Zoos, Shows and Airports

It has been an incredibly busy couple of weeks, which is not a legitimate excuse to neglect this thing as much as I have been. I have saved up a few things I’d like to post about to various lengths. Pretty much unrelated things, too. So, I’ll break this up into three parts, in order of importance. If you don’t like politics, I guess skip down to parts two and three.

First and foremost, been a hell of a first week back in the states. I try not to get heavily political on my blog, although I’m sure that my angry leftism shines through regardless of the prisms I hold up to it. I have been incredibly worried for many friends back in the states, at protests, at marches, even just walking around in some areas. I’m incredibly, incredibly proud when I open up my FB wall or Twitter and see that pretty much everyone I care about is taking part of these protests. They take it seriously and make me feel like I’m fairly useless over here on the other side of the world, watching, waking up every morning to check the news like a starship captain demanding a damage report after the latest volley.

I am throwing what I can at organizations that are trying to help out over there, ACLU being the biggest of these. They’ve had a great weekend and have flexed their muscles in exactly the right way, buoyed up with something like 20 million in donations since Saturday, which is record-setting and absolutely insane and shows that people actually care about someone trying to chisel most of The New Colossus off the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Even as one of nature’s pessimists it’s really heartening to see that the majority is not giving up, they’re fighting back earlier and harder than I ever would have imagined.

Having worked in nonprofits quite a bit, I just wanted to throw something out there for people who either are donating or are planning to: if you can, do a recurring payment instead of a single lump sum. A charity can do more with 5 months of 20 bucks each than 1 month of $100, because it allows them to come up with a budget far into the future and lay better plans for long term goals. Big waves of single donations are great and a hell of a lot better than nothing, but they make it intensely difficult to act proactively; you end up putting that money into entirely reactive services because you don’t know when the next payment may be coming and you don’t want to overextend. This goes for ACLU, PP, various other worthy charities.

I may approach it through black humor and cynicism but I truly do hope that things pull out of their nosedive, and that the enormous response over the last few weeks is a sign of things to come.

That’s where I’m at, basically. Watching, hoping, providing really evil jokes for friends, and trying really hard to explain the situation to my friends and coworkers over here so they don’t write the country off as completely insane.

There’s my political segment.

For my second thing: I am finding how revitalizing it is to be able to access musicals and other shows out here. I know I’ve posted about plays and stuff before, but I’ve been to three concerts in the last week, all different genres, radically different artists, and every single one I’ve walked out wanting to rush home and write until my fingers fell off. Watching performance artists in love with their work is a magical feeling, and letting your imagination drift while you watch them go crazy on stage is something you just can’t get anywhere else.

Last weekend I caught Amanda Palmer up at the Opera House. I’ve been a fan of hers… I think before I got into her now-husband Gaiman, actually, or within the same year. I can’t remember if I discovered the Dresden Dolls before or after Neverwhere but it was pretty close. She may be the queen of putting her feet in her mouth or making problematic faux pas online, but she really does put on an amazing show and absolutely radiates energy up on stage. The songs weren’t just played but explained in depth and with a level of emotional intimacy you don’t expect from a crowded theater, she had Brendan Maclean accompanying her, there was a lot of wine and ukulele and songs ranging from funny to heartbreaking from both.

16143449_10103632633016169_573479925742658936_o.jpgAlso a ten minute rant on women’s reproductive health culminating in blue-haired alien women chasing people around with a giant golden clitoris, as you do at these kind of functions. That was one of the less weird things to take up the evening, honestly, alongside her trying to channel Nick Cave as he performed on the other side of the harbour.

16178369_10103651928472919_7119124419388211914_oMidweek, on the eve of Australia Day, there was a Puscifer show. I’m an enormous Maynard James Keenan fan, Tool is basically the soundtrack to my teenage years, and I was so stoked to finally see him live in any form. The form I got was him clad in a gimp mask with a mohawk narrating the life and times of two warring factions of luchadors, acted out in a giant wrestling ring that dominated most of the stage. There were animated shorts between acts, giant holographic projections of Maynard, it was pretty amazing and their songs were so much different live.

I didn’t get any pictures of the third show I went to, on Friday, for Panic! At the Disco. A show where I suddenly very much felt my age. You know how, in your 30s, you start to feel like you’re basically still 20ish? Surround yourself with a bunch of actual teenagers and mid 20 year olds and you will instantly feel 80 or so. It was a great audience, though, probably the largest collection of LGBTQ+ folk I have encountered outside of literal gay bars in NYC or SF. Tons and tons of killer tattoos, some hair colors that definitely do not exist in the natural world, and an overwhelmingly positive attitude fostered by Brendon Urie up on stage. I seriously have no idea how the guy doesn’t keel over halfway through every show. He never stops moving. Dude was channeling everyone from Elvis to Freddie Mercury even in the span of one song. Best use of stage lights and smoke I’ve seen in a very long time, too. Machine gun strobe lights in time to blast beat chorus segments, smoke exploding out in random patterns around him while he traipsed around. Probably my favorite show of the three, and really got me thinking about writing in the sense of “wow, I need to write kind of an evilly charismatic fairy prince and I think I know exactly who I’m basing him on now.”

Now for a few weeks of relative rest, with the next big event coming up in March, some kind of a Star Wars burlesque thing that everyone I know has been raving about.

The third thing, and more for my own amusement than anyone else’s, is that we got to go out to Taronga Zoo for the first time since I visited Australia way back in 2015 and was scoping the place out before deciding on a definite international move.

It was way better this time. More exhibits were open to the public, the weather was great, we managed to catch both the trained seal and bird shows nearly back to back and sit down for them towards the end of the day. The platypus exhibit was inhabited this time and there were a handful of the weird little buggers swimming around the pools.

Also, while getting a new profile picture from my wife, I found a new friend:

adhgadhad.pngCame right up to say hello while munching on some sweet potatoes and other veggies, and very graciously did not sprint off while I carefully, in the least threatening manner I could manage, backed up until we were both in the frame. Managed not to scare him off, either, which would have made me feel terrible because who likes being interrupted in the middle of their lunch by a lumbering giant with no sense of personal space?

