Drama at the Dragon Awards

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The Dragon Awards made a colossal mistake: it caved to the whims of writers who disrespected their fans.

Alison Littlewood and N.K. Jemisin withdrew their novels from the Dragon Awards nomination. John Scalzi, who initially withdrew, decided to withdraw his withdrawal. The former two claimed they were being used as proxies in the culture war. Scalzi came back because the organizers asked him to reconsider.

This isn’t obvious to outsiders, but these are classic social justice entryist tactics.

The Dragon Awards was conceived of as an award by the fandom. No gatekeepers, no entry fees, no backdoor politicking. Just fans nominating their favourite works.

None of the major SFF blocs — PulpRev, Superversive, Puppies — had any intention to destroy the Awards or drag personal politics into it. The recommendations they made were in good faith. None of them recommended Littlewood, Jemisin and Scalzi; those works do not meet their tastes — but they didn’t go out of their way to actively discourage people from nominating the trio either.

The fans of these authors nominated them in good faith. By withdrawing their stories, the writers spat on their own fans.

Littlewood and Jemisin demonstrated that they didn’t have faith in their audience. In Littlewood’s case, she believed that she was nominated because Vox Day, the most controversial blogger in SFF, recommended her work. Jemisin claimed there was “no way to know if [her] book’s presence on the list was legitimately earned through individual, freely-chosen votes by a representative sampling of DragonCon members.”

Littlewood is saying that she didn’t want fans with the wrong politics to read her works. Jemisin’s rationale is utter nonsense: there is no way to enforce block voting over the Net, and Dragoncon had measures in place to prevent repeat votes. Jemisin was simply posturing to her loyal fanbase, allowing her to win the Hugo Award.

It seems odd that a writer would accept the Hugo Award for her latest novel, but refuse any chance of winning a second award for the same novel. But that’s because the Hugo Awards have been converged.

The Hugos used to be about recognising the finest SFF works. But for three decades and counting, it’s been about recognising the most propaganda-heavy message fiction produced by the most superficially diverse group of creators. The Hugo Awards is where SJWs in SFF go to congratulate themselves and shut out everybody else — it’s little wonder that the number of nominating ballots and final ballots dropped by 50% from last year.

Social Justice Warriors aren’t going to fight fair. They want the rules to be changed in their favor, and in so doing change the nature of the organization they are targeting.

By pushing for the right to withdraw their nominations, these entryists want to change the Dragon Awards from a fan-centric award to a talent-centric award — an award dictated by the whims of the people involved.

As for Scalzi’s case, when he first tried to withdraw, the Awards’ organisers refused. Then they changed their minds and allowed the withdrawal. Then they asked Scalzi to reconsider. This flip-flopping signals that the organisers lack spine, and aren’t willing to enforce their own rules and standards. Organisations that cannot stand fast will bend to suit the whims of the outrage-mongers.

In my last post, I stated that while you may not care about the culture war, the culture war cares about you. This is what the opening shots look like: an attempt to influence the targeted organisation to abandon its mission and serve the whims of those who will not respect their fans.

I don’t want the Dragon Awards to go the way of the Hugos. Nobody from the fandom does. We must roll back the entryists before they can gain a foothold.

John Scalzi cannot be allowed to win an award. If he wins, it will galvanise his fellow social justice warriors, giving them incentive to put even more pressure on the Dragon Awards next year. I would urge you to vote instead for Brian Nemeier’s The Secret Kings. Nemeier is one of the leading indie SFF authors of this generation, and should he win the award, he will cede it to L Jagi Lamplighter, whose work catalyzed the Superversive movement.

The Dragon Awards’ organisers must enforce their mission through a clear and unbendable withdrawals policy. Either they prevent authors from withdrawing once nominated, or they allow withdrawals on the understanding that it will irrevocably bar those authors from ever being nominated for the Dragon Awards again. I am personally in favour of the latter: any author who withdraws his work from a fan award has betrayed the trust of everyone who deemed his work worthy of the award.

The Dragon Awards is for the fans. Anything that compromises that cannot be tolerated. It’s time to kick out the entryists, enforce the core mission, and get back to celebrating the best of SFF. Life is too short for drama like this.

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I am grateful to my fans for nominating NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS for the Dragon Awards under the Alternate History category. If you’d like to check it out before voting, you can find it on Amazon here. When you’re ready to vote, click here to sign up.

My Winding Road To PulpRev

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I wasn’t always a science fiction and fantasy reader. Despite what my bibliography says, in some ways I still am not. At least, not the kind of reader most SFF is aimed at.

As a child I read voraciously, but I was always drawn to world myths, folklore and fairy tales. One day I would read about how a boy and a girl outmatched Baba Yaga with kindness and intelligence; the next I saw Thor slaying Jormungandr and in turn dying from the world serpent’s venom; the day after I witnessed Krishna opening his mouth to his human mother Yashoda to reveal the entire universe. These were tales of courage and cowardice, sin and virtue, heartbreak and sacrifice, duty and destiny.

When I finally meandered over to the fiction section, I found myself utterly bored. Age-appropriate stories had their own charm, but they paled in comparison to the stories I had read. How could a girl who used her photographic memory to solve small mysteries compare to the Aesir’s cunning scheme to bind Fenrir and prevent a premature Ragnarok? Why should I care for the everyday tales of the Bookworm Gang when I could read of the tragedies, labours and triumphs of Hercules? What were the exploits of Mr Kiasu when placed next to Scheherazade’s tales?

Nevertheless, I kept reading everything I could get my hands on. The TintinAsterix and the Hardy Boys series made regular appearances in my household. Readers Digest sent condensed novels to my home then, and there I ventured into adult fiction. At the age of 13, a classmate lent me a copy of Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six, and there I discovered a new genre: thrillers.

