Imagine you’re a scrambler.” With those four words, Peter Watts’s character Siri Keaton kicks off the final major epiphany of his science fiction masterpiece about first contact, Blindsight. It’s why the aliens have come, and why they’re so inscrutable to the master interpreter, Susan James. Ultimately, we realize the aliens, which the crew name “Scramblers,” are here to wipe out humanity, but as Siri and Susan come to understand, the aliens don’t have a reason humans can understand.

Siri is telling the story as a story. And he tells us straight up that he’s an unreliable narrator. Part of the book’s conceit is that the reader has to puzzle out what’s really gong on in Siri’s head– a head that’s very different from yours or mine.

Thinking about it, I realized that maybe the aliens have a very understandable reason.

Warning, this post contains spoilers about both Blindsight and Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep.

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Adele by Leila Slimani is one of those books that I so desperately wanted to like based on the reviews, and ended up absolutely loathing based on the actual content. It’s a book-length bit of New Yorker fiction, you know the type: contemporary, moody, and pointless. meaningful plot. If a story is what happened, and a plot is why it happened, then Slimani has written a story that goes nowhere.

I was intrigued with the story because it purported to be a story about a nymphomaniac. That was the word used in the first review I stumbled across, and of course the critics were all over themselves to praise a woman for daring to write a story about a woman obsessed with sex, and about a husband who’s just not into sex all that much.

Adele, the titular character, is married to Richard, a solid, stolid, and loyal man, a doctor who works out of a major Paris hospital, and they have one child together, a boy named Lucien. Adele lives a double life, with a steady stream of men she meets and has sex with on a regular basis. The whole plot revolves around one simple question: When will Richard find out, and what will he do?

For a 180-page book, the answer is that Richard finds out around page 110, and he does… spoiler alert, but if you’ve ever read the New Yorker, you already know the answer… he does almost nothing. He suffers, Adele suffers, Lucien suffers.

But Slimani seems to be completely uninterested in why. Adele’s mother gives a speech about how Adele was “dangerous to men” the moment she hit puberty, and Adele’s best friend tells her that the stolid, married life was never meant for her, and really this book just ends up a portrait of two people who married for convention who should never have been in the same room together.

And for a genre that’s all about introspection, Adele is uninterested in why she wants what she wants. She moves through life with all the consciousness of a sparrow. It’s a depressing book, and it has no real resolution.

The book’s length includes an interview with the author, and Slimani reveals that she’s uninterested it why Adele is the way she is. “Adele wants to be a thing,” is about as thoughtful as she gets about her character. The sex scenes, and there are several, are crass and uninteresting. Maybe that’s Slimani’s point: that the sex simply can’t fill the hole in Adele’s soul, but Slimani doesn’t even make the case that it’s the sex that’s the problem, rather than Adele’s vapid regard for it. The sex is a hook to sell the book, and it worked on me, much to my annoyance.

Seriously, if you want to read something like this, go find The Sexual Life of Catherine M.. The eponymous M is a real person, and while she’s as passive and as impulsive as Adele, she had the sense to find a man who would indulge her obsessions and be her chaperone during her encounters. It’s also a much better book.

So, the subject of Alien and Aliens came up again, and I want to circle back to something I wrote awhile ago., in which I excoriated a writing teacher for completely missing the point of Ripley’s character.

In the first movie, Ripley is the executive officer of the starship Nostromo, in charge of an active cargo worth billions of dollars. She’s an insider, and it’s literally her job to enforce the regulations. Captain Dallas may have to be the one to interpret orders from above and instruct his ship, but it’s Ripley’s job to turn those instructions into commands among his crew. That’s why she’s the one who yells to get Parker’s attention when he starts bitching about how this “emergency” is going to make him late back to Earth.

In horror– and Alien is definitely a horror film, a classic “monster in the house”– there is a trope that called “good girl survives.” Most horror films show evil as a form of punishment against sins: in the various slasher franchises (Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Halloween), it’s always the horny ones who die first, followed by the greedy, the vain, the angry, etc. Ripley follows all the rules; that’s what her argument against Dallas and Ash at the airlock are all about. “If you let that thing in there we could all die,” she says, and she’s proven to be right. In the first movie, Ripley shows up to the plot with everything to lose.

