Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘fiction

Thoughts on “How I Met Your Mother”

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Next on my list of diversions from construction noise (cf. [1], [2]) is “How I Met Your Mother”. (Unfortunately, very incompletely and often in the wrong season order, because I have trouble finding the various DVDs.)

I have only seen the last season once—and this will remain so (irrespective of what DVDs I do find). Why? It was one of the most ill-conceived in TV history, breaking with the original format, bringing little new value in return, failing to truly let the viewers get to know the “mother”,* and, ultimately, shitting on the eight preceding seasons. These, from a romantic point of view, dealt with three main constellations: the long-standing Marshall–Lily relationship, the long and twisted road of the Barney–Robin relationship, and Ted’s search for the “mother”. What happens in the last season, where we should see the completion and happily-ever-after** of the two*** latter? Barney and Robin fall apart and “mother” dies, in order to bring the horrible constellation of Ted and Robin together …

*Which might otherwise have been a saving grace. Note that she has no true presence in the previous seasons, as more or less mandated by the idea of the show.

**Something typically assumable of a work of fiction, no matter how much tougher real life is.

***The first constellation already being at that stage.

Here, I strongly suspect a radically different problem than with most other TV series (but I possess no insider knowledge): The show makers began with a certain idea for how the show should end and stubbornly stuck with that idea, even after better developments presented themselves and/or that end proved ill-advised.

Ted and Robin simply did not have any chemistry, did not work well together, and seemed to crash and burn every time that they were in a relationship. In many ways, Robin might have been a mere fix and bad idea of Ted’s (in universe; a fix and bad idea of the makers in the real world), and a realistic (!) continuation of the series past the last season would likely just have shown them crash and burn for the umpteenth time. Compare this with his long-standing search for “the one” or his obsession with the “slutty pumpkin”, who turned out to be an even worse fit than Robin, once he found her again—and, yes, this involved another (see below) extremely premature “I love you”.

As much as I dislike Rachel (of “Friends”), her long romance with Ross was a case of two persons with a genuine long-term love and attraction, where I had the impression that they naturally were drawn together, while the makers continually intervened to push them apart in order to keep the “will they/won’t they” going.* Ditto Robin and Barney, who seemed right for each other, even when they screwed up. With Robin and Ted, I always had the opposite impression, that the characters were naturally repelling each other, but that the makers kept pushing them back together, no matter how bad a match they were.

*Wisely: most series tend to lose when this type of tension between main characters is removed, e.g. because they marry half-way through the series.

Look at the first season alone: Robin is immediately introduced as a romantic interest for Ted (indeed, with a mislead that she was the “mother”), there is an elaborate story with e.g. the stealing of a blue horn and an extremely premature “I love you”, but no actual sparks. In contrast, Ted and Victoria showed more sparks within their first episode than Ted and Robin did over the entire series. Similarly, there is one episode, of a mostly unromantic nature, where Robin plays the wingman to Barney—and the two just click in such a manner that I wanted more of them together and saw them as a great romantic match. (Probably, several seasons before their romance actually began, but the writing, in a positive sense, was already on the wall.)

Indeed, if the road of mother-is-dead-and-Ted-goes-for-some-old-crush is taken, Robin would not make the top-3, maybe* not even top-5, of my candidates.

*This will depend a little on seasons that I have not yet re-watched.

From another perspective, I have some troubles seeing any of Ted’s romances as the truly true thing, because, looking at the series as a whole, he seems to be more in love with the idea of love and romance than with the respective other party. (In this, he parallels a younger me, but I grew out of it in my twenties—Ted appears never to have done so, not even in the future of 2030, when he must be above 50.)

The fact that Ted and his actor (Josh Radnor) come across as extremely fake and “douchy”, especially in the first season, does not help—a constant and obviously fake smile, and arms spread out as were he about to wrestle the person in front of him. Barney might have been a scumbag in some ways, even criminal ways, but he somehow managed to be sympathetic* (not to mention entertaining). Ted? Not so much. In this, he is one of the few cases where I look back at a series and am open to another casting choice leading to a better series.** With many other series, I do not just have trouble seeing a better choice, but am left with the feeling that any other choice would not have been, say, Ross, Rachel, Joey, …—or, indeed, Barney***.**** Ted? Again, not so much.

*At least, from the perspective of a TV viewer. I do not guarantee that I would have the same sympathy if I met him in real life. (Similarly, it is often possible to sympathize even with some Mafia members in a movie, even in light of behavior that would be intolerable in real life.)

**Other examples include “JD” on “Scrubs” and both the main characters on “Psych”. Indeed, that I stopped watching “Psych” is largely rooted in the main characters. Series like that are often carried by high-quality secondary characters, e.g. Dr. Cox, Dr. Kelso, and the (unnamed) janitor on “Scrubs”—those cast with actors too old or unattractive to play the hip youngsters or young hipsters, but who have greater acting skills.

***My feelings for the other three main characters is half-way between these positions. I would be against a time-travel-and-recast scenario, but I am not so set on these specific actors that I would see another (quality) casting choice as a major blow.

****This phenomenon likely largely results from a mixture of exposure (I am simply used to seeing X played by Y) and the natural influence of the actor on the character (others might have done an equally good job, but the character would have been someone different, just like, say, two brothers are not carbon copies). However, series that are highly successful (and, therefore, more likely to have been seen by me) are typically of highly over-average casting, with the implication that replacing an important actor with a semi-random choice would, on average, lead to an objective quality drop.

Excursion on mental health of characters:
It is often the case that sitcom characters (to a lesser degree, TV characters in general) are of dubious mental health, ranging from minor “issues” to actual visits to the loony bin.* Consider e.g. “Friends”, where Ross went through a period where I would consider him so severely disturbed that he needed professional help (manifesting in e.g. his “secret marriage” to Rachel), both Chandler and Monica carry scars from a troubled childhood, and Phoebe straddles the border between kooky and crazy. After “Friends”, “How I Met Your Mother” might be the second placer on the mental-health scale (of the sitcoms that I am familiar with), with four out of five characters clearly not being where they should be, headwise. (I am uncertain about Marshall, who might or might not be.) Pick a season of “Friends” where Ross is in better shape and “How I Met Your Mother” might even be the number one. Within the group, Ted competes with Barney for the first place among the five, through his unhealthy romantic obsessions.**

*I stress that this is not necessarily a point of criticism: characters who are off-kilter open up new roads for both humor and stories, and if mental-health issues can achieve this, I have no problems with it. (Similar effects can be achieved through e.g. great originality, as with the Addams and Munster families, or great stupidity, as with various characters from “My Name is Earl” or, of course, Joey.) Neither is it, when kept within limits, necessarily unrealistic, as some level of problems is quite common in (at least) the modern Western populations.

**Which contribute to my skepticism towards the Ted–Robin romance(s). And, no, obsessing with love or finding a partner, or with any given specific partner (especially not, when it happens with several partners), is neither healthy nor a sign of true love.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 25, 2021 at 11:29 am

Buffy vs. Smallville / Follow-up: Thoughts on Smallville

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After “Smallville” proved bad enough to justify an earlier text, I have turned to (among other things) “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (BTVS) to survive the construction noise.

As BTVS is one of my all-time favorite series, possibly the favorite outright, I am surprised to find my latest viewing disturbed by exactly the type of long one-on-one talks that I complain about in “Smallville”. Now, those on BTVS tend to be much better made, with far fewer of the “almost always shallow, uninsightful, repetitive, poorly written, and often consisting of more cliches than true content” problems that plagued “Smallville”, and with absolutely no Lana Lang—but, unlike on earlier watchings, I am still often annoyed and I still find myself fast-forwarding a little here-and-there.

