Tuesday, September 26, 2017

For the week in free speech

This week has furnished us with two object lessons in the debate over free speech in the US.

On the one hand, NFL athletes kneel in protest during the national anthem in protest at the deaths of black American at police hands, and the minority president himself sees fit to berate them and call for their silencing.

On the other hand, a putative "Free Speech Week" planned by alt-right agitators across the Bay from me at UC Berkeley collapses in a fog of confusion and acrimony.

Do both equally merit our concern?

The athletes follow their consciences and protest without harming or insulting anyone. Their views merit our consideration, for surely there is a case to answer for natural justice and equality when innocent black lives are lost and no one is held to account or remedy.

Now, the paid champions of right-wing "free speech" follow their speaking fees and political patrons, but their opinions amount only to their assertion of the right to their own opinions. When pressed to actually make their case, they produce only bigotry and personal abuse. The free-speech "radicals" and their supporters often offer the canard that colleges and universities have become "echo chambers", but nothing echoes more loudly, or frequently, than a bigot's opinion that he is entitled to his opinion, whereas you are not entitled to question, much less dismiss, the same. We might lend them credence or even some of our time if they had a case to make, but not otherwise. A robust diversity of opinion does not necessitate a universality of folly.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Ready Player One - Ernest Cline

My water-damaged, crumpled copy of Ernest Cline's geek friendly science-fiction adventure Ready Player One certainly now looks like a vacation read, and as an entertaining ride that ultimately offers few challenges to the reader, a vacation read is probably the best summary of its qualities. In this case, appearance and reality coincide.

Which is not to say that the premise, an extended dive through a global virtual-reality game that has come to stand in for the Internet in search of a departed billionaire's fortune is not both intriguing and well-executed. The execution of the plot is pitch-perfect, and the near-future dystopia, in which the energy crisis and global warming have driven human beings into the refuge of a virtual world, is intriguing. But the game ultimately proves more compelling than the characters' fictional reality, and so as speculative fiction, Ready Player One falls short.

The quest for the Easter Egg buried in the vast, shared virtual-reality world of OASIS, which grants access to the entire game as well as its creator's legacy, is as much a tour of Geek culture as the story itself. No movie title or song goes by without its due, reverent, acknowledgement. The products of Eighties geek culture, from arcade games to D&D to Monty Python to John Hughes' movies, all get their moment on screen, but there's no lightness of touch or satire in Cline's relentless referencing. This means that, firstly, the culture is predominantly the dominant culture of US media and games, but that Cline also conveniently leaps over cyberpunk, over Willam Gibson (Neuromancer, 1984) over Philip K. Dick, over the all the science fiction and culture of the 80s and beyond that has taken the same ideas about reality and virtual reality, the real and the fake, but questioned them with much more rigor and effect.

The effect of this is that as speculative fiction, Ready Player One falls enticingly short. The real world of the novel, including stacks of mobile homes that make for compelling cover art on my water-damaged edition, with its collapsing energy economy, galloping inequality, and corporate slavery, is intriguing, but Cline never attacks these themes head on, and the ramifications of the tension between material realities and virtual realities are handled more predictably than analytically. Although Wade's online best friend does turn out to be black, female, and gay, rather than a white gamer bro, this is no surprise, and Wade's love interest remains "the girl", minor blemishes aside. Wade and his friends fight and hack a murderous corporate entity to win the prize, but the fact is the prize is.... control over an even more ubiquitous corporate entity.

The end of the novel makes a gesture towards rejecting the virtual reality that Wade has always used as an escape from a collapsing world, but this is only possible because Wade and his friends have mastered the Geekosphere and escaped from virtual reality to the even more tenuous reality of the ultra-rich. They may choose to save the world at this stage, but never ask what world, exactly, is worth rescuing. Other works in the same vein, such as Charles Yu's sardonic "Hero Absorbs Major Damage" (of which I hope to say much more) bring a sharper critical eye to bear in less space.

Which is not to diminish the fun of this airplane read, but only to observe that Ready Player One would be stronger, and more memorable, if its contemporary cyber-nostalgia was tempered with more of the spirit of cyberpunk.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafón

There could hardly be a better snippet of dust-jacket praise than this to capture this reader's attention:
"Gabriel García Márquez meets Umberto Eco meets Jorge Luis Borges for a sprawling magic show." - The New York Times Book Review
 And, to some extent, The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, reflects all of these influences. There is an element of the family saga and national history (Marquez), a literary thriller (Eco), and meta-textual play (Borges). There's no reason why these elements cannot cohere in a novel that is both tremendously popular and intellectually challenging, but The Shadow of the Wind does not quite live up the the challenge of this lineage. This is because, whereas Borges, Eco, and Marquez were all writers of the higher order, none of them were sentimental, or prone to melodrama, as Zafon is.

