We are fucked mostly due to political indifference, large scale sabotage and managerial incompetence

This is a rant.

Warnings about climate change have been there since my birth. Hell, several New Age SF-writers –like Brian Aldiss and others– have been writing about “the world after climate change” since 1960 on.

Right now, in 2021, we are starting to see the fruits of a lack of proper action from governments, and the results of manegerial bullshit-concepts like “hyper-competition” mainly aimed at lower prices, higher production and massive turnover of useless and inferior consumer-goods bullshit.

While we –the consumers– bought into many of these schemes, it is not really like we had many alternatives.

Hyper-competition is –among many other things– about erasing your competitors from the market-space. You do this either by out-competing them (leading to bankruptcy) or by taking them over through mergers (after competing them nearly to starvation and death).

As a consumer, you get what remains. In most cases: brands owned by conglomerates, outsourcing their production to low-wage countries, mass producing goods of questionable quality using the cheapest means of production that is still within limits of acceptability. In brief: in most cases it does not matter anymore that a pair of jeans will wear down 5 times faster due to a shitty quality of textile, as most competition is murdered or part of your conglomerate now and those competitors who did survive will probably use the same shit you do, as quality no longer matters as much as it did, as a differentiator in the market.

As for products based on by-products from crude oil: it is not that we are “addicted to it” as some have posed in the past. It is that the oil-industry has a deep awareness that it is not sustainable, and the best solution they have found to remain relevant is to throw a lot of money into developing new and “innovative” ways to get profits from oil by-products like plastic. It is not like there are no alternatives. It is simply that the oil-industry has no reason to deviate from their strategies as long as it is profitable. And the sole focus of any “innovation” they make is to get as much revenue as possible from their main source of business: crude oil.

Same and similar tactics are used in any part of industry, from food to chemicals, to whatever is profitable. The main strategy is not to innovate and renew / re-invent the business based on current developments, but to maintain what is already there: so one can get maximum profit from whatever one is already doing. Even if that shit is killing thousands of people each year. While called “business strategy”, it is nothing more but lazy acts of short-sightedness and incompetence (to clarify: while your marketplace is under severe negative pressure and while you have numerous profitable options that will open new venues of future business, you continue to invest in the one that has almost reached its end and one that is most destructive) and destruction from incompetent people in places of massive amounts of money and power. It is as much a “business strategy” as robbery. While profitable for you, it is also destructive for others.

Additional to that: most managers are idiots.

And I understand it. It is really hard to find really good people, to punch through the networks of friends of friends of the idiots already working for you, to do something different, in places where anyone who proposes an alternate route, is discarded.

The only way forward for the people within those systems is not to innovate, but to repeat and to improve what has been done before, like magicians performing the same stale card tricks over and over again on TV and in major theaters while the world around them innovates and moves forward (or at least tries to). Until someone else stops them, or the business itself falls apart.

While political parties could have done a lot in the past decades to change the script, they did not. Part is due to lobbyists: people who bribe and scheme their way into places of power to buy the people who will decide over the industries they represent. Part is due to political pressure from other countries with vested interest in keeping things as they are.

For us, the consumers, this is a losing game. You can shower less. You can try to be sustainable by not using plastic bags or plastic straws, but until we massively boycott anything not sustainable, or unless our governments start taxing those companies differently, really forcing them to change the very basis of their industry, things will not change.

We are being fucked by people who –for decades– had no interest and/or had no clue how to move their business into proper modes of operation: modes of operation that will NOT kill us and that will NOT fuck over this Earth. And –since it is easier to lie and cheat than to rethink and update your abusive business model– those people use all kinds of media to spread misinformation to target us and others so that we remain confused and indecisive and oblivious of the real damages done to us, so that nothing really changes for them. For now.

It is not that WE don’t want to change. It is more that any possible direction leading to possible change is systemicly sabotaged by people with shitloads of money at their disposal. So while it is –for instance– really not that hard to move towards a life where we stop eating meat (and with that, stop roughly 40% of the current emission of greenhouse-gas) it is not in the interest of the meat-industry to support any movement into a global shift towards the use of plant-based and insect-based protein anytime soon.

But what if?

To me, today, the future looks bleak. If things progress as they might, the seas might end up becoming filled with more massive dead-zones. The land will be tortured more by extreme weather, bringing us periods of scolding heatwaves, massive rainfall and winters with insane temperature drops and hailstones the size of tennis-balls. And floods due to extreme rain-fall and mud slides from those floods, and failed crops due to extreme heatwaves and so on.

Then we have the massive oppression due to the reign of idiots who came into power due to friends and idiots, turning countries into totalitarian shitholes: murdering people who form any threat against the shitty, narcissistic bullshit narrative of self-proclaimed superiority that keeps others from taking action against the real-life large scale crimes done against humans living in that territory.

Then we have the general incompetence in governmental bodies, usually caused by people who stayed when they should have left or should have been fired, or who have been hired by incompentent and/or corrupt people. People who hold places of power where competence and impartiality is needed.

But what if we are not that fucked? What if there is room for change? What if competent people would lead those companies and governmental bodies that are now fucking us over massively, really going for positive changes instead of repeatedly using scorched-earth type tactics where you simply burn down a new forest and pollute the soil you work on instead of reworking and revitalizing the land you exhausted so you can grow new crops on that same piece of land forever without turning everything into a desert? (I did simplify things a bit.)

I write SF. And one of the options I have as a writer, is to think in possible solutions and present an alternative to the “buring world” scenarios where fascist regimes rule over withering communities.

So let’s take a look at things from a different perspective:

  • The oil industry can actively invest in several new things, including but not limited to: sustainable and renewable sources of energy; and alternative and sustainable means to produce packaging-material; and alternative and sustainable materials to replace plastics used in every-day objects. And it is not that we never had those materials. Or that plastic is that superior. It is simply that plastic is cheap and the industry at large had no incentive what so ever to work on- or invest in alternatives to a profitable use for –what was once– a waste-product from oil.
  • The fish- and meat-industry can invest in insect-farms and sources like lentils, beans and soy to replace the wasteful mass-murder-machine that is the current bio-industry. It is not that we have to wait for some stupid fucking meat-replacement to get started. And it is not that we don’t have any large-scale, generations-spanning human experience of a life without consuming any meat at all. Go take a look look at Hinduism, which centers around non violence. Part of that non-violence is not to murder animals. And their diet is vegetarian. There are over 1.2 billion Hindus world wide, who –for many generations– have proven that you won’t die from a meatless, murder-free diet. A meatless diet is not that complex. Neither does it have to be bland or boring as spices to flavor up any food are plenty and mass produced for mass consumption.
  • The textile industry can again move towards textiles and products of higher quality. Stuff that does not wear down by the slightest touch and can can be worn regularly over several years without losing much of its beauty. It can also move from wasteful sources like cotton to more sustainable sources like flax from nettles and hemp.
  • Food-production can be localized, reducing the need for transportation over longer distances, reducing the need for heavy trucks and heavy shipping over longer distances.
  • Companies can decide to allow workers to work from home, wherever and whenever possible, reducing traffic on the streets, reducing the need for people to travel long distances and therefore reducing pollution in general. While not the biggest source of waste, it is significant enough.
  • Governments can actively stop subsidizing all those industries who choose to still produce- ant transport in wasteful, damaging and polluting ways, by removing all the existing tax-breaks and by cutting any option for those companies to work through financial constructions that allow them to funnel all their profits to tax-havens. Thus cutting any incentive for those companies to continue their old ways of working.
  • Investors can move towards funding companies who focus on sustainable resources. That is where the real growth will be anyway in the next decades.

It is just a short list. And not that comprehensive as it could be. And while some parts might cause some anxiety for some people, it will stop the fucking cycle that continues to push us closer and closer to the abyss.

But this is not enough.

Because this does not cover the effects on our society, including:

  • Loss of income due to unemployment
  • Loss of house and safety due to loss of income and/or war and/or the collapse of government and/or infrastructure due to climate change and/or mismanagement by governments.
  • An increased instream of exiles from countries that either turned to shit, or are not able to support their population anymore due to climate change.

As the decades of incompetent fuck-overs from my own country has shown, it is very easy to mess up the process of incorporating these people into your own country and culture. Even if that incorporation is only temporary. Racism is one factor. Lack of vision is another.

But let’s be optimistic for fiction’s sake, and assume we will find solutions for all those problems, ranging from shelter, to food and everything. As these solutions ARE there, AND they are feasible AND they are doable AND they are affordable.

  • Large quantities of quality food can be locally produced, on small areas of land –as Dutch producers have been proving for decades now. Start with potatoes, beans and insects and simple crops resistant to the circumstances. Plant fruit trees where possible. Build large underground storages for water to bridge the long periods between rain-fall. Release crops from their limitations based on patents by companies like Monstanto/Bayer to involve highly resistant species that will demand less maintenance.
  • Erosion of the land can be slowed down by planting resistant trees and grasses and shrubbery and finding ways to keep water in the soil.
  • Shitloads of money can be made by investing in green funds containing companies who focus on solving issues previous generations of industry have caused. It’s a market that is currently new and wide open for insane growth. So if you already are wealthy or rich, you can get even more shitloaded rich by buying into the “green revolution”
  • The spread of forest fires can be reduced by using methods for fire-prevention that include burning dry grass before the dry season starts
  • High-quality shelter can be mass-produced from cheap materials, including styro-foam, for relatively low prices that allow people –otherwise forced to live in tents– to live in something more close to decent houses.
  • Local free energy for households can be produced from solar panels on rooftops, stored in high-quality batteries which are produced from not-so-rare materials (including the lead-cells used in old times)
  • A governmental focus to invest in the wellbeing of people in general. It is a proven fallacy to assume that the only people worth investing in, are the people considered to be ‘productive’. Letting people rot away has a cost, comparable to letting stuff rot in your own house. You can ignore it for a long time, but the longer you ignore it, the larger the collateral damage becomes, and the higher the costs of repairs. And at some point, someone has to pay for that damage.

You can discuss the responsibility of any government to take care of people who were not born there, leading to the eternal discussion on immigration and refugees. The thing is, that avoiding to create any solution at all, NOT preparing for such humanitarian crisis is not a solution either.

So how do you prepare?

  • Create solutions that can be implemented anywhere, with low costs and low interference from the outside.
  • Help implementing those solutions anywhere, with the goal and intention for those communities to be and become self-supporting and self-sufficient

If you think: “Yes but…”, there are several reasons why this has “failed” in the past.

  • Some organizations offering “aid”, profit by either not really solving anything, or they are sabotaged by local governments (required bribes, etc) or continue to paint dramatized pictures using local people as actors –hiding real progress if that serves their agenda– creating an impression over long time that (humanitarian) aid has limited to no use at all, but that it is important to continue giving.
  • Dumping our overproduction elsewhere, disrupts the local markets
  • Exporting all local production, then selling the refined result to those very same markets for higher prices, creates and maintains avoidable forms of local poverty

Ending with a positive note

Even if the word turns to complete shit, we have several means (and tricks) to prevent mass extinction and mass-starvation in the world. But it requires a massive change in how we manage things. It requires a massive shift in who decides what, when.

Mostly, it demands competent people in places of power. Not “competence” in robbing and stealing and pushing people into ditches where they can fuck off or die. But competence in solving real problems that keep us from dying as people. And that is the main problem we need to solve. Competence.

Right now, incompetence, selfishness and greed on places of power, are becoming acts of violence and murder not just against disenfranchised groups of people, but against us all.

But as said: as a writer I can choose to paint a picture where the above-mentioned strategies might work.

