The Glory Illusion of War

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“War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.”

— from the song War by Edwin Starr

There is a slightly frightening tendency to glorify war and battle. It’s a big part of fantasy and science fiction; we’re always waiting for the big battle between good and evil at the end. But what happens when we carry this thinking over into the real world? This us-versus-them mentality, the idea that we are the brave warriors fighting the good fight, is especially attractive if we perceive ourselves as the little Rebellion fighting against the giant evil Empire, or as Peeta and Katniss resisting the malicious Games of the Capital, or as the Alliance of Men and Elves standing against the destructive might of Sauron. Everyone loves the underdog.

That’s fine in fiction. I have nothing against battles in stories and frankly I enjoy them. Halo would be pretty boring without the Flood or the Covenant to fight. It’s when this mentality leaks into real life interactions that it concerns me. If you look at the language being passed around the internet these days, especially when it comes to politics, you’ll find buzzwords like “war,” “soldier,” “fight,” and “rebellion.” Even as the world becomes a safer place overall, the language has become far more violent and polarized. You’re either with us or against us; there is no in between.
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Expressions of Gratitude

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It is far too easy to focus on the negatives in life, too easy to see only the flaws, to complain about what we do not have or how we wish things would be. So I want to take a moment to express my gratitude for that which I am very lucky to have.

I am grateful for being able to live when and where I do, despite its flaws. For having a place to call home, for not needing to worry about where my next meal will come from, and for having the time and leisure to write at all, even if it sometimes feels like that time is scarce or that leisure is unearned.

I am grateful to have lived in areas with easily accessible libraries and for always being encouraged to read without boundaries. I know not everyone is so lucky. Being literate and having access to books is a gift that I never, ever want to take for granted.

On that note, I am grateful to all of the creators of books, movies, television shows, music, and art I have had the pleasure to experience over the years. Your work has inspired and improved my life immeasurably, and I thank you for sharing it. Art of all kinds makes the world a better place, so keep making it!

I am grateful to my family for being so supportive of me and my work:

~ Thank you to my brothers Richard and Daniel, who, despite much teasing about my writing and English degree, always have my back when the chips are down.
~ Thank you to my super-amazing and talented mom, who never ceases to impress me with her fortitude and ever-expanding repertoire of skills, both artistic and practical.
~ Thank you to my awesome and talented dad, who knew the value of writing skills combined with a good education and ensured that I received both.
~ Thank you to my adorable cat-babies, Diego, Phantom, Chaos, Zuko, Sokka, and Bunny, who are so freakin’ cute and cuddly and mommy loves you so much!
~ Thank you to my adopted Aunt Nancy, who is probably the sweetest person on the planet.
~ Thank you to my onii-san, David, for basically everything.

I am grateful for my most excellent friends, both far and near, who make me laugh and make me think. You guys rock! Special thanks to my writing groups, the Gburg Wrimos and Pens in Space for sharing both the trials and tribulations of literary life.

I am grateful to the following spectacular beta readers, fellow writers and sisters-in-spirit, who have been willing to suffer through various drafts of my work:

Foxglove Zayuri
R.E. Myles
Epha*
Storm Elf
Imp
Laughing Ninja 

Thank you so very much! I appreciate your help and efforts more than I can possibly express.

Everyone… I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving! 

 

* NOTE: Due to a spelling error, I accidentally pronounced Epha’s name as “Ephra” for the Audio Edition. Due to the time-consuming nature of recording and re-uploading, I have made the correction here on the print article, but the Audio Edition retains the mispronunciation. My deepest apologies for this error!

Writing Ethnic Characters

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unity-in-diversity
Okay, right off the bat, we have a problem.  Actually, I suppose it’s a problem with how we’re approaching the problem.  Read the title of this entry again: “Writing Ethnic Characters.”  It’s making the assumption that most readers (or listeners) for this entry will be white writers trying to figure out how to create and describe characters who are not white without relying on stereotypes, over-used cliches, or offensive terms.  It also could be said that it makes the implicit assumption that white is the “default” while everything else is “other” or “ethnic.”

Unfortunately, I’m not sure how else to segue into a discussion of this challenge that white writers face. While writing All’s Fair, I found that I had to research how to describe certain characteristics of people who are not white since I have had very little contact with people of color in real life.  (A slightly embarrassing example is my search to find out what black people look like when they blush.  They might feel their cheeks heat or burn, but what does that look like to someone who is watching them?)

