Archive for March, 2013

TT: Silly Names

March 28, 2013

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back and consider how magic fits into the worlds of fiction – and reality.  Then come and join me and Alan as we expand our inspection of nicknames into those that are silly – and just plain weird!

You think the world would have had enough...

You think the world would have had enough…

JANE: Last week when we chatted about nicknames, we focused on those that are essentially a shortening or diminutive of a longer name – like “Al” for Alan or “Janie” for Jane.  Later, I got to thinking about the British tradition of soundly weird nicknames.   When I read novels by P. G. Wodehouse, I’m always coming across characters with silly names like  “Bingo” Little; “Catsmeat” Potter-Purbright…  Are these for “real” or did Wodehouse just make this up.

ALAN: Wodehouse was spot on with those silly names. It’s a typical affectation of the upper classes about which he was writing, but it’s not restricted to them. I was at school with someone called Donald Horsfall. Almost from the moment of his birth, he was known as Dosky (for no readily discernible reason), and he’s still called that by his friends today.

JANE: I’m curious.  Is “Dosky” restricted to friends he went to school with or do friends made later in life still use it.

You see, I have a friend who is called “Chip” – which is a childhood nickname that extended into early adulthood.  Those of us who met him through someone he knew then call him Chip, but people he works with call him by his given name, which is Royce.

ALAN: I think the situation with Dosky is the same as with your friend Chip.

If you get saddled with a nickname, there doesn’t seem to be anything you can do to stop it being used. People will always respect your wishes about shortening (or not shortening) your forename but they will pay absolutely no attention whatsoever to your preferences for your nickname. And it’s not always clear how nicknames arise in the first place.

They may be somehow associated with your place of birth. People of Scottish origin are often called Jock and Welshmen are often called Taffy.  Anybody whose surname is Murphy will invariably be given the nickname Spud – Murphy is archetypally Irish and the Irish are popularly presumed to live on potatoes (spuds) and Guinness.

Nicknames may also be associated with a profession. An electrician, for example, will often referred to as Sparky.

JANE: We don’t have the same regional nicknames – probably because we’re a more fluid culture and we all at least pretend to speak the same language, whereas Scotland, Ireland, and Wales all had their own original languages.

ALAN: Yes – I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that had something to do with it.

But I think the most amusing common British nickname is Nobby – you can practically guarantee that any male with the surname Clark (or Clarke) will be nicknamed Nobby. One possible explanation for this is that clerks in the City of London used to wear a special type of bowler hat known as a Nobby Hat. There are other possible explanations as well. And yes, “clerk” is pronounced “clark.”

JANE: Have you ever had a nickname?  I haven’t, really, and felt a bit wistful about it when I was younger.

ALAN: There was a brief period when I had the nickname Lobelet, for rather unsavoury reasons that I prefer not to go into.

JANE: Ah…  Maybe one of our British speakers will translate for me. <evil grin>

ALAN: And these days I’m often referred to as the Bearded Triffid, a nickname given to me in jest by an old friend who was teasing me about my love of science fiction. I publish a web page under that name and on more than one occasion total strangers attending my training courses have said, “Oh! You’re the Bearded Triffid!” when I introduce myself to the class. I rather enjoy that…

JANE: Did you know that Queen Elizabeth is apparently called Lilybet by her immediate family…

ALAN: Ah! Now that’s something different again. That’s a family name, sometimes called a pet name. It’s quite common, but use of it is restricted to immediate family members only. Nobody else is allowed to use it. To my parents, I was always Foppen, and my grandfather called me Jumbo. My godson Jamie is often called Froglet by his parents.

JANE: Jamie?  Gottcha!  Another abbreviated name!

