Archive for May, 2012

TT: The Fantasy of Monarchy

May 31, 2012

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back and join me as I take you with me back to Conduit in Utah this past weekend.  Then come and take part in Alan and my discussion as to why monarchies are so popular in Fantasy – and even sometimes in SF.

JANE: Last time you wondered aloud why monarchies are so popular in

Fantasy Monarch and Court

Fantasy and even Science Fiction.    You suggested this might be due to the influence of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books.

ALAN: Yes, I did. Royalty and aristocracy have turned into a fantasy novel cliché. Almost without exception, modern fantasies are full of Kings and Queens, Lords and Ladies. A huge number of these books are written by Americans.  It strikes me as very odd that writers from a country that deliberately turned its back on that structure of government should return to it in their books over and over again.

Perhaps because they have never lived in a society organised in this way, they sometimes view it through rose coloured glasses. That breaks the spell of the story, at least as far as this British reader is concerned!

JANE: As a writer who has created the occasional monarchy, I have a few insights into why I, at least, made the choice.  Absolutely none of them had anything to do with Tolkien or with idealizing that particular form of government.

ALAN: Now you’ve piqued my interest. Tell me more!

JANE: When I set out to write the Firekeeper books, one of the themes I wanted to explore was feral child raised by animals.  However, I felt that both Kipling (with Mowgli) and Burroughs (with Tarzan) had already done the “alien first encounter story” quite well.  Therefore, I needed a reason why Firekeeper would not have stayed contentedly with the wolves.

I decided that someone would come looking – not so much for her, as for the people she had been with.  Why would they do that?  After reviewing a bunch of options, I decided that an inheritance question would be a good one.  Since I didn’t want Firekeeper herself to be the focus, I decided on a conflicted throne.

You see, unlike any other form of government, monarchies are fascinating in that, much of the time, who will rule is not chosen by fitness but by birth order.  This makes for a tight focus, much tighter than, say, an election would be.

With me so far?

ALAN: Yes – though it isn’t an invariable rule that the monarch is chosen by birth order. The succession can easily be manipulated in the interests of political expediency. If the Duke of Windsor had married Wallis Simpson before he ascended to the throne,  he would never have been allowed to become King in the first place. And when he did marry her, he was forced to abdicate. I agree that, for the purposes of fiction, you have to pretend that the tight focus you require will be adhered to. But in the real world power lies with the Kingmakers, just as much as  it lies with the King.

JANE: But wasn’t it the Duke’s  choice of a marriage partner that was being objected to – not his fitness as a potential monarch?

ALAN: Not really. There were a lot of people who regarded Wallis as a gift from God.  By the time he was forced to abdicate, there were serious doubts about Edward VIII’s fitness for the role of King. His politics were causing concern (he was a thorough-going fascist) and he didn’t have the intellect to understand and perform his kingly functions properly. Wallis gave the Kingmakers the excuse they needed to get rid of him.

And sometimes the Kingmakers change their minds. Look at poor Lady Jane Grey – Queen for only nine days. Having appointed, anointed, and crowned her, the Privy Council then reasserted the legitimacy of her cousin Mary’s claim to the throne and Lady Jane was executed. (Of course, the size of Mary’s army might have had something to do with that decision…)

JANE: Actually, I am familiar with both of those historical examples – and both of those situations caused a lot of trauma precisely because they violated what everyone had come to expect would be the rule…

Anyhow, another reason monarchies are appealing to a writer is because when a major decision needs to be made only one person needs to be convinced.  Last week, I suggested that Tolkien might have made the Riders of Rohan some form of democracy.  However, if he’d done that, Gandalf and the rest would have had to convince all the Riders Who Had the Vote to go to war.  Instead, we focus in on one old, sick, disheartened man.  The one leads to argument.  The other to drama.

ALAN: I fully understand this approach – drama is always better than argument. But it does cheat a little. The monarch is almost never the only person who needs convincing. And no matter what their personal feelings may be, they are still subject to pressure from other interests. King John did not sign Magna Carta voluntarily.

JANE: I’ll take this further…  I have written books in which some sort of democratic or communistic process dictates the action.  This is precisely what goes on in the Breaking the Wall books, because each of the heirs of the Thirteen Orphans has a say.  Some reviewers have criticized the books as too “talky” for this reason.

I think they would have liked a sort of monarchy with, say, the Tiger neatly in charge.

ALAN: Ah, there’s the difficult word – “neatly.” These things are seldom neat. Henry VIII is commonly viewed as one of the strongest of the English kings. He killed and divorced his wives with impunity; he destroyed the monasteries; he even founded a new national religion.

But his word alone was not enough to make these things happen. He needed people like Thomas Wolsey (a Cardinal who had the ear of the Pope) and Thomas Cromwell, a pre-eminent statesman. Without them he could never have achieved his aims.

JANE: I’d like to give a nod to a SF series by an American that I think uses the monarchy in a manner you’d find familiar and realistic.  David Weber, in his Honor Harrington novels, gives the Star Kingdom of Manticore a parliamentary democracy with a monarch.  Weber shows the difficulties Queen Elizabeth has with the Star Kingdom’s various political parties.  She’s far from a figurehead but, even so, she needs to deal with which party is in dominance and how that will affect her ability to have things go her way.

ALAN: I’ve not read Weber’s books. But your description makes the politics of his monarchy sound much more realistic than the overly simplistic picture that so many fantasies portray. All too often fantasy novel monarchies are painted in black and white. They need far more shades of grey to be convincing (and some other colours might help a bit as well).

JANE: I agree – and I think I also write – about shades of grey, even with monarchies.  The complexities of the political situation in Through Wolf’s Eyes are far beyond “oldest kid gets the throne.” That said, too many writers of Fantasy don’t bother with this.

ALAN: And now we’ve both arrived at the same place, albeit via different routes!