This is something I’ve started to struggle with now that I’m aware of how lacking in diversity many of my stories have been.  I don’t want to have token non-white characters, but I also want to take advantage of how many variations there are in the colors, sizes, shapes, and looks of humans.  It’s easy to describe non-human characters; usually your protagonist will be a human and if they are encountering elves, orcs, or dragons for the first time, they are going to notice how they look.  But how do you work in descriptions for characters without waving your arms and shouting, “Hey!  Look!  Here’s a black person, and Asian person, and a Hispanic person!  Hooray for diversity!”
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Inspiration vs. Appropriation: Where is the Line?

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There’s a term that’s been popping up a lot lately in regards to story-telling which has caused a great deal of friction online: “cultural appropriation.”  The strict dictionary definition states that: “cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements from one culture by members of another culture.”  When you put it like that, it doesn’t sound so bad.  I mean, cultures all over the world have adopted from one another via trade or conquest since the dawn of human history.

But now this term is being seen and used in a completely negative fashion.  Worse, it seems to have no limits or boundaries.  It seems that one can come under fire for celebrating Cinco de Mayo if you’re not Hispanic, wearing Native American costumes (especially the admittedly tasteless and stereotypical Halloween versions) if you are not a Native American, or for wearing cornrows if you are not of African descent.

Those are fairly benign modern examples, although there are more disturbing ones.  Like the wearing of blackface, which was used to reinforce negative stereotypes about blacks to maintain segregation in post-Emancipation America, or Hollywood continuing to cast Caucasians into roles that really should be given to someone else.  (See the controversies over having Matt Damon save the Great Wall of China or casting Scarlett Johansson as the Japanese cyborg Motoko Kusanagi in the upcoming live-action version of Ghost in the Shell.)  So, obviously there is negative cultural appropriation that has happened in the past and continues to happen now.  But where do you draw the line between legitimate concerns and people making a mountain out of a mole hill?
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Reading is a Need

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I need to read.

I know that sounds like some kind of exaggeration, like, “I need to buy that set of geeky solar system glasses” or “I need that pint of ice cream” or “I need to see that movie in theaters.”  We might joke around, using the word “need” to refer to things we merely “want,” but sometimes I seriously wonder if reading should be filed under the list of requirements for mental health.

Recently, I wasn’t able to read for about two weeks.  Okay, that’s not entirely true.  I had been reading piecemeal from various nonfiction books for some time, namely The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction by Neil Gaiman, Royal Romances: Titillating Tales of Passion and Power in the Palaces of Europe, and now I’m working on Using Medicine in Science Fiction: the SF Writer’s Guide to Human Biology.  That technically counts as reading.  But I hadn’t immersed myself in a fictional world for some time, and it was starting to wear on me.  I felt tired, unfocused, lethargic, irritable.

Then the weekend arrived.  I looked at the pile of dirty dishes and unwashed laundry, glanced around the empty house, said “Screw it,” plucked one of my library books off the shelf, and flopped down on my window seat to read Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine.

I spent almost four glorious hours suspended on an airship between Earth and Mars and loved every second of it.  Afterwards, I felt awake and aware in a way that I hadn’t been for days.  Rejuvenated.  Renewed.  Resurrected.  The list of synonyms goes on.

Point is, we need to read.  Not just nonfiction for research or personal edification, but also poetry, short stories, essays, and, most especially, fiction.  And as writers, we REALLY need to read.  For inspiration.  For relief.  For sanity.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to pick another book from my shelf.

Breaking Ground

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I love the TV mini-series Frank Herbert’s Dune, and recently got to watch its bittersweet yet still enjoyable sequel, Children of Dune.  However, when I read the book version of Dune, I found it to be (pardon the pun) rather dry.  The world-building, the politics, the futuristic science of it… all of that was solid and interesting.  But I found that, as a story, it fell flat.  I didn’t really care much about the characters while reading the book, but the mini-series brought them to life.

As writers, we are always told to “show, not tell,” but there’s almost too much showing going on in Dune that clogs the book with description.  And Dune isn’t the only one; plenty of other old-school speculative fiction works have this problem.  That made me ask: why?  Why do so many early science fiction and fantasy stories go heavy on description and world-building, but light on character development?

