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What is Quality?

I suppose I need to apologise again for disappearing for so long. I seem to be doing little else but that on this blog of late. But now that the helping with someone moving house situation is over, I ought to have a bit more time for this. This post is more of a thought-piece than an opinion-piece.

 

Most people who want to be writers seek to be either successful (in finance and fame) writers or writers known for making quality writing. The word literature used to hold a connotation of being high-quality writing, as opposed to all other “lesser” writing, but now it just is pretty much synonymous with fiction and is applied to anything moderately successful. According to dictionaries, quality is many things, but the definition of it which is applicable to writing is “character with respect to fineness or excellence” – and that’s character as in “the aggregate features and traits that form the individual nature of a person or thing”, not as in “fictional person the author puts through hell for the readers’ amusement”. But the thing is: that’s a completely useless definition.

So what actually makes quality writing? Well, obviously not success because (this is the go to example, given the sheer amount of criticism it has received) Twilight and also the majority of the miszpellld fanfiction ob deh internetz!!!1! which get frighteningly large amounts of positive reviews in comparison to the well-crafted and properly spelled, in character fanfics. It’s also not a question, despite what many “serious” writers of tedious real-world-setting dramas may think, of genre because – while I am going on hearsay rather than personal experience here because I’ve never been inclined to read those genres (I haven’t read Twilight either, despite how often I take jabs at it) – there are plenty of quality romance and erotic works out there. They might not have the most philosophical of content, but if seriously questioning ethics, the universe and everything is the key to defining quality then no one’s written anything but trash since Kierkegaard. (Show of hands: who managed to not fall asleep while reading Kierkegaard? Has anyone here actually read Kierkegaard? Did you think, the first time you heard it, that Captain Kirk was guarding something?)

It could be argued that having deep characters or a lot of world building is what’s required for a work to be quality, but many of the great names in Science Fiction basically had cardboard tour-guide characters to show off their cool science ideas for chapter after chapter of math and baffling terminology, while world building is just as unfair a point in definition as genre as world building is the foundation of Speculative Fiction but mostly unnecessary in, say, real world drama or crime novels. Even grammar and spelling being used accurately is not a brilliant gage of quality, although the better the grammar and spelling the more likely a work is to be good quality, because grammar and spelling change over time (you may have been taught in school that starting a sentence with “And” is wrong, but many of the major quality authors out there who have begins with “And” sentences in their works – like George R. R. Martin, who is held up almost universally as an example of quality writing, the way Twilight is almost universally regarded as being very poorly written). Grammar and spelling is certainly a factor, but it isn’t the complete definition.

Often quality is associated with clever language use and choosing the best word, but not every work needs to be packed with juxtaposed antithesis and anaphora (ten points if you know which famous piece of literature opens with that particular pair of techniques) and other extravagantly named techniques or gratuitous amounts of exceedingly sophisticated terminology and units of language in order to facilitate that dubious and non-corporeal status of fineness and excellence. In fact, trying too hard to be clever with language and choosy with word use can, like in that last sentence, actually damage the quality and readers’ ability to comprehend what the hell the writer is trying to say. Likewise, it would be tempting to say that quality is about not using clichés, but what counts as cliché changes with time – in an almost cyclic fashion, akin to how water droplets become part of the giant masses called oceans, then rise to become clouds, rain down on everyone to make them miserable and the plants very happy, and then steadily grows in strength as it goes from stream to river and eventually back into the oceans. But, more importantly, clichés become so ubiquitous because when they are used well they don’t come across as trite (unless you’re stubbornly determined to find something wrong with everything or are suffering from some form of Mary-Sue Paranoia because the idea that female characters can be just as vivid, special, and powerful as the typical main male character without being “badly written” or “unrealistic” because the idea that women are people and capable of being competent scares you – in which case I’d like to suggest you try the perfectly cliché cliff to the left of the stage for you to go clichély jump off). To use my go-to example of good writing: A Song of Ice and Fire contains many things which could be considered cliché – the mad boy king who is a sadist, the heroic bastard, the purple-eyed princess with the pet magical beasts, and the ten million prophecies – but Martin makes them work. The mad boy king is from a far more violent society than we are and so less likely to view what he does as wrong or repulsive, while also essentially being a stupid teenage boy on a power-high, the heroic bastard has to live with the actual social ramifications and restrictions of being a bastard in that sort of society and is by no means viewed as a hero by everyone, the princess avoids being a Mary-Sue (despite having many of the traits often associated with them) because they are played out in ways that makes sense (the eyes are a racial trait, the pet magical beasts are far more beast than pet, being a princess only gets her assassination attempts, etc) and the ten million prophecies are both suitably confusing and free from any guarantees of accuracy or genuine fortune-telling.