Most of the critters were pretty friendly, honestly. The corvids got right up close to you, the meerkat babies were running right up near the glass, the tazzie devils were snoozing in their burrow areas right where you could kneel down and see them. It’s a great zoo and one where you can tell the animals are pretty happy and very well cared for, with zookeepers constantly making the rounds and checking up on things. Plenty of zoo-related charity stuff too, in terms of breed and release programs and endangered species care. I wish I was a millionaire and could fund the cassowary repopulation effort with the wave of a hand.


So that’s about it for life stuff. I’ve got a tattoo this coming Saturday, a consultation for another tattoo on Wednesday, a haircut the week after, but other than that it’s pretty quiet.

I’ve decided I’m going to change things a little bit on the blog here and try to portion my posts out in more specific categories. I went looking for a review I’d written awhile back at a friend’s request and realized that they’re really difficult to dig for without scrolling through other posts, so I’m going to post reviews separately from life and writing related pieces and label them a little more clearly. I may go back and grab all of the prior reviews to stick in their own column on the blog under a dropdown menu, I think it’s pretty easy to backdate them so they don’t show up as new posts on feeds but apologies if I screw that up somehow and anyone gets spammed. I do have a ton of books I’ve read recently that I’m going to review in the coming days, some really good ones that I only heard about through word of mouth and would like to pass on.

Stress, Stoicism and the Adaptable Beast

As the great Joe Walsh once wrote, life’s been good to me so far.

I am just past ten months in Australia and I feel like I’m still adapting to it, but the last few weeks in particular have made me really hyperaware of just how out of water a fish I am. Prior to picking up actual work outside of writing, I’ve existed in a bubble of expat friends and Australians who are generally very familiar with America/Americans, so I haven’t had to go out of my way to explain things to them and they get my references.

Working outside of that bubble? I think I’ve spent a good quarter of my work time explaining stuff about the states. Not even the election and fallout, which is very obviously a major topic of discussion here along the lines of “what the hell is wrong with your country” and flipping out at those who consider Australia completely removed from the situation (not like it’s a continent notable for being the canary in the coal mine regarding climate change and sitting in China’s backyard should saber rattling between the other world powers occur). There’s been a lot of that, and as a political junkie I’ve been more than happy to explain things as best I can, but there’s an interest in cultural stuff I took completely for granted stateside.

My current long term contract has me running data administration and analytics for a children’s cancer care project with a pretty sizable coverage area. It’s a cool group of people from all walks of life, and almost all of them have been curious about everything from my prior jobs and working conditions back in the states to the shock of moving from a frozen wasteland to the subtropics.

Kittery_Point,_York_County_(Maine).jpgMy go-to at this point when asked “What’s Maine like?” is something along the lines of “you watch Game of Thrones, yeah? Beyond the Wall, but with less ice zombies and more moose. My hometown had under two thousand people at its peak, I lived a good half hour’s drive from anything resembling civilization, and I worked with a lot of people who took pride in never venturing outside of the state because home had everything they needed.”

It’s weird, because I’ve been put on the defensive about some of the things that bother me the most about the USA. There’s a definite element of “I can call it shitty as much as I want, I grew up in it and I understand why it’s shitty, but if you’ve never been there you’d better pump your breaks.” A lot of my time has been spent explaining why some terrible old social remnants exist into the modern day, even when I despise them myself. I have to explain the problems I see with the education system and how it doesn’t absolve people of blame for doing bad things, but it shows why they think that way beyond pure malice like many people see.

One of the big ones is when I was asking a couple of coworkers about leave, reimbursement, things of a financial nature. They were quizzing me on how it was at my old job and were utterly horrified when I told them about the pay rates, overtime policies, health coverage… one of them said it sounded like the third world and that she wanted to give me a hug at one point, and asked how I didn’t go completely mental over living that way for years and years.

And… It got me thinking. It got me thinking, as most things do, about writing and characters and adaptability. One of the oldest and most tired, worn-out tropes I love is that the human racial trait is the ability to be flexible and live anywhere, make anything the norm, and just deal with it. It’s an exceptionally lazy trope used to differentiate mankind from fantasy or alien races and is completely unrealistic because if we encountered elves or dwarves, if they had flourished at all as a people they would have had to adapt to different environments and social situations to meet localized customs. If nothing else you’d have, I don’t know, ice dwarves mining things in the polar regions and tropical dwarves living along the baked equator, and the difference in environment would necessitate different social norms and rules and whatnot.

But nonetheless, humans are usually the ones who get completely rounded stats and the most freedom for how you build them in roleplaying games, and are presented as something like the cockroaches of many sci-fi strategy games. Give us enough time to dig in and get used to something and we’ll treat it like it’s totally fine, what are you complaining about, of course I took my twelve doses of radiation medpac before going out onto the Belts of Zondarr to harvest glo-gems.

We are a remarkably adaptable people and I only see how stressful my life was in hindsight. When I was living it, well, I made ends meet. I recognized that things could be better and I worked towards that, but in the meantime I did what I had to in order to survive and meet my goals as best I could. I mean, I’m someone with chronic medical issues that I control through very strict, disciplined regimes I’ve had to develop since I was 17 years old and had to have multiple major surgeries ripping my large intestine out and reconstructing the ruins in my abdomen. I was, at any given time, even on a decent-if-overpriced health plan, a couple of bad cases of pouchitis away from bankruptcy. I worked 10 hour days and weekends for over a year just to be able to move here, to make a fraction of what I’m making now for similar work.

I’m sure there are a lot of things that go into it. I try to be a woke, feminist dude but I’ve been bombarded by toxic masculine ideals my entire life and I’m sure that I’ve absorbed enough of them to keep a death-grip on my emotions a lot of the time; I simply don’t let myself panic and I bury my stress in a shallow grave. I come from the New England region where a lot of the societal norm is based around stoicism and not complaining about your lot in life. During the brief time I worked outside of New England, anyone who had worked with other people from the region tended to treat me like some kind of viking-golem who they could point at work and I would ponderously hack away at it until it was gone or I was, and that’s what I did.

