I’ve decided to re-vise, re-name, and re-launch this blog as “Geek Theory.”
Since I’ve been focusing more on my fiction and my ambitions as a writer of speculative fiction, I’m re-branding this WordPress blog as my personal-professional blog, talking about writing, my life as an independent publishers’ book rep, and other fun things. There will be far fewer reviews and essays, and they’ll be in a more personal tone, rather than my pop-academic tone from before.
First up — a summary post on the awesome that was WisCon 35.
One of my recent reads was Noise, by Darin Bradley. This book got lots and lots of buzz when it came out (at least online), but it wasn’t until last month I picked it up, as my original response was ‘that sounds like I’d hate it.’
Turns out that response was correct, just not in the way I’d expected.
The book is all filtered through the perspective of one disaffected youth, with his life-long BFF at his side. These guys grew up playing D&D, playing boffer swordfighting, and learning survival skills in scouts. So when the digital changeover leaves a gap of frequencies that pirate broadcasters hijack to share their apocalyptic warnings, the boys listen. They start planning, preparing, assembling their own ‘how to survive the apocalypse’ manual, a manual that assumes violence. Not just violence to survive, but lots of violence, as a primary tool of obtaining what you want.
Noise is a book about the ways that personal mythology can be used to completely transform your thinking, and how cultural narratives and groupthink can be used to justify all sorts of horrible acts.
The book is far easier to understand just by reading it. I found that as much as I deplored what was going on in the book, it was compellingly told, and I could imagine that there would be no small number of people who, in the event of a collapse as described (sketchily, I’ll add — either viewable as a bug in the book or a feature if you think that the main character doesn’t really care about the collapse, just the response), would go off the deep end like that.
It’s not an easy book to read, and it is not a clear condemnation or valorization of geeks, boy scouts, or anarchists. It is, instead, a fascinating character study of how a pair of suburban boys try to transform themselves into the kind of people who can survive and thrive in an apocalypse and post-collapse world.
I think my life has just been changed by a book again. The last book that blew my mind this much was Henry Jenkins‘ Convergence Culture. I’m not counting novels right now, because fiction and non-fiction blow my mind in such different ways. This kind of mind-blowing is the one that is potentially career-changing (I want a career as a writer, but other careers along the way might be useful to pay the bills). More organized thoughts may come later, but right now I want to share my enthusiasm and talk briefly about some exciting things.
The author of Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better And How They Can Change The World is Jane McGonigal, whom you might know from her TED Talk:
Reality is Broken is a continuation of the thread of logic that McGonigal puts forward in the TED talk and in support of her biggest dream: she wants to see a game designer win the Nobel Prize for Peace by 2032.
The book is a concerted effort to take a reader through many of the corners of game design and to show off each area’s lessons, and presents a paradigm which enables every person on earth to participate in saving the planet and the human race: Games. Gamers, she says, are humanity’s secret weapon in our struggle to survive, thrive, and protect our planet.
Disclaimer: I’m a life-long gamer. Some of my earliest memories are playing computer games on my dad’s lap, as we pushed our Commodore Amiga to its limits with games like Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Land of the Rising Sun, and more. I started playing D&D when I was eight, Magic: the Gathering when I was 11, and so on. I was too young to be a part of the first video-gamer generation, but I am totally a representative of the 2nd-gen gamer. From what I can tell, this book is written in no small part to people like me, lifelong gamers, as an inspiration and challenge to go out in the world and turn our gaming experience to achieve Epic Social Win. And for this gamer, the inspiration has certainly been successful.
It’s actually somewhat difficult for me to talk about this book, for several reasons. For one, it’s got a crapton of material and ideas contained within. McGonigal puts forward fourteen ‘fixes’ for reality based on various ways that gaming is superior to reality in letting us be more optimistic, more connected, more engaged and so on.
Here’s Fix#1, from p.22:
“Fix #1: Unnecessary Obstacles
Compared with games, reality is too easy. Games challenge us with voluntary obstacles and help us put our personal strengths to better use”
The idea here is that adding an unnecessary obstacle to a chore or job lets you take it from a chore, a burden, and turn it into a game with a challenge. I have dirty dishes, and they should be cleaned. I hate washing dishes, unless I add something to the task. If I challenge myself to do the dishes while dancing to my favorite music, or to do the dishes using the least water possible, filling a bowl and cleaning everything out of that one bowl of soapy water, or something in that mode, I take control of the task again — I’m doing dishes, because they have to be done, but I’m doing more than just the dishes — I’m playing a game and the result of that game is both 1) clean dishes and 2) A happier Mike (having played a game, set myself a voluntary obstacle and met it).