I could burble for hours about how excellent his choice of words is (although I, who has repeatedly read entire dictionaries for fun, do keep a dictionary tab open on my computer when I read ASOIAF for when I run into the occasion rare or no longer used word like niello). I could talk about how he’s genuinely built a complete world and all the literary techniques I spotted while reading. I could talk about how deep and well developed his characters are and how he manages to give the readers all the pertinent information without breaking from the third person limited. But while all of those things are factors in what makes a work quality, I think Martin’s magnum opus is a good example of what makes something quality for a very different reason.

The story is king. Not the characters, no matter how much the author might like one better than another. Not the whims of the readers (trying to please readers is an almost universal guarantee that the quality of a work will fall), not the rules grammar and spelling, not what is or isn’t cliché, not the conventions of the genre, not any meaning or message carried within the work, not clever literary and rhetoric techniques, not even what the author might prefer to happen. The STORY is king.

Obviously, correctly used grammar and spelling, well chosen words and techniques, deep characters, significant world building, realism, the ability to dig the bones of a concept out of a dead cliché and make them work again, are all important factors in what makes Martin’s writing such an excellent example of, well, literary excellence, but it is the fact that the story is treated as the most important factor – that which everything else is part of and bends to, rather than which is part of or bent to some other factor – that makes quality.

Quality can never be defined clearly by one factor or another, because it is about how everything works together for the story. Quality is about how everything makes logical sense based on the rules of reality as presented in that story, about how everything that is (not just that happens) has consequences and causes, about how everything remains consistent to itself and coheres with the rest of the reality the story creates. Quality is about choosing to have, or not have, rhetoric techniques and this word or that based on how it works for the story rather than how fancy, plain, accurate, or cliché it may or may not be. Quality is about knowing your grammar and spelling so well that you can know how and when to deviate from it if the story so requires. Quality is about exploring or not exploring the depths of a character based on what the story needs.

At least, that’s my best guess. Quality is one of those annoyingly non-corporeal things which cannot be measured easily and just about everyone has a different opinion on what makes a work quality. What do you think?

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Posted by on March 30, 2016 in On Writing

 

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Magic Trick Traits

So for those of you, if any, who’ve been hoping for another bestiary post; I’m sorry. I meant to write one, I even got started on it, but they take a lot of research and I’m really tired at the moment. It’s easier to write On Writing rants because I keep most of that information in my head. Also, I’m open to ideas if anyone would like a rant/would like to read my thoughts on a particular subject.

 

This week’s (weeks? Bugger I’m getting slow at this) rant is brought to you by my irritation with how often characters’ skills and traits are treated as easily switched-out accessories (the ones which flash in and out of existence like a bunny in a magician’s top hat). These “Magic Trick Traits”, for lack of a better term, are really unhealthy for a story and, frankly, they drive readers and viewers so far up the wall that they’re standing on the freaking ceiling. Frankly, I think T.V. series are probably to blame for this one, given that most shows on the telly are written by an ever changing set of writers – many of whom have never seen the show they are writing for and none of whom have time to read all the episode scripts. Given that only some shows are wise enough to have an open file for all writers that lists the basic skills and traits of each character, this is somewhat unavoidable for overworked, underpaid screenwriters in television. It’s decidedly NOT unavoidable in other forms of writing, yet it all too often turns up there anyway. So whether you’re trying to mitigate the problem or avoid it all together, please consider the following:

 

1. Skills and traits shouldn’t appear out of nowhere. Seriously – your character is not a magic trick. The audience will not applaud when something turns up out of nowhere. In fact, it’s likely to tick them off. I can’t even begin to list the number of stories, both professional works in all media and fanfics, in which characters got new traits and skills applied to them haphazardly whenever the plot needed something and working with what was already there would have required effort. Inevitably, the result was that the audience (and by that I mean that other people complained, not just me) would become irritated as they viewed the character as a whole while the writers viewed characters more by instalment. That is to say that when someone takes in a story, be it reading or watching, they accept the illusion that it is real and therefore the fiction that a character is consistent – if a character couldn’t fight off an attacker in chapter one but in chapter four is revealed to be a black belt they will cry foul. Comparatively, the author – or authors – of a work are viewing it from the technical side and therefore are less likely to cry foul at random additions because they are consciously aware that they are creating the character as they go rather than telling the story of someone who exists as a complete being (the way the viewers see it).