It’s not a bad thing, but it’s one of those ones where you don’t realize just how ridiculous the situation was until you were out of it. I look at my health coverage here, the kind of money I could make from entry-level stuff or short term temp work if I walked out of my job tomorrow, and I have no idea how I didn’t go insane from the stress of not having the options I do now.

I think that a lot of that shows up in my writing. I try not to do author avatar characters unless they’re well-hidden in the background or bit parts or I’m poking fun at myself, but there’s an element of that stubbornness that seeps into most of my main characters. And, weirdly enough, I feel like I’ve learned from them as well. There’s an incredibly bizarre kind of osmosis and reversal that happens to some writers, a bloc of which I feel increasingly part, where I really attach a good chunk of what makes me me to a protagonist (or antagonist, because I can also be an asshole) and throw them out into the vast ocean of fiction, and when I reel them back in at the end of the story I collect a lot of what they’ve learned.

It’s a bit like the old conundrum of how you write a character who is smarter than you, or better at you than something. You research it meticulously and you end up a bit smarter or better yourself. It’s one of the things that drew me to writing in the first place, more than any other creative form in the world.

My characters tend to be very adaptable, because when I read fiction that’s what I myself enjoy seeing. No one likes seeing a character who just gives up in the face of overwhelming odds. No one should ever feel like they need to be that character, either. Take advantage of the hoary stereotype of the incredibly adaptable people and let it be a wellspring of strength for you, and create these situations where you stand between the mirrors of real life and fiction and let both enrich you. I try to maintain the adaptability of the characters in my own life, in my case through sheer bullheadedness.

I don’t advocate bottling things up quite as much as I do, of course. It’s not for everyone. It’s probably not that healthy for me and it’s something I’ve tried to work on for much of my adult life, but I recognize that it’s there and I can harness it when I need to. Your flaws can become strengths when you look at them just right. It’s like a much less violent version of Sam Vimes’s The Beast from the Discworld novels, particularly Night Watch:

Vimes felt his hand begin to move of its own accord–

And stopped. Red rage froze.

There was The Beast, all around him.

And that’s all it was. A beast. Useful, but still a beast. You could hold it on a chain, and make it dance, and juggle balls. It didn’t think. It was dumb. What you were, what you were, was not The Beast.

Self-indulgent wankery and shoehorned Pratchett worship aside, I need to get back to book recommendations beyond just re-reading the old Stephen King novels out of a misplaced longing for my homeland!

Rather than fiction I want to recommend one of the very few writing advice books I enjoy and have found helpful.

Now, I don’t have any personal hatred for writing advice books. I recognize that everyone needs to make money, it’s easier to sell shovels in a gold rush than the pan for gold yourself, and that many of the books contain really good advice, but I tend to look at them more as tools I can keep in a very large cabinet and fish out when I run into something that I can’t handle with my own homemade items.

Generally I like advice books that take almost a narrative form, like King’s On Writing or Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing, or some of Chuck Wendig’s collected essays. Authors talking about how much they love their craft does more for my brain than lists of how to do certain things or how not to do them.

41-+2jvwWJL.jpgOne of the very few exceptions to that is The Art of War for Writers by James Bell, written just a few years ago. There have been a billion business variations of The Art of War over the decades, all boiling down to strained “don’t be an idiot on the battlefield / don’t be an idiot in the boardroom” similes, but this is the first time I’ve seen it applied to storytelling. It presents the structures of a story as troop formations, the “enemy” as the reader, and winning the battle as battering down their defenses and capturing their attention fully enough that they not only buy your book but actively look to buy more. It’s split into helpful sections devoted to everything from narrative hooks to character development and how to foreshadow a compelling plot twist, and it does it with wry wit that is genuinely enjoyable to read on its own. You can’t use it as a blueprint for a story, nor should you because then it wouldn’t be your story or your voice, but it gives you a very useful tool that you can pull out when you find yourself in a bind or butting up against writers block. The snippets are, if nothing else, inspiration and story seeds for when you’re having a bad day and your head is feeling cloudy. It’s not going to hold your hand through writing a bestseller, but it can allow you to frame your own story from another angle and sometimes that makes a difference.

The Bravery of Hobbits

It’s been very interesting keeping up on the thinkpieces over the last couple of days.

There has been something of a backlash against people retreating into pop culture analogies for the current political situation. Commentators getting really pissed that lives may be in danger and some people are only capable of viewing it through the lens of, say, Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. Talking about insurgencies in terms of Dumbledore’s Army rather than any real world political upsets to draw inspiration and guidance from. Some have characterized it as eschewing real world responsibility to try and fix things in favor of hyperfocusing on fictional events.

I think there’s a small element of truth to some of that. I think that some people are putting head in sand and acting as if someone else is going to come along and fix everything as long as they are studious and hide in a story until everything rolls over.

This is not really a pop culture thing, this is more akin to bystander syndrome.

We’ve always looked for solace in mythology.

Human beings, as a whole, have always looking into the gaping abyss of the unknowable and hurriedly crafted heroes and gods to stand between them and that great vacuum, beings who can stem the tide of dread for a little while. Larger than life stories that you can try to incorporate into your own.

Pretending that Harry Potter is going to come along and destroy Voldemort if you just tweet about it enough and wear a safety pin without leaving your house is silly. It may be the first stepping stone towards useful activism, but for some people it will stop there, and they might not be budged past it. But I think there are still more who will learn from the core elements of the contemporary mythologies they love and take those lessons to heart.

I know plenty of people who got into real, serious activism because they read very good genre books from authors who were very angry at the state of the world and envisioned a much nicer one in their heads, and even presented a bit of a blueprint for readers to get there. People who have marched, experienced violence, lost their jobs, been threatened with death and kept going because of stories that resonated with them on a deep and wonderful level, providing a fountain of strength to tap into during the darkest times.

dragonsketch.jpg

For me, perhaps unsurprisingly to anyone who has known me more than five minutes, I get a lot of my strength from the works of Tolkien. In my blackest moments I have closed my eyes and imagined how it would be to be some of those hobbits at the point where they changed the world around them.

