Reality Skimming

Reality Skimming

Reality Skimming promotes optimistic SF -- stories that inspire us to fight the good fight for another day. Committment to larger projects, the writer's sense of mission, joy of reading, the creative campfire of the SF community and the love of deserving protagonists are celebrated. We believe in heroes and striving to be what we believe in. It is also a news hub for content related to the Okal Rel Saga written by Lynda Williams.

24Aug/11Off

Ethics in SF #1: Arinn Dembo (4 of 4)

Reality Skimming concludes its 4-installment interview with Arinn Dembo on the topic of "Ethics in SF".

Ethics in SF: A series of interviews, articles and debates on the Reality Skimming blog, hosted by Lynda Williams, author of the Okal Rel Saga.

Arinn Dembo Arinn Dembo has been a professional writer for over twenty years. She has published hundreds of essays, articles and reviews, and her short stories have appeared in F & SF, H.P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror, and a number of anthologies. At present she is the Lead Writer for Kerberos Productions, an independent video game development studio. Her first novel The Deacon’s Tale and Monsoon, a short story collection, are due to be published by Kthonia Press this fall. She holds a degree in Anthropology and a second in Mediterranean Archaeology. Her personal website is www.arinndembo.com, and she can also be found on the forums for Kerberos Productions on a daily basis. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Q. You wrote ‘character stories’ for the survivor characters in the zombie-verse game. Is it important for such characters to engage sympathy? Or can it be more interesting to make them ‘bad’ people?

I could make a case for both premises. Engaging and sympathetic characters give the audience some investment in the victims of a tragedy and make them care what happens to those characters. On the other hand, ‘bad’ people create conflict, and conflict is the soul of all good fiction. Humans are hard-wired to sit up and take notice when other humans aren’t getting along.

So far as Fort Zombie goes…there are no ‘bad’ people per se among the survivors. Some of the humans you run into will be more likable than others, but the real enemy isn’t your fellow apes—it’s the Rot, the force that animates the dead. Since the Rot has its own malevolent personality, and uses the dead and the dying as a medium for expression, players could work up some serious hate without ever really directing it at another human being. People who stuck with the game through a few updates reported an experience of slowly mounting rage: they really wanted a chance to deliver some payback to an enemy who piled up corpses like cordwood and used blood as spray paint. They wanted to track down the heart of that infection and destroy it. (And if there’s a sequel, they might get a chance to do just that.)

Q. The new millennium has seen increasing interest in ‘bad’ characters as protagonist – villains or anti-heros, vampires and murderers. Would you agree? Any insights into ‘bad guy’ fascination, from an anthropological viewpoint?

I would certainly agree that authors and audiences have fallen in love with a villain, more than once. Hannibal Lector and his nephew Dexter are probably the most dramatic cases that come to mind. From the anthropological standpoint, I would say that the fascination with serial killer anti-heroes stems from a subconscious desire to impose control and meaning on homicidal madness which is otherwise senseless…and thus, more terrifying.

People want to believe that a man who hunts his fellow human beings can be controlled, channeled, even made to serve a greater good. The fantasy of a serial killer who only hunts the annoying, or who can be targeted and trained to hunt and destroy other killers, is quite appealing. It is certainly easier to cope with this fantasy than the reality, which is that serial murderers hunt like any other animal: they prey on the weak, small and most marginalized or isolated members of the available herd. Modern genre fiction is not all about taming real monsters, though. Vampires, werewolves, fey creatures and fairy tale monsters can have another meaning, especially in the urban fantasy/paranormal romance genre. The “bad guy” mystique is certainly there, but there is a deeper thread running through a lot of this fiction. Once you get past the front cover, you generally find that the vampires and the werewolves in these books are not particularly bad people, or at least not always bad people. Often these characters come across more as symbols of alternate sexuality and lifestyles. They appear frightening and monstrous to “normal” people and outsiders. They tend to be stereotyped by tabloid headlines generated by the worst of their kind. Once you get to know them, however, you find that they are just people. They want love and acceptance, they need kinship and support like any other human being. In this sense I think that the “monster community” in paranormal romance novels is probably a pretty effective metaphor for the social, political and personal issues that might come with homosexuality, transgendered identity, sadomasochism, polyamory or any other alternative lifestyle which makes you “monstrous” in the eyes of the outside world. Some of these stories are about the search for love, friendship, and family (and the limits of tolerance) when you live outside the canopy of the norm.

