Some Things People Keep Asking About After Reading “To Dream of Stars: An Astronomer’s Lament”

Somewhere along the way, one of my stories got put on a HSC prep exam somewhere in Australia. On one hand, this is cool – I didn’t get into this gig to write things that do not get read.

On the other hand, it also means I have reached that point where I get semi-regular emails between June and September asking questions about what is a fairly obtuse story. Some of these emails ask very smart questions, which is great, but they’ve they’ve now become common enough that I rarely have time to deliver anything meaningful as an answer. To that end, I figure it will be useful to have a stock response I point people towards/show up if they Google the story, so I’m throwing some story notes up here on the blog that I can refer people to.


In general, when it comes to these sorts of questions, I am entirely the wrong person to talk to. I generally come from the same school of thought as Neil Gaiman in this matter, back when he regularly took questions on his blog:

  1. I won’t do your homework for you. Just pretend I’m a dead author and in no position to answer your questions — I won’t mind.

Actually, I’m worse in some respects, ’cause I’m used to teaching undergraduates in universities, so I’m firmly in the camp that believes critiques in English and literature studies are rarely about the authors intentions, but rather the reader response.There’s is absolutely no guarantee that anything I think in regards to the story will actually be useful within the context of an English paper. I fully subscribe to the theories put forward by a guy named Roland Barthes which state that the author is dead, and what an author intends with the story is actually pretty useless, since a large portion of the meaning is brought by the reader (this is a pretty good overview of this whole idea inside of 5 minutes).

In addition, the gulf between what writer intends with a story and what actually exists on paper is frequently wider than any writer would prefer, and usually involves a lot more “this seems like a good idea” than the answers below would imply. Mostly, writers tend to absorb a whole bunch of theories and ideas, then let them influence the work subconsciously, trusting that things will mostly turn out okay. It’s why writers generally blink and look confused when they get asked questions by English teachers. Especially since first reason I write anything is pretty simple: I have bills to pay, and I figured someone would buy the story when I was done 🙂

All of which is basically the long way of saying: you had a response to the story, when you first read it. Your response to the story is 100% correct, regardless of what I say here. Use that as your starting point. Especially since your English teacher is unlikely to take a blog post on the internet as a credible source.

All clear? Good. Now we can move on and look at some of the things I’m routinely asked about.


The Other is a term that gets used a lot in cultural theory, particularly when looking at issues of gender and colonialism. The basic theory is that in order to have a sense of “self,” there must also be a sense of “the other/not-self.” The wikipedia article on the theory is actually a pretty good overview of the theory, and the core ideas I was playing with in To Dream of Stars.

The bit I was really interested in related to this: in order for their to be a notion of what it means to be male/masculine, there’s a corresponding idea of a non-masculine Other, which has created all sorts of problematic ideas of masculinity in contemporary culture where the tradition notion of masculine was also associated with being in a dominant and privileged cultural position, but the culture is opening up to other narratives and re-positioning parts of the culture as Other (by virtue of race/gender/socio-economics).

SF has a long tradition of looking at metaphors and taking them literally within the text, so the metaphorical framing of The Other as alien became literal within the world, and from there became a way of looking at the way notions of masculinity and colonialism change when The Other becomes dominant and the colonizing culture.

The question of whether I did this well is entirely up in the air, especially considering I am a white, well-educated, middle-class bloke who is not traditionally regarded as Other by western culture. Plus, this story was written nearly a decade ago, where these discussions were not as widespread. Part of the joy of being on the internet over the last decade has been the rise of people talking about things that used to be tools of cultural critique and bringing them into the general conversation via tools like Facebook, tumblr, and twitter. Hell, it still blew my mind that I could read Facebook on my phone in 2007. And I still held a grudge against Facebook for taking over Livejournal’s section of the social media market.

But I digress. In short, the way we talked about notions of the Other and othering is different here in 2017, which often means the conversation needs to be more nuanced than it is here. Stories, in many ways, are a product of their time.