I read every Tom Clancy work I could find, and sought other writers in the same vein: Chris Ryan, Andy McNab, Larry Bond, Dale Brown. Here were stories of geopolitics, terrorism, war, of issues that mattered to readers of the day. These were events that could have happened and worlds that might have existed. Here I studied tradecraft, politics, human motivations, tactics, technology and absorbed the lessons of research, meticulousness and mindset.

When the Harry Potter craze hit Singapore, I got my hands on the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It was a decent story in its own right, but to someone who had grown up reading the tragedy of King Arthur, Xuanzang’s journey to the West, and the exploits of John Clark, Harry Potter was… underwhelming. It had its merits, but it wasn’t worth a second read. I understood its appeal to regular children, but I, having achieved the Grail with Galahad, slain the Medusa with Perseus and defeated terrorists beside Team Rainbow, was no regular child.

Nevertheless, I attempted to read other modern science fiction and fantasy stories. Storm Front by Jim Butcher was one of the few I remembered: it was raw, but even then it was entertaining, and to be fair Butcher got better with each successive novel. But the rest? There was no sense of tradecraft, no sense of stakes, no plot, wooden dialogue, characters who avoided death simply because the enemy lacked intelligence. They weren’t worth my time.

I turned elsewhere. Michael Connolly, Daniel Silva, Charles Cumming, Max Arthur Collins, Barry Eisler, Marcus Sakey, Stephen Hunter, Sean Chercover. In crime and spy thrillers I found a different emphasis: where the technothrillers of my youth paid fetishistic attention to technology and weaponry, these thrillers sketched out all-too-human portrayals of people and their achievements and failings. And yet… they still lacked something quintessential, something I had seen in my childhood books but not quite replicated.

I turned to the classics. Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley. Here, I found it again: recognition of elemental evil, celebration of the human spirit, the triumph of transcendent goodness. I found adventure and excitement and philosophy and science and reason. In Around the World in Eighty Days I saw how decisiveness, technology, creativity and an obscene amount of money could take a man on globe-spanning adventures; in War of the Worlds I caught a nightmarish vision of an unstoppable alien invasion, on par with the Apocalypse; in Frankenstein I saw the consequences of mad science and an exploration of the human spirit; Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea mixed romantic adventure with then-cutting-edge science.

I had found the pioneers of science fiction and fantasy.

Once again I looked at modern science fiction and fantasy. And once again I was repulsed. I was the child reading a poor version of Harry Potter: having seen the enlightenment of the Buddha, the twilight of the gods and the resurrection of the Christ, what were these stories but pale shadows? But for a few glittering jewels, these stories were dull and flat, inspiring little more than boredom and contempt.

Then I found John Ringo. And from Ringo I found David Drake, David Weber and Larry Correia. These were the descendants of the stories that had fired my boyhood imagination: heroes facing mortal and moral peril, exotic locales, excellent tradecraft and tactics, weighty actions whose consequences rippled through the story universe, coherent technology and intricate settings. I looked at what inspired them, and I found Robert A. Heinlein, Raymond Chandler, H. P. Lovecraft, Dashiell Hammet, Mickey Spillane, Frank Herbert, Elmore Leonard.

In these stories I rediscovered what I had lost: expansive worlds and settings, characters clothed in their culture and their beliefs, exhilaration at overcoming impossible odds, unflinching explorations of the dark heart of man, epic struggles of good against evil, inhuman monsters and alien beings. In these stories I rediscovered the universal elements that lurked at the heart of the grand tales of my childhood. I saw the lineage of ideas and story elements linking these stories to the classics, and from the classics to the world myths.

I had rediscovered the pulps.

How could science fiction and fantasy have fallen so far? When did tales of galaxy-spanning empires give way to interchangeable dystopias in generic Earths wrecked by the predictable boogeyman of climate change? How did military science fiction, the literature of high strategy and wartime ethics and futuristic tactics, become stylized shoot ’em ups or bland sludge about everything but the military? Why do modern SFF stories have characters clinging to 21st century progressive cultural and political values in settings that could not justify them, while old-time stories had entire schools of thought and cultural norms that flowed organically from their settings?

These questions, and more, haunted me as I explored fiction. When I took up the pen, I decided I could not follow in the footsteps of modern SFF writers. Against the old masters, they were like candles to the sun, and I refuse to craft dim candles when I could ignite new stars.

In my writing and my research, I strove to keep one foot firmly in the Golden Age and the other in the present. As I studied the pulp masters I blended their techniques with the rest of my arsenal, drawing upon what I have learned from war stories and mythology, fairy tales and thrillers. And in doing so I found others who shared my approach.

This is where I found PulpRev. Be they members of the Pulp Revolution or Pulp Revival, the people of PulpRev respect the tales of the past while training their eyes on the future. They are the children of the Internet era: they banter on Twitter and Gab and Discord, they haul up the books of the past with Project Gutenburg, they make full use of blogging and self-publishing platforms to get the word out. They tell stories for a modern audience while honouring what made their literary inspirations timeless. For PulpRev, the answer to the doldrums and the blandness of modern SFF is simple: regress harder. Regress to the glory days of pulp, and revel in the forgotten era of SFF. Rediscover the tales of lost cities and atomic rockets, planetary romances and adventure fiction, and breathe new life into a stale, insipid, calcified industry.

PulpRev is a rapidly-growing movement in SFF. We are writers and readers, indies and hybrids, and we have come to create a new epoch. We uphold the old masters, and we birth new works of our own. Neither politics nor borders divides us. Ours is a big tent: all who appreciate the pulp aesthetic is of our tribe. If you wish for fiction that sends the spirit soaring, fiction that is romantic and heroic and thrilling, fiction that is just plain fun, come join us, and together we shall make SFF great again.

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If you’d like to see the fruits of my research in pulp and writing, you can find my novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon and the Castalia House ebook store.

