Notes from New Sodom

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

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Legion of American Watchers

Shot down in the skies over Pearl Harbour, leaping from his plummeting P-36 Hawk without a parachute, Captain Steve "Steadfast" Sturgeon can only pray for a miracle. And a miracle he gets! Struck by lightning at that exact moment, he finds himself standing before the Archons of the Cosmos, with a choice between Eternity and Earth. But for Steve Sturgeon, no choice needs to be made. In the history books, it says there was no third wave to the Japanese attack, but any airman who was there that day will tell you those Nips were turned back by a strange sight in the sky... an angel sent from Heaven, an American Angel. And so began the daring deeds of the hero known as Captain Steadfast.

"We'll finish what you started, No-Joe Tojo! And that's the truth!" (Captain Steadfast #13)

Captain Steadfast

To the people of Atlantis she is Princess Naia, half-mortal daughter of the Oceanid Queen Metis and her long-lost human consort. To the surface-dwellers she is Water Woman, sensual and spritely as Aphrodite, fearless and feisty as Artemis... Water Woman, Mistress of the Seas. (Not "The Meaty Whipped Lash". I mean, "meaty"? WTF? Anyway...) When Princess Naia investigates a disturbance among her dolphin subjects, she discovers Ensign Hank Murray, the sole survivor of a German U-boat attack. And even though her people are sworn never to intercede in the affairs of surface-dwellers, she saves his life. Exiled from her beloved Atlantis as a punishment, what's a girl to do but... fight Nazis with her electric eel-hide whip!

"His strange skin... so... pink!" (Top-Notch Comics #8)

Marine Girl

Polio-stricken cub reporter Gary Gordon may walk with a cane, but when he shouts the magic word three times in less than a second -- "Thunderbolt!Thunderbolt!Thunderbolt!" (try it, kids!) -- it activates the powers given him by a mysterious wizard masquerading as a doctor, and Gary transforms into the fastest man on the planet: the Human Blur, the Blue Streak... the Thunderbolt! Well, of course, that's the Golden Age origin. The Thunderbolt who heralded the Silver Age with his 1956 revival had his particles accelerated to the speed of light by blue omicron rays... but that's another story. Either way, he can run rings round the super-villain, save the planet, and get the copy in before the Globe's "star" reporter, Clark Parker has even finished his coffee. Often with some friendly banter aimed at fellow Legion member Flameboy along the way.

"Yeah? Well, light me up a Lucky, hotshot. I'll try not to snuff you with my slipstream." (Legion of American Watchers #18)


Attacked by bandits and left for dead in the Sahara Desert, millionaire playboy Franklin Wallace stumbles on the lost oasis of a mysterious green-robed Moor, Amir Al-Hazred. Bound for centuries by an evil sorcerer's curse, Al-Hazred plays on Wallace's greed and gratitude to trick him into a death-match... where the true conflict is in Wallace's heart. ("Am I only fighting to win this 'great treasure' he guards? Or to give a poor madman the release he prays for... in death? I... I don't know!") Only as Al-Hazred dies in Wallace's arms does he reveal the truth, that Wallace was led there to take his life... and his sacred duty as the Archon of the Earth's "Champion of All Life." For only a man on the cusp of redemption, a man whose past is vice and his future virtue, can take up the Kamir Husam -- the Green Blade, a sword (later proteanite power-blade) that can cut through anything, even space and time itself.

"When lesser man and greater man / Together with a single hand / Strike out for freedom on command / Then vice will fall and virtue stand!" (True American Comics #16)

The Green Blade

Professor Miles Quant is on the verge of replicating the primal state of matter in his physics lab, when he discovers one of his colleagues is a Nazi spy sent to steal the secret for the Germans. Knocked out and left in an overloading photon chamber, exposed to an "uncertainty field" beyond all measure, his atoms are thrown into pure flux. (It's only later, during AC's "Catastrophe For Two Worlds" event, in an attempt to simplify the morass of rationales for superpowers, that the Prof's "primalised matter" is revealed to be none other than the proteanite toxic to Overman, but in an omicron-irradiated form harmless to the Man of the Future.) Able to transform himself into any element, to shrink or grow at will, even to teleport by swapping places with something of equal mass, he is no longer Quant, M., Phd., but is now The Quantum, Master of Matter!

"Turn lead into gold? No, Dr Von Strann... Into the very stuff both elements are made of!" (True-American Comics #3)

Doctor Quantum

Caught in the blast of a meteorite, its exotic alien minerals vaporised on impact, permeating every cell in his body, Jake Walker wakes up in the crater, apparently unharmed but for a weird golden glow to his skin, fading even as his head clears. With his thrill-seeking nature though, it's not long before a practice run in an abandoned Speedway track reveals the truth... that when excitement sparks in his heart, that spark ignites his very molecules, transforming him into Flameboy -- Flameboy, the Comet Kid, shooting fireballs from his fingers, blasting through the sky like a human rocket. Fighting villains for the fun of it, ribbing the other Legion members, (which often ended with him doused by an irate Water Woman or blown out by the Thunderbolt,) Flameboy's rogueish charm made him an instant hit with fans. While the friendly banter between "the Blunderdolt" and "Ginger, the Dancing Zippo" (a reference to Ginger Rogers as much as Flameboy's red hair,) was notably condemned by Dr Werther Fredericks in The Corruption of the Young (1954) as "blatant homoerotic flirtation, rife with sexual innuendo," this pairing has remained one of the most popular double-acts in comics, with the limited series "Flameboy and Thunderbolt: Red Shift, Blue Shift" one of AC's all-time bestsellers.

"You're light on your feet for a hoofer, Twinkletoes. But me? I'm just plain smokin'!" (Legion of American Watchers #18)


A villain wakes from a nightmare, heart pounding, hands grasping the bedsheets in panic. What was that noise? A whisper? An echo? A moan of the soul, a groan of terror in a guilty heart? And in the dark, a shadowy shape slips away, for the Secret's work is done. Dream on, you wrongdoers who think that you are safe! Imagine that no one knows your foul deeds! But there is one who walks among the sleeping, one who can damn you with a single word whispered softly in your ear. His origin unknown, none can say from whence his powers came, whether the terrible torments he brings to the wicked are magic, mechanics or mesmerism. But of this you can be sure: you can cover up your crimes, hush up and hide your sins in silence... but the Secret will haunt you to the grave!

"An iron cage? Hah! There are some secrets that cannot be kept, my friend. Whatever you do, they will... slip out." (Awesome Comics, #40)

The Secret


A Homage to Heroes

This Hero Factory doohickey is fun. Even if you can't set the name (which is Overman, just so's you know). I mean, "The Pure Avenger" is more of a byline than a name... though as such it's not bad for a hero sent back from the 51st century to escape the Earth's destruction, seeing as his power comes from his "hyper-evolved cells" being able to absorb kinetic energy, and his ultimate goal is to prevent the fascist takeover of America that will lead ultimately to aforesaid destruction... but without preventing his own birth!

"But even bound by the Paradox Protocol, powerless to end the war raging on in Europe, Overman does not lose spirit. For he knows that even the smallest battles may win the greatest victories!" (Adventure Comics #23)


It's also little annoying that it can't do the right style of mask for the Hookman. (No, not "Hookman". "The Hookman.") Or the hook that should sit atop his cowl, like a metal mohawk or a centurion's crest in cold pointy steel. Or the spring-loaded longshoreman's hooks built into his gauntlets... yanno, for combat or climbing. What do you mean, "a bit Batman"? But he's a child of the streets! Mother dead in childbirth, see, orphaned when his old man was killed for his gambling debts, hung by handcuffs on an abbatoir meathook and shot dead as the boy watched from his hiding-place. Lucky he was sent to juvie where a boxing coach set him on the right path, got him a job as a stevedore and his first pro bout... only for Coach to be murdered when our man refused to throw a match for a crime boss! Little did he know when he donned his costume to bring a reckoning on the racketeer...