One possible explanation for this is that “Smallville” left me hyper-sensitized and reacting more negatively than I would have done otherwise—it is often the case that something grows annoying only after a certain threshold has been exceeded and that this annoyance can remain for a long time even after this something falls back below the threshold again.* Maybe, BTVS tends to stay below that threshold, while “Smallville” was (well) above it, and the true villain is “Smallville”.

*Construction noise and disturbances between neighbors is a good example. In normal circumstances, there is a wide range of noise that simply does not register with me, or which registers but is not annoying, for instance a single slamming of a door. However, the same noise during or within several weeks of construction-noise periods or the periods of stomping orgies (cf. older texts) can make me jump out of my skin.

Then again, it could be e.g. that my taste has changed/matured over the years or that my tolerance for a low tempo, a low information density, a low whatnot has diminished over the years—that my personal threshold has changed. (My last watching of BTVS is a long while back.) Indeed, it is not unusual for me to watch something (or a slow part of it) with the speed increased by 10, 21, or more percent.*

*I use mplayer, which has convenient keyboard shortcuts for increasing (and decreasing) the speed by a factor of 1.1 (or 10 percent). Doing so twice gives 21 percent, as 1.1 x 1.1 = 1.21. Going higher than 21 is usually possible without losing understanding, but leads to severe distortions of voices and music, can diminish the “mood” of a scene, and can lead to problems if something unusually fast happens. Of course, with completely boring scenes, using far higher speeds in combination with subtitles is an easy way out.

From an entirely different point of view: Is it possible that I have been disturbed by some of these in the past, but not truly been aware of it? Excepting Spike, I have found virtually all of Buffy’s romantic interests annoying. (Including Angel, who worked much better on the spin-off “Angel”, where Buffy rarely showed.) A partial explanation for this could be all the time spent in almost Lana–Clark talks. More generally, scenes on TV/in the movies that are intended to be romantic/sexual/intimate/whatnot rarely actually are, often leaving me put off. (I might go as far as suggesting a rule of thumb: if a scene depicts two persons who are not fully dressed, the scene is empirically unlikely to contain anything worthwhile and should be cut.)

While BTVS is far superior to “Smallville”,* it is by no means perfect. For instance, I have already complained about an undue amount of story arcs**/***, and a few unfortunate developments can be added, including the overall character arc for Willow, some disputable main antagonists (the Initiative, Adam, Glory, the Trio; although the Trio might have worked, if kept as a rare comedic-relief opponent) in the later seasons, and the utterly idiotic idea to make all “potentials” into slayers in season 7—anyone with common sense would have realized that the side-effects might be a greater evil than the invasion they were intended to stop, and would have found another/better manner to resolve the situation.****

*I would go as far as claiming that “Smallville” was to some degree made in the image of BTVS. Apart from early parallels like a high-school superhero with “regular” friends fighting a monster of the week, I note the strong involvement of Rob Des Hotel & Dean Batali with both “Smallville” and the early seasons of BTVS. As is usually the case, the copy fell short of the original.

**Previously, I have used “arch[es]”. While I would still consider this the more plausible word, the standard term appears to be “arc[s]”.

***Interestingly, the first few seasons shows a use of “good” arcs that are not very intrusive and that allow a “monster of the season” to co-exist with the various “monsters of the week”. This changes for the worse as time goes on.

****This decision might ultimately be a side-effect of show-runner Joss Whedon being one of those politically naive who believe that Feminism is about showing strong women, and have swallowed the lie that “men are abusive and women must be empowered” (or similar). In this, he is similar to the naive vampire fans of the episode “Lie to me”—and just like they, he got into trouble when he encountered the real thing. This naive worldview might well have influenced other decisions during the run of the series.

Correction on “Dallas”:

In my earlier text, I spoke of “Bobby was dreaming an entire season”. This was, of course, not the case. Someone else had the dream and Bobby died in the dream. (I was never a “Dallas” viewer, and I misassociated in the information gleaned from indirect sources over the years.)

Written by michaeleriksson

October 12, 2021 at 1:58 pm

Thoughts on Smallville / Follow-up: When a TV series turns into a zombie of its old self

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Caught in construction noise again (cf. [1], [2]), I have spent some time watching “Smallville”—a series where I managed to buy a complete set of DVDs, but only managed one prior watching. After enjoying the first few seasons reasonably, I have found myself increasingly frustrated with developments (or lack thereof), begun to actively skip ahead more and more, and finally reached the point (early season 6) that I just terminated an episode halfway through, with no intent on watching the remainder of the series.*

*During my first watching, possibly some ten years ago, I powered through, but my impression was very similar: a few good seasons and then worse and worse, season by season.

Here I have found a supreme example of a TV series turning into a zombie of its old self, losing it, making mistake after mistake, keeping what does not work and throwing out what did work. General problems include a switch from X-of-the-week to too many arches, constantly missing the difference between drama and soap (see excursion), having a swing-and-a-miss approach to characters, repeated attempts at jumping the shark, and too long stretches of virtually every episode that feels like filler—indeed, some episodes feel like more filler than true story.*

*To this can be added the move away from high school, which in my observations seems to be an extremely strong environment for good stories, and where series who move away from high school tend to drop in quality. However, with a tempo of one season per (in universe) year, this move can be very hard to avoid—and the price for doing so might be even worse. As a counterpoint, the series is called “Smallville”, and it might have been prudent to terminate it after high school, with an optional new series (“Metropolis”?) to follow the characters as the focus switched from Smallville to Metropolis.

To look at a few more specific issues, including some that should-have-changed-but-did-not:

  1. The character Lana Lang and the pretty but less-than-stellar and constantly overacting Kristin Kreuk (portraying her).* If everything warrants a hyper-intense emotion, then emotions have no value. The “soap” portions of the series tended to be in connection with her disproportionately often, and her scenes per the next item were the first where I began to skip forward. As to her character development, it was disastrous, increasingly turning a sweet-seeming girl into a coldhearted manipulative bitch. (Which is quite contrary to the down-to-earth woman of my vague recollections from long-ago comics and the Christopher-Reeve movies.)

    *Generally, many of the younger actors seemed to have been cast more for looks than acting ability.

  2. Endless one-on-one discussions between various characters, in particular Clark and Lana, that I suspect were intended to be deep and meaningful—but which were almost always shallow, uninsightful, repetitive, poorly written, and often consisting of more cliches than true content. Most of the later episodes of my re-watching seems to have the actual story end somewhere between minutes 30 and 35—and then to be padded with several such discussions to reach 40 minutes. Of course, these discussions were by no means limited to the end of the episodes.

    There are only so many times that I can hear claims like “I am so lucky to have you as a friend!”, “I would never hurt you!”, and so on, before I become nauseated. (Lionel vs. Lex, and some other more hostile constellations, were rarely nauseating, but still highly repetitive, predictable, cliched, etc.)

  3. Partially as a special case, we have the odd relationship developments between Lex and Clark, who seem to oddly drift apart when they would be likely to move in a more friendly direction in real life, and towards each other when they should have drifted apart. Here, I have the impression that the writers could not make up their minds as to whether the two should be friends or enemies. (A similar point might apply to Lex and Lionel, and/or some other constellations, e.g. whether X loves Y.)
  4. Not long before I stopped watching, there was a chain of bad decisions around the Kents:

    Having Jonathan run for state senate—an unnecessary complication of the story with very little potential. (To boot, it is disputable whether he, or Martha, had anywhere near the right set of skills. I do not think highly of politicians, but to go from running a failing farm to be a successful senator is a stretch.)

    Having Jonathan win—ditto.

    Killing off Jonathan—one of the stronger and more sympathetic characters is gone for no obvious* reason, while his less-value-bringing wife (Martha) is kept.

    *Watching the following episodes, the hidden reason seems to be the abysmally bad idea, pure soap, to open the doors for a Lionel–Martha romance.

