the mind; I mean, it's not like they're hiding it. It's like gay people in the 80s are having fun seeing how obvious they can be to a bunch of square homophobes. I wonder what will be screamingly obvious in 2018 that we just don't notice today. "What do you mean you didn't know they were cannibals, Dad? It's so obvious! I mean, just look at him! The way he minces around that guy's thighs!" "I thought he was gay, son! I thought he was a nice, normal gay guy! Not some cannibal freak!"

We end today's essay with an observation: what is it about white guys in the 80s and trying to kick really high? The band members in Van Halen are of course, the worst offenders, as they are the worst offenders in many things, but the phenomenon is...endemic. Every one of these videos has white guys showing off how they can kick kinda high. Was that a thing in the 80s that I don't remember? Were girls all like, "Ooh, you know what I want? I want a guy who can kick kinda high"? And so the guys are showing off how they can all kick kinda high? Because I don't remember that fad.

Monday, March 31, 2008

It's Not Just The *Better* Writers

I'm reading the latest issue of Weird Tales, which is a delightful magazine, although it seems even more enamored of its pedigree than I am, and reading a nonfiction entry got me thinking, along a series of barely-connected lines, that insanity used to be much more interesting. I don't know if it's improved psychiatry or the Internet's ability to help anyone find people like them, but the lone, distant madman has been replaced with whole message-boards full of sorry screwballs.

Go back to the 1930s and talk about someone who thinks he's the reincarnation of an elf and you have some quality crazy; hell, you can sell crazy of that caliber to Weird Tales. Now, everyone nods and says, "Yeah, an Otherkin. They're crazy." Yeah, they are, and there are thousands of 'em, all headbent in the same way, taking up psychic space where good ideas might go.

The writer of this article, who is not an Otherkin or a furry fetishist, describes her mental illness in lycanthropic terms, and I found myself thinking that what might once have been a clever conceit has been reduced to banality by over-exposure. Our writer also mentions the frustration of seeing her uniqueness reduced to a clinical definition, and I can sympathize there, because huge swaths of "modern occult fantasy" (insert your favorite genre name) has been reduced to a laughingstock, because our society is flooded with literary incompetence and dull-as-dirt clinical insanity.

Seriously, not to sound bitter, because I'm not--I'm...wryly amused...but: Try writing a story about a modern-day "elf" and you have to dodge all the cliches and nuttiness that has cropped up around the Otherkin movement. Write a story about werewolves and you have to avoid the tired psychoanalysis and pop-psychic explication of the "real" phenomenon. God help you if you want to give a character wings. This isn't the fault of psychiatry, or the Internet, or crazy weirdos...it's not even really the "fault" of our own greater self-awareness. Instead, it's inevitable in a genre (and in a society) that has such an accumulated cruft of what-has-been-done-before. But damn, I already have a loud enough internal editor, telling me that this isn't good enough and that isn't publishable; I don't need an eidolon carved out of our society's disappointment with its own fiction, snickering because the story I want to tell has a whole fanfiction fetish site full of maladjusted teenagers devoted to it.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

...Flames on the Side of My Face...

Nothing makes me want to run off into the woods like having to deal with my rickety old computer every day for eight hours a day as I write and draw. Somehow it just ate my entire comic page when I was about seven-eights of the way done with it. I almost ate my own thumbs in frustration.

Of course no one reading the comic knows that, since I don't let my personality appear there. I made a choice when I started to avoid an update-blurb because I've seen them done badly in the past. Right now I'm glad, since no one needs to read AGGH HATE MURDER NO UPDATE COMPUTER SUCKS when all they want is the next comic page, and professionalism is important. There are a few comics, even some of the top-tier ones on Buzzcomix, that I can't read because their "commentary tracks" are so unprofessional and intrusive.

On the other hand, there's a kind of punk appeal to getting the raw and unfiltered voice of the creator, especially when compared to the polished and interchangeable products of many print comic outlets. And sometimes I wish my comic had a blurb, if only to let me talk to my readers about some aspect of the setting I want to emphasize: "Look here, you can see the different Moochava ethnic groups." And of course, I wonder if a relevant and interesting commentary track would boost readership. But I'm glad I avoided one. First, it requires me to declare my focus with my art and writing, rather than just pointing to the "neat thing" I think everyone should appreciate. Second, it prevents me in situations like this from throwing a really sorry hissy-fit about how the computer ate my homework.

Back to fuming.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Musings <--not funny

The idea is simple--write 3,000 words a day, five days a week. Also, write and draw two comic pages every week. So far I've done a pretty good job keeping up with this schedule, though sometimes, like today, writing feels like pulling eyelashes.

I got this piece of advice years ago from someone a lot better than me--King, Bradbury, Ellison, you know, someone that if the world worked like a bad voodoo horror novel you'd rip out their heart and eat it to gain their power--that you can spot a successful writer because they keep writing even when "the muse" isn't speaking. Now for years this made me want to find one of these guys, go to their house, and hold up a couple crumpled dollar bills and offer to exchange them for where you can get a muse, seriously man, I know you know where to get them but you're just not telling, but I drove all the way from Massachusetts so you've gotta tell me, right?

