FF: Assorted Flavors

February 12, 2016

This week has mingled older and newer works.

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

Persephone Poses

Persephone Poses

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Going Bovine by Libba Bray.  Audiobook.  Very different from her “Diviners” novels, but an interesting read.

Murder at the ABA by Isaac Asimov.  Pretty good mystery.  Fascinating time capsule look at publishing in 1975.  How much has changed…  How much has not!

Newt’s Emerald by Garth Nix.  Audiobook.  Lighter than much of his stuff, Regency romance crossed with a good adventure.  Shows a fondness for both.

Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman.  Short story collection.  Varied and interesting stories..

In Progress:

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle.  Audiobook.  I’ve read these before, but a revisit has been amusing.  I’d forgotten how well Doyle did setting.

Seeds of Rebellion (Beyonders #2) by Brandon Mull.  Just started.

Also:

Not much!

TT: Exploring Wilderness

February 11, 2016

ALAN: Recently I re-read Wilderness, a novel that Roger Zelazny wrote in collaboration with Gerald Hausman. The reason that I picked it up again was because I was about to go and see the move The Revenant. One strand of Roger’s novel centres around the same story used by the movie. Hugh Glass, an early nineteenth century trapper, was mauled by a grizzly bear. His companions deserted him, leaving him to die. But somehow he survived. Slowly his wounds healed and he dragged himself back through the wilderness, seeking revenge on the men who left him behind. (The other strand in the story tells of John Colter who, almost a generation before Hugh Glass, made a dramatic escape through the wilderness, hotly pursued by Indians).

One Take on the Tales

One Take on the Tales

As an aside, The Revenant is an excellent movie, and Wilderness is an excellent novel. But it raises some questions in my mind. Perhaps you can help me with them?

JANE: I’ll try.  I actually know Gerry Hausman fairly well.  In fact, I just finished writing a short story for an anthology he’s editing.  So, if there’s a question I can’t answer, I can ask Gerry.  Go ahead!

ALAN: The novel is quite untypical of Roger’s work in that it is a piece of historical fiction based on a true story. Do you have any idea what motivated Roger to venture so far out of his normal area of work?

JANE:  In part, you can blame Gerry Hausman for taking Roger in this direction.  Among Gerry’s talents is that he is a professional storyteller.  He has a wonderful deep voice and spins out a tale so you can practically imagine you’re there.  After returning from Sun Valley, Idaho, where he’d told the story of John Colter, he…  Well, let me have him tell you in his own words:

“…when I returned from this trip I confided to Roger that it would be neat if we might tell the story together but I suggested we’d merge two men into the novel and one would crawl while the other ran. He picked the crawler, Hugh Glass, and I picked the runner, John Colter. Roger liked the idea a lot and suggested we call it ColterGlass, and that became the original title.”

ALAN: So how did the writing work? Who did which bits? I’ve always found the mechanics of collaborative writing interesting, particularly since you and I started collaborating on these tangents.

JANE: Ah-hah! I don’t need to guess about this, since Gerry mentioned it in his e-mail:

“When he [Roger] was ready to write he asked me to do one chapter on Colter to start it off. I did. I was a little nervous showing it to him. At that time I’d never written an historical novel. It was daunting. But I did the first chapter and Roger came over for dinner and after we ate and joked around he sat down in my little studio in Tesuque and read the first chapter of Colter Glass on my computer. He looked up from the page, six or so, and said, ‘This is great, Gerry, let’s go with it. I will write chapter two about Glass getting mauled by the bear and you should have it by sometime next week maybe.’ That’s how we worked for the rest of that school year. He’d write one, I’d write one. I think both of us were excited about the trajectory of this story and the fact that it was new territory for each of us. He’d never done a Western before and of course I hadn’t either.”

ALAN: One thing always puzzled me when I read the novel for the first time. It’s told in alternate chapters, with two completely separate stories going on. John Colter’s dramatic escape from the pursuing Indians, followed by Hugh Glass’s slow crawl out of the wilderness. But in real life, those two events happened many, many years apart. I was always curious as to how (and if!) those time differences would finally be reconciled in the novel.

JANE: Here’s what Gerry had to say about that…

“Looking back on it I remember that he remarked to me that the book had elements of ‘the future’ in it. Anyone who reads the end of the novel realizes that there is a view from space – that was Roger looking down from afar, imagining how an astronaut would see the marvelous spinning gyre of Mother Earth. The way the novel also weaves a pattern out of the men’s two separate but not unlike life stories is also on the edge of sci-fi. We manipulate time a good bit, don’t we? And whether old man Colter really met young man Glass is open to conjecture. Some historians say it really happened, but in this genre nothing is provable. It is all conjecture.”