Here’s an example to show why it doesn’t work. Um, spoiler alert? In Star Trek: Enterprise they tried to go back to the TOS way of having the main seven cast be divided into the main three (Kirk, Spock, McCoy) and the four secondary characters (Sulu, Chekhov, Uhura, Scotty) but in Enterprise the back up four (Reed, Sato, Phlox and Travis) got far less screen time than the TOS secondary quartet. In fact, Reed was the only one who really got much of a personality (and worse, the main three – Archer, T’Pol and Trip – were the main characters primarily so they could be the love triangle rather than say because they were interesting or competent). Then, in the last season, it was revealed that Reed was actually a secret agent for Section 31, or (to translate out of Trekkie) they had JAMES FREAKING BOND on the secondary cast for years and he was never one of the main three. And worse, they barely did anything with it after the reveal. There were a few episodes in which the secret agents had a complicated (and really badly put together – as in “how are these people even secret agents” bad) and other than that: nothing. Yet there were a huge number of incidents wherein being a secret agent would have, or should have, be at least hinted at before and it really screwed up a lot of the believability of the world because a Section 31 agent should have been able to solve a lot of earlier plotlines in half the time but just …didn’t. That’s how it looks to the audience when additional skills and traits are dropped on a character with no foreshadowing – it looks like the earlier story is absurd. Now, from a writer’s point of view that’s not fair because they didn’t know ahead of time their character was going to turn out to be a secret agent, but that’s the point. You NEED to know ahead of time. You NEED to build reveals like that off things that have come before, because if you don’t it won’t matter how many good reasons you have from the technical side of writing: your audience will get annoyed and assume you’re an idiot.

2. If you have to pull them out of nowhere, make sure they make sense. I’ll grant that sometimes you work with a medium – like television or comic strips – where you can’t be sure you (as the writer) know everything about a character from the start or where you’ve got a team of writers and no time to go back and research everything, so you have no choice but to pull something out of nowhere. But here’s the thing: when you have the choice you should ALWAYS choose to avoid Magic Trick Traits. So, here you are, writer for some reason unable to pull some trick or trait out from previous scenes, standing before an audience who are ready with the rotten tomatoes and desperately in need of some sort of prop – but the props department is busy – and so you pull a rabbit out of your hat. That wouldn’t be so terrible, except that you didn’t have a hat on stage with you either. The audience isn’t going to applaud you for getting a rabbit out of a hat-from-nowhere; they’re going to want to know why you didn’t pull the rabbit out of the sleeve of the coat you were wearing or, better yet, a playing card from the sleeve of your coat. That, to them, would have made sense.

Or, to give a more applicable example, when you need to pull a new trick or trait out of your arse, made damn sure you’re applying the right sort of trait to the right sort of person. If you have a tomboyish princess, a farm hand and a jester on an adventure and suddenly need one of them to save them from an attacking beast, it makes a heck of a lot more sense for princess tomboy to know enough about proper fighting with weapons and use the wood axe or hunting bow to save them than for the farm hand to do that or for the tomboy princess to develop random magic powers and “tame” the beast or for the jester to do either of the above. This is because the tomboy princess is the most likely to have learned to fight, given that nobles did not typically allow farm hands to handle real weapons and would be more likely to cave for a princess than a peasant, while jesters are typically safer if they are “harmless” and magic powers from nowhere is always a bad idea. (If the jester pulls out a jesting trick to scare it off, that’s not even a Magic Trick Trait, that’s a trait from previously established traits and the sort of thing you want your characters doing). To compare to the metaphor from earlier; a tomboy princess who can fight is like pulling a card out of a sleeve which is already on stage – the set up is there and the item/trait fits the set up and character. Meanwhile the farmhand with secret sword skills is like pulling a rabbit out of a sleeve that was already on stage (yes there’s set up there but the item doesn’t fit) and the princess with sudden magic powers from nowhere is like pulling a rabbit out of a top hat which also wasn’t on stage (even if the rabbit fits with the hat, the hat/set up comes out of nowhere).

