Archive for the ‘cultural commentary’ Category

Over the past week I’ve read numerous articles and had several conversations with friends about the terrible attack on French magazine Charlie Hebdo, in which extremists killed both staff and those protecting them. It’s the sort of issue I’d normally steer away from discussing here. After all, this is a blog about writing and about imaginary worlds, not real politics.

But I’m someone who makes his living off words, to whom freedom of expression is vital both in principle and in practice. So today I’m going to talk about reactions to this attack, attempts to put them in context, and how I feel about all this.

Context good

The initially public reaction to the attack was one of shock and horror. But as the days passed, people have quite rightly tried to look at this in context. This was a terrible event and an attack on free speech. Worse atrocities happen on a regular basis, and stir far less of a reaction from us in the west. Free speech is attacked from many angles, and we don’t often rise in outrage. I agree with the people making this point – we should be outraged about those things too. We should be as focused on them as on this.

It’s also important to put this in context and understand what led the attackers to do what they did. There are huge issues to consider around disenfranchisement and what’s pushing people to join extremist groups. Why they felt a need, and had the opportunity, to lash out in such a horrifying way. If we don’t consider that context, then we invite more of the same. Because this attack wasn’t about Charlie Hebdo and what it said. It was about the attackers and where they were coming from. They were going to lash out at someone, and this magazine was unfortunate to be the target they picked.

Examining the victims

But there is a contextual point people have raised that’s more problematic, and that’s the material published in Charlie Hebdo.

I want to be really clear on this. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t criticise this magazine, that the attack on its offices makes it some kind of martyr or sacred cow. As far as I’m concerned, everybody and everything should be open to critique, not least a small print French magazine that set out to provoke people with its cartoons. The free speech from which that magazine benefits extends to its critics as well.

But to me, that’s a separate issue from discussing this attack.

When people have critiqued the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo over the past week, it’s been to point out that they are offensive to some people, that they were designed to draw ire. The implication seems to be that they shouldn’t have done this, that if they’d been better people this wouldn’t have happened. The same critique is implicit in attempts to shift attention onto the Muslim policeman who died in the attack. His death is every bit as tragic as the cartoonists, every bit as worthy of mourning. Maybe he was somehow a better person than the others, but even if he was that doesn’t matter. We should be no more or less outraged for the other victims than we are for him. None of them did anything that justifies their murder.

They were all victims. Talking about their character starts us down a slippery slope towards victim blaming.

Offence

We all have things that we find offensive. But while there are reasons some of those things should not be said, the fact that we find them offensive is never a good reason. Offence is our reaction, not the other person’s action.

Fellow writer Victoria Randall and I have very different views on certain issues, issues which she addresses in her fiction. We stand in such different places that, if it came down to it, we would each accept imprisonment in defence of completely opposing principles. But if Victoria expresses an opinion on this that I find offensive, and I respond by going to her house and punching her in the face, does her opinion make my behaviour any more reasonable, or the hotdog salesman I punched on my way past any more of a victim than her?

No. Of course not. In this hypothetical, she was voicing her opinion and I was being an arsehole. The nature of that opinion is beside the point.

For the record, I would never punch Victoria Randall. She’s lovely, I’m a pacifist, and I can’t afford the plane tickets to the United States.

Je Suis Charlie

So given all of this, do I stand with those saying ‘Je suis Charlie’, however problematic that reaction may be?

I do. Because in my view free speech should not be limited by the opinions or character of the speaker. Because I want us to react against all the terrible things, and if this is the one that galvanises us then that’s a start. And because to me those words are a way of saying that I will not be dictated to, that I will stand by my words even when threatened. No-one is likely to threaten violence at the things I write, but if they feel the need then they should just bring it on.

Je suis Charlie.

I love writing for a living. Despite that, I’ll occasionally have a bit of a moan about the work, especially my monthly gig writing management theory articles. But the truth is, I enjoy thinking a bit about management, for the same reason that I watch some YouTube shows about computer games, even though I hardly ever play computer games.

It’s because of the other issues they bring up.

