RSS

Category Archives: Uncategorized

The “Next Big Thing” Generation

So, a common topic in many of the writing communities I used to frequent was “the next big thing”.  Generally, what genre of book was going to be the next Twilight vampire romance or Hunger Games dystopia.  I had a lot of fun with those discussions, but only recently have I really stopped to consider how damaging the “next big thing” mindset is.  Not only to literature, but to any field and to our characters as people.

First, it’s damaging to the quality and diversity of books coming out.  If everyone is chasing the next “popular” genre, they aren’t writing, reading, or accepting for publication many good books who just happen to not be the next big thing or who are part of the last big thing.  Even though 90% of the books in the genre of the last big thing were crap, and 7% of the rest were mediocre.

Which ties into my next issue: This attitude creates a hunger for similar books, despite quality or whether the reader would like to try something else because it creates a comfort zone for the reader.  They know they like dystopia because they liked Hunger Games, so they’re more willing to take a chance on another dystopia than a high fantasy or Mundane SF.  (Mundane SF itself having once been the next big thing, thus the proper noun moniker.)

But this is a false comfort zone for many reasons.  The reader may not actually like dystopia, but just that one book.  They may like dystopia but ignore other things they would also really enjoy to keep from having to stray outside their comfort zone.  They may gorge on so many dystopias that they learn to see the flaws in the genre finally,  and therefore ignore a wonderful dystopia down the line, because they’ve moved onto their next big thing.

Or, if they’re jumping on the bandwagon, they may perceive all of YA, say, as mediocre dystopias or obsessed with love triangles.  Perhaps they think all epic fantasy is ASOIAF, which they disliked, and so they don’t take the chance on other works.  For example, maybe they watched the TV show, and aren’t fans of gratuitous sexposition, and so they don’t read the books or similar books because they don’t want to get buried in another avalanche of incest and prostitutes.

Many authors have stories of agents or publishers telling them they have a great book, but they missed the window, or it doesn’t fit with whatever the next big thing is, and so they can’t sell it.  Or they already have ten of these, and even though 8 of them are sub-par, they can’t cancel the contract and pick up this new book.

Or perhaps they like the book, but everyone acquiring fantasy stories right now wants ASOIAF, not comedic contemporary fantasies, or low-key urban fantasies in the original mode without kick-ass leather-wearing, tattoo-bearing heroines with troubled backstories and seriously poor taste in lovers.

And the same can be said for things besides commercial fiction.  Google+ was going to be the next big thing in social media.  Then it was Ello.  Tinder was the next big thing in online dating, and it spawned dozens of clones.  Social media itself is something of a successful next big thing in human interaction and the Internet.  Object-Oriented programming was the next big thing in software design, and yet now the backlash has been going on for years.

Sometimes a next big thing is a great thing.  But the mentality of always hunting for the next big thing is not.  And despite the pressure from our capitalist economy, it might be better in the long term to look for alternatives.  And it is capitalism that is a major driver of this obsession, because history shows even mediocre products can ride the wave of a predecessor to make big money.  Following a successful formula is a bit of a dream situation for many producers of entertainment or products.  That’s why Walmart and most other chains have their own brand version of most popular products, from medicine to housewares to groceries.  The next big thing trend might make some people a decent amount of money in the short-term, but it has long-term effects that have created a sort of creativity pit that we’ll have a hard time climbing out of any time in the near future.  And in the short term, the people who don’t manage to catch the wave, as wonderful as their contributions to literature or software or society may be, are left choking on the dust.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on January 19, 2017 in atsiko, Uncategorized

 

Tags: , , ,

Magic’s Pawn

One of my favorite styles of magic, though not often see is not a clever way for the protagonist to control the forces of magic, but a system where the forces of magic control the protagonist.  I suppose an ancient prophecy ca work kind of like this or a higher being giving direction, but I’m talking a more concrete and local form of control, yet exercised by a more abstract force.

The forces of magic involved don’t necessarily have to be sentient or intelligent in the way a human is or, even an animal although they could be.  Honestly, I think not being so makes the situation all the more interesting.

Think of the way a bee is involved in an ecosystem: generally as a pollinator.  Now imagine that a human (probably a mage or this world’s equivalent, but not necessarily) has been incorporated into the magical ecosystem of the world in the same way.  Some force of magic has evolved to encourage certain behaviors in human mages that are beneficial to the magic of the world that force of magic is part of.

Perhaps there is a cycle sort of like the water cycle that benefits from humanity in chaos, and so the magic has evolved ways to create that chaos through empowering some mage or person.  The specific actions of the person are irrelevant to the magic, as long as they cause a great upheaval.  The system may not even care if humans would describe this pawn of magic as “evil” or “good”.

