Cultural appropriation or cultural representation?

Part 3 of a 3-part post about cultural appropriation in literature.
Read Part 1 here.
Read Part 2 here.


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Appropriation or representation?

Following on from last week, I’m going to jump straight in with a snippet from this article from the Guardian, which first quotes author Courttia Newland, then author Ahdaf Soueif:

“The issue isn’t whether or not [white writers] are given the right to create characters of colour. Rather, it is whether they do it well and the privilege that comes with being enabled to tell stories that writers of colour are routinely marginalised for.”

Newland said white writers must recognise the privileged position from which they write, and understand the basis of accusations of cultural appropriation. “Cultural appropriation is about power, or the lack of acknowledgment thereof, and respect,” he added. “There’s a reason Eminem largely escapes that type of criticism and Miley Cyrus doesn’t. It’s mainly to do with their actions.”

Booker-shortlisted author Ahdaf Soueif said: “In the end, what it comes down to is: are you going to write well or not? I think a novelist should be able to write about anything or anybody they like.”

“People and countries like Egypt and Palestine are used by writers as if they were simply stage sets, backdrops on which they can write their fantasies,” Soueif continued. “It is problematic, but it is not a problem to be solved by some kind of edict that says you can only write white male characters if you are a white male. The problem is far more subtle than that.”

A subtle problem indeed. If we approach the issue with a hammer and say “it’s wrong to write outside of your own ethnicity and experience” then we may as well stop writing. As with Tibetan monks (see my last post), chunks of humanity will fail to be represented simply because there are far fewer talented writers willing to represent their groups. I’m not suggesting that they need a privilaged white saviour to step in for them. I’m suggesting that a hammer approach will harm diversity, not help it.

A hard approach in the writer’s favour would be like that of Lionel Shriver (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”, 2003, Serpent’s Tail). Shriver caused her own furore last year when she essentially said that writers should be able to write about anything they want to. “That’s what we’re paid to do, isn’t it? Step into other people’s shoes,” she said.

Sudanese-born Australian social activist Yassmin Abdel-Magied immediately wrote a rawly honest rebuttal, in which she said that Shriver’s speech was “a celebration of the unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others, under the guise of fiction.”

It’s not always OK if a white guy writes the story of a Nigerian woman because the actual Nigerian woman can’t get published or reviewed to begin with. It’s not always OK if a straight white woman writes the story of a queer Indigenous man, because when was the last time you heard a queer Indigenous man tell his own story? How is it that said straight white woman will profit from an experience that is not hers, and those with the actual experience never be provided the opportunity? It’s not always OK for a person with the privilege of education and wealth to write the story of a young Indigenous man, filtering the experience of the latter through their own skewed and biased lens, telling a story that likely reinforces an existing narrative which only serves to entrench a disadvantage they need never experience.

I can’t speak for the LGBTQI community, those who are neuro-different or people with disabilities, but that’s also the point. I don’t speak for them, and should allow for their voices and experiences to be heard and legitimised.

So access – or lack thereof – is one piece.

Although Abdel-Magied made the fine point that those with actual experience should be given the opportunities to tell their own stories, she fails to offer any solutions, or explain why exactly the writer stepping in is so terrible. I wrote earlier in this series of posts about the bias that comes from filtering another’s experience through our own. Again, we have lost focus of the argument: Is it bad that marginalised groups don’t have the same opportunities? Undoubtedly. But that is not the question. The question is: Is it wrong for me to at least try?

There seems to be the assumption that writers don’t know what they’re talking about. Of course, many don’t. But how about if I spent a week interviewing a gay Aboriginee about his or her experiences and wrote a story about those? Is that still wrong? I’m still picking which bits that I want to write about, and it will be naturally be as a narrative rather than verbatim, i.e., my own words. This is an extreme example, but this is not that far from penning a fully-researched novel. It’s worth remembering, when discussing this, that writers look shit up. Some spend years reading every book to hand – including first-hand accounts and verbal histories – conducting interviews, watching documentaries, travelling to the countries/people in question, and generally working their damndest to achieve authenticity. This will not eliminate bias, but writers who care about a gay Aborinee’s story enough to dedicate a year or two to writing about it are probably already aware of their biases, prejudices, and the ever-present threat of accusation.

“But the writer is taking their identity,” Abdel-Magied and others might say. I’m reminded of a story told to me by an old girlfriend. She had a falling out with the girlfriend of her brother. Apparently they dressed alike, and one dramatically complained that the other was “stealing her identity”. Racial identity is a serious matter, but the idea of its theft is weak. Like the girls, one is not diminished by another’s admiration or duplication. A person’s race is not a Ming vase that is more valuable if there are no others. However, that is a long-running argument in the arts in its own right.

