Tuesday, January 15, 2019

BLACK MIRROR: Bandersnatch: Okay but what the heck is actually going on?

Note: This post contains spoilers for the entirety of Bandersnatch. If you haven't seen it and don't want to be spoiled, you know what to do. See you when you're done.

People who follow my work on various websites will know that I have not shut up about the interactive Black Mirror event Bandersnatch since it first came to Netflix. I've reviewed it. I've traced the history of interactive entertainment backwards from it. I've tried to point out the "true end." But the one thing I haven't done, which I've done repeatedly for Black Mirror here on my blog, is just stick my hand in and do a full-on analysis of it.

And that's because... well, it's difficult.

It's taken me rewatches, watching a friend play through it, and reading more on the making of and inspiration behind it to begin to assess literally any of this on more than a gaming level, and that's not surprising. Bandersnatch is an outlier in the Black Mirror world, in that is was created specifically to showcase a new technology.

It's also an outlier in that we ourselves are, for the first time, a character in the episode. Most viewers will likely slip at least partly into the shoes of protagonist Stefan, making choices as if they were the person working through the maddening world of the plot. When it's discovered that you're a separate entity, it falls to you to decide what you are. Are you interested in the Programming and Control of Stefan and his fellow characters? Are you attempting to guide him down what passes for a best possible path? Or are you a future nerd on Netflix hoping to see some crazy ish go down? All of these are options, and just as you decide where Stefan goes, you decide who you are.

Rather than one solid moral, Bandersnatch has a few points hidden throughout it that float to the surface now and again. Some may not be intentional, and most (if not all) take a back seat to showing off Netflix's robust Branch Manager software, but they're there. The Black Mirror is still in front of us. And it has a few things to show us.

You can't make someone do something they aren't ready to do.

We all know what the perfect solution to Stefan's problems would have been: group therapy with his father to get things sorted out, then trim down his game to enough paths to make it exciting and innovative but also not make it blow the back out of a 1980s gaming system. You do not have any of those choices... and as annoying as that may be, it's realistic.

How often have we had friends for whom the answer to their problems was fairly straightforward? Leave the abusive partner, do the thing they're waffling about doing, talk to a professional about the thing that's holding them back, whatever. If they were to do the thing, right here, right now, they would be on the road to a shockingly fast fix. But you know—or at least I hope you know—that you can't just force someone to make a decision, no matter how obvious or beneficial, if their head isn't in it.

Anyone who's been on the other side of the situation really knows that this is the case. Maybe it's because there are other things to work through, or maybe it's because the idea of the fix really being that simple is threatening to us; if we do it and it works, that means our agonizing was pointless and then we have to cope with having wasted all that time.

Regardless of the reason, a person who isn't ready to Do The Thing can't be made to do the thing. Decisions to change, to move forward, to take a less-than-comfortable chance, can only be made when the person wakes up one morning, looks in the mirror, and thinks, "Screw it. Something's gotta give."

It can be depressing to realize that we are incapable of giving Stefan a perfect, happy, safe ending. But that's how it is for people in the real world. And the harder you try to, the more damage you can end up doing.

Failures are not endings.

In Bandersnatch, there are lots of ways to mess up. There are also lots of ways to go back and start again.

Colin's trippy, conspiratorial view of his world just so happens to be true for him in a very literal way. He can fall to his death in one scene, then be back the next. He doesn't fear death or disappointment or failure because this is just one line in an endless string of possibilities. Going that far with this mindset is dangerous in the real world, obviously. To quote the great Kinoko Nasu, "People die if they are killed."

But failures, setbacks, disappointments, and other non-lethal happenings do not necessarily mark an end point. Sometimes the failure was necessary, because it gave us information we might not otherwise have and helps us tackle problems later on. Sometimes it's simply a lesson learned for next time. Sometimes there's no good reason for it whatsoever... but even without directly gaining something, a failure can (with help and support) be recovered from and moved on from. Which is not to belittle major setbacks. "Moving forward" doesn't mean bootstrapping and springing back up five seconds later.

It is impossible to finish Bandersnatch and see all there is to see without messing up once in a while. Unlike life, it directs you back to where you need to start over, and tells you when you've gone too far off the rails. But, like life, there are mishaps of all sizes. Some only take a moment to recover from. Some require recalibration and a little thought first. It's not always easy. It's not always fair. But a failure or a setback or a mistake is never a sign that it's time to give up.

No one is fully in control of their lives and that's kinda normal.

It doesn't take a government conspiracy to say that no one is ever in complete control of their lives. No one can be in complete control of their lives. The mere act of existing is, in many ways, an act of giving over some control. You can't stop the fact that you require food and rest. If you get sick, you have limited control over your recovery time. Blizzards will happen even if they're inconvenient. Your boss or in-laws or that one guy on your morning commute will say and do things that affect you.

The only thing we have true control over is our personal actions and motivation; the rest, we need to move through as best we can. Because of that, sometimes it truly does feel as though the universe is exerting some level of purposeful manipulation over us and our lives. Even knowing that that's not how things work may not be enough to disabuse us of that notion.

We can't stop hurricanes and blizzards from hitting. We can exert only marginal control over our social situations. Some of the control exerted over us may even be directly unfair and unjust—and then you're going to find yourself fighting far harder than Stefan ever did to not [Bite Nails | Pull Earlobe]. But we are not the sole arbiters of our fate in all things. No one is. And not because of a secret medical study or a nerd 35 years in the future.