ALAN: That’s pragmatism rather than anything else. Jamie was certainly christened James, but his father is also James and it soon became apparent that they needed a method of distinguishing between each other. When an icy female voice calls out “James! Come here at once!”, it is vital that they know exactly which one of them is in trouble. And since James (the father) is always James and never Jamie, it was clear what they had to do…

JANE: You make me laugh!   Same thing happened in my husband’s family – three generations of “James.”  When I met my husband, he was commonly called “Jim” by his friends, so that’s what I called him.  I was rather startled when I first visited his family to hear him called “Jimmy” – or sometimes “James.”  No one there seems to have used “Jamie.”

We have a lot of nicknames that indicate someone who has the same name as a parent: Junior and Chip are both fairly common, although not as much these days.  When I was a kid, there was a boy called “Trip” because he was the third.

Do you do that?

ALAN: No.  Never.

JANE: We also have nicknames – usually more family pet names – that indicate relationship.  We have a good friend who almost always calls his sister – even in conversation – “Sis” rather than by her given name (Mary).  Jim has an uncle called “Buddy.”  “Buddy” or “Bud” are still affectionate nicknames, especially in the South.

ALAN: That’s almost unheard of here as well. I have a friend who calls his young son “Buddy,” but that’s the only time I’ve ever come across it.

JANE: We also have nicknames based on coloration or other physical characteristics – although these seem to be dying out.  My mom had three red-haired sisters (she’s a brunette) and she tells how her mom used “Red” as a generic for all her daughters.

Not long ago, Freckles, Curly, Blondie, and Blackie were routine.

ALAN: We almost never do that, either.

JANE: Probably as an oddity of growing up Catholic and almost every family having at least one “Mary” was that compounds were common: Mary Ann, Mary Elizabeth, Mary Ellen, Mary Louise…  Some of these compounds then became names in their own right, so you have Maryann, Maryjo, Marylou, Marybeth.

A girl I grew up with was commonly called “Mary Teresa.”  Later, this was shortened to “Mary-T.”  Later still, she informed everyone that violence would ensue if she was called anything but simply “Mary.”  I offer this as evidence that Americans do not always shorten names.  Often, they lengthen them!

ALAN: Ah! That explains a lot. I always wondered about the odd compound names I kept finding in American novels. Now it makes sense.

JANE: Well…  As much as anything does!


System = Unmagical?

March 27, 2013

Time and again, when the subject of magic as used in Fantasy fiction arises, I hear the same criticism.  This is that systemized magic somehow ruins the “magical” feeling  by turning magic into a poor copy of science.  “Gamers” are regularly blamed for introducing this element into Fantasy, a criticism that completely disregards the fact that magical systems are as old as the concept of magic itself.

Magical Glow

Magical Glow

Let’s not forget that many of the “classic” Fantasy writers – Jack Vance immediately springs to mind, as does Michael Moorcock – invented magical systems in their stories.  Their works pre-dated gaming.  Indeed, they influenced gaming.  But I wander off topic…

Magical systems are close kin to ritual magic – that is, a magic where a ritual (or system) is used in the belief that following that system will achieve a desired result.  Ritual magic permeates numerous cultures.  The ancient Egyptians used it not only in those rites associated with death and judgment, but in daily life.  (Do you think only mummies wore amulets?).  Many European cultures possessed their own forms of ritual magic, dating far back into prehistory.  (What do you think cave paintings are?)

Ritual magic is central to many Native American cultures.  My husband, Jim, is an anthropologist who specializes in Southwestern cultures.  Despite the hard-held belief of many New Age practitioners that the Native Americans are simply “close to nature” and “sensitive to the Great Spirit,” magical/religious rituals (there is no real distinction) are integral to the power/belief structures of these peoples.  When Jim’s division moved into a new building earlier this year, a member of the staff – who also happens to be a Comanche shaman – gave the building a traditional blessing.

Perhaps no culture so closely equated magic and system as did  the Chinese.  Moreover, especially to the older Chinese cultures (although plenty of rituals are still practiced today), there was no distinction between science and magic.   When the first Chinese emperor was advised to burn all books except for technical manuals and handbooks (the history of his own lineage was excluded from this general attempt to erase all contradictory history and tradition), divination was included with medicine, agriculture, and arboriculture as what we would today term “hard science.”  (For those of you who haven’t tried them, this event is the root of my “Breaking the Wall” series, which begins with Thirteen Orphans.)

