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Author of queer, quirky sci fi/fantasy books. On Amazon.
Editor of all fiction genres.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

God's Away On Business: Moral Ambiguity in Sci Fi

Hello hello!

Been a while, hasn't it? I have an enormous backlog of ideas, but I'm letting my fragile brain rest after completing a draft of The Meaning Wars, so that means it's time to return to my blog. I'd love to write more often this year, and any reader suggestions or requests for content are very welcome. What do YOU want to see?

Until I know the answer to that question, I'm going to share some thoughts that are, shall we say, pertinent to the current sociopolitical situation in the world. Specifically, when it comes to science fiction, who calibrates the heroes' moral compass? To understand authoritarian organizations and to resist them better, it doesn't hurt to look at a couple of the 'nicer' examples. It's hard to fight what one doesn't understand, and unlike a Lovecraft story, fainting isn't going to get us out of this situation. So let's talk about goodest of the bad guys!


Who are we rooting for?


Sure, it's easy to romanticize the rebels, but what are the consequences of that action? I'd argue that giving protagonists in dystopian fiction carte blanche in terms of resistance methods is a bad idea. People have to do what they have to do, but let's be honest about those actions and their cost. Still, doing the nice things or not punching Nazis isn't always an option. Every dictatorship story requires a cast of tough, ethically grey people in the spotlight, because the nice people tend to be the collaborators.

In the case of The Hunger Games, the resistance movement has some very fractious members who seem keen on seizing power. In Rogue One, it's clear that the Alliance isn't as tidy and unified as it seems in the later films. Cassian's actions, which I won't spoil, also make it clear that horrible tactics aren't out of the question. In my beloved Farscape, the storyline soon makes it clear that while Peacekeepers are sometimes hypocritical or oppressive, they do have some ethical standards, and are still often less evil than some of their employees or collaborators. However, standing up to them drives the characters to steal ships and sabotage infrastructure, as well as kidnap people. Sometimes they even just walk away from a situation when the more morally correct answer would be trying to interfere and support the people in fixing it.

However, the balance between altruism and self-preservation in dystopian settings is one of the things that makes them so captivating. Therein lies the appeal. As in real life, even good people have to make bad decisions, and the lingering popularity and love for Firefly over a decade and a half later show that people need imperfect heroes. But one of the interesting things about the show is that the organization the heroes are resisting, The Alliance, isn't...all bad, and the heroes are highly questionable.

 And Mal isn't exactly a portrait of consistent ethical actions and good decision-making, so the Firefly crew certainly count as somewhat unreliable narrators. The treatment of Shepherd and Inara is really unsettling, and the show frames them both as somewhat whiny or demanding - even when they are being reasonable.


Not bad (Or even drawn that way) 


The Alliance allows sex workers to control their own situations and at least tries to make sure colonists have food. Obviously, the secret science torture program and the initiative that created Reapers are bad, but the rest of the systems exist in a functioning democracy that doesn't have to bow to warlords like Niska, To put it another way, there aren't all that many differences between The Alliance and Starfleet.

In the context of authoritarian benevolency, Starfleet deserves a mention. They do have a lot of power within the interspecies alliance, and sure are happy to let their somewhat colonialist explorers to regularly break the Prime Directive ('we don't interfere except that it's what we do on every episode').  They have good intentions and mostly function well, but have done some really sketchy things. All governments have dirty laundry. It doesn't justify crimes against humanity, but what about times when crimes against humanity are the 'solution' to taking down an enemy? Certain events in Iraq and Afghanistan come to mind, and the Japanese internment camps of WWII or the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are vitally important real-world instances.

The ends of taking down an oppressive state may justify the means, but how far? The collaborators deserve what they get, but how far does that go? There is a point where the demand for justice shifts into a thirst for revenge, and the reasons for this are perfectly understandable. The thing is, a state IS its people. Rebelling against the state does also mean fighting people with wives and kids and pet dogs at home. Yes, they chose to be there, but questioning why and how can also help prevent further mobilization of bigotry and injustice. If, that is, the (usually white) heroes can restrain themselves from gleeful payback time.