Abdel-Magied makes a startling leap in logic: “The attitude drips of racial supremacy, and the implication is clear: “I don’t care what you deem is important or sacred. I want to do with it what I will. Your experience is simply a tool for me to use, because you are less human than me. You are less than human…” Perhaps this follows in the heat of the moment, but I don’t believe that even belittling or attacking another person directly qualifies as considering them “less than human”. And a writer is not (usually) belittling their subject: they are, according to the traditions of drama and, yes, entertainment, sympathising with them. How else could the reader care about our protagonists? Novelists are not usually writers of disguised hate speech. It’s surely established that most creative types are funamentally liberal.

Omar Musa, the Malaysian-Australian poet, rapper and novelist, told the Guardian that he finds the issue difficult; the suggestion that writers shouldn’t move outside the boundaries of their own experiences comes into direct conflict with what he sees as the purpose of fiction: to empathise with and understand other people’s lives.

This is the point that I find myself going out on: that writers are not, generally speaking, horrible people. There is, of course, a great risk that even the best-natured writers will unwittingly draw upon stereotypes or be reductive, but I believe that this is something to be considered on a case-by-case basis. Only in this way can we assess and learn from what is genuinely offensive or unfaithful and truly engender diversity. The bottom line: authentic cultural representation.

— db


Further reading:

This personal article from the Huffington Post also poigniantly disscussed the complex issue of cultural appropriation, partly in favour of Shriver’s strongly-worded speech.

Of interest to writers may be this collection of thoughts from published authors.

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A writer’s experience with the dangers of cultural appropriation

Part 2 of a 3-part post on cultural appropriation in literature.
Read Part 1 here.


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A writer’s experience

When I first began searching for representation for my novel “Cycles of Udapir” in 2015, I was told by one literary agent that “it is hard to sell a novel centering on Indian street boys and girls written by a Brit.” In the same sentence, he praised the film “Slumdog Millionaire”, written by Yorkshire-born Simon Beaufoy and directed by the English Danny Boyle.

What is a writer to do? In my last post I bemoaned the horrible device of writing a novel set in another country but with a white protagonist, which apparently skirts the issue of cultural appropriation but could land you in “white saviour” territory.

I have to ask, who are writers trying to kid with this? The white protagonist (by which I really mean “protagonist who matches the writer’s ethnicity etc.”, in my case white British) is meant to be a buffer, providing a legitimate filter through which the “other” is perceived – in the case of “Cycles”, my Indian characters. It would be offensive, we’re told, for me to write from the point of view of an Indian, so I must show my Indian characters through the lens of my privilaged white perspective: a white British protagonist.

It’s not good enough that I just want to write a story about Indians, which is my prerogative and which might be something that people want to read regardless of my ethnic background, as though that matters.

My latest novel, which is turning into something of an epic, deals with Tibetan Buddhism and the situation of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile following the occupation of Tibet by China. My young protagonist is Tibetan (plus a little Chinese) because the book is about Tibetans. Not only is it more interesting for me to try to get inside the head of someone with a different background and mindset to me, it is surely more interesting for the reader, too. Don’t we already have enough fiction with Western protagonists? Aren’t we supposed to be striving for more diversity in fiction?

Novelist Zoë Marriott said that writing rich, diverse characters was not the same as appropriating someone else’s culture. “People from marginalised groups are always being promised diversity and being delivered patronising, whitewashed and outright offensive portrayals instead,” she said.

This comes closer to my perspective, which is, crudely, “It’s fine if it’s done right.” But even this view is debated.


A writer’s dilemma

What is my specific problem? My book is about Tibetan monks and, unsurprisingly, not many Tibetan monks are novelists. Even if they were, they perhaps wouldn’t want to tell the story that I want to tell, which I believe could be meaningful and culturally significant. But of course, then I’m stepping in and being a “white saviour” myself, defending downtrodden minorities from my privilaged position. You only have to see how people react to famous actors providing relief abroad to know how that goes down.

I could write the book as I want to write it, be forced to self-publish, and have fairly reasonable accusations of cultural appropriation and possible racism levelled against me (assuming it ever gets finished and anyone ever hears about it).

Alternatively I could rewrite the entire novel from the perspective of a Heinrich Harrer-type character. Frankly this is boring, and will only serve to dilute the story. The book is about Tibetans, not what a white boy thinks about Tibetans. The reader already knows and accepts that these are a white person’s perceptions of another cultural group. Why must the writer go through the sham of creating a character to tell the reader what they already know? Frankly, it’s patronising and a waste of time.


Finding the root of the problem

In my my last post I wrote about the response to J. K. Rowling’s use of Native American folklore. The Rowling situation illustrated a point that has dogged the cultural appropriation debate for a long time: peope can’t remain focused. The issue at hand is not whether the words are offensive, or mis-representative, or reductive, but whether there is such as thing as appropriating another person’s culture in the context of fiction, and whether that is a bad thing. If “appropriation” means “using”, i.e. I wrote a book set in another country, then this debate shouldn’t even have started. Of course I’m permitted to set a story in another country. Of course I’m permitted to imagine what the life is like of somebody who isn’t me. Believe it or not, I’m capable of empathy and have rather a good imagination, and I’m capable of undertaking research.

