Feb 08

On Portal Fantasy

This blog post was inspired by reading a book that had obvious debts to Roger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber, and realizing that Amber is one development of the subgenre of portal fantasy.

Before I come back to that thought, though, I want to take a trip back to the origns of portal fantasy, and trace the highlights of its development through to the current small revival.

My theory of portal fantasy's origins - and I think it's a pretty well-founded theory - is that it comes to us via the influence of George MacDonald on C.S. Lewis, and ultimately has its roots in Celtic myths of the Otherworld.

As anyone who has dipped into Celtic myth will be aware, the Celts who made the myths that have come down to us regarded the stone "barrows" or burial mounds of earlier civilizations as the abodes of the faerie folk, and the entrances to them as entrances to the Otherworld, a world of gods or godlike beings, magic, and peril. Time ran differently there - a feature often seen in portal fantasy; an unwary kidnapped bard or other traveller might spend what seemed a night in the faerie mound and come out to find everyone he knew aged or dead. Rip Van Winkle is a version of this story, though the protagonist is Dutch rather than Celtic.

George MacDonald was thoroughly familiar with these legends (and many others, including the Jewish legend of Lilith, Adam's first wife), and used the idea of a magically-accessed Otherworld in two of his major works: Phantastes and Lilith. I have always considered Phantastes a dry run for the later Lilith; Phantastes isn't a bad portal fantasy, in my opinion, but Lilith is a great one, with a powerful theme of redemption. It would make a wonderful graphic novel, though the nudity would be a problem, given that its core natural audience consists mostly of Christians.

Lewis was quite explicit about crediting Macdonald as an influence, and I'm sure he read Lilith. The (legendary) Lilith gets a mention in The Magician's Nephew, in fact, as an ancestor of Jadis, later the White Queen (one can see Hans Christian Anderson's Snow Queen quite clearly in her literary ancestry as well; Lewis was nothing if not eclectic in his influences, something Tolkien apparently disliked about Narnia). Unlike Macdonald's Lilith, Jadis doesn't get a redemption arc; she is implacably an enemy, and perishes as such.

It was Lewis's Narnia that really popularized the portal fantasy, just as Tolkien's Lord of the Rings popularized the secondary-world fantasy (though in Tolkien's legendarium, Middle-Earth is not in fact another world, but an earlier version of ours, like the Hyborean Age of Robert E. Howard). Neither of them invented those subgenres, but they produced works that had such a powerful impact that many later writers either imitated them or took them as a point of departure.

Mostly, they imitated; the list of more-or-less straight knockoffs of Narnia and (even more so) Middle-Earth is too long to attempt to explore here. And mostly, with occasional exceptions, these imitiations didn't engage with the source material of their source material (the Celtic Otherworld in the case of portal fantasy - though that has been done, notably by Steven Lawhead - and Northern European myths in Tolkien's case). They turned what readers most enjoyed about those popular books into a set of largely unexamined tropes, much as we've seen recently with the rash of magic schools based, usually far too closely, on Hogwarts.

Those tropes include, for portal fantasy, the Chosen One(s) of prophecy, who comes from our familiar world (where he or she or they may be ordinary and little regarded, generally because of youthfulness), to become the only hope of saving the other world. This has inevitable colonial baggage, from a current perspective; it easily falls into the White Saviour trope, and declares pretty strongly that the other people over there can, at best, assist someone from our milieu in solving their problems. The strong presence of this theme may have been part of the cause for portal fantasy's waning popularity in the last couple of decades, though I think it was more likely just the unaccountable shifts of fashion that subgenres naturally go through. And, indeed, portal fantasy has never completely gone away, though it's more popular now than it's been for a while.

Later developments did eventually question and revise and reimagine some of the core portal fantasy tropes. Starting in the late 70s (and finally finishing only recently), Stephen Donaldson's long series about Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever takes an adult into a portal fantasy, and has him make things immeasurably worse, partly because he doesn't believe it's real, but largely because he's a mess of a human being. Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series is explicitly a reaction to what the author hated about Narnia, especially the Christian elements. Foz Meadows' recent Manifold Worlds series takes place in a portal-fantasy setting largely imagined when she was in her teens, and full of elements that represent wish fulfilment for a queer teenager; this inevitably makes it quite different in emphasis from Lewis and his imitators. Jo Walton's short story "Relentlessly Mundane" (collected in Starlings) and Seanan McGuire's Wayward Children series explore what happens to the children when they come back to our world, having experienced a very different life where they matter a great deal and are not ordinary, and attempt to explain themselves to the parents and other family members they've left behind.

And, as I realized this morning, Zelazny's Amber is in the portal fantasy tradition too. It didn't immediately jump out at me as a portal fantasy, because, in a bold Copernican move, our world is decentred; it's only one of many "shadows" cast by the true world of Amber, and only as real-seeming as it is because Corwin, a Prince of Amber, has spent so long here. Zelazny takes up the multiversal idea that's implied in portal fantasy, and occasionally made explicit - for example, in the Wood Between the Worlds in Lewis's The Magician's Nephew - and puts it at the centre. (My only work of portal fantasy, the short story "Gatekeeper, What Toll?", was directly inspired by Zelazny, and goes a step further, putting the portal itself, and not the multiverse, in the centre.)

There's an obvious appeal for children and adults alike in the idea of a different and more wonderful world, where people like you or who you can identify with are more important and significant than you are, and have thrilling adventures. Really, a lot of genre fiction, portal fantasy or not, is working in the same emotional territory, but portal fantasy explicitly offers the chance that we might escape, even if only for a time, from our mundane lives and problems to somewhere more colourful and exciting (though also more dangerous). Some of the questions it helps us to answer are: Who else might I be or become? Can I be a leader, a hero, a worker of wonders? What kind of companions do I need to achieve that? And it takes us somewhere strange and wondrous, which is enjoyable in itself. And then it brings us back home, and sometimes it even asks: what now? What changes in our world because of what we've experienced elsewhere? How do I be, in my mundane life, the person I learned to be in the Otherworld?

One way you could look at it is that fantastical literature is itself a portal to other worlds of adventure, in which we can explore other identities and roles for ourselves. And as more perspectives get admitted into the literature of the fantastic, so the places we can explore and the roles we take on only become more varied and interesting.

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Nov 02

New Series: Realm Agents

Today I'm launching the first book of my new series, Realm Agents, set in the world of the Gryphon Clerks. (Amazon links in this post are affiliate links.)

I've decided to call it a new series, even though it features characters from earlier books and takes place in the same setting, mainly because it's a genre shift. Really, what it is is intensifying a few elements that were already present; there have been action scenes, mysteries, and steampunk/magepunk technology in previous books, but I'm now moving them up front and calling the result a secondary-world fantasy steampunk techno-thriller.

Capital Crimes cover

In a techno-thriller, the technology itself plays a key role, and that's definitely the case here. The first book, just released, is called Capital Crimes, and is set in the new, modern capital of Koslin: New Koslinmouth. Part of the "new series" aspect is choosing an area of the setting that I haven't explored much before, though we did get a glimpse of it in Illustrated Gnome News. Part of the "techno-thriller" aspect is that it's literally a new part of the setting, built with leading-edge technology as the planned capital of the newly united realm.

