Sunday, July 16, 2017

Because Summer

It’s summer, the days are nice, and I’m working, writing, and running around. So today I’m talking a page out of my own book (well, my own comic blog) and excusing myself for the moment. As long as you’re here, though, be sure to check out Lab Rules—it has an updated kick-@$$ cover image—and consider contacting me with any blog ideas you’d like to see in the hypothetical future.
I’m going to be fixing the roof.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Words Of Wisdom Or Something Like That

I am a writer. Therefore it’s only a matter of time before people begin quoting my musings on writing (*pauses to straighten invisible smoking jacket*). The only trouble I can see with this plan is that people might start asking me, directly, on the street or on the nationally-acclaimed talk show, for these said musings. That means that…how do I put this?…I will have to come up with poignant things to say right on the spot—and I am a writer, which means I’m used to cycles of five or seventeen drafts before the actual poignancy develops. When someone asks me for my most important step in the writing process, I will most likely break down in a stammer. (“Um…a snack?”)
In order to circumvent such a catastrophe, on behalf of myself and future generations, I am going to pre-emptively write down a bunch of self-spoken writerly quotations right here. Read, enjoy, make them into memes, whatever; these thoughts go out to all you writers out there. Now, without further ado, (*pauses to light invisible pipe*), let us begin.

·         “A writer’s job is to make the readers dance over the pages; then, when they’re absorbed in the rhythm, melody, and atmosphere, to steer them off a cliff.”
·         “Writers should endeavor to provoke thoughtful laughter; good laughter is the noise of thinking.”
·         “Be it a relationship, a state of mind, or a barrel-full of C4; in a good story, something needs to blow up.”
·         “Critics are good for your heart rate and debating skills.”
·         “When writing for kids, remember that they’re way smarter than you are.”
·         “The character is not crazy until he sees a toaster as a pair of electric mittens.” (Top that advice.)
·         “If the character is special, don’t harp on it. If the character is not special, don’t harp on it. Shut up about your character, OK? The reader will tell you if he/she/it is special or not.”
·         “Try to avoid places where your writing process will be interrup—
·          “If you’re trying to teach a lesson in your story, remember two things: One, people are stupid. Two, you are also a person.”
·         “The goal of every author should be to become his main character’s greatest enemy.”
·         “I find that if you take yourself and your writing incredibly seriously, nobody else will.”
·         “The first step in becoming a writer is everyone must think you’re crazy—including you.”

Ultimately, though, feel free to disregard all of the above. I’m not you, and (thank your lucky stars) you’re not me either. These are merely my answers to somebody asking me a hypothetical yet important-sounding question at a point in the possible future. But thanks for reading anyway. Now excuse me, I’m going to wander away so I can forget everything that I just wrote down here.
Again, I’m a writer. I write things down so I don’t have to remember them.
(Case in point: I also completely forgot to celebrate this blog's 1-year anniversary a while back.)

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Feedback, Anyone?

No quasi-philosophical writing rants today; instead, this is my chance to hear from all you people. The link at the end of this post will take you to a ridiculously brief survey so you can give me your feedback on my blog and my writing in general—and don’t worry, I throw some stuff in there to keep it interesting! So, if you could spare five minutes, the interrogation awaits…