"That voice, those eyes... could it be? The Shark is... the man who killed my father!" (Defender Comics #27)


And then there's Monkeyboy. No, not "Fearless Wizard". What kind of name is "Fearless Wizard"? That's just rubbish. OK, so he's missing his tail, and his sideburns, and it should be a straight staff rather than that lumpy thing. It all began on a field trip to a museum, you see, an innocent excursion interrupted by a criminal heist. Sent crashing through a display case in the panic, young Harry Houlihan throws a cut hand out to steady himself, but when his blood hits the staff of the ancient Chinese Monkey God, its power courses into him and he transforms into... Monkeyboy! Leaping from lamp-post to flagpole, firing himself through the air with a staff that can spring from six feet to sixty in an instant, fighting those Sixties super-villains... but he still has the problems of a typical teen.

"Why do I have hair there?! Oh my gosh, I have a tail?!" (The Marvelous Monkeyboy #1)


And, of course, you're limited to the one body type, whereas Monkeyboy should be less of a jock and more of a gymnast. As should Kid Swift, teen sidekick to the Hookman, shown here in what is clearly one of his more modern, less... um... flouncy interpretations. There have, of course, been a number of Kid Swifts over the years, with various origins. My favourite is the second, Todd Jonas, an orphaned street kid like Hookman himself (by then, the "the" in the character's name had largely been dropped,) he survived by his wits, "hustling and grifting" until the Hookman took him in. Yes, the fan-voted outcome of the controversial late-80s "The Costume in the Closet" storyline was disappointing, but with his resurrection in the wake of AC Comics' Ultimate Catastrophe cross-over, one can only hope the world's first sodomite superhero will actually get to do something other than suffer and die.

"Golly gosh gumdrops, Hookman! I don't think it's just the Jester's laughing gas, that's making me feel so gay!" (Hookman, Season 2, Episode 5)

Kid Swift

Next... Support the war effort! Buy war bonds! And be as ever-vigilant as... the Legion of American Watchers!


Monday, January 25, 2010

BSFA Nomination

Cool news for a Monday aftermorning: An entry from this very here Geek Show has been nominated for the BSFA Awards in the non-fiction category. The full five nominees are:

Canary Fever by John Clute (Beccon)
I Didn’t Dream of Dragons” by Deepa D
Ethics and Enthusiasm” by Hal Duncan
“Mutant Popcorn” by Nick Lowe (Interzone)
A Short History of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James (Middlesex University Press)

It's great company to be in. I haven't read the Clute or the Mendlesohn/James, but I can't imagine they're not more than deserving. And am I right in thinking Nick Lowe still hasn't had any official plaudits for his Interzone film reviewing? Cause if so, it's about fricking time. And as for Deepa D's piece? For my money it's probably the best thing anyone had to say during that racism-in-the-genre shitstorm, period. It's an intelligent, illuminating and important perspective on the commercial strange fiction genres, so it's awesome to see it nominated. I'd encourage you to read it, and I'd encourage you to encourage others to read it.

In fact, it occurs to me that maybe I have an opportunity to put my money where my mouth is here. Frankly, that Deepa D post is of far more relevance to sf than my... critique of critique. Had we been talking about, say, the "To the Water-Fountains" BSC Review column, I might have felt differently. Hell, there's plenty of other theoretical critique on this blog that is written as actual commentary on the medium from a literary perspective. But this piece? It has, at best, a circumstantial relationship to the field, in that it happened to be written as a response to a particular discourse / specific events that happened to be going down within the field; as a commentary on critique in general its scope is neither limited to nor even focused upon strange fiction. When I saw that it was on the longlist, I was well chuffed to see it get a nod, but I really wasn't expecting it to make the final cut, so I hadn't actually thought about this much until now. Now that it's shortlisted... I have to say I don't really see how it fits the eligibility criteria of being "about science fiction and/or fantasy".

With that in mind, now, admittedly I don't think it has a hope in hell of winning, but then I didn't think it had a hope in hell of making the shortlist, so on the off-chance that it does... I think it would be criminal for my exploration of modes of critique to be accorded more status and attention than the exploration of issues of representation and diversity carried out by Deepa D, especially when those issues are precisely born of a disparity of status and attention. It would, I feel, be validating the very situation that requires redress if the BSFA Awards were to valorise abstractions that bear only a passing relevance to the field over a commentary that bears directly on its practical, political realities, not least because of the disparities of privilege at play here. It's awesome to have people take note of what I say from my platform, but in this case I'm going to use that platform to say, there are other voices you should be listening to first.

In short, as much as I'm loathe to reject this honour, and grateful as I am to those who voted me onto the shortlist, I'm going to decline the nomination on the grounds that this work is not of sufficient relevance to the field. It may have been sparked off by a debate within the field, but that same debate could just as easily have occurred elsewhere. Its inclusion on the ballot therefore seems to me... inappropriate. A mark of my inclusion in the discourse itself. I profoundly appreciate this as a token of respect for the specific work and as an indication that such broad concerns might be considered valid subjects within the science fiction and fantasy community -- it's great to see the net being cast so wide -- but ultimately the tangential relevance of this post is simply not comparable to the direct relevance of the other nominated works, and I would not have it stand as a contender where it can only receive status and attention at the expense of a more worthy candidate.

So, with the utmost gratitude to those who put it there, and more than a little reticence because of course I'd fucking love a BSFA Award for non-fiction, I'd like to respectfully withdraw "Ethics and Enthusiasm" from the running, and leave the contest to those works which bear directly on the field.

I'm going to regret this as soon as I post it, aren't I?

Oh well.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Modality and Hamlet

The other day, a commenter on "Notes Towards a Theory of Narrative Modality" asked for some clarification to try and get their heads round the notions better, maybe some examples if possible. So I thought I'd go into the ideas with a bit more specifics, and bring it up front since the result is post-length rather than comment-length. Assuming you haven't read the post and can't be arsed going through it now, the gist of it is that narrative can be understood in terms of alethic, epistemic, deontic and boulomaic modalities, which is to say the sort of moods coded into modal auxiliary verbs (e.g. could, did, should, would,) which can be grouped in terms of whether they deal with possibility, knowledge, duty or affect; that a narrative has a baseline modality of "did happen" in so far as we're suspending our disbelief in it; that throwing other modalities into the mix creates an effect of tension I call warp; that warp can be described in terms of units I call quirks. Simple, eh? To illustrate, I thought I'd use Hamlet.

So, said commenter asks about the specifics of the different flavours of quirk, how the tension might be resolved -- the quirk "dewarped" -- going through the four groups one by one. That seems like a sensible line of attack to follow, so:

The Four Alethic Quirks

Concerning alethic quirks - could it be said that they are dewarped by a more or less satisfactory answer to the question "Why can/could it happen?"

For a novum the answer would be more or less along the lines of "Because at some point in the future/on a different planet this and this branch of that and that science have produced/could produce a particular technological advancement and its attending consequenses"

For a chimera: "Because in that alternate/secondary reality the laws of nature are such and such and allow for this and that to exist"

For an erratum: "Because if at some point in the past something else had happened instead of what actually happened then we would have a world resulting from that which happened instead"

For a sutura: "Because it is one of the numerous things that could happen if you suspend your belief (your belief being equal to your suspension of disbelief when it comes to fiction) in the necessity of strictly logical concatenation of events in a story.

The short answer is "yes". The long answer is just a tweak and twiddle of that "yes". How so? Well, the way I see it -- and the reason I call this type of dewarping argued dewarping -- is that the alethic quirk (the quirk of possibility) with its modality of "could not happen" sets off a chain of logical responses. This could not happen? But... but... but... Think of it as voiced in a truculent tone, as a protest; it's the response of that part of us that rejects "could not happen" as a valid objection, argues with it. Fuck you, geekboy, it's saying, I'm enjoying this story and I'm not going to be kicked out of it just because this event is, according to you, "impossible."

An example. Hamlet's father is spotted walking on the battlements, but Hamlet's father is dead. This is an alethic quirk, an impossibility. It "could not happen," our inner geekboy protests. It couldn't happen? another part of us responds. But...