But what does it really mean?

There are literally trillions of ways to experience Bandersnatch. Even one small choice different from someone else's can completely upend how the story presents itself. 

The order in which a story presents its scenes can refocus the plot points. Which you begin on and which you end on will influence your impression of the story. So someone like me, who chose to talk about Stefan's mother up front and had her presence run through the entire game, will view his trauma as essential to the story. But someone who was forced to go back and talk about Stefan's mom in order to get all the endings may see the plot point as a hindrance to others.

So I can't actually say what the episode means. I can say what I believe the story to be, though, based on how my playthrough framed the scene.

Once you finish all the primary endings, you get one more scene: Stefan back on the bus to his interview at TuckerSoft. This time, though, he picks a tape without your guidance. You can only watch as he speeds toward his destination. Your sway over him is now gone: he is free of your influence.

Over the course of your playthrough, he encountered all his possible dead ends. He encountered his latent survivor's guilt in the White Rabbit ending. He let out his pent-up aggression against his father and experienced (temporary) success in the 5-star ending, and he gave in fully to his paranoia and fear in the various prison endings. He faced both his own death and the death of his project, and even encountered the possibility that all of this was a farce laid out to amuse some unknown entity.

Here at the end, the most dreadful what-ifs have been faced and experienced. Now, out of our reach, Stefan can move forward under his own steam. Whether he'll create a successful product and amend his relationship with his father, or whether he'll repeat one of his many bad endings at our hand, we don't know. And we'll never know. But they'll be his choice, guided by all he's seen from his time with us.

I believe Stefan will have a happy ending. It's just none of our business.

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Tuesday, January 8, 2019

TEA REVIEW: The DAVIDsTEA Advent Calendar

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If you don't know I'm a fiend for tea... well, there's a long road ahead of you. I can't drink coffee because it gives me headaches and upset stomach, so I went for tea when I needed a caffeine boost. I ended up actually enjoying it and the different varieties thereof, which is fortunate since my other option makes me feel pukey.

When I was up in Illinois visiting Ginger, we stopped by DAVIDsTEA, a chain that specializes in loose tea and accessories. I was unfamiliar with the brand, but there was a sale on, so I figured I'd have a nose around. In particular, there was a tea Advent calendar, consisting of tiny sachets of loose tea in a decorative box. This is exactly my thing, and I figured I'd give it a go.

For what it's worth, I have a bias. I am used to Discover Teas, a locally-owned company that specializes in all-natural blends. If there's chocolate flavor in the tea, it will be cacao nibs. There's nothing powdered or artificial mixed in with the leaves. Some people may appreciate this from a health standpoint, but I personally prefer it for two reasons. One, artificial flavors don't always steep consistently, and can leave weird textures or flavors. Two, they tend to not survive to the second steep, meaning that if they were heavily responsible for the flavor of the blend, you don't get as much staying power out of your tea. And for someone like me, who dumps leaves in a French press and refills as needed throughout the day, the ability to have a second steep is essential.

Image result for tea

Being an Advent calendar, the box contained 24 tea blends. The selection consisted of seasonal teas, new flavors being tested out for 2019, and some special blends that apparently only come out once in a while. I won't attempt to review all of them because dear God that's a lot, but I can at least hit the highs (and lows) of the selection:

Best of the Best

S'mores Chai Pu'erh

S’mores Chai

DAVIDsTEA made no secret of knowing this was their star player: my purchase included a postcard featuring a recipe for a latte using this tea. It has mar-bits, cinnamon, sugar, and other things directly in it, which was almost a turn-off for me (for the reasons above). But in this case, the balance was such that the flavor was actually quite good.

This didn't seem to be off-the-block pu'erh (for those who don't know, that's the really strong aged stuff you shave off compressed blocks and that can be steeped about 5 times before you lose significant flavor). I didn't need it to be, but it's worth noting that it's sold loose. It didn't have the same heavy, aged flavor as the pu'erh I'm used to. But it was strong enough that it suited my preference for super-strong black tea.

I never did try it according to the recipe card, but it was fine as it was.

Chocolate Orange Pu'erh

Chocolate Orange
As with the s'mores chai, this doesn't seem to be traditional pu'erh so much as Very Strong Black Tea. It pulled its weight, though, this time with orange bits in it.

I'm still not a fan of the artificial flavoring in it, but it survived a lot better than I suspected it would. I wanted tea that tasted like a chocolate orange, and I got it. I also got a decent second steep out of it.

Red Velvet Cake

Red Velvet Cake

I'm a sucker for red velvet anything, and this fortunately turned out as well as I'd hoped. The chocolate ended up being fairly light-touch, and even though the sugar included was a bit more than I'd have preferred, it still turned out to match the flavor I was after.

This one had a leg up over most of their black teas in that, like the pu'erh, it had a decent amount of flavor and staying power to it.

Black, Green, and Oolong Offerings

The box had a fairly wide span of teas available, covering all their different categories. The good news was that this gave me a diverse sampling of their offerings. The less good news, I'll cover in a moment.

DAVIDsTEA's strongest offerings, at least to me, are their greens and oolongs. Their black tea is hit-or-miss, sometimes being great and sometimes brewing up strangely weak (even for someone like me, who brews extra-long and loves those tannins). Especially strong are the straight-up greens and oolongs, rather than the flavored ones.

