Reading Short Fiction

My reading habits have changed a little recently, in that I’ve started to fairly regularly read short fiction. Usually I spend all my reading time on novels; I’ve had a few magazine subscriptions (Electric Velocipede, Weird Tales, Fireside Magazine), but what always happens is after a few issues I start putting them to one side and never getting back to them – I still have years-old issues, unread. I get the newsletter and follow them on Twitter, but rarely visit the site directly.

What’s happened now, though, is that I started collecting links people share on Twitter. I’ve been doing it for a while with articles, but now whenever a piece of short fiction is mentioned I save that link in Pocket, too. It can take me a while to get round to reading these – I usually do it on a train ride into Newcastle two or three times a month – but I’ve been really glad to have read this stuff I would have missed otherwise. I’ve only read some of Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s stories because I saw links on Twitter, and now I know she’s one of the best writers out there right now.

The interesting thing to me is that deliberately keeping up with publications – whether print or online – has failed for me, and I’ve found myself now reading stories where the venue is irrelevant, where I’m barely aware of which site is hosting the piece I’m reading. I read individual stories, not publications.

Obviously I realise that kind of reading behaviour is bad news for the sites in question – particularly when I do so through an app that mostly just pulls the text and images from the body of the page and leaves out everything else, such as ads. I know I want to support sites that are providing me with this content, but I’m not inclined to want to visit all of these pages on a regular basis and see what’s there – I’ve grown accustomed to just having certain ones picked out and directed my way by names I trust (ie, writers and other book people I follow on Twitter). So I have a conundrum there.

There’s a panel at Loncon3 on the Friday called A Reader’s Life During Peak Short Fiction which looks at things like how people find short stories and pick out what to read in the current environment. It looks like an interesting one, and I’ll be looking forward to it, and looking for insight to apply to my own habits here. Of course they’ve scheduled it alongside the Diversity in Comics panel, which I’ll be disappointed to miss, but oh well.

I’ve rambled on long enough without reaching any conclusions. Now I have to get to sleep. Less than two weeks to go until Loncon3!

(I’m going into Newcastle on Saturday. I wonder what stories I have saved up.)

Orphan Black’s Improbable Fire Extinguisher

This is, admittedly, a rather pointless post, griping about a tiny thing. I’m just trying to come up with more things to post about, and this one has been running around my head for weeks now.

Spoilers, obviously.

I got into Orphan Black not so long ago, and was immediately hooked. It’s a great show, not least because of the excellent multiple performances of star Tatiana Maslany, but it does have a tendency to get a bit silly at times.

Most notable such silly moment was probably in the recent season two finale, wherein main character Sarah uses a specially rigged fire extinguisher to kill Rachel and make her escape from Dyad. It’s a little hard to suspend disbelief when something quite so unlikely occurs.

How might this fire extinguisher plot have failed? Let me count the ways:

1. One of the medical staff noticing Scott should not be there.
2. One of the medical staff noticing the large and totally unhidden fire extinguisher duct taped to the equipment.
3. Rachel noticing said fire extinguisher while handing Sarah her daughter’s odd drawing of a fire extinguisher.
4. Rachel not sending all of the medical staff out of the room.
5. Sarah being given sedation before Rachel arrives to send staff out of the room.
6. Rachel not standing in the exact position required for the (unaimed) pencil to hit and instantly kill her, it instead a) missing entirely; b) wounding her superficially; or c) seriously harming her but leaving her able to call for help.
7. One of the medical staff waiting outside hearing something and coming in to investigate.
8. Said staff being right outside the room when Sarah attempts to leave.
9. Dyad having any kind of security at all.

In all, it was a scene so ridiculously contrived that it completely threw me out of the show.

It’s still a great show, though. It’s got my vote for the Dramatic Presentation Short Form Hugo award. I just hope it doesn’t keep getting sillier as it heads into a third season.

Where Are All The Female Bandits?

I’ve been playing the RPG shooter Borderlands lately. I’m a long way behind on this, as the game’s already awaiting its second sequel, but it’s all new to me. And with all the talk lately on representation of women in gaming – after E3, where the people behind the next Assassin’s Creed game claimed the lack of a playable female character was due to it taking too much of their resources to make – I couldn’t help being particularly aware of the representation of women in this game. That is, that there’s almost none of it.

Now, I will make clear that I’m not very far into the game, being in the second major zone at level 20. But so far I can count the female characters on one hand – and other than the one playable woman, Lilith (who I am playing as, for her class ability), none of them has been encountered in person, just through voice, vision, and portraits beside quest text. Meanwhile, I’ve shot my way through an endless stream of male bandit enemies, of several types, ranging from big muscular “Bruisers” to the tiny “Midgets”.

