Exciting writing news

I just sold a story to Mad Scientist Journal!

Even more exciting news if you liked my novel “Driving Ambition”:

It’s the direct prequel story that I’ve mentioned a few times, covering Liz’s backstory and the unexpected role she plays in the development of sentience among Things.

Not saying any more– but you’ll be able to read it yourself towards the end of the year.

The Colour Out Of Space Opera: What Is A Space Opera?

The following blog post series is based on a talk I gave at Eastercon in 2018. While normally the talks I give at conventions usually wind up becoming either academic papers or magazine/fanzine articles, this one involves way too much visual content– videos, photos, links to outside sites– to work in this format. However, including visual content and meta-content is of course what blogs do best.

If you’re interested, you can watch a video of the full talk here, and before I begin I would like to thank Caroline Mullan for asking me to give it, and Tony Keen for coming up with the title.

The subject of this series is the use of colour in space opera, and how colour and style are used to cue and direct the viewer, even without them necessarily realising it. According to structuralist anthropology, humans tend to view the world, unconsciously, according to certain classification systems (e.g. nature versus culture, raw versus cooked…), and the colours used in many space operas need direct our minds in certain ways.

Why?

For the present purposes, I’ll be defining space opera as an ongoing series based on or around a spaceship and its travels. If all television series are, to paraphrase the old saying, either Gilligan’s Island or The Fugitive, then space operas are the SF version of The Fugitive: rather than waiting in one place for the action to come to them, the protagonists go to where the action is. This a bit of a rough-and-ready working definition, as there are certain series, like Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which tend to get considered “space opera” despite being based on and around a space station. However, in some ways they are exceptions which prove the rule: DS9 is not only part of a wider, more conventionally space-operatic, franchise, but after the introduction of the Defiant it fits much more in a space-opera mould, whereas Babylon 5, by virtue of being an epic saga spanning multiple star systems, manages to get the distance aspect as well.

My examples here will mainly draw on Star Trek, Blake’s 7 and Battlestar GalacticaStar Trek is in some ways the archetypical space opera; as for the latter two, as well as representing some of the different directions space opera can go in, they are also series that I know something about, having written a book or two on them (that was the word from our sponsor. We can now resume the programme).

The nature of space opera has certain knock-on effects on production. One of them is the need to establish character fairly quickly and easily for anyone new coming in (particularly for programmes like original Star Trek, which don’t follow a story-arc structure but are made up of mostly stand-alone episodes), and even for regulars (as space operas tend to have constantly-changing guest casts). Mood also has to be established quickly, and not too blatantly.

The other main point is that you need to differentiate locations easily and cheaply. If a series is going to a different planet almost every week, building a whole new set is out of the budget even for a series like original Battlestar Galactica (at the time the most expensive television programme ever made). Locations tend to be affected by geographic proximity: you want to film somewhere within easy commuting distance of the studio (hence the frequent use of Vasquez Rocks in Star Trek, original Battlestar Galactica and other California-made series, and Kamloops in the 2003-10 Vancouver-made Battlestar Galactica).

Given this, it’s not too surprising that colours are frequently used to establish character and mood, and to turn a small number of sets and locations into a dazzling array of new planets.

Next post, I’ll be giving you a brief guide to what structuralist anthropology is, and what it’s got to say about all this.

A Blast From The Past

Turned up a surprise on YouTube the other day: apparently, not only did they record my keynote speech at Kristu Jayanti College (Bangalore/Mangaluru) in 2015, but they posted the video on Youtube!

Here’s me talking about anthropology and business, on a hot and humid but rather lovely day.

A Summary and Culmination of Leadership Lessons: Bran the Broken

Our tour of Westeros and leadership is, for the moment at least, coming to an end, so it’s worth pausing to do some summarising, particularly in the context of how Game of Thrones itself ended.

<MORE SPOILERS THAN USUAL WARNING. THERE, THAT’S OUT OF THE WAY>

A common thread running through a lot of the posts has been the rigidity of the progression system in Westeros, and the problems this can cause. Evidently the people of Westeros have noticed this too, given that the finale first literally destroys the Iron Throne with fire, and then has the surviving leaders adopt a new promotion pathway system which goes some way towards fixing these problems. Interestingly, Bran the Broken has an amalgam of traits from the old pathway, being the eldest surviving male offspring of someone with a reasonable claim to the throne, and from a more inclusive (and thus flexible) paradigm, being disabled, infertile, and, technically, a religious leader.

