Tuesday, September 26, 2017

For the week in free speech

This week has furnished us with two object lessons in the debate over free speech in the US.

On the one hand, NFL athletes kneel in protest during the national anthem in protest at the deaths of black American at police hands, and the minority president himself sees fit to berate them and call for their silencing.

On the other hand, a putative "Free Speech Week" planned by alt-right agitators across the Bay from me at UC Berkeley collapses in a fog of confusion and acrimony.

Do both equally merit our concern?

The athletes follow their consciences and protest without harming or insulting anyone. Their views merit our consideration, for surely there is a case to answer for natural justice and equality when innocent black lives are lost and no one is held to account or remedy.

Now, the paid champions of right-wing "free speech" follow their speaking fees and political patrons, but their opinions amount only to their assertion of the right to their own opinions. When pressed to actually make their case, they produce only bigotry and personal abuse. The free-speech "radicals" and their supporters often offer the canard that colleges and universities have become "echo chambers", but nothing echoes more loudly, or frequently, than a bigot's opinion that he is entitled to his opinion, whereas you are not entitled to question, much less dismiss, the same. We might lend them credence or even some of our time if they had a case to make, but not otherwise. A robust diversity of opinion does not necessitate a universality of folly.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Ready Player One - Ernest Cline

My water-damaged, crumpled copy of Ernest Cline's geek friendly science-fiction adventure Ready Player One certainly now looks like a vacation read, and as an entertaining ride that ultimately offers few challenges to the reader, a vacation read is probably the best summary of its qualities. In this case, appearance and reality coincide.

Which is not to say that the premise, an extended dive through a global virtual-reality game that has come to stand in for the Internet in search of a departed billionaire's fortune is not both intriguing and well-executed. The execution of the plot is pitch-perfect, and the near-future dystopia, in which the energy crisis and global warming have driven human beings into the refuge of a virtual world, is intriguing. But the game ultimately proves more compelling than the characters' fictional reality, and so as speculative fiction, Ready Player One falls short.

The quest for the Easter Egg buried in the vast, shared virtual-reality world of OASIS, which grants access to the entire game as well as its creator's legacy, is as much a tour of Geek culture as the story itself. No movie title or song goes by without its due, reverent, acknowledgement. The products of Eighties geek culture, from arcade games to D&D to Monty Python to John Hughes' movies, all get their moment on screen, but there's no lightness of touch or satire in Cline's relentless referencing. This means that, firstly, the culture is predominantly the dominant culture of US media and games, but that Cline also conveniently leaps over cyberpunk, over Willam Gibson (Neuromancer, 1984) over Philip K. Dick, over the all the science fiction and culture of the 80s and beyond that has taken the same ideas about reality and virtual reality, the real and the fake, but questioned them with much more rigor and effect.

The effect of this is that as speculative fiction, Ready Player One falls enticingly short. The real world of the novel, including stacks of mobile homes that make for compelling cover art on my water-damaged edition, with its collapsing energy economy, galloping inequality, and corporate slavery, is intriguing, but Cline never attacks these themes head on, and the ramifications of the tension between material realities and virtual realities are handled more predictably than analytically. Although Wade's online best friend does turn out to be black, female, and gay, rather than a white gamer bro, this is no surprise, and Wade's love interest remains "the girl", minor blemishes aside. Wade and his friends fight and hack a murderous corporate entity to win the prize, but the fact is the prize is.... control over an even more ubiquitous corporate entity.

The end of the novel makes a gesture towards rejecting the virtual reality that Wade has always used as an escape from a collapsing world, but this is only possible because Wade and his friends have mastered the Geekosphere and escaped from virtual reality to the even more tenuous reality of the ultra-rich. They may choose to save the world at this stage, but never ask what world, exactly, is worth rescuing. Other works in the same vein, such as Charles Yu's sardonic "Hero Absorbs Major Damage" (of which I hope to say much more) bring a sharper critical eye to bear in less space.

