16 Jul 2017

Fantasy versus Science Fiction

Hello readers!

I have taken a break from my writing on Fallen Love in order to update to you on my latest comings and goings, including my now published essay, Fantasy versus Science Fiction: A Curious Divergence.

You may be aware that I wrote this essay a while back; I did so in order to submit it to a competition run by Issues in Earth Science. I subsequently won that competition—but some edits were requested, and it took a wee while until the essay was finally published (along with me receiving the money!)

Anyway, it’s here now: Fantasy versus Science Fiction

If you have any questions, comments, arguments, whatever—just put them in the comments section below. I always appreciate a bit of healthy intellectual debate.

In other news, I have read and reviewed two books—as usual, you can find them on the Reviews page, though for your convenience, here is the link to the book I enjoyed and the one I hated.

Now, I must return to my work. I will update you with my progress on Fallen Love, along with some photos of my time here in Vatra Dornei, in a few days. Until then!

6 Jul 2017

A Long Year

Hello readers!

It has alas been some time since I have last written to you. But rest assured that a great deal has been going on; in fact, the purpose of this post is to recount on this year’s events. There are many, and I will split it into three broad sections: academics, writing, and a few tidbits about my personal life. In my usual style, these reflections will be paired with a few wayward analyses.

Until then, a quick update regarding my present situation: I am now in Romania, after a long day in airports. I will be visiting Vatra Dornei, a mountain town; there I will take photos (which of course I shall release) along with inspiration. Or, well, that’s the plan.

Anyway...

The Wonders of Academia

Having completed my first year at Amsterdam University College, I have a number of observations to make regarding both the university and academic life in general.

To begin with, the former. The AUC, as it’s handily abbreviated, is uncommon in its teaching model: it has a student body of only 900, and they are rather diverse, ranging from all four corners of Europe—be it Sweden or Italy, Albania or Portugal—and beyond, from the Americas, New Zealand and Russia. Indeed, the AUC’s motto is “excellence and diversity in a global city” (which the students lightly mock by calling themselves “the excellent and diverse people of AUC”).

Despite this, the student body is also remarkably uniform. Partly this is as a direct consequence of its size: with only 900 kids, it’s much harder to capture the smorgasbord of life experiences that a university of 30,000 can. Partly it’s as a result of socio-economics, with few Muslims or people from African descent to be seen (at least relative to other places). And partly it’s as a result of its politics—the AUC is Liberal with a capital L.

Anyway, the more personal question I should be asking is “Have I enjoyed my time here?” And for the most part, I have. I have made very good progress, obtaining a number of As and A–. The workload has been... managable, really. I have after all managed to do a hell of a lot of writing (of which you will learn soon).

It hasn’t been entirely rosy, of course. One reason, as I irrelevantly put it, is the wonder of academia. The prevailing academic culture is dry, formalistic, and devoid of common sense. I should precede that statement with the qualifier “mostly”—there are wonderful exceptions, full of clarity and wit—but they are exceptions.

A good example of this are citations. We learned three types of citations in our academic writing class—APA, CSE and MLA—and all three are a pain in the arse. There’s also Harvard, Chicago, and numerous others; each is more tedious than the last.

To explain, these citation styles all require that the author follow very strict, unhelpful, and inflexible formats for how they cite sources. APA asks for (variable-1 variable-2) where variable-1 is author name—last name, mind you—and variable-2 is the year of publication. MLA asks for (author-name page-number) in the same format. If you need to cite a source written by unknown authors (which are actually fairly common) you have to resort to other complicated rules. If your source is an ebook, MLA is a pain; if your source is historical, APA also looks weird.

An example:

APA: Stupid sociologist A believes that weird concept x is useful in explaining whatever; but stupid sociologist B argues that weird concept y should be used to explain it. (Woodward 1990; Back 1990). However, yet another stupid sociologist C thinks both concepts are needed. (unspellable name 2000).

APA cont.: Marx (1857) in his Das Kapital argued that...

Mises (no page number because it’s a fucking ebook) argued that...

