Here are a few interesting year-end lists:
I like this riff by Peter Watts on Arrival:
We share a secret prayer, we writers of short SF. We utter it whenever one of our stories is about to appear in public, and it goes like this:
Please, Lord. Please, if it be Thy will, don’t
let Ted Chiang publish a story this year.
We supplicate thus because whenever Ted Chiang does put out a story— not all that often, thankfully— it’s pretty much guaranteed to walk away with every award that’s lying around, leaving nothing for the rest of us. More often than not, it deserves to. So it will come as no surprise to learn that the first movie to be based on a Ted Chiang story is very smart, and very compelling.
What might come as a shock— and I hesitate to write this down, because it smacks of heresy— is that in terms of storytelling, Arrival actually surpasses its source material.
Also, here is Abigail Nussbaum on the movie:
In fact, by the standards of Hollywood and what it tends to make of science fiction, Arrival is a remarkably thought-provoking and meditative movie, and its message of understanding and cooperation feels particularly relevant in our present moment. But as regards to my question, how could Villeneuve and Heisserer take the implications of Chiang’s story and put them on screen, the answer is: they didn’t. And in fact, it seems quite obvious that this was a deliberate choice.
And Locus Magazine:
Two Thousand Translations: A Speech Odyssey: A Review of Arrival
Overall, I know that I did not enjoy Arrival as much as I should have, and find it hard to communicate exactly why that is the case. Certainly, I cannot shake the feeling that everything about the film – the acting, cinematography, special effects – seems serviceable but perfunctory, as if the creative personnel, realizing that they were blessed with excellent source material and an excellent screenplay, never felt any need to work especially hard in order to produce an excellent film. Yet I suspect the main problem is my familiarity with the story that inspired the film, which I might compare to a Bach prelude: brisk, precisely constructed, and appealing because of its grace and charm. Imagine an arranger who seizes upon a Bach prelude and transforms it into a bombastic symphony for full orchestra and chorus; the result might be a magnificent work of art on its own terms, but anyone familiar with the prelude will listen uneasily, sensing that something has gone awry.
This is a great piece by Benedict Evans about what happens with computers can understand imagery.
Lots of great story prompts:
We should expect that every image ever taken can be searched or analyzed, and some kind of insight extracted, at massive scale. Every glossy magazine archive is now a structured data set, and so is every video feed. With that incentive (and that smarthone supply chain) far more images and video will be captured.
So, some questions for the future:
- Every autonomous car will, necessarily, capture HD 360 degree video whenever it’s moving. Who owns that data, what else can you do with it beyond driving and how do our ideas of privacy adjust?
- A retailer can deploy cheap commodity wireless HD cameras thoughout the store, or a mall operator the mall, and finally know exactly what track every single person entering took through the building, and what they looked at, and then connect that to the tills for purchase data. How much does that change (surviving) retail?
- What happens to the fashion industry when half a dozen static $100 cameras can tell you everything that anyone in Shoreditch wore this year – when you can trace a trend through social and street photography from start to the mass-market, and then look for the next emerging patterns?
- What happens to ecommerce recommendations when a system might be able to infer things about your taste from your Instagram or Facebook photos, without needing tags or purchase history – when it can see your purchase history in your selfies?
Online retailers have been extremely good at retail as logistics, but much less good at retail as discovery and recommendation – much less good at showing you something you didn’t know you might like (link). I sometimes compare Amazon to Sears Roebuck a century ago – they let you buy anything you could buy in a big city, but they don’t let you shop the way you can in a big city. (I think this is also a big reason why ebook sales have flatlined – what do you buy?)
That’s an aside at the end about ebook sales, but quite interesting. I’ve found that the discovery mechanism for good ebooks is… I don’t know what it is actually. I’m still thinking about this whole topic, still don’t have a good handle on it. And I don’t know enough about machine learning to know if that will make a difference.
I have been on a news diet since not sleeping much the night of November 8th, and I think I’ll be on a news diet for the next four years. I have that luxury since I don’t live in the US, and I have to say, I’ve felt healthier and more productive ever since. Also, one advantage of having as a poor memory as I do: I’ll be quickly forgetting all the stupid crap I was reading in the run-up to the American election.
