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Sunday, 7 February 2016

Some Men Just Want to See the World Burn: Why Donald Trump is the Joker

Just a quick one this week, as I prepare for the Super Bowl this afternoon, but I've been thinking about this all week. Specifically, how Donald Trump is not just A joker, but also THE Joker, ie Batman's archenemy.

So I was stretching my legs the other day at work with a quick walk around the neighborhood, and as so often happens, my mind started wandering to what I'd do and say if I were running for president. And given that nobody seems to know how to respond to Donald Trump's various incivilities, I was wondering how it would go down if some just told him to fuck off.

It occurred to me that, satisfying as that would be, it would mark his total victory in the way politics is played these days, because it would have meant whoever told him to fuck off would have fallen to his level. This isn't, btw, a question of standards and "fair play" and all that bullshit - telling Donald Trump to fuck off means that he's gotten under your skin, and effectively turned you into his own mirror image.

And, because Batman is never too far from my thoughts, it occurred to me that this is the same dynamic that Batman has with the Joker. The Joker's whole M.O. is to corrupt people, and Batman remains the biggest prize of all - if the Joker could get Batman to kill someone, even (or especially) the Joker himself, that shows that the Joker's been right all along. To put it another way, the Joker wants to show that society is an illusion, and people are all raging beasts underneath it all; while Batman represents the people who work in the shadows to make the rest of us safe, at least as Christopher Nolan's films would have it, he maintains a very strict line that he won't cross.

So how does this apply to Donald Trump? Well, without questioning his motives, it's fair to say that he's certainly appealing to the very worst tendencies in the American electorate at the moment. He's telling people the things they long to hear - that everybody's laughing at us (which they are, but not for the reason he thinks), that we're being swindled (again, not by the people he says are swindling us) and that he can fix it all.

Given that so many are still feeling the after-effects of the latest recession (btw, when do we get to start calling it a depression? It's been going on for the best part of a decade at this point...), and so many are terrified of what's happening in the rest of the world with ISIS and civil wars and drug wars, I think a lot of the simple answers he's peddling are comforting. And, not very many of the candidates on either side of the aisle are talking about how to make Americans feel better (despite being an ardent Democrat and leaning toward Bernie Sanders, I have to say that Sanders doesn't strike me as very strong on foreign policy).

But the problem is that Trump is encouraging people to give vent to their darkest impulses. The short term answer to international terrorism may seem to be "Close the borders", but we'll be safer if we take on ISIS and Al Qaeda (and, for that matter, Vladimir Putin) with a view to long-term solutions, and in an adult way.

In the Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan's second Batman film, the climax of the Joker's plan is to wire up two ships with explosives, one full of convicts and the other full of civilians, and essentially dare them not to blow the other up. The "law-abiding" citizens loudly insist on their right to take a vote, and driven by fear, vote to blow up the other ship. The convicts, on the other hand... don't.

The Joker's plan was to turn the people of the city against one another - and Donald Trump, whether or not he means to, is doing the same. But we're better than what he's telling us we are, and we deserve candidates who know that.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

The X-Files Awakens

Well, this is shaping up to be a month of resurgences for long-dormant SF franchises. After the new Star Wars, which seems to have swept away a bunch of records, the X-Files has also made its return to TV screens, almost 14 years after it ended. Naturally, I was ready to watch it, even when it looked as if it wouldn't be on until 10pm, though luckily, that turned out to refer to the Eastern time zone, and it actually aired on the West Coast at 7.30pm.

Like The Force Awakens, the new episode of the X-Files attempts to ignore all the crap that came most recently (although Force Awakens had the advantage of being a direct sequel to Return of the Jedi, whereas this doesn't). What it does offer is the main characters (ie, the ones we came to see) picking up where they left off; it also offers a bunch of references and throwbacks to the past, in the shape of supporting characters.

But if I gave The Force Awakens a solid B/B+, and felt the need to watch it a second time, I'd say this new X-Files is a shade less successful. While the X-Files was always heavily associated with its creator, Chris Carter (similar to Babylon 5 with J. Michael Straczynski), the consensus of the last few years seems to be that the very best episodes were written by others: Vince Gilligan, for one, or Glen Morgan and James Wong. The mythology episodes, which ended up dragging the show down to a certain extent, tended to be written by Carter.