Humanoid characters are almost always portrayed as exerting control over the magic of their world, but they are rarely shown to have been integrated into the system–as we are integrated into nature, even despite our control of it–despite what is portrayed in the world’s history as thousands or even millions of years of coexistence.

Where are the magical world equivalents of modern climate change?  There are apocalypses sort of like nuclear bomb analogs.  Mercedes Lackey’s Winds series, for example, with it’s effects on the world of the end of the war depicted in her Gryphon’s series.  But rarely if ever are there subtle build-ups of all the interference caused by humans harnessing magical forces.  Not even on the local level like the magical equivalent of the flooding and ecological damage caused by damning rivers, or the water shortages caused by different political entities failing to cooperate on usage rights of the local river.

I would love to read (or write!) some fantasy exploring a closer relationship between man and magic than simply human master and magical servant/slave.

 

Tags: , , , , ,

Magic and Science and How Twins are Different People

Something that in my experience drives many (identical) twins crazy is how many people assume they look alike physically so they must be just alike in other ways.  Interests, hobbies, sexuality, gender, religion, whatever.  Twins may look the same superficially, but underneath they are as different as any two other people.  Or any non-twin siblings if you want to be pedantic about nature and nurture.

Fantasy and Science Fiction are like the Twins of Literature.  Whenever someone tries to talk about genre lines or the difference between science and magic, the same old shit gets trotted out.  Clarke’s Law and all that.  Someone recently left a comment on this very blog saying magic is just a stand-in for science.  My friend!  Boy do we have a lot to talk about today.  While it’s certainly true that magic can serve many of the same functions as science (or technology) in a story, the two are fundamentally different in both themselves and the uses to which they are most often put.  Sure they’re both blonde, but technology like red-heads, and magic is more into undercuts.

 

First, not to keep pushing the lie that science is cold and emotionless, but a prime use of science (not technology!) in literature is to influence the world through knowledge of the world’s own inner workings.  (Technology does not require knowledge in its use, often, but rather only in its construction.)  One of the major differences is that most (but not all) magic in stories requires knowledge to use it.  You have to know how the magic works, or what the secret words are.  Whereas tech is like flipping the light switch.  A great writer once said what makes it science fiction is that you can make the gadget and pass it to the average joe across the engineering bay and he can use it just fine, but magic requires a particular person.  I can pass out a million flame-throwers to the troops, but I can’t just pass you a fireball and expect you not to get burned.  That’s one aspect to look at, although these days, magitech and enchanted objects can certainly play the role of mundane technology fairly well.

Second, magic is about taking our inner workings and thought processes and imposing them on top of the universe’s own rule.  From this angle, what makes magic distinct from technology is that a magic conflict is about the inner struggle and the themes of the narrative and how they can be used to shape the world.  Certainly tech can play this role, twin to how magic can be made to act like tech.  But it’s much less common out in the real world of literature.

 

There are two kinds of magic system:  One is the explicit explanation of how the magic works according to the word of god(the author), and the other is a system that the characters inside the world, with their incomplete knowledge impose on top of the word of god system.  So this group uses gestures to cast spells, and this group reads a spellbook, but they are both manifestations of the same basic energy.

So magic is the power to impose our will on the world whereas science/technology is powerful through its understanding of the uncaring laws of the universe.

Then, of course, are the differences in terms of how authors use them in the narrative.  Magic has a closer connection, in my opinion, to the theme aspect of literature.  It can itself be a realization of the theme of a story.  Love conquers all as in Lily Potter protecting her infant son from the dark lord at the cost of her life.  Passion reflected in the powers of the fire mage.  Elemental magic gives a great example.  Look at the various associations popular between elementalists’ characters and the element they wield.  Cold and impersonal ice mages, loving and hippy-ish earth mages.  This analogical connection is much more difficult to achieve with technology.

 

There’s a lot of debate these days about “scientific” magic versus numinous magic, and whether or not magic must have rules or a system.  But even systematically designed magic is not the same as technology, though it can be made to play similar roles, such as solving a plot puzzle.  But think:  The tricks to magic puzzles are thematic or linguistic.  The Witch-king of Angmar is said to be undefeatable by any man.  The trick to his invulnerability is the ambiguity of the words of the prophecy.  One could argue that a woman is not a man, and therefore not restricted by the prophecy.  We have no idea how the “magic” behind the protection works on a theoretical basis.  Does it somehow check for Y-chromosomes?  But that’s not the point.  The thematic significance of the semantic ambiguity is more important.  In science fiction, it’s the underlying workings that matter.  Even if we don’t explain warp drive, there’s no theme or ambiguity involved.  It gets you there in such and such time and that’s it.  Or, in an STL universe, lightspeed is the limit and there’s no trick to get around it.

