Honours has been grueling in some respects. But having cleared the assessment decks enough to take a day off, figured I’d watch the new Wonder Woman. By posting a few thoughts about it here, I help mitigate the neglect of my blog that study has also fostered. Ha. (Though I also put them on Facebook, so apologies if you see them twice.)
Full disclosure: Wonder Woman is my favourite super hero and always has been. So I’ve been keen to see the movie but a little nervous about its execution. Well, it was great. I loved it. Gal Gadot owned the part. The World War I setting was inspired and used brilliant. Seriously, the OTT CGIgasm climax needed 90% less CGI (hint: in a movie with the dangers of war in modernity as one of its themes, a middle-aged white guy in a suit is way more threatening than one more rehash of Sauron-in-Armour) and 25% more logic. But it wasn’t enough to ruin the movie… though more than enough, I think, to exclude it from Oscar consideration, as people debate that. Had the climax had the feel (and the ability to inspire feeling) that the No Man’s Land sequence had, maybe I’d be shouting for an Oscar nomination, but not as it is. Regardless, deeply pleased I watched it.
Today, James Cook University released its official results, and I passed the semester just gone. This means I have finished my degree. Saying that is roughly as surreal as declaring that I’m a leprechaun. I can’t overstate the extent to which I didn’t believe, when I started, that I would pass any subjects, and finishing was risible in its improbability.
It was certainly hard (and exhausting). Three years and a lot of work. I’d be remiss not to mention that it was Keil Jones who made me go for it in the first place and, by gum, he’s been supportive of me and the whole enterprise throughout. Thanks, Jones!
The path has been a bit screwy. First, it was a BA (English), which got me the Anne Deane Prize for Literature. Then, I switched to a BA (Sociology) because sociology is awesome, and received a letter of commendation from the Dean. Thereafter, I expanded slightly to a second major, the BA (Sociology/Criminology), which led to the Marjorie Prideaux Bursary for criminology. What I discovered was that I’m brighter than I thought, and have a bit of a talent for academic pursuits. Who knew? I was also blessed with lecturers who have been supportive, even praiseful, and generally amazing. And now it’s done. Ha. It’s ridiculous. My overall grade point average turned out to be 6.8 out of a possible 7, which isn’t bad for someone who snuck in feeling like Jed Clampett at a high tea.
At the present moment, I’ve been offered honours in sociology, and have a supervisor and thesis lined up. My thesis topic will be related to identity theory and fear of crime, and I’ll be beginning in the new semester in just a few weeks. My supervisor is aiming me, loosely speaking, for the doctorate program—but one mountain range at a time!
I wanted very much to go to university when I was a teen, but it just didn’t happen. I can’t tell you how bemusing it is to achieve your younger self’s surrendered dream.
Series 10 of Doctor Who recently culminated in a stunningly good two-part story comprised of the episodes World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls. My unreserved enjoyment of these episodes as near perfect television story-telling counts as my full disclosure, as I’m about to defend them and don’t want to give the impression that only logic is in play, here…
Note that here be the dragons of copious spoilers, so stop reading if you’re trying to avoid knowing stuff.
Within minutes of the airing of The Doctor Falls, and since, comments have appeared online that the episode failed and ruined the finale because a significant plot point was resolved by a deus ex machina. Specifically, the Doctor’s assistant, Bill, played by the wonderful Pearl Mackie, has been turned into a Cyberman through the machinations of the Master and suffered horribly, but at the bleakest moment of failure, she is saved by a near-omnipotent character from earlier in the season, the Pilot.
As most everyone knows, by now, deus ex machina is a critical term that literally means “god from the machine,” and refers, to quote the website Literary Devices, to an author’s solving “a seemingly intractable problem in a plot by adding in an unexpected character, object, or situation” in a way that seems contrived, as if “the author must resort to something that he or she did not set up properly plot-wise.”
Superficially, this doesn’t seem a million miles from what happened when the Pilot saves Bill, then, at Bill’s request, removes the Doctor’s body from the battlefield to the safety of the TARDIS, where, unknown to Bill, he will begin to regenerate. I can understand where the criticism is coming from; I just don’t agree with it.
For starters, the Pilot doesn’t actually resolve any intractable plot problems. The story question here is, Will the Doctor defeat the machinations of the Master and the rise of the Cybermen? That question is resolved purely through the actions of the main characters, their struggles and their considerable sacrifices. Missy brings down the Master and seemingly dies for her efforts. The Doctor, Bill, and Nardole save the humans from the Cybermen, and all three understand when they make the necessary choices that the cost will be their lives, or at least their lives as they’ve known them. Not a whisper of deus ex machina there.