JANE:  Let’s leave the monarchy behind and look at other types of government Fantasy might use.  I know you must have some thoughts on that for next time.


Sliding Down the Conduit

May 30, 2012

We got in on Friday with about an hour to spare before my first panel: “The Girl

Brad, Me, and Tammy

as Hero: Feminism in YA Literature.”   There I was delighted to be reunited with Tamora Pierce (see WW 5-09-12) whose role as Guest of Honor was one of the reasons Jim and I decided to attend Conduit.  The panel was lively and fun, one of those really good ones where  panelists trade ideas with enthusiasm.  I scribbled down the name of fellow panelist Mette Ivie Harrison on my “read soon” list.

After the panel ended, we met up with our good friend Julie Bartel.  Since Julie is a specialist in YA fiction (she’s a librarian), the discussion continued as we went to meet her husband, Kenny, and their three and a half year-old daughter, Nora,  at Ruth’s Diner.  The food was good.  The setting was an absolutely breathtaking canyon, green-furred with trees right up where the upper edge met the sky.

Following dinner, the Bartels took us for a tour of Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City.  The architecture was splendid.  The statues and icons were fascinating.  For me, however, the gardens – especially the peonies, roses, irises, and delphiniums – were the best part.

Saturday began at 7:00 a.m. and was busy from start to finish.  First Jim and I went out to breakfast with my Aunt Ruth and Uncle Dick.  They showed us an entirely different part of Salt Lake City, including a misty view of the Great Salt Lake itself as seen from their deck.    We arrived back at the hotel with time for a deep breath and a comb through the hair, then off to a variety of panels.

First was “Gods in Fantasy” with Tamora Pierce (hereafter Tammy) and Tracy Hickman (of Dragonlance fame).  As you may have guessed from reading my fiction, I’m a serious mythology junkie, so this panel was exactly to my taste.  Even better, we had three panelists with strong opinions and good manners.  That meant that even when we disagreed about such things as Campbell’s interpretations, the disagreement stopped short of us throwing things.  However, I think we could have easily gone on for another hour without anyone on the panel or in the audience minding at all.

However, other duties called.  For my part, I had a reading to give.  Following the panel, I got up to the room early enough to enjoy a good part of  Mette Ivie Harrison’s reading.  Then it was my turn.  Since it has been recently re-released, I chose to read from Changer.  Struggling with strange lighting and my reading glasses, I fumbled a bit, but my audience was kind and patient.

After that, I had enough of a break to get a cup of coffee and breathe deeply before my three  p.m. panel, “Playing in Someone Else’s Sandbox.”  I mostly talked about my on-going collaboration with David Weber and the excitement of being asked to write a Man/Kzin War story for Larry Niven.  The panel as a whole  discussed the does and don’ts, pros and cons of writing in someone else’s universe.  Once again, I really enjoyed the contributions of the other panelists, one of whom was the trustee for Marion Zimmer Bradley’s estate and had some interesting non-writer insights into the topic.

Then came Tammy’s Guest of Honor presentation, so I happily shifted to the audience side of the room.  She read to us from her forthcoming novel Battle Magic, talked fluently about what had brought her to writing, and was in general very entertaining.   That evening, we went out to dinner again with Julie, Kenny, and Nora.  This time we went all the way out to Sandy.  They took us up into a granite-lined canyon with snow on the slopes and waterfalls spilling down the sides.  It was really impressive.

After a dinner of Thai food, we went back to the Bartels’ house.  Julie and I alternated between talking shop and playing “Beauty and the Beast” with Nora, complete with songs.  Jim and Kenny took over Nora for a round of “Aladdin,” so Julie and I could discuss impending projects.  Really, it was a very storyful evening.

Sunday morning I had my earliest panel of the convention: “Getting Your Stuff Published.”   We had a little bit of a snafu when media guest of honor, Tim Russ, started playing his electric guitar very well – but very loudly – on the other side of the thin partition wall.  However, the convention staff found us another room and we all trooped across the hallway and resumed our talk.

I wish I had a better list of my co-panelists for this one because I was very impressed by the balanced discussion.  Tammy and I definitely represented the “old” model: sell short stuff, gain a reputation, attract an agent, sell novels.  Several of the other panelists had taken other routes and were very honest about both the difficulties and satisfying elements of the newer models.  However, one thing we all agreed on was that networking remains an important intangible.

Right before the panel, Jim and I encountered writer Paul Genesee.  We’d met Paul a few times before, mostly at World Fantasy Conventions, where we could only chat briefly for a few minutes.  One of the great things about smaller conventions is that you get time to actually visit with people.  Paul (and Julie, who was still putting up with us) knew the convention hotel well.  They found us a room with comfortable furniture and we settled in to talk books, writing, mythology, the changing role of libraries, more books and…

Suddenly, I realized that we hadn’t had much to eat and that Jim and I both had presentations later in the afternoon.  Paul and Julie put their heads together to find a good place, close to the hotel, that was open on a Sunday in Salt Lake City.  They came up with an excellent “brew pub” sort of place.  None of us had any beer, but my wild mushroom pizza was fantastic.  We made it back to the hotel in time for Jim’s talk: “Archeology – It’s not Indiana Jones.”  Jim mixed personal anecdotes with the history of the profession and then took questions.

I had to hurry to my next (and last) panel before he finished with the questions.  This was “Fantasy Not Set in ‘White, Medieval Europe.’” We had a boisterous group of panelists, but somehow managed to provide both a wide range of suggested reading and some tips about how a writer might go about breaking out of the same-old, same-old fantasy model.  Tammy was particularly eloquent in her request that people stop re-telling King Arthur.  I emerged from the panel with Vodnik by Bryce Moore on my reading list.