Herbal and Fruit Infusions

Sadly, they lost me with their tisanes. The main reason was apples.

The down side of sampling a new tea every day is that, if multiple teas in their line are relatively similar, it's going to to show a lot more. Their fruit teas, at least the ones included, had an almost exclusively apple base. I like apple stuff, including apple tisanes, but knowing I had anywhere from half a dozen to a dozen variants on apple tea in a variety pack didn't make me terribly enthused.

The fruit and herbal teas were fine, and honestly had more staying power for re-steeps than their black teas. And I'll likely buy one. But in a variety pack, it killed the variety for a good percentage of it.

Bottom of the Pile

Fireside Mocha

I hate mentioning full negatives on anything, but it bears mentioning that the Fireside Mocha did not agree with me at all and gave me something of an upset stomach. This could well have been a personal issue with one or more of the ingredients, though. It had a very heavy coffee flavor to it, which may fall under the "natural flavorings" listed. I don't believe it was that (I have had tea that actually includes a dash of actual coffee before), but I could be wrong.

Check the ingredient listing first. I'm hoping this was just a personal issue but it pays to be careful.

Final Verdict?

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I love the idea of a tea Advent calendar. It's fun to wake up and have someone else choose the day's brew for you and know you're going to get something different each day. I found at least three things I enjoyed enough to buy again out of the 24.

I wish there had been a more tailored experience available, while acknowledging that it probably wouldn't have been cost-effective to make two or three variants. I probably would not buy an Advent calendar from them again next year, knowing the risk of sameyness when it comes to the tisanes; but I would absolutely get a black/green/oolong sampler from them done in a similar style.

(It's also worth mentioning that for people unlike me who can't with caffeine or tannins, the inverse—a purely herbal/fruit Advent calendar—would be a godsend. But again, I can't vouch for how well they would sell if they were that tailored.)

If you have little to no experience with tea and just want to start playing, this might be a good purchase for you next year. But if you really know what you like and have very specific tastes, you might end up with a handful of things you like and a backlog of things you're passive about.

(Ironically, I cannot change "Coffee" to "Tea" on my Ko-fi badge as Blogger only supports the image file version of this widget... but know that donations will go to tea. And other things.)

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Tuesday, January 1, 2019

The Movie That Helped Me Understand the Definition of "Science Fiction"

Poking around on social media calendars is fun. It teaches you that every day is something. And today, as it happens, is National Science Fiction Day—lining up with the birthday of Isaac Asimov. I see what they did there.

I'm not going to presume to do something so grand as tell you how to write good sci-fi. I was asked once and gave as decent an answer as I felt I could give, but there are far better, far more experienced sorts out there who can give you a more solid grounding in what you need to know. What I do feel comfortable doing, though, is pointing you in the direction of some of the stuff that's been formative for me. And there's one lifelong love of a movie that, in recent years, has helped educate me about the structure of hard sci-fi.

And you're gonna hate me for this the way you hate that one cousin who won't let you forget they unironically consider Die Hard a Christmas movie.

Singin' in the Rain

Here she comes with her Ray Bradbury technicality bull-roar. I know, I know. But really, hear me out.

I've been a fan of Singin' in the Rain since I was a tiny child. I knew the whole movie by heart before I even knew what most of it meant. It was only in recent years that I realized how well put-together a movie it is.

For those who somehow haven't seen it: well, you can watch it for four buckaroos on YouTube. It's a 1952 MGM musical starring Gene Kelly as stuntman-turned-romantic-lead Don Lockwood in the late 1920s. He and his glamorous leading lady Lina Lamont are the talk of Hollywood, until some fool figures out how to sync sound to film and invents the talking picture. Considering Lina has The Worst Voice (and also The Worst Personality) in Hollywood, making the jump to talkies is more of a challenge than anyone expected.

The film uses mostly songs that appeared in the wave of early films that rode the "talkie" trend (including the title song), with minimal original compositions. It also starred the frankly gorgeous-voiced Jean Hagen as Lina (using her real voice only for her "dubbed" film segments, funnily enough), Donald O'Conner as Don's buddy and composer Cosmo Brown, and a new-to-Hollywood Debbie Reynolds as cake-jumper-outter turned love interest Kathy Selden.

This overall does not sound very sci-fi, especially considering there is nothing uncommon or fictional about the world of the film. If anything, it does an amazing job of capturing the state of the industry in the late 1920s. Silent film stars really were losing their jobs over their voices—either because they had less than appealing voices, or because they didn't speak English at all!

Plus, until film and sound could be put together, the audio tracks for films were still on records. This meant you had to have something rhythmic to help you cue up the sound and make sure it stayed cued (which is why so many movies only had sound for musical numbers, and why so many 1920s cartoons have very bouncy animation: to stay on beat). So having to turn their typical fare into a musical quick-like isn't a shocker.

Then what makes it science fiction?

The Five Laws of Sci-Fi

There are as many definitions of "science fiction" as there are authors of it, for better or for worse. Rod Serling elegantly called it "the improbable made possible." Ray Bradbury called it "the fiction of revolutions," involving anything that guessed at the future of scientific advances before they came into being. But for today, I want to talk about two people in particular: Robert A. Heinlein and birthday boy Isaac Asimov.

In 1947, Heinlein laid out five rules that, with a little wiggle room for various styles and modes, seem to sum it up decently enough:

1. The story must involve conditions different from the real world, even if the conditions are one invention that comes into being during the course of the story.

