Science Fiction and How Values Shape Communication

As regular readers may have noticed, I’ve been posting a little less frequently lately. I’ve been busy working on a personal project that I’m very excited about. It’s still in progress, but hopefully I’ll be able to share it with all of you soon. (How’s that for mystery?)

In the meantime, today I have a guest post by the talented Andrew Knighton from Andrew Knighton Writes. If you haven’t visited Andrew’s blog, you really should — Andrew provides helpful writing advice on his blog as well as incredibly well-crafted flash fiction stories.

Over to Andrew…

Communication is never a neutral act. We use it to shape the world the way we want, from a little kid asking for a cookie to a propagandist selling a political party line.

It’s also a common theme in science fiction. The struggle to communicate with aliens was a feature of classic science fiction, while the growth of communications technology brought communication systems to the forefront of Earth-bound sci-fi. Science fiction stories highlight how, whether intentionally or not, one of the main roles of communication is enacting our own values.

Failure to Share Values – The Sparrow

One of the most haunting and unsettling depictions of first contact with aliens, Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow is an account of a mission to an alien world, crewed by a mixture of scientists and Jesuit priests. From the start, we know that something went horribly wrong, and the narrative of the expedition is expressed within another narrative, about a struggle to get the lone survivor to communicate.

Among the many themes and ideas in this book is the difficulty of communication, and the way that cultural assumptions can stand in the way of understanding. The explorers constantly seek to understand the society they find, but there are some gaps in values so huge that they fatally undermine their ability to communicate and comprehend.

In a way, our ordinary, everyday communications enact that same challenge in miniature. Our values are usually different, if only in subtle ways, from the people we communicate with. Making assumptions about those values can lead to miscommunication, and it’s only by opening up to the values of others that we can really understand them.

Communications as a Battlefield – Neuromancer and the Cyberpunks

Cyberpunk science fiction has, from the very start, shown people taking the opposite approach to communication and values. From its popularisation with William Gibson’s Neuromancer, cyberpunk has depicted futures in which communication is conflict.

A lot of this lies in the recurring use of hacking and information technology. The heroes are often hackers, trying to break down the barriers to free communication and the flow of information. Their opponents’ power lies in controlling the flow of communication and knowledge, hiding awkward truths and corporate secrets. Those enemies throw up defences, blocking the information lines through which the hacking takes place. No-one here is trying to achieve the sort of two-way understanding that leads to successful coexistence – they want to understand their opponents to thwart them.

hackers

In our everyday lives, it can be easy to become drawn into treating communication this way. Instead of opening up and discussing our ideas and values we start defending them, and in doing so attack those of others. Communication becomes a battlefield. That lets another value slip in unseen. If we act in this way then we’re implicitly valuing conflict over cooperation, and making the world a less cooperative place.

Communication as Heaven – The Galactic Milieu

Of course, communication can also be used to enact more positive values. In Julian May’s Galactic Milieu series, shared communication becomes an ideal in the form of Unity. This state of mental connection, sharing ideas and feelings, is an almost heavenly state toward which the galaxy’s races aspire. The defiant struggle against it, the throwing up of barriers between people, brings about destruction.

In the Galactic Milieu, communication is depicted not just as a carrier of positive values, but as something of value in itself, bringing people closer together. It highlights why good communication is so important in every sphere of life, reducing conflicts and allowing us to achieve more together.

Think About the Values in Your Communication

Next time you’re talking or writing, take a moment to think about what values you’re enacting in the way you communicate. Are you listening for the values behind what other people are saying, to try to understand them better? Are you letting conflict become part of how you communicate? Or are you using communication to achieve cooperation and closeness?

It may not quite be heaven, but communication needn’t be a cyberpunk dystopia either.

***

Image from the movie Hackers

I hope you enjoyed Andrew’s post. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it below. And I’m curious – what books have you read where communication was a major theme? Are there any that you’d recommend adding to the reading list?