So, the first challenge: But why could this not happen? The answer to this specifies the nature of the quirk -- novum, erratum, chimera, sutura: "Because it contradicts known science / history / nature / logic." Which is to say, the alethic quirk could be a technical, historical, metaphysical or logical impossibility. This leads into a transformation. It's a "how" question rather than a "why" question, I think, that we respond to this judgement with, in a second challenge: But how does it contradict known [x]? How, specifically? And this is where the critical challenge comes, because the specifics of this redirect us towards the resolution: So how could this happen? (I'm not saying we don't jump straight to the crux of it, or that we even ask this on any conscious level, of course. I'm just teasing out the details of the logic with as much rigour as possible.)

Hamlet's father is spotted walking on the battlements, but Hamlet's father is dead. This could not happen, we say. But we've been told it did happen, narratively speaking, so we can either throw our hands up in the air and bewail the whimsies of writers with no sense of reality, or we can deal with it by asking how could it happen? Will Rosencrantz and Guildernstern uncover a hidden hologram projector while searching for scooby snacks? No, it's not a novum. Is Hamlet's father wandering around, confused as to why everyone in this parallel reality thinks he's dead, when it was him who killed Claudius? No, it's not an erratum. Is Hamlet's father an anomaly of an entity existing on a "different plane" being perceptible on this one, an example of something physically aberrant, something which is not a part of nature and therefore not bound by its limits -- in short, a supernatural being? Yes, it's a chimera -- a ghost, to be exact.

Ah, so if the laws of nature allowed for incursions from the spiritual world into ours, then this could happen, we say. I don't believe it for a second, but I can continue suspending my disbelief.

To De- or Not to De-

So, yeah, a (more or less) satisfactory answer to that question (more or less) dewarps the alethic quirk. The answer to a "how could?" is less of a "because" than an "if," as I see it. If science takes the requisite step forward, this could happen. If history had taken this turn rather than that, this could happen. If nature had laid down a different topography of groundwork, this could happen. If the logic of events is more flexible than you give it credit for, this could happen. Novum, erratum, chimera, sutura -- each can be dewarped if you can entertain the relevant conceit.

A caveat. The sutura is a special case perhaps, because it runs the gamut from Pinteresque conversational/behavioural non sequiturs like in THE BIRTHDAY PARTY (where the disruption of conventional conversational logic is designed to force a re-evaluation of the system itself, a search for a truer logic of human interactions) to out-and-out breaches of causality like in BUFFET FROID. I'm not sure the latter is ever strictly speaking dewarped, because the conceit you're required to entertain is essentially: if the chain of events doesn't have to make sense as a chain-of-events, this could happen. Which is where people start saying, well, that's no longer a story, is it?

A second caveat. Arguably, the other quirks are seldom wholly dewarped either, because we seldom want them to be; the incredibility is part of the fun, the drama. Sure, we can look at it from one angle, think of ourselves as having to actively maintain suspension-of-disbelief by dewarping, by selecting to indulge in a pseudo-rational conceit that, well, of course, if A, B or C were true, then X, Y or Z could actually happen. But we could equally well turn this around completely; we're already committed to the conceit that it did happen, already suspending disbelief, so maybe what we're really "indulging" is that little inner geekboy's conceit that it knows what's possible and what's not. Maybe the whole point of the alethic quirk is to poke him hard, because his gasp of shock -- but! but! but! that could not happen! -- is where the entertainment's at.

Look at it this way: If our suspension-of-disbelief is so tenuous, why have credibility warp in the first place? There would have been no credibility warp whatsoever if Hamlet had simply found a letter from his father saying, "If you're reading this it means Claudius has succeeded in killing me. You must now avenge me, but on no account harm your mother." Not suprisingly, Shakespeare chooses the more interesting option that has a higher impact on the audience. He opens with the chimera precisely because it creates credibility warp. Quirks are the very stuff that drama is made of. The feeling of incredibility is a feeling of stimulation, excitation, arousal. Ooooh! Weeeeeird! Actually wanting an alethic quirk fully dewarped? Personally I see that as... atypical. Some may be insistent on it in their fiction (as some may insist on the complete exclusion of alethic quirks,) but I challenge any assertion that it has ever been, or ever should be, standard practice in narrative.

The Epistemic Quirks

With epistemic quirks, it's another story. If credibility warp is about stimulation, determinacy warp is about the frustration of not having the whole story, not knowing everything. It's basically suspense and related effects, so it's only natural that we do want epistemic quirks dewarped. Again, yes, I think all of these can be (more or less) dewarped by (more or less) satisfactory answers to the questions that fill in the blanks. The four quirks we have here are based on unresolved tensions between positive and negative modalities: lacuna (did / did not happen), limina (might / might not happen), cryptica (could / could not happen) and prefigura (shall / shall not happen).

An aside. That blog commenter admits: "I seem to have difficulty seeing the particular differences between an alethic possibility and contingency, on the one hand, and epistemic notion and supposition, on the other." This is a niggly issue for many of us, but it's an important one. It's the difference between known possibility and unknown actuality. The first? Right now, it could be raining where you are. I don't mean that I don't know. I mean, regardless of whether I know or not, regardless of whether it actually is or not, it could be. Generally speaking, that's a possible behaviour of any local weather system for any given reader at any given time. The second? Right now, at the very moment I write this, it could be raining where I am. I don't know because the curtains are closed. Hang on a second. No, it's not raining. I've negated the epistemic supposition that it could be raining by establishing the actuality. The epistemic supposition is no longer valid. Crucially though, the alethic possibility is still quite sound. It so happens that my local weather system isn't behaving in a certain way right now, but it could be, hypothetically speaking.

The epistemic quirks -- as quirks of knowledge -- are maybe as good a way to get a handle on this as any example. If alethic quirks invite "how?" questions, epistemic quirks invite "what?" questions. With the lacuna we have an absence of any notion other than the vaguest hint, so we need to determine, "What did happen?" With the limina, the same question works just as well, but we do have a clear notion of what might have happened to focus on, so we can be more specific: "Did X happen?" With the cryptica we know that a set of events happened, an A and a B that seem incompatible, so we ask, "How did A and B happen together?" But actually, you can reformulate this as one big event Y, where the question is, "What X happened to cause Y?" The answer usually reconstructs A and B into a C and D that are compatible. With the prefigura, you really just have a trick of temporal perspective. We can ask the question "Will X actually happen?" but the resolution comes when we catch up with the foreshadowed future and it becomes the narrative past; as an outsider, seeing the text as a post facto construct, we could equally well phrase this as "Did X happen (in the end)?" So, you can see these all as different flavours of the same basic question: "What did happen?"

Examples? Suppose we took the scene between Hamlet and his father's ghost out of the play. We don't say it didn't happen, just don't show it on stage. Instead we show Hamlet walking out onto the battlements (offstage,) then returning, having gone through an experience that he does not (yet) relate. We now have a lacuna that we can build on by removing any explicit references to Claudius's crime, inserting in their place pointers to the unseen event -- which wouldn't actually be that hard to do given Hamlet's evasive crazytalk. Clues can be seeded, hints given, but essentially, the lacuna would become a negative space loaded with significance, a great blister of determinacy warp building until -- presumably -- the climactic confrontation where Hamlet revealed the truth imparted to him.

Alternatively, suppose we remove any suggestion that others have seen the ghost, or indeed explicitly present it as visible only to Hamlet (as the ghost of Banquo is visible only to Macbeth). An unstable Hamlet, still grieving his dead father, resentful of Claudius, and bitter at his mother's hasty remarriage, returns home and sees his father's ghost, which tells him his resentment is founded. We now have a limina, a visitation that might have actually happened or might have been entirely imagined by a Hamlet on the edge of madness. Again, it would not be that difficult to push the play in this direction. The obvious extension of this would be to render the culpability of Claudius and Gertrude equally indeterminate, to allow for the possibility that they are entirely innocent.

Actually, with this example of a limina, thinking about it, it seems that we might well prefer the determinacy warp unresolved, the quirk left dewarped. Would we want the ghost to reappear at the climax, and reveal itself to everyone, thus establishing Hamlet's sanity and Claudius's guilt? Or would we want some dying revelation from Laertes that it was he who had murdered Hamlet's father? Or would it be more powerful to leave the truth unknown, leave the play in equipoise, an exemplar of Todorov's fantastique? In fact, Shakespeare essentially does create an unresolved limina around the question of Gertrude's involvement in the murder. She might or might not have been culpable. We just don't know.