2. The new conditions must be essential to the story.

3. The plot itself must involve a human problem.

4. That "human problem" must in some way be the result of the new conditions introduced.

5. Any known facts must be presented accurately, or if they differ from reality within the story, must be presented with adequate explanation as to why they differ.

Asimov summed this up tidily in his 1975 essay "How Easy to See the Future!": "Science fiction can be defined as that branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology."

Sci-fi is generally assumed to involve new conditions invented by the author... because, well, that's the "fiction" part of it. And because we love to read and write about new, improbable things that might be within reach in the near future. So admittedly, were I to submit a story to an anthology asking for strict sci-fi, I would not be submitting a story that takes place in the past, commenting on existing technology. 

That said... Singin' in the Rain does in fact hit all the points laid out, and in more than just technicalities.

New Technology

The "talking picture" of Singin' in the Rain isn't remotely new or strange to us; it's the format the movie itself is presented in. But in the world of the late 1920s, when the film takes place, talkies are a party trick, and a weird one at that.

Initial reactions range from disbelief to disgust to outright mockery. We're so used to audio and video working together nowadays that we forget how weird and different this was. It may not be strange to us, but in the world of the film, talking pictures are presented as brand new.

Essential to the Plot

Singin' in the Rain is a love letter to the early days of the talkie, but it's also a reflection on what Hollywood went through when the novelty became their new way of life. Everything is pretty standard for Don and Lina until they're required to go into competition with The Jazz Singer. Without that hitch, the pair would likely have made three dozen more French Revolution romances, and Lina's meltdown would have been a behind-the-scenes happening.

A Human Story

The central story of Singin' in the Rain is a romance, with other stories spoking out from it. Don and Kathy are thrown together through a variety of situations, eventually leading up to them becoming partners in both work and life. The surrounding cast has clearly been dealing with Lina's attitude for a while now, with the eventual fallout turning nasty. And our heroes have careers to uphold, with the looming risk of bankruptcy for their movie studio in the background.

Tied to the New Conditions

Again, none of this would have come about without the introduction of the talkie. Monumental Pictures would never be forced to break out of their tried-and-true mold to compete with the new hotness. Lina's scheming would remain low-key, with nothing to gain or lose. Kathy wouldn't get promoted from party girl to background dancer if Monumental weren't churning out musical after musical, thus bringing her back together with Don.

The film's whole situation is brought about by fear of this new technology, which eventually turns into enthusiasm. At the beginning, it could destroy them; by the end, it's an exciting new opportunity.

(It goes without saying that facts check out; the only non-factual element is the existence of the fictional Monumental Pictures.)

Obviously when talking about Singin' in the Rain in terms of sci-fi status, it's a bit like the old definition of knowledge vs. wisdom: knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit, wisdom is not putting tomatoes in a fruit salad.

I'd never put Singin' in the Rain in a sci-fi movie marathon, but it's also one of the purest, easiest to follow examples of the genre at its most basic. Literally the only thing keeping it from being sci-fi as we'd accept it is the fact that it's retroactive rather than hypothetical.

But—besides being just plain fab—it's a good way to step back and re-address science fiction at its most basic. It hits all the marks so neatly, and without handing us any future-tech, that it's a very safe and tidy way to educate ourselves on what to look for as we read or write. So even if you're not a fan of classing it as sci-fi, it's educational.

Plus, watching it again with an eye toward the science fiction elements brings a whole new level to it. It puts you closer to understanding how wild and scary it was to be confronted with this new innovation that could begin or end careers and make or break entire studios. All because of a few little experimental recordings on machines.

Happy Science Fiction Day, whichever movie you end up watching to celebrate. But, you know, maybe consider making a little room on your list for a musical at the end of the day.

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Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Year Ahead - What to Expect in 2019!

'tis the week after Christmas: the time when all good content creators focus on talking about the year ahead. The solopreneurs with their pastel prefab sites already have resolutions more than covered—for you, for your business, and for convincing you to subscribe to their newsletter and buy their $36 foolproof social media calendar. So, you know, I'll leave that to them.

2018 was a year of colossal change for me and my work. Some of it was amazing: books in progress finally saw the light of day, collaborations came about, and the creative communities around me are looking geared up to make some amazing things in the coming year. Some of it was, to put it lightly, less than amazing. I've had to make changes to what was my norm, and some of that will show in what's coming in the year ahead.

So, really quickly this Boxing Day (because the UK gets that while we go back to work), here's what to expect from me in the year to come:

Fewer conventions—and differently.

For a variety of reasons—largely related to deadlines and energy levels—I have stepped down from staffing conventions. Where I was doing close to a dozen a year in some capacity, I'm now bringing it down to... well, frankly I only have one planned so far.

The long and the short of it is, I'm not giving up cons entirely so much as changing how I do them. I will not be staffing conventions anymore. I found that there were some I could no longer attach my name or work to in good faith; and the ones I still love deserve someone who can devote more time and energy to the job.

In future, I'll be attending conventions only as a guest, panelist, or member of the press. That likely means a lot fewer events, and that's fine. Though if you know a good convention you'd like to see my dumb face at, feel free to direct the proper staff member(s) to this page.

Books in progress.

