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).

Fuck originality. Be fresh

There are many misconceptions on writing. One is about originality and “being original” or more specifically: “being unique”. And in this post I will reframe that entire concept of “originality” into something useful.

“Originality” itself is a nasty concept. Because: how can you be original when everything and anything you can think of, has been done before? A story about robots? Has been done before. Cowboys, space ships, eternal life, exploring the realm of heavens, hells, parallel worlds, mega-structures, underground worlds? All been done. Many, many, many times.

This stupid idea of originality blocked my writing for over 10 years. Until I reframed it somewhere in 2003:

The first writer to introduce any New Concept is original. The first one who follows is a copy-cat. But as soon as more than five (or ten) writers start following that specific trend, it’s becoming a genre.

Fuck “original”. Try to be fresh.

The goal is not to be original or unique by “trying to write something nobody has written before”. It really does not matter if the concepts you use (spaceships, wars in space, cloning, a love story between two, three, five, one hundred people, and so on) have been used “here” and “there” and “in that movie” and “that book”. That. Is. Not. The. Point.

You story becomes unique, fresh, the moment you find your own voice within those story universes, the moment you add something you find interesting. It’s not relevant that it might have started as a copy or as fan-fiction. And it’s irrelevant things have been done before. “Many is a genre”. So fuck: “I can’t use this because it has been done before”. And fuck that genre. And fuck the rules of that genre if you feel those “rules” hold you back. And fuck the criticasters that tell you: “I have read this before” because OMG!!! it has a love story or robots. Fuck those people that tell you: “this is not how that story should work” when it starts crushing genre-boundaries. (Listen, though. There is always a chance you indeed did overlook something. Then use that as fuel to dig even deeper and fly even higher and make it even more awesome. Because fuck it.) This is your story. Not theirs.

Embrace the fact that you are just one of many. Don’t be afraid to use and acknowledge your sources. Even if it is just for play: “This is Harry Potter meets Indiana Jones in a far future setting”. Or: “This is Sherlock Holmes with dinosaurs and Sherlock is a woman and the platonic duo is a platonic trio. And ‘Sherlock’ is as gay as I am”. See what freedom  and inspiration you find by not giving a fuck. Write. Find your voice. Write what makes you happy. Write what makes a story unique to you. And yes: shamelessly use other stories and existing story structures as your template. Be you. Give it a fresh twist. 

When you reach this point: giving the finger to genre-rules, giving the finger to any other constraints; mixing and mashing all the influences you love, adding your own experiences and spices, using your own voice, your own little twists on things, you are probably already there. Writing something that can be considered fresh, and by that freshness, something that is probably also new and “original”.

As I wrote in the discussion that followed on facebook:

“laat dingen los. Accepteer dat wat je doet mogelijk al minstens één keer gedaan is (en waarschiinlijk al 1000 keer en meer). Geniet daarvan.

My entire point is this:

Let go. Accept that anything you create already has been done before. Enjoy it, because it can be extremely liberating to understand that you do not have to be unique, that your work also have a right to exist when it is ‘nothing more but’ an addition to what already exists. So feel free to throw stuff in the blender, remix, revise and make mashups of existing works. Use anything you like in any way you like to tell your story. And make it the most beautiful story you can make of it.

Will it be good?

That depends on many other factors. Like “are you consistent? Are your characters consistent? Did you do your research where necessary? Is it engaging? Coherent?” And for that you have (hopefully experienced) proof-readers. And feedback. And the editing / revision process. And workshops and books to deepen your understanding of the craft of writing.

And if this story failed: use the lessons learned to build a new one. Everyone stumbles before they learn to dance.

Will people like it?

For sure it helps when you are honest in your writing, or faking it so good that your story has this glow of “realness” over it. The rest depends on your readers and what you did. For instance: “Sherlock Holmes with Dinosaurs” will probably sell much easier to a publisher and a much wider audience than: “Sherlock Holmes with dinosaurs where Sherlock is a homosexual woman and the platonic duo is a platonic trio”, as long as LGBTQ+ stories are not mega-selling mainstream yet.

 

 

My thoughts around the open letter “by J.K. Rowling and others”

Let’s start with the link to the Harpers magazine-page.

And let me start by summarizing the issue:

It is not callout-culture that poses a “danger”, but trolls, hijacking callout-culture, creating enough traction to cancel someone or something (like a book or a movie). And trolls using “social justice” to destroy other peoples reputations, because they can.

