The Read/Write Report

This week, instead of the usual storytelling class that I have with my daughter, we just set aside some time to write together. It was nice to have that time set aside, and I think we may switch to a schedule where we have our “class” every other week, and just have a scheduled writing time for the weeks in-between.

However, one of the things I’ve really enjoyed about our writing class (and documenting it on the blog) is the opportunity to review what I read and wrote over the past week. I figured I can continue to do that even if I don’t have a separate topic to discuss as well.

What I Read

I continued to work my way through The Unwritten, finishing volumes 5, 6 and 7. This series is my favorite read of the year so far, and quickly becoming one of my favorite graphic novel series of all time.

One of the tricks that The Unwritten pulls off amazingly well is the constant expansion of the story. It’s a mystery at its heart, with the main characters trying to figure out the motivations and powers of their enemies, and even trying to understand how the world around them actually works. In each volume, our understanding expands. We learn more about the world, which reveals more questions and raises the stakes.

I’m already thinking about a dedicated post talking about the series once I’ve finished, so I won’t dig too deep now, but I’m thoroughly enjoying it.

I’m continuing to read Dune aloud at bedtime with my oldest son. It has been years since I last read Dune, so I get to come at it with fairly fresh eyes.

I’ve been struck by Herbert’s style, which is equal parts florid and terse. He seems almost allergic to conjunctions, and is happy to connect multiple sentences with nothing more than commas. He frequently has paragraphs that consist of a single short sentence, or even a fragment. And yet, there are moments when he waxes poetic, when he’s describing the geography and environment of the desert planet Arrakis, or when delving into the characters’ thoughts on philosophy and politics.

Like many works of science-fiction that have been able to endure for decades, Dune is a strange book. It is a mix of prescient futurism and anachronism.

It is infused with environmentalism and ecological systems inextricably tied to the human populations that live within them. It offers a generally positive view of Islamic cultures. It imagines a universe where people have rejected artificial intelligence, and spent centuries exploring, advancing and honing the possible modes of human thought.

It also imagines a far-flung spacefaring society that is fundamentally feudal, governed by all-powerful emperors and lesser royals, where the populations of ordinary people have no meaningful say in the structure of their society. The only competition for power comes from the Spacing Guild, who monopolize space travel; the CHOAM company, who monopolize life-extending spice; and the Bene Gesserit, who use social, political, and even religious manipulation to infiltrate the other powers and perform experiments in long-term eugenics. Power is almost exclusively amoral and self-serving. It’s not the sort of future most of us would be eager to experience first-hand.

Having read all of the Dune books (at least the ones by Herbert himself), I never felt that any of them stood up to this first one in the series. They are interesting though, because they do a better job revealing Herbert’s interests in vast timelines; huge interconnected systems; and ideas of humanity behaving as a single collective organism, with the fates of individuals being dictated more by the drives of the super-creature than any individual choices they make.

What I Wrote

I got about halfway through Razor Mountain chapter 9. I also started writing a short story that I’m calling “The Incident at Pleasant Hills.” The idea was inspired by a Story Engine prompt, and I used a slightly modified version  of Firewater’s Cube brainstorming method to flesh out the characters and setting.

I think I was in need of other fiction to work on alongside Razor Mountain. I’m still enjoying writing Razor Mountain and I’m committed to finishing it, but it’s nice to have small things to work on alongside the novel that I know I’ll still be working on for months to come.

Storytelling Class With Freya

One of the joys of parenthood is when your children take an interest in an activity you love. You get the opportunity to teach them what you know and give them all the advice you wish you’d had. My nine-year-old daughter Freya recently lamented that English class was boring because she didn’t get to write stories. She said, “I wish I had a story writing class.” It took a lot of restraint for me to not jump up immediately and start singing “A Whole New World” from Aladdin. Instead, I immediately instituted a story writing class for just the two of us.

