The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

6 November 2017
by skzb

The World We Write About

My colleague Fonda Lee (author of Zero Boxer and Jade City, which I recommend) brought up the question on twitter of feeling conflicted about dealing with book release issues (readings, signings, &c) when, well, the world is going to Hell.  I mean, you hear about another mass shooting, and then you’re expected to go to a bookstore and talk about your fantasy novel? How can that not be weird and uncomfortable?  The thread is worth reading, if you’re interested

She got some excellent answers from various people that I can’t improve on, but it set me off in a different direction.

I’m going to repeat something I said a few years ago, in a comment on the World Socialist Web Site:  “No matter how much one tells stories of magical beasts or impossible worlds, in the end, it is always the world of here and now one is writing about. The better one understands that world, the more powerful the stories will be.”

I still agree with this, and, in fact, as the pressure-cooker of our society intensifies, I think it becomes more true. One might, of course, “inject” political and world views into one’s fiction, but that almost invariably comes across as clumsy, artificial, and gratingly didactic. The point I want to stress is that these stories we tell, whether we want them to or not, are powerfully influenced by our experience and our interpretations of that experience, and that means by the society in which we live our day-to-day lives. To be sure, the influence is often disguised and can appear in contradictory ways: sometimes an outraged rebellion against the status quo can turn out deeply normative; sometimes the cry for a return to an imaginary simpler time, reactionary in feel, can be subversive or even revolutionary in essence.

We, as writers, are observers who turn those observations from vague feelings into precise words, which, in turn, form images and make connections to the experience of the reader.  I know some writers who can capture taste, smell, touch, and express them in words that make me cry. I know some writers who observe and describe individual human interactions in a way that permits me to see many of my past experiences in a new light. Others are skilled at noticing, deducing, and illuminating the motives behind seemingly inexplicable actions.  Other are able to reveal and explain hidden social contradictions.  And so on.  And all the while they delight us with the thrills and fights and narrow escapes and wit and striking phrases for which we read adventure fiction.

What I’m getting at is this: The things that infuriate, sadden, or terrify us in our world are already there in our work. The degree to which we wish to bring them to the surface is up to us, but they are there whether we are consciously aware of them or not. When, as we write, we remind ourselves not to cheat, what we are really reminding ourselves of is that our job is to tell the truth, and the more we manage to do that the more successful (and moving) is the story.  And when we go into a bookstore to do a reading of our tale of elves and dragons and unicorns three hours after a mass shooting or Trump’s latest threat of nuclear war, it will feel strange and uncomfortable, and to some degree it should—being aware of that contradiction simply means one is a decent human being.  But it is worth remembering that our stories do not come out of nowhere, that the same world that has produced these horrors, has also produced our story, and that, dialectically, our story can have an effect on that world.

2 November 2017
by skzb

Rant: The Bubble of the Upper Middle Class

This is probably one of the dumbest rants I’ve made.  I mean, I know why it bugged me, but my reaction was entirely out of proportion.  On the other hand, that’s why I created the “rant” category.  So here goes:

This came across my twitter feed a couple of days ago:

The person who has the most power over your life is the person you have not forgiven. That person holds a part of you in bondage.

Seriously?  That is who has the most power over your life?  It’s not the boss who decides if you make rent next month?  It’s not the cop who might or might not decide to shoot you because he doesn’t like how you look?  It’s not the government clerk who decides if your child support should continue?  It’s not the insurance company functionary who decides if you’re going to get that medical treatment you need?  It’s not the executive making millions by failing to supply your city with clean drinking water?  It’s not the abusive spouse you can’t leave because you have no way of feeding the children without him?  It’s not the guy giving the order to send a drone missile strike that will make your home collateral damage? It’s the person you haven’t forgiven?  That’s who has the most power over you?

Yeah, yeah, I know.  The sentiment is that we ought to forgive those who have wronged us.  Sure, fine.  But the way it’s put, I mean, just what sort of comfort,  security, and isolation do you have to have in order to be so completely unaware of what life is like for the mass of humanity?  When I lose patience with the thinking of the upper middle class, this is why.

Okay, rant over; thanks for listening.  And to the person who made the tweet: I forgive you.



4 October 2017
by skzb

Not About Gun Laws

The debate about changing gun laws goes on, and there is a great deal to be said and this isn’t the place to do it.  Comments about changing gun laws are liable to deletion.  I want to talk about something else.  I’m taking as a premise the following: the US has a problem with mass shootings, and, whatever your position on the 2nd Amendment, its value, and its interpretation, you ought to agree that it isn’t the only problem.  This is a place to talk about what else can be done.

Here are my suggestions:

1) Universal health care combined with improvements to mental health treatment*.

2) Stop treating war as a normal condition, and an entirely reasonable way to secure profit, which is like broadcasting a message from the top levels of society that human life has no value. Of course, this will require an immediate end to war in the Mideast, and war crimes trials for those responsible.

3) End police militarization, murder, and terrorism, which also send the message that, to official society, individual human lives mean nothing. Disarming the police is a good start.

4) End poverty, unemployment, and homelessness, major contributors to stress, desperation, mental breakdown.

5) Better education. While learning is far from a complete cure for bigotry and xenophobia—the cause of many mass killings—ignorance certainly provides a good breeding ground for those conditions.

ETA: 6) A comment by David Hajicek reminds me that eliminating capital punishment should also be on the list for much the same reasons as 2) and 3) above.


*In case it isn’t obvious to you, it is possible to object to stigmatizing people with mental health issues and still believe that there is a crisis in the US in terms of inability of the society to properly diagnose and care for people, and that people who randomly shoot down strangers are suffering from some form of emotional or neurological or psychological problem.

18 September 2017
by skzb

Predictability is Death

I’ve been watching Torchwood for the first time, and most likely the last.   It has various problems: I find none of the characters except Jack engaging, there is little or no display of the kind of the competence that makes us love teams (Leverage!),  and I keep getting the impression that Torchwood made things worse more often than better.  However, it was early in the 2nd season (Episode 3) that I was able to isolate the biggest reason it kept irritating me.

Look at it this way: It is perfectly all right, sometimes, to have the audience emotionally engage with a character , then kill off that character.  It can be cathartic, and it can also raise the stakes—it lets the audience know you’re serious, that no one is safe, that the danger is real, and so on.


If the only time there is emotional engagement you know that it will turn out bad, that there’s no chance of it working out, then all of a sudden you’ve lowered the stakes, usually to zero; I find myself saying, “Oh, look.  It’s a sweet romance; I guess that he’s going to leave so I can feel all sad for her.  Whatever.”  Or, “Hey, an extremely likable character.  He’s going to die.  Yawn.”

Just as the possibility of sorrow increases the tension and makes us engage, if there is no possibility of happiness, we just stop caring.