Linkblogging For 12/11/15

Just a few links today.

Alan Moore gave a friend £10,000 to help him get round our country’s despicable immigration rules.

Lovecraft was always a terrible choice for the World Fantasy Awards

Charity parachute jumps cost the NHS far more in treating injuries than they raise for charity

Nick Barlow’s answer to “what does it mean to be a Lib Dem today?”

The Black Archive — an equivalent to the 33 1/3 books, but about Doctor Who stories, starting next year. I’m writing one.

Zoe O’Connell looks at the Investigatory Powers Bill (the “Snooper’s Charter”)

Basic income as the social vaccine of the twenty-first century

Take action to stop the execution of Kho Jabing

A good post on the exclusion of women from the jazz canon

A Kickstarter to bring some of Eisner’s earliest work back into print

And finally, here’s a full live concert performance of Frank Zappa’s The Yellow Shark, by the Ensemble Modern:

On writing when aphantasic (attn @LoyaulteMeLie )

This post may be a bit disjointed, because I’m not particularly well today, or coherent, but it’s been several days since I wrote anything at all here, and I had an interesting Twitter discussion yesterday, and I wanted to get the things I said into some sort of more thought-out state.

One of the things I don’t talk about very much is that I am aphantasic — I am (almost) incapable of seeing things “in my mind’s eye”. I don’t talk about it very much because, despite what that link seems to claim, it’s not a particularly interesting or newly-discovered thing. In fact one of the founding papers of psychology as an experimental science, by Francis Galton back in 1880, was the one that first established that there is a wide range in people’s ability to visualise things — with some people able to see entire scenes as vividly as in real life, and others completely unable to. (I am in Galton’s “last suboctile” in his rather confusingly-named schema — “I am very rarely able to recall any object whatever with any sort of distinctness. Very occasionally an object or image will recall itself, but even then it is more like a genereralised image than an individual one. I seem to be almost destitute of visualising power as under control.”)

Anyway, this isn’t a disability or anything, it’s just one of those interesting different ways people’s brains work (the same way I *can* hear in my head an entire record, with production, vocals, instrumental parts, all in place, which apparently most people can’t). But a friend who writes just discovered that this was A Thing, and that a particularly difficult problem she’d been experiencing wasn’t just her being no good at writing, but that she is aphantasic, and she wanted to know how I deal with it.

You see, the advice one is given as a writer is to “show, don’t tell”. The ideal writer, according to many self-appointed experts on the subject, is one who puts reams of physical description into their writing. One apparently needs to give a “sense of place” — to describe every piece of clothing worn by every character, the lighting in the room, the books on the bookshelf, the… I’ve already run out of things I could list, actually.

You see the problem. If you want a description of, say, the differences between the two versions of Help Me R(h)onda by the Beach Boys, I can do that no problem without listening to them. But my legs are currently hidden by the desk I’m writing at, and if you asked me for a description of the trousers I’ve been wearing all day… well, I’m *fairly* sure I’m actually wearing some, but that’s as far as I could go without looking.

And this was the problem that my friend had been having, too. Her stories had been criticised for not providing enough description of the physical world, but she knew that I have had fiction published, by proper publishers who pay money and everything, and that at least some people had enjoyed it, so she wanted to know how I get around this problem.

So I’m going to talk about… not tricks, exactly, because a lot of this is stuff I do because many of the writers whose work I admire the most do it, rather than to work round weaknesses. But all of this stuff *also* helps work round this particular weakness.

The first thing I’d say is write in first person. I think this surprised my friend, when I made this point so strongly, because she writes in close third and thought that would be close enough that it wouldn’t make a difference, but in fact in makes a huge one. When you write in third person, even if you’re sticking to one character’s viewpoint, the reader has expectations of you they don’t have of the character.

Put simply, we expect P.G. Wodehouse to know what the Drones Club looks like, but we don’t expect Bertie Wooster to think to tell us. Read one of the Jeeves books, and you won’t find a single description of physical space (I just scanned through Right Ho, Jeeves, and while I may have missed something, I think there’s one paragraph of description of a garden, which sounds like it’s quoting something rather than an actual description written by Wodehouse), and while you’ll find descriptions of characters’ appearance, they will generally tend to be along the lines of “In build and appearance, Tuppy somewhat resembles a bulldog, and his aspect now was that of one of these fine animals who has just been refused a slice of cake.”