You can’t use science or technology the same way as Tolkien did with that prophecy nearly as easily.  Imagine magic is hammer, and science is a sword.  Sure I can put a nail in with the sword, but it’s a bitch and a half compared to just using a hammer.  Just because I can put in that nail with that sword, it doesn’t mean that sword is really a hammer.  Just because I can have magic that appears to follow a few discoverable and consistent rules to achieve varying but predictable effects doesn’t mean it’s the same thing as real-world science.  Maybe the moon always turns Allen into a werewolf on the 1st of the month, but I’ll be codgled if you can do the same thing with science.

Whether magic or science or both are most suited to your story or the other way around depends on your goals for that individual story.  Do you need magic or fantasy elements to really drive home your theme?  Do you need technology to get to the alien colony three stars down?  Magic can evaporate all the water in a six mile radius without frying every living thing around.  Science sure as hell can’t.  Not even far-future science that we can conceive of currently.  They can both dry a cup, although we’re wondering why you’re wasting your cosmic talents when you could just use a damn paper towel.

Science can dress up as magic and fool your third-grade substitute teacher, and science can dress up as magic and fool the local yokels in 13th century Germany.  But even if you put a wedding dress on a horse, it’s still a horse, and throwing hard science trappings onto a magic system doesn’t change it’s nature.

 

Tags: , , , , , , ,

The Translation Problem

One of the biggest problems in the field of artificial intelligence as it is popularly conceived is that of natural language processing and machine translation.  Natural language processing is the processing of human languages, generally in the form of text, but also as audio, by computers and software.  Machine translation is a form of natural language processing having to do with the translation of a text from one language into another by a computer.  Enormous strides have been made in natural language processing over the last two decades.  Text-to-speech, represented often by those annoying robotic phone calls, and speech-to-text such as dictation software, have both improved markedly.

But the big fish of natural language processing is still the universal translator, able to translate between any two given languages with high accuracy, perhaps even perfectly.  Which is, currently impossible, despite what people might tell you.  For example, Skype Translator looks great in the recent demo, but it’s doubtful it performs quite so well in the field.

There are actually several major issues that machine translation, and translation in general, have to tackle to achieve a high degree of accuracy.  Over the next few posts, I’m going to discuss what some of them are, why they are so difficult to solve, and possible ways they might be overcome.

To start with, there’s a very simple problem with most translation:  language has meaning on its own, but for human communication purposes, you have to know the context of the words you are trying to translate.  Most communication is not factual transmission of information.  Even in formal written prose, there are heaps of subtle ambiguities, and most humans can’t always pick up on every one, much less a poor dumb computer.  This is a problem not only when a word is used that has two different sense, such as a technical and a general sense.  Different languages divide up their semantic space differently, and a word that is a correct translation on paper may fail miserably in the real world.

To give an example, Japanese has pronouns just like English.  However, it does not have an exactly equivalent set.  The word for “her” in Japanese is “kanojo”.  But that word is rarely used, as most Japanese uses a name and an honorific instead.  Further complicating the situation, the word “kanojo” is also idiomatic for “girlfriend”.  The same goes for “kareshi” which is often translated as “he” on paper.   And then we have the various Japanese pronouns technically meaning “you”, or at least referring to the second person singular.  The main one given in teaching Japanese is “anata”.  However, much like “kanojo” or “kareshi” there is a sense of intimacy not immediately apparent in the use of this word.  It is often used between older married couples to mean something like “dear”, and is rarely if ever used as a bare second person, singular pronoun.  Rather, again, the person’s name and an honorific are used.  However, a great deal would have to be hard-coded into a piece of translation software to cover all of this, and that’s assuming there’s even enough context to make a decision at all.  Further, going into Japanese from English, would require the addition of formality information that a computer or even a human couldn’t always be sure of.

It’s often possible to translate conversation/survival language with bare, literal translations, because the basic sense is all that matters.  But more formal registers, or translation of a fixed text, would likely prove impossible for today’s machine translators and most humans, because there’s no way to convey all the necessary context that would provide information that in one language would not be included lexically or grammatically, but it all but necessary for appropriate communication in the other.

 

In the next post, I’ll be looking more at the ways language divide up their semantic space, and how that hinders accurate translation.