The price of peace and stability


One of the reasons dystopian governments are often very controlling is that it's perceived as the trade off for mere survival. Warhammer 40K and the Cthulutech setting both make use of this, so that there are no 'good guys' and one ends up rooting for the totalitarian side just because they're ultimately working for preservation. In this respect, there's an uncanny overlap with a lot of rebel factions, in that ends do sometimes justify the means.

Sometimes, however, the price is far greater than the results; the populace in 1984 is in poor health, tends to die in the army, and is very ignorant. At least many dystopias, such as the one in The Giver, try to justify their techniques by pointing to the over all health and sustainability of the population. Even then, the government in 1984 is very ineffectual in its way. It's NOT a stable system. The government keeps a huge chunk of the population ignorant and keeps the intellectuals working so hard on propaganda that they can't question what's going on. The crumbling infrastructure of plugged sinks and stinking cabbage and food shortages - in contrast, to say, the Alliance's elegant infrastructure in the Core - shows how badly this particular system is running.

Are dystopias hyperbolic and foolish?


However, all of this may sound very objective and distant, a problem that does plague sci fi. Talking about monster hoards and invasive alien species and plagues and sexual and reproductive control can feel ludicrous in the context of current events, which aren't usually as lurid. And sometimes rebelling in fiction quells the urge for real action when necessary, imply naysayers.

There's a lot of salt and contempt for dystopias these days, partly because people assume that they are frivolous make-believe experiments in losing privilege for mostly white readers. That's not entirely without merit, but considering how many dystopias are aggressively post-racial and diverse, I'd argue that it's more about showing oppression in more than one context.

And finally, fiction offers opportunities to explore both sides of a discussion without having to invoke real atrocities or cheapen them, which can be stressful for survivors. Israel and Palestine's relationship certainly looks like a modern-day dystopia, not to speak of the current American government, but trying to talk about ethics in that context seems insensitive at best. Fiction allows us to explore possibilities without exacting a human cost for the experiment. And because of that safety, understanding how the rise to power happened can just be easier and less horrible when viewed through the lens of sci fi. And that is important, because seeing institutions as a group of people rather than an immobile and immortal bloc also makes them easier to defeat.


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Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!


Monday, 21 November 2016

Speechless

I've opened my blog more than a few times in the last few weeks, trying to figure out what to say. But the American election happened, and Leonard Cohen passed away, and I don't know what to say anymore. All I have are words. I don't go out and protest, partly because I can't (for a variety of reasons). I am just a writer. Amazon's tightened up its reading and reviewing restrictions even further, something that won't exactly make it easier to spread the word about books.

What do I say in the face of this new world?

I've read some good articles lately - journalists offering sincere, grim advice on how to survive in Donald Trump's America, thinkpieces from people at intersectional breaking points, scientific journals sharing information about ancient hominids. In some ways, the world keeps marching on. In some ways, it's stopped forever. People have already died and suffered violence.

It's possible to write off my emotions as insulation from the world of violence and hate, but there's more to it than that. The legitimizing of violence and discrimination in such a public way is a new reality for all of us. It's one that I really thought years of reading and writing books would have prepared me for.

Maybe it prepared me more than I think it did, but the reality of living in a cautionary tale has not yet set in.

I am scared. Some of my favorite people have teamed up with artists to create things to sell, to help fund the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood's initiatives. From here in Canada, in this country which the rest of the world has acclaimed a sort of save haven and paradise, I remain and wait for the disaster to make its way here.

I want to offer people hope and encouragement, but I don't know if I have that right now. The only thing I can say is that I am still here. I am alive, I abide, I survive. I hope my friends and family will survive, too. There will be hope in these dark times, even if I'm too numb to have it right now.

I don't know what the use of words is right now, but words are my medium, my weapon, and they are all I have to give. Soon I may have more to give, more jokes and critiques and flakes of light.