Initial Reviews for NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS

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Reviews for NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS are rolling in, and reader reception has been highly positive. Here are a few samples from Amazon:

Ray, May 5, 2017

Great book, that took a surprising twist on the usual mixing of Urban Fantasy and Military cloak and dagger genre, plus a bit of alternate history. I’ll need to re-read it because there is a lot under the surface of this hard to put down well written book…
The action is fast paced and it reminded me of Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter series that is just a fun read, but with a much more sophisticated, serious world view… The mythology makes sense and is not the usual urban fantasy drek. The attention
to detail reminds me of the Laundry Series by Charlie Stross. I look forward to reading the next book in the series.

James Nealon, May 6, 2017

The book is damnably technical, or is it technically damning? Mr. Cheah wrote a very good military spy/thriller, of the type that pulls you into intense action… The book is very well written, with very good characterization of heroes and villains… I can’t wait for more in the series. Great action hook for the book, and a great hook for the series.

Koba, May 11, 2017

This is an action-packed story of “counter-terrorism with a twist”…The alternate Earth is extremely well-realized and convincing. It is just “different enough” that it is not too predictable… The system of magic and the “theology” of the book are also well thought-out and coherent… I would compare this favorably with Larry Correia’s “Monster Hunter” series – action oriented, lots of weapons, but with supernatural elements. If you liked his books, you will like this book. I am definitely looking forward to the sequels from this exciting new author!

NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS can be can found on Amazon and the Castalia House ebook store. If you have already bought a copy, do consider leaving a review on Amazon or your blog if you have one. That would help others find and enjoy this novel too.

Thanks for your support, and please look forward to the sequel, HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.

Can post-cyberpunk fiction be superversive?

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“The important part in Cyberpunk is just that: it’s not the technology, it’s the feel. It’s getting that dark, gritty, rain-wet street feeling but at the same time getting that rock and roll, lost and desperate and dangerous quality. Cyberpunk is about that interface between people and technology, but not in that transhumanist way where it’s all about the technology changing or improving them. It’s about how people use things… Cyberpunk isn’t about saving humanity. It’s about saving yourself.”
Mike Pondsmith

Cyberpunk is the literature of subversion. There are no clean, shiny and prosperous utopian futures promised in old-school science fiction; here you find the dirty streets of dystopias born from the unholy union of untrammeled megacorporations and state power. Technology doesn’t elevate people; it twists them into man-machine hybrids, exposes their secrets for all to see, and creates fresh prisons for the mind and body. Heroes are dead and forgotten; in their places are marginalised, alienated loners at civilisation motivated only by self-preservation. Where the best of science fiction tries to take humanity to the stars, cyberpunk drags humanity into the gritty, nihilistic underbelly of the world.

By contrast, superversive fiction is fiction for a more civilised age. Where subversive fiction undermines, superversive fiction builds back up. The best superversive fiction is a celebration of the values and ideas that underpin civilisation: family, law and order, morality, religion, tradition. To quote from Russell Newquist, superversive fiction is marked by at least some of the following:

Heroes who are actually heroic. They don’t have to be heroic all of the time, or even most of the time. But when the time comes, they must actually be heroic.

People are basically good. Not all the time, not in every case – and certainly not every person. But basically.

Good Wins. Not every time – a good story always has setbacks in it. But evil winning is most definitely not superversive.

True love is real. Again, maybe not for everybody. But it’s real.

Beauty is real. It’s ok to show the warts. But show the beauty, too.

The transcendent is awesome. There’s no obligation to show any particular religion, or even really religion at all. But superversive literature should show the glory and splendor of the wider universe around us, and it should leave us in awe of it.

Family is good and important. Not every family, sure. But those are the exceptions, not the rule.

Civilization is better than barbarism. This doesn’t mean barbarians are evil, or that they aren’t fun. But in the end, they’re… well, barbaric.

Strength, courage, honor, beauty, truth, sacrifice, spirituality, and humility are virtues. This can be demonstrated by showing people breaking the virtues. But they must be recognized as virtues.

There is hope. Superversive stories should never leave the reader feeling despair.

Cyberpunk is opposed to superversive fiction at every level. There are no heroes, only blackhearted characters either performing fell deeds or manipulating people into performing them. Love and beauty are either alien or transient, and functional families are unheard of. There is no hope of transcendence, except maybe as a ghost in a machine. The primary characters reject civilisation and its virtues, instead living by their own codes at the edge of society. Cyberpunk fiction rarely has happy endings, and those that do tend to be bittersweet or temporary.

Blend everything together and you have a recipe for darkness-induced audience apathy.

Meaningful conflict is the heart of drama. Readers need to empathise with characters. Actions should not entirely be in vain. Evil is punished, good prevails, civilisation endures or evolves. Without these elements, it becomes exceedingly hard for a reader to care. Why should a reader care about a self-destructive misanthropic loner who remains a self-destructive misanthropic loner? Why should a reader be concerned about the fate of an oppressive dystopia? Why should a reader cheer on a traitor, a liar or a murderer with no redeeming traits? With such societies and characters, it takes great skill to hook a reader and keep him invested in the story — a skill few cyberpunk writers, if any, have. Indeed, it is telling that the authors once associated with cyberpunk no longer write cyberpunk.

Is there room for superversive cyberpunk?

Probably not, but that’s what post-cyberpunk is for.

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Epitomised by works like Ghost in the Shell, post-cyberpunk draws upon the cyberpunk ethos and places its own spin on things. Shaped by the technological development and societal attitudes of the 21st century, post-cyberpunk represents an evolution of cyberpunk without necessarily retaining its nihilistic post-modern attitudes.

As Mike Pondsmith says, cyberpunk isn’t about the technology, but the feel. It’s the contrast of high tech and low life, of desperate struggles in the dark, of how people use and abuse technology. Even with this aesthetic there is room for superversion.