Then again: companies have the duty to protect what they stand for and the people that work for them. If the attack is on something that is justified under the rules and the vision of the company, there is no reason to cancel.

Let’s also start with the notion that I think this open letter is extremely poorly written. (You might argue the same goes for this article, but mine is not signed by 130+ famous people with a reputation.) Take the first three sentences:

(1) Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. (2) Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. (3) But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.

What is your focus, dear writer?

1: Things are getting tough for our cultural institutions?

2: Because the justified call for racial and social justice also seems to fuel an unjust movement towards censorship?

Probably.

That poor writing does not stop there. For instance (bold added by me):

More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

We can try to deconstruct this. But that will just blur what I feel is the real issue here: fear.

On getting cancelled

To keep it simple: “Three reasons your product/project/book/movie might get cancelled”:

  1. It does not deliver. You do not deliver. You suck. The product sucks.
  2. There is clear evidence that the project, product, movie, person violates one or more principles the company holds high. It might deliver, you might be awesome in several ways, but the result (or the actions of the person that delivers the result) is in clear conflict with the public image of the institute or company.
  3. There is no evidence of whatever, but a raging mob and the possibility that that outrage leads to loss of revenue and/or damage to the the public image

When there is no evidence, and the allegations are serious enough, what should follow is an investigation to get to point 2, or to confirm point 3: “there is no evidence, even after investigation”.

If there is no investigation AND the person or product gets cancelled, we have a new issue: the company has given control to the raging mob. Which is stupid. Because why the fuck do you have upper management and a board of advisors and directors if any random mob can determine your artistic or moral direction?

(So probably there is an issue. And people within companies are learning that you wont get away with rape, sexism, racism, anti-trans sentiments and so on. More on that later. I think.)

On trolls organizing mobs

One thing you see, is the call for public scolding where friends and friends of friends are called by sometimes very influential trolls, to start firebombing the “perpetrator”. Whether this person really “deserves” this, or not. (Sometimes they do –kind of– sometimes it is for the sake of bullying alone, due to a deliberate callout-strategy where the callout is more like a trap, or because that person stands in the way of the troll itself.)

In the end, firebombing someone online, is no longer “payback” when you repay a slap in the face with doxxing or burning someones house down. It becomes abuse. Like beating up someone in the street is, or calling someone names when he or she passes by. In cases of “fighting fire with fire” (abusing a proven abuser) I withhold my opinion. Where it is simply “because of fun” I think you should fuck off with this kind of abuse, after you made your point.

On having no vision

To understand where you stand as a company or institute, you will define your vision and your mission at some point.

Both vision and mission usually have some kind of social aspect. “To improve the quality of live for people who suffer from health issues” is one, for instance. “To make shitloads of money” is not. Neither is: “To do whatever anyone tells us”.

Companies without a social aspect in their vision will usually not make an effort to protect employees who do have a social vision.

On taking points from right-wing gas-lighting

In the past decade, there has been a clear rise of right-wing gas-lighting related to universities and newspapers who “bend over for social justice warriors”. Stating — as also happens in this “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” — that “the changes these institutes go through, are based on social pressure and panic, not evidence” and that “all other voices who do not submit to that view, are silenced”.

In most cases: where people and projects are cancelled, there is smoke, there was an investigation AND there is a fire: like the expression of sexist, racist or rapy-rape stuff in emails and on the workfloor; a book with a suspect depiction of slavery that the publisher does not wish to link to its public image on hind sight; and sexist and racist views “supported” by a sharing of “peer reviewed scientific articles” “confirming” those sexist or racist views as “true”.

So yeah: people will lie to you, to convince you the world is on fire when others try to point out things like racism, sexism, homophobia and so on are not always good for everyone.

On fear

The fear to be fired the moment you are true to your own principles, true to your own message is a sign of: something is really wrong between you and your workspace.

I have been working time and time again with people who “joke” compulsively about things related to rape or tell “jokes” based on sexist, racist or nationalist bullshit. And when they understand that their corporate culture is changing away from all these lovely privileges to be uncorrectedly present their bigoted self, they seldom get to the kind of self-reflection like: “maybe I am wrong joking about raping the secretary in the copy room”. Usually the prime response of the “joker” is fear. And anger. And denial. And resistance. And sabotage. More on that later.