McGonigal talks a lot about positive psychology/happiness psychology, looking at the ways that we think we can achieve happiness vs. the ways that current science thinks we actually achieve happiness. Unsurprisingly (since she mentions it), games, especially social games that involve touch, are great for happiness. I found this section one of the most illuminating, since it covered an area not of my expertise (My formal psychology experience begins and ends with Psych 101, a class on brain chemistry).
As a game designer, McGonigal seems to approach her world in terms of problems, and ways to make games to solve them. When she was recovering from a concussion in 2009 and unsatisfied with her rate of recovery, she designed a game called SuperBetter to help her take control of her own recovery and restore a sense of power. The game asks the recovering person to conceive of themselves as a superhero, their disease or injury as the supervillain, and to recruit allies to round out your team, identify power-ups which can help in recovery (taking a walk, doing things you love that aren’t effected by the injury/disease, etc) and making a superhero to-do list of things that will let you feel good about yourself, set goals to aspire to (gather enough energy to go out and do X).
SuperBetter let her ‘gamify’ the recovery process, taking control and empowering herself by applying an interpretive framework that cast herself as the heroine, possessed of the motive and means to get better.
There are countless games, designed for various objectives, but they teach us many lessons. These lessons, McGonigal argues, equip us to tackle the world’s largest problems — we can take big big issues like peak oil and gamify them, applying a framework that will inspire, challenge, and enable people to be creative, innovative, and collaborate to find solutions together (the peak oil example comes from the game World Without Oil).
Not just any old game will save the world. But everyday games can still do things like let us feel powerful and accomplished. They can give us a way to stay in touch with friends or family, give an icebreaker for meeting new people, and countless other things.
Games, McGonigal argues, are a central facet of humanity, and one of our greatest tools. Now we just need to take all of the time and energy we’ve put into games, evaluate and acknowledge what it’s taught us, and put those skills to use on social issues, political issues, environmental issues, and more.
If this sounds like your bag, read the book, then consider signing up with gameful.org, a social-network/collaboration tool for game designers working to make ‘gameful‘ games.
Clarion West co-administrator Leslie Howle challenged Clarion and Clarion West alums to share 5 things they learned from their time at the Clarion workshop. As part of my efforts to transition this blog into a more general “Mike talks about stuff” blog, I’m putting my entry here.
Clarion and Clarion West are intensive writing workshops primarily focused on science fiction and fantasy writing. Students eat, drink, breathe and sleep writing for six weeks, critiquing peers’ stories, writing their own new shorts, learning from industry veteran writers and editors, and participating in a supportive community of other writers, professionals, and professional fans.
I attended the workshop in 2007, following a friend’s fantastic experience at the workshop in 2004. Among my classmates were mathematicians, historians, fashion bloggers, science teachers, lawyers, bakers, truckers, and more. I wrote five stories at the workshop, two of which have now been published. And here, in five short examples, is what I learned, one lesson for each story I wrote.
1) What you try hardest to do well, may be the thing you fail at the most. Don’t worry, it will also be the thing you learn most from.
My first week, I wrote a story called “In His Image.” The premise is that in the near-future, a social movement creates a technology which allows people to become pure hermaphrodites — possessing both sets of genitals and being functionally both male and female. The main character, Maria, a widow and mother of one, discovers that her only son, the last living reminder of her dead husband, wishes to join this group, caught up in their idealism that if everyone undergoes this procedure, it will end all gender and sex-based discrimination. Maria struggles with trying to convince her son not to pursue the procedure, then shows her confused reactions when her son goes through with the procedure and returns half a stranger.
I challenged myself to tell the story from a more difficult perspective — the mother’s, rather than the son’s, as well as making the mother a devout Christian who interpreted things through her religious paradigm. I wanted to tackle gender issues, and familial issues, using the SFinal technology partially to investigate familial reactions to transsexuals who pursue Hormone Replacement Therapy and Sexual Reassignment Surgery.
