Tag: rant

Two brief things, including Lovecraft/WFA


I’m struggling a bit with posting at the moment (aka “will this darn book fall into place plz %%%%”), hence the radio silence…

In the meantime,  a few brief things:

-I rant a bit on translations, non-Western non-Anglophone works here (thanks to Charles Tan for collecting the tweets).

-And a few brief thoughts on the Lovecraft/WFA trophy thing (expanded from here). I fully recognise the significance of Lovecraft to the genre, the vividness and enduring success of the mythos he has created. I have no issue whatsoever with people reading and enjoying him. I have strong issues with people saying “oh, but he wasn’t really racist, he was a man of his time”. I also take issue with people who think he should be read and enjoyed and you’re not making a proper effort if you don’t.

See… The only book of his I tried to read was The Shadow over Innsmouth. I was a kid at the time, not very well-versed in messages, and a lot of problematic stuff in fiction sailed right by me. But the entire novel is so clearly based on a deep, abiding horror of mixed-race people as eldritch abominations that I threw the book across the room–and trust me, that isn’t a thing that happened very often.

And the thing is… with Lovecraft, it’s not only the racism. I read and enjoy plenty of books where the author had some problematic attitudes. The reason I can’t read Lovecraft–it’s because his fear of the Other, his disgust at “unholy blood mixing” and non-white people–all of this is what fuels his work. The sense of existential dread, the terror that drives one mad–to me, it’s so very clearly and so deeply rooted in his racism that it makes trying to enjoy him, insofar as I’m concerned… well, a bit like fighting through treacle (and being regularly struck across the face as I do so), and I have a lot of other things to do with my time.

Regarding the WFA bust in particular: it’s not that I think Lovecraft should be forever cast beyond the pale of acceptable. I mean, come on, genre has had plenty of people who were, er, not shining examples of mankind, and I personally feel like the binary of “this person was a genius and can do no wrong/this person is a racist and can therefore do nothing of worth” doesn’t really make for constructive discussion. (but see above for the “we should give everything a fair chance” fallacy. I’m personally not particularly inclined to give reading time or space to a man who thought I was an abomination, and I will side-eye you quite a bit if you insist I should). It’s more that… these are the World Fantasy Awards. They’re not the H.P. Lovecraft Awards, so there’s no particular reason for him to be associated with them: doing so just creates extra awkwardness. And finally, for me, Lovecraft is primarily associated with horror: the fantasy genre has moved on from that definition and is now much broader than that, and quite beyond the issue of racism/etc. it’s always felt a bit weird to me that a horror writer should be the face of the award. Changing the trophy recognises that.

I don’t know what they’re going to do with the bust. I’d be very much in favour of something abstract like unicorns or dragons or whatnot, because the trouble with exemplary figures is that they seldom stand the test of time, and I don’t want us to have the same kind of conversations we’re having now in twenty years’ time about the new “face” of the World Fantasy Awards. Or maybe a rotating design of best fantasists, or something. The French Imaginales Awards used to have a Plastic Puss-in-Boots trophy, which is kind of kitsch and cool (don’t know if it’s still the case because I haven’t gone in a number of years). Just saying ūüôā

(comments closed, sorry, because I just have no time and very little in the way of energy).

On colonialism, evil empires and oppressive systems


On colonialism, evil empires and oppressive systems

So this is only half a rant, because to properly do this I would need to document (a lot), and to reread stuff (a lot, too). But I’ve been simultaneously reading some genre books, and researching the French colonization of Vietnam in the 19th Century (and the history of SE Asia in that time period; aka researching book 2, the sequel to The House of Shattered Wings), and the contrast is… stark.

Let me put it bluntly. A lot of depictions out there miss the mark by a rather large margin. The things I see a lot: our hero(es) fighting and overthrowing the colonial system. Our hero(es), whether colonist or colonised, being almost exempt of colonial prejudice. Clean, simple fights for independence where the people rise against their oppressors and become democratic and free.

Right. Where to start.

See, the thing with colonialism; the thing that made it so scary and so heartbreaking and so anger-inducing… is that it was pervasive. I’m not saying people didn’t fight against it, but that those that did¬†were a minuscule proportion of the population (and you’ll find that even the people fighting against colonialism had some pretty hair-raising prejudices, too).

