TT: Getting on Within the Grid

March 26, 2015

JANE: So, Alan, last time you were telling me about your problems with living in a gridded city. Are you any more comfortable with it now that you’ve had some months to get used to it?

Not a Traffic Roundabout

Not a Traffic Roundabout

ALAN: Well, sort of.  I went on the interwebs to see if I could find out more about how gridded cities work and I found something quite fascinating about the way they are constructed in America. It seems that the rules require that all the roads running east-west must be called “Streets” and the roads that run north-south must be called “Avenues.” This explains something that has always puzzled me about American books and movies. Everybody always seems to know which direction is North. I can’t count the number of times I’ve come across dialogue which says something like:

“The suspect is heading North on…”

I’ve always found this very impressive. I’ve never been able to identify any direction without staring hard at a compass (and I can only manage that on a good day). But with a structure that follows these rules, it’s easy. Obviously if you are on an Avenue, North is in front of you (or behind you) and, even if you are on a Street, the solution is only slightly less trivial, requiring a mere ninety degree re-orientation of your frame of reference. I was very impressed by the simplicity and cleverness of the scheme.

JANE: Ah…  Sadly, I must disabuse you of this notion.  Although some cities have been planned – D.C. where I was born is a good example – cities in the United States have often grown as randomly as any you encountered when you were growing up in Yorkshire.  They haven’t had as much time to become twisted around, but they are not at all organized.

ALAN: So you’re telling me that something I thought was very admirable and clever about American cities is actually not true? Damn! I do so hate having my illusions shattered…

JANE: Sorry!  I mentioned above that D.C. was a planned city, so let me use that as an example.  Since I grew up there, I never had any trouble finding my way around.  Major avenues were named for states.  Cross streets were alphabetized, and, to top it off, arranged according to what were called “alphabets.”

 The “first alphabet” is in the southern part of the city and begins with single letters “A,” “B,” etc.  Then there are words of one syllable.  Then two syllables and, finally, three.  (The street we lived on was “Brandywine,” and it was sort of a family game to see how far along one could recite the parallel streets.)

Theoretically then, if you know the rules, you could be dropped anywhere in D.C. and calculate your general location.  Imagine my surprise that, throughout my life, one of the first things people tell me about their visits to D.C. is how confusing they found it and how easy it was to get lost!

ALAN: Despite the fact that you find it surprising, I can assure you that if you dropped me into Washington D. C., I’d be hopelessly lost within seconds.

JANE: When I look at a map, I can see why this would happen.  D.C. has lots of parks and open areas that interrupt the flow.  Smaller cross streets don’t necessarily follow the plan, and, just to polish it off, D.C. has traffic circles.  On the whole I’ve found that Americans are not comfortable with traffic circles.  If they didn’t grow up with them, they get discombobulated.

ALAN: What on earth is a “traffic circle”?

JANE: A traffic circle is a hub around which different streets radiate.  Dupont Circle in D.C. is a traffic circle about which I’ve heard many complaints because, instead of being able to head directly down an avenue – I think it’s Massachusetts, but it’s been a long time and I don’t have a map – the avenue is interrupted by this circle, which you need to go carefully around before resuming the road you’d been on in the first place.

ALAN: Ah! We call those roundabouts. Every major intersection here is controlled either by roundabouts or by traffic lights. I much prefer roundabouts – you don’t have to wait nearly as long and the traffic flows much more smoothly. The rule is that you travel around it in a clockwise direction, giving way to any traffic already on the roundabout and giving way to traffic that will cross your path from the road on your right as you enter the roundabout. It’s all very smooth and simple and safe.

Since you drive on the opposite site of the road to us, I presume you go round your traffic circles in an anti-clockwise direction giving way to the left?

JANE: Uh…  Yeah.  I think so.  (Imagine me drawing pictures in the air.) Definitely.  I think.

ALAN: Another major advantage to roundabouts is that going all the way around one sends you back in the direction you approached it from. In other words, you’ve done a perfectly safe and legal U-turn on what is likely to be a very busy road where U-turns are forbidden. This is hugely useful to someone like me – I constantly find myself heading in the wrong direction on busy roads because I got lost again!

JANE: A fellow I was friends with in college always said it wasn’t a real trip until you’d made at least one U-turn, so you’re just living your life as a journey.  Very mythic.

ALAN: There are also weird things called magic roundabouts. They are rather hard to describe without drawing a picture, but I’ll try. The magic derives from the fact that traffic can flow in both directions around it. There is a main island surrounded by one small roundabout on each entry or exit street. You drive in the usual clockwise manner around the mini-roundabouts but, when you leave the mini-roundabouts, you can then drive around the central island either clockwise or anticlockwise depending on exactly which direction you are pointing in when you leave the mini-roundabout. Magic roundabouts are very scary and a lot of drivers are happy go miles out of their way just to avoid them.

JANE: Magic roundabouts?  See!  I told you that you were on a mythic journey!

If I ever make it back to New Zealand, someone must take me through one of these.  But I’m not driving!  Absolutely not!

ALAN: Roundabouts are relatively rare in Australia and I was very amused to note that (in West Australia, anyway) there are often road signs warning that a roundabout is coming up so that the drivers have time to prepare themselves. But the authorities haven’t quite worked out how to spell the word yet and a small town called Wanneroo has a sign warning of a Round-A-Bout…

JANE: This, in and of itself would be confusing, wouldn’t it?  Don’t you Brits call carousels “roundabouts”?  Australians seeing those signs might think they’re coming up on an amusement park.