And so it proves here. While Carter did a good job in this first episode of not bogging things down too much with the past - we see Mulder, we see Scully, we see Skinner and we see aliens (or do we?) - the episode doesn't quite hit the heights of the first few seasons.

It's hard to say why, save that certain scenes really showed the script - by which I mean, the actors' delivery felt like they were reading lines, rather than living the scene. Carter's scripts/dialogue weren't always top-notch, but David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson were always good enough actors that it didn't matter. Maybe here they were just a bit rusty?

On the other hand, while the story here isn't as tense and creepy as, say, the pilot, it's good to see them picking up essentially where it left off, and even addressing the time in between. I always found it odd how the X-Files didn't seem to fit into the post-9/11 world, and some of the exposition delves into why it was absent for, arguably, the time we needed it most. Another positive is how well it takes up the thread of what's current now - drones, the internet, right-wing conspiracy theorists - and weaves it together into something coherent.

In any case, one of the things that's gotten me really excited about this mini-series (or "event", as Fox likes to call it) is that not all of the six episodes will be mythology episodes. The creators (including a returning Morgan and Wong, apparently) have promised a survey of all the stuff that made the X-Files great, from monster-of-the-week stories to the funnier episodes that the show used to do so well.

Also, despite my comments earlier about the most recent crap, I'm genuinely excited that Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish) will be making an appearance. She was part of the cast of the final season, when Duchovny left the show, and thought she did a creditable job partnering with Gillian Anderson and with Robert Patrick as John Doggett - I just hope Doggett makes an appearance too.

So... yeah, I'll be watching. Maybe not tomorrow, but I certainly plan on keeping up via Hulu or Comcast on-demand or whatever. Like Star Wars, the X-Files was one of the formative shows of my teen years (and beyond). So, like Star Wars, I'm happy that it's come back in a format that honors what made it great in the first place, while also moving forward.

Now, if the new Star Trek movie, Star Trek Beyond, turns out to be better than that trailer, we'll be set...

Sunday, 17 January 2016

RIP David Bowie and Alan Rickman

Like much of the world, I was hit by the one-two punch this week of the deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman, both at the age of 69 and both of cancer.

I discovered Bowie relatively late, as these things go - while I knew who he was thanks to covers and samples of his music from when I was growing up (as well as Trainspotting's liberal use of the song "Golden Years"), and I picked up the Changesbowie collection when I was in college, I didn't really get a sense of his 1970s output until well after. It took the discovery of Pitchfork's Top 100 Albums of the 1970s (which put Bowie's 1977 album Low in first place), and then living with a glam/70s-rock fan to get my hands on the entire run of Bowie albums from Space Oddity (1969) to Scary Monsters (1980).

Charting his evolution from singer-songwriter to glam-rock alien to blue-eyed soulster to avant-garde artist and so on, I now see what Renton and Sick Boy and Begbie saw in him. More than that, because of Bowie, I have a better sense of the rock scene of the 1970s, and how the people he worked with - for instance Brian Eno and Iggy Pop - came to be so influential. As Pitchfork noted in their list of 70s albums, Eno was just a few steps off from about a quarter of the list, which obviously applies to Bowie as well.

I'm less familiar with his work after Scary Monsters, and have the sense that the 80s weren't the greatest decade for him, despite the obvious homage to him that many of that decade's artists represented. But I was impressed by his experiments in the 1990s with electronic/dance music, and I'm heartened to hear that Black Star, his last album, has received good reviews. I look forward to exploring more of his latter output.

Alan Rickman, by contrast, is a little less familiar to me, but more for the reason that he strikes me as one of those actors who appear everywhere, and can play anything. I can't really think of him in a leading role, but the more I consider, the more movies I recall where he played a large part (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, to Galaxy Quest; and so on). Perhaps the role I know best is as the bad guy in Die Hard - I think my favorite scene of his is the one where he's cornered by Bruce Willis (who doesn't know he's the mastermind) and fakes an American accent.

I know a lot of the press on him recently has focused on the Harry Potter movies, but I haven't seen that many of them - though I can say that there was probably nobody better to play Severus Snape.

More than anything, however, what I feel is gone with Rickman's death is another of the great British actors of the last few decades - there are so many, going back to the greats like Olivier and continuing with Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellen. One of the messages I found most touching was from Daniel Radcliffe, who talks about how much he learned from Rickman, and a glance at his career since Harry Potter seems to bear this out.

