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Not much to report from this week (other than today); I've been… - John C. Kirk

Feb. 20th, 2005

12:43 am

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Not much to report from this week (other than today); I've been keeping busy at work. I've booked my next Microsoft exam (SQL Server, 70-229) for Thursday, so now I need to get a move on and read the books. This will definitely benefit the company, so that we can become a Microsoft Partner and get cheap licences for some software. Nobody's actually putting pressure on me to take the exam, but I can see that there's a need for it, so I'm taking it a bit sooner than I'd like; studying for it will probably eat most of my spare time between now and then.

Things are basically stable on the flat front; I've got everything I need, and there's just a few minor things left for the builders to sort out in due course. The main thing left for me to do is the decorating - it's weird, but trying to choose what colour to paint the walls is taking me much longer than when I made the decision to actually buy the flat! Anyway, I'm hoping to get that all finished by the end of March, which will then be a year after I bought the flat, which seems like a good target to aim for. I am still planning a flatwarming, but the first three weekends in April are all reserved for SJA (I'm doing my FAW course on the first two, then doing duty at the London Marathon on the third), so it won't be until after that.

Today was Picocon, so I went to Imperial for that. I didn't arrive until 12:30, so I missed Gwyneth Jones' talk and "Destruction of Dodgy Merchandise", but I was around for the rest of the events. I haven't actually read anything by any of the authors who were GoHs this year, so I didn't really know what to expect from them.

Jon Courtenay Grimwood made some interesting comments in his talk, particularly talking about the difference between UK and US publishers. He said that in the UK it's quite common for a book to shift between different viewpoints, whereas in the US it tends to be either first person or third person following one character around closely. I hadn't thought of it in those terms before, but I can see some evidence for that. E.g. the Discworld novels often flick back and forth between different characters and locations, whereas Harry Harrison's "Stainless Steel Rat" books and Robert Asprin's "Myth" series are both first-person narratives (although later books in the "Myth" series did switch to different narrators for each novel). Someone in the audience suggested that when Bujold did more character switching in her later novels, this could be attributed to her increased influence rather than improved writing skills. I certainly liked seeing Miles from Ekaterin's point of view in "Komarr" and "A Civil Campaign", and I was disappointed when "Diplomatic Immunity" was so tightly focussed on Miles' point of view.

Mind you, that's not to say that it's automatically a bad thing to be rooted in one perspective. Looking at the "New Frontier" Trek novels, I think that "Once Burned" is my favourite so far, and it's the only one which was told in the first person. It was part of the "Captain's Table" theme, where the premise was that Captain Calhoun had to tell a story to another captain in the pub, although I don't know whether other books in that set used the same approach. This was particularly effective at one point, where Calhoun is describing the rather gruesome fate of an away team.

"Quite simply, they had been beaten to death. They had died brutally and horribly, their skulls crushed in, their bones shattered. There were rope burns on their wrists. They'd probably been stunned by blows to the head, and when they came to, their wrists being bound made it impossible to activate their transponders. There was blood everywhere, my God, it was everywhere. Their faces didn't look like faces, but rather like crimson masks. Stephanie's long hair was thick and matted with blood. Her mouth was hanging open and most of her teeth had been knocked out, as had Byron's. Their clothes were shredded, huge gashes laid open their thighs, the ...


... I'm sorry. I need a drink. Excuse me."


When I was reading that, I felt that there was almost a hypnotic effect to the list that he was reeling off ("the fascination of the abomination"), so it really brought me down to earth when the character had to stop talking.

Anyway, coming back to Grimwood's talk, he did annoy me a lot with one of his other comments. He said "If you can't see it, hear it, and smell it, then you shouldn't be writing it". (I think those were his exact words.) I understand what he means, in terms of being able to visualise the scene that you're describing (and I also assume that he's only referring to writing fiction). However, due to my anosmia, I will never be able to imagine the smells in any story that I write, so by his rules I therefore shouldn't be writing any. He is of course entitled to his opinion, and given that he's a published author he may be more qualified to express an opinion on this subject than me. I also haven't written any short stories lately, although I've got various ideas queued up. But, be that as it may, comments like that are not going to get him on my good side. I did consider questioning this (e.g. "are you saying that someone who's deaf shouldn't be a writer?"), but the rest of the questions were either flattering or neutral, so I didn't want to spoil everyone else's mood by picking a fight with him.

