Category Archives: Culture

The Difficulty of Difficult Media

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

(Thanks to Serdar, who inspired me with this column.)

I often hear the word “Difficult” used to describe media with praise. The “difficult” film that supposedly makes you a film buff if you understand it. “Difficult” is apparently a good thing, and I see no reason to believe this.

If a book or movie is “difficult” to understand, is that a testimony to its depth? There’s no reason to assume that it’s any good – maybe it’s incoherent or bad. Perhaps the creator didn’t know how to communicate. A difficult movie isn’t necessarily a mental obstacle course that strengthens you, but just a pointless labyrinth.

Yes, some media is “difficult,” and yes, it takes intellectual fortitude to understand it. I evaluate such media on a case-by-case basis because “difficult” even when properly used doesn’t communicate depth. A clever mystery isn’t the same as a symbolism-packed journey.

I think people love to praise “difficult” media because it says I am smart enough to understand this and you’re not. Claiming something is “difficult” for too many is a way to praise themselves. It’s a way to use a single word to claim one’s intellectual superiority that you “got” it.

I’m always wary of simplistic descriptions such as “difficult.” They quickly become shorthand whose meaning is lost or ignore important distinctions. One word can get in the way of the real experience of a piece of media or a person.

Steven Savage

The Net (work) With No Center

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

As the pandemic grinds on (and grinds back) my hope for any kind of “normal” fades. We’ll find a new normal, new ways to carry on. Some of the old normal was so fragile it would break anyway. But things will – must – change.

That includes our social relations. I’ve been trying to understand what social ties that I can build in this time. The answer is the ties can’t focus on me, and that answer came from a video game named Slipways.

Slipways is a streamlined strategy game of interstellar colonization. One colonizes worlds and builds trade routes (the FTL slipways) between them. Worlds have needs and goods, and you set up slipways that benefit multiple planets. Complex relations among these planets develop, a vast, complex network of support that hopefully helps all.

(If you don’t keep the benefits in mind, the people throw you out of office. Center on one area of the galaxy and it all falls apart.)

One night, trying to sleep, I realized Slipways is an excellent metaphor for the social structures we should build. We should seek social ties where people benefit each other and use our unique needs and inclinations. Equally as important, the web of social relations we try to forge in these troubled times can’t be centered on one person. Put too much weight on one part of the web, and it snaps.

This realization came as a great relief. I had been trying to juggle social ties and commitments, help others but had missed the whole. I might center on my social needs or the needs of a lonely friend, but that was wrong. I wanted to build a network.

The funny thing is, I build networks anyway – “Social Butterfly Effect,” as one friend put it. I just missed that in my desire to fix things and keep them running as we meander through the second year of the Dumb Apocalypse. I knew more and did more than I expected – once I stopped worrying about myself, what I did, etc.

Amazing what can inspire us. Equally impressive is how we miss the obvious.

So if you want to network, ping me . . .

Steven Savage

A Firm Foundation of The Unknown

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

Serdar’s recent blog post on the importance of skepticism and “not being sure” struck a chord in me. We need skepticism, yet we don’t leverage it and work against it – until our lack of skepticism creates a disaster. As he notes

“There ought to be room for the development of a whole sub-discipline of public relations that uses what we know about behavior on a mass scale to constructively leverage doubt. We have thus far used fear and greed and delusion, but we’re not stupid; we can use compassion and generosity and insight if we choose to.”

Later, he wonders if this can be explored in fiction. I have, to an extent, and had an insight I wanted to share.

My Avenoth novels take place in a techno-fantasy world that survived a devastating war. In turn, this setting was based on an unused science fiction novel I had in mind, looking at how we might survive and prosper after our many challenges. I learned a lot in theorizing the latter and creating the former, even if the themes aren’t always apparent.

(Perhaps making them more subtle means they affect people more . . .)

In the current Avenoth setting, the population is well-educated, aware of the past – and taught to be skeptical. Society is a complex dance of unions, churches, professional organizations, neighborhoods, governments, grounding people in oft-harsh reality. It is a society deliberately remade to ensure it can survive – and skepticism is part of it.

Contemplating that society taught me several things about the hope for a society where skepticism is valued:

  • Society that values strong ties, truth, and skepticism is easy to visualize. We know we want it – it seems we don’t want to work on it.
  • Society has to confront and deal with unsurety to have functional skepticism. Too many people sell the drug of certainty to those who want it.
  • A society that wants functional skepticism has to ask for it deliberately. It must be valued.
  • Many people know how much bullshit they believe. They don’t want to admit it.
  • A skeptical society must be skeptical of the past. Too often want the past to bless us with approval, meaning we see it with distorted vision.

Ironically, the Avenoth series, which started as a kind of fantasy/sf deconstruction, took me in this direction. It was educational, even if it wasn’t the exact point of the stories when I started.

I’d like to think that humanity can learn without a massive disaster. I fear it may be too late considering COVID-19, climate change, and economic problems. What we can’t avoid, may we learn from.

At least writing this series, I can see how it’s possible to learn. That is one of the virtues of fiction, but I do wish I could find more, as Serdar does.

Steven Savage