Both computer games and management are, in different ways and for different reasons, fairly new areas of study. Management theory has a few more decades under its belt, but neither was considered a serious subject of study a hundred years ago,* and some people still don’t treat them seriously now – my dad is endlessly surprised to hear that I can find six management topics a month to write about, despite the huge wealth of books, blogs and academic departments dedicated to the subject.

This makes these fields fertile areas for innovative thinking. There are relatively clear lines drawn around maths, history, English and other traditional disciplines. Cross-disciplinary work exists, but the central core is fairly solid and stable. Management and computer games, on the other hand, are built around borrowing ideas from other disciplines and mashing them together to see what works. That means they also produce insights that can be useful for other areas. For example, the recent furore over gender representation in computer games raises serious questions about what is and isn’t acceptable in society at large, about what free speech means and about how people respond to change.

This means that, when I sit down to read the Harvard Business Review blog or watch an episode of PBS Game/Show, there’s a decent chance that I’ll stumble across something that’ll inspire me in other areas of my life, and that will be interesting not because of the small extent to which I’m into management or computer games, but just because I’m a human being and this stuff is inherently fascinating. Sure, sometimes there’ll be things I don’t care about, like an interview with a hedge fun manager or a talk about why the Mario franchise is popular. But more often than not, I’ll find something that justifies the time.

I like that we have these fluid, open areas of our culture, and I suspect that they’re capable of faster innovation than more traditional fields. But most of all, I’m just glad there’s so much interesting stuff in the world. And if the stuff I’ve said has got you even a little intrigued then go browse the Game/Show videos, look for a title that sounds interesting, and give it a watch. They’re usually 5-10 minutes, and often get into fascinating areas of psychology and cultural theory. Great stuff.

 

* Yes, I know, one of them didn’t even exist then, and that feeds into my point.

I had a couple of moments yesterday that reminded me of the immense power of human creativity and just how awesome that is.

One was posting yesterday’s flash fiction story, ‘Love That Never Lived‘. Months after first writing this story it still churns me up inside, and that’s hardly surprising as my rawest emotions that went into it. But I also got some really touching responses from other people who had been moved by the story. It’s hardly news that a good story can move us to joy or sorrow, but it’s worth being reminded.

Then in the evening I was playing the computer game Minecraft, which I’ve just got into this week. I was building a tall tower to that I could see the surrounding area, and building this tower involved standing on the edge and seeing the surrounding landscape from my character’s point of view. Looking out from up there I found myself suffering a moment of honest to goodness vertigo. Just looking down, realising my character could easily fall and be badly hurt or killed, brought up the same feelings I get if I look down from a tall building. It was absurd but strangely powerful, as if the combination of perspective and movement in the game made it real despite the blocky, cartoonish visuals.

If we ever need a reminder that all forms of creativity are equally worthy of the label of ‘art’, or that they can be powerful forces and not just escapism, it’s moments like this.

What’s moved you recently?

“You’re weird.”

That phrase has been directed at me a few times. I’m not sure what people intend when they accuse me of it, but I know it’s not often a compliment. “Weird” is one those murky distinctions – you can’t really say what it is, but you know it when you see it.

For instance …

When I was in college I took a life-drawing class. One of our models was this spindly, dark-haired fellow who, before he disrobed, I recognized instantly as the guy who walked around campus wearing a top hat and a cape.

He was weird. But that’s not a bad thing.

If I know anything about weirdoes it’s that we’re necessary. As uncomfortable as we make the world with our collection of antique medical instruments, or our library of biographies on serial killers, or our closet full of Marvel costumes, the world needs our off-beat way of thinking.

It needs people who don’t see the world in the same colors as everyone else.

My stories have been called weird. No matter what the topic, something is always … off. I have one about a Broadway actor turned zombie who’s auditioning for a post-apocalyptic theater company before his body completely decomposes. And another about a woman who learns she was a psychotic murderer in a past life. Then there’s a love story between a morgue attendant and a vampire that explores the purpose of love and death.

There are plenty of standard, cookie-cutter, five-minute stories I could write. But I’d be so bored. And if the world was filled with the same dry toast ideas, we’d all be terribly bored.

The world needs weirdoes –Salvador Dalis, Terry Gilliams, and Stephen Kings– simply because of how different we see things. We aren’t afraid of darkness, we like to twist the normal until it’s unrecognizable, we see the potential for magic and wonder in a humdrum world.

