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Happy Puppies

I haven’t blogged in awhile, for various reasons, none of which involve any decreased interest in speculative fiction or any of my other common topics.  Mostly, I’ve just been doing other stuff that serves those same interests: game design, writing, more writing, working on machine translation, natural language processing, and artificial intelligence software.

I don’t have any major plans to become as active on this blog as I once was.  However, I do intend to still post occasionally.  Perhaps once a month or so, if nothing drags me back to it because of its sheer awesomeness.  Do consider this a “dragged-back” post; do not consider the reason the sheer awesomeness of spec fic.  I’m writing this post for a much more depressing reason:

Sad Puppies.  I love puppies.  Not as much as kittens, but they’re still pretty adorable.  I don’t like it when they are sad.  I wish we could all just be Happy Puppies.  In furtherance of that goal, I have a few things to say about the recent Hugo Awards Slate Voting Controversy, henceforth to be referred to as the Sad Puppies (Incident).  That’s not a value judgement; it just seems like the most people will recognize it without a drawn-out explanation o my part.

So, a few important points:

  1. No one should ever be sending death threats to someone over their political opinions.  Nor rape threats.  Nor creepy anonymous phone calls.  Not to left-wingers, right-wingers, or any sort of -wingers.
  2. In general, the politics of an author are unimportant when judging a book.  If the politics of the book itself (or any other form of writing or story-telling) make you squeamish, fine.  Don’t read it; don’t buy it; don’t vote for it.  But don’t attack the author based on their politics, or their book’s politics.  Not unless they’ve been actively user their author persona to promote those politics.  Still don’t attack them.  Follow Rule #1.  If they open the door by posting politics on their blog, feel free to go there and debate them.  Dislike them as people. Decide not to buy their books.  But don’t drag the spec fic community into it.  Don’t actively campaign against others buying their books.  Don’t actively campaign for them, either, if you don’t like them.  Campaign for what you like, and leave the hate out of it, either way.
  3. I’m politically left.  Possibly even a socialist.  I read plenty of right-wing-slanted stories.  I even enjoy some of them.  I read books by politically-right authors.  The same goes for the left, if we insist on dragging politics into it.  I think some books on both “sides” are great.  I think the majority are mediocre to readable, and I think some books on both “sides” suck.  That’s a separate issue from whether I was the target audience for a book.  I can like some things about a book and hate others.  Maybe it had a great plot but poor prose.  maybe it had deep characters but I hated their politics.  Maybe I thought the politics were tolerable but they hit me over the head with them too many times.  Maybe the book sucked, but I was the target audience so I cut it some slack. (never too much, good writing/story always trumps politics).  maybe it rocked by I was not the target audience so I was a bit more critical of it than I otherwise might have been.  We’re all biased in one (or many) way(s) or another.  Maybe I liked some books by an author, but hated others.  I disagree strongly with much of the politics of OSC.  I still liked his Ender books, and his Gate books.  I hated his Seventh Son books.  Partly for political reasons, partly because I just didn’t like them as stories.

I’m absolutely against what the Sad Puppies are doing.  But I totally believe that they’re telling the truth, or their interpretation of it as far as some of the treatment they received.  I don’t thik they chose the right response.  I don’t agree with their vision for “real” or “proper” Speculative Fiction.  But that doesn’t excuse bad behavior on the part of the Happy Puppies.  Criticize them for their actions, not their politics.  Criticize them for bad quality writing or story-telling, not for their politics.  Criticize their politics.  Challenge their views.  But don’t attack them.  Don’t call them names, don’t threaten them.  (What qualifies as name-calling may differ among groups.  Sorry.)

Better commentators than I have already talked voting policy to death.  Good luck to everyone at Worldcon.

 
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Posted by on April 12, 2015 in Sigh

 

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Getting Your Priorities Straight

I’ve had a great time working on this blog.  It’s been loads of fun, I’ve learned a lot about myself, and I’ve met some great people.  I really appreciate everyone who’s read and commented here.

That may sound like a goodbye speech, but what it really means is that I’ll be posting less on here than I used to.  Probably once or twice a month at the most.

