Uncanny Valley: Don’t Worry About AI Writers

Here’s a quick response to the ‘Are you scared yet, human?’ article that appeared in the Guardian last week. In the news, AI threatens to take writing jobs and our livelihoods. Should I be scared? I decided to see for myself, and tinkered with some AI content generator tools. The results below speak for themselves: don’t worry about AI writers.

Uncanny Valley: Don't Worry About AI Writers

Does this picture creep you out? Good, your brain is working correctly.

Writing seems to suffer from the ‘uncanny valley,’ just like CGI. According to technopedia, the “uncanny valley is a phenomenon that occurs in the human psyche and perception with regards to objects that are human-like, usually robots and images, and determines our reaction towards that object. It is still just a hypothesis, and it is stated to the effect of ‘as an object such as a robot gets more human-like, the response of some observers will become increasingly positive and emphatic, until a point is reached in the robot’s human-likeness beyond which the reactions quickly turn to strong revulsion.'”

In other words, while deep fakes look impressive, they look fake. The uncanny valley is why Moff Tarkin looked life-like, and yet devoid of life in ‘Rogue One.’

The uncanny valley is why – for now, anyway – I don’t worry about AI writers. It creates a permanent chasm between art made by machines and art made by man. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the data together. Continue reading

Check Out Blade Runner: San Francisco

Wildfire smoke yesterday turned the City by the Bay a rusty orange color, not unlike the visuals in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Naturally, someone took that as a cue to mate up drone footage of the dystopian scene with music from Blade Runner: 2049 to create Blade Runner: San Francisco. Watch the video below.

Scifi fans everywhere can rejoice and weep. The dystopian future they always imagined has now arrived in Blade Runner: San Francisco.

As much as I appreciate a video like this, I have to admit: I don’t write dystopian scifi for a reason. Not only is it self-indulgent, it’s disingenuous to those who are living an apocalyptic nightmare every day of their lives. Yet, the fascination with d/scifi for a couple of basic reasons.

  1. People are drawn to metaphysical competence
  2. People love the idea of escape.

Here’s what I mean by that – I’ll explain the second reason first. The vast majority of dystopian or post-apoc scifi stories are escapist in nature. In fact, I can break down pretty much every dystopian / post-apoc story ever written in two paragraphs, watch:

The undercurrent of any post-apocalyptic or dystopian movie is the lone hero. We love him because he’s living out the joy of being unshackled. No job, no boss, no taxes, no drama. He’s staying alive one nitro-fueled car chase at a time. Out of that reality, he’s unshackled from the tiresome social mores we’re obligated to maintain. He needs no one, and no one needs him.

Then in Act Two, something sucks him in and makes him care again: a beautiful girl, a child needing rescue, a powerful moral purpose. By Act Three, he’s connected his powerful Alpha Male characteristics with the righteous moral purpose. By the end of the story, society understands his/their value again. Everyone realizes that for the hero to function, society must connect with them on their own level. Walk off into the sunset, fade to black.

We love the idea of escaping all our messy, cluttered lives. We love the idea of society being forced to accept us on our terms. Dystopian scifi gives us that fantasy by the pound and we eat it up.

The first reason, metaphysical competence, also explains why we love heroes like James Bond, or Clint Eastwood. We’re drawn anti-heroes on a conceptual level.  We admire their ‘metaphysical competence,’ their ability to live successfully. If you’re familiar with male psychology, you’ve heard of the ‘lone wolf mentality.’ The lone wolf life is chiefly interested in it’s own needs, other people are often seen as an obstacle or threat. Connect the idea of metaphysical competence with the idea of shaking off everything else, and you’ve got a story everyone can love.

I have some very specific reasons why – although people love that kind of sci-fi – I don’t write it. I’ll get into those reasons in a future blog post.

Last Message from Titan Six – New Scifi Short Story Submitted

Last Message from Titan Six - New Scifi Short Story SubmittedI’ve submitted a new scifi short story to Clarkesworld: Last Message from Titan Six. It’s a nice break from the horror show outside.  Right now, Eugene is under siege with smoke from various wildfires turning our atmosphere into a dystopian hellscape. Like everyone else, I’m waiting for things to get better.

This new scifi short story came from a Reddit writing prompt – I tuned my original submission and fixed a number of grammar errors. Now it’s time to see if Clarkesworld thinks it’s good enough for publication as is. If not, then I can continue working on it. Like all my other scifi shorts, you can track Last Message from Titan Six’s progress on my production board.