ALAN: Yes indeed. When I got to the end I remember thinking that it could only have been written like that by someone who felt comfortable with what I suppose I have to call the science fictional way of looking at the way the world works. What did the reading public make of it? How well did it sell?

JANE: As I recall, the book was well-received.  I went and looked at the reviews, and they were very solid, both from professionals and in “reader reviews.”

I’m not sure about sales figures though, and I’m not going to ask Gerry that one, because that’s not considered polite!  However, I wouldn’t be surprised if, with the release of The Revenant, it isn’t finding a whole new audience.

ALAN: As far as I know, Roger only wrote one other non-genre novel (a thriller called Dead Man’s Brother), but it wasn’t published until many years after his death.

JANE: I think that’s right.

ALAN: Have you ever written outside the SF/F field?

JANE: I have and so have a number other SF/F writers.  Maybe we can explore that next time.

Stories from Odd Places

February 10, 2016

I’ve mentioned before that one of my hobbies is beadwork.  I hadn’t done much beading for a while, but when I picked it up again this autumn, I made a strange discovery…  Rather than taking away from my writing time, beading seems to have triggered something in my creative subconscious, so that I’m finding that my writing is coming more easily.

Two New Projects

Two New Projects

(I also seem to have found a story in the beads, but I’ll get to that in a moment.)

As an added bonus, I have completed some cool projects.  The two bracelets pictured were done in even count flat peyote stitch, using Japanese delica beads.  To give you a bit of perspective, the longer one is about six inches long.  Both use thousands of beads.

For the dragon, I adapted a pattern by Suzanne Cooper from her book Adorn Thyself, but changed many of the colors so I could use beads I already had in my stash.  This meant a lot of checking and rechecking, but I like the end result.

The snowflake bracelet is adapted from an amulet pouch pattern in another of Suzanne Cooper’s books: Dancing Light.  The center follows her pattern, but the outlying areas are my own adaptation.   Cobalt blue is one of my favorite colors, so I’d always wanted to do this pattern, but hadn’t really wanted to make another amulet pouch.

I also made a couple of pairs of earrings and, in searching for just the right beads, I may have found a story.

I’ve been doing various forms of beadwork since I was a kid, when my mom taught me how to sew sequins and beads onto felt.  This is a relatively simple process with a lot of immediate reward, so I became hooked for life.  In college, I bought an inexpensive bead loom and did a lot of flat work – much of which I still have.  I mostly did it for the pleasure of the process, without thinking about length or what I’d use the end result for.

In an odd way, now that I think about it, those pieces are a lot like early writing exercises: attempts to get something to fit together, to see how various elements (colors, textures, bead sizes, types of thread) would work together.  As with my writing, I’m self-taught, although I do use books as resources.

While I learned a lot about beading and beads from making loomed pieces, I also learned that I don’t really enjoy the process of stringing a loom.  Moreover, pieces are limited by the width and the basic structure of the loom.   Finishing loomed work is a complete pain and, as I was discussing with a lady at a bead shop just a couple days ago, if you mess up, the whole project is ruined.

I turned to making earrings using brick stitch.  Not only didn’t these require a loom, they permitted me to experiment with using a wide variety of different beads for fringes.  Again, I made many pairs of earrings, often for the pleasure of experimenting with colors, lengths, weights, and the like.  I have a lot of these still…  I should see what condition they’re in, since I didn’t know as much about thread at the time.

I’d seen pouches woven entirely woven from beads (as opposed to fabric or leather pouches with beads added on).  I think Dancing Light was the first book I bought that showed the technique for even count tubular peyote stitch.  The explanation was excellent, and I still return to it when I need a refresher.

Lynchburg, Virginia, where I was living at the time, didn’t have great sources for beads, so I had to settle for relatively expensive beads sold for embroidery work.  Unlike most of the beads sold at the chain hobby store in town, these could be counted on to be evenly sized – something that I’d learned when doing loom work was absolutely essential.

Because of buying these beads, I also took up doing small bits of bead embroidery.  I’d never much liked embroidery with just thread, but toss in beads!!  That was a different matter entirely.

When I moved to New Mexico, I discovered I was in an excellent place to find beads.  Sharon Weber – wife of David Weber – shares my interest in beadwork, so when she and Weber would come to visit, we’d hit the stores.  One of the best birthday presents I’ve even been given was when they gave me the pattern and all the beads to complete a beaded amulet pouch with a wolf motif.  (You can see a picture of it here on the FAQ page of my website.)

I continued expanding my techniques – and my collection.  With so many larger beads available, I was very tempted by bead stringing.  It’s a lot more complex than it looks – especially when working with crimp beads, which is what you use to attach findings (that is, various fasteners) to beading wire.