An oblivious narrator can be an absolute boon in this regard, especially if the character has a very strongly defined voice, as Wooster does. You could also have a character describe a room using a pop-culture reference that character might use (“it looked like the kind of office that Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss might think was a bit too corporate”), get angry at the idea the room needs describing (“it was an office. You know what offices look like. Let me get on with the story”), or even handwave it more explicitly (“We were talking… I think it was in the office… unless it was in the canteen? It could have been the canteen… anyway, we were talking about..”). You could also, for example, have a blind narrator, which immediately gets rid of the need for any visual description at all.

I knew I was going to like The Name of the Rose when, in the first chapter, I read:

In the pages to follow I shall not indulge in descriptions of persons—except when a facial expression, or a gesture, appears as a sign of a mute but eloquent language—because, as Boethius says, nothing is more fleeting than external form, which withers and alters like the flowers of the field at the appearance of autumn; and what would be the point of saying today that the abbot Abo had a stern eye and pale cheeks, when by now he and those around him are dust and their bodies have the mortal grayness of dust (only their souls, God grant, shining with a light that will never be extinguished)?

This is perfectly in character for a fourteenth century monk, but it’s also the greatest writing cop-out I’ve ever read — precisely because it’s so in character, while still ensuring the writer doesn’t have to do the boring descriptive stuff (Eco *does* do a lot of physical description of spaces, but the book is in large part about a space — to the extent I caught myself thinking it would make rather a decent text adventure game). It’s an utterly beautiful passage, and made me giggle like a small child when I read it and realised what he was doing.

Another writer who doesn’t do much in the way of standard description is Damon Runyon, who again lets the character of his unnamed narrator do a lot of the work:

WHEN Mr. Ziegfeld picks a doll she is apt to be above the average when it comes to looks, for Mr. Ziegfeld is by no means a chump at picking dolls. But when Mr. Ziegfeld picks Miss Midgie Muldoon, he beats his own best record, or anyway ties it. I never see a better-looking doll in my life, although she is somewhat smaller than I like them. I like my dolls big enough to take a good hold on, and Miss Midgie Muldoon is only about knee-high to a Pomeranian. But she is very cute, and I do not blame Handsome Jack Maddigan for going daffy about her.

We don’t get any more description of Muldoon than that, and all we’re actually told is that she’s small and good looking. But the narratorial voice is so strong that it feels like we’ve been told all we need to know.

Another technique you can use is the epistolary story
This can be combined with the first-person thing quite easily. My own first novel has multiple narratorial voices (it’s not clear exactly how many — at one point there are *at least* seven stacked unreliable narrators…), almost all first-person, but even the third-person stuff is seen through a narratorial voice other than my own, because it’s all in the form of found documents. If your story is in the form of letters, emails, memos, blog posts, diary entries, Tweets, or what have you, then you can have a lot of the story happen in, if you like, “text space” — in the interactions between the documents, rather than in a physical space. Two good, free to read, examples of this kind of thing are the Alien fanfic short story Killing Elvis and the novel I linked the other day, The Northern Caves.

The expectations about content for an email or blog post are very different for those for an extended piece of prose, to the extent that in an epistolary story readers will actually get thrown out if you include many descriptions of place or character appearance.

Next there’s the telling detail. If you pick out one thing and emphasise that, and how strange it is, then people will fill in the rest themselves. To use an example from Runyon:

He is a big heavy guy with several chins and very funny feet, which is why he is called Feet. These feet are extra large feet, even for a big guy, and Dave the Dude says Feet wears violin-cases for shoes. Of course this is not true, because Feet cannot get either of his feet in a violin-case, unless it is a case for a very large violin, such as a ‘cello.

I must tell you more about Feet’s feet, because they are very remarkable feet indeed. They go off at different directions under him, very sharp, so if you see Feet standing on a corner it is very difficult to tell which way he is going, because one foot will be headed one way, and the other foot the other way. In fact, guys around Mindy’s restaurant often make bets on the proposition as to which way Feet is headed when he is standing still.