The truth is, the vast majority of people in the colonizer nations saw it as natural. As the proper, God-given order of things. France (a democracy at the time, let me just remind you of this) massively voted *in favor* of intervention in Annam, because it would make ordinary citizens’ lives better; because it would enrich the country, and it’s very clear from reading period texts that no one saw any problem with that, across all social classes. In fact, lower social classes saw the colonies as a place you could go to in order to make your fortune; where even a poor person could live in luxury with native workers at their beck and call. And the people who were “progressive”?¬†¬†They saw the colonised¬†as children–as immature people who needed to be educated and taught “civilization”; protected from¬†themselves against their will (as opposed to people who just wanted to dominate and plunder).

The scarier thing? People in the colonized countries thought it was the natural order of things, too–that they had to modernize in order to compete, to become more Western because the West was so clearly intrisincally superior. They massively sent their children to Western schools–to London, Paris–to be educated as a mark of privilege. Some countries, like Japan or Thailand, managed to modernise¬†and retain national independence and some measure of culture. Others… had less success.

Yes, there was military superiority. But the reason it went on for so long? Is because there was a complete and utter certainty that the colonizers were right. That the colonies were owed to them; that the riches of other countries were theirs for the taking. And other people at the colonizer nation took in those riches and benefitted from them and thought it was due to them too (and yeah, there was terrible oppression going on in colonizer nations, too. Intersectionality=> things are complicated, but again, it was an attitude of all social classes. There was no solidarity of, say, the French working class with the Indochinese. They thought the Indochinese were scary foreigners who stole their jobs and spoke a funny language [1]).

Read period pieces. Read Agatha Christie. Read Maurice Leblanc. Or any other writers. The Empire is the *background*. Racial prejudice is casual, omnipresent.

Also, another reason why colonialism worked? It’s not only military superiority. And it’s not trade (“the French in Vietnam” version of this didn’t focus much on trade, at least at first). It’s “divide to reign” tactics where existing cracks (or new ones) between social and ethnic groups were exploited to make a new society. A society that’s busy tearing itself apart has no time for organized resistance. It means that not everyone is oppressed equally (this is why I have little¬†time for utterly oppressive evil empires. If everyone is miserable and oppressed and with no hopes whatsoever for the future, the government isn’t going to last for long). It means people are treated very differently depending on where they come from and where they live: colonies aren’t nations, but a hodgepodge of different political systems on a “whatever works” and “let’s keep them weak” set of principles (just see the rather stark differences between Tonkin, Annam and Cochinchina in the 19th/early 20th Century). It also means that there are side benefits for everyone, too (which in no way compensate for the other, horrendous costs, of course): social advances and health advances and science advances, all brought to, say, the population of Annam as a way to demonstrate that the imperial government didn’t have their best interests at heart, but that the colonizers did.

And when push comes to shove… when all of this complex equilibrium finally disintegrates–well, it’s going to be messy. There will be blood. There will be violence. There will be massacres and purges. I’m not saying it shouldn’t happen, or that revolutions shouldn’t ever take place, but there is always a price to pay. There is always a fight for which faction will rule the country, or what the country will even look like–where the capital will be, who will be in government, what languages will be spoken, whose culture will come to shape everything from administration to the history that is taught. And this isn’t just wars of independence: the repercussions linger on for decades after that. The Nigerian Civil¬†War, the Rwandan genocide, the Vietnamese/American war… I can go on, and on. It’s almost textbook.

You’re going to say it doesn’t matter–that Science Fiction and Fantasy¬†needs to focus on the heroes, the extraordinary, the clean and easy revolution that we can get behind with no moral qualms. But see, the thing is…. by focusing on this, we perpetuate a great illusion, a great silence. We forget that empires like this only exist because of the consent of the majority. We forget that inequal systems only work because people are convinced everyone is in their proper place, and are convinced it’s their moral right to oppress others, or that being oppressed is inevitable; or, worse, that the oppressors are morally superior or more meritorious. Because we only talk about heroes, we like to think that, back then, we would be among them. And the truth is–most of us wouldn’t. Actually, most of us aren’t, today (to take just one example,¬†we buy cheap clothes, cheap electronics made with labour in horrific conditions).