In the second movie, Ripley is an outsider. She has no say with these marines, and Burke is so far above her in the company hierarchy she doesn’t matter to him… and after confronting the alien, he doesn’t matter to her. The scene where she asks Apone if she could help and shows she can run the forklift establishes her skills, but it also shows she’s willing to break a rule and dive into “Marine Country” to avoid being a passive bystander.

When the fight breaks out, she’s the one who crashes the APC into the reactor and saves as many of the marines as she can, defying Gorman all the way. She has nothing left to lose… until she finds Newt. And then she has a mission: not just nuke them from orbit, but also save Newt. She breaks every rule, and she teaches Bishop that sometimes the rules must be broken for life to be meaningful.

Alien and Aliens are amazing back-to-back because they do something important: they recognize that the heroic character can go on more than one journey. Sequels that have the main character go on the same journey over and over don’t have the same punch.

This was the failure mode of the Dead Space trilogy. The first game was about Issac’s survival; the second was about the survival of everyone still alive on Titan, lots of innocent people who did not blunder into a Marker site. The third game has the same journey as the second; it’s only saving grace is the scope of its setting and the recognition that, really, Isaac has made the Ripley transition to action hero. The thing is, Isaac no longer knows what he’s trying to save.

Ripley goes on a different journey in the second film. It’s no longer a horror movie; it’s an action film, a survival film. The horrors are the same, but the presentation is now that the good guys supposedly show up with munitions and training… and it still doesn’t do them any good. It undoes the hubris of the military response, leaving Ripley and Bishop to deal with the final monster alone.

The other interesting detail about Ripley is that she doesn’t change much at all in the first movie. She keeps every rule, even the one about destroying the ship, as rigidly as possible… and that’s why she wins. She’s right, and it’s the world around her that has to changed. In the second film, she’s right again, but now she has to change, to fight, to break herself to understand how to make other people understand why she was right.

These beats of Ripley’s character are what make the two movies so dynamic against one another. Both scripts are the work of craftsmen, and it’s important to analyze these two movies in detail to see how those beats work, and how the writers work at least two plot points into every last scene.

Today I engaged in a little “fall” cleaning. This post is somewhat technical, a changelog explaining, if only to myself, what I did to my story collection this Fall to clean up some internal details.

The wonderful consistency of my story mini-sites is due to a very simple thing: I’ve been using rendering templates for them since the very beginning, going as far back as 1993. The first generation of scripts were written in Perl, and respected what was then thought of as “Usenet Emphasis Text,” using asterisks and underlines to provide that emphasis. That sort of thing has evolved into Markdown and its familiars, and over the years my own text repository has also evolved to match those standards, with satisfying results.

Two versions ago, the entire site was actually written in Django, a web application framework written in Python, and all of the stories were stored in the database. That was silly, of course, but it was what I knew professionally and I thought I was being cool at the time. For the previous version, I had torn out the Django but kept Django’s templating engine, named “Jinja2,” to render all of the HTML statically, which I could then upload to the server quickly. That worked well, but writing the code to keep it organized was a difficult task. I was, of course, up to that task.

I experimented briefly with one of the “industrial strength” static site generators, but I could not for the life of me get it to do what I wanted. The biggest problem is that it wanted to turn every story into a folder, so that the “nasty” .html extension wasn’t visible; but that meant that every story ended in a terminal /, which to me was unacceptable; since I started on the web in 1993, a terminal slash meant you were looking at an index or table of contents. It also wanted to downcase all of my URLs and remove all the punctuation. As much as I appreciate slug URLs, my URLs still conform to the “clean” standard, and they’ve been unchanged in over twenty years! I think I have a moral duty to keep them unchanged for, well, for as long as I’m alive and care to share my stories with y’all.

The experiment may have been a failure, but it made me realize just how much cruft was in my story engine. I re-wrote the entire engine and, sadly, abandoned my beloved Hy, switching back to base Python instead. The resulting engine is only five lines shorter, but Hy is super-compact compared to Python, and the current version is readable and even documented. It doesn’t matter if Zola took less than a half-second and mine takes six seconds, if Zola can’t get it right and I can. Six seconds is nothing, and more importantly, my engine is change-aware; if I add a story, the update time is in milliseconds, since only four files need updating: a new page for the new story, the table of contents leading to that story, and the neighboring stories so the “next/previous” links work.

The other thing I did was eliminate almost all of the old layout CSS. It’s 2020, for Cthulhu’s sake! The stories are now laid out with CSS flexbox and proper media queries. I haven’t touched that code in a decade, and it showed.

