Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Rule 4 for New Writers

4. POV is not a communal steadicam.

Let us imagine the vast hollows of history that are the Vaults of Babel. Picture, as in the panorama of a wide angle shot, an infinite hall of infinite desks, all empty. There are no viewpoint characters to wonder at the immensity, no one standing at the Great Door we now zoom in on, that door of solid oak, not merely closed but locked -- the rusty iron key that will open it in the care of a gatekeeper who is returning even now, but not yet arrived, not yet. For now, everything is still, only a solitary cigarette burning in an ashtray here, a reed rolling off a clay tablet there. Quill and parchment, typewriter and laptop, all lie abandoned. If there is any action born of agency in this scene it is only the shifts in perspective of the all-knowing observer who relates all of this without being a part of it -- the omniscient narrator.

The omniscient narrator, unbound by space, able to tell what happens anywhere and everywhere. The omnisicient narrator, unbound by time, able to speak of past, present and future. Unlimited.

Now the key turns with a clank, the door swings open, and innumerable authors file in, each with their own thoughts. Here, Thomas Hardy thinks of how he will end Tess of the Durbervilles. There, Charles Dickens ponders the death of Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist. Given that these are the sort of writers who epitomise the use of that particular style of point-of-view, traditional approach that it is, they might well be favourites of the omniscient narrator; omniscience does not mean objectivity, the narrator being just as capable of demonstrating quirks of attitude and opinion as the next character -- disliking cats, for example, beastly things that they are. But in this story? No, there will be no favouritism. There is a vast cast of characters who must all take the spotlight in this scene or that. One of the scenes that will unfold, for example, will open with the focus on Dickens as he approaches his comrade, close with the focus on Hardy as his colleague walks away after their little exchange.

The advantages of an omnisicient narrator barely need explaining. This is an all-seeing God who may weave into the story anything and everything that's happening in the fictive world. It should be borne in mind, however, that this capacity may be offset by a degree of detachment, and by the difficulty of maintaining omniscience if one is not cognisant of the distinction between this approach and multiple third person limited.


It began with a section break, his perspective. It began with a section break and him standing at the door looking into this vast hall -- the Vaults of Babel, someone had said. Suddenly he was just there, and the focus of the narrative was there with him, like a camera over his shoulder, in his eye, inside his head. He could feel it as a presence, which was weird -- not at all the done thing, he knew, being a writer and all. But, of course, this was metafiction -- that's what they'd told him in the briefing -- an attempt to illustrate multiple third person limited, the way a narrative tells the story as experienced by its characters.

-- We want to show the immediacy it gives, the sense of immersion. Through the narrative, the reader should be right there with you, living it as you do.

-- Seeing what I see, he'd said, noticing what I notice, knowing what I know. Yeah yeah, I know the score.

He was kinda glad the narrative had cut that briefing, to be honest, just flicked back to it in this reflection. He didn't need it all spelled out; they just needed enough to bring the reader up to speed as they followed his chain of thought.

You can hear my thoughts OK? he thought.

He jumped as some old guy shuffling past leaned in to hiss yessss in his ear. Shit, no need to be fucking creepy about it. It was kinda creepy enough as is, waiting for the section break, He didn't know how long his perspective would last, see, but he knew what was going on, being a writer and all, knew the multiple third person limited approach meant the focus on him would end with a section break too. Then that perspective would shift to some other character. He had no idea who. He looked at the other writers pushing past him on their way inside, wondering which it might be -- caught a glimpse of Charles Dickens, and another writer who looked real familiar, but... he couldn't quite place the face. Fuck it, never mind. He pulled the map from his pocket, found the desk marked as his own. Hopefully the focus would last till he reached the desk. Him making his way through the crowd, taking in the sights of this crazy place -- that seemed like a sensible passage. Then it would cut away as he settled down to work maybe.

He shoved the map back in his pocket and set out, wondering if there was any way he could extend his period in the limelight. Maybe he should start a fight on his way. Kick up a stink so there was a reason for the narrative to stick with him.

Damn, if only it hadn't been multiple third person limited...


-- Poor bastard, she said. Didn't even see the transition coming.

She turned from the balcony, leaving the nameless writer to... well, whatever. Like she cared. The authorial mouthpiece stood at the top of the stairs, peeling off his fake grey beard. He wandered up to stand beside her at the balcony, leaned out. There was a little furrow to his brow as he turned to her.

-- You think it worked? he said. I mean, just to get the vague idea across, you know, why this might be a more common approach in contemporary fiction.

She shrugged. How should she know? Like she was fricking omnisicient?