This is for several reasons:

  1. I made a commitment to my friends review blog, where I’ll be reviewing various speculative fictions books in many genres.  I’ve posted several reviews there already, and I encourage you to go check them out.  If you like Young Adult books, my two co-reviewers each review about the same number of those a month as I do spec fic books, so definitely check that out.  Most recently, I reviewed Scott Westerfeld’s Afterworlds with my co-reviewer Marisa Greene.  In about a week, you’ll be able to read my reviews of Richard K. Morgan’s The Dark Defiles, the third and final novel in his Steel Remains series.  Here’s the blog: http://notesfromthedarknet.wordpress.com/
  2. I’ve decided to spend more time actually writing books.  High/Epic fantasy has been becoming more popular in the YA field, and many of my projects fit that category, including my current WIP.  After that, you might get to see some reali, live chimney-punk! ;)
  3. I’ve found less and less to write about on here as time goes by.  Part of this is that I’ve said a lot of what I have to say on some subjects, such as world-building.  And part of it is that more general topics, such as genre and writing mechanics have already hit their third cycles on some of the blogs that started out around the same time I did.  Many of those blogs have even stopped posting at all.  I’ve been less active commenting on other blogs for that reason, which means a large decrease in traffic here, as well.

The Chimney is still my home on the web, and will be for the foreseeable future.  I’m not closing it down, and I hope I never do.  This change has already been occurring over the past year or so, it’s just not been official until now.  Once my schedule settles down, and I get into the groove of writing prose, I’ll probably be back to posting here more regularly, especially since writing actual manuscripts really gets my creative and research juices flowing.

 
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Posted by on September 22, 2014 in atsiko, Blogging

 

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Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb

You can read my review of Robin Hobb’s new Fitz/Farseer novel over on Notes from the Dark Net.

 

Spoliers:  It could have been better.

 
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Posted by on August 7, 2014 in atsiko, Authors, Books, Fantasy, Reviews

 

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Now with Book Reviews! Sort of…

A friend of mine, Nick Morgan, has started a book review blog.  It’s mostly just for fun.  But he’s invited me to do the speculative fiction reviews, and I’m really looking forward to it.  I’ve always wanted to give book reviewing a try.  Also guest-blogging will be a mutual friend of ours Marisa Greene.

I may or may not be cross-posting the reviews to the Chimney.  I haven’t decided yet whether that would dilute the focus of this blog to much.  If I don’t cross-post, I probably will link to them on Twitter and at the bottom of whatever post I happen to be writing for the Chimney that week.

 

Keep an eye on Notes from The Dark Net for those reviews.

 
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Posted by on July 18, 2014 in atsiko, Blogging, Books, Reviews

 

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Boys Don’t Read: The Making of the Myth

Something I’ve always been interested in is what makes someone a reader.  In general.  But something much more personal to me is the issue of reading and boys and why boys don’t read.  That’s the conventional wisdom.  But I only started hearing it after I was already a rabid reader myself.

(A quick note: I’m a guy.)

And I found it incredibly frustrating, because it didn’t match up with my personal experience.  More than that, it didn’t match up with what I saw of my friends, either.  And I think that’s an issue that has to be addressed.

I’m writing this post after having stumbled across a book blog called Stacked.  Specifically, a series of posts they had about boys reading.  As I read this series of posts, written primarily by adult women, and often citing Michael Sullivan, I became increasingly frustrated.  The posts were full of claims that boys don’t read, boys do read, but they read thus, boys’ brains work like this which is why they read this.  Not a single one of these claims matched my experiences as a young reader.  And I admit, I may have been an outlier.  (It’s useful for understanding my comments here to actually spend the ten or twenty minutes to read those posts first.)

But I have no reason to believe it’s anymore likely that I was the outlier and Sullivan the average male reader than the other way around.  It’s a common problem in scientific research to take your personal opinions and experiences as the norm.  Anyone who’s taken a serious class on research or statistics will have heard about anecdotal evidence–essentially, here’s how it was for me, that must be representative of the wider reality.  I have been guilty of relying on anecdotal evidence myself many times.  But in this case, I don’t believe I am the only one.

One of the primary claims made in the posts is that boys have a “rules and tools” thought process.  The common cliche about asking for directions gets cited.  And much is made of this being an inherent cognitive attribute of men vs. women.  Personally, I think it’s more of a cultural imposition.  We tell boys what the proper male behavior is, and punish them for not modeling it, and then we claim it’s an inherent biological trait.  It’s not.  What really bothered me about these posts was that they spoke as if all boys ever followed these specific in-built patterns.  That’s a pile of crap.  I have no doubt that these are trends among large cross-sections of the men and boys in Western society–whatever their supposed basis.  But they are not the only trends, and I’m not even convinced they’re the most common trends.  But they offer a simple way to view the differences between girls and boys in terms of behavior and educational performance, and so people desperate for an explanation glom onto them.

And I want to suggest that for that reason, they may be doing more harm than good.  If you tell boys this is how they are, full stop, then anyone who hasn’t yet been inculcated with these patterns is forced t re-evaluate themselves.  Are they doing something wrong?  Are they weird?  Should they be acting differently?  And that more than anything, pushes more and more boys and men into these patterns of thinking.  It’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The short version here is that people need to learn to acknowledge that the world is complicated and cannot be reduced to simple binary patterns.  It sucks, and it’s frustrating, but it’s true.  And trying to force the world into those patterns, especially as concerns cultural, societal, or any human sphere can lead to exactly the harm you hope to counteract.