The narrative of To Dream of Stars is not particularly linear, largely because I tend to enjoy stories that are not particularly linear. I like the idea of treating story as a jigsaw puzzle, leaving gaps where the reader can make connections of their own. Within the context of this particular story, I was also interested in the idea that one of the key aspects of Othering is the idea that there is only a single story to be told about the Othered. Spreading the narrative across multiple points in the timeline is an attempt to create a sense that there are multiple stories instead of a singular one.

It’s also the reason why there are multiple aliens presented within the story, rather than a single alien species.

One of the things that fascinated me in 2007 – and continues to fascinate me today – is what a theorist named Jean-François Lyotard called the Collapse of Grand Narratives and the turn to small, local narratives as part of the post-modern condition. The stories we tell each other – the things that give our life meaning – have become increasingly broad and diverse instead of singular. There is not one truth, but many truths.

At the same time, we’re still fighting against a host of grand narratives that still govern our lives, especially the narratives that have built up around religion and statehood and government. As the internet is fond of saying, we “don’t know how to adult,” because adulting used to be a far easier concept to wrap your head around when there was only one way to do it.


I get asked – quite a bit – if I’d call this story magic realism or surrealism, which largely makes me happy because I got fuck-all kind of discussion along those lines in high school and it wasn’t until university that I finally got exposed to the really good stuff.

For the record: I definitely wouldn’t this story magic realism, but it’s not quite surrealism either. There’s a branch of SF called Slipstream, which is probably the best fit – it’s basically focused on the strange and interested in the effects of post-modernism, and work that sits in weird spaces between genres.

Here’s the thing about genre though: they’re very, very flexible. They’re based on your ability to see connections between the work you’re reading, and other works you’re aware of. Slipstream is a useful term for people deeply enmeshed in science fiction, who occasionally want a way of distinguishing the weird stuff from the space-stuff from the near-future cyberpunk stuff from the honest-to-god-alternate-history-where-people-do-a-lot-of-research-instead-of-inserting-aliens-to-cover-their-arse.


It probably seemed like a good idea at the time. Which, incidentally, was way back in 2007 according to my notes, and I barely remember why I made certain narrative choices in things I wrote in 2016. I’m afraid I can’t get give you any specific answers for this one.


Well, then, we’re out of the bounds of the broad scope answers I’ve got prepared and into specifics I probably don’t have time to answer. Feel free to try your luck asking in the comments, but be aware that my ability to respond will largely depend on how busy I am and how many deadlines I’m chasing at any given time.

The Sunday Circle: What Are You Working On This Week?

Sunday Circle Banner

The Sunday Circle is the weekly check-in where I ask the creative-types who follow this blog to weigh in about their goals, inspirations, and challenges for the coming week. The logic behind it can be found here. Want to be involved? It’s easy – just answer three questions in the comments or on your own blog (with a link in the comments here, so that everyone can find them).

After that, throw some thoughts around about other people’s projects, ask questions if you’re so inclined. Be supportive above all.

Then show up again next Sunday when the circle updates next, letting us know how you did on your weekly project and what you’ve got coming down the pipe in the coming week (if you’d like to part of the circle, without subscribing to the rest of the blog, you can sign-up for reminders via email here).


What am I working on this week?

I still don’t have a name for the novella I’m writing at the moment, but I’m going to start referring to it as PROJECT BEEMAN here because I’m growing increasingly aware that there is little else to differentiate between various creative projects when I talk about them. I’m currently 10,000 words in and have just stumbled into the second act, drafting a scene between the protagonist and their foil that marks the beginning of the subplot that’s intended to drive the action until the act closes.

I’m also starting to sketch out the dramatic versus iconic character notes that I started pondering last week, in an effort to lock down some content for the upcoming thesis chapter. I’m preparing to do what’s effectively going to be the heavy lifting on my academic work – a chapter that provides a framework for looking at series works as a cohesive form with notes about the techniques open to writers in order to create a sense of unity and generate effect.

What’s inspiring me this week?

I’ve been heavily immersed in books about structure and form for the last week, which meant I ended up going back and rereading Dean Wesley Smith’s Writing Into the Dark which walks through Smith’s own process for writing his way through a novel without doing any planning at all. I always take Smith’s advice with a pinch of salt – the career he outlines is not necessarily going to make all writers happy – but it’s incredibly useful to revisit this book when I feel like I’m getting bogged down in my own head while working on a story.