    Having Martha take over his seat—again, an unnecessary complication with very little potential.

    Ruining the already weak Martha character through a major transformation.

    (To this might be added the Lionel–Martha romance, should it actually manifest, which was not yet clear at the point where I stopped watching.)

  5. Many other character changes were disputable. On the positive side, we have the removal of Pete, who simply did not bring any value, and the addition of Lois Lane, who brought in a new dynamic and reduced the screen time available for Lana. On the negative, we have the entirely unnecessary and mostly annoying Oliver Queen/Green Arrow (who, I would argue, was an attempt to jump the shark; and whose appearance strongly contributed to my bowing out), several replacements of Lionel-of-one-personality with Lionel-of-another-personality, and the odd Teague family*.

    *Jensen Ackles did a good job as the son, but it did not feel like there was enough room for him, and his character development was odd. However, Jane Seymour as his mother was the caricature of a 1980s female soap-opera character—and note how there seems to be a drift towards this type of character with e.g. Lana and Martha too. Add in the Luthors and Oliver Queen, and the question arises whether this is a superhero show or a “Dynasty” spin-off.

    To this, I am tempted to add Brainiac, who appears to have recently been written out, with a lot of potential still to be explored; however, I have a vague recollection that he came back in the later seasons. His status as an example “depends”.

    (To go through all the characters of non-trivial importance would take far too long.)

  6. There are great continuity and compatibility problems with other portions of the franchise. This is, of course, not the least unexpected, but a better job could have been done without compromises to the story lines.
  7. The (non-score) music is unusually weak. The (pop/rock song) theme music, in particular, barely survived the first episode, and I almost consistently skipped ahead rather than listening to this earsore. (Mark Snow, who was with the show, could have written a better theme blindfolded.)

Straining my memory concerning the remaining seasons, it seemed to go further downhill, including a highly pre-mature and anti-canon death of Lex Luthor, much too much Green Arrow, and no saving graces. However, these memories might be faulty.

As an interesting aside, it appeared to me that the episodes featuring “traditional” DC heroes, even apart from Green Arrow, were usually sub-average, as with e.g. Aquaman and the Flash.

Excursion on soap vs. drama:
Apart from the typical difference in quality, what makes a drama into a soap? I am hard pressed to give a better answer than “I know it, when I see it”. However, some pointers for when it is soap include shallower characters, over-acting and/or overly emotional acting, weaker character-consistency, plausibility bending events*, large amounts of gratuitous sex (does not apply to “Smallville”), constant switches in romantic/sexual partners, and extreme changes in emotions. Lana staring into the eyes of Clark with a quivering lip for five minutes per episode, taken alone, might be enough to pollute the show. Then add in all the rest …

*Relative the baseline of the show’s alleged reality (and making some allowance for typical TV naivete and exaggeration): That Clark Kent can lift a truck is compatible with the reality of “Smallville”, through the premise that he has superpowers, and not indicative of a soap. If JR would have done the same through a sudden adrenaline rush as he tried to save whomever, it would not just be soap—it would be daily soap. The most famous incident is likely the whole “Bobby was dreaming an entire season” issue. (Someone in real-life might conceivably, maybe, dream a TV season, but it is bound to be extraordinarily rare, and it is obvious that this ploy was just an attempt to retcon at all costs and against all plausibility.)

To this, adding “disproportionately many rich and/or disproportionately rich characters”, “corporate intrigue”, whatnot, is tempting. However, this could depend strongly on the sub-genre of soap and they can have legitimate uses in non-soap dramas.

Excursion on franchises:
Another complaint of mine has been over-extended franchises. “Smallville” is arguably a good example of a series better not made, at least after the first few seasons. Then again, it is unlikely to be the worst example around Superman, let alone DC or superheroes in general.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 29, 2021 at 5:44 pm

The struggling author VI

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Unfortunately, the nine* days since the previous installment have brought no improvement in the construction work. It has, mostly, not been as bad as last summer, but it is still bad enough, with a lot of hammering, drilling, various machine noises, … Two weeks for now, and no sign of an end.

*Eight, counting yesterday. As will be clear, I cannot speak with certainty for today, but going by the odds …

The situation is made the worse by the behavior of one or several parties of neighbors. Notably, this Saturday and Sunday (11th/12th) were a horror, including wild stomping* and other unacceptable noises for minutes on end, even past midnight.

*To new readers: beware that I am not speaking of someone just walking in shoes in an apartment or running down the stairs, but of outright stomping, a manner that can serve no legitimate purpose, and (often) times of day and night where even noises with a legitimate purpose would remain unacceptable.

Not only is my quality of life severely reduced, but it is next to impossible to work productively, especially as the mental stress continues even between disturbances, and factors like a lack of sleep and the aforementioned stress damage my health.

Yesterday, around noon, I had had all that I could take and am now in a hotel room in Düsseldorf—and to think that I bought an apartment to live cheaply …

As to what will happen after these few days, I will have to see, but, at this juncture, hiring a lawyer seems almost unavoidable.

Looking at my claim that my book is almost finished “in that 99%-there-but-the-last-percent-will-take-time sense”, the question is how much time—even construction work aside: I have recently started on Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited”, and I have another “feeling like a rank amateur” period (cf. the previous installment and Conrad). The mixture of fluid prose and how seemingly unimportant detail give color to the text is quite impressive. The style of writing would likely not work very well with my book (and, generally, books with different purposes do not necessarily benefit from the same methods), but there is still a lot for me to learn and applying at least some of it could make my book better.

As a counter-point, I did not set out to make my first book a master piece that would instantly ensure my place in the halls of history’s greatest authors. (And I would have been a fool indeed, if I had.) The point was rather to learn the craft sufficiently well that the next book would be of quality. (Which is still a far step from the great masters.) Indeed, the early works of even great masters have often been far below their later level, as exemplified by e.g. Cup of Gold, the quite poor first novel of John Steinbeck, a later Nobel Prize winner. Rome was not built in a day and an attempt to reach perfection with this, my first, book would put completion years into the future. Indeed, with a continual improvement of ability to judge quality, I might never finish.

To boot, different authors have different strengths and (like their works) different purposes. J. K. Rowling* and Terry Pratchett, e.g., have** strengths in areas like a great imagination and the ability to build fantastic and fascinating worlds, but they fall well short of Waugh in terms of prose and style. In my own, subjective and partial, assessment, I too am ahead (in this area). In terms of e.g. “higher values”, I should be past at least Rowling, who is fairly superficial—-while she is likely ahead at writing books that sell by a very considerable distance.

*Disclaimer: I have to date only read the “Harry Potter” books, and her later works might be different. Even if they are, however, her early works are a more interesting comparison at the moment.

**The present tense is inappropriate for the late Pratchett, but I will stick to it for ease of formulation.

In the overlap between the details of Waugh, the worlds of Rowling and Pratchett, and my own book (which does fall in the fantasy genre), there is the question of how much detail is to be spent at different worlds, cultures, whatnot, both with regard to invention and to narration. Hogwarts is essentially a British boarding school with magic, Pratchett draws heavily on Earth (the UK in particular), most “high fantasy” seems to land in broadly “medieval Europe” settings, etc. In reality, if someone were to step into a foreign world through a magic cupboard, the variations might be similar to e.g. those between medieval Europe and medieval Japan, with corresponding differences in e.g. religion, morals, approach to art, ways to dress, writing systems, … (Or e.g. between current Europe and Paleolithic Europe.) In the case of non-human civilizations, the differences might be enormously larger yet.* Then, with an eye at realism, effort needed, effect on the reader, risk of inconsistency**, etc., where should the line be drawn? This point of struggle will likely not have any further impact on my current book (where I have kept things comparatively simple), but it might well do so on future works.

