Posts Tagged ‘Random’

Warning: amateur philosophy. 

People are basically good, and also basically asshats. We’re a mixed bag, is what I’m saying.

Put it another way: people are fucking flawed, from breath to blood to atoms. I don’t just mean bodies and brains, either; I mean whatever spirit or biological synthesis you choose to believe is steering each individual beast in the collective meatflock. We govern ourselves with an ever-changing yet eternal series of moral, spiritual, social and legal constraints more rigid, for the most part, than even the most optimistic view of human nature believes us to be capable of upholding en masse, because the alternative means giving up on our capability for goodness, change, improvement. We have the memories of mayflies and the cultural baggage of methuselahs, and are historically, as a species, very bad at noticing the dissonance, mostly because we’re so obsessed with the solipsistic present or one of any number of hypothetical afterlives to focus on the actual physical future, as stands to be inhabited by actual physical humans who are not, in point of fact, us. We are capable of extraordinary kindness and unthinkable cruelty, sometimes within the same body; sometimes, even, within the same action. You want to know what human sentience is? It’s the only thing in the universe capable of doubting its own existence. Being human means being awake to the fact that you can be tricked – by others, by yourself, by sense and thought and perception – and wondering, if only at the level of subconscious unease, how often you’re actually right.

Which means that being human, dealing with humans, requires a somewhat paradoxical approach. On the one hand, you have to allow for human weakness, gullibility, culpability, ignorance, whatever you want to call it – not just in the immediate, short-term sense, but over and over and over again, as an acknowledgement of the fact that inevitably, people are going to fuck up; maybe in lots of small ways, maybe in just a few big ones, or maybe in all of them together, but whether we’re nine years old or ninety, no matter how much we think we’ve learned, we still possess the capacity for error, because that is what human is. But on the other hand, we have to demand better of ourselves than a mere acceptance of imperfection; we have to adapt, apologise, learn, because otherwise, what’s to stop us from embracing our worst qualities, not just as inevitable negatives, but as behavioural mandates? For our own safety and sanity, we have to draw lines: to say, some weaknesses are inevitable, but this doesn’t have to be one of them; to say, I have reached my limit for forgiveness, for transgressions against me and mine, and this is it; to say, I am done with you. Human justice, if that isn’t an oxymoron, is as flawed and fickle an instrument as its executors, but in the end, it’s all we have, because we are all we have: there is nothing else. Whatever higher purpose we might believe in, whatever faith we might have, or not have, in some final dead day of reckoning, when Ma’at weighs our souls or Charon plucks the cold coins from our eyes, here and now, there is no unequivocal spiritual presence but what other humans claim to hear and feel; and if we are truly mediums for higher voices, in this capacity, we are still just as flawed – just as fallible – as we are in every other sphere of our mortal existence.

And I wrestle with that. Not with the idea that we might be poor spiritual vessels – I’m an atheist, and always have been – but with the inevitability of human error. Because I’m not a misanthrope; I don’t believe our species is fundamentally doomed or bad or broken. And yet, with screamworthy regularity and repetition, we hurt ourselves. We punish and exclude and torture and misconstrue; we continue to both tell and swallow lies all the more pernicious for their having been disproved a thousand times over; we willingly inhabit systems whose cruelties continue to shape us even as we once shaped them, and which can no more be dismantled by the individual than a single bee can demolish a hive, and that should terrify us; but instead, we shrug as though we expect nothing better, as though we’re only capable of a collective, humane memory when it means making rituals of our worst ideas; as though we can have no mutable traditions, nor enduringly gentle ones. By profession and inclination, I am a critic, which means I spend an enormous amount of energy discussing various human faults, and yet the act of criticism is, I think, fundamentally hopeful: why bother with deconstruction if you think we can never rebuild? I’m not a nihilist, either, some bitter Rorschach incapable of compromising, even in the face of Armageddon: whatever I feel on my bad days, I don’t believe I’m yelling into a void. Or I mean, I do, but only where void is a synonym for internet, this great greyscale maw into which we tumble our collective psyches, bruising as we bruise.