This is only a personal theory, but I think it may be because early science fiction and fantasy writers were trying to lay the ground work and describe things that had never been seen before.  They have to establish what their world looks like and how it operates in order for it to make sense, which leaves less space for characters.  Today, if you say “orc” or “Arrakis” or “Star Destroyer,” most people will have an idea about what those things look like.  There’s no need to go into great detail describing interstellar travel or how a stillsuit works because it’s already been established in our minds by years of cultural absorption through novels, comics, and film.  We have hundreds of examples of spaceships, aliens, and fantastical landscapes to mentally choose from.  It’s a kind of short hand that only requires writers to choose a few choice descriptions rather than verbally building every little detail from the ground up.

The framework is already in place, but that doesn’t mean that we writers should be lazy about our descriptions.  We must be vigilant and make sure our creations are original or put a new twist on an old theme rather than merely recycling.  We must reshape, embellish, and tweak to make it our own.  The next time you find yourself getting a little bored with the heavy descriptions of science or magic in a novel, check the publication date.  The descriptions you are so casually dismissing may have been the first of their kind.

"Dune Sandworm 3" by ollycb
“Dune Sandworm 3” by ollycb

 

Houseboats in Space

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At the beginning of the July 2016 Camp NaNoWriMo, I was in the mood for some old-school anime.  During Camp NaNo in July 2013, I’d inter-spaced bouts of writing with episodes of an anime called Black Jack.  Every so many hours, words, or pages, I would reward myself with an episode or two.  It got me through the month and it was an enjoyable show.  This time, I decided to start watching an anime I’d been eyeing for a while.  It’s called Space Pirate Captain Harlock, and I cannot express how hooked I currently am.  It’s got that gorgeous old-school look that only anime from the late 70s and early 80s have.  The drama is totally over-the-top, the science is out of whack or non-existent, and the plot lurches around like a drunken sailor.  But the characters are so endearing and the adventures are so fun that I don’t even mind it.  That’s just part of the experience.  In fact, I’ve actually had to stop watching it for now because it makes me want to write about pirate ships and space operas, not steampunk or romances.  (Oops.  Wrong choice for this project’s inspirational material.)

Captain Harlock

Still, as I was watching the first several episodes of Captain Harlock on Crunchyroll, I started thinking about all of the other science fiction anime and TV shows that heavily feature nautical themes and emphasize the tight-knit family unit that the crews of these ships become.  In Captain Harlock, this takes place on board the Arcadia.  In Last Exile, the first anime I ever watched, it’s the Silvana.  In the original Mobile Suit Gundam, we have the White Base.  (The power of the Bright-slap compels you! …*ahem* Yes, well, moving on.)  In Space Battleship Yamato it’s… er, well, the Yamato.  (Yes, I know that was redundant.)

Then you have all of the English TV shows and films, like the Enterprise from Star Trek, the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars, Serenity from Firefly, Battlestar Galactica from… um, well, Battlestar Galactica. (Yes, yes, I know, more redundancy.)  And to top that off there are good old-fashioned ocean-going vessels: the Defiant, the Albatrossthe HMS Surprise, and Captain Nemo’s submarine the Nautilus, to name a few.
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Inferior Origins

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Kira at the Gelfling Wall of Destiny (screenshot from The Dark Crystal)
Kira at the Wall of Destiny

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Who doesn’t love a good origin story?

Whenever I get into a fictional universe, be it books, movies, TV shows, or video games, I dig deep.  Those characters with shady or mysterious pasts are the most intriguing; we want to know how they became the person we know now.  If you’ve read (and enjoyed) The Symphony of Ages series by Elizabeth Haydon, you probably want to know Achmed’s full backstory more than anything else.  We get tantalizing hints, but no more.  Tolkien’s book The Silmarillion explores the history of the elves and Middle-Earth in almost excruciating detail.  People clamored so much for more stories about Drizzt Do’Urden that R.A. Salvatore gave them the drow ranger’s backstory in the form of The Dark Elf Trilogy.  Amazing RPGs like Mass Effect and Dragon Age cover the history of their worlds, the aspects of the places explored there, and the characters you encounter.  And isn’t that what a lot of modern RPGs are all about?  Exploration?  How was this world created?  What happened before the story that we see?  A good origin story is a fascinating and rewarding journey.

Of course, the key word here is “good.”  Not knowing parts of a universe’s history or the origins of a character leads to all kinds of juicy speculation, head canon, and fan fiction.  Sometimes the creators even deign to answer those burning questions for us.  That’s fine and dandy, but there is a dark side to it.  No matter how much I may want to know, “What happened?!” a part of me is always a bit wary when official works drop in to fill the gaps.

