Posted tagged ‘literature’

Cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk. Thoughts on the aesthetics and themes of the technology centered genre.

February 27, 2010
Cyberpunk fashion

It's all going to hell and we can't wait to get there.

Cyberpunk is not dead. Cyberpunk, like the technology is describes in vertigo inducing blasts of techno-babble, is simply evolving. William Gibson had said, “The future is here, it’s just not widely distributed.” This statement came around a time when our digital world was just starting to emerge as the shared nervous system of the entire planet that we are constantly accessing and connected to.

Cyberpunk was and is an ugly, chaotic, nihilistic genre but what can you expect when the portmanteau name has the word, “punk,” in it? One of the reason’s for cyberpunk’s attitude was that borrowed heavily from the noir genre. Noir essentially plunged into the sordid underground urban landscape in which there are no, “good guys,” just not-so-bad-guys. Crime, violence, and sex were all on display (and often mixed together) in noir and cyberpunk borrowed liberally from this menagerie of human monstrosities. The result was something brutal yet, like Raymond Chandler and Dashell Hammet’s works, romanticized so that, despite the graphic nature of the content, we can’t help but feel we’re watching some kind of  twisted poetry. Yet, as technology was distributed and came to saturate every aspect of our lives, cyberpunk could no longer maintain its position that it was dealing with a fringe group of elite-bottom feeders who slapped together personalized cyber-rigs and raided the digital world. Instead, every five year old is now wired in and surfing cyberspace. Obviously, cyberpunk needed had to make a change.

Post cyberpunk came on the scene, updating cyberpunk’s themes and imagery while still maintaining a strong focus on the role of technology and its influence on human affairs. A new series of authors have taken cyberpunk out of the gutters and placed it right into the living room, the school room, and even the swank café. Yet, as Snake Plissken said at the end of Escape from LA, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” This is certainly true for much of cyberpunk and post cyberpunk in terms of how technology is not used an accessory or a means to an end but often is the end itself. Even more than that, there is a certain aesthetic sense that one can’t help but pick up on when reading or watching something that could be considered cyberpunk or post cyberpunk.

One thing that is found across cyberpunk and its progeny is the techno-porn. In a novel such as this, the technology becomes a character in itself. In hard-boiled detective fiction, the femme fatale of dame was the object to be chased after in addition to the main mystery. In cyberpunk and post cyberpunk, the technology itself is fetishized to an extent, raising issues of body violation and sexuality. Reading through the descriptions of cyberspace beamed directly into a person’s brain in Neuromancer, watching Tatsuo being scanned and tested in Akira, or watching the assembly trailer for Terminator 2, we are given technology as not just science but art. It might seem strange in this day and age in which aesthetics are held second to utilitarian functionality, but older cultures, such as Greeks, would adorn their weapons wich words, names, or pictures because the beauty of the object can both record history and create stories that imbue the object with more than just its base purpose. The converting of an tool into a piece of art brings the object closer to a place in our subconscious where symbols are made and giving meaning and emotional associations. The cyberpunk and post cyberpunk resurrect this practice, turning the hard and technical into the ethereal and beautiful. Speaking of ethereal, cyberspace and its portrayal is a majorly important component that adds a unique edge to these two genres.

Cyberspace is no doubt psychedelic and probably owes a lot to the mind-expanding drugs. The glittering vistas we are given in Neuromancer and Ghost in the Shell are a major change from the gritty urban environments that fill our senses and, again owing to the psychedelic experience, are moments of transcendence. Of course, being centered on materialism, the only transcendence we can hope for is one we’ve constructed ourselves: cyberspace. In these moments, we leave the body and the flesh and experience a world of pure mind. In post cyberpunk works such as Rainbow’s End by Vernor Vinge, the separation of the body and mind becomes less extreme with cyberspace being overlaid on the physical world via augmented reality. The same is seen in Charles Stross’s mind-bending Accelerando. There is a movement in some of these works away from a total submersion in virtual reality to a fusion of the real world the digital though there are plenty of post cyberpunk works in which full immersion is present. But the point is that there is a synthesis going on in which the cyber world and the physical are becoming less and less defined as a general trend towards altering our perceived daily reality takes place. In a way, it is the completion of a trend started by cyberpunk as the digital becomes so central to life that it merges with the ordinary world.

