Moments of surrender

A post from Kieron Gillen has set me off on an 80s queer disco listening jag. While bobbing helplessly on a sea of ecstatic emotion, I’m mainly noticing:

1. my fondness for a well-turned arch phrase encapsulating angst has not diminished. Compare my teen faves the Pet Shop Boys (Do I Have To):

It’s a fatal mistake, and you know it, that you’re dying to make, and you’ll pay for it…

to my current preference, the Mountain Goats – well, pretty much the whole of their lyrical output. Maybe this one (Old College Try):

someone’s going to do something someone else will regret…

(although without the musical line I admit that’s a bit of a mouthful).

2. I’ve been reading up on addiction, recently (not for dramatic personal reasons).
A suggestion that was new to me was that when someone’s successfully avoided an addictive behaviour for a while, relapse is often preceded by a moment of feeling total helplessness. As in: I am not strong, or big, or powerful enough to resist this. If you know that pattern, you can spot that thought and try to tackle it. Root it out, prop it up, not relapse.

I don’t want to be glib about the suffering of addiction (and I don’t want to back that as a theory – I don’t know enough to critique it, but I can see other reasons one might fall off a wagon). But that idea of a fatal moment of self-doubt resonated with so many lyrics I could think of, which were about (usually) sexual wrongdoing. Pet Shop Boys again:

It’s already too late, go on, admit it…

This is the wrong thing to do, the lyrics acknowledge, but I am going to do it anyway, and there’s relief and joy in that instant: everything will go to shit in a minute but there’ll be just a minute or two of celebration while I set down my burden.
And denial and surrender teeter along together deliciously for a bit – knowledge of the pattern seeps back into the struggling period beforehand and contaminates it, makes it easier (but undermines it) by promising a rest:

I want to say I’m sorry for stuff I haven’t done yet
Things will shortly get completely out of hand

I’m wondering if that moment is peculiarly pop-y.
Surrender to anything makes for good pop music, because the lyrical content can match the feeling of letting music flood your head and heart, or the physical feeling of throwing yourself into dance, or a dancing crowd. Surrender that you know is coming is the hallmark of the lead-up to a particularly ecstatic chorus.
Surrender to a part of oneself that is usually stoically denied is even better.
Sexy surrender = top marks.

In conclusion, drugs ≠ sex ≠ music, and clinical addiction is not the same as really wanting to sleep with your best friend’s boyfriend, but you can certainly work the parallels.


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After the Module’s Over, After the Break of Morn…

Teaching and marking are done, for me. The twenty or so novels I’ve been using, previously stacked in an easy-to-reach cluster, I’m now slotting back into my general shelves.

Some get to stay together. Ellison’s Invisible Man and Erdrich’s Tracks are adjacent, and TIm O’Brien and Joyce Carol Oates – pretty fitting, as during term-time they were frequently paired up by the students in their essays. Other books go solo. Joan Didion’s looking spindly and irritated next to the lovely bulk of Dickens, who wasn’t on the course at all.

The thread that drew the books together – the module reading list, the short period of intense study – is snipped, and they part. This feels melancholy. At least the module is running next year, and they’ll be reunited. No, that’s too sentimental. My reluctance to re-shelve them probably isn’t about romance/friendship/kinship between books, but rather about order and disorder. A tottering stack of random books fuels my fear of entropy and encroaching kibble. During term, each book had an additional purpose and meaning as part of a team. Now they don’t – or rather they send out tentative tentacles of connection all over the place: I’ve got an unreliable narrator, what about you? I like your cover! Mine’s pale blue too. Will you be my intertext?

Re-slotting my course texts makes me aware that my books are actually a dozen collections disguised by the false equivalence of alphabetical order. Things I loved as a child are interwoven with things I only vaguely aspire to read. I have whole shelves from different periods of studying. I think this collection-within-collections is perhaps more obvious in music (you can look at someone’s CDs and guess they were a teen in the 80s, a student during Britpop).

Looking at them doesn’t, I think, give someone a sense of me – maybe it would, if I re-organised them and annotated them (Books I am only keeping in case I need to argue about them on the Internet; Books I genuinely like).

Nevertheless, I’m the only reason they’re all in one place, and if I still have them when my term’s up, they’ll be slotted back into the general shelves, which is a weird thought. Then on to create other meanings in other collections, which is wonderful.

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The things are also people.

My current pet peeve in reviews, essays and articles is when something in fiction is described as ‘a character in its own right’.
The city, the weather, the food, the magical system, the planet, the ship are so effective, so vivid, so forceful that they are characters in their own right.

