A different story

Hello, internet!

So over the course of the week I’ve been talking about how you can draw inspiration from video games, and how to use your in-game experiences as the beginning of writing your own stories. And I’ve been talking about the process that I sometimes go through of adapting my video game adventures into prose.

I promised you that’d I’d post a story today, to show you the results of that creative process. And I’ve been working on the story all week. But you know what? It isn’t finished. And I could rush to finish it, filling in the blanks and rounding off the conclusion in time to get it up for tomorrow morning. But what I’ve written so far is good, and I don’t want to rush the rest. I want to take my time with it and produce a story that I’m happy with from start to finish, with a conclusion that’s well thought-through. Even if it is too late to post it here, I’ll know that I’ve done it right, and that it’s the best story it could have been.

So today’s post is going to have to be something different. This week’s posts were supposed to be a trilogy, but now I’m going to have to imitate Pat Rothfuss and leave you all hanging after two instalments, without a satisfying narrative conclusion: only the vague promise of more to come, some time in the future.  I hope you can forgive me for that! I’m struggling to forgive myself. But sometimes we’re too hard on ourselves, as writers. Sometimes it’s okay to take a little bit longer on a project, to play around with it until it really feels finished. Because ultimately we shouldn’t be writing for money or acclaim or to meet deadlines. We should be writing because we enjoy it.

With that in mind, here’s a short piece that I enjoyed writing a few weeks ago. It was written for a Star Trek roleplaying game that I’m part of, and it’s only ever been seen by a small group of other players. It’s short, and simple – just an old man sitting at a bar, quietly contemplating – but I hope that you enjoy it all the same.


“Friends in low places”

Igreb's Taverna Non-Corporeal

The Romulan Neutral Zone, for all its sins, had been the basis of a lot of livelihoods. Xon had spent the last four decades of his life flying out of neutral ports on Nimbus III and other worlds where certain undesirable elements of galactic society could conduct their business without interference. In that time he had seen petty criminal empires rise and fall, he had dined at gunpoint with pirate warlords who ruled over failed colonies like feudal barons over their fiefdoms, and he had seen more greed and desperation than he could easily stomach, the kind of naked poverty and avarice that wasn’t conceivable to most Starfleet officers or ordinary citizens of the Federation. The black market economy of the Neutral Zone had been brutal and unforgiving to the people at the bottom of the ladder, but it had been stable enough in its own way.

The Treaty of Tarod had obliterated that stability. Spaceports that had operated for centuries as havens for malcontents were now no longer beyond the reach of Starfleet or the Romulan navy. For the first time in Xon’s long life, Romulan ale was no longer contraband in the Federation, and Starfleet was delivering Federation medical supplies freely in the other direction. The smuggling industry, with its proud heritage, was at its end. Whole criminal dynasties had been built upon the presumption that the Federation and the Star Empire would always be at each other’s throats, and now the rug had been pulled out from beneath their feet. The rock had been lifted, and the roaches had scattered.

So when Xon accepted a commission to work in the former Neutral Zone, he had been expecting to run into some old acquaintances. He hadn’t been expecting to run into Igreb.

Igreb was a sort of huge luminous quantum octopus who existed laterally in four dimensions at the same time, but he was also a very fine bartender, whose infamous taverna on Nimbus III had been as old as the colony itself. Xon had never been able to figure out if Igreb was a singular entity or part of a species that had evolved beyond corporeal form, but he had certainly never encountered any other sentient beings who remotely resembled him. If ‘resembled’ was the right word. Even after forty years, it was very hard for Xon to wrap his brain around what Igreb actually looked like. You could stare at him for hours and try to build a coherent mental picture of his appearance, but your thoughts seemed to slip away like water off a stone. Besides which, if you stared for long enough, Igreb would eventually remind you that staring was rude, and that you were sitting on a barstool that could be occupied by a paying customer.

Igreb didn’t talk, or even communicate telepathically, in the conventional sense. He just floated behind his circular bar, served you drinks that you didn’t know you wanted, and embedded vague concepts inside your head. Without exchanging words or specific thoughts, Xon had learnt everything about why Igreb finally packed up and left Nimbus. With the Neutral Zone gone, the power dynamics on the Planet of Galactic Peace had shifted overnight, and a full-scale civil war had broken out, with different pirate clans fighting in the desert for control of Paradise City. Igreb’s bar had been bombed during the opening hostilities. He had heard about Starfleet’s new outpost in the region and correctly presumed that it would need bartenders.

The new taverna seemed like an exact replica of the old one. It had the same pervading emerald light, the same pointless mechanical cooling fixtures spinning slowly overhead, the same garish entertainment consoles, the same NO PROJECTILE WEAPONS sign behind the bar. It was half bar, half cargo bay, or it would be when freighter captains started using the shelves and industrial transporters to auction their wares. Igreb had even brought his famous pool tables, where the balls floated repellently over an actual liquid pool instead of the traditional green baize, either a bad joke or the result of an unfortunate mistranslation. The only things missing were the grime, the dancers, and the scent of death, but Xon was confident that the grime at least would quickly accumulate as soon as Igreb started attracting more of his usual patrons.

Xon had the very real privilege of being Igreb’s first new customer. He was only drinking Altair water, but they had still toasted the new premises, and Xon had entertained some optimistic thoughts that the taverna might grow into Eden’s premier dive bar. Igreb had projected his gratitude. They had been sitting silently for almost an hour, having a lively and convivial exchange of ideas, when Xon heard someone parting the screen of chains that hung over the bar’s entrance. He turned on his barstool, and he was surprised by who he saw…

Drawing inspiration from video games (Part 2)

Hello internet!