This is all we’re told about Feet Samuels’ appearance, and yet I’m sure that everyone has enough of an idea what he looks like when reading the story.

Another thing you can do is use all the senses. While most people are visual, we all get information from multiple senses, and some advice I’ve seen given is that if you use at least one instance of each sense in a given two-page passage, that will give more of a sense of place than just a visual description would:

The barroom was dark, and the scent of urine and stale lager hung over it, so thick you could taste it, and my jacket stank of it for weeks afterwards. The jukebox was playing some shitty country tune, and as Tammy Wynette or whoever it was cried about her dead dog, I pushed my way to the bar, choking on the smoke. I leaned on the bar, and discovered my hand was in a pool of acrid liquid I could only hope was beer.
It was my kind of place.

Now, I wrote that in about ten seconds, so it’s clearly not great, but you’ve got smell, taste, touch, sound, and vision all in there. The only visual cue there is that the room is dark, but I still think it creates a fairly decent sense of place.

And finally, there’s the assumption of familiarity. This works particularly well in a particular kind of children’s book, especially when combined with the telling detail — “Now, everyone knows what a dragon looks like, but this dragon was a very peculiar dragon indeed, because he had two tails. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a two-tailed dragon before, but they can’t fly as gracefully as other dragons…”

But you can also do this with adult fiction as well. “Every town has a bar like that. It’s the place where you go when you need something sorted out, and you don’t care too much about how the sorting is done, or whose legs have to be broken to get it sorted. And the Chimes was absolutely typical of its type, except in this one regard — the landlord was convinced he was running a respectable establishment”

The reader will immediately fill in what she thinks that kind of pub musty be like, and so long as you don’t say anything to contradict that mental image, she’ll just assume that her mental image matches what’s in the story.

But this is the single most important point — if you can’t do visual description, you have to let the reader do the work, and you can’t contradict their mental image without pulling them out of the story. Sometimes you want to pull them out of the story, of course — “AH! You thought the black man was the criminal, but really he was the policeman. AH! I subverted your expectations!” — but mostly you don’t. So you want to make sure that if you’re giving sparse descriptions, you front-load EVERYTHING that is going to matter. If in chapter three the main character hides behind the sofa because she thinks there’s a burglar, you’d better have mentioned in chapter one that there’s a sofa there, or the reader might have spent two chapters imagining a room with only armchairs in (or if you’ve been really sparse with the description, she might think your main character is in the kitchen).

I’m sure there’s more that can be said about this — I’m sure there are more things *that I do*, even — but I’m a relative novice as a fiction writer (only one novel and three short stories sold to professional markets) and I don’t want to pretend to an expertise I don’t have. But I hope this is of some help to anyone who, like myself, simply can’t “see” things in their mind’s eye.

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Award Eligibility Post

This post may seem like the work of a complete egomaniac, so let me make something clear upfront — I don’t expect any significant number of award nominations (by which I mean any more individuals nominating me than I can count on one hand). But three friends of mine have told me they intend to nominate stuff I’ve done, which is three more than I would have expected, and so this is just so that those people, and anyone who *hasn’t* told me, will know what is and isn’t eligible. It is *not* a request for nominations, and me saying that is *not* a subtle passive-aggressive double-bluff.

Stuff I’ve done this year:
My novel, Head of State, eligible for any novel awards.
This blog, and my writing on, eligible for fan-writer awards.
Various short stories, findable under the “fiction” tag on this blog, of which the only non-flash one this year is Better Days.
The story of mine that will probably get most eyeballs is Ten Things You’ll Only Get If You’re A 50s Kid, which will be on Daily Science Fiction from the 17th of November (I’ll be linking that on the day).
My ebook about Grant Morrison and various artists’ Multiversity, Welcome To The Multiverse (which I also serialised on Mindless Ones), would be eligible for related work nominations, as I presume would the podcast I did with Phil Sandifer and Jack Graham about the Puppyfascists (though for that you’d probably be better off nominating the Shabcast as a whole for best podcast).

I don’t expect to put out any other significant SF-related things this year.

Again, this is not a vote-beg. Just information. I actually think this has been one of the better recent years for SF, and also for the discourse *around* SF (mostly prompted by the Puppyfascists, sadly), so there’s an embarrassment of riches out there to put on your ballots.

