No Hex Please, We're Critics Dept.

On the glories of griping.


Cannes Dispatch: Son of Saul - From the Current - The Criterion Collection

It is one of my most strongly held critical beliefs that you should not write about films you don’t like. First, it is bad for the soul to exult in pointing out the deficiencies of the film in question. Second, if you have ever had the luck to produce a film yourself, you are aware that any film that makes it to a public screen is a small miracle of energy and determination, and it is simply unkind to say that the miracle was a complete waste of time. Finally, and on a more prudential note, people mind about bad reviews, so it is a very quick way of making a lot of enemies.

I disagree on almost every single point made here:

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Tags: creativity creators criticism


Bigger Is Not Better Dept.

We've got to put a stop to these doorstoppers.


Fantasy must shake off the tyranny of the mega-novel | Books | The Guardian

The mega-novel is a pinnacle of the storyteller’s craft. When a writer appears who can really create one, it will always be a major event. Gwynne’s six-figure deal is a sign publishers are ready to invest in big stories, but there’s more to reading than bingeing on epics. If the fantasy genre, and fiction more widely, wants to remain healthy, it needs to nurture all kinds of stories. There are great fantasy short stories, novellas and single novels that deserve much wider audiences, but are sidelined by the industry’s unhealthy fixation with the serial format. It’s time for the fantasy genre to tell some new – shorter – stories.

I don't know that I even agree that "the mega-novel is a pinnacle of the storyteller’s craft", for the simple reason that not all longer stories are better ones. Length is not depth or profundity, nor does it even make for more absorbing storytelling. The mere 200 or so pages of Yasushi Inoue's Tun-huang are some of the most spellbinding I've ever read, even if the language is dry by today's pumped-up, overblown standards.

Longer cycles of novels are not a storytelling innovation but a publishing innovation. The industry has such thin margins as it is, they have to do something to keep people coming back, so why not make one novel do the work of five? It's a tactic akin to what ice cream makers used to do, when they pumped air into their product to double its volume, and thus turning one gallon into two. Not that the ice cream tasted any better, of course.

One of the other side effects of this mad quest for ten books where one would do fine is that it does damage to the author. Instead of doing ten different things, and maybe expanding their range or their insights, they're forced to do slight variations on the same thing. Maybe this tactic is justified when there's just so much else to do in this world other than read a book — after all, if you hit on one really intriguing thing, why not milk it for all it's worth? It's always easier to market something that has some degree of existing mindshare than to market something entirely new — although I see that more as a failure of marketing than a failure of the audience.


Tags: fantasy science fiction Science Fiction Repair Shop sequels writing


Science Fiction Repair Shop: Seriously? Dept.

People are watching SF and reading comics! And taking them seriously! The horror!


Simon Pegg: Adults' obsession with science fiction causing society to become infantilised - People - News - The Independent

"...part of me looks at society as it is now and thinks we’ve been infantilised by our own taste. We’re essentially all consuming very childish things – comic books, superheroes… Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously!"

Goodness, imagine that. People consuming works of the imagination, and having the nerve to take them seriously.

I leave myself open to the possibility that Brother Simon was grossly misquoted — note that ellipsis — or that the emphasis on his words was shifted to make it sound like he was condemning something he wasn't. But really, this is about as awful a piece of journalism as it gets. [Addendum: Pegg supplies more context on his own.]

Putting that aside, the idea that SF/fantasy/comics are infantalizing forces is beyond dumb. Why do they get singled out, and not stuff like Pitch Perfect 2 or Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, arguably many orders of magnitude worse in such a vein? Because they come from that well of goodies we have tarred with the brush of being "kid's stuff", and because we reserve a peculiar sort of horror for socially retrograde behaviors that's out of proportion with their actual impact.

If anyone is likely to talk about infantilization around here, come to think of it, it's me, but I don't think comic books/SF/ponies are the culprits here. That they have manifest popularity is a symptom, not always of bad things. I grouse about how the recent wave of popular stuff is not the greatest creative role model, but I know better than to think it's a symptom of total societal decay or something. For that I would sooner look to the loathsome and violent behavior of mobs at sporting events or fraternities, which don't earn a fraction as much of the hand-wringing, pearl-clutching flabbergast as people dressing up as Tony Stark or Black Widow (or, for that matter, Inuyasha). And again, why? And again, because the former is allegedly "normal", and the latter not, and better the devil we know than the devil we don't know.


Tags: fantasy science fiction sociology


Big Blu Upgrade Dept.

Oh, no, not another home video format!


Something I forgot to comment on when the news broke was word about the new Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc spec, the 4K disc format that is ostensibly going to be to Blu-ray Disc what BD was to DVD. It's such a strange piece of news, because there are a few things in the spec that I genuinely like — higher color depth, for instance — but for the most part I can't see this as being anything but another shot by the studios across the bow of the streaming services, and a waste of everyone's time and money.

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Tags: Blu-ray Disc technology


Windowbreaker Dept.

On contagious norms-breaking.


