Monthly Archives: December 2013

2013

Well, this year is about wrapped up, and as is the want of the season I figured I’d take a look back and see if I could somehow parse some meaning from all of those events that occurred:

Best Books:

I read some excellent books this year.
Noteworthy was Joe Abercrombie’s ‘Red Country‘, which was much anticipated and lived up to lofty expectations. I really liked the returning characters and the new ones even more so, and Joe’s continuing breadth of hybridised genres remained an invigorating force on my appreciation of modern Fantasy writing.
I also read several of Chuck Wendig’s books. You might have noticed I referenced him repeatedly this year on the blog, and with good cause. I ‘discovered’ his writing through the terribleminds website and his advice to writers, and I’m glad that this led me to his fiction. The Miriam Black books were great. His Corn-Punk YA and Atlanta Burns stories were good excursions into a genre I don’t read enough of, and Blue Blazes was great. I still have a special place for the first of his books that I read though, the tales of Coburn, a vampire who wakes up in the zombie apocalypse and must become a shepherd to his ‘sheeple’

Against this stiff competition though rose Mark Lawrence’s trilogy (Prince, King, Emperor of Thorns). It has caused some controversy in some circles but I didn’t find the protagonist as shocking or evil as some of the criticism would suggest. He wasn’t a good guy, but I think he was trying to be without really knowing how. In that sense he wasn’t so much different from other protagonists I’ve read. He was younger in book 1, but as the book progressed that feature became less pronounced, and given the images of teenage ‘soldiers’ coming out of Syria I had little problem accepting it. The world was interesting, but several queries regarding technology level and such went unanswered. I would happily recommend them and look forward to reading Lawrence’s future works.

Best Graphic Novel:

It’s a small field, as I don’t read too many, but I did finally get around to reading “Red Son”. I’m not really a fan of DC and certainly not of Superman who I think tends to fascistic fantasies of control, or to some infantile desire to be protected and guided by a greater being. I was interested in how the Superman mythos would play out against the Soviet political ideals, and while ‘Red Son’ touched on this paradox it went largely unexplored. In the end I felt that the Red Son Superman was still an American, transplanted into Russia, rather than a full exploration of what a Soviet Superman would truly mean. It was an interesting and thought-provoking read though.

Best Film:

Surprisingly few real contenders here. I saw many of the big ‘tent-pole’ movies and usually came away with mild disappoint. ‘Elysium’ didn’t live up to its aesthetic and tried to sledgehammer me with a political message. ‘Into Darkness’ was silly, burdened by fan-service and more spectacle than substance. ‘Iron Man 3’ had some good sequences but seemed to lose the sense of character. ‘Man of Steel’ did a wonderful job of setting up and re-imagining a familiar origin story, but the Krypton scenes were unnecessary, the whole final act was terrible and Snyder’s misogyny kept rearing up ugly. ‘World War Z’, again, sacrificed story to spectacle. ‘Desolation of Smaug’ looked amazing but was weighed down under its own attempts to be an epic far beyond the proportions of its source material. ‘Pacific Rim’ had awesome robots and kaiju… and that is all. ‘Django Unchained’ was disappointing – particularly in the manner by which it relegated its eponymous character to secondary and tertiary roles when Waltz and DiCaprio were on-screen.

I think therefore that ‘Gravity’ gets the nod. Sure there were problems, as Neil DeGrasse Tyson pointed out, but it was a great experience. I saw it in IMAX 3D and it was beautifully immersive. I love Cuarón’s long tracking shots and the film’s opening was a wonderful example of how the technique can be well used.

(Special mention to ‘Wreck-it Ralph’ for being an absolutely awesome movie to watch with the kids).

Best Event:

Two great events for me this year as a writer.

Firstly, Genrecon 2013 gave me the opportunity again to meet so many other writers in such a diverse range of specialities, and at different stages in the auctorial development. The panels and workshops were excellent, the community supportive and inclusive, the international guests warm and engaging, the banquet after-party sufficiently well lubricated.

Secondly, I saw George RR Martin and Michelle Fairley in conversation, hosted by the Wheeler’s Centre in a side-show to their Supernova commitments. Michelle was wonderfully entertaining and forthright. GRRM went over some adages with which I was already familiar – it must be tremendously difficult to answer the same questions in new ways – but also added some interesting insights into his process and the story thus far (such as his being uncertain that Bronn would even survive the Eyrie, only to watch as the character became important as a sounding-board for Tyrion, and then important in his own right).

Writing:

I have taken some strides here too, but not as many as I had hoped. I’m much more organised with my submissions tracking spreadsheet and a good list of potential markets to explore (thanks in particular to Peter Ball and Alan Baxter); I pitched my novel MS again and felt a lot more confident and assured in doing so; I have five finished short-stories this year, for a total of about 30,000 words.

I am not unhappy with that, given all of the external pressures on my time, but I want to increase that figure. Alan Baxter estimated himself as having completed over 250,000 words this year and Chuck Wendig has something like 600,000. Chuck’s a full-time pen-monkey, but he has a toddler and I am sure many of the same concerns and excuses that I do, so I’m not going to point at any of those as a way out, I’m just going to look at my 30,000 or so, nod, and acknowledge that I could do more.

2014:

Goals then?

  • To write over 50,000 words in 2014. For those not good on the maths, that’s about 1,000 a week. 200 words a day x 5 days a week. That looks do-able.
  • To have completed 6 short stories. That’s one every 2 months. I’ll need to do this and more to hit the 50,000, so hopefully this is a goal I can meet and exceed.
  • Reading 10 novels. That’s about one very 5 weeks, and I suspect this will be the tough one., because I want to hit this goal without including the reading I have to do for work, but perhaps the work reading will have to contribute.
  • Reading 100 short stories. That’s 2 a week, and I think this is an achievable one. I’ve subscribed to Daily Science Fiction, so even if I just read all of them I will be fine, but I’ll get subscriptions to a few other mags as well so that there’ll be the variety. I’m also reading Raymond Chandler’s short stories for work. I may or may not include these toward my goal.
  • Blogging. 1 post a month, at least, and I ambitiously hope to get one up every fortnight.