California Dreaming Update

Proper post in an hour or two, but just to let non-backers know, California Dreaming is now done. The ebooks have been sent to my backers on both Kickstarter and Patreon, and I’m waiting on the proof copy to come back from Lulu before I ship copies out to those who’ve ordered them.

I’m afraid that because the project grew to almost twice the length I intended (hence taking about twice as long), it will be more expensive than my other books. The paperback will be priced at £15, rather than the normal £10, because at 398 pages Lulu won’t even *allow* the book to be priced below £10.40, and that would leave me no royalties at all (and no, that doesn’t mean I’m getting a fiver per copy sold, either — most sales will be through Amazon, which will net me about £1.50 per sale). This means Kickstarter backers will be getting the physical book at a substantial discount on the retail price, as they deserve. The ebook will be set at £5, the same price it was for the Kickstarter, as charging more than that would seem absurd to me.

I’ll have purchase links for everyone once the backer copies have all been sent off.

Freezing Peaches

I’ve been thinking for a while about the biggest disconnect that seems to come up in what one might loosely term “progressive” circles at the moment — the issue of “free speech”.

On the one side you have the people who argue against “no platforming”, and “silencing”, the people who said “Je Suis Charlie”, the people who are mocked by the other side as overprivileged white men shouting about “muh freeze peach!”
On the other, you have the people who argue in favour of trigger warnings, complain about things being “problematic”, and who are mocked by the other side for being stupid children who want to be wrapped in cotton wool.

Now the interesting thing to my mind is that, with obvious exceptions, these two groups tend to be roughly those forty-five and older, and those twenty-five and younger, with those around my age often being a bit confused and saying “well, I can see points on both sides…”

Obviously, some of this comes down to older people patronising younger people while trying to keep their privilege, and to younger people being angry at the compromises made by the old and with a lack of experience of how the world works. But I don’t think *all* of it does.

I think, rather, that people have come of political age in two very different political worlds, and that that makes a profound difference in the way people think about issues surrounding speech. Giving everyone the benefit of doubt, it looks to me like the two groups are talking past each other because they’re honestly not aware of each other’s experiences.

The first group, you see, came of age politically in the 70s and 80s. This was a time when government repression of speech was one of THE big threats to progressive activism. The Oz trial, when the kind of stupid collage jokes that now happen constantly on geek message boards got several people sent to prison. The Spycatcher affair, one of my earliest political memories, when the British government spent three years trying to stop people *in another country*, not just their own, reading a book. The Gay News “blasphemous libel” trial, which saw a poem being declared illegal. Manchester police constantly raiding Savoy bookshop. The government changing the whole landscape of broadcast TV with the ITV shakeup of 1990, largely because they were angry at a single documentary. Section 28

There are always attempts to infringe freedom of speech, but in the twenty or so years from roughly 1970 to roughly 1990, there was a constant, all-out, assault against the most basic liberties, in which authoritarians who wanted to protect the government from scrutiny used theocrats who wanted to eradicate the very idea of homosexuality as useful idiots. Those people needed to be fought, and one of the most important ways of doing that was to carve out universities, in particular, as areas of absolutist free speech, with an *obligation* to give a platform to, and listen to, the most extreme viewpoints. Only the ultra-authoritarian SWP, on the left, called for “no-platforming” then, and they were largely despised for it. Platforms *needed* to exist, or no-one would ever *hear* alternative views.

Of course the system didn’t work perfectly — far from it. It often entrenched various kinds of privilege, and so on. But when you are fighting for the very right to even mention the existence of homosexuality, for example, you want a system like that. And so many people became, understandably, free speech absolutists, especially around universities. This is also why, for example, Private Eye — a magazine that normally has little or no interest in people’s private sexualities — suddenly starts dropping completely unsubtle hints as soon as superinjunctions come into play. It’s an immune reaction against repression.

Fast forward twenty-five years or so.

Anyone under thirty, now, has never experienced this (I’m thirty-seven, and I only have dim memories of the tail end of it, and that only because I was about the most politically-aware seven-year-old you’d ever meet). The government, in general, doesn’t try to censor much “normal” speech (there are plenty of things that still get censored, of course — the extreme porn laws are a particularly egregious example — but there’s not the ongoing systematic repression that there was). You can say literally anything you think on the Internet. You can get access to any opinion, any images, you want.