In Tuesday’s post, I talked about how video games can be fertile ground for inspiring your own writing. Today I’m going to talk about how you can adapt your in-game experiences into unique stories which can stand on their own legs outside of the context of the game world.

My motivation for wanting to talk about this is that I feel like there might be a lot of imaginative gamers and writers out there who love coming up with their own complex internal narratives while they’re playing through video games, and then get frustrated because they feel like they can’t turn those narratives into written story material without it being fan fiction, set in a pre-existing universe. If that’s the case, then I hope I can prove otherwise, by taking you through the sort of process that I go through when a video game inspires me to write something original.

So I’m going to give you an example of an in-game event that inspired me to write something, and then describe how I might go through the process of removing it from the game world and adapting it into a story. I’m going to stick with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, for the sake of continuity.

I’ve played a lot of different characters on Skyrim, including a stealthy assassin and an erudite Argonian fire-mage who liked to try and find diplomatic solutions to his problems. But I wanted my latest character to be more of a classical warrior hero, drawing on headstrong figures from epic poetry, like Beowulf and Odysseus. So I created Throdnar, a full-blooded Nord with a strong sword-arm and very few motivations beyond the acquisition of treasure and personal glory…

Throdnar 1

…who got spotted by a hungry dragon while I was trying to get a decent screenshot of him…

Throdnar 2

…and ended up getting the flesh charred from his bones.

Throdnar 4

I won’t be adapting that particular episode into prose any time soon. Throdnar probably wouldn’t want his embarrassing defeat to be remembered in song and stories. He’d probably prefer to be memorialised in tales of his cunning and warrior prowess.

Usually, the kind of incidents that inspire me to want to write stories are a lot less exciting than being burned to death by a dragon. While I was playing a few days ago, I accepted a fairly simple bounty contract to kill a giant who’d been eating local livestock. I stole a horse, rode out to the giant’s camp, and used a technique that I like to call “giant-baiting” to wear down the giant’s health with a bow and arrow, riding away from him on horseback and leading him on a merry chase, until he was dead and I could ride back to collect my bounty.

For those interested, it works a little like this:

Throdnar 5

Step 1) Shoot a giant and incur his wrath.

Throdnar 6

Step 2) Gallop away, pursued by a giant.

Throdnar 7

Step 3) Stop, turn, and shoot the giant, enraging him further, but slightly lowering his health

Throdnar 8

Step 4) Gallop away, pursued by a giant…

And so on until the giant is dead, never allowing the giant to catch up and hit you with his club, however tempting it might be to linger and get off two or three arrows each time you stop.

Already here I’ve invented something that isn’t actually an inherent part of the game, which I can then use in one of my own stories.  I have no idea if other players use the same technique (but if you’re a regular Skyrim player and you hadn’t tried this yet, it’s a great way of getting your hands on a lot of mammoth tusks). Giant-baiting is just something that I’ve come up with while playing in Skyrim’s sandbox, so I can insert the term, and the technique, into a fantasy world of my own creation. If my fantasy world has giants who prey off the land and steal livestock, then I can imagine that giant-baiting is a practiced rural way of life, like poaching or deer-stalking. I can extrapolate that it’s an art with seasoned practitioners who know all of the best ways of doing it without getting themselves killed. An old giant-baiter is necessarily a good giant-baiter because he’s avoided being squashed into jelly by an angry giant. That’s quite a good basis for a character, and I certainly enjoy imbuing Throdnar with those characteristics when I’m baiting giants in the game. I can imagine the thoughts going through his head, the calculations of a veteran giant-baiter doing what he does best.

But it wasn’t actually the giant-baiting that inspired me to write a story. Believe it or not, it was the part before the giant-baiting, where I had to steal a horse.

I could have bought a horse, but that didn’t seem like the sort of thing that Throdnar would do. He seemed like the sort of cunning adventurer who would prefer to steal a horse and pay off his bounty later. But more than that, I’d have preferred to have the option to try and work out a deal with the groom at the stable – I’d have liked it if Throdnar could use his wits and his sharp tongue to steal a horse without just crudely making off with it in broad daylight. I wanted him to be able to say “I’m doing the Jarl’s work and going to hunt down that giant that’s been eating livestock – can I borrow a horse and leave 500 gold with you as insurance that I’ll bring it back?”  Whether or not I brought it back would have been another question. But it was one of those instances where my options were limited by the game’s programming, because that wasn’t a dialogue option I could choose. There’s almost certainly a mod that I could download if I wanted to have that kind of option in game, but that’s not the point. My frustration with the game’s limited options didn’t make me want to alter the game world, it made me want to write a story where a character could have that kind of conversation. So I started writing.

I didn’t want to write a piece of Skyrim fan-fiction, so I needed to strip the world away and create a new setting for this scenario to happen in. That meant changing things like place names, environmental conditions, the general aesthetic of the world, and anything else I could think of to distance myself from Skyrim and make me feel as though this story was happening inside a world that I’d created.

One thing that I decided to change right away – simply because it was easy to do so – was the animal involved. Why have my character steal a horse when they could be stealing something more interesting?

My first thought was some sort of unicorn, and a brief internet research session revealed that historical legends about the unicorn might have been based on a real-life extinct species of megafauna called the elasmotherium.