It’s something you see in most games, really. It’s no surprise that games take a few character models and repeat them over and over to create the numerous enemy NPCs – it makes sense, when each new model and skin takes designer hours to make – but all too often these enemies, when not completely anonymous soldiers in full feature-disguising body armour, are universally male. Often if there are female enemies (beyond named characters), they will come in one single area of the game, or belong to a single sub-type distinct from others. This, too, can be explained by the need to make enemies with particular abilities visually distinct, so that players know how to respond, but using “this one is the girl” for that distinction is far from necessary.

What bothers me in particular in Borderlands, given that recent Assassin’s Creed fallout, is that the game’s creators clearly went to the effort of creating a range of different models and skins for the bandit enemies. You have the bruisers, the “midgets”, two sizes of “psycho”, and a few varieties of clothed enemy shooters – which demonstrates that resources for creating models was not at issue here. Instead, I suspect the idea of including a few women among the game’s more generic opponents just didn’t occur to them.

I don’t mean to pick on Borderlands exclusively; this happens everywhere. In World of Warcraft, there were no female Goblins or Worgen until those races were introduced as playable characters. Meanwhile, there are still no female Ogres, Broken Draenei, Tuskarr, Yaungol, Grummles, and so forth; Mogu are all male except for two females in one single raid encounter; and female demons exist only as a few races entirely distinct from the many males (some of the less-humanoid races in WoW, however, are of indeterminate gender).

The problem, I think, is not any kind of conscious decision to avoid placing female NPCs in games; rather, it’s an outcome of male-as-default, where the first, unthinking, decision taken when adding a new enemy is to create it male. Because of the unconscious bias we’re almost all to some extent afflicted with, men are default, while we seek a reason for a character to be female.

Things have been improving for women as protagonists and major characters, but I’m not sure there’s yet been much movement on women appearing among the numerous faceless, nameless enemies we face as we progress through the majority of a game’s content. Maybe as we continue to talk about representation, this will start to be noticed more.

Getting Back in the Saddle

I’ve been making occasional comments on Twitter about trying to get back to writing the story I started in November, and I thought I’d pull those thoughts into a post here.

As I tweeted earlier today, there are two things that tend to paralyse me when writing: Not knowing where I’m going next, and needing to rewrite part of it. There are a lot of old story fragments, and a few blog posts, that I never went back to because I ran into these problems. The story I was writing had both of these issues.

I’d written almost 7500 words when I stalled. That’s nothing, in the larger scale of things, but it was significant as far as my writing goes. The furthest I’ve gotten before that was around 10,000, and that was a meandering mess with no plot. In this story, I had a few ideas of where I wanted things to go, but I couldn’t work out how to get there from what I’d written. On top of that, I realised the last 1000 words I had written were going the wrong direction, and had brought the plot to a grinding halt. (I had made the mistake of maneuvering my characters into a “sit around and exposit” scene, then found I didn’t have things to exposit yet.)

I worked out pretty quickly what I needed to do. I had to cut most of those 1000 words, rewrite some of the last usable part, and carry on with a different direction, one that kept the tension up rather than leading to a boring tea party scene (note: not a literal tea party). But as I’ve said, rewriting intimidates me. I’m sometimes more comfortable just deleting everything and starting again, paraphrasing the same thing I wrote before.

I managed to convince myself I could leave that until I worked out how I would move the plot toward the key parts I wanted to hit later on. That took me five months.

I know that most of that was procrastination. But it also wasn’t until just a couple of days ago that I was standing in the shower, thinking about my story, and I realised why I couldn’t connect the dots. A major plot, one that had inspired the story in the first place, didn’t fit with what I was writing. It was completely wrong, and I would have been wrong to try and steer things in that way. The realisation hit me out of nowhere, and as soon as it did, my head started filling with a new plot, one that fit the things I had written so far, one that could still include some of the other plot points I had in mind. It even gave me what I needed to expand the role of one of the characters, who I’d given half a backstory but no real direction.

So, I solved my plot problem. I still had five months of procrastination and the dreaded rewriting to face. I managed to put off starting for a couple more days, with the excuse that it was the weekend.