You know the scary truth about Evil Empires? We make them while being utterly convinced we’re in the right. We uphold them by acquiescing every day to decisions that make our lives better and richer, and forgetting how we impact other people’s lives. And we seldom–so so seldom–have the sheer, admirable, almost impossible courage to overthrow them; and to deal with the high, bloody and messy cost¬†of doing so.

[1] Yeah, some things don’t change. *sigh*

ETA: and in case you’re wondering: yup, of course I deal with some of that in my novel The House of Shattered Wings. My alternate, devastated France has had a colonial empire for a while, and it shows. Characters are affected by the colonial mindset, whether it’s those doing the colonising/benefitting from it (Selene, Madeleine), or those getting colonised (Philippe, Ngoc Bich). And yes, it makes for some thoughts in their heads that can be unpleasant and uncomfortable–but also, I think, to things that need to be shown.

A few disjointed thoughts on other cultures and diversity in SFF


A few disjointed thoughts on other cultures and diversity in SFF

This is a collection of stuff I’ve already said elsewhere or on this blog, but for what it’s worth… The usual disclaimer applies: these are my personal opinions and my personal experience (I know not everyone has the same opinions and I certainly don’t pretend to speak for everyone!). I also don’t pretend to have easy solutions for everything I mention here (and God knows I made some of those mistakes myself, and will continue making them, but hopefully I’ll improve on that front as time goes by); but I think it’s better to know all this stuff and then decide how to handle it rather than go on being blissfully unaware of it.

Warning: this is me in ranty mode, not helped by the 3 hours of sleep I got over the past few days (yup, I know that I volunteered for that whole sleepless thing. But doesn’t change much to how I feel…)
Continue reading →

Quote of the Day


Sometimes, when I’m reading SF (particularly old SF, but also recent SF that should know better), I am reminded of those ¬†couple paragraphs from friend Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, in her Strange Horizons column:

There is a popular science fiction trope that speaks of venturing out into the great unexplored. Those who venture out are pictured as heroes. They go out and find new civilizations, they expand earth territories, they discover aliens, they subdue or befriend, they are hailed as saviors, and many times the worlds they enter into are very different from the hero’s homeworld.

While this trope appeals to a part of myself that desires to see and experience other places and other cultures, it does not speak to the true experience of migration and colonization. This popular narrative belongs to the dominant culture, to cultures that have conquered and colonized without regard for the consequences to the culture that gets trampled underfoot.

I really do wish more people would reflect on this (and the closing remarks of the column) before they so blithely spoke of colonists seeking adventures in space…

Cultural appropriation


[Warning: this is me in ranty, pissed-off mood. I apologise for picking targets and basically offloading my anger on them, but I honestly feel I can’t make you understand what I mean without pointing at specific bits. Many thanks to Rochita Loenen-Ruiz for reading this before it went live]

Apropos of nothing and just for the record: when people complain about cultural appropriation, they’re not all [1] saying that outsiders shouldn’t write cultures foreign to them. However, what I suspect they’re saying [2] is this: some outsiders (rather more than you think) will get cultures egregiously and disrespectfully *wrong*. That, even if a lot of (other outsider) people think that a certain book/story did a great job of introducing them to a fancy new culture, it doesn’t change the orientalist/racist clich√©s or simply the bad facts that are presented in said fiction.
And when I say bad facts I don’t mean niggly details that would require weeks of research: I mean really, really bad facts akin to calling everyone in a French novel “Dracula” because everyone knows Dracula is a typically French name. Facts that should have been a part of any basic research process, and that make the reader doubt the author really cared about the culture they were so “thoughtfully” depicting. Names. Food. Religion. That kind of thing.

You’ll think that this is a tiny minority; a 0.01% of writers who get things wrong and are rightly excoriated for it. Thing is… this happens WAY more often than you’d think. This is NOT a tiny minority. I’m not saying it’s a 99.99% of fiction either, but cultural appropriation is not a negligible or insubstantial phenomenon. A significant amount of fiction out there makes me doubt much thoughtful research (or much research at all!) was involved.