And often, anything you *don’t* want. YouTube comments, Twitter harassers, spam email, banner ads… the big information problem in the Internet age isn’t censorship, it’s how to create an effective filter that lets you just see the stuff that you actually care about in the midst of all the other stuff. When you’re dumped into what is, to a first approximation, every single thought that any human being has ever had, without an effective guide, you know, on an instinctual level, that censorship isn’t threatening. On the contrary, you *need* to censor stuff — not for other people, but you need to create filters and barriers, just to get anything done at all.

And a lot of people who didn’t grow up with the Internet (and anyone under thirty or so now has no real memory of a time when the web wasn’t a near-ubiquitous thing — and there are adults now who are nostalgic for getting their first social media accounts when they were still in primary school) don’t really understand how this works. The late Simon Titley, for example, got a lot of flack on the Liberator blog for instituting a “real-name” policy in the comments, because he thought this would keep discussion civil. Anyone who’s spent most of their life online knows that that’s the *last* thing it does.

But anyone who’s spent that much time online also knows that discussions need moderating, or any forum turns into a festering cesspool. Newspaper comments threads are actually surprisingly *mild* in this regard. Try being a woman talking about video games online and see what happens.

So for the younger generation, the problem isn’t that they don’t get to hear alternative views. It’s that they hear them all the time, whether they want to or not, and that they would like some way of getting them to just SHUT THE FUCK UP for a little while, in some situations and at some times. When they ask for safe spaces, and no platform for bigots, and for trigger warnings, what they’re saying is “I spend my life having men who want me dead send me unsolicited videos of themselves ejaculating onto photos of me, because I said a thing about a video game. Can I please have a little bit of not-that? Just for a change?

The free-speech absolutism is an absolutely right and proper response to repression — and we need those people around as an immune system, to warn us if that ever starts happening again. But likewise the trigger-warning, no-platform side is an entirely right and proper response to constant, unending, exposure to toxic ideas.

No doubt in twenty years there will be a whole new set of problems to deal with, and the trigger warning people will be screaming about the kids of today with their insisting (for what are good and adequate reasons at the time) that all conversations have to be in Mandarin and speaking English is racist. I promise I’ll try to understand them, too, like I try to understand both sides of the current row. I suspect I’ll fail, though…

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2001: A Cinerama Odyssey

A couple of weeks ago I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time.

Oh, I’d seen something that was called 2001: A Space Odyssey before. I’d seen something called that on an old-style square TV and thought it wasn’t all that good. I’d seen what seemed to be a different film on a widescreen TV and on DVD — that one was much better. Last year I saw what seemed to be a different film again in a cinema — that one was *much* better than the one you get on DVD.

But then I saw it in Cinerama, the way it was meant to be seen. NOW I’ve seen 2001.

2001 wasn’t filmed in Cinerama proper (the three-strip process used for, for example, How the West was Won), but was intended to be screened on Cinerama screens, which is rather unfortunate, as there are now only three working Cinerama screens in the world — in LA, Seattle, and Bradford. For anyone who can’t get to those when they’re showing it, I’m afraid you’ll just have to never actually see 2001.

For a start, the sheer size of the screen makes a difference to how you experience the film. Every window on the various spaceships has something moving in it — little back-projected films to add a sense of scale and verisimilitude — and that’s *sort-of* visible on a standard cinema screen. What you can’t tell from that is that every shot of back-projected footage was filmed at precisely the right angles, and from precisely the right distance, so that when you can see what is going on the effect is seamless. Compare this to, for example, the scenes with the shuttle going to the Enterprise in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which uses the same techniques nearly a decade later, but where the vanishing points are different so Kirk looks like a cardboard cutout. Normally, the bigger the screen, the more you can see the flaws with effects — these actually look *more* realistic as the screen gets bigger.

There’s also the way the shots are composed. All those curves make far more visual sense when seen on a curved screen — I saw someone once describe 2001 as being “about” circles and lines dancing together, and the compositions come together on a curved screen in a way they just don’t on a flat one.

