2014Misreading Iain M. Banks
Fewer things persistently irritate me quite so much as watching someone dabble in science fiction without really understanding the genre. Normally, my annoyance is reserved for the ones whose basic understanding of SF is from comic books and movies watched as a child, someone who doesn’t get any actual pleasure from reading SF, or whose reading of SF is defined by exceptionally narrow interests. My canonical example is Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods, which basically consisted of used furniture, the most important artifact of which was her grinding wheel.
So reading Joseph Norman’s “Digital Souls and Virtual Afterlives in Iain M. Banks’s Culture Series” (an essay found in the mostly delightful The Transgressive Iain M. Banks: Essays on a Writer Beyond Borders) irked me in special ways. In trying to link Banks to the Cyberpunk ethic of the 1980s with its darkly glittering cyberspace, Norman asserts that “In Surface Detail [we are told] … souls can be converted into, or captured as, digital information, similar to Case from Neuromancer.” [emphasis in the original] And, “The total separation of mind and body in his manner corresponds to the famous notion of substance (or Cartesian) dualism, in which the soul exists in an entirely immaterial, non-physical state, distinct from the material state of the body.” Later, “Soulkeeper techonology allows individuals to have their ‘essence’ encoded as pure information which crosses over into virtual, digital environments.”
The confusion in these passages is so rife as to ruin any point Norman was trying to make. Banks makes the point again and again, especially in Excession, The Hydrogen Sonata, and in Prin’s tale in Surface Detail, that bodies matter, that the array and way sensory information arrives within a mind, and the array of capabilities that body possesses, shapes the experiences a mind has; the revention of Zakalwe especially changes the way Zakalwe interacts with the world, he is quite vehemently a new man after he is killed the first time, although not one for the better. There is no “total separation” in Banks’ universe: experiences change minds, and bodies make up the sources of experience.
An argument can be made that there’s still separation, but it’s one that necessitates a connection of some kind, but that’s a philosophical argument that Banks frequently shied away from. He didn’t want to get into the Greg Egan-esque weeds over the morality of duplication and frequently had-waved it away. See, for example, The Use of Weapons and Diziet Sma’s discomfort with cloned mind-states. Also discussed, and much overridden with much handwavery, in The Hydrogen Sonata. The amount of handwavery in Matter in which Banks tries, unsucessfully, to wrestle with Egan, is rather stunning. Banks has a good point in Matter, but his grasp of the material is lacking.
What’s really irritating though is the provincialism of Norman’s approach. He insists on an analog/digital duality that is nowhere to be found in, you know, actually reading Culture novels. The Minds make the point again and again that they are agglomerate, evolved entities for which distinctions like “analog,” “digital,” “probabilistic,” “stochastic,” and so forth are fairly meaningless; they have access to physics and “computation” that make cyberpunk-esque digitalia look like bronze-age tools. To try and take 1980s-era understandings of “cyberpunk” and apply them to Banks’s writing is no more effective than taking E.E. Doc Smith’s understanding of space travel and applying it to Charlie Stross’s books.
Banks died before homotopy became a hot new subject in mathematics, but it looks to be one that will turn all of math– and hence all of physics– into a subset of computational theory. He also died before physicists started taking the simulation hypothesis seriously and rid themselves of the assumption that a simulation had to be discrete (i.e. “digital”) in order to be a simulation.
Banks was aware of his shortcomings, even as he wrestled with them. Norman does not seem to have learned even that much from them man he was studying.
So, falling under the heading of no surprise whatsoever, I’ve been reading a metric ton of Frozen fanfic, more specifically Elsanna. While I do love fanfic, Sturgeon’s Law applies, plus I have my own pecadillos, starting with the simple fact that, given who and what the characters are, I’m not going to read anything IU (“In-Universe”).
A lot of the short stories (those of 2000 words or less) are simply pointless; the writers don’t know how to pack in the details the way a short story demands. That said, I readily deleted “Cacophony,” “Empty Halls,” “Something Crazy,” and “Closeted” as unreadable. “The Takeover,” like “Sorority Sisters,” is simply too fast and ridiculous to be believable; the characters fall into trust (much less love) simply because they have to for the sake of the plot, and never question their reaction to one another, so I never finished them.
That said, there are some worth mentioning, not because they’re good romances, but because they’re among the most compelling illustrations of mental illness I’ve seen yet. You Are and Elsa is Suffering both show the progression I’ve noted before; a few chapters of crud, followed by the author hitting his or her stride, followed by a tragically compelling mess of a story. Those two are like having a crazy lover you can’t stop seeing; for all the drama and emotional toil, the high points are just amazing.
If you want the best Elsanna story (and you probably don’t), Anna Summers, Personal Assistant is probably your best bet. In what has to be the most giggle-inducing scene ever written, Anna discusses safer sex and the author absolutely nails her voice. Hilarity ensues.