Hang in there, survive, keep fighting, and don't be ashamed to hide if it keeps you alive. We will get through this, as many of us as can get by. Do not stop voting or protesting or just talking about democracy, no matter which country you live in. Do not allow racist, phobic people to dictate the direction of your world or to take power.

These are just words, but maybe someone can make them real, and maybe, just maybe, I can use them to give the rest of you strength or comfort. Don't be ashamed to laugh when you can. Rest, recuperate, and when you can rise, build and make what you can. Doesn't matter whether it's a sandcastle or a barricade at a protest or a scarf for someone you care about. Just make something.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Your Book is a Phoenix: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Revisions

Hello hello!

So, not long ago, I finished and published Bad Things that Happen to Girls, which will also end up in Braindemons, my next personal anthology. When is Braindemons coming out? No clue, but it's going to be a while - I need a nice big stack of stories to fill it, first. And in the meantime, that means I am preparing The Meaning Wars (The Meaning Wars, book 3) and Monsters and Fools (The Nightmare Cycle, book 2) for your eager, grasping hands, claws, and tentacles.

But BTtHtG did not arise fully-formed from my forehead, like Athena - far FROM it.

Stage 1: the bare outline of an idea 


I knew I wanted to write about two sisters, a love story with a young man from an Indian background - inspired, I must admit, by my own teenage love for a math tutor at the time - and about an abusive mother figure. I wanted at least one of the girls to be an artist, I wanted to capture the culture of suffocating, toxic religious families, and I wanted a happy ending. Snippets of scenes came together, but I couldn't get the whole thing to gel. Frustrated, I picked it up and set it aside as I worked on other things, hoping that somehow, some day, I'd be able to make it work.

Then a computer crashed and I lost my progress. I was desperate not to lose the file, even though it was corrupted beyond repair, and I rewrote as much as I could remember of the story. And there it sat for years. I pecked at it occasionally, but made little headway.

Then I had the idea of renaming it and of adding more to it, and of complicating the events. I knew I wanted the father character and daughter characters to spend time on the road, I knew I wanted the daughter in love with the young Indian man to have a second chance with her love, and I knew I wanted the other daughter to be queer. But where would I take them? I had no idea at the time. The girl in love would suffer from depression, but in high school, I had a very rough, broad idea of what that was like.

Stage 2: putting meat on the bones


The biggest problem I had with Bad Things' first drafts - back when it went by the name 'Foreverland' - was that I thought I needed to have events happen slowly. How could my readers get the sensation of a family slowly unravelling unless the pacing was equally slow? I didn't have events and revelations condensed enough, so there were these long stretches of dead space where basically nothing was happening. I have had that problem in a lot of books, so I think that's one of the reasons I've become such a parsimonious writer.

 One thing I did for Bad Things, though, to deal with the problem of the time jump, was - I DIDN'T look at my notes. It's been really useful; I based that technique on your advice to rewrite things using the original as a basis. I discovered, though, that it was better for me to just have the idea, and work from that - otherwise I tended to choke. My attempt to adhere to details was actually suffocating me.


Stage 3: doubt and denial 


Never trust the demon doubt. I've spent a few years in the trenches now, with battle scars from publishing, and one of the worst things I ever went through was a batch of negative reviews on GR. Apparently, dropping the word "cunt" under any circumstances means I have to hand in my feminist badge.

I almost stopped writing.

Finally, I published again, and moved on. I put together a collection of stories from multiple authors, and another, and entered a third collection, then a fourth.

I tried working on a story, and had an anxiety attack at the thought of publishing. My writing gathered dust for months. Even my blog had only a few peeps and snippets.

Stage 4: screw it, time to get back on the horse

Then, last month, I decided to tackle a story I'd been struggling with. I wrote 6K in one day and fired it off to my editors and mentors. Armed with their feedback, I let it sit a week, eagerly read over their critiques, and decided I'd finish the second draft by the end of the week. By the end of September, I'd finished my first draft of The Meaning Wars. 

