Posts By Will Ellwood

Protected: This is a Test

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

More Sharkes

A quick reskimming of two more reflections on the Shadow Clarke Awards.

First Nina Allan:

Our current situation is a disaster. Only last week another article was published, reporting the findings of a recent survey: that the British publishing industry remains 90% white. It is imperative that this state of affairs is made to change, not just on account of those talented individuals whose pathway into the creative industries is effectively being blocked, but especially because of what it says about where we are as a society. British cultural institutions are atrophying under the weight of reaction. British political culture is more toxic than it was in the days of Enoch Powell. We have somehow created a climate where thousands of people think Jacob Rees Mogg would be a reasonable choice to be our next prime minister, for fuck’s sake. We are a dead country walking. This is urgent, and it is urgent now. After a considerable amount of post-Sharke soul searching, I have come to the conclusion that positive action is more important than obeisance to a brand of objectivity that is specious in any case. At the very least, the Clarke Award should begin admitting entry to works not published in the UK. The current rules have meant that some of the most interesting and important SF by minority and marginalised writers has been ineligible for the Clarke because it happens to have been published in the USA. An award for best science fiction novel that does not take account of the work published by Aqueduct Press, just for example, is setting itself up to be parochial and restrictive. Most works by established writers are published simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic in any case – with the result that the only works being blocked are precisely those works that we need to see more of.

Afterwards: thinking about the Sharke (Nina)

Personally I would restrict the Clark Award to work published within the British Commonwealth for reactionary reasons as I think that allowing novels which could receive no UK publication at all would dramatically alter the character of what is short and long listed . It would allow more inclusion, but at the same time I fear it would potentially create more homogeneity between it and the other major SF awards.

And second Paul Kincaid:

Criticism is an exercise in rational argument. If you believe that the book is a crock of shit, then it is incumbent upon you to explain why. The judgement that the critic expresses is only part, and indeed a small part, of the criticism. The bulk of any criticism should be an argument that, if followed properly, will lead the reader to understand how and why the critic arrived at that judgement.

That is a pretty austere approach to criticism. I know that. I understand that others may not be comfortable with such austerity. But as I say: I am a puritan.

I value criticism not as something that I do, but as something that makes me think, that encourages precision, that insists upon a close consideration of everything. Criticism, done well, is the most intellectually stimulating thing I know.

Unfortunately, I have come to feel over the last few years that, while criticism still is done well, it is less well valued than it used to be.

Sharke infested custard (Paul)

There are numerous other fine points well made in both Nina and Paul’s essays. Whether as a reader or write of science fiction I encourage you to reflect on them.

Two Reflections on the Sharkes

From Megan and Jonathan.

What you like, and what is important are not the same things. What feels modern and what is progressive are not the same things. Groundbreaking art does not give us comfort; it feels uncomfortable until we get comfortable enough with it to adjust our mental schema–our worldview– to accommodate it. Good novels don’t conform to us, they change us and change with us, and when they do, they should win awards.

SFatigued (Megan)

One of the reasons why I decided to take part in the project was that I believed – and still believe – that genre publishing is going through a period of aesthetic retrenchment. Look at the way that even established and award-winning authors are manacled to conventional forms and you’ll find an industry that is desperately trying to consolidate existing readerships while desperately trying to make inroads into the profitable but aesthetically conservative YA and YA-adjacent markets. As a result of this period of retrenchment, genre publishing is producing less aesthetically ambitious works than it was five, ten, or fifteen years ago.

This period of aesthetic retrenchment has coincided with a catastrophic collapse in the range of tolerated discourse with regards to genre literature. Ten years ago, genre culture was home to a thriving blogosphere that encouraged a broad range of attitudes towards science fiction literature. Since then, that blogosphere has largely collapsed and a fan-centric ethic of honest self-expression has been replaced with an industry-centric ethic of enforced positivity.

Lessons of Sharke (Jonathan)

This was a good project. As interesting in its failures as despairing in other people’s reactions to it.

 

Unwise Code

from math import sqrt
for i in range(100000000):
    sqrt(i)

I should know better to run this on my laptop and expect it to finish in a sensible amount of time.