Your Turn: Comment with your own reaction to the questions.

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23Aug/11Off

Ethics in SF #1: Arinn Dembo (3 of 4)

Reality Skimming continues 4-installment interview with Arinn Dembo on the topic of "Ethics in SF".

Ethics in SF: A series of interviews, articles and debates on the Reality Skimming blog, hosted by Lynda Williams, author of the Okal Rel Saga.

Arinn Dembo Arinn Dembo has been a professional writer for over twenty years. She has published hundreds of essays, articles and reviews, and her short stories have appeared in F & SF, H.P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror, and a number of anthologies. At present she is the Lead Writer for Kerberos Productions, an independent video game development studio. Her first novel The Deacon’s Tale and Monsoon, a short story collection, are due to be published by Kthonia Press this fall. She holds a degree in Anthropology and a second in Mediterranean Archaeology. Her personal website is www.arinndembo.com, and she can also be found on the forums for Kerberos Productions on a daily basis. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Q. Games seem amoral at first glance. The goal is simply to win. What’s your take on the role of ethics in gaming?

“Gaming” is a word which covers too many works of art to answer this question easily. You can play to win a game of Tetris or Bejeweled: that’s a very different subjective experience from “winning” an adventure role-playing game like Silent Hill. Or a multiplayer shooter like Battlefield 1943, or a team-based simulation like World of Tanks, or an immersive narrative drama like L.A. Noire. One thing I can say in defense of gaming as an ethical medium: it allows human beings to experiment with actions and their consequences without causing real harm. The player can adopt any role, exist in any environment, explore all available options, and witness the consequences of his or her own actions unfold, all without shedding a single drop of blood. I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to figure out why a war game is more ethical than a real war, but games can be based on all sorts of other scenarios—running a business, collecting butterflies, solving a murder. In what other medium can we test every recipe without breaking a single egg? Aspire to be heroes or wallow in villainy without any real loss of life, or even significant risk?

Near Miss, a screenshot - Arinn Dembo
Near Miss, a screenshot - Arinn Dembo

The concept of “winning” can also be subverted pretty heavily depending on your design. The goal of a game is to “win”, yes, but victory can be defined by both player and designer in an incredible number of ways. Sometimes losing the game teaches us more and affects us more profoundly than winning. Games can wring very intense emotion out of an audience, inspire deep thought, create new interests, teach history and theory in a lot of disciplines…the medium has enormous potential.

Q. You’ve said you explore the big picture through your writing. Can you comment on the differences in scope or opportunity for exploring ethics in gaming vs. novel writing?

A novel is a much more confined and controlled space than a game is, artistically speaking. A novelist gets to plan what the protagonist does next, and the audience is a passive witness to the direction that a character chooses to take. To explore ethics, you pose problems and your protagonist makes the choices that you want him/her to make, in order to make your point. In a game, the player IS the protagonist, and the designer cannot directly control what he or she will do. Your job is to provide them with challenges, choices, and tools: then they play the game and achieve an outcome that they earn. The majority of work I have done in gaming has not been to write scripts or create mission paths, but to build worlds and universes. In Sword of the Stars, I explore ethics in the histories I create, the scenario problems I pose to the player, the conflicts that arise from cultures with opposing values. My personal values do not often come directly into the picture, but I do make a small point indirectly, at times.

As an example: when I was directing the art for the portraits of a future Human race, the gender ratio was 50/50, and the faces were not all white. A very simple thing, but representing real life human diversity in a game universe is not as common as it should be, and real equality and mutual respect in the depiction of human subjects is even more rare. Everyone you see in a Sol Force uniform is a participant in humanity’s heroic future, regardless of gender or skin color. This is not a game which presents all women as sexual objects or victims, and all non-whites as comedy relief or criminals.