-- Maybe, she said, maybe not. You might want to go into the downside of ditching that detached perspective, you know, the way you can't tell anything beyond a character's experience, not without disrupting the flow.

He looked at her and winked slyly, looked kind of smug in a way that made her wonder what he was planning.

-- All in good time, he said.

All he had to do, after all, he thought to himself, was drop a section break, and hop from her head to his. Then that multiple third person limited would just be fucked. It'd be jarring as hell for the poor reader, like one second the camera is in her head and the next it's in his. And then...

She let out a curse in some foreign language. An omniscient narrator would've been able to place it, of course, but not him. He chuckled to himself.

-- Hey, can't you signal when you're going to do that? she said. Take the focus, I mean?

She'd realised what he was up to now, trying to fucking demonstrate the erosion of POV, the crumbling of multiple third person limited into muddled third person limited -- that jolting dislocatory sense of the steadicam perspective of the narrative being tossed back and forth at random. And she didn't like it.

Little did either of them know that the amnesiac omniscient narrator was at play here too. For even as they spoke, events were transpiring beyond their ken. Down in the hall, unwatched by the schemers, the writer had reached his desk. As he sat down, he realised the focus was back on him. Cool, he thought, I get to --

Suddenly, an idea flashed through her brain. If I just think, she thought, then the focus should come back to me! But even as she swore again in that unrecogniseable tongue, but this time from a sense of victory, she didn't see the authorial mouthpiece sneaking something from behind his back. Then he had the gun in his hand, pointed straight at her. His cold heart hardened as his finger squeezed the trigger. The last thing she saw was the flare from the barrel.

He felt so sorry as he stood looking down at her corpse. He didn't even know her name -- which was Mary Sue. But it had to be done. And now he had to finish the job. He raised the gun to his own chin. If this was the only way to demonstrate the botched POV that emerges when you don't decide between multiple third person limited and an omniscient narrator, how you end up with just a jumble of clashing strategies -- well, so be it. He pulled the trigger.

Down in the hall, the writer looked up from his desk at the second gunshot. And felt confused.


Thursday, August 26, 2010

Strange Fiction / Weird Fiction

A question by email: Hal, when you says strange ficcion, are you telling about Weird Ficcion?

Answer: No, just the literal meaning -- fiction which is strange, fiction of the strange -- hence the lower-case rendering of the term. It's a broad term for that set of genres and isolated works featuring the strange -- nothing more, nothing less. It means exactly what it would mean in common usage, if someone were picking out strange fiction versus humorous fiction versus boring fiction versus bitter fiction.

It's not equivalent to even a lower-case "weird fiction," because "weird" carries connotations that over-specify the nature of the strangeness. (Like comedy is not the same as farce; farce is a type of comedy.) And it's definitely not equivalent to an upper-case "Weird Fiction," because that's a nominal label on a group delimited by the consensus of what is or isn't in the group. To say, "That's a Weird Fiction novel," is equivalent to saying, "That's a Village People album." To say, "That's strange fiction," is equivalent to saying, "Those are people who live in permanent settlements."

Just as the lifestyles of people can be described in terms of whether or not they involve permanent settlements, fiction can be described at the text level, in terms of whether or not it involves certain subjunctivity levels and other such modalities -- what Delany talks about in his essay, "About Five Thousand Seven Hundred and Fifty Words," only more so. In the same way that permanent settlements come in different flavours -- coastal or riverside, rural or urban -- the strange comes in different flavours -- the absurd or the abject, the uncanny or the weird. And "Weird Fiction" limits not simply by specifying a particular flavour but by applying a name for a flavour to a particular community; it's not just a particular type of permanent settlement but a specific settlement... Urban City.

That sort of bounded genre is very much not what I mean by "strange fiction."


Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Music For Another World

An anthology of strange fiction on the theme of music, edited by Mark Harding of the GSFWC. I admit I'm kind of liking the fact that Mark's gone with my personally favoured nomenclature, and I'm most intrigued to see the contents; tis a good list of contributors. Anyways, I have my copy; have you got yours?


Monday, August 23, 2010

Three Rules for New Writers

1. You are not a new writer.

He had been writing since he learned to write his name, constructing narratives since his first daydream. What particular day he started doing those two together didn't really matter, he now knew; shit, the only thing that mattered was how skilled he was at it. And, well, hopefully being published and paid in proportion to that skill.

