Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Forcing the Muse

Three weeks since returning from my holiday, I'm making myself post something as it's safe to say the writing bug has not been with me lately. It's not that I don't want to write but I'm finding the words are stuck; I need a plumber to remove the blockage with one of those amusingly shaped plungers. Though I have just realised how much I like the word "plunger".

To combat the lack of words I've decided I need to approach this like I do going to the gym; make myself do it at set times, on set days, no matter how I feel. When exercise is the activity this often leads to a lot of internal whinging and negotiation with my inner self; bargains are proposed and regrettably rejected. Wails of "but I can't" are met with "but you must". So far I haven't had a routine for the writing to allow this fun dialogue to happen in my head, but here we are. Now I have two activities in which to explore the depths of my insanity.

I tried to do a bit of writing on holiday but was never that optimistic it would lead to much. In Magaluf there are lots of distractions of the sun, pool, drinks and dancing variety. And as it turned out food poisoning, when me and my man made the mistake of having the hotel's freshly cooked omelettes. I may never eat an omelette again. Couple with a decided lack of sun, grumpy neighbours, and a gym that was more a death trap then a work out area, it wasn't the smoothest of holidays, but it was still fun.

Another aid to writing I'm trying is working my way through Ursula K. Le Guin's "Steering the Craft - A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story". It's a short book on writing, with exercises to do at the end of each chapter, and I plan to post my attempts here. Alongside this I've set out my writing goals for the next three months, broken down into the actual pieces I want to have finished in that time and what should be in progress. Waiting for inspiration just isn't working, so a checklist will have to do. I'm even getting up earlier with the express purpose of writing something everyday, before I do anything else. I really like my sleep, so this is a significant step for me.

Hopefully all of this will mean more words on the page, and more posts on this ol' blog. And maybe, just maybe, some stories to show for it all.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Rachel Dolezal: Is Identity Skin Deep?

Identity. It isn't what it used to be. Religion, gender, sexuality, all have seen the barriers that once existed come crashing down, leading to a more fluid notion of where one group ends and another begins. The most recent challenger is now race, brought to the fore by the revelations around rights activist Rachel Dolezal. This has prompted a furore in the media and online about whether or not she is black and whether you can change your racial identity through desire alone.

Others have written at length about the Rachel Dolezal case but few are diving into the issue of identity and what it means in the 21st century. Self-identity has and will always be important to human beings: it's who we are, what we like, even why we are. Globalisation has massively affected our identity concepts; it would be hard to identify with a demographic if you didn't know anything about them or even if they existed. In fact one of the greatest strengths of a connected world, with open communication available to all, is the opportunity to learn about other people and their identity. But it has it's pitfalls; it's a thin line between self-identity and appropriation.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Reboots, Remakes and Nostalgia

Summer blockbusters this year seem to all be about nostalgia. First there was "Mad Max: Fury Road", bringing the road warrior back to the big screen for the first time since 1985. Then we had "Jurassic World", to enormous blockbuster success. Now we have "Terminator: Genisys", living up to the eternal promise of 'I'll be back'. Like a lot of people my age (let's say, thirty-ish) I remember the original films from the first time around (except for Mad Max, which I watched in the Nineties) and have a lot of warm and fuzzy feelings about them. I was too young to see Terminator until about a decade after its release but I watched T:2 when it came out on VHS and absolutely loved it. Of the three franchises, it was Jurassic Park that held a very special place in my heart; I saw it four times in the cinema when it came out in 1993 and loved every minute of it.

I'll admit, I'm still a little sad that movies aren't all that original anymore and rely on glories of the past to get bums on seats. If it's not superhero movies getting a reboot every two years, it's sequels to franchises that have been out of the limelight for two decades. Saying that, I have been thoroughly enjoying the current wave of sequels. Watching the latest Terminator addition got me thinking about this; I should probably hate all these films, for not living up to my memories of their founders, for trying to ruthlessly cash-in on established franchises with a strong fan-base. But I don't. All have been entertaining, all have made going to the cinema something I wanted to do (it's rare for any film to make me want to spend the cash for the big screen anymore) and most of all, I've felt that all have respected their origins. Some have done it better than others but none have made me feel like they're shitting all over their roots. In fact one of the things I like best about Terminator: Genisys is that it removes films 3 and 4 entirely from the timeline, two films that did not respect the original at all. Still hate the title though.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

No erotica before ten - at least in Germany

Something I find endlessly fascinating are the differences between cultures and countries on this fair planet of ours; the varieties in aesthetics, practices and outlooks is a great reminder to take nothing for granted. However, sometimes you're left boggled by decisions made in parts of the world.