ALAN: Yes – roundabouts are indeed the things you call carousels. But I think the Aussies are safe from confusion. There’s all the difference in the world between a roundabout and a  Round-A-Bout. Perhaps that explains the odd spelling.

JANE: I have some further interesting trivia about D.C. as a planned city, but we’ve rambled on most admirably today.  Let’s come back to it next time.

Kick-Ass Female Characters

March 25, 2015

Last week, I mentioned that, while Hilary Estell and I were playing with her new I Am Elemental action figures, I asked her what sort of fiction she was drawn to these days.  Her immediate reply was “Anything with kick-ass female characters.”

Kick Ass Females

Kick Ass Females

We went on (with Jim and Hilary’s Mom, Sue, chipping in from time to time) to explore exactly what that term meant to us.  Rather quickly, it became apparent that “kick-ass” can mean a lot more than the sort of female character who solves – or at least has the option to solve – problems by means of physical force.

We eventually broke “kick ass” into three general categories: overtly kick-ass characters, less overtly (but no less) kick-ass characters, and, finally, becoming kick-ass characters.

Overtly kick-ass characters include just about any character Tamara Pierce writes about, but especially Alana, Keladry, and Becca.  Honor Harrington and many of her associates, including those whose battlefields are political.  My own Firekeeper and Adara.  Garth Nix’s Sabriel.  Alana in the graphic novel Saga.  Overtly kick-ass characters start out with some knowledge of how to fight and no hesitation about using that knowledge.

As for some less overtly kick-ass characters, the top of the list for me is Miss Marple.  Jane Marple isn’t afraid (despite being old, physically fragile, and without a man to back her up) to act as Nemesis.  I admired Jane Eyre’s steady strength – and more importantly, her ability to walk away from the men who claimed to love her, but really hoped to treat her as an adjunct to help repair their own messed-up lives.   Herminone Granger from the Harry Potter books kicks ass through brains, not brawn.  The witches Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg show that wisdom is definitely power.   I’d like to hope that Mira of my Child of a Rainless Year belongs in their company.

These ladies replace a knife (or sword or battlecruiser) with a knife-edged tongue and lots of smarts.

Becoming kick-ass characters often provide the best story, because they’re still feeling their way into believing they can handle problems on their own.  Garth Nix’s Lirael climbing from the library into life.  Eddi in Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks. who has attitude and to spare, but who takes most of the book to believe that she can fight on her own terms, not those set by other people.  Magrat Garlik, who is the weakest of the three original Pratchett witches – not because she doesn’t have knowledge, but because she doesn’t believe in herself.  My own Brenda Morris and Elise Archer.  Bella from Twilight and its sequels.

All of them learn they have the ability to kick ass, if only they can get over their belief that they’re destined for the second string.

There’s not one story arc for any of these types of kick-ass females.  Usually they get stronger, but sometimes an overtly kick-ass character can be crushed by challenges she can’t hit, precisely because she’s used to being on top.  One of the most moving examples of this story is the anime Revolutionary Girl Utena.  From the time she was a little girl, Utena wanted to be the prince who would save people – rather than princess waiting to be saved.  Belief in cultural constrictions of romance is her undoing…  And love is quite possibly her salvation.

The sort of character none of us particularly liked were those female characters who won’t even try to solve a problem themselves.  Passive princesses of the “someday my prince will come” model.  Females whose only goal is getting a guy, any guy, as if that’s the only proof that they’re real.  Stupid females – or worse, females who aren’t in the least stupid, but pretend to be so rather than alienate that oh, so valuable guy.  Whiners and manipulators.

Okay…  Having said all of this, I have a confession to make – a confession that may prove shocking to some, given that my fiction has developed a solid reputation for being built around strong female characters.

When I started writing (not publishing, just writing), my stories usually featured male protagonists.  Why?  Because I’d been programmed by cultural elements too numerous to name to view males as the “real” people and female characters as, at the very best, support (nurses to doctors, secretaries to lawyers, useful girlfriend to hero), or, at the very worst, a handicap or limitation when solving any problem.

Sarah, in my earliest draft of Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls was a boy named Sam.

Sure, even by the time I was in high school, there were more depictions of dynamic female characters, but often they had a male partner or mentor, such as Emma Peel with John Steed. Charlie’s Angels (original version; I haven’t seen any of the remakes) answered to the mysterious (and a bit creepy) Charlie – and turned all giggly and gooey whenever they thought they might learn something about their mysterious mentor.

Eventually, I woke up to the fact that in my daydreams, I had never been a guy nor had I wanted just to win the hero for my very own.  I’d wanted to be Captain Kirk, not be his girlfriend.  I’d wanted to run the Mission Impossible team, not have a token role.  I found myself wondering if the three princesses of Amber were as uninterested and unsuited for ruling the multiverse as their arrogant brothers believed.

So I shucked off the shell and started telling others the stories I’d been telling myself for a long time.

This wanders me back to the I Am Elemental figures, where this tale began.

Action figures that tell girls that they’re real, that they can save the day, that they can kick-ass, are important.  But, most important is the message that when doing so girls don’t have to be guys or solve the problems the same way a guy would.  They can incorporate Bravery, Energy, and Enthusiasm – but they don’t need to give up on Industry, Persistence, and Honesty.  I love the lesson that Fear isn’t an enemy.  Fear is not the mind-killer.  Fear is a guide, showing you whose ass you need to kick next – even if, especially if, that ass is your own!