New Koslinmouth is home to semi-automated trams, freight pods running beneath the streets, a port for skyships using a magical navigation system, and, above all, the Realm Ledger - a huge primitive computer, running on punched cards, cogs, light, and magic, through which most of the realm's business is transacted. (Rosie Printer comes up with the idea in the novella Hope Persists, available as a bonus to my mailing list.)

The thing about new technologies is that they can create losers as well as winners, and the losers created by the Realm Ledger - as a matter of quite deliberate policy - are the dwarves, who formerly were the people you had to deal with if you wanted to do anything related to finance, banking, or currency. Now that the realm of Koslin is in a low-key economic war with the dwarves, that couldn't be allowed to stand. But that makes the Realm Ledger a huge target for those dwarves who are especially... direct in the way they conduct their business.

Standing against them are the courageous Realm Agents, including Agent Piston, who we first met as an eager youth in Illustrated Gnome News. Despite his gnomish heritage, he doesn't know much about technology - that's part of why he joined the agents - so when someone starts stealing from the freight tubes, he consults an old school friend, Precision, one of the first gnome women to become an engineer.

As the scope of the crimes they're investigating escalates, they're going to have to go where no gnome willingly ventures - into an unreformed dwarfhold, where gnomes are still effectively enslaved.

I believe I've increased the action and tension, compared with earlier books, while not losing the elements of character and setting that my current readers enjoy. I've also created an entry point for new readers; my new editor (who enjoyed it hugely) hadn't read the previous Gryphon Clerks novels, but she found it easy to orient herself to the world. Think of it, if you like, as a standalone novel with bits of backstory that just happen to also be frontstory in other books.

I've very nearly finished the first draft of the sequel, Underground War, also set in New Koslinmouth and featuring Piston and Precision, along with other characters old and new. Briar Heathlake, my personal favourite of all the Gryphon Clerks characters, has a minor role; her gentleman-friend, Leading Agent Active, is more central. And I have reasonably well-developed ideas for a third book, this time taking place in the even higher-tech setting of the Research Institutes (established in Mister Bucket for Assembly). After that, plans are indefinite; it will partly depend on how popular the series is. I have fun writing them, and I think lots of people will have fun reading them if they find out about them - so tell your friends!

You can get Capital Crimes at Amazon; I'm putting it up initially at 99c for a short while, to get momentum at the launch. It will revert to the usual $2.99 after that, so get in quick.

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Aug 04

Illustrated Gnome News is out!

Finally, after epic delays, Illustrated Gnome News is published.

I won't go into the reasons why a book that involves publishing took so long to publish, except to say that some people were sick, and some people were busy, and in general it was one damn thing after another. But it's out now.

It's a big honking book; 115,000 words, or about 500 pages. That may have something to do with the fact that I ended up with five intermeshed plots: a romance, a mystery, saving the business, justice for the oppressed, and coming of age.

What all these plots have in common, though, is the theme of conformity and safety versus risk and authenticity. The gnomes have spent hundreds of years as essentially slaves to the dwarves, and that's developed a powerful habit of going along and keeping your head down and not being seen to make trouble or stand out from the crowd. But the gnomes are free now, and there's a new generation who are starting to challenge that habit, to ask why they can't do things, why they can't be who they know themselves to be.

Powerful forces want to put the gnomes back in their box, and reset everything back to where they were in control. Standing up to those forces - and to the expectations and prejudices of their own people - takes courage, risk, and sacrifice, and the young gnome women at the centre of Illustrated Gnome News have to fight hard for what they believe in.

I think it ends up making a compelling story. It also sets things up for the next few books, which will feature the Realm Agents, an FBI equivalent charged with protecting the realm and its people. The first, Capital Crimes, is basically finished, and I hope to bring it out before the end of 2019. I'm working on the second, Underground War, and already noodling ideas for a third, which at the moment is titled Institute Spies.

Right now, though, if you want to pick up Illustrated Gnome News, it's exclusively available on Amazon as an ebook. (There may eventually be a paperback, though given how large it is that paperback may be a bit pricey.)


(Links in this post are Amazon affiliate links.)

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Jun 29

Genre Through the Lens of Agency

At the end of my previous post, I recommended Jack M. Bickham's book Scene and Structure to anyone who wants to write in what we might call the "heroic protagonist" mode. In my review of that book on Goodreads, I mention that the closer your story is to being an action thriller, the more applicable his advice will be.

I say this because different modes and genres of fiction deal differently with character agency. I think it's worthwhile taking a post to think that over, since if you're not writing the kind of story where your main character shows a lot of agency - a "heroic protagonist" story - a lot of the failure modes I talked about in the previous post are not as applicable. Also, this is a lead-in to the next post, in which I'll consider how a diversity of voices changes how agency is represented in fiction.

First, let's talk "literary" vs "genre". This is a pairing that has some problems, not least that there is a genre often referred to as "literary" as well as a style that is "literary", and it can also be an evaluative term. When I think of literary-as-genre, I think of a set of expectations and conventions, like the ones we have in other genres, and one of the characteristics that stands out to me is a difference in typical levels of protagonism between a literary-genre story and a heroic-protagonist story.

To generalise wildly, most literary-genre stories I have read - even the ones with fantastical elements - feature main characters who are not protagonists (that is, they are not struggling towards a goal, which is what "protagonist" means). Instead, their typical arc is through helplessness to hopelessness. Their relationships fall apart, their careers are revealed as hollow, they become alienated from society and its expectations, and they do little or nothing to remedy any of this. It's as if, in Literary World, the truth is that everyone in the world is rather pathetic and doomed to unhappiness, and the story that gets told over and over is of someone realising that truth, or (if they never consciously acknowledge it) at least becoming victims of that truth.

The literary genre is a genre often seen as belonging to the elites, and other genres are seen as "popular", of the masses. I invite you to reflect on the implications of the literature of the elites being about the hollowness of all striving, while the literature of the masses perpetuates a narrative of personal choice and agency.

Having been, no doubt, grossly unfair to many writers who I haven't read (since I avoid the literary genre exactly because so much of it is so passive and hopeless), let's move on to genres where I can speak from a much wider sample of texts: science fiction and fantasy (SFF). First, though, let's take a detour into romance.

There was a brief period when I thought about writing romance; I still need to write the post about why I decided not to, but part of it involved the very strong genre conventions, some of which I didn't think I could bind myself to. Although romance, like any genre of its vast size and popularity, has a good deal of diversity in it these days, there are still some powerful expectations. One is the Happily Ever After (so expected that it's been abbreviated as HEA); whatever the couple's struggles along the way, you can be confident going into a romance that they are going to end up together, basically from the moment of the Meet Cute, however unattractive either or both may seem as people and however poorly suited they appear. (And however much our real-life experience may suggest that many relationships do not, in fact, work out; though there is a nod to this in the HFN ending, Happy For Now.)

This fatedness reminds me of the Hero's Journey. Going into any heroic story that we have no reason to suspect is a tragedy, we carry the expectation that right will triumph, that the apparently unworthy, unskilled, and unsuitable person we're introduced to early on will somehow become an epic hero, and the seemingly powerful villain will be defeated. These strong expectations impose certain limits on agency. No matter how much the romance hero/heroine or the heroic protagonist screws up, refuses to learn, treats people around them badly, falls back into old habits, or is just unpleasant and unworthy in general, the result is still inevitable: HEA in the romance, victory in the heroic story. In unskillful hands, it becomes a flaw.