Along the way, people started giving me beads.  These might be leftovers from a project or something seen at a flea market or yard sales, too irresistible to pass up.  They might be part of a kit or an old necklace, too worn to wear, but begging to be recycled.

And, of course, I impulse-bought some myself, as well as buying beads for a specific projects.

This past weekend, when sorting through beads, looking for just the right beads to make a birthday present for a friend, I came across a bag of beads I’d bought through the mail.  When they arrived, they were more shoddy than advertised, so they’ve sat in a plastic bag, too interesting to throw out or pass on, but not right for the initial reason I’d purchased them.

Then, this weekend, they inspired an idea for a story.  I don’t like to talk about stories before they’re written, but I’m intrigued by the challenge.  I’m going to see if I can fit it in between tax prep and typing up that longer piece I handwrote over the last few months.

When I look back over this rambling (and very incomplete) history of my love for beadwork, I’m fascinated to see how it parallels my love for and interest in various types of writing.

I like to experiment.  I don’t like being locked into a particular structure.  I don’t like doing the same story (or piece) over and over, but I do like expanding on a skill or technique (which is why I do enjoy writing series or short stories with continuing characters).  I like bright colors and evocative patterns.

Is it any surprise that doing one feeds the other?  I know many of you have creative activities you’re involved in: not just writing, but music and various visual arts.  Do you have anything you do that – although seemingly unrelated – intensifies your “main” passion?

Reading Time and Then Some

February 5, 2016

As those of you who read the Wednesday Wanderings already know, I had all four wisdom teeth out on January 27.  Recovery gave me a lot of time to read…

Kel Contemplates Pop Divadom

Kel Contemplates Pop Divadom

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Kitty Goes to War by Carrie Vaughn.  Audiobook.  Not the war I anticipated, but an interesting story nonetheless.

Maddigan’s Fantasia by Margaret Mahy.  I really liked this one.  Quite different from Alchemy, but inventive in a different way.

Somebody to Love? A Rock-and Roll Memoir by Grace Slick with Andrea Cagan.   1998 autobiography (with Ms. Cagan’s role in the collaborative writing process explained more than usual, which appealed to me).  Ironically, when I went to look up if Slick had updated the volume, I learned that Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson (both founding members of Jefferson Airplane) had just died, on the same day, both age 74.

Bluefeather Fellini in the Sacred Realms by Max Evans.  I read Bluefeather Fellini last year and wanted to read the sequel.  This book is hard to categorize, but I found it oddly fascinating.

In Progress:

Going Bovine by Libba Bray.  Audiobook.  Very different from her “Diviners” novels, but in ways I find appealing.

Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman.  Short story collection.  About four stories in.  Saving the introductions to individual pieces until I’ve read the story.

Also:

While in waiting rooms, I looked at some alien texts: People magazine and its ilk.  Clearly, I live on a different planet.  I don’t know who two-thirds of these “celebrities” are or care about two-thirds of the topics discussed.

TT: Looking Beneath the Surface

February 4, 2016

JANE: Last week you mentioned something about SF having a literary critical element or issue of its own.  I’ve been puzzling, but I haven’t been able to guess what you meant.

Lion Beneath the Surface

Lion Beneath the Surface

ALAN: I think it’s because of the unique nature of the audience – science fiction tends to appeal very strongly to people who have a scientific or technical education. You can see this very clearly in the reviews of Andy Weir’s novel The Martian. One and all, the reviewers praise its technical accuracy and the clever way in which the hero applies his scientific knowledge to keep himself alive when he is accidentally marooned on Mars.

JANE: I haven’t read The Martian or seen the movie, but I’ve been amused by the split between those who prefer the book over the movie or the movie over the book.  One element that always comes up is just how much technical detail a story needs.

ALAN: I used it as an example of what I mean because the story is all technical detail. And that’s the whole of The Martians  appeal. The hero is presented with a set of technical problems which he must solve in order to stay alive. He solves them (generally with infodumps explaining his reasoning). It’s pure science fiction, no more and no less.

Many SF readers are very widely read in the field, but they are not always well read outside the genre. Also, their educational background encourages a very literal way of thinking – technical problems tend to be very black and white. Things work or they don’t. There are seldom any shades of grey or any deep subtleties. Consequently the SF audience sometimes fails to see the elements that may lie underneath the words of the story. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that there are people who think that Stranger in a Strange Land is just a story about a human being who is raised by Martians.