Given that he'd been writing for a while then, he couldn't be a new writer, he reckoned, just a skilled or unskilled writer, a published or unpublished writer, one of the four possible combinations. He'd realised that to think he was "new" was just using a notion of learner status as an excuse for being unskilled. Realised that he would always be learning. He'd realised that to think that he was "new" was just using a notion of amateur status as an excuse for being unskilled. Realised that he might never be published. The only way to graduate from learner/amateur status was to stop making fucking excuses like that, take that professional approach as the first step to being a professional.

He could have his unskilled writing published if he paid, of course. He could even be paid for his unskilled writing if he pandered. If that was what he'd wanted though, he wouldn't be looking for writing advice.

2. Any sign that you don't know the ropes, is a sign that you're not ready to go in the ring.

She picked up the first manuscript from the slush pile, found herself reading prose that wasn't even functional. So someone wanted to be a writer but couldn't even meet the minimum requirement, being able to construct words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs. She didn't have to read more than the first page to reject it.

She picked up the next, raised an eyebrow at the cover page. Rolled her eyes at the first page. She flicked through. Shit, how many conventions of manuscript formatting, also minimum requirements, had the writer simply failed to learn and apply? She didn't even have to check the prose to know she couldn't work with this, to reject it unread.

3. There is no story without style.

Writing a story is a test of style. Here is a sample paper:

Words are the only substance. The story is a fancy conjured by the narrative. That narrative is an articulation shaped in words -- words picked and placed in sequence according to the logic of effect. The style of that articulation is only the specific logic used by the writer, the strategies brought to bear in selecting and structuring words to a desired effect. Such strategies are applied not just at the level of sentences and paragraphs, but at the level of passages and scenes, chapters and acts. All levels of narrative involve stylistic decisions.

3a. Did that character walk, stroll or stride into the room? Do you end Act 1 with the trap or the escape, with cliffhanger or resolution?

The opposition of style and content is a false dichotomy. There is no content, only an articulation that will be illogical and ineffective if you neglect style at any level. Plot and theme are not content that can be carried by a crude articulation, thrown together with no regard for style. They are interpretations the reader makes of the story as it is conjured by the narrative, and your story will not be conjured properly if you cannot construct that narrative. Without functional sentences and paragraphs, you cannot build an effective passage -- the basic unit of narrative.

3b. Is that one paragraph or two, two paragraphs or one? If you were reading the opening of a scene to an audience, how many paragraphs in would you stop? That's a passage. Work on it as a unit.

Style is not an adornment of prose. Transparent prose is not the absence of style but a style in its own right, a strategy of selecting and structuring words by the logic of referential effect, the basic mechanics of meaning. It eschews the more complex dynamics of phonetic patterning and figurative use, the logic of poetic/rhetorical effect; but even in transparent prose the basic dynamics of sentence rhythm are required, or prose will fail as: a) clunky where it is too rhythmically uneven; b) flat where it is too rhythmically even. Passages will not flow.

3c. If you read a passage aloud do you feel like you're stumbling or trudging?

Style is not a surface finish. The opposite of a transparent prose style is not a decorative prose style, simply a notable one. It is any set of strategies that includes applying the logic of poetic/rhetorical effect, any style that highlights its own medium with phonetic patterning and figurative use of language. A notable prose style may be terse rather than lyrical, imagistic rather than florid. Improving one's style does not mean striving for poetic/rhetorical effect without logic, but more likely striving to excise it. A passage bloated by overwriting betrays a failure to think stylistically.

3d. Take the opening passage of a scene and inflate the desription of the setting and action with every superfluous detail you can think of, with multiple adjectives on every noun, multiple adverbs on every verb. Pile clause upon clause, sentence upon sentence, until the redundancies render the passage at least twice as long as it needs to be. Now gaze upon this corpulent travesty of description and ask yourself: how have I done this already in the original?

Style does not occlude content. You cannot mask story with words, only fail to conjure it properly. Where prose is overwritten to the point of being opaque, this is not a slathering of style obscuring content, but substance obscuring its own logic of effect. Purple prose is an excess not of style but of substance -- a surfeit of gilding words and phrases, padding verbiage, and clauses proliferating to accommodate such -- the mark of a writer with no real stylistic strategy. Structure in thrall to an indiscriminate selection, the result is a deficit of logic that confuses what logic there is.

3e. What is the function of this passage? Of this paragraph? Of this sentence? Of this word? Does it perform that function well enough?

Words are the only substance. Style is how you snip and stitch that material. Basic principles in selection and structure? Ruthlessness in one, rhythm in the other.

Answer any five questions from the above.


Interview Outtakes

Do you have any advice for beginning authors?

Funny enough, I’ve been working on one of those “ten rules” things just recently, after doing some paid critique, writing reports on manuscripts by writers who sometimes don’t even know the very basics, in truth. So here’s what I’ve got so far:

You are not a new writer.

