Friday, July 29, 2011

Food caught

There is a lot more variety in these requests for a last meal than I thought there would be. Dostoyevsky, and doubtless many others, have written about the exquisite sensitivity being on the scaffold can bestow and I wonder if any of those final choices were made in that light. Some are clearly sending a message but others seem almost casual.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Thick and thin

The last few stories I've turned out have not had a traditional plot. They stand in contrast to most of the others in which I tried hard to use the "person in a place with a problem" plot structure common to many works of fiction. Look here for how that plot skeleton became so popular. And here - Barry Malzberg starts talking about it from 16:42 onwards.

The first time I put together a story that lacked a plot structure I was not that worried because the tale seemed strong enough to survive without it as there was enough else going on in it. Plus re-writing it to make it hang well on that skeleton would have diminished it.

Then I did it again, and again. And the story I've just finished lacks it too. What was a isolated incident is starting to look like an epidemic.

I didn't worry until I read the comments of a reviewer on OWW who was looking over the first of the plotless batch. She asked a question that stopped me short. What are the stakes? In that story the protagonists succeed with precious little opposition. They triumph easily, too easily, over the obstacles set in their way.

The other plotless stories I've looked over share the same problem. There's nothing at stake and the threats to the actions of the protagonists are easily dealt with. There is no sense that they could fail and it could all go horribly wrong. Nothing matters. Bugger.

The standard plot skeleton suggests that the threat of failure should be at its most acute just before the resolving climax. In the current versions I have protagonists who are universally successful and face little or no serious opposition. Threats are easily dealt with.

Having to fix this, and I think I do for them to be compelling stories, puts me in a bind. This is because I kind of believe Stephen King's assertion that stories are found objects like fossils. As such there are many ways to get them out of the ground. Plot being a jackhammer that destroys as much as it liberates.

If I believe that stories are found objects then forcing them into that plot skeleton does damage. Just like it does when fossils are re-created to meet expectations of how dinosaurs lived. I hope that the destruction is creative. It will be a useful process to go through as it will get me thinking about how to tell a story.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Plot help

I found this consideration of a different way to plot useful, not least because I've been wondering if the lack of classic plot in the stories I've been writing is a good thing or bad thing. This implies that it is a good thing.

Spanish adventures

The 75th anniversary of the start of the Spanish civil war is today. How timely. Lots of good sources here. "No pasaran" means they shall not pass.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

All over the carpet

I will now attempt to discover the meaning of life in only a few hundred words. I really don't expect to produce a definitive answer but I need to stage a debate to help frame a story I am putting together. Rembrandt's Philosopher in Meditation (detail).Image via Wikipedia

Somerset Maugham summed up what I want to do in Of Human Bondage when considering the philosophical journey the central character, Philip Carey, was to undergo in the book.

"The thing then was to discover what one was and one's system of philosophy would devise itself. It seemed to Philip that there were three things to find out: man's relation to the world he lives in, man's relation with the men among whom he lives, and finally man's relation to himself."

So that's what I need answers to. But in a philosophical sleight of mind, I'm going to turn the question around to make it more tractable. Instead of looking for the meaning of life I want to consider how to give life meaning.

The story is set during the inter-war years when questions of what constituted a meaningful life were at their most acute. It was a time of class conflict, war, economic depression and epidemics. It's an interesting period to write about because choices were so stark. So much so that staying silent or taking no action was viewed as complicity.

Modernism had its birth during this period and it, amongst other things, was about setting itself against the authorities of the past and finding a new way of being. The literature of the time tended to concentrate on the individual and their attempts to preserve themselves in the face of vast and indifferent social and natural forces. It was marked by the acknowledgement of those forces, antipathy towards them and a desire to avoid the traps they set.

Ally this to morality of the modernists and you get a recipe for a meaningful life that is defined by action. Taking part, actively throwing over what has gone before becomes important. Finding and trying new ways to do things, even if the end result is questionable, is key to a good life in this time. Modernism seems keen to avoid any moral judgement on this philosophy. So people working to bring about a socialist or fascist state are both, under this approach, meaningful ways to live.

What helps with the story is that action, doing, is key. Sometimes the actions are in service of a cause, at others just to satisfy an individual. It also has to be an engagement that is total. There can be little place for the detached observer. Living rather than thinking is the more important part. It should be the case that only by looking back will it be possible to see the pattern such a life has woven. The life has to be lived without any consciousness not carefully shaped and fabricated. Be in it rather than above it.

