Ripples in the Pond

Warning: This post will contain levels of Doctor Who geekery, discussions of current events, Communism, illegitimate children, and talk about how works can impact the future in unimaginable ways.

You have been warned:

For Doctor Who fans of a certain age, UNIT means something very deep and abiding. To the point where, when watching the Kennedy Center touring performance of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, I noticed the lead actor had a permanent UNIT tattoo on his shoulder. Not decoration. And not the post 2005 series logo, either. The John Pertwee era UNIT – defenders of the earth and international beacon of hope.

In the latest Doctor Who special, when faced with a Dalek loose on earth and Team TARDIS needs help, the Doctor calls on UNIT and Kate Lethbridge-Stuart for backup. Alas, though, she’s told UNIT operations have ceased due to ‘disputes on funding with international partners’ but domestic armed forces are available.

That’s right. UNIT was kicked out because of Brexit.

Of course, The Daily Mail and all the internet fanboys were up in arms about this bit of political commentary, just as they have been about Doctor Who being infected with girl cooties. Oh, how they long for the classic days, when Doctor Who was free of such things and he said things like, oh,

“[Grover] realised the dangers this planet of yours is in, Brigadier. The danger of it becoming one vast garbage dump inhabited only by rats…Its not the oil and the filth and the poisonous chemicals that are the real causes of the pollution…Its simply greed.”

Sorry, folks. Doctor Who has always been political. And if there was ever a reason for this, and why it continues to be, its’ because of an self-described illegitimate Communist named Malcolm Hulke.

Others have written some excellent articles on Mac Hulke. There’s also a great biography out there. But I want to talk about the impact this man had on the current generation of Doctor Who producers, directors, and creatives. During his time as a writer, first at the end of Patrick Troughton’s run and through John Pertwee’s tenure, he was part of a cadre of writers who introduced some rather interesting ideas in what was a children’s program. Looking back at the episodes, you see discussions of imperialism, environmentalism, militarism and the rise of corporate interests.

But no one did this better than Hulke in my view. The Silurians had the Doctor committed a radical act by introducing himself and trying to start a dialog with ‘alien’ creatures. Colony in Space, even with all the Doomsday Weapon and Master bits, is still a pretty blunt attack on corporate greed driving morality. “What’s good for IMC is good for Earth.”

My favorite of his episodes is still Frontier in Space, where he dared to have an Earth Empire run by a woman, explicit confrontations between militaristic authoritarians and civilians, the imprisonment of (a surprisingly multi-cultural) dissenting party, and – for me the most radical ideas – Jo Grant’s confrontation with the Master.

How was this radical? When Jo was first introduced as the bumbling but cute audience substitute in Terror of the Autons the Master promptly hypnotized her and had her try to deliver a bomb to the Doctor. This time around, the Master – mighty rival Time Lord – tried to do the same thing again. But Jo countered, blocking his hypnosis with techniques she’d learned after their last encounter. And when that failed, he tried turning a fear amplifying device on her.

Jo Grant fought. She battled through the monsters the Master’s device projected – a device which set two space empires to war based on their fear of ‘the other – and beat it. The simple audience substitute had beaten the big bad on her will alone.

In addition, Hulke wrote two books which would become bibles for future writers. One is his book on screen and television writing (still available today and still considered an excellent reference) as well as this tome:

I had a later version, with Tom Baker on the cover, but this book (written with friend and collaborator Terrance Dicks), sparked the imaginations of young Doctor Who fans everywhere. Maybe I could write for the show? Maybe I could work in TV?

Who were those fans? Here are a few names: Chris Chibnal, Stephan Moffat, Russel T. Davies, Peter Capaldi, Mark Gattis, Paul Cornell – I could go on. But all should be familiar to fans of the reborn version of the series. How many writers on this show, and others, think back to Mac Hulke’s episodes and think, “How would have he done it?”

We lost Mac Hulke nearly thirty years ago. But all he created, and all he inspired, lives on. And he would not have done so without taking risks, and working with others who said, as Barry Letts did, that stories should be about something. So any time someone complains about Doctor Who getting too radical, I just imagine Mac Hulke smiling behind a typewriter.

WWMHD: What Would Mac Hulk Do?