Advertisements

Walk the Right Path: Three Tips for Writing Comments

While at the Editing Goes Global conference in Toronto, I had the opportunity to attend a session led by the wonderful Arlene Prunkl, an experienced editor who works with self-publishing clients. During the session, she talked about how to give feedback to writers in a positive and compassionate way. I believe her tips are useful not just for editors, but for anyone who has been asked to provide comments on someone else’s work.

While listening to Arlene, it occurred to me that writers asking for feedback are in a similar situation to the character of Neo at the beginning of the movie The Matrix. They know something is not quite right about the story world they are living and breathing. But they’re not quite sure what the problem is. They seek out an editor, who offers to show them the truth.

That editor needs to be careful when delivering feedback, or the writer is going to regret choosing that red pill.

Matrix Red pill or blue pill

Can I put this off until tomorrow?

 

Here are three simple tips provided by Arlene on how to word your comments positively.

1) Avoid using the word “you” in an accusing way. (“You need to change this.”) Refer to the problem, not the person.

Don’t be like Agent Smith and make your writer feel like a worthless insect.

2) Write your comment in the passive voice. (“This sentence can be tightened.”) This helps you to convey the information in a neutral tone.

Be a calm mentor, like Morpheus.

3) Show flexibility by using words like “perhaps” or phrases like “you may want to consider.”

After all, the writer is the One who wrote the text, not you. Respect the effort that has been put into the text. And remember, you don’t know everything. Sometimes there is no spoon.

If you do your job right, the writer will suddenly see the text in a new way. And they will have the confidence to change things for the better.

Matrix code

“I see…everything.”

 

© Sue Archer and Doorway Between Worlds, 2015

***

Images from the movie The Matrix

Do you find it difficult to provide feedback to writers? What has worked for you? Have you ever read comments that made you cringe?

Away, White Witch!

“The White Witch? Who is she?”

“Why, it is she that has got all Narnia under her thumb. It’s she that makes it always winter. Always winter and never Christmas; think of that!”

– The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

I’ll admit it. I am tired of winter right now. February is the cruelest month as far as I’m concerned, and this particular February has been one of the worst. Feeling trapped indoors makes me want to snap at people. Many people are blaming Elsa for our horrible weather, but I know the real story. We’ve clearly run afoul of the White Witch from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

For those who don’t know the story, the White Witch subjects the magical land of Narnia to a perpetual winter in an attempt to rule over everyone. All the Narnians live in fear of her. She gets angry when contradicted and turns the offenders to stone. The Narnians don’t dare speak up against her.

Mr. Tumnus

“We must go as quietly as we can,” said Mr. Tumnus. The whole wood is full of her spies. Even some of the trees are on her side.”

Winter is a time when we all get grumpy. But that’s no excuse to start blasting people at the least sign of disagreement. Thankfully, we have a better role model in Lucy.

In the story, all four Pevensie children eventually take up the fight against the White Witch. But my favourite character has always been Lucy. Lucy is forthright and courageous. She tells the truth, no matter how unpopular.

On a day when the children are exploring the house because they are trapped inside by the rain (what I wouldn’t give for some lovely rain right now, rather than snowstorms!), Lucy discovers the country of Narnia by journeying through a wardrobe. When she tells her siblings about it, they don’t believe her. They try to convince her she is mistaken. But she refuses to say anything but the truth, regardless of the consequences.

When I first read this story as a child, I wanted to be like Lucy. Then I grew up and had to deal with Lucies that argued with me in the dead of winter. That’s when the White Witch starts coming out.

Sometimes it’s difficult to deal with people who have a different opinion from you. Especially when they don’t back down. But they are telling the truth as they see it. Rather than being grumpy about it, I try to appreciate the strength of their convictions. When I am at my best, I show my appreciation for their willingness to express their views.

Both The White Witch and Lucy believe they are in the right. Which one would I rather be today?

I say: Away, White Witch!

Soon the beech trees had put forth their delicate, transparent leaves. As the travellers walked under them the light also became green. A bee buzzed across their path.

“This is no thaw,” said the dwarf, suddenly stopping. “This is Spring.”