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Get Igly

“Why have I not yet written about ugly people in literature?”—that’s the thought that occurred to me when I looked in the mirror this morning. Ha ha. But anyway, recent writers (maybe even you) have been incorporating less-than-glamorous characters into their works. Let's find out why...
First of all, the title of this reflection utilizes the word “igly”. No matter what my spell-check says, that’s not a typo; it’s apparently a very elusive and unused word. According to Bart King’s The Big Book of Boy Stuff (one of my many hallowed texts), “igly” means “Really, really ugly.” On the other hand, the online Urban Dictionary defines the word slightly differently, saying that it means “The quality of being ugly and cute at the same time.” Every other dictionary denies the word exists; this obviously indicates that the word is an underrepresented minority, and therefore needs to be given our full appreciation and support! But social justice aside, the slightly differing definitions actually don’t worry me—both of them will serve my purposes here. More on that in a minute.
So, on to literature. Fortunately the literary spectrum is not wholly populated by beautiful people, and thank goodness; if the main characters were always gorgeous, the rest of us non-pop-stars would probably find them less relatable. Take the comic book Valerian, for instance. In my efforts to broaden my sci-fi database, I checked out a copy from my local library and burned through it in a day. While I was more than impressed with the artful world-building (I can only pray the upcoming CGI cinematic adaptation will do it justice), it seemed the sworn duty of every single character to mention how pretty Laureline was. It became my litmus test for the moral bend for each individual; if they noticed how hot Valerian’s sidekick was—even if the observers were of a wholly different species—they were on the side of the good. It got exhausting; Yes, she’s pretty, get over it was my reaction less than halfway through the adventure. Therefore, it’s not surprising that a more relatable and less picturesque protagonist has emerged over the years, acting as a counterpoint to the familiar “Beauty Culture”. However, in its popularity, it has become a separate trend in itself, and as with all trends, it should be analyzed. Why do we use it—and if you are also a writer, why do you use it?
However, if I analyze all of ugliness, it would take way too long. Plus I’d have to study more things along the lines of stereotypes and popularity and cultural norms of beauty, and that can get pretty boring after extended exposure. For both of our sakes, then, I’m limiting my analysis to this category: Characters Who Do Not See Themselves as Appealing.
It’s still a large list.
You know what I’m talking about. Let’s have a look at a few: Quasimodo, Frankenstein’s Monster, Tris in Divergent, Cassie in 5th Wave…I think the list extends to Katniss in Hunger Games and Cia in The Testing, but I can’t remember if that’s so (and the books aren’t within a 3-foot radius of my person). Someone will have to tell me if it extends to Bella in Twilight too; I don’t know if she thinks she’s ordinary, but it’s likely. The point is, much fiction—including recent fiction—has a main character who does not think of him/herself as “the fairest of them all”. You might even have such a character; if you’re a writer nowadays, you can’t get by without one. But why is that character like that? What is the reason for their additional unsightliness? As an author, you can’t just say that you’re fighting the Beauty Culture. Unless your character is ugly because they’re consciously trying to fight the Beauty Culture, that’s not the reason you did it. So find one of your MCs (or find a book with such a protagonist) and let’s see how they compare to some of the reasons why a character is ugly.
1)      The protagonist/character is trying to fight the Beauty Culture. No, I’m not contradicting what I said earlier. It can happen; for instance, when a character purposefully does not adhere to the culture’s norms for beauty, especially in the way they dress. An example I can think of is Piper from Rick Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus series—even though she’s (MINOR SPOILER) a child of Aphrodite, she rebels against the typical self-obsessive preening of her cabinmates. This does accidentally make her more beautiful/approachable in the eyes of her love interest, of course…