How are the rest of my shorts coming? Still waiting for feedback from Apex on ‘The Necktie Party.’ I’m continuing to submit ‘The Conquered’ to different magazines and I’m developing ‘Major Dawg’ into a longer short, but it’s taking me some time to see how the story should end.

So in a nutshell: I’m still cranking forward. Every new scifi short story I submit brings me closer to my dream: writing full-time for a living. Excited to see what kind of feedback I get.

Krull: Great Moments in Bad Storytelling

Krull: Great Moments in Bad StorytellingThere’s something grotesquely compelling about about bad movies; they enthrall, they fascinate. You spend hours staring at them wondering: “What was their secret? How did they get budget to tell a story this bad?” Krull is one of those movies, and that means it’s time for another great moment in bad storytelling.

If you’re like me and you’ve never seen Krull before, I defy you to fire it up on a random Tuesday afternoon. Give it the ’20 minute’ test – either it will capture your attention or it won’t. You’ll be sucked into the movie, or you’ll run screaming from the room – there is no third option.

The Good and the Bad of Krull

Krull is a dull hodgepodge of scifi and fantasy, a mixture of Dune and Captain Blood that manages to annoy as much as it amuses. The movie has it’s good points: The cast gives it everything they’ve got, committing to their parts even if there’s not much to work with. Expensive VFX and the stunt scenes are decent. You can trace out elements of the movie – the widow’s web, for example – inspiring Shelob’s Lair in Lord of the Rings.

But we’re not letting the film off the hook. This is ‘Krull: Great Moments in Bad Storytelling’ for a reason. All those pluses come with two hours’ worth of cringe-worthy minuses. After watching Krull I know where Mel Brooks got the majority of the Spaceballs plot. When you watch Krull, you’ll spend two and a half hours cringing through sleep-inducing cinematography, bad haircuts, and clunky dialogue.

That’s not all. Krull is full of poorly-constructed characters that seem to be a parody of themselves. Every line and action sequence of Krull pushes the movie forward like a stubborn mule. Movies are supposed to take you to a different place, right? Krull’s job is to make you wish you were at a third place altogether; somewhere bad movies were not allowed to exist.

What Went Wrong?

I’m not here to kick a bad movie when it’s down. Rather, I want to do a root cause analysis on how it happened. That’s the only way we’re going to get better as storytellers.

How could a movie with all the right elements result in disaster? I think the answer is a lot more simple than we think, and it starts from the very top. According to Wikipedia, Krull, it started out as a directive from the President of Columbia Pictures. That makes sense: the movie has all the charm of an interoffice memo.

There’s a given wisdom in the 21st century. Large creative corporations can be their own worst enemy. They’re too large, too disconnected from the audience, and they can’t get out of their own way. That wisdom comes the bad scifi/fantasy stories we got in the eighties and nineties; Krull is the proof.

So, with that analysis in place, let’s celebrate this schlocky, execrable attack on our brain cells! ‘Krull: Great Moments in Bad Storytelling’ – a cult classic, a B-movie with an A-movie budget, a dark spot on the scifi / fantasy genre. Long may it live, so that other stories may learn from its mistakes.

More Mesh Music on Spotify

More Mesh Music on SpotifyMesh was inspired by movies, art, and music. I created this Spotify playlist so you could travel through the Mesh universe along with us!. Now it’s time to give you some updates: I’ve updated the Mesh Inspirations playlist to include more vibe-inducing audio selections.

Mesh is a book that will take you to another place – as you’ll quickly find out when you fire the playlist up. Some of the music is scifi-based – other pieces reflect the joy of discovery, of human aspirations. Enjoy and Happy Monday!

Listen to Mesh Inspirations Here

Chadwick Boseman and Other Sunday Night Author Notes

Okay, I give up. I usually spend Sunday night zoned out in front of the TV because I don’t want to think about Monday morning. Too much happened this weekend, and I don’t want to sink into a depression over the loss of Chadwick Boseman or other life stuff. Let’s make the time productive. Here are some notes and a quick update on the ‘Jackson is trying to be an author’ story in progress. Here we go:

RIP Chadwick Boseman

Chadwick Boseman and Other Sunday Night Author Notes

The ‘Black Panther’ actor died at the age of 43 after a four year battle with colon cancer. People are checking in from all over the world, talking about what Black Panther meant to them, and Boseman’s portrayal. Although with us for a relatively short time, Boseman’s body of work is remarkable. He was brilliant as both Jackie Robinson (in 2013’s “42”) and James Brown (in 2014’s “Get on Up”). I’m not a huge Marvel fan but there’s no denying the impact Chadwick Boseman had on the world of superhero stories. Clearly, he was more than a good actor, he was a great person. The world is a little more dim, having lost such a powerful light. Good night, sweet prince.