If we can’t establish the foundation of the debate, then every other question is meaningless. If we can start at the bottom and build up, then we can begin to have constructive conversations on what is permissable and what isn’t. In reality, no-one will be able to agree on what is permissable, on both sides of the argument. Every person is unique even amongst their own people, and that is why art is possible and absolutely necessary in all its forms.

One viewpoint is that the diversity is supposed to come from those groups other than the dominant one. Anything else is arguably patronising. Regrettably for all the dominant group is (almost?) always Western white folk. It is no lie that the entertainment industry (to name just one) is geared towards whiteness and makes it extremely difficult for other voices to be heard. According to the argument, it’s not enough that there are very few novels about Tibet and that I’m in a position to try to write one (i.e. have the time and information and skill (?) available to me). It should be Tibetans writing about Tibet and it’s the industry (a reflection of societal bias) that’s stopping this from happening. By writing about Tibetans I am appropriating their culture (and probably getting it wrong in the process), whilst at the same time making a profit (ha ha!) from an industry that is, perhaps indirectly, blocking genuinly diverse voices.

This is one view, but it’s not one I wholly agree with. Isn’t it possible to represent another’s culture without appropriating it? That is the question for Part Three

I’d love to hear any and all thoughts on this topic! Feel free to comment away.

— db

The Anthony Horowitz row – Why cultural appropriation isn’t straightforward

Horowitz

Anthony Horowitz. Photograph: Ian Gavan/Getty Images

Part 1 of a 3-part post on cultural appropriation in literature.


What’s it all about?

If you haven’t heard, Anthony Horowitz, writer of the Alex Rider series and the latest James Bond novel, recently claimed that he was ‘warned off’ creating a black protagonist  because he is a white writer. Allegedly, an editor said that it would be inappropriate, ‘artificial and possibly patronising’, to do so.

This has reignited the old debate about cultural appropriation in literature, with several writers putting forward their points of view.

Ben Aaronovich, writer of the ‘Rivers of London’ series, tweeted of Horowitz: “If you don’t feel confident or just don’t want to write black characters, just say so. Don’t pretend it’s political correctness gone mad.”

What is Aaronovich actually claiming – that Horowitz made it up? I don’t believe that to be true, especially since no-one’s previously come out to say, “Oi, Horowitz, where are all your black characters?” Hororwitz wasn’t responding to an allegation. Therefore Aaronovich can go away if he’s not going to add anything constructive to the argument.

More helpful is the view of Patrice Lawrence, author of the best-selling ‘Orangeboy’ (2016, Hachette), who said that “[t]he whole issue of equality and diversity has been hijacked by white writers.” It seems that we have appropriated appropriation. The  Guardian article goes on to say to how some people claim that working class white people don’t have equality either, so perhaps this is what Lawrence means. Anyone who thinks that manual labourers in Sheffield’s Manor Top have it as bad as, say, African slaves worked to death in the bellies of British galleons, could do with a wake-up call.


Coldplay

From Coldplay’s “Hymn for the Weekend” music video, set in India. Photograph: PR company handout

Can “appropriation” be done right?

An aggressive article by the Guardian’s Rashmee Kumar last year referred to the “colonial representation” of India by “ignorant white people everywhere”, in response to a Coldplay music video:

Director Ben Mor sprayed the “essence of incredible India” onto his video, a diluted perfume invented by white, western creatives whenever they want some Indian inspiration. Under the western gaze, India is a lush, exotic land filled with dingy slums inhabited by pious, levitating holy men and lanky brown-skinned children who are always throwing colored powders at each other. This idealized India obscures the realities of a complex nation in favor of reductive tropes originally intended to preserve western hegemony.

Forget the nonsensical implication that a 3-minute music video could ever capture the entirety of a country’s complex culture; Kumar seems to believe that all Western interpretations of India are as “myopic” as Mor’s video and that no-one but an Indian could possibly get it right. The article suggests that it’s wrong to portray only the exotic and positive elements of a culture (but strangely tosses slums into this category), calling it “reductive”.

In all art forms an interpretation is reductive, simply because it’s not possible to describe the whole of a culture’s history in one painting of a ship, or relevant to write out the whole of a culture’s economical situation in a film that is meant to be a romantic comedy. As always, an artist will take the elements that are relevant to the story being told. Later, Kumar suggests that the mere act of “invoking” India is something offensive. The message: stay away unless you’re Indian, or at least know what you’re talking about. The latter I agree with whole-heartedly; the former is offensive and divisive.

There are many excellent points in Kumar’s article, especially about representation, and it’s well worth reading in full.