*Yet, here they are often almost ignored, especially in bad sci-fi. Of course, in some cases, there might be a deliberate element, e.g. in that C. S. Lewis might have used dwarfs, fauns, talking beavers, whatnot partially to illustrate aspects of humanity or human behavior. This is certainly the case with some animal fables.

**E.g. in that the author forgets his own fictional premises in favor “the real world” or that the intended consequences of something turn out to be unrealistic.

Excursion on judging quality:
While there is Sisyphean aspect to my continually shifting standard and to negative comparisons like the prose of Waugh vs. my own, this is actually a good thing. It might be frustrating in the moment, but it simultaneously points to a prior improvement in ability and opens the door to future improvements, as I now have a better idea of what I should work on, might experiment with, etc.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 14, 2020 at 8:55 pm

The struggling author V

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The prior installment of my “struggling author” series, appears to have been published last November. Time for an update:

I have almost finished the book, in that 99%-there-but-the-last-percent-will-take-time sense: most of what remains is polishing and tuning, fixing up details, improving the language, whatnot. In this, there is obviously a risk of pushing things too far, as there is always something left to improve. There will be at least several weeks before this becomes a concern, but it does lead me to my current main struggle:

With time, I have become better and better, gained a better and better eye for what works, is good literature, whatnot, and grown less and less satisfied with prior works. As a consequence, my satisfaction with the book has not improved as much as its actual quality, leaving me with the paradoxical situation that it is much better* than I would have hoped for this time last year, but that I am still unsatisfied. Similarly, every now and then, I see some pages by someone else that make me revise my standards and give me an impulse to improve something—as with Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”: the early descriptive sections left me feeling like a rank amateur. I deliberately have not used much description, Conrad is a high bar indeed, and the rest of his book appears** less ambitious in this regard, but I still have the urge both to revise the descriptive scenes that I do have and add some more. (Whether I will, I leave unstated. If not, the impulse might affect my next book instead.)

*As in “I like it”. I make no statement about what publishers, readers, and critics will think, but no matter their reactions, I will have the knowledge that I went well beyond my own expectations for my first work, I will consider the time taken well spent, and I strongly suspect that I will love reading it, myself, ten years from now, when my memory has faded. But: if I stop revision today, I will fall short of what I could have accomplished.

**I read a chunk as I escaped construction noise this Friday, and have postponed the remainder with an eye on what might happen on Monday (i.e. tomorrow). I also read it once as a teenager, but my memory is very vague and I was less discerning at the time.

Looking at large stretches of my early efforts, just putting words on the page has been a major obstacle, to come up with something that makes sense plot-wise, to overcome my natural tendency to describe a running dog named Spot with “Spot runs”, etc. During the spring, this changed, likely, for two reasons: Firstly, I had reached some level of critical mass. Secondly, I learned to adapt my work to my strengths, including what is often a weakness when blogging: when my mind is occupied with something, ideas tend to sprout off that something*, and then new ideas off those ideas, etc. Similarly, when I see something, I tend to see things that could be improved, even though I might not have been able to spot the improvements during the planning stage. So then: “Spot runs” might be shitty text, but it is a text, and once I have “Spot runs”, I can improve it from there.

*Which explains e.g. the many “excursions” of my (blog) texts and, partially, the footnotes.

Of course, “Spot runs” is a metaphorical example, but the general idea holds true. For instance, once I have my characters in a certain situation, I might (at that point or two days later) see how something that they say or do in that situation would improve characterization or lead somewhere else, which in turn leads to some other improvement, and so on. Similarly, putting them in one situation might ring a bell regarding some accidental* detail in another situation, which causes me to add a plot development connecting the two, which in turn might add something to a third scene or give the inspiration for an entirely new scene. In one case, I had a chapter with a good idea, which seemed both thin and lifeless when written. To boot, it had the flaw that an intended plot-twist did not work, being (in my eyes, at least) too obvious. I tried to remedy the latter through adding a “guest character” (a virtual Spot) to serve as a decoy, and another character for symmetry. A day later, the chapter was twice as long and alive, as the amount of interaction between characters increased and a few sub-plots appeared—both in a manner that I had not at all foreseen as I added the new characters.

*The amount of things that have so far arisen more-or-less accidentally is enormous. In many ways, it is as were the book a river that I am merely navigating—not a canal that I am building. (As an example, above I mentioned “Heart of Darkness”. Here I coincidentally spoke of “river”. This is something that I might have been able to spin out.)

When I revise, the text tends to become longer. This is a further reason to watch the perfectionism, as too long can be worse than too short, and as the accepted wisdom is that revision should cut the old more often than add something new. So far, knock on wood, it has worked well, however, as I start from a comparatively “thin” position and as every revision tends to also improve quality. (There is at least one scene which is much too long, a “cut scene” (in movie parlance) waiting to happen; and one or two chapters that feel too much like have-a-nap-while-we-wait-for-the-real-story. They will be improved or cut, however.)

Incidentally, this way of working parallels what I often did as a software developer, and writing software and writing novels does have a thing or two in common. The former is not the perfect training for the latter, but it is not bad as a component of the training. My particular approach, which is not the only one, particularly resembles refactoring and test-driven development.

The last few weeks, I have been a little troubled to get work done again. This in part, because I needed a breather; in part, due to the current “interesting times” (note my increased blogging); in part, because the construction work is here again.

As to the last, I still do not know for how long. Friday’s disturbances were short and, unlike large portions of last year, there was no work on Saturday.* This might mean that everything was done by Friday afternoon—or just that someone was lazy and that things will start up again on Monday, to continue for months on end. If it is the latter, frankly, I do not know what I will do. Somehow, I will have to move out, or I will never be able to finish, my health will be ruined, and I will be driven to the edge of a nervous break-down. Note that around six months of construction work last year wreaked havoc on my writing (not to mention mood and health), and that the (non-construction) disturbances of someone stomping around for hours a day during the COVID-19 lock-down did a lot of damage on top of that. It is a wonder that I have managed to get as far as I have.

*Sundays are work-free by German law, but then there is usually some idiot neighbor who sees Sunday as a day to make a ruckus, again and again—better than construction, but annoying enough. This especially when the preceding week would have made peace and quiet the more important. (And, yes, I suspect that it is the same idiot who ruined the COVID-19 lock-downs. It is rarely as bad, however.)

To finally revisit the Künstlersozialkasse: These idiots are still making trouble, costing me a few hundred a month. As it appears now, they refuse to admit me, because they do not believe that I am actually serious about writing. Their pseudo-arguments include that, as I have not taken a formal course in literature or writing, there are no signs that I would have a serious interest—never mind the fact that I have spent an enormous amount of time on this book, have it completed to the point of just-needs-polishing, and that I have foregone having a regular job in the interim … (To this, note that the formal, legal criteria for admittance are comparatively low, and that the Künstlersozialkasse appears to invent its own, illegal or extra-legal, criteria to artificially keep writers out. A formal requirement that someone needs to have taken a course does not exist, neither in the law, nor in their own official information. It is excuse making—nothing more, nothing less.)

Excursion on noise and health:
(What would one of my texts be without even just one, short, excursion?) The type of health damage that can occur through e.g. months of construction or the COVID-19 lock-downs should not be underestimated. Someone might seem to bounce back fine in the short term, but what about the long-term? Possibly, something like this can make the difference between having a fatal and a near-fatal heart-attack at 75, cutting of ten years of life? I have genuine concerns that my life is being cut down at the far end through the behavior of others. Health damage often becomes obvious only when the reserves run low, e.g. with old age or when a major disease strikes. (Something, incidentally, demonstrated by the much larger effects of COVID-19 on the elderly.)

