Monday 25 June 2018

Some passing thoughts on God

I have a fanciful target to send out 365 short story submissions this calendar year; I suspect my next posting will be an update at how I'm performing against that goal.

In trying not to scrape through the bottom of the barrel just to keep some arbitrary numbers up, I've gone back to previously published works, like my noir-ish desert-set thriller Death of a Medicine Man, which appeared in Crimson Fog in 2012, a publication so obscure I could probably pass my story off as unpublished.  If I hadn't just typed those words, of course.  Doh!

I went back to my mss and the comments the editorial team had on it.  Here's a line from that story: "Half-Moon thought for a moment, the voice of Rosemary Clooney drifting out of an open window farther down the sidewalk."

This elicited the following comment: Very weird image, until I realized he was talking about music; and response from the editor-in-chief: Agreed with Andrea. I don't know Rosemary Clooney, and our readers might not either, but a simple addition here solves the problem, I think.

I know this isn't exactly what they're saying, but there is an implication of editor as God: that the knowledge, experience, and literary & cultural references of readers should be a subset of the editors.  If the editors get the reference or joke, then so will the readers.  If they don't, then please explain for the hard of understanding.  Doesn't matter that (and this is the crucial point to me), given the milieu, Rosemary Clooney would be well known to the narrator and he wouldn't need to, or even think to, spell it out.

I'm not sure if I ever did rewrite that line, but I've always worked on the basis that readers are clever, especially en masse, much cleverer than writers.  Or editors.  I actually enjoy a clear reference that I don't get; it makes me explore, find out what the author was getting at, find out things that I didn't know.  Or when I do get it - I still have a very soft spot for Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, for the moment when the reading of the second and stranger part of Coleridge's Kubla Khan begins.  Not a tricky joke to get, granted, but it does give you the feeling of privileged access.  

I'm currently rewriting a story for James Gunn's Ad Astra (which doesn't mean that it's sold by any means), which involves an alcoholic taking refuge on a dry colony.  Offered a drink, he is surprised that the reasons for his escaping Earth are not known.  The response comes, “Did you abscond with the church funds? Run off with a senator's wife? I like to think you killed a man."

The line is, of course, from Casablanca.  I haven't credited it - but the speaker is described as an aesthete given to literary quotations - and may even cut it down to the last part to make it less on the nose and less problematic, copyright-wise.  But the point is, Rick then goes on to say that he came to Casablanca for the waters, exactly the same reason my alcoholic travels to Titan.  It a subtlety that'll be lost on ninety-nine out of a hundred readers.  But I'm writing for the one percent who will smile, their thought process echoing mine.

There is a flip-side to this, which is readers telling you your story is an allegory for man's inhumanity to man; or the politics of the Philippines; or how they're feeling right then, right there, whereas it's actually a simple story about a personality clash on a faraway planet.  I have no idea of the state of your soul, honest.  I only make the mirror, not the visions you see in it. 

Of course, we all know that the writer is God, pulling the strings, making the puppets dance, but only within the world of the story.  Outside, in the bigger, scarier real world, it's you, the reader.  And I'll continue to try to treat you are as clever as the cleverest amongst you, not on a par with the dumbest.  It's the only way I know.

Friday 15 June 2018

You too can be a museum piece

A few weeks ago the family paid a visit to Big Pit, Wales' National Coal Museum.  It's really worth a detour, but only if you're already in Wales.  Obviously.

The Three Day Week sits at the very edge of my memory, candles joining bog-roll on that short list of items that you never, ever, ever, EVER run out of.  But the English Civil War of 1984/85... oh, sorry, it says Miners' Strike here... sits firmly in my formative years.  I may have grown up without a mine for a hundred miles, but it really mattered.  There was a sense of the country pulling itself apart.

Three things surprised me.  The first was that all watches have to be removed when you go underground (and you do, for a good hour or so), even my wind-up one.  Given that I bought it on eBay as 'in need of a new battery', I understand their stance that somebody will take a battery-driven watch down thinking that it's an old school model.  They're very sensitive about anything that could cause a spark.  Which I appreciate.

The second was how much we, as a country, paid for the nationalisation of the mines.  In 1947 £164,660,000 was paid to the owners for almost 1000 collieries and £78,457,000 for other assets such as coke ovens, brickworks and smokeless fuel plants.  That's almost £10bn at today's prices.  And we treated the industry like Pete Townsend treated his guitars, smashing it to pieces within a working lifetime.  Except Pete, apparently, used to creep back onto stage, collect up the bits, and glue them back together.  Unlike Thatcher and Ian McGregor.

Thirdly, and a natural consequence of the second, it was how quickly the industry has become, quite literally, a museum piece.  Miners were real people when I grew up.  Now they're categorised with knocker-uppers and those blokes who carried red flags in front of horseless carriages; shiny lamps are on sale as souvenirs for £55.  It got me thinking: what other industries and jobs that we take for granted?  What real jobs today could be museum pieces themselves before today's graduate trainee retires?

We can all list the easy ones with our eyes closed.  Cashiers: we'll just be walking into shops, filling our bags, and walking out and it won't be stealing because it'll all be recorded on our phones with our accounts instantly debited.  Taxi drivers: driverless Uber a-go-go.

I think you can extend the latter concept to pilots, too, both military and civil.  Planes are on auto-pilot more often than they're not; and why complicate instrument-only flying by adding an underpowered, fallible human into the process flowchart?  My guess is that the only time human intervention has any real value is at landing, and even then I'd prefer the faster reactions and collective experience of a million touchdowns of the computer.  Driverless cars will all get us used to having nobody up front, and first class could get to have a big windscreen.  And all those sci-fi movies, where every spaceship has a pilot, which are all essentially WW2-in-space, will look so anachronistic.  Except for Star Wars, of course, which was a long, long time ago, so they have yet to invent any of this technology.   

What about prostitutes?  It must be a fairly soul-less experience, and doesn't all that repetitive movement add up to a robotic experience already?  (Not sure if this one counts, because it's a robot replicating human action, rather than superseding it).

Politicians?  Our political views are influenced by the media, and much of the content in the media is already generated by AI, if not by Russians.  So, by that measure, they're already being voted in by software.  Going the whole hog will just enable them to make best use of continual online referenda and the wisdom of crowds and not be swayed by the last person to speak.  Just don't say 'Skynet'.

Actually, it may be easier to list the jobs that remain: pig masturbators, pickers of soft fruit, plumbers, electricians... and creative writers.  Maybe, for once, I've picked a winner, and without the need to jerk off a pig.