3. If you can; go back and foreshadow. Now, if you’re not writing something that is published in increments, like a webcomic or a television show, you have the chance to go back and foreshadow the skill from nowhere before you send your work out into the big bad world. DO THAT. If you’ve gotten most of the way through writing a book and discover you need your character to rock-climb their way to safety but have never even implied they know how to do that, go back and change a café-talking scene into a talking-while-rock-climbing-for-a-hobby scene. Or put a few rock climbing competition trophies in the description of your character’s bedroom. It’s simple, it’s straightforward, and it stops your audience from trying to tear YOUR hair out in frustration because they don’t appreciate random new deus ex machina being dropped in willy-nilly to save the day. Now, this also means you have to think about how having this trait will have affected your character earlier – if they got out of somewhere by other means when they could have climbed: why didn’t they climb? Or why don’t they use those other means later? Want to stick with the climb? Okay. So they climb out rather than more complicated means and therefore don’t run into the guard and …oh dear, would you look at that: the string of events has changed so much that they’re never in the original rock climbing debacle in the first place. Good. This means you were paying attention as you re-plotted and added that trait. That means you aren’t giving your characters traits that – like a magic trick – last for one scene and no longer. That’s good. Unless a trait is shown as being learned or lost (painter goes blind, to give a very blunt example) during the story, the character should be able to do it consistently the whole way through – not just when it’s convenient for the author to get help them escape from or keep them in trouble.

4. If you can’t foreshadow; pick up past plot threads and tie them in. Or take incidents and relate them to this new thing so that in hindsight it looks like the person actually was using their skill earlier or had good reason not to. Either way, once you’ve added a Magic Trick Trait you need to stabilise it – to tie it to the rest of the story so it’s not just some random puff of smoke floating by and obscuring things without ever truly affecting them. This is, again, more something which should be done in incremental fiction rather than fiction which can be edited and redrafted before publication. A book will go through many drafts before publication, a film or play many re-writes of script and a fanfic can be re-drafted even as it is published chapter by chapter. But it’s harder to do that with a webcomic and it’s impossible to do it with a television series. So sometimes the best you can do is make sure to anchor this floaty new trait to things that have come before – to take a moment to go over past events and explain how it relates to them.

For the sake of clarity, let us keep with the example of a character suddenly being revealed as a secret agent, but drop the specificity of the Star Trek example. A character is revealed suddenly, well into a story, to be a secret agent. There isn’t time for the author to give lots of spy related adventures or emotional drama of broken trust between characters before the story ends, so it does feel like it comes completely out of the blue. The unwise writer will allow this to stand, possibly making no further mention whatsoever; even in the climax when mad spy skills would be damn useful, and so the whole mess becomes an ugly Magic Trick Trait – there one minute, gone the next. The wise writer, on the other hand, throws in a few one or two line conversational moments wherein the suddenly-a-spy character reveals that some of the apparent lucky coincidences (but not plot holes – there shouldn’t be any plot holes if you’re doing your job right) were neither lucky, nor coincidences, but them working behind the scenes using spy skills. This gets around the “why didn’t you do that earlier you arsehole?!?” reaction the audience will have, although done clumsily it can seem very contrived. A simple joke by a character chapters or episodes later about whether it’s wise to tell personal problems to a spy who might have to make a report on them keeps the new trait from disappearing as if it never was, and that is important. If the spy was friendly to another character at first and then drifted away without explanation, they might mention that they were feeling them out for recruitment and decided against it and suddenly the never explained has an explanation and is no longer dangerously close to a plot hole (a plot dent?). Whatever the skill or trait, whatever character gains it, one basic rule still stands: the more unlikely the introduction of the trait (such as out-of-nowhere-ness) the more often you have to reference and use it in the rest of the plot to keep it from ruining everything like a hit-and-run incident on a quiet street.

5. If you’re willing to be inventive you don’t need to add new traits whenever you’ve written yourself into a corner. Seriously. Let’s go back to the princess, farmhand and jester example for a moment. How many of you would never have thought of having the jester scare off the danger by being a jester? I can’t see through your computer screens for a show of hands, but if that question was applied to the writing world at large the answer would have been: far, far too many. Unlike a tomboy princess or farmhand suddenly showing off never-before-mentioned fighting skills or magical powers, a jester being a jester is not a case of deus ex machina or Magic Trick Traits. It’s a case of being inventive and, frankly, it’s a hell of a lot more interesting than yet another inexplicable-sword-fight or glow-y powers of authorial interference episode. When you can’t rely on just adding something new, and hoping the sparkly newness distracts from the fact that you couldn’t figure out how to rescue your own characters from the mess you got them into, you are forced to get more creative and that’s GOOD. Being creative means telling interesting stories: audiences like interesting stories. Yet another blah-blah-blah-Magic-Trick-blah-blah just means they can tune it out and return when what is supposed to be a more interesting than average moment is over. It means they can easily confuse it with the ten million other stories which did the exact same thing.

