I live in worlds outside of this

I recently joined a new instance of Mastodon, the decentralised equivalent of Twitter that lots of people have been jumping on board with. I wasn’t all that wowed by it up til that point, as I hadn’t managed to find a community to be part of, but I’m enjoying it much more now.

The other day, I noticed some discussion cropping up in my timeline about something called “hopepunk”, which is supposed to be a new subgenre of fiction. Here’s an article by its originator explaining what hopepunk is about. It’s supposed to be the antithesis of grimdark, which I honestly thought was just a smushword that people used to describe things that are overly angsty, but is apparently a recognised subgenre.

I don’t really feel strongly enough about hopepunk to really weigh in on the discussion (it seems to me, at least based on the article by Alexandra Rowland that I linked above, to be an incredibly vague and subjective concept), but I have all kinds of thoughts about -punk subgenres as a general concept. I have spent many years exploring and ruminating on -punk subgenres, and these thoughts inform my approach to new concepts like hopepunk.

I decided to contribute to the conversation by posting a thread about my experiences with -punk subgenres, which is always a topic I like to get into. Surprise, surprise, it turned out pretty long, but I think I managed not to annoy anyone and also to interest a few people 🙂

I wanted to use Mastodon as a place to post those thoughts partly because I’m enjoying having a new space under my online handle where I can post whatever I like, partly because that’s where the conversation was taking place, and partly because I felt like the format lent itself well to this kind of stream-of-consciousness recollection. But I’ve also decided to collect the thread here in order to have it all together in one place, in an easily readable form. So, here are some assorted thoughts on four -punk subgenres:

1. Cyberpunk

I consider cyberpunk to be my favourite of the -punk genres, but I came to it in a bit of an unusual way. My introduction to cyberpunk was a Rurouni Kenshin fanfic called The Zaibatsu Project by Nekotsuki (sadly incomplete), which was itself influenced by ‘Cyberpunk 2020’. Because of this, my idea of what cyberpunk is has always been geared around virtual worlds and “hackers” battling large corporations in virtual reality.

Which is not wrong, I know, but it’s also not what all cyberpunk is about. I’ve been hesitant to call my own writing that’s influenced by these themes “cyberpunk” – is it, or is it just sci-fi lite? It tends to revolve around computer hackers and virtual reality, but isn’t very *punk*. However, it tends to be a useful shorthand for summoning up those characteristics in people’s minds, so I use it tentatively.

I’ve also found that I don’t really enjoy classic cyberpunk literature, which has been a bit of a disappointment. I found William Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’, *the* classic of the cyberpunk genre, to be underwhelming and a bit boring. Earlier this year I started reading Pat Cadigan’s ‘Synners’, another celebrated classic, got stuck midway through, and didn’t pick up another book for months – which sadly derailed my progress with my book bingo and Goodreads Challenge.

I found the pacing to be very slow, and it was hard to determine – amidst all the many character perspectives – what the plot was actually about. It surfaced now and then, or so I thought, but was always gone before I could grasp it.

I love cyberpunk films, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I enjoy cyberpunk more as a visual medium. ‘Ghost in the Shell’ is one of my all-time favourite anime. But I find it very ponderous to wade through in print.

2. Steampunk

I remember hearing about steampunk from a friend on Gaia Online forums and thinking that the idea sounded ridiculous. Technology in the Victorian era? But why? I think my love of unusual and/or retro technology was what won me over to it eventually: I love, as I expect many steampunk enthusiasts do, thinking of ways that the technology of that era could be used in unexpected ways. Punched card computers are a particular fascination.

I don’t know exactly when I got into steampunk, but I know that by my 21st birthday, I was holding a steampunk-themed party with an interactive murder mystery (adapted from the original script to be slightly more “steampunk”) and attending The Asylum Steampunk Festival in Lincoln with my best friend, dressed up in “steampunk” outfits.

Like many punk subgenres, steampunk suffers from the tendency to be treated more as an aesthetic than a real movement (or counter-movement).

Though I enjoy the music of Abney Park, for example, is it really “steampunk” or just sort of classical-industrial? The parody song ‘Just Glue Some Gears On It (And Call It Steampunk)’ lampoons that exact tendency to pass things off as “steampunk” just because they look Victorian and have a few cogs stuck onto them. I’m not going to go gatekeeping anyone’s participation in the steampunk movement, of course – but it’s a good reality check for myself.