Today, though, I opened the file. It hadn’t quite gone untouched since November – a couple of weeks ago I pulled it out, cut the bad part at the end, and started highlighting pieces of the text that needed work – a chance to confront the thing without actually doing the work on it. This time I eased myself in. I tweaked a few of those highlighted parts, did a “find” on the word “then” to do some rephrasing, and slowly worked up to actually rewriting those final paragraphs. The piece went from 6511 words to 6545. In all I’ve only touched around 300 words today, and it’s not really been “new” writing. (And I’m clearly procrastinating by writing this 730 word blog post.) But I feel like I’m getting back in there. I just need to find the discipline that kept me going for a couple of weeks back when I started.

Truth is, I’m suddenly facing the possibility of bad news about my employment status, and for some reason that’s made me determined to make this work. Maybe the writing is going to become another form of procrastination, maybe it’s a coping mechanism to distract me and keep me from stressing out. I don’t know. I do know I want to do this, and I’m sick of failing.

One Last Hugo Thing

There’s one Hugo Award topic I’ve stayed completely silent on other than a couple of retweets, because I didn’t really feel all that familiar with the issue and lots of other people have talked about it. But not saying anything about it has been bothering me, so here goes.

If you follow discussion about the Hugo Awards, you probably know about this already, but I think most people in the places I post probably don’t. On this year’s ballot, in the Best Novelette category, is a work by Vox Day (aka Theodore Beale). Vox Day is an unrepentant sexist, racist asshole, and there’s plenty of documented evidence to show that.

Day’s presence on the ballot has been put down to him and Larry Correia (on the ballot for Best Novel) encouraging their followers to buy memberships and putting forward a slate of suggested nominees to include on their ballots. Several names on that list made it to the shortlist.

I have no intention of reading Vox Day’s novelette or including it on my voting ballot. I’m also inclined to pass over the other names associated with him through this nominating list.

I’ve seen people who want to see outrage over this situation (see that Bleeding Cool article I linked above, for example), but I can’t see what there is to be done about it other than just not voting for Vox Day and those who support him. They didn’t break the rules to get on the ballot, as far as anyone can tell, but they’re not going to win the awards, either. Of course, their very presence on the shortlist is being read by some as damning to the Hugos as a whole, but that opens a question over what could possibly be done to prevent it. I’m not sure there’s any way other than getting more people to buy Worldcon memberships and nominate each year. Add enough voices, and the small minority who support Theodore Beale – and who arguably only bought their own memberships to thumb their noses at those who dislike him – will be drowned out.

Hugo Award Shortlist

The shortlist for the 2014 Hugo Awards (and the 1939 Retro Hugo Awards) was just announced. You can see it on the Loncon3 website. I wanted to just make a quick post looking at the shortlist compared to my own nominations.

Overall, 11 of my nominations ended up on the final ballot. Unfortunately, not all of the ones I was most excited about: The Shining Girls, Rupetta, and Locke and Key are nowhere to be found. Oh well.

Also, while Doctor Who used to be a good show, these days I don’t think it really deserves to have two episodes on the ballot. Of these two, “The Name of the Doctor” was bad, “The Day of the Doctor” wasn’t. At least the godawful “The Time of the Doctor” didn’t make it. But, this is a popular vote and it’s a popular show, so no use getting worked up about it. I have no issue with the two other Doctor Who-related things that made the short form ballot – I even nominated one of them.

The Thing That Bothers Me About Spider-Man

(or about the Spider-Man movies, at least,)

…is that they always have to give Peter Parker a love interest whose only purpose is to make him worry about her getting hurt. Whatever else is going on in the story, Peter Parker needs to angst about whether his being Spider-Man puts his girlfriend at risk.

We had five movies of this now. Five movies of Peter breaking up with his girlfriend because he doesn’t want her to get hurt. Five films of her breaking up with him because he can’t make up his mind one way or the other. Five films where villains realise he cares for her and target her specifically, so that Peter has to rescue her. Even when it’s as strong a character as Gwen Stacy in the newer films – who is smarter than Peter, accomplished, independent – she falls into the same role.

Occasionally – such as in the latest film, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 – the writing acknowledges Peter’s protectiveness as a problem. Gwen Stacy is intelligent, capable, and independent – and she has specific knowledge that will help with what Peter’s about to do – and when Peter tries to leave her behind to keep her safe, she calls him out on it. But even then, the narrative inevitably goes on to prove Peter right.

These characters, even when they aren’t actually fridged, exist to present the threat of fridging. Their place in the story is to be the potential woman-in-refrigerator, so that Peter Parker can agonise over the danger he is putting them in.

Now maybe it’s true that these issues are just inherited from the comic books, that the creators are adapting the stories that already exist. But by doing that, they must acknowledge that they are perpetuating this trope, the image of the love interest as a victim, or potential victim. After five movies of the same thing, it really starts to stand out. It’s time they tried to do something different.