Moving on, Brian Stableford gave quite a good talk about "The Myth of the Space Age" - the basic idea being that we used to think "first stop the Moon, second stop Mars, third stop Alpha Centauri", but then the space exploration program more or less ground to a halt. Mind you, he did take a while to get to the point (his early comments about immersive fantasy in a Tolkien-eque environment were good, but I didn't see the relevance to the topic), and there seemed to be a fair amount of stating things as facts when I'd count them more as personal opinions.

Then there was a panel discussion, with all three authors. The main thing that confused me there was that they kept referring to "the singularity", as some new concept that's appearing everywhere. I'd heard brief references to it in the previous two talks, but it came up a lot in the panel discussion. From the way people mentioned it, it sounded like "everyone else in the room knows what we're talking about", so I wasn't sure whether it had been described in Gwyneth Jones' talk (which I missed), or whether it had been on the cover of New Scientist recently or something. Anyway, I figured that I'd look pretty stupid if I asked what it was, and I've done enough of that this week already, so I kept quiet. (I also remember a Babylon 5 convention I went to a few years ago, when the panel were referring to episodes by their titles and they groaned/rolled their eyes when someone asked "which episode was that?") I was guessing that it had something to do with wormholes or zero point energy (both concepts that appear prominently in "Stargate"), although it turns out (from asking other people after the talk) that it's a more general theme of "there will come a time in the not-too-distant future when computers are infinitely fast, all diseases have been cured, etc.". As a side-note, I do wonder whether I should take out a subscription to New Scientist or Scientific American (I found quite a few bee articles on the latter's website when I was doing my MSc project last year), but I should probably try to clear out my 3 year backlog of computer magazines first... Hmm, I don't appear to have said anything else about the panel; honestly, nothing else actually stuck in my mind.

After the panel there was a "silly games" event. I'm all in favour of that concept, and I've hosted a couple of parties around that theme, but I don't really get the Radio 4 sense of humour; my eyes glaze over about 10 seconds into "Mornington Crescent", and then I wake up at the end. The charades were good though, and I did like someone else's suggestion of playing "Blockbusters" next year - I think that could actually work very well, and wouldn't need to be very high-tech, e.g. with playing areas drawn on a flipchart and blue/yellow marker pens to colour in sections after correct answers.

The fish duel was entertaining to watch, and shame on Oxford for not producing a champion this year!

The quiz went pretty well too (my team came roughly in the middle of the rankings), although I still think that going for breadth of knowledge is better than depth; if there's a round based on "Dune" or "Dragonlance" then I know I'm going to score zero before I even hear the questions. Still, the move to shorter rounds was a step in the right direction.

Anyway, all in all it was a good day out, and it was nice to see some of the ICSF people who I don't have much contact with nowadays.

Comments:

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From:aca
Date:February 20th, 2005 01:10 am (UTC)
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I would say that Grimwood was using a description of how he emerses himself into a scene to provide the most realistic writing he can. I don't suppose he was suggesting for a moment that anyone without the use of a particular sense should not be writing. Moreover that one should use the wealth of ones experience to provide a certain depth to ones writing, whatever the extent or limit of that experience may be.
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From:nou
Date:February 20th, 2005 01:19 am (UTC)
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He said "If you can't see it, hear it, and smell it, then you shouldn't be writing it". [...] However, due to my anosmia, I will never be able to imagine the smells in any story that I write, so by his rules I therefore shouldn't be writing any.

I think what he means is that if, using all the sensory tools at your disposal, you can't visualise something as-close-as-dammit to real life, then when you write the scene it may be lacking. He's saying that you need to be able to put the whole of your _normal_ perception into your writing. A scene needs to feel real to _you_ or it can't feel real to anyone else.
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From:nwhyte
Date:February 20th, 2005 10:48 am (UTC)
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In fairness his comment wasn't part of his own presentation, it was his off-the-cuff response to a question put to him by Gwyneth Jones during her session after I'd asked her something on the same lines; and he was using "you" as an impersonal pronoun, and really was referring to himself. What he obviously meant was, "Unless I can sense the imagined world as well as I can sense the real world, I think I shouldn't be writing about it".