What keeps drawing me back, truly, is that when they do great things, it’s because they aren’t aiming to do great things. What makes The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings so utterly magical and timeless to me is that the most important heroes are the ones who push the wheels of progress forward with the simplest and kindest acts. Aragorn is great, swinging his sword around. Gandalf is superb with his mastery over fire magics and illusion. Legolas’s bow skills are unmatched. Gimli is an unstoppable wall of axes.

None of them would have been able to stop the tides of darkness from sweeping over the world if four hobbits from the backwoods of nowhere hadn’t gone out into the world believing that the most important thing was to be decent to others.

I’ve used the following quote as an example of how to write a protagonist before, specifically one who moves the story along through his or her own agency and by making choices. It’s a quote that flickers into my mind whenever I’m about to do something new or terrifying, a quote from when Bilbo first enters the Lonely Mountain and finds himself alone, in the dark, with the option of fleeing unseen:

It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterward were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.

Everything past that decision is easier and easier, even the sweeping five-army battle and the confrontation with Smaug. It’s making yourself take that step into the dark, either because you’ve made a promise to your friends or because you’ve made one to yourself or because you know it’s something that you need to do even if the thought makes you want to curl up in a ball and vomit until you die.

The other one is… slightly more complicated.

When you read The Lord of the Rings, the most common interpretation is that Samwise Gamgee is the “real” hero of the trilogy. He is the loyal commoner who sacrifices everything for Frodo without a moment’s hesitation, is able to pick up and return the One Ring without feeling the temptation that even immortal beings like Galadriel felt in its presence, whose entire driving motivation is to be the best friend that anyone could ever hope for.

I don’t think that interpretation is correct, but I think it doesn’t give enough credit to Frodo and to one of the underlying themes of the story. It begins even earlier on, when the Fellowship is being tracked through Moria, but one of the most heartwrenching passages comes much latter in The Two Towers when Gollum returns from his patrol and finds Sam and Frodo passed out, exhausted:

And so Gollum found them hours later, when he returned, crawling and creeping down the path out of the gloom ahead. Sam sat propped against the stone, his head dropping sideways and his breathing heavy. In his lap lay Frodo’s head, drowned in sleep; upon his white forehead lay one of Sam’s brown hands, and the other lay softly upon his master’s breast.

Peace was in both their faces.

Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo’s knee–but almost the touch was a caress.

For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing.

I think that Frodo himself strikes the killing blow against Sauron by being kind to Smeagol when he has absolutely no desire to do so, because he feels empathy and mercy wins out over disgust in his heart. He holds his blade and in doing so slides it into Sauron’s lidless eye, putting it out forever, hundreds and hundreds of pages later.

Evil defeats itself. I think that we can help it along and fight it and we are morally beholden to do so, particularly to protect those weaker than ourselves, but in the end I think that anything built on hatred and anger will eventually collapse under its own weight. I think that it is a reoccurring theme in storytelling across the entire world because it draws its lessons from history. If a structure must lash out at others to survive, when there aren’t enough others left it will turn on itself.

Again, I have to stress, there’s still fighting that can be done. Tolkien was a military man who survived some of the worst battles of World War 1 and believed that Hitler had to be stopped in World War 2. He saw merit in opposing evil with weapon drawn, but seemingly just to protect the innocent while evil annihilated itself as it always does. Even his hobbits are willing to unsheathe their blades and face off against beings like the Witch King when they feel cornered or are standing between an opponent and a friend.

I’ve tried to carry that with me and let it influence my interactions. I’ve failed at that sometimes, but when I do I acknowledge where I screwed up and I walk back to my original path, hopefully having learned something along the way. I’m not saying you have to show mercy to someone after they have proven themselves an enemy; when Smeagol finally gives in to Gollum and turns on Frodo completely, there is no coming back from that, but by then Gollum is an engine of his own destruction and drags the greater evil down with him on his fall.

I’m… not sure exactly where I’m going with this, honestly. It’s something I’ve been aching to write all day. I’ll go back to book reviews soon, I’ve built up a nice backlog of stuff that has actually been read and I think some of you will really like it, I have some relatively indie pieces in the mix.

In the meantime I’ll leave you with another one of my “big” quotes, from Faramir, an underappreciated hero who I consider the most hobbitlike of the human characters in Lord of the Rings, and one who is even more noble than Aragorn at times:

War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.

 

Great Escapes

I watched two good movies this weekend.

On Friday night I finally had the opportunity to go catch Arrival. I’ve been waiting on this damn movie for what feels like forever; I’m a gigantic Ted Chiang fanboy and I have known the screenwriter since he was a punk scaring people on the internet with The Dionaea House, one of the early viral websites that had people across the internet believing that there was a transdimensional house out there eating people. I’ve really been looking forward to seeing what Eric would do with the script, since the original story is so heavily based on the written word and the nuances of language.

arrivalteaseronline1-shtpunjabpakistancoordinates.jpgI think it translated brilliantly. I think I might like it more than the text version, and please keep in mind I am one of those insufferable “the book is always better” people. I think that it’s exactly the kind of movie that 2016 needs; I will not go in depth for fear of spoiling it, but it deals with themes of barriers between people, how they are built up under artificial pretenses and how to tear them down. It’s about how language both divides and unites living beings everywhere, it’s about a woman who pushes herself to do better and isn’t actively punished for doing so and speaking her mind, it’s about a better future in a lot of ways. I walked out of the film feeling a little bit of optimism bubbling back up after an absolutely emotionally crushing week. It was a similar feeling to when I walked out of The Martian in 2015, a movie that said we have the capacity to fix things if we all stop being pricks to each other and focus on advancing the common good. This is a film that I recommend seeing on the big screen: the visuals are absolutely gorgeous and the sound editing was top notch through a theater’s sound system. When some of the musical choices have you shaking in your seat, you’ll see what I mean.

That was Friday, and then Saturday night I went to a beautiful little retro cinema in Surry Hills, where you have to go underground through kind of a speakeasy-style bar to get to a small theater that sits maybe 40 people altogether. They are cycling through the Studio Ghibli catalog and I caught the subtitled version of my absolute favorite Miyazaki film, Spirited Away.