In everyday life, dragons, zombies and magic assassins aren’t real – but they are in Game of Thrones thanks to George R.R. Martin’s weird imagination. Who would’ve thought to combine mummies, outer space and the Orient Express? One of the weirdoes who writes for “Doctor Who.” And those horror movies you love so much? Written by people who ask frightening questions – like what would happen if we could express our darker natures by torturing people in a creepy, clandestine hostel?

When weird people search their minds for ideas, they open up doors to unexplored places. Places people blessed with “normal” minds – ones that don’t automatically turn down twisted alleyways – can explore safely. Weirdoes create worlds that are wondrous, unnerving and innovative, all at the same time, and bring spontaneity, variety and fun to life.

I’ll close with another story, about a young woman I know who also goes a bit off script. One day, she was walking down the street and came upon a stranger who was inside a store, washing the windows. She stood outside and watched the stranger for a while, then put up her hand and followed the stranger’s hand like a mirror image. And then she left, without even saying “hello.”

Only a weirdo would do that. And I like the way she thinks.

 

* * *

Thanks to fellow writer JH Mae for today’s guest post. JH is a reader, writer and maker of pizza from Northern New York. You can check out her blog and links to her stories here. I particularly like her post on how to stay sane while working at home. Since reading it I have been giving myself verbal abuse and setting unreasonable deadlines for my Batman toy – it helps remind me of what I don’t miss.

As will be obvious to those of you who’ve been reading From a Foreign Shore, I’m a big fan of the Middle Ages. Like a lot of people who grew up reading about Middle Earth and Narnia, I loved the idea of knights and chivalry and everything that came with them. When I was a kid we’d always visit castles during our summer holidays, running around ruins and playing at King Arthur and Robin Hood.

I specialised in medieval history at university, and that took some of the romance out of it, but not the fascination. Sometimes the past truly is a foreign country, and the deep sense of duty and hierarchy that held up medieval Europe is all the more intriguing for being so different from my own values. Sure, the knightly ideal of chivalry was observed more in the breaking than the following, but it was still an ideal, and one that combined courage, romance and a twisted sort of concern for the people around you.

It helps that the era’s most staggering architectural achievements, its castles and cathedrals, never stopped being awe inspiring. I went to Durham University, and there are few sights more breath-taking than Durham Cathedral seen from below, lit up against the night sky.

The Middle Ages are full of great writing inspiration, from the spectacle of pitched battles to the delicate craft of monks creating illuminated manuscripts, the rough belligerence of Viking raiders to the fragile courage of Joan of Arc. If you’re looking for heroes, villains and strange settings then the medieval has it made.

I’ve grown past the point where the medieval is the only era for me. All of time’s rich tapestry is full of fascinating pickings. But the Middle Ages will always have a special space in my heart.

Now your turn – what’s your favourite period of history, and why?

Britain’s a funny old place. Lets face it, guidebooks can never quite capture the essence of a nation that gave us both Bilbo Baggins and the Rolling Stones. Fortunately our rich tradition of making stuff up, aka science fiction and fantasy, can help out.

Fellow writer Victoria Randall‘s daughter will be learning about Britain first hand later this year when she travels to Swansea, a town some of my readers are very familiar with. So to help her out here are a few valuable lessons on Britain, as shown by science fiction and fantasy.

Queueing matters

I know that in some other countries getting what you want is a mad scrum to get to the front. She who shouts loudest or pushes hardest gets her way.

Yes United States, I’m looking at you. Don’t try to hide behind Canada, even if they’re too polite to give you away.

No pushing, no shoving, no giggling at the back - these chaps know how to behave.

No pushing, no shoving, no giggling at the back – these chaps know how to behave.

In this country we are far too polite for that (sidenote: studies from the Centre for Made Up Statistics show that 63% of British politeness is just a cover for repression – more on that later). The cybermen may be brutal villains hell bent on destroying humanity, but at least they know how to wait their turn in line. Get out of line around cybermen and they will destroy you. Real Britains will politely dream about it, and then provide you with poor service and a look of disdain. Don’t take that chance.