The “fine if it’s done right” perspective doesn’t always apply. J. K. Rowling took heat for writing a fictional account of wizards in historical America, which linked her stories to true beliefs held by some Native Americans. The result was an accusation of cultural appropriation:

“You can’t just claim and take a living tradition of a marginalised people,” said campaigner Dr Adrienne Keene on Twitter. “That’s straight up colonialism/appropriation.”

Was Rowling “claiming” Native American spiritual beliefs? I don’t believe so, any more than I’m “claiming” the beliefs of Catholics when I write about 16th Century Britain, the people of which are just as much “other” to me as a Native American. Referring to something is not the same as claiming it, and forbidding a writer to write about something other than which they are personally ethnically connected is firmly against what art is about: creating in order to bring people together. Saying “keep away from our stuff” does not help anyone to build a true understanding of another’s culture.

Some complaints were along the lines of “my beliefs are not fantasy”, despite the consensus of almost the entire planet believing that they are (every believer in any god but yours thinks you’re wrong). This complaint is not the same as “you didn’t write about it respectfully”, which should be the point. Others quite rightly took umbrage at Rowling referring to a “Native American community”, when actually “Native peoples and communities and cultures are diverse, complex, and vastly different from one another”.

Rowling was quiet after the accusations, despite receiving thousands of comments. I don’t blame her: even talking about the issue is an invitation to be pulled apart (I expect I shall be saved by lack of readership). In the second part of this series of posts I will talk about some of my own experiences and take a look at what could be the root of the problem. In the meantime, I sincerely invite comments and discussion.

— db

 

An evolutionary basis for storytelling

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A recent article by Helen Briggs of the BBC tells how the human love affair with stories might have an evolutionary basis: an almost cathartic effect that releases ‘natural painkillers’ in the form of endorphins and fosters social bonding. According to the article:

The human fascination with story telling was forged in ancient times when we began to live in hunter gatherer communities, said Prof Robin Dunbar, who led the research [into why we’re attracted to dramatic, and even upsetting, narratives such as tear-jerking films].

“Fiction is widely studied by humanities academics as it is an important feature of human society, common to all cultures,” said Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University.

“There are good social reasons: folklore enables us to pass on wisdom or ingrain community values, bringing us together. While that is important, it does not fully explain why we are willing to return again and again to be entertained.”

He thinks our affinity for emotive fiction may have evolved in the context of cohesion of social groups, as the endorphin effect has also been seen in comedy, singing and dancing.

“This is not to say that this one chemical effect alone is the only reason for dramatic fiction – there are other aspects of human psychology at work – but we believe that it is an important reason for our enjoyment of fiction,” he added.

—db

New paperback releases!

I’m thrilled to announce that my novels ‘The Gun of Our Maker’ and ‘Cycles of Udaipur’ are now available as actual, physical, smell-the-pages paperback editions!

David Brookes author

Don’t have an e-reader? Now you don’t need one to experience the literary wonders you see before you. Already have the e-book versions? Get a hard copy too and then your friends will be impressed by the taste of your bookcase!

Order your paperback of ‘The Gun of Our Maker’ by clicking here.

Order your paperback of ‘Cycles of Udaipur’ by clicking here.

You can see my original e-book release posts here (‘GOOM‘) and here (‘COU‘).

As always, if you read either version of the novels then please leave a review so that other readers can see what you thought of them. Sales are massively affected by positive reviews and, since I have no marketing clout, I rely on reviews almost exclusively to keep these novels from slipping into oblivion.

Thanks to everyone who’s given me their support over the years!

—db

Free short stories from David Brookes!

About a year ago I chose to give up writing genre fiction, which I’d been writing since I was 13, and focus on what I considered more ‘literary’ fiction. With the exception of the re-release of ‘Half Discovered Wings’, my first novel (2009) and a fantasy, which was more for nostalgia than anything else, my efforts have been towards more meaningful (and marketable) fiction:

I also discontinued sale of some of my other material that was available on Amazon and Smashworlds, namely the science fiction short story collection ‘The Gas Giant Sequence’ and the steampunk fantasy adventure stories in my ‘Professor Arnustace’ series. Although I’m super proud of these works, which were a lot of fun to write, and despite the fact that they sold far more than my other releases, they weren’t fitting with the direction I wanted to go in. I know, how arty of me.

It’s both pleasing and distressing that I’ve had such a response from readers about this. The second ‘Professor Arnustace’ story in particular had some of my best reviews, and I still get messages asking whether there will be a third. Although I don’t have plans for the gentleman detective, as a thank-you I’ve decided to make all my discontinued stories available here for free. Yay!

You will need to connect your e-reader to your computer to copy across the files to your device.

Happy reading!

–db


The Gas Giant Sequence

Krill Split Omnibus cover

Part 1: Krill
Part 2: Split
Part 3: Tranquil Sea
Part 4: Tulpa


The Professor Arnustace Stories

Professor Arnustace

Story 1: An Account of a Curious Encounter
Story 2: Iced Tea for Professor Arnustace


 

What is line-editing, and do I need it?