Both Bowie and Rickman have been incredibly influential, and while their presence will continue to resonate through all those they've inspired down the decades, it's undeniable that showbiz parties in London will be a little less exciting after this week.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Progress Report on Writing Goals, 2015

When I first moved back to the Bay Area, two years ago now, I wrote a post considering both the year just gone and the year to come. I was coming off a pretty good year in a lot of ways - mainly at work, with a promotion and a raise and the move here, but also my personal best for the half-marathon and my first sale of a story to an SFF market. As I said at the time, the year just gone had included a number of events that wouldn't make sense to expect every year - I gave 2014 permission to not be quite as great as 2013.

Fast forward to December 2015. A lot of things have stayed the same - I live in the same place, I do the same job (mostly) and I haven't sold anything else. In part this last one is because I'm starting to run out of short story markets to submit to, and I'm running out of short stories to submit. The last time I finished a short story and was happy with it was 2010, and I'm progressively less happy with the ones I still have on deck. I've been considering jettisoning the ones I do have (ie, by selling them on Amazon or iBooks), in the hopes that it forces me to think of new short story ideas. But there just aren't that many ideas coming down the pike, so I'm hesitant to pull that particular trigger...

But it hasn't all been doom and gloom with the writing. I finished my first (short) novel since 2011, and continued studying screenwriting, which produced three new treatments/outlines (to go with the four I wrote in 2014). I also produced my first full screenplay, in collaboration with a friend, and I can't deny that I've got the bug for it now.

Not only that, but this year's experience writing a novel (and revising/editing it) has given me the confidence to continue targeting longer-form fiction. I used to look at novel-writing as a thing you toiled at for ages, like chipping away at a marble block for years until you'd revealed the angel within, but now I'm starting to think that there's a lot to be said for knocking out a novel more quickly - or at least, getting the first draft done in three months.

At the beginning of the year, I wrote a post outlining the rather ambitious writing goals I'd set for myself, and I think that what helped was breaking each one down into its component parts and setting deadlines for when those parts needed to be accomplished. That, and working on stuff consistently - I suspect I've had fewer streaks of inactivity this year than in previous years, in part because breaking the goals down (by quarter, month and week) meant there was less to do each day and therefore less of a psychological barrier to starting.

So what does the coming year hold? More of the same, to a certain extent - another novel, another screenplay, more movie treatments and more blogging. I'm forgoing the comics scripting for the time being, as it doesn't seem like a big priority and I don't know any artists to work with.

On a deeper level, I'm starting to think that it's time to get myself to where movies are being made, and potentially even see how I can get into the movie business, in any capacity. This another area where I need to credit the Nerdist Podcast, as Chris Hardwick's talks with a number of producers (most recently Brian Grazer and Kathleen Kennedy) have given me the idea that their job could be an interesting perspective on getting into movies.

So as I say every year, here's hoping the year to come brings some improvements and some forward progress - even if it's only greater confidence with the novel and screenplay forms!

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Why the X-Men Are the Worst There Is at What They Do

Apropos of nothing, my thought of the week has been what shitty superheroes the X-Men are.

To a certain extent all superheroes aren't particularly good at what they do - on the contrary, they seem to be actively detrimental to their communities, because they attract supervillains and cause extensive property damage. Superman and Batman got their start beating up corrupt corporate magnates and street criminals, respectively, but the creators eventually brought in bad guys like Lex Luthor or the Joker, which made for more colorful stories but must have lowered property values and consumer confidence in Metropolis and Gothem.

But the difference between Superman and the X-Men is that Superman doesn't really have a stated aim - he just stands up for truth, justice and the American way. The X-Men, by contrast, have made it their mission to be accepted by the world around them, which hates and fears their genetic mutations. And judging by that standard Professor Xavier's dream has to be counted a failure.

For the same reason that comics creators raised the stakes for Batman by pitting him against the likes of the Joker or the Penguin, Stan Lee and Chris Claremont and all the other X-Men writers would periodically make the anti-mutant climate in their stories more intense. So you could argue that the public's perception of mutants has grown worse over the past fifty-odd years, rather than better.

Of course, that might partly be the fault of the writers, who've made the good guys (to say nothing of the bad guys) look ever scarier as time went on. Nightcrawler's a lovable blue imp in comparison to somebody like Cable or Bishop, who are all eye-scars, tattoos and guns.