A little tweaking and we could make this a cryptica by seeding the text with clear indications (e.g. in conversation with Hamlet) that she could have been involved, but equally clear indications (e.g. in conversation with Claudius) that she could not. This is, of course, the clash of modalities at the heart of any murder mystery or occult thriller, and it's interesting to note how those cryptica often skirt with full-on alethic impossibility (e.g. the corpse found in a locked room,) and how there's an overlap of readers and writers, even the idioms themselves. It's no coincidence, I'd say, that Isaac Asimov wrote both science fiction and murder mysteries, or that the Illuminatus Trilogy and similar works appeal to many sf readers, or that noir is everywhere in strange fiction these days, even secondary world fantasy.

But Shakespeare's play is not Hamlet and Yorrick (Deceased,) so it's not the best example for the cryptica. It is however a prime example of the prefigura, the ghost of Hamlet's father a classic omen, a portent of doom and openly described as such, explicitly compared to the signs and omens reputedly seen in Rome before Caesar's murder. When the dead walk at night, we know something bad is going to happen. Doom is almost certain. Death is pretty high up on the list of possibilities. Hamlet is top of the list of candidates. This is only the crudest and most obvious prefigura in the text though. I think one could well argue that Shakespeare slowly but surely crafts a more subtle prefigura of Gertrude's death, weaves it through the interstices. That's a whole essay in itself though, and the point here is not to analyse Hamlet, but to use it as illustration.

Moving on then.

The Deontic Quirks

My commenter asks:

With the deontic and boulomaic quirks... could the deontic quirks be paraphrased as:

Dicta – You will do it, because you have no other choice but to obey

Licentia – You will do it, because it's you have the right

Determina – You will do it, because it is your obligation/duty

If these paraphrases are correct enough, how is it that Hamlet, in his own mind, has the right (he may) to hurt his mother, but not the duty/obligation (he should not), and the duty/obligation to kill his uncle, but not the right?

Actually, what I mean is closer to the idea that Hamlet, in his own mind, has the duty to kill his uncle but the right not to, and the duty not to hurt his mother but the right to do so. But I'll explain that below. First... I'm not sure these paraphrases work, because the "will" transforms them into epistemic modalities and thereby misses the essential dynamics of equilibrium warp, the essential instability it adds to the drama. Equilibrium warp creates a forward momentum precisely because the destabilisation of the situation requires some sort of corrective response on the part of a narrative agent. And while that agent is subject to the equilibrium, their action is unlikely to be defined so... programmatically by it, else the story would be rather dull. Their very agency, in fact, turns on the fact that the modalities of "must" (dictum,) "may" (licentia) and "should" (determina) are not straightforwardly transformable to "will".

That sort of transformation is fine as a rhetorical trick with dicta, is actually a commonplace of everyday speech -- c.f. the example at the top of the "Notes Towards a Theory of Narrative Modality" post:

The implicit certainty of epistemic actuality allows “will”, for example, to be used as an indirect deontic prescriptive: “You will stop shooting the lemurs, Jack!” essentially says, “This will happen [epistemic future], because it must happen [epistemic necessity], because you must comply [deontic prescriptive]!”

But the obvious rhetorical response here is, "No I will not!" This essentially says, I hear your deontic prescriptive, but it does not translate to an epistemic actuality, because there's an alethic possibility: I could not comply. In fact, I reject your (absolutist) authority and take your dictum -- that sneakily hidden deontic "must" -- as a mere determina -- a deontic "should." In fact, there's a competing determina saying I should not comply. In fact, this is the dicta that actually binds me -- my own sense of what I must do. So I respond to your epistemic actuality with one of my own: I will not.

The rhetorical transformations of deontic modalities are pertinent to the analysis of narrative, but reformulating duty as actuality is not a good starting point. Any paraphrase needs to take into account the limina of the as-yet-unread outcome we, as readers, are constructing from our expectations of how the dynamics will play out. So:

Dictum -- We realise that a character might/might not do X; in so far as as they are bound by authority, they are morally compelled to, but as an agent in the narrative they could choose not to.

Licentia -- We realise that a character might/might not do X; they are morally allowed to but as an agent in the narrative they could choose not to.

Determina -- We realise that a character might/might not do X; they are morally exhorted to but as an agent in the narrative they could choose not to.

The key thing with the first flavour of deontic quirk is that an agent can be caught in a tortura-- the pincer action of two incompatible dicta. The key thing with the latter two is that they're implicitly complementary. A licentia says you're allowed to do X, but subtly implies (the possibility) that it is preferable that you do not. Which is to say, it implies the determina that you "should not". Likewise, a determina says it is preferable that you do X, but subtly implies (the possibility) that you are allowed to not do it. Which is to say, it implies the licentia that you "may not." (Where "may not" means allowed to not do rather than not allowed to do, the right to refrain rather than the absence of right.) Licentiae can certainly be rephrased in terms of rights, but the determina is distinct from the dictum precisely because it is... a charge rather an obligatory duty.

Rhetorics and Dynamics

A good example can be seen at the beginning of Hamlet. Here, Hamlet has every right to mourn his father but is exhorted to get over it by Claudius. The gist of Claudius's speech contains an implicit licentia -- that Hamlet may carry on like this if he so chooses -- though it's the complementary determina -- that he really should not -- which is the main thrust. The complementary nature of these quirks, however, allows Shakespeare to do something more subtle, in what can be read as an invitation to turn Claudius's sentiments completely inside out. Because that's kind of how Claudius constructs his argument.

"'Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet," Claudius's speech begins, "To give these mourning duties to your father." (My italics, natch.) That "duties" tacitly acknowledges a determina of appropriate grief, acknowledges that Hamlet has been doing what he should have been doing. Claudius follows this with a sophistic argument -- "But you must know your father lost a father" -- which functions as a licentia. This is the way of things, he's saying. "That father lost lost his." The cycle turns and we move on. The survivors are only "bound, / In filial obligation, for some term, / To do obsequious sorrow." The implication functioning as invitation, Claudius's suggestion is that Hamlet may (repeat, may) consider that term complete. It's not hard to see Claudius here as exploiting the dynamics, inviting Hamlet along a rhetorical path from "should" to "may not." And once he's established that Hamlet has a licentia to cease his mourning, he plots the next point, from "may not" to "should not," characterising grief that carries on beyond the obligatory period as "impious stubbornness," as "a fault against the dead, a fault to nature."

So, what we end up at is a determina that Hamlet should "throw to earth / This unprevailing woe," that he should abjure his own grief. With an unspoken licentia cause he can't very well deny Hamlet his right to mourn his own father.

This is just one minor example. The point is, in many cases you have a licentia where you "may but should not" or a determina where you "should but may not". It's worthwhile distinguishing these two-faced quirks as pressurae though, and treating the base quirks as distinct, because you could have a licentia which says you're allowed to do X and where it is also preferable that you do (as Claudius tries to persuade Hamlet that he may and should stop his mourning now.) Conversely, you could have a determina which says it is preferable that you do X where it is also not allowed for you to do otherwise; except that this latter is basically just the definition of a dictum -- i.e. a dictum is essentially a determina with the complementary licentia explicitly denied. On a low level, you can trace the dynamics of transformations -- dictum weakened to determina, determina flipped to licentia, licentia loaded to determina, determina strengthened to dictum -- in dialogue such as that of Claudius. On a higher level, pressurae are an excellent handle on a character's general motivation.

What I'm suggesting with Greek Tragedy is that it's based on (at least on one level) the tortura of two irreconcilable dicta, but that Hamlet, in his modernity, translates this into two opposing pressurae. In traditional tragedy terms, he must avenge his father, but to do so entails harming his mother. He must not harm his mother, but not doing so leaves his father unavenged. In traditional tragedy, these are prescriptives; the imperative is absolute -- must, not should. But Hamlet recognises his own agency, that he is an ethical being without an absolute moral authority to trust in. In his awakening to the existential uncertainty of the modern tragic hero, he gets that these are really determinae: he should avenge his father even if doing so entails harming his mother; he should not harm his mother even if not doing so leaves his father unavenged. Should, not must.

