In Politics and the English Language Orwell wrote:
The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.
Or to put it another way language is important or you lose meaning. This is especially important when you attempt to communicate difficult concepts and ideas. There’s a fashion in political circles which allows everyone to obfuscate meaning that appears the same now as it was when Orwell wrote his seminal essay.
However, back in 2013 someone at the European Court of Auditors was paying attention and commissioned this report (PDF):
It’s a fascinating, entertaining and occasionally bad-tempered piece of work. I commend the author for this excellent report and bringing clarity to a broad range of institutions, many of which will have documents written in English by those whose first language is something else.
Check it out!
There must be an investigation! This is a clear error! People are writing an excessive amount of exclamation marks!!
Death is quietly failing in his duty.
You see he’s taken a beloved author far too early, Terry Pratchett has died. This isn’t even the first time he’s made this mistake, Iain Banks passed only 2 years ago and just like then we scratch our heads and say to each other “Too soon, too soon.” Unlike Iain I never had the chance to meet Terry Pratchett but always admired his wit, intelligence and humanity. I can’t think of many people who have inspired so many and so publicly missed: a couple of authors and actors maybe, musicians and other “celebrities” definitely not. Perhaps something should be done?
There isn’t a way things should be. There’s just what happens, and what we do.
He is missed.
Today I awoke to the news that Iain Banks has terminal cancer. It’s the sort of news that you hear and don’t understand. The literary world in Scotland isn’t exactly huge but it does have quality and standing somewhere near (at?) the top is Iain. He’s a popular figure to the extent everyone around here has an ‘Iain Banks anecdote’. I have two:
The first time I was so starstruck I couldn’t speak. I left embarrassed convinced he would remember me as that weird quiet guy who fidgeted before handing his books over for signing.
The second was at the book festival and I managed to spend a couple of minutes talking to him. I asked him why his novel Transition was published as SF in states but as his regular literary output over here. “Well,” he said, “It was 51% SF over there but only 49% here.”
I now know I’ll never be able to ask him questions I wanted to on the first attempt. And I will never get to ask the questions about if he was likely to do a post -Culture Culture novel.
All of this is starting to sound like am obituary and he’s not dead yet. He still has another novel coming out and we’re told this will be his last.
Instead I would like to sign off with a comment on my favourite Culture novel: Use of Weapons.
Use of Weapons is a startling novel. There are two story strands which wind round each other, each shedding a little more light on the other until they meet. It was the first novel by Iain I’d read that really effected me on a personal level. It’s shocking and powerful and I maintain it’s his best work. It’s also the first novel that really made me think about how you structure a story. And that you don’t necessarily need to plod from A to B to C. It opened my mind to other ways of approaching telling stories that I was not aware of at that time in my life.
So I don’t think it’s time to mourn him yet. He has months to go and instead I salute his genius and recommend that you should seek out his work and have your mind expanded.
Recently I read a couple of books: one a near(ish) future SF the other a popular (urban) Fantasy. I had a problem with the characterisation in both. Here’s the thing, on an intellectual level I knew the primary protagonists weren’t white and yet I couldn’t help see them that way. As I read the books I slowed down and took my time looking at how the authors were giving me clues about who the these guys were and I couldn’t find them. I started to think “Is it me?” but I think that’s only part of the problem.
When I read these stories I found myself deeply curious about how the authors were going to move away from the stereotypical white western model. I was interested in the cadence of the voices and I really wanted hear the idioms in their speech and see a different view of the fantastic through the experiences of these characters. What I felt I got where Okay-ish characters that constructed themselves in my mind as white dudes in black clothes. They spoke like stereotypical white guys and even appeared to think like them. The only difference was that they didn’t have white names. Clearly the default skin tone was dark so we assume they are too but that characterisation didn’t work for me.
When I speak my voice has the character of many things. The way in which my throat is constructed, how my tongue moves in my mouth, whether I am ill etc. so physiologically it feels easy. However we all know that how we sound to each other depends on a number of things: our accents, the culture(s) we spend time in, who we are speaking to and other elements. As the listener I need to take all of this in and I need to put it in context.
People are people. If it’s the one thing I’ve learned in my life it’s that no matter where I go I meet People. However some are different. Some are good and some are bad and it has nothing to do with the colour of their skin or the flag they live under. But people also live in different cultures. If you’re going to frame a story in a different culture you’re going to have to ensure you have a passing ability to put the right people in the right place. If those references aren’t right then you are committing fraud. I think it’s important to be authentic because you owe your readers that much and those cultures your depicting? Well you owe them too.
Or maybe I’m over thinking it.
I am certain that even if you paint it black the risk is that it’s still going to be white.
It seems that I am to be included in the Diamond Light Source anthology after all. I have no details at the moment other than an email I received the other night. It was a surprise, a pleasant surprise, and once I have the details I will post them. I am quite chuffed really. I may not have won the competition but I have completed one of my year goals – see my name in print. Now for the ‘stretch goal… getting something in a paying market.
Though I will settle for seeing my name up there more often!
There’s something about Science Fiction art that I’ve always found fascinating. When I was a nipper I used to get books of it out of the library and spend hours just flipping the pages back and forth: goggling at giant space battles, wondering at alien landscapes and feeling sad at crashed spaceships. I used to ask myself how it would feel if I were involved such epic scenes.
Check out this little video of an upcoming animation called Liquid Skies:
I think it looks like it’s going to be a great little film. The art takes me back to those days spent in the library.
It’s a work in progress teaser from Annis Naeem and you can see more of his work on his site: http://www.annisnaeem.com/
The music isn’t bad either.
Arc is a new magazine from the publishers of New Scientist. It’s almost completely electronically based – if you want print you have to pay the wallet busting sum of £24.95 (ouch).
However they have released an article for all to read.