Kids, I've got a lot on this year. And that's a cool thing. I'm not permitted to talk about all of them yet as there are some dangling contracts yet to be signed (and some writing to actually be finished), but if you're looking for reading material, there will be plenty.

Owl's Flower is still underway, with Book 3 in the hands of my intrepid kouhai for illustration/vetting and Book 4 ready to be outlined as soon as we both have a minute. There will also be a new Owl's Flower short story in Unearthed, a charity anthology I'm editing for Altrix Books which I'm expecting to come out within the first few months of the new year.

Speaking of Altrix, The Chronosmith Chronicles will be kicking off its first series, with six books penned by myself, Paul Driscoll, and others to be mentioned. There will be an official announcement concerning titles and release dates in the near future.

I'll be working a lot with 18th Wall Productions, penning a new novella in their second Cryptid Clash! line featuring some local urban legends. I've also turned in two short stories for two separate anthologies that were absolutely wild and wonderful to write for.

There are a few more book- and story-like things in the wings, but at present there's not a lot to suggest I'm permitted to talk about them. So stay tuned.

On the charity anthology front, you can currently pick up the Doctor Who charity anthology Mild Curiosities, in which I have a short story. There's an almost indecent amount more to come.

Playing with Ko-fi.

I've found that Patreon, while amazing for YouTubers and other such content creators, doesn't really fit my model or my demographic. My readers are people who can't necessarily commit to monthly payments, and let's be real. You saw the previous section. I can't always commit to monthly bonus content.

I'm opting to work via Ko-fi in the coming year to offer bonus stories, essays, and the like that you can buy once a month a la carte for what I'm hoping will be a fair price all around. That way there won't be the commitment to a monthly fee that you might have to cancel if times get tight, you can opt out if the theme on a certain month doesn't suit you, and if I end up in a crunch and can't turn out any bonus work I won't be getting money for nothing.

Hopefully I'll be looking at something along the lines of digital chapbooks that will feature new fiction and essays, out-of-print stories, and maybe occasionally a snippet of a work in progress or a request from a previous supporter. Ideally I'll kick off in February, but if deadlines are kind and I'm not a layabout, it may be sooner.

Of course, you can still find me on sites like Crunchyroll and VRV throughout the year, too. 

I'm looking forward to what's to come, and to sharing new things with all of you as they're created! Most of all, I'm loving discovering new fellow creators and their work.

I'll see you on the flip side in 2019!

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Wednesday, December 19, 2018

ALWAYS: For the Living and the Dead

I like to think I have a fairly decent knowledge of movies, at least those by really quite famous directors and especially those released within my lifetime. So I was a little surprised to learn of the existence of Always, a 1989 Steven Spielberg film based on 1943's A Guy Named Joe. And I don't mean as in "I forgot and then remembered," I mean as in "I had no idea that this was a thing that existed, and was still a little on the fence about its existence until my friend brought out his LaserDisc copy."

Scratch the surface of Google, as I did while in search of images for this blog, and you'll see Always referred to as everything from "a forgotten classic" to "Spielberg's worst movie." While it hasn't gone on to be particularly memorable in the zeitgeist—and while admittedly maudlin ghost/human romance is a divisive subgenre—I'm not sure it warrants placement below the 2005 War of the Worlds.

But again, your mileage may vary. Apparently the remake came about because Spielberg and Richard Dreyfuss both stanned hard for A Guy Named Joe, and honestly if two guys are so in love with a weepy wartime ghost love story that they wanna do it themselves, I'm here for that. Go, boys.

While one would think the plot of Always—guy gets girl, guy nearly loses girl, guy dies horribly in fire, guy is forced to watch girl move on to other guy and then move on himself—would be widely accessible to the hopeless romantics and those who have loved and lost, there's a grim little twist that keeps it from being a proto-What Dreams May Come: our hero, daredevil aerial firefighter Pete, is kiiiiiind of a dick. And that dickishness, while paving the way for the character development requires, also becomes the core factor in the character development of his love interest, Holly Hunter's Dorinda.

Looking at Pete in Always from any sort of analytical standpoint requires us to do two highly contradictory things: assume Pete is really there after his death, and assume he isn't. Because both setups tell two important facets of Dorinda's story.

In public, Pete and Dorinda are silly, cute, and frankly made for each other. Behind closed doors, he calls her an idiot. His (occasionally quite accurate) observations that she is too unskilled for certain tasks are delivered more like a disapproving father than a concerned lover. He never says "I love you" where she can hear it. And her needs and wants in their relationship are only acceptable once she has negotiated for them to the point of tears.

Pete is in no way a knowingly abusive person—and thankfully we have his heavenly guide Hap in the form of Audrey Hepburn to remind us in so many words that he really is "one of the good ones." But his rakish egotism doesn't do him any favors when it comes to navigating real feelings, a lesson he only learns once his plane explodes and he's forced to observe her life with limited effect a year afterward.

See, he's back for a reason: it's his turn to serve as "inspiration" (in the Always version of death-and-what-comes-after, inspiration comes from a recently deceased person paying it forward to help someone else realize their full potential before they themselves move on). He believes he's back to help actual human Labrador retriever Ted Baker become a better pilot, despite Hap telling him in advance that that's 100% not what he's here to do.

In fact, he's here to free Dorinda's heart and his own from each other, so that she can find love and move on. As can he.

If you guessed that he really doesn't like this setup and in fact chooses to work against it, then you get zero points because that's a total gimme.