He also seems to be, at the moment anyway, primarily a transactional leader. Which makes sense: charismatic leaders tend to flourish in crisis conditions. Quite possibly he’ll also prove transformational, but in a slow, gradual way as the country rebuilds.

The new system still has some obvious problems. There still doesn’t seem to be any way to remove a toxic leader short of killing them, for one thing. For another, leaders may be collectively chosen, but it’s by the nobility, and that’s an easily hackable system that a future Ramsay Bolton might turn to their advantage. It’s still a system that’s likely to favour non-disabled ethnic majority males regardless of their ability or lack of it, as any researcher who follows the power-based school of leadership theory might be quick to point out.

There are also a lot of untold leadership stories hanging around the fringes of the episode. For a start, while I’m very much in favour of Sansa Stark getting formally recognised as a queen, there’s not much discussion of how the North will rebuild, what sort of succession system she’s planning, or how relations with the rest of the country will proceed in a situation where its monarch isn’t her blood relative. And speaking of leadership stories yet to be told, I would very much like to know what sort of a time Yara Greyjoy is having in terms of hanging on to leadership of the Iron Islands.

But still, as endings go, it’s probably a better one than most of the leadership of Westeros deserve.

This ends the Leadership Lessons from Game of Thrones series, unless obviously something new comes up to merit a revival. I’ll post a comprehensive index to posts later, and I’m planning another academic SF blog series soon, but for now, thanks for reading!

Gender and leadership: the Greyjoy Siblings

iu-3We’ve already discussed gender and leadership in this series to some extent, but largely in the context of femaleness as a barrier to leadership (and fertile maleness as a prerequisite for it). However, in this case I’m going to frame it in terms of cultural variation.

My own particular academic interest in leadership is in the context of cross-cultural management. Specifically, the fact that what makes an acceptable leader varies from place to place, as we can see with the issue of gender in Westeros. While most places seem to follow the practice identified earlier– oldest male offspring inherits, followed by his sons and brothers, followed by daughters and sisters in cases where there are no male heirs, plus female regents if the male heir is underage or incapacitated– there are variations, for instance Dorne which practices primogeniture regardless of the gender of the child (a fact which was largely not discussed on the TV programme, but never mind)– and, of course, the Iron Islands, where women are not allowed to rule, full stop.

Which is also interesting because women are clearly allowed other forms of leadership role: nobody seems to have much of a problem with Yara commanding a pirate ship, for instance.

But the case of Yara also raises another issue with regard to gender and leadership. In some societies with strongly differentiated gender roles, the problem of what to do when you have too many children of one gender and not enough of the other, is solved by raising some of the children as “socially” of the other gender. Examples include traditional Inuit society, and the “sworn virgins” of Albania. Please note that this is not, as a practice, analogous to being transgender: the sworn virgins are not seen as being “male,” but as women taking a male role.

Yara, in Game of Thrones, seems tacitly like the Westerosi equivalent. She’s acknowledged to be female, but she dresses like a man; she commands a ship like a man; and she grew up in a situation where one of her brothers was dead and the other being raised by the Starks as a hostage. Needing, if not a male heir, at least someone who could take on the duties associated with one, it’s no surprise that Balon Greyjoy turned to his daughter to fulfil this role.

Furthermore, the thing which bars her surviving brother, Theon, from challenging her bid for leadership is that he’s a eunuch. Eunuchs on Westeros are in a similarly ambivalent gender position: socially male in many ways, they are also denied traditional male pathways to leadership, though they can wield a lot of of “soft power” in part because they are inherently infertile and thus do not have a stake in the inheritance system.

All of which is a lengthy and analogous way of saying that not only is gender and leadership viewed differently in different societies (again calling into question the idea that there are fixed sets of leadership traits which are always identifiable and always the best way of choosing or training a leader), but also that the gender binary which is taken for granted in a lot of the business literature (remember that management studies as a discipline first arose in the USA in the mid-twentieth century) is far from universal. Something worth remembering when choosing who will represent your business interests in other countries… or if you want to open a branch office in Westeros.

Next time: a farewell to Westeros, a consideration of what the series finale says about governance, and a little summary of all we have learned about leadership so far.