The ordinary world in both genres is often twisted to the point that it is no longer ordinary. Part of the cyberpunk tradition is the creation of a web-like tangle of different groups all struggling for something and, in a post-modern fashion, all these tangential threads meet at some point or at least have influence on each other though they may not realize it. This messy stew of motivations is often in a mystery context as the protagonists struggle to understand the motivations of shadowy and powerful individuals and groups that shuffle them around like pawns which is another major theme. People, as individuals, are always caught between agency, or free will, and being controlled by forces in the corporate and political environment.

Finally, I think a major component to cyberpunk is the color palette. Watch the matrix and notice what the two colors, blue and green, do. Notice how we come to identify the two worlds just by color alone. The same is done in across the board for the most part, there being exceptions of course. But looking at Terminator 2, with its primarily blue, machine tone, the blue and green palette of Ghost in the Shell, and the hazy tones of Blade Runner, we get a feeling from these films that goes beyond just being entertained. These colors work on us at a deeper level than we are consciously aware of. It seems that the colors most commonly used through cyberpunk works are tied to coldness while still being vibrant. For instance, neon and other artificially bright colors are common throughout Total Recall a wonderful example of cyberpunk themed entertainment. The richness of the color suggests a hyper-reality, or a stylization of reality as well as futuristic world. It also ties back to our natural love of shiny object, just like birds. But again, whether the primary source of color is cyberspace or a neon drenched city, color adds mood and personality to the films and books that it is present in.

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Write to the beat.

February 25, 2010

I found myself asking: is my writing made more effective by listening to a certain type of music? When writing a tense scene and listening to industrial music, does that throw off the way I write so that it is too frenetic? Is the oposite true? When writing an action scene and listening to ambient music, does the action scene become more subdued? I think that music can have a very profound influence on the way we feel and can influence how we write. Because of this, I think music can be harnessed as a tool for generating emotions that can give one’s writing a kick. I know that I try to listen to music that fits the mood of the scene I’m writing. One can imagine that one is a director of a movie. What music do you think would enhance the scene? When you see the events play out in your head, does the addition of the music have an effect on you? I’ve found that certain tones can have an impact on even the choice of words I use in a scene. I have started scenes listening to one song set to repeat then returned with another song and found the way I handle the scene changes. This could be attributed to other things like resuming an interrupted train of thought, but the effect of the music makes itself known on an emotional level and I can observe as my writing alters according to the mood of the song. I think that music, since it works at a level below consciousness, can be a great way to dig deeper and unearth ideas and perspectives that otherwise would not be accessible. Music, beyond just being entertaining, can be a valuable tool to a writer. Of course it also helps to break up the silence you’ll encounter after long hours of developing that novel or story to be exactly how you see it in your head.

The Creative Writing Process: Part 1

February 25, 2010

Talking with people, I can rarely keep myself from discussing books and literature. Sometimes, the person will say s/he would like to write something, that there’s been an idea brewing in her/his head for a while, just wanting to get on paper. So, I ask “Why not? Why haven’t you written it yet?” Aside from the all too common response of not having the time, the other typical answers are that s/he doesn’t know how to start, writer’s block when confronting the page, or disliking what comes out on the page. I think that part of the problem is that there are many misconceptions about how one goes about writing a novel and what one can expect to encounter in the process. Thus, this series of posts will be dedicated to examining the process of writing from beginning to end. Each and every aspect that I can think of will be covered though if I leave out an aspect of writing that you have questions about, leave a post and I will write on it. To begin, I think I’ll start with the preconceived notions I came to writing with and the realities I found once I started hammering out words.