***

Image from the movie The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Do you have a Lucy in your life who argues with you? How do you deal with it? And how are you handling this winter weather? Better than me, I hope!

Expressing Love: Easier in Fiction Than in Real Life?

Valentine’s Day is coming up, and I started thinking about how difficult it can be to communicate love. Of course we love our family and friends, but do we talk a lot about how much they mean to us?

We know a casual “I love you” tossed out while leaving for work isn’t enough. And yet we often hesitate to put our love into meaningful words, taking refuge in silent hugs. (Not that there’s anything wrong with hugs, mind you. I wouldn’t want to live without those!)

Maybe this is why I enjoy how love is portrayed in fiction. All the best aspects of love come out in a good story. (And I don’t just mean romantic love, although I admit to watching the Colin Firth version of Pride and Prejudice more times than is probably healthy.)

Heroes in fantasy and sci-fi stories are expected to show courage in the face of evil. So it’s not surprising that they are also brave enough to express their true feelings. There are so many places in my favourite films where this happens.

There are the characters who demonstrate their selflessness:

As you wish.

– Westley to his true love Buttercup, The Princess Bride

And there are the characters who don’t hesitate to tell others how much they love them:

I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things, Sam.

– Frodo Baggins to his companion Samwise Gamgee at Mount Doom, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Best of all, there are the characters who recognize that love is a partnership, and that we need to support each other:

You take care of me, Simon. You’ve always taken care of me. My turn.

– River Tam to her injured brother Simon Tam in the face of overwhelming odds, Serenity

This Valentine’s Day, I want to let all my loved ones know how glad I am that they are in my life. It’s definitely time to say it out loud.

And to all my dear readers, I hope you have a wonderful Valentine’s Day with your own loved ones.

I leave you with one of my favourite expressions of love from xkcd:

xkcd everything

***

Happy Valentine’s Day! What’s your favourite moment of love in fiction? What expressions of love do you think are wonderful?

When Writing Turns to the Dark Side: My New Year’s Resolution

There is no such thing as bad writing.

There is no such thing as bad writing.

I’ve decided this is my mantra for the New Year. And I hope you will join in with me.

I can hear what you’re thinking…what about that paragraph I wrote with all those horrible mistakes? Or the slogan I read the other day with the misplaced apostrophe? Or that sentence that violates everything my elementary school English teacher held dear? I want to pull out my hair, it’s so terrible!

It’s time to channel Obi-Wan Kenobi. Look at yourself in the mirror, wave your hand in the air, and tell your inner critic:

There is no such thing as bad writing. This just isn’t the writing you’re looking for.

jedimindcontrol

If Obi-Wan can do it, so can you.

Encountering the Empire

I went through school at a time when learning grammar was not fashionable. I was lucky to have grasped the general concept of a noun or a verb. I learned most of my grammar through reading—what I think of as “practical” grammar. And I guess I mastered it sufficiently, because I went on to pursue a degree in English.

I remember a day when one of my professors returned an essay to me. There was a note scrawled in pencil beside one of my carefully crafted sentences: “split infinitive.”

Split what now?

It sounded vaguely Einsteinian, like the theory of relativity. This was supposed to be an English class!

So I dutifully looked it up. And discovered that one of my favourite phrases from Star Trek, “To boldly go where no one has gone before,” was grammatically incorrect.

This was shocking to me. How could something so poetic be wrong?

According to certain English language authorities, the infinitive form of a verb (“to go”) can’t be divided up by another word, such as an adverb (“boldly”). This no-no is called a split infinitive.

Apparently those Star Trek writers should have said, “To go boldly where no one has gone before.”

Ick.

Over time, I encountered more of these kinds of rules. “Never end a sentence with a preposition.” “Never start a sentence with a conjunction.” It was enough to make my head spin. I wondered if I knew how to write after all.

My confidence slid further when discussing the act of writing with other English students. I encountered people who were downright nasty about writing that did not follow “the rules.” After all, if Strunk & White said we should do it a certain way, then that’s the way it was. And if you didn’t know this, then you were horribly ignorant and should be stopped.