And this is before we even get to the bibliography/works cited/references/whatever synonym your style demands. The rules there are so complicated that it’s impossible for a normal, sane human being to try and remember them; we’re left to using software to do it for us.

Does a solution exist for this? Is it possible to cite academic sources in a pain-free manner? Of course; it’s only a question of imagination, and maybe some good quality software design. In-text citations could be done with a number, like [1], perhaps followed with an optional field for additional clarity. The optional field could be an author name, the name of the work being cited, or really anything that is appropriate in context. So the above could read:

Sociologist A [1][Woodward] believes that... Sociologist B argues [2][Back]

Marx [1][Das Kapital]

Mises [1]...

Bibliographies could be structured logically rather than arbitrarily, so instead of:

Ayer, A. (1936). Propositions about the past and other minds. Language, truth and logic (1952nd ed., pp. 19). New York: Dover Publications.

Berkeley, B. (1710). Treatise concerning human knowledge (Dover Edition ed.). New York: Dover Publications.

Brink, D. (2014). Aristotelian naturalism in the history of ethics. Journal of the History of Philosophy, 52(1), 814.

You could have:

1. Title: Propositions about the Past and Other Minds.
Author: AJ Ayer (Alfred Jules Ayer)
Publication year: 1952
Publisher: Dover
etc...
2. Title: Treatise Concerning Human Knowledge...

This would make it far easier to both produce and read citations. But still, academia continues with this arcane, time-consuming and moronic practice.

I haven’t yet touched on the other absurdities that prevail in academic circles; indeed doing so would require more breadth than I have in a blog post. I’ll just leave you with this little bundle of joy.

This Article, a third in a series of related works, explores the representation of sexual identity within Critical Race Theory and other forms of anti-racist discourse. I argue, after examining representative texts, that anti-racist discourse is often "heteronormative" -- or centered around heterosexual experiences. Most commonly, anti-racist heteronormativity occurs when scholars and activists in the field fail to analyze the homophobic dimensions of acts or conditions of racial inequality and when they dismiss, either implicitly or explicitly, the "morality" of gay and lesbian equality claims. This Article recommends that scholars in Critical Race Theory and related fields adopt a more multidimensional lens for studying oppression and identity -- one that treats forms of subordination and identity as interrelated, rather than as mutually exclusive and unconnected.

—By some stupid academic. Sorry, no fancy citations here.

The Joys of Writing

Moving on, in another perhaps sarcastically titled section, I come to my writing.

Back in November, I made a huge decision: I abandoned my novel in progress, the Ark, and began writing Fallen Love instead. It was not a decision I made lightly—I had after all been working on the Ark for more than a year. But I feel that in the end it was the right one. Put simply, the Ark was not the book I was meant to be writing; the premise was incoherent, the conflict was lacking, and it just didn’t turn out the way I wanted it.

Fallen Love is also a challenging project, but it is one I am enjoying. I still have much work to do, but I am getting there. Partly, this has been result of perfectionism on my part: I am not easily satisfied. But a more detailed explanation will require another blog post.

In other areas, I have been with Red Pers—an online newspaper run by an AUC student—for more than six months now. I have written a large number of articles, many of which I have linked here. To make it easy for you, they can all be found here: http://www.redpers.nl/author/alex/

I am hoping to expand into paid journalism soon, details of which I will be releasing once I have something concrete.

Finally, I have also been busy writing essays. My first, entitled Fantasy versus Science Fiction: A Curious Divergence, will be published by Issues in Earth Science—for which they are giving me a modest prize. I have also written another essay, on university education, which I hope will get picked up.

The Vicissitudes of Life

Living in Amsterdam has thrown some challenges at me. Some of it has been largely predictable; it was Benjamin Franklin who remarked, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” I have indeed paid taxes, as well as asked for benefits, and generally wrangled with the bureaucracy.

