Lovecraft Country

I loved Lovecraft Country, so I’ve been on a bit of a Matt Ruff kick. Here is a great piece where Ruff and Victor LaValle talk about their recent Lovecraft-related reimaginings (lots of spoilers though):

Shadows Over America: Matt Ruff and Victor LaValle Take on Lovecraft and Race

I recall one conversation that could qualify as the inspirational Ur-moment for Lovecraft Country. I’ve always liked to take long walks so I can be alone and think, and Cornell, for me, was paradise for hiking. I used to go for these epic rambles in the farmlands surrounding the campus. And one day I was coming back and I stopped by Ujamaa to see Joe, and I told him what I’d been doing and suggested that he might enjoy hiking, too. And he kind of laughed and said, “Yeah, that sounds like fun, but I can’t go walking around in white farm country.” And I’m like, “What are you talking about? This isn’t the Deep South. We’re in New York State.” And he laughed again and said, “Yeah, Matt. We’re in New York State.” At which point I stopped and actually thought about it — thought about the people I’d see when I was out hiking. It’s true, they were all white, and a lot of them had dogs with them, or gun racks in their pick-up trucks. I never got hassled, even when my hair was long, but if I’d looked like Joe, things might have gone differently. And those back roads were awfully lonely, if you did get in trouble.

So in part because the hiking was such an essential thing for me, this made a lasting impression, and I understood in a way I hadn’t before that even though we shared the same geography, Joe and I were in a sense living in two different countries, with the borders drawn much more tightly around his.

I also liked this link from Ruff’s About the author page: “An Interesting Moral Education”.

The way I tend to deal with tragic events is by containing them in narrative. If something bad happens to me, I’ll tell it to myself as a story, and keep telling it until I’ve got it in a form I can live with.

In the case of my parents’ deaths, the story I came up with was that they had done their jobs. They had seen me through childhood to the brink of adulthood and set me on my way, and if it was a bit bewildering to suddenly find myself without them, it did not seem unreasonable, or even entirely unexpected. I’d known, going out into the world, things were going to be different.


Writing books reviewed + two other links

I recently ran across Writing Slices, which is a great site about writing books.

Some magnificent snark too! I’ve gleaned some good tips from Pressfield, but couldn’t agree more with this assessment: Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t by Steven Pressfield

The premise of NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T is a good one. The idea is this: just because you wrote something, other people won’t necessarily want to read it. In fact, most people will go out of their way not to read your work. Writers have to earn the reader’s attention by writing something worth reading.

That’s a hard truth but a fair one. And it would have been great if Pressfield had continued in that vein, giving writers solid instruction on how to make their books and scripts worth reading. However, NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T is a mishmash of humblebrags about his past along with jaw-droppingly obvious instruction. He can’t seem to complete a thought, breaking into a new chapter every three or four paragraphs.

This might be interesting: Brandon Sanderson Will Teach You How to Write Sci-Fi & Fantasy in New Video Lectures

And I liked this post by Janice Hardy: Getting Your Novel to the Finish Line: Resisting the Shiny New Idea (Part Three)


Mass Effect wrapup

Last week I posted about the ending of Mass Effect; here are a few more thoughts (mainly from Film Crit Hulk Smash, whose columns I discovered recently).

Film Crit Hulk Smash: A Few Words On The Ending Of MASS EFFECT 3

IF YOU WANT MASS EFFECT TO BE AN IMPORTANT PART OF THE CANON OF ART, THEN YOU HAVE TO UNDERSTAND THAT ULTIMATELY THE STORYTELLING ELEMENT IS GOING TO HAVE TO GO AGAINST THE INDULGENT NATURE OF VIDEO GAMES. YOU HAVE TO EMBRACE THE NON-INDULGENT PURPOSE OF ART. AND YOU HAVE TO BE OKAY WITH IT. YOU HAVE TO STRIVE TO UNDERSTAND WHAT IS PRESENTED WHEN WHAT IS PRESENTED IS THIS THEMATICALLY COHERENT AND BEAUTIFUL. YOU HAVE TO STRIVE FOR IT. IT’S THE ONLY WAY THE MEDIUM CAN MOVE FORWARD.

SAY WHAT YOU WILL, BUT THE MOVIE INDUSTRY DOESN’T MAKE NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN RE-SHOOT THE ENDING BECAUSE IT DOESN’T INDULGE US… INSTEAD, IT IS DEEPLY MOVED BY WHAT IT HAS TO SAY AND GIVES THAT FILM “BEST PICTURE.”