Since I am a fan of all things science fiction, this attitude inevitably reminded me of the evil Empire from Star Wars. The leaders of the Empire believed all planets should be ruled according to their dictates. Anyone who objected had to be punished.

I was left with no choice but to join the Rebel Alliance.

Frozen in Carbonite

To obtain some ammunition in the war on confusing grammar rules, I researched the split infinitive. How had this rule come about? Had it been around since the beginning of modern English—a long time ago (in a galaxy not so far away)?

Nope.

Writers have been splitting infinitives for a long time. There’s evidence that this has been going on as a normal practice since at least the thirteenth century. [1]

The attack on split infinitives began in the 1800s, when scholars attempted to standardize grammar. Up until that point, English speakers were wandering around linguistically like a bunch of rogue Han Solos. They developed the language based on the needs of the day. Then along came a select few intellectuals who attempted to freeze our language in carbonite. They thought English should be more dignified and structured, like Latin. Never mind that Latin was a dead language.

Han-Solo-Carbonite

Someone please rescue me! I don’t want to speak Latin!

The first grammar book to state a rule against split infinitives was A Plea for the Queen’s English, published in 1863 by Dean Henry Alford. Alford objected to split infinitives as follows:

“A correspondent states as his own usage, and defends, the insertion of an adverb between the sign of the infinitive mood and the verb. But surely this is a practice entirely unknown to English speakers and writers […] there seems to be no good reason for flying in the face of common usage.” [2]

If it was “entirely unknown” to use split infinitives, when why would the correspondent be writing about it? In reality, people used split infinitives all the time. So what was going on here?

Some historians believe that the standardization of grammar was an attempt to maintain distinctions between social classes. The elite established rules based on their ideas of what “good English” should be—ideas that often ignored common usage.

A concern with status and language is reflected in the other main source for the split infinitive rule. “P” sent this anonymous letter to the editor of the New England Magazine in 1834:

“The practice of separating the prefix of the infinitive mood from the verb, by the intervention of an adverb, is not unfrequent among uneducated persons […] This fault is not often found in print, except in newspapers where the editors have not had the advantage of a good education.” [3]

Ouch! This doesn’t sound like someone I would like to have dinner with.

What did I learn from my investigation? That English teachers believe split infinitives are incorrect because a handful of people in the 1800s didn’t like them. People like “P” felt that split infinitives were not “good English.”

Luckily, we’re more enlightened these days. We don’t make fun of people for failing to understand an arbitrary set of writing rules. We don’t call them uneducated or ignorant. Right?

Wrong.

Time to boldly rescue Han from Jabba’s Palace and get him back into action. He needs to help those “primitive” Ewoks fight off the Imperial stormtroopers.

Even Darth Vader Wasn’t All Bad

It’s not only the split infinitive “rule” that is questionable. A lot of writing concerns commonly presented as rules are more like myths. Just ask Grammar Girl. This can make the writing process confusing. How do you know if something you’ve written is good or bad? Where should you turn?

If you are a staunch prescriptivist, then you turn to resources that describe “normal” usage and follow whatever is considered to be “proper” or “correct.” You attempt to follow a single standard.

If you are a die-hard descriptivist, then you look at how people use language in the real world over time and follow whatever they are doing. You accept that different communities have different approaches to language and that there is no single standard for “good English.”

Most of us are somewhere in the middle. I may like split infinitives, but I cringe whenever I read a billboard with a misplaced apostrophe. I sometimes start a sentence with “and” or “but,” but I have difficulty with the word “ain’t,” even though I know it is acceptable in many contexts.

I remember feeling uncertain when others pointed out my ignorance of writing standards. I have looked at my writing and seen nothing but flaws. It’s a terrible feeling. And yet I have complained about the “bad writing” I’ve encountered in newspapers and mail flyers. Shame on me.