Another truism that has been proven is “there’s no such thing as free lunch”—because it costs money, and time to cook, both of which have been important aspects I have had to contend with. The financial side has been manageable, due to a combination of my parents, my grandparents, and the state. As for the cooking side, I have devised a number of dishes that meet my requirements: relatively low cooking time, health, animal welfare and impact on the environment. The exact details I may share later, but it has involved lots of wholegrain pasta, rice, lentils, and copious amounts of soy products.

Finally, there has been love, which I feel demands another catchy cliché. Perhaps: “When you’re in love, it’s like the universe revolves around you and the person you love. Actually nobody really gives a shit.” I am exaggerating, of course, but you get the point.

Conclusion

It has been a long year, as the title alludes. I have written countless essays, and taken countless exams; I wrote till my fingers bled; and I lived, experiencing the three permanent features of life: lunch, taxes, and unrequited love. Now, it is time for me to wrap up. I will write again, so keep following!

18 Jun 2017

A Brief Update

Hello readers!

I do apologise for my dreadful lack of blogging these last two weeks. I have, alas, been busy—both with university, and with other areas of writing. To begin: you may find my analysis on the aftermath of the General Election interesting.

The question that is on everyone’s mind — be it political commentators, several reputable pollsters, and of course, May herself — is surely: how did it come to this? Barely two months ago, it seemed inevitable that she would win, and win big. By embracing Brexit, and indeed presenting herself as the Queen of Brexit, May believed she would win millions of votes from people who voted UKIP (an anti-immigration party) two years ago. On top of that, Labour was in chaos: Corbyn (Labour’s controversial leader) had faced a motion of no-confidence, a walkout by his Shadow Cabinet, and was the most unpopular leader in opposition history.

And yet, here we are, in an election where Labour gained seats (and a rare 40 percent of the vote share) while May has lost her majority. What gives? What led May from being the uncrowned queen to the empress with no clothes?

Full article on Red Pers.

I have, on top of this, finalised my essay to be published in Issues in Earth Science—I will be receiving the prize money soon. On top of that, there has, of course, been the matter of Fallen Love. My upcoming new book is filled with delights, but writing it has proven to be a substantial amount of work. As I have written previously there are various reasons for this, not least the fact that I am writing in a new genre.

I have also been doing more miscellaneous things, such as visiting Amsterdam in the summer—photos can be seen here—and attempting to make the best of the unexpectedly pleasant summer weather.

In any case, you’ll forgive me when I say this post is short. I must soldier on, with an exam on Thursday and a book that refuses to write itself. Until then, may the stars be with you.

4 Jun 2017

The General Election 2017: It’s as Simple as ABC

Hello readers!

Today—as you may be able to guess—the subject is the UK General Election. This will not be an analysis piece. The question I wish to answer is simple: how should you vote? The answer is likewise simple: anything but conservative. Of course, this is not a propaganda piece, either; I wish to persuade you, the reader, with sound, factual argument. So buckle up—it’s going to be an interesting ride.

Theresa May: Weak, Dishonest, Out of her Depth

The Prime Minister’s mantra this election has been “strong and stable”. She repeats it at every opportunity (except for debates, of course, because she doesn’t attend those). Indeed, the new mantra has even superseded the old clichés—such as the much-loved magic money tree.

It is said, however, that weak leaders describe themselves by what they hope to represent, rather than what they actually represent. Think of it as being a bit like “the People’s Republic of China”—neither a republic nor of the people. More a statement of ideals, if you will.

Theresa May is, in many ways, politically inept. The commentariat used to believe she was some sort of political genius; how else, they reasoned, could she have toppled Cameron and become PM? (The answer: opportunism and lack of serious opposition.)

The most damning proof of her ineptness is likely the “dementia tax”, so baptised for targeting people in need of social care—aka dementia sufferers—with a tax on the value of their home. The details are problematic enough; the tax is rife with the possibility of abuse. But perhaps more worryingly still, May announced this unpopular policy before the election, U-turned, and then pretended she hadn’t. Hardly the mark of a great statesman or master negotiator.