JANE: Interesting…  I’d certainly agree with you that some SF readers are educated in afashion that encourages literal thinking, but I haven’t solid data regarding how well-read they are outside of SF/F.  Certainly, based on the feedback on my Friday Fragments, those who comment tend to have widely diverse reading habits – but that’s not anything like a representative sample.  In fact, those who comment may be those with more diverse reading habits!

Now you make me want to collect some data.  When did you start becoming aware of this trend?

ALAN: I first became aware of it when I was discussing C. S. Lewis’ Narnia novels with my father, an engineer. I was probably about eleven years old at the time…

My father was completely blind to the religious allegory of the books. “Why can’t it just be a story about a lion who died and came back to life three days later?” he asked me, honestly puzzled. “How do you know it’s about Jesus?”

I didn’t know how to respond to this, and I still don’t. Not only was my father unable to see the allegory, he denied that it even existed. To him, the surface story was all there was.

JANE: Oh, boy…  That’s a tough one.  I first read the Narnia books as a kid.  Despite my Catholic background and a pretty solid education in all the religious tropes Lewis used, I completely missed the allegory.  Later, when it was pointed out to me, I shrugged it off as unimportant.  The story was what the story was.

Over time, however, I have encountered people who are flat-out hostile to the Narnia books – and indeed to C.S. Lewis’ fiction in general –because of his tendency toward religious allegory.  They won’t even give his fiction a try.

This was harder to take.  Honestly, the books contain so much more.  The dryads and other nature spirits are wonderfully depicted.  But so are less “mythic” elements.  I loved the depiction of the Beaver’s house in the dam or Mr. Tumnus’s cave.

ALAN: You’ll get no argument from me! I completely agree. I have no religious beliefs whatsoever, so I simply regard the Christian aspects of the story as just one more element in a clever, subtle and many-layered work.

JANE: Even the more overtly Christian elements, such as Aslan’s death and resurrection, are intimate and moving.  I still remember Susan and Lucy struggling to untie the knots that bound Aslan to the Stone Table, their hands so numb with cold that they can hardly move their fingers, and how the mice came to help by gnawing away at the cords.

In Narnia, Lewis wasn’t showing the exclusive Christianity of monotheism.  His Narnia was a vision of divine salvation that included not only “pagan” creatures like dryads and fauns, but even mice and birds.

Maybe because I’ve never been able to be humanocentric, I liked Lewis’s vision and thought it had more to offer than mere allegory.

ALAN: And that richness allows you and I to discuss the Narnia stories in many different ways – a discussion I was completely unable to have with my father because of his insistence that the surface story was all that existed.

He applied the same attitude to other things as well. He was quite an accomplished piano player, in a technical sense, but all he would play were the notes as written. The idea of interpreting a piece of music was completely foreign to him. “If the composers didn’t want the notes to be played that way, they wouldn’t have written them down like that.” So every time he played a piece of music, it sounded exactly like the last time he played it. Jazz completely bewildered him…

He was a human player-piano, and I think he might have regarded that as a compliment.

JANE: Interesting.

ALAN: I have a technically oriented friend who is very widely read in the SF field. We have quite similar tastes and that’s one of the things that is the basis of our friendship. But he’s never read a Shakespeare play (or seen one performed). Dickens is a closed book to him (pun intended). He doesn’t even read other genre fictions – he’s never read an Agatha Christie novel, for example. So he tends to be an unsophisticated reader. Recently we both read Mira Grant’s “Newsflesh” books, which are set in a post Zombie Apocalypse world.

JANE: You’ll need to tell me a bit about them.  If there’s something that interests me less than vampires, it’s got to be zombies.

ALAN: The books are very clever allegories about the measures that America has taken to try and combat terrorism. The zombies are the terrorists – they are unpredictable and their motives are obscure. They attack at random intervals and nowhere is safe from them. In an effort to protect the uninfected population, the government imposes stricter and stricter limits on the freedom of their citizens, all in the name of security…

The message is reinforced when, later in the series, the protagonists visit Australia, which has the same zombie problem as America. But the Australian government is protecting their citizens from the zombie attacks very efficiently without curtailing their freedoms in the way that America has. The protagonists are very impressed…

When I pointed this out, my friend was very surprised. He’d completely missed all those aspects of the books. He thought he was just reading a zombie story. It had never occurred to him that there might be something else going on. He was more than willing to admit that I was right, but he would never have been able to see it if I hadn’t drawn his attention to it. He simply doesn’t read books that way and he never looks under the surface.

JANE: Oddly enough, your comments are less likely, rather than more to entice me to read the books.  To me, what Ms. Grant has done is not so much allegory as a thinly disguised rant about the current political situation.  That’s precisely the sort of fiction I avoid!