The point of this story is: there will always be ups and downs. These stages may be inevitable. You may want to put your pen down. You may have to decide that writing needs to be a part-time thing. You may think it's time to quit, and that you can't do this. Mental health issues may leave you curled up and whimpering in the bathtub, rocking back and forth under a blanket, unable to verbalize your feelings.

But you CAN do it, oh writers and penmonkeys. You can. And eventually, the next book will stomp into your brain and demand to be written.

***

Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!

Thursday, 29 September 2016

A Loaf of Bread: on Imperfections

Hello hello!

So, my father's been visiting this week. As those who follow my blog and Facebook may know, my familial relationships are somewhat complex and...perhaps the word 'fraught' is applicable. Still, things have gone pretty well. On the weekend, I was eager to show off my baking skills, which now include yeast bread. I don't have a stand mixer and do everything by hand, so as other bakers and cooks will know, this is a bit of an achievement.


Bread (and creative pursuits) are hard 


Bread is easy to mess up. It has to be kneaded the right way, left to rise, the water has to be the right temperature, and people across the internet have pretty fierce debates about when to add the salt for the sake of the gluten structure. Some people recommend a drier dough; some, a wetter dough. Different climates, elevations, and water types affect the taste of the bread. As a friend who went through culinary school explained it, bread made in a particular city will never taste quite the same as bread made elsewhere because of the makeup of the atmosphere. The point is, there's an art to it, not just the science of combining ingredients in a particular order.

While my father walked around the lake to make sure he could handle the carbs, and complimented the taste, he was also quick to look up the science of making bread. He immediately started looking at various ways to make absolutely optimal bread - using a stand mixer, of course, not tearing the dough as it's kneaded, the way to proof yeast, the chemical process of autolysing - and started quizzing me about whether I'd measured everything out to the gram or used volume measures.

I felt quite embarrassed and explained that I wasn't striving for perfection--just a good, edible loaf of bread. Food tastes different depending on whether the cook had their heart in it that day or was doing things perfunctorily. Something doesn't have to be perfect to be enjoyable for what it was. I explained, too, that I'm a relative novice - this is my third loaf of yeast bread ever, which is really not much - and that, as with knitting, one must do garter stitch, then stockinette, then lace stitches. I have to master a simple version of a thing before I start doing it more precisely and better.

My father, seemingly not understanding this, challenged me to a bread-making competition for the next time he visits. Although I laughed at the time, I felt disquieted later. The thing is, he proudly says that he can't cook but can follow a recipe, and that's very applicable to the arts. A paint by numbers kit is perfectly acceptable, but to create something new, diversions from a formula must occur, or will happen inevitably. For writing, bad or mediocre stories precede adequate, good, and excellent ones. And even then, writing is kind of hard.

I spent a long time not even attempting to make yeast breads because they're so difficult and technically challenging. Then I tried a breadmaker and ended up with some bricks. Eventually, I got up the courage to use a conventional oven and start attempting loaves. I'm definitely better at writing than I am at making bread, but that's okay.

At some point, reading about a thing can just be intimidating and make one self-conscious about imperfections. It's easier to criticize than to do, let alone to do well, and even the best art can never be utterly perfect from every single perspective. People are different, and what satisfies one person will leave another hungry and bring another jubilation.

How do you know it's good enough?


There's an anecdote I heard about Tennessee Williams; a friend of his found him sitting at his typewriter, editing a story that had already been accepted for publication. Williams shrugged off his friend's incredulity, saying the story wasn't done.

For my own part, I'm currently re-editing And the Stars Will Sing and The Stolen: Two Short Stories for re-release. I have a lot more bread to make and a lot more projects to knit, and many more books to write and edit. And none of these things will be perfect, but they're part of a process. Finally, at least they may satisfy some people in the moment, and when I release them, they will represent the best efforts I could offer at the time.