As a writer of Fantasy fiction, I have explored many types of magic.  In my contemporary novels such as Changer and Child of a Rainless Year, I have dealt with more “numinous” or non-ritual magic.  When I designed an imaginary world for my Firekeeper novels, what form of magic was practiced in what region varied according to the culture that colonized an area.  Some of these were ritual magics.  Some were not.

However, when dealing with historical or living magical traditions –  as I did with Legends Walking aka Changer’s Daughter (West African, among others), The Buried Pyramid (ancient Egyptian), and Thirteen Orphans (Chinese) – I did not ignore the elements of systematized or ritual magic.  Rather, I found material within those traditions that was as numinous and mysterious as any vague evocation of magical vibrations could be.

I found the Chinese system particularly fascinating.   Over time, an elaborate system of correspondences evolved, so that every significant plant, animal, number, element, star/planet, and suchlike are linked.  These links are not simple.  For every affiliation, there is an opposition.  Yin and yang means that principles which in Western traditions are distinct are blended, so that within darkness there is a tiny bit of light, within the male there is a touch of the female, within the domestic there must be the wild, and so on…

Talk about complex, mysterious, and full of wonder.  I loved it!

Do you have a favorite magical system?  One you couldn’t stand?  As always, I’m curious!

(Note: An earlier version of this piece appeared on in 2008)

TT: When Nick’s Not a Name

March 21, 2013

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back one and join me on the race to a deadline.  Then come back and watch as I put Alan on the spot regarding his attitude regarding nicknames!

Variations on a Theme

Variations on a Theme

JANE: Alan, I really liked your review of  Steve Gould’s new novel Impulse, but what’s your hang-up about nicknames?

ALAN: I’m not really hung up about nicknames, but I am very hung up about abbreviating real names. In the novel, David is consistently called Dave. His wife Millicent and his daughter Millicent are known as Millie and Cent respectively. It’s fair enough in the context of the novel, particularly to separate mother from daughter, but it can get annoying in real life. My name is Alan – I refuse to answer to Al. Nevertheless I’m often called that by people who don’t know me and who just assume that Al is a valid abbreviation of my name.

JANE: But I keep thinking of Brits who are known by shortened versions of their given names (which you particularly seem to dislike).  Mick Jagger.  Ronnie Wood.  Davy Jones.

ALAN: I can only assume Michael,  Ronald and David prefer their abbreviated name to their full one. Others with those names would not.  I belong to a technical mailing list where people ask for advice on computer related problems. One recent email began: “Hi Mike, Can you help me with…”

The reply was: “1. My name is Michael, please use it. 2. The answer to your question is…”

JANE: So is it a personal quirk or a cultural thing? Are you –  and Michael –  over-reacting?

ALAN: It’s both personal and cultural. The culture requires personal preferences to be taken into account. It is regarded as the height of bad manners to address people by a shortened version of their name if the person doesn’t like it. The American assumption that a person can always be addressed by an abbreviation of their name is considered extremely rude.

JANE: Whoa!  I think you’re over-reaching when you say this is an “American assumption.”

ALAN: Possibly so. But the people who call me Al (until I ask them to stop) are all American. I have never been called Al by a non-American.

JANE: Still, I think you’re over-generalizing by saying this is an “American” trait.  Several parents I know (including siblings), stressed that their young children were to be called by the full version of their names.  Daniel was not to be “Danny.”  Christopher was not to be “Chris.”  Andrew was not to be “Drew” and especially not “Andy.”

ALAN: Doesn’t the fact that you are specifically asked to use full names suggest that the habit of abbreviating them is quite common? Why else would the parents feel the need to make the point?