In historical romance, we get an extra level of constraints. Consider the Regency romance, for example. The woman is generally expected to be innocent and virginal, and her powerful imperative is to marry well, because her economic security depends on her ability to attract a wealthy and powerful man, however repellant. The man is generally expected, with some exceptions, to be sexually experienced, and to have the wealth and power that the woman needs her mate to have, and the arrogance that goes along with it; but he, too, is constrained, if to a much lesser extent, by the powerful expectations and conventions of society. At worst, these conventions become a cattle-chute directing them to their fate; at best, they kick against them a little, but somehow manage to end up in a happy situation within their society. Their choices are severely constrained, and part of the joy of a good Regency romance for me is seeing how the characters still look for and find agency within, or even outside, those constraints.

Turning, then, to SFF, where I am much more widely read in both classic and contemporary texts than in the genres I've just been discussing with an assumed air of authority: within this sprawling and diverse landscape, we inevitably find differences in agency. Some SFF stories show us people with enhanced levels of agency - wizards, for example, or supers - and must then give them challenges that are equally heightened to prevent their victory from being too easy. But there are parts of SFF that don't give their main characters much agency at all. Many (not all) hard SF stories, for example, give us characters who are little more than cameras, witnessing wonders that they are too small and insignificant to affect. Much of Arthur C. Clarke's work falls into this category.

I haven't read much Mythos, and hardly any horror, but my impression is that Mythos, like hard SF, often (not always) confronts the characters with something so vast and implacable that the idea that they might have agency is almost ridiculous. The smallness and insignificance of humanity is part of the point. Mythos is one of the ancestors of modern horror, and (again, this is an impression, since I don't enjoy horror and have read very little), often in horror the characters struggle futilely against the monster that will inevitably kill them. Again, the helplessness is part of what the author is going for.

One aspect of agency, which I've touched on when discussing the Regency romance, is: how powerful is the system? How much intertia does society have against change? And are the characters on the side of change, or the side of preservation of the status quo?

In many traditional heroic or "high" fantasy stories, the preservation or restoration of the status quo is a key, and unexamined, goal: the return of the king, the defeat of the Dark Lord who would bring change to everything, the defence of the empire (with all its faults) against the barbarians. Many military space operas share this stance. It's one we also see in a lot of thrillers, where the protagonists are fighting against international criminals or terrorists who are out to destroy the stability of the system. And - unfortunately, in my view - it seems to be an unexamined assumption in a lot of steampunk, despite that genre's vast and usually untapped potential to show us the kind of social change that technology brought about in the real 19th century, and is still bringing about today.

In sword-and-sorcery and its SF equivalent, which doesn't have a name that I'm aware of but tends to feature a ragtag spaceship crew on the outskirts of society and the law, we see the opposite. The ultimate triumph of the system is seen as a negative, though usually still inevitable. The crew win what victories they can on the fringes, while the overall system mostly remains intact. The crew, indeed, are rarely even trying to change the system; that's too large a goal for the level of agency they possess. Instead, they work around it or outside it as best they can. But there's a sub-sub-genre in which this ragtag band, or perhaps an individual thief, used to having almost no agency and barely getting by, obtains something that puts them into an unaccustomed position of power and responsibility, and they must cope with the challenge of doing the right thing (and figuring out what that is). This is the opposite of the also popular "riches to rags to riches" structure, where someone who is used to a life of privilege and power has a fall - which sometimes is their fault, but usually is not - and their struggle is to regain control over their life.

There are stories about revolution and rebellion from the point of view of the rebels, too, scattered through the SFF landscape. Star Wars is an obvious example. In many technothrillers, most cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk stories, and a few fantasy and steampunk works, the protagonists struggle against The Man, the corrupt and cruel system that's keeping people down, or trying to suppress the spread of some technology that could benefit society, or to prevent knowledge of something that could challenge the status quo from getting out. The ultimate example here is, of course, dystopian fiction such as The Hunger Games (which, I might add, does a better job than most of showing how the rebellion itself can be corrupted by the ambition of the powerful). Early dystopias like Brave New World and 1984 are tragedies of a sort, in which the failure of the protagonists is not a consequence of their personal tragic flaw but of the enormous power and momentum of the system; recent dystopias, particularly YA dystopias, more often feature a successful revolution. There are even a few elements of dystopia in Harry Potter, where Harry and his friends, low-status by reason of their age, are right when the Ministry is wrong, although the resolution to that is that they eventually end up in power within the system, not that the system is overthrown.

I don't usually read "antihero" stories, but I should say something about them. The antihero is still a protagonist, still struggling for a goal, and this is what makes us want to follow them and even see them succeed, despite the fact that they are not, in many ways, admirable people, and their goals may not be admirable goals.

Taking this to a further extreme, grimdark fantasy (and SF) shows us unpleasant people doing unpleasant things to other unpleasant people in pursuit of mostly selfish and destructive goals. In grimdark, however much agency they may possess, nobody can escape the grim darkness of the world - and few even attempt to. It's not so much the system itself, but the corrupt and hopeless nature of the system and indeed reality, that acts as a binding constraint. Interestingly, given that this is similar (at least in my eyes) to the nihilistic worldview of a lot of literary-genre stories, grimdark is often written in beautiful prose.

I'm part of the noblebright fantasy movement, formed as an explicit reaction to grimdark, so I'm hardly a neutral observer. In noblebright, the world is often dark, but we can and must struggle against it, and bring at least some light in the darkness. Noblebright celebrates everyone's agency to oppose evil, which is probably why I like it, and why I'm sitting here writing a blog series about agency.

Let's bring this to a conclusion. In our tour of various genres, we've seen different levels and types of agency. The kinds of questions to ask, when going into these genres, are:

  • Do the main characters have a lot of agency, or only a little?
  • Is there an expectation in the genre that they will (ultimately) be worthy and admirable people?
  • What kind of goals are available to them in this genre?
  • How much do they struggle for their goals, and how successful are they?
  • How likely/expected is it that they will achieve those goals?
  • What constraints are placed on them by the system in which they find themselves?
  • What's the disparity between their level of agency and the system's inertia, and has the story been precipitated by a big change in that disparity (in either direction)?
  • Are they fighting for the system, against the system, within the system, or around the system? Or is the system very much in the background?
  • Is the system good, bad, or a mixture?
  • Is the system expected or likely to change? Is that part of the characters' goals?
  • How much do you want to mess with the usual expectations of the genre?

I'll go a little further into the idea of the system as constraint in my next post, the last in this series, where I look at diverse voices and what they're doing to shift expectations about agency in fiction.

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Jun 24

Failure Modes of Fiction Through the Lens of Agency

In my introductory post to this series, I talked about the common Western template for a heroic story: a motivated protagonist faces a dynamic situation that will turn for the worse unless they struggle against fit opposition to bring about their preferred resolution, bringing all their resources and courage to bear on the problem, and paying a high price for victory.

As someone who reads and reviews a lot of books, I've come across a few failure modes of this popular template.