Some of my favourite writers have chimed in with their thoughts, but as usual, Ursula K. Le Guin’s take is the most insightful. This is a beautiful piece, worth reading in its entirety.
Americans have voted for a politics of fear, anger, and hatred, and those of us who oppose this politics are now trying to figure out how we can oppose it usefully. I want to defend my country, my republic. In the atmosphere of fear, anger, and hatred, opposition too easily becomes division, fixed enmity. I’m looking for a place to stand, or a way to go, where the behavior of those I oppose will not control my behavior.
Americans are given to naming enemies and declaring righteous war against them. Indians are the enemy, socialism is the enemy, cancer is the enemy, Jews are the enemy, Muslims are the enemy, sugar is the enemy. We don’t support education, we declare a war on illiteracy. We make war on drugs, war on Viet Nam, war on Iraq, war on obesity, war on terror, war on poverty. We see death, the terms on which we have life, as an enemy that must be defeated at all costs.
Defeat for the enemy, victory for us, aggression as the means to that end: this obsessive metaphor is used even by those who know that aggressive war offers no solution, and has no end but desolation.
The election of 2016 was one of the battles of the American Civil War. The Trump voters knew it, if we didn’t, and they won it. Their victory helps me see where my own thinking has been at fault.
I will try never to use the metaphor of war where it doesn’t belong, because I think it has come to shape our thinking and dominate our minds so that we tend to see the destructive force of aggression as the only way to meet any challenge. I want to find a better way.
It goes from there, just as beautifully. I’m a pacifist but I don’t know much about Lao Tzu (a much different tradition, arriving at the same location: peace is difficult, yet worth the effort); I think I’ve going to have to remedy that.
I’ve also been thinking about Canadians who have moved to the US. I went back and re-read Emily St. John Mandel’s piece from earlier this year, The Year of Numbered Rooms, and found it greatly moving and relevant. Especially in the context of the subject of Station Eleven.
Most of us understand the basics of economics, but even so, it’s easy get the details wrong in our worldbuilding. When that happens, audiences realize something isn’t right, even if they can’t quite name what it is. Let’s take a look at some fictional worlds that didn’t do a great job so that we can avoid similar mistakes in our own work.
1. Difficult Problems Must Actually Be Difficult
PCs usually approach problems by trying to find the most efficient way to solve them, not by looking for the easiest way to a dramatic conclusion.
Writers frequently obsess over their opening paragraph, hoping to make a great first impression. But the last impression also matters. It sets the mood that the reader walks away with, giving it a disproportionate impact on how they feel about the story or whether or not they recommend it to their friends.
Also, I loved this post from Captain Awkward: #913: “You don’t have to quit your day job right this second to follow a creative dream.”
You need to get connected to your passions right now, TODAY.
Some ways to do that, listed in no particular order of importance:
- Collect your heroes. Read Steal Like An Artist and choose your hall of virtual mentors. Whose art makes you want to make art? Dig into their work and read, watch, listen intently.
- Create rituals. Look into The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, and whether or not the “spiritual” language works for you, think about trying out her daily practices (free-writing three pages every morning) and weekly practices (The Artist’s Date, where you spend 1-2 hours by yourself exploring and giving yourself permission to daydream and absorb and create).
- Get social. What is a professional group, MeetUp group, online community or other social network of people who do what you want to do? Join one of those and practice saying out loud to other people what it is that you want to do. “My name is ______ and I’m an attorney but I also _______ and want to be a ______.“
- Find the local scene. Chances are that where you live someone is doing the thing you want to be doing with your life. Subscribe to the local theater company. Go to the local indie film screening. Get on the list for art openings at galleries, readings, humanities festivals. Sit on boards, volunteer behind the scenes if you can. In a careerist sense this is “building your network.” In a creative sense this is “filling the well.”
- Give yourself permission to be a beginner. Is there an evening or weekend class in what you want to be doing that you could take? Try something out. Don’t put the pressure on yourself to be immediately supporting yourself with this creative pursuit. Experiment and play.