Ghost in the Shell (the anime and manga, NOT the live-action movie) features a secret police officer who protects a future Japan against terrorists and corrupt bureaucrats while exploring heavy philosophical themes. Psycho-Pass stars an idealistic police officer who struggles to retain her humanity as she defends a dystopian police state. Deus Ex: Human Revolution and its sequel Mankind Divided features Adam Jensen, a former police officer and later counterterror agent who uncovers a conspiracy to rule the world. Watch_Dogs features hackers fighting a powerful megacorp and the omnipresent surveillance system it has created.

These stories are all called cyberpunk in the popular press. They certainly share the same ethos as older cyberpunk works. But instead of descending into the depths of nihilism, at the end of these stories their worlds are just a little better and brighter, and the characters emerge with their spirits tested but unbowed. Victories may be small, but they are meaningful to the characters and the story world.

Post-cyberpunk fiction can be bent to the ends of superversion without sacrificing the core aesthetic that defines it. In a dark, oppressive world, kindness and virtue shine brilliantly. Tsunemori Akane’s humanity and idealism stands in stark contrast to the inhumanity and utilitarianism of the Sibyl System. Adam Jensen can choose to spare every enemy he meets. By creating sharp contrasts of virtue and vice, humanity and alienation, idealism and cynicism, post-cyberpunk is able to unmask the heart of darkness while still making a stand for truth and beauty and justice.

Like cyberpunk, post-cyberpunk is still dark and gritty and dystopic. There is still plenty of chrome and tech, and there are no end of villains scheming in the night. But here, there is also room for hope. Ruthless megacorporations, politicians and criminals are held to account or punished for their misdeeds. Civilisation chugs along, and ordinary people are better able to live in peace. The Leviathan may not be slain, but you still retain your soul, and even an all-powerful state can be convinced to reform itself for the better. You may not be able to save humanity, but you can still save yourself and everyone else around you, and lay the foundations for a better tomorrow.

Post-cyberpunk may be as black as pitch, but the darkness accentuates the brilliance of a candle.

And the flame can be passed from candle to candle, fiction to consumer, heart to heart.


First image: Cyberpunk 2077 trailer
Second image: Psycho-pass anime poster

Retrospective: Ghost in the Shell (1995)

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When I first watched Ghost in the Shell, I was impressed by the fluid animations, the detailed visuals, the melancholic atmosphere and the slick action scenes. A dozen years later, after watching it again, I picked up the finer points my teenage self didn’t: the post-cyberpunk ethos, the characterisation, the tight storytelling, and most of all, the reversal of emphasis on philosophy and action.

When put together, Ghost in the Shell is a philosophy film disguised as a sci fi thriller.

(Spoilers ahead!)

Post-Cyberpunk, NOT Cyberpunk

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It has often been claimed that Ghost in the Shell is a cyberpunk franchise. It’s more accurately described as post-cyberpunk. Major Kusanagi Motoko and her colleagues at Section 9 are members of a secret police agency. Their job is to uphold the current order. They may face corrupt government officials, terrorists and cybercriminals, but they act under the colour of the law — even if the government cannot officially sanction their deeds.

Cyberpunk stories depict amoral, nihilistic underworlds populated by unscrupulous hackers, slick corporate representatives, hardboiled cops, well-heeled businessmen. Cyberpunk media such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash or the Cyberpunk 2020 tabletop role-playing games, emphasise the punk of cyberpunk. They focus on high tech and low life, powerful megacorporations and corrupt governments, and the people caught in the games of power and wealth. Cyberpunk is about how money and politics and technology conspire to degrade the human soul — and how people scrape out a living at the ragged edge of an increasingly dystopian society while trying to retain their sense of self.

Ghost in the Shell sets itself apart by making its protagonists members of a secret police organisation. This allows the protagonists to come into contact with the coterie of cybercrime archetypes, but it also charges the protagonists with upholding civilisation instead of eroding it. By being government agents, they will naturally have access to state-of-the-art tech and training, letting them plausibly have an edge over their adversaries, while giving them multiple opportunities to encounter black market tech. They see at first hand how predators use technology to hollow out the human spirit — but instead of dirtying their hands, they take a stand against it.

Post-cyberpunk contrasts those who use technology to uphold civilisation against those who abuse it for their own ends. The characters of Ghost in the Shell inhabit a world filled with corruption and dirty politics, but Section 9 still tries to serve and protect the people. Unlike traditional cyberpunk works that shows how technology dehumanises people, Ghost in the Shell aims to examine whether technology can elevate humanity, and the cost of doing so.

Merging Character and Plot

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In the original manga, Kusanagi was a vivacious woman who enjoyed practical jokes, had a casual approach to romance and violence, and had a wide range of emotional affect. Batou was a support character who played the role of comic relief, but otherwise sank into the background until the focus was no longer on Kusanagi.

The anime radically changed the characters. Kusanagi was now serious and focused. She rarely shows emotions, but when she does it emphasises the gravity of a scene. Instead of sticking her tongue at people behind their backs, she is more likely to exchange philosophical argument. Batou, in turn, was promoted to the role of her unofficial second-in-command, assisting her during key scenes and also voicing deep thoughts of his own. Now he is both a shooter and a thinker, able to match Kusanagi and drive both the action and the dialogue.

This character shift elevates the anime above the manga. Manga Section 9 comes off as a unit of cowboys just a few steps away from being loose cannons, who have no qualms turning their skills on their allies and superiors on a whim, and only slightly more skilled than the criminals they face. Anime Section 9 is an elite group of operators who take the time to ponder their humanity.

The anime characters created a somber, introspective atmosphere lacking in the manga, conforming with the anime’s philosophical core. With Anime Kusanagi and Anime Batou portrayed as intellectual cyborg shooters, it now makes sense for them to contemplate their navels when they’re not chasing bad guys. This, in turn, makes the ending believable.