The Spoiled Protagonist

The Spoiled Protagonist has too much agency, and those around her too little. I say "her," because although spoiled protagonists can certainly be men, the majority I've encountered have been women. To be fair, this is quite likely to be sample bias, since I prefer to read books with female protagonists and avoid the ones that are most likely to have male spoiled protagonists.

The term "Mary Sue" gets bandied about a lot these days, often merely indicating a woman who has agency among people who disapprove of that. The original Mary Sue, though, was the author-insert character in a piece of Star Trek fanfiction, who was better at everything than anyone else and who everyone, despite this, instantly loved and wanted to help in every way they could. This is more or less what I mean by the Spoiled Protagonist, but the emphasis isn't necessarily on her ability so much as on the fact that everyone treats her as the promised Chosen One, even when she isn't actually explicitly a promised Chosen One in the world of the story.

Characters who ought to make her follow the rules and wait her turn and prove herself like anyone else seem to lose all ability to do so; they become her obedient lackeys, sometimes at the risk of their jobs or their lives, or shower her with gifts, for no real reason except that the Spoiled Protagonist is the author's darling and every other character exists only to serve her (except the villain, who exists so she'll have someone to defeat quite easily). This is generally dull to read, and also annoying.

The Spoiled Protagonist is such a wish-fulfillment fantasy of agency that she distorts the entire plot and the behaviour of everyone around her, making her also a form of the Plot Black Hole.

The Plot Black Hole

A plot hole is a logical issue with the plot, something that wouldn't really happen, but has been stuck in and glossed over so that the plot will unfold according to the author's desires.

A plot black hole is my term for when a plot hole grows so large that everyone's behaviour is gravitationally distorted around it. All the characters are puppets of the author's predetermined plot, and will behave in the most ridiculous fashion to bring it about. As an example, in a book I read which I am contractually prevented from naming, someone who eventually turns out to be the villain's minion releases the protagonist from prison, which she could not otherwise have escaped, and where she was waiting to be probably executed; reunites her with the only weapons that can stop the villain; and takes her to where the villain is, all (apparently) so that the villain can have a good gloat and a shock reveal, and then escape. (To be pursued, of course, by the protagonist and soundly defeated.)

The Plot Back Hole not only distorts the actions of the characters; it distorts the laws of probability, and sometimes physics. Hence the next failure mode: the Convenient Coincidence.

The Convenient Coincidence

Something has been concealed in an obscure location for a century. Just as the villain is about to finally retrieve it (with no particular obvious reason for having waited so long), the protagonists happen by and discover it - just a few hours ahead of his arrival. The timing is a complete, convenient, and thoroughly unlikely coincidence.

This actual example from a book I read recently is one of the more glaring uses of the Convenient Coincidence (and not the only one in that book, either). The Convenient Coincidence is the opposite of character agency. It's a forcing of fate, which drops the characters into a situation, or helps them resolve it, with no effort or even intent on their part.

Sometimes, as with my opening example above, we don't find out until later that the Convenient Coincidence was a Convenient Coincidence; perhaps the author is hoping we won't notice. I notice.

There are a couple of sub-categories of Convenient Coincidence as a failure of agency, which I call the Convenient Eavesdrop and the Cavalry Rescue.

The Convenient Eavesdrop

The Convenient Eavesdrop is a plot device, a way to work around limitations of point of view and character knowledge. It's generally a clumsy way, and a failure of character agency. If you've ever seen the British spoof of Enid Blyton's Famous Five books, Five Go Mad in Dorset, you may remember how the writers mocked the frequent use of the Convenient Eavesdrop in not only Blyton's books, but books for young people in general. The villains are overheard saying, "Rhubarb, rhubarb, secret plans, rhubarb, rhubarb..."

The thing about being young is that nobody tells you anything. If you're to find out much about what's going on among the adults, you pretty much have to overhear them talking, unless they're very modern adults who believe in discussing things with kids. But the thing about the Convenient Eavesdrop is that it happens, not because the character has set out deliberately to find out the information, but by complete accident. The protagonist is in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to overhear the precise conversation that will advance the plot, however unlikely that may be. J.K. Rowling is guilty of the Convenient Eavesdrop, for example, when Harry and his friends are teleporting randomly around Britain during Deathly Hallows, and just happen to be exactly where they can overhear some people they know talking about events in the wizarding world that they have no other way of finding out about, but that they must know in order for the plot to progress. They weren't trying to find this out; they were just handed the information as a gift from above.

This, authors, is why I will never not call you out for a Convenient Eavesdrop. It's deprotagonizing. If you absolutely must have the characters find out some information through eavesdropping, make them work for it. Make them go looking for the information; have them hide in wait for the villain to have a conversation they know or hope is coming, at risk of being discovered. Make the information they get ambiguous, so they have to keep working to confirm it, or act on less-than-adequate knowledge. Or flip the trope, and have the villain maneuver them into something that seems like it's a Convenient Eavesdrop, but the villain is fully aware of their presence and takes the opportunity to misinform or mislead them. Don't just give them the information on a plate with parsley round it because they happened to take a walk one night.

The Cavalry Rescue

The Cavalry Rescue is, of course, a staple of fiction. All seems lost, and then the other character(s) who went off to do something else - possibly abandoning the main characters in a fit of pique (looking at you, Ron Weasley), possibly with another assignment, possibly having been feared lost - suddenly turn up in the nick of time and rescue Our Heroes. There are ways to make it work, and there are ways to have it be a failure of protagonism.

When Gandalf turns up at the Battle of Helm's Deep, it's a Cavalry Rescue that's been set up in advance. He's told the other characters to expect him at a certain time. The challenge in this kind of scenario is for the main group to hold out long enough to be relieved, and you can get some good tension out of the question of whether they will manage this.

But when a Cavalry Rescue comes thundering in at the exact right time and there's been no pre-planning, and the rescuers just happened to turn up at this moment for no particular reason except that it saved the author's plot, that's a failure in my eyes. A failure of agency, specifically, like any fortunate coincidence.

The Penelope Pitstop

Speaking of rescues, there's another failure mode of agency that I call the Penelope Pitstop, which dates me. The original Hanna Barbera Wacky Races cartoon from the 1960s, which I watched as a child in the 70s, featured exactly one woman, who was thrown in at the last minute and constructed entirely out of stereotypes (as was the style at the time). Penelope Pitstop, while clever and resourceful in many ways, as soon as she fell into the clutches of the villain (which happened with monotonous regularity) would go completely passive, cry "Hayulp! Hayulp!" in her southern belle accent, and wait to be rescued, which she inevitably would be. I understand things are not as dire in the more recent remake.

The Penelope Pitstop is a pattern I see over and over in fiction, particularly, for some reason, fiction set in the 19th century - whether it's the more adventurous type of Regency romance; steampunk; or gaslight fantasy. The typical way it plays out is that we're told the heroine is brilliant and self-reliant, but what we're shown is that she makes one stupid, reckless decision after another, from each of which she has to be rescued by a man. In particular, she falls into the clutches of the villain, almost always because she's gone off by herself with no backup and without telling anyone where she's going, and he threatens her with author's choice of terrible fate, only to have the hero burst in at the critical moment and prevent his dastardly plan.