Food = happiness

Sam cookingIs there any more British hero than Sam from Lord of the Rings? Diligent, home-loving, unsure of himself. And what does Sam do whenever he wants to cheer people up? He cooks.

The British love of a cuppa is well known, but it goes beyond that. Look at our traditional national cuisine – Yorkshire puddings, teacakes, milky tea, boiled potatoes and over-cooked vegetables. Some people might call it joyless and unexciting, but it’s really the opposite – it’s a sign of how much we love our food, that we can find comfort in it no matter what. That’s what makes Sam such a big damn hero – halfway up Mount Doom he’s still putting on the kettle and reaching for the breadknife.

Scepticism is not just healthy, it’s compulsory

How better to cope with an infestation than by having a nice cuppa?

How better to cope with an infestation than by having a nice cuppa?

We may be polite but that doesn’t mean we blankly accept whatever we’re told. Remember, we chopped our king’s head off long before other countries got in on the act.

That’s right revolutionary France, I see you jumping on our bandwagon.

Scepticism is the bedrock of the British mindset. It can be about authority, about ideas, even about whether this nice weather will last (it won’t, this is Britain). And it’s embodied in the works of one of finest fantasy authors, the amazing Terry Pratchett. Pratchett’s characters and the plots of his books challenge accepted ideas and authorities. They show that scepticism of which we’re so proud.

Though we do look askance at anyone who gets too proud.

Repression is so last century

Not as polite as they look.

Not as polite as they look.

All of this might leave you thinking that Britain is still the stiff upper lipped land of the Victorian age. But if you want to see modern Britain, and just how foul-mouthed and sneering that upper lip has become, then you should check out Misfits. The show about young people who develop super powers while on community service is full of imaginatively foul language and the worst sort of behaviour. Because after years of repression Britain is finally pulling out of the nineteenth century and the results are… lets call them messy.

Modern Britain has learned that it can get away with swearing in public, consuming drugs other than a nice cup of Assam, and loudly screaming its scepticism in the face of authority. We’re changing, which is not all good and not all bad, and as always science fiction and fantasy are there to show the world what it means to be British.

So anyway, that’s my guide to Britain, as shown by our science fiction and fantasy. Fellow Brits, add your opinions in the comments – what lessons have I missed? And those of you further afield, what have you learned about Britain from our national nerd culture? Or what would you like the rest of us to explain?

Amazon have recently launched a subscription service allowing what they refer to as ‘unlimited access to over 600,000 titles’ for $9.99 per month. Given other recent fusses around Amazon this has inevitably led to both praise and attacks from writers and publishers. But what interests me is how this sort of services affects us as readers and consumers of culture. Is this really a bold step forward?

(Spoiler alert: librarians can relax, I’m going to remember you this time)

Look, it’s the Netflix of potatoes!

Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited isn’t the first subscription service to crop up in the past few years. The extraordinary success of TV streaming service Netflix means that these usually get dubbed ‘the Netflix of x’, whether x is books, maps, comics, llamas, potatoes, whatever.

I recently did a little freelance work for subscription comics service ComicsFix, and it highlighted the obvious advantage of these services for customers. This is a company charging $9.95 per month for access to products that normally cost more than that each, and that take less than two hours to read. Sure, they don’t have the big popular titles, but for voracious comics readers that might not matter next to the cost saving.

Wait, are you comparing comics with drugs? Short buzz, high cost, obsessive habits - alright, that's fair.

Short buzz, high cost, obsessive habits – comparing comics with drugs seems entirely fair.

So this isn’t exactly a high risk move for Amazon, and it’s one that we as customers have already proved that we like.

If it’s not bold is it at least fairly new?

Exhibit A: libraries

Stockport Central Library, how I love you

Stockport Central Library, how I love you

Libraries have been providing unlimited access to books for many times longer than Amazon has existed. And they don’t charge us (directly) for the privilege. And these days many of them provide access to e-books – in fact this one in Texas is all about the digital (thanks to Felipe for the link).

So no, not new, but headline grabbing.

So what’s in it for us?

For all that I’ve poked holes in the innovation side, I do think that subscription services have huge advantages for us as readers, viewers, listeners, and general cultural audiences.

They give us huge choice and variety.