 

 

As a result of these issues, I don’t often share my reading with my friends and family offline, because I’ve been told that that’s not proper behavior.  And if boys tend to engage in reading in isolation, then it’s only these false dichotomies we have to blame, and nothing inherent in their make-up.

 
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Posted by on July 16, 2014 in atsiko, Gender Issues

 

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Real World Booty: Plundering Reality to Meet Your Fantastical Needs

Hopefully that title won’t bring me too many people searching for porn.  One of the greatest sins of the writer is disappointing your reader, intended audience or not.

What I want to talk about in this post is both the issue of cliches in fantasy, and how to more effectively draw inspiration from the real world for your science fiction or fantasy.  I’ll be looking mostly at fantasy here, though.

 

So, fantasy is often accused of being a mass of cliches, or an idealized Medieval Europe.  Also of lacking diversity, and rehashing the same few tired plots.  And it’s true.The quest narrative, the rightful king narrative, and the invasion/war narrative are three of the most popular plots in fantasy, no matter what the setting.  Urban fantasy tends to focus on murder mystery or heist plots, with the occasional corrupt authority/dictator and secret cabal thrown in.  Etc.

And that’s understandable.  They’re the most popular plots already, they’re easy to conceptualize, and they have a mass of associated tropes to draw on.  Honestly, as broad as that list is, it’s hard to imagine there even are other plots to take.  And where would one find the inspiration for them, when fantasy itself is so inbred and cliche?

 

The answer to that question, as the title of this post hopefully suggests, is the real world.  What are or were hot-button issues in the real world during various historical periods?  Especially ones outside of the traditional mediveal European settings?  And how can we makes use of them while avoiding things like cultural appropriation?

 

I’ll give a few examples, and hopefully conclude with some useful methods of finding more.

 

1. Industrialization is one such plot.  It’s almost the entire basis of steampunk, much like the digital revolution is the basis cyberpunk.  The difference between the two genres might provide some useful thoughts.  Cyberpunk relates to the information revolution.  Control of data and information drives many of the plots.  Hacking, after all, a mainstay of cyberpunk, is about liberating information and fighting manipulation of it and the invasive gathering of it.  Steampunk is about the effects of urbanization and industrialization on public morals, the class divide, etc.

2. One way to find inspiration is to take an era in the real world and tease out what the major concerns of the people were.  You can fine-tune it even more, and look at different groups in the same era.  During the 20s, you had prohibition occupying the minds of the government, the criminal element, and the various classes, especially the working class.  You had suffrage occupying much of the middle class.  Both of these are public morals issues as well as economic and political issues.

3. The colonial period deals with religious and economic issues.  The colonists wanted to practice their version of correct Christianity.  The British Empire wanted to increase its economic power and prestige as compared to the other European countries.  Countries like India, China, and Japan worried about growing European power and influence.  The proliferation of opium in China courtesy of British traders was a public morals issue for China, and an economic one for Britain.  The forced opening of Japan near the end of the period dealt with global influence and cultural contamination.  Cultural contamination is often a strong possible plot point.  So is the ability to trade.  Britain and America desired coaling stations to power their ships, which Japan could provide, though it didn’t want to, and trade targets for their goods–again, something Japan had but didn’t want to engage in.  British opium grown in India had a ready market in China, and the British needed the money to fund their colonial pursuits, but the Chinese government hated it, and indeed several wars and rebellions occurred in China over the issue of such foreign influence.

4. The decay of the samurai class in Japan is another example of a plot point not based on wars or quests or murder mysteries.  The ease of training conscripts with guns and the fact that samurai martial arts could not compete on the battle field with many modern war technologies created a great deal of social unrest in the upper classes, of which samurai constituted a large portion.  Centuries of power and tradition came under threat with the influx of Western goods and technologies.

5. Resource management is another common source of tension.  Water rights, various magical analogies to resources and resource management, the rise of land prices in response to some new perceived value.  All of these could drive fantasy plots just as easily as evil overlords or imminent invasions.

6.  Taking from the modern day, important inventions, magical or otherwise make good plots points.  Look at the many effects of social networking technologies like Facebook have had on our own society.  The cotton gin, railroads, steamboats.

7.  Things like intra-governmental conflict are also good sources of conflict.  Analogies to states rights, or who controls interstate commernce and what such a term covers, especially in the face of new ideas or technologies could drive a fantasy novel.  So could large movements of people, such as illegal immigrants to the US.  Famine or disease or political revolution and exposure to other cultures and ideas could drive stories.  US influence pre-war on Afghanistan.  Religious movements such as the Taliban or the Great Awakening.