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Violent Ends or Failing Downwards

Allow me to write, just a touch, about recent dreams I’ve had. Mostly within the last few weeks, as the holiday season came closer and closer. Mind you – these are the ones I remember. The sensation for others still remains. Let me see if you find a common theme. And for clarity, I’ll be placing you in the driver’s seat.

“You find yourself on a writer’s conference at sea. Not on a cruise ship, but a floating city making its way through a flooded world. In that conference, you meet someone – another writer – who sparks with you. They enjoy the same works you do, they have the same struggles, and they also take pictures as well! Your wife is overjoyed. ‘You’ve got a writer friend! Get their email!’ But try as you might, you can’t write their email down. You try writing yours, but nothing comes out. The words are a twisted scramble of graphite gray lines…”

Or…

“In a distant college campus, you’ve joined a later in life writing course. You had to abandon your job to do it, but you’re there full of hope at first. The campus is beautiful, filled with ivy covered Roman columns and a massive library/bookstore. This micro-world is where Cambridge and Georgetown University had an unauthorized child. But the first day goes badly. You get lost. You lose books. You run into Doctor Who cosplayers who insist you rebuild their K-9. Classes are missed and all the while you see an old former friend laughing at you, publication credits falling from their hands like loose cash…”

Or…

“You finally get to see yourself as a child, thanks to advanced psychotherapy. The therapist says, ‘Go ahead. Say all the hurtful things you want to that innocent child. You can’t do it, can you? Because he doesn’t deserve it.’ But instead of the expected agreement, you see the stupid little shit you were reading crap, watching crap, not getting educated, drowning in food and stupid American culture and you grab his head in the palm of your hand. Howling, you smash his skull against an ancient table, pounding away until it breaks under your palm like a watermelon against a concrete deck. You fail at compassion for yourself…”

In dreams, my mind has been yelling this, over and over:

And its hard not to agree. This year started with promise: a new job I’d been actively recruited into for over a year. It meant I could say goodbye to a well paying, but soul-shredding job I’d been at for over a decade. In the first few months, I’d been very productive. Half a dozen short stories sent out to anthologies. And these were stories I’d really felt proud about. Ones I really enjoyed writing, not ones I thought “Oh, this is a good story that should sell well.”

I had a novel project outlined and ready to go for the year. And, I’d spent some of my money on a course to help me get better at my writing. It produced a story where I literally bled into the pages, mining personal fears and traumas.

And, on top of it all, my hockey team was on its way winning the Stanley Cup for the first time in their history. Despite our ongoing national nightmare, there was hope for me. Maybe hope for the world since we had the mid-terms coming up.

Then, plot twist, I was laid off at the beginning of June as part of a massive managerial purge. “There’s nothing you did wrong, we’re just going a different way.” This lead to three months of job searching, unemployment, and depression. Somehow I got 25k worth of writing done on the novel, but given that I had literally nothing to do but housework, job hunting, and writing, I should have finished the book.

The short stories? They went to anthologies that are either in limbo, or not publishing until 2019. All my other submissions. Depeche Mode time. And I should be happy I got personal rejections for some, but that seems to encourage Rejectomancy more than any other reaction.

  • “It just didn’t come together for us.” – What does that mean? Was the ending wrong? The beginning? What else can I do?
  • “We liked the story and the end was cute, but we wanted more from the prose.” – Does that mean my prose is dull and unimaginative? How can I improve on it? Should I read more poetry? Am I trapped to be boring?
  • “It didn’t have the pulp feel we wanted.” – What kind of pulp feel do you want? I had people being sacrificed to the grinding belly-gears of a god to sustain a lost civilization! What did I do wrong?

I’m finding trouble finding hope. It’s easy to recycle the common wisdom, but hard to fight the counterpoint rattling in your head.

“Write what you want to write!” – “Yeah, but what’s the point if no one wants to read what I want to write. What’s the point of writing a story no one wants to read?”

“Just keep plugging away. You’ll get better with every failure.” – “Well, after some initial success I seem to be back to SUCKING. So, what did I do wrong? Maybe I just sucked to start with.”

“Try reading something to help refresh your imagination.” – “Oh, look, someone who’s better than me…”

“Your friends are getting published, take heart!” – “Yeah, I submitted to all those anthologies and magazines as well. Guess I’m a miserable failure and my prose isn’t remarkable enough.”

