School stories

Also: good teams, Instagram and events

what i’m reading (offline)

The Golden Enclaves (2022) by Naomi Novik. I finished the Scholomance trilogy, which for those that haven’t read it, is a ‘wizard school’ series - if a slightly more adult one than, say, Harry Potter.

I love - love - school stories. Bring on the wizard schools and dragon riding academies, the Dark Academia, the campus-based romances, you name it. That said, there’s a central conceit to these books that is both inherent to the genre and increasingly frustrating: that school is the most important time of your life.

As I get older and older, my school years have been reduced to an increasingly tiny bullet on my resume. Yes, yes, they’re formative and important things happened and - extra, yes - I remember, in a self-aware way, feeling how important they were while I was in them. But as time goes by, and the more life (and experiences thereof) take place in other life-contexts, the sillier I feel when books try to impress upon me that Everything Significant In Your Life Happens Before You Turn 21.

Because, no? And, hey kids, it is ok if by 21 you haven’t found the love of your life / solved a murder mystery / made your first billion / unlocked your secret destiny. You can still save Narnia at 40, I promise!

I think the challenge with the ‘school story’ setting is therefore how it handles when the rubber hits the road. Or, to be more pedantic about it: what happens after graduation, when our youthful heroes hit the real world? The Secret History, for all of its many, many virtues, absolutely fails to stick the landing. It is painfully clear that, from the authorial perspective, the characters’ stories were over as soon as they left school. And don’t get me started on The Rule of Four, which genuinely ends with ‘AND WE THEN WE GRADUATED AND DID LIFE STUFF’ which was peak ‘tell me this was written by college students without telling me that this was written by college students’. (Spoilers: it was, in fact, written by college students.)

In the Scholomance, Novik gets around this problem by giving over the entire final book of the trilogy to - gasp - post-graduation adventures. Further to her credit, Novik really makes it work. El and her pals go on a global road trip, solve some problems, get their lives on (some sort of) track and have a lot of (very messy) adventures. Ultimately, the trilogy concludes this very important chapter of their story without also implying that this was their only story.

My one complaint is the the series has always been very light on the world-building, and what was extremely hand-wavey for the first two books is now surprisingly robust in the final volume. For a series about the who and the why, the ‘what’ was suddenly very important, and, eh. But… really enjoyed it, highly recommend, etc.

Done and Dusted (2023) by Lyla Sage. A stressed-out barrel rider returns home and discovers that, while she was out of town, her brother’s best friend got hot. It is very Small Town Sweet: all the answers that anyone needs can be found on a ranch in Wyoming, where everyone is physically perfect, families eat dinners together, and everyone spends their Friday nights at the same small town bar.

There's an underlining nostalgia here - and I mean that in the toxic sense of “false memories of a past that never existed”. Modernity and urbanism are bad things. Little-c-conservatism is, ultimately, triumphant. It is nice that she went out and explored the world, because now she knows that things are better Back Home.

I don't dislike the book. It is sweet, but it makes me sad. The romance is less about the two characters and more a wistful longing for a context that does not (never did) exist. Romance is fantasy, and there's nothing wrong at all with wish-fulfilment fiction. But what does it mean about the world when our wish is to withdraw from it?

Strike Three: You’re Dead! (1984) by R.D. Rosen. A reread as part of my Kindle excavation, this a more recent one - from my mystery review period. Enjoyable, snarky murder mystery, set against the backdrop of a mediocre baseball team ekeing out the final days of a lost season.

Noir, to me, is very much about that feeling of claustrophobia: an atmosphere of being trapped somewhere, in some way. Here, we have a protagonist that is wealthy and successful and with no practical barriers in his way. The sense of confinement is social and professional, a loyalty to a (failing) team and a (floundering) career. It is well done.

The Young Pitcher (1905) by Zane Grey. The king of the Western also wrote baseball fiction! An odd historical artifact, but hard to recommend.

The baseball is probably the most interesting part, although it absolutely reads like a completely different sport. It was clearly a very different era, and it makes me appreciate modern innovations like ‘pitchers with control’ and ‘home runs’. And don’t get me started on the training techniques…

Outside of the bunt-heavy play-by-plays , this is a bluntly didactic school story, a la Tom Brown. Do the right thing. Always tell the truth. Don’t break training. Etc. The college scene of 1905 is shockingly different, but nice to know the wink-wink subordination of academics to athletics has always been a thing.

This is a thing that Lavie Tidhar and I have been working on. If you're suitably intrigued, sign up.

what i’m reading (online)

Joe Posnanski wonders what it would be like to be a fan of an unequivocally dominant team. I suspect the answer is: they don’t really exist, especially for the fans. Fandom is about worry (and superstition); no matter how good you are, there’s always the opportunity to fail. It is an anxious life, but that’s the conflict necessary for good storytelling. We need the adversity in order to overcome it.

I suppose we’re seeing it now in Manchester City’s back-to-back-to-back-to-back era of Premier League dominance, but, as obvious as their victories were in hindsight (or to any objective observer at the time), I suspect that City fans still managed to conjure up a bit of nervousness as they marched towards inexorable triumph.

Which is to say, even if there is unequivocal dominance - fans both can’t and won’t recognise it at the time. And that’s probably for good reason. The best example I can remember of a team recognised as indisputably dominant team while it was still playing was the 2007 Patriots.

Garbage Day writes a bit about fandom and coolness, which turns into an excellent piece on trying to engineer scarcity of content in the internet era.