An associated trope is Reeves-McMillan's Shiv, which I've taken the liberty of naming after myself (in imitation of Chekov's Gun). This is where the captured heroine does something, such as fashioning a shiv from a bit of broken glass, that promises us that she's going to take some kind of decisive and effective action - but she signally fails to shank the villain with it, and it's all a bit of a let-down.

I'd love to see the Penelope Pitstop (and Reeves-McMillan's Shiv) retired, and replaced with heroines who, if they are captured (through no fault of their own), are quite capable of facing down the villain and engineering their own escape - or, better yet, rescuing the hero. Things can certainly be a bit scary while they're working towards that end, of course, as long as it doesn't just become a Gunboat.

The Gunboat

The Gunboat is what I call the pattern of bombarding the character with adversity, and then allowing them a relatively easy, linear win. It is not the same as showing them struggling against fit opposition, certainly not through the lens of agency; they're helpless for a while, and then get offered an easy escape that they don't have to work for much.

I understand where it comes from: the adversity bombardment, with no apparent options, is a common real-life experience, and if that’s the end of the story it’s unsatisfying. There must be an escape if the ending is not to be simply depressing. I'm also a tender-hearted author, and a professional problem-solver, and I've been known to give in to the period of suffering followed by an escape - "earned" not by the character's efforts, but by their simple endurance - rather than put in the extra effort to turn it into a conflict. 

And I do suspect that there's a way to do the Gunboat right, because endurance of suffering is something that deserves a more important place in fiction. I'll discuss this more in my final post in this series, when I talk about diverse experiences of agency. I'm not sure what the Gunboat done right exactly looks like, though. Is it "I'm not going to take this anymore", a change from passive to active? Perhaps. Is it looking for escape over and over, not finding it, giving up, and then being offered one risky opportunity and deciding to take it? Perhaps. I'm reasonably sure, though, that "character suffers... suffers... suffers... suffers... suffers... escapes by being handed a solution" isn't how to do it right.

What all of these failure modes of agency in fiction have in common is that the character gets a result that they didn't work for; the author just gave it to them in order to move things along. If you're going to follow the Western template of an active protagonist, in my view the protagonism needs to be constant. The protagonist definitely shouldn't succeed all the time, but they should strive all the time, and any progress they make should be through striving - not through an unlikely coincidence arranged by the author, or another character offering them help for no reason, or getting rescued while helpless and passive. There are other modes of fiction, of course, and in my next post I'll discuss the different approaches to agency in different genres and subgenres; but if your chosen mode is the motivated character in a dynamic situation striving for a goal against fit opposition, write that, and not the story of a series of lucky accidents.

If you struggle to do so, by the way, I found Jack M. Bickham's book Scene and Structure enormously useful in helping me write stories that flowed naturally from a character's pursuit of a goal.

Not every story, of course, needs to be written that way. In the next post, we'll look at genre expectations about agency.

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Jun 15

Fiction Through the Lens of Agency

We’re in a time (again) where we’re asking questions of agency - does our vote count? Are we, and our fellow citizens, really exercising our own wills when voting? Will our voice be heard? Can we do anything?

Climate change; major powers making bad collective decisions that will impact us all; Russia setting out to turn the whole thing over so it can be more powerful; technology changing around us at a rapid pace and putting giant, almost uninfluencable corporations in charge of key elements of our daily lives... agency is something a lot of us are worried about. 

Colonized people, people of colour, and women will be familiar with the feeling; but now we all get to share it, even straight cis middle-aged white guys like me. To have any more hegemony, I'd have to be rich or dead, and yet there are still times when I look at the world and feel a lack of agency.

Since fiction is a thing I think about a lot, as both a writer and a reviewer, this therefore seems to me like an appropriate time to look at fiction through the lens of agency.

I'm not setting out to be Joseph Campbell here. Please don't take it that way. This is not “the way everything works all the time”. It’s a lens, one of many we can look through, that might show us things that are not as visible through other lenses.

Having mentioned Joseph Campbell, let's briefly discuss the Hero’s Journey, which (whatever Hollywood and its writers may have suggested to you) is only one possible story structure among many. The Hero's Journey is both a celebration of agency (typically of young white men), and an imposed shape that bends the hero on his inevitable, predictable arc. The “fated hero” can neither be kept from his triumph, nor can he avoid his journey and its predetermined steps - and his companions, having less agency, usually bear the cost.

(My short story "Gatekeeper, What Toll?" takes the idea of the fated hero and examines it through the eyes of an outsider, who has seen many such heroes come and go and knows what disruptive forces they represent. I didn't set out to write a story that did that, and only realized afterwards that I had done so; perhaps it was my fate.)

Anyway: Agency in contemporary Western fiction is typically expressed through protagonism, and the impact of the characters on the world, but also elements of coincidence, the help or hindrance of other characters, obstacles, and complications. (For the difference between an obstacle and a complication, see the Writing Excuses podcast, season 14, episode 13; but briefly, an obstacle is a challenge that the character encounters and either overcomes, or doesn't, on the way to their goal; a complication turns the plot into a new direction.)

A typical template for a Western protagonist is: Circumstances are such that they must attempt to change the situation, or terrible consequences will ensue; but in making this attempt, they encounter opposition. In overcoming this opposition, they will have many defeats as well as victories, which will both shape and reveal their character. Ultimately, they will either triumph through their inherent abilities, the skills and knowledge they have gained in the course of their adventures, and the help of allies they have won through their right conduct or special identity; or they will fail through an inherent flaw, in which case the story is a tragedy.

That's a story about agency. The character is (unless it's a tragedy) ultimately able to change their situation for the better. But they don't have unlimited agency; the opposition they face reminds us that they, too, like us, are human and subject to limitations, and it's their struggle that makes the story interesting, just as their motivation to act makes it relatable, and their triumph makes it cathartic and inspirational.

We love this story because we want to be that person: the one who will fight for what we care about, the one who will make right choices (or, if we make wrong choices, will learn from it and change and become a better person), the one who will draw others to our cause, the one who can change the way things are (or put them back how they should be, according to taste), and the one who, as a reward for all of this, will achieve our goals and receive the admiration of people who are important to us. That's not, of course, how life always goes; that's one reason the story is so appealing. It's a wish-fulfilment fantasy, about being better people than we often are, and about the world being fairer than it often is. It's a fantasy of agency.

There are some inherent failure modes associated with this story format, and I'll discuss them in another post. A third post will deal with different attitudes to agency, and different degrees of character agency, in different genres and subgenres (mostly SFF - science fiction and fantasy - since that’s what I mainly read). And a final post (unless I think of another one as I go along) will discuss how admitting new, diverse voices and different life experiences to the conversation of literature can change how agency works in fiction.

Stay tuned. Or not; you get to choose.

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Mar 25

Flintstones Steampunk?

As an introductory aside: with the demise of Google+, which was my favourite social network, I've decided to give up all social media for Lent. So far, it's going well.

The first thing I noticed was that it felt like someone had died, and I kept wanting to tell them about things I noticed or thought, and couldn't.

The second thing I noticed was that my mind was a lot quieter when I was meditating. And also when I wasn't meditating.

Then I had some free-floating irritation for a while. Not sure what that is. Stages of grief? Something completely unrelated? Who knows?

But overall, I'm not missing it. Less pointless drama in my life over things I can't affect? Yes, please.