On equality

Funny enough “callout culture” and “cancel culture” has not yet lead to our doom in Mad Max-like worlds where we scrounge the dying earth in search of fuel. Instead it has lead to several incredibly wonderful changes in our culture. For instance: to rape someone from the work floor, or in some random place –because you have the power to do so– is less and less rewarding; as the crime of rape itself is more and more clearly defined in culture, and because society and the police make less and less effort to convince the victim that the rapist is not the one to blame.

Racism and sexism on the work floor are already going the same way. And homophobia is following. As well will anti-trans sentiments. (If we don’t revert.)

On corporations not taking a social stand

It is easy to overlook that there is a social responsibility from any company to society itself. In short: a company needs to contribute to the well-being of a society, as it can not thrive (on sales) when the population it’s trying to sell to, is poisoned, poor, dying or dead due to the way their products are produced.

Whether you -as a company or institution- take that responsibility, is a second. Usually being socially responsible is considered to be a drain on profit. And carefully avoided by bribing governments and outsourcing their production to countries where the people in power don’t give a shit.

When an institute or company has no real social stand, it has no real opinion on what society might become by its own contributions. It will just go any direction the money goes.

On the fear of censorship

When a company or institution simply follows the wind of any social outrage, your own job security is no longer in the hands of your employer, but in the hands of any random group of people outraged enough to cause a stir. As a consequence: you, as a contributor will never be safe. Whatever you will produce will be dictated by that random, unnamed, outside group. And this is a situation no company and no institution should place itself in. Because, in the end, it makes you too vulnerable to unfriendly forces.

On taking a stand

When you –as a company or an institution– take a stand for- or against issues like sexism, racism, anti-trans sentiments, class differences, social oppression, the game changes.

The people working for you, understand what their boundaries are, what will cause their fall, whether they should stay, or leave. They know when they will be ejected and when they will be protected.

For instance: a right-wing racist, sexist news site will not fire their people for the outrage created by articles with racist content. It is their chosen duty to present racist, sexist shit. Regardless of the public outrage.

Publishers who consider issues on race, sex and oppression important enough to cancel all publications violating certain principles, will do so. And if they go one step further, they will also protect anyone presenting certain “controversial ideas” by either an apology in their own behalf (“we should have more careful, we were not aware at the time and we will take the following steps to…”), or by taking a stand in behalf of the author (“we have looked into the issues and we found that some crucial parts were overlooked by … and that the following points do not conflict with our corporate position for the following reasons …”)

On who should be addressed

I think (instead of gaslighting callout-culture) we need to address how clear a company and institution will take a stand in our current social landscape and whether a company that does not want to take a position (and probably will push anyone in front of any bus when that is convenient) is worth caring or fighting for by the people that work there.

When a publisher (in this case) supports certain “controversial” issues, they should be clear in that. If they are not, they should be clear in that as well.

Closing

“A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” is a lot of things.

“Cancel culture” will mostly happen where publishers have no guts, no spine, no vision. So that’s mostly an attitude issue on their side. Not ours. Not by social justice warriors. Not by other activists.

And to give (smart and effective) social media trolls this much power, is simply stupid when it conflicts with your mission and vision. Why the fuck do you (as said) have a board of directors and a board of advisers? What spineless shit are you to have your company be commandeered by some random people online?

And so I believe there is another narrative, more close to te truth: You change your ways when you see you are wrong.

Most academies have and had a right to kick out certain elements. Mostly when they turned out to be rapists or bigger bigots than such institutes could tolerate. And taken into account that it is mostly right-wing narcissist assholes crying about these issues, I have reasons to believe things are mostly gong to shit in fantasyland and the real issues are more likely to be “set your shit up for failure” things like “lack of funding” and “large schale mergers” and “treating schools like businesses”.

To me, “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” –more than anything– represents a fear of change, by those who never had a reason to see a problem in the systems that tolerate verbal, psychological and physical violence based on sexism, racism, rape culture, anti-trans sentiments to mention some. And I am happy that that specific protection is slowly ripped away. Because: fuck you.

 

 

Exploring gender and sexuality

I stopped reading “Shadow man” by Melissa Scott, because something did not feel right. The basic premise is interesting: “humans live on several planets and 5 genders is the norm.”

The reason why I stopped reading was a strong sense of “no homo” in some of the interactions between characters. A bit too much is explained –by what I would expect to be an average person living in a pleasant, sexually complex future society– and considered from too much of a narrow point of view.

And simply put: unless you give me some clear clues that your own thinking is beyond the condemnation of certain groups and certain sexual preferences, I quit reading.