Technical Notes on the Website

I spent a little time this week working on the SEO of Inkican.com and I didn’t see any change in the analytics of the website. I’m not too worried about it; SEO isn’t everything. If I’m going to be an expert at something, let it be storytelling and not website development.

Other Good Publishing News

I was busy adulting on Friday, so I skipped my promised ‘big update’ about my publishing. Here’s what is going on: I submitted ‘The Necktie Party’ to an SFWA-affiliated scifi magazine and received the following email last week:

Dear Jackson,

Thank you for submitting “The Necktie Party” to Apex Magazine. One of our first readers has read your story and believes it deserves a closer look. We would like to hold it for further consideration. Good luck!

Happy squeals all around – The Necktie Party has passed the first round of review by a scifi ‘zine and is that much closer to publication. Up until now, it’s been rejection and self-publication, but Apex Magazine may change all of that.

So there you go, my Sunday Night Author Notes. Yes, SEO plugin – I know this blog post has not been optimized for SEO. Deal with it.

Mesh: We Don’t Do Racism or Sexism Here

As I work to get Mesh into the hands of an agent, let me take a second to talk about something Mesh definitely does not have: Disrespect for women. We don’t do the ‘Male gaze.’ We don’t objectify female characters, or look at them like creeps. I treat all of my characters with the same level of respect and dignity. No sexism, no racism; full stop.

Does that sound unusual? It shouldn’t. And yet, stuff like the ‘male gaze’ is a thing. The casual sexism, creepiness, and misogyny that flows through male-written fiction is too common to be ignored. For anyone who says ‘this isn’t a big deal,’ you can say “Yeah, it is. Yeah, it is. Yeah, it is.

Here’s the deal: writers are people. Authors’ feelings come through their own writing and not always in a good way. Every writer comes from their own experience, their own perspective. Sometimes their perspective is skewed and it comes through their writing. Sexism in writing isn’t just an old-world concept. It’s still happening. If you start to pay attention, you see guys like this …, or this … , or heck, even this, from the Chicago Tribune.

Someone taught these guys that women only exist as plot devices in a man’s universe. I don’t know how this started. I’ve never seen that memo, but I know it’s there. It’s real, it’s happening. Little details seep into their narrative. The focus on female characters turns them into sexualized objects for … I dunno, somebody’s entertainment but it sure isn’t mine.

Like, dude.

I’ve known many strong women in my life. It would be a disservice to them to let Mesh treat female characters with any level of dignity and respect lower than the male characters. Some writers do that, but I don’t and I think it’s important to say – Mesh: We Don’t Do Racism or Sexism Here.

I’m not alone in this quest. Other male writers, like Terry Pratchett, Hayao Miyazaki, and Brandon Sanderson, follow the mandate to give every character the same level of well-rounded, unsexualized, character development. I strive to do the same with Mesh, it’s that simple.

I wasn’t thinking about sexualizing my characters when I wrote Mesh. Maybe it’s me, but I see that as a good thing. I have a guiding principal when it comes to writing my female characters and I think it’s time to share it with you. Are you ready?

Girls are people, too.

Yes, women are human beings. That shouldn’t be a revolutionary thought. This shouldn’t be a novel concept. Yet, it seems to be the exception not the rule. So I want to take a moment to assure you, dear reader, that Mesh and any other story I write, sees you as a real person who deserves respect and dignity. The Mesh cast of characters are boys and girls from many different backgrounds and circumstances. Male and female geeks, from all parts of the world, who look through the world with a post-racist lens. They’re people. Not things.

And by the way, none of this is written like a political statement. Treating people with respect isn’t about politics. It’s about being a decent person. I’ve spoken about this before, but I’ll say it again. I want to write stories like Gene Roddenberry did; tell stories where the future we want just is. Get past the hangups of sexism, and racism. If we can do that, we’ve accomplished more than almost any other civilization in history. That’s a future worth fighting for.