Traveling and work this past week, so not much time to blog. A few things stand out:

Broken Windows and American Oligarchy - NYTimes.com

... the eruption of top incomes that began around 40 years ago need not have solid causes — it could be a case of contagious norms-breaking. This might also explain why movements of top incomes are so different in different countries, with the most obvious determinant being whether you speak English; think of it as an epidemic of broken windows in the United States, which spreads to countries that are culturally close to America but not so much elsewhere.

Emphasis mine. I like that term — "contagious norms-breaking", something epitomized in a Japanese proverb I heard once that goes something like, "If everyone crosses against the light at once, it's okay."

I see behaviors like this everywhere, not just in the actions of the super-rich or super-privileged, so I'm fairly sure it is a major component of human nature. This explains why things like music piracy became so widespread and entrenched, and hard to argue people out of. Why not do it, when everyone else was doing it, and when most of the counter-arguments didn't really amount to anything? Few people respond to moralizing arguments unless they come from someone in authority or from a trusted peer; when they come from some anonymous other, they have no weight.

Now we're reaching a point where free- or low-cost digital music solutions are ubiquitous, and where it's becoming harder to justify piracy because there's far less of a reason to bother. Even there, though, I don't expect piracy to really start dying off for at least another generation or so — not until everyone who bothered with it is offered a workable solution that's at least as convenient as piracy itself, and the behaviors of the whole provide a sense of universal reinforcement.


Tags: piracy sociology


Metalizer Dept.

On building an escape hatch with software.


On and off I've mentioned a project codenamed "MeTal" (real name TBA*), the replacement I'm brewing for Movable Type for use here and elsewhere. The goal was, and is, to create a blogging/CMS system with the following requirements (listed here in no particular order):

  • Pure Python and HTML5. No PHP, no Flash front-ends, no platform-specific binaries.
  • Support for multiple blogs and sites within the same installation.
  • Workflow tools (e.g., page-locking).
  • A full GUI a la WordPress or Movable Type, but also a command-line incarnation so those who like to simply pipe in Markdown files can do so.
  • Live preview of themes and articles, a la WordPress.
  • Categories and tags.
  • Full-text search for the database.
  • Media management, optional but not required.
  • Elegant installer / updater.
  • A plugin architecture so that the base can be expanded upon elegantly, and where 
  • Good security practices throughout (use of an ORM for databases, unsafe-by-default assumptions re: templates, etc.)

According to my personal Git archive, the first formal commit for the project was on February 11th. Since then, I've managed to build a little more than half of the actual features listed above, as opposed to just fulfillment of general requirements. Most of the pace of the project is dictated by the fact that I'm doing it in between and on top of other things, but my goal is to have something I can give to people to use, not just beta-test under controlled conditions, by the end of the year.

Those who use a software package to do blogging, as opposed to a service, are opting for WordPress almost inevitably, and I don't blame them — it's a great program with tons of third-party support, loads of gorgeous and flexible themes, etc. But there are many design decisions that I can't get behind — the near-total lack of static publishing support, for instance. The more I see how WordPress's development is guided, the less I want to try and build anything with it or on top of it — and the more motivated I am to build something of my own that stands in contrast to it.

I don't try to think too much about how I should have started this project three or four years ago, back when something of this kind might have had more of a chance of getting some uptake. I doubt anyone beyond me and maybe a tiny cadre of people will ever use it; the ones really serious about doing their own thing with blogging are already settled with products like Nikola. Part of me regrets not taking an existing solution and attempting to build on top of it, but I've always felt uncomfortable doing that for reasons I can't properly put into words; I wanted something where I could build as many of the things I wanted into it as close to the core as possible. Granted, I used someone else's ORM and someone else's Web framework (Peewee and Bottle, respectively), but the rest of it was going to be my thing one way or another.

I know I'm stubborn, and possibly foolish; it's something I've seen manifest in many different respects. Rather than struggle with the odds of trying to sell some publisher on my books, I elected to put them out there on my own, knowing full well it would mean minimal exposure and no way to benefit from the publicity machines that publishers have at their beck and call. Likewise, building a solution like this from scratch would mean I could not count on someone else to bail me out if it failed (although, in theory, if I find the whole thing completely untenable, I could always export to WordPress and be done with it). But somehow, there's a satisfaction I get in knowing I've chosen my own path that I don't get from any other place.

* little Steins;Gate joke for you there


Tags: blogging MeTal programming Python


Welcome to the Fold: Sundries & Assortments Dept.