FF: How Do You Read?

March 20, 2015

This week, in addition to the books listed below, I’ve been reading a lot of sections from various works, mostly as research but sometimes because I get interested and keep reading, even when the research is done.  How do you read?  One thing at a time or a bunch all mushed up?

Perspehone's Favorite Character is Awful

Perspehone’s Favorite Character is Awful

For those of you who don’t know… The Friday Fragments feature lists of what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include either short fiction or magazine articles.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive 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 few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Archer’s Goon by Diana Wynne Jones.  Howard has a Goon in his kitchen, a sister called Awful, a father who is a self-absorbed writer and still loves his family.  Only Diana Wynne Jones could make this work, but she does.

A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold.  Audiobook.  My low tolerance for romance novel tropes meant this one nearly lost me.  It got better toward the end but, between the low comedy associated with the butter bugs (honestly, I couldn’t understand why anyone in a universe where terraforming is a major industry wouldn’t think a creature that well-engineered wouldn’t be a huge benefit, even if the end result isn’t attractive), the romance stuff, and the actually quite serious political elements the novel felt unevenly balanced.

Gray Heroes: Elder Tales from Around the World edited by Jane Yolen.  I enjoyed.  Glad I took the time to read it all.

Winterfair Gifts by Lois McMaster Bujold.  Audiobook.  This novella is a follow-up to A Civil Campaign.  Stronger overall, but both the crime element and why the bride to be is crying so much were not handled satisfactorily.  That said, I really like Taura.

In Progress:

Lords and Ladies by Terry PratchettI’d just finished reading Soul Music when I learned Pratchett had died, so I picked up this one just because…

Also:

For one reason and another, I’ve been reading lots of stuff in bits and pieces.   Hard, really, to put on a list.  That’s why I asked how you handle reading…

TT: The Road Squarely Taken

March 19, 2015

JANE: Before we launch into this week’s Tangent, Alan and I want to pause and raise a glass to Terry Pratchett, an author we’ve discussed frequently in these Tangents.  If you’re interested, you can download a free e-book containing past Thursday Tangents here, so you can read them at your leisure.

Alan, you are more organized than I am, could you remind me which Tangents deal specifically with Terry Pratchett and his works?

ALAN: Certainly!  Here they are, by date.

Maps with Contour LInes

Maps with Contour LInes

2012-02-09 Visiting the Last Continent
2012-02-16 Legends of the Last Continent
2012-02-23 Meat Pies and Cork Hats
2012-03-01 Strine and Newzild
2012-06-07 Genre Governments
2013-08-08 Humorous SF/F

JANE: Thanks, Alan, and thank you, Terry Pratchett for wonderful stories!

Okay, Alan, you were going to tell me about how your and Robin’s relocation has been going.

ALAN: Now that we’ve settled in to our new house, Robin and I have been exploring the nearby places and for the first time in a long time we’ve had to pay close attention to things like street names and the places they go to.

JANE: Funny how that happens.  To this day, I don’t know the name of a street I drive on several times a week.  I just know it will take me to the nearest shopping center where there’s a branch of my bank and an Italian restaurant that makes great pizza and calzones.

Still, you’re smart.  You can read a map.  I know from your “wot I red on my hols” column you even have a GPS.  What’s the problem?

ALAN: Well really it’s more psychological than actual, particularly since, for the very first time in my life, I’ve found myself in a city whose roads are laid out in a rectangular grid. This is quite a shock to the system. If I walk down the street, turn left, then left again and then turn left one more time I find myself back where I started. That’s never happened to me before and I find it quite unsettling.

JANE: Now that’s interesting…  Here in the U.S. grids are fairly common.  We call those rectangles “blocks” and they can become such a part of way a neighborhood perceives itself that “block parties” are a way of referring to neighborhood gatherings.  This isn’t as common where I live, since most yards are fully fenced, so there isn’t the same sense of all sharing the equivalent of a common back area.

We live on a dead end street or, more accurately, I suppose, since it was designed this way, a cul-de-sac.  Our houses all face the street, which gets little traffic.  Over the years, we’ve gotten to be friendly with our neighbors.  Right now, one of the houses has new occupants (the previous one died of cancer) and everyone is nervously waiting to see how this works out.

ALAN: Yes, we live on a cul-de-sac as well and we’ve made very sure to introduce ourselves to our neighbours. The lady next door put her house up for sale a month or so after we moved in. I told her she should start spreading a rumour around the neighbours that we were such horrible people that she just had to get away from us! She found that amusing but, wisely perhaps, did not take my advice. She’s changed her mind again though, and has now withdrawn her house from the market. Obviously she’s decided to stay because we are such nice people…

JANE: Of course!  Who wouldn’t want Harpo prowling through their yard?

ALAN: I’m not sure I would…

I still find the notion of a town built to a regular plan to be quite odd. The places I grew up in were all very old.  In some cases, they’d been lived in without a break for a couple of thousand years or more, and stuff just grew higgeldy piggeldy. I suppose they plan things more carefully these days because that’s what councils do to justify their existence, but it’s hard to impose order on generations of random infrastructure.