Germany have now introduced a law that prohibits ebooks aimed at adults to be sold before 10 PM and after 6 AM, local time. The German Publishers & Booksellers Association has been told by the Youth Protection Authority that all ebooks are now subject to the same controls that have existed for print media since 2002, which limits the sale of hardcovers, paperbacks, magazines, and graphic novels to minors when those material are clearly aimed at adults. From now on all publishing houses and self-publishers will need to fill in a new field in the metadata calling out if the content is for an adult audience.

The oddness of this decision is mitigated by the fact that it may not in fact be enforced; Germany have a number of rules around what can and can't be sold or shown but these aren't always followed. With the fine being €500,000 for breaking the law though it will be surprising if new adult sections don't start popping up in online book stores across Germany.

From my time in the DVD world, I know that similar rules exist for rated 18 and up movies and TV, to the point where even buying them abroad can result in them being confiscated by customs until you prove your age (though it's a rare occurrence). But books are an odd medium to put these kind of age limits on; reading isn't as easy as sitting back and watching a movie, or playing a video game. Britain doesn't currently (and hopefully never will) have an age rating on books. Graphic novels are also not rated, though there may be an argument for that given they're much more of a visual medium then books. I'm not sure where I stand on this; I read a lot of non-age appropriate books and comics growing up, but then again my mum bought those for me after checking them... 

Is it okay to sell a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey to an eight-year-old, without a guardian present? Do we control the distribution of books by a person's age? And why does the idea of  that make a shiver go down my spine? Worth puzzling over, but I suspect there are no easy answers; and in the meantime each culture will do what works (or seems to) for them. See, I told you cultural variety is interesting.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Tanith Lee - Strange, Magical and Irreplaceable

It was a shock to hear that Tanith Lee died Sunday 24th May at the age of 67. To say she's influenced my reading and writing habits would be a massive understatement. It was her book, The Birthgrave, that was the very first fantasy novel I ever read that was intended for adults. I was eleven and in desperate need of MORE STORIES, particularly anything with a girl as the main character and having magical adventures. There weren't a lot of those kind of books when I was a kid in the early Nineties so my mum gave me a book with a semi-naked woman on the cover:

Written entirely in first-person, it tells the story of a woman who wakes up in a cavern under a volcano that is erupting. Barely escaping with her life she's rescued by some locals, who worship her as a god. Oh, and did I mention she takes one look at herself in some water and is confronted with a hideous deformed visage, so she covers her face for the rest of the book? That happens too. I adored the story, the characters and the epic yet personal themes. I read my way through it and the two follow ups in a matter of weeks. Then promptly read them again. From that point on I became a firm fantasy and science-fiction fan for life.

Lee's books are a wonderful mixture of high-fantasy, urban fantasy, horror and magic; with a large dose of weirdness. And through all of her stories was the ever present female point of view. Her stories were genuinely unique, beautifully written but so strange at times they could be hard to get into. With more than 90 books to her name I haven't come close to reading them all but to honour this great writer, who was sadly much under appreciated in her lifetime, I've listed below some of her works I have read and would highly recommend for all speculative fiction fans. Her high-fantasy books always reminded me of the Conan worlds, but with women as the focus, and there's a strong current of horror running through most of her stories. Her science fiction stories by comparison brought unusual takes on sci-fi tropes to create truly unique stories that I haven't yet found from other writers.

Black Unicorn
Silver Metal Lover

When the Lights Go Out
The Castle of Dark

I'm genuinely saddened that there will be no new Tanith Lee stories ever again, so will be making the effort to read those books of hers I haven't got to yet. For a personal and touching post about the loss of this great writer to the world, I highly recommend this post from her editor and friend.

And in the words of Tanith Lee herself: 

"Though we come and go, and pass into the shadows, where we leave behind us stories told -- on paper, on the wings of butterflies, on the wind, on the hearts of others -- there we are remembered, there we work magic and great change -- passing on the fire like a torch -- forever and forever. Till the sky falls, and all things are flawless and need no words at all."