Elasmotherium
I speculate that ‘elasmotherium’ means ‘hairy rhino of death’ in latin

I thought that it looked pretty cool – I can definitely imagine it domesticated, saddled up, and turned into a formidable beast-of-war, especially with that horn – but I didn’t think “elasmotherium” was the kind of name that would be used in everyday conversation by hardy Northern giant-baiters in a medieval fantasy setting, so I dug deeper and found out that the elasmotherium might also have been the inspiration for a mythical Russian beast called the indrik.  “Indrik” has a nice ring to it, and a brief Google revealed that it hasn’t been widely used in any other popular fantasy media – only for one card in Magic: The Gathering. So I felt safe using it.

So now I was writing a story about Throdnar using his wits to trick a groom into giving him an indrik for half of what it was worth. But what else could I change, to really make it feel like I was creating my own story, set in a world of my own creation?

I decided that my story was going to take place in a bleaker Dark Age fantasy world rather than a generic medieval setting. That meant downgrading technology: replacing brick-built houses with mud bricks and drystone walls. Remembering to make sure that Throdnar only used weapons and tools that had been invented by the time of the 8th or 9th century. The landscape that I’d been riding over in Skyrim was a craggy plateau of rocks and hot springs. I decided to set my story in a forbidding moorland, with rolling hills covered in bracken and goarse. And to fit the bleaker setting, I decided to change the weather. Here, I drew on another encounter that I’d had in Skyrim – I rode out to clear an abandoned fort that had been occupied by bandits, and rain had started falling in sheets by the time I found them. I remembered fighting them in the driving rain and ending up standing my ground in a deep pool, whirling my horse around in the water and hacking down at the bandits as they tried to attack me. That had been a dramatic fight, and I decided to steal the weather, applying it to my fight with the giant, which had happened while the in-game weather was bright and sunny.

Finally, I wanted to make sure that I depicted giants in an original way. Giants in Skyrim are dull creatures who don’t seem to have human levels of intelligence, and they spend a lot of their time herding mammoths. One easy way of differentiating my giants was to cut the mammoth-herding aspect, and I also decided to make my giant a little more cunning. I’d already decided that Throdnar is a warrior who likes to rely on his brains as well as his brawn, so I wanted to give him a more challenging opponent who could match his wits.

I also changed the outcome of the fight. But to find out more about that, you’ll have to come back on Sunday, when I’m planning to post at least part of the story.

I hope this post has given you an insight into what I do when I’m inspired to adapt my video-game experiences into prose. And my assignment for you today is go and try it yourself! I wish you happy gaming, full of moments that you can harvest and insert into your stories.

Drawing inspiration from video games (Part 1)

Hello, internet!

Cards on the table: I completely forgot that this week was my week here on The Art of Writing. As such, I’ve prepared absolutely no material for you, and I’m going to be making it up pretty much as I go along. I feel a little like Gromit, the anthropomorphic dog in the treasured British clay-animation film Wallace & Gromit in the Wrong Trousers, speeding along on an electric train and laying track hurriedly in front of me as I go, as illustrated in this helpful gif.

giphy

Hopefully it will be a fun experiment for both of us.

One thing I have been doing a lot of in the last week is playing video games, so let’s riff off that to start with, and talk about how video games can inspire really good writing.

Before I delve into what I’ve been playing, and how it’s been influencing my writing, I want to quickly discard any stigma surrounding video games. Some people might scoff at the suggestion that writers of literature have anything to learn from the story-telling, worldbuilding, or characterisation of interactive entertainment like video games, but I couldn’t disagree more. I think there’s a general scepticism towards video games among the same demographic who are sceptical of genre literature (the industry term, sometimes used unkindly, for sci-fi, and fantasy, and anything which isn’t ‘serious’ literature).  I know I’m in friendly territory here, among my fellow nerds. None of you are likely to think less of any piece of media just because it contains dragons and challenges your imagination by taking place in a fantasy world. But some people baulk at video games just the same way they baulk at Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings, and that saddens me a little. Art doesn’t implicitly lose value because it relies on fantastical tropes instead of the tropes and hallmarks of ‘mainstream’ literary fiction. Stories aren’t inherently less complex or robust because they’re being told through the medium of an interactive video game. Writing doesn’t inherently lose value if it draws inspiration from video games or shares a lot of stylistic elements. Perhaps I’m stating the obvious, but there are some people who still don’t see video games as a valid medium for artful storytelling. And I am sad for them, because they’re missing out. Not just on some great art, but on some lush material which can be mined for inspiration.

Writers can choose how much they want their gaming life to influence their writing, and whether they want to disguise their influences or make them explicitly obvious. If you love a video game world enough to want to write stories within that universe, there’s nothing stopping you, and your stories don’t lose any value just because they’re set in a pre-existing universe. A close friend of mine has been writing some excellent fiction set in the Mass Effect universe and posting it online for fans of the series to enjoy, and I’ve been reading it with relish, even though I wasn’t a fan of Mass Effect when I started. (Although, binge-gamer than I am, I have since played through the first two games of the series and enjoyed them both tremendously).

Nathaniel is unlikely to make any money from this particular story, but that’s not why he’s writing it. Not all art is intended for publication, and once again, it doesn’t necessarily lose any value as a story just because it’s available freely on the internet. But if you’re planning to publish your writing and adapt your gaming experiences into your own fantasy world, then it’s probably a good idea to distance yourself from your influences: lest ye fall foul of the thin line between emulation and plagiarism.