Which is not to say that The Shadow of the Wind is not entertaining, compelling even, but it lacks the clarity and generic playfulness of these other writers. Its strongest element is that of the meta-text, as the narrative of the protagonist and the author of the books he adores merge and coincide, through nested and interpolated stories. The initial Borgesian fantasy, the cemetery of forgotten books, is intriguing but never really examined. The mystery is not hard to anticipate, although many of the details are truly harrowing. But, in the spirit of a book about books and their value, both material and spiritual, The Shadow of the Wind seeks to affirm its own sort of literature, the literature of feeling, of imagination, of trauma described and therefore transcended.

This is why the plucky, sensitive protagonist ultimately marries the beautiful girl and has a son of his own, healing the wounds of the past and refusing to relive its injustices, though at some personal cost. Although one notable character pursues the idea that literature in itself is worthless, this view is reversed by the end of the novel. This is both a celebration of the text and the root of its sentimentalism. Eco and Borges, in particular, were profoundly conscious of the limits of literature, of what words and fictional worlds could and could not do, and played with these restrictions in their fictions. Zafon resolves these tensions, but although the journey is satisfying, all the narrative invention it entails leads to the happy ending, the popular narrative, we foresaw after all.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017


From time to time one reads about how word-processors transformed writing, breaking writers from the slow and considered process of writing and re-writing tethered to pen and paper, then typewriter and paper.

This mythic writer of old taps out a manuscript, juggles and annotates a stack of papers, contrives to have the whole thing typed cleanly again, and consequently writes with due respect for the weight of every word. Occasionally, manuscripts are left in shoeboxes or on public transport, but so be it.

Then comes digitization, computers, and the manuscript is instantly editable, always live, and we contemplate the impact of the means of production on output.

But it strikes me that another, more significant change is underway in our writing habits and processes, which has less to do with the mechanics of keyboard and screen than the infrastructure of work itself. This is the effect of the digital cloud for writing.

I have always used a personal computer, from an Apple 512KE to a MacBook Pro, to write and revise, but only in recent years have I had access to cloud services, such as Dropbox and Google Drive, which allow me to save a manuscript remotely, and to access it almost wherever I go, on either my own computer, a tablet, or another device. In other words, the manuscript is no longer tied to the typewriter, the writer's desk, the study, even the personal laptop. The manuscript goes with you. It's almost as accessible as your thoughts.

For a long time, even with word processors, if you had an idea, reimagined a scene, even thought of the name of a character while you were out, or at work (by which I mean the job most writers take for material support) then that idea had to stick long enough for you to get back to "your" computer. Now, there's a way to reach out to your manuscript, to find yourself writing at odd times and in odd locations. Your creative life can follow you in the cloud, but what kind of discipline is now required? Are thoughts refracted, concentrated, or ephemeral, when you can edit at any time? This adjustment is at once, I think, more substantive than a change in tools, and harder to evaluate. Is the process different when you can craft words virtually anywhere?

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Why study creative writing?

It's been a few months since I've posted, one of the reasons being that at the end of February I completed the dissertation for a PhD in Creative Writing that I've pursued part-time, with many gaps and hiatuses, at The University of Queensland.

Reflecting on the experience, I have cause to ask myself: why study creative writing? Surely my own experience suggests you don't need to study writing in order to be a writer; why make a detailed study of one's own vocation, at the expense of time and effort a research degree demands?

Some brief, provisional responses:

  • Firstly, every deep, complex field of human activity is, I think, worthy of study. The foundation of scholarship is not necessarily gain – that job, that publication – but interest.
  • Now, you can't teach creativity, but you can, of course, practice it, and practice can strengthen.
  • And practice can also refine. The self-reflection inherent in scholarly practice may not make me better, but it makes me clearer about my interests, my strengths and weaknesses, my influences, and formalizes of my techniques and approaches. Writing about one's own writing helps to refine intuitions and make them explicit.
  • Finally, writing to a task and reflecting on that work not only allows you to apply skills but to experiment, to take risks and write out scenarios and possibilities that test ideas and your personal capacities. Not all writing in the academic context may be publishable, but it is constructive, a workbench for concepts and techniques.

Where this will lead next, I don't know. A new historical mystery is almost finished, and beyond that there are only sails on the horizon, suggestions of destinations. But studying creative writing has at least given me some sense of how I set the sails, what stars I steer by.