So here is my New Year’s resolution:

I need to remember that writing is an act of courage that should always be celebrated. All writing is on its way to becoming. The path is messy and hard. Writers feel like they’re confronting Darth Vader in a desperate attempt to win the day. We should always support their fight.

The act of criticism is like using the Force – it is neither good nor bad. We can be like the Sith, and act out of anger, fear, and hate. Or we can be Jedi, and remember compassion.

Life isn’t black and white. Luke insisted that there was good in Darth Vader—that the fearsome dark warrior could not be entirely bad. And in the end, Luke was right.

Darth Vader

It was a difficult decision, but he made the right choice…

As you struggle through your writing, or read someone else’s difficult attempt to communicate with the world, please remember:

There is no such thing as bad writing.

Let us be kind to one another. And may the Force be with us.

***

Do you feel like you are more of a prescriptivist or a descriptivist? How do you keep things positive when dealing with difficulties in writing? How do you handle negative criticism of your work?

[1] R.W. Burchfield, The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Revised Third Edition (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1998), 736-737.

[2] Wallace Rice, “The Split Infinitive,” The English Journal 26.3 (March 1937): 238-240.

[3] Moisés D. Perales-Escudero, “To Split or Not to Split: The Split Infinitive Past and Present,” Journal of English Linguistics 39.4 (2011): 318.

First image from Star Wars; other images from Return of the Jedi

Under Siege: The Writer-Editor Relationship

Solving confrontations between writers and editors is like negotiating a ceasefire between the rulers of opposing armies. On the one side, we have the writer, who has slaved to build his creation: a towering pinnacle of achievement for all the world to admire. On the other side, we have the editor, who is bringing out the battering ram to smash this magnificent edifice to bits.

Adam Thorpe, author of the Booker Prize-nominated novel Ulverton, has this to say about his editor Robin Robertson: “I have to be armoured to take on Robin’s professional side, and not to feel winded by the idea that I’m just another name on his long list. He’s part of the literary army, I’m alone.”

utherpen_2379

And not all of us are as brave as Prince Arthur…

To avoid having a writer feel like they are under siege, the editor should follow these lessons learned from the art of medieval warfare.

Lesson #1: Establish a Clear Treaty

Writers will react with hostility if they feel that an editor is infringing on their territory. Negotiate the borderlines up front before going forward. Is the writer looking for someone to admire their castle and encourage them in their work? Or is the writer looking for someone who can clean up the dusty words in a passage and point out where a colourful tapestry of description would liven up the room? Maybe they are looking for an artisan who can help demolish a section and rebuild it into something better. You won’t know until you ask. Clear treaties result in happy neighbours.

Lesson #2: Reply to Messages in Good Time

When a writer sends a message to you, be sure to acknowledge it as soon as possible. This will help reassure the writer that you are a trusted ally who will treat them with respect. The longer the writer has to wait, the more they are forced to question: Did the messenger horse go astray on the path, and the message was lost? Or is the editor ignoring the message, and focusing on other kingdoms that they feel are more worthy of notice?

Lesson #3: Break Bread Together

There are good reasons why agreements are hammered out over food. Everyone knows that it’s forbidden to draw a weapon when you are eating in someone’s guest hall. And a tasty meal can go a long way to improving everyone’s mood. The writer can feel isolated while penning a manuscript in a lonely garret. Don’t forget to bring on the cheer while you are toiling through negotiations.

Lesson #4: Don’t Throw the Gauntlet

There are ways to discuss areas that need help, and they don’t involve flinging feedback like insults. When you do this, you are forcing the writer to defend their honour. Remember to compliment the host before discussing areas that are more fraught with peril. And handle these areas with sensitivity – remember how you would feel as a writer if someone was criticizing your work.

And a final lesson for writers…remember the reason why your editor is taking apart the stones of your mighty tower. Together, you can build a stronger fortress that will stand the test of time against your mutual enemy: the critics.

So let that drawbridge down and open yourself up to adventure. You won’t be sorry.