Thursday, 23 April 2015


This is not going to be one of those "Gee, I sure haven't written a post in a while" posts. The ones where the writer apologises to the masses of disappointed and frustrated readers, ravenously waiting for their next hit of amateur blogging. Even if those masses are mainly made up of their mum and their cat. No, I'm not going to do that. But I am going to talk about the not writing, and how it's an odd reflection of my state of mind.

For a long time now I haven't wanted to write anything. Actually let me rephrase that; I have wanted to have written, to see my words on the page and even to have been paid for those words. But the actual process of writing, the sitting down and typing those words - that I haven't wanted. So I didn't do it. If the last year has taught me anything it's to not be too hard on yourself and to recognise when you just have to stop. So I stopped. I've been reading lots of books (reviews coming soon), watching TV and lots of movies. I haven't been playing games so much because, like writing, I just can't find the energy to actually do it. I have been wanting passive pastimes, rather than active ones. Even the gym took a bit of a backseat, with my regular three visits a week dropping to one, maybe two if I could be arsed.

I think I've seemed okay to others, and have largely felt "okay", but I know that I've been under a shadow for a while now. I only recognised this because it seems to be lifting, letting in some light that had been unknowingly missing. I still haven't gone back to games yet, but ideas for stories are being explored, as well as a lot of research into freelance writing opportunities. The gym is also being graced with my presence a bit more (though work hours conspire to make that as difficult as possible). Chores are (mostly) getting done rather than thought about, dismissed and finally done in a fit of "fine, if you won't clean/cook/wash yourself then I'll bloody well do it". It's odd how a return to normal patterns makes you realise how abnormal they've been.

I've also begun to feel a bit more confident. I think I do a good job most of the time of seeming pretty confident and sure of myself. The reality is I often am struck with impostor syndrome, feeling like I'm going to be found out at any moment. That sensation got a lot worse after Dad died, and coupled with the panic attacks I occasionally got on public transport, left me feeling like a shell made of sugar glass. That's also fading, though not entirely absent - I'm just getting better at telling myself to suck it up and see what happens, rather than worry what the outcome may or may not be.

The roller coaster ride is definitely not over, eight months in and counting, but I'm starting to learn how to deal with the dips and peaks better. It's just a pity I hate roller coasters... 

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

How to Blow Your Mind in One Easy Step

I read a thing about artificial intelligence here and here. And I can't recommend enough for you all to do the same. It took me about 40 minutes to get through it all, mostly with this facial expression:

It's seriously terrifying shit. If you can't be arsed to read it all, it boils down to this:

1. Scientific advancement increases exponentially (the more you know, the easier it is to work shit out). So what we did in the whole of the 20th Century will probably take us, ooh, ten years to do now.

2. AI comes in three types: stupid, human level, and super. So far we only have the stupid kind, that can be really good at one thing and one thing only (think Siri, Google Cars, anything where computers do the thinking for you). But we are in the process of creating human level AI. But...

3. The rules of 'exponentiality' means that as soon as we do, that human AI is likely to turn into Super AI in about an hour, real-time.

4. Super AI is going to make us like ants looking at the Hadron Collider and being totally unable to comprehend what it is, let alone how it was built or what it does.

The smartest people on the planet seem to be in two camps; one side see super AI as the saviour of not just humanity but of the Universe. It will be able to manipulate matter at an atomic (or even sub-atomic) level. It will be able to solve all of the puzzles of physics and the universe, even the ones we don't know about yet. It will be able to make us immortal. And all this in less than fifty years from now (at optimistic estimates).

The other group of super smart people... well, they're not so happy-flappy and ready to welcome the computer deity we'd be creating. They point out that while humans have mushy things like feelings, empathy, morals, ethics, etc, a computer wouldn't. This could be the extinction event for humanity. Maybe all life on earth.

Now, while a part of me is all like "Oh, shit!" another, bigger bit of me is thinking of all the stories I could make out of this. Which probably says a lot about my tendency to retreat into fantasy rather than deal with reality, but is also a demonstration of something I think may be the key to stopping the AI destruction of the world. Make the thing love stories, particularly stories about people and then it will have a good reason to keep us around.

Unless we all end up having to reenact Game of Thrones for the computerised overlord's amusement...