The problem with people is, we have a finite capability to give a shit about every other person, just as they have a finite capacity to give a shit about us. We’re just too goddamn numerous, and some of us are actively trying, and some of us just ran out of caring three asshats ago, and some of us are happy being those three asshats if it means we get left in relative peace for five fucking minutes, and all that could still describe any of us in the space of a given hour, because we’re mercurial creatures, too, and however much we want to put our backs to the firm and towering wall of Other People Are Fucking Wrong, it only takes a single mistake to turn us into them, and then we’re the ones who are Fucking Wrong, and the wall falls on us in direct proportion to how hard we’ve been leaning on it, and sometimes it’s irony, and sometimes it’s justice, and sometimes it’s just random chance – which is to say, both and neither, and part of life – but either way, it doesn’t hurt any less for being inevitable.

Ideologies be damned: we find our truths where we can, and break them if we must, and sometimes our best is a toxic wasteland, and sometimes our worst is a poem. I’m sick of feeling adrift, of twisting myself into endless shapes to accommodate the fear that someone, somewhere might hate me for trying to figure things out, when far more terrifying is the great seething mass of strangers who don’t even know what stories are, or why they matter. This is my anchor: at nine or ninety, I’m here to learn.

I’m here. I’m here. I’m here.

 

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And here we are again, on the cusp of another new year and the end of the old. For me personally, 2011 has been momentous, challenging, crazy, wonderful, strange, and a whole host of other adjectives. This year, I turned 25 – a quarter-century! – and moved from Australia to Scotland. My second book was released. I made new friends, started new projects, worked new jobs in a new country, discovered cooking, threw a surprise birthday party for my husband, traveled to France and Germany, read over 150 books, got involved with the local Feminist Society, blogged a lot, took masses of photos and drank an extraordinary amount of cider. Without wanting to sound twee, it’s been a year when I’ve not only grown up a lot, but noticed myself growing, and in some instances consciously orchestrated the growth, as opposed to having random maturation thrust upon me by the eddying whims of adulthood. After so much blundering about, it does feel a little as though I’ve got myself together this year, or have, more specifically, got myself into a position from which next year can be confidently tackled – which, frankly, is a relief, because as the process has inevitably involved a certain amount of floundering, doubt and despair, it’s nice to have something to show for it, however hypothetically.

Politically and environmentally, though, the world has been in turmoil. It’s far from inaccurate to describe 2011 as a year of revolution: beginning with the myriad uprisings and calls for social justice known collectively as the Arab Spring, we’ve had rioting in the United Kingdom and the worldwide spread of the Occupy movement. There have been devastating earthquakes in New Zealand – the latest happening just this week – tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Japan, global financial instability, and the horrific rampage of Anders Breivik in Norway. At the level of society, 2011 has marked the passing of Steve Jobs, Anne McCaffrey and Amy Winehouse, among others – figures whose deaths have had an impact on both our landscapes cultural and emotional landscapes. Even if it hadn’t already been notable as the first year of a new decade, 2011 has made its mark on history.

There are lots of reasons, then, to look forward to 2012 – social progress; political redemption; a fresh start; ongoing hopes for self-improvement; the challenge of unknown horizons; the simple satisfaction of peeling the first, crisp page off a new desk calendar. I have Ambitions, internets, and come tomorrow, I’d very much like to share them with you. But until then, I shall round out the year by sharing with you this picture of my husband dressed as a Doctor Who/Dalek hybrid. Because I can.

Happy new year!

Musing on ebook piracy and free downloads yesterday at Alan Baxter’s blog, I made a passing comparison between the digital distribution of books, whether legally or illegally, and the sale of second-hand hardcopies. In both instances, neither author nor publisher makes money on the transaction, but whereas the former practice is almost invariably viewed as foolhardiness where legal and theft where not, the latter is viewed as a benevolent, even positive, parallel economy – and the more I think about this distinction,  the more arbitrary it seems. If publishers and authors are concerned about losing revenue to piracy  – that is to say, to the free transmission of their products and to reduced-price sales made by unrelated third parties in a digital context – then surely the natural system with which to draw comparisons is the physical second-hand market? Throw in data regarding library usage and loans between friends, and you’re basically looking at the real-world equivalent of the digital DL ecosystem, viz: instances in which a single first-hand copy is read by multiple people, only one of whom pays money to the publisher.

This being so, if the mass availability of free or cut-price digital books is causing authors and publishers to lose out on revenue, then you’d expect that the combined presence of friendly loans, libraries and the second-hand market would be seen as having an identical (or at least similar) effect. After all, humans are quite a mercenary species: if we can have something cheaper or for free, then why would we pay full price? Or, put another way: if I can buy all my books second-hand, grab them at the library or borrow them from my friends, then why would I ever pay full price for the same product? Why would anyone?And yet the indisputable fact is that people – and I’d even go so far as to say a majority of people – do.