“At that stage when you go back and reread for the first time, it’s kind of horrific. But I don’t want to have everything perfectly made before I take the next step. It seems like moving forward with armed guards. There isn’t an element of danger or risk or that anything possible can happen in the next scene.”

– Michael Ondaatje

***

Image from the BBC show Merlin.

Quotes sourced from The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself by Susan Bell. First quote: p. 210. Second quote: p. 213-14.

For those of you who have been edited, what has been your experience? Did it go smoothly? Or did you feel like you were under siege? Why?

I Am Groot. Who Are You?

I finally got the opportunity to see Guardians of the Galaxy last week. Despite being a fan of both the Marvel movies and sci-fi space opera, I wasn’t sure if Marvel was going to pull this one off. One of the Guardians is a gun-toting, sarcastic raccoon, and another one is a…tree? If Marvel can do this, I thought to myself, they can do anything.

Well, it turns out that Marvel can do anything. Through the combination of top-notch CGI and a stellar voice performance by Bradley Cooper, Rocket Raccoon became the best character in the movie. Rocket’s voice and body language communicated his personality so well that his performance felt seamless. He had a clear identity and it came through in everything he said or did.

Rocket Raccoon

It turns out that the entire movie played with this theme of identity and communication. Guardians of the Galaxy made me think about how our sense of self influences the way we interact with the world. (mild spoilers ahead)

I am Groot

The other CGI character in the movie is Groot, a tree creature who can only speak three words: I am Groot. His way of connecting with others is to state his identity. This limited vocabulary doesn’t stop him from communicating with the team. Rocket (who knows Groot well) is able to interpret Groot’s tone. Rocket translates Groot’s one simple repeated statement into the details of what Groot is thinking.

Groot is comfortable with who he is and this is expressed in his actions. One great example of Groot showing his character is when he grows a flower for a random girl he spots on the street. It’s a touching scene, and demonstrates how Groot is communicating his identity by sharing a physical part of himself.

Groot giving a girl a flower

Groot’s identity is firmly rooted (how else?) in his connections with Rocket and the other Guardians. There’s a great scene later in the movie that illustrates this perfectly, but to tell you about it would spoil it. If you’ve seen it, you know what I mean. If not, get out there and go see this movie!

 Call Me Star-Lord

In contrast to Groot, Peter Quill (the leader of the Guardians) is struggling with his identity. He left Earth when he was young, and he is clinging to his past rather than allowing himself to grow. He jokes around his fears and attempts to communicate with others through obscure pop-culture references. He confuses Drax, who has a tendency to interpret everything literally. Gamora also finds him challenging to communicate with, and asks him to explain himself in several scenes. These situations are played for laughs (and they are a lot of fun). But they are also showing how Peter’s lack of a clear identity is interfering with his ability to build relationships with others.

Peter Quill, Drax, and Gamora

Peter Quill, Drax, and Gamora

Peter tries to deal with his identity crisis by choosing another name. Peter wants to be known by a nickname he created for himself, one that embodies who he would like to be: Star-Lord. But no one takes this pretend identity seriously. Peter needs to grow up and show what he is made of, and he gets his chance as events unfold. By the end of the movie, he has reconciled with his past and has truly become Star-Lord. He has also forged close relationships with his team. (Just in time for a sequel!)

Who Are You?

Guardians is a movie about identities and how they support our interactions with others. It shows us how knowing who we are and what we stand for can help us make changes for the better. And it makes me wonder about my own identity. In our lives, we play so many roles. I have been (and still am) daughter, sister, student, co-worker, wife, mother, aunt, friend, writer. So who is the real me? How can I stay whole and grounded, so that I can connect meaningfully with others in a genuine way? How can I bring my best self to the world?

In Guardians of the Galaxy, a ragtag group of criminals goes on a journey of self-discovery and becomes a group of heroes who save the universe.

Who are you? And what will you become?

***

Just a reminder – if you haven’t had a chance to answer my quick summer poll, please take a second to give me your feedback on my blog. It’s your chance to change the future. 🙂 Thanks!