This ended the formal part of the convention, but that evening we met up with Tammy and finally got to have the long chat we’d been hoping for.  We talked about writing, books, cats, World War I, and a whole bunch of other things.  Then with Tammy’s 5:30 a.m. flight looming and Jim and me anticipating (dreading?) a twelve or so hour drive back to New Mexico, we reluctantly parted ways.

Sound busy?  Oddly enough this doesn’t even touch on half of it.  It doesn’t mention the short but interesting chats with readers before and after panels, the really great costumes, the helpful convention staff (thank you especially Eddy and Tamara), the incredibly weird weather…  Part of writing is knowing what to put in, what to leave out.  I hope I’ve chosen rightly and kept you just a little amused.

TT: Tolkien Whine

May 24, 2012

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back and offer your thoughts on just how much is too much when writing “autobiographical” fiction.  Then come and join me as I whine about Tolkien and Alan responds.

JANE: Well, Alan, I promised you my Tolkien whine.  Here goes…

Tolkien Wine

One of the underlying themes of the three Lord of the Rings novels is that a time of change is at hand for Middle Earth.  I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to “give away” that, at the end of The Return of the King, the elves have pretty much all left, so have the wizards, and the dwarves are becoming more reclusive.  There is a new age coming: The Age of Men.

However, in reality, there actually isn’t much change.  Aragorn is not-quite human.  He’s incredibly long-lived, somewhat magical, educated by elves and wizards, and his long life has made him wise beyond what most poor humans can ever dream.

He’s married to Arwen the Elf  so, presumably, their children will be half-elven.  Even if they’re somehow not (because Mama chose a mortal life), they’re going to have the advantage of a super long-lived elven guardian mom to give them the advantage of her knowledge and traditions.

Even Faramir, who takes over Minas Tirith, isn’t completely normal.  He’s Gandalf’s pupil and, so it is hinted, a potential wizard.

So much for the departure of the magical races.  So much for the Age of Men.  The more times I read the books, the more it seems to me that what has really happened is that the older races have gone on holiday, but left what you might call a “caretaker government” in charge.

ALAN: You make a good argument – but I’m not sure I agree. Tolkien made it very clear that he was writing about the Matter of Britain.

JANE: Whoa!  “Matter of Britain”?

ALAN: The Matter of Britain (as opposed to the Matter of France and the Matter of Rome) refers to the traditions of medieval literature and legend and their relationship to the present. The Matter of Britain is largely Arthurian. The Matter of France is largely derived from stories of Charlemagne and the Matter of Rome from Classical mythology. While the Matter of Britain and the Matter of France are seen as semi-historical literary explanations of how both nations came to be, they both lack the firm mythological roots that underlie the more classical Matter of Rome.

JANE: Okay.  I don’t think that term is commonly used here in the U.S.  Thanks!

ALAN: Tolkien wanted to give Britain (or, more specifically, England) a historical mythology of its own. It is  quite clear that today we are living in what Tolkien referred to as the Age of Men and it is equally clear that we ourselves are degenerate descendants of the Men who were living in Middle Earth at the end of  The Return Of The King.  And just as they themselves looked back at a fabled golden age and felt themselves to be much weakened, so we too are meant to look back on their age with envy.

It’s no secret that Tolkien was firmly in favour of the divine right of kings, and consequently our British Kings, Queens and aristocrats are uniquely privileged people, descended as they are from Aragorn, Arwen,  and Faramir. Even though the blood of elves and wizards runs very thin in their veins today (for remember we live in a degenerate age) it justifies their position in society and their sense of entitlement.

JANE: The English prof in me always balks at “obviously” and “clearly” statements about an author’s intent.

In my latter life as a writer, I balk at this, too. You won’t believe the number of people who, when I was writing the Firekeeper series, wrote to Tell Me (not Ask Me) what I would be doing next. Often I would have already written the next book and it went in a completely different direction.

So, can you support your claims about Tolkien’s intent?

ALAN: I don’t want to turn this into an academic discussion complete with notes on its feet – but Tolkien’s attempt to write a mythology for England is well documented. John Clute talks about it in his entry on Tolkien in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy.  And Humphrey Carpenter, in his biography of Tolkien,  quotes Tolkien directly:

“…I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend ranging from the large and cosmogenic to the level of romantic fairy-story…which I could dedicate simply: to England; to my country.”

I admit that the rest of what I said is speculation, but it is not completely uninformed. Given that we are living in the Age of Men (you can’t deny that), I think that the rest follows on.

JANE: Uh…  As a female, could take off on a whole new Tangent about this being an “Age of Men,” but I’ll spare you.  <grin>

ALAN: Whew! It’s a good job you know me so well…

Anyway, my own Tolkien whine takes a rather different tack from yours.

All the races of Middle Earth seem to have the same form of government. Kings, Queens, and aristocrats of various descriptions rule the lands and the people (even the Dark Lord organises his people this way). Tolkien seemed to think it was the natural order of things. And since he grew up in a country with a Royal family and an aristocratic class, it’s not surprising that he felt that way. He was a member of a generation that took these things very seriously.

JANE: Can you think of other governments he might have reasonably used for the cultures he developed?

ALAN: I doubt that Tolkien himself would have been open to considering any other forms. Given his age and his beliefs I suspect that he would have considered monarchy to be the natural order of things and, since he would have lived through the socialist revolutions of the early twentieth century, he would probably have regarded such things with horror.

JANE: I agree with you.  Tolkien might have stretched to a non-monarchical democracy of some sort – maybe the Riders of Rohan could have voted or something – but I agree with you that he was hoping for order and right.

I really want to continue exploring the ways SF/F has used various forms of government for good or ill, but duty calls me elsewhere.  How about next time?

Autobiographical Fiction?