For allegory to work for me, it should expand the material, not contract it.  However, I do recognize that one of the roles of SF in particular has always been to provide commentary on social trends, often in the hope of drawing attention to them and thus encouraging reform.  I simply don’t care to be lectured, whether by George Orwell or Mira Grant.

ALAN: Actually, I quite like it. It helps if I agree with what the writer is lecturing about, but I don’t insist on that. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers annoys me to the point of apoplexy. Nevertheless I love the book to bits.

JANE: My feeling about those elements that add another dimension of story to a work of fiction – whether a full-blown allegory or a literary allusion – was shared by Roger Zelazny.  As you and I have explored here and again here.

Roger was one of the SF/F novelists who began to add dimension to SF/F through literary techniques such as allusion, but Roger never forgot that telling a good story came first.  On the subject of allusion, he said (and I paraphrase, although I probably could look it up), “A story has to work even for those who don’t get a single allusion.  However, for those who’d catch them, then there’s the opportunity to see the story on a different level.”

ALAN: I think Roger was quite right. Spotting those things is part of the fun of reading and, for me at least, it’s a very important part. But sometimes a story really is just a story. That’s fun as well.

Scattered Wisdom

February 3, 2016

Last Wednesday, I went in to have all four of my wisdom teeth removed.  I then spent the rest of the week (up to and including while I’m writing this) in some variation of recovery.  I was very lucky in that my wisdom teeth were not impacted, so they came out comparatively easily.  Nonetheless, between recovering from sedation and lots of ibuprofen, I spent a very quiet week.

Me and My Feline Nurses

Me and My Feline Nurses

During some of my more alert moments, I found myself wondering why the darned things are called “wisdom teeth,” since they seem like a rather stupid design flaw, appearing late and crowding the rest of the established teeth to the point that they usually need to be removed.

Wikipedia, that repository of bits of information (if not actual wisdom), provided the following explanation:

“Although formally known as third molars, the common name is wisdom teeth because they appear so late – much later than the other teeth, at an age where people are presumably “wiser” than as a child, when the other teeth erupt.  The term probably came as a translation of the Latin: dens sapientiae.”

So there!

In honor of being tired and vague, I’m going to share with you a variety of (hopefully interesting) bits of information.

First item…  I was asked to participate in a possible anthology of stories set in the universe that the late Aaron Allston created for the “Strike Force” setting within the Champions superheroes role-playing system.  I met Aaron Allston some years before his death and found him a lively and creative person.  Additionally, I’ve written a lot of things, but I’ve never written a superhero story, so I’d enjoy the challenge.

The Kickstarter campaign is now live and very impressive.  Even if you’re not interested in the possibility of my writing a superheroes story, you might want to take a look at it because a lot of work went into the design.

This campaign is particularly interesting in that it provides not only details regarding the proposed project, but also about why “Strike Force” (originally published in 1988) was an important landmark in the transition of role-playing games from dungeon crawls to full-fledged story-telling experiences.

Kickstarter is becoming an important way for smaller projects to be funded.  I think it’s also a great way to give potential purchasers a way to indicate what form of a work they’d be interested in spending their hard-earned money on: electronic or print, illustrated or not, color art or black and white, soft-cover or hard-cover, supplemental materials or not.  This permits the creators to put their energy and dollars where they’ll do the most good.

In fact, one of these days, I might design a Kickstarter campaign as a way of learning whether an off-beat project would merit the effort…

Second item… One of the things that I’ve been reading during my recovery is Grace Slick’s autobiography Somebody to Love.  (Thank you, Alan Robson, for mentioning it in your recent “wot I red on my hols” column.  Especially for the warning about the strawberries…)

During a discussion of her high school studies, Grace Slick makes the following statement:

“…I considered economics useless.  Boy, was that a mistake: only later did I realize that ‘artists’ need to know business games and numbers.  It’s unfair, really, because business types never have to learn to draw, sing, dance, or write lyrics.”

Whether she meant the final statement seriously or not (at least a third of the comments she makes need to be taken with a heavy shake of salt), I thought it was worth repeating.  I’ve met a great many artists (writers, painters, poets, sculptors, dancers) who seem to think that taking an interest in the nitty-gritty business details immediately disqualifies them for the title “artist.”

This is really a self-destructive attitude.  Being aware of the business ramifications of your particular field doesn’t make you less of an artist.  What can make you less of an artist is doing projects you have no interest in simply because you think they’ll somehow get you ahead.  That can make you a hack.  But, funny thing, I’ve known a lot of poor hacks as well as starving artists.  The one thing they had in common was thinking they were too smart to learn their business.