Film Crit Hulk Smash: A Few More Words On the Column About The Ending Of MASS EFFECT 3

ART AND STORIES ARE SUPPOSED TO ENGAGE THESE SCARY IDEAS AND CONFLICTS WE FACE IN LIFE SO WE MAY BETTER UNDERSTAND HOW TO DO THEM OURSELVES. SO ANYTIME A BIG EPIC STORY GETS INTO THE QUESTION OF ENDINGS, MOST OFTEN THEY WANT TO THEMATICALLY ENGAGE THE GREATEST OF ALL POSSIBLE ENDINGS WHICH IS OBVIOUSLY DEATH. SO WHY SHOULD THE MASS EFFECT SERIES BE ANY DIFFERENT FROM MOST FORMS OF ART AND TRADITIONAL HERO CYCLES? HULK HONESTLY THOUGHT THEY EXPLORED THE IDEA BEAUTIFULLY TOO. SHEPARD MEETS HIS END IN THREE DIFFERENT, SYMBOLIC WAYS: A WAR-LIKE ACTION THAT KILLS OTHERS AND RESULTS IN HIS OWN DEMISE, AN ACCEPTING ACTION THAT LEADS TO SACRIFICE AND THEN PEACE, AND A SYNTHETIC BLENDING AS A KIND OF PEACE AND TRANSFORMATIVE STASIS. ALL THREE DEATHS ARE ACHINGLY SIMILAR WITH EACH GOING OUT INTO THE NEW EDEN, BUT THE POINT IS THAT THE STATEMENT MADE EACH FORM OF THE THREE DEATHS TELL YOU EVERYTHING ABOUT THE KIND OF SHEPARD YOU WANTED TO BE. THE ACTION ITSELF IS THE STATEMENT, NOT THE RESULTS. THUS, THE CONSEQUENCES ARE IN AND OF YOURSELF.

And then a rebuttal from Shamus Young:

Talk about meaning and cycles all you like, but people asking perfectly reasonable questions are not trying to kill storytelling. They’re just trying to wring some meaning out of a patchwork mess of incongruous events.

 


That Mass Effect Ending Controversy

I was interested in the controversy a little while ago about the ending of the Mass Effect trilogy, but I didn’t have anything of my own to say about it (I gave up on the second game after playing it briefly – it really wasn’t for me).

Shamus Young has just finished up his series about Mass Effect, and in the process of writing 50 posts (!), each of several thousand words, he seems to have conclusively proved his thesis that the problems in the ending actually stem from mistakes/changes much earlier in the story. In his final post, he does have some things to say about the ending though.

Mass Effect Retrospective 50: The Final Affrontier

I like this part about the expectations that get built up over a longer story:

The ending isn’t where the Mass Effect 3 writer faltered. The ending is where all of their ongoing, widespread, long-running failures finally came to a head. Failure to establish a theme. Failure to build up a proper villain. Failure to give the various factions ideas. Failure to characterize. Failure to construct a natural sequence of cause and effect. Failure to establish and adhere to the rules of the world.

The writer constantly wrote IOUs to the audience: This will all be explained later. It’ll make sense in retrospect. This is building up to a larger payoff. This is a setup for a later reveal. The writer never explicitly promised those things, mind you. We just sort of assumed those promises were being made. When the writer kills and resurrects the main character, re-writes major details of the world, radically changes the focus of the story, and imposes decisions of the player character that seem unreasonable or poorly justified, it’s natural to assume that it’s all in pursuit of some larger goal. Surely all these compromises now are in service of some satisfying payoff later, right? The writer wouldn’t bring us all this way for nothing, would they?

Young points out that the changes in the series also affected what would be emotionally satisfying as an ending:

The irony is that the original Mass Effect – the nerdy, talky, details-first game that began with the premise of space Cthulhu coming to devour all civilization – was a pretty good setup for a sad ending. Cthulhu stories don’t tend to end in sunshine and rainbows. They’re dark and grim and usually the protagonist simply forestalls evil at great cost to themselves.

But the later games embraced an action-movie vibe of visceral audience empowerment and cheap gratification. If you’re not going to offer anything more nourishing than sensory stimulation, then you’d better not mess with audience expectations. The later games promised us cheap thrills and then tried to be dark and profound and mysterious at the last minute, and the result comes off as insufferably pretentious.

And he does offer some advice. Nothing particularly radical:

We can’t see inside of BioWare or EA, and we don’t know what sort of decisions shaped the development of this franchise. But we can see the high writer turnover as people left the company or jumped to other projects within BioWare. Every single installment of Mass Effect had different lead writers. That might be acceptable if this was a series of games like Uncharted or Fallout, where each installment is supposedly a stand-alone story. But the Mass Effect Trilogy supposedly exists to tell a single overarching story, and that story is completely incoherent because the parts don’t fit together.