I’ve also been reading Joe Abercrombie’s Sharp Ends, his short story collection which brings together a bunch of story-length work set in the same world as his novels. I started out looking specifically at the way he uses third person, since he’s really good at putting us in a character’s head while writing in the third person mode, but I quickly got distracted by the way he uses events in his novels as the basis for short fiction by spinning it off with another point of view.

As a method of building out a world – and it’s not until I read this book that I realised just how focused Abercrombie’s work is on building up his world in a very cohesive way – it’s incredibly fascinating.

What action do you really need to take?

This question has traditionally been “what have you been avoiding” ever since i started the Sunday Circle, but one of the things I’ve been avoiding for a long time is sitting down and addressing the final question in order to get closer to what it was originally intended to do in Todd Henry’s The Accidental Creative.

Henry himself had already revised this, when he revisited the notion in the circle in a later work. Instead of asking what people were avoiding/needed to be prompted on, he replaced it with this:

What resources can be we bring to the table to help you in your work?

Of course, it’s also meant to be asked in a small group who meet regularly and in person, rather than showing up on the internet. On the other hand, it could be useful to have a question that’s more focused generating questions on “does any have advice about handling X” than answers like “I am not doing y.”

So I’m rather torn at the moment, and I’m turning to the resources all of you bring to the table: would you rather have “things your avoiding” question three traded and replaced? Does either of the above hold more appeal?

Next Friday: In Conversation With CS Pacat

Next Friday I’m doing an In Conversation with the writer behind The Captive Prince series, CS Pacat. Details and tickets can still be acquired up until 6:00 PM on the 28th.

This is one of my rare public appearances in 2017, because I have been steadily saying no to teaching and presenting gigs for a little over a year now. I would have turned down this one as well, it not for two things:

  • First, I’m there as a representative of the GenreCon Ninja team, and I will always make an exception when it comes to flying the GenreCon flag.
  • Second, CS Pacat is incredibly fucking smart about genre and writing, and I would be an idiot to turn down the opportunity to pick her brain.

Spend enough time around writers and you’ll quickly realise that a number of them are incredibly smart when it comes to matters of craft and business. The trick, once you’ve been around long enough, is to start paying attention to the smartest writers you’ve met and listen when they start talking about the smartest writers they know.

I first heard about Pacat through one of Australia’s best romance authors, Anne Gracie, who raved about the rapid development of complex characters and plots. Then she appeared as a guest at Genrecon 2015 and blew people out of the water by being smart, articulate, and (lets be honest) incredibly well dressed. What cemented me as a fan wasn’t just her work, but the series of writing essays on her website which explore different aspects of writing.

Pacat is fascinating because she focuses heavily on technique. She thinks about the craft of writing, analyses it and pulls it apart. Looks for connections between the works she enjoys and the skills required to make those works.

There is an intangible thing that is present in some writers works – a sense of control that makes you realise just how loose some writers are playing within a similar genre. Pacat has it, and she talks about how she acquired it.

To say that I cannot wait until next Friday would be an understatement.

Watching Deep Space Nine

I never really jelled with Star Trek. The SF of my childhood was always Star Wars and Buck Rodgers and Baker-era Dr Who, which eschewed the exploration narrative neatly captured in Trek’s boldly go approach to narrative. They were narratives that seemed faster-paced, so Trek always seemed slow, and I lived in places where SF fans were rare, so I never found a community to get me over the initial reluctance to dive in to Trek.

When you start off with a reluctance to engage with Star Trek, it’s hard to get over it because Star Trek is omnipresent. In the same way that Tolkien’s fingerprints are prominently smudged over all forms of fantasy, Star Trek is the runaway cultural phenomenon that identifies SF in television land. For decades, “more like Trek” was regarded as a strength in a TV show, even when it wasn’t dramatically appropriate.