So there you have it: 2013 tucked into the past and a clear guiding line through 2014. Thanks for following and being a part of it. I appreciate that there is some sense of an audience out there and it helps me to stay motivated knowing that there are readers waiting.

Happy New Year to you all. Hope it’s been a good ’13 and a great ’14 ahead.

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Equality, Diversity and Appropriation

Recently (actually about a month ago) Joss Whedon spoke at an Equality Now function. In some circles this was lauded (Jezebel called it perfect), others were less certain (such as The Mary Sue), and many were downright critical. I don’t want to down-play the importance of the feminist discussion, and we should all recognise just how problematic is the depiction of women in genre fiction and genre fandom. (If you don’t, try scrolling through the images here, many of which are drawn from Whedon’s own work).

I am a Whedon fan, but not a full Whedonite. I loved Buffy and Angel. I loved Firefly. Dollhouse, not so much. Serenity was ok. Cabin in the Woods was clever but problematic in many ways, not the least of which was that in its knowing parody of sexist horror tropes it conformed to all of the sexist horror (as explained brilliantly by Kirstyn McDermott). But I digress. With no disrespect to the importance of the feminist discussion,  an article by Clem Bastow got me thinking about Orientalism, another aspect of equality that genre fiction needs to confront.

Rebecca Brown’s essay on Orientalism in Firefly/Serenity gives a great outline for what Whedon has done in drawing on Oriental aesthetics and culture, but what he has not done is drawn into stark focus by Mike Le. A future culture in which Western and Oriental language, fashion and philosophy is blended, but no one exists who is of Asian appearance? Le rightly asks if such a gendered world could have been made – a world of male and female cultural equality – without female characters. I suspect not. I am certain, not.

I was reminded of Richard Morgan’s future/noir novels in which Takeshi Kovacs is protagonist. The character is explicitly located as being culturally Japanese/Slavic (and fiercely pedantic of the pronunciation of his name: Koh-vach). For all sorts of reasons related to the technologies available in Takeshi’s world the physical appearance of the character is less relevant than you might assume, but this is the internet’s #1 image of him:

And here he is on a book cover:

That’s some obvious white-washing, and even if we give Kovacs a re-sleeving pass, there’s plenty more examples of Asian characters being white-washed, or erased, or presented in yellow-face. I could go all the way back to Mr. Yunioshi, or David Carradine in ‘Kung Fu’but unlike black-face, this is not some embarrassing relic of the past. Tom Cruise as the ‘Last Samurai’, Keanu as the main one of ’47 Ronin’, 2010’s all-caucasian ‘Last Airbender’, 2012’s ‘Cloud Atlas’, even ‘Pacific Rim’ cast Clifton Collins Jnr as Tendo Choi.

On his blog over the past months Alan Baxter had guest posts from people discussing their early inspirations in genre fiction. The post by Thoraiya Dyer on the Feist/Wurts ‘Empire trilogy’ struck a cord with me because I too read and greatly enjoyed those books. For me they were one of the first examples – perhaps the first example outside of folk stories and mythoilogies – of Fantasy from a Non-Anglo perspective. Much as with ‘Dune’, which I also read as a teen, I was fascinated by the different culture, the different way of life, that was presented.

Mara of the Acoma is a young woman, powerless by the regular measures of the genre. She is no warrior, no adept of magic, has no divinely assured destiny. She is unprepared fro the challenges she faces but survives and overcomes them by the force of her agency and wits. Here she is on the cover:

That's her there, the white-chick dressed in white with blonde hair

That’s her there, the white-chick dressed in white with blonde hair


Never mind that Mara is obviously described as dark-haired. Never mind that the buildings of her world are more rice-paper screens than towering spires of marble. Never mind that she really has no use for a sword. And yes, the civilising white saviour comes in later to show her how much better things could be if only her culture were whiter and more European, but until that point the books did an excellent job of introducing me, and apparently Thoraiya, and I’m sure many other readers, to new cultural influences on Fantasy. I sure do hate the character of Kevin, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Paul Atreides is the privileged white male, but he  only comes into his power when he leaves that world. Re-reading ‘Dune’ recently I was struck by how my younger self had missed the obvious parable: when a technologically superior force invades a desert to extract from it the natural resources required to maintain their technologies,  the native inhabitants look to a religious leader to mount a rebellion against their oppressors. Again – Paul is the white saviour, giving the Fremen a leader that couldn’t have come from within, but still, this was the 70s.

Forward to today and I am reading Mazarkis Williams’ first novel, clearly set in an Orientalist culture. I am not far into the novel, so I won’t comment further, but it is still difficult to see this culture as anything but the Other. Perhaps that is for me as a reader to overcome.

My own writing draws on the culture I see in the streets and workplaces where I live, in my friends and the friends of my family, in the public spaces I frequent, but my novel, especially in its earliest drafts, was set in the pseudo-Euro tropes of lazy Fantasy. As a young writer one tends to reproduce what one has read. As Neil Gaiman says, “Most of us only find our own voices after we’ve sounded like a lot of other people.”

I think the question that fascinates me here is when writers can draw upon cultures of the Other to add to their world (as I believe Morgan did with the Kovacs novels), and when does it become white privilege mining other cultures and appropriating elements that then become stereotypes?

I don’t have the answer, but much as with good art – I feel that I know it when I see it.