I read everything I could from the moment I learned how to read. Words have always been quasi-mystical things in my mind. They hold incredible power. Just think about it: words, just squiggles and angles on a piece of paper, can make you bristle with excitement, cringe with terror, or cry from empathy. Words hold immense power and when reading a novel, at least a good one, we flow with them. The novel, like an animal, looks whole, complete, one organic being that fits perfectly together and could not be any other way. We don’t quite see between the words, don’t notice that, taken alone, the words fail to hold the same sway that they do when in context with all the others that make the novel. However, the author had to pick each one of these words and put it down. Despite its veneer of unbroken liquidity, the writing process is a staccato process. In other words, writing is done one word at a time, one after the other, like music. Books do not come fully formed but in pieces. Just because one has an idea, that doesn’t mean that it will simply materialize on the page. This was something I learned over a long while. Just because the idea is there, doesn’t mean it will look the way you intended it once it gets on the page and this is due to words and the way they shape and constrain ideas. Each word has to contribute to the novel, each one must do something for the character development, atmosphere, or plot. In other words, a writer does not sit down at his or her machine and suddenly give birth to a fully formed piece of writing. It is true that on the best of days, one may find oneself in a state of, “flow,” in which one simply spills words on the page, but often, there is a word by word battle to find just the right phrase or just the write rhythm to a piece of dialogue. Writing has sort of a mystical aura around it similar to a conjuring act in which the writer calls forth ideas and the words just assemble themselves. This isn’t the case at all. It is an arduous, tedious process that sometimes moves at a glacial pace as a certain word that you feel needs to be in the work alludes your grasp like a White Whale. Essentially, writing is hard work but it is, luckily, the type of work that if you’re willing to keep at it, you will be rewarded by the feeling that you’re accomplishing something. However, let’s say you do get all your ideas down, with all your words picked out and lines up. Does that mean you’ve done it? You’ve managed to attain the summit? Not quite.

Another very important thing that comes with your first experience with writing is that once you’ve finished and put the last word in, you will realize what you’ve written kind of sucks. At least you’d better be thinking that what you have in front of you sucks or else you’re not learning one of the most important things about this process and that is that it’s all about evolution. As Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit,” and he is absolutely right. When I went back and read sections of my novel, I felt awful about myself. I thought, “I mustn’t have any talent. Only a hack could write this poorly.” Thankfully, that harsh criticism never really went away and dogged me throughout the entire writing of the book. But what I realized was that it was alright that my first draft sucked because it was just a first draft. No one will see your first draft. It is a for-your-eyes-only playground where you can put in whatever wacky, contrived, or just plain crappy stuff you want because in the second draft all of that will go away as your pare it down to what works and what will make the story shine. Still, the fear will harangue you as it did me. You will feel that you are wasting your time on writing and that you would be better off learning how to salsa dance. But don’t give up because it’s just a first draft! It’s your right, in fact your obligation, to put everything down that comes into your head no matter how terrible it is and there’s a good reason for that. Painters have paint, sculptors have stone, chemists have chemicals, biologists have cells, and so on. The writer though has nothing. The writers starts off with only an idea and a head filled with words. In a way, we take on the responsibility of a god who is creating an entire world ex nihilo. Every other group can just shape and tinker with what is at hand while we must make our own material: the first draft. Once you realize the enormity of that and that the first draft is akin to a block of marble, you will learn to accept the terrible, effusive prose, the poor dialogue, the tortuous sentence structures and see it instead as just a story in the raw that you will mold on the second, third, even fourth go-around. It may be difficult to accept, especially if you’re a perfectionist like me, that your first draft won’t be a diamond of literature but learning to look forward to when it will be, once you go back and revise, will give you hope to keep going and to put pour your mind into your work.