In fact, he gets that these are pressurae: he should avenge his father, but he may not if he so chooses; he should not harm his mother, but he may if he so chooses. Why? Because morality is a social construct, and the entire society is based on lies. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. The authority, the king, God's representative on earth, has no legitimacy. He may not avenge his father (i.e. he is allowed not to) because in the morally bankrupt Denmark, with Claudius in charge, he can carry on as if nothing happened, just like everyone else, and be lauded as the dutiful stepson. On the other hand, he may harm his mother because she is complicit in that moral bankruptcy, and if he ousts Claudius, clears out the rot, when nobody else is willing to step up, he will be lauded as the dutiful heir.

With the unresolved limina of Gertrude's involvement only fuelling his existential crisis, trapped in a tangle of determinacy and authoritative warp, Hamlet has only his affective judgement to fall back. Which brings us to the boulomaic quirks:

The Boulomaic Quirks

The offered paraphrases:

Weak/strong numen/monstrum – I do/don't want to do it/for it to happen, because it is very good/essential for me.

tremulum – I don't know if I want to do it/for it to happen

staccatum – I will want to do it only in certain circumstances

I'd take out the justification of benefit to self that's attached to the numen/monstrum here; it's a rationalisation of affect that I don't think we need, not when the numen or monstrum may be nothing to do with pragmatic benefits or even with the self at all. Similarly, the caveat in the example of a staccatum given in the original post (“Well, I would, if you stop bloody shooting.”) is perhaps a little misleading. I might just as easily have exemplified the selection without that caveat: "Well, I would." To explain what I mean a little better (hopefully,) I'd tend to put these in a similar terminology to that with which the base deontic quirks are articulated. Think of them as somewhat comparable emotional judgements.

Numen/Monstrum – Facing an event that did happen (or the prefigura of an event that could happen); projecting ourselves into the characters or imagining such an event happening to ourselves, or coming about by our action, in so far as we desire/fear such an event, the strength or weakness of that quirk is the strength or weakness of our affect, positive or negative. Whether we're dealing with a disposition or a conviction, there is utter clarity in the selection between "yes!" and "no!"

Tremulum – Considering a potential action in a certain situation, we may simultaneously desire and/or fear the situation, the action and its consequences. It's not that our disposition is uncertain as that it's complex, conflicted, and so we reserve judgement. We desire the action to be in our nature but fear that it is not, or desire it to not be in our nature and fear that it is.

Staccatum -- Considering a potential action in a certain situation, we may simultaneously desire and/or fear the situation, the action and its consequences. However, we make a judgement, selecting on the basis that the action is or is not in our nature. Here, our disposition is still complex, still conflicted, but a resolution is imposed on it, a decision on the self-image we conform to (or at least believe that we conform to).

These paraphrases are nowhere near as succinct as I'd like, but essentially we're dealing with modalities of affective judgement -- states of conviction (must), reservation (could) and selection (would) -- that are complex products of positive and negative inclinations as regards multiple factors. These are overall emotional judgements on self and environment. If it helps, the dynamic relationships we have here are very similar to those of the dictum, the licentia and the determina, as I see it. The tremulum says you feel a pressure to do X but subtly implies (the possibility) that this selection is not in your character: "I could... but I would not" or "I could not... but I would." (Where "could not" means "capable of not doing" rather than "not capable of doing.") The staccatum says that doing X is in your character but subtly implies you feel a pressure not to: "I would... but could not" or "I would not... but I could". The numen or monstrum, as it pertains to a potential action, is the staccatum rendered absolute, just as the dictum is the determina rendered absolute, stripped of any potential alternative.

Hamlet's Horrors

Where tremulum and staccatum are most applicable when it comes to character motivation, it should be noted, numen and monstrum may well be constructed entirely from the reader's disposition/conviction. The deaths of Polonius and Ophelia are monstrous, it seems fair to say, and of course there's poor old Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but the extent to which these are monstra in Hamlet's mind is arguably of less import than the extent to which they're monstra in the reader's mind. The writer -- the strange fiction writer in particular -- can gain a lot of mileage from simply pushing the reader's wonder and horror buttons, while the characters who confront these numina and monstra take them entirely in their stride.

But with narratives designed to enact reader/writer wish-fulfillment and paranoid neuroses, the role of monstra and numina is pretty self-evident; it's of more interest when these quirks are part of the narrative dynamics.

In tragedy, the dictum and the monstrum go hand in hand. So it is in Hamlet, the play framed by two monstra: in the very first scene, we have the hoary spectre of fratricide; in the very last, we have a bloodbath. As in The Oresteia, that initial monstrum starts the drama off in a state of equilibrium warp. As in most revenge tragedies, it is the dictum of vengeance that drives the narrative toward an equal or worse monstrum as resolution. Like a deconstruction of the revenge tragedy form itself though, Hamlet gives us a tragic hero for whom awareness of his role takes it to a new level, in the tortura of affect, the double-bind of monstra attached to his own life/death, "To be or not to be" and all that. Forget the rules of revenge; this is a psychodrama.

The tortura of duty is still there, but it's doubled -- or squared, even -- by the horror that mirrors it. If morality is telling Hamlet that he must avenge his father, even if it means hurting his mother, but that he must not hurt his mother, even if it means not avenging his father, his own affect, it seems to me, has constructed a double-bind that inverts this. This young student prince, this melancholic intellectual, seems horrified by the role of avenger. To become that classic instrument of revenge is to become a brutal monster, not least because emotionally his mother has become as much of a target as Claudius. He must not bring about the monstrum of matricide. But to leave Claudius on the throne, to leave his father a grisly spectre walking the battlements, to leave the rot in Denmark, this too would be a monstrum. And the very blame he lays on his mother, the rage he barely represses, makes her survival part of that monstrum. That Gertrude must die, in Hamlet's mind, is a clear conviction articulated in every shred of subtext. It is a key significance of the play, I think, that we have this prefigura of a monstrum that does not come to pass -- or not quite the way we expect it to -- in so far as the text is wrought with the undercurrents of Hamlet's potential matricide of Gertrude. And how much of this turns on the liminal nature of her guilt?

But this isn't meant to be an analysis of Hamlet, as I say. It's about using Hamlet to illustrate examples of quirks -- so maybe what exactly I mean by the tremulum can be fleshed out here. See, Hamlet is not in a state of ignorance, not knowing what he wants to do. The extent to which he is rebelling against all the imperatives heaped on him, including the emotional ones, is a marker of this knowledge. The extent to which he is (presented as) repressing his fury at his mother is, I'd argue, in direct proportion to the extent to which he knows he wants to slay her. So he's not trying to figure out what he wants to do. He's caught in a situation where he's intensely aware of each individual desire to carry out each of these mutually incompatible actions. You could trace a limina in that, sure, an uncertainty, with that "To be or not to be" speech seen as a weighing of options aimed at establishing the truth (i.e. epistemic actuality) of what he most wants to do. But it's worthwhile, I think, to see him as following the logic through. The question he's asking himself is not just "Should he?" It's "Should he? Could he? Would he?"

As with deontic quirks, you can see this in terms of rhetorical transformations. The emotional torturae are clear to this most cerebral of tragic heroes; he knows what all the "musts" (or rather "should but may nots") are. But how to translate that into action? That's where the tremula come in, I'd say. The core tremulum in Hamlet might be articulated as "I could kill my mother." but other related tremula can be identified too: I could kill Claudius; I could do nothing; I could get out of this role of tragic hero by dying, by going mad, or by just walking away from it all, going back to university and pretending nothing happened; (and most of all) I could become a murderer. And as with the licentiae and determinae, such tremula subtly imply (the possibility) that the reservation is based on a selection against that action, a negative staccatum -- "but I would not."