2)      The protagonist/character is ugly, and knows him/herself to be so. Think of the extreme cases, like Frankenstein and Quasimodo, or the Beast in Beauty and the Beast. There’s also that movie coming out in November, Wonder, about a boy with facial scarring who attends public school for the first time. Here, the purpose of the deformities is the clearest and strongest; the ugliness is what separates the character from the rest of the world. They’re seen as “igly” in the sense of really ugly. For the sake of exploring a unique individual’s isolation and/or people’s perception of the appealing, it’s an excellent element. If the character wholly obsesses on it, though, it indicates vanity—which will come up again later. As an example, Hester Shaw in the Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series has a massive scar across her face—and her focus on it builds a wall between her and the other MC, Tom Natsworthy. The lack of progress in dismantling the wall was what put me off reading more than the first two books of the quartet; Hester’s character never really moved beyond how ugly she thought she was.
This kind of focus is not the worst issue, though, for here comes the biggest troublemaker of them all…
3)      The protagonist/character is NOT ugly, but believes him/herself to be so. This is arguably the most popular version that is out there in literature today. At worst, the character is “igly” in the sense of cute and ugly. Or the character could be plain. But the most common case is that the character is actually a looker. In 5th Wave, I can’t take Cassie’s lamentations seriously when she’s being portrayed by Chloe Moretz and a love triangle is being formed around her. At any rate, this self-perception is an illusion generated by the character him/herself, and as is the case with any falsehood, the creator can either believe or disbelieve it.
If the attractive character does believe that he/she is ugly or plain, it’s a sign of that superficial vanity that was brought up earlier. The protagonist looks fine, but looks into the magic mirror while lamenting that she’s not the fairest in the land…usually because he/she is not attracting the undivided attention of his/her secret crush. On the one hand, it’s often a good thing when character does not believe that he’s God’s ultimate gob of eye candy—whole separate problem there. On the other hand, though, it deals a serious blow to the character himself (I’m tired of writing “him/herself”) if the person is convinced of his irredeemable imperfection. It results in, one, an unnecessary pessimistic timidity on the part of the protagonist; and two, an obsession on the protagonist’s part that he is not achieving some artificial standard—compromising the character himself as he strives for a self-centered and unrealistic goal. He’s focused on the outside, the most misleading factor; and when that’s the most prominent, it eats away the rest of him.
If the attractive character doesn’t wholly believe that he’s ugly/plain but promotes the idea anyway, though, it means that he’s…how do I put this?…fishing for compliments. I do this all the time; look at my opening line of this essay if you don’t believe me. Now granted, some characters need some self-affirmation, for instance, when the protagonist has been told—in a Cinderella-esque fashion—that they are nothing special. But see if this sounds familiar:
“I’m not beautiful,” she said.
“But you are beautiful!” he replied, gazing into her eyes.
When the protagonist has had a regular upbringing, this kind of questioning is manipulative. It steers the friend/significant other into doing exactly what he’s supposed to do, that is, tell her what she wants to hear. What was he supposed to say?
“I’m not beautiful,” she said.
“And boy, you’re not kidding,” he replied, gazing into her eyes.
Look back to Version One of this scene; even though she hears what she wants, the girl can’t fully believe that the boy is telling the truth. Don’t think so? Odds are the plot complication of the narrative will, at some point, include the girl thinking he doesn’t think I’m THAT beautiful. Then, if she doesn’t again hear what she wants, she runs the risk of actually believing she’s nothing special…and I’ve already talked about how shallow that is.
Note: I’m not saying that I hate writers who write about the beautiful-but-blind. I just don’t like the ones who reward their protagonists for being shallow. You’d better handle this well, that’s all I’m saying. I’ve ranted long enough about 5th Wave.