The result was a colossal failure. I managed to deeply offend several classmates, and had gone over-the-top in my efforts such that the issues I was so intently trying to get right were all spectacular flops. But from the story and the feedback, I learned that when you push yourself on something, failing can be tremendously instructive, and help you do better the next time. I saw the ways that in my effort to spotlight an issue, I’d been too overt, too clumsy, and in failure saw the ways I could go back and do it better. A first draft is a place where you should allow yourself to fail, almost expect to fail.
2) Fun is a very powerful aesthetic, and buys you a lot of trust from an audience.
My second week, I dove into writing a New Weird Superhero short story “Shield & Crocus,” which would become my novel, keeping the original title. The original short story was a piece far too large for its britches. I tried to introduce and develop a novel’s worth of material, but along with that doomed effort, I provided colorful characters, action, and enough Bombasticity that the absolute most common comment of the story was “fun.” We tell stories to challenge, to provoke, to educate, but we cannot forget the entertainment aesthetic. Fun is not the only way to be entertained — being lead to think deeply and contemplate serious issues is a form of successful entertainment, but as Donald O’Conner said,
Now you could study Shakespeare and be quite elite
And you can charm the critics and have nothin’ to eat
Just slip on a banana peel
The world’s at your feet
After all of the deconstruction of the excessive world detail or plotting issues, I was left with the confidence that this setting was fun. It was fun for me to write, and had proven that it was fun for readers, even readers who were not particularly fans of superheroes, the New Weird, or action-adventure stories. Therefore, when I left Clarion West, that sense of fun compelled me to take Shield & Crocus and give it a full life as a novel.
3) Get into a scene, do what you have to do, then get out.
Just as in conversation, I am sometimes prone to verbosity in writing. In week 3 of Clarion West, I tried to focus on scene structure. I wanted to pay attention to the beginnings and endings of scenes. I wanted to make my scenes as sharp as possible, cut out all the flab. In “Kachikachi Yama,” which later sold to Escape Pod, I pushed myself to write short scenes that were as efficient as possible, getting through setup to the meat of the scene, then getting out with momentum pushing forward to the next scene. By making most of the scenes closer to bite-sized, I gave myself permission to not have to do all the setup possible for the scene. Instead, I tried to be a narrative guerrilla — performing hit-and-run attacks with my story, keeping things punchy, so that the very structure of the story conveyed information about my heroine — that she was efficient, sharp, and did not deign to dally.
I was also very happy with what I pulled off in my main character (Usagiko)’s voice, but one lesson per week is the name of the game, so we move on to…
4) For a truly strong relationship-based story, you have to pay specific attention to every single relationship in the story — one-on-one relationships, but also group relationships and relationships in context.
A number of RPGs these days, especially “indie” RPGs, have been using the idea of Relationship Maps. In doing a relationship map, you can visually organize the dynamics between a set of characters in one or more groups. During week 4, I wrote a story called “Three Loves for Horue,” a character-focused drama where in addition to other things, I challenged myself again to write a story without external violent conflict, just internal conflict and interpersonal social conflict.
The main character, Horue, is part of a society where triadic marriage is the norm. For the people of Aehen, a normal marriage is a Husband (male), a Wife (female), and a Mediator (either). Horue is a mediator. When an invading force siezed Aehen, they forced its people into dyadic marriages, just Husbands and Wives. The Mediators were pulled out of their marriages and paired off with one another. And two years later, the invaders leave, stretched too thin to maintain an occupying force in Aehen. Most people go back to their triadic marriages, as could Horue — except that in the two years of occupation, he’d fallen in love with the female mediator assigned as his new life. So Horue finds himself torn between three loves. In the story, I had to establish and develop a great deal of relationships. I had to show Horue’s relationship with each of his spouses (Husband, Wife, and Mediator-Wife), as well as those spouses’ relationships with one another. In order to get to the ending I wanted, I had to show changes in eight dynamics (Horue-Husband, Horue-Wife, Horue-MediatorWife, Husband-Wife, Husband-MediatorWife, Wife-MediatorWife, as well as Wife-Husband-MediatorWife and Horue-Husband-Wife-MediatorWife).
Applying that way of thinking, that I had to show the change in eight distinct but inter-reliant relationships, cast light on the complicated social fabric that underlies every story. Even in stories where the central conflicts were not merely interpersonal, the Relationship Map was as crucial to good storytelling as anything else. If only one or two relationship in any story’s Relationship Map has changed by the end of the story, that story might need another look, or some more focus on character relationships.