Anyway, I'm thinking that after Lent is over I will not be going back to the same kind of social media use I had before (even if I could find a G+ equivalent). Not sure what the future looks like yet - never ask a science fiction writer to actually predict the future, even of things they'll do themselves - but it may hold more blogging.

Anyway. Recent thoughts about steampunk.

I had an insight yesterday, and revised it this morning.

You remember The Flintstones, the Hanna-Barbera cartoon series ostensibly set in the Stone Age, but which was, in all real essentials, a sitcom about a couple of blue-collar families living next door to each other in the suburbs of a contemporary American city, with a light skin of Stone Age over the top? It's right there in the theme song: they're a modern Stone Age family.

My insight yesterday was that a lot of steampunk is like that: ostensibly set in a version of Victorian England, but all the characters and their attitudes and the way the whole thing works are basically contemporary American.

My insight this morning, though, was that The Flintsones was doing it on purpose and consciously, perhaps even as a way of providing some reflective distance from contemporary society (though mostly for the laughs).

The kind of steampunk I'm thinking about does it accidentally, because the authors don't know much about Victorian England, and don't care enough to find out. Or just because they're so unconscious about their own culture that they project its particular details into other times and places, assuming that they're universal. I've seen a tyre swing in the 1870s, folks. A tyre swing!

It's not just steampunk, by the way. Regency romance does it too. In fact, there's a certain kind of author who's just bad at history, the kind of author who will give people born in the 1920s names that were (newly) popular when the author was growing up - whether that's Samantha and Jason for someone my age, or Courtney and Madison for someone a generation younger. (Both real examples, by the way.)

This bothers me, and I mark the books down for it. It doesn't bother everyone. It doesn't bother people who also don't know much history, for example. But it bothers me. (And it bothers Juliet Marillier, a writer I respect very much.)

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Feb 03

The Essential Stripiness of Zebras: Hopepunk, Noblebright, and Other Positive Speculative Fiction

A recent article in Vox about the "hopepunk" movement caught my attention, both because I'm interested in positive speculative fiction and because, to my mind, it mischaracterises noblebright - a movement of which I'm a part (and which I had a small role in founding).

Basically, the Vox article takes what I consider an incidental aspect of noblebright and treats it as essential: the idea of the good ruler. I just listened to an episode of Charlie Jane Anders and Annalee Newitz's ironically titled (and excellent) podcast Our Opinions Are Correct, in which they discussed this article and positive SFF. (Link is to a transcript.) They followed the article's lead in thinking of noblebright as boiling down to "if Aragorn is king, everything will be OK".

I've always been a little antsy about the "noble" in "noblebright", to be honest, because actual medieval nobles were rarely good people. The term's origin is in the Warhammer 40K fandom, where it stands as the opposite of grimdark, and since the noblebright fantasy movement was also a response to grimdark fantasy, my online friend Cecilia, who writes as C.J. Brightley, proposed it as the name.

I had earlier, tongue in cheek, referred to what we both write as "cheerybright", taking the literal opposite of "grimdark". Perhaps that's a better term for something that Anders and Newitz also discussed, properties like the new She-Ra series, that have happy sparkly bits in a world where dark things happen, but are opposed by the power of friendship.

Anyway, the Vox article contrasts hopepunk (perpetual resistance in a world where everyone is imperfect but we have to try to make things better anyway), to noblebright, which it thinks is about the belief that there are good people, and there are bad people, and we need to make sure that the good people are in charge, and then everything will be fine. That's at best an oversimplification (on my part as well), but it also, I think, misses the point of noblebright. It isn't primarily about rulers, though it does at least admit the possibility that (morally) good rulers can exist and would be preferable to bad ones. Rather, it's about the idea that good people, or at least people of good intent, exist, and can make a difference even in a dark world. Which sounds kind of like hopepunk, really.

Anders and Newitz came to the conclusion that noblebright believes in the essential goodness of humanity, and hopepunk does not. Now, this is interesting, because a number (not all) of the core members of the noblebright fantasy movement, including Cecilia and me, are Christians, and tend to hold the essential fallenness of humanity as a key theological idea.

Which reminded me of zebras.

More than 20 years ago now, I and the team I worked with went to a seminar at the Auckland Zoo, held by two consultants who had been brought in to teach us some soft skill or other (I don't remember exactly what, after all this time). As part of one of their presentations, they included the idea - which didn't relate at all to whatever their main point was - that people are essentially good. "Do you agree?" they said to us, expecting the answer "yes".

I didn't agree, and said so. "So do you think that people are essentially bad?" they said.

I didn't have a good answer to that at the time, but later on, standing in front of the zebra enclosure, I came up with one. They were saying, "We believe that zebras are essentially black." When I disagreed, they assumed that I believed that zebras were essentially white. (Yes, I've switched those round from the usual associations, because otherwise there might result a complete side-track discussion about whether I was being racist, which would distract from the actual point.)

In fact, zebras are essentially striped.


Now, since noblebright is, in many ways and on many occasions, a reversion to pre-grimdark modes of storytelling, it can easily fall into a divide between good people and bad people, Chosen Ones and Dark Lords, heroes and villains (all of whom, I emphasize, can come from any social class and play any social role; it's not about rulers). One of the tropes of fantasy is that good and evil tend to be externalized, and that can lead to the problem of the all-good character (with whom the reader identifies) opposing the all-evil character, and the resolution to the problem being the destruction of the evil character (or race, or nation). We've all seen where that leads; not only to gas chambers, but also to the idea that deposing Saddam Hussein would automatically and by itself make Iraq a wonderful place.

At its best, and at its heart, I believe noblebright is about flawed, but well-intentioned, characters putting the interests of others above their own interests, and joining with others of like mind in struggling, suffering, and sacrificing for the hope of a better world. And that in turn implies that the world as it is has an essential brokenness and darkness in it, an idea found not only in Christianity but also in Buddhism. (I often paraphrase the first of the Four Noble Truths as "this whole thing is all messed up".) It's not a utopian world, though one mode of noblebright can be to show us a better society than our own (still with imperfections) functioning well; a kind of aspirational literature. That's part of what I attempt in my Gryphon Clerks books.

And speaking of the functioning of society, I think there may be something there to bring out about hopepunk vs noblebright. The idea of perpetual resistance that's embedded in hopepunk tends to imply not only that society is always going to be in need of revolution and opposition, but that the very idea of society itself is inherently oppressive, and that can never be changed; whereas my experience of noblebright, and my own belief about the real world, is that society functions as well as it does (which is better than many people think) because a lot of ordinary people turn up each day and work to the best of their ability to make things better. I've spent much of my career working with engineers and civil servants, which is why I make them the heroes of my books. Without their unspectacular but essential service, we would be living in a much worse world.

Of course, I'm a middle-aged, educated straight white man, which could help to explain my tendency to consider the current system as "imperfect, needing reform, but better than what you'd have if you tore it all down"; people with less hegemony might differ on that point, and I understand why, even if I don't agree.

The other thing I think about a lot in this context is agency. I often make a (somewhat simplistic) contrast between genre fiction, in which protagonists take (eventually) effective action against opposition in order to bring about an outcome they desire, with "literary" fiction, in which characters often decline through helplessness to hopelessness. Anders and Newitz, in their podcast episode, also contrasted "optimism" and "hope", defining optimism as the idea that things would turn out OK basically on their own, while hope is more "if we work together and do everything we can, it might be better".