“Hey, all of us get lost in the darkness. Dreamers learn to steer by the stars.” – “Don’t you dare throw ‘The Pass‘ at me! That’s my favorite damn Rush song. It was my “Subdivisions” back in High School. But, guess, what, since then, I still haven’t figured out how to steer by the stars. I still want to take a one way walk off a razor’s edge and no amount of medication can help…”

2018 did get slightly better. I found a new job I like, that seems to like me. I found a few support groups and am still writing regularly. But how do you keep going when everything says, “Give up. You’re failing. Just drown yourself in liquor and first person shooters.”

My faith is breaking, and I don’t know how to fix it.

Community is a Machine

“Community! Jesus, you guys are kind to yourselves. Community.” 

This was one of my favorite moments in Three Days of the Condor. It’s a moment where Joe Turner (Robert Redford, in one of his best performances), a lowly CIA researcher, finally gets to ask station chief Higgins (Cliff Robertson) who could hire the man that eliminated his section, and has been hunting him ever since. 

Higgins explains it has to be someone in ‘the community.’ “The intelligence community.”  

Once you’ve seen Three Days of the Condor, go watch or read The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, you can and tell me how much of a “community” you see there.  I’m reminded of those films when I hear about fandoms and communities these days.  I’m also reminded of Nick Mamatas’ quote from a few weeks back: “Remember that a community is a machine for excluding people from itself.” 

The idea of community – a place where folks with like-minded interests and aspirations can find comradery, company, and even friendship or love – is an interesting one when dealing with science fiction and fantasy (or the fannish community).  

We think of communities much like we think of small-town America: Places where folks can live and grow. Places that warm the heart, and help create Hallmark Channel films.  They aren’t supposed to be insular or intolerant or oligarchical but instead represent our ideal selves. They are supposed to be the Norman Rockwell vision of who we are as a people, species, and country. 

But just as one person’s Golden Age is another person’s nightmare years, a warm community for some can be as insular as the Skull & Bones for others. Especially if the community really doesn’t want to deal with those young folks with their fancy ideas about everything.  Humans are political animals. We are, as Octavia Butler put it, hierarchical and herd based, which can lead to self-destructive and counter-intuitive behavior. 

It can also lead to interesting views of what a community should be like, what a community actually is, and the narratives we hold for those communities. Go through your memory and think about how most communities are portrayed in SF or Fantasy novels. Think about what it takes to join the community, or guild, or seitch, or order.  Usually it’s trials and suspicion and ritual. You have to prove yourself worthy of joining this community – because the community is usually equated with an elite group.  It’s a reflection of how the SFF ‘community’ thinks of itself – and also what it feels is necessary to create conflict and tension in a story. “I mean, where’s the tension if someone’s just welcomed and given a tour?” 

The other community narrative is the “Elders versus youth” or “Change versus status quo” story. It’s another simple narrative, with SFF often casting its lot in with the daring young man (usually a man) looking to overthrow the system. But it often leaves out what happens after the overthrow, when the young man becomes the system itself – a generation later, they’re the ones telling some new kid off.  It reminds me of a study I heard on a podcast where they tracked the behaviors of folks who became wealthy by climbing the ladder. 

Once they have success, what do they do? Mentor others and show them how to reach the same heights? No. They break the rungs of the ladder behind them. They start displaying, and supporting, the worst kind of behaviors from the community. Quoth Edison Carter/Max Headroom “Converts are the worst kind of bigots.”  

Is there any other kind of narrative? Can we change community so the idea of actually welcoming folks, and making it easier for them to join, instead of viewing them with suspicion? Or are we trapped, forever stuck in this pattern because it’s easier – and frankly more popular with those in charge – to keep the community ‘tight knit’ and unwelcoming to others?  

Well, there is. If anyone is leading the charge these days, it’s Becky Chambers. Her most recent book, Record of a Spaceborn Few, deals with questions about community most directly, but all her other books talk about it in one way or another.   And they tell a specific truth: 

It takes effort to make a community welcoming to folks outside the community. To turn the machine around, you need to actually get into the works and change the gears. You need to get dirty. You need to challenge your assumptions. And you need to make a genuine effort to welcome others, keep at it, and check your blind spots.  