3. Dreampunk

Dreampunk is one of those punks that I like the idea of more than the actual reality. If you haven’t heard of it, according to a Wattpad article on the subject,

“Dreampunk is a sci-fi/fantasy subgenre that asks the question “Is this real?” and then follows up with “What does that even mean anyway?”

The article goes on:

“A typical dreampunk story (if such a thing can be said to exist) may well feature dystopian governments, nefarious corporations, mysterious cats, phantom twins, jazz music, robots, ghosts, fairies, and the like, but these elements are all subservient to the central premise that consciousness is king. That is to say, the subjective experience of our characters is what concerns us most, even if that experience has very little to do with objective reality.”

Okay, so if you’re me, all of this sounds impossibly compelling. I have always adored dreams as a concept, a motif and a device – their meaning, their logic, the weird universe they build – and adding -punk to that is downright irresistible. (Surprise surprise, I’m a big fan of ‘Inception’). The article retroactively characterises Alice in Wonderland as dreampunk, and yeah, I buy that. But what about more modern works, or works intentionally written to be dreampunk?

This is where the concept comes unstuck for me. I read somewhere (I can’t now remember where) that South African writer Yelena Calavera is one of the main authors who writes dreampunk, so, I checked out one of her works, ‘The Dead City Blues’. It was a few years ago, but I remember being underwhelmed by it; it was an okay story, but definitely didn’t compel me as much as the raw concept of dreampunk.

In Googling to research this thread, I’ve found that she gave an interview – also published on Wattpad – in which she recommends several works for “Dreampunk 101”. So maybe I’ll look those up, and give dreampunk another try. I just wouldn’t be surprised if its potential is still more appealing than its reality.

4. Mystic Punk

Mystic punk is the main reason why I’m so sceptical of hopepunk and of the general concept of creating a subgenre out of whole cloth and then retroactively categorising works as part of this imaginary movement. In short, mystic punk is a subgenre that never was.

If you Google it, you’ll find the remains of a sadly failed crowdfunding campaign by a guy called L.D. Robwell, the erstwhile inventor of the genre. He tried to crowdfund a “mystic punk” short story anthology with contributions from 10 different authors, who were each promised $100 for their writing. I was one of them.

This isn’t about me being angry that the anthology failed – for one thing, I didn’t write anything for it, only came up with an idea; one that had potential, but which (in hindsight) I definitely wasn’t a skilled enough writer to pull off. I was 21 at the time, and writing an 8,000 word short story amidst my uni schedule would have been tough to say the least, so I think it’s just as well that the anthology failed.

But for a time I was all in on the concept of mystic punk (you’ll also uncover some embarrassing threads where I tried to help promote the campaign), and if it taught me anything, it’s that you can’t will a subgenre into being.

Mystic punk was supposed to be an edgy, diverse, take on urban fantasy, a rejection of cookie-cutter, all-white urban fantasy works. Sounds great. I’m sure that trend does in fact exist – it’s just not called mystic punk, and wasn’t started up by a crowdfunding campaign run by a white man. I liked the idea of it – but literary movements need to be organic. You can’t just coin a term and expect them to pop into existence.

The obvious follow-up question to that would of course be, “How do you create a literary movement, then?” And honestly, I’m not sure. I don’t know exactly how cyberpunk or steampunk or any subgenres crystallised into a movement. But I think that nowadays, we have a tendency to overhype something before it’s even had a chance to get started, generating discourse before there’s really something to discourse about. We’re discoursing about potential discourse.

Regarding hopepunk, I would wait ten years and then see if it’s still a thing rather than getting into a debate about it now. But of course, you can’t get social media attention from that 😀

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Fantastic Beasts Frustration

Warning: This post contains some minor spoilers for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.

Yesterday, I went to see the latest installment in the Fantastic Beasts franchise, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.

I was a big fan of the first Fantastic Beasts film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I know the film had its flaws, and they were plenty – and I know that the film passed up on a lot of excellent opportunities to make the Harry Potter universe more diverse and inclusive. (For more detail on this and a better perspective than I could provide, I recommend checking out the extremely on-point meta essay by Stitch, Fantastic Beasts & Invisible Diversity in the Harry Potter Series).