So if there’s one takeaway from this discussion, it’s this. Mesh: We Don’t Do Racism or Sexism Here.

When you read my stories, you’ll get treated with respect and dignity. I made sure. There are a lot of exciting things in this universe, but racism and sexism don’t exist here.

Welcome home.

25 Reasons Creative People Are Organized People

I ran across this picture on the Internet, and it made me realize that creative people are organized people. You cannot expect to do whatever you want, if you expect people to pay for what you do. Click on it to expand – creative people have very structured daily routines:

25 Reasons Creative People Are Organized People

There’s a common myth that creative people aren’t disciplined. After all, if you get paid to express yourself, why be organized? There’s a story about Picasso, who spent an hour doodling on a napkin in a cafe. When he went to leave, a woman offered to buy the napkin. Picasso agreed, but the price was $10,000. The woman refused, saying “that only took you twenty minutes!” “No,” Picasso replied. “It took me sixty years.” Whether the story is true or not, it illustrates the point that creative people have to value their time and energy before anyone else will.

No, creative people must be organized. If you’re looking for more information on how to be professional with your creativity, you should check out ‘Design is a Job’ by Mike Monteiro.

What Close Encounters of the Third Kind Says About Creatives

What Close Encounters of the Third Kind Says About CreativesHot, sticky night in Eugene. Perfect opportunity to break out one of my favorite hot summer night movies: ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind.’ I re-watch Spielberg’s classic, heartfelt, adventure about once a year, and every time I learn a little bit more about the storytelling process. This time, watching Roy (Richard Dreyfuss) Neary’s mad struggle with the mashed potatoes, something new occurred to me. Stephen Spielberg wasn’t just walking about UFOs in CEIII, he was also talking about the struggle of being a creative person.

I mean, ignore everything about the aliens for a second. Just focus on Roy Neary’s character. His life, his family; they’re important but they don’t seem to be very fulfilling to him. He ignores his kids to play with model trains. Then, one hot summer night, everything changes for him.

In a flash of light, everything about Neary’s universe changes. We are not alone. There are other beings in this universe, and he is one of the first to meet them. On the surface, this journey is about his eventual departure with the aliens – in Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ model, it ends in ‘Transformation.’ But the more I think about it, I think Spielberg was trying to say something else.

This time, watching CEIII, I saw the ‘implanted vision’ as a metaphor for how Spielberg saw his creativity back in the late 70s. It wasn’t just joy and sparkles for him.

In Neary, we see a little bit of how Spielberg sees himself. A regular guy, who has something in his head that he doesn’t understand. He didn’t ask for it, doesn’t even want it. Until it turns into something that everyone else understands – like say, a blockbuster movie – it’s a source of frustration for him and his family. He picks at it, kicks at it, rages at it, but it refuses to go away. It’s still there, implacable and relentless. You see it in how Neary first reacts to the questions they put to him at Devil’s Tower:

Laughlin: [translating] What did you expect to find?
Roy: An answer. That’s not crazy, is it?

You get a little more of that insight as Neary throws garbage into the house to build that massive Devil’s Tower in his living room. To Terri Garr’s suggestion that he see a doctor, he says: “Ronnie, if I don’t do this, *that’s* when I’m going to need a doctor.” To everyone else around him, the vision is meaningless, stupid. But if he doesn’t get it out of his head, he knows he will suffer. That in a nutshell is what creativity does to creative people all the time.

Think about how frustrated Richard Dreyfuss was where he has this big huge sculpture in his living room. He was tortured on that phone call with his wife, but there was something else brewing there. It was like, ‘okay there it is. Now what?’

Some have written that CEIII is ‘escapist fantasy,’ or as a metaphor for growing up. Those can be true, but I also think there’s room to consider that creativity is an end to itself. Writers write, filmmakers film, because they have something in their head that needs to get out.

The process of creativity requires singular vision, a willingness to keep going when no one else understands what you’re trying to say. This isn’t a weekend project, this can stretch for months and years. What do you think it feels like to be that person, to wonder if all the other naysayers are right? Maybe you really are just crazy, throwing trash in your living room. As a creative person, you wrestle with those uncomfortable thoughts every single day of the week.

Then, maybe once in a lifetime, the curtain pulls back and everyone else sees it. Your vision does mean something. It isn’t garbage, it’s meaningful. Creative people live for that moment.

We admire Spielberg because he’s had so many of those moments in his life. We all wish we could do the same.