And as it is fiction, I can fix this global issue. At least on paper.

On political writing, racism and other forms of systemic oppression

I wrote earlier somewhere in this blog, in different words, that there is not one single story that is not political. Neither is there one single story withour political charge. I am too lazy to look this up now. So no link. Sorry.

the story world I am using for a series of stories and novels, has several conceptual centers. One is that of “cultural sabotage”. In short: cultural sabotage is a means (by any hostile entity) to disrupt a social group in such a way that it implements long-term patterns which are self-damaging and self-sabotaging.

It usually does so by amplifying existing ideas within that society.

The following piece is nothing more than an exploration on a set of ideas I got to recently, reading: “We were eight yeasrs in power” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which tackles several views on these topics.

I do this mostly to order my own thoughts.

Purpose of systemic oppression

Systemic oppression is purposeful. The center of which is to deny specific groups of people access to very specific resources. These resources can be (among many):

  • Means of education / means to eduycate onself
  • Means to buy land, soil and / or houses
  • Access to means of voting
  • Access to platforms where one’s story can be heard and broadcasted (publishing houses, bookstores, radio, TV, internet)

The main reasons to do so are the following:

  • Protecting a certain narrative of “how it all works”, so the abuse can continue — The core purpose of any narrative from the abuser is to assure that the abused will not rebel, will not fight back, will remain where they are. This narrative is quite vulnerable. The moment the abused stop believing that this narrative is true (for instance: that they –the oppressed– are to blame / sinful / dirty / weak, that they –the oppressed– prefer to be in this situation of oppression, that oppression is part of reality, that specific forms of oppression are wanted and searched for by the oppressed), the oppressor loses part of their control. Among many instruments to reach this are:
    • Limited education — By cutting access to (certain types) of education / by discouraging certain people and certain groups of people from studying certain topics, you cut them from sources and methods to gain certain insights, and you keep them from certain roads to take certain positions of power where those narratives can be changed.
    • Negative investment in critical thinking — When you negatively invest in critical thinking –by keeping it out of the schools curriculum, by punishing and ridiculing people who ask questions, by rewarding people who obey and conform– you create a culture in which “truth” is that what people in power tell you to be true.
    • Censorship- and white-washing of history — By deleting and white-washing certain parts of history, people will have no other reference-points than the narratives that serve the people in power.
  • Silence, division, confusion, so the abuse can continue — To silence the voice of one that reflects the situation of many, to suppress the stories that show that certain forms of abuse are not incidental and rare, but structural and frequent. As long as everyone is silent about this abuse, the abusers can continue. This silence is –in most cases– reached and forced by division, confusion, victim-shaming and victim-blaming. And –in case of institutions that are in power, by sabotaging any action or movement that might lead to any form of union.
  • Assuring that certain people will not gain financial independence, so the exploitation can continue — Any society that relies on cheap labor has- and had several specific structures in place to keep poor people poor. When people reach some form of financial independence, they lift themselves into a position where it becomes harder to exploit their bodies for the type of (demeaning, taxing, life-threatening, under-paid) work that most of those people would refuse if they had a choice.

Why is it so important to sabotage and oppress liberaring stories?

As long as people in power are dependent on the exploitation of others, there is no interest in changing the self-serving narrratives around abuse.

In brief:

  • Breaking the narrative might lead to changes in the status quo (emancipation of women and minority-groups. the loss of exclusivity to certain positions of power, which all leads to a potential shift into a status quo where –for instance– those who undeservedly got into positions of power will be exposed as unfit and/or incompetent and lose their position of power)
  • Sabotaging liberating stories will reduce the effectiveness of the narrative itself, twisting those things you can’t erase into something that seems helpful on the outside, but is dysfunctional or broken when you try to use it.

Some of these stories have a clear connection to their purpose. For instance:

  • Blame the poor for their poverty, so that your abuse can continue.
  • Have the poor and disenfranchised blame immigrants and minority-groups, so your abuse can continue.
  • Claim that silent protest is effective to change the status quo.
  • Rewrite the stories of rebels, rebellions, insurrections and insurrectionists so that their causes, reasons and tools for operation are no threat for your own cause.
  • State that active / loud / protest (including strikes, political statements by famous people, and “unsanctioned. protests”) are damaging for the cause of the people protesting

But what benefit do you draw from protecting the narratives that condone, promote and approve racist violence, sexual abuse, and the discrimination and violence against LGTBQI+ people?

I found several reasons, that could make sense:

  • Divide, so you can continue and increase the abuse — When you divide the people that you exploit and abuse even more, you can increase the levels of your abuse. This works on several levels:
    • Create systems in which “being different” is an punishable offense / where the bullies are rewarded, so that people with different voices, and people who deviate from the “norm” are punished, silenced and oppressed by the very people you abuse.
    • Make sure people find enough other reasons for people to condemn and punish as many people around them, so that they stop looking up and outwards to the systems of systemic abuse which are applied on them.
  • Support any other system like your own, to maintain the status quo that gives you power — Any positive social change (equal rights for everyone, equal pay for everyone, equal treatment for anyone) is a direct threat for your specific system of abuse. While systems that support racism or sexual abuse may not serve you directly, the social change that will give more power to people who are currently powerless will hurt you –and your specific brand of abuse– at some point as well. So it is better to keep racism, sexism and other abusive systems in place, as it will help maintain the status quo that grants you the power you have right now.
  • Support the people that give you power, so you can keep the power that you have — Most people in power have that power, because that power is granted by other people in power. Anything that will offend those others in power, can cost you the power you have. So when you offer an agenda too radical, the chances are high others will start sabotaging your career and start undermining your position, as it will pose:
    • A challenge to self-assumed innocence — The expression of racist, sexist and other damaging ideas are directly linked to their own identity (“it is funny / true / and so on”) and to challenge the “innocence” of those ideas is to challenge the self-assumed innocence of the people in question.
    • A challenge to self-assumed lack of responsibility — As long as one is innocent, one does not have to carry any responsibility.
    • A financial threat — And as long as one does not carry any responsibility for the abuse done, there is no reason what so ever to pay for the damages done due to that abuse. Nether is there an urgent reason to stop the current financial and physical absue of the workers that make everything possible.

What are those liberating stories?

I boiled some of them down for myself. For instance:

  • Your genitals, your skin, your outer appearance do NOT determine:
    • What your abilities are
    • What clothing you can wear, nor what kind of behavior or mannerism is appropriate
    • Your sexual preferences.
    • What you (should) feel
    • What emotions you (can / shall) have, or how you (can / shall) feel about yourself.
  • Your poverty is serving several agenda’s. Two samples:
    • Poor people are desperate and desperate people can be exploited and abused. For example: as cheap cannon-fodder in wars, as cheap labor-forces.
    • Poor people do not have access to means that will bring them in circles of power and influence, so that those circles stay protected and closed.
  • Your gullibility and your lack of access to facts and knowledge is not an accident, but a cultivated weapon that is used against you and the people around you. This reflects in several ways:
    • No access to universities and/or proper education purely based on your social standing, your social circles, and/or your financial means.
    • Any reason you have internalized to mock, bully and attack people who are different and smart(er than you), helps to keep you proudly stupid and proudly uniformed, so that it is more easy to manipulate you.
    • Any reason anyone –including your bullies and teachers– gave you to NOT do something you are capable of, is a cultivated weapon to keep you from earning a place in positions of power.
    • Any violence used against you, to keep you from learning more about about the things that will set your free on a personal level, is part of a system that is designed to keep you a prisoner of your situation.
    • Any person (including sociopaths, conspiracy-theorists and nacissists) and any government (including dictatorships and governments driven by people who thrive through the cult of personality) and any body of power (including those built around religion) that can benefit from your stupidity will do anything in their power to keep you as stupid as possible.
    • As long as you are kept stupid, you will not find the instruments to look through the bullshit that other use to shape your perception of reality.
    • As long as you are kept stupid, you will not challenge the status quo that is oppressing and abusing you and/or your body and mind.
    • As soon as you start to ask too many questions, or are no longer stupid, you form a threat for the status quo
  • Fake smartness and fake superiority are weapons used against you and against the people around you. And there are several instruments:
    • People teaching you “the truth of the word of God by heart” will often use your pride to spread a dogma that is –in most cases– instrumental in the oppression of other people.
    • “Learning the truth” within conspiracy-theory is designed around your curiosity, your (mostly justified) feelings that something ‘is nog adding up’, and a very sneaky appeal on your sense of superiority, as you (will) know “the truth that other people refuse to see”. And this sense of superiority is like a drug.
    • Buying into the story that specific people in power are “clean” or “predestined” or “more qualified than others” based on their family lines and/or a reputation that is kept in place by people who have their own agenda’s and interest to do so. These narratives of fake superiority grants many people levels of real power over other people that is in many cases undeserved.
  • Pride in your conformity to the rules of other people has been used throughout history to make people the perfect servant, and a perfect weapon.
  • You continue to choose shitty partners, until you learn to understand that the world is not a reflection of your family and your past.
  • You continue to stay trapped until you learn to walk away from the people that take advantage of you.
  • Silent protest is yet another tool that will not work.
  • Keeping things as they are will not lead to improvement.

On conspiracies

In the design of many conspiracies, there is an “outcast expert” who “knows the truth that everyone else is denying”. People who have years of experience and knowledge on the subject are made to be suspicious.

Facts themselves are intended to become less and less relevant. Anything that counters the conspiracy-theory becomes- or is part of the conspiracy “that keeps others ignorant”.

The people who design and spread the conspiracy-theories feed on your gullibility and in many cases that gullibility is used to make you do bad things against other people, including (but not limited to): murder; physical violence; deliberately avoiding necessary steps to protect yourself and other people from getting sick from preventable diseases; mental abuse and psychological violence that can lead to suicide; the toppling of democratic governments into fascist governments; and rape.

On good causes and twisting the narrative

There are several examples on how narratives from good causes can be hijacked and twisted to serve the agenda of people who have no interest what so ever to liberate other people.

For instance:

It should be quite simple to talk about equal rights for anyone; to stop hate-crimes against LGBTQI+, to condone any form of violence and abuse against people, to strive for good healthcarte and good care for other people. It feels logical to calculate the costs of poverty and untreated ilnesses on any society, to stop the processes that create global warming –and through that global warming– extreme weather. But what we get are narratives like this:

  • “Trans-rights are problematic, because some people will abuse trans-rights to go into women-toilets to rape women.”
  • “Global warming is a hoax. The use of fossile fuels is beneficial for everyone. Moving towards sustainable power-sources will throw countries into poverty and decline.” “Their true agenda is to erase the majority of the world-population”
  • “Black Lives Matters is racist, as it singles out black people as the people who suffer the most by the state.”
  • “Gay pride is part of the gay agenda. And the gay agenda is to infiltrate all our institutions, to brainwash our children into accepting the homosexual lifestyle, to undermine traditional marriage and to undermine our basic family values.”
  • “Workers Unions are a bad thing. They protect the laborer to be extremely lazy and unproductive because as long as they show up in time at work, they can not be fired.”
  • “The extreme left is infiltrating our universities and trying to erase our culture, censoring freedom of speech while pushing their ‘safe spaces’ and their ‘PC’ agenda.”
  • “Their agenda is to guilt-trip us for crimes we did not commit”

In all cases, the arguments are a patchwork of semi-related issues, usually involving some fear-mongering and / or blame-shifting so that the victim becomes the culprit and the culprit becomes the victim.