But in spite of this (well, a lot of these were issues that I read about in depth after I’d seen the film, so I wasn’t as attuned to them on the first watch) I really enjoyed watching Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. On the whole, I found it really fun, endearing, enjoyable and a lovely addition to the wider Harry Potter universe. I loved Newt’s character and adored seeing a Hufflepuff in the starring role (I can’t remember whether I’ve said it on this blog before, but I’m a proud Puff). I shipped the heck out of Queenie and Jacob. I really enjoyed their characters and the various magical beasts that we see introduced over the course of the film.

The ending was a huge disappointment to me: not just because of the apparent cold-blooded murder of a young Obscurial, not just because of Thunderbird Ex Machina, but because of its introduction of Grindelwald as the series’ main villain – honestly, I’d thought Percival Graves was one of Grindelwald’s followers, and so to me the revelation that he was really Grindewald in disguise felt like a huge let-down. Can’t we have more than just one compelling, powerful villain in this universe at a time?

But all in all, I still liked the film, and dove eagerly into the rich and varied world of Fantastic Beasts fanfic, where many of the issues that I’d had with the film were either fixed or given a much better resolution. I dove into making Fanlore pages for the film and for my favourite ship, Percival/Newt.

I didn’t exactly avidly follow information about the upcoming second installment to the franchise, but I was looking forward to it. I was excited to see the introduction of Jude Law as young Dumbledore, and for more antics from Newt and his beasts. My expectations weren’t high for the plot or for things like the introduction of Nagini, a character whose existence completely contradicts a significant part of the canon from the later Harry Potter books and suddenly makes it a whole new level of horrible and wrong. But I still expected to enjoy the film.

In hindsight, I should have known better.

The trailer for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald makes the film look like a thrilling, high-stakes magical adventure. It isn’t.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald frustrated and confused me from start to finish. Despite the fact that this is only the second of five films – meaning we’ve got three more of these to come – the pacing felt horribly rushed. The plot was convoluted and the stakes were as low as they could possibly have been. None of the action felt urgent or at all tense. I didn’t feel at any point as if there was a real threat from Grindelwald, or a threat to any of the characters I cared about. Characters died whom we’d had no real chance to form an emotional connection with, making their deaths seem empty and impactless, almost insulting. I’m going to avoid directly spoiling their identities, but I will say that two of the deaths were characters of colour, which was rage-inducing but also sadly in keeping with this franchise’s track record.

Consistent characterisation was sacrificed willy-nilly for the sake of the plot, and none of the characters felt like they had a compelling goal driving them. A lot of minor things about the world-building and internal consistency irked me, but I could have overlooked them if it weren’t for these huge, glaring issues. Overall, the whole film felt like a gigantic waste of time. At the end of the film, almost nothing had changed: there was very little advancement of the series’ overarching plot, and none of the characters had significantly grown or changed either. And all of this in a runtime of more than two hours. I was left wondering to myself: What was the point of any of that?

And let’s not get into the huge, crushingly stupid plot twist at the very end. I mean, what??? Just, what???????

I’m no stranger to feeling let down and annoyed by Harry Potter films. Of the film adaptations of the original series, I enjoyed a couple (the second and fifth), tolerated a few of them (the first, third and seventh), hated some (the fourth and eighth) and haven’t even seen one of them (the sixth). While a lot of effort clearly went into making them, in my opinion a lot of bafflingly bad decisions were made, particularly in terms of characterisation and writing, and by the end of the series there were more unresolved plot holes than I could count.

So I didn’t go into Fantastic Beasts looking to relive the “magic” of the original film series, and that’s probably why I liked the first Fantastic Beasts film: it was so much better than I’d expected. Given that the source material for Fantastic Beasts was literally a textbook, the film essentially started with a clean slate, with no pre-existing expectations for the characters or plot. I’m prepared to admit that as a fanatical lover of the Harry Potter books, I was always going to be picky about the original films. I could accept that changes would need to be made, but did they have to be that stupid ahem. Anyway.

So for me, sitting in the cinema yesterday felt unpleasantly like a return to form for the Harry Potter films. With every transparently plot-driven character decision, every element that blatantly contradicted the previous film and what has been established in the rest of the Potter universe, I was left thinking – as I used to every time I watched a Harry Potter film – “How stupid do you think we are?”