In the manga, the Puppet Master abruptly launches into a pages-long exposition on life and transmission of information. It is a jarring departure from a manga otherwise filled with gunfire and cyberwarfare but little explicit discussion of higher concepts. In the anime, the exposition is reduced to a minimum — and since the characters are already established as deep thinkers who also act decisively, the concluding scene fits with the overall tone and direction of the anime.

The manga characters were action-oriented; the reader either had to tease out philosophy from the plot, or the mangaka had to break up the action to make the themes and philosophy explicit. The anime characters give voice to the philosophy explored in the franchise, showcasing their characters and explicitly drawing out the ideas the filmmaker is exploring. The latter approach makes the philosophy more accessible and digestible to the audience — and in doing so, raised Ghost in the Shell above other sci fi stories that merely used cybertech as stage dressing.

Lean Storytelling

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Ghost in the Shell does more in 82 minutes than what other films try to accomplish in over 2 hours. The anime achieves this through a minimalist cast and efficient storytelling.

The only extraneous scene takes place in the middle of the film, showcasing daily life in 2029 Tokyo. Otherwise, every sequence is tightly plotted, with ramifications down the line. Of great importance is the use of technology: every key bit of technology is used at least twice, first to introduce the audience to the tech, and then to facilitate the plot.

The opening scene has Kusanagi using thermoptic camouflage to assassinate a bad guy. It’s an iconic moment that defines the franchise, introducing the tech and the murky politics of the world. Later, while preparing for a mission, Kusanagi tells Togusa that she brought him aboard Section 9 because he has the least amount of cybernetic enhancements and Kusanagi values his different perspective. During that mission, their target uses thermoptic camouflage to evade pursuit, suggesting that the antagonists also have access to such tech, and showing that such camouflage can defeat Section 9’s sensors. When the Puppet Master appears, thermoptic camouflage plays a critical role in aiding the antagonists’ plans, and this allows Togusa to demonstrate his out-of-the-box thinking to detect the invisible intruders, enabling the final showdown later on.

In the movie, technology drives the plot and characterisation. We see this again in the use of high velocity rounds. During the chase scene, the target loads his submachine gun with high velocity rounds to disable Section 9’s truck. Batou later comments on how the ammunition damaged the weapon’s internals. Later, Kusanagi employs HV ammo against a spider tank, but takes the trouble to swap out the barrel of her rifle — and even so, the HV rounds don’t do squat.

The chase scene sets up the existence of HV ammunition and its limitations. This prepares the viewer for Kusanagi using them later and sets up the expectation that the HV rounds would tear the tank apart. Her taking the time to swap out her weapon parts solidifies her characterisation as an operator. When the HV bullets bounce off the tank, it undermines the viewers’ expectations and justifies the following scene which has her try to hack the tank’s cyberbrain, in the process ripping off most of her limbs. This in turn makes the climax possible, showing why she can’t simply evade the snipers targeting her, and ratchets up the tension further.

By compressing technology, characterisation and plot into as few scenes as possible, the director made the philosophy scenes work. When discussing the philosophy and implications of technology in the work, the characters don’t stand around and exchange lines in a context-free vacuum. They always talk philosophy in transitional scenes.

In these scenes, the characters are either on the way to somewhere or waiting for something to happen. One exchange takes place while Kusanagi and Togusa are on the road, preparing for a mission; another takes place on a boat when Kusanagi and Batou are off-duty and awaiting orders; a third is inside an elevator as Section 9 prepares to head out.

In other movies, these scenes would be short takes, empty of beats. Here, the director used the opportunity to fill the gap by delving into matters related to prior scenes, making the philosophy feel organic instead of being forced on the audience. It also eliminates the need to have separate talky scenes dedicated solely to philosophy.

Ghost in the Shell is an exemplar of lean storytelling and a masterclass in the craft of maximising the efficiency of every scene.

Reversing Action and Philosophy

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In most movies, action scenes are the highlight of the film. Scenes in between the action are crafted to lead up to the combat.

Ghost in the Shell reverses this logic: the action scenes lead to the philosophy.

Conventional films feature lengthy action sequences featuring kinetic gun battles, furious hand-to-hand combat and waves of mooks, creating spectacles that hook the audience and keep them watching. The payoff of the film is watching the protagonist overcome the antagonist through wit or violence (or both), saving the day and winning the girl. Any deep thought is incidental.

Ghost in the Shell, by contrast, treats action scenes differently, with long periods of building-up and short bursts of overwhelming violence. The action scenes are much shorter and feature a far lower body count than conventional action films, because they do not exist to create spectacle, but to set up the scenes where characters ponder their humanity and their place in the world. The assassination in the beginning reveal the political system of future Japan and sets the stage for the rest of the plot; the chase scene later on reveals the possibility of false memories, in turn leading to Batou and Kusanagi musing on what makes them human; the final showdown creates the setting for the actual denouement.

Unlike traditional movie logic, the true antagonists of Ghost in the Shell aren’t directly dealt with. Indeed, at the end Batou describes the resolution as a ‘stalemate’. This wouldn’t work in a film that places spectacle first: audiences would expect nothing less than total victory after experiencing one action extravaganza after another that consistently raises the emotional tenor and stakes of the story. However, in a story that places philosophy first, underscored by an introspective atmosphere, it is appropriate: the true resolution lies with the merging of the Puppet Master and Kusanagi to create a higher life form. It is the ultimate payoff for an audience already primed for a movie that promises to explore transcendental matters in the guise of sci-fi action. The stalemate is an afterthought, but it fits into the overall cyberpunk culture, in which there are no major lasting victories, just personal successes at the individual level.