Is it worth the effort? Damn right. I attended a famous ‘old codger’ con in my neighborhood. They invited a very diverse group to speak at the panels to talk about everything from Afrofuturism to myths about ‘winning your one true love.’ And every one of those panels featuring new folks sparked and shined. There was life and excitement and interest and people discovering exactly how much they had in common. 

Sounds like a community to me… 

Nostalgia for Dystopia

One of my ongoing gags with friends is saying, “This wasn’t the cyberpunk dystopia I was promised. There’s supposed to be more neon and cyberwear.” A recent video takes on Cyberpunk and its reliance on visuals essentially created in the 80’s and, if I had to give it a tagline, it would be my cyberpunk gag. But here’s my critique of the critique:

He’s not talking about writing cyberpunk, or the themes of cyberpunk, but the visuals of cyberpunk. The aesthetic. It’s an aesthetic which is honestly now in its second and third generation, as people are being inspired by Blade Runner to create their own versions of the film. Altered Carbon is taken to task in this way, but I bet every one of the artists and designers there thought, “Oh, cool. Now I get to make my version of the city from Blade Runner.”

They are trying to capture a nostalgic feeling when the fears of cyberpunk (Invasive technology being used by unfettered capitalism to manipulate, and sustain, class differences or to create new phenomenon we are not yet mature enough to deal with) were easy to see and externalized. They weren’t here, and part of our lives.

Check out one of my favorite videos of recent years, Starcadian’s “Chinatown.” It is set in the ‘future’ of 1995 and talks about a cyberpunk world, but because it couldn’t afford to re-create Los Angeles as “Ridleyville” you see the current LA with a few buildings added in, some flying cars, and some drones. It’s nostagic, but I think it also points to a type of cyberpunk we need: one grounded in the world, stripped of the ‘aesthetic’ to just deal with the themes.

Mr. Robot is pointed out as one example, but I had another as well: The one season series Almost Human with Karl Urban and Michael Healy. The restraints of TV kept them away from the grand soaring metropoli of cinematic cyberpunk, but we saw other things in use: ubiquitous advertisement and surveillance (in one episode, used to target guided bullets via personalized advertising), home drug printing, masks designed to foil facial recognition.

One of my favorite scenes involved Karl Urban placing sticky notes all over his kitchen. Virtual sticky notes. It’s something I could actually see people buying into 30 years from now, not realizing that the folks making the ‘smart cabinets’ are also gleaning statistical data about your every habit. Oh, they can’t see what you are writing, but hey can compare when you’re using the product against data they purchased from your smart fridge about eating stress, maybe start profiling you for the design of the new smart stove…

Look at the Ghost in the Shell TV series, Stand Alone Complex. While Oshi’s film adaptation is groundbreaking in many ways, for me SAC is brilliant in it lets us have it both ways. Yes, we’ve got massive skyscrapers and Asian urban planning on display, but we also see homes in the suburbs and the countryside. Everything isn’t one giant city. For all the advanced cybernetics, they still have Starbucks. People live here, and it’s not bad for most folks.

In some ways, the granddady of this less soaring, more grounded style of cyberpunk is Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days. Set in what was then the near future, it actually looks a lot more like the present than most would admit. The constant police presence reminds me of actual neighborhood blockades where folks were asked to show ID’s and prove they lived in the area. Imagine Stop and Frisk taken to a new level. The TV’s are wide screen. And the new tech introduced, the sense wire which lets you record a person’s experiences, is used to talk about real racial divisions. This is just after Rodney King, but prescient of what we saw in Baton Rouge after police shootings.

People confuse thematic with the aesthetic. Which is what a lot of folks have always done with cyberpunk. And it’s easy to do when the aesthetic is so powerful and dominating. It resonates. People look at Max Headroom’s Blank Reg and see the mowhawk, and not the fact he’s someone who asked to be completely erased from every possible database so he could live the way he wanted to, without interference. Blank Reg would be an empty line in Cambridge Analytica’s data.

So, what do we do? If we’re fans of the genre, and still think it actually has more to say, what can we do?