But recently I've actually paid attention to their advice and it works pretty well, even if some days it's like ice-skating uphill (to paraphrase a line from Blade that still bewilders me). Still, it's tough to see those beautiful ideas smothered and nailed to the corkboard, because they never sound as good as when they're in the echo-chamber. Like: somewhere in the ideosphere there's a fucking revolutionary comic that takes place in an original universe with so many seemingly trivial yet deliciously ironic details that it casts a dazzling, clarifying light on the mundane political and epistemological absurdities of our own world while simultaneously presenting a plot so fascinating, characters so rich and warm and complex, that our reality seems like a pale and uninspired parody of it, like we're living in Hollywood world with blank red cola cans instead of Diet Coke where no matter how many hamburgers the main character eats you never quite see the Golden Arches. Like it's super-Gibson, not just name-dropping Braun and places in Micronesia you've never heard of but you know they're there, but creating something wholecloth that feels even more real than what you see outside.

Yeah, I'm sure that comic book exists, but it's not mine, not even close. And part of it's because Broken Space is a way for me to learn how to draw, so the pictures are like first-year Penny Arcade crossed with a grade schooler's spiral-notebook Vegeta sketch, but part of it's because I keep following whoever-it-was's advice: just keep working. And it works! (I can tell because if the comic was only in my head and nowhere else it wouldn't work.) I almost never sit down already inspired, and when I do get the lightning-bolt it's, like, five words. Here's the latest Oh my GodI've got to write this down right now:

"If you died here, you'd be home already."

On a church or something, I dunno. I can't exactly type that one out and send it to Weird Tales. My lightning-bolts are sadly truncated and most of them suck. But if I just sit down, most of the time after a thousand words or so the ideas start flowing, the muse shows up (hopefully depriving some successful science-fiction-writing bastard of muse juice for a few hours; go for a walk, MiƩville, I need help and I'm borrowing the good-idea-fairy), and I can actually get something done. Most of the time, after a few words, I'm in the groove, and when I reach 3,000 words I'm thinking that I'd like to write a few more.

Like now, but I had to write this thing, and now I have to go watch a hockey game. And this time I'll remember a damn notebook, in case any of those useless lightning-bolts show up.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

In The Future You're Old

The Venture Brothers is the funniest thing in the universe. You've probably seen the mathematical demonstration of this proof; I won't repeat it here.

But really, it is an extraordinary show, and not just because it's funny. It's as sad, at times, as it is hilarious, at least to those of us who grew up on the gee-whiz science and adventure of stories produced between the end of World War 2 and the rise of New Wave science fiction. Those stories--Heinlein's juvenile adventures, Johnny Quest--seem as bittersweet now as some romantic 18th century ballad or a late Roman pastoral, because we know what really happened, don't we? When we were kids (even if we weren't twelve in 1955), we read those stories and wondered what the future would hold for us, but there was one prediction that few visionaries made: in the future, kid, you're going to be old.

And the impact of that dreary truth is partially the result of our current culture of youth, but the fact was always there: if you were twelve in 1955 you'd be on a fixed income in "the future," right? The Venture Brothers, as funny as it is, also has that frightening edge: all these kids around us are dreaming about a future that will have forgotten them by the time they get there; there's no place in "the future" for Rusty Venture, because we didn't get the future we were expecting.

I don't know how long that truth will hold. It seems possible that every generation will get to the future and realize that nothing has changed except now they're old and no one cares about them. But the longer I write, the more I think that that some phenomena (in both science fiction and literature) only come once, and once they're past, stories about them become historical curiosities, rather than living concepts within the genre. Maybe this generation will stay "with it" and progressive, and when we get old we'll have to come up with new stories about the existential ennui about never being able to become irrelevant and unhip like our parents.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Volume 1. Chapter 1. Line 1.

It strikes me as weird and suspicious that Garrison Keillor sounds a lot like Nick Cave.

Okay, an odd way to start a blog, especially one that's supposed to be dedicated to my writing and my comic, but it's relevant to what I do. I have a comic, as you can see, and I've written one complete novel and several complete short stories that no one wants, and this blog will focus on that, but it will also focus on one of my sources of inspiration: those things that we forget as the world changes.

I love text adventures, old radio dramas, fax machine hoaxes, dirigibles, bulletin board systems, and those old satellite dishes that you'd have to point at the right place in the universe in order to pick up Japanese talk shows or whatever. Mostly because I feel a little bad for them. I feel bad that my friends only know that The Shadow is in reality Lamont Cranston, wealthy young man-about-town, because of a throwaway gag in Family Guy, and I'm sad that we're not still groping to communicate with one-another with faxes and ham radios and hijacked phone lines. I feel this way even though I know we're living in an age of informational and creative richness never before rivaled.

As technology advances--the closest thing we have to an unmitigated good in this horrible and vacillating world, and if you disagree please walk to my house and say so--we not only adopt new technologies and ways of doing things more quickly, we abandon them too. The telegraph had a century to decline into general obsolescence; Betamax had a few years. As we live and change we watch the industrial vulgarities of the last generation become quaint and beautiful--I look at the mills (quote Blake, I dare you) of Easthampton, two towns over, converted into chic restaurants and artists' lofts, and wonder how ugly those scenic Norman castles that inspired so many fantasy writers must have looked going up. And as we change and grow, whole mediums wither and die, and sometimes it's fair and sometimes, well, I miss radio dramas.

So that's what I worry about, and if you're reading this that's what you'll get a lot of: not just my thoughts on writing, drawing, and trying to cobble together a creative career for myself, but my thoughts on how things turned out. When I was young I wondered (as every kid wonders, I guess) "Why am I here, and not someone else in my place?" This blog will occasionally ask something similar: why is...Google Blogger, let's say...here, and not something else? Sometimes these questions will even have answers--why the QWERTY keyboard? More likely, though, there won't be answers, just a vague sense of bewilderment that I hope to turn into a career some day.