In conclusion, I invite you to look closer at the ugly characters—and your ugly self—to see how the imperfections shape their respective subjects. A well-balanced person neither obsesses over their imperfections nor denies that they exist. Rather, the balance is in the middle; they fight against their problems, but don’t let them define who they are.

In my defense, this reflection wasn’t supposed to be this long. I thank you and your igly face for hanging in there.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Imperfect Perfection

So…Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has been out for a little while; if I am wrong in assuming that you have seen it, then it may be in your best interests to stop reading now. Well, actually you can keep going if you’d like—what I’ll be expounding upon today is not really a movie-spoiler, and I can’t afford to lose any readership I may have.
Here is the section in question: the movie begins with the wonderfully scrappy Guardians of the Galaxy squaring off with an ugly, tough space monster from another dimension. It should be no surprise to tell you that the Guardians emerge triumphant (otherwise there wouldn’t be much movie left); after their victory, they collect their bounty from the beings who hired them for the job in the first place. They are the Sovereign, a humanoid yet completely golden race of very, very proud beings. The reason for their pride comes from the fact that, through their self-applied technology, they have essentially perfected their species. They make no small point of this fact to the Guardians, and certainly from their perspective they have a point—the mismatched misfit band of heroes can hardly be called a stable, reliable foundation in comparison to their contractors.
Speaking of instability, when Rocket…no spoilers…“offends” the Sovereign, shall we say, the perfect race turns on their former hired hitmen and send an entire fleet of podlike starfighters to take them down. I’ll give you three guesses as to who gets the better in the fight—just in case you accidentally and wrongly guess “The Sovereign” twice for some reason.
There is a sci-fi point that I would like to make from this, which will then evolve into a writing point. Just stay with me here.
The most dealt-with topic in science fiction is the idea of perfection, especially through the means of technology. This is no large claim, since any advancement in technology can be called a movement towards perfection—that much is plain. Frankenstein in Frankenstein is looking to improve people by curing death. In The Giver by Lois Lowry, the…um, Governing Structure Whose Name I Forget is trying to maintain a perfect homogenous society. The Cybermen of Doctor Who want to unify and cure humanity of all ills through assimilation—“You will be assimilated” is literally their battle cry. Some sci-fi writers, such as the notable H.G. Wells, were and are in favor of this technological perfection; science seems a pliable path to this end (yes, I said pliable—the path can be manipulated by man).
But, and this is kind of an informed yet made-up estimate, 95% of science fiction comes out against this idea. The Sovereign, Frankenstein, G.S.W.N.I.F. (I’m not good at remembering names, OK? I had to Google Lois Lowry earlier), Cybermen, Borgs, Ultron, et cetera ad infinitum…all of these characters seek perfection to the exclusion of all else, to the ignorance of the price. To Rocket Raccoon, the Sovereign’s problem is obvious; they’re a bunch of (ahem) “d*****bags”. They’ve lost relatability and humility, and, as the following space battle illustrates, they’re not that perfect anyway. Cybermen go down a dime a dozen before the Doctor. And as long as we’re talking about doctors, Frankenstein’s story is a definite tragedy, as his backfiring experiment will make a monster out of both dead human parts and also the doctor himself.
Science fiction, if anything, is an experiment to test the miracle technology before it has been developed—often revealing that it’s not quite the miracle we think it is. Ironically, the “imperfect” is what ultimately destroys the seeming perfection; the dysfunctional Guardians of the Galaxy prevail over the Sovereign. The nonstandard Enterprise prevails over the Borgs. The bizarre Doctor prevails over the Cybermen. In all these cases, one may note, the bad guys never see it coming. Blinded by their own perfect image, they fall easy prey to the unpredictable shenanigans of the heroes. Homogeny is blasted by complementary variety. The Science Fiction Point I’m trying to make is this: if anyone calls me “perfect”, I’ll consider that both an inaccuracy and a gross insult.
Which leads me to the Writing Point.
All you writers out there—we can agree that the harshest piece of criticism your work can receive sounds like this: “The main character was too perfect.” I’ve had this lobbed at me more than a few times in my career (but once I was able to convince the reader that he was being too understanding of the MC—different story though). Their problem with the hero is that he/she is “unrealistic”; the image of the imperfect hero is deeply ingrained into our consciousness, and for good reason. It’s not an insult to say that the villain is perfect (leaving aside horribly imperfect villains for a moment). In fact, a perfect-seeming bad guy can open up all kinds of interesting questions into the nature of true perfection itself. But a flawed hero is what every reader wants to read and relate towards; the plot of the story often brings the character to a realization of his flaw and an action to repair himself. How additionally ironic that is a surer way to better oneself than the villain’s technological methods.

That was an awful lot for a reflection based on a fifteen-minute segment of a popular movie. If this blog is getting too amateurishly philosophical, my apologies; maybe I’ll go crazy again in time for June.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Finals Blues

It’s finals week at my college. If you were honestly expecting a blog post to come out of this time, you’re crazier than I am.

I do have a bunch of other posts to peruse while you wait, though, so if you need to kill some time I’d start there.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Robots, Intelligence, and Overwatch