Speaking of master negotiators, her Brexit approach is... utter shambles. This may surprise some of my readers. After all: they say May is trusted on Brexit. She certainly wants you to believe it. But I shall recourse back to the analogy I gave previously; the People’s Republic of China is as much a republic as Theresa May is a “safe pair of hands”.

Partly this is because of her team. Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, has described the Germans as Nazis—an act of such mind-numbing stupidity, it almost defies comprehension. Then there is David Davies, the Brexit Secretary, who admitted he had made no economic assessment of Brexit—nine months after the referendum! And don’t even get me started on the Secretary for International Trade (or is that Dr?) Liam Fox, who was forced to resign as defence secretary on allegations of corruption.

Then there is May herself. “No deal is better than a bad deal” she proclaimed to thunderous applause, as if the EU negotiations were like buying a carpet at a bazaar, perhaps. And not, you know, a massive constitutional challenge with millions of people’s citizenship rights—on both sides of the Channel—at stake.

So-called “No Deal” Brexit would also be an economic disaster, the likes of which the much-maligned Corbyn would struggle to accomplish. Banks are already making plans to leave, with calamitous consequences for UK tax revenues. Tearing Britain out of the Customs Union will result in huge delays and expenses, destroying pan-European supply chains for British exporters, and forcing business leaders to defer investments or move production elsewhere. The country’s triple-A rating has also been slashed.

Or, in less technical terms: No Deal Brexit will be a shit storm. And the fact that Theresa May is seriously contemplating it should tell you a lot about how competent she really is.

The A-Word

The Tories wanted this to be the Brexit election. Alas, this is not so. The fact of the matter is, this country has not forgotten about austerity; it remains a problem, festering deep beneath a complacent Conservative party. People do care about the NHS, which the Red Cross has deemed to be in “humanitarian crisis”. They do care about schools, which are facing real cuts in funding per pupil. They do care about high energy prices, social care, pensions, and the chronic shortfall in housing.

And if you care about those issues, then don’t vote Conservative. Judge them on their record, as they say. I won’t go into technical details; the effects of their policies are plain for all to see.

It’s as easy as... ABC

It’s easy for me to say “anything but Conservative”, you think. Isn’t Corbyn some swivel-eyed IRA supporter? Doesn’t Tim Farron think gay sex is a sin?

Only, it isn’t as hard as you think. Corbyn has his sore spots, true. But what he may, or may not, have said about the IRA was thirty years ago; this is, after all, 2017 and not 1983. The agonising over whether or not he’ll press the red button is just that—agonising. It’s about as likely as Godzilla jumping from the sea and rampaging through London. (Okay, maybe I exaggerate. But only a little.)

And Corbyn does have the answer to the problems this country faces now. His manifesto recognises the real issues we face, puts forward serious proposals to fix them, and is costed too. (Remember the Tory manifesto? Which party seems more competent, really?)

But why, you ask, should you not just vote for Labour; in other words, why is my motto “anything but conservative” rather than “vote Labour”? The answer is our good old First Past the Post voting system. It is better to vote for a Liberal Democrat, or a Green, if voting Labour means getting Tory. Or in other words: better half a loaf of bread than none at all.

You have every right to doubt the Lib Dems, though.

Tim Farron is the embodiment of hypocrisy. But as I say: sometimes one has to choose the least worst option.

Parting Words

We do not know exactly what will happen on the 8th June. Perhaps we will have a hung parliament; perhaps the Tories will win comfortably. It is even possible that Corbyn will do it, and become Prime Minister.

But let us leave that for later. For now, the message I want to give you is this: we live in on the edge of a very dark time in politics. Hubris, short-sightedness and ignorance could isolate us from Europe, with devastating consequences for the economy and for the people caught in between. The Tories have run down our public services to breaking point; it is only a matter of time before something cracks. Our Prime Minister has shown her weakness to the world.

This is no time for entertaining hypothetical scenarios about Armageddon. This is no time for mud-slinging and personality politics. On the 8th of June, I urge you to vote with a clear head. The future is in your hands... even if it’s cliché.

28 May 2017

A Summer of Words

Good day, readers!