Here's where I hit the first version of the movie: the one where Pete is there as an active and acting presence. The ones where the words Dorinda and Ted and everyone else hears are his actual spoken words he's directing to them in the moment. As the movie would have it.

This presents to us one version of Pete: an actively controlling one. One that actually does border on knowingly, willingly emotionally abusive. One who attempts to influence his surroundings in order to push Dorinda into a corner psychologically where she isn't allowed to forget him. One who, for the love of God, sits next to her, telling her over and over that she belongs to him and she knows it. Imagine that sort of situation taking place between two normal people day to day.

The one mitigating factor—that he's dead and can't actually "have" her—only makes it worse. Now he's in her head, and she can't stop him. The one thing that theoretically gives it a pass actually makes it more garbage.

Fortunately for all of us, the narrative isn't that Pete's a great, misunderstood guy who's never made a mistake and is just doing his best. This is about him letting go, and about freeing her. Hap even lays out for him just how serious his actions are: her life is in a holding pattern until he gets over himself. Thankfully for her, for Ted, for everyone, he finally gets there. And he does absolutely eventually get that, both in life and in death, he was being selfish. It's what allows the movie to end, and for him to walk down the airstrip to whatever comes next.

But let's look at this in the other way the film presents these moments: with an absence of Pete. Because no one truly sees him, and while some people do give the cues he requests to prove they hear them, that doesn't necessarily mean they believe he's there. They're performed in that sort of "I know it's not true because that's crazy, but I'm the only one here, so sure I'll brush my hair out of my eyes just on the off chance."

Once in a while, we even see scenes where he's completely absent. No clever cuts or pans, no dimly-lit Pete blending into the background, nothing. Just our living, breathing characters... occasionally doing little things that seem like they ought to coincide with a word from Pete.

Most notable is a scene just after Dorinda and Ted's first date, where she traces over his name in a log book over and over again... and then, bit by bit, starts to write over it, turning his name into Pete's. But Pete is completely absent from the scene. We don't hear an angry mutter over her shoulder trying to force thoughts of Ted out of her mind.

These moments could very well be Spielberg slyly hinting at Pete's omnipresence while letting other scenes play out. But it also gives us a foothold for a Pete-less reading of Dorinda's scenes: one where, overarching plot of the film aside, he's not really there, and the intrusive thoughts and scoldings really are just coming from her own mind. One where Pete's presence over everyone's shoulder is purely metaphorical, ingrained in people's minds based on his behavior prior to his death.

The really sucky part is, that makes the movie all the more realistic. A person who ground certain thoughts into your head (whether deliberately abusive or unwittingly so) does an amazing job of holding sway over you, even in their absence. And their absence isn't necessarily death—though it often can be. After a separating, a good old-fashioned Facebook block, a restraining order, or even a less permanent separation like a psychologically domineering friend or partner who doesn't live with you but still holds real estate in your brain.

Anyone who's had a difficult friendship or relationship end knows that someone who's done an especially effective number on you doesn't have to be around—or even alive—to mess you up. A Pete-less reading of Always shows Dorinda bogged down by seemingly innocent words, more fights like the one we see early in the movie, and who knows what else.

It's not uncommon or unrealistic to feel stuck, even when the person in question is no longer around. You feel as though you need permission to move on. Even in cases where you yourself affected the separation and death isn't on the table, it's not always as easy as "just forgetting."

Pete was eventually one of the good ones, releasing his hold on the ones he left behind in a way that, for us, generally must come from within. Permission from the one holding us back isn't necessary for moving on, but it's not wrong or uncommon to be stuck believing so.

This is not a lesson for the Petes of the world; if they, like Pete, are one of the good ones, they'll need to understand for themselves what their influence does. This is one for the Dorindas, whether the words holding them back are being spoken here and now, or echoing in memories. It's natural to feel as though you need permission to move on. But you don't. The only permission you need is your own.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Am I Allowed to Do This? On Zines and Anthologies

I recently got in copies of The Hybrid, the Twelfth Doctor and Clara zine created by my friend/collaborator/kouhai Ginger to which I contributed a story. The proceeds go completely to charity. I've been in several other collections like this.

I'm also learning a bit more at zine culture as it stands now. For those who know the word but feel a little confused, modern zines aren't quite like the mimeographed goodness fans sent around before the Internet was a household tool. These are mini-books, predominantly (if not entirely) art, based on a fandom or a subset of a fandom (or sometimes a theme combined with a fandom). Many are done for profit, some are done for charity.

And just as with a lot of fan-created books I see going around, I see some interesting hopping back and forth over legality lines. I'm not a lawyer by any stretch, but I work in an industry where I've both sent and received C&Ds.

The "creation" side of fandom is a hugely important one nowadays, but the line between propagating fanworks and stepping on creator toes can be a blurry one. So where is that line? I can't define it for you absolutely, nor will I claim to, but I can at least help a little.

Bear in mind I'm not talking about distributing fanfiction, fanart, or other derivative works freely online—that's something else entirely, and I always encourage respectful fan creations provided they aren't in some way defaming or harming the original product. This refers to cases in which money changes hands, especially when there is a physical product.

Note: Copyright holders have final say.

Before anything else, I should clarify that everything that follows falls flat in the face of a cease and desist, and nothing is more important than what a creator says. Even if you create a completely respectful fanwork, with any funds raised going to the creator's charity of choice, if the creator and/or copyright holder(s) ask you to stop, you stop.