(Incidentally, Cable and Bishop both also support my hypothesis, in that they're both from dystopian futures.)

The other worrying implication of the X-Men's setting is, how do other superheroes feel about them? We're led to believe that the authorities and the general public don't trust mutants, so it stands to reason that some beloved mainstream superheroes must be rabid mutant-haters. I seem to recall stories where the likes of Spiderman or the Avengers expressed some misgivings about mutants, so if you're an X-Men reader who also reads other Marvel books, it's worrying to think that you're rooting for somebody who prejudges your favorite superheroes just based on being mutants.

One wonders, therefore, if that's why the X-Men took so long to gain any popularity. Something that gets forgotten these days is that the original run by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee wasn't very successful, and the book was effectively cancelled after a few years, with new issues featuring nothing but reprints. It wasn't until Chris Claremont took over and turned it into a long-running soap opera that the X-Men became one of the biggest-selling books of the 80s and 90s.

I'd further argue that the best-loved X-Men stories are evenly split between those dealing with the characters' central idea (like Days of Future Past) and those that have nothing to do with the whole anti-mutant prejudice storyline (like the Dark Phoenix Saga). Certainly Claremont introduced a lot of ideas into the X-Universe during his years at the helm that had nothing to do with prejudice, like the Shiar Empire, the Brood and the Phalanx, Arcade and Longshot.

A quick riffle through one or two old comics just now also turns up the possibility that some of the outlier books, like X-Factor, were more interested in tackling the prejudice storylines than the main book - certainly the stories that stand out for me from that time are quite far from the original intent of the characters.

Jokes about racist or ineffectual superheroes aside, this kind of escalation is what you get when a character lasts this long. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo and his companions reach an endpoint by saving the world (albeit after a thousand pages), but they weren't expected to continue having adventures month in and month out for the better part of a century.

We insist on these characters - whether they be Superman, Batman or the X-Men - continuing forever, because we want to recreate the sense of wonder we had when we first encountered them. But unfortunately, characters aren't really meant to do that - so you either get diminishing returns (like with the James Bond series or Star Trek) or you get ever-increasing levels of violence and tension (as in superhero comics). There's the odd exception, but the fact remains that it's pretty much all more of the same every issue or story arc.

I sometimes think the best thing for characters like the X-Men is to get a definitive win, like they do in the movies, and then go on hiatus for a while, until someone can find great new stories to tell with them. Marvel/Disney would never agree to it - there's too much merchandising riding on it, I guess - but it might make them special again.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Editing Your Novel Doesn't Have to Be a Nightmare Anymore

Revising a novel has always been my bete noire. The line-editing (ie, the thing everybody thinks of when they hear "revising") comes naturally to me, but actually turning a long story into something publishable has escaped me somehow.

I even joined an online writers' workshop to try and get beta-readers, but all it ended up doing was getting me a bunch of critiques that, while probably not inaccurate, still sent me dangerously close to giving up on writing altogether. And the novels I submitted there are still unpublishable.

The situation wasn't helped last year, either, when I wrote a large chunk of a second draft of something, only to hit a complete block in where to take the story next. I never recovered from that, and the story remains "on vacation", as I like to call my trunk novels (I think that's one of the tips I picked up from the writer's workshop).

So when I set the goal at the beginning of the year to write and revise a new 90,000-word novel, I found myself with a novel that I was actually dreading tackling once I'd finished the first draft (also, I'm nowhere near 90,000 words). The idea, following on from Stephen King's On Writing, was to toss the novel aside for six weeks and then start on it again.

In the event, I left it for five months instead - I justified it because I was actually thinking of all the changes I'd have to make during that initial six-week rest period, which essentially meant I hadn't given myself a break from it after all.

Between the end of July and the beginning of November I ended up having enough other projects that I eventually did put it out of my mind more or less completely. So about November, when I was looking at my list of goals and the rapidly approaching end of the year, I found a couple of resources that have turned out to be quite helpful in attacking the revision process:

The first was this post from Holly Lisle, which persuaded me that the process could be made easier. From the same Google search, I also found a post from Ann Lyle, which boils it down to a 10-step process. This is the one I've been following rather closely, because I'm a sucker for breaking goals down into discrete tasks.