Today, Alex has finally taken the time to write a proper update—although Alex hopes you did enjoy the second guest post by Molly. Quite a number of things have happened since Alex last wrote; therefore, this post will be a longer one. We will have four topics as the subject matter: to begin with, Alex’s university life, followed by all elements of his writing—poems, essays, and of course, Fallen Love.

Without further ado...

A University Experience

The academic year is scheduled as follows: there are two 16-week periods, and two 6-week periods, with breaks in between, and a nearly two month long summer holiday. Alex has completed the first 16- and 6-week period; the second sixteen week period, which he is in now, is almost at an end. Thus, there are six more weeks until the summer holiday.

The next 6 weeks will have Alex study for a course known as “Global Identity”, which—according to former students—is quite a bore. Therefore, Alex has hopes to make significant headway in his writing.

University life has brought many challenges for me (yes, we’re not in third person anymore). Friendship, romance, loneliness—to name a few emotions. On top of that, there have been practical difficulties. Accommodation, bank accounts and bureaucracy were just some of them.

Academically, I have found university to my liking. I have obtained excellent grades so far. Although, of course, it has meant significant work: ten exams, ten substantial essays, and countless smaller assignments. What can I say? I need a proper break.

Two Lovestruck Poems

I have alluded to romantic feelings, and indeed, there has been a special someone whom I have fallen for. They will be known only as “The One Who Shall Not Be Named”.

The poems are called Eromenos (transliterated from the Greek, meaning “beloved”) and the Dove. You may read them below.

Eromenos

The Dove

Essays, and Money

I have won my first paid essay competition! The science publisher, Issues in Earth and Space Science, has accepted my essay for a €50 prize. The title of the work is “Fantasy and Science Fiction: A Curious Divergence”. I won’t release it just yet—but it will be published in short order.

I have not yet decided on what I want to use the money for, although I hope to make a modest donation to charity.

In addition, I have also submitted to another academic publisher—the ERIS Journal for Humanities, run by the VU university—which will release the results this summer. First prize is €350, so wish me luck!

Fallen Love: A Difficult Tale

In addition to all these efforts, there has, of course, been what is perhaps the most important: Fallen Love, my upcoming novel.

Its tale is a long and fraught one. Initially—nearly two years ago, in fact—I began writing the Ark, which was the story I first planned to tell. Alas, that did not work out as expected; I wrote on my experience here. Instead, following a moment of dark inspiration, I chose to write the tale I am now creating.

Efforts so far have not gotten me nearly as far as I would have wished. I wrote 48,000 words; after a fair amount of revision, I am now on 46,000. I expect Part One will come in at under 45,000. After that, I will began writing Part Two—for a grand total somewhere between 80K and 90K words.

Since I have been rather taciturn with regards to the story (I have only posted a blurb on the “Upcoming Books” page) perhaps it is time I let slip a few more details.

Fallen Love is a story set in Dublin, in the year 2620. It is a strange place: Ireland is run by an authoritarian regime known, simply, as the Party. Europe is united in the form of the European Superstate, against the Chinese menace. Dark things walk the Earth—mutants that prey on humans, driven by a passion known only to them.

Mark, a young man belonging to the Fallen—a Class of people with few rights—doesn’t understand why his father abandoned him, nor why he’s fallen for Conall, an arrogant Upperclassman with a love of beautiful things.

Neither of them suspect what lies in store for them. There are barriers that guard their world from the forces of the Dark One; but they grow thinner, and the menace looms larger. Mark will soon discover that his father had every reason to leave...

Finishing Thoughts

I am a busy man, as you can see. My work takes on many forms—be it academic essays, romantic poems, or evocative novels. My only command is that you stay and listen. There is more yet to come... though not this week. There is one more exam yet to go!

22 May 2017

Guest Post: A Book Review by Molly

Hello readers! Alex has been mighty busy these past days (weeks?) for the reasons he has already mentioned: university, journalism, essay writing, and of course, Fallen Love. He will update you on the latest events soon. Until then, why not read this guest post by Molly Fennig—the second guest post ever published here on the Magical Realm—and also my own review on her website. Happy reading!