What I Learned When I Was Thirty Years Old

  • Umbrellas are good.
  • So is sauerkraut.

Horizon: Zero Dawn’s Conflict Resolution

I now own a Playstation 4, which is a good thing because PC gaming is too much of an effort to keep up with. One of the games which tempted me toward the Playstation platform was “Horizon: Zero Dawn“, which is an exclusive release. The game looks good, features a diverse cast, and throughout the very early stages of the game it appears that the narrative conflict resolution is designed by people who aren’t sociopaths.

This game is an open world action RPG set a thousand years in the future after contemporary Western civilisation has collapsed into a pre-industrial state. Robot dinosaurs roam the land and the people of Aloy’s tribe are warned away from the ruined cities and underground vaults which contain pre-fall technology. Accordingly there is a main thread of story punctuated with dozens of optional side-quests.

The side-quests are always the best part of an RPG.

Recently I finished one called “Insult to Injury”. The mechanics of it are dull. The resolution of the story though the options I chose lead to decent, not murdering, behaviour being displayed. Insult to Injury starts with Aloy arriving in a village not long after a vicious battle with the game’s primary antagonists. There she finds a healer tending to a dying warrior. The warrior is in pain and will die from their injuries. You are tasked with finding Dreamwillow, an analgesic so that palliative care can be given. Searching the map happens, but eventually you end up at the home of a recluse who has been locked in their home by outcasts[1], exiled members of Aloy’s tribe.

LINKS – !!Con 2017

I have never attended a computing convention, but thanks to YouTube I have watched a lot of the talks which take place at them. Sometimes I watch them because I’ve required precise technical information about a subject for my day job and sometimes I watch them out of curiosity. !!Con (Bang Bang Con) is a curiosity. Very little of what is discussed has any immediate relevance to my profession, which is great. 

I’m going to preface the three talks I’m sharing as talks which I learned a lot *and* enjoyed the hell out of the weird enthusiasm for fringe topics. !!Con is literally the best at combining an energetic sense of wonder at finding the cool shit computers can and also give you a sense of understanding at the reveal mystery.

You can watch the first day of !!Con  and the second day. Confreaks have also split out the talks into their own ten minute videos with a helpful play list here.

There are thirty-one videos to choose from. I haven’t watched them all, yet, but here are three of my favourites so far.

(And I’m not sure what the selection criteria for favourite is.)

“What Alien Invaders, Birds, and Computer Simulations have in Common: Flocking!!

Real flocks aren’t what they’re like in the movies. You’ve probably seen flocking behavior in The Avengers, the latest Star Trek movie, or even in the Ender’s Game books. Flocks are groups of individuals, usually birds (or invading aliens when it comes to Sci-Fi), that are collectively moving together. The flocks in movies show individuals forming complex patterns, but they’re all easily taken down by targeting a centralized point of command. In reality, flocking behavior is a lot simpler and there doesn’t need to be any coordination between individuals–that means your favorite protagonists probably wouldn’t have won when they came up against flocks!”

So this is a great talk because there’s an interesting behavior being explored here. It’s also a lovely demonstration of a person exploring a question with a tool they know well, but I have literally no concept of using. Jan takes the flocking behavior we’ve seen in films and peels back the underlying processes behind shoals of fish and flocks of birds in a neat way which allows for exploration.

DHCP: IT’S MOSTLY YELLING!! by Mindy Preston

“The Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP to its friends) is the magic by which your laptop knows how to get to Twitter on a brand new network about which it knows nothing. DHCP can tell your computer what its address should be, and where it should go to connect out to other networks. It can also tell your laptop weird stuff, like that it should run all the traffic through a proxy you’ve never heard of!! IT ALSO WORKS MOSTLY BY YELLING!”

One facet of !!Con which I love is the short topics on the hidden things which are everywhere. DHCP is one of those ubiquitous things that having an understanding of (however limited in my case) makes living in the contemporary world a little bit less scary. Are you having problems with a WiFi router in a crowded place? Well there’s a chance that it has ran out of IP addresses to assign you via DHCP. This talk involves performative yelling and a little bit of malicious activity.