The other thing, which is more esoteric but still straightforward, is that the “date of publication” toggle on the Journal Entries page has been, well, I hesitate to call it “fixed,” but it’s definitely modernized, with the two table-building functions actually broken out into, functions with proper .map() internals for building the lines of the page, and the sort-order function itself has a lovely abstraction. All in all, I’m rather pleased with how that code looks now. Oh, it won’t win me any awards, but at least it’s no longer embarrassing.

You shouldn’t notice any changes with the readability of the website; if anything, the removal of so much cruft should make it more readable, not less. And it still renders pretty well on phones, in case you want to take your sci-fi smut on the road.

I’ve been spending some time recently cleaning up my “How to write” folder. That’s literally what it is, a folder with a bunch of “Here’s how to plot a novel” spreadsheets from various people, lists of themes and show formulas, and lots of general advice on how to write a book.

I was wondering how my books, the actual novel-length books, stack up against the the basics of storytelling. Not the formula, but the real flesh and sinew of stories: The three-act structure, the crisis, climax and resolution, the genre, the narrative device, the theme, the inciting incident. And then there are the internal devices of longer works: is there a Break Into Two chapter? Does the villain get their moment, and are their reasons, if not acceptable, at least comprehensible? Is there a whiff of death scene? If it’s a romance, is there an essence scene?

The answers is… they do okay. Here’s my analysis in the order in which I wrote them:

Travellogue was unquestionably my first novel-length work. It has a three-act structure of meet / flirt / accept, and it has a whiff of death, but the villain of the piece isn’t very prominent. The climax comes too early and the story tapers off without a real resolution.

Aimee is weak; it’s told in flashbacks, and the coming confrontation is mostly done in asides, until the end when it, well, it doesn’t really make sense. It all adds up, but not as well as I would have liked. There is a through-line, at least, and a story engine, and even a theme, but the mechanics of the story show I was early in my writing when I wrote that.

Bloody Beth is the third novel I wrote, and it has much more of the basics down. You can see it in the intentional structure, and the “break into two” is used to introduce the sidekicks, who are also the MacGuffins of the piece. Is is a structurally sound story, three acts with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Aimee: Pyu Rika is structurally more sound, but thematically weaker. It’s a fine story, but it’s really just a smutty tale. The theme is “sex can be dangerous, but if we’re good to and for each other we can defuse the risk” worked pretty well in the setting.

Sterlings was an ensemble piece in which a lot of people got their say, but the “villain,” such as it was, was every focus characters’ resistance to change: Polly & Zia, Dove & AshArwen, Rhiane & Illonca were all battling between what they thought was a long-term value and their own short-term wants, only to discover that those roles were actually backwards for many of them. It worked out pretty well, and for each pairing there was indeed an essence scene.

Honest Impulses was definitively a novel-length work, and I set out to write it as such. The villain has weird motives– he’s literally a genocide, but he has strong evidence on his side that there is a “superior” species to replace us and that we are the villains for holding them back. He does get a good speech, and it’s chilling, but it’s not obvious that it’s his “You’ll think me a villain but here’s what I want” speech until much later in the book. There aren’t many sidekicks in this story, so they don’t get much of a scene, although we do get a few solo Misuko scenes to show how she’s dealing with Linia’s crisis. Structurally, it’s damaged by its ending; there is an ending, but then there’s a three-chapter postscript that serves as something of a cliffhanger, a reminder that life doesn’t really deliver happily-ever-after, and a set-up for a sequel I’m still not sure how to write.

The Star Kingdom of Arendelle actually has very high marks. It has everything: narrative device, three-act structure, multiple crisis, climax and resolution scenes, ending with the biggie, it has two mask and essence moments, both villains get amazing speeches (Gothel’s is still one of the best rants I’ve ever written), the “break into two” (the moment in the story when the sidekicks get their own plotline) scene is literally embedded in the opening chapter of Act II, there are inciting incidents to each subplot. All in all, definitely one of the better things I’ve written. Structurally sound and thematically on-key. It’s almost too bad I put all of that work into a smutty Frozen AU fanfic.

All in all, what this tells me is that I’m still getting better, but the last few books I’ve written are much more consciously designed than the older ones. That actually presents a problem for me, because I used to seat-of-the-pants and throw out the ones that I didn’t care for, but now I find myself with a bit of analysis paralysis when I try to figure out what through-lines I should have for my characters and what the themes, engine, and so forth of the story are going to be.

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