  1. Accept the Nostalgia – Yes, I said it. We have to realize that there will always be a hungering for the innocent days of pink mowhawks and low-life high-tech outlaws. And if we’re just creating an extension of that nostalgia, let’s talk about why and what makes is still resonant.
  1. Create an Updated (and Expanded) Aesthetic – For all its CyberNostalgia, the Cyberpunk 2077 demo had things I liked a bit. Namely, all the folks on the west coast looking and speaking Spanish. Ethnic diversity. Now, imagine what Cyberpunk would look like if the aesthetic was embraced by the Latinx community? What does Phillipino cyberpunk look like? Did you know there’s a CyberFunk movement out there?
  1. Remember the Now – Black Mirror is as much about creating a funhouse mirror on our behaviors as anything else. So, too, should the genre. Cyberpunk, like all good science fiction, is about confronting the now by looking at what could happen if things keep going the way they are. Gibson’s kept up to date. Why can’t the rest of us?

Will I still be entranced by the aesthetic? Yes. I still re-watch Max Headroom. But we have to learn to separate a nostalgia for the aesthetic, and what cyberpunk was actually discussing.

As for Max Headroom, want to know my favorite episode? The election night one, where a channel was manufacturing news in order to get an endorsed candidate to win elected office…

Monster is as Monster Does

1995. The movie Species had just come out in theaters and there were a lot of problems with it. Let’s put aside the terrible science (as a friend of mine put it, “Breeding doesn’t work that way. After a few generations, the worst you’ll have is someone with the occasional tentacle…”). Let’s put aside the misogyny, the implicit fears of miscegenation, and the really terrible CGI at the end. My first question was the one I kept asking since I was a kid:

“Why is Sil the monster here? Why can’t she be the main character?”

Sil was designed by H.R. Giger and brought to life by Natasha Henstridge and Steve Johnson. And she was beautiful. As anyone who’s even glanced at my blog knows, I have a penchant for the biomechanoid look. This is the first time since the original Alien and Debbie Harry’s videos for Koo Koo that the aesthetic Giger created was properly translated to the screen.

But, of course, it’s brought in as a thing of evil. For someone who looked at the original Alien and started writing stories where the xenomorphs could talk, had a civilization, and were struggling with oppression. I had the same feelings for the Creature from the Black Lagoon (and I wasn’t the only one), and most werewolves as well.

The werewolves in particular – I love wolves, and studied their behavior. The more I got to know to know wolves, the more I realized they wouldn’t want to go hunting their loved ones in the dead of night. Packs are FAMILY organizations. They’d be more a threat to the local geese and rabbits than people. So why drove them to kill?

The human. The more I looked into it, the more I saw that for the most part, the human monsters were really the dangerous ones. They’re the ones creating bioweapons. They’re the ones making human-alien hybrids without asking, “So, is this really a responsible act?” They’re the ones invading quiet areas of the amazon with noisy boats. It’s the human that feels the power of the wolf and decides to act out, letting themselves loose.

Guess this is why I rarely liked vampires. They were too human. They acted in human ways.

For me, acts were what defined something as ‘monstrous.’ More importantly, the motivations behind those acts. There’s a difference between committing a monstrous act because there’s no choice and jumping right to that act as the default. The monsters are the company men who said, “We can write off the crew. We need the valuable IP the alien represents.” Or the epitome of 50’s male virility who uses his privilege to feed cruelty and bloodlust. Or the zealot who sees himself as right, powerful, and Gods voice in the world. “The missiles are flying. Hallelujah.”

This is where the line between horror and fantasy comes in. For most, the horror is this alien thing impinging itself on your comfortable reality. But the moment you treat the ‘monster’ with more care, it ceases to be a monster. It’s just an alien or extraplanar being to understand. Or, as one person put it, “How do you do? I’m the Doctor. Would you like a jelly baby?”

PS: As a final note, I think I’m not the only one who thought this way. Even starting with the original film, Sigourney Weaver herself said very, um, open-minded things about the sensual beauty of Giger’s creations.  I’ve seen more publicity photos of her cuddling with the alien than anything else. I think if someone pitched her on a romance film between her and a male version of Sil, she’d be all in.

 

Our House, In The Middle of Our Street

Today, I’ll be discussing Madness.  Not the band, although they’re brilliant and you need to dig into their back catalog. No, I’m going to be talking about this madness called being a writer. I’m making a distinction between being a writer and being an author. An author is a writer who’s been published a significant number of times; usually enough to get the revenue service’s attention. No, this is for everyone from the biggest published author to the young girl who just saw The Dragon Prince on Netflix and had to write that Soren/Runaan story which popped into her head.