JANE: No.  I don’t think so.  It’s relatively common to call children by diminutives in many cultures.  I think this was more stressing that full names, not diminutives, were preferred.

This reminds me…  This past summer, I met up for the first time in forever with a woman – also named Jane – I’d known when we were both kids.   Back then, every social occasion we met started with her announcing: “I’m older, so I’m Jane, you’re Janie.”  Now that we were adults, I decided to ask her about this declaration.

She laughed and said that she’d always been called “Janie” (her middle initial began with “E” so she was doubly doomed) and hated it.  She guessed that this re-naming of me and asserting her “Jane-ness” had been a way of escaping it.

ALAN: Oh, what a lovely story! I’m on her side.

JANE: I’m certainly on her side regarding asserting her right to her “proper” name, but why did she need to pass a name she hated on to me?

Anyhow, more seriously,  it seems to me that shortened names are common to both cultures – and so is resistance.  What differs is when it is appropriate for a person to use them.

ALAN: Yes, indeed, and it always comes down to individual taste. Many English forenames can be abbreviated or modified – many Williams are called Bill, many Roberts are called Bob and Elizabeth is often Liz. Margaret can be Maggie or Peggy (or Peg). There are lots of others as well.

JANE: We use those same abbreviations.  However, you’d be incorrect if you assumed that they were always abbreviations.  My mother-in-law is “Peggy” – not Margaret.  And my sister-in-law is “Beth” – not short for Elizabeth.  I have a friend who is “Chris” – not Christopher or Christian.

ALAN: Absolutely – sometimes they aren’t abbreviations at all. I’ve observed the same thing here.

But you should never assume that just because a name *can* be abbreviated, that it *should* be abbreviated. Many Elizabeths point blank refuse to answer to Liz and many Roberts would be highly offended if you called them Bob. The only safe ploy is to use the name by which the person is introduced to you. If they are introduced as Steve, then feel free to call them Steve. But if they are introduced to you as Steven, then Steven is the name you must use.  (Amusingly Steven is commonly abbreviated to Steve. Stephen is almost never abbreviated).

JANE: How do they know how Stephen/ Steven is spelled just by hearing it?  You don’t pronounce them differently do you?

ALAN: No – we don’t pronounce them differently. I think what I’m really saying is that Stephen is more likely to be introduced to you as Stephen whereas Steven may well be introduced as Steve..

And, of course, if you haven’t been introduced to a person, you won’t be speaking to them at all. That would be the height of bad manners. Therefore, the problem of whether or not to abbreviate their name will never arise.

JANE: That amazes me.  Albuquerque is a very friendly city.  We talk to everyone.

ALAN: I’m really not kidding – British people standing in a bus queue or sitting in a train will not talk to each other because they haven’t been introduced. Even if those people see each other every day, year in and year out, they still will not speak. And if you try to talk to someone in the queue with you they are likely to feel quite uncomfortable about it and they will stand in a different place in the queue the next day so as to avoid you.

Yes, you don’t have to say it –  the English are completely barking mad. It’s part of our charm.

JANE: It certainly sounds lonely.  Jim has commuted to Santa Fe from Albuquerque for years.  He has made friends – of the genuine socialize outside of work sort – simply by chatting when commuting.

ALAN: For many years before Robin and I met, I stood in a bus queue with the same people every day. I never spoke to any of them. When Robin and I got together, she started catching the same bus. Robin, being Australian, paid no attention to my silly British habits. Within days she knew everybody’s name and intimate details of their family lives. I was astonished!

JANE: I have made friends by chatting with the clerks at my local grocery store.  I hadn’t realized how much the feeling was mutual until I was sick for several weeks this winter and Jim took over the shopping.  He came home with queries as to where I was and how I was – and when I went in myself it was treated as a minor celebration.  The greengrocer came over and thumped me on the shoulder and said with obvious concern, “You’re okay now?”

I think I’m happy to be American, even at the risk of being called “Janie.”

ALAN: Quite right, too!