And some of the odder compositions make sense when you remember that the film was meant to be shown in Cinerama — in fact it *looks* like Kubrick composed the shots as if he was filming in three-strip Cinerama. This might be because (as I later found out) the film was planned in the early stages to be filmed that way, or it might be because he was playing with audience expectations of what Cinerama films look like, but if you watch any three-strip Cinerama films you’ll notice strong verticals appearing time and again one third and two thirds of the way across the screen, because having vertical lines in those places helps to cover up the join. So if you look at, for example, the scene where the monolith first appears, it doesn’t appear in the centre of the screen, as one would normally expect, but at the 1/3 point. And this kind of composition occurs over and again.

The Cinerama screen also helps explain why so little of the film involves actual dialogue — it’s almost impossible to compose a Cinerama shot to have actors actually looking at each other, and it *is* impossible if you want that shot to also work on a conventional screen. The curved screen means the eyelines all go past each other. So, as Douglas Trumbull, the visual effects supervisor (who gave a talk after the showing, which I unfortunately had to leave half-way through to get home) said, the choice was made early on to make 2001 *immersive* — rather than being driven by the experiences of the characters, the film was meant to give you that experience.

Almost all the odd or unusual decisions in 2001, in other words — all the things where, when watching it on a flat screen, you think “now that’s interesting, why did he do that?” — suddenly make sense.

But there was something else, something that put the film in a whole new light for me, that I only realised from seeing it in that particular space.

You see, I’m something of a fan of the Cinerama format, and go along most years to the Widescreen Weekend at the Media Museum in Bradford, where they show Cinerama films, as well as showing 70mm prints of spectaculars from the past on a conventional but large flat screen. And 2001 is working within the conventions of Cinerama, as opposed to normal cinema.

The overture before the curtains open, the interval with music — the basic structure of the film is the one that was used by all the Cinerama films, which were intended as full “experiences”, not just as a film you’d go and see. Everything from This Is Cinerama to It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World was structured that way. And I hadn’t realised that obvious fact about the film before — and once I did, I realised that in fact the whole film was playing with the tropes of the Cinerama film. Specifically the Cinerama travelogue.

Remember where I talked about how this film was meant not to be about the characters, but about you having the same experiences as them? There was a whole genre of films that did just that — the Cinerama travelogues, narrated and produced by Lowell Thomas (usually with the involvement of Merriam Cooper, who had pioneered the special effects-driven film with King Kong). They put *you* in the centre of events, whether a Papal mass, a rollercoaster ride, a helicopter journey over a volcano, or whatever, in just the same way as 2001 does.

And those films usually had a structure that started from supposedly-“primitive” people in Africa or Asia doing tribal dances, and the “wonders of nature”, progressing through the wonders of technology and good-old American engineering knowhow, with shots of fighter planes, and then ending with something spiritually uplifting (for example travelogue shots of Golgotha and the alleged location of Jesus’ tomb). PRECISELY the same structure used by 2001 — and watching 2001 on the same day as having seen The Best Of Cinerama (a compilation of parts of those travelogues) I couldn’t watch the transition between the ape people and the space station without hearing Lowell Thomas saying something like “and from the marvels of nature we turn to the technological wonders of modern science”.

I could have had this down as a coincidence, except for one thing — as I said earlier, it’s difficult to do character in Cinerama, and so the travelogues would have a couple of broad audience-identification figures, and one thing that happened in *many* of the Cinerama travelogues was a jokey section where the film would depict some sort of amazing journey (a train ride up a mountain in India that becomes a runaway train going down the mountain, a plane flight over marvellous scenery) with a “dopey” character sleeping through the whole amazing journey.

Just like Heywood Floyd sleeps through the journey to the Moon. And, indeed, just like the characters in the hibernation pods on the Discovery.

2001 isn’t an amazing piece of cinema. It’s an amazing piece of Cinerama. If you ever get the chance to see it in the format for which it’s intended, do so (and a bit of advice — get a central seat; the sides of Cinerama screens can seem to break up into their constituent strips when watching from an angle). And if you can see it *after* becoming familiar with the tropes of Cinerama, all the better.

I’m very glad I finally got to see one of my favourite films for the first time.

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