Here's the other thing, though - hindsight is a luxury borne of experience. It's easy to say "this ought to have been done a certain way", but that comes about after circumstances have changed. Maybe I shouldn't have torn my dough, maybe I should have left that character alive, but even having that alternative perspective only has come about because a decision was made. It's too easy to beat oneself up and focus on the past rather than using that experience and acquired knowledge to improve the future.

At the end of the day, the best one can do, even if it's imperfect, is better than an ideal creation that never enters the world. I know what the perfect loaf of bread would taste, feel, and smell like, and I can imagine it, but my learner's efforts and the slow process of attempting garlic olive oil bread and brioches will yield more goodness than a hundred dreams of snow-white loaves ever could. After all, as any poor person could tell you, dreams may be enticing, but they leave one's belly empty.

What do you regret? What would you change, and what have you learned from creative failures? Let me know in the comments.


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Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

It's Okay to be a Lady (Or Gentleman, or Gentleperson): Why I Swear Less

Hello hello!

So, it's no secret that I phuquing love profanity. I cuss on Facebook and Twitter, and quite a few four-letter words find their way into my blog posts as well. But even so, and especially in conversation, I've been trying to swear less. Now, I'm not saying anyone HAS to follow my example, but it wouldn't kill anyone, either. Obviously, this post will involve a lot of profanity. If you're not crazy about that sort of thing, you've been warned, but consider giving this one a read anyway.


Why swear in the first place?


It can have analgesic effects for injuries, it's fun, it's emphatic, and it has a long and storied history. One of the first things I do when learning a new language is--and this is a hundred percent true--learn to swear in it. Learning to swear in Spanish helped the language stick, and actually taught me about some cultural values, as well as linguistic diversity within the Spanish-speaking world. (For instance, "pinche" is a cuss word in Mexico but means "bobby pin" elsewhere. There are many examples of this).

Swears represent cultural values and taboos, and have a lot of anthropological value. You can trace a culture's evolution through the swear words it's created and discarded (link). I love them, I love the way they sound, and I love what they express. But...

Swear words have power.


Because they're taboos, when injected into conversation, they really snap people to attention. Sure, our era's pretty lax about swearing, but it still gets banned and bleeped. It's kind of exciting to hear someone swear because they are breaking a cultural rule. Even the little cuss words, like "damn" and "Hell" are moderated in their use, and I really enjoy hearing them.

But pwer can be abused, and these words lose their zap and sing if they pass too much into common vocabulary. That said, new cusses, like "fuckboy" and "cuck" have arisen. "Douchebag" is another relatively recent invention; I first heard it used as an insult in tenth grade (yes, I remember the exact moment) when arguing with a girl named Holly in English class. We both came away from the argument with a sense of mutual respect for the other's wit, by the way, which was pretty cool.

Still, these words can also be very hurtful when directed at someone else, so there's a reason we try to teach kids to use them judiciously. I did grow up listening to one of my parents swear a lot, angrily, and hurtfully, so it took a long time for me to learn that swearing could be fun and even innocent.

Swearing less makes it more fun when you do swear.


I guess this is my biggest argument for reducing the rate of cussin'. I love it, so I wanted to feel that old thrill again. Swear words have a connection with sublimated violence, and sometimes I just don't feel like being violent in my thoughts or conversations. Plus, searching for alternatives can be fun, and a bit goofy. It doesn't hurt to revive archaic words and even archaic substitutes, because language is fun.

Final thoughts?


Swearing can be great. It can be hurtful as well. It can be transgressive. But making it a staple of conversation makes it less fun. Eating candy all day, every day would be fun for the first couple of hours, but eventually the inevitable sugar-sickness sets in and one wonders why they gorged on gummy candy in the first place, Disarcade. So, keep swearing, and try to be as creative as you can with it. Words can cut like knives, as long as you turn them on, say, vegetables in the kitchen rather than your friends, everybody wins.

Also, fuck onions for being so hard to cut. Why do they have to be round?

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Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!

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