5) When Re-decorating the house of a genre, don’t do it like a guest trying to be unobtrusive. Do it like a new owner claiming your own space.
In week 5 of the workshop, I was excited and terrified to write my last story of the workshop, a story that would be critiqued by Science Fiction Legend Samuel R. Delaney. All of the CW07 instructors were awesome, but Chip Delaney is a living legend.
Therefore, I wanted to bust out all the stops. The story I wrote for the last week was “Dancing at the Edge of the Black,” which would eventually become “Last Tango in Gamma Sector,” which appeared in Crossed Genres. I applied my love of Argentine Tango to the genre of Space Opera, and in feedback, I was urged to go all-out in that re-decoration of the house of Space Opera. And so, in re-writes and revison, I made the story as Tango-riffic as I could, from clothing to food to textures and colors. And in doing more and more to re-work the execution of the story as a Tango Space Opera, the story become more distinct, more notably mine, not a Battlestar Galactica ripoff with bad math and a touch of tango.
So there you go: 5 things I learned from Clarion West. The workshop was and remains the single most important game-changer in my writing career thus far, in craft lessons learned as well as connections made with fellow writers who continue to inspire and challenge me, colleagues who are also becoming life-long friends.
So here’s the commercial part — If you’re an aspiring SF/F writer looking for a way to kick-start your career, develop your skills, and make incredible connections, consider applying to Clarion or Clarion West this year.
FOX’s new offering Glee debuted a pilot episode earlier in the year and made it available online throughout the summer, and responded to initial positive responses with a very strong and pervasive advertising campaign which continues even now.
It’s impressive to think that a weekly musical television show could get this positive a response, but there are a lot of reasons to love the show.
1) If you are a musical theatre fan, the chance to see it on network primetime is inspiring and delightful.
2) If you aren’t a musical theatre fan, the show offers constant laughs with compelling laughs.
3) Jane Lynch portrays the shows main antagonist, the coach of the national-attention-winning cheerleading team (aka the Cheerios). Lynch is given reign to cut loose and portray a vicious competitive scheming selfish heel of a character — and she revels in it. Lynch’s Coach Sylvester is one of the strongest parts of the show.
4) The way that the musical numbers are integrated into the show are mostly diegetic, given the focus on a glee club, but there are some breakout fantasy numbers, such as “Bust Your Windows” when diva-licious Mercedes is rejected by the fashion-forward Kurt, or head Cheerio Quinn’s crazy-go-nuts anthem railing against her treatment by her boyfriend and others in general
5) The showrunners and writers keep on finding new ways of eliciting laughter and delight from the audience. Last week, we had Jane Lynch in a zoot suit, “I Could Have Danced All Night” sung in a dress shop by the adorable Jayma Mays while dancing, and the glorious Slushee War.
6) The show’s musical selection ranges from classic rock “Don’t Stop Believing” to contemporary hip-hop “Gold Digger” and a strong but not overwhelming sampling of musical theatre numbers such as “Maybe This Time” and “Tonight.” Upcoming numbers include “Defying Gravity” from Wicked (not the TV show by the same name — that’s another blog post).
7) Characters originally introduced in an antagonistic role are frequently fleshed out into sympathetic characters, including head cheerio Quinn, coach Tanaka, football bully “Puck”, Will’s wife Terri, and even the dread Sue Sylvester has her pensive moments. Few characters are universally good or universally villainous — our protagonists are flawed, lie and cheat for understandable if misguided reasons, and generally act like high schoolers — even the adults.
8) Despite this ambiguity, it’s very hard not to root for the Glee kids, and most see the dissolution of Will’s marriage as an inevitable precursor to the more-inevitable union of charming Glee coach Will and adorably OCD guidance counselor Emma.
It’s Both Good and Popular! Amazing!
There are more reasons to love the show, and Glee’s popularity is written nearly everywhere — critical praise abounds, it consistently trends in the top 10 topics on Twitter the nights of its episode airings, and most importantly, it’s ratings are consistently strong, consistently earning a 4.X rating and 7 share and a 3.X/9 among the coveted 18-49 demographic. The show was the first new show of the season to (publically) receive an order for the back 9 episodes — and the first DVD set (collecting episodes 1-13) has already been solicited). Another important facet of the show’s success is that the musical numbers from the show are made available on iTunes and consistently reach best-seller levels in that market. The show is another example of Most Repeatable Programming (ala Steven Johnson), where small moments/reaction shots may be missed without multiple viewings, and it’s easy to see why people would watch and re-watch (including Hulu) given the selfless-smile-inducing musical numbers.