They let us instantly access that variety without it taking up space around our houses.

By doing this, they may free us from an attachment to possessing things as a key part of the cultural process. This moves our focus more towards enjoying the experience of those things. I think that this is, by and large, a liberating change.

By removing cost-per-unit for the consumer this could also encourage us to try new things, supporting independent and obscure creators. I’d be wary of laying down a tenner to buy something like Tony Keaton and Andrew Herbst’s Wolves of Summer, an indie comic about werewolves and the Hitler Youth. But if there’s no extra cost we’re far more likely to dip in, try something new and find out if we like it – and having tried it on ComicsFix I loved Wolves of Summer.

Yes, but…

Of course it’s not all roses and sunshine. So later in the week I’ll be looking at the adjustments, the psychological shifts, and to an extent the limitations of this move towards paying for access rather than ownership.

In the meantime let me know what you think. Do you use any of these services? Have they affected your reading/viewing/listening habits? Would your attitude be different for books?

In among all the palaver about how e-reading is changing book distribution, we often forget that it’s also changing the other part of the business and art of books – the reading experience

Comixology, Device 6 and navigating books

I recently raved about the unusual reading experience of the story/game DEVICE 6. One of the joys of that experience was the way in which the reader navigated the text. Sometimes you had a choice of two ways to read, scrolling in different directions. Text layouts reflected the story environment. Visual puzzles and audio elements were interspersed through the surreal short story. All this was possible because of the different formats that e-reading allows.

Believe it or not, this logo represents a sophisticated leap forward in comics reading. More importantly, it let me read the new Gillen & McKelvie comic, which is awesome.

Believe it or not, this logo represents a sophisticated leap forward in comics reading.

But this is also being used in more low-key and more widely read formats. I recently acquired a Kindle Fire and the Comixology app, letting me indulge in my neglected comics habit.* Comixology changes the comic reading experience. You can view one page at a time, enjoying the art of the layout as in a print comic, though without the intrusive adverts. But you can also view the comic one panel at a time. This means that elements later in the page come as more of a surprise, but that you miss out on the tricks of layout that truly great comic writers and artists use. The pacing and tension of the reading experience is subtly changed, and as creators adapt to this new format so will the medium.

Joanna Penn and intertextuality

Look at me, pulling out the ten dollar words. But intertextuality – the relationship between texts – is transforming and being transformed by e-reading as books start to adopt the tricks of the internet.

I recently read Joanna Penn’s Author 2.0 Blueprint, which is essentially a beginner’s guide to self-publishing.** Joanna includes a lot of links in her book, letting you read more on particular topics without slowing down the main points. It’s a smart approach, one we see all the time on websites but could not do in paper books. With e-readers we can.

And this is changing the way that we validate knowledge through references. It used to be that a factual book would provide a footnote referencing the source of information, but now you can provide direct links to that source if it is web-based, for readers to go and check the information themselves. How long before this is used to connect between books as well, giving readers a more inter-connected reading experience and marketers a way to sell you even more books? Could this be the future of academic journals?***

Mo Options Mo Awesome

The Notorious BIG provided a powerful metaphor for the dangers that come with a growth in our wealth of creative options.**** But the flip side of this is that these options let us do ever more interesting and creative things. They let us connect ideas together in new ways, experience stories in new formats. That’s great. The old forms aren’t dying – they’ll still be there if we want them. But new forms are rising up to join and in many cases surpass them.

What are your thoughts on this? Are you enjoying the experience of e-reading? Have you seen it used in interesting ways? Share your experiences below.

 

 

* Turns out that freelance work from home does have a downside – not working within walking distance of a comic shop.

** Joanna actually covers the full range of publishing options, but the emphasis is on the tools, techniques and challenges of self-publishing. I’ll be returning to this another day I’m sure.

*** It should be, but for smart people academics can be very slow to change.

**** Or maybe he just wanted to show off. So hard to tell with champagne-swilling jewellery-covered superstars.

I love science fiction and fantasy, and I believe that nothing is better for those genres than the ability to critically discuss them, to offer challenges and insights to each other, to find our weaknesses, celebrate our strengths and build on both.

That’s why I often hate getting into debates about them on the internet. What should be a forum for development and growth instead becomes a source of deep division. Why?