It is very easy to create a alarming narrative based on misinformation and fear where society as we know it will collapse, derailing the public conversation from main issues and demonizing the people who are excluded. Issues like:

  • The right to be treated as a worthy human being –regardless of your sexual orientation, disabilities, gender, sex and so on.
  • The right on a normal life without crippling debts caused by companies and organizations which operate as financial predators.
  • The systemic hatred and discrimination towards LGBTQI+, based on very limited stories of ‘sexual normalcy’ and very damning fear-filled stories on (the threat of) ‘sexual deviants’.
  • The systemic hatred and discrimination towards people of color in Europe and the United Stated of America, based on –among many other things– bullshit-stories of ‘barbarism’ and ‘genetic traits’.
  • The systemic exclusion of LGBTQI+ and people of certain ethnic backgrounds from certain roles and rights in society.
  • The industrialized structural destruction of the only planet that can currently sustain our kind of life: Earth.

As long as we are not able to address these issues, as long as these issues continue to be derailed into “very attractive” but vary damaging sidelines, things will not change.

Why is it so difficult to get out of this?

It is not that “we” are “addicted to doing bad things”. It is mostly that we are duped into this by lack of better reference material.

People profit from our ignorance. And our ignorance is what keeps those people in power.

We could change this, by focusing on critical thinking from a very early stage, when children reach that age where they start reasoning. We can teach them the scientific method: to make, test and challenge hypothesis.

We can teach them to understand why racism and bigotry are such useful tools for any factor in society that seeks to gain power by using human nature as a weapon and a tool for self-benefit; to learn about structures of power; to learn about the many shades of racism and bigotry and the role of Europeans in the destruction of many cultures around the world; to dissect the many creative narratives we invented to justify things like slave-trade, mass murder and the invasion of many places we made into ‘colonies’. To critically dissect all these narratives and see how their patterns are used and re-used over and over by people looking for power.

It is useful to understand how abuse works, how these types of abuse can be used to control and oppress entire societies, and what types of abuse are currently present.

But to address this, is also to address the skeletons in our personal closets. It is to look at the things we took for granted and to acknowledge that several of those things are quite dark and from –sometimes– quite disgusting sources. It is coming to terms that we might have done some disgusting things ourselves: things we found ‘acceptable’ because nobody was ever really speaking up against it.

It is also difficult because our cultural narratives about guilt and responsibility are deliberately broken and sabotaged, so that we rather lash out and bully and hurt ourselves and others than to confront, address and fix what is hurtful and broken inside ourselves.

On (super)heroes

This is not a full post, buit a reply to the following question on Facebook.

The question:

is it actually possible to write [a superhero-story] that appeals to the local audience […]? Because from experience, such attempts have been met with disdain for the most part instead – and the negative reaction comes from the intended local audience for the most part.

My reply:

As with many other things: 99 attempts fail for each 1 to succeed. The (American) superheroes you know are surrounded by many superhero-characters that never got further than 4 comic book issues, before being scrapped and forgotten — because they did not resonate with the audience.

Some thoughts:

(Super) heroes are a reflection of us

The (super)heroes are us. A reflection of our own flaws and of the good parts we have, of our life-force that continue to drive us forwards, even when things look really grim. They are a projection of who we want to be.

The monsters they fight are a reflection of the monsters we fight ourselves, every day.

To see something or someone struggle and fight and fail and fight to eventually succeed is inspiring. It gives us hope. It shows us there is always a way out, as long as you keep on fighting to exist / to overcome. When reading those stories, we are uplifted, as –if only for a moment in a fictional space– we can reflect on those problems from a perspective where the (endless) struggle offers hope, as that struggle is part of the process to achieve a positive outcome. Whatever that outcome is.

(Super)heroes resonate with things relevant for your audience

1: Many superheroes represent a certain/specific archetype that resonates with the local culture.

Superman might – for instance – resonate with the American Dream for the Average Joe: “anyone might be a superhero for whom anything is possible, even you.” This might be one of the reasons Superman is working at a newspaper, pretending to be a grey averyman.

Astroboy might resonate with Japanese 1950’s push towards technological progession in combination with Buddhist/Zen-like “all life is precious” hopeful approach / appeal to the goodness in all people, overlayed on the story of Pinocchio – who wants to become / to be seen as a real boy / a real human being.

“Akira” might –like Godzilla and many other stories alike– resonate with the Japanese collective trauma of 1945 Nagasaki / Hiroshima… and so on)

2: If your superhero is intended to be local, it needs to resonate with some positive element in the collective self-image shared in your culture (which can be as simple as: “do good / be kind to others” or: “be succesful in science / business”). Otherwise this superhero will not resonate with the local audience, as it does not (or does not really) resonate with their image of their own self. (It will probably considered to be “fake” and “boring”)

Getting the basics right when using folklore

It is very essential to get the basics right. So if you use folklore as a basis, try to understand what each monster, demon, and so on represents of in respects to:

1: The human soul / human behavior / human longings, fears and so on in that / your culture

2: How do they behave? Why do they behave like that? What does that tell you about that / your culture? How –or what elements of that– is / are still relevant now?

3: What “monster” do they represent in real life? (The crippling pressure of debt? The grief of loss? The fear of death? The fear to be castrated? The fear to lose a loved one / a child / your baby? And so on)

4: What is currently the buzz in that / in your culture? What do people talk about now? What do they hope for and fear now / today? How can you translate that back to achetypes / monsters from folklore?

5: What is required to ovecome this monster / these monsters? What core values or principles (from your ethical / spiritual backgrounds) will help your hero to build his character and overcome defeat? (Are they based in concepts from Buddhism? Other religions or schools of life? Principles they teach in science class, or economics?)

“What do they reflect?”

For example: many cultures have stories of babies being stolen from their parents, or babies being switched for something else. Many cultures have stories of children disappearing close to bridges and in forests.

If you know that post-natal depression and human qualities like sociopathy, autism and ADHD are not new, that there have always been cases where a mother kills her own baby, and where children are kidnapped and/or murdered by other people, these stories get more charge. The monsters are closer to home, become more than just a random fiction.

Instead of just using what is, it helps to dive into the why and what of those monsters. Why were they invented? What do they represent?

From that you can move to the “how” and “what”. How would the monsters from folklore be reflected in current times? What qualities would they have? What would they look like? What jobs would they have if disguising as human beings? Do they have unions? Schools? Culture?

Examples

Three examples of re-using and re-inventing lokal folklore: “the legend of Hei”, “3×3 eyes” and “Dororo”.

Regarding superheroes and using lokal folklore as a foundation: “The legend of Hei”, “Dragon Ball” and “Dragon Ball Z”

It is all about our own human struggle

Because superhero-stories are –in the end– about human struggle and people / characters / beings striving to overcome (overpowering) negative influences / monsters, we can resonate.

Because we are all fighting monsters that will not let go so easily.

And without struggle (of the superhero) there is nothing to resonate to and the superhero-story becomes nothing but a dull sequence of fighting scenes.

For example: even Saitama from “One-punch man” struggles. And because he is so rediculously strong, his struggles are both completely inane (for a superhero) and very much recognizable. (His struggles: dealing with people that bore him to death. Being so strong that he has no real challenges. Recognition. Loneliness. Boredom itself.)

We all struggle with monsters that force us to grow and force us to do things (including shitty jobs, or showing up at all to other people) we rather not do if we did not have to fight to survive. Whether that monster is poverty, depression, being bullied, anxiety attacks from past trauma and so on.

If you start from concepts like this (and others), I think you can write superheroes in any form and from any culture, make them work for the local audience, AND make them work for outsiders (like most of us are) as well.

What I would not do, ever, is do a copy & paste of superheroes from other cultures, and dress them in local colors, as their starting points are from another culture and different elements of resonance that do not transplant well without the cultural context they stem from.

Do get inspired by them. Mix and match qualities. Soak them in the essence of your own culture.

Een nieuwe boekprijs

Vasnaf 5 euro per award

Tom Kruijsen geeft 3 redenen waarom een nieuwe boekprijs van nut zou zijn. Zie Vonk Magazine.

Ik ben het daar in groete lijnen mee eens.

En ik heb een mening, die ik met weinig omhaal hier beneden ga neerzetten.

Maak het open en hou het simpel

Laten we het niet moeilijker maken dan nodig. Lezen is subjectief. Een jury is subjectief. Kwaliteitsnormen zijn subjectief. Omarm dat. Er is een publiek en er zijn mensen met inhoudelijke kennis en bepaalde belangen. Omarm ook dat.

Ga niet proberen iets absoluuts neer te zetten. Een prijswinnaar is een prijswinnaar vanwege een kleine groep mensen met een mening. En er is niets tegen meerdere prijswinnaars vanuit verschillende meningen, behalve dat je ergens tegen budgetgrenzen aan gaat lopen.

Verder: fuck voorselecties en fuck “alles moet helemaal gelezen worden”. Elke volwassen lezer is zelf in staat een top-5 te maken uit een stapel van inzendingen, of een enorm en overweldigend aanbod in een boekwinkel. En elk heeft daarvoor een eigen methode. Die methode is niet: elk boek zorgvuldig doorlezen. (Die van mij is, door elke zoveel bladzijden een zin te lezen, tot duidelijk is of deze schrijver met dit verhaal voor mij ergens naartoe gaat.)

Ketterij! zullen sommige mensen roepen. Een wedstrijd! Eerlijke kansen! Alles lezen! Ook die andere 95 boeken die na jouw quick-scan in jouw ogen hoogstwaarschijnlijk niet in die top-5 gaan komen!

Lulkoek, is mijn antwoord. Want subjectief proces. En teveel zwaar gedoe om dingen die die aandacht niet waard zijn.

Hoe ziet dat proces er dan uit? Hier mijn lijstje.

  1. Doe zowel een publieksprijs als een vak-juryprijs.
  2. Biedt alle boeken aan naar alle lezers.
  3. Laat mensen zelf bepalen wat ze wel en niet willen lezen.
  4. Laat elk van deze mensen in ronde 1 zelf een top-5 samenstellen.
  5. Laat elk van je vakjuryleden een snelscan doen van de top 5 van de anderen, en daar een ranking aan geven
  6. Laat de ruimte aan juryleden om hun eigen top-5 te herzien. (Soms mis je iets, dat na een tweede scan / meer aandachtige lezing pas naar voren komt)
  7. Begrijp dat geen enkele methode perfect is en geniet van het proces.
  8. Bepaal op basis van de totale ranking uit die tweede ronde de overall-top 5. (Welke 5 boeken scoren uiteindelijk de meeste punten? Welke darvan zijn de top 3 en top 1?)
  9. Klaar met de selectie.

Dan de publicatie en indeling van de scores.

  1. Collectieve top 5 per genre, per lezersgroep – Geef de colectieve top 5 per genre, per lezersgroep (top 5 vakjury, top 5 lezersjury). Geef de top 3 van elke catregorie een leuke herinnering in de vorm van een prijs.
  2. Persoonlijke top 5 per vakjury-lid — Toon de persoonlijke top-5 per vakjury-lid. Geen prijzen. Wel eervolle vermeldingen, elke top-5 getoond op het grote scherm. En super-leuk voor de schrijvers die door die lezers in hun top-5 zijn gekozen.
  3. Geef de top 3 van alles een geldprijs en extra award – Geef de top 3, die overall het hoogste scoorde (vakjury en lezersjury) een geldprijs en een award.

Klinkt dit complex? Het leeswerk is beperkt tot wat een lezer wil investeren. (Een ervaren lezer weet al heel snel of een boek de moeite van verder lezen waard is of niet.) Het gaat niet verder dan ranglijsten, die eventueel gewoon in Excel kunnen worden gedaan. Er is geen noodzaak tot een jury-feedback per boek.