That becomes a lot easier when you’re drawing inspiration from an open-world game. Recently, I’ve been playing my favourite video game, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. It’s now five years old, so I’m not going to bother with a belated review. Suffice to say I adore playing it, which I’ve been doing sporadically since 2013, but I have yet to complete it, so packed is it with excellent content. My fondness for Skyrim is perhaps best illustrated by measuring the slightly destructive influence that it has had on my life: it became my favourite form of procrastination during my third year of university, and was instrumental in the deterioration of at least one romantic relationship. I regret neither of these things. I spent my evenings reading books of magical lore in my study at the College of Winterhold when I should have been reading about seventeenth-century economics for an upcoming exam. By night, I crawled through ancient catacombs in the darkest bowels of Nirn, destroying undead wights and uholy Draugr with the righteous purity of cleansing fire. As the sun rose outside, I fought with fearsome Dragon Priests on storm-wrought mountaintops, because their aspect seemed less daunting than the hardships of writing my dissertation. When I play Skyrim, I have private little adventures, and then I’m often inspired to write about them.

If I adapted my adventures into prose word-for-word, using the same name for every character and location, depicting events in the very same order, then I would be committing plagarism. But that’s never what I’m inspired to do. The important thing with roleplaying games is that you can take away the role-playing element and leave the game itself behind. Role-playing games are designed to provide you with a bare skeleton that serves as a scaffold for your adventures: they give you the building blocks of a story, and you can assemble them however you want. As I’m playing through the story that the developers have created,  I’m imagining the thoughts and feelings of my character and the other characters that they encounter. I’m wondering what might be different if the events were happening outside the confines of a pre-programmed environment. Sometimes, even with a vast open-world game like Skyrim, I’m raging at the limited choices that the game allows. I’m thinking “if I had control of this story, my character wouldn’t be picking any of these options” – and at that point, my interpretation of the player character has become something separate from the game itself. It’s become something that I can extract from the game and insert into my own writing.

I’m sure that many gamers do the same thing when they’re playing a role-playing game, especially if they also happen to be writers. I can guarantee that your experience as a player – your interpretation of the game’s events – will vary dramatically from the experiences and interpretations of any other player. Your character’s progress through the game world, the story that you decided to create in the sandbox that the game provided, is unique, and it belongs to you. And that’s where you stop plagiarising and start creating your own content. You’re drawing your inspiration out of your gaming experiences like a sword being drawn out of a forge, which you can then temper over time, refolding and reheating until it’s become something that’s entirely yours.

I’m running out of room here, and I still haven’t got to my point – so I think I’m going to elaborate on this over the course of the week, and put it into action for you to watch. Come back on Thursday to see how I go about adapting my in-game experiences into prose. Then on Sunday I’ll actually post a short story that I’ve adapted from in-game events.

In the meantime, I suppose I’d better log into Steam and gather some more in-game experiences that I can adapt. Purely for research purposes, you understand…

 

Rote Memorization

Rote (n): routine; a fixed, habitual, or mechanical course of procedure.

It’s been years since I’ve thought of what letters I’m hitting. For those of you who can speed type, you get this. You think of the word. It pops up on the screen. You need to delete a word? Poof. It disappears. There was a time you thought, “Alright, ctrl+delete, and bingo!” There was a time you had to cheat. “Shoot. Is my finger on y or u?”

How many of you turn on your computers and instinctively pull up the tabs in your browser, your emails, and any other programs you start up immediately? Within five seconds I have WordPress, Google mail, and Facebook up and running. Might not even be that long.

I’m sure there are those of you who cook like this. You bring out the food, you chop it up, throw it in, and you’re done. Very little thought. That lasagna has been cooked a hundred times. It is a routine.

Lately I’ve been playing a game called Paragon. It’s a moba. Basically two teams of five clash in epic battle. You purchase skills as you level, and you develop a routine on how you purchase those skills. When I was playing today, after I purchased my first ability, I thought, “Shoot, was that the right one?” Even though I didn’t remember purchasing the skill, I bought my starter skill.

This list goes on. Driving. Swimming. Mechanical work. Those who are masters do the same thing over and over in often times boring repetition. Do you know how many horrible things I said about my keyboard class? But I kept at it. Because mom said so.

Combat is rote memorization. Your body is trained to respond through repetitive exercises. In the same way I think “word” and it appears on the screen, they think “parry,” and their body instinctively blocks the blade. They think “shoot,” and they immediately aim at center mass, compensate for recoil, find cover.

But why do our heroes master these skills in months, sometimes not even?

For your characters to become good at something, they have to be prodigies (I do understand these exist and they learn select skills very quickly), or they have to train for a long time intensely.

This doesn’t just go for combat. Pick up the book Blink. It’s basically all about training your instinct through mastering a subject. By making it rote. Someone bought a counterfeit piece of art. A bunch of experts looked at it and instantly said the buyer, a museum, was making a mistake. They couldn’t say why. Years of training their brain, years of seeing real and counterfeit art, and they knew that art was fake. It’s rote. They made looking at art rote memorization.

Basically I’m just pleading with you to make your characters learn things in a realistic manner. I know there are books which do a great job. But others cheat, and it makes the book feel fake. As for prodigies, just make sure it’s important. Otherwise you’re dangerously close to a Mary Sue character.

Using Stereotypes

6406761829_fa1424f97d_z.jpg
Jeremy T. Hetzel (c) 2011

I have been playing The Division a lot lately. The game is based on you being a sleeper agent who is to bring order to NYC after a designer virus wipes out about 90% of the population.

NYC is broken up into districts, and each district has a coordinator. This coordinator gives missions. For the most part, you hang out with them for about five minutes of dialogue throughout a couple hours of clearing their district of evil. Then you move on.