To take just one example: the last few stories set in China I have read [3]. One of them, set in historical China, mangled the historical timeline so badly I wasn’t even sure it was the real China, and inexplicably forgot to have any kind of ancestor worship, which is a bit like doing medieval France without Christianity. One of them, set in a futuristic China, used the timeworn tropes of Chinese being horrible to their own women (because, you know, Confucianism [4]) and had said women rescued by Westerners (because quite obviously those poor Asians can’t rescue themselves). And the last one, set in what purported to be Ancient China, had a concerted state-supported effort aimed at imprisoning, mistreating and killing dragons (we’ve been over this before, but Chinese/Vietnamese dragons are NOT evil, they’re Heavenly beings. This is a bit like having a historical medieval Europe where kings authorise the chasing and killing of angels. Possible, but a. you’re not going to get very far because angels are way more powerful than humans b. you’re not going to stave off the wrath of God for very long [5]) For bonus points, that story also had an evil character on a quest for immortality that he later renounced because he wanted redemption. Er. No. Quests for immortality are perfectly fine in Chinese thought (see Daoist immortals. That’s perfectly OK, and in fact deeply respected).

Again, I’m not Chinese. But Vietnamese culture has a heck of a lot of overlap with Chinese culture, and none of these feel remotely OK to me. In fact, they feel like Western thought grafted on top of what someone thought were the “cool bits” of Chinese culture. And, without exception, all of these had glowing reviews by people convinced that those were accurate and nice representations of Chinese culture. Newsflash: no, no, and no. When a writer is perpetuating horrible clich√©s in the course of their writing, when they’re propagating transparently false ideas of what it means to live in a place and/or a time period… This is cultural appropriation, and it’s bad–and whether said writer meant it or not doesn’t change the fact that they’ve egregiously mangled someone’s culture through lack of care. It’s the bit that makes a lot of people angry, and quite justifiably so. [6] It’s not the fact that writers take cultures that aren’t from their traditions that attract people’s ire; it’s the fact that the depiction of those cultures are badly inaccurate on mind-boggling levels.

(there’s an easy way to avoid this if you’re using a 21st-Century culture btw–grab someone from said culture and ask their opinion about the basic stuff in your story)

Anyway, that was my afternoon rant. Apologies again, and thanks for listening. If anybody wants to weigh on how they feel about the subject, I welcome thoughts and discussions!

(also, if any Chinese people are reading this and feel that any of the examples I used aren’t appropriate, I’d be quite happy to be corrected. I would have used Vietnamese culture, which is the one I’m most familiar with, but Vietnam hasn’t been the subject of quite so many books and stories and I didn’t really have enough examples for this…)

[1]¬†Some of them are, and I understand and respect that feeling. Likely, the reason they don’t want outsiders writing about their culture is exactly what I’m going to outline in this post–too many people have been doing it badly, badly wrong.
[2] Again, not claiming to walk in people’s heads. Seen the feeling a lot on the internet though.
[3] I’m not Chinese, as is by now evident; and China itself is huge and multifaceted. However, Vietnamese and Chinese cultures have a lot of points of intersection, especially when we’re talking Ancient China and Ancient Vietnam, since the second was basically a colony of the first. And also, I can spot an Orientalist clich√© when I see one.
[4] Not saying Confucianism didn’t do a lot of damage; however, you have to realise that you can’t base a description of modern China/Vietnam on mores that have gone out of fashion or been severely toned down in the 20th Century. Having China follow old-school Confucianism, again, is a bit like having Europe still follow the hard-core Christian mores of the Middle Ages. Er, no?
[5] ETA 2016: having actually written that story *cough*, I’m going to amend that into “you totally can, but be aware what kind of vibe it ends up giving the final product” (in this particular case, it’s possible, but very very hard not to shade into horror).
[6] I very probably committed bad mistakes in the Obsidian and Blood books (well, not “very probably”, I know at least two errors that I wish I could fix), though I did my best research-wise. I do hope none of them are on that egregious level of failure, but if they are, I apologise profusely. I was much less aware of that kind of issues when I wrote Servant, and it shows.