Guest post by Molly Fennig, teen author of the YA thriller INSOMNUS and blogger for mollyfennig.com.

purple-hearts

I picked up Tess Wakefield’s debut novel Purple Hearts in a bookstore in Wisconsin, in part because she was a Minnesota author, just like I am, and in part because I loved the cover with the converse shoes and work boots underneath a teal background with a white title (as much as it is frowned upon to judge books by covers as a metaphor, I firmly believe there’s a reason the metaphor exists, especially when there’s not much else that can be considered when choosing a book).

The other reason I bought Purple Hearts was because I was intrigued by the blurb. I spend a long time picking up book after book, carefully setting it back because the backs promised a Girl who meets A Boy who is Not Like Any Other Boy or stories that seemed similarly cliché. Purple Hearts, on the other hand, is about a girl, Cassie, who marries a soldier for his health insurance and they must “set aside their differences to make it look like a real marriage… unless, somewhere along the way, it becomes one…”

Although it’s easy to see where the story might go, the way in which the story unfolds and the choices the characters make are not cut-and-dry, creating a book that is hard to put down. The dilemmas are realistic, as are the solutions, and the plot is character-driven, as it should be.

One of the first things that pulled me into this book was the writing style. Part of me kept reading because the plot was compelling for sure, but an equally large part of me kept reading because I wanted to keep experiencing the wonder that is Tess Wakefield’s writing. The dialogue is realistic. The characters are complex. The figurative language is beautiful. If her writing contained nutritional value, I would happily eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day of the week.

This was also a book with one of the most successful uses of multiple points of view, where the narrator switches each chapter. Part of this is due to Wakefield having created strong characters that are not too much alike and both have similar, although maybe not exactly equal, narrating power. The chapters are short, keeping the pace of the book fast, and the switch between the points of view is amazingly effortless for the reader.

(Spoilers): In terms of what I would have changed in the book, I had a little trouble believing Luke wouldn’t have any more problems with his drug dealer just having beaten him up, especially since I’m sure Johnno has other people he could recruit to help get back at Luke. I’m okay with it, especially since I can’t think of a better solution except maybe calling the cops, but it made me have less faith in his decision-making abilities.

Also, I loved the ending, but I also think it could’ve been longer, at least so I (selfishly) could’ve experienced just a little more of Wakefield’s writing. It did feel make the story feel complete and cohesive, which I loved. Also, the ending was realistic and fitting without being too predictable, a feat for which I thoroughly commend Wakefield.

All in all, I think adults and young adults alike would love this book, especially those who like romance that isn’t too cliché or cheesy and who like rounded characters, great writing, and a unique premise. I can’t wait to read what Wakefield writes next.

If you liked this post, check out my blog for writing tips, book reviews and more, mollyfennig.com, and check out my book, INSOMNUS, on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

10 May 2017

The Battle is Won, but the War Continues

As part of my journalism endeavours, I have written another article on the French elections, this time regarding Macron’s challenges as he enters the Élysée. An excerpt is quoted below; the full link can be found at the bottom.

It would be no understatement to say that Macron’s victory in the second round of the French presidential elections has made EU politicians sigh with relief. His opponent — the Front National candidate — ran on a platform that included taking France out of the euro, calling a referendum on ‘Frexit’, and turning France into a facsimile of the Vichy Régime. Regardless of standard political considerations, Macron’s success was a victory for all decent people throughout Europe; it demonstrated a rebuttal to neofascism and a vote for liberalism, no matter how flawed.

But although the election is over, the war is not. Le Pen will be back again; the populists and their ilk will continue fighting elsewhere in Europe, whether in Austria, Denmark or indeed the UK. It is not enough to merely make the arguments for tolerance and European co-operation. Rather, it is also about convincing the voting public that the answer to our ills — be it employment, security in work, the role of supranational institutions, or tensions with immigrant communities — does not lie in embracing the easy promises of populists or the seductive certainty of hatred.

Read more...