Any sign that you don’t know the ropes, is a sign that you’re not ready to go in the ring.

There is no story without style.

POV is not a communal steadicam.

Voice makes character.

Character makes action.

Action makes setting.

Making tea is not protagonising.

Don’t hide the story behind your back so you can sucker punch the reader with it later.

Find the tenth rule.

Some of the explanation of those rules is over at Craig Gidney's blog. The more detailed explanation that's meant to be a blog post... fuck knows when I'll get that done. I am *sooooo* fricking busy at the moment.


Saturday, August 21, 2010

Another Interview

Yes, there was a little spurt of them recently -- which is nice. This one was done by Craig Gidney and has just been posted over at The New Gay. I'm always most chuffed to do interviews within the sf scene, natch, but it's well cool that these last two have given us a wee bit of exposure in the wider world. Yay! as they say!


Thursday, August 19, 2010

An Interview

So, over at Talking With Tim, for them as might be interested, you'll find an interview with meself by Tim O'Shea.

As you were.


Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Mind Meld

Over at SF Signal, I have been asked, "What fantasy books from the last ten years will stand the test of time?"


Friday, August 13, 2010

The Third Bear Carnival

The Third Bear is a monstrum. This is to say it is a quirk in the mimetic weft of the narratives that comprise Jeff VanderMeer's latest collection, specifically its titular short story, "The Third Bear." It is to say that it is a fictive figure that creates affective warp in the fiction, straining the base-line suspension-of-disbelief with a boulomaic modality of disposition: a monstrum is that which should not be. Actually, a monstrum of the level of the Third Bear is more a boulomaic modality of conviction. Really, this sort of monstrum is that which must not be.

Such a monstrum comes as an unknown force of slaughter, taking at will any and all who stray into its path, leaving only "bloodstains and bits of skin" or "a shredded hat." The monstrum is not in the mere act of killing here, nor even in the brutality of it, in the carnage suggested by the reduction to scraps. It is in the absenting. A dead body, in however many pieces is horrible. The absence of that body is what makes it monstrous. Those scraps are the ragged edges left where something has been ripped from the world. A person.

It is this sort of disruption of equilibrium that instigates narrative. In those stories that simply bind the monstrum into a monster, the ramifications of that disruption will impact some protagonist, force them to recognise and engage, find the action that brings about resolution. Mostly this means to face the monstrum and overcome it or be overcome by it -- story following narrative grammars we can label Heroic and Horror respectively. In their crudest forms, neither grammar seems... entirely honest to me. Neither really does the monstrum justice. The monstrum of the Third Bear is not amenable to such mechanisms of control.

To leave the path in the forest around the classically folkloric village of Grommin -- where that folklore is one of winters and wolves rather than princesses and pumpkins -- to go into the woods in search of the creature's lair is to encounter "a hint of offal" as the first gleaning of the nature of the monstrum. To enter its lair as a makeshift hero in "chain mail, leathers, and a metal helmet, carrying an old sword some knight had once left in Grommin by mistake," (no magic weapon here, just an aged second-hand tool forgotten by... someone or other,) is to come face-to-face with the incomprehensible monstrosity that can only remain incomprehensible; the makeshift hero can only become another victim; the monstrum persists. To seek some understanding of its origins and motives, of its reason for being... this will take the narrative on a more complex course, one that essentially refuses Horror's grandiose religious notions of Evil, but the outcome will be no more Heroic. To face a monstrum like the Third Bear and either slay it or be slain by it, as a victor or victim of Evil... that would be to delimit it as Evil, to pretend an understanding. When faced with the Third Bear's monstrous artwork, with a "pattern" rendered monstrous by its medium, the protagonist Horley will see beauty in it, but not understand it.

If we could make sense of the Third Bear's "pattern," it would cease to be a monstrum. Or to turn it about, that we encounter it as a monstrum is why we cannot make sense of it. That boulomaic modality (the conviction of desire, that something "must not" happen) overlaps not just with the "must not" of deontic modality (the imperative of duty, that something "must not" be done) but also with the "must not" of epistemic/alethic modality (the necessity of fact, that something "must not" be because it cannot.) To assert that something must not happen may be to articulate a personal emotional rejection and/or a societal moral prohibition, but it may also be to articulate an understanding of necessity, of How Things Work. If A then B. What B must necessarily happen if A does.