The St. Paul's Editing Service - David Brookes

 

As part of my short series on editorial processes, I will be looking at proofreading, line-editing and copy-editing to give some insight onto the features that distinguish them from one another. Last month I looked at proofreading. This article covers a more substantive approach, line-editing.

What is line-editing?
Line-editing, unsurprisingly, works at the ‘line level’ of your text. Often confused with copy-editing (the subject of a future post), this is not a more intensive proofread, but a genuine deep edit that examines the detail of your writing to generally enhance your work. A line-editor will help with clumsy wording and sentence structure, improving your clarity and flow, and fact-checking. It could involve the moving, cutting or adding of whole paragraphs (or, if you really need it, chapters). This is generally what most laypeople think of as “editing”.

A deeper look
A proofreader looks for errors such as typos or obvious blunders. A copy-editor will work on things like grammar and consistency of language and regional spelling (i.e. UK or US English). A line-editor’s job usually comes before both of these things, and works hard to draw out the best from every line in your text. It could be considered “heavy editing” and, at the end of the process, you may be looking at a completely different piece of writing to the one you started with.

Rewording of sentences will help get rid of unnecessary passive voice, extensive adverbs (which Stephen King described as paving ‘the road to hell’) repeated words and phrases, tautology, cliché, overwriting, and mixed or broken metaphors and similes. There’s also an element of fact-checking and improving on the writer’s general voice and style.

Voice is something that I would prefer not to interfere with as an editor, but sometimes it’s necessary. Take a novel. If the writer’s personal voice is too strong, it can draw the reader out of the moment and spoil the illusion that all good fiction strives for. Charlotte Brontë is often lauded for breaking this illusion in Jayne Eyre (“Reader, I married him.”) and good editors have been undoing the damage she caused ever since! Voice should not be confused with style, which is (read “should be”) unique to every writer and carries an element of their voice within it.

Tone is also examined, to make sure that it’s appropriate. In an autobiography I would expect the writer’s voice, style and tone to naturally be perfectly appropriate, since it’s their story after all, but even here tone can distract or confuse the reader. It wouldn’t do to make jokes throughout the chapter of your heartbreaking divorce, for example, but the very nature of reliving such an upsetting episode could interfere with the writer’s sense of what’s appropriate for the scene. Likewise, a children’s picture book with a deadly serious tone probably wouldn’t go down so well (“I must protest, Sam-I-Am. I most sincerely would prefer not to eat your green eggs and ham.”).

I generally consider my job as a line-editor to scrub out anything that holds the text back and, if possible, also elevate the text to something closer to the writer’s original vision for their work, helping with vocabulary, sentence structure and imagery. I would also work (in the case of fiction) on characterisation, plotting and originality.

In terms of an ongoing editing process, I would expect line-editing to come first. Once the writer has written their first draft and given it a once- (or twice-) over and can no longer see how it can be improved, the line-editor gets a go. You could, potentially, end up with something completely different by the time they’ve finished, but it should be improved. The reason this would come before copy-editing is because there’s no use having a copy-editor scour your novel for problems with grammar, typos and other minute issues if the line-editor is going to cut that pointless dream sequence or rewrite all your dialogue afterwards.

Do I really need a line-editor?
How do I answer this?  YES … Probably.

If you’ve finished working on a blog post or some SEO content for a website, there’s a case for saying that deep editing is unlikely to be a major advantage. Generally your proofreader, if they’re feeling generous, will point out any glaring errors whilst correcting your typos.However, if English isn’t your first language or if you’re a new hand at writing, an editor will really help you to develop simply by showing you where you might be going wrong (ideally with some helpful annotations to justify their changes and suggestions).

If you’re writing an essay, you’d be better off with a copy-editor than a proofreader so that you can have your grammar examined (not all proofreaders consider grammar part of their purview), and a line-editor may be of use there too. Most substantive edits will be a mixture of line-editing and copy-editing anyway, so it’s important to talk with your editor to discuss exactly what you expect from the process. Many fiction writers, when looking for an editor, are seeking a line-editor who will work on their copy too.

The people who I know who have undergone a third-party editing process have always been very relieved that they did!

Finally…

grammar-meme-grammarly-alphabet-soup

…learn from your editor!

—db

 

Back to the Future: Writing Honest Science Fiction

Back to the Future hoverboard

If you own a TV or have access to the internet, you’ve probably already heard that today is “Future Day” – the day that Marty McFly and Doc Brown travel to from 1985 in “Back to the Future: Part II”. The film depicted a future wildly different from today’s reality – hoverboards instead of skateboards, flying cars (and white vans), and peculiar fashions that never quite made it.

As the world celebrates this fun adventure trilogy of films, which are some of my childhood favourites, there’s plenty of opportunity to see how the fictional future of BttF2 stacks up against real-life 2015.