The London Centre for Book Arts is doing an exhibition of spines. I love this. Spines are unheralded, but vastly important. For most books, that’s the entirety of their exposure to a potential reader. That’s a pretty critical marketing asset that doesn’t get a lot of attention. They’re also, intriguingly, only present in physical books. Maybe we should think about spines less as a production necessity and more as ‘content exclusive to the physical edition’.

Monsters and Mullets re-revisits Willow and finds the gender representation… shockingly impressive. And then leaps into a broader point about how fantasy movies have progressed… or not… and how “fandom” fits on the great curve of history.

Anne references The Lord of the Rings in the link above, and alongside of the author of the above piece, its incredible whiteness really stood out. (And the gender representation is already hilariously infamous.) It is still a great, fun series of movies with a great, fun cast. But, holy shit, LotR is so very white.

Big Movie doesn’t get a lot right, but Hollywood has embedded diverse casting for blockbusters over the past twent years. Yes, it is still deeply problematic and, yes, with a few notable exceptions, it is more tokenistic than truly representative. But the social norm has shifted to the point where it is remarkable (in the literal way: one cannot help but remark upon it) for a film to be as wildly, um, monochromatic as The Lord of the Rings trilogy was.

LotR is further hamstrung by the fact that it is so well-made that you don’t realise it is an ‘old’ film (It is 24 years old! I am dyinggggg). Willow looks like something from Ye Olde Days. LotR, because it is incredible, still looks and feels contemporary, making the ‘then’-ness of the casting all the more glaring.

Ganzeer’s now off Instagram. He chronicles the ‘evolution’ of the platform, and its subsequent betrayals.

If Instagram had been introduced in this form from the get-go, would I have been inclined to join at all?

Definitely not. Why would anyone sign up to be on something that mostly presents them with content they never subscribed to in the first place? 

Then came the biggest betrayal yet: Data-mining to train A.I. models.

Ironically, it is hard for me to tell what’s happening on Instagram because the volume of shit from the people I don’t follow (please stop serving me videos of Jurgen Klopp) prevents me from recognising how many of the people I do follow are leaving and/or have already left.

Still, I gather that Meta’s proposed content-harvesting initiative is particularly unpopular, given that Instagram was a platform (initially) all about content creation and sharing, and a lot of the OG users are visual artists who are not best-pleased about having their livelihood scraped.

Like many others, I’ve made some futile attempts to opt my data out, but I’m stymied by the fact that it seems to involve - amongst other things - reactivating my Facebook account. I’d rather pour hot beans in my ears.

Cascading hot takes:

  • I’m private on Instagram anyway, so I think I’m protected, but I don’t really trust that protection to last for long. My livelihood isn’t in any way affected, and, as proud as I am of my various bird photos, I don’t feel all that proprietary of them.

  • Where I do find myself feeling a bit squeamish is when I think of photos of my loved ones. Thinking that my cat pics are going to wind up in some sort of LLM-tapped Cat™ datapile is disconcerting. I don’t put family pics on Instagram, because the internet sucks and people should really not do that. But if I did, that’d make me feel even more uncomfortable.

  • It really bothered me to quit Facebook. It kinda bothered me to quit Twitter. It was not a problem to leave Substack behind. If I were a social media company, that progression would scare the shit out of me. Once people realise that departing a platform isn’t that big of a deal… it becomes easier to do it over and over and over again. It turns out that the ‘need’ to be on a platform really was more emotional than rational all along. Who knew?

  • Similarly: I’m at a conference right now (hola from Barcelona!), and ‘networking’ has already adapted to a post-social world. Folks conversationally jockey around to if they’re on compatible platforms, but there’s no longer an expectation that they will be. Soon, I hope, it will be as normal to say that you’re not on a platform as to say you are. It is already a comfort to see how people are returning to sharing numbers and emails for 1:1 connection rather than linking, friending, or following.

  • THAT SAID, as much as I applaud the return of small scale, interpersonal communciations, it is just more fragmentation, innit? Our algorithmic bubbles are going to be replaced by full-on blinders as we recede further from the radioactive ruins of ‘town squares’ into the coziness of self-curated direct relationships. Now’s the time to subscribe to linky-type newsletters, before we lose sight of the internet entirely.

me, elsewhere

Village Well Books is a lovely indie bookseller in LA. We had a great cyberpunk event there earlier this year, and while I was in town, I also recorded an episode of the Shelf Talkers podcast. If you’re interested in 45 minutes of me muttering the word “challenge” over and over again, this is for you!

If you’d like to hear me mutter “challenge” over and over again live - good news! The Bradford Literature Festival is around the corner, and I’ll be there to talk cyberpunk alongside actual amazing awarded authors E.J. Swift and Lauren Beukes. The three of us are taking the stage together on Sunday, 30 June. 

The Festival is always the highlight of my year, and I’m looking forward to seeing old and new friends. I’ll be in Bradford for several days, and participating in more events and interviews while I’m there, including a cameo appearance at their Creative Economic Conference.

I recently participated in a panel at the Level Up! Conference on new frontiers in digital harms. We spoke about the power of storytelling and the impact (for good or ill) narratives can have. It has been a wild ride in the sector as “storytelling” has gone from conceit to accepted practice in, what feels like, a few short years.

There's still a lot of work to be done (both capability-building and impact measurement leap out as particular gaps), but interdisciplinary thinking around narrative development is now accepted practice, and that alone feels like progress.

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