Here, I’m going to quote from two different sources. First, The Mary Sue’s review of the new period piece, Colette, about an icon of French literature.

 “[W]hat also connected with me was listening to how Colette talked about writing. It was a grueling process for her and while she loved it and felt compelled to do it, it was also emotionally draining and crushing at times. There is a part when she talks to another writer and asks if he likes writing and he responds: “God no, I do it to keep me from going mad.” That got me. That duel desire to create, but also hating the process of making that monster take form.”

The second is from Philip K. Dick:

“I’m an obsessive writer and if I don’t get writer’s block I’d overload, short circuit and blow my brain out right away.”

Both of these moments ring true. Not just the buzzing I get in the back of my teeth if I haven’t written in a while, or the way ideas will drift into your head when you’re trying to focus on a presentation for a client. Or you’ll see an open posting for an anthology and immediately hit on a story that would fit. The itch you can never scratch.

This is what a lot of folks don’t get about being a writer – any kind of writer. It doesn’t stop. Once you’ve gotten a taste, especially if you’ve gotten published at some point, it’s hard to give it up. You want keep going, no matter how frustrating it can be. And it is frustrating. And painful. And insane. And wonderful. And fun. So it is a kind of madness.

Do I want to be cured? No. It’s who I am. It’s written in me. If I didn’t do this:

 

 

Than I’d end up like this:

But in a permanent sort of way.

Having Trouble Finding the Holy Mountain

Today is a day of odd confluences. This morning, after waking up to another rejection, I turned to Twitter for a rant I was rather sure only one person would read. I’ve included an edited version below.

I remember hearing a podcast where JMS (of Babylon 5 & Sense8) told a story of being a young writer in a rut. After a few publications, none of his stories were being accepted. So, someone slipped him Harlan Ellison’s phone number. Not knowing any better, he called Harlan and got him on the phone. One section of the 45 minute call involved his writing. Ellison’s notes? “Well, you were writing OK, but now you’re writing shit. STOP WRITING SHIT.”

As I look upon another rejection, and also see where other folks I know are having success at submission, I think about that anecdote. And I ask myself. It just reminds me how few folks I have who can (or feel comfortable) assessing my shit. Most will say “Hey, that’s cool shit!” Which is great, but not helpful. When I look for new writing groups to help me with my shit, they tend to say “Sorry, we don’t do genre shit.”

Unfortunately, I can’t afford a professional shit analysis right now. And I know, everyone says, “Hey, don’t worry what everyone else thinks of your shit. Just keep working on making the best shit possible!” The problem with this advice is, well, how do I know I’m producing the best shit possible? Maybe I’m writing the wrong kind of shit? I honestly don’t know. I just know – this shit ain’t working. It’s getting sent back up the pipe.

Where’s a gastroenterologist/plumber when you need one? (Also, reminds me, need to collect stool samples from the cats before tomorrow’s vet visit…)

It was early in the morning, I admit. But, it seemed like a good thread. I woke up while writing it.  And then, the synchronicity hit. As I paged through my twitter feed, I also saw that today, Filmstruck announced it would be featuring the works of Alejandro Jodorowsky.  This included his lesser seen debut and his later biographic films, but the most important addition to this conversation is The Holy Mountain.

There is an infamous scene where a thief, who has ascended the tower of the Alchemist (played by Jodorowsky) receives a demonstration of the Alchemist’s power and ability. The thief takes a shit into a glass pot. The Alchemist puts it into a strange device, and dons kabbalistic garb. He forces the thief to sweat out his own impurities.

And then, mixing the elements together via the alchemical device, he sets about purifying the shit. We watch, over a series of shots, as the turds are converted into the most precious substance of all.

“You are excrement,” says the Alchemist. “But you can turn yourself into gold.”

Right now, I get the sense that my writing is excrement, but I don’t have the experience or knowledge to turn it into gold. And I’m unsure how to do so. There’s no red tower for me to climb. No surrealist at the top, waiting like to induct me into the great mysteries.

I’m alone on this road, looking for the holy mountain. And right now, I’m not sure if I’m constipated, have dysentery, or just a little too much corn in my diet. But my shit is not gold. Not yet.

***