Putting one’s soul into a piece of writing is fine but chaos without any kind of control is just that: chaos. Writing needs to be a sort of controlled chaos, an artfully executed act of insanity. Before writing my novel, I wrote short stories as practice and I didn’t bother with outlines or treatments. I trusted my instincts to get me where I needed to go. However, I had read in a writing magazine about the usefulness of outlining and planning so I gave it a try on one of my short stories which actually serves as an extension of my novel’s universe, more on that later though. In any case, I found that, prior to what I had been doing, the outline served as something very helpful. I had shied away from outlines mostly because I was afraid that by making an outline, I would make the story feel artificial, that readers would read it and feel that I was not being spontaneous and I was somehow being dishonest. To the contrary, the outline proved to be extremely profitable for creativity and making what would have been a sprawling jumble into a coherent picture that I could work off of. Even doing just a treatment (a fairly short summary of major plot points and characters) of your idea, may help you develop new ideas at an incredible pace as you don’t have to worry about finding the right words, just the skeletal ideas you will build the meat of your novel around. However, I learned something else: don’t be afraid to stray from the outline. Like the first draft, the outline is raw material for you to work with and to act as a guide. However if something doesn’t work or you want to take your story in a new direction, try it. Keep experimenting till you find the path you want to walk down. Then again, some people may find that the outline is only a distraction and that just diving in and seeing what can be dug up is the way to go. If you’re one of these people and this works for you, then stick to it though if you’re undecided or haven’t given the outline method a try, do so and see what comes of it. Sometimes a lot may come, yet it’s no good if it gets lost which brings me to a bit of practical advise.

Back up your data. The short story I had made a draft for, and that explained part of the origins of the novel, was lost when my motherboard shorted out. It was complete and was awaiting revision when it was wiped out. I never thought that this could happen and so didn’t store a copy in a second location. All that work was lost. So learn to expect the unexpected and protect your work like it was your child, which isn’t far from the truth in a way. But in any case, if you’re using a computer, make back up copies on multiple devices. Thumb drives don’t cost that much you know. If you’re doing it the classical way, with a pen or typewriter, make photocopies and store them somewhere safe. You do not want to put weeks or months of work into something only to have a freak accident erase it all.

These are just a few of the ideas I had about the craft of writing coming into it and what I found when I actually got down to work. I’m sure there are more preconceived notions out there and if there are, leave a post. Let’s see how many we can come up with. But the most important thing is that this is a learning process and the more you do it, the more you will come to appreciate writing as something both difficult and sometimes brutal, yet nuanced and uplifting. No matter what, if you want to write, go for it and don’t stop till you’ve put that last word down.

Next time, I’ll look at the earliest stage of writing: the idea stage and how to spot ideas worth pursuing and those that need more time to develop.

Two things a writer has to beware of. Wrist cramps and…

February 22, 2010

… CLICHÉS! So, what is a cliché? Here’s what the Oxford English Dictionary has to say about it.

1. The French name for a stereotype block; a cast or ‘dab’; applied esp. to a metal stereotype of a wood-engraving used to print from.

2. Extended to the negative in photography.

3. a. fig. A stereotyped expression, a commonplace phrase; also, a stereotyped character, style, etc. Also collect.

b. attrib. and Comb., as cliché-monger, -personality; cliché-ridden adj.

c. Used as adj. Stereotyped, hackneyed.
And this is what these puppies have to contribute.

No originality whatsoever.