8. Finally, something I’ve always been interested in, more low-stakes conflict, as seen in general fiction or YA contemp.  Conflict between less powerful members of society can illuminate conflicting forces as good or better than conflict between powerful sorcerers or kings.

 

And there are many more things than what I’ve listed.  Almost infinite sources of inspiration.  Even odd small facts you ran across in a Facebook post or magazine article.

 

In summary, here are three major sources of inspiration I feel have been previously untapped or not fully utilized:

1. The common concerns of various eras in various countries, such as Prohibition or urbanization in the US.

2. Conflict in microcosms of society as opposed to the macrocosm: War shortages in one neighborhood in a medium city as opposed to soldiers on the front lines.

3. Changes in a culture or society brought about not by war or good vs. evil, such as the decay of the Samurai class during the Meiji era of Japan or Southern planters near the end of slavery.

 
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Posted by on July 10, 2014 in Fantasy, Ideas, Speculative Reality, World-building

 

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Reader Interpretation and Authorial Intent 2: The Difference Between Good Books and Books You Like

It’s becoming less of a strange concept these days: Just because you like a book, it doesn’t mean it’s good; just because you hate a book, it doesn’t mean it’s bad.  People often talk about this concept under the guise of “guilty pleasures”.

That’s the reader interpretation side of the issue.  On the authorial intent side, we have goals vs. execution.  An author might have sophisticated thematic goals, deep understanding of their characters, or brilliant and edge-of-your-seat plotting ability.  But that doesn’t mean they can put all of it on the page so the reader can see it.  I’ve heard many writers discuss the goals of their book, their plans for the characters, etc.  And quite often I’m dying to read that book.  But when I finally get my hands on a draft, or even a published book, it’s awful, or I hate where they went with it, or both.  Casual readers might be more familiar with this issue from reading back cover blurbs.  They’re written to sell the book, often by someone who is not the author, and they make it sound like the most fascinating book in the world.  But then you read it and it’s trite, or boring, or predictable.

In order to visualize this, think of a three-dimensional graph using Cartesian coordinates: x, y, z.  x is the goals of the author.  Are they unique?  Interesting?  Well-constructed?  Then they get a high x-value.  Look at the execution.  Is it elegant?  Is it good?  Does it get across what the author wanted to get across?  High y-value.  Finally, and this is arguable, but the most important issue to some people: Did you like the book?  Were the characters interesting?  Did the plot twist blow your mind?  Did everyone get what they deserved–or not?  High z-value.

To give you a better idea of how this graph works, high scores on all three axes mean the point on the graph representing a given book is in the back right corner.  The further away on the y-axis, which should pierce your belly-button, the better the craft behind the book.  The farther to the right on the x-axis, the loftier the goals of the story.  Finally, the higher up on the z-axis, which should be running parallel to your spine, the more you enjoyed the story.

As an example of a book to be plotted, let’s take The Scarlet Letter.  This was a brilliantly crafted book, with lofty thematic goals.  And I sort of liked it.  So it would sit somewhere to the bottom of my sternum, well past my right middle finger-tip, about five feet in front of me.

Nova Ren Suma’s Imaginary Girls, which was a fantastic example of magical realism, had lovely prose and interesting characters, and which I thoroughly enjoyed, would be fairly close to the upper right, back corner of my book box.

And then there are the tons of mediocre books that I might not read again, but don’t regret reading the first time.  And then we have Haruki Murakami, who is no doubt a great author, but whose penile adventures I have exactly zero interest in.  If we stuck the z-axis right down through the top of my head, he’d be about at knee-level and to the northeast of me.

 

I think “guilty pleasure” does a decent job of describing the phenomenon of knowing something is not particularly good and still liking it.  Kind of like McDonald’s.  I love McDonald’s even though I know it’s horribly unhealthy, and try not to think about the process of making it while I’m eating–or ever.

More bro-type folks then I might find Natty Light to be a better metaphor.  It’s an atrocious beer, tastes like watered-down camel-piss, but at least it gets you drunk.

And now I’m going to go feel ashamed of myself for suggesting that anyone compare natty light to literature.  Even Twilight-level literature.

ETA: If I were a good writer, I probably would have opened with that Twi-light/Natty-light line…

(This is not hating on Twilight.  I don’t like it, and it’s horribly written.  But plenty of people I know have said it’s their guilty pleasure.  Other readers may feel differently.)

 
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Posted by on June 15, 2014 in atsiko, Blogging, Books, Reviews

 

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