And that's not a tall ask. When you are taking money for a creation derivative of someone else's property, you are—for lack of a better term—in their lane. Creating fan works is a wonderful and positive thing, but what happens to them once they are created is the key.

Therefore, anything I say here always falls in the face of a Cease and Desist, or the rules of any particular venue or service.

So with that said... here are a few ways to figure out if you should be doing that anthology or zine:

1. Has the creator expressly asked that fan works not be sold?

Many creators, especially indie creators, will put out a specific request to their fan base that derivative works not be sold. The Welcome to Night Vale team, for example, loves fan art, but does not want prints of Cecil and co. sold at events.

Not every creator will do this. Those with large fan bases and small pockets tend to be more vocal about it, for obvious reasons. But larger companies—for example, the creators of the Love Live! franchise—will take the time to get very specific about what they will and won't allow when it comes to fan and doujin goods.

This is more common in Japan, where massive events like Comiket are devoted solely to the selling of doujin goods with a heavy percentage of them being based on existing IPs. In those cases, you're more likely to see a yes/no checklist: for example, you may sell prints but not books, keychains but not fan games, etc. They may also have specific guidelines concerning charity publications.

So, before anything else, the best thing to do is check if the rights-holder has flat-out said "no" to a certain kind of thing. And speaking as we were of smaller creators...

2. Is your fan creation likely to dent the income of the creator?

One of the major reasons sales of fan goods go unchecked by (some) larger companies is there's no great financial threat. If the fan creators aren't actively re-routing business away from the rights holders, many will choose to look the other way, provided the fan creations aren't actually duplicating something actually being offered.

Speaking again of smaller-time creators, it's generally not the "done thing" to make money off fan works based on their properties, even if they didn't say you can't. (Obviously if they've said knock yourself out, then knock yourself out.) Things like Undertale and Doki Doki Literature Club are highly popular with a major fan base, but Toby Fox and Dan Salvato are (with the greatest respect) likely still at a stage where if enough people offered fan goods of their properties for sale, their own income might take a hit.

The only problem with this particular mentality, and one I realize and still admittedly struggle with, is it creates a line where it becomes "okay" to not go hands-off. For example: where do games like Bendy and the Ink Machine and Five Nights at Freddy's fall? Both are indie hits, but both have achieved mainstream success and have official manufactured merchandise. (At the same time, The Meatly has offered outlets for fan creations to become canonical game content, thus offsetting that concern a little.) The idea of there being an invisible line beyond which fans can go to town selling their versions of your work is not an appealing one... more a thing to weigh than a thing to calculate.

3. Does your work go directly against the desires and image of the creator?

Back on the topic of Love Live!, there's another sort of fan work that the IP holders really do not want: explicit sexual content. And that's understandable because these are schoolgirls and that's illegal. That's not something that any creator with any sense wants to be associated with, even if the work is clearly fan-created.

This is not to say that anything out-of-character or not in line with canon is somehow horrible. This would be along the lines of depicting explicit violence, gore, or sex in conjunction with an all-ages property. (Unless the IP holders say it's okay. I mean, Junji Ito did some crazy Pokémon shit so you know anything's possible.)

This is actually a fairly hard-line easy one: if it's not part of the content of the original creation and it would be illegal in real life, probably don't do it.

Note too, though, that companies with any degree of brand management may not want their IP depicted in certain ways, even if the content isn't explicit. This is actually one of the main reasons people get C&D letters: they are creating something for the brand without that brand's guidance, which means literally anything could go out there. And even if most people are smart enough to know the difference between fan and official content, sometimes fan work is just that on point, and other times people really just don't know. A copyright notice from an IP holder may well be them wanting to retain that control just in case.

4. Where will the money be going?

This single point is often the line between a company looking the other way and that same company coming down on you with a sternly-worded letter. Specifically, charity zines and anthologies with a limited print run are more likely to get a hand-wave than a for-profit publication available for constant sale.

Obviously, this doesn't mean a creator is obligated to let you do a charity publication, even if it's going to their favorite charity, even if you stick to every letter of the unwritten law. It is simply a thing that some choose to allow or overlook based on the transient nature of the publication and the fact that the money is going to a good cause.

If you make a zine or anthology for profit, with the money going to you and your writers, and the content is not your own—you are in for a largely bad time. (Additionally, once you split up the profits, everyone will only make a pittance anyway, so it's sticking your neck out for very little gain.)

5. Are the rights holders litigious as heck?

Okay, so you're doing a limited-run anthology. All proceeds are going to the creator's favorite charity, which they are publicly known for representing. The anthology is professionally put together, and every story in it is well-written and respectful to the source. All of that means nothing if you are knowingly using content from a rights holder that makes it rain C&Ds.

I know I said earlier that all of this falls in the face of what the creator wants, but this is an additional issue. It's one thing to work within a fandom that is by and large friendly to fan creations, and another entirely to try to sell fan work from someone that everyone knows is going to come and get you. Save yourself the pain. Don't do it.

Got it? Good. A Few tips.

Right. So. You're ready to roll with a zine for charity, the creator and rights holders are notably chill with charity fan works, and your content isn't sketchy. That's great. A few more little notes to throw into the mix as you work.