HDR Photography in Microsoft Excel?! by Kevin Chen

“Have you ever taken a photo with areas that are too bright or too dark? As any photographer will tell you, high dynamic range photography is the right way to solve your problem. And, as any businessperson will tell you, Microsoft Excel is the right platform to implement your solution.

“In this talk, I’ll explain the algorithm from one of the foundational papers about HDR imaging ― no prior image processing knowledge required. Turns out, it’s just a system of linear equations! So, obviously, the next step is to implement HDR in a spreadsheet. Because we can. The end result reveals how this complicated-sounding algorithm boils down to a few simple ideas.”

At seven minutes fifty seconds when Kevin says, “So that’s the first step to turning Excel into an image editor,” your head will probably explode.

When I first saw the title for this I was initially dismissive of how interesting I’d find it. I don’t really do Excel or spreadsheets. However, I watched the talk this morning with my coffee and am very much prepared to admit I was wrong. This is both a very clever and super cool way of demonstrating how high dynamic range imaging. 10/10 would recommend.

Jointing the Shadow Clarkes

I’d like to make a small observation regarding the reactions to the Shadow Clarke
Award that I’ve seen on social media. More time on Reddit and Twitter has been
spent voicing opposition to the shadow jury for viewing some of the Clarke Award
novels through the lens of commercial vs non-commercial. Many bytes have been
expended telling the shadow jury that this is a bad distinction to draw, with the
possible subtext that they shouldn’t think this way.

My opinion on if commercial vs non-commercial is a good (read: interesting) lens
to review the shortlist with is that it’s simply a device to filter preconceived
notions. I don’t presume that any of the jury take it to be the only critical
sieve available to them. There are surely other dialectic opposites they will
have considered using or will use in future reviews. As critical knives go, it’s
sharp, but also clumsy. A meat clever rather than a scalpel. Good for getting
the joints off the beast and dividing the parts into neat piles before proper
inspection begins.

But I haven’t read all of the shadow panel’s reviews yet and they haven’t yet
published anything apart from a heavily edited conversation, so I may be proved
to be wrong.

And of course, audience participation is to be encouraged, but we should let
the project run its course before starting our dissections, least we vivisect
the subject to death.

I will end by saying that it is right that we consider it crass to send author’s
unsolicited negative reviews of their work. It should also be considered equally
crass to tell a critic what to write, to think, in their reviews while they are
still writing them. I say this not to close down conversation or opinion.
Everyone is free to disagree with everyone else. However, the words we write can
change the reader of those words. If we accept that, then it’s worth considering
in these discussions why we are attempting to drive that change. Is it to add
another opinion or is it an attempt to make someone else think the same as you?

LINKS: A WEEKEND POST

It is the middle of a Saturday afternoon in February. Jenny and I have done the week’s food shopping, and now that I’ve made us both a coffee, we are settling into an afternoon of reading and writing.

Things.

  • Last month I attended the first Hello Worlds event at the National Video Game Arcade in Nottingham. It was a writing/reading group for interactive fiction. The next event is scheduled for this coming Thursday (9th) and will feature a demonstration of Viktor Ojuel’s game Ariadne in Aeaea and a group discussion about it. Ahead of attending, I have also been writing a short game using Twine called “Nazi Punching Simulator 2017.” More on that later.

  • Jonathan McCalamont may not want your award nominations and we should honour those wishes, but he deserves our critical attention. His essay on the New Weird, Nothing Beside Remains, was one of the best pieces of long form writing I read last year and something that I’m still trying to engage with critically. Not only does Jonathan write good essays and reviews, but he also occasionally curates a series of link posts called Thought Projectors. They are all good. Read the latest one here.

  • Coffee is the drink which I obsess over. Not only do I enjoy its varied flavors, but I associate it with being comfortable and relaxed. At home I put a lot of effort into brewing coffee and own a plethora of specialist equipment to make better, more interesting variations on black coffee. Recently I have started watching Chris Baca’s YouTube channel and listening to the podcast, Cat and Cloud, which he co-hosts and is associated with his roasting business and cafe in Santa Cruz. It’s all very boisterous and enthusiastic, which was initially off putting, but there’s genuine thought and attention put into those videos, which finally won me around.