The symptoms

Recent controversy around the Hugo awards is a good example of how this goes down. A group of writers and fans with a broadly right-wing agenda campaigned to get their favourite writers onto the ballot. They succeeded, and in response more liberal fans cried foul. Much vitriol was spewed. I mostly ignored it but it still made me sad because of the tone taken by people on both sides.

Discussions of feminism and geek culture are among the worst I’ve seen. Both sides of these debates put huge efforts into pushing forward their point of view, rather than listening to each other’s perspectives or trying to understand where those viewpoints come from. It tends to get very ugly very fast, and though I care deeply about these topics I step away from discussions that look angry, unproductive and emotionally draining.

The disease

In my opinion, the problem is that these debates become a matter of attack and defence, rather than an attempt to learn from one another and appreciate other points of view.

It’s natural that this would happen. As fans of all things nerdy we’re used to being ostracised and attacked, to the point where we see ourselves that way despite the increasingly mainstream position of our culture. That makes us incredibly wary of any perceived attack, ready to leap in and defend what we love. It’s one of the reasons why the insightful videos of Feminist Frequency receive as much scorn as admiration. People see a critique of an aspect of something they love and they feel it as an attack on their cultural identity. They feel hurt, and they respond as such.

But of course these counter-attacks put the feminists, or the right-wing science fiction writers, or whoever it is on the defensive. The fight goes back and forth, becoming increasingly bitter. A love for or hatred of Feminist Frequency becomes a badge of honour, to be defended in itself. Positions entrench preventing either side from hearing the other. They might win more supporters through these public spats, or they might alienate casual observers, but what they won’t do is change each others’ views.

The cure (well, mine anyway)

Tom Bramwell has written an excellent piece on this problem and video games, and if you take away one thing from this post it should be to read his article. What I took from it is this – we need to listen. Even if I abhor someone’s opinion, I can achieve more through listening and understanding why they hold that opinion than from repeating, rephrasing and defending my own arguments, hammering them into a defensive stance. Proving ourselves logically right over and over again doesn’t matter. Understanding why others disagree with us does.

I’m not saying that you should not stand up for what you believe in. Far from it. I firmly believe that women are under-represented in science fiction and fantasy and we should change that. But I also believe that the best way to achieve change is to express my view, then step back from the debate and listen. Not to defend my position. To understand rather than berate.

And yes, this is not just a science fiction and fantasy thing. It is a universal thing. It is as true of politics and religion as of which Star Trek captain was best (Picard). But sf+f is where I live. It’s what I’m passionate about. And so that’s where I start trying to treat this differently.

And if you’ve never seen Feminist Frequency then here’s a taste. I think it’s excellent, if occasionally flawed. Other opinions are available.

 

 

Last week saw extreme conservatives do well in European elections. Parties such as the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) got the sort of success their leaders could only have dreamed of five years ago, resulting in much wailing and gnashing of teeth across the political spectrum.

As with so much in life, the experience of reading and writing fiction can bring something to the discussion about these results.

FutUndBeidl

Stories and politics

The thing about politicians like Nigel Farage, UKIP’s ubiquitously grinning upper-class leader, is that they tell powerful, simple stories. They present a conflict – immigrants threatening our way of life. They present an antagonist – Europe. They present a hero – themselves. There’s a sense of challenge – things are getting worse! – and of hope – Farage to the rescue!

This story might bear little relationship to reality, but that’s not the point. As the ballot box testifies, it’s a story that people find moving.

Losing the plot

Mainstream politicians are losing ground in large part because they don’t understand this. They talk about GDP growth and reform, but they don’t present a story. In fact it would be harder for them to present a convincing story – after all, they’re far from underdogs in this fight. But if they could find ways to tell better stories – and they have the staff and resources to find a way – then they might do better.

As Hugo Chavez showed, you don’t have to be in opposition to tell a powerful political story.

The power of stories

Humans tell stories to make sense of the world. Part of the power of stories is that they can convince others to see the world the way that you do. And until other parties find ways to tell better stories, to lead and shape public perceptions instead of being led round by their opponents, they will never make back their lost ground.

 

Picture by FutUndBeidl via Flickr creative commons.