In any line of fiction, these people would be forgotten quickly as nearly anonymous NPCs. The characters would all blend together, basically be the same person, and we would all move on and forget them.

However, Ubisoft and the dozen developers and publisher who were involved in this game made a very smart move. They played off stereotypes to create slightly over the top personas that I still remember.

The first coordinator was a soccer mom. “I think this is going to be dangerous, hun, but I’m sure you can handle it.” Then just amplify the worrying about you but believing you’ll do your best by 100%. You could hear the “I owned a minivan and went to soccer games for my kids” in her tone.

Then there was an action movie actor. “Dude, when this thing blows over, you’ll have to talk to my agent. I mean, if he’s still alive. He probably isn’t. So I guess we’ll have to make our own movie without help. But you would be so awesome to act beside.” He was such a tool.

Let’s not forget the zen master. “There is imbalance and a disconnect. Actually literally a disconnect. Someone took down one of our communication relays. Go spread some karma.”

Each coordinator was an over the top stereotype, and that made the character stick. It made it so I could immediately create a concept in my head of who that person was, and though there may have been some deviation at times, overall I knew what I was getting. And it was hilarious.

In your own writing, how many bartenders (or ultimately the role of information broker) do you have? Whether they’re at a space station, in a wooden tavern, or in a downtown bar, how often are those bartenders interchangeable? I try to distinguish them, but it’s difficult. By making them over the top, Ubisoft succeeded in making each of these otherwise anonymous characters pop.

Let’s look at Song of Ice and Fire. Catelyn Stark goes into a tavern where there’s a woman that she remembers as a child. The woman ate a fruit that made her teeth red. Always red. She was an obnoxiously nosy woman. I remember her. She lasted a full ten pages. She was a stereotype of the nosy neighbor.

Stereotypes often exist because of some truth. The soccer mom exists. I get they each have nuances, not all soccer moms are the same, but in five minutes of dialogue you don’t have time for nuances. In ten pages you don’t have time for nuances.

Now don’t take this as me saying everyone fits in those stereotypes. I’m simply stating that if you have a character who will not show up often and will be easy to forget, find a mold, cast him, change a couple things, and plop that person onto a page.

What I am saying is we understand stereotypes. We can create a full image with very little information. Use it. It’s an excellent way to convey a lot of information about a character in a very short period of time.

Random Story Challenge of the Week

Well, we got back fairly late last night, and we’re leaving very early this morning to avoid a snowstorm. So, I’d like you to write me a story about a rushed morning. No sleeping in late, no leisurely showers, no extra sleep. Write me a story about having to hurry! Same rules as always: you have 1000 words to deal with your topic. Have fun!

Fifty Shades of Trump

Fifty ShadesHonestly, I had a plan for this week. I really did… for the life of me I can’t remember what it was. I’ll get back to my series on Theology and Fiction soon, but this is something that has been bubbling in the back of my mind for quite some time. America is on a downward spiral, and honestly I think that we are nearly the end of that spiral. In fact, I think that the popularity of E.L. James’ novel Fifty Shades of Grey and the popularity of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign prove that we are nearly the end of that spiral. These two things have something very important in common.

A few years ago I wrote a review of Fifty Shades of Grey. I was not a fan. I actually stopped reading in depth and skimmed a significant portion of the novel because the writing was painful. Technically, the writing is grammatically challenged, inconsistent, and the present tense style (which is poorly done in the first place) is chosen specifically to make the sex scenes seem more explicit. Artistically, the story is cliched, the characters are flat and unengaging, the choices made are rarely realistic, and the setting overall is underused. Apologetically, the novel and the movie both have been condemned by the BDSM community for presenting a completely unrealistic portrayal of the BDSM lifestyle that is exceedingly lewd and violent. Morally, the novel reaches levels of graphic sexual violence normally reserved for the darkest corners of Erotica and internet Pornography. The book has no redeeming value of any kind, which leads one to wonder why it was so popular. The only reason that I can find is that it filled a desire for novelty and perversion.

nbc-fires-donald-trump-after-he-calls-mexicans-rapists-and-drug-runnersDonald Trump’s campaign does the same. If you actually listen to Trump’s speeches and his responses in debates he provides no depth. Politically, he makes wild claims (we’ll build a wall and make Mexico pay for it because they like me?), but offers no substantive plans for accomplishing those promises. He is also inconsistent in his message and appears to have has a political tectonic shift in the course of a couple of years. Rhetorically, he is a decent speaker in so far as he doesn’t stutter, stop mid-sentence and stare at the audience, or nervously chew on his lapels, but he is far from a great one. He commonly loses his point, interrupts himself, and uses diversion tactics to keep the audience from realizing that he has no idea what to say. Logically, he make no clear arguments, even in his attacks on other candidates. His entire campaign is built around the message ‘make America great again,’ but this is a message to which he gives no substance. Morally, he is prone to tantrums on stage. He is crass, crude, insulting, and has shown evidence of racism and sexism to fairly extreme degrees. He has been supported by White Supremacists, he has had multiple affairs, and he brags about them to no end. He boasts that he has never sinned and never needed forgiveness. By all appearances he seems to have no empathy, concern, or compassion for anyone but himself, and his ‘strength’ and ‘toughness’ sound a lot like a bullies braggadocio. Further, the best that his proponents can say in his defense on these issues is ‘Well, he’s not really like that,’ which implies that he is a hypocrite who is flatly lying to the American populace about his entire personality, which should lead us to wonder what else he’s lying about. So, why is the Donald Trump campaign so popular? Again, the only reason that I can find is that it fills a desire for novelty and perversion.