Written by michaeleriksson

July 5, 2020 at 7:34 pm

Follow-up: Westworld

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A while back, I wrote very positively about the TV-series “Westworld”. We are now some part into the third season, and I am no longer watching. The strengths of the first two seasons are largely gone; the new story lines have so far not been impressive, ditto their execution; many strong characters and actors have been written out or (characters) been severely altered, with insufficient replacement; … Nothing against Aaron Paul, but he is not (yet?) on the level of Ed Harris and Anthony Hopkins. Interesting philosophical questions have been replaced with almost hackneyed dystopia scares* relating to e.g. surveillance and demonstrations of how-easy-I-can-kill-you. The last scene that I (partially) watched struck me as simultaneously almost silly and trying too hard to be dramatic (episode 3 / Caleb, Dolores, the milkshake, and whatnot).

*Which is not necessarily to say that they will turn out to be wrong or that I do not share similar concerns, but it is just variations of what others have already done the last few years.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 1, 2020 at 4:57 pm

Westworld

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The TV series “Westworld” has impressed me immensely. The first season is possibly the best single TV season that I have ever seen, because of its combination of entertainment value and food-for-thought (although much of the “food’ covered ground already familiar to me). The second is weaker, especially through failing to add much new* thought, but is still stronger than most of what can be found elsewhere.

*Examples include means vs. ends and whether the pigs are better than the farmers.

“Westworld” is also strong proof that it is not the medium but the content that matters: here there is no need to make excuses for watching TV instead of reading a great book. It is also a proof that it is not necessarily the “high concept” that matters, but what is done with it (as with e.g. “Star Trek Next Generation”). Where the movie (in my vague recollection) was fairly shallow entertainment, the TV series has true depth—“The Truman Show” meets Asimov.

During my first watching of season 1, a few years ago, I put down a lot of keywords for a text, but never got around to writing it, the scope of the intended text being discouragingly large. Most of the below is formed formed through expansion of a subset of these keywords into a less ambitious text. Even with my recent second watching of the first (and first watching of the second) season, I have to make reservations for a mis-remembering of what I wanted to say. Some keywords are left as is, because they are fairly self-explanatory.

Among the food-for-thought we have:

  1. What is the nature of existence, free will, perception, memory?

    As an aside: while I do not suggest that we live in a similar world, merely that this is food for thought, I have often had the nagging suspicion that I am part of some weird cosmic experiment or “The Truman Show” situation, where someone tries to push the limit for what absurdities I am willing to consider real. A simpler, and more plausible, explanation is that humans really are that stupid, irrational, self-centered, whatnot. Similarly, a rats-in-a-labyrinth, “Westworld”, or “Matrix” style setup could easily explain e.g. the theodice problem, but the simpler explanation is the absence of deities in favor of nature taking its semi-random course.

  2. What makes an intelligent entity? When should rights and/or personhood be awarded: Turing-test*, sentience, consciousness, level of intelligence, …

    *And to what degree is a Turing-test effective and useful?

  3. What rights and duties should be awarded to a godlike and/or creator being? (And to what degree does this depend on his status, per se, and his other characteristics?) Rulers in general? Parents? Etc.
  4. What should ethics and law say on the humans vs. robots (or vs. AI) situation? (Note some overlap with the previous item.) This including questions, not limited to robots, like if we have the ability to e.g. induce pain or suffering, plant bad memories (or memories, at all) or scrub memories, prevent self-development, …, when, if at all, do we have the right to do so?

Several keywords relate to the apparent gods (i.e. humans) and the paradoxical and/or odd state on the “inside”, including how paradoxically weak the gods are relative their subjects in some regards, while still having godlike or quasi-magical powers in other regards, e.g. in being able to “freeze” a host at will. Similarly, there is the paradox of the ever young and in some sense immortal hosts vs. the aging and highly mortal gods.* The angle that the creation, freed from artificial restraints, would be superior to the creator is particularly interesting, and will likely be true for humans vs. e.g AI in the long term.** (Of course, this state of the inferior being in charge of the superior is not unusual in the real world, where e.g. many dumber teachers are intellectually inferior to the brighter students and many stupid politicians make decisions over the head of genius citizens.)

*Indeed, in season two, attempts are revealed to replicate a human mind within a host body, with the intention of functional immortality for humans.

**In turn, raising the question whether we should follow the road of resistance, as in a sci-fi movie; engage in identity politics/racism/sexism/whatnot, as the current U.S. Left; or whether we should let the creation take over. From at least some angles, the latter is likely the most reasonable, and one reason why I do not enjoy the “Terminator” movies is my suspicion that humanity is the greater evil and that it might be for the better if the terminators were successful. (Again: humans are that stupid, etc.)

Other “god” issues are how the gods are divided into several groups, including regular guests, crew, management, whatnot, and how the hosts are controlled by Ford even as they attempt to rebel, raising questions as to how much of a rebellion it was. (Theological analogs are by no means impossible: What, e.g., if God meant for Adam and Eve to eat the apple or for Judas to betray Jesus to ensure that some set of events took place? Generally, the thought-experiment of mapping some religion to a “Westworld”-style setting is interesting.)

There were good examples of how sympathies are based on appearances and superficial behavior, rather than substance, as with William (aka the young “man in black”) and his interest in Dolores, which is an obvious great danger in real life. (I am uncertain whether I had such sympathies myself towards characters on the show when I wrote the keywords; however, I do know that I can be somewhat susceptible in the short-term. In the long-term, my observations of behavior and values take over, but this does not necessarily seem to be the case with others, which has lead to me having radically different estimates of some people than the majority has had.)

I spent some time considering the possibility of building a superior humanity: smarter, better memory, stronger, … (As well as long-standing wishes of mine—a conscious control over sleep phases and a built-in volume control for the ears or ear-equivalent.) A very disturbing possibility, however, is the abuse of similar systems to e.g. ensure conformity of opinion: for instance, looking at current U.S. colleges, it would be unsurprising if someone were to mandate the implant of the “right” opinions for someone to even be admitted. Or consider a “Harrison Bergeron” scenario, where someone with a natural advantage in some area has the corresponding control adjusted to limit his ability to the maximum available to the average person. (Note e.g. how the hosts intelligence was normally artificially limited, while Maeve’s had been set to the maximum available to her.)

To the IT specialist, “Westworld” is a great illustration of the limits of security, and how even small freedoms might ultimately be used for e.g. privilege escalation to reach great freedoms (cf. Maeve’s development). However, this is not strictly limited to IT: to some degree, similar effects might be available in real life, e.g. in a prison setting.

Some remaining keywords:

  1. extremely intelligent, well-shot/cinematographic, extra-ordinary cast
  2. well-crafted hiding of the two different time-periods
  3. complex network of known and, more importantly, unknown relationships and history
  4. interesting mixture of genres
  5. gratuitous sex scenes*

    *I did not pay attention to this when I re-watched the first season; however, I did not notice much during the second season. This might be a point where the second season was ahead.

Excursion on the first vs. the second season:
Pin-pointing the exact (relative) weaknesses is hard without a repeat watching, but, speaking off the top of my head, the main problem is staleness, too much of the same ground, too much of the same issues. For instance, the alternative “Maeve escapes” scenario would likely have made for a much better attempt at variation than the “prisoners rebel” scenario that was chosen. Here the adventures of Maeve coping in the “outside” world, etc., could have made up a great source of both variation of action and new thought, while the “inside” world could have gone on roughly as before (at least, for the duration of the season).

I can see the point behind the “prisoners rebel” scenario, but it did not work that well; ultimately, we had the same setting and largely similar configurations of people; and there might simply have been too little worthwhile material to cover an entire season, instead of two or three episodes, in the rebellion it self. (Implying that too much filler was present.)

An interesting difference is the use of a jumbled time-line: in the first season, this was used to great effect; in the second, it was mostly a source of confusion with little value added. (A partial exception was Bernard’s journey.)