Which is not to diminish the fun of this airplane read, but only to observe that Ready Player One would be stronger, and more memorable, if its contemporary cyber-nostalgia was tempered with more of the spirit of cyberpunk.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafón

There could hardly be a better snippet of dust-jacket praise than this to capture this reader's attention:
"Gabriel García Márquez meets Umberto Eco meets Jorge Luis Borges for a sprawling magic show." - The New York Times Book Review
 And, to some extent, The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, reflects all of these influences. There is an element of the family saga and national history (Marquez), a literary thriller (Eco), and meta-textual play (Borges). There's no reason why these elements cannot cohere in a novel that is both tremendously popular and intellectually challenging, but The Shadow of the Wind does not quite live up the the challenge of this lineage. This is because, whereas Borges, Eco, and Marquez were all writers of the higher order, none of them were sentimental, or prone to melodrama, as Zafon is.

Which is not to say that The Shadow of the Wind is not entertaining, compelling even, but it lacks the clarity and generic playfulness of these other writers. Its strongest element is that of the meta-text, as the narrative of the protagonist and the author of the books he adores merge and coincide, through nested and interpolated stories. The initial Borgesian fantasy, the cemetery of forgotten books, is intriguing but never really examined. The mystery is not hard to anticipate, although many of the details are truly harrowing. But, in the spirit of a book about books and their value, both material and spiritual, The Shadow of the Wind seeks to affirm its own sort of literature, the literature of feeling, of imagination, of trauma described and therefore transcended.

This is why the plucky, sensitive protagonist ultimately marries the beautiful girl and has a son of his own, healing the wounds of the past and refusing to relive its injustices, though at some personal cost. Although one notable character pursues the idea that literature in itself is worthless, this view is reversed by the end of the novel. This is both a celebration of the text and the root of its sentimentalism. Eco and Borges, in particular, were profoundly conscious of the limits of literature, of what words and fictional worlds could and could not do, and played with these restrictions in their fictions. Zafon resolves these tensions, but although the journey is satisfying, all the narrative invention it entails leads to the happy ending, the popular narrative, we foresaw after all.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017


From time to time one reads about how word-processors transformed writing, breaking writers from the slow and considered process of writing and re-writing tethered to pen and paper, then typewriter and paper.

This mythic writer of old taps out a manuscript, juggles and annotates a stack of papers, contrives to have the whole thing typed cleanly again, and consequently writes with due respect for the weight of every word. Occasionally, manuscripts are left in shoeboxes or on public transport, but so be it.

Then comes digitization, computers, and the manuscript is instantly editable, always live, and we contemplate the impact of the means of production on output.

But it strikes me that another, more significant change is underway in our writing habits and processes, which has less to do with the mechanics of keyboard and screen than the infrastructure of work itself. This is the effect of the digital cloud for writing.

I have always used a personal computer, from an Apple 512KE to a MacBook Pro, to write and revise, but only in recent years have I had access to cloud services, such as Dropbox and Google Drive, which allow me to save a manuscript remotely, and to access it almost wherever I go, on either my own computer, a tablet, or another device. In other words, the manuscript is no longer tied to the typewriter, the writer's desk, the study, even the personal laptop. The manuscript goes with you. It's almost as accessible as your thoughts.

For a long time, even with word processors, if you had an idea, reimagined a scene, even thought of the name of a character while you were out, or at work (by which I mean the job most writers take for material support) then that idea had to stick long enough for you to get back to "your" computer. Now, there's a way to reach out to your manuscript, to find yourself writing at odd times and in odd locations. Your creative life can follow you in the cloud, but what kind of discipline is now required? Are thoughts refracted, concentrated, or ephemeral, when you can edit at any time? This adjustment is at once, I think, more substantive than a change in tools, and harder to evaluate. Is the process different when you can craft words virtually anywhere?

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Why study creative writing?

It's been a few months since I've posted, one of the reasons being that at the end of February I completed the dissertation for a PhD in Creative Writing that I've pursued part-time, with many gaps and hiatuses, at The University of Queensland.