Sherlock: the Case of the Invisible Women


So we watched the last episode of Sherlock season 2 today, and I was really struck by how much of a men’s story it is: it’s all down to a confrontation between the two (male) leads on a rooftop, while the remaining (male) lead rushes to the rescue and comes too late. The H and I identified 5 women in the entire storyline, and there were so few women with so little screen time that we had to struggle to come up with them. The women (whom you barely see) fall into the broad roles of: the moral support (Molly/Mrs Hudson), the evil bitch (Donovan), and a couple supporting characters (the helpless kidnapped girl whose only role is to scream her head off, and the housekeeper who gets 20s of screen time before we move on to more important things). Everyone else is male. I mean freaking everyone else, up to the superintendent and the contingent of assassins that conveniently move in next to Baker Street.[1]

Meanwhile, those few women are all… bit parts? People far removed from the centre of the narration, who total very little screentime and have so very little importance overall. As a cumulative effect, it’s rather unsettling, and ends up being alienating (even the H balked). And I wish this was a one-off effect, something that happened only in this episode of this particular show, but this isn’t the first time I’ve had the feeling that TV shows only show us major women characters through a great effort of will (A Scandal in Bohemia, for instance, basically only had Irene Adler as a major female lead); or if they happen to need a handy victim (in which case said women tend to be dead, or to wind up dead in very short order).

And, you know, we were talking about it with the H, and I actually started making excuses for the show, going “but of course they’re going by the original short stories, and those were misogynistic as heck…”. Then some dim memory of reading the short stories struck me, and I checked myself, and went to the bookshelves to get our thick volume of Sherlock Holmes stories. And sure enough, those are full of women. I’m not saying they’re good women roles (they mostly conform to Victorian expectations), but at least they’re here, and they’re not only here, but up-front and centre in a great majority of the stories. You have heiresses to fortunes, and adventuresses (hello, Irene Adler) and spies; but you also have wronged wives, and wives trying to protect their children from grasping husbands and insane sons, and spinster ladies struggling to make a living; and sisters living together in their old ages, and dozens other women who have a strong presence in the narration and that don’t give you the feeling that the writer just happened to erase those bits of humanity that he didn’t approve of [2].

I thought about it some more, and mentally called up other 19th-Century “realistic” novels (excluding adventure novels, which are a really particular subgenre), and you know what? Most of those are horribly misogynistic, but they almost always give some space and some roles to women. Les Miserables has Cosette and Fantine and the Thenardier daughters; Charles Dickens’ books have plenty of prominent women characters. And, all in all, it ends up being a little of a paradox.
Women had a clearly defined place and clearly defined sphere in Victorian society, even though that place was deemed inferior to men. If you were a 19th-Century writer and wanted to write a story that took place in a realistic society (again, excluding “adventures abroad”), then you could hardly write something that had no women in them. It was expected that upstanding members of society would be married and have children, or have relatives which would include women (aunts, cousins, sisters). And those characters might well be subservient to men and have little freedom, but by and large, they’re always here. The wife, the maid, the daughter–they have a place and a role; they exist. The world isn’t 100%-male.

Whereas in our modern 21st-Century Western world… women have gained more rights in a general fashion, but we’ve also been moving towards a more individualistic society. Sherlock Holmes, a confirmed bachelor with no outward interest in the opposite gender, was an anomaly by Victorian standards (notice that Watson, the staunch everyman of the narration, gets all but engaged in the second ever Sherlock Holmes story, The Sign of the Four); by our modern Western 21st Century standards, a man who gets married/into a serious relationship too quickly is the oddity, rather than bachelor Sherlock Holmes. This means that you can put a male character in the narration; and said male character can be a bachelor with distant/non-existent female relatives, and no one will blink an eye. Et voil√†, you’ve just managed to handily remove women from the narration.

There is also a very clear separation between our daily work spheres and what we get up to at home: compare this with the Sherlock Holmes stories, in which this line is more blurred. It’s not that people didn’t have day jobs (there are several stories with tradesmen); but you get far more examples of gentlemen of leisure, or housewives, or people who work from home. Many stories take place on weekdays in households, which, again, would be a rarity today [3]. Most people are assumed to hold an office job. Why do I mention this? Because this means that it’s acceptable today to tell a story that is entirely in and about work settings, with very few inklings of relationships. Cop shows are a prime example of this (and Sherlock owes a lot to cop shows). Since the workplace is already almost entirely male (why bother with putting women on screen, they’re just distracting), you can also skip on showing women onscreen altogether: even if your male characters do happen to be married (like Lestrade), you can skip on showing their partners altogether.