So if there’s one thing I wish I could impress on the suits at EA / BioWare it’s this:

Writers are not interchangeable.

Everyone realizes that voice actors aren’t interchangeable. In the same way, writers also have distinctive voices and treating them like generic script-writing machines can only lead to disaster. Pick a lead writer and stick with them. Even if your writers are are all literal geniuses, don’t shuffle them around in the middle of telling what is supposedly a single story. Pratchett and Tolkien were both masterful and inventive storytellers, but that doesn’t mean either one would have been a good fit for taking over a Vernor Vinge novel in progress.


Adaptations: birding and dark fantasy

I’m not familiar with this book or movie (or birding in general!) but Carrie Vaughn makes some interesting points in The Big Year (book and movie):

But what the movie really wants to do is shoe-horn these characters and this situation into a really disgustingly bog-standard Hollywood story about “what’s really important in life.”  The Wilson character’s wife is going through fertility treatments so they can have a kid but the marriage ends when he picks birding over her.  Note:  this isn’t in the book at all.  Not even a little.  The Martin character decides he’d rather spend more time with his new grandbaby than with birding.  Also a plotline not in the book at all.  The Black character finds romance on his Big Year and decides he likes her better than birds.  ALSO NOT IN THE BOOK.  Are we sensing a pattern here?  The end of the movie:  Wilson’s character “wins” the year, but is left feeling unfulfilled as he stares at a young family with a baby across a pond.  Meanwhile, our other characters are the real “winners” because they’ve learned what’s really “important” in life.  i.e. Not birding.

Basically, the message of the book is:  Birding can get really obsessive but it’s also really awesome and attracts all kinds of interesting, driven people.

The message of the movie:  Everything else is more important than birding.

So they’ve changed it, but not upgraded it. They’ve made it worse.

For a developing situation that might be the opposite type of adaptation (i.e. an adaptation that potentially makes interesting/satisfying changes)… but be warned, this is deep in the weeds of the Stephen King universe, and lots of spoilers… The movie adaptation of the Dark Tower series might be a sequel of sorts at the same time as it tells the best bits of the story (this makes sense in-universe, but the reasons themselves are spoilers).

Stephen King spoiled the heck out of ‘The Dark Tower,’ so let’s talk about it

In many ways, this is uncharted territory. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone try something like this, and it’s a really interesting way of not only making something new, but using it to expand and comment on the thing that inspired it. I’ve been a Stephen King fan since I was about eleven years old, and I’ve read the vast majority of his work in order as it was being published. I think he was one of the first people to ever pull off something where you only gradually realized that everything was set in the same fictional world, and those things all added up to a bigger picture, and then once he introduced the larger framework of the Dark Tower, it felt like something really special was happening. Now we’re seeing a potential expansion in a new direction, and if we’re going to see the last time around, the journey where Roland is finally going to get it right, that is thrilling for fans.

I’m confess to being very curious about this. I wouldn’t say I’m thrilled, since I don’t think there’s a better way to end the series than what King provided. But I’m definitely curious about any and all valiant efforts to do so, if only for the cautionary example.


Gendered Bots

I like this article by Mandy Brown about why AI/bots are gendered female: Bots

Notably, Amazon’s Alexa, x.ai’s Amy, Apple’s Siri, and Microsoft’s Cortana have something else in common: they are all explicitly gendered as female. It’s possible to choose from a range of voices for Siri—either male or female, with American, British, or Australian accents—but the female voice is the default, and defaults being what they are, most people probably never even consider that the voice can be changed. Nadella’s casual adoption of the generic he (“it’s about man with machines”) reveals the expectation that a generation of woman-gendered bots are being created to serve the needs of men. In every case, these AIs are designed to seamlessly take care of things for you: to answer questions, schedule meetings, provide directions, refill the milk in the fridge, and so on. So in addition to frightening ramifications for privacy and information discovery, they also reinforce gendered stereotypes about women as servants. The neutral politeness that infects them all furthers that convention: women should be utilitarian, performing their duties on command without fuss or flourish. This is a vile, harmful, and dreadfully boring fantasy; not the least because there is so much extraordinary art around AI that both deconstructs and subverts these stereotypes. It takes a massive failure of imagination to commit yourself to building an artificial intelligence and then name it “Amy.”

Brown goes on to draw some inspiration from Ann Leckie. Definitely worth reading.


Two Apologies

I ran across both of these apologies this week.