The last episode strikes me as dissatisfying and contorted, and a poor setup for a continuation. (Notwithstanding that the action seems set to play more on the “outside” for the third season. The manner is simply too different from the “Maeve escapes” scenario.) A particular mistake might have been speaking too explicitly about free-will (either the viewer has got the point already, or he wastes his time with the show) and, possibly, jumping into fallacious reasoning about free will: Free will ceases to be free when it is manipulated from the outside, not because the inner mechanisms have a deterministic character. These inner mechanisms are not a force upon us—they are how we are “implemented”. (An interesting, and in my eyes problematic, border-line case are influences that would often be considered “inner” but disturb the normal state, as when someone grows hungry. Certainly, I would consider these a greater limit on free will than e.g. a deterministic brain.)

Generally, parts of the second season had a bit of “Lost”-y feeling—a series that could have been truly great, but which collapsed on account of too much confusion, mysticism, unnatural story-lines, whatnot. (And, yes, I am aware that J. J. Abrams of “Lost”, and the ruiner of “Star Trek” and “Star Wars”, has been involved with “Westworld” too.)

Excursion on changing franchises:
The recurring reader might see my complaint of staleness as inconsistent with e.g. a text motivated by “iZombie” and its deterioration: would I not prefer a series that remained the same? To some degree, I do find myself reevaluating this stance, especially because my own book plans have come to involve considerable changes from book to book (within a potential book series). To some degree, the claims are compatible: the second season of “Westworld” failed to truly repeat the strengths of the first season (and did not add new strengths). Once it failed at that, the level of constancy or variation on the surface is less important: my original message is not that a franchise should have each installment be a carbon copy of the previous, but that it should play to its strengths. (I have also spoken positively about innovation in e.g. a text on “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”.)

An interesting twist, however, is that the end of the first season left me fearing similar developments as with “iZombie”, where an irrevocable change pretty much killed the series through changing the world too much. With “Westworld” the changes might have been irrevocable and have, in some ways, turned the world on its head, but very similar story lines and ideas could continue with little damage. (Note, e.g., that even during the first season, few guests had any non-trivial impact on the story-lines. Off the top of my head, we might have had no more than the “the man in black” in the “now”, and him and his future brother-in-law in the past. Story-lines in the past can continue with little regard for changes in the now and (in the now) “the man in black” continued as usual. In contrast, had the first season been highly guest-focused, e.g. on a “guest of the week” basis, the rebellion could have been highly damaging.)

Written by michaeleriksson

December 28, 2019 at 10:44 pm

Thoughts on Hornblower

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Recently, I have re-read most of the Hornblower books by C. S. Forester, for the first time since I was a teenager (and likely a fairly young teenager). This has been a very positive surprise, be it as a reading experience or as a means to improve my own writings. While the main target group likely remains young men and older boys who wish to be entertained, there is a lot of brilliance that make these books well worth the effort even for older readers—and I would not classify them as “young adult” books (quite contrary to my expectation). The too young reader is even likely to miss a lot of the benefits in terms of e.g. psychological insight or speculation—I certainly did.* Similarly, a pre-employment reader might miss the possible use of Hornblower as a model of professionalism and dedication, or the value of many discussions on interacting with superiors and subordinates.**

*Quite a few of my early readings, including e.g. the works of James Herriot, were pure entertainment when I was young, but have turned out to contain a lot of potential insight and items worthy of thought when I have re-encountered them as an adult.

**There are similarities between the Royal Navy and school, e.g. relating to press-ganging (mandatory schooling) and enforced rules; however, Hornblower’s (officer) career starts in a position that would not map well to a school student, which limits the applicability of the books for students and their ability to compare and contrast own experiences. A mapping of his career to a school might go from beginning teacher to principal.

A great positive is how exciting the books are: I am quite blasé when it comes to the excitement part of fiction and, nowadays, hardly ever have that “on the edge of my seat” feeling, even when it comes to e.g. thrillers and horror movies. Indeed, it is so rare that the repeated occurrence during these re-readings caught me off-guard, the feeling itself lost from active memory. Forester’s success in this at least partially lies in keeping his hero in a dire situation, where even a single mistake can lead to disaster, for pages, where someone else might have jotted down a few paragraphs. (Of course, this requires the skill to keep these pages “alive”, which not everyone might be able to do. I will certainly revisit his writings again to gain a better understanding.) Forester does not even shy away from killing off important or sympathetic characters, even when the reverse would be expected. (For instance, modern narrative approaches almost demand that Bush would have popped up alive, miraculously saved, at the end of “Lord Hornblower”—but when everyone survives all the time, who cares about apparent danger?) Similarly, bad things do happen to Hornblower, e.g. in that this or that “acting” promotion is not confirmed. The result is an occasional level of suspense that is almost Hitchcockian, if of a different character.

This is also a book series that sees the hero outwit the villains, having Hornblower repeatedly defeat nominally superior enemies or escape seemingly inescapable situations by using his head. (Of course, this is another factor that contributes to excitement, because the odds tend to be stacked against him.) Intelligence can also play in more indirectly, e.g. in that he values a well trained crew and ensures that training takes place, so that his ship is able to navigate better, his guns able to fire more often, etc., when a conflict is at hand. Then again, he sometimes shows an odd stupidity, as with e.g. the short-story “Hornblower and the Widow McCool”—to me, it bordered on the obvious that McCool was engaging in trickery, and I spotted the “bee” and the “eye” almost immediately, while Hornblower might have taken weeks or months (the exact chronology is not obvious). Similarly, it puzzles me how he could have missed a potential connection between the escaped prisoner and the two hundred pounds* that his wife wanted in “Hornblower in the West Indies”. (Both might be explained by a limited insight into the psychology of others on a “good with numbers; bad with people” basis. Also note that I have the benefit of knowing that Hornblower moves in a work of fiction, which can alter my expectations compared to real-life situations.)

*An amount that he felt was extremely large and unexpected in the circumstances, and for which he could see no plausible reason.

On the downside, the unfortunate order of writing* has lead to a number of continuity issues, including a five-year difference in Hornblower’s birth year. The books written earlier might also have placed unfortunate limits on the events of the books that play earlier in Hornblower’s life but were written later, as with e.g. the situation around (first wife) Maria and their children. A particular annoyance is the jump from the end of “Hornblower and the Atropos”, where he comes home to find his children suffering from smallpox, to the beginning of “The Happy Return” several years** later. This is highly frustrating for the reader who follows the internal chronology, and might have expected the next book to continue from that very point, to follow the care of the children and to discuss their fate. For the reader who follows the order of publication, including those who once read the books as they were published, the situation is toothless, because the deaths of the children of smallpox had been established years earlier.

*The book first written (“The Happy Return”) starts about half-way through the roughly three decades ultimately covered by the books. The next few books continue this chronology, after which a jump back to his career beginnings is made, after which the years tick upwards again for a few books. Forester then starts to jump back-and-forth in the timeline.

**There are a number of similarly sized gaps, which might or might not have been filled over time, had not Forester died prematurely. (Indeed, with one book, “Hornblower and the Crisis”, incomplete.)

A negative or neutral, depending on the point of view, is that events later in the chronology might, in some sense, be too large or too hard to reconcile with the historical record. Consider e.g. his attending a dinner with the Russian czar and the Swedish king simultaneously present; or his key role in a rebellion* of Le Havre against Napoleon, a city of which he then became the governor. Similarly, it might have been better to not have the short-story “The Last Encounter”, set years after the novels, turn him into admiral of the fleet—a position very visible in historical record and far less anonymous than that of rear admiral (as last seen in the novels). Here, if not earlier, we move from historical fiction to alternate reality.**

*I am uncertain whether this has any historical background, but if a real-life rebellion did take place, it was without his assistance and without a governor Hornblower.