Well, that dictionary excerpt was a fun read, yeah? Just about as fun as reading or watching something that makes us roll our eyes and sigh, thinking, “I’ve seen it all before!” Worst part is, unlike reading the definition from the Good Book of Oxford, all we learn from clichés is that the writer has run out of ideas. However, how do we avoid clichés when everything has been done before?
I think that there’s a difference between a cliché and simply a trope. I won’t bother going the really pedantic way of whipping out another Oxford Dictionary definition so I’ll just say a trope is a convention used throughout a particular genre of writing or film. If you look at space operas, chances are there will be ray guns. Look at horror movies, there will be a monster or killer. There are simply a lot of things we see repeated just because they work within their genre. In mystery novels, we usually follow a detective or someone working close by the detective (here’s looking at you, Watson) not because the writer is unoriginal but because who else would have such a privileged position to follow the events of the story? In the end, shadowing the detective or cop or what have you works which is why it is still used and enjoyed. However, there are some things, like week old eggs, that we simply don’t enjoy because they have just gotten stale… and at worst green.
This site provides a wopping list of sci-fi clichés. Some of them are listed as forgivable, while some are listed as gag-reflex triggering and I bet for those who know their sci-fi there’s no question why. So, what makes the cliché stand apart from the trope and why must a writer fear it? Part of the reason is based on holding a reader’s attention yet it goes even further than that. When you write, you are supposed to draw the reader in to the experience. The reader should care about the characters and should believe the plot is logical and essential, providing adequate motivation for the characters to do what they do. The writing, the flow of words, makes a weave of ideas, images, and feelings that the reader can get to these characters and places through. Yet, the brain is a funny thing. A cliché is a cliché precisely because it has been used so often and in so many contexts we just pick it out. Our brain locks on to it once we see it and we notice that things have suddenly gotten quiet….. too quiet. I’m sure as you read that last bit you were feeling it, that sense of familiarity that draws you out of the flow of ideas.
This is why the cliché is so dangerous to a writer. The writer must maintain strict control of the reader’s attention so as not to lose the reader. There are other things besides cliché avoidance that relate to this but we’ll stick to this matter for now. If a series of words rips the reader out of the story, the writer has ruined the seamless feel of the narrative, thus breaking suspension of disbelief. As an analogy, it’s very much like breaking the fourth wall and reminding the reader they are in fact reading this and not experiencing it at some level. Whereas the trope is simply a facet of the genre, often integral or at least part of the culture surrounding it, the cliché is a bit like a parasite. It travels from host to host. There are some genre specific clichés of course like in mystery having the detective be a tough-as-nails silent type with a bottle of hard alcohol in one hand and a femme fatale in the other arm but that could also be said of the romantic interest in a romance story. These kinds of clichés appear everywhere and thus make themselves unwelcome everywhere. Whereas the trope is simply something that works and that can be tweaked to make something new which brings me to the final point.
Some say that there are really only a handful of story types out there and I think they’re correct. We want something that means something to us as people, something we can relate to. We can relate to a quest or to falling in love. We can empathize with someone being terrorized or being driven to revenge. These stories represent aspects of human life and behavior. So how does originality come from that? The different genres help, taking their own specialized trimmings and layering it over these basic story archetypes. But then what? Does that mean we’re stuck with recycling the same genre tropes with different story frames? Yes and no.
Ideas are shared. If you’ve ever heard of it or thought about it, it means the idea was there in some form since you can’t think that which doesn’t exist. Even the original ideas are often times amalgamations of lots of ideas that were already there and that’s the trick to creating something new: synthesis. Look at the world around you. Take the most disparate things and try to combine them together to see if what results can be put into a story. While there may be no truly new ideas out there, there are surely an infinite number of ways one can combine things that are already there.
So look around, experiment with new combinations of ideas, then get writing. Don’t worry about the wrist cramps though. That’s a sign you’re doing something right.

Hello. Jack-in and tune on.

February 21, 2010

Well, this is going to be my blog. What can you expect from this blog? Why should you bother reading this blog? To answer this, I’ll explain a little bit about about me. I’m a writer. I write science fiction, mystery, suspense and related genres. Don’t go bouncing off to book stores just yet though since I’m not published though, with a little luck, that may change in the foreseeable future. In the meantime, I’ll be working on novels. I’ve finished one and am in the process of editing it. This blog will do several things: keep you updated on the progress of my novels complete with samples and multiple versions of excerpts so you can see the progression of the work, musings and thoughts on the craft of writing, and finally a place to indulge in all things Sci-Fi. To start off, here’s a video that I wish were the genuine article. As to whether this could even be turned into a movie that didn’t disgrace the source material, I don’t know, but whoever put the effort into creating the video at the top of the page certainly should be considered for a directorial position if a Neuromancer movie is ever made.

That’s all for my first post. I’ll be sure to update again soon with samples from the second, in-progress draft of my novel. Until then, fellow Net-Heads have a nice day.