Your Turn: Comment with your own reaction to the questions.

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22Aug/11Off

Ethics in SF #1: Arinn Dembo (2 of 4)

Reality Skimming continues 4-installment interview with Arinn Dembo on the topic of "Ethics in SF".

Ethics in SF: A series of interviews, articles and debates on the Reality Skimming blog, hosted by Lynda Williams, author of the Okal Rel Saga.

Arinn Dembo Arinn Dembo has been a professional writer for over twenty years. She has published hundreds of essays, articles and reviews, and her short stories have appeared in F & SF, H.P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror, and a number of anthologies. At present she is the Lead Writer for Kerberos Productions, an independent video game development studio. Her first novel The Deacon’s Tale and Monsoon, a short story collection, are due to be published by Kthonia Press this fall. She holds a degree in Anthropology and a second in Mediterranean Archaeology. Her personal website is www.arinndembo.com, and she can also be found on the forums for Kerberos Productions on a daily basis. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Q: In your novel, you introduce the military protagonist in a scene where he demonstrates compassion toward a disadvantaged child, but still incurs hostility from the pacifists raising the orphan. Later, he addresses military graduates on the need to think like their alien enemies. Can you discuss his ethics with respect to warfare?

Cai Rui is an intelligence officer, rather than a common soldier. As such, his job is to provide the high command with the information they need to avoid war…or, failing that, to win a war as quickly and painlessly as possible. Unlike the pacifists who confront him in the chapel, Cai Rui cannot afford to be a moral absolutist. He sees his species encircled by alien superpowers, any one of which is easily capable of wiping out the Human race. Humanity has presently achieved a chilly détente and signed an Armistice with three other major powers; no one is shooting at anyone right now. Ideally Cai Rui would like to keep it that way, but he doesn’t believe that being unable to defend yourself is the best way to avoid conflict. Instead, he chooses to have faith in the empire, and to throw himself into his work. He tells himself that if he can provide his Director with timely and pertinent information, it could save the lives of millions or billions of sentients.

His message to the graduating recruits who will be entering the intelligence service is a simple one: “know thy enemy”. What he’s trying to tell them is that empathy is a necessary job skill. If these men and women do not learn to understand their galactic neighbors, war is inevitable. The Human race has already stumbled headlong into conflict in the recent past, armed with deadly technology and equally deadly ignorance. Cai Rui believes that humankind needs better information.

Q: Tell us how your anthropology background helps in your creative work.

My fascination with all things human is central to my life as a whole, including my writing. Anthropology is a paradoxical science—it identifies the universal by celebrating millions of unique cases. My immersion in science has made me see that even my very early work was often about culture contact, the primal encounter with the Other. I’m interested in that liminal zone between Us and Them, and what happens there: war, Creolization, colonization, “going native”, you name it. My most popular story is probably “Monsoon”, which is set in India. My first published story, “Sisterhood of the Skin”, posits the first contact between humankind and a bizarre alien species. Obviously I’ve continued to work extensively with aliens in the Sword of the Stars series as well. When I create an alien species for the Sword universe, I sort through my knowledge of anthropology and pick ethnographic and historical models to work from.

My love of archaeology also inspires a lot of my fiction. “ICHTHYS”, which I published a few years back in H.P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror, emerged from my study of the Roman catacombs and the Primitive Church--subjects which have occupied a good many years of thought and research for me. “Imperial Ghosts” is a science fiction story inspired by the Roman art of portrait sculpture, in particular the portraits of the emperor Tiberius. Humans in the Sword universe occasionally speak Latin as well as English and Chinese, and one of the dominant AI characters in the universe is named Cicero.

Your Turn: Comment with your own reaction to the questions.

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21Aug/11Off

Ethics in SF #1: Arinn Dembo (1 of 4)

Reality Skimming is pleased to host Arinn Dembo for the opening salvo of our new feature, "Ethics in SF". Here's the pitch that landed Arinn on this page, included because it is as interesting as her interivew itself, and as an example of how to tell me about why you need to help us in this exploration of Ethics in SF. E-mail pitches to lynda@okalrel.org to feature in future articles. Ethics matter. SF explores. Be part of the dialogue.