JANE: Although there are plenty of towns in here in the New World that expanded at random, I’d say planning was a lot more common.  The Spanish, for example, planned cities around a central plaza, usually with a church at one side.  The further you get from the center, the more chaotic the layout would get.  Sometimes, later events would lead to changes, so, in Santa Fe, the church is now a block off the plaza, rather than, as originally, right on it.

ALAN: New Zealand tried to do something similar but, being British, they didn’t always get it quite right. Wellington, where I used to live, was very carefully planned. The movers and shakers in England (none of whom had ever been to New Zealand) produced an elegant plan based on maps provided by the colonists. Unfortunately, the colonial mapmakers forgot to put the contour lines in and so the implementation of the plan didn’t work out too well…

JANE: Oh…  Wait!  I just read that to Jim and I’ve got to wait for him to stop laughing.  Being an archeologist, he always draws maps with contour lines.  That’s why the maps in the Firekeeper books show elevations – he drew the originals.  So the idea of city planners forgetting that all land is not perfectly flat seems hilarious to him.

What happened to poor Wellington?

ALAN: The builders struggled to fit the city to the original plan and they had to make a lot of compromises. They sacrificed public amenities such as parks, and somehow they managed to squeeze everything essential in.

Then, in the middle of the nineteenth century there was a big earthquake and Lambton Quay, where the ships all moored themselves, suddenly found itself in the centre of the city and a lot of flat land that hadn’t been there the day before made itself available for building on. That helped a lot.

JANE: Wow!  That’s astonishing and just a little creepy.

ALAN: As an added bonus, the earthquake also gave us an international airport and a place for Peter Jackson’s stage sets so he could film the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies.

JANE: I’m assuming you mean a place to build these things, right?  They didn’t just magically appear?

ALAN: That’s right – but it makes a much better story if you assume that the shaking earth just handed them to us fully built. Next time we have an earthquake, it will probably take them away again.

These days Lambton Quay is a very posh thoroughfare through the city centre. It is full of offices and expensive shops. A few years ago, one of the older buildings was extensively renovated and as they were digging out the foundations they came across the remains of a ship which presumably had been tied up at the quay when the earthquake hit. There’s something quite surreal about the thought of a city centre office block having a ship in its basement…

JANE: Wonderful!  Reminds me of elements in Charles Delint’s Newford, where there is a city under the city…  What about a ghost fleet sailing below Wellington, becoming aware that there’s a threat of a new earthquake and…

Sorry…  Writers are like that.  Everything’s a story.

Speaking of which, I should go write.

ALAN: But I’ve got a question for you! Oh, well.  Never mind. I’ll ask it when you get back.

I Am Elemental

March 18, 2015

This past weekend, my friend Hilary Estell and I sat down and played with action figures…

When I was a little girl, action figures weren’t really a part of the toy scene.  For girls, the closest we came were various sizes of fashion dolls.  There were the large ones like Barbie and her gang.  There were smaller ones, but these were much less common.  And, big or small, the story inherent in their design was that a girl’s quest was how to look pretty.

The Courage Team

The Courage Team

Boys had it better.  G.I. Joe might have really weird joints, but he also had a wide variety of cool accessories.  If you weren’t into playing war, there was a line of slightly smaller, very muscular figures who were explorers and adventurers.  I seem to recall they had names like Big Jim, Jeff, and Josh, but it’s been a long time and I’m not sure if these were the names we gave them.

If boys didn’t want to play with these larger figures, because they were too much like dolls, boys had options.  Most prominent were those green “army men” figures or, sometimes, if you were lucky, Western figures of the same sort.  These belonged to a world in which females did not exist.  Later, about the point when I was starting to babysit, more detailed smaller figures began showing up, both for boys and for girls.  The girls were more or less miniature Barbie types.  The boy figures were the predecessors of today’s ubiquitous action figure.

On the whole, today’s action figures are predominantly male, sending the message that while girls might want to have fun, if their sort of fun is kicking butt and taking names, they’d better be prepared to do so in primarily male company.  Oh… and while having enormous breasts and wearing costumes meant to show off lots of leg.

Back to me and Hilary.  Some months ago, Hilary came across a Kickstarter campaign for a company that wanted to make a line of action figures for girls called I Am Elemental.  She was immediately impressed and, despite the fact that she is a college student who works part-time to cover the bills, she decided to back them with her hard-earned barista bucks.  Oh…  Hilary has no children, nor any immediate plans for children.  Despite the fact that we’re a couple decades apart in age, she hadn’t found all that much of a change in the sort of action toys available for girls and really wanted to see that change.

(The Kickstarter campaign can still be found on-line and it’s damn impressive.  If I’d heard about it, I would have definitely done my part.)

The campaign earned its funding and now the first seven figures have been released.  Unlike male superheroes, who usually get their powers from without (radioactive spider bite, science experiment gone wrong) or are born into them (god in modern dress, born on another planet) or are granted them by a third party (SHAZAM!), the I Am Elemental superheroes get their powers from within.  The first line is Courage and includes Bravery, Energy, Honesty, Industry, Enthusiasm, Persistence, and Fear.

Yes.  You read that right.  Fear.  And, no, Fear is not the token villain.  As the very cool booklet that comes with the set states: “Fear is not the enemy.  It is a compass, pointing you to the areas where you need to grow. S. Pavlina.”

Fear’s super power, by the way, is the ability to stop you in your tracks.  Yeah…  That’s incredibly true.  Been there.  Met that.