All of this makes it, paradoxically, really easier if you want to cut out women out of the narration altogether: you make the characters not be married, or have casual flings you refrain from showing on-screen (like Watson’s girlfriends, who don’t really feature in this season. It’s telling that his only girlfriend with a significant role was solely there to be kidnapped in The Blind Banker). You set the story away from people’s homes, in a male-dominated workplace, and no one blinks an eye.
And this is why you end up with an adaptation of Conan Doyle for the 21st Century that ends up even more misogynistic than the original short stories. Or maybe a different flavour of misogynist, but just as bad. *headdesk*

What do you think? Am I off-base here? Did things really get worse in terms of screen-time for women, compared to the original stories, or am I misremembering my Conan Doyle/19th Century novels? Do you think not showing women at all a worse thing that showing them in subservient roles, or is it a different flavour of erasure?

[1] I won’t get into how much everyone is lily-White, but that was also a significant problem in that particular episode. And, hum, OK, maybe one of the assassins was a woman, but we only ever saw her picture, and never her in the flesh.
[2] The Conan Doyle stories also have POCs. Their depiction is as racist as heck (fiery, temperamental South Americans, untrustworthy Chinese, and so on, including a particularly lovely bit about a mixed-race South American/English that traumatised me when I was young). But at least POCs are here, they exist and they’re acknowledged, which is more than can be said the POCs in the Season 2 episodes (and few of them actually die in the stories, which is also pretty amazing compared to most mainstream Western TV).
[3] I’m not saying everyone commutes to an office job today–just that it’s become far more common and accepted in our current society.

Things not to do with sesame oil…


… put it in a wok on high heat and use it to stir-fry chicken and noodles for a full 2-3 minutes. (as seen in my canteen today)
Toasted sesame oil, the Chinese kind, has a low smoke point at 180¬įC, which means that it starts decomposing into a lot of components if you use it on high heat–including a fair amount of carcinogens. Most cooking oils, by contrast, have a higher smoke point at 230¬įC or something like that, and are thus suitable for frying on high heat. Sesame oil is more like a dressing: you put it on cooked stuff, or in salads, but you certainly never ever use it for frying.

So, no, thank you, I’ll pass on the chef’s special stir-fry today…

Publishing and non-Anglo countries


And a thematic news roundup of publishing in non-Western-Anglo countries:

-Charles Tan on “How Publishing Favours the West”. All very true, sadly, and once again a case of the US (and associated UK/Canada/Aus/NZ, who benefit by virtue of language and cultural proximity, even if they’re not the same) oozing into the local markets, feeding tremendous demand but not adapt local prices to said demand (said it before, will say it again: $8.00 does NOT buy you the same thing abroad. In Vietnam, it’s one-fifth of the average monthly salary). And how Amazon and Apple are pretty much doing the same with ebooks. [1]

-K.S. Augustin on her experience with Kindle publishing in a non-Amazon country. It’s horrendous, in case you had doubts: Amazon encourages local publishers to use Kindle, but won’t even grant them access to the software for formatting books and checking out what they look like (I think preventing the publisher from checking out a preview of their own Kindle book has got to be a new low…)

-And apparently, the hot topic of the Frankfurt Book Fair is publishers parcelling out digital English rights in non-Western-Anglophone countries and selling them one by one, presumably to local publishers. That’s right: if all goes according to plan, and you want an English-language ebook in France/Spain/Vietnam, you’ll have to wait for a French/Spanish/Vietnamese editor to buy the English-language rights in France/Spain/Vietnam (yes, I know. Who in their right mind is going to pay more than a pittance for this, especially for books that aren’t bestsellers). Ain’t that awesome.

This is a particular flavour of insane (and I still think ebooks should be sold by language, not territory. Yeah, sure, authors and publishers are going to be losing out a bit, but it’s a fairer deal, and it doesn’t leave us in non-Anglo countries feeling like second-class citizens).

Also, this is all leaving me very puzzled, because I think any media business strategy today has got to be weighed against the cost of the piracy option, whether it’s for ebooks or for movies. We can argue all we want about how morally incorrect piracy is, but the fact remains: it’s available, and it’s relatively easy, and its only drawbacks are non-guaranteed quality, and possible legal prosecution (which means downloading a pirate ebook or movie is not quite free: there’s an equivalent cost, defined as the sales value when a given buyer will prefer a legit option to downloading the pirate copy).