The tenor of the inter-war years, the sheer pace of history that crashed over the period made it easier to engage with life. The various conflicts of the time, social and military, also made it hard for people to stop and philosophise about what they were doing. No matter what people did - protest, fight, work or stay silent - there were consequences to their actions or lack of them.

I also want to salt this with some of the sentiment from Sartre's Existentialism and Humanism (which was pre-figured in a lot of modernist literature as far as I can see) which tries to reveal the heroic in the stance of someone who knows the universe is indifferent but goes on with his life. As he writes, existentialism is not supposed to be about navel gazing. It is about responsibility. Do not blame your cowardice, bravery or morality on nature or nurture. Seize its implications and embrace the act. Heroes make themselves heroic, they have no-one else to blame. Nor do cowards. Nor does anyone. Make your choices and act.
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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Useful sources

George Orwell, especially on his memories of Spain.

Henry Green, and this is very useful.

This manifesto of the times is also worth reading.

Bright young people

Patrick Balfour
Harold Acton
Anthony Powell
Robert Byron
Evelyn Waugh
Babe Plunket Greene
Brenda Dean Paul
Nancy Mitford
Elizabeth Ponsonby
Cecil Beaton
Stephen Tennant
Georgia Sitwell
Inez Holden
Rosemary Sanders
Zita Jungman
Nina Seafield
Gavin Henderson
Eddy Sackville-West
Bryan Guinness
Ed Burra
John Banting
Brian Howard
Martin Wilson
Constance Lambert
Henery Green
Eddie Gathorne Hardy
Tom Driberg
Diana Mitford
Beverley Nichols
Cyril Connolly
Billy Chappell
Paddy Brodie
William Walton

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

A very great old one

I think I lost a few sanity points when I read that HP Lovecraft kept a commonplace book. More went astray when I found out that some of it had been transcribed. The horror! The horror! I'm afraid to read what was in it and lose more than 20% in a single session which could trigger a roll to see if I contract a neurosis (If I remember my CoC rules correctly).

Monday, July 04, 2011

Social signs

Contemporary technology can be a real problem when writing far-future SF.Image via Wikipedia

In the days before TV, mobiles and social networks all an SF hero needed was a lantern jaw, a laboratory, and a convenient woman with a fatal attraction for invading aliens, giant insects or rogue robots.

Even in the days when William G was writing Neuromancer mobile phones were not ubiquitous. It was published in 1984 and the first mobile call in the UK was made in 1985. So it was not odd that the future he envisaged made no mention of them. Anyone writing anything similar now would have to make mention of them, wouldn't they? For me, a future without them, or the instant communication they make possible, is inconceivable.

The rising popularity of the social network has also got me pondering. Again, they seem such a natural addition to the the way we live that to be without them in any future looks, from here, odd.

So any far future SF has to take into account ways for its members to be in contact all the time and for them to be managing the connections with friends, family and others. Even if they do it in a very different way to the cumbersome way we do it now. Smart AI will probably help manage that workload.

I could ignore it. Write as if those technologies had not come about. It's tempting. I've grown frustrated with this because I realise that it means explaining away several aspects of the world I've put together in a story. For explaining away read - hide. The main character has been kidnapped so its not surprising that he cannot contact his nearest and dearest. The others who live in this place will be able to, though.

Just thinking about this made me realise that my original conception of this story was flawed. It took no account of the consequences of technology their lives. I was thinking about their lives using the perspective of the 21st century. I find myself justifying why certain technologies and ways of life are missing to make the story work. This is despite the fact that most far future SF I have read does not take these technologies into account because they were not around when it was being written.

Do I have to? If I'm being honest about the work then I do even though deciding which technologies will survive into that far future is impossible.

More problematic is satisfying myself about the philosophical outlook of people living in a society looked after by a god-like AI. If that was the case would people worry that almost everything they do is futile? Where is free will and how can it manifest itself? If those AIs are engineering everything for maximum comfort for the majority and can do it in a way that is largely invisible then how can anyone live a fulfilling life? I'm not even sure they would realise that they did live under such a regime. Would these fish discover the water they swim in?
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