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Book Review! “Before Mako Came Yoko: A Comparative Study” by Natacha Guyot

 

This entry is part of “Natacha Guyot’s Blook Blog Tour!”


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I don’t usually care much for summer blockbusters, which usually have more explosions than compelling emotions.  However, Pacific Rim is one of those rare “popcorn movies” that I felt gave a layer of depth to its characters.  I confess that I was surprised to see Mako, a female Japanese Jaeger pilot, get as much screen time and character arc as she did!  Women as primary main characters is becoming more prominent, albeit slowly, and there is still a dearth of women of color in such roles.  Pacific Rim provided a step in the right direction, even if it fell short on certain points.  But I was unaware that a long-running 1970s comic book series from Belgium had already allowed a female Asian character to step into the spotlight.  Natacha Guyot’s brief but engaging treatise Before Mako Came Yoko: A Comparative Study Between Pacific Rim and Yoko Tsuno elaborates on how the title character of Yoko Tsuno and Mako of Pacific Rim share many key traits.

The book is divided into three parts that explore these similarities, as well as a few of their short-comings.  The first part, “Women of Color as a Female Lead Character” explores the history of the two characters as they developed through their respective media.  While Yoko has four decades of story to draw on and develop from, Mako only has a single film.  Yet both present strong, well-rounded, engaging characters who aren’t reduced to eye candy, exotic tokens, or inevitable love interests by the presence of male associates.  (However, like Ms. Guyot, I would have preferred Mako as the main character and focus of Pacific Rim, since I found her origins and presentation far more interesting than that of the male lead!)

The second part is “Combat, Science, and Compassion,” which looks at the skill sets Yoko and Mako possess that helps make them real people and helps solidify their importance and relevance to the plots of their respective stories.  Scientific knowledge and martial arts are a shared skill set, although Yoko Tsuno touches on religion and spirituality in a way that has little to no place in Pacific Rim.  A big difference is that Yoko faces danger on a more or less regular basis throughout the comics.  Mako doesn’t have the opportunity to fight her enemies, the alien Kaiju, until well into the film, and even then, only for a short time.  Visually and narratively, Mako and Yoko break the mold in progressive ways.

“Composite Family and Inner Circle” comprises the final section.  Yoko and Mako share many similarities in their creation of a new “family” outside their blood relations.  With so many years of development, Yoko has far outpaced Mako in this area.  This may be a necessity of the medium, but there is hope that future installments of Pacific Rim will expand on Mako’s role in the story and her circle of friends.

Before Mako Came Yoko is an intriguing look into the world of representation for female and minority characters in media. It draws connections between modern cinema and classic comics to show how progressive some of these characters are… and how far we still have to go. Be sure to check out Ms. Guyot’s website for other books and articles discussing similar topics in Star Wars, Farscape, and more!


 

natachaguyotNatacha Guyot is a French researcher, author and public speaker. She holds two Master’s degrees: Film and Media Studies (Paris III Sorbonne Nouvelle) and Digital Culture and Technology (King’s College London).

Her main fields of interest are Science fiction, Gender Studies, Children Media and Fan Studies. Besides her nonfiction work, she also writes Science Fiction and Fantasy stories.

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Contrivance and Coincidence

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“But people don’t act like that.” [W. Somerset] Maugham pointed to the grave dangers coiled in that treacherous phrase. Our demand for probability grows more and more stringent. We balk at coincidence and accident. We invariably expect the characters who are presented to act like ourselves. “People don’t act like that?” True enough — MOST people don’t act like that. Your story is not ABOUT most people. The true enemy of your fiction is not improbability but imaginative unbelief.

— Stephen Koch, The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction,  (page 185)

As I’ve been working through my current draft of All’s Fair, there’s a certain element that keeps coming up that I think needs to be addressed:  contrivance and coincidence.

We’ve all see or read stories where characters end up in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.  Or they find what they need to beat the bad guy minutes before facing off in the final fight.  Or they are about to die and rescue arrives just in the nick of time with no explanation of where they were and how they got there so fast.  It’s more blatant in some stories than in others.  When done badly, it can destroy the suspension of disbelief necessary to maintain a story.  No writer wants that to happen to their story.  Events are supposed to be seamless, flawless, inevitable.  We want to present them in the most effective, realistic, and logical manner possible.  We don’t want anything to seem contrived.

Well, I’ve some bad news for you: all stories are contrived.

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