A second line, based around Wisdom, is planned.  I find myself fascinated as I speculate about what qualities the designers will choose.

Before I go on, I’ve got to comment on how fantastically these figures are constructed.  They have numerous flexible joints but, unlike the fancy ball-jointed dolls I’ve seen, where the joints are meant to be concealed by clothing, the joints are not in the least grotesque.

The figures stand easily, encouraging lots of elaborate poses.  There’s none of that “hop, hop, hop” we were restricted to by Barbie and friends.  Now that I think about it, that seems a lot like Chinese foot-binding.  Honestly has wings, but they snap off easily, so if Industry needs to fly, well, she can…

Although the figures are definitely female – and feminine – there are none of the enormous breasts and overt sexuality found in so many action figures depicting female characters.  They have distinct hairstyles, but their facial expressions are neutral.  I really liked this because, even as a kid I found the omnipresent smile on so many girl dolls frustrated my ability to imagine a good story around them.   As I’ve said in other contexts, the heart of a story is conflict.  It’s really hard to imagine conflict with someone who never stops smiling…

Speaking of story, another really cool thing about these figures is that they do not come with an elaborate pre-designed backstory.  They invite the creation of stories.  As Hilary and I moved the seven figures around on the table, I found myself wondering what would happen if Fear and Honesty teamed up.  Would Persistence and Industry be natural allies, or would they bicker?

As we examined the I Am Elemental action figures, I asked Hilary what sort of stories she likes to read.  I’m going to save her answer for next week, because her answer got me thinking about a bunch of things…  One thing I’m sure of, though, the ladies behind I Am Elemental absolutely understand what girls want!

FF: What Works, What Doesn’t

March 13, 2015

This past week, Jim and I decided to read rather than watch anything.  So  more print, less audio!

The FF feature lists of what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include either short fiction or magazine articles.

Ogapoge Dreams of Ninja Rockers

Ogapoge Dreams of Ninja Rockers

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

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a few opinions tossed in.  And I’d love to hear what you’re reading!

Recently Completed:

Year of the Griffin by Diana Wynne Jones.  Sequel to The Dark Lord of Derkholm, set eight years later.  I loved it.  I wanted it to be a whole lot longer, though.

Naruto by  Masashi Kishimoto.  Manga.  Issues 65-67.  I’ve been reading this one for a long time and, unlike so many series, instead of getting weaker, it gets stronger, perhaps because the author is no longer forced to standard tropes.

Soul Music by Terry Pratchett.  Jim and I had been watching some rock documentaries, which gave me a desire to re-read the tale of Music With Rocks In and the Discworld.  Pratchett’s novels are wonderful and I’m not afraid to admit that when the new broke yesterday that he had died, I started crying.

The Game by Diana Wynne Jones.  Released in hard cover from Firebird Press, this novella has an almost magical realism feel.  Recommended.

In Progress:

A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold.  Audiobook.  Mixed feelings.  This novel has some really neat biological/political material.  However, it also has everything in it that makes me hate romance novels.    I’m interested enough to keep going, though I’m beginning to wonder if I need to skip to print, so I can skim all the romance stupid.  Please note.  This is NOT a slam on the book.  I simply have a lower than average tolerance for the same romance novel tropes that make them a perennially popular form.

Gray Heroes: Elder Tales from Around the World edited by Jane Yolen.  I bought this years ago and have dipped in from time to time.  I’ve resolved to read the whole thing.  I’m into the final section now.  These are best read with a little space between.

Also:

I’m reading up for my talk at UNM on April 1st.  Also, a heck of a lot of my own stuff with various future projects in mind.

TT: Bizarre and Marvelous

March 12, 2015

JANE: So, Alan, do you have any favorites among New Zealand’s bizarre creatures?

ALAN: I think my favourite has to be the kea, a parrot which lives in the Alpine regions of the South Island. It is the world’s only alpine parrot! The kea is renowned for its intelligence – it’s probably about as intelligent as a monkey which makes it a positive genius of the bird world.

A Taratula, Jemez Springs, NM

A Tarantula, Jemez Springs, NM

JANE: An alpine parrot?  Alpine as in snow and ice?

ALAN: That’s right. It’s a very strange world down here…

The kea loves to explore new things and play with what it finds. It’s very cat-like in terms of its curiosity and it is sometimes referred to as “the clown of the mountains.”  It will hunt around in tourists’ backpacks, peer into their boots, and investigate their cars, often causing damage or flying off with any treasures that it finds. There is an urban myth that a kea once stripped the rubber sealing off a windscreen and flew away with it as the windscreen fell out and shattered behind it. Tourists love them, but the locals find them exasperating and annoying.

JANE: Sounds like how people react to precocious children.  They’re great as long as they belong to someone else.

ALAN: It seems that a kea once flew off with a passport belonging to a Scottish tourist. From this I deduce that the kea is occupying the same ecological niche as the goat. Everyone knows that goats eat wallets, passports, and handbags.

JANE: Goats?  That’s stretching it.  However, the kea’s behavior does remind me of that of ravens, magpies, and to a lesser extent, other corvids.  I’ve never heard of a raven going for rubber sealing, but I’ve heard of them taking car keys or sparkly jewelry.  They’re large enough they can carry off more than you’d expect.

Do you have any other odd creatures there or have we exhausted the possibilities?