Ethics in SF: A series of interviews, articles and debates on the Reality Skimming blog, hosted by Lynda Williams, author of the Okal Rel Saga.

Arinn Dembo Arinn Dembo has been a professional writer for over twenty years. She has published hundreds of essays, articles and reviews, and her short stories have appeared in F & SF, H.P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror, and a number of anthologies. At present she is the Lead Writer for Kerberos Productions, an independent video game development studio. Her first novel The Deacon’s Tale and Monsoon, a short story collection, are due to be published by Kthonia Press this fall. She holds a degree in Anthropology and a second in Mediterranean Archaeology. Her personal website is www.arinndembo.com, and she can also be found on the forums for Kerberos Productions on a daily basis. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Q: Tell us about your work, your writing and what motivates you creatively.

I’ve been a writer all of my life. Words are a comfortable medium for me, and since my early 20’s writing has also been my most marketable job skill. Even at the most conservative estimate, I’ve written millions of words in the past two decades. At the end of the day, it’s fair to say that I wrote most of those words for survival. But no matter how rigid the guidelines have been, I’ve always tried to bring something personal to my writing.

One of my greatest sources of inspiration is a simple question: “What if--?” A lot of my work is speculative. “What if” has been an important question since my early childhood. When I went into anthropology, I was not surprised to find that the ability to ask and answer hypothetical questions is one of the things that distinguishes Human communication from that of other living things. My fascination with all things human is another creative spark. Anthropology is a paradoxical science—it identifies the universal by celebrating millions of unique cases. My immersion in science has made me see that even my very early work was often about culture contact, the primal encounter with the Other.

Q: How do you, personally, decide whether something is right or wrong? How do characters in your fiction decide matters of right and wrong?

My ethical system is pretty simple. There are three parts that come together, and the first is just plain old culture and nurture. My parents and my society taught me values that I will always find it very difficult to set aside. I was brought up to believe that all human beings are equal, and entitled to equal rights both politically and socially. In 41 years I have never had reason to change my mind on that score. Beyond that core training, my personal ethics compel me to look for both the harm in what I do, and the good that is within my power. In some religious faiths they call this quality “mindfulness”, and it’s a fairly common ethical precept even among non-denominational groups which focus on a cause like environmentalism or animal rights. In general I try to keep my eyes open and recognize when I am part of a problem, rather than part of a solution. And when I see a chance to act positively in the world, whether I have to act alone or simply throw my weight behind someone else’s project, I do it.

Mateo Lan'Kona screenshot - Arinn Dembo
Screenshot of character Mateo Lan'Kona by Arinn Dembo

The third component is a healthy smidge of good old fashioned cynicism. There is no one whose viewpoint I am not willing to question seriously, including my own. I use a self-checking mechanism when dealing with issues that I find difficult to sort out, especially if the subject is very emotional. Basically, I take a long hard look at the people who seem to agree with my stance and see if they are the sort of people that I want to be. If I find myself in a crowd of people whose views on other topics are completely indefensible and wrong, it’s a pretty strong hint to me that I am probably not seeing the real implications of my stance on this issue. This technique has helped me fight past my emotional reaction to violent crime and achieve my current position on the death penalty, for example. I realized that the sort of people who supported the death penalty were not the sort of person I wanted to be “hanging around with”, ethically speaking. There had to be something I wasn’t seeing in my pro-death position, and I knew I had to keep looking until I found the error of my thinking. When I’m writing a character who is essentially a good person, I try to apply this same basic structure to that person’s outlook. The fun part is that your characters can come from a completely different context than the author does: different gender, different nationality or ethnicity, even an entirely different species with a whole different set of evolutionary drives underlying their standard upbringing. Being a good alien can pose different challenges than being a good human being.

Your Turn: Comment with your own reaction to the questions.

Tagged as: 1 Comment