Natuurlijk zul je moeten registreren welk boek tot welk genre behoort. En de scores moeten ergens samengevoegd moeren worden. (Automatisering kan hier goed in helpen.)

Verder geeft dit veel meer ruimte voor een eerlijke waardering naar de individuele schrijvers. Wat ik prachtog mooi werk vindt, is niet noodzakelijk wat de jury als geheel als winnaar zal aanwijzen. Maar wetende –als schrijver– dat ten minste één jurylid snapte waar dat boek over ging is al een grote een win op zichzelf.

De splitsing per genre is een keuze. Ik denk dat het iets toevoegt, omdat je SF niet echt kunt vergelijken met Fantasy of Horror. Ding is dat het mogelijk is dat er in specifieke genres simpelweg te weinig boeken zijn, omdat er dat jaar te weinig geschreven is. Een top 5 van 3 horrorboeken is niet echt representatief. En misschien ook wel. Laat het een feestje zijn en als er inderdaad maar 3 boeken zijn, geef dan alleen een prijs aan de beste in dat genre.

36 prijzen x 8 euro

Is het verwarrend om zoveel prijzen te geven? Ik denk van niet. Ik denk dat het juist heel leuk kan zijn. Er hangt natuurlijk ook een prijskaartje aan. Een glazen award met gravure komt ongeveer op 8 euro. Met –latren we wild doen– 5 categorieen, een overall-prijs en twee aparte juries, kom je op 5 categorieen x 3 prijzen x 2 juries = 30 + 3 prijzen x 2 juries voor de hoogste winnaars overall, is een totaal van 36 prijzen x 8 euro = 288 euro. (Ik heb absoluut geen moeite om dat te sponseren).

Verder kost het mij relatief weinig moeite om een basaal systeem in elkaar te zetten, met een web-interface en een login per jurylid, voor het maken van rangordes over alle boeken per jurylid, waarin scores worden bijgehouden per genre en zo voorts.

Maar waarom niet beperken tot 3 prijzen?

Omdat het niet eerlijk is. Een lezersjury is anders dan een vakjury. Het ene genre is niet het andere. Een boek dat overall de hoogste score haalt is niet noodzakelijk het beste. Waarom wel 3 prijzen? Omdat dat altijd al zo was? Omdat dat nu eenmaal de manier is waarop je dingen doet? Omdat iedereen anders dat zo doet? Omdat de boel anders “verwatert”? (En is dat wel zo?)

En voor wie doe je dit?

Tot slot

Plaats jezelf in de schoenen van de schrijvers. Je zit daar. Je hebt maanden en misschien jaren gestopt in je nieuwe boek. Redactierondes. Feedback. Wanhoop (“Waar doe ik dit allemaal voor?”). Research. Je zit daar, op die dag, op die uitreiking. En je werk zit in de top 5 van één of meerdere vakjuryleden. Hoe tof is dat! Dan hoor je dat de lezersjury je ook genomineerd heeft. Misschien in een top 10 of 20.

Vervolgens scoor je wellicht top 5 in je eigen genre! Zweethanden. OMFG! Misschien zit die ultieme top 3 er ook nog voor je in! De avond is half voorbij. Bijna 2 prijzen in de pocket! Maar de erkenning is fantastisch!

Uiteindelijk gaan je collega schrijvers met de prijzen naar huis. Maar men heeft je gezien, heeft je werk erkend, heeft daar wellicht zelfs iets moois over gezegd. Je bent 3 keer in de top 5 gekomen (van twee vakjury-leden, én de lezersjury!)

Ik heb een vermoeden dat dit nooit gaat gebeuren. Niet vanwege organisatorische redenen (wat een uitdaging op zichzelf is) maar omdat dit “te wild” is: te ver verwijderd van wat bekend is, van wat iedereen anders doet. Omdat het eng is om buiten de lijntjes te kleuren.

PS: marketing en zo

Jorrit de Klerk merkte terecht wat punten op over marketing. Een aantal quotes:

De belangrijkste vraag die je je moet stellen is wat je wil bereiken met een boekprijs. Kies daar helemaal voor én voer dát (zo) goed (mogelijk) uit.

Dus wil je meer aandacht genereren voor ons genre (de oorspronkelijke opzet van Thomas c.s.)? Wil je een gezellig feestje voor gelijkgestemden waar we onze eigen boeken vieren? Of de erkenning d.m.v. een objectieve, *kuch* literaire *kuch* prijs door een jury van experts? Eén van die, niet een mengelmoes!

Ons oorspronkelijke doel in 2015 was aandacht. In het eerste jaar belde ik alle grote boekhandels in Nederland om de genomineerde boeken met stickers en posters onder die aandacht te brengen, waardoor er stapels fantastische boeken zichtbaar werden. Toen de Harland Awards ‘s avonds na de uitreiking zelfs op nu.nl werd genoemd was ik maar wat trots.

[…]

Dus. Kies iets en voer dat uit. Een objectieve, literaire prijs? Prima. Zorg dat alle neuzen vanaf het eerste moment overal dezelfde kant op staan. Aandacht voor ons genre? Prima. Focus je op positiviteit, communicatie, marketing, etc.

Laat de wereld vooraf weten wat je gaat bakken en leg dit vast in het recept van je wedstrijdvoorwaarden.

Ik ben het niet met Jorrit eens dat je alleen maar óf het één, óf het ander kunt of moet doen. Respecteer alle juries, maak duidelijk wie wat op welke basis gekozen heeft. Zie hoe twee verschillende meningen uit twee verschillende hoeken elkaar totaal kunnen versterken.

Het enige dat waarschijnlijk niet gaat werken is een jury die dingen tegen een hoge literaire maatlat gaan leggen en gaan lopen zeiken over alles wat er mankeert aan de ingezonden werken.

Moet de lat hoger?

Om eerlijk te zijn: fuck off. Erken en zie wat er nu gebeurt. Vier dat. Je kunt schrijvers stimuleren, door goede voorbeelden te stellen, te laten zien waar de lat kan liggen. Of je kunt ze –op de oude gereformeerde manier– afbranden en met hel, verdoemenis en het gevoel op dit moment –in de ogen van “hogere machten”– zwaar tekort te komen in een richting forceren die een groot aantal niet ziet zitten.

Literaire kwaliteiten zijn niet voor elke schrijver relevant. Sterker nog: veel lezers zal het worst zijn. Waar zijn de literaire kwaliteiten van ‘meesterwerken’ als: “Harry Potter”, “The Davinci Code”, “50 shades of grey”? Maakte dat iets uit voor de verkoopcijfers? Of de populairiteit van schrijver en boek? Als het verhaal maar lekker leest, prikkelt. Wat veel lezers willen is een wegwijzer. “Wat is voor mij de moeite waard?”

Ik wil MIJN lat hoger leggen. Maar dat is geen maatstaf voor anderen.

Zelazny, Delany, Gibson, Dick; Mitchell, Foster Wallace

What makes a novel worth reading?

For me: do I care? Do I care about the premise, the characters, the events that unfold?

Some loose thoughts on decline in the work of writers I love

Zelazny started strong with the novella: “He who shapes” which is a (now) near future SF-story which is SF-concept-wise one of his strongest. However: it was not what he wanted to write. Almost everything that follows “He who shapes” is grounded in the mythical.

Some novels that follow are slapped together. Others received more time and care. But in the work of Zelazny, as in the works of Delany and Gibson, there is a decline as he seems to become more comfortable in the position he was: being published.

From 1970 on, Zelazny I find Zelazny becomes sloppy and his writing –which was in his best stories, lyrical, beautiful, layered– poor. Almost anything from 1980 on is missable. Ofcourse there are exceptions, but novels like “Doorways in the sand”, “Changeling”, “Eye of cat” and the second Amber cycle are terrible compared to the potential Zelazny showed in the 1960’s.

Delany slowly spirals into another direction: endless meandering. His first works are sparkling, fresh. They are poetic at times, get to the point almost immediately. Dhalgren –in my reading experience– is terrible. It just goes on and on and on without getting to the point of whatever it is. As a diary and a series of notes of the main character, it is what it is. As SF, it feels moslty as a sugered up reflection of certain moments in the life of Delany in the 1960’s and 1970’s, in a limited sense closely related to the events in his short novella: “Heavenly Breakfast”

Gibson, like Zelazny, starts strong with his first novel: Neuromancer, and his writing (in re-reading it recently) already starts the downward spiral towards a certain detached way of writing in “Count Zero”. This detached style matures in “Virtual Light”. And from there on, the work of Gibson becomes something I have to force myself through. Sadly enough, Gibson stops developing himself as a writer for me, after the 3rd novel. Where the work of Zelazny collapses towards tired, sloppy writing, the work of Gibson simply takes a direction where it becomes repetitive, like an endless rehash on the main concepts of both “Idoru” and “Mona Lisa Overdrive”: pattern recognition and main characters who have a special knack for pattern recognition.

I feel that this decline in the work of all mentioned above is partly due to a lack of stimulans. Like you have been pushed to the edge, time and time again, until this pushing stops. Possibly one factor is that they have arrive at a point where they are considered publishable and where their work will not be rejected on the grounds it would have been rejected before (poor writing, long, meandering parts without clear focus or dramatic charge, and so on; or a constant rivisitation of one specific concept and a lack of real innovation in the books that follow — as in the case of Gibson, as far as I am concerned as a reader.)

One exception I like to mention is Philip Dick. And maybe he is not. Until “A scanner darkly” dick has a certain fire in his work. A sort of desperation to overdo himself with each new work. During and after “A scanner darkly” where his writing starts to pay off, Dick loses his edge. The works written in 1970 are dull compared to what he wrote before.

And works by David Foster Wallace and David Mitchell I did not like

I don’t know what to say about “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace. Except that it is one of the worst books I have read in a while. 60 pages where nothing of any interest happens. At all. World-building that is –for an SF novel– of very poor quality. Uninspired. Empty. It is boring. So fucking boring. I pushed myself through the first 60 pages, trying to understand the hype, and gave up.

I really do not give a shit what prices it won, what status it has in some circles and that it was a bestseller. (It was). My reading experiences was extremely negative. Nothing engaging. Nothing of interest. Nothing moving.

I have the same with David Mitchell. I tried “Number9Dream” because it was recommended by me, by a friend and that novel suffers from the same issue. Page after page of observations and nothing of interest happening. With “Cloud Atlas” I stopped after 3 pages. Stylistically, it may be fun to reflect a certain style from a century or more past, and I have done exercises like that myself, but as a reader I don’t have the patience anymore. “The Bone Clocks” is a turn off for me for similar reasons. I don’t see enough juicy stuff in the first pages to get me exited enough to read more.

And sure: I love deep stuff with deep thoughts. But these works are too flat and too mundane for my taste and I don’t trust both writers enough to blow me away later, based on those first reading experiences.

My point:

As a writer, I have two audiences to work for: myself and my reader. I write for my own entertainment. I write the books and stories I find missing, that like to read myself, or that tickle my intellectual fancy. Then I write to be read. By other people. To reach that audience, I bend and forge and restructure my writing in such a way that any reader who stumbles upon that work is as likely as possible to get turnend on by that work. Rather than turned off.

This means that things that exite me, need to be structured and restructured in such a way that it will exite others.

Because my writer-writer hase become more and more ‘acadamic’ in nature as I grew older, it hardly cares about the parlor-tricks used to captivate the reader. But other parts of myself do. I expect them myself when I read works of others. I want an audience of readers who appreciat my work. And for that, I want my work to be accessible. And for that, I have to implement and respect certain rules of thumb.