Dealing with Deadlines… Or Not

March 20, 2013

The other day, my friend Michael Wester asked, “Do authors work better under deadlines?”  He then commented that he didn’t remember seeing me address the question of deadlines in the course of my Wanderings.

Marking the Deadline

Marking the Deadline

So, here I am, attempting to do so.

I guess the first thing I’d better say is that I have no idea what “authors” do about anything.  I only know what this one author does.  Writers are more different than most people who share a common professional title.  About the only thing they share in common is a desire to use words to create something.  I say “desire” very specifically.

I’ve known an awful lot of people who refer to themselves as “writers” or “authors” who have never professionally published.  Do I have a problem with this?  Not at all.  You don’t need to have your work shown in a gallery to be considered a painter or sculptor.  I do have a bit of a problem, however, with people who refer to themselves as “writers,” yet who seem to spend a whole lot more time talking about writing than actually putting words down.

But that’s another topic…  Or maybe it isn’t.  I think that a writer needs to actually write – not just to talk about writing – to be a writer.

And this brings me back to Michael’s question: “Do authors work better under deadlines?”

I don’t…  Or rather, I don’t need someone else to impose a deadline for me to write.   If I have a contractual deadline, I usually do a bit of math and work out how much I need to write in a given month to meet it.  In addition, I factor in time for me to read through the manuscript in full, beginning to end, red pencil the hell out of it, and make the corrections.  Another element I work in is time for Jim to read the manuscript.

I take a look at my calendar and try to anticipate periods when it may be difficult to find time to write as much as I’d like  – holidays,  or upcoming trips, or other projects (for example, the time I will need to review a copyedited manuscript or page proofs on a book that’s already in production).

When I don’t have a deadline, as happens from time to time, I still tend to impose deadlines on myself – and meet them.  I’ve written several novels that way, including Through Wolf’s Eyes.  I had written a proposal for my agent to shop around.  Then one day it hit me.

I said to Jim:“I want to write this book no matter what, so I’ll just write it.  If Kay sells it based on the proposal, all well and good.  If she doesn’t, then she’ll have a complete manuscript to shop around.  And I’ll have written the book I want to write.”

Eventually, it was the full manuscript that sold.   The nice thing was that I was then in a position to start the sequel as soon as it was under contract.  Wolf’s Head, Wolf’s Heart was completed before Through Wolf’s Eyes was released.

In fact, in my relatively long career as a writer of novels and short stories, I have missed only one contractual deadline.  That was when my father died.   Since I had to make several trips back and forth to Denver, I asked for (and was given with great compassion) an extension.  I managed to be only six weeks late.

So do authors work better under deadlines?  I guess my answer would be that this one does, but she prefers to inflict deadlines on herself.

I’m curious as to how other people manage to meet this challenge.   Does a deadline help you work?  Or does a deadline create pressure you’d rather not have?

I’m interested!

TT: Steampunk the Next Generation

March 14, 2013

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  I hope you’ll go back and see my polymer clay figures!  Then come back and join Alan and me as we take a look at the roads down which steampunk fiction has traveled.

Brilliant Gears

Brilliant Gears

JANE: Last time we talked about steampunk both before it was called steampunk and as it evolved in the 1980’s.  However, my feeling is that steampunk has evolved once again.

In the introduction to her 2010 anthology Steampunk’d, editor Jean Rabe says: “Steampunk: It’s what the future would look like, I heard someone say, if it had come along earlier… say during the Victorian Era.  Me?  I say steampunk is just good science fiction.  Or fantasy, alternate history, Western, etc.  Just so it’s got some steam power and airships and goggles and the like.”

ALAN: I’d not heard this definition before, but I love it! It perfectly encapsulates the nature of steampunk and explains why there is often such a large emphasis on gadgets in the genre – after all, if flying machines had been invented in the nineteenth century, they would have had to be steam powered for exactly the same reason that the (real) boats and trains were steam powered. That was the only power source the nineteenth century had. And when the future comes early, it has to fit in with the present, to an extent at least. And it is this last aspect that is exactly what I like about steampunk because you can have so much fun with it.