ALAN: We have lots more oddities. Consider the kakapo – a very large, flightless parrot. It’s a solitary bird and spends much of its time avoiding other kakapo. Not surprisingly, it’s endangered and there are only about 125 individuals left. Actually its rarity is really much more due to predation by introduced mammals than it is to the bird’s solitary nature…

JANE: So I imagine…

ALAN: One of the more famous kakapo is an individual called Sirocco. Sirocco came to the attention of the world when he was being filmed for an episode of the BBC television series Last Chance to See. He attempted to have sex with zoologist Mark Carwardine, and achieved a reasonable degree of success! Because of his world-wide fame, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key gave Sirocco the title of Official Spokesbird for Conservation in January 2010.

JANE: I wonder why?  Sirocco’s behavior seems counter to conservation of the species.

ALAN: He is certainly not a typical kakapo in that regard. Sirocco’s motto appears to be: if it moves, have sex with it. If it doesn’t move, peck it until it does. Perhaps as Official Spokesbird, he can carry his message to other kakapo and thus preserve them from extinction.

JANE: I’m laughing almost too hard to type…  Dare I ask you to continue?

ALAN: I should also mention the tuatara. They are reptiles found only in New Zealand. The tuatara is, quite literally, a living dinosaur. It is the only surviving member of the order Sphenodontia, which flourished during the age of the dinosaurs, some 200 million years ago.

JANE: What sort of dinosaur do the tuatara look like?

ALAN: It looks rather like a lizard. And it has looked like that for the last 200 million years.

JANE: Why is it designated the last dinosaur, rather than a lizard or something?  After all, the fossil record shows that turtles and crocodilians existed at the same time as the dinosaurs.

ALAN: Although it looks like a lizard, the resemblance is superficial.  It is not related to any other living species. It really is a dinosaur.

Tuatara are more than a little lethargic. I watched one in a zoo once. I stared at it for an hour or so and it didn’t move or blink. I couldn’t even see it breathing. Becoming bored, I wandered away in search of more interesting animals. A couple of hours later, I passed by its cage again and it was facing in a different direction!

JANE: If you watched it for an hour, the tuatara aren’t the only things that are lethargic!

ALAN: Actually, I think it was really just a plastic model and the zookeeper came and picked it up and changed its position when nobody was looking. I’m not convinced that tuatara actually exist…

JANE: Ah, but they must.  How could someone make a plastic model of a creature that doesn’t exist?

Are your plants as odd as your animals?

ALAN: Indeed they are! New Zealand flora are very primitive – ferns and the like. Almost none of the plants produce flowers and the few that do flower usually have rather drab, uninteresting blossoms. The reason for this is that the plants have evolved to use nocturnal insects (moths and the like) to propagate themselves and rather than having vivid eye-catching flowers to attract daytime insects, instead they have interesting smells to attract the night time bugs.

JANE: That’s fascinating!  I always loved ferns.  They do have a distinctive scent.

ALAN: I only recently learned about the way these plants propagate. We had taken a trip out to see a gannet colony. The tour guide seemed to know a lot more about plants than she did about gannets, and along the way she explained the reasons why the plants have not evolved flowers. Then she stopped the tour bus at a strategic spot and opened the windows. Instantly we were surrounded by a strong, sweet, honey-like smell. If I was a moth, I’m sure I’d find it irresistible!

I think that bees, a major plant propagator in other countries, are a relatively recent arrival here. Probably they too are an introduced, invasive species.

JANE: Hopefully a beneficial one, in this case.

New Mexico flora is certainly different from what I grew up with.  Anything that can have thorns does.  An added bonus is caustic sap.  Even grasses sometimes have spikey tips.  The message is loud and clear: “Do Not Eat Me!  It’s hard enough to stay alive in this arid climate without you biting me in half!”

Some years ago, it was reported that a zealous retainer of whichever office of the New Mexico state government is responsible for responding to tourist queries had put together a comprehensive list of the state’s most common poisonous plants, insects, and reptiles.  (We have lots of rattlesnakes, some poisonous lizards, scorpions, and various poisonous spiders, including black widows and tarantulas).  Presumably, this was meant to provide due caution to anyone planning to visit here.  I heard that the list was removed from the packet sent out to prospective visitors as being detrimental to tourism.

ALAN: We score rather poorly on the fiercely thorned and poisonous plants and animals scale. New Zealand really is a very benign country. You’ll die of exposure if you stay out in the weather too long and every so often a mountain might fall on you when an earthquake happens, but that’s about it.

JANE: Falling mountains don’t sound great, but I must admit, I loved New Zealand during my one visit there.

I promise that if you ever visit New Mexico, I’ll make you a list of things to be careful of…

I’ve been delighted with your revelation of New Zealand’s biological oddities.  They’ve certainly given me some ideas I plan to weave into a fictional world one of these days!

The Headless Flute Player

March 11, 2015

This past week, I received the happy news that a short story I wrote a couple of months ago has been accepted for publication.

(In case you’re wondering, the pleasure of knowing a story will come out somewhere never gets old.  At least it hasn’t for me.)

Look in the Middle

Look in the Middle

“The Headless Flute Player” will appear in the collection Shadows and Reflections: A Tribute to Roger Zelazny edited by Warren LaPine and Trent Zelazny.  A release date has not yet been set.