What is funny in this, is that my inner writer operates differently than my inner reader. If I would just let my inner writer go, I would write inpenetrable work like “Infinite Jest”. Stuff with a lot of subtext (of which parts started as jokes between me and myself) that just goes on and on and on, without ever giving any clear clue of why this is important, where we are going with all that stuff.

If I do not do my work: editing what is written, restructuring scenes, applying proven techniques that stem from pulp-fiction and soap opera, my work is and will be as boring and/or impenetrable as the work of Mitchell, Foster Wallace and the work of Delany after 1971. A lot of stuff happening between the lines, but requesting a lot of work from the reader to process, without a clear indication where this is going and wheter the reader-investment in the story will be rewarded or not.

It is quite easy to write meandering books. You simply don’t examinine what you are writing exactly, or why, or why the reader would care about your output, or what you want to communicate exactly. Then you continue writing page after page and situation after situation, until you reach the end. Then you stop writing.

This does not deminish the value other people give to the works I don’t appreciate. It does not say that this is how any of the mentioned writers operate or operated. Nor does it suggets that there was not a lot of investment of the writers in question in the works they produced. And if you like David Mitchell, and David Foster Wallace, good for you! But I have no intention writing something that suffers the same endless reader-experience of ‘all kinds of stuff is happening in this book, but I still have no clue where this is going, why it should interest me, and in the end nothing really seems to go anywhere’ I encountered in the works i mentioned. And each story that I do not revise and rewrite at least three times on this specific issue, suffers that very same issue for the readers I aim at.

On writing ‘literary fiction’

Today I finished the 13 episodes of: “Made in Abyss” a Japanese Anime based on the first 3 collected volumes of the manga with the same name (Which I have not read yet). The story is intense. In contrary to other anime-series I was not able to binge through it in one or 2 sessions.

And it made me realize and remember what I consider to be the major difference between literary works and light reading material. It is, that whatever the condition is of one or more characters: that condition can’t be easily escaped from. Not really. Not forever. Not without a price to pay. In that sense, it reflects reality and the harshness (and unwillingness to cooperate) of reality. Whatever the condition is, is not just a plot device to get the story going, or to create twists and turns, but touches everything.

Two examples: poverty and depression.

Things with consequences versus things as plot-devices

In romances and non-literary fiction, these conditions are usually plot-devices. Things to move the story in a certain direction, decoration to give a certain atmosphere. These conditions are escapable through the hand of god, through miracle cures, or can be brushed aside whenever the writer thinks its appropriate. For instance: the involved characters can win a lottery, find some money stashed under a matrass, inherit money from a relative and so on. Depression can be temporary, or ‘cute’ or ‘cured’ with a magical antidepressant or sheer willpower, or is light enough for a person to function otherwise. Whatever is in service of the plot.

In fiction more grounded in the everyday reality we experience, these cop-outs are a no-go. There is no real escape. At all. Not an easy one. Not without a price to pay, whether that is years of hard working, or the numbing side-effects of antidepressants.

People die. They get wounded, hurt, traumatized and the effects will last longer than convenient. In reality many crimes remain unsolved. Revenge is never taken, or will slap us back in our faces. When we get cought in a fight, we probably lose. When we jump down from a building, we probably break out legs.

This, and these limitations, makes ‘literary fiction’ –in a way– harder to like, harder to digest, closer to home, ‘more realistic’. (Even if everything is completely made up.) And without some kind of release, some kind of catharsis, some kind of conclusion, it is –in my experience– depressing.

Light reading, wishful thinking, cop-outs and catharsis

Light reading material is very about the catharsis, the escape, the release. In many ways it drives and thrives on wishful thinking and a dream-like version of reality. In most cases, each conflict in light reading is aimed to build up to those moments of escape and catharsis, usually making things worse before they get better, so we feel the rush of release even more when we reach that crucial moment. Each cliffhangers is not depressing, but exiting because we know our protagonists will get out of trouble. We know there is a moment of breakthrough somewhere (unless it’s something written by Lars von Trier). That is the silent agreement we have between us and the writers of light reading material.

Fiction with a literary approach is very much about the integration of the ‘tough rules of real life’ in the core and fibers of the story where all actions and responses to events have –inside the story world– real consequences and those real consequences will influence the lives and events that follow in –sometimes– very unpleasant ways as they can not just be brushed away by the writer, ‘because that’s convenient’.

Reflection is a bonus. Not all literary works reflect on the events, or give you ‘lessons learned’. Not all offer convenient wrap-ups or a morale.

Proper journalism versus opinion pieces

In another way, it is comparable to the difference between proper journalism and opinion pieces. With proper journalism you do research, you check your sources, you make sure –as much as is possible– that what you write is based on reproduceable facts. With opinion pieces you can basically do and write whatever you want. I know this is an overly simplistic example, but it kind of covers the topic.

The importance of research

In literary fiction, research matters a lot. Mistakes in assumptions (one example of a wrong assumption: “organs can be donated after the body is dead”) will undermine the credibility of the story world, as consequences are based on fabrications and wrong data and because of this, the chains of events based on these assumptions enter the realms of ‘accidental or willingfull wishful thinking’ and ‘accidental or willingfull fabrication in favor of the plot’.

Quality, revisited

As for quality in fiction: any and all stories can have certain levels of quality. You can find romances and romantic novels with incredible vivid and ‘real’ characters, with real depth, acting and reacting in ways that feel real to us as readers. But each time the writer offers an easy way out of a situation (even if that ‘easy way out’ is gained by hard work) it’s a fantasy-story.

You can find poorly written literary novels with characters as flat as you can imagine, hardly going through any inner development, but the work still having literary qualities due to the fate these characters endure, as what they endure is –even though fictional– close to the ‘rules of reality’ due to the effect of the consequences of actions and reactions on the characters and the events that follow as the story progresses.

Concluding

Any fiction, any genre (including hardcore porn) can have works of high literary quality. Even if the rules applied within the story-world are based on fiction themselves. It is in how consistent the writer applies those rules, and whether the writer chooses to go for cop-outs when convenient for the plot or themselves, and story-mechanics based on wishful thinking, or not.

As to “what brings quality in fiction?” the answer is not “do what literary writers do” but “read deep into all writing techniques we know, and apply them in your own work”. They are documented by many different writers, in many different books you can buy online at Amazon or whatever your source will be. From plot-building to character development, to world-building, to “how to write engaging stories” and “how to build your plot and apply dramatic structure”. Writing is not something random or mystical. It is a craft, like any other craft, with several proven ways and techniques to get better result from what you are doing.

And as far as: “should we try to convince literary critics to accept our genre”? I would say: don’t bother and don’t waste your energy on getting validation from / trying to please people who already showed they don’t really give a shit about you or what you are interested in reading or producing. Focus on your own work instead. Make it the best you can.

Literature versus genre

Genre. In my case Science Fiction. In some other peoples cases: Horror and Fantasy. And it does not end there.

The past week again, the discussion rose in my writer-circles: “should ‘genre’ adhere to (quality) rules and standards of literature?” “Should genre-writers apply the same quality-standards of Literature?” And the underlying (in some cases maybe) desperate question or desperate cry: “why are we not taken serious?” Not being taken serious by Dutch press, by renowned Dutch reviewers and so on. “Why do we not receive the same kind of attention and the same opportunities as mainstream literature, as mainstream novels?”

It is a very tired discussion. It is tired and it is still actual. It is actual as works of genre like Science Fiction in The Netherlands still suffers from a stigma that maintains 1930’s SF as a default baseline for everything SF. Rockets, space, crazy scientists, poorly written material, pure pulp, with no narrative or literary qualities what so ever. It ignores the 1950’s, where Theodore Sturgeon, Philip Dick, Alfred Bester and others started to explore and integrate literary themes because recycling the classic themes, tropes and story lines of “old school SF” started to become repetitive and boring.
Next came “New Wave”, where almost every and all rules of the genre were tossed in the garbage bin by writers like Brian Aldiss, John Brunner, Michael Moorcock, J.G. Ballard and Norman Spinrad (in the US). Followed by ecological, sociological, feminist and spiritual SF in the 1970’s, focusing more deliberate on topics like climate change, alternative religious experiences, more stories inspired by experiences from drugs like LSD, and new shifts caused by cultural movements from the decade before.

Failed attempts to lift things up

A few years ago, the relatively new, Dutch, “Stichting ter bevordering van de fantastische literatuur” made several attempts to mix literature and mainstream with SF and Fantasy, by inviting writers of literary stories to write SF, by inviting renowned and awarded mainstream writers to judge short stories admitted to the yearly “Paul Harland” short story contest and organizing other things. The intention was good: lifting things up by introducing literary influences into the circles of SF and Fantasy writers.

Things went south when the first award for the “Best genre novels of the year” was kind of cancelled “due to a lack of (literary) quality” in the submitted novels. This caused a shitstorm with a strong anti-Literature sentiment.

Why most things are shit. Probably

The reasons I see are several. Not all points are new. And a note for the frail reader: this part is not going to be nice. As a consolence: these issues are present anywhere.

  • There is a significant lack of ambition with many writers in the field: to read as much as possible, learn as much as possible (about the craft), to push boundaries of anything and everything as much as possible.
  • Many works written by the writers I know are derivative, shallow, colorless and simplistic in many aspects; levels of what and where depending on the individual writer. This shallownes, colorlessness and simplicity ranges from plot-devices, to plot, to dialog, to the described conflicts and events, to motives driving the characters, to the characters themselves, to the decisions made by each of those characters, to the events bringing everything in motion, to the story worlds described and so on.
  • Not many writers are willing to work and work hard on technique, style and quality. And most of them (including me) get stuck at some level, due to a lack of something or another. Most writers simply produce one or two stories per year, or simply just write what they feel like writing, hardly take time or effort to redact or revise what they have produced, to move to the next story. And the next. And the next.

I will just mention the delusion of almost narcissistic self-declared-awesomeness some writers are hampered with as a side-note here, because it is mostly boring, it exists everywhere and the genre is not some sort of a special magnet for misguided idiots.

Quality and the high price of awesomeness

Why is quality so important? And from whom? And what are the criteria? Do we need to produce stuff that is in favor of literary critics? Is it true that when we get the same favors as literature and works of literature, things will be better?

As you might have expected, there is no simple answer and no simple solution.

First of all: to produce work of quality requires a specific mindset, that is borderline obsessive-compulsive regarding certain quality standards for bodies of written work.

The starting points and segments for these quality standards are labelled and documented in currently over more than 100 different books on writing, by various authors and published by various publishers. But not all writers who aim high, know how to focus their mind on the things that really work. It is really difficult to see everything in the entire landscape of so many directions and possibilities. And many writers, instead, get lost in unproductive side tracks, wasting endless hours on shit that will not really lead to any serious improvement, and/or get stuck in murderous trauma-fed self-doubt leading to things like extreme defensive behavior and/or countless writing blocks.

When we talk about quality, we talk about the quality of story, plot, character description and character development. We talk about the quality of prose and variation and skill in the use of language. We talk about the quality of world-building and expression, the quality of writing in exposing crucial information and the quality of dialog. With quality we talk about focus. We talk of pace and rhythm, of consistency in the presentation and development of characters and the story itself. We talk about the awareness, use and abuse of tropes and clichés, of repetitiveness and freshness, of flatness and vigor, of knowing what is new and old, of what is old and can be revived and remixed, of mastery of voice and style, and much, much, much more.