USA_full.jpgSpirited Away is… pure magic, for me. It’s not just my favorite Miyazaki film or one of my favorite animated films, it’s one of my favorite movies period. There’s something about it that draws me in from the first frame of a car rolling through the countryside. It’s a story that is both incredibly straightforward, and one that manages to encompass so many themes. It has a case of characters who are otherworldly but ever so grounded in reality; you come away knowing someone like every single spirit that shows up and speaks in the film, because they’re just like people in real life. It’s about perseverance in the face of adversity, in the power of making and treasuring even fleeting friendships, and it talks about ways in which work can be rewarding when it’s helping others – even if it makes you miserable at the start, before you see the effects on the other side. On top of all that I think it’s the film that best exemplifies what Hayao Miyazaki has said is one of his favorite kinds of stories: the ones where the girl saves herself. It’s a ten year old girl outwitting an entire world of spirits through skill, integrity and strength of character. It’s brilliant, I love it, I’ll never get tired of watching the movie. Seeing it on the big screen for the first time since its original release was a treat and brought me right back to being a teenager, being reminded of what such a story can do for your heart.

Friday morning I was absolutely emotionally shattered and exhausted, I felt like I could barely bring myself to do anything but get to work, do my work, choke down some lunch. After dipping into these two movies I feel revitalized and ready to get going again. Friday was a day of looking at my twitter feed and seeing anguish in my friends from the USA and going “oh, god, what do we even do.” Today was seeing the same and going “okay, so we fight and we don’t stop fighting.”

In lieu of a book review I thought I would just throw out my favorite escapist literature, films, television shows. Stuff that saw me through depression, saw me through nasty breakups, saw me through surgeries and recovery periods. I don’t advise losing yourself in escapism entirely, burying your head in the sand and making yourself blind to ways in which you could be helping, but it’s good to dip in and recharge your proverbial batteries from time to time, and these all have a certain sense of… well, optimism in them, people overcoming great odds, making the world a better place even if the world doesn’t want to change.

Books / Comics

  • The Lord of the Rings trilogy (natch)
  • The Discworld series – particularly the City Watch novels and the Death/Susan stories
  • Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Neverwhere and The Ocean at the End of the Lane
  • Hellboy
  • Anything by PG Wodehouse
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
  • The Stainless Steel Rat series
  • The Bridge of Birds
  • The Goblin Emperor

Films

  • The Princess Bride
  • Star Wars
  • The Lord of the Rings again
  • The Indiana Jones trilogy (well, you can skip Temple)
  • Dragonheart
  • Everything Miyazaki has ever touched
  • Snatch
  • The Martian

Television

  • Star Trek. Especially TOS and TNG. DS9 if you’re okay with optimism in the darkness of space noir instead of raw, unfiltered Roddenberry “life will be great when we all work together.”
  • Xena: Warrior Princess (yes, I know it’s the bizarre blend of mid 90s feminism where we can have strong, queer-leaning characters but we should make them mudwrestle at least once every five episodes to keep our viewing numbers up)
  • Buffy + Angel
  • The X-Files, for a glimpse back into a time when we had good, wholesome conspiracies about sludge alien monsters instead of Russian agents influencing our government
  • The Fresh Prince of Bel Air
  • Rurouni Kenshin
  • Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

 

Random travel documentaries and cooking shows are also really good if you want 45 minutes of escaping into another place and immersing yourself, but there’s several hundred of them on Netflix I like and I could write a whole month of blog posts just about them. Anything by Anthony Bourdain or David Attenborough is pretty much golden, though.

Writing Doors

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It’s been a fucking week, hasn’t it?

I don’t usually get overtly political on my writing blog, because I recognize that it’s largely shouting into the void of the internet, but politics at this point have intruded into most aspects of my life in probably the worst way possible.

When I look at what happened in America on Tuesday, I do what I usually do when presented with crisis: I don’t attempt to normalize it, I pull back further and further until I can see the historical cycle. The human race is extremely cyclical, perhaps to a depressing point. You don’t even have to go back many hundreds of years to start noticing the patterns, they crop up mere decades ago.

People think of Reagan as a unifying figure, or at least many adherents to his economic principles and foreign policies do. Even my fellow leftists kind of thing of him as this malevolent force that somehow managed to unify the nation for a few bad years. If you go back and look at newspapers from the first time he was elected, the 49.3% of people who did not vote for him were terrified. Some called it an election of the KKK back into power. Voodoo economics were thrown around like crazy. His empty suit folksy rhetoric was skewered again and again. I’m one of the believers that he left the country in much worse shape than he found it while taking credit for the rippling successes set into motion by his predecessors.

Go back to the 1920 election. Warren G. Harding. One of the worst – hell, if not THE worst – president we’ve ever elected swept in and had a massive, sprawling corruption machine running that did untold damage in just three years before some hoary elder god took mercy on the nation and sent a cerebral hemorrhage racing along.

After Reagan, things very slowly began to get better, civil rights made advances, the spectre of reaganomics was slowly pushed back.

After Harding, a series of housecleaning attempts by the democrats eventually led to FDR and his first-maligned, then-beloved mandates that dragged much of the country kicking and screaming into a bit of a golden age.

Things eventually get better. Particularly disasters built around a cult of personality, when that personality is of an aging man who doesn’t take particularly good care of himself. When the head is gone, the snake melts away for some time.

And you know what?

None of that really matters.

No matter how much searching and application of logic and hand wringing I do, I can’t make a good thing out of this even in the long term. The consequences of ignoring climate change alone completely change this game, and that’s before even getting into waves of celebratory violence targeted at the marginalized in ways that are probably going to make the post-Brexit attacks look like a picnic.

I’m legitimately terrified for many of my friends stateside. They come from all races and creeds, and I’ve always found myself in the company of awesome gay people. And the vice president elect thinks that you can cure gayness by electrocuting people enough times, and that you should funnel money from disease studies and treatment programs to do so. I’m terrified for all the women I care deeply about in a place that just tacitly approved of a man who thinks violating women is funny and socially acceptable to talk about at length.