Here’s an important question: how did you first discover your favourite authors? Did you stumble on them by accident, or pick them up cold in the bookshop? Did you read a good review and decide to check them out? Did a friend spruik their work or lend you a copy? Did you see their opus discounted or for second-hand sale and give them a try? Did you find them at the library? Did you follow their blog or Twitter and decide to read their books? Take a long, hard moment to think about it, because unless my own experiences are very much anomalous, the chances are that the first time you read a new author’s work, you didn’t pay full price for it. In fact, you may not even have paid at all. Going through my own bookshelves, I can vouch for the fact that almost every single author whose work I now collect or have ever bought religiously – Kate Elliott, Katharine Kerr, Terry Pratchett, Tamora Pierce, Robin Hobb, Sara Douglass, Anne McCaffrey, Neal Stephenson, Neil Gaiman, Richelle Mead,  Naomi Novik, Libba Bray and George R. R. Martin, to name but a few – first entered my awareness through free, loaned, library or second-hand copies. Douglass, Bray and Pierce all came from libraries; I bought second-hand editions of their early works, then expanded to buying first-hand when I could afford it. Elliott, Kerr, Pratchett, Hobb, Martin and Novik all started as second-handers. Stephenson was a loaned to me – in fact, I’m currently reading a friend’s copy of Anathem – while I won my first Mead book in a contest. My first McCaffrey was a gift, and followed by much second-handing before I ever bought her works new.

But Gaiman is arguably the most interesting test case, not only because of his favourable stance on piracy and free books, but because his is the instance that links us back to the digital world. Because when I turned eighteen, a friend’s birthday gift to me was a CD containing an illegal, ripped version of the complete Sandman, which I read voraciously and loved in my first year of college. As a direct result of this, not only do I now own all of Gaiman’s novels, but whereas the pirate CD has long since vanished down the back of a couch, I have since acquired the complete Sandman in brilliant, first-hand hardcopy – the same way that I’ve bought or been given all his other books.

So why, in all these instances, did I switch to paying full price? There were – and are – a number of reasons. Some, as you might expect, are mercenary when taken in isolation: for instance, though it was easy to find older books second-hand, it was simply more expedient to buy later volumes new than wait for used copies to hit the market. Aesthetically, too, a new copy tends be better looking and sturdier than a second-hand equivalent, and, in the case of Sandman, preferable in terms of both quality and physicality to a digital rip. But those are all pragmatic concerns: what changed  – what mattered – is that I loved the stories, and therefore wanted the best possible copies as quickly as possible. I wanted to support the authors, because I wanted them to keep writing, and because there was no longer any question that their books might not be worth the money.

But wait! I hear you cry. That doesn’t apply to the digital realm at all! Is there really so much of a difference between a ripped PDF and an official ebook that readers would pay for a better edition? If the accessibility problem is the same – if it’s a choice between clicking one button for free, and one to pay, for essentially the same product – then what advantage does a first-hand copy have? 

To which I say:

Firstly, if there’s no difference between a ripped PDF and an official ebook, then possibly there should be. The onus is on publishers to make their product unique – to reward digital first-hand purchasers with pretty content the same way that gorgeous hardcopies do. What about the addition of features that only work on one or a limited number of devices, so that a ripped version would be less special than an original? What about ease of use, where legitimate acquisitions are easier to make – and certainly available more quickly – than their illegal equivalents? What about digital bundling with hardcopy editions? These are all considerations that the industry is actively investigating, and while there will always be people who don’t care or can’t afford the full price – just as there are people who aren’t fussed about the condition of second-hand copies or can’t afford new books – it seems alarmist and inaccurate to suggest that there’s no meaningful difference between official ebooks and rips.

Secondly: believe it or not, the internet has not suddenly caused the entire world to turn into bastards. As I said in the Baxter piece, some of us – a lot of us, in fact – are more than willing to balance out our free or reduced-price consumption of things by paying to support the content we like. If the only conceivable advantage of a paid-for book was that it generated revenue and thereby allowed the author to keep writing, that would be reason enough for most of us. The webcomics arena, for instance, provides innumerable examples of this, and while I’m not so naive as to start touting the generosity, altruism and selflessness of humankind as proof positive that such a system should work flawlessly, I’d humbly suggest that any author who thinks that the majority of their readership is made up of selfish, thieving assholes should probably stop to wonder why they ever thought such people would give them money in the first place. As radical and terrifying a thought as it may seem, authors have to trust that most of their readers are actually decent human beings, at least where books are concerned, because the alternative is to start thinking the worst of the people you want to support you – and that way lies madness.