With the monstrum of the Third Bear, it is rather a matter of the B that must necessarily not happen if A does, where A is "the world making sense." Where the Third Bear is "merely making a pattern," that pattern is perhaps the other A from which the B of the Third Bear does follow. We might well note: "When the pattern is finished, it will leave and go someplace else. Maybe the pattern will even help send it home." Maybe once the pattern is in the world, this is a redefinition of the world, a reconfiguring of How Things Work for the people of Grommin such that none can say "that must not be." Not in that epistemic/alethic sense. So maybe the full monstrum is gone then, in one sense, even if -- the paradox is -- that pattern leaves the monstrum indelibly written into the world. (A ghost? An echo? A story? The weaker monstrum of that which should not be?)

However we read the completion of the pattern, the monstrum's ultimate effect upon the world, it makes sense for that which must not be to be described in terms of what it is not. (It is the only way to make sense of that which can't be integrated into our understanding, to describe the negative space that can be.) So the Third Bear is not a bear, but rather "partially composed of some large furred animal, almost like a bear." Like a bear then, but... "But, near the end, no one really though if it as a bear, even though the name had stuck." The Third Bear is given another name in the story -- Mord -- a name perhaps pointing to a deeper nature as a force of death... except that this name is only a label like those of Leer and Scarskirt in "The Situation" (where Mord reappears); these characters' names "are not their real names."

A monstrum is unnameable, really. To allow a name to act as crude symbol, to make a straight equation of the monstrum with death, would be to diminish the Third Bear. (It would also be to diminish death by rendering it mere monster.) So its name must remain unstable -- "Theeber, Seether." So we can only catch glimpses of the monstrum, glimpses of the human and glimpses of the bestial: "He retained his hands, but they morphed to become more like those of a racoon." And "...all anyone ever saw of it, before the end, would be hard eyes and the dark barrel of its muzzle" as it "whirled around and snarled and bit the air, as if a clumsy ballet dancer trapped in a straitjacket."

We might imagine this ballet-dancing bear-that-is-not-a-bear at a carnival that is not the Ringling Brothers Circus, which does not have as one of its performers a talking rabbit named Sensio, who comes from "somewhere else," from "a place far from here," just as the Third Bear comes "from a place far distant... across the miles, across the years," another country that is not Sonoria. But that Sonoria is not on the map is the point. Sensio does not become a performer in the Circus. In this Third Bear Carnival, the Third Bear is not a bear.


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Literary/Genre Question(s)

I saw this as an interview over on Jason Sanford's blog and thought I'd post my own responses to the questions.

1. Do you think it is possible for a work of fiction to be literary and genre at the same time?

All works of written fiction are both literary and genre at the same time. They are written and hence literary. They are of a type and hence (of a) genre.

2. Why do you think there is a line between literary and genre, and what can writers and readers do to overcome it?

For some reason, some genres of fiction were segregated out during the 20th century and classed together as having a genre, as being "genre," in contradistinction to other genres of fiction which were thus defined as absent the qualities that marked out all such "genre fiction." This is rather like some tones of skin were segregated out during the 20th century and classed together as having a colour, as being "coloured," in contradistinction to other tones of skin which were thus defined as absent the qualities that marked out all such "coloured people." Actually "for some reason" is disingenuous; the reason for this is fairly clearly a matter of privileging one set of genres over the other, of redefining literature such that the abjected genres were denied legitimacy. The essential qualities that served as markers by which one set of genres was identified as deserving of abjection were "sensationalism" and the mass appeal / mass production that went with it.

The best way to overcome this is, I think, to call the bullshit for what it is.

3. To you, what qualifies a work of fiction as literary, genre, or both/neither?

The fact that it's written. And in a genre.

4. What do you like about literary fiction, and what do you like about genre fiction?

Everything that's great about fiction.

5. What do you like about writing literary fiction, and what do you like about writing genre fiction?

Everything that's great about writing fiction.

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Monday, August 09, 2010

Wheel of Emotions

So in writing my speech for the upcoming Plektrum Festival in Tallinn, I've been thinking about AI, how the robots of sf go beyond the clockwork men a la Tik-Tok in the Oz books, Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still, Robbie the Robot, etc., to become self-aware. Thinking about how artificial intelligence is really often artificial sentience, how even the ones that are supposed to be beings of pure intellect are actually sneakily emotional. Like, even before his emotion chip, Data exhibits curiosity, an affect; he has to, to function as a character.

Anyways, that got me thinking about affect. Been watching Lie To Me too, actually, in which Tim Roth plays a specialist in lie detection whose work turns on the identification of unconscious "micro-expressions," fleeting facial and gestural demonstrations of emotional states at odds with what someone is saying. (You could well call it a science fiction show on that basis, come to think of it, since it's riffing off the work of psychologist Paul Ekman in this field which even in itself sounds rather speculative.) So it focused me on the six basic expressions universally recognised across all cultures -- joy & sadness, anger & fear, disgust & surprise.