Reflecting on the experience, I have cause to ask myself: why study creative writing? Surely my own experience suggests you don't need to study writing in order to be a writer; why make a detailed study of one's own vocation, at the expense of time and effort a research degree demands?

Some brief, provisional responses:

  • Firstly, every deep, complex field of human activity is, I think, worthy of study. The foundation of scholarship is not necessarily gain – that job, that publication – but interest.
  • Now, you can't teach creativity, but you can, of course, practice it, and practice can strengthen.
  • And practice can also refine. The self-reflection inherent in scholarly practice may not make me better, but it makes me clearer about my interests, my strengths and weaknesses, my influences, and formalizes of my techniques and approaches. Writing about one's own writing helps to refine intuitions and make them explicit.
  • Finally, writing to a task and reflecting on that work not only allows you to apply skills but to experiment, to take risks and write out scenarios and possibilities that test ideas and your personal capacities. Not all writing in the academic context may be publishable, but it is constructive, a workbench for concepts and techniques.

Where this will lead next, I don't know. A new historical mystery is almost finished, and beyond that there are only sails on the horizon, suggestions of destinations. But studying creative writing has at least given me some sense of how I set the sails, what stars I steer by.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Our American Podsnap

Since Trump captured the presidency of the United States (you could not say he won by any merit of his own, and in fact Hilary Clinton has now a significant lead in the popular vote), I've been wondering if there was a literary clue to the reasons for this mess.

Well, Dickens has a word for part of it: Podsnappery.

There are, of course, many reasons for this distressing loss, many of them deplorable: resurgent white nationalism, racism, misogyny, and plain bigotry, the failure of neoliberalism on the political left and right, and these things are deeply enmeshed. But given that the US electoral system gives undue weight to votes in certain states, we must surely look to the edge cases, the margins, to detect the reasons for the swings on both sides, and here Dickens presents us with Podsnappery.

I have wondered why voters in a democracy, furnished not just with the facts and opinion of the media, but with the candidate's own words, could make a decision so fatal to the interests of the nation, not to mention the world. Some of them, poor, white, not college educated and rural, mired in the slow decay of their living standards and education, weary of false hope, were yet grasping at political straws. But a good many were neither poor nor disadvantaged, and the question is how against all good reason they could vote for a less than competent property speculator, TV star, and populist, with a taste for commercial fraud, insults, sexual assault, and unrepentant lying. The answer is: Podsnappery.

Merriam-Webster helpfully defines Podsnappery as: "an attitude toward life marked by complacency and a refusal to recognize unpleasant facts."

So Dickens describes Mr. Podsnap, the namesake of this attitude:
Mr Podsnap was well to do, and stood very high in Mr Podsnap's opinion. Beginning with a good inheritance, he had married a good inheritance, and had thriven exceedingly in the Marine Insurance way, and was quite satisfied. He never could make out why everybody was not quite satisfied, and he felt conscious that he set a brilliant social example in being particularly well satisfied with most things, and, above all other things, with himself.
Thus happily acquainted with his own merit and importance, Mr Podsnap settled that whatever he put behind him he put out of existence. There was a dignified conclusiveness--not to add a grand convenience--in this way of getting rid of disagreeables which had done much towards establishing Mr Podsnap in his lofty place in Mr Podsnap's satisfaction. 'I don't want to know about it; I don't choose to discuss it; I don't admit it!' Mr Podsnap had even acquired a peculiar flourish of his right arm in often clearing the world of its most difficult problems, by sweeping them behind him (and consequently sheer away) with those words and a flushed face. For they affronted him.
Here we have, I think, the refusal to recognize Trump for what he is, a serial liar, a privileged set of failures in search of validation. In the fortress of his (and her) satisfaction, the American Podsnap can safely ignore inconvenient facts, like Trump's contempt for facts, his shady dealings, his praise for tyrants, his promotion of cronies and bigots, the advantages his schemes will confer on the already wealthy, while forcing the nation further into debt. The American Podsnap can ignore sexism and racism. The American Podsnap can ignore the harms that Trump's position on taxes and healthcare will inflict on the poor.