Of course, the films were never meant to accurately predict what 2015 would look like. I’m sure the writers and production crew had plenty of serious discussions about the practical likelihood of certain aspects, but the overriding factor would be originality and humour (and the odd call-back to the previous film, such as the skateboard sequence). No-one can blame BttF for being inaccurate, so let’s just enjoy the spectacle.

It does beggar the question, however, of how to accurately predict the future when writing science fiction. No-one can predict the future, but we can make pretty good guesses. The age-old question of whether science is influenced by science fiction (such as the constant efforts to create hover technology from “Back to the Future”, lightsabers from “Star Wars” and teleportation machines from “Star Trek”) is probably quite pertinent. Sadly, as writers, we can hardly create a future filled with lightsabers simply because that’s a possibility – it would be unoriginal, not to mention fodder for Disney’s legal team (in case you forgot, Disney own “Star Wars” now. Ack.)

I wrote my first novel when I was thirteen. It was a wholly unoriginal science fiction story heavily influenced by “The X-Files”, “The Terminator” and “Back to the Future”. In “Fourth Millennium”, which will hopefully never be leaked onto the internet, my protagonist was a desperate hovercraft racer who undertakes an illegal cyberization procedure to give him faster reflexes. During his next race he is unwittingly blasted a thousand years into the future, where he must prevent a shady cyborg and government organisations from destroying the world with insectoid alien clones.

Yeah, tell me about it.

Needless to say, I soon realised that I should never attempt to publish “Fourth Millennium” or its tedious sequels. They may have been fun for me to write, but aside from the originality aspect, they could hardly be considered accurate depictions of the future. Who can guess what the year 3,000 will look like, if the human race is even still here?

I’m reminded of a piece of literature a lecturer of mine mentioned once. I wish I could remember the name of the story or the writer. In it, a future several hundred years from now is depicted. Modern sci-fi writers have ridiculed the story because the only noticeable difference between the time period in which it was written and the supposed future was that people sat in chairs that floated. Several hundred years of scientific development. Woe betide any writer who makes the same mistake.

Scientific advancement is zipping along at light-speed, so the likes of “Back to the Future” can be forgiven. In just 75 years we have seen the invention of television, colour television, flat screen television, 3D television … smart phones barely larger than credit cards that include sophisticated cameras, calculators, calendars, address books and video games … Gaming that has progressed from Pong to Donkey Kong to Sonic the Hedgehog to Ocarina of Time to The Last of Us (see also my earlier article on the development of the Final Fantasy video game series) … cinema technology that has developed from “Mabel’s Strange Predicament” to “Casablanca” to “Back to the Future” to “Avatar” (Cineworld Sheffield is currently constructing our first “4D” cinema screen) … All within the span of a single lifetime.

My first serious science fiction novel, “Faith in Chrome”, was set 80 years into the future. I decided to be inventive but fairly realistic. I decided that the world would feature sophisticated artificial intelligence programs, but that they were tightly restricted. There would be convenient personal tools in the form of microscopic nanomachines, but that they were expensive and not commercially available. There would be hovering vehicles, but that regular roads, shipping lanes and air travel were generally preferred. Video games are fully immersive online hallucinary experiences. Many processes were mechanised, such as sentry guard duty. Why not? There would be no space travel or alien encounters, not since NASA had its hands tied under Obama and for as long as the Drake equation is our best “evidence” of otherworldly life (although there have been exciting developments on Mars this year, and I’m not talking about Matt Damon’s latest film).

So how can science fiction be more honest, practical and – ultimately – accurate?

Assuming that this is your goal, rather than the wild and brilliant fun-scapes of Iain M. Bank’s Culture books for example, then we can simply extrapolate. My earlier paragraph about TVs, phones and video games should give you a starting point. See where we have been, what we have now, and ask “what next”? Ask yourself if your ideas are practical. Will these inventions be too expensive to make commercially, and therefore cost-prohibitive for most of the world? Were they derived from military technology, as most of our best tech today is? Are they too impractical or unsafe to use (why use expensive, power-hungry laser rifles when lead bullets are cheap and just as deadly?)…? Who would fund their development and why?

As you ponder what your future will look like, enjoy this message from Doc Brown himself, which is as poignant as it is corny:

—db

6 scientific tips to improve your writing (reblog – University of Florida)

I was recently recommended this post from the University of Florida, featured on www.futority.org, which deals with some fairly new science on writing. It’s a fascinating read, but don’t feel bad if you have to read it twice, like I did…

There was no reblog functionality on the original site, so I give full credit here. Please do check out www.futority.org when you get some time, as it’s a great site in itself.

—db


6 scientific tips to improve your writing

A new book uses insights into the reading brain to give writers clear-cut, science-based guidelines on how to write anything well, from an email to a multi-million-dollar proposal.

Yellowlees Douglas, an associate professor of management communication at the University of Florida, wrote the book to satisfy her frustrated students’ needs for a guide to writing that “didn’t just tell my students to imitate Hemingway, as one of them put it,” Douglas says.