But if you have a model in which you keep feeding demand (as Hollywood does, by exporting movies everywhere and making them the baseline of cinema; as the Big Six publishers do in a lesser measure) but not making stuff available at reasonable prices, or not making stuff available at all, you’re basically encouraging people to turn to piracy (and sure, you can say you’ll stomp on pirates, but let’s face it: stopping all piracy dead in its tracks is far from easy). And you can complain pirates are taking away all your business, but for me you’re bearing a share of responsibility because of the demand, prices and availability policy you set (not all the responsibility, to be sure, but still…).
What I’m seeing of the situation so far sounds like another music industry train wreck waiting to happen. It seems to me that we’re going to need a new legal model and new copyright laws to deal with the digital age; but so far this hasn’t exactly been happening.

An addendum on book and DVD prices: I can’t remember where the stat comes from (it was a scholarly report on piracy in various countries, but I can’t find the link for the life of me), but a DVD in India is sold for an equivalent value of $700, if we bring the price in rupees back to US-cost-of-living dollars. Imagine that you kept seeing ads and trailers for the new Batman movie, that people kept talking about it at work, kept insisting that if you hadn’t seen it, you were really behind the times and totally uncool; but that the act of seeing it cost you $700. No wonder there’s a whole generation in Asia growing up not knowing what a legit DVD or book is… [2][3]

Why, yes, I’m feeling cheerful and optimistic about the future of the ebook market today…

(and I suspect not everyone will agree with me RE copyright laws, piracy and ebooks. Feel free to comment/argue/refute in the comments. This is very much something I would love to hear discussion on).

[1] I know, it’s a complicated problem from a business point of view, especially with the permeability of boundaries: it was fine to set prices in the US for the US; and then to deal almost on a case-by-case basis on export problems, but today the market and the demand have gone global (and there are people taking advantage of this–see arbitrage in financial markets).
[2] There are pirate physical books, too. If you’ve ever gone to Asia (well, at least India and Vietnam. I haven’t tried elsewhere), you’ll find itinerant book peddlers selling bound books basically made of photocopies. It’s a sobering experience when you dwell on why they’re here at all.
[3] And yes, I agree that it’s not legal, and probably not ethical either. But the rise of piracy has all too clearly demonstrated that people do not have a natural moral fiber.

On SF and simplicity


la_marquise_de_ has a wonderful post about what history is for (short answer: nothing, it just is), and she finishes it by stating that expecting something to be “obviously and economically useful” is a very Western (and unhealthy) assumption. This, in turn, set me to digging up a couple thoughts about SF I had at the bottom of the drawer.

See, I’ve heard those thoughts before about useful things. The “utilitarian” approach (ie, it can’t exist unless it’s good for something) is also very strongly present in genre, and I hadn’t realised how much.

For instance, there’s a lot of advice about keeping things as short as possible, about making scenes do double duty, about avoiding bulky infodumps. There’s advice about keeping a clear and readable style, not getting into the reader’s way, and so forth. In other words: do not waste words. Do not waste the reader’s time. Do not be fanciful. Always be useful and give bang for the buck. If the book is thick, it had damned well be because every word counts.

There’s also a lot of advice about writing an SF story that boils down to being economical: for instance, the school of thought of the Novum (the idea that a true SF story should be about one technology/piece of technology, and following its resonance into society, ie most minor modification you can think of) definitely fits this. And how many times have you heard that a novel should be easily summarised and boiled down to an elevator pitch–and that, if you can’t, it has to be because there is a problem in the structure of the novel itself?

There is also this pernicious idea that stories have to depend on the technology or they’re not true SF: I say “pernicious” because on the one hand, I understand where we’re coming from in trying to define genre, to separate it from mainstream (though I’m not entirely sure I approve, but that’s another story)–but on the other, if you think about it, this basically amounts to saying “this setting/detail had better be useful” (sort of like Novum to the Nth power). This also comes in flavours of “this plot had better be useful” (aka, it has to have a point, an arc, a theme or whathaveyou), and in “this character had better be useful” (aka, the characters who are not essential to the plot shouldn’t be there [1])–and my favourite, the special alternate history bonus: an alternate history setting has to explicitly tell us something about our own world, or it might as well not exist.

And I find this… troubling.