In fact, some scholars have argued that modern America has reached a level of excess not seen since ancient Rome, and the fact that the majority of the American populace seems to be moved solely by what titillates the darkest parts of their fantasies and introduces them to new levels of moral depravity should be profoundly frightening. It should move us to ask what is wrong with our country that it has come to this place, and it should move us to question the fundamental validity of the American philosophy and the American dream. Perhaps this questioning will return us to what the American dream was originally meant to be. Perhaps it will force us to admit that the foundations of our nation were flawed, and that our most basic assumptions are in need of a renovation. Either way, it should cause us to question.

Fiction as Theology Part 4: What is Theology (Which Should Have Been Part 1)

So, the last time it was my week I discussed three ways in which we could respond to fiction as fundamentally theological (i.e. whether in can be theological, how it helps us understand our own beliefs, and how it helps us communicate our beliefs). However, as I’ve been thinking more about this I realized that I really started at the end, rather than starting at the beginning with the end in mind. So, my three posts this week are going to deal more specifically with explaining the nature of theology itself and how it can be approached.

Theology can be most broadly defined as the study of god or gods. While most in the West probably think of theology primarily as Christian theology, this is not entirely accurate. There is also Islamic theology, Muslim theology, Hindu theology, etc. In fact, every religion that puts forward a belief in a god or gods also has at least a rudimentary study of them and the world in light of them. However, I am most familiar with Christian theology, and Christian theology in its broadest scope is one of the best developed fields of its kind. Further, I personally believe that the general organization of Christian theology can also be easily and effectively applied to other forms of theology as well. Thus, this post initially will outline the academic organization of theological study.

Broadly speaking there are four major fields of theological study:

Biblical Theology: in foreign this could be termed ‘textual theology’ or ‘cultic theology.’ This field focuses on the study of the proper translation and interpretation of a religions sacred texts or central creeds. In Christianity the field of biblical theology (also called biblical studies) focuses on questions about what the bible actually says. For instance, how should Romans 1:24-27 be interpreted? How should the term ratsach in Exodus 20:13 be translated? This field can be separated into four major areas: study of the original languages (i.e. Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic and sometimes Ugaritic, Sumerian, and Latin or other major Middle Eastern languages as well), Hermeneutics (or the study of interpreting written texts), Old Testament Studies (which includes both the study of Old Testament documents and of the culture and history of Ancient Near Eastern societies from around 2500-2000 B.C.E. to around 0 C.E.), New Testament Studies (which includes the study of New Testament documents and of the culture of Ancient Near Eastern Societies from around 400 B.C.E. to around 100 C.E.). Any scholar of Christian Biblical Theology could be expected to have some familiarity with all of these fields, but will probably be specialized in one or two.

Natural Theology: this field focuses on the study of the revelation given by god or gods outside of sacred texts. In Christianity this focuses on the study of God’s revelation through creation. For instance, how much of God’s moral law is revealed apart of Scripture? How are God’s attributes revealed through the natural world? This is a field of study that is not often a focus of Christian theologians, but is often heavily used by Christian Apologetics. Thus, aspects of Natural Law theory, Apologetics, and Christian Philosophy draw heavily on the study of Natural Theology, but it is not a discipline in which Christian theologians generally specialize apart from their study of one of the other major areas of theology.

Systematic Theology: this field focuses on the organization and extrapolation of the truths revealed by biblical and natural theology. While Systematic Theology draws (or at least should draw) heavily on the work produced by the study of sacred texts and the natural world, it is not the same as this study. Instead, it is an attempt to organize the results of these studies topically and to apply reason in order to explore and consider the logical implications of the work produced by the study of sacred texts and the natural world. Systematic theology in Christianity is separated into nine categories: Theology Proper (the study of nature and attributes of God), Biblical Theology (the study of the whole context of scripture–similar to but not identical with the biblical theology listed above, this is more focused on topical analysis than textual analysis), Christology (the study of the person and work of Jesus Christ), Pneumatology (the study of the person and work of the Holy Spirit), Soteriology (the study of the nature of salvation), Theological Anthropology (the study of the nature of man), Hamartiology (the study of sin), Angelology (the study of Angels and Demons), Ecclesiology (the study of the Church), Eschatology (the study the end times and final judgment). Some of these categories would be appropriate for a systematic theology of other religions as well, but many obviously are not.

Applied Theology: applied theology is the study of how theological truths can and should be applied to daily life. Some people will argue that all theology is applied theology, but I disagree with this. All theology should be taken to the point of being applied, but theory comes before application. So, there must be theoretical theology, but that theory must be applied if it is to have any purpose. In any religion there are as many areas of applied theology as there are possible fields to which theology can be applied. For instance, theology and culture studies the implications and applications of theology to modern high or pop-culture (i.e. art, fiction, music, etc). Worship theology studies the implications and applications of theology to the practice of corporate worship. Political theology studies the implications and applications of theology to the governance of a community (sometimes called Christian Social Ethics). Moral theology studies the implications and applications of theology for the individual moral life (sometimes called Christian Ethics). Spiritual Formation studies the implications and applications of theology for individual worship and relationship with God. Obviously, these are all somewhat intertwined such that all fields of applied theology have some things in common and generally touch upon each other in many and significant ways.

