Speculative fiction, science, and technology for July, 2018.
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Welcome to the Reader's Room for July, 2018.

Fortune’s Furious Fickle Wheel

It’s Sunday in the middle of summer—or at least what I consider the middle of summer, as the days are as long as they can get. It’s evening, but the sun's still up. I’m sheltering in a cocktail bar, slouched on a stool, soaking up the air conditioning, the darkness, and the ambiance of a bar named after a classic children’s book. There is drama here, and quite a bit of comedy. A wedding is being planned. A love triangle spins on its points. The woman next to me sees her ex chasing another woman, and flies off her barstool and into a rage. Her name is Helena, and she’s berating Demetrius—just as she has for the last four-hundred years, because I’m sitting in the middle of a performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Being embedded inside a theatrical production at a cocktail bar isn’t everyone’s gin martini, but it’s definitely an intimate performance, and tons of fun.

After the players adjourn to the bar across the street for the cast party, I go home, glowing from shared laughter, and sparkling with glitter from a recklessly cast spell. I do my my best to halt the spread of glitter—to almost no effect. Then I do what passes for ‘flipping around the TV’ in the age of streaming video, and stumble upon a curiosity: an old black & white version of Hamlet, produced for German television in 1961, then dubbed into English. It didn’t do the original any favors. The high point was Ricardo Montalbán doing one of the voices. The low points were numerous and frequent.


Given the continued popularity of Shakespeare’s plays, there is no shortage of diverse performances. They’re group efforts where everyone brings their own talent and take to a production, but none more influential than the director.


After I watch everyone in Denmark get their poison, I put down the video and pick up the book I’m trying to finish, Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed. It’s a retelling of The Tempest, but Atwood makes it her own thing. Like the source material, it’s about a deposed leader and his daughter who escape into isolation. It’s about ambition and revenge. But it’s also a smaller story. The main character occasionally goes by the name Mr. Duke, but he's never Duke of Milan, just the director of a theatrical festival. It’s also more intimate. His Miranda died when she was three and his plan to produce his own version of The Tempest to honor his daughter's short life, is interrupted by another's selfish ambition. His exile is not to an island, but a shack in rural Canada where the spirit of his daughter keeps him company as he plans his revenge.


School ruined Shakespeare for me. It was forced on me while I was told it was the Best Thing Ever, long before I was prepared to appreciate it. In college I had to critically read a play a week, on top of my other studies. It left me with a lot of knowledge of the Bard's work, but not much love. We've generally stayed out of each other's way ever since.

So, encountering these three Shakespeare stories, in three different mediums, all within a few hours, was unprecedented for me.


In Hag-Seed, the deposed director fills his retirement by volunteering in the literacy program at a local prison, specifically through directing performances of Shakespeare by and for the prisoners. He has an easy time getting the inmates interested in performing the more bloodthirsty plays, the ones with fight scenes and high body counts. But when he decides it's time to stage The Tempest—a play full of sprites and nymphs and without a single fight scene or death—it’s a hard sell. So the director takes his time to help these criminals find something in the cast of enslaved spirits, love-blinded kids, and stranded souls, to relate to and motivate them. He draws them in to find their own selves in these characters.


The universe doesn't arrange itself just for me, but when things line up interestingly, it would be a shame not to look. And so, like those criminals drafted into Mr. Duke’s play of isolation and revenge, I find myself appreciating Shakespeare for the first time, both as entertainment, and something more, something that sticks with me.

Or maybe that’s just the glitter that I’m still finding everywhere.

Margaret Atwood's Hag-Seed is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare collection, where modern authors reimagine Shakespeare’s plays. There are currently seven books out now, with an eighth scheduled.
Oska is a Canadian illustrator and graphic designer who works largely with minimalist, surreal landscapes Portfolio Link.
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It can be costly to not know your Shakespeare. An exam board in the UK was fined a quarter of a million dollars for getting their Capulets and Montagues confused on a test question.

In Hag-Seed, the prison uses performance production as job training, and it has some basis in the real world. Cook County inmates have turned a cinder block storage room into a music studio where they can learn to engineer, produce, and play music. (Autoplay video warning. 🙄)

In 1979, inmates in Virginia didn't have access to a modern recording studio. Yet in just five hours, they recorded a live album from inside lockup, and ended up recording an amazing Soul record. The Atlantic produced a ten minute documentary on how The Edge of Daybreak came together along with contemporary interviews with the performers. (YouTube link.)

Speaking of making the best of limited opportunities: scientists sometimes create playgrounds with a set of rules and a set of goals, then release algorithms into them to see what solutions they find. A paper has collected the best stories about curious emergent properties of these artificial evolutionary systems. Their solutions can be clever, wild, or sometimes just extremely lazy.  (PDF link to full paper.)

Listen to the Podcast:

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Writing Stuff:
As I whittle down the unfinished things in Embassy book four, it becomes important to address continuity. Since I'm four books into a series, it takes some work. At the biggest scale, I keep an encyclopedia of people, places, extraterrestrials, and events so that everything between books is consistent. For individual books, I keep a detailed timeline of events, so that I can keep track of things like day of week, time of day, and just how exhausted and broken characters are at any point.

In speculative fiction, technology (magic, etc.) works as a new set of rules that extend reality and define new possibilities. It’s important that the rules are consistent throughout, and they’re communicated well to the reader. Ideally the rules are laid out through the natural telling of the story and not tedious infodumps. Doing it well can be like crafting a murder mystery, putting all the evidence out there without telegraphing the inevitable result.

When these rules are intrinsic to the plot (something I think that's important to all genre fiction) changing them can have consequences throughout the text. There's no real tool to make it easy. Good planning helps, as do extensive notes. But sometimes there's nothing for it but more revisions.

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Copyright © 2018 Steven Hoefer, All rights reserved.

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