If you made your show more like Trek, the SF fans would show up. Market-share without any effort. Throw in an analogue to Star Fleet, Vulcans, Holodecks, and Klingons, and you could focus on getting the elusive casual fans without thinking about how to do anything new that would excite the SF faithful. It became rare that I’d find shows that really spoke to me, for a while. Even the shows I came to watch regularly, like Babylon 5, had more to do with friends pitching it as “they’re doing something interesting with the writing” than “it’s great SF.”

The one exception to my Trek-aversion was Deep Space Nine. I watched the final two seasons years ago, when I was ill and bedridden and there was a video store next to the doctor’s surgery. I hired out every episode they have on video cassette to fill the hours when I was going to be on the couch and unable to move. I was won over by by the episode Far Beyond the Stars, and the fact that I’d finished watching all the Babylon 5 videos the store had in stock.

I enjoyed those seasons, but I never felt the need to go back and fill in the seasons before it. First, because the store didn’t stock those videos. Second, because I had the feeling it would be more like Star Trek than I wanted.

Earlier this week I started watching DS9 from the beginning. Watching Benjamin Sisko with hair, and without a beard. All the flashes of the things I’ll eventually like in the series, mixed in with the Trek tropes I’m not that big a fan of. It’s an interesting look at how a series evolves, which is giving me thoughts when it comes to the thesis.

The Sunday Circle: What Are You Working On This Week?

Sunday Circle Banner

The Sunday Circle is the weekly check-in where I ask the creative-types who follow this blog to weigh in about their goals, inspirations, and challenges for the coming week. The logic behind it can be found here. Want to be involved? It’s easy – just answer three questions in the comments or on your own blog (with a link in the comments here, so that everyone can find them).

After that, throw some thoughts around about other people’s projects, ask questions if you’re so inclined. Be supportive above all.

Then show up again next Sunday when the circle updates next, letting us know how you did on your weekly project and what you’ve got coming down the pipe in the coming week (if you’d like to part of the circle, without subscribing to the rest of the blog, you can sign-up for reminders via email here).


What am I working on this week?

This week I’ll be doing some pre-writing for the thesis novella I’ll be writing in August, getting down a bunch of vignettes where Is tart to nail the voice and the central character, plus outlining some ideas for all the works in the series so they’ll serve as a unified whole.

I’ll also be writing the second quarter of the current novella, where the investigation truly begins.

What’s inspiring me this week?

I read Lisa Cron’s Story Genius, which is a how-to-write-a-novel book that earns its distinction between putting a whole lot of attention on the internal conflict that drives a character (and really fleshing out why it’s important). I’m not always 100% on board with the approach the book is taking, but the thinking behind it is incredibly interesting and immediately started shaping my thinking about the thesis project that will be dealing with characters who are iconic rather than dramatic.

It’s possible a fairly rich seam has just opened up in the thesis chapter I’m writing as a result of that, but I’m still puzzling my way through the realisations.

What part of my project an I avoiding?

I got halfway through hammering out my business plan for the next two-to-three years last week, then allowed myself to start getting distracted by unknown variables within the plan and external demands on my time. I really should go back and finish things properly, if only so I’ve got a reliable measure of what “a good day’s work” actually means over the next few years.

Thinking Ahead

I just put a full slate of 2018 deadlines up on a whiteboard. With the first semester of my PhD over I’ve had a little time to start thinking about writing work again, and the presence of a significant other in my life has generated a lot more focus on my long-term strategies and short-term tactics than I’ve managed in a long while. There is something about having to tell someone else about your day that makes it easier to navigate the garden of forking paths that make up a writing career.

Also, rule one, when you’re a writer in any kind of relationship: do not be a wanna-be heavy metal bassist sponging off a series of significant others. Which seems unfair to a number of heavy metal bassists who work incredibly hard at their art, but it’s John Scalzi’s metaphor, not mine.

July is also a useful month for taking stock – looking at what’s worked for the past six months, figuring out what goals I set for myself that need to be shed. And planning a year ahead tells me what I need to be doing now, in terms of processes and research and getting shit done to clear the decks ahead of time.

There are lots of westerns in my near future. And I probably need to re-watch Death Race at some point.