My daughter was kind enough to give me permission to post about our classes. Since we’re planning to meet once per week, this will be a new weekly feature until she gets bored or I run out of things to talk about.

Teaching writing to a child is an interesting exercise, and I don’t have a ton of experience teaching. My daughter is a smart cookie, but she doesn’t have a lot of experience writing or reading stories, having not been on this earth all that long. I think the key is to be flexible and adjust to her interests. The most important thing kids need for successful learning is enthusiasm.

For our first “class,” I decided to start with some general principles and try to find out what she was interested in.

Nobody Can Tell You How to Write

I started with an abridged version of my writing advice advice. There are many authors who have found success with wildly different methods that work for them. It’s great to study and find out what works for other people, but you ultimately have to synthesize your own systems from bits and pieces of others’ advice, along with your own discoveries.

I can give advice, but not all of it will work for you. Just take what works and don’t stress too much about what doesn’t.

Making Sense, Feeling Good

It’s important for (most) stories to make sense. They should have events that follow one after another logically. But that isn’t what makes a good story.

If you think about some of your favorite stories, you probably love them because they made you feel something. The “feeling” of a story, the emotions it evokes, is the real measure of its worth. It might be “happily ever after” and make you feel good, but it might also make you feel bad, scared, surprised or satisfied.

I think one of the many reasons humans are storytellers is because stories serve as a sort of experience by proxy. I will never know what it’s like in real life to be an astronaut stranded by myself on Mars. I’ll never know what it’s like to be a little person with hairy feet, sneaking to volcano to throw in a magic ring. But I can still experience these things vicariously through stories.

Doing It on Purpose

The most important things you can do to improve your writing are:

  • Read a lot
  • Write a lot
  • Seek advice and opportunities to learn from others

The human subconscious is a wonderful thing. Your subconscious can absorb ideas and techniques, even without you realizing that you’re absorbing it. Your subconscious instincts can take you a long way. Still, if you want to get better at writing, you can’t rely solely on your subconscious.

You want to be able to make choices and decide how to do things to achieve specific effects. To do that, you need to consciously learn different techniques and the ways to deploy them.

Questions and Homework

To finish, we discussed a few open-ended questions. These may seem a little silly, but I do think that it’s worth it for any writer to ask themselves overly-broad questions

  • What is a story?
  • Why do you read stories, and why do you enjoy them?
  • Why do you want to write stories?

I also asked Freya what she wanted to cover in these classes. She said that one thing she has trouble with is not finishing stories. I’ll admit, this is something I’ve occasionally had issues with as well. So that will be our topic for next time: finishing stories!

Writing Like Knitting

I wrote a poem today, which is not something I typically do. In fact, I didn’t intend to do it at all.

I was listening to Mike Birbiglia’s postcast, Working it Out. In episode 4, he talks about writing poetry with his wife, and Matt Berninger and Carin Besser of The National. They talked about all the people who are out there making creative work, but not showing or sharing it. Maybe not even having the desire to share. Mike seemed surprised and fascinated by the idea, and I also find it very strange to think about. Whenever I write, I always have the vague idea of a reader other than myself in mind.

They discussed working on a poem for years, “like knitting,” with no real concern or urgency for finishing it. In fact, specifically enjoying the not-doneness of it. Writing as a pass-time. Writing as a personal, private act, or peaceful meditation.

This idea really struck me. So even though I don’t write poetry, it felt fitting in the moment to write a poem about writing poems. I started writing, and before I knew it, a poem happened. I won’t vouch for the quality, but it was a fun little spontaneous act of creation. In fact, it was fun enough that I’m thinking I might delve into poetry again some time.

She Writes

She writes
Taps the keys
A poem, a secret, between her and the screen
Words are fluid
Day to day, month to month,
Year to year
Obsequious to whim and whimsy
To whatever mood takes her
That day
That year

The poems are not for others
They are hers
They are her
They are
A slow progression, knitting
Bonsai trimming
Cutting hair
No desire to share
To show
Not greedy
Just comfortable in the words
In the middle of making
No concern
For done

Is Cyberpunk Retro-Futurism Yet?