What their advice boils down to is, give it a read-through to catch anything that pulls you out of the story, get a handle on all the characters and concepts and place names you introduce, and fix all of that stuff before tackling the line edits. It's too easy, I've found, to get started on line edits and then either realize that something seriously doesn't make sense, or (the worse option) you make a change that actually screws up the entire story.

So far the process has gone pretty well, and pretty quickly. I can clear five or ten pages a night (I could do more if I weren't also working on a script and a movie treatment), and the process is actually quite painless - if I see something that doesn't make sense or that I feel doesn't pay off, I make a note of it on the manuscript and in a special notebook, and then move on. The feeling of not needing to solve everything at once is pretty liberating.

Now, I'm still at Anne Lyle's Step 3, so there's the possibility that this whole process could still crash and burn. But at least for now, I feel like I'm back on track, and so I'm even starting to think about submitting the novel at some point next year. Probably in novella form, because it's still quite short (DAW and Angry Robot, I've found, require lengths of at least 80,000 or 90,000, respectively).

The upshot of this post, then, is this: if you're like me, and you hate revising, check out those two resources I've linked to above. If nothing else, they should give you a framework in which to attack the process.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

In Defense of Critics

It occurs to me that I haven't based a blog post on something I heard on the Nerdist recently, so if that's your thing, then you're in for a treat. To wit:

I was listening to Chris Hardwick and Neko Case this week, and the subject at some point turned to the merits (or lack thereof) of entertainment critics. It's kind of axiomatic that creators don't like critics, as a number of singers, to pull an example at random, have written songs excoriating some music journalist.

And while I understand being annoyed when someone shits on what you do, whether on social media or in print, I do think that critics occupy a more nuanced place than what Hardwick implies, ie people who couldn't hack it in the creative business and so are working out their frustrations by tearing down other people's work. I'm sure someone like that exists - but I doubt they're most of the critics out there, or the best-regarded.

Fantasy author Daniel Abraham once said (I think it was him, but can't find the blog post where he said it) that the two are different skills - a good author doesn't necessarily make a good critic, or vice versa. The thought that they might be the same thing probably comes from the confusion between criticism and reviewing - a review is to say whether something's worth consuming (reading, watching, eating, etc) whereas criticism is to say whether something's done well.

British film critic Mark Kermode had something along these lines in one of his books, where he was talking about the Sex and the City films. He can say it's shit all he wants, but that's not going to stop people from watching it - but he's not here to tell us it's shit, he's here to tell us why it's shit, from a very formal point of view (this is all an enormous paraphrase, by the way).

So I find the idea that any criticism stems from jealousy of someone who was successful in creating a movie or book to be wide of the mark. There are a number of reasons why someone would review your novel or album badly - some are unfair, granted, like they're prejudiced against your genre or were simply having a bad day and now associate the work with that (this, incidentally, is why I don't like Reservoir Dogs).

Or there are other completely spurious reasons to hate a work: I remember a reviewer of Paul Theroux's 2006 travel book, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, seemed primarily to take issue with the fact that Theroux isn't Norman Lewis. The fact is indisputable, but it seems somewhat beside the point - you read Theroux for Theroux, not for retreads of Norman Lewis (or Bill Bryson, or Jan Morris, or whoever). Review the book on its own merits, rather than on how it doesn't happen to have been written by your favorite author.

But other reasons are completely fair - you might have phoned in the work, or put a lot of effort into something that simply doesn't connect with anybody, or your reach might have exceeded your grasp and you failed to convey certain things in your work. The fact that nobody sets out to write a shitty novel or make a shitty movie doesn't mean that no novels or movies are shitty, or that we should give everything a pass just because it got made.

This is why reviewers and critics are important. The reviewer tells you whether a movie's worth seeing, and the critic tells you whether it has anything worth studying - these are very different skills from actually writing or directing or acting in a movie. The fact that a good writer or actor or musician should be able to pick out what works and what doesn't from another book or movie or song also doesn't mean they should be the ones doing the reviewing or critiquing (although I know some do, and do it well).

It's one reason why I've avoided book reviews on this blog: while I generally know and can pick out what doesn't work for me about a story, I accept that it's not really in my skillset. My calling is to tell stories, not necessarily to tell others about them - but I do believe that it's a calling for some people, and if they do it well, then more power to them.

Of course, I may be biased because I haven't had the pleasure of being savaged in a review. Check back in with me when I've started being reviewed for my own books or movies, and we'll see what I say then...