May 23, 2012

This last weekend, Jim and I watched the movie Velvet Goldmine.  It’s a strange

Distorted Truth?

and disturbing movie, but I’m guessing that what disturbed me was a bit different from what hits many other viewers.  I’m a big David Bowie fan.  Elements of Velvet Goldmine draw heavily on elements of Bowie’s career, so heavily, in fact, that I have heard people refer to it as a “bio pic” about Bowie’s early career.

Except, it isn’t.  However, unless you’re of a somewhat pedantic nature (I include myself in this category), it would be hard to sort fact from fiction.  Brian Slade, the Bowie-based character, is designed to look very much like Bowie in various stages of his early career.  There’s the long-haired folky, the wide-eyed boy with shoulder-length curls, and, of course, the wildly made-up glam rocker with the space alien persona.

The parallels don’t stop with appearance.  Titles from Bowie songs are slipped into dialog.  Slade’s wife is American and named Mandy.  Bowie’s wife was American and named Angie.  (The words don’t look much alike, but try saying them.)  The are many other such parallels – but what bothered me was how many of the parts of Bowie’s life that were chosen to be included in the movie’s Slade were those that were cruel and mean-spirited.  Where is the young father who was so excited by the birth of his son that he wrote a song – “Kooks” – about the event?  We see the ruthless would-be star who drops one agent for another, but no use is made of many enduring relationships.  Even Bowie’s friendship with the often difficult Iggy Pop is twisted for the movie’s needs.

I could go on into minutia, but I’ll spare you.

Instead, I’ll admit that I have a hang-up about what is coming to be called “autobiographical fiction.”  Probably the greatest promoter of this type of writing was the early twentieth century writer James Joyce.

I’ve read just about all of James Joyce’s fiction.  Even as an undergrad, I never really liked how heavily Joyce stressed that his novels and short stories were based on his life.  Why?  Because of the degree of distortion that Joyce felt free to introduce, distortion that was often quite unfair and unkind to the people he was writing about.

If Joyce wanted to represent himself as some sort of soulful artistic hero, well, I guess that’s fine.  There’s no way for any of us to tell what was going on inside his head.  However, when Joyce started distorting other people – while leaving them perfectly recognizable to those who would be reading the novels – that seemed flat-out wrong to me.  Even people who have never read Joyce’s novel Ulysses have heard the opening line “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan…”  It’s been quoted and parodied many times.

In Joyce’s time, everyone who was anyone knew that Buck Mulligan “was” actually Oliver St. John Gogarty, Joyce’s close associate.  I hesitate to use the word “friend” since Joyce’s representation of Buck Mulligan was a distorted caricature of the real man.  I always felt this was very harsh treatment – especially because of the numerous kindnesses that Gogarty did for Joyce.  The poet and playwright W.B. Yeats comes in for shorter, but equally cruel treatment within the pages of Joyce’s fiction.

The worst thing of all is that, as the years have passed, these caricatures have gained prominence over reality.  Joyce deliberately courted the budding literary critical establishment, going so far as to provide would-be commentators on Ulysses with an essay that I can’t help but think of as a secret decoder ring for the novel.  This essay made certain that the “autobiographical” elements of the novel would be reviewed and re-reviewed in the years to come.  Indeed, whereas kind, compassionate, highly-intelligent Gogarty has been all but forgotten, the parodic Buck Mulligan is well-remembered.

I guess you can tell this burns me up.

People often ask me where I get my ideas.  I suspect that – influenced by the idea that authors are all really writing about themselves – they want to be told that I have actually lived with a wolf pack or resided in a house populated with mysterious silent women or whatever.  Some years ago, as we were getting ready to go on-stage for a literary talk, Steven R. Donaldson commented (I paraphrase), “What people really want is to meet Thomas Covenant, not to hear me talk about how I write the novels.”

Want to know how much of my fiction is based on my life?

Everything and nothing at all.  You’re not going to find my mother or my father, my brother or my sisters on the pages.  Any coincidence in name to one of my friends is just that, a coincidence.  You will find Jim in one short story.  It’s called “Jeff’s Best Joke.”

I’d been asked to write a time travel story for an anthology called Past Imperfect.  To me, archeologists are constantly time traveling, because they see the past in the landscape of the present.  I decided to write a story in which archeologists meet with an actual time traveler.

For the story, I wanted to use some of the practical jokes Jim and his frequent co-director Jeff had played on each other over the years.  However, I rapidly realized I couldn’t separate the tricks from the tricksters.  I asked the guys for permission to use them as characters in the story.  They agreed.  They appear under their real names and descriptions in the story.  I also would like to think they appear in a fashion that their friends and family would recognize without wincing because of any distortion.

When I was writing Changer, I decided to let Bubonicon auction off the chance to be a minor character in the novel.  Two fellows tied.  Here, because my publisher was a bit nervous, I changed the names.  Craig Chrissenger appears as Chris Kristofer and Bill Scott as Bill Irish.  Again, however, I tried to write portraits, not caricatures.  I gave each subject a questionnaire, asking for the little details that make a person recognizable to their friends.  (Coffee or tea?  What type of car?  Favorite color?)  Then I worked these in.

David Weber does something a bit more dramatic.  He offers a chance for someone to be a character – then offers a separate bid for whether that character lives or dies.  Often the bidding for the second option is more heated than the first.  And, of course, what both Weber and I have done owes a lot to Wilson “Bob” Tucker, who “Tuckerized” both friends and fans in many of his novels.

So, how far is it reasonable to go when using someone else’s life in fiction – especially if that person is still alive, not a historical figure?  I’ve seen a T-shirt that says something like “Watch out or you’ll end up in my novel.”  Is fiction a place for personal vendettas?   Obviously, I find the entire idea of this sort of fiction disturbing, but I’m interested in hearing your thoughts, even if you don’t agree with me.

TT: Why Do We Do It THAT Way?

May 17, 2012

Hi!  If you’re looking for the Wednesday Wandering, just page back and take a look at my garden – and offer your thoughts on how gardening is like writing.