Each writer can educate themselves, can develop their skills, can work to improve on each and every aspect of what makes a story even better. But not all writers are interested in making this effort, as you need to have that borderline obsessive-compulsive focus to climb and explore those endless series of stairs and rooms for years and years and years with no real end in sight: reading books, doing endless study; endlessly reworking and rewriting each and every chapter, each and every scene, each and every interaction, each and every conflict until they are “perfect enough” for that moment in time. It requires the same kind of endless dedication that makes a difference between a top-athlete who dedicates every available hour to their sports and an amateur who sports for fun or leasure. And even with this dedication you can still cripple yourself with bullshit and still deliver poor results: books and stories so boring or disconnected or mundane that hardly anybody cares about reading them.

As with high-demanding sports, writers will get stuck against a personal ceiling several times during their career, where improvement stops and the quality of the output might even start to drop. Mostly due to blind-spots and a lack of push in certain directions still unknown and undiscovered. And like sportspeople, writers need others to push them beyond those points, to push them beyond their own resistance and fears, to push them in new states of mind, where the impossible at some point becomes the foundation from which they can work and grow even further.

It is bullshit to say: “a good writer does not need this kind of support”. One does. Because the mind is lazy. Because any person, including me and you, will only push yourself up to a certain limit. Because we simply do not know all and everything and tend to resist things that might cost us more than they seem to deliver. Because sometimes other people see more clearly what we need to do or overcome to up the level than we do.

It is just to be careful. Next to the people who might actually be able to help writers to reach and go higher, there are many assholes and idiots who claim or think they “know” how to lead a writer on that fast road to awesomeness, but in the end will mostly send that writer into one swamp or another.

Most readers don’t give a shit

In reality, most consumers really don’t give that many shits about these levels of quality: where everything is elevated to genius levels of carefully constructed, healthy awesomeness. If they did, Pringles would not exist as a “food item” and fast-food would be dead. A story needs to be engaging and gripping. It needs to appeal to certain and personal reading-preferences and who gives a fuck (except for critics and critical readers) that the writing is not brilliantly poetic, most characters are mostly caricatures and the story is laced by countless plotholes, big enough to make the whole structure fall apart the moment you start touching them. As long as it is interesting. And engaging. And stimulating.

Most readers really don’t give any single fuck that the books and stories they love are not considered “literature”. Most bestsellers are mainstream easy-reads. Page turners stilling a hunger for something else to read within the realms of personal interest: to stimulate, distract and soothe the mind. To escape. To laugh, to be electrified by something. Whatever it is.

Over countless decades, this type of escapism and easy reads has been torched to ashes by Literary Critics, as these kind of stories do not really challenge the mind. Nor do they challenge our world-view (to mention only two reasons of many). There is nothing to learn from easy-reads. Nothing to learn about the self and nothing to learn about the world. Nothing to ponder about. Nothing that will elevate the mind to higher levels of awareness.

Science fiction, Fantasy, Horror are labelled as “too low” in these regards, as their roots lie in pulp and that pulp was –in most cases– really low quality and most critics never adapted their view on this. The thing is: easy reading, as well as pulp, can be as good as the writer makes it. Even pulp can elevate people, start processes of new awareness, challenge our mind, challenge our world view. Even page turners can offer merit, quality and depth.

This could become a rant about the incestuous narrowmindedness of Literary Critics and Literary Circles. A rant about many writers in their specific niche, who are as dull and superficial and inane as many genre-writers. A lecture where I tell you how SF, Fantasy and Horror has been used, over and over again, as a vehicle to expose certain things about our individual and collective realities in our present and past in ways Literature with the Big L will never be able to. I can write about genre being used for several centuries as an incredible rich form to write political criticism and political satire (think of “Gullivers Travels” and Dante’s “Inferno” as only two examples). But the matter today is quality. Literature versus Genre.

Stuff you like to sell to others, probably sucks more than you think

I am bored by the discussion. Not because it is irrelevant, but because the discussion always circles back on the same items. To be brief: who gives a shit about what Literary Critics think about Genre? If you want to improve the imago of Genre in general, begin by accepting that over 90% of everything that is being produced and offered is –indeed– shit not worth reading for most other people outside of your circles. Acknowledge this. “Yes: most of it is garbage.”

Acknowledge that most of the stuff you like is probably not that good either. “Dune”, “Null-A”, “The stars my destination”, “Neuromancer”, “Babel 17”. While each of these works have their merits, and rightfully inspired many generations that followed, they are also old and flawed and really not that good when you start dissecting them. Heinlein –considered by many boomers to be a master– is really a very poor and naive writer, hacking together novels with –sometimes– borderline-brilliant ideas, being poorly executed. Arthur C. Clarke is fucking boring in most of his work, and far from a literary master. I haven’t re-read Asimov recently. But probably I am not going to be that mild on him either.

Taken more recent works, in the top 5-s of several SF/F awards like the Hugo and the Nebula from the past 2 decades is either very derivative, or poorly written, or not much more than evolved fan-fiction, or flat, or boring, or all of the above.

“Literary SF” is in most cases fucking mundane, unless it gets trippy. But in most cases it is about boring people with boring issues in a boring story-world, going through boring events. Very much like Real Literature does. Magic Realism is –in most cases I have read– mostly empty symbolism, a nice parlor trick performed in front of a gullible audience that is hungry for something different, but scared for things going too deep or moving too far from home: stories usually based on one single idea, without any real depth or any real content in the story world, or in the events that unroll.

“We need to fix this”

I understand the sentiment “to fix this”, where “this” is, among other things:

  • The poor reputation of SF, Fantasy and Horror due to preconceptions and a limited view on the different genres
  • The lack of ambition or lust for quality with the writers
  • Being excluded from specific (Literary) parties and awards
  • Being shunned by professional publishers (because the genre itself is not taken seriously, or the publisher thinks the market is not big enough for that specific kind of work)

I had similar sentiments. It is one of the reasons why I started to publish a magazine for short stories in the 1990’s. It is why I support Edge.Zero financially and why I built the software to sluhs-read the stories submitted to Edge.Zero. It is why I made a new (and failed) attempt with Edge.01 for a more professional platform for short stories a few years ago.

Skip this part if you want to, as I am fucking bored by it

The problems are several and most of them boil down to money, networks, people, goals, ambitions, professionals platforms and visibility. More concretely:

  • Money — if there is no budget, you can’t pay people. If you can’t pay people, you are stuck with what is available on voluntary basis. This goes for stories, for illustrations and for editors. No money als means: no budget for promotion on different relevant platforms, means that you are almost invisible.
  • Network — you need to know people who know people. You need people around you who can do things, move things, make things happen. It helps to know publishers who are open to publish certain authors. It helps to know people who can review and push and promote books and stories. It helps to know people who can help writers to redact and revise their work.
  • People who create — you need good people to make quality products. While there is enough talent in the Netherlands and Belgium, this talent is not given much room or support or stimulans to develop itself. For that support and stimulans you need people who are capable, knowledgable and available.
  • Goal and ambition — it helps to have a clear goal and ambition. For instance: to reach higher, to help other people to reach higher.
  • Platforms and visibility — it helps to have several platforms to present yourself on, like a proper website and space for presence on review-sites and being visible on several events where many people visit, and advertisement and presence on as many different, relevant platforms –including radio, television, newspapers, magazines, social media sites, magazine stands and book shops– as possible. So people can see you and find you.
  • Professionals — it helps to have people in your team who know how to effectively make use of all platforms and possibilities: to get maximum effect from minimal budgets, to produce high-quality results with as little money as possible. People who know how to transform ideas into products and concepts that can generate more money that can be invested in people, products, and so on. People with a professional attitude who can help writers and creators to improve on their own work, to boost what is already there to higher levels.
  • Products with commercial value — it helps to have work that has commercial value, that people are willing to pay money for. These can be stories, illustrations, books, access to specific services and content, and so on.

But where would you start?

First: professionals: people who know how to get things moving from nothing more than what is there already and that is good enough to start earning money. People with networks. People who create works with potential and a certain commercial value (even if that commercial value is attention that can be transferred into visibility). From there: professionals who can help artists boost their work. Platforms to present oneselves on, to become visible on. And so on.

Somewhere in this setup is money. If the people instigating this have a startup-mentality, the product comes first and money comes later.

It is useless to convince critics they are wrong

Critics are not as powerful or influential as you might think. For sure they are less powerful than new initiatives like a weekly spot on the radio, or on TV focusing specifically on SF/F & H in the Netherlands. It will probably more easy and more effective to sell a solid and fun format (a formula for things like a TV show) to a public station like BNN.

Literature ≠ quality

We have come to confuse literature with quality, maybe because that is the pedestal it is placed on when by the teachers that talk about literature. As if an random concept can also –almost exclusively– claim certain properties.

Quality is a multi-pronged thing. With stories and even more with novels, there are thousands of items and elements shaping the narrative. All fabricated. All imagined and then placed into words. Producing works of quality is a personal thing, based on personal choices, personal drives and personal handicaps. Certain things come natural. Certain aspects of “writing works of structural quality” can be taught, studied, learned, exercised, refined, mastered as enough of those elements have been studied and dissected by other writers and their findings can be transferred to many other people. And when applied properly, they show a clear and undeniable positive effect.

But it is the individual artist who decides what is relevant for their own pleasure, their own mental health, their own personal writing goals and their own wellbeing as an artist. It is the individual artist who will decide how much ego stands in the way between themselves and the people who can teach them to surpass their current limits. Pushing yourself up to higher levels can be mentally and emotionally taxing. Pushing yourself beyond your current limits can become a fucking nightmare. Assuming you know better than others can be an important defense mechanism for other issues unaddressed.

Pissing down on others, while you yourself are full of shit

It is easy to piss on people who are not willing to change and easy to piss on people you think are less than yourself. And I have heard and read the sneering comments on writers unwilling to change, and how “they” continue to make bad examples “out of us”.

Sure, some people, who are vocal for- and against elevating the quality levels of genre in The Netherlands, are full of shit. Having a lot to say, but eventually putting no skin in the game and either not doing one single thing to change their own game for the better, or using their own “protest” as a poorly dressed smoke-screen to “cover” their own lack of skills and their own lack of willingness to do the work needed. But that is not the issue.

Calimero has been mentioned more than once in discussions like this: the bird that has become a placeholder for a towering inferiority-complex, based on self-diminishing and self-proclamation of victimhood. And it derails the conversation. The issue is that we all suck. Some more than others. But we all suck. At the same time, we are in many aspects at similar levels als many writers elsewhere, who suck as much and even more.

Amateur soccer remains amateur soccer until you start organizing stuff and amateur writing remains amateur writing until you start organizing stuff.

Things DO suck. And there ARE factors slowing our development down as writers in this country. And it is not a lack of love for the genre, or the average mentality of “doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg”, or a decline in readership. All those “issues” are mostly bullshit excuses to cover another more real problem, which is our own lack of professionalism, our own lack of access to networks of powerful people and to shitloads of money and our own lack of initiative to thoroughly and deliberately organize serious shit to make other serious shit happen in our own interest.

How bad is it really?

Actually not that bad at all. So many things are happening. And so many things will someday lead to other things. And yes: shitty writers will always continue to exist. But they are not that relevant.
Several publishers in the past 2 decades have been able to survive their first years and seem to be able to sustain in the current markets. Roughly 100 writers are producing series of novels in their own story worlds, that find audiences. And each of those writers help shape the future. They help reach a growing audience. They help making that audience more and more aware of what is going on here. With writers that are on same and comparable levels of many other mainstream-writers from other places. Not the best ones, in most cases, but for sure writers who are loved and consumed by many and whose work find their ways translated as (sometimes blockbuster-)movies in cinemas.