Philosophy with a Dash of Action

 

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In an industry defined by visuals and spectacle, Ghost in the Shell dares to do something different. While it employs a high standard of visual quality, instead of relying on the Hollywood standbys of intense action scenes, Ghost in the Shell delivered philosophy with a dash of action. It made full use of its sci fi mileu, setting up scenarios that organically explore the implications of these technologies and characters who combine combat skills with intellect.

Lesser filmmakers would have stumbled, either by making the philosophy ultra-abstract and the action scenes boring, or by concentrating on action and neglecting deep thought. Ghost in the Shell finds the perfect balance between the two, cementing its position as a masterpiece.

All images from Ghost in the Shell (1996) and publicity materials.

Behind the Story: WE BURY OUR OWN

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Writing stories is a gruelling experience. Mostly it’s like mining: you show up, you punch away at the keyboard, and you keep at it until the task is done. Sometimes it’s like squeezing blood from a stone, and most of the blood will be yours. And sometimes, the words flow unceasingly from a source higher and deeper and truer than anything the naked eye can perceive.

We Bury Our Own is most definitely the last.

The genesis of the story was an odd one. In late 2015 I stumbled across a strange manga:Shuumatsu no Maristella. It was the most surreal manga I had ever seen. It featured soldier girls with assault rifles sworn to the church who take drugs to spawn angel wings to fight sea creatures spawned from the information sea and copulating with certain monsters to produce valuable materials, in an attempt to retake the world.

I’m probably understating the craziness of the whole affair; that’s how strange it was.

But it stuck.

It bounced around my head, merged with my martial arts training, the omnipresent Mist of Final Fantasy IX and the monsters of the entire franchise, the Kabballah and other concepts. From there came the spark of an idea.

But inspiration alone isn’t enough, of course. The first time I tried writing a story based on those ideas, nothing came of then. There was too much Shuumatsu no Maristella, too little of myself.

Then came the 2016 Baen Fantasy Award I started pondering the possibilities. Baen wanted heroic fantasy. Tales of warriors solving problems with weapons or wits. Not boring allegories, talky political drama, angst or any draggy stuff. It was right up my alley. And I had a concept ready for it.

I tore down the old story. Re-examined every assumption, every concept, every pillar of the story. Created an overarching storyline, characters, concepts, settings, and more. There was enough material in there for a novel, maybe a series. And from there I fished out just enough for a short story, a snapshot of life in the Order of Saint Joshua.

Thus was born We Bury Our Own.

It was unlike anything I had written to date. It was a story of pride and consequences. Of men who tried to be like gods and fell prey to their hubris. It was about men with unusual powers, seen as angels and monsters, who had to venture into the all-corrupting mists of the world and wield the powers of creation to save humanity without falling prey to the mist. It was nothing more and nothing less than a battle between an angel who saw himself a men and a man who saw himself an angel.

Or, in simpler terms: a story about sci fi battle angels armed with blasters and swords versus mist monsters spawned from thought.

Writing it was…strange. It was as though my consciousness had stepped back, letting something else, something greater, take over the keys. I only had the barest inkling of a plot and characters, yet as I went along I saw the story take shape before my eyes. In the prose I saw bands of gold and gray, streaks of steel and silver, thunderbolts turned solid and swords fading into mist.

Normally I would discuss the hows and whys of writing this story but I don’t think there was much of ‘me’ writing it. Not this time. I only made a few conscious decisions: incorporating sword and gun, how the world was set up, how the characters were seen and what defined them. Everything else…

Call it God, intuition, the muses, whatever, but I got out of its way and let it do the writing. The resulting story was unlike anything I had ever done before. But it felt right. It was clean. Beyond a few edits for typos, no further changes were needed. When I sent it in to my writer’s group, there was nothing but praise.

When I sent it to Baen, I received new response. Then I sent it to Silver Empire’s Lyonesse project.

And it was accepted.

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Lyonesse went online three days ago. For the price of a single ebook, Lyonesse will release one science fiction or fantasy story a week for a year. It’s practically a steal — and if you’re a writer, Lyonesse is still looking for fresh material.

When I read We Bury Our Own again, I did so with fear and trembling. Never before had people praised my work so highly. By publishing it I had set a new benchmark for myself. A new standard I had to meet and surpass. I don’t know if I can ever do it, but I have to try: in this business you’re only as good as your last remembered work.

And yet…

Everything about the story was different from what I had previously done. The themes, the abstract concepts, the vocabulary, the aesthetics, even the cadence of the dialogue and narration. It’s so vastly different that I don’t know if I could do it again, much less replicate it if I ever revisit the universe.

And yet…

In this business you’re only as good as your last remembered work. You cannot settle for being good enough, for being mediocre, for plateauing out. You have to keep getting better. It’s the only way to master the craft and stand out from a market deluged with self-published wannabes and pretentious pseudo-literary message fic. You have to be the best you can be, and I know that I’m nowhere near there yet.

If there is one lesson I need to learn from this story, it’s that I shouldn’t think too much. I found that after a certain point, when the worldbuilding is settled and the characters understood, rational thought gets in the way. Thinking through every tiny detail becomes a waste of time and energy. I just need to show up, set my conscious mind aside, and write.

Time to see how that works out.

Artwork by Andy Duggan

Lyonesse picture by Silver Empire

To 2017: Write Less to Write More

If you’re a writer, nobody cares about how many stories you’ve written. Only about the stories you’ve published.

Ideas and stories are meaningless if they are locked away in a hard drive or scrapbook. They only hold value when they are shared with the world. You’re not an author if you don’t publish your works.

In 2016, I wrote the most number of stories I ever had. In 2016, I also published the fewest number of stories since I became a published writer.

How did that happen?

Half of the answer is that a couple of stories I submitted this year would, with any luck, be published next year. WE BURY FOR OWN, for instance, will be published when Lyonesse goes online in 2017. The other half is that I wrote too much stuff that had to be thrown out. On the order of 500,000 words.