    • As an aside, I work as a System Administrator/DevOps type person and the discussions about customer service, customer experience, and training staff all resonate strongly with me, because these are things which my industry is only within the last five years or so are starting to learn. Chis Baca’s insistence that the aim of his cafe is for people to leave feeling happier than when they entered, regardless of the reasons they went in, is a smart goal to work towards in most professional situations.

    • Coffee as a pleasure is something which came up recently in my life. At work things do go wrong. In the past I have almost self-medicated my way through disasters by drinking more coffee. After some pretty serious incidents which left me both physically and mentally drained I made the decision to not drink coffee while actively stressed. Coffee is for good times. Dr Pepper is for the bad. A recent event showed this to be a wise decision. Removing a consumable from my life during a specific, short period of doom meant that I could return properly to it as a comforter in the days after while recovering.

  • Dan North has become one of the people I follow for good practice in software engineering/operations management/project delivery. Again, like with the Cat and Cloud people, he’s often promoting a sense of empathy and understanding of the people we deal with. Unlike the Cat and Cloud peeps, he also gives presentations on subjects which I can directly implement in my professional life. The slides for his talk at PubConf (which I sadly missed) were recently posted onto the internets and have the provocative title of “Why Every Single Element of SOLID is Wrong!” I’m convinced by his conclusions and entertained by the reduction.

  • I said that I’m making a Twine game, but I hate the interface for Twine. It’s a point-and-click GUI, which is basically just awful and doesn’t fit into my workflow. So I’ve been using a project called twee2 to generate the Twine files. This works better for me as my process for writing prose at the moment generally follows these steps:

    1. Write bullet points on paper. [PROTOTYPE]

    2. Expand bullet points into rough paragraphs. [PROTOTYPE]

    3. Shuffle bullet points and rough paragraphs around and rewrite until the shape feels right. [PROTOTYPE]

    4. Type up the mess into a text document of some description. [MINIMUM VIABLE PRODUCT]

    5. Expand and revise the mess until complete. [ITERATE]

Having to work through Twine’s GUI gets in the way of the prototype and iteration stages. Twine as a tool seems designed to get people to produce a minimum viable product quickly, but by sacrificing having a decent interface to work with producing text.

The primary purpose of Nazi Punching Simulator 2017 is to learn how to write a choose your own adventure game, so the content of the game is almost secondary (although I do of course condone punching Nazis) and there to provide a simple narrative to hang the questions and tools and process off. The next steps after I’ve written this game will be to actually play more IF games.

  • To play more IF games I may start playing games on the train to and from work. That time has usually been spent reading, but for some of the last week I’ve replayed Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which has been a pleasant piece of nostalgia. Also slightly worrying how much I remember from nearly twenty years ago.

Todo This Weekend

Finish the first playable version of Nazi Punching Simulator 2017.

  • Type up a short fiction prototype and start expanding.

  • Start drafting a new prototype.

  • Watch a David Cronenberg film.

PLACEHOLDER TEXT

My evenings are short now that I am working elsewhere. The chores and tasks of existing do not vanish because you arrive home an hour and a half later in the evening, etc. There is the precious reading time to consider though. The first month of my commute has taken me through Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, a Martin Beck novel, and I’m currently nearing the final quarter of The Breaks of the Game. Anyway, this post is a placeholder for something I want to write about later and do not want to forget about.

Jonathan McCalmont, of Ruthless Culture and Interzone, has been reviewing the films of Andrei Tarkovsky as part of the current reissuing of his films, so that mortals can actually see them. I managed to see three of them at the cinema: Stalker, The Sacrafice, and Solaris. It is Stalker which I wish to write about, since Jonathan has added a fine piece of the genre of criticism about and around the film Stalker in the form of his review for FilmJuice. It’s a good piece with plenty to think about. It’s shorter than Geoff Dyer’s Zona too. His post around it can be found here.

The placeholder of an idea is a question. Why do certain films (Stalker being a prime example) invite rewatching, reinterpreting, and replaying to a degree of intensity more fervent than written fiction, especially the shorter forms?

I have unverifiable theories. And I will probably end up citing my own reading and rereading of the stories found near the back of M. John Harrison’s Things that Never Happen.

Time to clean up cat litter and apply flea treatment to the mangy moggies.