Even if it does get better, and this is one of those plot arcs that goes “darkest before the dawn,” it’s going to get much worse and push people to a breaking point, and I feel remarkably helpless to do much from the other side of the world. I’m donating money to various aid groups that will attempt to mitigate the worst of the damage, and I vote from abroad and keep on my representatives to actually represent me, but there are limits to what I can do as a person

My good friend Chris wrote a post dealing with similar topics from the midst of the mess. He talks about words as weapons, and leveraging the powers of language to aid others, and how you have to fight with what you’re given just as the bards of old might have. I agree with him completely.

I’m coming at it from words as sanctuaries and hiding places, doorways into other worlds. I know that when I was suffering from depression and various medical maladies throughout my younger life I spent a lot of time hiding in the Discworld, and hanging out with Morphius in the Sandman comics, and seeking advice from the heroes of Middle-Earth, they gave me a place to retreat to and gather my thoughts and consolidate my mental strength between battles.

Right now, if you’re one of the groups considered fairly safe, go out and be a shield for others who aren’t so lucky. If you’re one of these target groups deemed okay to go after, be careful, take care of yourself, take care of as many others as you can. Be there for other people and help them. Healthcare is probably about to get very, very bad and there will be a lot of people who need aid. LGBTQ+ friends are understandably horrified and looking for safe spaces, as are a wide variety of folks without Trump-approved skin tones. If you can provide a safe space, do so, even if it’s just a spot at the table and treating them with respect and dignity and reminding them that they have the same rights as anyone else and you’ll fight to help them retain those rights.

But take care of your mind, too. Give yourself a little bit of opportunity to escape. I’m not using this as a craven way to shill my book, but it genuinely makes me feel choked up that a couple of people have told me that losing themselves in some of my short stories made them feel better this week. Go out to the library, find some books, watch some movies that make you feel okay. Replenish your strength, build your fortitude back up. If you can make art, do it and let it help others. If you know people making art, join in, build sanctuaries of the mind for people to rest in.

It’s a shitty balancing act and in a perfect world no one would ever have to be in it, but just be acutely aware that while you should help others as much as you can, you can’t keep the world warm by burning yourself out. You might give them a brief burst, but better to kindle yourself into a steady blaze that doesn’t ever extinguish.

I’ll be doing what I can from here, even if that just amounts to trying to make people feel better with dumb fantasy stories, and staying up late consoling people on chat, and throwing money into at-risk charities to try and staunch the sucking chest wound that I feel like my homeland has become. Obviously, if any of you can think of anything else I could do to help, please feel free to reach out.

Taking Note(s)

So, I realized that lately I’ve been going into historical research to justify worldbuilding in secondary world fantasies, but I haven’t really had a chance to touch on my actual note taking process. It’s something that absolutely, positively doesn’t work for everyone and I find that if you try to copy someone else’s method for note-taking you’ll probably have a hard time going back over your notes and making sense of them later. I kind of cobbled this method together between university, taking technical notes in meetings at work, and a few other random inspirations.

Right now I take all my notes in a small, spiral bound Mead book. I used to use larger three-ring binders (particularly during college lectures) but I have come to view the notebook as a transitional tool between what I’m studying and what’s going to end up in my Scrivener “Research” folder. I don’t do a lot of organizing on paper; I read the books, I take notes as I’m going, and then I organize and sort things as I translate them from a physical text to a digital one.

I make due with a pen and a yellow highlighter, but if you do prefer to organize on paper I really can’t recommend multiple colored highlighters enough. If for no other reason than being able to color code stuff for easy reference later (I used to do language in blue, dates in purple, etc), it saves you quite a bit of time.

392309-small.jpgMy notes over the last three months have been desert-themed, due to writing multiple short stories and also working on my novel all drawing from a lot of middle eastern inspiration, albeit radically different parts of that world (eastern Turkey and getting into the steppe lands, the medieval Ottomans, the Bedouin and the rise of ibn Saud, late 19th century Cairo for the most prominent examples) and a big part of this is to keep the notes very distinct from one another and not accidentally, inadvertently have some bleed over into near east orientalism where I attribute the wrong stuff to the wrong culture and treat everything as kind of a big sandy blob. Moving to Australia has helped out a ton here, there is so much raw information and data about Gallipoli and various other Anzac/Ottoman conflicts that it’s staggering to pick through the local library.

So let’s flip to a few pages here. My longest one is a list of non-English words I might want to use either as inspiration for names, or as descriptors where we don’t have a translation in the English language and I end up throwing it in as an italicized foreign term for the characters to expound on, just a dash of flavor. This is a bit of a mishmash but as I move it into Scrivener I sort it by language background:

  • Lugul – Akkad – “Big Man / Lord / not to level of king but upper echelons of tribal nobility”
  • Ziusudra  – Sumer – Noah figure, global flood mythology, recurring figure, cross ref to deluge stories
  • Sipahi – Turkish/Ottoman – Special caste of cavalry broken into two subclasses, fief holders and palace guards, historical rivals of the Janissary corps, in decline from early 1800s and disbanded by 1827
  • Muḥtasib – Persian, later Ottoman – Specific brand of bazaar inspectors, regulated prices and quality of goods, prevented disputes, contributed to stagnation compared to global market when prices were not allowed to compete with western ones, fell as mercantile class grew 1800s+
  • Hujjar – Arabic – Oasis towns with small farming communities later fortified and used as military and religious training grounds for Mutawwa’a, ritual specialists and religious police with right to carry weaponry
  • Khamsin – Arabic nomads – Regional term for specific kind of sandstorm that could rise upwards of 5 stories but moved as a wall rather than a spinning motion

This goes on and on in a similar manner, and in Scrivener I have a language folder broken down into about a dozen subfolders for the regional terms that I can open up when I need a quick reference.