Five. Hundred. Thousand. More than enough for a trilogy and then some.

Those words comprise of a novel, its sequel, and assorted deleted scenes. The deleted parts overwhelmed both stories combined. Worse, I cannot in good conscience publish either story at this time. Despite the months I’ve thrown into them, the hundreds of thousands of words committed to the page, they’re not good enough.

The reason for this is simple: my old writing style just isn’t good enough.

I used to write like a classic pantser: little if any pre-planning, just open the story and pound away at the keys. It worked, mostly, allowing me to create scenes that organically built upon events in previous chapters.

The problem with that approach is at the meta level: there was little time and space dedicated to worldbuilding, setting and character planning. Exactly the wrong thing to do for the stories I was working on.

The stories are hard science fiction. Diamond hard science fiction. Every piece of technology inside the story would be entirely within the realm of modern understanding science. Everything would be an extension of what is known and possible today. That kind of undertaking required copious amounts of research — and ensuring that everything remained consistent.

More than that, the story was a space opera driven by a romance. A completely new genre of writing. One that demanded in-depth knowledge of the human heart, and how every human and faction within the story would believe, feel, think and act.

Pantsing, I’ve discovered, isn’t adequate to the task. I found myself revising scenes over and over and over again, and at the end of it all, feedback from my writers’ group indicated that it still wasn’t good enough.

In 2016, I found that my old style of writing wouldn’t work anymore. Not for the standard I aspire to.

For 2017, I have to do things differently. Writing less to write more.

I went into pantsing because I wanted to write as much and as quickly as I could. That approach won’t work. I intend to spend less time writing and more time planning. More time on worldbuilding, researching concepts and technologies, understanding characters, planning events.

In other words: I plan to spend more time building the foundations and getting things right before I commit to paper.

That should lead to less time spent on revisions and edits down the road. Which means more time working on the next story, and the next, and the next. In the end, what matters isn’t so much the act of writing as writing excellent work, publishing it, and maintaining the drive.

The same approach applies to blogging. For the past month, I’ve been planning my posts, researching them, focusing them on a single topic. My new posts are between 50 to 75 percent shorter than my old ones. The time and energy savings allow me to post more often, leading to more pageviews.

I’ve already experimented with the new approach for a certain story I wrote this month. Initial feedback has been positive, and next year I hope I can share it with you. I also have other writing plans for 2017. More will be revealed as I execute them.

2016 was a year for learning the hard way.

2017 will be the year the writing bears fruit.

Plan Your Antagonist First

People read fiction to escape reality in pseudo-reality. They want to immerse themselves in the protagonist’s adventures, marvel at his derring-do, and cheer as he overcomes the obstacles in his way and attains his goal.

But where would the protagonist be without the antagonist?

The antagonist is the yin to the protagonist’s yang. Without the antagonist, there is no drama, there is no conflict, and there is no plot. The antagonist catalyses the plot, and the protagonist drives the story forward. There can be no murder mystery without a murderer, no space opera without a powerful overlord. The events of the Bible could not have unfurled without the Snake tempting Eve, nor would Star Wars have became a galaxy-spanning epic without the institution of a Galactic Empire.

The antagonist is as important as the protagonist. Like the protagonist, he must be fully-fleshed. To the reader, he exists only in the shadow of the hero, but a poorly-crafted villain creates an unbelievable hero and a ludicrous plot. A hero receives no glory for beating up a wimp, nor would readers believe that a mere basement-dwelling computer geek would summon the dread forces of Hell to achieve his darkest desires of kissing a girl.

When planning a story, start with the antagonist. All stories must start from the beginning, and as the catalyst, his deeds start the ball rolling.

To create your antagonist, you must answer the following questions:

Who is he? What is his name, nationality and job? Who are his superiors, peers, and subordinates? How do they think of him, and does he care?

What drives him? What is his ideology? His motivation? Does he inspire others, and if so, how? What is he comfortable doing, what will he never do, and what falls in between? What does he want?

Why is he doing this? Why does he do the thing that starts the whole story going? What’s in it for him and his allies? How does it affect his enemies? How will it help him achieve his goals?

How does he do what he does? What special talents, traits or resources does he have? What skills does he posses? What are his strengths and weakness? How does he maximise his strengths while minimising exposure while dioing what he does?

Answer these questions and you will build up a complete dossier of the antagonist, making him a believable and powerful threat to the protagonist.

Sauron is the Lord of the Rings. Prizing order above all else, he is the equivalent of a fallen angel, intent on conquering all of Middle-Earth and bending it to his will. He has armies at his command, with a squad of Ringwraiths for special missions, and compared to mortals has overwhelming power. However, he has invested most of his strength in the One Ring, currently missing. He has dispatched his forces to find the Ring…but a lowly hobbit in the middle of nowhere has found it first. And without the Ring, Sauron will be crippled forever.

Walter Peck, by contrast, is a lowly inspector in the Environmental Protection Agency. He upholds the letter of the law and is utterly rigid. After learning of the Ghostbusters’ activities, he realises that they violated multiple environmental regulations–including improper disposal of toxic waste and possession of unauthorised and unregulated particle accelerators–and does everything in his power to stop them.

One antagonist is a supreme evil being, the other is merely an obstructive bureaucrat with a point. Antagonists don’t have to be evil; they just have to oppose the protagonist in some way. They do, however, have to be believable.

Sauron is a supernatural creature; one can ascribe supernatural motives to him, including a desire to dominate the planet. Such a being could believably possess supernatural powers and resources, including the ability to craft mind-control rings and raise armies of barbarian orcs. He also has a supernatural weakness: by investing his power in the One Ring, he has created his Achilles heel, allowing a sufficiently brave and resourceful team of heroes to defeat him.