And thirdly, because it bears repeating: ebooks are not replacing hardcopies. What they represent is an increase in the number of ways that people can access stories, and while ereaders and their ilk are definitely still a new arena, that doesn’t mean the problem of free content – or, more specifically, of multiple readers accessing a story that has only been paid for once – is exclusively a digital problem. Digital music didn’t kill radio, and it certainly didn’t kill the industry; neither DVDs nor VHS before it have ever come close to threatening movies, nor has online streaming overly dented Hollywood; similarly, home recording, Tivo and boxed sets haven’t changed the balance of free vs paid TV. And if libraries didn’t kill bookshops, then I have a hard time believing that ebooks will either destroy publishing as we know it or replace hardcopies, because if there’s two things human beings – and, by extension, the market – like, it’s variety and complementary systems.

Returning to the concept that the provision of free content ultimately leads to more sales, consider how the internet has changed the way we read. I buy books now, not just because they appeal to me, but because I read the authors’ blogs or Twitter and think they have something interesting to say; because innumerable  book blogs and sites like Goodreads get readers invested in the ideas behind new releases while holding contests for the distribution of free early copies and ARCs that are no longer the sole purview of professional reviewers or one-off promotions in dead tree media; because there are free short stories, character bios, Easter eggs, wallpapers, maps and worldbuilding data available online, all designed to draw the reader deeper into the world. All of which is another way of saying: we rarely buy books cold any more (assuming we ever did). Bookstores and libraries are no longer our only – or even our main – source of information on upcoming releases, new authors, related titles and literary events; and that means that when we finally do front up to a first-hand store, whether virtual or physical, there’s a much greater chance that we’ll already know what we actually want – because somehow, somewhere, we have already been provided with free content.

Ultimately, I feel that the debate about ebook piracy has been stymied by the same sort of fearmongering that usually  characterises debates about welfare cheats. Yes, some people will always abuse the system, and it’s only right that we have mechanisms in place to deal with them. But simplifying the whole issue as one of lazy, selfish thieves taking advantage of the charity and resources of better people is always going to be deeply problematic, because of the extent to which it hinges on notions of deservedness. By which I mean: books are technically a luxury item, non-essential to daily living while simultaneously constituting an irrevocable, significant and active portion of our popular culture; but literacy is essential, and books are a big part of that. This is why so many government programs are obsessed with making sure children, and particularly disadvantaged children, have access to books – because of all the positive links between fostering a love of reading early on and later educational success. And yet, when it comes to the legitimate reasons why many people pirate ebooks, or rely heavily on libraries, or only buy second-hand – that is to say, because of reasons of disability, disadvantage, poverty and accessibility – we have a tendency to assume the worst of them, as we so often do of people (the same people?) who live on welfare: that they should be grateful for what they have, and that they are stealing from us by aspiring to possession of things whose full cost they haven’t personally paid, and therefore don’t deserve.

It’s true of every necessity – food, shelter, medicine, education, childcare – that there will always some people who can’t afford them. The solution in these instances is not to throw up our hands and say that if everything were free, the system would break, and that such people must therefore fend for themselves; rather, it’s to expect that those who can pay, do – through taxation, through donation, through the support of relevant economies – so that those who genuinely can’t don’t have to. And this might seem like a radical, even socialist notion (egads! hide!), but I genuinely do believe that books are an educational, a social, a cultural necessity, and that if the primary upshot of ebook piracy is to get more people reading – by providing books to people who can’t afford or access them otherwise; by introducing new authors to people who would otherwise restrict their reading out of uncertainty; by granting greater access to the books we already own but can’t buy in legal digital form because of region restrictions – then, as with the example of welfare, I’m quite willing to risk that the 10% of cheating, thieving assholes go unpunished in order that the other 90% actually get to read.

But maybe that’s just me.