Also, I’d like to remind you that Alan has put together a free e-book containing about the first six months or so of the Thursday Tangents.  It also contains new material in the introductions.  The cover is by Alan’s wife, Robin.  You can download it at

JANE: Okay, Alan.  Last time you said you had question for me.  Go for it!

Washington and Roosevelt Campaign Contributions

ALAN: Something that I find really alien and incomprehensible about your political structure is the vexed question of money. I was watching an episode of the TV series The Wire which, among other things, was about a candidate standing for office in Baltimore. Much of the programme was devoted to him soliciting for funds for his election campaign. This would be completely illegal here, and people have been prosecuted for doing it. Here, campaigns are financed from party funds and there are very strict limits on how much a candidate can spend. It simply isn’t allowed to “top up” the war chest with private contributions.

JANE: Oh, boy…  This is and remains a “hot button” issue here.  I really had better dodge it.  Let’s suffice to say that some people here in the U.S. would agree with you and some would start telling you all the reasons you’re wrong.

ALAN: That’s interesting. “The Wire” made it seem completely non-controversial. I didn’t realise it was a real point of contention.

JANE: Oh, it is…  So any other questions about how our government works?

ALAN: Why do you have a waiting period before your new government takes over? Our new government takes over as soon as the election results are known. This causes utter chaos in the ministerial offices as furniture, papers and personal effects are moved in and out!

Incidentally, the building where the ministerial offices live is called the Beehive because it is shaped like a giant beehive. I’ve told you before about the literalism of New Zealand names…

JANE: Ah…  Such literalism is not unique to the Antipodes.  The New Mexico capital is commonly called “The Roundhouse” because it is shaped like a Zia, our state symbol.  The Zia is round with four radiating “rays.”

Returning to your question, I’m going to guess about this waiting period based on what I know about the history of how the United States was founded.  Geography would have been a contributing factor.  I don’t know anything about how New Zealand was set up, but by the time the United States became an independent nation, the thirteen colonies stretched up and down the east coast and many miles inland.  Elected officials maintained residences in their home states and commuted to the national capital.

To further complicate matters, the United States did not agree as to the location of the national capital for some time.  Philadelphia (where the Continental Congress had met) and New York were front runners, but there were other suggestions.  Washington D.C. was a compromise –  and a very unpopular one at that, since the new city had to be built pretty much from scratch on swampy land.

It gets even more complicated when you add in a factor I’m not sure New Zealand or Australia ever faced – the fact that each of the thirteen colonies had a distinct personal identity.  Effectively, the early United States was more an alliance of nation-states connected by something of a common language and varying degrees of dislike of British rule.

Basically, there were no Lords already based in London and running things (and later admitting Commons).  It was being made up from scratch by people who wouldn’t agree whether States Rights were more important than Federal Rights.

ALAN: But surely the long gap between your President being elected and taking office means that effectively you have no government at all in the interim?

JANE: Absolutely not!  Elections are staggered so that there are plenty of incumbents to keep things going.  A particular elected official can become a “lame duck” – unable to push through new policy because no one feels he or she is owed any favors, but in terms of keeping the wheels of government turning or reacting to a crisis, there is a government always in place.  Even on Inauguration Day, who is in charge is absolutely clear right up until the oaths are administered.

ALAN: Another question for you.   Don’t you have a limit on the number of times a candidate can stand for office? That’s always struck me as rather odd. We have no limits – anyone can stand for anything as many times as they like. Surely such limits on holding office lead to a lame duck situation when it is clear that someone’s time is coming to an end and so nothing can be done, in any constructive legislative sense, until they go?

JANE: Only a few offices have term limits.  President is the most obvious, but in some states governors or other officials also have term limits.

When the United States was founded, there was a terrific fear that someone would step in and try to become king.  George Washington was very popular and could have done this, but he voluntarily refused to run for a third term.  This created a tradition of two terms only, a tradition that was upheld until President Franklin Delano Roosevelt held office for three terms (he died in his fourth).  Afterward, what had been a tradition became a law.

Let’s move to the question of  how the political systems under which SF/F writers live have shaped the governments in Imaginary Worlds.  Shall I start with my Tolkien Whine?

ALAN: Please do! I love a good whine.

JANE: Then stand by…

Getting Ready to Grow

May 16, 2012

Jim and I got most of our garden in this weekend.  The funny thing about

Truck and Tomato

putting in a garden is that the smallest amount of time is spent actually planting seeds or setting in seedlings.  Most of the time is spent preparing the soil.

My first Spring in this house, Jim and I had just started dating.  The following mini-drama ensued.

ME: It’s going to be a real challenge gardening here.  My yard is pure sand.

JIM (very much in archeologist mode): Sand and trace elements.

ME: Sand.  I’m a gardener.  It’s sand.

JIM (after performing a highly scientific “spit and roll” test on a small sample taken from the yard): You’re right.  It’s sand.

In some ways, sand is actually a very good base for a garden.  It drains well, so you meet none of the problems confronted by those who garden in clay.  It has no nutrients, so very few insects choose to live in it.  Fungus and other diseases don’t thrive.

However, as I said, it has no nutrients.  If you want a good crop, you’ve got to add something to give nutrients.  I started by the very simple expedient of dropping four railroad ties on the ground to the west of the shed where I wanted my first bed to be and then filling the space inside with horse manure.  This was provided, nicely aged and mixed with cottonwood leaves, by fellow writer (and horse afficionado), Melinda Snodgrass.

I had many reasons for starting to date Jim.  One of these was that he came equipped with a pick-up truck and a ready hand with a shovel.  He got a lot of opportunities to show me how useful both of these were that Spring.  We hauled manure by the truckload.  I dug it over (I’m pretty good with a shovel myself), added water, and then put in my plants.