Many have sought change in the American political system, but many of those in positions of privilege who nevertheless choose Trump are content to invoke change for it's own sake, with no thought of the consequences to the world, or others. The issues are swept behind them, so many exaggerations, mean words and tweets, the inconvenience of human rights, inequality and globalization, climate change, mere unpleasantries.
Mr Podsnap's world was not a very large world, morally; no, nor even geographically: seeing that although his business was sustained upon commerce with other countries, he considered other countries, with that important reservation, a mistake, and of their manners and customs would conclusively observe, 'Not English!' when, PRESTO! with a flourish of the arm, and a flush of the face, they were swept away.
It remains to be seen what else may be swept away in the wake of a Trump administration -- and what may be recovered afterwards. The last thing to do now is lose faith in democracy or the virtues of the republic. But what Dickens returned to, from Bleak House to Our Mutual Friend, is that society is not singular, and that the Podsnaps cannot isolate themselves in their small worlds from injustice or folly. Perhaps now we need the novelist's satire to pierce their complacency, before that reckoning is due.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Unfinished, not unread

I firmly believe that writers should be readers, that reading is an act of faith in writing and essential to the craft.

And while I dislike leaving a book unfinished, it sometimes happens that, due to work, writing, or other contingencies, a book has to be set aside. Sometimes, this is because a book is dull, unreadable, or impossible, but mostly not.

At the moment, I'm coming close to the end of a revision of A Hangman for Ghosts, and so I have less time than usual for reading. But, as a record of my efforts, here are three partial reviews of three books started and left behind, through no clear fault of their own.

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

I owe a significant debt of allegiance to this, an historical novel, also a literary mystery, by a New Zealand author. It is a considerable work, with a deep and complex narrative, rich structure, and sensitive voice. It probably deserves greater attention that I could spare at the time.

Catton's model for the Victorian multi-plot novel, however, is not Dickens but George Eliot. Middlemarch springs to mind, for the breadth interaction and the close attention to the minutia of human interaction. The danger here, for Catton, is that much like Eliot she often describes the secret key, the inner nature of her characters, in subtle terms, but – unlike Eliot – she cannot quite reflect the inner character in their outer actions.

The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

A literary fantasy by a significant author. Certainly there is something haunting and evocative about his post-Roman Britain, a land where fantastical beasts and terrors are real, and where the culture is as contained and occasionally fearful as the upper-classes of England before the Second World War, or in 1930s Shanghai. But there is, I think, a limit to the effectiveness of Ishiguro's rigorously affectless prose. His characters may have fenced off their memories and feelings, but in a world of magic and looming strangeness, should their feelings also be fenced off so effectively from us?

The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

Completing the move to more commercial fantasy, The Name of the Wind is engaging, highly readable, a perfect traveling companion (which is how I started reading it). The fictional world suggests depth and interest, and the work is well-written, occasionally poetic, which serves it well. Unlike Ishiguro, however, Rothfuss does not quite grasp the mindset of the pre-technological, mythic era he describes, and occasionally lapses into odd anachronisms, or drops modern phrases ("Okay" is particularly jarring) into his dialogue. If Rothfuss has embraced the need to make his imagined world coherent and believable, it seems to have been imposed from the outside rather than growing from an inward imaginary.

But, as the book moves on, it begins to solidify some of the cliches that it appears at first to eschew, and attention wanes. The hero at first becomes a Harry Potter-esque magical prodigy, complete with a visible physical tell, is then violently orphaned, then finds his way to the University (of magic – which operates more like a modern American college than a medieval school), and then teaches a lesson to the stuffy and insular faculty, and so on. This may indeed be an "adult Harry Potter", but others, such as A Wizard of Earthsea or The Magicians sequence, have made more original work of this.

Since this book is still unfinished, the summary is partial and unfair. My biggest hope is that eventually Rothfuss will begin to unwind the tropes he summons.