When considering/plotting future UF stories, I strive to be culturally diverse, and not just Eurocentric. I want to have characters from a range of backgrounds, and what’s more, I want to draw my magical inspiration from a range of different sources. My aim is to do this respectfully, without ignorance or appropriation. I am, however, plagued by the following worries:

  • My default setting on magic in the real world is usually some variant of All Magic Everywhere Is Really Part Of The One System, Despite Regional Differences. This is because most world mythologies, at least at the outset, grew up in ignorance of each other, and can therefore only be unified by an amorphous Bigger Picture. I don’t like the idea that only one part of the world got magic (via mythology) right, and inventing new systems that are purely Eurocentric in origin feels like another way of saying that the rest of the world was wrong. But it feels like there’s a difference between rooting around in my own cultural heritage to make new versions of vampires, werewolves and the Greek pantheon, and rooting around in someone else’s to make new versions of celestial dragons, the Egyptian pantheon and djinn.  So I worry that the desire to explain everything as being part of a single system is itself a Western idea, and that there’s no respectful way to get around this.
  • When it comes to choosing the magic of non-Anglo characters, I’m very leery of creating a Captain Ethnic, where someone’s powers are directly linked to their ethnicity. At the same time, I worry that taking a multi-ethnic cast and giving everyone magic that’s derived from Eurocentric mythology, fantasy and folklore is an act of cultural erasure. Neither do I want to invoke the Avatar/Pocahontas plot of a white character inheriting the burden of someone else’s culture. Obviously, these aren’t the only alternatives, but they’re currently the scenarios I worry about the most.

So, internets: any advice?

I just took a photo of a photo

of myself.

 .

In it, a twelve- or thirteen-year-old me

sits on a wedge of carpeted stair,

a GameBoy in her hands as a fixed stare

rearranges TETRIS blocks, with her gold hair

lopped at shoulder-length, tan arms bare

and noticeably darker than a chest more fair,

a pale slope yet without cleavage; and a still air

of concentration. I doubt she knew the camera was there.

 .

My mother sent me the photo. A friend of hers

dug it up, then passed it on.

None of us can recall where it was taken, or why:

the steps are unfamiliar, the occasion itself, if there was one,

lost to history. Still, I recognise things:

the green shirt, favourite, acquired at Christmas – my best friend had one, too;

the black crepe skirt I wore to the theatre;

the sandals, as yet new, which I wore and wore

until they fell to bits.

 .

The GameBoy isn’t mine, though.

This one belonged to my godmother’s son,

a special clear case with black and white graphics

made (or so I can Google now) in 1995.

Mine was yellow, a colour model

not released for another three years, at which time

I saved my birthday money to buy

what my parents wouldn’t. Either way,

it dates the photo: December ’98, I think,

or early ’99.

 .

And now I hold the image twice: once in the print

propped up on my desk, the physical copy passed

from hand to hand, plucked from some album

and mailed overseas; and now, again,

in digital form. I pull out my camera

and suddenly, I’m sucked through time and space,

back to that unknown date and unknown place

to take a photo of my younger self

with a camera more advanced than the game she holds

by a full decade –

 .

And then I’m back, sitting at my rented desk

in Scotland, staring at a tiny screen

and the unblinking face of the girl I was,

wondering what else she knew, and did,

that was never seen.

I didn’t make it to Worldcon this year (as you can tell by the intolerable air of jealousy I’m suddenly generating) but thanks to John Scalzi, I’ve just had my attention directed towards this clip of Chris Garcia winning the Hugo Award for Best Fanzine. And as I watched it, all I could think was, this is why I love SFF; why genre pwns my soul. Because we give awards, not just to the people who make awesome things, but to the people who love awesome so much that they put time and effort and passion into intensifying, discussing and spreading the awesome. Because fandom is what continues to ensure that SFF isn’t just a label, but a community. And because a grown man can get up onto the stage on our biggest awards night in floods of tears, embrace everyone, forget not to swear, sit down crosslegged to hug his award and have a friend speak for him – and receive nothing but applause.

Because that is how we roll.

Standing in what turned out to be an utterly redundant line at Edinburgh Airport this morning (we’re now in Munich!), I overheard the following exchange between a father and his approximately seven-year-old son, who were standing behind us:

Boy: What does ‘suspended’ mean?

Dad: It means to be hung upside down from your ankles. [Long pause.] No it doesn’t. It means that Mike can’t go in to work for a while.

Boy: Why not?

Dad: Because he said there were no hot chicks at the office.

Boy: [Something unintelligible I didn’t catch.]

Dad: I wouldn’t say that, no.

Boy: And then his wife will smack him! SMACK SMACK SMACK! [Proceeds to mime a double-handed face-slap with indecent glee.]

I swear this is verbatim. Internets, it took ALL MY POWERS not to laugh out loud. Or, you know, to turn around and ask, WHAT THE HELL, DUDE.