Peck is a human with human motivations; he is simply out to do his job and prevent an environmental catastrophe in New York City. Being a human, and a minor bureaucrat at that, he only plausibly has access to the kind of power an inspector can possess. Magical powers and grand armies are out of the question. But he is an agent of the law, and since the Ghostbusters are clearly in violation of environmental regulations, he can shut them down.

Once you know who your antagonist is, you know what he can do and what resources he has available. You know what he wants, how he can get what he wants, and what he will do to get what he wants. This action of getting what he wants is the spark that sets the story into motion.

Know your enemy, know yourself, and you will a hundred battles. In this case, know your antagonist, know your protagonist, and you will craft a masterpiece.

 

 

 

Lyonesse: Make Short Fiction Great Again!

Lyonesse, a short story subscription service, promises to revolutionise the industry. Its Kickstarter is now online, within a single day, the campaign has already reached almost half of its funding goal.

Silver Empire has put in a great deal of effort making Lyonesse possible, and as I have described in a prior post, I believe that Lyonesse will provide a much-needed shot in the arm in the field of SFF. Unlike many mainstream ‘SFF’ magazines, Lyonesse does not elevate politics above story to the point of unreadability. Through a clever subscription model and regular delivery of stories, Lyonesse offers a much-needed alternative to print magazines that refuses to compromise the quality of storytelling.

Lyonesse’s authors include the inestimable J. Lagi Lamplighter, Dragon Award nominee Declan Finn, and of course, yours truly. The subscription fee is a mere USD $6.99. In exchange, you receive 52 stories, plus bonus stories during the holidays. It’s an incredibly generous offer.

If you have spare change, send some to Silver Empire, and together we can make short fiction great again.

Still Skeptical about Ghost in the Shell

The first official trailer for Ghost in the Shell is out…and, if anything, I’m even more skeptical about the movie.

In an earlier post, I made it clear that I’m not enthusiastic about the movie. After watching the trailer, I’m almost certain my fears will be realised.

To be fair, this movie is visually stunning. The art direction is top-notch, and it captures the cyberpunk aesthetic of futuristic cities with broken rain-slick streets. However, it seems that the producers focused on amazing visuals instead of faithfully adapting the characters, story and tone.

Major Kusanagi Motoko drives the franchise. In the manga, she is an exuberant, cheerfully destructive woman with a juvenile sense of humour. In the anime, both movie and series, she morphs into a cold, ruthless operator hyper-focused on the mission. In this incarnation, the ‘Major’ (no name given) is a brooding cyborg who feels alienated from society. In the trailer, she says, “Everybody feels connected to something I’m not.”

This is a major departure from established canon: the Kusanagis of the anime and the manga have made peace with the fact that they aren’t part of ‘regular’ society. They don’t brood about it. In the manga, Kusanagi pursues relationships; in the anime, she just doesn’t care.

In the real world, special operators are chosen for their ability to be decisive and adaptable; there are very few navel gazers and moody brooders in their hallowed ranks. Going by the trailer, that makes the anime and manga Kusanagi more believable in my eyes.

Furthermore, Kusanagi is a team leader. She may be the central character, but she knows how to her team to achieve her goals. The opening scene of the movie pays homage to the first episode of the anime series, with one key difference: in the anime, every member of Section 9 deploys, utilising their strengths to efficiently take out the terrorists.

Part of the appeal of the Japanese Ghost in the Shell franchise is its attention to detail, including tactics. The creator, Masamune Shirow, and the anime production team at least tried to incorporate tactics and teamwork. Kusanagi may be a superpowered cyborg, but in the world of GitS, her enemies may be just as deadly as she — and oftentimes, deadlier. Section 9 has to work together to succeed. Indeed, when the enemy catches Section 9 members working solo, Bad Things usually happen — to Section 9. This approach increases the verisimilitude of the series, and reinforces both its hard sci fi aesthetic and its gritty tone.

In the movie, we see Major Nameless soloing a room full of bad guys. Yes, this shows she is a Superpowered Female Character…but it also betrays Hollywood’s elevation of the visual. Instead of going for the gritty realism that defined GitS, the Hollywood version emphasises gee-whiz action and shallow sleekness.

We see this visual sophistry again at 1:32, when Major Nameless uppercuts a person. He promptly goes flying and spins round and round. This is painfully obvious wirework. It’s meant to highlight just how powerful she is — in the mind of a Hollywood writer — but to the eyes of a person who studied martial arts, it’s utterly impossible. Physics simply does not work that way.

Most important of all, the anime and manga were not about Kusanagi. She may be the protagonist, but she is not the focus of the story. Those stories explored how rapid technological progress changes people and society, and what it means to have a soul when your body, vital organs, and brain, can be designed and mass-manufactured. Kusanagi’s missions place her at the cutting edge of technology, forcing her, and the viewer, to grapple with the concepts of individual consciousness and emergent group gestalts. Indeed, the ‘ghost’ in the title is an in-universe term characters use when referencing their soul or consciousness, while ‘shell’ indicates their cyborg bodies. The philosophical underpinnings elevated the franchise from mere excellent to timeless.

In the trailer, we hear lines like ‘You know I have a past. I’ll find out who I was’, ‘Everything they told you was a lie’, and ‘They did not save your life. They stole it.’ This suggests that the story is about the Major seeking the truth of her past, and implies false or erased memories, and that she is an unknowing pawn of ‘them’.

Not that this is a bad story, but it is not Ghost in the Shell.

Hollywood GitS is classic cyberpunk: alienated character seeking the truth and fighting a powerful enemy to pursue personal goals. The original GitS is one of the earliest examples of post-cyberpunk: a government agent who uses morally gray methods in the service of civilisation. Cyberpunk is an arrow against the system; post-cyberpunk upholds society. And I don’t think the live action movie recognises that.

The Hollywood movie might still turn out to be a decent flick. But going by the trailer, I’m skeptical if it can live up to the original.