To find and produce writers of high quality, you need this total landscape where everyone and anything has a chance to become published. It is, in the end, a numbers-game, where you need to reach as many people as possible, need to give as many writers as possible a chance to become published and need as many people as you can produce to help them on their personal roads to wherever they want to go, so that those on higher levels can find their ways to publishers and magazines and an audience that is eager to read them and others.

Som much has already happend from the desolate, dried out wastelands where SF/F & H from The Netherlands started decades ago: with hardly no chances for publication what so ever. And we tend to forget that the handful of super-writers we could have, can only be there, because there is- and was a fertile landscape for the work they created, and a proper support network (by editors and agents and other people) for the personal roads of development other people took before them.

No single writer was born a fully developed genius. Many, if not all authors who reached (relatively) stellar highs, had people supporting and pushing and coaching them along the roads that led there.

Where to now?

I really don’t give a fuck. Things will fall into place at some point. And if they don’t, they don’t.

NovaScriber – December update

Four things have been added and changed since the October update on NovaScriber.

  • The mind-map and diagram editor are removed, as they created too much overhead.
  • I created a new “visualization module” with which you can visualize important aspects in scenes and chapters in simple diagrams
  • I created a new freehand-drawing module so you can visualize what happens within chapters and scenes, and create simple maps.
  • I added input options for context-specific structures.
  • I focused on performance, by removing unnecessary logging and by storing meta-data separate from the project tree
  • I improved the statistics-panel, to display more meaningful data

Visualization

Sometimes you need to visualize relationships between elements in chapters and scenes. And usually I do this on paper, drawing lines and circles.

With NovaScriber, I wanted to integrate that aspect into the application itself. Because it is part of the process of writing, of brainstorming.

The diagrams can be exported to PNG format and used elsewhere (powerpoints, communication to editors and sent to who-ever might be interested in more detailed information).

Freehand drawing

The same need was present for freehand drawing. Maps, floor plans, mood boards. All the things that require more than a simple diagramming-tool.

The freehand-drwaing tool is built from the ground up and kept as simple as possible, with some nice features (like line color, font color and outlines for text) that took less than a few houirs or less than a day to implement.

Multiple pages can be added per document.

It auto-exports the drawing as an SVG image that can be used in other drawings and can be included in the document-text. Export to Word with these drawings works as well.

The tool is based on an existing JavaScript library called “FabricJS”. Using existing code samples, I created my own “overlay” to make all parts work in harmony. The tool itself is a Working Proof of Concept. It does what it needs to do, but there is a lot of room for improvement.

Context specific points

In the side-panel, extra input is shown, based on the context of the document. For chapters and scenes, these extra items are i.e. “Key events”, “Key conflicts”, “Actions” and so on, to capture and outline the more detailed aspects of that moment in the story.

This input is also available in the “chapters” matrix, for easy planning and plotting.

Performance

Until this version, meta-data (like “what nodes in the project tree are open?” were stored in the same file as the project tree. And saved whenever a change takes place. As project trees can easily grow to 1MB to 3MB for an average novel, each change meant saving that heavy lump of data, even when no structural changes took place in the project tree.

By separating this data, only a small file is saved on each state change: containing roughly 30KB.

Also, instead of making an analysis of all documents, each time the project is opened, this analysis is only done when no analysis data is present yet.

Statistics

I spent some time getting the statistics right. Especially with imported text, statistics over chapters would show incorrect data, as collecting that data was done per document, when opened by the user in NovaScriber.

Now, NovaScriber does an in-dept analysis of all documents, stores the result in the individual document-data nodes and presents the result as ready-to-use data to the application.

Presenting detailed (aggregated) analysis and data statistics on each chapter, document, and project is so fast, that it can be done as you open the panel, or when you switch to another document.

The problem with Dune

[Draft]

I have been re-reading Dune, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune in the past month. And while the books hold up quite well, more than 50 years after publication, I think Herbert kind of failed in achieving what he had in mind with this series.

Brian Herbert (from the foreword of “Dune Messiah”):

“[Frank Herbert] felt that heroic leaders often made mistakes . . . mistakes that were amplified by the number of followers who were held in thrall by charisma. […] Dad had worked in Washington, D.C., and had seen the megalomania of leadership and the pitfalls of following magnetic, charming politicians. […] There was yet another layer, even larger, in which Frank Herbert was warning that entire societies could be led to ruination by heroes. In Dune and Dune Messiah, he was cautioning against pride and overconfidence, that form of narcissism described in Greek tragedies that invariably led to the great fall.”

Frank Herbert deliberately turns the concept of the (benevolent) Hero-Savior inside out by the focus on the destruction created by a blind belief in godlike, absolute heroes (Paul Artreidis, and after him Leto II). In a way, it can be considered a satire of sorts on the kind of stories John W. Campbell requested, and an exposure of the fascist undertones underneath Cambells request for these type of stories.

Dune offers many things. Among one: a reflection of ideas posed by Anton Korzybsky in the mid 1930’s in “Science and Sanity”, which also inspired “Null-A” by Alfred A van Vogt. In a way, Herberts Bene Gesserit are analog to the Null-A practicioners in Null-A. As in Null-A, the goal of the Bene Gesserit training is to master ones own mind and body to reach a higher level of human awareness; to master ones own fears and impulses; to get rid of preconceptions and to examine and percieve the world and the universe as truthfully as possible. Among another thing: “Dune” is a SF-retelling of “Lawrence of Arabia” in similar fashion as “The stars my destination” by Alfred Bester is a retelling of “The Count of Monte Christo”.

Sexism is there. In the end, none of the female heroes play more than a secondary role in the first three books that I re-read. While their roles can be considered “progressive”, men win and dominate. The tope of homosexuality, linked to perversion and the role of the villain (Vladimir Harkonnen) is there in the first book. Exceptionalism of the elite is reflected in the breeding program of the Bene Gesserit. While there are billions of people over thousands of worlds, only a select group of people are deemed interesting enough for the ultimate program. And all males in this selected group are kings, dukes and semi-royalty in roles of power. This exeptionalism of the elite is never challenged in the first three books and goes so far that incest and inbreeding within this elite is a viable option to get better results. Which is complete bullshit from an objective position. Even in 1965.

Contemplating on that last aspect, and after reading “Why it is important to consider whether Dune is a white savior narrative” I realized something several other things. First: the visible part of the Bene Gesserit breeding program does not involve people from Asian or African descent. Second: the entire narrative of

Dune 1 to 4 (at least) is a series revolving around absolute reign. That of Paul, that of Leto II. And this is one of the points where Herbert — in my personal reading of the series — fails to deliver most. But more on that later.

As you read the first book in the series (“Dune”), you learn about young Paul Artreidis, and his ascension to leadership: overthrowing the emperor of his time in absolute victory. You learn about his visions of the Jihad, the “inevitable” bloody war, that will flood over the human universe once Paul is in power.

In “Dune Messiah”, the second in the series, Paul Artreidis, now emperor of the known universe, reflects on himself in the following way, using Adilf Hitler and Ghengis Khan as example:

“There’s another emperor I want you to note in passing—a Hitler. He killed more than six million. Pretty good for those days.”
“Not very impressive statistics, m’Lord.”
“At a conservative estimate, I’ve killed sixty-one billion, sterilized ninety planets, completely demoralized five hundred others. I’ve wiped out the followers of forty religions which had existed since—”
“Unbelievers all!”
“No,” Paul said. “Believers.”

Remember Vladimir Harkonnon? The evil guy in “Dune”? Compared to Paul Artreidis, Harkonnon is a mere fly: nothing and nobody in levels of cruelty, monstrosity or deathcount.

And Herbert is clear about this. The quote above is not shrouded in vagueties. “Pretty good” and “Not very impressive” are used deliberately in relationship to the mass-murders his armies committed in Pauls name and in the name of the Jihad in his name. The lure, painting Paul Artreidis as the good guy, is deliberate. It is not because Frank Herbert thinks Paul is a or the good guy (he gives several indications he thinks not) but because Herbert intends to hold up a mirror to the reader: “if you beleive the main characters in ‘Dune’ are the good guys, you are part of the reason why people like Hitler can rise to power”.

Tim O’Reilly, in “Frank Herbert, a biography” quotes Herbert:

It began with a concept: to do a long novel about the messianic convulsions which periodically inflict themselves on human societies. I had this idea that superheros were disastrous for humans.

So where does Herbert sadly fail?

Mainly: a lack of reflection and deeper exploration of the different sides of this concept.

It starts with the absoluteness of Pauls way. There is no other option offered by Herbert in the first three books of his series I re-read. “Either this, or there extermination of humanity.” We never learn why. In the narrative no alternative options are discussed or considered, as a possible way out. Not by Paul, nor by his son Leto II, not via commentaries by other characgters. And this is not because there are not other options. This is because Frank Herbert chooses not to explore those options, as the writer of this series.

And without those considerations, Herbert offers no specific commentary or sidenotes on fascism or absolute rulers or hero worship, or the fallacy of submission to delusional people who place themselves above others. (You — as the reader, might even consider Paul Artreides to be “the good guy”, “doing what is neccesary”, instead of the self-serving, fictional mass murdering fascist that he is and was. Feeling sad over his tragic lot and feeling sad over his death, once he really choses to die.)

Take the following in consideration:

To wage war, is costly and consuming. You need to invest in the machinery. You need to activily create, condition, train, feed and maintain your army. As Paul is absolute ruler, able to see both future and past, able to be on many places, it is his decistion to do so and his deliberate decision to wage a (religious) war on people who never did him any harm. It is his government and his religious leaders amplifying those ideas, abusing the fremen for their ferocity as warriors. It is his wealth to be invested.

In this, Paul is not the victim, but the one making these decisions.

To change the future of impending doom, one of his options is to introduce the Non-Aristotelian / Bene Gesserit training to all worlds, as a mandatory training. So that the billions of people living on thousands of worlds will be able to lift themselves on a higher level of perception. Becoming “human” (in the line of the Bene Gesserit) and (in the line of Korzybsky) “sane”.

On this option and this way out of monstrosity, to show another way and to show the fallacy of the path Paul choses, Herbert exposes exactly zero words. Nothing in this line is mentioned in the story line of “Dune”. Nothing in this line is mentioned in the story line of “Dune Messiah”. Nothing is mentioned in the story line of “Children of Dune”. Paul, human computer, incredibly perceptive and highly intelligent; trained by Bene Gesserit; all seeing and close to all-knowing; the ultimate result of human breeding by the Bene Gesserit, simply decides to become a “victim” as “that is the only way”.

If you fell for Herberts lure that “Paul and Leto II are the good guys” and “their actions are justified”, no worries. It’s part of the joke. What Herbert forgot is the punchline, the twist at the end, where all your own bullshit hero-worhipping is thrown right in your face. Because in the end, you sympathised for disgusting people much, much worse than all the mass-murderers of recent history. Simply because the narrative was such that you were willing to overlook the real nature of the “hero”.

In a Facebook-thread this week, I made a remark on the similarities in the patterns of the dark and narrow narrative in the Dune series, “High-Rise” (J.G. Ballard) and “Lord of the Flies” (William Golding).

This is how:

In the Dune-series, as in “High-Rise” and “Lord of the Flies”, the writer only offers one visible path, without any escape: “all roads will end in perversion, murder and violence”. Where “High-Rise” and “Lord of the Flies” are explicit in this depressing world-view, the “Dune” series is more subtle. But it still echoes that same kind of absolute and narrow Hobbesian concept of “the human condition”. In my words: “Any society will inevitably regress to violence of man against man, unless ruled by a higher master” (more on that later).