Nor does the Pilot resolve Bill’s story question. Bill’s story question is explicitly stated in part one, World Enough and Time. It is: Will Bill survive the Doctor’s rash attempt to test Missy’s newfound goodness? The answer turns out to be: No, and furthermore she will suffer an unfathomably lingering and painful death before sacrificing a tortured half-life in support of the Doctor’s plan to defeat the Cybermen. That is, I would argue that Bill’s story is resolved already by the time the Pilot makes an appearance. She died. In slow, awful stages, her ongoing twilight existence as a cyber-revenant not withstanding. When the Pilot comes, it isn’t to deliver a resolution that Bill is beyond needing, but something else—so still not a deus ex machina.
We’re all critics, these days, and we all have access to a toolkit of critical idiom. Tweet your horror that Steven Moffat committed deus ex machina and very few readers will scratch their head in confusion. But we’re also now inclined to be a culture of hammers who see everything as nails. Working from a checklist of possible literary flaws will guarantee that you often find them, but it will also blind you to the truth that there are other idioms, other toolkits, and I think that’s been the case with The Doctor Falls.
I suspect that an episode which begins with the imagery of crucified cyber-scarecrows, in a story riddled with people sacrificing themselves to redeem others, amid characters who are dying and being reborn through cybernetic intervention or Time Lord regeneration, that the toolkit in play here might be that of religious symbolism.
And at the end, it’s not a deus ex machina that the Pilot brings Bill. It’s grace. It’s the gift of the universe to those who have given their all in pursuit of doing the right thing, and failed because humans are flawed and fail, but sometimes they’re still saved.
There are episodes enough of Doctor Who where the Doctor solves an impossible problem by waving his sonic screwdriver at a contrived Plot Resolution Machine. This isn’t one of them.
This is more like Frodo, who came undone on Mount Doom only to discover that his sacrifices to that point had put in place the elements necessary for providence to finish the job.
It’s a reminder, in dark times that I think could use a few more such reminders, that hope is not foolish because sometimes, however improbably, good things happen.
Of course, enmeshed as we all are in barbed wire cynicism, this will strike many as far worse than a deus ex machina. It’ll be saccharine or cheesy or whatever curmudgeonly dismissal occurs to them. That’s not my problem. Struck me as joyous and uplifting, and I cheered as soon as I recognised the Pilot on the battlefield and understood how her presence had been set up.
I’m just saying, it wasn’t a literary failing, it wasn’t a deus ex machina and it ruined nothing. It was a feature, not a bug.
Bill simply got the ending she deserved, and I’m glad.
You could be forgiven (are forgiven, I forgive you) for thinking this blog dead, the silence having become both long and deep. It’s not!
Now, I had been trying to put my writing on a more organised footing, integrated with my studies, rah rah life balance. For me, social media was a part of that effort. Alas, after I lost a few work days to Cyclone Debbie just as last semester’s assessment really kicked off, and since last semester was also the final semester of my BA, I was obliged to kick life balance to the curb and go all in to get through. No half-arsing your final semester, because there’s no next semester in which to patch everything up and keep going.
This means, to be clear, I’ve not written anything in ages. My last story is half-done, a lifeless semi-file languishing on Dropbox. And I’ve very much felt the not writing, a piercing ache at the back of everything I’ve done since stopping. But I made the choice and lived with it.
It was the right choice. The semester was a real challenge in more ways than one, and I wanted good results. But the semester is also now over. That’s the reason for this post: to Frankenstein up and declare, “It’s alive!”
Hopefully, the writing will soon follow. I’m mentally tired, I am, and I fear my engine may have stalled. We’ll see. One resurrection at a time…
Well, tropical cyclone Debbie has now thoroughly degenerated into a low and is wending its way inland to rain itself into oblivion.
My community was spared, in the end. Cyclones being the wild meanderers that they are, at various times Debbie threatened north of us, to hit us square on, then trended south with occasionally unnerving swings north before bringing its full grief to bear on the Whitsundays and Airlie Beach. As it was, the system was large enough that tens of thousands had to be evacuated from low-lying areas of Mackay, and until close to the end Townsville was still expected to have winds equivalent to a category 1 or 2 cyclone.
Ultimately, Townsville was spared even significant gales, and can account ourselves blessed on that score. Best wishes to those who bore the brunt, who are today beginning the long clean up.
With tropical cyclone Debbie breathing down my neck of the woods, I’m likely to be absent from the blog and other social media for a brief time. Preparing for the possibility of the cyclone making landfall nearby, in downtime reading Enforcing Order by Didier Fassin as essay prep and distraction (I don’t enjoy cyclones one little bit and tend to become rather anxious when they’re hovering nearby). North Queenslanders, let’s hope it all goes well!
Well, after yesterday’s pervading gloomy sense of failure, I put in some serious labour on my university work yesterday afternoon to clear the decks for today. My cunning plan being to spend today writing until my knuckles ached.
So I did.
I scrapped all the work I’d done on the short story so far–figuring some of my difficulty with it was my subconscious telling me I was doing it wrong–and started from scratch.