**Historical fiction necessarily has some element of alternate reality, because otherwise it would be plain history. However, there is a difference between the type of historical fiction that might have taken place approximately as described without being incompatible with today’s world and the type that cannot. For instance, having Hornblower on one of many ships participating in the naval blockade of France is historically unproblematic; having him, hypothetically, switch sides, rouse ten thousand soldiers, and help Napoleon to a victory at Waterloo, well, that is a different story.

Some other observations:

  1. I have often complained about characters* who keep their plans and ideas too close to the chest, even at the risk of associates making mistakes or not cooperating out of ignorance, or being put in unnecessary insecurity and fear. (“Doctor Who” contains many examples.) To date, I have mostly considered this a way to keep an unexpected twist secret to the reader/viewer for as long as possible, in order to increase the surprise or the suspense leading up to it. Hornblower provides an alternate set of explanations around the need to keep discipline on board, appearing infallible to his subordinates, and similar: if his intended plan fails, he loses little or no face if no-one knows about the plan; if it succeeds, he seems the more far-sighted. (Note the special situation of the then British navy.)

    *Mostly in fiction, but some real-life people have been similar.

  2. The books are quite explicit about differences in intellectual abilities between different persons, including noting a great many very stupid or otherwise incompetent (non-officer) seamen and quite a few somewhat stupid or otherwise incompetent officers. While this is realistic with an eye on my own observations of the world, I have some doubts whether books making such claims would fare well in today’s political climate, where this attitude might be labeled as “elitist” and, therefore, unacceptable.*

    *I strongly contend that we need more elitism and that today’s attitudes are highly damaging. I have a follow-up text in planning with some ideas of how to go about this. Also see e.g. [1], [2].

    As a special case, naive, emotional loyalty to a superior officer is depicted as to some degree relating to stupidity. This also matches my real-life observations.

  3. Hornblower is paradoxical through simultaneously being almost superhuman, notably intellectually, and having unexpected weaknesses, e.g. in that he, as a navy officer, has bouts of sea-sickness. This is quite different from many characters in less well made works, who are superhuman—period. It is also clear that he has had his share of luck and that brilliance alone would not have been enough to get him where he is. (Regular luck, not “Gladstone Gander” luck.)
  4. Somewhat overlapping, Hornblower appears to suffer from what today would likely be considered “impostor syndrome”, in books written decades before the “discovery” of the impostor syndrome—and, notably, with a man as the self-perceived impostor. (Whereas the impostor syndrome was originally naively considered more of a female thing.) This is a good example of the limited intellectual depth of certain “scientists”.

    As an aside, the impostor syndrome, or at least something resembling it, is quite easy to predict by the fact that the “impostor” often (a) has a good knowledge of his own strengths and weaknesses, (b) will tend to view the things that “come easy” to him as easy. If he lacks enough insight into the weakness of others or if others show that they do not understand the reason of his success (e.g. through underestimating hard work put in or attributing success to divine inspiration) then self-perception and perception by others is highly likely to be incompatible.

    In particular, there is no reason to be puzzled by why more recognition, e.g. an award, could increase the feeling of being an impostor, instead of reducing it: On the one hand, the recognition is unlikely to do anything to alter the self-estimate of abilities of someone with a strong self-knowledge—a ship captain does not become better at using the sextant by receiving an award, for instance. On the other hand, the recognition will demonstrate the perception of others and risk an inflation of the difference. When the difference is inflated the feeling of being an impostor is increased.

  5. Similarly, the books provide yet another example of how the Feminist or “gender studies” claim that the male role would be unexplored is unfounded. Here we have books (probably) mostly read by non-adult boys, written before “gender studies” appeared on the chart, which run through many issues helpful as “food for thought” for a boy or a man to find himself and his place in the world, including issues of duty to various entities, how to handle a marriage in unfavorable circumstances, ethical dilemmas, the contrast between rules/laws and ethics, coping with adversity and injustice, self-sacrifice, … (But none of that might matter to the Feminists, because not one word is spent on whether Hornblower should have stayed home with the children while Maria fought the French.)
  6. The strength of the books often come from the restrictions placed on Hornblower, not the abilities at his disposal. For instance, it is not the ability to fire a broadside that makes a naval battle work—it is the need to navigate into a position to fire it without being shot up by the other ship, the need to reload and adjust aim, etc. For instance, if Hornblower could have gone on the radio and talked directly with any ship in the Royal Navy or with the admiralty in London, many things would have been too easy to be interesting, many complications could simply not have taken place, etc.
  7. The books are historically very interesting, including insights into sailing, naval warfare, etc. (And, obviously, portions of the Napoleonic wars as historical events.) A particular point is the extreme discipline on board, the hard and dangerous work (even battles aside), the poor diet, and the large scale press-ganging. I have not investigated how historically accurate Forester’s depictions are, but by-and-large they match my impression from other readings. To re-iterate a point that I have made in the past: when we look at e.g. the U.S. slavery era, it is important to use the world as it was as a bench-mark—not the world as it is. This both when comparing conditions and when looking at what behaviors were or were not acceptable in society.
  8. A strength of the series as a whole is the varying stations and situations that occur as Hornblower reaches different positions in the navy, which creates an automatic variety. A particular issue is the gradual move from predominantly following orders and keeping superiors content to predominantly giving orders and keeping subordinates content.

Meta-information:
This text is not the one mentioned in [3]. I am still developing my ideas, Hornblower is merely the impetus, and it could be a while before I get around to writing something. Also cf. “more elitism” above.

Note on names of books:
Some of the works mentioned might be known to the reader by a different name, because of changes over time or differences between countries.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 24, 2019 at 10:21 am

The struggling author IV

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Currently, I am stuck at three overlapping complications, which have brought me to a temporary standstill. If I forge ahead before I have come to a conclusion and then discover that I was heading in the wrong direction, I could end up with an enormous amount of re-writes. On the other hand, a conclusion can be hard to reach without further practical experimentation. It might be time to write a few short stories.

  1. How close to stick to the bare-bones of the events and how much to flesh it out, be it in terms of side-events or details of the events:

    My writing so far has been fairly bare-bones, which makes for a good tempo, a lack of a waste, and results in something that I find enjoyable to read. However, looking at the writings of others, there is often a great amount of fleshing out, and the result is often still enjoyable. There is a loss of tempo and sometimes too much irrelevancy is added, but this is also a source of atmosphere (or e.g. suspense), it can make an important scene longer and thereby more memorable, it allows more opportunities for character exposition, etc.

    Currently, I am considering to start with a bare-bones version of a scene and then to add material until I find a decent compromise. This has the obvious advantage that it is usable on what I already have written. (But note the contrast to the common advice of removing material over time.)

  2. How much to (explicitly) divulge of the inner workings of the characters:

    Early on, I tended to be extremely low on such information, but I have since tended to include more and more. The former might appeal to the more intellectual reader, give more room for interpretation by the reader, and leave me with more options in terms of later choices, because I have not nailed myself down. However, there is also fair chance that most readers will fail to connect the dots and/or will arrive at the wrong conclusions (in those cases where I do have a specific intention). I also have a suspicion that diverting too much of (even the intellectual) reader’s attention to deciphering the characters’ words and actions could be a misprioritization, and that this attention might be better spent on other aspects of the text.*

    *This might be a special case of the author wanting to achieve too many things in one go, which I suspect is a current weakness of mine.

  3. How much information to provide about how something is said:

    If we look at a line from a movie, how something is said is often as important as what is said. This includes indications about mood, emotions, intended irony or sarcasm,* urgency or stress, etc. Writing a book, such information has to be foregone, communicated by explaining text, or communicated (alone) by the words spoken by the characters. (Or some combination of the three.)