 
1 Comment

Posted by on June 9, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

Tags: , , , , ,

World-building Depth vs. Relatability: Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

A friend of mine and I recently read Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed.  It was a fun book.  But as someone who is extremely interested in world-building, I found a few things disappointing.  The style of world-building in Throne is allusion-analogue world-building:  There’s a secondary world, but it has strong similiarities to cultures and history from Earth.  This style relies on the reader’s familiarity with the real history and culture involved to build a world with less of the info-dumping common to many secondary-world spec fic.  It also allows the author to make more straight-forward references to the real world for comedic or moral or philosophical effect.

Although I don’t personally do a lot of academic reading on genres in general, and spec fic in particular, there is some useful material pointed out to me by my friend:

Farah Mendlesohn wrote a book called Rhetorics of Fantasy, which described an axis of categorization between including “immersive”, portal, “intrusive”, and “liminal” fantasy.  Essentially, immersive fantasy involves a secondary world that is “impervious to knowledge of an outside reality”.  That outside reality being Earth.  Basically, it avoids direct reference to Earth in the narrative.  The Malazan series is a strong example of immersive fantasy.

Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon inhabits a twilight zone somewhere between immersive fantasy and portal fantasy.  It is a secondary world in which the Earth does not exist, and yet it makes a great deal of references and allusions to Earth history and culture.  You can clearly see the analogues to Arabic and Turkish culture, as well as to Islam.  The Islam connection is particularly direct.

This style of fantasy has its advantages.  It’s easier for a reader to get into.  They have places of references, and a great deal of knowledge and sentiment that allows them to understand the setting and sometimes even the characters.

However, it has some disadvantages, as well, and these were pretty relevant to my response to the book.  There’s a tradeoff to be made between difficulty of reading and depth of world-building, and finding the perfect balance can be tough.  (I want to be very clear that this post is not about cultural appropriation.  It is about methods and techniques of world-bulding, and how each style has its pitfalls.)  Throne lands solidly in the very relatable, less deep quadrant.

 

A major problem I had with the world-building and characterization of the novel was that I felt the middle-eastern setting was somewhat superficial.  And I mean that in the literal sense of being only on the surface.

For example, Adoulla made references to scripture in his magic, and Raseed is classified as a “dervish”.  But beyond the basic middle-eastern flavor many Western readers associate with those words, they didn’t have a great deal of effect on the characters.  Raseed is a sword-weilding prodigy, is a bit naive and strait-laced, and has a single, short-lived, relatively lacking-in-tension confrontation with some “allies”.  But you never really learn what effect on his character his childhood in the Order has.  In fact, there doesn’t seem to be one, at least based on the events in this first novel–perhaps it changes later.

The politics and culture of the city suffer a similar shallowness.  The “Khalif” behaves and is portrayed as a fairly standard Grand Duke/Prince/King character.  Despite the existence of an Islam-like religion in the world of the story, you never see any real evidence beyond Adoulla and Raseed playing out their grizzled mentor/innocent apprentice relationship.  There are some few details, such as Adoulla’s love of cardamom tea, and a general lac of alcoholic beverages.  However, these are few and far between.

It’s a fair argument to make that Western European fantasy follows similar patterns, and suffers from similar failures.  Much high and heroic fantasy uses similar world-building techniques, and relies on references to Earth cultures to create its setting.  There’s no reason non-Western settings should be required by default to have superior world-building.

And certainly the methods involved make things easier for the reader and writer.  It can be hard to orient oneself in a truly secondary world(immersive) fantasy.  Creating a fully realized original world is a challenge for both writers and readers.  And many readers are more interested in an epic quest or back-alley battle than in exploring secondary worlds.  That’s a perfectly valid approach to reading fantasy.  And writing it.

Throne is a heroic fantasy/sword & sorcery homage, and there’s a lot of enjoyment to be found in that.  It is most often epic fantasies in which the truly immersive fantasy is found (although that’s descriptive, not prescriptive).  It is not a terrible book, and the market loves such works.  There is a great deal to enjoy in the story, including the dilemmas of the characters.  It is completely possible to see the flaws in a work and still enjoy it.  And that is a good description of how I felt about this book.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on February 12, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

Tags: , , ,

All The Small Things: Shitty First Drafts and Editing

By now, everyone has probably heard the cliche that everyone writes shitty first drafts.  It’s not true, of course.  Some people go straight from first draft to best-seller, and it’s okay to hate those people.  In aggregate, if not as individuals.

But for most people, there are rounds of editing, critique, beta reading, and revision, or some personal combination thereof.

The reason for this is that there are so many little things, no matter whether you write literary or pulp, or in between, that you have to keep track of to create a first draft that can go straight to the press.  This is especially true for long-form prose or any kind of poetry.