Happy Easter, readers! And I’m sorry, but I’m about to wax philosophical again. The topic today is something that touches close to my home and heart, though; specifically, science fiction video games. Even more specifically, Blizzard’s whirlwind-success first-person-shooter game Overwatch.
I do not have this game, and that’s not really a complaint. The game has something that intrigues me more on an authorial level rather than a competitive one. A game really sells itself to me if it has two important features: one, sci-fi elements (of course), and two, a decent storyline behind it. A lot of my favorite electronic pastimes have these elements—Portal/Portal 2, Invisible Inc., Subnautica—and Overwatch has a significant amount of story included with the action. Just breeze through the Media page on their website; there are enough comics, trailers, and video clips to compose a novel, albeit with a slightly lightweight and fragmented narrative. The story’s premise is not complicated. During a humans-versus-robots (robots hereafter referred to as “omnics”) war, a team of random, superhero-esque fighters known as “Overwatch” rose up to bring about peace between the people and the machines. Then Overwatch was disbanded; I think it was because of collateral damage or disregard-of-protocol or something…but anyway, now the team has been re-formed. A terrorist group by the callsign “Talon” has arisen, seeking to destroy both the world’s guardians and the harmony of the futuristic society. That’s it in a low-resolution nutshell.
I spend an inordinate amount of time deciding whose side I would be on if I were an inhabitant—or active combatant—in this world. No matter how cool they may appear, I do not favor Talon; they’re your pretty basic kind of evil.
However…I’d hesitate to sign the Overwatch contract too.
Why? Well, there’s a little hiccup in this future society that I cannot overlook. The peace of this society is founded on the unity between humans and robotic omnics, which sounded pretty nice—until I ran across the full implication. It seems to be a promotion of an extreme unity; I’m not just talking about unity of purpose, being on the same side of peace and justice and all that. No, the sympathetic characters stress an actual unity, the idea that there is no difference here between human and machine, that they are “all one within the iris” (that quote can be found here).
Sorry to be Sir Stormcloud Sonnek over here, but…um, no. That’s not right. My inner G.K. Chesterton-fueled reason will not accept that dogma, and now I hope I can adequately explain why. Hold on to something; it’s about to get complicated in here.
To begin: I’m looking over my room right now. I see a lamp. I see a wristwatch on my wrist. I see a laptop—I’m typing on it right now. These useful, working items did not come into being on their own; they were designed and created by humans (you may say they were created by other machines, but consider this; who created those machines? And the machines before them…?). So first of all, humans hold the priority as creators of the mechanical. Next, it’s true that my wristwatch has more “intelligence” than the lamp—this timepiece knows all the world’s time zones, people—and my laptop definitely has more intelligence than the watch. Some computers, like Cleverbot, can imitate a kind of real intelligence, carrying on a conversation or running a complex theorem. The omnics of Overwatch have even more intelligence than this; they evidently have achieved self-awareness, a personal will, consciences, and even deeper transcendence. But are they the same as humans? No. Still machines. The level of intelligence does not determine what a thing is at its essence. A mentally handicapped human is still a human. An artificial intelligence is still a computer. So, on a scientific level, omnics are not the same as humans. That should be fairly obvious (and genuinely not racist).
But what about on the level of dignity? One of the backstories in Overwatch is that omnics were, and somewhat still are, treated as slaves for labor or soldiers for war, even though they still have intellects and wills. Should they have equal dignity as humans? My answer is…not enough data. See, a machine is essentially a puppet to its programming; as any computer science major will tell you, a computer says whatever the programmer tells it to say. The human provides the input, the machine generates output. If it’s an incredibly complex program, then it might be able to imitate intelligence, and if it’s even more sophisticated it may even imitate the will; but even so, an imitation is not as good as the genuine intellect and will that a human possesses. However, the Overwatch devotee—or person who read the last pargraph, I suppose—will argue that the omnics have self-awareness and self-transcendence, operating their own minds as people do. My answer is…really? From our side of the video game, we can’t be sure. The omnics could be running on hyper-hyper-hyper-advanced software, for all we geniuses know. But what if they really do have a genuine, self-contained intellect and will—and maybe even emotions? Then sh*t gets complicated. Humans and omnics still won’t be the same, but those machines will have much closer dignity to us than my lamp does to me. Again, not the same, but with a closer dignity—possibly equal, if they somehow have acquired human souls.
Which brings me to my conclusion—how these omnics should ideally be treated. My proposal is thus: in this aspect, Overwatch has the right idea. Treat them as you would a human. Here is my example: suppose I lined up a bunch of objects and started to punch them. Both you and the gathering masses would be fine with me pulverizing the pillow. You’d be OK with me creaming a clock. But you might start to get nervous if I kicked the mannequin. There would be some alarm if I smashed a statue or destroyed a recording of a person speaking. The point is, the closer the thing is to a human, the more dignity the thing has by association. Omnics? In both the worst- and the best-case scenarios, they bear a really close resemblance to the human, and therefore have an intrinsic dignity that is close to our own. Slavery is out. Exploitation is not good. If it can act like a human, then it’s good for the omnic—and for the human—if the machine is treated with respect. Leave the manual labor to the actual machines.
Phew. As you can see, that would be an awful lot to cram into a cartoon, and I didn’t even cover the idea of the Singularity (a person’s mind being successfully transplanted into a machine). I know that Overwatch is trying to promote unity both in its world and ours, but it might go a little overboard in its hyper-unified philosophy. That’s all. Good for me I was born in this century; otherwise Overwatch would probably have to shoot me in the face for my constant and unintelligible pontificating.
Now go celebrate Easter or something.