Here's the thing: Where the modalities of duty allow one to slip or flip from "must" to "should" to "(but) may not" to "should not" (to tread the path Claudius is trying to lead Hamlet down,) the only path to a modality of actuality there is that conflation of deontic "must" with epistemic "must". A character who follows that route is basically surrendering their agency. With boulomaic quirks, the path out of the maelstrom of affective warp is via the tremulum of "could": I could do this but would not; I would not do this... but could; I would that I could not, but could... and would; I would and will. Which is to say, that Shakespearean "would" is the pathway to a modality of actuality here, in the conflation of boulomaic "would" and epistemic "would". It denotes desire (c.f. the Biblicial "I would that you were cold or hot,") but slides into a statement of fact ("I would challenge to a battle of wits, but I see you are unarmed"). An assertion of atitude, "I would you did, sir," becomes an assertion of intent, "I would have such a fellow whipped." An assertion of -- and apologies if this is so obvious a point it's insulting -- will.

Hamlet's madness can be understood as an enaction of those tremula, I think, a testing of his capacities which, as he pushes the boundaries further and further, becomes ultimately a test of his capacity to be monstrous. In his relationships with everyone around him, he's role-playing the tremula, going along with the "I could" so that, in his erratic actions he ends up sealing the deal, proving to himself that, yes, he could; it's in his capacity. He could treat someone he loves with the contempt required to destroy her. He could kill someone with his own sword. He could and he would.

In that context, I'd see the deaths of Ophelia and Polonius as essentially Hamlet forcing his own hand, (albeit perhaps unconsciously so.) These are... steps on the way to the staccatum of the end, circuitous and neurotic tricks for redefining himself as someone who not only could but would take a life. He could and would take a life by "accident". He could and would drive someone to take their own life. He denies it to Laertes, of course, characterising his madness as the actual culprit, literally saying it was not him: "If Hamlet from himself be ta'en away, / And when he's not himself does wrong Laertes, / Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it." Maybe we ought to see Hamlet's madness as a tremulum in itself, that which could do what he could not. And maybe it's significant that the staccatum of the killing of Claudius comes after Laertes's declaration, "Hamlet, thou art slain." Is it simply a rhetorical device that Hamlet says, "I am dead, Horatio" rather than "I am dying," or is that Hamlet would not kill, but now Hamlet is slain, dead, that which is no longer Hamlet would?

A Final Question

Would it be possible for "equilibrium dewarping questions" to be formulated for the deontic and boulomaic quirks as well?

I'm not sure. Part of what makes equilibrium warp thornier and harder to explain is that with credibility and determinacy warp you're dealing with possibility and actuality, challenges to which can be resolved by filling in gapstory, rendering the story choate. It is action being represented or left unrepresented that causes the warp, and any dewarping that takes place will always be ultimately aimed at creating a sense that "this could and/or did happen". The questions that aim at establishing that -- How could it happen? What did happen? -- are logical responses.

With authoritative and affective warp, you're dealing with duty and desire, the ethical and emotional impetuses that are driving the narrative, challenges that confront the character with a clusterfuck of deontic and boulomaic quirks, or quirks that are themselves responses to that clusterfuck. The logical responses to these are not necessarily dewarping questions, I think, but questions that invite rhetorical transformations:

Dictum -- I must > Must I really?

Licentia -- I may > But should I?

Determina -- I should not > But may I?

Numen/Monstrum -- I must > Must I really?

Tremulum -- I could > But would I?

Staccatum -- I would not > But could I?

It seems to me that maybe even with the alethic and epistemic quirks there are similar relationships we could tease out. I have an inkling that a narrative dynamics based in modality could be factored up to a narrative logic, an informal logic that I'm sorely tempted to call a "suppositional calculus". (The propositional calculus, after all, is basically limiting yourself to a single modality of "must," every "If A then B" an assertion of alethic/epistemic necessity.) Rather than just dewarping an alethic quirk -- a giant robot, for example -- by finding an answer to the "How could this happen?" question, the reader might more commonly be responding to it as a numen, parsing it as something that should happen -- cause giant robots are cooooool! -- and being slingshotted into an exactly inverted credibility warp: "How could this not happen?" In commercial strange fiction exploiting/manifesting wish-fulfillment and paranoid neuroses that seems fairly common. As I say, maybe the warp is where the entertainment's at.

Basically, I don't think that dewarping the quirk is the point so much as working through the narrative logic is. And as for that narrative logic itself? I do think this notion of narrative modality might be good groundwork, even if it is just the groundwork.


Thursday, January 21, 2010

Oh Dear Dog

An email I just got, with names and details altered to protect the foolish, out of the goodness of my own heart, (though if you're familiar with the story you may well be able to fit the relevant names to it.):


I represent [Vanity Simpleton] , author of [My Gift to the World], a book about [mumbo jumbo only New Age cranks take seriously] and [a proven hoax], which came out in October. We would love to have a chance to appear on your show. Please let me know if you have any open dates . [Vanity] is also quite the dark poet, with two published anthologies and the release of her first C.D. of dark poetry. This ties in nicely with the movie [current Hollywood schlockbuster related to aforesaid crankery] which comes out in November. [Vanity] has appeared on more than 50 radio shows and gets rave reviews for her interviews. We look forward to reaching a mutually acceptable date for her appearance. [Vanity] is lso [sic] in a wheelchair from a massive stroke and all her books are typed with one hand. Thanks so much.
[Spamela Spamola] publicist


Now, I could simply ignore this spam. Or I could generously respond with some free clues as to why this is not the way to promote a book. Like, the fact that I don't have a fucking "show" for a start, as any publicist worth a dime should fucking know if they'd done their fucking research. Like, the fact that I'm actually a pro writer who just happens to have a blog with the word "show" in the title, dipshit. Like, the fact that this sort of spamming actively antagonizes me in its crass disregard of whether I'm an appropriate recipient or not. Like, the fact that I'm a notoriously mouthy cunt on this blog of a "show", a skeptical attacker of self-delusion and conceited folly, a critic who's on record as believing that cruel mockery is, at times, entirely appropriate when it comes to ignorance and idiocy, especially when it comes to the self-important wankery of wannabe writers (not least because I've been there, done that). Like, the fact that New Age mumbo jumbo and "dark poetry" are really fucking high on my list of Things To Point And Laugh At. Like, the fact that I'm therefore more likely to make a fucking public spectacle of your stupidity than give you a vehicle for self-promotion. Like, the fact that not even bothering to update your spam to account for the fact that it's well past November does you no favours with me, matey-bubbles. Like, the fact that saying you "look forward" to organising the appearance date is an arrant presumption that further pisses me off. Like, the fact that spelling errors and cackhanded formatting in your email is the sort of rank amateurism I'll just regard as the fucking cherry on the fucking cake.


After quickly Googling this [Vanity Simpleton] and finding a story of self-publishing at its worst -- and a fairly high profile one that's covered on Writer Beware! and Making Light to boot -- I'm sorely tempted to invite this person to do an email interview on the Geek Show, should they so desire. Potential questions:

  • The email purporting to be from a publicist came from an address containing your real name, which kinda makes it look like you've fabricated your own representation. I don't think that's what you've done, but you do realise how fucking bad that looks, right? Right?
  • The reason I don't actually suspect you of duplicity here: the name given does appear to be a real person --not someone known primarily as a professional publicist, mind, but someone who runs a) an ezine with a sideline offering $10-a-pop press releases to writers who wish to publicise their successes, b) a "writing school" offering instruction to wannabe writers, and c) a vanity press charging $529.00 for a website and publication of your work... as a fucking e-book. So how much money have you paid this publicist? How much money has this person reamed out of you over the years?
  • I see that this person defended you when it came to light that the prologue of your first book plagiarised wholesale from the first chapter of a best-selling author of heroic fantasy so high-profile in the field that he now has an award named after him. We'll delve into that plagiarism with other questions, but for now: Is this what won your trust? Was it the fact that where everyone else was lining up to condemn you, this individual was all supportive and nice?
  • Given that their work as a publicist includes spamming people like me, and that this strategy is profoundly counter-productive, given that the only type of interview I'm likely to give will be tantamount to a public exposé/excoriation, are you perhaps inclined to revise your opinion of that person's value to you? Or are you really as fucking stupid as you appear?
  • Regarding that plagiarism, can you tell my readers how you paid $400 a month to a known con man for him to ghostwrite the book that you then paid more money for a vanity press to publish, not realising that this scammer had royally shafted you by copying a whole chapter from another writer's work and simply changing the names (well, most of them)?
  • When this came to light, did you actually think about the situation you'd got yourself in and wise up? Or did you a) initially claim the work was all yours, b) confess that you'd employed a ghostwriter and blame him for the plagiarism, proclaiming your "poor victim" status, c) begin threatening your critics with lawsuits in an attempt to extort silence, even pissing off Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware! by using her name in the process, because she supported your claim to have been rooked, d) ALL OF THE ABOVE?
  • What did you think when your publisher, claiming to subscribe to the Wiccan belief-system, threatened to use witchcraft in order to give one critic nightmares? Do you actually believe such a magical atttack is possible, and if so, do you actually believe it's ethical? Isn't it at odds with the Wiccan Rede, "An it harm none, do what ye will"? Or are you down with black magic, you being a practitioner of "dark poetry" and all?
  • Did it ever occur to you that the work-for-hire relationship this ghostwriter had with you made him essentially your employee, and that as his employer you were the person ultimately responsible for ensuring the novel you published did not infringe copyright, the person ultimately accountable if it did?
  • So you're now employing as a publicist this person who supported you when the shit hit the fan. Their work as a publicist is risibly unprofessional, and their online presence reeks of cynical exploitation. Have you ever heard the expression, "once bitten, twice shy"?
  • You characterise your talent as a gift from God. What the fuck makes you think you have any fucking talent at all? Seriously, you had to pay to publish your first book, which you had to pay a ghostwriter to help you with; how does a God-given inability to write your own work to a professionally publishable standard qualify as a "talent"?
  • On your own website, in your bio, you recite a litany of suffering which includes being raised by a black witch, being given over to foster care, running away from abuse, multiple miscarriages, a stillbirth, bankruptcy, and a stroke that left you in a wheelchair. While this sad story does soften my cold hard heart enough to cut you some slack in your folly, it strikes me that this victim narrative helps explain that folly as rooted in profound psychological damage. In all seriousness, is it possible that all of this played an important role in your falling prey to the vanity press con?
  • No, really. Don't just dismiss the question. That sort of shit leaves a mark. Are you sure you're not, to all intents and purposes, so fucked up by your past history, so driven by the need to vindicate your existence, so willing to swallow the smoke-and-mirrors illusions -- actively reaching indeed for the mirage of Importance -- that you're an easy mark for these con men offering you the chance to be a Real Live Author?
  • Do you understand how these harsh and hurtful questions are focused on trying to puncture what I see as ignorance, idiocy or just plain insanity, not just for the sake of cruel fun on my part, but because you seem bent on offering yourself up for exploitation by charlatans I abhor with every fibre of my being, and maybe -- just maybe -- this sort of savagely unsympathetic lashing can crack the shell of self-delusion you've built around yourself?
  • Have you considered the possibility that you are not really engaged in the craft of writing at all, not as a process of figuration, as an exploration of self and environment that will result in a work of value to a reader, not even as a therapeutic process through which you might grow as an individual, but rather as some sort of desperate inward-spiraling quest for validation that serves only to reify and reinforce the very insecurities it should be tackling; and that those who are offering to assist you along this path -- and rook you of as much money as they can while doing so -- are absolutely and without doubt, without question, the very last people you should be listening to?
  • Oh, and lastly, what are you working on at the moment?
What do you think? I know I'd be kinda curious to hear the responses, and I'm finding it hard to resist the urge to offer a spot on my "show." They did ask for it, after all. Any other questions I should fire at a vanity press victim?


Sunday, January 17, 2010

Respect, Bro!

So, in one of my usual random inklings, I've been on a superhero jag the last week or so, checking out some of the more recent cartoon series, playing around with some of the online "build your own superhero" doohickeys. (It's research, see, cause at some point I may well want to do a proper superhero story, so designing Overman, The Hookman and Monkeyboy is... um... groundwork, yeah, groundwork, that's what it is. (And, yes, I do have origins for them too. With huge big dollops of Superman, Batman and Spiderman respectively, cause obviously I'd want to give a nod to the Big Three in a pulp metafiction sorta way, cause who doesn't love a bit of pastiche and -- look, daydreaming is my job, OK?) )

Anyway, that got me off on a tangent looking for gay superheroes because... well, just because. I mean, there's that whole queer subtext in the X-Men movies, that scene with Bobby Drake "coming out" to his folks as a mutant. And those superheroes are all kick-ass and slinky in their skintight onesies, so a boy can't help but sigh wistfully as they remember their childhood conviction that there was some deeper tension underlying Flash Thompson's hostility to Peter Parker... and realise that the "Flash" in "Jack Flash" probably had a secondary source along with Flash Gordon. (Flash Gordon, Flash Thompson, Jack Flash... and they're all blonds, yanno. Nuff said. Hmmm, that would probably also explain the thing I have for Mormons... so All-American, so clean-cut, so innocent in their piety... with their perfect teeth and all... and they come in pairs, you know... Ahem. Anyway... ) What can I say? When you're thirteen years old and your choice is to identify with Mr Humphries in Are You Being Served? or to rewrite Spiderman in your imagination to suit your own sexuality, well, it's a no-brainer.

But the point is it's still pretty hard to find gay characters that rank higher than C-list at best, more often D-list. On the A-list I'm talking Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Wonder Woman and maybe Wolverine, by the way, with the B-list being, like, the Silver Surfer, Hulk, Iron Man, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, folks like that. Sure, the X-Men seem to have Colossus as a core team member these days, but he's no Doctor Strange, really, is he? No, the nearest you get to a B-list superhomo is the fan rumours surrounding Iceman. What I did find, however, is this "catalogue of the treatment of gays in the medium," compiled by Perry Moore, author of Hero, a YA novel about -- hurrah! -- a gay superhero which is -- even bigger HURRAH! -- apparently in development as a TV series. The list makes for interesting reading. To sample at random:

This longtime Spiderman nemesis recently discovered his predilection for homosexuality as a result of a lengthy stint in prison. Sought out a shape-changing prostitute to satisfy his new desires.

Gay magician member of superteam New Guardians. His name means “The Strange One.” Embodied numerous, offensive gay stereotypes. Attacked by an “AIDS vampire.” Forgotten after series was cancelled.

Former hero of DC’s Infinity Incorporated. De-powered, corrupted by his sexual strife, manipulated by dark forces, tries to destroy the world. His homosexuality is attributed to being molested by his adopted father. Recently placed as the security guard on the all-straight Justice Society of America, but not allowed to sit at the table as a member of the team.

My favourite bit, I think, is at the bottom where Moore spells it out in numbers, with specific references to Marvel's Northstar -- who came out of the closet only to be killed off horribly by (an albeit temporarily deranged) Wolverine:

ZERO. Number of straight X-Men that the most popular X-Man, Wolverine, has killed:

ONE. Number of gay X-Men that the most popular X-Man, Wolverine, has killed:

And more pointedly still:

Ages 4-10

The age-correlated sizes in which Wolverine Deluxe Child Costume is available for children for Halloween. Available with muscle torso, jumpsuit, boots, mask, and pair of claws. Northstar costume not available for impaling.

No, wait. I change my mind. My favourite favourite bit is on the comments page, where Moore responds to Rob Liefield, the co-creator of the characters Rictor and Shatterstar, who got his panties in a twist when subsequent character developments eventually led up to Peter David explicitly presenting the characters as gay. Liefield didn't take kindly to this at all, sending out a press release that said (apparently -- I can't track down an actual copy) that he couldn't wait to reverse this and "ungay" the characters. When I say Moore responds to Liefield, what I mean is calls the motherfucker out. As in fisticuffs "calls out."

I'm surprised women's groups haven't called you to the table for your unbelievably, overly- pneumatic depictions of women. Worse than Barbie, if you ask me.