I've mused on these in the past as part of my interest in aesthetics -- by which I mean not the study of what Art is or what Beauty consists of, but the study of sensation itself. I'm deeply curious about the obvious pairings of joy & sadness and anger & fear. It's like, come on, there's clearly oppositional relationships here. And that makes me think dimensional relationships, which makes me think phase space. My time spent working in a thread dyers, learning a little colour physics, factors in here. Like, you know there are six primary colours, yes?

Six?! I hear you say, you physicists and painters. No, no, no, there's only three! Sorry, mate, if you think yellow is a mix of green and red or green is a mix of yellow and blue, you're wrong; that's a matter of how light and paint mix, not the constituent aesthemes of our sense of sight. There are six colours we perceive as discrete basic colours, from which all shades are constructed, these being locked into three opponent processes: red/green; yellow/blue; black/white. The three processes thus construct a 3D phase space of colour, a colourspace.

(Read that opponent process link for the wacky shit that happens if you fuck with the oppositional relationship preventing us from seeing a reddish green or a yellowish blue. I so want to take part in the experiment that allows me to see... The Colour Out of Colourspace!)

So, a while back I started wondering if affect could be thought of in these sort of terms. Here be a doodle of my vague thoughts:


What's wrong with this picture is that you can, I'd say, experience a sort of happy sadness in the form of melancholy, so we can't actually be talking yellow/blue style opponent processes. And setting disgust and surprise in opposition like that is a stretch. I could maybe rationalise it as an axis of affects designed to engage with the world in terms of laws and violations of what is considered natural by those laws, but the two affects go together more often than they oppose each other, no? So, it's at best a cursory model.

Still, I've played around with this as a way of considering other emotions as the equivalents of secondary and tertiary colours -- i.e. as nominally labeled zones within that affectspace -- and even maybe mapping the axes to psychological complexes. Like, the way the notion of the Self is constructed as a relationship of me to myself ties it to that joy/sorrow axis, while the way we construct a notion of the Ego as a relationship of me to others ties it to the anger/fear axis that comes into play in defining relative social status -- dominance and submission. The surprise/disgust axis is odd man out here again, right enough, and the whole thing has always been kind of a mad pet theory that I'm quite aware likely reads as utterly crackpot reductionism to many. It's just a notion to play around with.

So it's kind of neat, when I start nosing around the idea of affect again recently, to discover that actual psychologists have applied pretty much the same approach. I'm validated! Yay! Because here's the Wheel of Emotion proposed by Robert Plutchik decades ago:

Neat, huh? And much prettier than mine, I freely admit. Back in 1980, he was already proposing what is basically an affectspace, with basic emotions in oppositional relationships and advanced emotions as composites of them.

And interestingly, his model adds to the Big Six in a way that balances it out. I'm not sure it totally works for me as is -- we'll come to that -- but where he adds in anticipation (with its milder form of interest) and trust (with its stronger form of admiration,) it turns out this is reflected in more recent developments in the field where other emotions like elevation, interest, gratitude, confusion and pride have been suggested as deserving of a similar fundamental status.

I look at that model and it doesn't quite satisfy me though. Some of the choices don't really gel with me -- like vigilance -- in what's basically a 2D plane with an added dimension of intensity, it seems the mixing is limited to the overlap of adjacent emotions. To me, in fact, interest/anticipation and apprehension/fear look a lot more like they should be adjacent than fear and trust. Emotions of caution and curiosity belong together, it seems to me, as do the "up" emotions of ecstasy and admiration, and the "down" emotions of sadness and disgust. If we see anger and surprise as knitted together -- responses that articulate profound disruption -- maybe we have a deeper order of four pairs of axes... or even two pairs of pairs.

So, I'm thinking you have the anger/fear and trust/disgust axes as one 2D plane of emotions involving a sort of projection -- distinctly related to an exterior object -- and suprise/interest and joy/sadness axes as another plane of emotions involving immersion. And each has its horizontal axis running from emotions of violation (rage & amazement) to emotions of captivation (terror & vigilance[?],) and its vertical axis running from elevation (admiration[?] & ecstasy) to depression (loathing & grief.) Like this:


The numbers represent Plutchik's emotions... or rather they mostly represent Plutchik's emotions, with a few tweaks here and there. By twisting one plane 45° and superimposing it, you can reconstruct the wheel of emotions so it reflects those three dimensions of elevation/depression, violation/captivation and projection/immersion:

Wheel of Emotions

You'll notice a few renamings, and the colour-coding has changed quite a bit, but this feels more right to me. As I say, there are three oppositions at play here: elevation/depression; violation/captivation; projection/immersion. The first speaks for itself. The second is a matter of attention agitated or transfixed. With the third... what exactly do I mean by projection and immersion? What I'm thinking is that in their evaluative action, anger/fear and esteem/disgust dissociate the object of the emotion from the individual experiencing it. Even directed at oneself, it is an evaluation that objectifies oneself, judges as from outside. With joy/sadness the emotion is an assertion of identity when self-directed, and when directed at an object, like intrigue/suprise, it reinforces the individual's sense of connection with it. One might view the projection affects as alienated versions of the immersion affects (i.e. worry is alienated interest, esteem is alienated joy.)

Anyway here's the breakdown of emotions as I've tweaked them from Plutchik's original, with explanations of my reasoning.

Projective Elevation
1. Acceptance -> Trust
2. Trust [Plutchik] -> Esteem
3. Admiration [Plutchik] -> Awe

Plutchik's chosen rather lukewarm affects here, it seems to me, with trust implying simply a lesse general mode of acceptance -- that some particular thing is of neutral/positive value -- rather than an active positive valuation. Admiration meanwhile is really not comparable in intensity to emotions like loathing, rage, ecstasy and terror. So I'm bumping everything up a notch here. The peak state might equally be described as reverence or wonder -- if the latter doesn't imply an element of surprise via its connotation of disbelief. If you think of awe as implying an element of fear, you might well prefer to label this reverence.

Projective Depression
4. Boredom
5. Disgust
6. Loathing

Projective Violation
7. Annoyance [Plutchik] -> Irk
8. Anger
9. Rage

"Irk" is a better word. It just is. It's like an ickle ire, irk, as at the irksome quirk of some berk of a jerk. Irk. Honestly, "annoyance" is just rubbish.

Projective Captivation
10. Apprehension [Plutchik] -> Worry
11. Fear
12. Terror

"Worry" is also a better word, but here it's more because I think it gives a generality, in the way you can "worry" at something there in front of you. It lessens the sense of expectation of a particular future event -- i.e. the intellectual element of foresight -- and focuses more on the affective state, to my mind.

Immersive Elevation
13. Serenity [Plutchik] -> Comfort
14. Joy
15. Ecstasy

"Serenity" is rather too strong, implying blissful tranquility rather than mild pleasure.

Immersive Depression
16. Pensiveness -> Yearning
17. Sadness
18. Grief

Introspection is an action, not an emotional state. To be pensive is simply to ponder, to be engaged in serious thought. I think we might better define the mild form of sadness as the sense of pleasure's absence, the point where diminished comfort becomes perceptible as a loss.

Immersive Violation
19. Distraction
20. Surprise
21. Amazement [Plutchik] -> Shock

Again, "amazement" is inadequate, to my mind. The extremes of rage, loathing, ecstasy and terror are hysterical, likewise awe. Shock makes more sense here. We should, I think, be able to bind the peak emotions to pathological dysfunctions.

Immersive Captivation
22. Interest
23. Anticipation [Plutchik] -> Intrigue
24. Vigilance [Plutchik] -> Conviction

Anticipation and vigilance are not basic emotions, I'd say, but loaded with joy and/or worry and again, like apprehension, involve an element of foresight -- i.e. they're expectational. The alertness Plutchik is focusing on seems a more kinaesthetic state to me, in fact. I think a more obvious intensification of interest lies in intrigue. This is the state of having one's attention seduced, a raptness which becomes, at its extreme, compulsively committed, unbreakable -- conviction.

Anyways, that's my take on Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions. I kind of like my colour-coding more too, I have to say. We've got the right emotions for "feeling blue," and those bright warm oranges and yellows associated with elevation affects. If green doesn't particularly associate with captivation states, they are at least bound together by it in the diagram. Red stays with anger, as is only logical. And I rather like the way the purple of surprise refuses to blend.

And now, I'm beginning to think of just how I might start to correlate this with the notion of narrative modalities, with boulomaic modalities, numina and monstra, associating with elevation and depression affects (the latter perhaps also with violation affects,) and with captivation affects linking to the credibility and determinacy warp born of alethic and epistemic modalities. I fancy a link might also be made between deontic modalities and projection.

Which may of course be of interest only to me, but hey, as I said at the start, curiosity is an emotion, and apparently I'm rather driven by it. Captivated, you might say.