After that I have something I might describe as worldbuilding notes, facts, stuff in the text that stood out to me as interesting, this is mainly culled from my Ottoman pages:

  • 1913 – Ottoman empire had 500-550 cars to USA’s 1 million, imported thousands more over half decade but no roads or infrastructure to support them until postwar.
  • 1914 – First airboat debut over imperial lands.
  • 1915 – Modernization efforts increase, series of public works projects set up like the New Deal Era but without as much financial backing or planning and a heavier emphasis on military growth, later fell through as most men of fighting age recruited.
  • Printing press from 1700s onward
  • Despite complaints about European decadence western Europe was used as a model for reform culminating in assembly with sultan as theocratic figurehead, took 1/10th the time as most other countries where this happened.
  • Secular military education replaces religious service for primary source of social mobility 1850 onward.

There’s a bit of a fuzzy boarder between that section and the following one, which is where I list out specific incidents I might want to use as inspiration for plot points in the story. The prior stuff is more background and might not even be revealed to the reader, but I feel that I need to keep it in my mind to maintain internal consistency of how the setting works.

This is a lot more… flexible, and I’ll often jot down notes as to how to tweak it to be in line with the story. In this case I’m drawing pretty heavily from the biographies of T.E. Lawrence I’ve been reading:

  • An impoverished family in the desert might have 2-3 spouses, 10 head of livestock and a small date garden.
  • No payment ever accepted for lodging, drinking with a traveler in your tent codifies him or her as a family member for the duration of the night.
  • Higher tier officers were known to literally cut gory details out of battle reports with knives or “accidentally” stain them to the point of illegibility before sending them up the chain to the politicians.
  • Often-garbled telegraph transmissions provide deniability for ignoring orders in the trenches and acting on directions of local officer rather than those who outrank him.
  • 5 tribes and 10-12 clans together might produce 10k trained warriors.
  • In tribal confederations outsiders could be called upon to dispense corporal and capital punishment due to their status as neutral observers.
  • Oases regularly contaminated with corpses by retreating, spiteful enemy forces.
  • Armed with British guns and positioned like snipers Bedouin might makes 1/8 shots count, allowed to perform hit and run attacks incorporating pistols and melee weapons it wasn’t unheard of for a hundred of them to whittle down 300-400 out of 500 men in a day.

And so on and so forth.

A big part of writing all this down is that it helps in metacognition. When you take notes you are thinking not just about the immediate story or text you’re reading but which parts you want to use, which in turn forces you to think about the entirety in a greater depth. This helps you retain the knowledge even better. Repeatedly writing it down, even just once with pen and once with keyboard lodges it firmly in your brain. If you have an idea while reading something, write it and any relevant notes down and you have a safety net to keep it from falling out of your head.

51whd70Y4cL._SY346_.jpgAside from copious research and note taking, I have been plowing through Alan Moore’s Jerusalem. Boy. I read pretty damn fast, and this was like the literary equivalent of pushing through a marathon with lead weights. That’s not to say it’s a bad novel by any means, but it is long and it is incredibly dense to read. Moore does not hold your hand at all here, it’s up to you to actually pay attention and to keep up. The story is both classic more and a new take on it. I’ve been a huge fan of his comics for a very long time and there are similar themes of cosmicism, the banality of magic, you see bits and pieces of From Hell and Promethea peaking through the corners, but it’s an entirely new twist by focusing on one very small region and everyone who passes through it over the years. The basic core of the story involves the trials and tribulations of a man who choked to death on a throat lozenge as a child, miraculously came back to life, and it plagued by recurring memories of the afterlife as a pool hall where strange angels play snooker with human souls, and this strand forms the core of the braid around which more and more layers are wrapped. There are ghosts, and monsters, and sex workers, and car crashes, and dozens of other little stories that make up the greater patchwork.

It’s one of those books where I think everyone who likes the subject matter should give it a try, but it’s not going to be for everybody. The comparisons to James Joyce are apt, it’s a read that seems to make itself more difficult simply for the sake of doing so or at the artist’s pleasure, and that’s totally fine but also frustrating. I really do think he could have told the same story in half the length and not lost that much. I do not need multiple paragraphs dedicated to the hue of a pot of urine under a man’s bed when that pot plays no role beyond the scene, and it feels like it was jammed in there just to see how many ways Moore could describe it to the reader, as an early example. Unlike Joyce where part of the fun is going back and re-reading to look for deeper meaning in the text, I can’t see myself making this particular slog again any time soon.

A Request, A Lesson, and A Review

So I have three things I would like to touch on today. Loosely connected and not in any particular order, but three is a nice number to do things in.

First off, it looks like my co-author and I have a release date for our upcoming short story anthology, The Shadow Box. We’re putting it out there on Halloween because we’re a couple of spooky nerds, and that gives us a few weeks to finish polishing it up and send it around to beta readers and reviewers. Since this is the first piece I’m publishing since getting myself a blog, I thought I would open it up a bit – if you run any kind of review site or column or whatnot and you’d like an advance copy of the book, please feel free to leave a comment here or hit my contact form with your site address and preferred format (we can do it in .mobi, .epub, .doc and .pdf off the top of my head and I think there are some other options in the compilation software we’re using).

Frankly, even if you don’t have a review blog, if you promise to leave an honest review up on Amazon when we release it I’m totally cool shooting a copy your way too. Writing is something I would like to do for a living eventually but right now I recognize that it’s in that blurry space between a passion and a hobby, and the more people I have reading my stuff the happier I am even if they’re getting it for free. The only requirement is that I do mean honest reviews, if you think it wasn’t great don’t go out and post anything glowing, I think that writing withers and dies when watered with good intentions instead of critique.

I will write up a more in-depth thing in the near future but it’s twelve stories of varying lengths (I think it averaged out to about 8-10k per last time we measured) and neither me nor Chris is particularly bound by genre conventions so you’ll see everything in there. We’ve got cosmic horror mixed in with viking folklore, grimy 80s style cyberpunk, Judeo-Islamic sword and sorcery, police procedural, sunken cities, language-viruses and everything in between. We will probably be sending advance copies out for review over the next 7-10 days so that people have time to actually read it and do their writeups prior to release. If you contact me I of course promise not to sell your e-mail address to the Illuminati unless they offer significantly above the market price. Wait, come ba-


Phew, okay, that’s the hard part out of the way. It says something about my particular blend of neuroses that the more positive reviews I got from alpha readers/editors about a piece the more twitchy I get about other people actually reading it, so allow me to segue into something I’m way more comfortable writing about: writing.