Despite numerous warnings this mix wouldn’t work, the tomato plants did very well.  So did the zucchini, peppers, and a few types of herbs that were about all I planted this first year.

The next year, we got more ambitious, adding another bed on the east side of the shed.  This time, Jim experimented with laying bricks for the border.  For some mysterious reason, the previous owner of the house had left a huge number of odd bricks in small heaps around the yard.  We didn’t mind.  We’re still finding uses for them.

Since then, we’ve expanded.  The east bed has been joined by a small bed that takes advantage of one of the rare patches of shade.  We plant oriental cucumbers, Swiss chard, and arugula there.  The west bed has expanded into a large C that has our tiny pond in its center.

This used to be the warmest of our planting areas, but in the last few years the catalpa trees that arrived here in a bucket in the back of (fellow writer) Pati Nagle’s sedan are now tall enough that they provide some parts of this bed with enough shade  that we can now plant bell peppers.  Before this, any pepper plant in this area just screamed in agony and refused to grow.  We can’t help but be impressed by this change when we remember that the taller of these trees was the size of a standard Number 2 pencil when we planted it.

We have a second west bed that stretches along the side of the house.  We hang bean netting from the eaves and sow scarlet runner beans and liana beans (sometimes known as “yard long” or “asparagus” beans) here.  By midsummer, our bedroom window is curtained in green leaves.  Lavender and bright orange blossoms attract numerous hummingbirds.  Lizards climb up and help out by hunting the bugs – and incidentally provide a great deal of entertainment for the cats.

But every year we need to add more nutrients.  Our neighbors save their leaves and grass clippings for us.   We practice trench composting by digging huge holes in the beds.  These are then filled with such compostable materials as leaves, grass clippings, the guinea pigs’ used bedding,  and the remnants of the wild plants.  How huge are these trenches?  I offer another small drama by way of illustration.

Setting: A cool morning in early Spring.  Jane is out digging a trench.  Across the fence, Tom, the neighbor from England, is out feeding the parakeets in his outdoor aviary.

Tom (looking over the fence): “Getting ready to bury the husband?”

Jane (glancing at the result of her labors and realizing that it would make a very useable grave): “Not quite yet.”

We never compost the remnants of our squash, peppers, or tomatoes, because this is a great way to cultivate disease, but pretty much anything else that can rot goes into the trenches.

And whenever I’m working on getting the garden ready, I can’t help but think about how much gardening is like writing.  A number of you folks have been hanging out with me for a while now.  Want to offer your ideas as to why?

TT: Let’s Have A (Political) Party!

May 10, 2012

If you’re looking for the Wednesday Wandering, just page back for a drama in a few lines about how I met author Tamora Pierce.  Then come back and help Alan and me discuss the differences between our various systems of government.

JANE: Last time we ended with the tale of a popular New Zealand prime


minister who said “Wombat!”  What happened with the rest of his career?   Was his wit enough to keep him in office?

ALAN: Sadly,  despite David Lange’s personal popularity, the party policies were such that he was eventually forced to resign from office. A caretaker Prime Minister took over and the party was soundly defeated in the next election.

JANE: So the change wasn’t enough to save the place in power for his party?

ALAN: Not really. An election was just about due anyway, but by that stage the party was pretty much unelectable, having shot itself in the foot (or possibly even blown its whole leg off) far too many times.

JANE: I wish I felt popularity had nothing to do with electability in U.S. politics.  Since the advent of television, sometimes it seems that voters are electing TV stars, not what used to be called “statesmen.”  (I can’t think of a gender non-specific term that holds the same weight.)

By the way, what’s a caretaker Prime Minister?

ALAN: Someone who takes over simply for the sake of having a warm body hold the office while an election is organized. The election may be called because it is due, or it may be called because the government feels it no longer has a mandate to govern. Either way, there simply isn’t time for the new Prime Minister to do anything significant. Of course, if no election is called,  the new Prime Minister just takes over and normal service is resumed immediately.  Our first woman Prime Minister took office as a result of a palace coup and Australia’s current Prime Minister took office in the same way.

JANE: “Palace coup?”  Wait!  Time for a language lesson.  You don’t have palaces anymore, do you?

ALAN: These days, that’s a metaphorical phrase rather than the literal one it probably once was.

What actually happened in this case was that the Prime Minister went overseas on a state visit. While he was away, a party vote was hurriedly arranged (remember the Prime Minister is simply the leader of the governing party, and is chosen by the governing party). When he came back from his trip, he discovered that he wasn’t party leader or Prime Minister any more. As I recall, he got quite grumpy about it. They placated him by making him New Zealand’s Ambassador in America, a plum diplomatic appointment. He held the post for many years and was, by all accounts, extremely good at it.

JANE: My brain hurts…  All this about a government feeling “it no longer has a mandate to govern” seems more alien to me than most SF alien cultures.   Who would organize an election that might get them thrown out of office?  How can a government function knowing that an election might happen any old time?

ALAN: I find it impossible to conceive of a government that wouldn’t do that! How can a government govern effectively without a mandate? When the people vote for a government, they are voting for a set of policies. If the situation changes radically and the policies can no longer usefully be applied, then there is no longer a mandate to govern. In practical terms, the government may not even be able to pass legislation any more as opposition grows even within its own rank and file. It’s effectively hamstrung. So what other choice do they have?

JANE: Can’t they just change their policies?

ALAN: Not significantly, no.  Radical policy shifts just empower the opposition parties. Indeed such policy shifts may actually be the policies of the opposition parties! No government could survive that degree of ridicule, either.

In such circumstances, any sensible government will always call an early election, even if only as a cynical exercise in self-preservation. If they didn’t do it, they’d almost certainly make themselves unelectable for a decade or more until the scandalous memory of it died down. No politician relishes the thought of exile in the political wilderness. Better to be defeated with honour and leave yourself room to come back at a later election.