And with this in mind, I posted in that same Facebook-thread: “What if Philip Dick would have been the author of ‘Dune’?”

Just consider that for a moment. Follwing the same plotlines, with all the same elements, but from a different point of view.

While all of Dicks books play in rotting, depressing worlds, suffering under oppressive forces; consistantly exploring similar themes (totalitarian states, religion, drugs, expanded awareness of reality, the questionability of ‘saviors’ and godlike humans), Dick’s worldview is much, much more humane. The oppression itself is not posed as a force of nature, but due to the work of humans. It is challenged, ridiculed, explored, dissected. Those humans are flawed. And those human flaws create the suffering. Not some baked-in force of evil.

Additional to that, Philip Dick recognizes- and focuses on the caring part of human nature as “another force of nature”. The evil that is presented in his work, is something that invades, part of a process of decay. That invesion is in most cases both someting from inside (in the shape of delusions that warp the perception of reality), and outside (in the shape of delusions of a universe in decay).

Regardless how broken and shit his worlds and his people are, the people in those stories are still willing to do good, willing to accept their own imperfections and willing to acknowledge, dissect, challenge, recognize and accept the shittyness of the imperfect solutions that rise from their own actions and (limited) agency.

Instead of challenging the absolute rulership of both Paul and Leto II, by examening several alternatives as Philip Dick does, Herbert offers nothing. And by offering nothing, Dune becomes a series of books where no other option is offered to the reader but the “inescapability” of one specific path and the “neccessity” for total donimination and mass murder “to bring peace” and “to allow humankind to survive”.

This is the same narrative despots have used over time to justify the abuse of millions, to justify mass murder, to justify racism, to justify slavery, to justify oppression under countless religions, and to justify their own active role in all of that. Without much further reflection than self justification, Paul and Leto repeat the same message “benevolent” sociopaths and narcissists use while oppressing, condemning and murdering others: “you need me. You need my leadership. You need someone else to tell you how to think. You are not capable of chosing your own path properly. You need me to do so. I am superior. I am superior to you. I am smarter than you. I see things you are not aware of. I am better educated than you. Without me you will fail. Without me, you will suffer more. And while I am aware that I cause you pain I need you to understand that all my wrongdoings are for your own good. In the end, my cruelty is love.”

I do beleive that Herbert genuinely wanted to deconstruct the dangers of blindly following a messianic despot, presented as a hero, and that he wanted to deconstruct the very concept of “why we continue to fall in the same trap of this same bullshit, over and over again”. I also have the feeling that he was not able to crack the code. Not in Dune and not in the later “The Jesus incident”.

Getting back on the Hobbesian concept of “human condition”: “if and when people are left to their own will, without any governing force(s) above them, they will fall back to violence” (my words). “Proof” of that was delivered to Hobbes in the Spanish war, where human atrocities shocked him to the deepest of his soul. “Proof” of this same principle was probably delivered to J.G. Ballard while growing up in Japanese camps. And reflections of that specific view on human nature are given in both “High-Rise” (Ballard) and “Lord of the Flies” (Golding) where — as said before — the disappearence of a higher force leads to a collective spiral down into tribalism, murder and depravity. (In both cases, the story might reflect cultural supremicist views on more ‘primitive’ cultures, using warped images on African tribes as a reflection of different stages along a pathway of cultural and moral downfall.)

This governing, higher force can be (the fear of) “God”. It can be (the fear of) a central government. It can be (the fear of) local police.

The problem with this world view is twofold:

1: The proposition and promotion of the idea that human kindness, and the impuls to care for others are noting more than a thin layer of veneer. “Because underneath we are all savages and sociopaths”: selfish and willing to murder and ready to rape and steal and maim once this outside, controlling force is no longer there.

2: The idea that without one or more forces of oppression, people will not be civilized.

A note: once you break through the bullshit, the “logic” behind this worldview starts to crumble, Yes: violence is part of human nature. But in general, it takes a thourough conditioning for a vast majority of people to become anti-social to the point Ballard and Golding describe. While your beliefs might tell you otherwise, reality is quite simple in this. If we would all be self centric, sociopat savages underneath a thin layer of (fake) civility, this world would already be the total and dark shithole depicted by writers as Ballard and Golding. Because that “savior” (in the shape of a benevolent leader and an benevolent government) will be just as abusive as the people they govern, if not more due to that unlimited power. (And I do believe Herbert addresses this point explicitly. Paul Artreides, like Leto II is exactly that: abusive “savior”, using all that he has to rise to immense power.)

While the universe of Dune offers many options to break and challenge this specific, narrow, dark world, where everything revolves around “saviors”, Frank Herbert does not even touch them. Instead he simply repeats the tropes with a slight little twist and a massive mindfuck.

I stopped reading Frank Herbert with “The Jesus Incident” for the same reason I find Ballard and Golding (and any other writer getting stuck on this limited view on humanity) unbearable. Whether this is what Herbert eventually got stuck on, and if there is a reason why he could not reach further than that in the books I read, I don’t know.

Whatever it is, I think it is the point where Frank Herbert stopped to dig deeper, where he stopped to search for more (and more interesting) viewpoints to expand and enrich his own criticism on corruption brought by absolute power. While exploring a part of the mental prison we might all be living, Herbert (like Ballard and Golding) is not willing or able to think of a possible way out.

Is “Dune” worth (re)reading?

I think so. Especially with the idea in mind that his series are a mindfuck, related to hero-worshipping.

Is it a masterpiece?

In some ways: yes. But not on the aspects I addressed.

NovaScriber – October update

Once upon a time I simply tried to export my text from Scrivener to Word. And found (4 hours before my dealine) that too many things were uneccesary wrong. Text was not formatted by global styles, but inline formatting. Headings did not show up as hedings. Chapters, scenes and cutouts I thought I had “unpublished” were still there as I did not unpublish them.

So I wrote a simple Markdown to HTML to .doc-parser in februari 2018, using JavaScript and the code from an existing Word to Markdown Parser.

Then I took a day to write a simple “Scrivener Light” editor, using TinyMCE and some home-brew code to build and render the project/document tree. Then I took another day to write some code to parse Scrivener projects to that environment. Then I moved from Scrivener to my own editor. Which was then called “Mandarin Editor” as I already had some past and dead project called “Manderin” and I was too lazy to come up with something new.

Like the past items, each next item I would build, would be something I could build in a single day, as a Proof of Concept. And each next item I would build, would be something that would exite me, or that would help me in my writing: like matrix views of chapters and scenes (also known as a cork board) so that I would have overviews on what was happening where, with whom. And like search on several patterns. And like finding terms that might be names (so the software would do the hard work for me). And like the ability to link documents to other documents, with room for annotations so that I could write notes on “why that character would be doing that” in that chapter or scene. And I implemented a very basic form of spell check, based on Hunspell.

I changed “Mandarin Editor” to “NovaScriber” as my wife mentioned that the previous could be confused with “An editor, to write Mandarin Chinese”.

I wrote more scenes. I restructured my book. And last month (September) I rewrote the code that determined how feedback (like highlighting spelling errors and repetitive words) would be injected in the text so that my software could start doing spellchecking on the fly.

Because of that, and several other reasons NovaScriber moved one level up.

Then I fixed some bugs. And more bugs. And I updated the help-text you can find under functional blocks. And fixed more bugs. And intruduced some as I updated other stuff. And fixed those, until it was good enough for a new release. And then found more bugs as I wrote this post. And fixed those too.

As for users, views and downloads: there are on average 2 downloads per day on good days and 1 or 0 on quiet days. As my testing was superficual due to the ill assumption “that things work for others as thet work for me” several releases were botched. I learned to live with that. (These are still the pre-release days.) And just knowing that people are downloading the software stimulates me to do more than just sit on this piece of software and it stimulates me to put just a bit more effort to make it work in more elegant ways.

Now to the changes and additions in this release:

Improved help

As some things are less obvious than others, I added and improved context-specific help, hidden underneath a questionmark-icon at the bottom of the xreen. Its aim is mostly to guide you in the right directions.

Text analysis

I already implemented a word-count log per document end of last year and a simple breakdown of the text in paragraphs, sentences and average words per sentence. What I added September 2020 was a visualization of everything, and a simple “readability” indication labelled “reading weight“. Note: this is still has some quirks for imported text.

NovaScriber now highlights “words that might be terms or names” (blue-green) and I re-implemented the way “repetitive words” (dotted underline) was implemented, adding “intensity” based on their occurrence in a range of 200 words around them.

To support checks on readability, I added highlights on sentence level. Any green sentence counts 10 words or less (“easy read”). Yellow is anything between 10 and 30 words per sentence (“harder to read”). Orange is 30 words and more. Comma’s are not taken into account yet. (A long sentence without comma’s is a harder read than one with several.)

And since I was working on that, I also added a highlight of longer words, giving you their length on mouse over.

Text assistance

A right-click on any highlighted word, will open a side-panel showing you anything we know about that word. In this case “Nomi” is the name of a character that has several possible matches in my collection of documents classified as “character”. The top-find shows a checkmark, meaning it is already linked to this document. (When you take a closer look at the screenshot, you will notice a checkmark above some words including “Nomi”. This also tells you it’s matching with a linked document.)

Scrolling down in the side-panel, you’ll find all matches of that word in the document and the option to “Map ‘Nomi’ as …”. A click on the sentence, will navigate you to that part of the document. A selection from the dropdown will call for a popup where you can create a document for that person, that place or whatever you indicate it to be.

And you can choose to replace the word for something else.

Right-click on a repetitive word will highlight that specific word wherever it occurs, and will open the side-panel with an overview of all sentences that word occurs. Again “replace” is an option.

Each change per paragraph is automatically stored in a backup-document that will keep the most recent change. Each paragraph-version in your history is compared with your current version and all changes are highlighted. (Mouse over the previous versions will reveal what has been added since).

I also added “comments” to the side-panel, showing anything that is there and allowing you to add new comments to paragraphs where needed.

Focus mode

Another hidden feature I moved to the document footer is the switch to go into “focus mode“. In this mode, the text has a lower contrast, except for the paragraph that has focus. Interpunction is still high on contrast. Something I kept as a feature.

Text-analysis is also adapted to focus mode, showing anything that might require your attention in different colors and higher contrast.

Dictionaries and translations

I already implemented Hunspell for spellcheck, due to a lack of built-in support in earlier versions of Electron: the shell in which NovaScriber runs.

While I still need to expose a way to add your own dictonaries, the options to do so are alreay in place. NovaScriber will create a directory in your user-folder. In that directory, you can place several dictionaries which will be automatically included in your spell-check options.

When you switch to “Translation mode”, ALT-T on the active paragraph will start Google Translate. The target language is the language selected in the second panel. While the Google automated translations are still flawed, they are getting better each year. So embedding this function in NovaScriber was not only something that really got me exited, it also can be quite useful.

To keep relationships clear between the two text, I synchronized scrolling in both panels and I force the translated text to reflect the orginal in order and in content. In other words: when paragraphs are moved, added or deleted in the main document, they will be moved, added and removed in and from the transalation as well.

This is still work in progress and features like: “check if translated text is outdated” will be added at some time soon.

More color options

I already created a set of three theme-colors: light, eggshell and dark, but I was not satisfied with that solution. For one: it was too rigid.

So I implemented a color picker, created a generator for the CSS code, used calculated values for lighter and darker shades, and used the “distance” between the font-color and the background-color as an indicator for several shades in between.

Then I selected a basic palette using some subdued colors and some bright colors.

Thus giving you enough freedom to make it as crazy and colorful or as basic as you can imagine (within the limits of the given colors).