When I was asked to submit a story to Shadows and Reflections, I immediately decided that the best tribute I could offer Roger was to write a story expanding on one of the two novels that he had trusted me to finish for him: Donnerjack and Lord Demon.  I chose Lord Demon because I really like Chinese material, as anyone who has read my “Breaking the Wall” series might have guessed, and the universe of Lord Demon includes Chinese elements.

As those of you who read the Friday Fragments may recall, in late 2014, I set myself to re-read Lord Demon.  In doing so, I had one of those weird experiences that only happens when a writer has been publishing for many, many years.  (Lord Demon was originally published in 1999.)  I found myself reading the novel as if it had been written by someone else.  Occasionally, I’d find myself remembering writing a specific bit or how I’d woven my material into what Roger had contributed, but mostly I just read Lord Demon much as I would any novel.

When I finished, I started thinking about how I might expand upon the novel.  Initially, I’d considered writing a sequel, but I rejected this thought pretty quickly because Lord Demon has both a very rich setting and a fairly large cast of characters.  I felt that a short story might lose intensity because of the need both to work in characters from the novel and to explain why certain characters were not involved.  I also didn’t want to provide too many spoilers for the novel itself, just in case someone might read the story and decide they now wanted to read the novel.

So I decided to write a prequel.  This choice gave me a very wide field in which to play since Kai Wren, like so many of Roger’s characters, is an immortal and enters the novel with a long life before him.

When Roger and I were living together, one of the ornaments he brought along was a slightly damaged carving of the Eight Chinese immortals.  He explained to me that, for him, the damage was part of the appeal and that, someday, he’d like to write a story explaining how the flute player lost his head.

I still have that carving.  It resides on the mantelpiece in my living room.  I decided that I would tell the story of how the flute player lost his head.  I don’t pretend that it’s the story Roger would have written.  Despite our shared interests, we were very different people.  However, now, whenever I look at the carving, I feel a certain pleasure that the story has at long last been told.

FF: Too Much to Put on a Coffee Mug

March 6, 2015

This week I tried an experiment…

But, before I get to it, let me clarify for those of you who are new to this feature.  The FF feature lists of what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include either short fiction or magazine articles.

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

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a few opinions tossed in.  And I’d love to hear what you’re reading!

Kel Contemplates Murder

Kel Contemplates Murder

Recently Completed:

A Fashion for Shrouds by Margery Allingham.  Audiobook.  A classic mystery in her Albert Campion series.  Even though I know “whodunit” and even why, the language is so glorious I was sorry whenever I had to turn it off.

A Holiday for Murder by Agatha Christie.  I discovered this one when I was still babysitting – back more years ago than I care to admit.  This may have been one of the first of her novels I read.  I remembered the plot being twisty and clever.  I was right!

Year of the Griffin by Diana Wynne Jones.  Sequel to The Dark Lord of Derkholm, set eight years later.  I really enjoyed.  Introduces great new characters without forgetting to address the ramifications of events in the prior book.

In Progress:

A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold.  Audiobook.  Just started.

Gray Heroes: Elder Tales from Around the World edited by Jane Yolen.  I bought this years ago and have dipped in from time to time.  I’ve resolved to read the whole thing.  Just finished the Wisdom Tales and am into Tricksters.

Also:

Here’s where the experiment comes in…

Up to this point, I’ve only used our Kindle for work.  I decided to try it for pleasure.  I’ve read “The Sky Riders” by Paul Dellinger and Mike Allen,  “Magic of the Rose” by Scot Noel, and am now reading Rowan Derrick’s Master’s thesis on the motif of the post-nuclear wasteland.

So far, I prefer paper because I can have two pages in front of me, rather than having to keep turning.  (I read very fast.)  That said, it’s not horrible and I can see the device’s appeal, especially for travel.

Oh…  And why did I mention a coffee mug in the title to this week’s entry?  Baen Books put up a picture of a mug on Twitter that said: “I’m currently reading” and invited you to fill in the blank.  No way I could have listed  the three books I’m concurrently reading!

TT: World-building Without Mammals

March 5, 2015

JANE: Alan, I was fascinated when, a couple of weeks ago, you mentioned that New Zealand has no native mammals except for one species of bat.  I even queried you off-Tangent, but didn’t want to go that far off topic.  Now, however, I’d love to circle back and take a closer look at New Zealand’s ecosystem.  It sounds like an exercise in SF/F world-building!

Kiwi (Bird?)

Kiwi (Bird?)

ALAN: I’ve done some more checking and I’ve found that we actually have three species of bat, but one of them is extinct and the other two are quite rare…

JANE: I’m guessing that the bats flew in, or, like the camels in Terry Pratchett’s The Last Continent traveled in on driftwood.  Anyhow, counting an extinct creature hardly seems fair.  I’d like to look at this alien world you’re living on.

ALAN: New Zealand is certainly a very alien world. The country is geographically isolated and, if you can’t fly or swim, you don’t really have any way of getting here. Consequently, we do have populations of marine mammals (sea lions and the like), but inland all the ecological niches that mammals occupy in other places are taken up by birds and insects.

JANE: I’d love to hear about some of these.  Can we start with the kiwi bird?  When Roger and I were there, we moved out of the convention hotel (which was nice, but very generic) to an oddball place dominated by an enormous figure of a kiwi bird.  I remember it fondly.