Fanfic is a supergenre, and the AU settings necessitated by my restrictive choices enforce all sorts of genre categories that drift far from the original material. (I have yet to see an SFnal Elsanna story. I may have to change that myself.) But if you like to read, fanfic is a way to keep those characters moving forward when no one else will give you more of what you want.
As I mentioned before, I’ve been writing fanfiction as a refresher on writing in general, and most fanfiction is romantic in nature: OTP (One True Pairs), ships and crack ships are the catnip of the fanfiction writer. And as I’ve been writing them, I’ve come to appreciate something a romance writer told me a long time ago: every romance is a threesome, and the antagonist isn’t who you think it is.
Let’s review the parts of a story: A character is someone with a goal, motivation for seeking that goal, and conflicts between herself and that goal. The protagonist is someone for whom the external goal arises suddenly, a threat is introduced and starts the story. The protagonist is someone with a problem. A scene is where a main character shows up and attempts to move toward his goal; that is the reason he is in the scene and the reason the scene exists. He will fail in some way; his failure sets up a future scene. The sum of all such scenes makes up the plot.
In a romance, “romance” is the last thing on the main characters’ minds when they’re introduced to one another. They may have antipathy, antagonism, lust, avarice, greed, or some other goal they want satisfied in the course of their introduction to one another; each may simply want nothing to do with the other. Your goal as a writer is to introduce something that, through the course of your story, brings each to understand that the other person is the best thing that could happen to him or her.
That something is the relationship. Remember: each protagonist has preferably two goals at the beginning: an external one (marry a prince) and an internal one (not feel weak in front of one’s peers). That’s four goals, none of which should, at the beginning, suggest that these two characters belong together.
So what draws them together? The relationship. The relationship is an antagonist, and you should write out its goals, motivation, and conflict. For example: Goals: “Get these two characters together / resolve the tensions between them”; Motivation: “the relationship will blossom / the relationship will last”; Conflict: “he’s seeking someone of noble birth / she’s just coming off a bad relationship and has eschewed all men.”
In every scene with either character, the relationship is there. Ask yourself: how does it sneak up on him or her? What does it make each say to the other that furthers its goals? How does it power play the two of them against each other in dialog, furthering its interest in their best interests?
Thinking about the relationship this way, as something each character will seek to avoid or undermine in her own way, can make romance writing a much more entertaining and viable.
2014Just a quick check-in.
After about a year of working at my new job, I’ve finally found the bandwidth to start writing again. I made a few starts and hated them, so I decided to revive my skills by “writing something easy:” fanfiction.
Hah. And I say again, Hah. Fanfiction isn’t easy. It’s harder even that writing traditional fiction, because you’re constrained by your own desire to stay true to the characters and situations you’re appropriating for your material. There’s a checklist of highpoints you have to hit if you’re to keep the fans on their toes, especially if you’re writing something with “secret” material, stuff only the most rabid fans know, like Tony Stark blood type (A-positive) or that Frozen‘s Elsa & Anna are both left-handed.
But it’s been fun. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with all this stuff. I might post it, but I’m one of those people who so hates when someone doesn’t finish a series they’ve started, and I’m guilty of this, that I’ve resolved never to release anything until it’s absolutely done and ready to post.
About that: one of the reasons I haven’t posted anything in a while is, um, this is embarrassing to admit, I’ve forgotten how to put new stories into the Narrator story engine. So I’ve started on re-writing it. I’ll keep you posted on the details.
2014The Wham Line as Brain Crack
Last night, I had the strangest trouble falling asleep. Normally, I try to think through some creative effort while I fall asleep, either a story or a code problem. For the past month, I’ve been pushing hard to finish my troublesome novel, Honest Impulses. Good grief, that link is almost exactly a year old, and for that year now, it has been my brain crack, something I wanted to enjoy, and kep iterating on rather than completing. What really stood out for me, what was really my brain crack, was the wham line [warning: TVTropes!] that turns not just the story but much of the Journal Entries’ ethos on its head.
Last night, I finished the chapter where the wham line is delivered. It’s not as whammy as I’d hoped; it’s more of a slow-burning fuse thing that’s going to reach deep into the future of the series, I suspect, with interesting consequences. But it’s still done, it’s out of my head, it’s been mined, it’s on paper. And it’s no longer brain crack. Now it’s just material to be refined into a story.
And when I went to sleep, there was a peculiar silence. My brain and I had nothing to say to each other. The Honesty trilogy is finally reaching finished draft status, and like a phoenyx rising from its ashes, the Steadfast trilogy may be coming after it. I don’t have much clarity on Steadfast yet, but it’s coming along. The second Fragility story is actually done, but may need some rewriting to accomodate events told in Honest Impulses.
I wonder what’s next? Yo, Muse, get off your butt and come help me with this.keep looking »