My busy-ness as of late, and where it'll be taking me


Forgive the radio silence on this end; there's about to be a good deal more of it. I spent the last few days being sick (I'm still on the mend), and I'll be spending the next week and change dealing with family matters and work. Between then and now, some news:

  • Welcome to the Fold is off to my erstwhile editor, as a preliminary move to getting an agent or publisher to take it on. How likely that is to happen, I couldn't say — it's not that I lack confidence in my work, but that I suspect a book this fundamentally unclassifiable isn't going to be seen as worth the effort, and I'll be back where I started. (How many times have I heard this same story from other authors: "It's a great book, we just don't know how to market it" — this from the same people who manage to market books that are only the slightest variations on books that were sold to us last year; surely it isn't that much of a stretch to market something genuinely new as the actual new thing instead of only a lame simulation of same?!)
  • The next book will most likely be The Palace of the Red Desert, title pending a revision. Likely to be started sometime this summer. Max length 110-150,000 words. I always feel uneasy about making such guesstimates; didn't I say that Flight of the Vajra would be 250,000 tops and it ended up being 350K? Perhaps once I'm hip-deep into it I'll rethink how much depth really needs to be there, but the main mission remains: tell the story that needs to be told, not the story you would like to tell. The two are not always the same.
  • Beyond that, however, is a project that could bloat up to elephantine proportions of the Vajra variety: Perfect Skin. This is — and I know some of you reading this are gonna wince — a resurrection of an idea I had way the hell back when and eventually abandoned. Most creators I know have a bad track record for revisiting old ideas, hence the wincing; most of those ideas are clearly products of an earlier age in the creator's development, and thus not worth revisiting to begin with. That said, I am salvaging from it what is worth keeping and dumping the rest. Not that I could do any differently; I did have a manuscript for it somewhere, but it got destroyed or lost or eaten by gophers somewhere along the way. Basic concept is a near-future setting in contrast to Vajra's far-future, with problems like income inequality, social & environmental collapse, etc. playing a big part. But the core story remains elusive, which is why I have kicked this particular can a little further down the road for now.
  • If all else fails, I could dig out The Underground Sun and finish rewriting that. This project was meant to be a kind of trilogy-in-three-parts capstone to Summerworld and Tokyo Inferno  — modern-day Japan as the setting, much like the first of those two, but with a totally different concept at work. Maybe today I can look back on it and give it the discipline it needed to be a proper story instead of just a clever idea that spun off in any number of different directions.
  • Two novella-sized stories, The Ark and This Little Light Of Mine, also remain tentatively on the schedule. Both are set in the here-and-now, and are mainly personal tales I mean at some point to set down and be done with.
  • Ganriki continues apace, if slowly.
  • Ditto MeTal, the publishing system I'm programming as a replacement for Movable Type. We might have something like a product for the latter by the end of the year, although I'm going to have to keep my ambitions modest for that goal. My original idea was to release a productized version of whatever it was I used to replace my own workflow, but I may cut back on that and just produce something that covers 75-80% of the needs, release that first, and then see if other people are interested in it as well. (Most of the things that are most important to me personally I wouldn't put into the core product, but instead provide by way of plugins, and if those features make sense as part of core, then I'd add them later on. But I'd rather keep the core as light and straightforward as possible, and not have it turn into something that balloons up every time someone asks for something.)
  • With MeTal will come a sorta-kinda relaunch of Genji Press. I like the format I have now and will only be giving it the most minor of polishings, but a nice thing about the new system is that it will provide me with the chance to non-destructively test out new formats — something I can't really do with MT as it stands. I could do it with WordPress, but the whole reason I started this project was so that I wouldn't have to use WordPress either.

Anyway, look for me again in a couple of weeks. I hope by that time my eyeballs will have stopped itching.


Tags: Flight of the Vajra Perfect Skin real life The Ark The Palace of the Red Desert The Underground Sun travel Welcome to the Fold work writing


Welcome to the Fold: Unfolded Dept.

Now the really hard work begins for 'Welcome to the Fold': finding an audience for it.


No, I haven't forgotten about Welcome to the Fold  — and neither should you, for that matter, because the wheels have begun turning on that project again! An editor (that is, a copy editor) has the book in hand and will be giving me some detailed edits. After that comes the real fun: the hunt for a publisher or an agent.

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Tags: editing publishing Welcome to the Fold writing


Movie Reviews: Under The Skin

Scarlett Johannson does so much with so little, in this minimalist story of questioned self-identity.



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The easy, and wrong, way to talk about Under the Skin is through analogy and metaphor: it’s The (Wo)Man Who Fell To Earth by way of David Lynch, or something like that. I resist this approach, because it reduces any discussion of the movie to outside references, and threatens to do a disservice to what the experience of watching the film is actually like. Talk about something only through the lens of something else and you end up not talking about the thing itself at all. The thing itself works very hard to not be pigeonholed, not merely in the sense of “is it SF or not?” but “what is it, really?”

Even a simple description of what happens in Under the Skin is likely to disappoint. After a sound-and-light show that implies birth or creation or both, we meet two people, sort of. One is a man who rides a motorcycle and rescues what appears to be the dead body of a prostitute from the bank of a river. The other is a woman (Scarlett Johannson), who strips off the dead woman’s clothes and dons them herself. This, the movie implies, is not the only disguise she wears.

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Tags: movies review Scarlett Johannson


The Moral Obligation To Be Creative Dept.

Do people who complain that there's no media for them have a moral obligation to create it?


The title is a riff on Lionel Trilling's book of nearly the same name (still sitting, I confess, in my "to be read one of these weeks when I'm not dodging quite so many bullets" pile). The upshot of the idea came in the form of a question I popped to a friend during a discussion of how mainstream media struggles to be inclusive: Do people who complain that there's no media for them have a moral obligation to create it?

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Tags: creativity creators media sociology


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