Third item…  I did a couple short interviews recently with C.P. (Carolyn) Lesley.  She did a good time preparing, and her questions have a nice bent shaped by her work as a historical writer.  Maybe you’ll find something to enjoy.   Part one is here, and part two here.

Fourth item…  There’s no number four.  I had stitches removed yesterday, so right now curling up with a good book sounds like my proper speed.  Take care!

FF: Mind Clearing

January 29, 2016

I was doing a lot of writing and researching this past week, so I shifted to some shorter works.  Like sherbet between courses, they were great for clearing the mental pallet.

Ogapoge's Fantasia

Ogapoge’s Fantasia

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Kitty’s House of Horrors by Carrie Vaughn.  Audiobook.  Starts light and gets very scary.

Saga by Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan.  Issues 25-30.  Comic book.  The art is still innovative, the story still willing to tackle difficult issues, but the sped-up timetable after the intimacy of the earlier issues jolted me.

Captains of the City Streets and Jenny and the Cat Club by Esther Averill.  Averill apparently wrote her stories out of order, filling in back stories on minor characters, which is rather fun. Yes. There are children’s books!

In Progress:

Kitty Goes to War by Carrie Vaughn.  Audiobook.  Especially after the closing lines of Kitty’s House of Horrors, I thought this would be a close sequel, but it’s going elsewhere.

Maddigan’s Fantasia by Margaret Mahy.  I’ve been wanting to read this since I found it while Christmas shopping for other people.  Just started.

Also:

A Wild Swan and Other Tales by Michael Cunningham.  “Re-imagined” fairy tales.  Author’s take not really to my taste at this time, so I stopped.

TT: The Diversity Trope

January 28, 2016

ALAN: Last time you promised me that you’d tell me about some writers who have handled racial and gender issues without getting all preachy and twee about it. So please tell me more…

Diversity Troupe

The Diversity Troop

JANE: Okay…  First of all, I’m not saying that these are the only writers who have done so.  I think there have always been writers who have handled what my friend Yvonne has dubbed “the diversity trope” well.

ALAN: That’s quite true. Shakespeare had a lot of crossdressing characters in his plays and that wasn’t because, in his day, all the female parts were always played by men. The question of female competence was a very real issue at the time – Elizabeth was Queen of England, and there were those who strongly disapproved of a woman being in charge of the country. You only have to look at how Kate is brought to heel in The Taming of the Shrew to see an example of a woman being put firmly in her place.

Racial issues were also very familiar to the audiences that Shakespeare was writing for. Look at how Iago taunted Desdemona’s father in Othello, and how evil and manipulative the Jew Shylock is in The Merchant of Venice (also Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta was another contemporary example).

JANE: Exactly…  The question of how to deal with issues of gender and race is as old as the human impulse to say “I’m better,” rather than merely “I’m different.”

However, these days, a writer can come up for criticism from some corners if the characters in a novel aren’t widely spread to embrace every gender and racial option.   Also, if “minority” characters aren’t on the side of “good” (whatever that is for the work in question), the writer also risks being slammed.

Furthermore, if an otherwise “good” character even hints at feeling conflicted regarding racial and/or gender issues, again, the hydra-headed supporters of the diversity trope rear their many heads and howl “Unfair!”

ALAN: But I think these things are perfectly legitimate issues for a writer to address. After all, they do reflect the reality of the world.

JANE: Yeah, me too, but…

I’ve always written books that are diverse both in the gender of the characters and the races, but only where appropriate.  I’ve also included two other categories that often get ignored, even by those who are touting diversity:  older people and children.

You can imagine how shocked I was when a couple bloggers criticized Artemis Awakening because the cast was not diverse enough – this in a book that has a small cast, covers a relatively short span of time, and takes place in a very narrow geographical area.

It’s enough to give one pause.

ALAN: Not diverse enough in what way? Is there some secret mathematical formula that properly defines how diversity works in any given time and place among any given group of people? It’s all too easy to criticize a book for the things it isn’t about. That always leaves the writer without a leg to stand on and leaves the critics feeling smug.

JANE: Gosh, that’s an interesting way to look at it and one I hadn’t considered at all.

I had a brief – and I wish it could have been longer – chat with Mary Robinette Kowal at Bubonicon this year on the issue of diversity in historical fiction/fantasy.  She said that to her, when she was writing, it wasn’t about putting in something that wasn’t there, but including that which was there and was often ignored.  I think that’s a valid position and why diversity issues may be easier to handle gracefully within a historical, rather than contemporary, setting.

ALAN: She’s a very interesting writer – I recently read a collection of her short stories and I was most impressed. From what you say, clearly she has an interesting view of the world. I’m going to have to seek out more of her work.

JANE: Agreed.  Thanks to your review of her short story collection, it’s now on my short list.