For example:

1. Using verbs or perception or thought:  “It seemed like…”, “Michael knew that…”, “Mandy heard…”.  For some styles or some writers, that’s something to avoid.  And it’s so natural in many people’s casual writing, or in oral story-telling/conversation, that it can take many careful passes to make sure it’s all edited out–or not.  (I like to call these “distancing verbs”, because they often create a sense of distance between a narrator/character and the read.)

2. Punctuation:  Are you using Oxford commas, commas between fronted adverbial phrases and the main sentence, colons, commas, or em dashes? 

3. Showing vs Telling:  No matter your preference, it can be hard to be consistent.  Or maybe getting the scene down quickly is more important that the specifics of the prose.  Or perhaps in a certain scene, it’s more effective to tell the reader how a character feels.

4. Pet words and phrases:  Many authors have words or phrases that they use constantly in their work, usually unconsciously.  It can cut across genres and styles.  S.M. Stirling uses the phrase “cloven air” constantly in his Change series to describe the flights of arrows.  It annoyed the crap out of me, though I liked the books for the most part.  David Eddings constantly has his characters telling each other to “Be nice.” throughout his books.  These things can be much less obvious, though.

 

There are tons more.  The point is, though, it’s almost impossible to keep every single one in your head at the same time.  Your brain is already keeping track of so much language junk unconsciously, just forming thoughts or speaking.  I know I often have the experience of reading a blog post, or listening to a podcast, and the author/speaker will mention some word-level writing topic, and give some fantastic advice.  And I’ll realize I’ve heard that before, from someone else, thought it just as awesome, and vowed always to remember it.  But then I’ll completely forget that specific detail I wanted to keep track of when writing a story or poem.

And there are dozens if not hundreds of these little issues.  Some writers resort to making lists of them for when they edit, or even making specific editing passes to account for them.  So the next time you’re on your fifth draft, and you realize that you’ve found another “you’re” instead of “your”; or that you just used three distancing verbs in the same sentence; or you’re on your fourth pass for passive voice, and you found four examples on the current page, just remember that everyone has that problem, and it’s completely normal.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on February 9, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

Tags: , , , , ,

Query Trackers, Market Listings, and Submissions, Oh My!

What with Facebook’s IPO, the removal of Google Reader, and many similar events, there’s been a trend towards the days of wonderful free web services and applications becoming the past rather than the future.  It’s something I’ve often lamented.  To myself, anyway.

One more writerly-relevant example of this trend was the switch-over of Duotrope Digest, the literary market listing site, from a free service to a paid subscription.  After being free for seven years, it went to a paid subscription model on January 1st, 2013, in order to have money to pay the costs of maintaining its website and other services.

I have rarely used Duotrope, as I don’t often submit work for publication.  But I did searches on it every now and then to find good markets, for my reading pleasure, mostly.  And a friend of mine worked on a speculative literary magazine, now defunct and having lost its domain to an internet porn site, which released six issues in the late 2000s before staffing issues forced us to close our doors.  They published some great work, and word-of-mouth aside, the vast majority of their submissions came to us through the lovely middleman of their listing on Duotrope.  Or that’s what my friend told me.  Since they didn’t survey authors on how the found the market, I doubt there’s any data to prove it.  For a small, new literary magazine, it was an incredibly useful tool to get the word out, and the editors found Duotropes accuracy to be quite high.

Of course, this change kicked off a huge ruckus in the authosphere, and even literary magazines weighed in.  For example, the Missouri Review came down hard on Duotrope’s decision.  That aside, I personally prefer free stuff… because it’s free.  Do I need a better reason?

Many people have proposed free alternatives to Duotropes services:

1. The CLMP Directory – Hosted by the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, a service organization for literary magazines.  It has a searchable list of literary markets belonging to CLMP.

2. NewPages.com’s listings of literary magazines.

3. Critters.org’s Black Hole – a site that tracks response times for SFF magazines and also maintains a directory of paying markets.

4. Poets and Writers Literary Magazine Directory

5. The Speculative Literature Foundation’s Market Listings

6. SFWA.org’s Qualifying Venues

7. Ralan.com has a list of spec fic markets.

8. Query Tracker has a list of publishers and agents.  It also allows you to track queries and submission.

9. The (Submission) Grinder — A free competitor with Duotrope offering most of the same features plus a few bonuses.  The biggest bonus?  It’s free.

So, I have three questions:

1. Do you use market listings and query trackers?

2.  Are there any good/major tracking services or online market listings I may have missed?

3. Is anyone interested in a free alternative to Duotrope?

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on January 4, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

Tags: , , , , ,