“Here I was, teaching quantitative thinkers in the colleges of business and medicine, and every book I assigned had my students ready to tear their hair out.”

So Douglas wrote The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer (Cambridge University Press, 2015), drawing off the data that had first snagged her interest decades earlier while investigating the impacts of multimedia documents on reading.

The book uses data from eye-tracking, EEG brain scans, and fMRI neuroimaging, some of which give scientific backing to the usefulness of old standbys like thesis sentences and active voice. However, the book also dispels many well-worn myths, like avoiding beginning sentences with “and.”

The Reader’s Brain also provides insight into where to put information you want readers to remember—and where to stash disclosures you’d rather they forget. Even the cadence of your sentences, the book argues, subconsciously cues your readers to your skill as a writer.

“People who work with data think systematically,” Douglas says, “and, if you tell them to do something, they automatically want to know, ‘Where’s the data?’ Having published in the sciences, I know exactly how they feel.”

Six tips for better writing

1. Prime your readers

“Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them.” Few of us realize this advice has its roots in cognitive psychology and neuroscience. In recent decades, researchers have discovered that priming is a form of implicit learning. By merely exposing experimental subjects to lists of random words, researchers discovered the earlier exposure triggered accurate recall a day later—even though the subjects were unaware they would be tested later on the list.

When you tell readers your purpose in the first sentences of a memo, email, or proposal, you bolster their ease of comprehension and increase their recall of content later.

2. Use ‘recency’ to your advantage

The last item in the “Tell them” triad refers to what psychologists call recency effects, which influence our ability to remember the last items we read. Recency effects extend to both short-term and long-term memory. Readers remember final sentences in paragraphs, items in lists, and paragraphs in documents more clearly than anything else they read.

[Writing and speaking are totally separate in the brain]

Carefully compose that call-to-action paragraph in a proposal and concluding paragraph in your next report. And that final sentence in every opening paragraph in your emails? Dedicate that sentence to whatever action you need your readers to take—and when they should do it.

3. Disappoint without destroying good will

You can benefit from the strength of priming and recency effects when you have to tell a client you’re unable to meet a deadline or inform an employee she’s not getting the position she applied for. How? Priming and recency effects create a “dead zone” in the middles of lists, sentences, paragraphs, and entire documents.

4. Bury bad news

You can prime the reader with a neutral opening paragraph, one with content that’s neither misleadingly encouraging or straight-to-the-point bad news. Clinical studies attest to the impact of negative news in a first paragraph creating resistance and hostility to the rest of the message.

[Bad writing could get scientists more citations]

Open your second paragraph with a rationale for the unwelcome part of your message—the cause for the effect you’re going to explore. Then embed the most lethal content in a minor clause in the dead center of the paragraph. Close that paragraph with a neutral sentence, mentioning whatever benefits you can conjure to offer your reader.

Then craft a short, positive paragraph as your closing that’s forward-looking, maintaining your readers’ goodwill by using the document’s recency position. Your reader will get the message without getting hostile toward you.

5. Harness cause and effect

From an evolutionary perspective, our tendency to see cause and effect everywhere is essential to our survival. When you place the rationale for a negative decision before you tell your reader the decision itself, you leverage the power of causation.

In studies dating back to the 1940s, participants invariably described footage of simple, animated squares and triangles in terms of cause and effect. Your reader is also highly susceptible to seeing causation. When you turn sentences into micro-narratives of cause and effect, you make your writing easier to read and recall.

6. Don’t let passive voice drag you down

You’ve probably already heard about the evils of passive construction: placing an outcome at the beginning of your sentence, in the grammatical subject, using a non-action verb, and generally burying the actor responsible. But English is a subject-verb-object language, and readers also expect language to obey what linguists call the iconicity assumption.

In other words, we expect the order of items in a sentence to reflect the order in which they occurred in the world. When you use passive construction, readers’ brains show more activity—and reading speed slows down, no matter how simple your content.

Source: University of Florida

Building Character: originality, style and idol worship

I recently had the pleasure of being introduced to a new friend from Japan, and we immediately hit it off over our love of manga and video games. As a nerd stranded in the world of ‘grown-ups’, I rarely get the chance to have deep conversations about these favourite topics of mine, and took advantage of it.

It turned out we had a shared love of the Final Fantasy video games. Final Fantasy is a series of story-based roleplaying games, typically involving very strong storylines and characters. Often lasting longer than 40 hours from beginning to end, the gamer has more opportunity to be immersed in the fictional fantasy world of the game and come to know the protagonists in ways that aren’t often possible in films, or even novels. Because the series – which has 15 main titles and dozens of spin-offs, expansions and remakes – has been constantly reinvented since the first title in 1987, it has the benefit of each new generation of gaming technology and has drastically changed in terms of visual and musical style, as well as modes of storytelling and gameplay. The series’ incredible score, produced by Japanese composer Nobuo Uematsu, has entries in the ClassicFM Hall of Fame and there are several orchestral concerts around the world celebrating his great talent. The franchise also includes a couple of feature films, animated series and the usual marketing fluff.