Though I describe myself as a techno-optimist, I certainly don't believe that things will turn out fine by themselves; my SF stories, when I write SF, tend to be about futures in which we need to fight to hold on to human values in a world transformed by technology, not always for the better. I believe technology can help us build a better world, but only if building a better world is what we're setting out to do, and only if we think through carefully what a better world would look like.

All of these thoughts could open up in all kinds of directions; it probably needs a book. I haven't mentioned solarpunk, for example, which is a form of positive science fiction that somehow often manages to show us a world I consider dystopian and struggles to tell interesting stories that aren't choked by exposition. I haven't discussed dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction, and whether they can be, or even are essentially, hopeful (a question Anders raised that didn't receive a lot of discussion on the podcast). But I think the important point here is that how you write positive SFF will depend a lot on what you believe about humanity, society, technology, and "the good", and it's a good idea to be clear in your own mind about what those beliefs are, and check that you're not just repeating tropes that tell quite a different story. To be as fair as possible to the person quoted in Vox speaking about noblebright, perhaps we have occasionally done that while setting out to do something else.

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Sep 14

Gryphon Clerks news and musings

I just wanted to stick my head up and let everyone know that I am still alive and writing, even though it's more than a year since Mister Bucket for Assembly was published. In fact, there's a lot more on the way from the Gryphon Clerks; nearly a quarter of a million words.

You may remember that I've moved from self-publishing the Gryphon Clerks series to a small press, Digital Fiction, based in Canada. That's going well, but they're a very small press with a surprisingly large number of authors, and things have got a bit backed up temporarily.

Also, my development editor, who I've worked with for years and learned a lot from, has had to give up editing because of life circumstances. Those same circumstances led to a delay in the completion of the sequel to Mister Bucket for Assembly, which is entitled Illustrated Gnome News, and is currently in Digital Fiction's queue for publication.

It's my longest yet, at 115,000 words; it needed to be long to fit in five plots (mystery, romance, coming of age, saving the family business, and justice for the oppressed) and multiple viewpoint characters. I'm very happy with it, and I think readers will enjoy it too. Here's the blurb:

They may be putting out a newspaper, but there are some things they don't want becoming news.

The Illustrated Gnome News is the only newspaper serving the newly emancipated gnome community, but there are days when Ladle, the paper's overworked editor, thinks that's because nobody else is stupid enough to try to run one. She walks a delicate line between not scaring off all their advertisers and still putting out a paper that stands for a better future for all gnomes - including those gnomes who don't match up to traditional ideas of what's proper.

One of these is her friend Loom, the first gnome woman to qualify as an engineer. But Loom has a secret that would shock conventional gnomes even more than that, and must somehow find a way to pursue her own happiness amidst the wider struggle to turn gnome emancipation into true freedom.

Content advisory: This book depicts a romantic and sexual relationship between two women (without explicit scenes).

While I was waiting for my editor's notes on IGN, I wasn't idle. One of the minor characters in Illustrated Gnome News is a keen young man who wants to be a Realm Agent (think FBI, with appropriate adjustments for technology and society). He ended up starring in the next book, Capital Crimes, which is also in Digital's queue.

I hired a new editor for Capital Crimes, the talented, celebrated, and award-winning Karen Conlin, who told me repeatedly that she all-caps LOVED it. She'd never read any of my books before, and found it entirely comprehensible, so I can tell you that it's a good place to start the series; it's the first of a sub-series of books about the Realm Agents, in more of a mystery/thriller style. Here's its blurb:

A brilliant engineer and a daring agent uncover a plot that strikes at the foundations of their society.

The new capital of the human realm of Koslin delights in the latest technology, and the emancipated gnomes who build and maintain it.

Precision, one of the first gnome women to qualify as an engineer, and her almost-brother Piston, the first gnome to join the elite Realm Agents, uncover a plot to subvert the infrastructure of the city, steal its technology, and crash the economy. To thwart it, they must enter the place a gnome fears most: an unreformed dwarfhold, where gnomes are still bonded servants.

A steampunk fantasy techno-thriller.

Also! Back when I was revising Mister Bucket for Assembly, my editor quite rightly suggested that I should take out about 30,000 words about what was going on in the lives of the humans, since it didn't have any direct impact on the main plot. I kept those 30,000 words, though, and (with a bit of revision) they will form a new novella, initially exclusive to my mailing list, though I may release it more widely later on. It's entitled Hope Persists, and includes some important changes for Rosie, the Clever Man, Hope and Patient, tying up some threads from Hope and the Patient Man.

All of this is coming in the future, at dates yet to be announced, but there's one Gryphon Clerks story that's newly available now. (Strictly speaking, it's previously been published in a couple of anthologies that hardly anyone bought, brought out by a publisher who's now vanished off the face of the earth; so it might as well be new.) It's a short piece called "Intrusion," which takes place during Hope and the Clever Man - the other side of the incident in which the dwarves take over the farspeakers to broadcast anti-gnome propaganda. The reason I'm re-releasing it now is because it's relevant to events in Capital Crimes, in which the two main characters resurface.

I've added it to my Tales of the Gryphon Clerks collection, which is a benefit for joining my mailing list. That's also where you can be sure to hear about release dates for the other pieces I mention above, so if you're a GC fan, make sure you're subscribed.

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Feb 08

Fixing Social Media Part 2: What You and I Can Do

In my previous post, I sketched out a way of potentially reducing the current issues with the structure of social media, by taking it back in the direction of the internet’s open roots and reducing the control exerted by large, unaccountable, for-profit corporations.

I can’t actually implement that. I could maybe do the technical side, at a stretch, but creating the critical mass of adopters that would be essential for it to succeed, against the resistance of powerful incumbents, is far beyond my ability or the ability of anyone I know.

So what can you or I do to improve social media if we can’t do much about its structure? What influence do we have?

Well, we have some influence, however small, over the content of social media. Specifically, we decide what we share, how we comment, and what we react to. And since shares, comments, and reactions are the three ways in which a social media post gains traction and influence, this isn’t an insignificant power, if we choose to use it wisely.

In this post, then, I want to suggest some principles that we can follow to improve the quality of social media in our immediate zone of influence.

Posting and Reacting

Let’s start with posting and its little brother, reacting. (On Facebook, your reactions are broadcast to your network, so it’s similar to sharing the post; on Google+, your network only sees your reactions if you haven’t turned that setting off, and most people have done so. Among other things, this means that I feel more free on G+ to “like” things that not everyone in my network will agree with, without worrying about what they’ll think.)

On social media, few people create content, and much of the original content they do create is about themselves, not about issues. (Which is fine; one of the reasons I'm connected to people on social media is that I care about what's happening in their daily lives.) A larger number of people curate content, sharing articles or “memes” either from websites they frequent or from other social media users in their networks. Usually, we share things that we feel strongly about, and that we agree with; and the easiest strong emotions to arouse with a piece of content are outrage (at the actions or opinions of people who are “not our people”) or self-righteous smugness (at the actions or opinions of people who are “our people”). If you can find one of “your people” hitting out at one of “their people” it’s a two-for-one.