The last few weeks I’ve spoken about story structure, religion, character depth and a lot of worldbuilding stuff, and I’d like to narrow the scope to something very near and dear to my heart, which is good magic systems. To me, in a good fantasy novel the magic is as much a character as any of the people or places in it. When you look at something really iconic like Harry Potter has become, Hogwarts is absolutely a character and it experiences a narrative arc from book 1 to book 7, and I feel that the magic does as well. The repertoire of each wizard grows from basics to more and more advanced stuff, characters get what I would call signature spells that show up almost like tertiary characters, there’s a real feeling of warmth and happiness when someone busts out the perfect spell at the perfect time and a palpable dread when you know that bad magic is lurking just out of sight like a physical monster.

All that said, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the most interesting thing about a magic system is the limitations you put in place for it.

What can’t each layer of your magic system do and how do characters get around that? How does it shape the world when you can do X but not Y by consuming mana, tapping into an artifact or shaping life force? Why are these limitations in place and how come magic can’t do certain things while violating other laws of physics with abandon? You can think about this almost like you’re fleshing out a character, and for me that’s one of the big draws to both reading and writing fantasy. Even in my shortest short stories, you can be certain that I have a bit of a character sheet drawn up for how I want the magic to act and how I constrain it. The reader doesn’t necessarily need to know the extent of the rules but as a writer you need to have them and you need to adhere to them so you don’t write yourself into a deus ex machina of the worst kind; the sort where you’ve lost control of the magic and it’s driving the plot.

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If you need a visual for what this looks like, it’s the literary equivalent of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice sequence from Fantasia. You need characters to be able to move around a large region of the map very rapidly and so you invent teleportation magic but don’t apply any kind of limitations to it, and you find yourself relying on it more and more to bounce between scenes. You don’t see the problem in this at first but before you know it all the tension has drained out of the plot because you know that any conflict in the story can be resolved by someone teleporting out of danger, or teleporting the antagonist into deep space, or something like that.tumblr_lt0wpanVVl1qlxcxco1_500.jpg By the time you realize how bland the story has become, the teleportation takes up half the story and every single scene ends with someone ping-ponging back and forth between opposite ends of a continent in the blink of an eye, and to clean up you’re going to have to rewrite everything from five minutes after you put teleportation in, and you kind of want to die, and your beta readers look like the scary-ass wizard at the end of the animation sequence when he pulls Mickey’s ass out of the proverbial flames.

A bad magic system does not have perimeters at all, not even those known to the author.

A good magic system has perimeters known to the writer and possibly the reader.

An excellent magic system is defined by those perimeters and character spend more time struggling against them than they do using the magic itself, because this creates ongoing tension even when you aren’t in the middle of an action sequence. And when you are in an action sequence, every word hits right in the gut because the participants cannot rely on magical forces and actually have to work harder. Magic becomes more than just a weapon, it’s a weapon with drawbacks and reasons you might not want to use it. If you’re Gandalf, you don’t want to use the One Ring against Sauron because every time you slip into the realms of invisibility with it your exact location becomes known to the enemy and you are slowly driven mad. Bayaz of The First Law can blow up a room full of assassins but it will leave him damn near comatose and vulnerable for weeks. One of my all-time favorites as a writer is the old magic of the Earthsea series, where the ancient language is so tied into the fabric of reality that speaking a lie in that tongue contorts reality to make that lie true, with all the responsibility and potential for devastation that this entails (and this, being a Le Guin work, is before we even get into the ways that this magic system is used to explore gender imbalance, history being literally rewritten and the wizard/witch dichotomy).

If you’re running a system where a character only has a certain power base or a number of charges of a spell, you don’t need to tell the reader any more than you need to mention the number of bullets left in a revolver after each shot. Give the readers credit and keep it consistent and people will get a feel for roughly how many times a character can use a certain magical thing without the consequences kicking in or ramping up, and that is also something that adds to the narrative tension. For something really absurd say that casting ten spells in a day will make your head explode and the character keeps finding situations where they need to use a spell or die, the average reader will keep track of that in their head and get tenser and tenser as you ratchet it up to 7, 8, 9… so on and so forth.

If your magic is something innate about the character, contrast them to other characters who don’t have it. This is particularly popular and effective with superheroes where they themselves are practically indestructible.

Which leads me into my review today.

luke-cage.jpgLuke Cage is so good, everyone. So good. I’ve been trying not to binge the whole thing in one sitting so I’m only at the halfway point, and I’m going to write a much larger review later this week once I’ve had a chance to finish and properly digest the story, but man I love everything about it. Younge’s soundtrack is evocative of the greatest 70s exploitation flicks, the song choice is top notch, it is peppered with references to everything from Crispus Attucks to Walter Mosley to various voices of the Harlem Renaissance. It also does the invulnerable hero thing perfectly because there’s constant tension that Luke’s friends could be targeted at any time and he can’t be everywhere to protect them, which is pretty much the best drawback to a bulletproof hero and also the way that many of the better Superman stories have been written over the years.

I know a lot of people haven’t finished it yet so I won’t risk any massive spoilers but it’s been really, really awesome watching so much of my twitter feed balloon with variations on “I needed a superhero like me this year” and talk about feeling so empowered watching it. Especially coming after Black Panther ended up playing such a prominent role in Civil War and stole every scene he was in.

I’m someone that is very much into superheroes and comic, and I have been for a young age. I think that superheroes can change the real world if they come at it from the perfect angle and are wielded as a weapon or a shield. In the early 40s the people behind the Superman radio plays decided to destroy the Klan, and after half a decade of Superman exposing KKK codewords, rituals, dogwhistles and structural details people started showing up at Klan rallies just to mock them.

So yeah, it may seem a little on-the-nose to some viewers but I’m totally down with a bulletproof black guy in a hoodie smacking people around with a car door to some classic Wu-Tang Clan in 2016. Doubly so when the rest of the cast is overflowing with PoC and Cage’s equivalent to the Batcave is a barber shop, played completely straight and lovingly so.