For example (bold and underline by me):

Whoever–she? it had been a long time since Tatian had seen an indigene who did not dress to demonstrate legal gender, but he had distinctly felt breasts beneath the thin silk of her tunic, in the moment they’d collided. Still, who-ever she was, she was rather nice looking. It was just a pity she–or 3e? 3e could be a herm, which would be too bad–was an indigene. Of course, working in the courts, she might be assimilated– He broke that train of thought sternly. She might also be a herm, which would mean he himself wouldn’t be interested. And, anyway, Masani was right: even the most assimilated indigenes were very different from off-worlders.

He? She? 3e? And all this focus on clothing from a very narrow gender-focused mindset. Why would this character give a fuck about all of this? How is this relevant? Unless sex in the dominant, star spanning culture of this book is still full of bullshit rules. And why would you — as a writer — limit your self-made fictional world to this kind of cramped space? Unless you want to make a statement by showing contrast to the opposite? But do you make a statement by presenting (and possibily converting) a tight ass person like this?

Remember that this is a post-binary society in the future.

And why all this othering in sentences like: ‘even the most assimilated indigenes were very different from off-worlders’?

What is  mostly exposed in these first parts of the book, is a “wrong genitals” fear-based world view, linked to sexuality and self image. It made me cringe. I wondered what to do. So I googled.

Reading this review on Tor made me happily quit the book. Specifically after reading things like:

… there are nine socially accepted sexualities and people who don’t fit into those, but no mention of people who don’t fit in their bodies or who use different pronouns—no trans and genderqueer (non-quinary?) people. Body defines gender once more.

And:

There is no suggestion that the Concord system of five rigid sexes (that determine five rigid genders) is also flawed.

So no.

I can’t judge whether “Shadow man” will really relax on those issues I disliked. I don’t know if the reviewer is right on everything. But I simply don’t have the patience anymore for a writer to take countless pages in a negative narrative before they show their true story and their true colors. (Are we indeed moving through a narrow funnel on sexuality, or is this just the beginning on an expanding view that will become more and more inclusive?)

There are just too many other books for me to read.

Why is this relevant for me?

I have been writing queer SF for a long time. And I am expanding my own narrative. (More about that below.)  “Getting things right” is not easy. Especially where it relates to areas like gender and sexuality and when you write about people “not you”.

To read “well meant stories” where specific issues and specific people are misrepresented or in which certain negative and damaging ideas, related to gender and sexuality are still (accidently) propagated can be painful.

Writing shit wrong is even more painful, when it’s published and the majority of the audience you you had in mind, hate it, because you –actually and indeed– did a really shitty job.

My personal journey until last year

I deliberately started gender-swapping around 2003, when I picked up writing again after a long hiatus. My default go-to was still ‘he’. And that default go-to started to bore me. It also started to feel empty. Something not part of me.

Heterocentric story lines with heterosexual protagonists still dominated almost everything available to me. And most queer SF I could find at that time, was written by men, presenting either heterosexual female characters, or gay males. So I decided to exclusively star homosexual women in my work for a while. No men. No heterosexuals. Because numbers. And fuck it.

The same was the case for stories about people in polyamorous relationships. Only a few SF novels and stories from a few writers visible or available. And the ones I knew were old: written in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Anyway. Everyone in my stories is happily poly-amorous. Because that’s how the world should work, I think.

But where do I fit?

For several reasons I started to examine my own position this year. I write this stuff. But what am I? Where do I fit in this queer landscape?

While I register mostly as “monogamous, heterosexual male”, my sexuality is more complex than that.

I have felt romantic feelings for other men and I will feel romantic feelings for other men in the future. Exploring these feelings under the wing of a gay friend in a place where you were only socks and shoes, I found that — while I feel very much at ease to participate and be in an environment where men have sex with other men; and while I totally enjoy and enjoyed to flirt, excite and kiss with other men when the environment is safe for me — the male body leaves me mostly sexually indifferent. As for my personality: I would register myself more as female than male. And last: monogamy is stupid. I hate how shit everything is. But it’s a safe choice for me.

Change

For several reasons, (lazyness is one. And: “There is now a shitload of SF stories with gay female characters, while stories with gay males seem to lack” was number two) I waited until last year to move from mostly gay female protagonists to stories with gay males. And only a few months ago, in februari 2020, I got kind of bored by my own limiting choices on both sides.