Graphical evolution – 1987 to 2015

Final Fantasy I

The original Final Fantasy (1987 – Nintendo Entertainment System)

Final Fantasy IV

Final Fantasy IV (1991- Nintendo Entertainment System) Remake

Final Fantasy VII

Final Fantasy VII (1997 – Sony PlayStation)

Final Fantasy X

Final Fantasy X (2001 – Sony PlayStation 2) HD remake

Final Fantasy XIII

Final Fantasy XIII (2009 – Sony PlayStation 3)

Final Fantasy XV

Final Fantasy XV (2015 – Sony PlayStation 4)


Because of the dramatic shift in technological capability, the series has advanced from extremely simple, cartoonish games to high-powered, cinema-quality visuals. As such, there has been a growing emphasis on the visual design of the characters, incorporating not only realistic object textures and facial expressions, but intricate costume design and idiosyncratic body language.

The discussions with my Japanese friend revolved around whether it was a good thing that characters could be so realistically represented on-screen, and whether this was a distraction from the core purpose of a video game: the fun and accessibility of its gameplay.

My friend argued that the owner of the Final Fantasy franchise, Square Enix, should concentrate less on dramatic video-style cut-scenes like this:



…and return to its roots with simplistic graphics. Her reasoning was that the emphasis on visuals had diluted the gameplay, turning the games into merely interactive cinema experiences, but more significantly promoting ‘idol worship’.

In Asia, idol worship is a problem amongst young people whose lives are driven by pressure to study, qualify for a good job, earn a high salary and marry well. In fact, issues such as internet and gaming addiction are so prevalent that teenagers have died from playing video games for several days straight. In China, there are camps for youngsters who need to be ‘re-educated’ in how to detach themselves from technology and live more in the real (albeit stressful) world. Idol worship is a connected phenomenon where companies such as Square Enix are idolised for providing powerful entertainment franchises and are seen as being able to do no wrong. This is particularly striking in the ‘geek culture’ which is often characterised by extreme polarised views and almost obsessive loyalty and fandom.

Final Fantasy has boasted a cast of strong protagonists who are also the subjects of fan worship. Perhaps the most revered is Cloud, the hero of Final Fantasy VII, who is a heroic but troubled soldier. Epitomising many admirable qualities, such as loyalty, bravery and strength, Cloud is also casual and cool despite his significant past traumas. It is perhaps needless to say that Cloud’s moody demeanour, coupled with his heroic traits, are particularly appealing to male teenaged gamers.

Cloud Strife, FF7

Cloud Strife, the aptly-named troubled protagonist of Final Fantasy VII, as depicted in the high-res animated film ‘Final Fantasy: Advent Children’

Cloud was so popular that he was emulated in a later game in the series by the designers of Lightning, the female hero of Final Fantasy XIII who shares many of his qualities (she and her allies can be seen in the Youtube clip earlier in this post).

Characters are important to more storytelling genres that just video games, of course, and so the issue of characterisation is wider reaching. My friend asserted that the advancements of computer graphics means that more attention is paid to the visual design of characters, strengthening their superficial qualities whilst weakening the game. I held that strong characters are integral to a strong story, and should never be overlooked.

In Final Fantasy VII, Cloud occasionally serves as a bland protagonist on whom gamers can imprint their own personality, an effective tactic from earlier games in which some protagonists never speak at all (early first person shooters and RPGs are prime examples). He rarely speaks and his thoughts are hidden from the gamer. Much like protagonists in (bad) first person literature, he is the focal point for events that happen, rather than a character who drives the plot forward, and much of the story’s strong characterisation is embodied by the characters who accompany him. The game encourages players to speculate on Cloud’s inner workings – a necessary device to build up to a major plot twist later in the story. However, would the story’s famous twists and surprises be as emotionally powerful without characterisation?

A story can only be as strong as its characters, and if the reader (or viewer/player) cares little for the fate of those characters, then all dramatic tension is lost. It is true that characters in a visual medium are often defined by their visual appearance and style, which is a superficial method that does not create the best protagonists.

Originality is a key issue in characterisation, the neglect of which writers of crime thrillers and fantasy fiction are particularly guilty. One way of overcoming that is a striking visual appearance, but this should not overshadow the development of the character’s mental and emotional state, motivations and desires. It’s possible that characters are idolised in certain genres, but this is nothing new: action heroes in films and moral exemplars in literature have always been around (the recent furore over the retroactive characterisation of Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s ‘new’ book is of note). Should this mean that characters should be less defined, or that superficial qualities should be abandoned? I feel that the answer is obvious, and that fiction is weaker, possibly broken, without those factors.

I do encourage debate on these questions, particularly on whether idolisation of characters could ever be a negative thing. Who are your favourite characters in fiction, and why?

—db