I’ve mentioned Libba Bray’s two “Diviners” novels a couple of times, so let’s draw an example from them of an author handling diversity well.  They’re set in the New York City during the Roaring Twenties, when Prohibition was the law of the land and an entire sub-culture had been set up based around those who either ignored the law or profited from it.

ALAN: I’ve always felt that Prohibition was a failed social experiment whose lessons still haven’t been learned. After all, we are still banning things and then wondering why they become even more popular. New Zealand recently banned a YA novel because of its sexual themes and content. I wasn’t at all surprised when sales went through the roof…

JANE: Really?  I’m not surprised.

Anyhow, Prohibition era culture is a great time in which to set a story that wants to investigate “marginal” characters, because they would find a place within a sub-culture that (at least ostensibly) declares that doesn’t agree with the mainstream.

Therefore, it seems perfectly reasonable that Henry the piano player (who also longs to be a jazz composer) is gay.  Or that Theta, Henry’s straight, female roommate (they pose as brother and sister, although most assume they are lovers) would meet and fall in love with a black poet (who is also a numbers runner) when visiting a Harlem nightclub.  The second book introduces a character who is half-Chinese, half-Irish… and uses her to take a really searing look at racial prejudice and immigration laws.

And then there are the Diviners themselves, a sub-culture of people who have psychic powers.   How society alternately embraces them and rejects them, depending on which voice of public opinion is shouting most loudly, provides a really good look at the fickleness of so-called “morality.”

However, none of this is in the least preachy or pedantic.  We simply have a suite of interesting characters who are doing their best to exist in a culture that wants to deny their existence.

ALAN: (Scribbling a note). I’ve never heard of these stories or this author, but from what you say, I think they’d be just my cup of tea.

JANE:  Hoorah!

Sometimes, however, the same thing can be overdone.  I sincerely enjoyed Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory, which is quite a compliment, since on the whole I find steampunk isn’t my flavor.  However, there were points when I felt that she had a diversity trope checklist and was working her way down it: gay characters, transvestite character, various minorities.

But, again, her setting was one in which characters who didn’t fit into mainstream society would find acceptance – in this case a high-class brothel and the semi-underworld in which it functioned – so I was able to feel that such a group just might assemble, and, as with “The Diviners” novels, there was a lot more going on.

ALAN: That’s the secret, isn’t it? When there’s a lot going on, diversity is just one element among many and so there’s much less of a feeling that the reader is being preached to.

JANE: But this series of Tangents started with your reaction to reviewers who are obsessed with the diversity trope, and Karen Memory was definitely getting kudos for satisfying that element.

As I said before, dealing with such issues in contemporary society is not as easy – in part because rather than gays being universally closeted, we live where there are Gay Pride parades in many cities, and even politicians and preachers can be publically gay.

Ditto racial issues…  “Bigot” is now a term with opprobrious connotations, rather than the relatively mainstream position of only a few generations ago.

I’m not saying problems have vanished.  Far from it!  However, the fact is that intolerance is finally a problem recognized by most.  Even those who make a public stance that includes some form of intolerance need to footnote their position with justifications.

ALAN: That’s a very positive thing which needs to be encouraged. But by definition, these attitudes can’t be applied retrospectively. Like it or not, we were what we were. By denying that, I think we still come across as bigots.

JANE: Interesting…  Bigoted by denying that people of another time thought in patterns shaped by their culture.  In other words, refusing to acknowledge their difference.

I really enjoyed how Rick Riordan dealt with the diversity trope …  Although his setting was contemporary, again, using a historical perspective came into it.  I thought about explaining more, but changed my mind because that would provide some major spoilers for those who haven’t read the books.  I’ll just leave it with, Riordan did something interesting and creative, and I raise my cup to him for it.

ALAN: Criticism based on the diversity trope is something that affects all forms of fiction. But I think that science fiction has a “lit crit” aspect of its own that no other form of fiction has.

JANE: Does it?  Hmm..  Tell me more…

Brain Stretches

January 27, 2016

The last couple of weeks have been amazingly creative.

Some of you may recall my mentioning that I was writing out a piece long-hand, in part to break with my usual procedures and freshen up my brain.  Well, the story kept getting longer and longer, but now it is done.  Make that “Done in rough draft.”  I’ve been told that my handwriting is pretty much illegible to anyone except me or a very patient cryptographer.  Therefore, I will need to type it all up if I want anyone else to read it.

Messy Scraps of Creativity

Messy Scraps of Creativity

That’s all right with me.  I found the return to writing long-hand (something I used to do much more often) a wonderful experience.  I’m sure I’ll be doing it again.