(When I read articles that start ‘why is everyone doing this annoying thing’ I often think ‘What? Are they?’ And what the article writer thinks is a tedious worldwide trend turns out to be a combination of selection bias and having awful mates. So pre-emptively – this is only a small pet peeve, maybe the size of a hamster. And this post is not about People Doing it Wrong, but about working out why it irked me.)

It’s intended as a compliment – this fiction has raised an object (a city/cheese/smell) to the level of the human (it’s so memorable, influential, characterful!). But for me, the compliment feels backhanded – what it grants to one author, it takes away from fiction as a whole. It underestimates the things that can be memorable, influential, characterful, and over-estimates the importance of human characters. Cities and weather and architecture have their own powerful influence on lives, and fiction at its best can show that influence in fascinating nuanced ways.

This tendency to humanise reminds me of conspiracy theories. One theory as to the popularity of such theories is that humans find complexity daunting. My life is at the mercy of vast systems I can only partially grasp, so I’m daunted.
If, instead, there was a sinister cabal of people out to get me – well, on the one hand, that’s terrifying.
On the other hand, it’s incredibly reassuring. There’s a human intelligence out there, and it’s in charge! If things are going badly for me, then it’s because of them – it’s me against them, mano-a-mano. This puffs my ego, and massively hampers my understanding.

(I’m not saying that reviewers are conspiracy theorists, or that there’s anything sinister about their personification of things they’ve found effective in books. It just raised a parallel in my brain, about the importance of the individual human – see also the Great Man theory of history.)

Have a bit of prosopopeia.

My geek chum added another dimension for me: in computer games, there isn’t an intrinsic distinction between characters and objects. They’re both just nuggets of code – a set of properties, limits, and responses to stimuli.
To take two games as examples: In Grand Theft Auto, when you do crime, someone calls the police. In Watch_Dogs (by Ubisoft, out this week) the city itself notices you on CCTV and sends police (it’s set in a smart/semi-sentient Chicago, with public transport and surveillance and so forth tied into a giant single operating system.) But the underlying mechanisms are the same.
Usually, games disguise the objects with a skin of humanity – for Watch_Dogs they’re (as my chum notes) hanging a hat on what’s happening anyway. A dystopian Orwellian smart-hat.

Henry, the hoover with a smiling face

It’ll grass you up to the fuzz.

Which brought me full circle: to thinking that as people and things in computer games are both bundles of code, so people and things in fiction are both bundles of words, animated by the reader’s understanding and imagination. So why not mess with boundaries? Why not give your cities sentience and your trees empathy, and work the pathetic fallacy for all it’s worth? Particularly in speculative fiction.

So now I feel less irked and more optimistic.

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Took the words right out of my monograph

Write what you know, they said!

I know plagiarism!

So I wrote this short story in Apex Magazine (which is called Not Smart, Not Clever).

I’ve spent the last twenty years in universities, studying and teaching. Plagiarism is my shadow. It annihilates everything that study or teaching attempts, so I’m in permanent horrified orbit around it. I see this story as a companion piece to the anti-plagiarism guidelines I’ve written, elsewhere.
There’s very little good research on why people plagiarise (although some academics offer confident definitions: first-years who do it are clueless angels, final-years are evil). I’d love to research it myself, but it’s incredibly hard to collect data (‘Hello! Want to have a chat about why you cheat so much?’). Many institutions distinguish between wilful and accidental plagiarism in their penalties, so a student is wise to go to their grave swearing their innocence. And the tech-based arms race continues.

I feel I should, like students must, sign a disclaimer:

Apex Magazine: I promise I haven’t plagiarised this story. Although I did steal the title off Tom Armitage, who is both smart and clever.

My current employers, and the awarding bodies for my qualifications: I haven’t plagiarised anything else either. What do you take me for? Have a little trust.

Have some T.S. Eliot, too.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom


Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long


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It’s a pleasure: reading for various reasons

Anne Perry was fascinating at the British Fantasy Society event last night, and is totally not responsible for this riff on one thing she said.

She mentioned reading for pleasure (not a thing editors get to do, much).
When she said it, the phrase sounded suddenly odd. I thought of Reading for the Plot, by Peter Brooks:

“Reading for the plot,” we learned somewhere in the course of our schooling, is a low form of activity … plot is that which especially characterizes popular mass-consumption literature: plot is why we read Jaws, but not Henry James.

(No need to get pre-emptively peeved – Brooks argues against idea this in the rest of the book.)