    *As a note to the U.S. reader, if the twerps on “The Big Bang Theory” considers something sarcasm, it is almost always irony. Sometimes, it is also sarcasm, but probably in less than half the cases.

    The last seems to be a common ideal,* but few actually try it—and I am honestly uncertain how this could work: it would leave so much up to the reader that (a) readers will disagree as much about the contents of the book as they might about how the characters look, (b) readers might stroll down a path of interpretation that is incompatible** with later parts of the book.

    *Up to the point that I have seen the recommendation to only ever use “said”, as in e.g. “[…] said Tom.”, “[…] said Dick.”, “[…] said Harry.”, irrespective of the circumstances. Variations like “[…] scoffed Tom.” and “[…] said Dick sarcastically.” would then be ruled out.

    **E.g. in that a strongly verbalizing reader has “heard” one of the characters say something in anger, while later events make clear that he said it in jest, without even pretend anger. Note the difference to the previous item, where later information might force a re-interpretation of events, but where a revision of what the reader “heard” is not needed. (Just like we might need to re-interpret experiences from our own lives without having a need to re-imagine how the experiences actually played out.)

    For now, I tend towards including as much information as needed to make the rough intent of (at least) the surface action shine through. In particular, I doubt that even a true master always can manage this using only words spoken by the characters. (Often nothing will be needed, because there is nothing particular going on, e.g. when two characters calmly discuss a topic. Often words will be enough in context, e.g. because a “Fuck!” will usually be interpreted correctly. Always? That is a different matter.)

    As an aside, theatrical plays are not a counter-argument, because they are usually intended to be consumed through the interpretations of actors, who provide the missing clues. The interpretations might be different from run to run, or even performance to performance, but they are not left to the fantasy of the reader. This is perfectly legitimate, and might well be the reason for the enduring success of e.g. Shakespeare, but it is a different situation.

To revisit some issues from the previous update:

I am still in discussions with the Künstlersozialkasse. Highly disturbingly, a recent letter from it tried to exemplify why the rejection was justified by pointing to an earlier court case. I looked into this case (superficially), and it actually appears to support my stance. If in doubt, the Künstlersozialkasse lost the case … This falls in line with prior observations of Germany governmental agencies, who tend to just throw out names of various court cases alleged to support their points of view—without bothering to check whether the respective case applies to the issue at hand.* In this case, it might go even further—just throw out the name of a court case, at all, and hope that the counter-part does not check up on the details …

*A fundamental observation about court cases and precedence is that there has to be substantial similarities between cases for precedence to apply. Without such similarities, the reasoning behind the prior court decision(s) need not apply, and when the reasoning does not apply, the conclusion is left in the air.

The construction work appears to be ended, but it is far from silent. At least one party (yet to be identified) in the building engages in truly excessive noise making, including stomping or jumping on the floor for hours per week, and often at unfortunate times at that. Note: Not “walks”, even be it clumsily or in shoes. Not “runs in the stairs”. Not “has a brief fit after a lost game”. We are talking about outright, prolonged stomping, someone deliberately driving his feet into the floor with force—on a daily basis and for hours per week. Notably, this is loud enough that it is impossible to sleep through even when using ear-plugs; notably, it often happens in the late evening or early morning.

Moreover, the source of the construction work has (accidentally) identified herself: To my great surprise, this was another person in the building, who had bought a second apartment for her daughter. She waylaid me and another neighbor when we were about to enter the building, blocked the way, and started a long speech about “problems in building”. I thought that she was rightly concerned about the noise levels, but no: she alleged that there had been repeated break-ins in the cellar, affecting all the storage units. (I found no trace of a break-in for my unit. Only one of the other units, at the time, showed damages in the lock area.) She also blamed the broken glass in the front-door on these burglars. Interesting: I had hitherto assumed that her construction workers were to blame … As a further oddity: if any reasonable person were aware of burglaries and wanted to bring them to the attention of the neighbors, the obvious measure is to write a letter and post it in the hall-way, so that everyone can see it immediately. She appears to have chosen to pick off individual neighbors person by person, with a considerably induced delay. (To boot, my personal suspicion is that she was more interested in gossiping and trying to turn the neighbors against each other. She struck me as that type of trouble-maker from her behavior and she seems to fit the profile of an angry and bitter aging woman with nothing better to do. During our one prior meeting, she was boiling with fury because someone allegedly had misused the paper recycling. In all fairness, speculations based on two meetings should be taken with a grain of salt.)

Written by michaeleriksson

November 23, 2019 at 9:12 am

The struggling author III

with one comment

Looking back at my last update on the theme of the struggling author, I am now in a very different place. This includes having a much better understanding of writing, both as a process and as a means to produce fiction that works or does not work. It also includes having actually reached both a text mass and a sufficient maturity of outline that I probably could wrap up a readable book in just another few weeks time.

This I will not do, however, because that book might be readable, but also highly unlikely to satisfy myself and equally unlikely to be published. (Getting even a good book published is not trivial.)

Instead, I will take my time, aiming for a completion somewhere during next year’s summer. This will allow me ample time to modify both plot and text in light of increasing competence. Even now, most of what I wrote two months ago seems sufficiently weak that I am set on rewriting it—and that includes text that I was reasonably happy with at the time.

(To avoid misunderstandings: This is a good thing. It shows that I am improving. If I had not improved, then I would have cause to question my career choice. The time plan is set in the hope that I will continue to improve, so that my first book will not just be “OK” but something that I am actually happy with.)

There are still things that I struggle with. A notable example is the question of which of several alternatives to choose in key situations. Each choice can simultaneously open and close doors, and many choices can have an effect on the long term plot. Sometimes, it is possible to eat the cake and keep it too; sometimes, it is not. Consider, by analogy, questions from real life like “What if I had chosen a different major or college?”, “What if I had given that girl-/boy-friend a second chance?”, “What if I had not married that woman/man?”, “What if I had accepted respectively turned down that job offer?”, etc.

Looking at my own life, it would, e.g., be possible to have me go through both with my time as an exchange student in Germany and a later life in Sweden, with closer contacts to my family, less language issues, likely an easier career, etc. It would not be possible to combine this later life in Sweden with the actual continued life in Germany, unless the German part was cut much shorter than it was, missing much of the experiences that do make up the “book” of my life. True, even now, I could return to Sweden, but it would now be too late for many of the experiences that could have been a part of the alternate “book”, including differences in early “character development”.

Or, to take the excuse to segue into a different area: What if the last five (?) months had not seen my house terrorized with construction work? (The “book” of my life might be less interesting, but the book that I am writing might be considerably further along.) As is, the amount of noise has been considerably lower the last week or two, but simply will not end. I suspect that the apartment renovations are over and that some other party is now performing lesser works somewhere else in the building. This, however, includes such absurdities as loud hammering for several minutes at 5 AM (yes, AM!) two days ago.

Another considerable annoyance is the Künstlersozialkasse, ostensibly created to ease the financial burden of struggling authors and other artists through covering those portions of various pension and health-insurance fees that are paid by the employer for those in regular employment. I am a perfect case of someone for whom the Künstlersozialkasse is intended, and by the current law, the decision to include me should have been a trivial rubber stamping. Instead, the treatment of my application has been extended over more than two months—and then rejected. Moreover, this rejection has been given a motivation that is simply not compatible with the actual law. (Such misbehavior is, unfortunately, quite common in Germany, where e.g. the “IRS” often willfully ignores laws and precedence in favor of its own internal instructions, to the point that individual tax payers might need to go to court over something that has already been decided in favor of other tax payers; or need to go to court to for the same misbehavior several years in a row, even when they won in the previous years.) Moreover, the resources of this agency (or whatever might be the appropriate term) are often wasted on non-artists, like free-lance journalists, whose inclusion is contrary to the original intentions.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 19, 2019 at 9:53 pm