We can see the results of this approach everywhere, I think (and to some extent, this goes beyond literature); and I don’t think we’ve necessarily gone good places with this. The “utilitarian” approach does have good sides (I’m not advocating we should let authors ramble on and on without firm editing), but it comes with strong dangers: it encourages simple stories with a to-the-point-backdrop and plot. It creates stories that are deliberately simplistic, with pre-catalogued plots, a cast of characters as thin as paper, and a world that can be summed up in one or two key concepts. It thins out the author’s voice (and authorial intervention), and ends up arbitrarily restricting what one can and can’t do with a story.
It prevents novels from being filled with random worldbuilding, with random acts and facts–whereas life itself is full of random things, of details that don’t fit in with each other–of plots that cut off and don’t necessarily make sense by the end.

And, most serious from where I stand, it plays on our already-exacerbated Western tendencies to tie everything into neat narratives, and also ends up reinforcing those tendencies–because, if you keep reading novels that have a point, you’ll soon expect all novels to have a point.
Similarly, the hunger for simple narrative has gone beyond fiction: there’s a general drive towards wanting simple accounts for a phenomenon, and single-factor explanations.
And that’s just not how things work in life.
Case in point (and brief digression): the Rio-Paris Air France crash. Nearly all media stressed one possible explanation (the pilots are to blame, for instance, which seems the majority vote). The truth is, like most accidents, this was a combination of improbable and serious events that led to the plane plunging downwards, and it’s impossible to pinpoint which incident “crashed” the plane. They all did: had even one circumstance gone differently, the plane would still be there. But people prefer the single-factor explanation. It’s simple. It makes sense. Why look for more?
Except, of course, that the single-factor explanation is bunk.

Stories didn’t use to be that simple. Les Mis√©rables doesn’t work that way. Sure, you can argue that it’s a book about the redemption of Jean Valjean–but that completely fails to tell us about the book. You can argue it’s about poverty and the life of the destitute–and sure, it is that too. But the book is much more complex than that; it has a multitude of facets–a multitude of minor characters who all have their own lives (and if you only kept those necessary to the plot, it would be a much poorer book)–and this makes it breathe. This makes it real. This makes full; and fulfilling.

I’m not saying you won’t take anything away from Les Mis√©rables or Dream of Red Mansions (that last being pretty much the epitome of “plotless” for me, but utterly wonderful nevertheless). Of course you will. Of course you’ll find your own lessons, and your own interpretations.
But to want novels and/or worldbuilding to be as simple as possible feels wrong to me–like we’re cutting off our own limbs because, after all, they’re not really necessary/economical… It reminds me of Karl Marx’s “religion is the opium of the people”. By this, he meant that religion gave people what they wanted–the illusion of stability and purpose–and kept them from realising they were exploited; we seemed to have moved to “fiction is our opium”–into a world where fiction satisfies our cravings for simplicity, and prevents us from realising how complex and difficult the real world can be.

So, anyway, that’s what I see. I’d never realised before how much it worried me, or how many of those things came together in a solid (and utterly wrong, at least from my POV) vision of the world according to fiction [2].

What do you think? Feel free to agree or disagree in the comments (specifically, if you want to disagree, do go ahead. I could use some reassurance here… [3])

[1] Wanting few characters in a novel didn’t apply in Ancient China, for instance: the list of Romance of the Three Kingdoms characters fills out half a thick volume; and the Chinese wouldn’t have considered the story realistic unless it listed tons of minor and major characters.

[2] I’m mostly thinking of popular fiction here (genre), and particularly of US fiction, but I do see it elsewhere.

[3]I’m aware we do have a counter-culture to this: we do have people seeking to make novels complex and organic; but I’m getting the strong feeling they’re the minority vote…

Torchwood: Miracle Day snark


OK, so apparently, this is how you can tell that Torchwood has become a joint US-UK production:

While the previous jackets of Torchwood featured the entire team in varied/neutral postures (the boxset of seasons 1-
3, the DVD of Children of Earth), or even a stylised abstract (the boxsets of season 1 & season 2), this one has everyone carrying guns (and a mean-looking guy in a suit who could advertise for Hollywood FBI). And, as a bonus, Eve Myler in a highly sexualised aggressive posture (the two guns pointed downwards, the leather jacket, the tight-fitting pants. She could be any number of pseudo bad-ass heroines).

*bangs head against wall*

[1] Not that I particularly liked Torchwood, but I just happened on this while browsing Amazon.
ETA: mind you, the US jacket for Children of Earth isn’t half-bad in the bad-ass babe department, either…