Because honestly, The Crimes of Grindelwald felt insulting to me: it seemed to believe that Harry Potter fans wouldn’t remember a single detail from the previous films they’d watched, and would unquestioningly love the film because “OMG, Johnny Depp! Jude Law! Eddie Redmayne! Magic! CGI creatures! Oooh, they referenced another surname from the Harry Potter series, I feel clever because I noticed!”

There were a couple of things that I genuinely liked, but honestly, they were really few. I enjoyed Jude Law as Dumbledore and could happily have watched an entire film of him and Newt interacting, or him teaching students at 1920s Hogwarts. And although I didn’t really dig the Newt/Tina romance from the first film (it was okay, it just felt stilted and a bit forced, and its clear inevitability took the charm out of watching it develop), they had a genuinely cute moment in the second film that I enjoyed.

(Except that it took place right in the middle of what should have been a tense sequence, which is exactly what I mean about the plot of the film having zero stakes or urgency).

Dumblelaw

Jude Law as Dumbledore: One of the only things I liked about the second Fantastic Beasts film

Again, what did I really expect? Not a lot; but I was hoping for some gems of redeemable canon that I could clutch to my chest and carry with me out of the cinema into the world of fanfiction, where they could develop into nuanced and interesting headcanons.

Instead, I’m preparing to spend the rest of the weekend re-reading my favourite fics from the first film and pretending that these are the only sequels we’ve ever had.

Hit me up if you’d like some recs!

I had a thought about fandom this evening while listening to a track by Bugzy Malone. Yes, really.

It was a particular lyric that sparked off the thought, and there are quite a few songs out there that contain lyrics similar to this one, but this is the one that did it. I was listening to King of the North, and this was the lyric:

Can I just say thanks to my true fans?
Without you I wouldn’t have made it

My mind snagged on that, turning it over. I started thinking about the notion that “the fans” could be responsible for one person’s success. Of course, that has always been true – but I feel like we don’t acknowledge it, or that we haven’t always acknowledged it, outright.

Fans are the people who enable a piece of media to be successful – whether it’s a film, a TV series, a song, a book, or anything else. They’re the ones who support it monetarily; they’re the ones who get enthusiastic about it and tell their friends. Would any artist have a career without fans? Would any film have an audience? Certainly not much of one.

But I think we’re only now starting to recognise the direct relationship between the people who are passionate about a thing (the fans) and its commercial success. I think one of the things that has made this more evident is the rise of tools for individual fans to directly support the creators and works that they love – rather than supporting and consuming at a distance, separated by the complex machinery of the publishing industry, television networks, or Hollywood.

Obviously, there’s much more to it than just that. Fans do continue to consume and support media via “traditional” publishing houses, TV networks and film studios while also having a more direct relationship with the artists behind the works that they love, thanks to innovations like social media. And this isn’t to say that artists didn’t have relationships with their fanbases in earlier decades and centuries, because of course they did.

However, I do think there’s now more of an awareness of the importance of “the fan” or “the fans” to whether or not a work of art/piece of media can succeed, whereas before the success of a piece of media might have been attributed more to its production company, film studio, publisher, and/or the artist themselves. And fans were more likely to be derided for their passion – or treated as a slight embarrassment – rather than recognised for the important contribution that they made to the work’s commercial success.

Those other things are all still given credit, of course. But it seems to me that people are finally coming around to recognising the role that a fan plays – simply by supporting an artist, a film franchise, a TV series, and being fannish – in enabling commercial success, and that is helping to contribute to the gradual recognition and normalisation of fandom in its various forms.

Everything has to have fans in order to take off, to be successful, and frankly to turn a profit – so why should being a fan of something be treated as unusual or bad?

#mynameis: A Timeline

It’s been a few days since the climax of Facebook’s “real name” saga, and the furore seems to have mostly died down. Facebook has officially apologised to the hundreds of drag queens, members of the LGBTQIA community, DJs, stage performers and others who use pseudonyms on Facebook for the policy which forced them to switch to their “real”, legal names on Facebook or face being locked out of their accounts and networks. It has made also made noises to the effect of revising, reinterpreting or otherwise adapting the policy to account for the ways in which a good portion of Facebook’s demographic use its service.

A lot took place in a short space of time, by way of protests, petitions, heartfelt personal accounts, hashtags, a suddenly viral new social network and more. So how exactly was it that we got from then to now? And where does the future of identity on Facebook really stand? In this post, I’ll attempt to break down what happened with a timeline of key events, and get to the bottom of where the policy is going.