Don't use official logos. And be very, very careful of derivative logos/typefaces. One of the main things you need to do in good faith is make sure that what you're putting out cannot be mistaken for official output by the casual observer. It's possible to evoke the property you're working from without actually using or mimicking their branding.

Put "fan" or "charity" somewhere on the cover. Along with the above, put it in words. It sounds like I'm asking you to idiot-proof this, and that's because I am. It doesn't have to be in giant letters, but it should be there and accessible—anything so that it's in print that this didn't come down from the source.

Either sell at cost or donate to charity. No, for real. Just do yourself that favor. You'll thank me.

Limit sales to a certain number or time frame. Transience, as I said above, is part of what makes many rights-holders not mind zines and anthologies. Limit sales to a certain number of copies, or hold pre-sales for a set amount of time. In other words, make it so there's a point where money stops coming in for the publication.

If you are asked to pull your zine, do so. The whole point of this post isn't to teach you how to outsmart a rights holder or creator for profit; it's to help you go about the creation of fan content respectfully. And the most respectful thing a fan can do is accept when a creator feels they have overstepped a line. No matter how strong your fandom, how good your work, or what have you, no creator is obligated to let you distribute fan works of their creation.

Now go out and make. 

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Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Beast Head: Love, Politics, and Crippling Anxiety

Confession: as much as I loved working on the first volume of Gear Drive for J-Novel Club, I was slightly disappointed that I didn't get to work on something with a "real" light novel style title. You know the type I mean: five thousand words long to the point that no one actually calls it by its real name anyway. There's no legitimate reason I wanted that, save for it being such a prevalent joke in both the industry and the fandom that I wouldn't feel right until I had a title the length of a full sentence under my belt.

Thank God, then, for Apparently It's My Fault That My Husband Has the Head of a Beast.

It had everything I wanted in a light novel title: length, the family angle, the supernatural angle, and that distinctive conversational tone that comes with so many of these outlandish storylines. "Welp, I inadvertently destroyed my husband's life. Must be Tuesday."

Okay, title jabs aside, I really enjoy this project. All I knew coming in was that it was going to be JNC's first shoujo title, and I can jam with some shoujo. And, yep, it really is very much a girl's side fairy tale romance, complete with a tsundere boy who hates her but seems to be coming around. Oh, and a catgirl maid. Um. Kinda.

So, the book's "prologue" is deceiving, as it's actually a context-free scene lifted from late in the first chapter. Read on its own (as it is), it looks like a lovelorn girl declaring to her maid that she's found the different boy of her dreams and is going to go across the room and propose to him then and there because her kokoro.

What's actually happening is she has found literally the first person in seven years who doesn't look like a fucking spite-driven monster, and she is terrified that if she doesn't latch onto him now she will spend the entire rest of her life afraid to interface with humanity.

Yeah, see. This is, whether Eri Shiduki intended it or not, a massive metaphor for anxiety.

Our heroine, Rosemarie, suffered something several years ago that gave her an odd condition. Her eyes have been magically altered in such a way that, if someone near her is negatively motivated in some way, their head appears to change into that of an animal. That could be her trusted maid Heidi sporting a cat's head when she's pissed off at someone, a knight appearing to be a stag when he's doubtful of someone's intentions, or ladies of the court turning into dogs and birds as they offer false compliments.

There's another issue: Rosemarie is a princess. Granted, she's the princess of a small pacifist nation called Volland and really isn't called on to do a lot as a princess. But her condition catches those negative feelings no matter how well someone masks them, no matter how deeply covered they are. Simply existing in court means moving among strangers who compliment her through giant animal mouths.

It's... no wonder she wants to wear a bucket on her head all the time.

When she meets Prince Claudio of Baltzar, considered to bear a fearsome visage and wield mighty magic, she sees... nothing amiss. No matter how many hands he shakes or compliments he weathers, no matter how deeply he doesn't want to be at his own event, his head remains human. She immediately races to him, seeing someone at last who could be a relief from her condition, someone who will never terrify her no matter what happens.

From the cover and title of the book, I'm pretty sure you can guess the reality of the situation. And if you think for five seconds or so, you can probably land on a theory that's close to what's actually going on. What it means for Claudio and Rosemarie personally, though, is a whole other story.

As I said, I have no idea if the author intended this to be an on-the-nose metaphor for anxiety. As someone who suffers from it, I can say it is an on-the-nose metaphor for anxiety — specifically empathic people with anxiety. And I don't mean that in some sort of "woo" way, I mean anyone who's especially good at body language or whatever you credit with the ability to "read" a person.

The combination of an ability to suss what people are thinking and an illness that deprives your brain of the resources it needs to parse that information is nasty. Nasty and terrifying. And when you can see quite clearly that someone is angry at you, or lying to you, or using you for something, yeah. You really would want to lock yourself away or wear a bucket over your head 24/7.

Don't get me wrong, Beast Head is not a deep dark psychological read. It's a story of how two people who grew up with two very different issues, and are now married to each other whether they like it or not, attempt to find common ground and a cure for their respective issues. It does have an undercurrent of understanding, though — one shared character arc is on the very difficult topic of acknowledging that both you and someone else can be suffering at the same time, and the solution is not to decide which of you is suffering more.

There's more to the story as you dig deeper in, concerning political intrigue and magic. But I don't want to spoil that for anybody. Instead, I highly encourage you all to give it a read, or a sample if you're not a JNC member. And if you like what you read, be sure to pick it up when it goes into publication!

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