The new version retained the main character’s voice, but switched from first to third person. Two existing scenes lost an event and I merged them into a single slightly longer scene with a more logical progression.
And, in two long sessions, I managed a total of 2700 words. By my standards, that’s not a small number! I’m very pleased with that progress. Now I have a much clearer idea of how to progress the story from where I am.
Needless to say, it was also marvelous to actually devote a full day to nothing but writing. Feels like Christmas!
Five day into having committed to make progress on the SF short story, I’d be inclined to report that the outcome has mainly been frustration.
Technically, I’m now four scenes in, but that represents little real progress. It doesn’t count a first scene written before determining where the story should actually start, then discarded. Monday and Tuesday produced the bulk of this week’s new words, 1500 or so. Yesterday was mostly rewrite of those scenes followed by 230 new words (i.e. barely any at all) and today was rewrite of rewrite ending when I ran out of time with no new words.
To be quite honest, I’ve gone quite flat in general. I’ve not been reading apart from material needed for my study, and study itself is proceeding like a crawl over broken glass. I’ve applied self-discipline to honour my various to-do lists, but it’s all quite joyless.
On top of which, it’s frustrating. If I sacrifice writing time for study, and study doesn’t go well, then what’s the point?
And I really do miss lost writing time. I need the practice. In one of his video tutorials on writing, Brandon Sanderson talks about reaching the point where you’re good enough to realize how bad you are (to paraphrase), and I’d say that’s where I’m at. It’s certainly its own kind of frustration. I feel a strong compulsion to improve, to level up past that point, but it’s not going to happen when my practice consists ten words a day wrenched out between other obligations.
Alan Baxter’s anthology Crow Shine has recently been nominated for an Aurealis award for best collection, and when you read it it’s easy to see why. It’s a bloody good read, start to finish.
There are nineteen stories from the dark end of the speculative fiction genre, mostly horror, but with a smattering of weird and urban and dark fantasy. Character, time period, geographical setting, and supernatural element are richly varied, so no mid-anthology ennui here. Indeed, the collection starts well and only gets better as it proceeds.
For my money, the closest thing to a weak story is Punishment of the Sun, which, while engaging, I felt lacked clarity in its underlying events. But it’s still a pretty high low, and its surrounded by gems.
Tiny Lives is such a pristine and moving example of shorter short fiction that I read it several times to see what I could learn from it about writing. The Chart of the Vagrant Mariner is a brilliant eldritch pirate story, originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and a highlight. Darkest Shade of Grey is like a lost episode of Kolchak: the Night Stalker, but with extra added humanity. A Strong Urge to Fly is pure Tales of the Unexpected, with some beautiful, atmospheric prose in the descriptions of the town of Beston-on-Sea. The Old Magic is a moving story of longevity and power. Among these highs, the final story, The Darkness in Clara, in which a woman struggles to make sense of her partner’s death, still manages to stand out as exceptional. Again, moving and humane, with a point to be made about how we harm each other and ourselves.
Peter M. Ball, over on Man Versus Bear, is hosting The Sunday Circle for followers of his blog—in which people answer three questions about their current creative efforts.
What are you working on this week?
What is inspiring you at the moment?
What part of your project are you trying to avoid?
It seems fun, reflexive, and an interesting means to pin a bit of accountability to what you’re up to, so I’m giving it a try.
What are you working on this week?
In general, I’m currently trying to write a series of different short stories. The goal is to go fairly quickly (by my slow standards) and without necessarily thinking too much about future submission, with a view to improving skills and experimenting with viewpoints, styles, genres, and such. Essentially as discussed on a recent Writing Excuses podcast.
Next week, specifically, I’m hoping to progress a short science fiction story with the working title of Good Wolf Bad Wolf. It’s space colony SF looking at the exact moment someone decides to resist a cosy kind of oppression.
What is inspiring you at the moment?
I’m at the start of my final semester of a BA(sociology/criminology), and that inevitably involves a lot of academic reading on what makes people and societies tick. That’s where a lot of my inspiration is presently coming from. When reading about subjectively strange social phenomena, it’s hard not to stop and think, “Hey… what if you wrapped that behaviour around a world? A person? A well-resourced villain?”
What part of your project are you trying to avoid?
The writing. I am avoiding the writing. The, you know, crucial bit. Well, I’m not avoiding it, really, or even genuinely reluctant to engage with it. But the aforementioned study is requiring a lot of my attention as the first round of assessment approaches, and that creates a powerful pressure to enclose my writing time to the service of my study time.
Yet… I know it’s also excuse making. I know perfectly well I can devote an hour per day to writing without impacting study, and that’s enough for progress. Given that my confidence is a bit low at the moment, and I’m finding writing unfamiliar things a bit difficult and awkward, I suspect my subconscious is trying to nudge me towards easier pastures. And I’m not having it!