When the Apollo 13 was falling apart in space and they needed to solve enough problems to get home, mission command didn’t help figure out a solution for them by bringing in things they didn’t have in space with them – they never said “well, we can get you home but you’ll need three spare rockets, four more rolls of duct tape than you have and a cow”. They solved the problem with what they had. If an author finds themselves in the position of apparently having written themselves into a corner, the “if only I had four more rolls of duct tape and a cow” thought may be the most prominent, but that is the train of thought which leads to Magic Trick Traits (there one moment, forgotten the next) and deus ex machina. You should never get on that train of thought. Instead you should glare at the mess you’ve made and jury-rig a workable wagon of thought from what you’ve got – even if that means putting in a lot of effort and getting sweating dragging that damn wagon across the plains of thinking until you reach solution station. When you’re forced to find a solution for your characters with only what you’ve already put in the story, you get a better and far more interesting story. Yes, it takes more work. But here’s the thing: writing is work – it’s not easy and it isn’t meant to be. Put the rabbit and the top hat back on the shelf and let the story shine.

 
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Posted by on January 26, 2016 in On Writing

 

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Understanding Utopia

This is sort of a follow up to my earlier post – Dissecting Dystopia – but you don’t need to have read that for this to make sense.

Ever since Sir Thomas More wrote Utopia in 1516 (that was before he was Lord Chancellor of England) the term Utopia has been used to describe an ever growing number of fictional settings which are portrayed as better than the world the author of each work lived in. It became a genre (although technically Plato wrote one first in his The Republic, which I found a more enjoyable read than Utopia, because I objected less to the politics, but that’s just personal opinion). However, in more recent years that slowly growing genre has been inundated with stories which are ever vaguer politically and philosophically. This means, as it happens, that as time has gone by people have started using a looser and looser definition of Utopia, despite the official definition being: any of; the imaginary island in Sir Thomas More’s work of political philosophy in guise of fiction by the same name, an ideal political state or place, or a system of socio-political perfection. That is, given the predominance of political philosophy involved in the descriptions, a far more specific meaning than many people have been using of late.

Lately it’s popular to use “utopia” to describe any in the future setting which is pretty okay – on the assumption that if it is not a “dystopia” it must be a utopia. Worse, most of those so-called dystopias aren’t even dystopias. It’s driving me nuts. So, let’s talk about utopias. Real (that is: fictional) utopias.

1) A utopia is a socio-political philosophy thinly disguised as a story: that means they are the author ranting about what they believe in. Have you ever heard of the word filibuster? Well, it’s not entirely accurate, but it kind of is. At least, one definition of it is (the obstructive legal tactics bit isn’t relevant here). Filibuster, as in an exceptionally long political speech, is a very good explanation for what a utopia really is – because a utopia is (essentially) an philosopher’s long, long, written rant about their socio-political beliefs and their ideal society, with a thin draping of plot (often tour-guide style) and characters (who are primarily there to lecture each other) to disguise it as fiction.

Now, obviously, since the days of More’s Utopia, the genre has diversified to be more akin to fiction with an overpowering socio-political ideology portrayed as ideal within it, rather than a thinly disguised treatise (Star Trek: The Original Series, and the first season of The Next Generation, is a good example of this – it was Gene Roddenberry’s idea of utopia and all the plot conflicts came from one of: technical issues, other societies, or space being weird, rather than the people of the United Federation of Planets). But, the thing that most people right now seem to be forgetting is, IT STILL IS A SOCIO-POLITICAL IDEOLOGY IN A FICTIONAL FORMAT.

This is the key to the genre of utopia which far too many people are forgetting at the moment. A utopia is not just a future-which-is-better setting or a future-which-isn’t-a-hellhole setting, which is the way it being used too often at the moment. For this reason some works which can make you want to gnaw your own arm off from boredom (if you want a good example of a filibuster in fiction, try reading Ayn Rand without gnawing your arm off in boredom and frustration) are utopian fiction, but other stories don’t qualify as utopian fiction because – no matter how perfect they may be – they have no socio-political philosophy to espouse. For example, although Ursula Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven deals with trying to create a utopia (in that the main character can change reality with his dreams and is constantly encouraged to make things better), the majority of the setting revolves around major problems and attempts to improve things creating different major problems and not showcasing a specific socio-political philosophy.