ALAN: Everybody is fond of the kiwi.  It’s our national symbol. New Zealanders identify very closely with it and they refer to themselves as kiwis. Incidentally, it’s just “kiwi”, not “kiwi bird.”

JANE: Oh…  To Americans, a kiwi is a fruit about the size of a plum, with a fuzzy green outside and sweet/tart flavor.  What do you call those?

ALAN: We call them “kiwifruit.”

JANE: Well, that’s boring…

ALAN: Anyway, back to the kiwi. They are flightless birds which belong to the unfortunately named ratite family – emus and ostriches are also ratites. Their feathers are very fur-like and Maori used to make kiwi feather cloaks. I’ve seen some in museums and they are really very beautiful.

JANE: I bet the fur-like feathers and rounded shape led to the fruit being named for the bird. But, that’s a tangent.  For once, I will discipline myself to stay on topic.  Go on…

ALAN: The most bizarre thing about the kiwi is that it lays the largest egg in relation to its body size of any species of bird in the world! I once saw an X-ray photograph of a kiwi that was about to lay an egg. All its internal organs were squashed up into a small blob in one corner and the egg occupied all the rest of the body cavity. I have no idea how its organs continued to function while being so squashed.

To give you some idea of scale, the kiwi is about the size of a domestic chicken, but it lays an egg that is six times larger than a chicken’s egg.

JANE: Ouch!  That’s got to be painful.

ALAN: I’m sure it is!

JANE: Does the kiwi (mentally insert “bird”) fill a particular ecological niche, or is it just impossibly adorable?

ALAN: Ecologically, the kiwi is rather similar to anteaters, moles and hedgehogs. Indeed, because it has so many un-bird like characteristics, the kiwi is almost an honourary mammal in its own right! Like a badger, it digs burrows in which it lives; it has a highly developed sense of smell (most unusual in a bird), and it is the only bird to have nostrils at the end of its beak. It lives on small invertebrates, seeds, grubs, and many varieties of worms which it sniffs out and digs up with its long beak. It has very poor eyesight, but who needs to see things when you can smell them instead?

JANE: That’s cool!

The only other New Zealand critter that immediately springs to mind for me is the weta, popularized by Peter Jackson’s movie studio.  If I hadn’t done a bit of research on New Zealand when I wrote “Pakeha,” my short story set in New Zealand, I would have thought they were fictional.

ALAN: Ah, the weta – a huge insect that I always think of as being a cross between a cockroach and Tyrannosaurus rex (actually, it’s more like a very, very large grasshopper). It’s probably the largest insect in the world and it looks quite fearsome and vicious, though actually it isn’t…

JANE: “Large” is one of those vague words.  Can you be more precise?  I’ve seen some horribly large grasshoppers.

ALAN: There are several species of weta and they are all huge by insect standards. The largest is one species of Giant Weta which can reach an overall length of 20cm (8 inches for those who are metrically challenged) and which can weigh up to 70g (2.5oz). But that’s unusual – most wetas are less than half that size and weight.

JANE: Eight inches?  That’s not “large,” that’s utterly humongous!

How do these horrible bugs fit in?

ALAN: Ecologically, the weta is the insect equivalent of rats and mice. They are nocturnal and omnivorous. Their major foods are vegetation and other small invertebrates. Like mice, they are very good seed dispersers because the seeds pass through them unharmed.

JANE: Hmm…  An interesting side effect of this discussion is considering the purposes our “normal” animals serve.  I don’t think I ever considered mice as seed dispersers, just as food for just about everything larger.

I wonder if weta are also edible?

ALAN: There’s a TV presenter called Bear Grylls who is an expert on surviving in hostile environments. His programmes show him being dropped into inhospitable places and demonstrating how to survive in them. The gimmick is that in every show he eats or drinks something disgusting. So over the years he’s eaten deer droppings, rancid camel fat (the camel had been dead for at least a week), beetles, a live crab (complete with sand) and goodness knows what else. So when he came to New Zealand, he obviously had to eat a weta. He almost threw up. He claims the weta has the most disgusting taste of anything that he’s ever eaten!

JANE: Hmm…  So not edible by modern standards.  Did the Maori eat them?

ALAN: No, but the Maori did eat the grubs of the huhu beetle. Imagine a maggot the size of one of your fingers and you’ll have a pretty good picture of a huhu grub. I’m told that they taste like peanut butter…

JANE: But you haven’t tried them?  I see there’s a limit to what Alan the Omnivore will eat!

Does anyone/thing eat weta or are you guys in danger of being overrun by giant bugs?

ALAN: As far as I can tell, the only things that eat weta are introduced mammals (though I suspect the kiwi may find immature wetas palatable) and as a result of this, some weta species are hovering on the brink of extinction.

My cats have occasionally brought home and eaten a weta. They don’t seem to mind the disgusting taste. Juicy! Crunchy! Interestingly, they never eat the legs which are just solid chitin with no flesh on them at all. I think they use the legs as toothpicks…

JANE: Weta sound completely horrible.  I wonder why Peter Jackson chose to name his studio after them?

ALAN: Probably because Peter Jackson loves horrible things.  Before Lord of the Rings, his reputation was largely based on some utterly gross splatter movies which have the saving grace that they are also very, very funny. I think he’d find a weta quite appealing…

JANE: Ah, then, the choice makes sense in a twisted fashion.

I was going to suggest that you pick one of your favorite creatures, but I think that’s going to need to wait for next time.


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