But interestingly when someone (was it you?) put that back to him during his own panel, he admitted that it takes him about 30,000 words to be sure that he has that sense even in his own writing. And it's pretty clear that there are many writers who don't have the same vivid sense of experiencing their work that he and Gwyneth Jones obviously do (indeed I suspect Brian Stableford, from what he said about writing during his session, may be one of them).
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From:johnckirk
Date:February 20th, 2005 11:13 am (UTC)
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Thanks to all of you who've commented so far, and if your interpretations of what he meant were correct then I have no quarrel with those sentiments. I generally try to avoid whining about my condition, but I do get a bit touchy when someone seems to be rubbing my nose in it (no pun intended).

As mentioned above, I wasn't around for Gwyneth Jones' talk, so that is some extra context that I wasn't aware of. It wasn't me who asked the question in his session - as I recall, the dialogue went like this:
Q: "I heard you say that 'if you can't see it, hear it, and smell it, you have no business writing about it'"
A: "Well, that's not quite what I said. I actually said that if you can't see it, hear it, and smell it, then you shouldn't be writing it."
Personally, I don't really see the difference between the two statements, but I'm trying to quote him accurately.

As for the pronoun issue, I assumed that he meant "you" in the general sense (the equivalent of "one"), rather than referring specifically to the person in the audience who asked the question. (As in, "If you see a fire then you should call 999".) But it seems slightly odd that he would use it to refer specifically to himself, since there's a perfectly good first person pronoun available for that. Being snarky, I'd say that if he can't handle that then it's his own writing skills that need attention. (Although in fairness, if he was trying and failing to say that then he wasn't actually criticising other people, so it's a little harsh for me to say "sort yourself out first".) But anyway, I would say if you're correct about his meaning then it wasn't obvious to me, even if it was to everyone else.
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From:sulkyblue
Date:February 20th, 2005 09:56 pm (UTC)
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The quesstion asked of him was indeed a misquote, he made the same statement in Gwyneth's and his own talks the person who asked the question misquoted him as "if you can't see, it hear it, and smell it, you have no business writing" ie they left out the fact that it's that specific bit you shouldn't be writing.

I agree with what he said with the obvious footnote/disclaimer as Kake put it. If you (people in general) can't visualise in your head what a scene/character/object in your fiction looks like, you shouldn't try to explain it, because it's not going to be natural and consistant. Whether you can get away with writing the story without describing that bit of it is another matter entirely.

The whole thing developed out of Gwyneth's discussions of how she fully imerses herself in her created world and how far this went towards being delusional ;0)
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From:rjw1
Date:February 20th, 2005 12:15 pm (UTC)
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ken Mcleaod talks about the singularity a lot. its bascially the poitn at which most of the human race becomes ai in computers instead. who then grow expotentinally and forget they are human and basically piss off elsewhere.

this could be quite a bad descriotion mind you
it makes more sense in the mcleod books. although hes not the only author who uses it.

it sort of appears in marraoned in real tiem by vernor vinge
http://www.ugcs.caltech.edu/~phoenix/vinge/vinge-sing.html
http://www.aleph.se/Trans/Global/Singularity/

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From:billyabbott
Date:February 20th, 2005 01:55 pm (UTC)
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The first time I heard about it was in a paper by Vernor Vinge:
http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/faculty/vinge/misc/singularity.html

"The Coming Technological Singularity"

I read it randomly a few years back and was surprised that it had come into such common parlance (well, in the SF world anyway) and have seen it a lot recently.
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From:sulkyblue
Date:February 20th, 2005 09:57 pm (UTC)
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Yay fandom buzzword bingo!
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From:shuripentu
Date:February 23rd, 2005 01:56 am (UTC)
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You were at Picocon? I didn't see you! *pout*
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From:johnckirk
Date:February 23rd, 2005 01:58 am (UTC)
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Yes, I was surprised when I saw your entry about being there, and was meaning to put a similar comment there :) Sorry I missed you, but hopefully our paths will cross again in the not-too-distant future.
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