If Glee is able to maintain its current balance of drama and humor, delightful musical numbers and ridiculous antics, it’s likely to survive for several years. In times of economic and social instability (recession, massive conflict over health care reform, gay rights, etc.), a happy, inspiring show is an easy pick for success.
After all, as the dearly departed Irene Adler, long-time coach of the McKinley Glee Club (inc. during Schuester’s time) saif,
“Glee, by its very definition, is about opening yourself up to joy.”
When I first heard about Defying Gravity, I was surprised to see another space show, following the dead-in-the-water Virtuality which went from pilot to TV-movie backdoor pilot to TV-movie that everyone knew wasn’t going to become a series.
Defying Gravity had a number of similarities to Virtuality – ensemble-sized crew on multi-year mission deep into space, their efforts being made into a reality show for people back on Earth, driving off of interpersonal conflict exacerbated by the enclosed space and mission stress.
However, Defying Gravity has a far milder version of the ‘reality show’ aspect, and lacks the virtual reality material featured in Virtuality. As a result, the show is much more focused — it’s serial SF with episodic interpersonal plot — originally pitched as “Grey’s Anatomy in space” — the show released on ABC over the late summer, but was only aired for episodes before it dropped off of the schedule — ABC has stated that they they are looking for the best time to air the remaining episodes — meanwhile, the episodes have been airing elsewhere, due to the show’s status as a multi-country, multi-network production.
I hope to see the remainder of the season on television, but I have doubts about the show getting picked up. It’s likely rather expensive given the sets and FX required, and the show’s ratings were lukewarm when aired — though that’s far from unexpected from a relatively un-advertised mid-summer show with a high concept. Depending on how its ratings fare elsewhere, it’s possible that even if ABC drops its support, it might continue on.
Here’s why Defying Gravity is cool, for me: It’s probably the best new straight-up SF show (recently) on television. The show addresses advanced speculative elements (deep-space missions, plus other SF-inal spoilery things that are very intriguing). It also sustains and develops strong interpersonal drama, throws in good doses of comedy, and includes the best use of flashbacks since LOST, using a parallel structure depicting the mission crew and other personnel in the years-long training that served as the characters’ introduction to one another and informs their relationship with one another in the ‘now’ segments.
Unlike LOST, the characters are deeply interconnected with one another throughut their flashbacks, meaning that instead of revealing a ‘small world’ setting where disparate characters were more connected than they suspected, the crew of Defying Gravity are shown working through years of interpersonal relationships — it’s two stories that are one and would theoretically come together by the end of the series, when the flashbacks lead up to the start of the ‘now’ part of the show and provide (10-11) years of contiguous storyline.
Back to the title of my post: Why this show needs to not get canceled — Defying Gravity depicts a future where space exploration brings us into a larger universe, valuing both science for science’s sake; also the love of exploration. It also introduces and explains SF-inal elements unseen in television, if well established in SF literature. The SF writing world talks about how film/TV is two decades behind prose. The ideas get investigated in prose, and go from brilliant innovation to discussed and debated trope, and once well known enough, if the materials that lead into the trope are established in the popular imagination, then it can reach a broad audience to be digested. Shows like LOST took several years to build up to and introduce SF elements, and Fringe is popularizing parallel/alternate universe theory. Dollhouse is a possibly-too-complex-for-tv meditation on the possibilities of interfacing with and modifying memories through technology.
It’s all well and good for the SF community to investigate ideas and develop discussion, but it’s a small world, and for those ideas to reach the majority of the populace, either you need a massively popular novel on the level of Stephen King or Dan Brown, or you probably need to make a movie/TV show. And if shows that further the collective understanding of the culture-shaping ideas that SF produces keep getting canceled, it serves as a barrier to that dissemination of ideas.
For these reasons and because I think it’s engaging on an interpersonal level with strong performances by a fairly-ethnically diverse cast, I would really like Defying Gravity to continue long enough to tell its story, to convey its speculation about a possible future.