JANE: Does it happen often?

ALAN: It’s not common, but it has  happened on several occasions in my lifetime. Perhaps most notably in 1984 when the then Prime Minister of New Zealand, Robert Muldoon, called an early election following a financial crisis that left the New Zealand dollar dangerously weak. Mind you, he was noticeably drunk at the time, swaying and slurring his words when he announced it.

JANE: Oh, boy.  You’ve mentioned before how straight-laced Americans are regarding drinking.  Here, this would have ruined not only his career, but that of a lot of his associates as well.

ALAN: It had no noticeable effect on Muldoon’s career or that of his colleagues. We know that our politicians are human beings, and we expect them to have feet of clay, so that sort of thing isn’t really regarded as very important. Winston Churchill, probably the most respected politician of the twentieth century, was a notorious drunkard. It was part of his charm…

JANE: What was the result of the early election?

ALAN: Muldoon’s National party was dismissed from office and the Labour Party under David Lange (he of wombat fame) took over the reins of government. So in retrospect, Muldoon probably regretted the drunken impulse that led him to call the election. But it’s easy to be wise after the event.

JANE: And the moral is: don’t drink and drive.   Err… govern.  Or there’s a time and a place for everything or something.

ALAN: My knowledge of the American system comes from reading American novels and watching American television. They probably have built-in cultural assumptions that I don’t share. Certainly they’ve left me with a question I’d like to ask you about the political system in the United States, but I’ll hold it over until next time.

Piercing Meeting: A Drama in One Act

May 9, 2012

It’s October, 2005.  Jim and I are in Chicago for a bookseller’s convention.  We’ve been walking the floor, chatting with whoever wants to chat.  It’s amazing how many people take the time to ask how Jim hurt his hand, which is in a cast

Some Books By Tamora Pierce

and sling.

(Jim had gone off his bike when a car in front of him stopped without warning.  He had several hairline fractures and a couple dislocated fingers.  In an effort to avoid surgery, the doctors kept in Jim’s hand in a cast for a long time.  Patience did the trick.  No surgery.  No pins.  Most of the movement back.)

Eventually, Jim and I decide to head back to our room and read for a bit before going out to dinner with David Moench, one of Tor’s publicists, and (then new Tor author) John Scalzi.

I’m in an odd mood. On the one hand, I’m burned out on small talk.  On the other, I’m buzzing, not quite ready to be quiet.  As we’re walking off the convention floor, I pass a pleasant looking-lady.  Her badge is coded “Author.”  Some imp of the perverse seizes me.  I decide it might be fun to buy a cup of coffee for a perfect stranger with whom I at least share a vocation.

ME: Author!

LADY (very politely): Yes?

ME (fumbling slightly, then glancing at the lady’s badge and reading “Tamora Pierce”): Oh, my god, it’s you!  I love your books!  I’m especially fond of the Protector of the Small series…

[Incoherent babbling follows, then I manage…]

You see, I do this, too.  Write Fantasy.  I know how hard it is to do what you did with Kel.

LADY (now revealed as Tamora Pierce, glancing at my badge): “Oh!  It’s you!  I love your books!”

We clasp both hands and start bouncing up and down, rather like Tigger in Winnie the Pooh.  Eventually, we stop and start chattering.  Amused Jim, bemused Handler from Scholastic, and confused vendors look on.  Suddenly, Tamora Pierce realizes she had been on her way to an event sponsored by one of her publishers.  She politely excuses herself.  Jim and I head off to our room – me beaming.

The End – but not quite. We’d meet again the next morning as Tammy was on her way to the airport.  Serendipity at work.  We promised to keep in touch and have done so.

I really do admire Tamora Pierce’s work.  I came to it comparatively late with her “Protector of the Small” series, featuring Keladry of Mindelan.  (The cat currently on my desk is named Kel.)

After reading the “Protector of the Small” series, I went back and read the rest of Pierce’s Tortall books: “The Song of the Lioness Quartet” and “The Immortals Quartet.”  Later, I would read the new Tortall “Beka Cooper” and “Trickster” books.

I read her non-Tortall novels as well, enjoying both the quirky magics of Winding Circle and watching the protagonists grow from dysfunctional children to competent young adults.  Over and over again, I was impressed by how Tammy developed her characters and stories.  I also noted how the longer she pursued her craft, the more she developed confidence in her own worlds.  As a result, her world-building became more complex, less reliant on typical tropes.

You can say I’m a fan.

We’ve met up only once since…  That was in a battered New Orleans, rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina.  There we had breakfast in a hotel with barely enough staff to get simple meals on the table.  We talked not only “shop” but “story.”  Jim and Tammy discovered a mutual enthusiasm for Leon Uris’s novel Battle Cry and talked about its influence on Tammy’s own work.

Now Jim and I are excitedly anticipating seeing Tammy again – this time over Memorial Day weekend at Conduit in Salt Lake City, Utah.  Jim and I already have a stack of books set aside to have signed.

I’ve often wondered what prompted shy me to give in to the impulse to think about inviting a perfect strange to have a cup of coffee.  Whatever the reason, I’m really glad it happened.  Sometimes you take a moment to talk to a stranger and discover you’ve made friend.

(Maybe I’ll see some of you in Utah.  If so, do come up and introduce yourselves!)

TT: Who’s In Charge?

May 3, 2012

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back one and join me as I battle distraction.  Then come and discover the role of wombats in Antipodean government.

JANE: Well, Alan, one point we haven’t looked at is the role that the Royal Family

Monarch and Friend

plays in your government.

ALAN: One major difference between our two systems is that we have a head of state (the Queen and/or the Governor General) which gives us a sense of continuity as governments come and go.

JANE: Governor General?  I’ve never heard of this.