Sure: exploring sex and love between gay men in a poly-amorous story world was one step further on my personal journey as a writer. While I created something else than the monogamous-heterocentric story, I was still using a limited type of narrative. Like playing a different tune, using only one single instrument.

I had to drop more self-defensive layers. To get over my own bullshit.

So I decided to deliberately drop all defaults and lift my game from gay male and gay female to full spectrum queer. Placing myself (as a writer and as characters in my story) into more diverse roles and sexualities.

Why? Babel 17

That is not all of the story.

From a commercial point of view, it is quite stupid to write science fiction. And it is double stupid to go gay or queer. So why do it?

This too is personal.

In brief: I write the stories I write, because I want to show a world where “weird” is actually normal and where “normal” is questioned the moment it becomes oppressive.

A queer kid like me grew up in a world where “oppressive normal” was the main narrative. And in most cases — when you don’t fit — this main narrative is quite fucking damaging.

When I read “Babel 17” by Samual Delany, something clicked.

I was 14. I was a smart kid, living in between several worlds. I was bullied because I was different. (I never took shit from my bullies, because that — and not submission — was the only way to stop the bullying and the only way for me to stay away from death by suicide.)

I was lonely.

Growing up with a mildly autistic brain, I was never able to connect to the people in my surroundings. Period. I did not develop the kind of emotional bonds that made my parents my parents. Instead, I was simply a kid that happened to live in the same house as some people who happened to be ‘my parents’. I was incredibly smart in some regions and incredibly handicapped in others. Sometimes bordering a learning disability. I was something in between male and female. I hated anything stupid and pointless like soccer and most competitive sports. I designed my own clothes where needed, loved to be in between sexes with my style, as the male clothing was simply too boring, too drab for what I wanted to wear.

I was anxious. I was an outsider. Half of myself was missing. Lost before birth. And deep inside of me, covered by my lack of understanding, was a heavy sadness that was not- but could have been a deep depression.

When I read “Babel 17” by Samual Delany, at age 14 or something, something clicked.

Love, sex and almost everything else related to human relationships in the heart of that story world was not restricted, but open. Free. Weirdness was normal. Sadness something respected. The compound and diverse image of “humanness” far beyond anything I had read in in any other novel until then. That world made sense.

I understood that my ‘abnormality’ might not be so ‘abnormal’.

There was something else in that novel, that I was able to recognize as a central theme, only recently. And it is probably one of the reasons I could identify so much with all the characters. “Bable 17” explores a feeling of deep loneliness coming from being cut off from your loved ones, from being too smart, from being seen, but being invisible at the same time and being misunderstood so many times that it hurts.

I came home. My self was not some freak accident, but actually something that could populate a universe.

I was no longer alone. And that is something very important at any age.

Exploring gender and sexuality

The narrative I grew up with is roughly as follows:

The body you are born in, determines your sex, the type of clothing you wear, the way you are allowed to move and express yourself and your sexuality. If you do not feel that way, you are wrong, and you probably deserve some sort of punishment.

In reality, nothing is as rigidly linked as this. And this single minded narrative of: “the body you are born in…” is bullshit.

Genitals do not determine who you are, or what you feel or should feel. Our brain does. And our brain is not hard-wired for one sexual / romantic reality or the other. It is actually capable –in some cases– of being completely fluid.

This can make things much more “complex” as it goes for “what am I?”. So let’s chart some things out in the following matrix:

gendersexe

“Other” is anything not human and not male or female. As there is no real limit to what our brains can get aroused on, “other” is quite endless.

This is your regular straight male:

gendersexe3

And this could be me:

gendersexe2

Taking this further, below are four characters from my novel.

gender nomi-chuntao

The first character in the image (Nomi) is interested and aroused by almost anything and everything, has both male and female genitals, self-identifies as both male and female.

The second character (Chuntao) has a female body, feels dominantly female, is romantically interested in people with female bodies, and feels only a peripheral sexual attraction or sexual interest for people in female bodies.

gender omar-yajun

On the other hand, a character like Omar chooses to have (and keep) a male body as she mostly likes the genitals that come with a male body while she identifies fully as female.

Yajun is, in the current stage of the novel, more simple, identifying mostly as female, being sexually interested to mostly female bodies, and living in a female body.

If you would consider each box part of an “orientation”, with only this simple matrix there are 5 x 3 x 3 = 45 different combinations possible (if I get my math right).

And this matrix is limited to what I can come up with at this point in time.  Human reality is without a doubt much more varied that this. What about “attraction to M/F/O self image” for instance?