However, that project had me so completely obsessed that I nearly let a deadline slide by.

Therefore, practically before the ink was dry on the handwritten piece, I launched myself into a new project.  The story I’d been asked to write was for an anthology of stories in which a gun is an element.  The editor (Gerry Hausman, with whom Roger wrote Wilderness) made it very clear he wasn’t looking for stories that were pro-gun or anti-gun; he was just tossing the topic out and waiting to see what would come in.

Since – as those of you who have read my short story collection Curiosities know –  I’ve been wanting to do another story set in the West with my character Prudence Bledsloe, I decided this was the perfect opportunity.  After all, guns and the Wild West go together like chocolate and peanut butter.

Funny thing was, once I started trying to narrow my ideas down, I discovered that finding the right story was a challenge.  As we drove around doing our errands, Jim and I bounced ideas back and forth.  We came up with two that were interesting in terms of the character and setting, but not right for the topic.  Then, when we were home and unpacking groceries, I had a flash.

Frequently, my reaction to having an idea for a story – no matter how much thinking I did to get to that point – is to think “Well, everyone probably is doing the same thing.”  So, leaving Jim to cook dinner, I rushed off to my office to e-mail Gerry and make sure no one else had taken that angle.  He got back to me quickly, encouraged me to go for it, and I started filling in my research.

I finally started actually writing the story last Wednesday.  I finished a draft on Friday.  Jim read on Saturday, and I turned it into Gerry on Tuesday.  (That’s yesterday…)

As a side result, I have two more stories about Prudence I’d like to write and that handwritten piece to type.  Since I wrote the story long-hand and in notebooks of widely varying size and style, I have no idea how long it is, but I suspect I’m going to need to set time aside over the next couple of weeks.

What’s really interesting to me is that last October, when I decided to start the handwritten project, I was feeling a bit “dry.”  My days were full, but something was missing.  As I started thinking about Christmas gifts, some of which I almost always make by hand, I realized that what was missing was time for crafts, for using my hands for something other than typing.

I decided that making that time was crucial – and not just because I needed to get gifts done or they wouldn’t be there to give.  I started by resuming beading.  I got out my polymer clay and addressed the challenge of making a camel for a Nativity set I’ve been making for my sister – this without any pattern or guideline or training at all in sculpting.  The day I pulled that one off I could actually feel my hands tingling, as if new nerve connections were being forged.

Even doing the story hand-written felt like a craft project.  I wrote on papers with different textures, drew little doodles on the pages to help myself visualize, and in general did everything that I could to loosen up.

Oddly enough, even with all the time spent with beads and clay, pen and ink, I found myself writing more – not less.

I’ve just taken on a new brain-stretching  exercise.  For many years, I’ve wanted to learn to do origami.  Despite looking at numerous books and various techniques, I discovered that I am very, very bad at it.  After a while, I began to feel guilty about the paper squares that were being sacrificed to my attempts, and let origami slide.

However, when shopping for a new office calendar, I came across a page-a-day calendar that features instructions for making a variety of origami figures.  The calendar pages are square, printed on one side with patterns just like “real” origami paper.  Even better, the calendar was marked seventy-five percent off…  Even I couldn’t see this as a “waste.”

So I’ve been struggling along, giving mountain folds and valley folds and all the rest a try.  I’m doing miserably when it comes to origami, but as far as stretching my brain, I can feel the tingle.

Over the last ten years or so, more and more emphasis has been put on the need for older people to do puzzles or other challenges to keep their brains limber.  What my experiences over the last few months have taught me is how important it is for a writer to keep the brain limber.  What may seem like a waste of time in terms of word count and productivity may be exactly what is needed to become even more creative!

FF: Homages

January 22, 2016

Purely by chance, most of the books I’ve been reading seem to be homages to other works.  What’s really nice is that they manage to be fresh stories on their own.

Kwahe'e Relaxes

Kwahe’e Relaxes

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Summerland by Michael Chabon.  A delightful read.  An homage to baseball and myth.

Jenny’s Birthday Book by Esther Averill.  A picture book about Jenny the cat and friends.  An homage to the Cat Club.

Master of Devils by Dave Gross.  A Pathfinder novel.  Perhaps too reliant on fight scenes, but a good story between.  I particularly liked the plot line where the wolfhound is the main character.  An homage to Chinese martial arts film.

In Progress:

Kitty’s House of Horrors by Carrie Vaughn.  Audiobook.  Starts light and gets very scary.  An homage, I’d guess, to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, but also moves the series plot along neatly.

A Wild Swan and Other Tales by Michael Cunningham.  “Re-imagined” fairy tales.  Just started.

Also:

Doing a lot of research for a short story I’m working on.


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