- Use your breaks. Do you get vacation time at this nice law job of yours? Can you plan to take some of it specifically around a film festival or artists’ retreat or concert or play you want to see? Plan out your vacation time over the next 22 months and make sure you’re giving yourself regular intervals to recharge and soak up what you want to do.
I agree with everything Scalzi says about Tepper here: RIP, Sheri Tepper. I’m definitely going to do some re-reading, starting with Grass.
If you haven’t read Grass, I really suggest you find it and put it near the top of your SF/F reading queue. You won’t be disappointed (and if you are, then, well, I don’t know what to tell you). It’s a stone classic. Not everything that Tepper wrote worked for me, which makes her like literally every single writer I admire; but the things of hers that did (these two novels, The Fresco, Beauty, The Visitor and others) have stayed with me year in and year out.
I found this part especially interesting:
Aside from her considerable talents as an author, Tepper stands as a reminder that it’s never too late to write. Tepper didn’t publish her first novel until 1983, when she was in her 54th year of life; she wrote something like 40 total, the most recent published in 2014. It’s never too late to write; it’s never too late to write a classic novel; it’s never too late to be a great writer, whether or not the genre has entirely caught up with you yet.
I also liked this interview with Tepper from a few years ago Of Preachers and Storytellers: An Interview with Sheri S. Tepper
Edit to add: This is good as well. Sheri S. Tepper Leaves a Legacy of Stunning Science Fiction & Fantasy
Two interesting links this week:
I found this post by Carrie Vaughn quite thought-provoking. In The Great Urban Fantasy Crash, she writes:
So the word around writing and publishing circles over the last couple of years is: urban fantasy isn’t selling anymore. Publishers aren’t buying it. What was hugely popular five years ago is now done. That ship has sailed.
I’ve seen some commentary about this being some big publisher conspiracy to kill the genre — just as I also saw commentary that the popularity of the genre was a publishing conspiracy in the first place. But I’m here to tell you, as an urban fantasy author and someone who worked in a bookstore twenty years ago, publishers are highly reactive and not very good at manufacturing any kind of popularity. They react to sales numbers, and they’re usually chasing trends rather than creating them. (One of my favorite statements ever about publishing trends: everyone was looking for the next Harry Potter, which turned out to be Twilight, then everyone was looking for the next Twilight, which turned out to be The Hunger Games. They’re still looking for the next Hunger Games…)
However it happened, the results have been increasingly clear: authors are having a harder time selling urban fantasy, and readers have had a harder time finding a good series to follow.
In the comments, she writes this:
A lot of authors moved to Kindle after getting dropped by publishers. A lot of UF readers figured out there’s a lot more stuff on Kindle. There’s some speculation that e-pub is replacing that niche once filled by mass market paperbacks. It seems to me there are several vicious circles fueling each other in this whole scenario.
I have some thoughts about Kindle and the Amazon ecosystem, but they’re not yet fully formed. I’m a bit worried, from the authors’ side, but I’m also seeing stuff, like this post by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, about how traditional publishers are screwing over authors (more so than usual).
One last point: this is all academic if one doesn’t have a book to sell! Here’s Chuck Wendig: Here’s How To Finish That Fucking Book, You Monster
Gollancz has started a series of writing tips from various authors. From Part 1:
‘There is no substitute for experience. If a character needs to have a skill, it’s better to try and do that thing, no matter how difficult, than to pretend the knowledge, even from an expert opinion. I learned more from an hour of trying to write on parchment with period ink than all the books I read on calligraphy.’
The advice from Connie Willis is typically witty, and it starts with:
I suppose I have learned a couple of things that might be useful. They are:
– Never slap anyone, no matter how satisfying it might be.
– Instead, practice something polite to say to all the people who offer you unsolicited advice and/or criticism. And practice a smile that is not a grimace while saying it.
– Never wear anything white to a booksigning. It immediately attracts coffee stains, soup stains, spaghetti sauce, indelible ink, and unflattering comparisons to Emily Dickinson and/or Tom Wolfe (for which you will need the polite response and the smile.)