‘Reading for the plot’ here suggests looking out for the plot on purpose, preferring it to other things (the quality of the writing, the characterisation). Like reading a classic novel for the sex scenes. Last night, I heard ‘reading for pleasure’ in the same way – not just ‘reading what I choose, in my free time, for no other aim’ but ‘reading to prioritise pleasure, to wring the pleasure out of books’.

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Licking the lamppost: intrinsic motivations

I get a lot from being a member of a writing group. One really useful distinction keeps cropping up.

A group member recently pinpointed it, while commenting on another member’s story: ‘I think the dog needs a better reason to lick the lamppost.’

He was right. There was an excellent outcome to the lamppost being licked (I won’t spoil it), but why does the dog want to do it?  Why does the chicken cross the road? Because it’s interesting and picaresque, because it moves the plot along? But why should the dog/chicken care for the progress of the plot?

Writers sometimes know exactly where they want their characters to be, but haven’t given them much intrinsic motivation to get there (this is perhaps particularly true in early drafts). So when the writing group asks why the chicken crosses the road, the writer talks about external considerations: ‘Because the chicken needs to be there by the time the fox arrives.’ ‘At the start of the next chapter, the lamppost needs be covered in dogspittle.’ Character motivation has been overridden by mechanics. Author ‘needs’ overpower character ‘wants’.

Over several writing groups (and seeing it in my own work) I’ve developed a rule of thumb – that the more ambitious the mechanical explanation, the more desperately an in-world explanation is lacking. Characters are dangerously thin if their author is replying: ‘the chicken needs to cross the road because in the fifth book of the series…’

This feels parallel to a distinction that crops up when I’m teaching literature – that there are explanations about the internal world of a story, and explanations about the contexts and choices around it, and students need to be able to discuss both, without confusing them. So when you ask ‘does Mrs Evillady have to die?’ you can answer like this: ‘Yes! She was about to blow up a train!’ But also like this: ‘Maybe not – why does this text keep placing female characters in situations where shooting them is heroic?’

I suspect the complaint that a character has ‘run away with’ an author, or refuses to do what they say, may sometimes hinge on this distinction. A character can have a solid in-world reason to catch the bus/seduce the cloakroom attendant/slay the usurper. And they may only have a whisper of a suggestion from the author that they would be better off waiting at the bus-stop/possessing their soul in patience/serving their revenge cold (so that in book eight of the series things can really kick off…)

I remember having terribly trouble getting my protagonist up a set of stairs. I don’t usually feel my characters have independent life, so I was surprised when she wouldn’t budge. The scene just kept snagging.  Unpicking it, I found that there were logistical problems (doors to be unlocked, staff to be incapacitated). But the main problem was a lack of character motivation. Why was she going up the stairs? Why do it just then? (Because I needed her to help her faithful companions who were in peril upstairs, but she didn’t know that.)

I will be bearing this all in mind the next time I need a dog to lick a  lamppost, and the dog’s not cooperating.

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Both/neither, past/future

Yesterday was International Transgender Day of Visibility, and I’m delighted to have just sold a short story with a non-binary-gendered character. (I know ‘transgender’ and ‘non-binary’ aren’t synonymous, but they have some strong connections and so the coincidence feels fitting.)

I don’t have a gender identity myself, but it was Alex Dally MacFarlane’s recent articles which prompted me to finally write an obviously non-binary character. (And the rush of responses to the first article pointing out that I don’t exist. Obviously, I write from a place of pure joy and possibility, but an afternoon of livid seething did help me knuckle down and tackle the potential pronoun problem. )

I only have one worry: will my character’s non-binary gender be read as one of the SF elements? The ‘novum’, the cognitively estranging MacGuffin? Might SF accidentally imply that non-binary people don’t exist yet? (Suggesting that in the future there’ll be more than two genders has the same benefits and drawbacks as suggesting that after 2050 we’ll all be bisexual: it shackles an identity to a shaky progress narrative; it erases human complexity; and it sounds smug as a bug in a rug.)

I didn’t include my character to signify the white heat of futurity. The story’s a very near-future fiction (in fact, I hope it gets published soon or reality will catch up with it and trip over its extrapolations). It has a dozen not-futuristic bits – including students who work in bars and apply for rip-off internships – and the ungendered character is one of those now-bits. I’m not sure how to signal that.

I’m not a very futuristic person. I’ve got tweed trousers on while I’m writing this. If I have to wait until the future to be my (frankly humdrum) self, I’ll be peeved.

So yes to more gender diversity in SF. And it needs to be in all the other genres, also. Happy International Transgender Day of Visibility.


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