ALAN: Because the Queen is not resident in our country, we have the Governor General, who is resident, and who represents, or stands in for, the Monarch in her absence. I suppose you could say that the Queen and the Governor General share the responsibility of being head of state. However, the Queen is a permanent fixture. Governors General change at regular intervals. I don’t know how other countries handle it, but here in New Zealand the Governor General is appointed by the current government. And no – if the government changes, the Governor General does not change. He/she continues to serve out his/her term and, when the term of office expires, a new Governor General is appointed.

Amusingly, our current Governor General used to be in charge of our Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, the equivalent of your CIA). It’s not clear who was appointed to replace him as head of the SIS. But I suppose I could ring them up and ask. The address and phone number of the SIS headquarters is in the phone book. Of course they probably wouldn’t talk to me if I rang them up…

JANE: A semi-permanent permanent head of state sounds like something my editor would ask me to change, but I trust you’re not pulling my leg.

Certainly, having one person or one group in office could influence the psychology of a nation.  When I was in high school, the pope died.  Then his successor died shortly after.  My father – who was not a Catholic – commented that in his childhood there had been one pope and one president.  I thought that was an interesting reflection on perceived constancy.

I wonder how much of the popularity of various political families – the Kennedys, the Bushes – is in some way a wistful desire to recover that sense of permanence since a large chunk of the voting block that kept those families in various offices comes from the generation that grew up in this “one president, one pope” time.

ALAN: That’s an interesting insight. I’ve had one king, one queen, and a multitude of popes. I was only a baby when the King died and Queen Elizabeth inherited the throne, so I have no memory of it. She has been a constant presence all though my life. She has no legislative power, but neither is she just a figurehead. She provides a degree of continuity and stability that, by definition, no government can possibly provide.  The institution of government remains constant, but the people in power  change at the whim of the electorate. Some governments are good and some are bad. Some are popular, some are not.

JANE: The role of the monarchy is something I’d really like to come back to, but so we don’t sway too far from the question of what might make voters take voting seriously, I’ll hold back.

Popularity is harder to judge in a country as large and as diverse as the United States.   I’m occasionally startled when I go to a different part of the country or circumstances lead me to mingle with people from a different social set (remember, I spend a lot of time with writers and archeologists – neither of which are exactly “mainstream” professions) and find that someone who my “usual” group approves of is highly unpopular.  It’s a good reminder.

ALAN: Of course popularity itself has nothing to do with electability. Our most popular Prime minister by far was David Lange – a man with a wicked sense of humour. His press conferences (and, reportedly, his cabinet meetings) were typified by the gales of laughter emerging from them. A famous film clip exists of Lange striding importantly down a corridor of power on his way to a meeting to discuss some crisis or other. A gaggle of reporters chased after him.

“Prime Minister, do you have any comments to make?”

Lange strode determinedly on.

“Just a word, Prime Minister. Just a word?”

Lange stopped and faced the crowd of reporters.

“Wombat!” he said firmly, and then turned and walked away to his meeting. The reporters looked at each other in consternation.


JANE: Cute…  But a viable reply?  Let’s touch on that next time.

Spring Randomness

May 2, 2012

There are days like this…  Days when so much of my mind is taken over with life

Recent Reads

in imaginary worlds that the “real” world is the one that seems less than real.

Right now, the fictional planet Sphinx in the Manticore System seems a lot more real than the state of New Mexico where I actually live.  Of course, this may have a lot to do with the fact that New Mexico is also experiencing a very warm spring and everything that can pollinate is doing so.  My allergies are in overdrive, making my thought processes more than a little surreal.

For this reason, I’m at a bit of a loss as to what I might wander on about for your hoped-for amusement.  My next book – Fire Season with David Weber – won’t be out until October.  I’m working on the sequel.  This happens to be set in autumn, adding to my rather split sense of reality.  Occasionally, I look up from my computer and am surprised to see fresh green leaves on the trees rather than the tired and yellowing autumn foliage my mind expects.

I’ve been reading a lot. I’m about to start the third book in a popular series that I’m finally reading because I’ve gotten tired of being apparently the only person on the planet who has not read it.  So far I am underwhelmed, although not so disgusted that I’m prepared to quit.

When I get tired of that series, I recharge my interest in prose by reading the short, punchy “gothic” middle grade novels by John Bellairs.  The last two I read were The Curse of the Blue Figurine and The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt.  Quite fun and spooky.  I also read a short, semi-non-fiction book on Pueblo storyteller figures.  How can a book be “semi-non-fiction”?  Mix pueblo folktales with the history of the pottery form that was inspired by the tradition of oral storytelling, that’s how.

Oh.  I also re-read two Larry Niven novels, favorites from many years ago: Protector and The World of Ptavvs.  Both lived up to my remembered pleasure.  My recorded books have been Agatha Christie novels.  As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’ve loved her books since I discovered them on the shelves of the people I used to babysit for…  Back then, I was young enough that when someone referred to “the War,” I thought they meant World War II.  Now I realize Dame Agatha usually meant the First World War.

The garden beds are in process.  However, since last year on May first we had snow, Jim and I are patiently waiting to put in plants.  We have seedling tomatoes and peppers on the sun porch.  There are also two nice lavender plants (Sweet Dani variety) that I started from seed last autumn.  They’re doing well, but I’m waiting for the winds to die down – New Mexico springs are windy rather than wet – before I put them in the ground.

Other amusements include a role-playing game I’m running.  I tend to make everything up from scratch, so I suppose you could say that this is another story I’m working on.  It’s unfolding nicely from my end and, since the players keep coming back, I can hope it’s unfolding well for them, too.

So, what have you folks been up to?  Read any good books lately?  Planted your garden?  Hmm…  Now that I think about it, some of those who regularly comment are probably bringing in the final harvest and getting ready for winter.  The mind boggles at this conversation that rings the world.