I have no context for this first one, but it’s interesting all the same: The Writer of Dragonball Evolution Offers a Sincere Apology to Fans. My sum knowledge of Dragonball is approximately zero. From the Io9 analysis:

Not only is it rare for people in Hollywood to apologize, it’s even rarer for them to flat-out admit that they did something for the paycheck. True, the fact that he wasn’t a fan really, really showed—but it’s not always a requirement that someone involved in an adaptation be a huge fan. Sometimes that can lead to an inability to recognize what changes need to be made for the new project to succeed. On the other hand, it’s better if they have some familiarity, as well as respect for the material, which was certainly missing from Dragonball Evolution.

The second one cuts a bit closer to home for me. Gavin Scott on Wrestling with Ursula Le Guin:

The second problem stemmed from the fact that there were two books. On the face of it The Tombs of Atuan is a sequel to A Wizard of Earthsea but in fact they are two fairly self-contained novels. The first is principally about the young wizard Ged and his unleashing of a terrible shadow creature through overweening pride, and the second tells the story of a young priestess named Tenar who is the servant of a religious order which ultimately proves corrupt. Ged and Tenar are at first enemies and then allies in The Tombs of Atuan, but the first book is entirely about Ged and the second mainly about Tenar.

It’s not practical in a miniseries for the heroine not to appear till night two, so it was necessary to create at least a psychic link between Tenar and Ged from the beginning, and to start telling Tenar’s story much earlier. That was challenge number one.

Challenge number two was the fact that Ged defeats his main enemy, the shadow, at the end of A Wizard, leaving him little to do in the second book except be imprisoned by Tenar and search for the other half of a broken amulet. As Ged was our hero this obliged me to keep the threat of the shadow going until its defeat could be part of Ged and Tenar’s triumph on Atuan.

And, as you can imagine, this needed some re-rigging of the plot and reimagining of the action sequences as well.

I’m completely baffled why this line “in fact they are two fairly self-contained novels” didn’t lead to a pause. Why smush it together at all? If there’s such a thing as the opposite of a “fix-up”, this would be it. It’s like destruction instead of construction. And it just doesn’t make any sense.

My own theory is that Le Guin is a great writer, but it’s not a surprise that, despite a handful of adaptations, there hasn’t been some definitive/mind-blowing film or TV version of her stories. I like her works because they somehow have a timeless, classic feel to them – I mean, you could write a whitewashed miniseries full of action sequences, but that’s taking the work down at least two levels below where it started.

I’m trying to imagine what my ideal Le Guin adaptation would be, and I’m coming up blank. If I think of an ideal reading experience, it’s easy to think of myself sitting down and re-reading Lavinia or Earthsea (or Catwings to my kids). But her books don’t cross over to media (movies, TV, videogames, etc) in my mind, and I’m perfectly ok with that.


Dystopian hellscape or business as usual?

I’m not sure why this set of stories struck me so deeply, considering that artsy types getting screwed over by contractual jibber-jabber is (unfortunately) such a common thing. But Kristine Kathryn Rusch gets into some scary stuff:

Business Musings: Agents and Estates (Contracts/Dealbreakers/Estates)

I reached this man. He was exceptionally rude from the start, which I figured had something to do with it being late in the day on Friday. I told him I wanted the story for my anthology.

He told me that we would never come to terms. Then he told me he hadn’t gotten my e-mail, even though from the sentence he had uttered earlier, he had. He knew what my terms were before I had verbally reiterated them.

He told me that my anthology was not worth his time. Clueless me, I’m still thinking this guy is having a bad day. I said, Surely we can negotiate something here. I think this story is important to this anthology.

He then quoted me a price which was exactly half my advance for the entire anthology. Thinking we were negotiating in good faith, I said that the price for the story was high and that I was prepared to offer one-eighth the price he had listed. I figured he’d come back with one-quarter, and we’d be happy.

He then told me again that we couldn’t come to terms and said, “because, as I said, the price for this story is…” and he gave me a brand new number, double the price he had initially listed.

Realize that I take concurrent notes when I’m on the phone with anyone I’m doing business with. I had already written down the first amount.

I said, “That’s double what you had just quoted me.”

He said, “Keep pushing me, and I’ll double it again.”

I was shocked and breathless. I had never encountered this before. I said, “Your client belongs in this anthology. Surely we can come to terms if we negotiate in good faith.”

“I don’t think we can negotiate in good faith here,” he said, “and it wouldn’t be any good for my author to be in your genre anthology.”

“Your author is a genre author,” I said. “You might want to think about that.”

And then I hung up, because I was about to launch into a tirade.