But hey, if no feminist will take you on, I will. Don't fuck with the gays. On behalf of the scant LGBT representations in comics, shut up or put up.

Comic con. Name the time and place. We can settle this once and for all. I don't believe in violence, but I wrote a book called HERO, allegory about my father who one a bronze star in Vietnam, and sometimes you're just stuck fighting it out.


Rob, I'm waiting. Or you could just SHUT UP and let nature takes its course in the pages of X-Factor. Hell, they'll probably turn Rictor back to girls in a matter of a few issues anyway. Have you actually read the book in the past? You should at least know what you're talking about before you open your fat trap.

Heh. I read that and thought I just had to share. Needless to say, Moore just made another sale for HERO; I'll be keeping me fingers crossed for the TV series now too. Cause as far as my inner fourteen year old is concerned, it sounds like it could be awesome.

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Sunday, January 10, 2010

An Open Letter to Ms. Windsor

Dear Liz, Betsy, Lizzie, Beth, Bets, whatever,

Just noticed that bit at the end of yer 2009 Christmas message, the bit that reads:

Christians are taught to love their neighbours, having compassion and concern, and being ready to undertake charity and voluntary work to ease the burden of deprivation and disadvantage. We may ourselves be confronted by a bewildering array of difficulties and challenges, but we must never cease to work for a better future for ourselves and for others.

The charity and voluntary work stuff is nice and all, but I was just wondering if maybe working for a better future might involve a wee bit more of a head-on tackling of those challenges. I'm thinking more along the lines of sentiments expressed by a fellow member of the Outer Alliance, Brandon Bell. See, on his latest blog entry, he has a message for "Christians" in the US, one with which I heartily agree:

The Ugandan anti-gay bill, the role that Christian anti-gay activism has played there, and the plight of those people... if these are not MAJOR talking points in your fellowship groups and your church.... if your minister has not taken a STRONG stance against the Christian leaders who created this situation, The Family, 'Reverend' Scott Lively, Rick Warren, and anyone else who helped this coming into being, then the most important evil for you to address ain't Obama or the Liberals or the Gay. It's right in your own household. So get to cleaning and stop effing with everyone else.

So, yeah, that got me thinking about whether you might like to sign this petition against that anti-gay legislation in Uganda.

Cause, yanno, you are Supreme Governer of the Church of England... and Head of the Commonwealth too, for that matter. You know, that organisation you describe as "a strong and practical force for good". The one that had the big summit thing in Trinidad and Tobago that you were at. The one that you made a point of referring to in your speech, remarking on "how important the Commonwealth is to young people." The one that apparently has all those nice programmes in terms of "new communication technologies." The one you characterise in terms of "practical assistance and networks" that "can give skills, lend advice and encourage enterprise."

The one that Uganda is a part of.

See, getting those kids... I dunno... cheap wifi-enabled laptops and MyFace accounts so they can "reach out to the wider world and share their experiences and viewpoints" or whatever, that's all very well, but it ain't gonna mean much if they're fricking dead.

I mean, I'm guessing you missed out on the meeting where the Commonwealth HIV and AIDS Action Group "called for the rejection of the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality private members bill by the Ugandan government and for the Commonwealth suspension of Uganda if the Anti-Homosexuality Bill is passed." They're particularly worried about how that anti-gay legislation is going to encourage the spread of AIDS. Personally, I'm more concerned about how the anti-gay legislation is going to encourage the spread of exterminated gays, but... different strokes for different folks, as they say. Anyhoo, it sounds like a worthwhile meeting to me, and I'm guessing you'd agree. As you say, "It is important to keep discussing issues that concern us all – there can be no more valuable role for our family of nations." And, well, a Commonwealth nation bringing in a policy that amounts to "exterminate the homos" is an issue that concerns us all, right? I mean, in so far as we're all human beings with that empathy thing going for us.

So I'm thinking that since you didn't mention that aspect of the Commonwealth summit in yer wee speech thing, you were probably off elsewhere at the time, shaking hands with shiny-eyed teenagers or something. Actually, it would have been kind of awesome if you had been there, if you'd stomped into that meeting, cigar clenched between yer teeth, chucked yer hat onto a coatstand like James Bond himself, and said something along the lines of "Uganda can kiss my regal arse if they're gonna be bigoted cunts." Yeah, yeah, it's a symbolic role, and there's all that protocol malarky, but fuck it. You're at that age where you get to be irascible and opinionated. Trust me, you'd win a million million internets if you decided to go maverick on the fuckwits.

I know you say that "[t]he Commonwealth is not an organisation with a mission. It is rather an opportunity for its people to work together to achieve practical solutions to problems." But it does, as those CHAAG folks pointed out, have a "commitment to promote equality and non-discrimination as stated in the 1971 Singapore Declaration of Principles and the Harare Commonwealth Declaration." Granted, when the latter sets out that "we believe in the liberty of the individual under the law, in equal rights for all citizens regardless of gender, race, colour, creed or political belief," it doesn't actually include sexuality in there, but we're talking spirit of the law here rather than letter of the law, right? Misogyny, racism, homophobia... it's all discrimination. Just ask yourself, what if one of your own sons was... oh. Wait.

Look, the point is, we have a fairly clear problem in Uganda wanting to exterminate gays. Whether shouting "WHAT THE FUCK?!?!" at them counts as a practical solution or not, I'd say this is definitely a good opportunity for you to demonstrate some of that "compassion and concern," to lead the way in working for that "better future for ourselves and for others." And when it comes to a "bewildering array of difficulties and challenges," this one seems pretty low on the bewildering quotient to me. If you're a BBC executive you might think "Should gays be executed?" is a complex topic requiring thoughtful debate, but frankly for most folks who have even a scrap of "compassion and concern" I'd have thought that was a no-brainer. And I'm sure one of Charlie's boys will be internet-savvy enough to show you how to fill in the form on the web. Trust me, it's piss-easy.

Hell, I'll even put another link to the petition here, so you don't have to scroll back up to it. So go on. Be a good Christian, Liz. You are the Grand High Poobah of both the Commonwealth and the Church of England, right? And as a wise man once said, with great power comes great responsibility. If anyone gets all snitty about protocol, just wave yer stick and set the corgis on them.

Anyways, nuff said. I'll leave it at that, cause I don't want to be a nag or nothing. Too late to wish you Merry Christmas, but Happy New Year and all the best for 2010!

Yours sincerely,

The Elders of Sodom


Saturday, January 09, 2010

Damn Those Icy Streets

D'ye think these come in adult sizes?

Friday, January 08, 2010

The Scruffians Project: Alfabetcha in Epub

Just a quickie to say "An Alfabetcha of Scruffian Names" is now available in epub format for anyone as wishes to donate. (If ye'd rather have that than the pdf, just do the Paypal thing then drop us an email saying so from the address attached to the account.) The story's not too far from the primary target now, so a few more donations might well put it online for one and all, but with the way donations have tailed off, I'll be surprised if it reaches the secondary target, to be honest. We shall see.

Meanwhile, I'm confused that people are confused by terms like "clunky" or "liquid" applied to prose.


Tuesday, January 05, 2010

New BSC Review Column: The Scourge of Sci-Fi

In the uptown district of Literature and the midtown district of Mainstream, so the story goes, the high-brow and the mid-brow all turn their noses up when they glance downtown, in the direction of Genre. Fairy tales for children, they sneer. On the door of the Bistro de Critique there was for a good many years a sign that read, “No Genre allowed.” The nearest they ever got to a genre label is General Fiction — a term with an empty definition if ever there was one, catch-all for a host of idioms and idiosyncracies. No, genre fiction just isn’t de rigeur there, so the story goes. So, fuck em, we say. Fuck the mundanes of Mainstream, the elitists of Literature. We’re Genre and proud of it.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Happy New Year!

So I got back from my Hogmanay Holiday with mates in a wee house in Perthshire to a ton of emails to respond to and other sundry works to be dealt with. Have I done any of it? No, of course not; I decided to play with GarageBand again instead. So, have some music to listen to while I get my arse in gear and catch up with all what's needing done. It's called "Wyoming October":