These is the basic outline for the nature of theology that I will be discussing this week. Most theologians focus on a few areas in one of these fields, but all theologians should be familiar with all of these fields (as is appropriate for their religion obviously) because they have a substantial impact upon one another. A systematic theologian who pays no attention to biblical theology, and thus does not have a strong foundation in what the sacred texts of his/her religion actually say, is unlikely to produce meaningful and edifying work in his field. The same can be true with an applied theologian. Alternatively, a biblical theologian who has no clear concept of systematic theology would be under-prepared to effectively and meaningfully organize and present the results of his textual studies in the light of the text as a whole. Thus, while one may specialize, some degree of generalization is necessary for any good theologian.

Book review: the long way to a small angry planet

Hello, internet!

I have decided to write a brief book review for you today. The book is called the long way to a small angry planet. It is by Becky Chambers. And in my humble opinion, it is very good.

the long way to a small angry planet

If I was forced at gunpoint to describe it through references to other pieces of science fiction then I’d say that it’s like a mixture between Firefly and Mass Effect, but that doesn’t really do it justice, and I’d much rather pitch it to you on it’s own two feet. The story revolves around a young human woman named Rosemary who has fled her former life to sign up with a tunnelling ship called the Wayfarer, crewed by a wonderfully diverse mix of nuanced characters who make their living by punching wormholes through the fabric of space. They live in a future where humans have abandoned Earth and spread out among the stars, in a vibrant galaxy where they aren’t major players on the galactic stage. Humans live in colony ships or cling to life on barren moons, and they have to take work where they can get it, which is where the book gets it’s cowboyish Firefly feel. Shortly after Rosemary arrives, the crew are offered a once-in-a-lifetime oppurtunity, creating a tunnel that will lead to a remote planet near the centre of the galaxy. The job is dangerous, but if they succeed, they’ll be rich, and they’ll be helping to put humanity on the map.

Nothing about that premise might seem particularly original or revolutionary, but the execution makes the long way to a small angry planet different from any other science fiction book that I’ve ever read, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. Chambers has been long-listed for the Bailey’s Prize, and I think she’s entirely deserving of it.

I think it’s the focus on characters which makes the long way to a small angry planet so enjoyable. There aren’t any dramatic starship battles or space-western gunfights in Chambers’ book, because there don’t need to be. The galaxy that she describes is a precarious one full of wars and fragile alliances, but any violence occurs ‘off-screen’, as something that happens to other ships in other parts of the galaxy. We’re free to just observe the crew, learning about their daily lives, their eccentricities, their aspirations and their hidden pasts. I grew attached to them very quickly, and was perfectly content with just being a fly on the wall of their ship, allowing the narrative to progress at its own leisurely pace. They move from one job to the next, skirting danger, finding love and friendship on the planets where they stop along the way, and laying the groundwork for a heart-wrenching conclusion which had me up until three in the morning. The characters are well-rounded and entirely believable, and they come across as everyday heroes: working to overcome their flaws and banish their fears, showing extraordinary compassion for one another, and retaining their identities as ordinary people who enjoy doing ordinary things, like eating ice-cream, going to concerts, playing video games, visiting their parents, and enjoying recreational substances (especially in the case of the Wayfarer’s engineers, who are strong contenders for being my two favourite characters).

But the sense of compassion that I got from this book extends beyond the main cast of characters. Chambers has created a universe full of colourful alien species that manage to inhabit the ideal middle ground of being truly alien without alienating the reader. They are convincingly otherworldly, with deliciously weird anatomies and plenty of complicated cultural practices that must be navigated by the main characters, but they are still very ‘human’ in their behaviour. I’m sure that they themselves would be offended by that suggestion, but it is testament to Chambers’ writing ability, and the scope of her creative vision, that they can be so alien and so human at the same time. These aliens have their own flaws and virtues that are instantly recognisable to humans, despite having so many traits that require acclimatisation, both to human readers of Chambers’ book and to the human characters within the story. Watching different species struggling to navigate each other’s idiosyncrasies is actually one of the most interesting and endearing parts of the book. Chambers hasn’t created a callous dystopia or a utopian paradise, but rather a middle-ground with elements of both, where the majority of sapient lifeforms try their best to cooperate and overcome their cultural differences, without resorting to violence.

Tor has described the long way to a small angry planet as a story that‘will restore your faith in science fiction (specifically) and humanity (in general)’, and that’s exactly what it did for me. Chambers has written a refreshing new piece of science fiction, in a well-thought out and nuanced universe, which has the confidence to ask you to come along for a ride. It makes me encouraged about writing my own science fiction. Some people seem to think that ‘big universe’ science fiction can’t follow the same old formulae anymore without being tired and stale, but Chambers shows that you can absolutely write an engaging piece of science fiction which follows the same old format in a fun new way. The long way to a small angry planet has all of the traditional elements of a crew, a ship, a large interstellar political union, a diverse menagerie of fascinating alien races, and a healthy dose of convincing pseudoscience, but it is still a very palatable, enjoyable, and original story. Chambers serves it up like one the delicacies made by the Wayfarer’s enigmatic cook, gathering staple foodstuffs from the homeworlds of his crew and preparing them in a bold new way in which they have never been prepared before.

How to avoid cultural appropriation when writing historically-influenced fantasy stories

Hello, internet. I have another slightly philosophical post for you today.

Following up from my last post, I’m trying to force myself back into the habit of writing a solid 500 words every day. I currently have two book concepts in the forefront of my mind, and I’m trying to work on both of at the same time. I might have to drop down to one if juggling two books proves to be too much of a hassle, but at the moment I’m enjoying the freedom of being able to hop between worlds, or to focus exclusively on one project for a while if I’m having trouble with the other. It also means that I can’t use the excuse of ‘book problems’ to slack off from writing.