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If you’ve been following events in the crowdfunding or online tech startup worlds at all, you might have heard of the controversy surrounding Healbe GoBe, an over $1m Indiegogo campaign to fund a device that medical science says can’t possibly work. A startup-focused news site called PandoDaily has been leading the charge on the investigation into Healbe’s possibly fraudulent campaign, and it hasn’t looked good on Indiegogo at all.

A little under a fortnight after the first article ran, Indiegogo responded by modifying the anti-fraud guarantee on its website so that the wording was less absolute. A day later, Pando reported on another Indiegogo campaign which had been funded less than six months earlier, also appears to be medically impossible if it can do everything it claims, and for which the company responsible for the device, TellSpec, has since completely reset the clock on the development of a product they originally claimed to have nearly perfected. A parody of the Healbe GoBe campaign was created called ‘Miracle Health Bracelet: Vaguely Track Your Health, Fitness and More’ which made it past Indiegogo’s supposed anti-fraud algorithm, though it has since been removed. Finally, to cap everything off, Pando reported yesterday that the undisclosed donation which pushed Healbe’s calorie counter over the brink of $1 million came from none other than Indiegogo’s chief of hardware, Kate Drane. Clearly, Indiegogo is determined to throw its full weight behind this campaign in spite of all the negative press, scientific debunking and waves of requests for backer refunds.

There have been arguments made on both sides, some saying that Indiegogo needs to take responsibility for the campaigns promoted on its platform and others saying that it can’t be held liable for what the crowd decides to put its money behind. Either way, the Healbe controversy is bound to have a knock-on effect on Indiegogo’s credibility and the willingness of consumers to back other products on its site. After all, there are plenty of other crowdfunding sites out there with innovative projects, products and ventures. But how can you be sure that they won’t have the same problem?

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As you might have gathered from previous posts on this blog, I’m constantly fascinated by the innovative ways in which different projects on the Internet make use of crowds. I’ve covered Tomnod’s use of crowdsourcing in global crises and the “crowdplaying” of Twitch Plays Pokémon. Then on 1st April, xkcd – “A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math and language” – upped the ante with an interactive, crowdsourced comic strip called Lorenz.

Edward Lorenz, after whom the comic is titled, was an American mathematician and meteorologist. He was a pioneer of chaos theory and coined the term “butterfly effect”, which describes a tiny variable altering events to eventually produce a much more dramatic result, such as a butterfly flapping its wings and eventually causing a hurricane. The comic’s title text (a caption produced by hovering over the strip with your mouse) directly references the butterfly effect, reading, “Every choice, no matter how small, begins a new story.” The comic’s storyline is also dependent on user-submitted dialogue and click statistics and is therefore chaotic in nature.

The comic begins with an image of an individual (their gender has been the subject of much discussion on the Explain xkcd Talk Page, and they are largely agreed to be female based on them being referred to as a “lady” in one line of dialogue. However, as the dialogue is user-submitted, this is not definitive) at their computer. The user is given a choice of four phrases, randomly ordered, for the character to say:

lorenz1

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Last Friday was my birthday (hooray, another year older!) and as I move more into the world of journalism with the aim of hopefully doing a postgraduate course in it next academic year, I asked for a couple of books on the subject. One of those was We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People by Dan Gillmor. First printed in 2004, with the paperback edition that I now own printed in 2006, it’s a little out of date for the fast-moving world of information technology, but is still held in extremely high regard, and I think it’ll be a worthwhile read. It was also written with a rather different audience to myself in mind: one for whom the idea of receiving real-time journalistic updates from inside a press conference or significant world event would be a revelation; who would find the idea that ordinary people might have a voice and views of importance equal to that of designated newsmakers to be controversial; and to whom the Internet must seem like a chaotic, volatile upstart muscling in on the orderly, established world of media.

I grew up on the Internet, and its language and ways are second nature to me. The journalism I’m most familiar with is not heavily-regulated and polished ‘Big Media’ but ever-fluctuating, ever-evolving online journalism, which is not a lecture but a conversation, and one in which the people play a part as important as that of the newsmakers. Online, news breaks first via the people, and newsmakers have to listen to them to find out what’s going on, instead of the other way around.

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