2) A Utopia must provide solutions to socio-political problems: merely removing problems is not sufficient. No solution is perfect – this why no utopian fiction is ever viewed as perfect by everyone who reads it (many, actually, are loathed by most who read it due to their differing socio-political philosophies). Nevertheless, to be a utopia a fiction must present a societal system which theoretically solves all problems. I repeat: solves; not just to remove them or claim they have been fixed without explanation – if there is no reasonable solution offered: it is not a utopia. Also, the word reasonable is important here, because otherwise people claim that “these people are just better because they agree with me”, “oh, these people don’t do that” and “it’s not important, it just is” are solutions. They are not. In order for a work to qualify as a socio-political philosophy portrayed through fiction it must include a socio-political philosophy and that, inevitably, means that the writer’s ideas on what’s wrong with this world and how to fix it. Metaphysics, epistemology and any other none-ethics and laws related philosophies need not be included. To give an example: many stories which are inaccurately described as utopian have societies where there is no poverty or famine but give no explanation as to how this has happened – sometimes “no money” is given as a possible reason, but the fact that this does not explain a lack of hunger or why anyone works at all is ignored. Conversely, in Star Trek – to use an example of something which was a utopia in its original form (Deep Space 9 takes it and makes it darker, Voyager is too far off being an adventure, and Enterprise is debatably part of the timeline and we do not talk about the reboot, all the things that made Trek Trek got thrown out the window to make it cheap space opera) – there is no “money” (although gold pressed Latinum is a thing) and people work for credits which are basically the same as money except that they aren’t needed to have enough to live (and therefore work is about gaining points for luxuries) and all of that, plus no hunger in the world, is made possible because they are a post-scarcity society where matter-manipulating devices (like transporters) and replicators have eliminated them. It’s not a perfect explanation for the perfection of the society, but it is a plausible explanation and thus it works. Just saying “that’s not a problem anymore/there” and not giving a reason is the same as saying “Hiro Hiroson is a good person and heroic” without actually showing your character ever being a good person or doing anything heroic. That is to say: it’s not mere “tell without show” it’s telling which contradicts what is shown and, worse, it annoys readers mightily. In other words: if you want to call it a utopia: it’s got to be about philosophy.

3) Most authors writing utopias know they aren’t really attainable. When Sir Thomas More wrote Utopia he used what is now a well known pun: -topia means “place” and the u came from ou (no). That much people tend to remember – that Utopia means “no place”. But More’s little pun was more than that, as the u could also be from eu (good) making (e)utopia, or “good place”. The thing most people don’t realise is that utopia is a blending of both meanings and that is extremely important to their definition: utopia essentially means “a good place which does not exist”. In other words, Sir Thomas – and those who originally followed in his inky footsteps – knew his vision of a perfect society was but a dream. This connects with point 3 quite well, because it is important to remember that thought experiments, like creating a utopia, still have to be sound of method even when they are impossible to perform in real life.

4) True utopia and dystopia are rare and that’s okay. All of this must make it sound like creating something which genuinely belongs in the utopian genre is much harder than it sounds – and that’s true. The same is true of dystopias; many things called that at the moment do not deserve the term. But here’s the thing: a work doesn’t have to be utopian or dystopian to be a lovely future setting or post-apocalyptic hellhole. Moreover, applying those words doesn’t miraculously change the quality of the work. And here’s another thing: most people get bored reading philosophical treatise disguised as fiction, and that’s okay. Most people read for plot and characters, so a work which primarily about setting – the gerdankenexperiment testing a theory in a controlled environment – is not going to be to most people’s tastes. What’s more, utopia and dystopia are authorial opinion crystallized into a sculpture of words, so when someone does write one; they are constricted by their own socio-political opinions and their own prejudices. This actually means that someone who worldbuilds a better (or worse) setting than their own reality but does not write either –topia is freer to design whatever they think is cool. Utopia isn’t cool. Dystopia isn’t cool. Most writers write cool things – or what they think are cool things. But utopia and dystopia are a thought experiment and a socio-political warning, respectively, and that means they are much rarer than all the cool stories stealing their names. Those stories should stop acting like pseudo-intellectualist pretenders and accept what they are.