One of the projects that I’m working on is a continuation of the story that I shared with you last month, set in a fantasy world that shares a lot of parallels with 19th century Europe. I’m essentially taking the Crimean War (the original one in the 1850s, not the more recent Crimean conflict) and adapting it into fantasy, with fantasy analogues for most of the belligerent factions and major events of the war.  This is a fun concept and I’ve been enjoying the process of fleshing it out into a complete story. But a while ago I started to wonder if there were some awkward problems with the initial concept.

My story features a large empire which resembles an industrialised, centralised version of Sauron’s empire from the Tolkien legendarium. In the events of the story, this empire plays the same role that the Russian Empire played in the Crimean War. Due to events that occurred before the start of the narrative, the orc empire is at war with an alliance of other nations who have landed an invasion force on the empire’s shores and laid siege to an ancient city. These events are intentionally similar to the 1854-55 Siege of Sevastopol, and the allied forces are fairly transparent fantasy analogues of Britain and France. But I’m concerned that my story might have unintentional racial undertones if the Russian Empire is ‘replaced’ by orcs, whilst the British remain mostly human. I’m not trying to use my story as a piece of anti-Russian political commentary and I’d hate for any Russian readers to think that I was comparing them to orcs, at least in the common cultural understanding of what an ‘orc’ is like.

Orc
Boo

My own depiction of orcs is quite sympathetic, but that’s the sort of nuance that might not make much of a difference to someone who’s angry with me for appropriating Russian history.

Other writers tell me that I worry too much about this sort of thing, but I think it’s very important for authors to consider that their work can have unintended cultural aftershocks. Even if I’m only intending to write a harmless swashbuckling fantasy novel, it still has the potential to cause offence, and that’s not something that I want to do. Some people roll their eyes at ‘political correctness’, but for me being PC just means ‘wanting to upset the smallest number of people that I possibly can’, and I don’t want to belittle or dismiss things that are hurtful to other groups of people. I’ve read enough to know that turning someone’s culture or history into a piece of set dressing in a fantasy novel can be very hurtful. Just today, JK Rowling has come under fire for appropriating the “living tradition of a marginalised people” by writing about the Navajo legend of the skinwalker in a new short story. You only have to look at the responses from Navajo Americans to see why they are upset, and why this isn’t something that Rowling should have done. Navajo writer Brian Young wrote “My ancestors didn’t survive colonisation so you could use our culture as a convenient prop.”  The people of Russia aren’t a marginalised people who survived colonisation, but the same principal applies. I’m taking part of Russian history – a war in which many Russians lost their lives – and using it as the inspiration for a fictional war in which their sacrifices will be attributed to inhuman fantasy creatures.

Fortunately, there’s a lot that writers in my situation can do to make their writing more culturally sensitive. The most obvious way is to avoid homogeneous depictions of any factions or races within my fantasy world. A lot of fantasy writing doesn’t do this very well, and it’s hardly surprising, when we’re all just following the example set by J.R.R. Tolkein. Tolkein’s orcs and goblins are uniformly nasty, brutish, savage, and deformed. His humans are mostly noble warriors, with a few odious exceptions. His elves are mostly wise and fair. His dwarves are mostly avaricious and argumentative. This obviously isn’t very representative of reality: “racial attributes” are the stuff of tabletop roleplaying, not real life or nuanced fiction. I’m going to do my best to present orcs as nuanced characters rather than savages. I’m planning to present many of our own cultural stereotypes about orcs to be racist misconceptions. When we think of ‘orc’ we think of the caricatures from the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings adaptations – slimy savages with foul habits and no morals, who are born out of holes in the ground. I’m going to present this image as propaganda. Ordinary soldiers in my story will believe these things about the orcs as well, the same way that soldiers always believe their enemies to be murderers and rapists who roast babies on spits, but these ordinary soldiers will find out that they’re wrong. One of the things I want to say with this story is that misconceptions and generalisations of other cultures can lead to unnecessary suffering, and I hope that message  is enough to make amends to any Russians who might be upset by my initial decision to replace them with orcs.

Another step that I can take to make things more realistic is to diversify all of the factions in my own story. Different factions in fantasy novels are often divided along racial lines – there’s not much overlap between different races and political entities – but this has never been the case in real world history. If the armies in my story are made up of human and orc soldiers, it would reinforce a lot of unhealthy colonial attitudes that still linger in our cultural subconscious, which I’ve talked about this before in a previous post. To combat this, I can make sure that each army has a varied racial makeup: the allied army has humans, but it also has dwarves, gnomes, half-giants, reptilians, or whatever other interesting fantasy races that I want to throw into the melting pot. The opposing army has orcs, but it also has humans. This doesn’t just increase the cultural sensitivity of my writing, it also makes both armies much more interesting, and much more realistic: a ragtag, multi-ethnic army with a diverse racial makeup is much more fun than an army made up entirely of orcs or humans.

 

I’m running out of space, but I hope I’ve made you think about how you can avoid cultural appropriation and racial homogeneity in your own writing. If you want to read more, there are lots of places that you can go online to educate yourself about the issues. Tumblr is a good place to start: blogs like Writing with Color are a great resource for finding out how to handle these concerns sensitively, and also a great place to go and remind yourself of exactly why authors should be so careful to avoid cultural appropriation: the team there are very eloquent at setting out the issues, and they are very quick to inform you if they think your story concepts contain anything problematic.

That’s all from me today, and I’ll see you on Sunday!