A lot of sharing on social media, in fact, is aimed at proclaiming our membership in a particular group. By proclaiming faithful group membership through the things we share, we can get affirmation from the other members of the group (in the form of further shares, reactions, and comments) and feel less alone in a hostile world.

The natural effect, though, is to amplify outrage, smugness, and division. I hope we can agree that smugness and division are inherently bad things to amplify, and that outrage is only worth amplifying in two circumstances: if it’s outrage about something that’s actually happening or has actually happened, and if our outrage leads to effective action for change.

Those two criteria are not often met, though.

“Fake news” is a term that’s had a lot of use over the past couple of years. It’s sometimes used as a mere slur against coverage that’s unsympathetic to the speaker’s “side,” but there are more objective definitions of “fake news”. It ranges from outright falsehoods presented as news (sometimes under the cover of “satire”), through conspiracy theories that impose a false narrative on real events; extreme spin and distortion; the omission of context or nuance to the point of reversing the significance of a fact; and biased opinion presented as facts.

A pair of data scientists trained a fake news detector, and discovered in the process that it’s actually easier to train a real news detector. They called it Fakebox. What it detects is whether a sample article is “written with little [sic] to no biased words, strong adjectives, opinion, or colorful language”. In other words, it looks for an objective, factual tone--the kind of article that doesn’t tend to compel people to share it on social media.

So, if you don’t have the technical resources to set up a Fakebox server, how might you decide whether to share something or not?

Well, firstly, is it substantial? Does it present or consider more than one viewpoint? Does it explore the topic in depth? This test basically rules out the “memes” which many people on social media share as readily as I click “Like” on a cat photo. I don’t mind (up to a point) the inspirational-quote ones or the jokes; I’m talking here specifically about the ones which lay out something that sounds like a fact, or a series of bullet points that sound like facts, but don’t provide any way of checking the claims for context or accuracy.

It’s essentially impossible to convey a significant amount of truth in an image with just a few words, and when these memes are fact-checked, they tend to range from outright falsehoods, through inaccuracies, to aspects of the truth presented without enough context to really understand them in a useful way. I haven’t done a study, but my intuition is that they skew towards the “outright falsehood” end, often by what they omit, but sometimes by what they claim. Whenever I see a new one do the rounds, I wait for the fact-check, and it almost without exception confirms my suspicion that they’re, at best, misleading. I never share them, even the ones that match up with my existing beliefs, and I urge you to consider adopting the same policy.

Secondly, before sharing something, check its tone. Does it amplify helpless outrage? Or does it amplify hope? Outrage is compelling, and in sharing it with your friends, who will agree with it and reinforce that you’re not alone, you feel slightly less helpless; but if all you’re doing is spreading the helpless outrage, it’s not a net gain.

Thirdly, does what you’re sharing give a helpful way forward or suggest action you can take? I listened to a fascinating podcast a while ago about some research done on China’s social media platforms. Surprisingly, the researchers found that people were not censored for expressing outrage against, or even insulting, government officials or government policy. What got them censored was calling for action. The Chinese government has apparently concluded that expressing outrage is no threat to them, as long as nobody does anything.

This suggests that amplifying a sense of helpless outrage on social media will only help to preserve the situation, and the system, you find intolerable.

Before you share, ask yourself: Would the Chinese government bother to censor this?

Fourth, does what you’re sharing draw us together by our common humanity, or focus on what divides us? Does it locate all the problems outside your group, reinforcing a sense of them and us? This is a question for liberals as well as for conservatives; liberals are far from immune to the temptation to excuse their own people for what they condemn in the “other”.

I have a lot more respect for articles that are criticism coming from inside the house. There is, of course, a place for criticism of groups you don’t belong to; part of the reason you don’t belong to them is that they stand for something you disagree with. But an article that implicitly (or even explicitly) places all the evil somewhere else is inevitably covering over a blind spot.

That doesn’t mean you can’t share it. But it does imply a duty for you to uncover that blind spot and comment on it, critiquing the failings and omissions of your own people according to the principles you claim to hold. If you’re actually acting out of principle, and not simply based on group membership, you should be able to do this at least some of the time.

In general, though, I suggest that you focus on and amplify what you love and what you hope, not on what you hate and what you fear. Terrible things are happening, but wonderful things are also happening, and they get a lot less exposure even though they’re more common. If you feel you need to talk about things going wrong (which is an important topic, as long as it’s not the only topic), do so by talking about people who are doing something about them.

If you can’t find anybody who’s doing anything, maybe you should do something.


Let’s talk about commenting now. “Don’t read the comments” is generally good advice for websites (and excellent advice for YouTube); comments on social media, depending on who’s in your network and who you allow to comment, can be more positive and helpful, but they can also rapidly degenerate into insults and point-scoring. This is especially the case on controversial topics, the kind of thing that is based on amplified outrage--which is another good reason not to amplify outrage.


One of my basic principles for social media comments is: don’t interact with posters who can’t pass the Turing test. The Turing test is the famous social conversation test which sets out to distinguish a person from a machine. There are a lot of “bots” around on social media, posting stereotyped comments based on keywords in order to draw attention to their business or cause, or amplify some particular form of outrage. Some of these are software-based, and some of them are implemented in the form of a human being typing on a keyboard. If you can’t tell which one it is, don’t talk to them.

If you are talking to a person, though, talk to them like a person, not a member of a group whose members are interchangeable. My wife had an experience recently of commenting on an acquaintance’s post, which was a classic amplifier of outrage against a group of which she happened to be a member. Another poster who I know is an actual person jumped in and ranted at her based on a stereotype of who she was, bearing little connection with reality. It didn’t result in a fruitful discussion.

An exchange of insults achieves nothing. Instead, look for common concerns and common humanity with people who differ from you. Consider the recent story of a well-known comedian who engaged with a man who coarsely insulted her on Twitter. She looked beneath his insult for the person and found someone in pain, and they ended up having a productive exchange; in fact, she helped him with the life situation that was part of what was behind his bad behaviour.

If you must have a discussion with someone you disagree with on social media (and I don’t advise it, in general), look for things you agree on, and appeal to shared values. Show how those shared values lead you to the conclusion you’ve reached. If you can’t find shared values, there’s not much point in discussing.

I’ll add: Don’t argue to win. Have some humility, and be prepared to learn and admit when you’re wrong. I’ve found that as a rule in life, whenever I go off on a rant, I almost always find I’m mistaken about something in the situation; sometimes about everything.


In summary, helpless outrage over misinformation; self-righteousness; and affirming group identity at all costs are not a good basis for basically anything. But they’re what social media tends to encourage.

We can help to change that if we approach our social media usage more consciously.

So here’s my social media pledge:

  • I will seek out and share the truth, not just what confirms my prejudices.
    • I will only share information that’s substantial and fact-based.
    • I will not share “memes” that sound like facts, but don’t provide enough context to evaluate their truth.
  • I will amplify what I love and what I hope for, not what I hate and fear.
  • I will look for ways I can take action to change things for the better.
  • I won’t engage with bots, or with people I can’t distinguish from bots, and I won’t act like a bot myself.
  • I will look for shared values and common humanity in the people I encounter.
  • I will approach discussions with humility, kindness, and a willingness to change my mind.

Join me, won’t you?

Spread the word