 

Or, simply put: utopian fiction is about the writer expressing a socio-political philosophy, not just any old future setting which is better than now but still kind of sucks or is ridiculously and inexplicably perfect for no damn reason.

 
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Posted by on January 17, 2016 in On Writing

 

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Rant On X-mas’ Assumed Universiality

The “holiday season” as it generally is known is upon us, with the approach of the year’s end, and that got me thinking about how often I’ve seen blatantly misplaced Christmas cheer plonked down thoughtlessly into Sci-Fi, Historical and Fantasy settings where it had absolutely no place being. Fanfiction is especially inclined to fall – or, rather, enthusiastically dive – into this particular pit trap.

You see, as an avid world-builder, it drives me absolutely up the freaking wall to see someone build – or explore, in fanfiction’s case – a beautifully designed, or researched, world and then completely ruin it by shoehorning in a fairly recent Christian tradition – or the trappings thereof by a different name – with no regard for the fact that it does not fit there.

Now, I’m sure that somebody will skim the title of this post or the content and assume I’m out to destroy their holiday. I’m not. I’m just sick and tired of seeing people who claim to enjoy another world where things are different assuming that because Christmas seems universal from their fairly mono-cultural viewpoint; that it must belong everywhere no matter what …and then force-feeding the holiday season to some poor other-world which they claimed they loved because it was different. Heck, the holiday season isn’t even universal on Modern Earth, let alone some other planet or reality (and history, damn it)!

1. If you are writing fanfiction, even seasonal fic exchanges don’t excuse breaking the canon to have Christmas. First step: check if the creator/right’s holder of the fandom you want to write in has issued a fanwork ban. If they have, back away from the keyboard with your hands in the air and remind yourself that just because it’s “Art” and “intellectual property” doesn’t make it any less property than say …the patent for a fridge design or medicine, or an architectural plan, or a painting or piece of music. Free reuse (such as fanfiction) is a privilege not a right. But I digress. There are canons that allow, or don’t disallow, fanwork where it could be believable to have the Holiday Season: I’ll blink when I see the Starship Enterprise throw a Xmas party, but given the ship is primarily human-manned and on a tub out in dull space, I could accept it. What I couldn’t accept is if it went on to show Andorians, Vulcans, and Klingons all having near-identical holidays at the same time of year. That stinks of authorial self-centeredness. Hell, just look at the differences between British and American Christmas celebrations, or Aussie and Kiwi vs Northern Hemisphere, or English speaking vs Continental Europe and you’ll see how absurd it is to assume aliens from other planets would have the same holidays! (See points 2&3.) Then there’s other canons which do allow fanfiction just plain don’t suit the idea of the holiday season at all. The most blatantly inappropriate is in canons set before Christianity existed. I’d like to keep giving examples here, but I’m afraid I have to go forcefully introduce my forehead to my desk now.

2. “Christmas” isn’t even the same in every country that does celebrate it. To give you some idea of how non-universal Christmas is, here’s a quick list of everything I (being a third generation atheist who has lived in countries that do Christmas my whole life) understand about the matter; a tree must be sacrificed and covered in tinsel and tangled lighting wires so that presents can be stored without being tripped over, shops close on the twenty-something-th of December before having several days of sales, people take it as an excuse to be horrid to people who don’t celebrate the Christian holiday, Santa drinks Coca-Cola, reindeer break gravity, snow is required even during summer, presents are exchanged along with biting and passive-aggressive commentary among family members, pudding gets bought and never eaten, something about goodwill to all that’s never practised, and some kid who might not even have existed was born with a glowing egg on his head in a barn a long, long time ago. The point I’m making is that you and your neighbours – assuming you or they celebrate anything Xmasy – may be celebrating completely differently, never mind how much more it will change city to city and country to country.

If it sounds like I know absolutely nothing and that shouldn’t be possible, the explanation is the same as the point I’m making: my family celebrate a secularised version of the Dutch celebration of Sinterklaas, which is basically the Dutch version of Christmas but which is significantly different enough that an author cannot, or – more accurately – should not assume they can be exactly mapped on to each other. Sinterklaas (Sinter = Saint, Klaas = Klaus/Nicolas) is in early December, many adults give each other presents inside of things called “surprises”, which basically means you make something (a model or just a box with “this is a chicken” written on it) and a matching poem to give them a friendly-tease about something amusing they did/which happened to them earlier in the year. Sinterklaas is a tall, thin, man originally from Turkey, but who comes to the Netherlands by boat from Spain and then rides around on a horse, assisted by white chimney sweeps with their faces covered in black soot – this has lately caused a political correctness gone batty scandal by people who call it “blackface and racist”, while apparently ignoring the whitewashing of Sinterklaas himself, and so now some people paint their faces blue and claim that without chimneys the helpers are coming through water-based radiators. And that’s just one example of how a seemingly identical celebration just is not the same when you leave your own culture. The farther you go from the modern, English-speaking world the more you have to consider this. Could an elf or alien culture have a winter celebration about gift giving and caring for others? Sure. But it had better not look a damn thing like Christmas or your audience will rightly call foul.