Friday, August 06, 2010

A Trip to Tallinn

This time next month I shall be in Tallinn, Estonia, to deliver a lecture at the Plektrum Festival. Which is to say, this:

The Plektrum Festival, which runs in Tallinn from 25 August to 5 September, will feature robots and a chance to see the giant steps made by robotic technology in the form of lectures, films, exhibitions and music. Both this year’s Plektrum and next year’s festival are part of the Tallinn 2011 European Capital of Culture programme.

The theme of this year’s Plektrum – the eight in festival history – is “Would you love a robot?” The cultural festival will illuminate the crossroads between humankind, technology and contemporary culture.

The premier guest of the festival is world-renowned electronic music legend Karl Bartos, who was a core member of Kraftwerk in 1975-1991, responsible for popular tracks from acclaimed albums such as Radio-Activity, Trans Europe Express, The Man Machine, Computer World and Tour de France. Bartos, from 2004 to 2009 professor for Auditory Media Design at Berlin University of the Arts, will deliver a lecture on the development of music and technology at the KUMU Art Museum of Estonia auditorium and will play an audio-visual concert at Rock Cafe.

I am, of course, quite chuffed about this. Surprised at the invite, given I'm not the most hardcore futurological strange-fictionista, not by a long shot, but definitely most chuffed. My take on it? Well, the speech I'm giving basically has the title, "Would a Robot Love You?" My abstract:

The robots of science fiction are more than just clockwork men; as often as not, they're shown as true AIs, not just processing but thinking. They may lack emotion, but still we imagine them as sentient; and where we project even "curiosity" on to them, that term hints at a kinaesthesia of attitude -- of affect. Can we really have sentience without emotion, and if not, how might such sentient robots actually feel about their creators? Would they like us, or would we have to make them like us? In a scenario of sentient beings trained to love and obey their masters, who would really be the cold, uncaring simulacra of humanity?

If you happen to be in Tallinn at the start of September, and fancy some mad ramblings on armies of killer automatons, the Chinese Room and my wacky theories about how ideation is really just sensation, well, come along.


Monday, August 02, 2010

New BSC Review Column

The SF Café is a curious place. Take a wrong turn when you step inside the door, and you can find yourself not where you expected at all. Or rather, not when you expected to be. You walk into the SF Café, and mostly you’re reckoning on seeing the shape of things to come — twenty minutes into the future, twenty years or twenty millennia — but there’s a corner of the SF Café that’s not the future at all. Take a step to the left, as the door swings shut behind you with a ting of the bell, and you may well find yourself in a today or yesterday where it’s not the science that’s strange but the history. This is the SF not of Suvin’s novum but of comparable errata, quirks of difference like the holes in your New Yorker’s Swiss Cheese, points of divergence and the oddities of a world evolved from them. You look around the café, find the posters of 1950s Sci-Fi flicks are gone, replaced by images of Confederate victories and Nazi triumphs. Where the salt cellars on the formica tables were once sleek chrome rocket-shapes, now they’re khaki and bulbous… grenades. What the fuck?

You step back out the door, gaze around. The downtown ghetto of Genre seems unchanged, but now when you turn and look up, you see the proof of your shift sideways across the timestreams: where the sign above the door should read The SF Café, now you’re standing before The Combat Fiction Bar & Grill. A parallel reality. An alternate history. And now, as you shrug and head inside, curious to explore this half-familiar elsewhen, the air shimmers around you; a jukebox comes alive with the sound of Swing. It’s bang in the middle of the 20th Century, and the Combat Fiction Bar and Grill has just opened for business.


Carnival and Cabaret

Over at John Coulthart's blog, I discovered this rather cool tune by The Irrepressibles, "In This Shirt." John has the sexier video, (if yer tastes run to hot young manflesh,) but in delving through YouTube I came across this alternative video -- actually a section of a movie soundtracked by aforesaid band. Being a lover of all things carnivalesque, I thought it was nifty enough to post up.

Also, the greasepainted faces remind me that tonight (it is Monday now, isn't it?) I shall be performing at Spangled Cabaret in the Cafe Rio from 8ish. I'll be doing some sordid sonnets, so it should be fun. Looking forward to seeing who else is on the bill too. I finally made it along for the first time last month and it was rather swell.

Oh, and I should probably have been livening up this currently torpid blog with blather about my compering of a charity night at the 13th Note last Wednesday there, and how it all went swell and we raised a fair wee sum for Ayrshire Cancer Hospice. But I been busy, I fear, battering out the next column for BSC Review, which should be posted shortly. So, yeah, in the meantime, just enjoy some nice music, and normal service will be resumed shortly.