The author of Neuromancer – the book widely considered to have kicked-off the cyberpunk genre – says it’s now a retro-future. That’s pretty interesting, considering how much high-profile cyberpunk seems to still be happening.

For those who don’t follow video games, Cyberpunk 2077 was perhaps the most hotly anticipated game of 2020 (before it ended up releasing late, dogged by accusations of employee abuse and so buggy that refunds were offered on some platforms). Blade Runner 2049 was a lauded, big-budget movie just three years ago. And most of the streaming services have their own recent cyberpunk offerings.

Through five decades, we received a steady, if inconsistent, stream of cyberpunk literature, cinema, television and games. Not only that, but it gave us an almost absurd number of ___-punk sister genres, cribbing the dystopian outsider aesthetic and patching in various kinds of technology.

Death of a Genre?

Unlike most genres that take place in the present or a particular historical era, most science fiction has a built-in shelf life. While most people might be able to look past the 2019 “future” date of the original Blade Runner or the clunky flip-phones of The Matrix, there comes a certain point where an imagined future starts to feel stale.

The parts of these retro-futures that actually came to pass seem somehow more depressing, more mundane, more obvious when we live inside them every day. The predictions that failed often seem further away than they did before, or outright absurd.

Some of cyberpunk’s staying power might owe to pop media’s perpetual mining and re-mining of nostalgia for remakes, reboots, sequels and spiritual successors. Cyberpunk has also accumulated plenty of visual and tonal markers that have been used (and abused) to provide quick and shallow style. For every Matrix, there’s an Equilibrium or Aeon Flux.

It seems clear that if cyberpunk does die, it will be a slow, sighing death. Most science-fiction genres and styles don’t go away completely. They inform the sub-genres and successors that follow, transforming or splintering.

Where is the Center of the Universe?

Back on Twitter, Aaron suggests that the future is in “Gulf Futurism, Sino Futurism, Afro Futurism.” It’s not hard to see that these are all sub-genres with very different geographical and cultural centers from old-school cyberpunk. Cyberpunk is rooted in extrapolations of 1980s American culture. Even when it goes as far afield as Hong Kong, it’s more 1980s British Hong Kong than post-handover Chinese Hong Kong. The neon hanzi are largely window-dressing.

There is certainly a deep vein of anxiety in America that suggests that the country’s cultural and economic influence on the future is waning. That refrain seems to be getting louder, not quieter. Meanwhile, other places in the world are seeing their cultural and economic influence grow at breakneck pace, even as technology upends old norms and traditions.

Gulf futurism centers the world on the Arabian Gulf, while Sino Futurism looks at the future through a Chinese lens. Afro Futurism explores futures and themes not only centered on the African continent, but also on African diaspora and the complex intersections of culture and history that brings.

Cyber, Solar, Bio or Steam

Other Twitter responses mention solarpunk and biopunk, offshoots that focus less on traditional cyberpunk technologies like AI and VR, and instead explore the consequences of things like environmental disaster, climate change, and runaway biotechnology. In a world where climate change becomes more apparent every day, these themes are more relevant than ever.

Meanwhile, there are many other derivatives that shift the aesthetic from futuristic to fantastic. Genres like steampunk and dieselpunk are more fantasy than science-fiction, enjoying anachronistic alternate universe playgrounds that are concerned with the themes of the last century rather than the themes of the upcoming one.

Fodder for the Reading List

Cyberpunk will continue, in some form or another, but it’s getting long in the tooth. Maybe its latest micro-renaissance will prove to have interesting things to say about our modern dystopian world. And even if it doesn’t, it’s interesting to see the genre splintering in so many different directions. If nothing else, these tweets have inspired me to sample some of these other sub-genres.