3. Consider where your culture is, consider CAREFULLY. See what you can find wrong with this scenario; Our rag-tag band of heroes enter the secret Elven society of DefinitelyNotALothlórienRipOff,NoSir and find them in the process of preparing for their Yule celebration …by cutting down pine trees, which belong to a different eco-sphere, and putting them up in their homes which are in trees. Okay, how about this: a sci-fi story in which ice-powered blue-skinned aliens on their ice planet celebrate the first snowfall by riding around on reindeer as all the leaves fall from the trees and HOLD IT RIGHT THERE. Ignoring for the moment the ice-powers (suspiciously fantastical for a sci-fi!) and the fact that habitable planets which are completely one ecosphere are unlikely to impossible: why are these people celebrating a first snowfall when they presumably live in ice and snow year round? For that matter, how the heck do they even have trees if everything else you’ve described implies a single ecosphere of tundra at best? Are you trying to make me use multiple exclamation marks like a crazy person?!? Okay, one last try, a civilization from a Northern, temperate and often snowy in winter society colonise a southern hemisphere tropical to arid continent and insist on transporting their winter (now summer) celebration of lights to the same point in the year because it’s the birth date of someone famous. So they make a joke of it by changing the lyrics of all the carols to represent the ridiculous climate change and make it a celebration of beach-going over a celebration of lights that would never be seen because summer nights are too short. Of the three examples: the first two are cases of really poorly thought through world building and the last is Australia. An Aussie-like situation could work in fiction, but you’d need to make obvious the backstory of a semi-altered tradition from somewhere it had made sense, else your readers will be bothered. (In New Zealand the disparity is slightly less obvious because of the climate difference, but it’s still silly to put up lights given that it’ll be at least nine or ten before they’re actually going to be comparatively bright enough to make an impression.)

4. Consider whether beliefs actually have space for such a celebration: Why the heck would your Klingons, sorry, your Proud and Honourable Alien Warrior Race celebrate a holiday about peace to everyone? Would a fantasy culture which values truth above everything really have a celebration wherein a major event is lying to children about a fat home invader who leaves them gifts? Why would Jewish, or Muslim, or Buddhist, or Wiccan, or any other non-Christian religion feel the need to celebrate the birth of the guy from all the curse words? Would a native people being invaded by Christians in the past have really given a damn about that holiday beyond the fact that all the invaders take the day off to go sit in a conveniently wooden building marked with a cross and therefore easy to identify and set alight? If people live somewhere that is so cold that winter is a time of terrible hardship, why would they waste resources celebrating in the middle with a feast? They’d be more likely to celebrate when it’s over. For that matter: what exactly are they celebrating? Is it light or some historical-religious event? The changing of the year? Why would the year change part way through a season and not at the end of one? Is it peace on Earth? Even if they live in a time before that was even a concept? What use is a festival of lights for nocturnal beings? Question everything.

5. Accept that peace on Earth and goodwill to all people doesn’t require the trappings of Christmas: This leads back to something I said earlier, about how the whole peace on Earth thing is always yammered on about but never shown in real behaviour, because everyone’s too busy screaming at poor shop attendants for “ruining their Christmas” because they ran out of some material item, and screaming at non-Christians for their beliefs, and screaming at everyone who’s even slightly tolerant of not demanding that everyone celebrate one religion’s holiday for trying to “ruin Christmas”. Peace on Earth and goodwill to all are noble goals. They aren’t reliant on presents and trees, on people saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays”, or stocking one religion’s holiday paraphernalia and not another’s. If the “spirit of Christmas” is supposed to be kindness to others then maybe writers could focus on that bit instead of the trappings when they world-build and the rest of the world could, you know, actually try it out for a change.

 

…I’ve GOT to start making these things shorter. I know they’re rants, but damn, I talk too much.

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2015 in On Writing

 

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