JANE: I must admit that while I’ve liked some of the newer steampunk – Kenneth Oppel’s novels Skybreaker and Airborne immediately come to mind, as does Matthew Kirby’s The Clockwork Three – I feel that too many times the stories are relatively weak in plot and character.  Instead, they rely heavily on the setting and, even more, on trappings: gears, goggles, balloons and airships, and, of course, steam power.  Basically, I’ve been more often disappointed than not.

ALAN: Oh yes – that’s certainly a real phenomenon. I don’t think the over-emphasis on surface detail is necessarily a bad thing. There are times when it’s good to just lie back and relax and indulge in some good old-fashioned entertainment. Cherie Priest is particularly brilliant at this. She’s written some novels under the generic series title of The Clockwork Century and they are stuffed full of pirates and zombies and airships and poison gas and black-hearted villains and white-hearted heroes.

The series is a raree show full of razzmatazz and I think that steampunk is probably one of the few genres that can do this – just provide a story that has no other purpose except to entertain. It’s hard to have a message or a sub-text or any deeper concerns at all inside a story that is so deliberately shallow. So the way is open for a bit of pure fun and I love it!

JANE: Hmm…  I think I need to understand more.  “Shallow” and “fun” don’t usually come under the same heading for me.  However, I’m willing to admit that many of my friends think I’m a bit too tough.

ALAN: With steampunk I’m reminded in many ways of the English pantomime tradition which is also just a raree show with similar rigidly enforced traditions sitting on the top. Nobody in the audience really cares about the “play” taking place on the stage. It will be some hoary old tale such as Cinderella or Puss In Boots, or Aladdin (all three are firm favourites). Everybody knows the story and nobody pays it much attention.

The panto will always have a Pantomime Dame in the cast – and the dame is always played by a fat and ugly man made up to look even fatter and uglier than nature intended. The Dame will probably be called Widow Twanky. There will also be the Principal Boy who is always played by a stunningly beautiful woman who not even a blind man in a dark cellar could ever mistake for a boy. But everyone pretends…

There will be lots of childish jokes and sometimes some adult jokes as well. Maybe there will be a song – “She Sits Among The Cabbages And Leeks” is always good for a smutty giggle.  (We always seem to come back to toilet humour, don’t we?)

JANE: Ah…  I’m seeing shades of Terry Pratchett’s character Nanny Ogg here…  Do go on!

ALAN: The fun comes from the interaction between the audience and the cast. When the black-hearted villain repossesses Widow Twanky’s house and sneaks up behind her to deliver the coup-de-grace the audience will shout:

“He’s behind you!”

Widow Twanky turns round but the villain dodges out of the way.

“Oh, no he isn’t!” she yells.

“Oh yes he is!” responds the audience.

Rinse, lather, repeat until everyone gets sick of it.

In other words it’s mindless, but that doesn’t stop it being fun and you might perhaps be a bit surprised at the big name stars who indulge themselves on stage in pantomime when the season rolls around.

JANE: And here is where I am just a grump.  I actually like and admire the film The Rocky Horror Picture Show, in and for itself.  However, I have no desire to go see the versions that involve a similar sort of  audience participation.

ALAN: In any case, I find that same kind of fun can be had from the window dressing of steampunk and I enjoy it hugely. I think that’s healthy and needs to be encouraged. We all need to lighten up on occasions.

JANE: Oh, I do “lighten up.”

However, maybe because Story is my art and craft and something I love, no amount of shoddy storytelling or lazy writing amuses me, even if the trimmings are boffo.   Far from lightening me up, they make me grumpy.

For example, in the above- mentioned Steampunk’d anthology, I finished very few stories because most of them ended up boring me.  An exception was Paul Genesee’s “The Nubian Queen.”  He had all the steampunk trims, but the heart of the story went beyond finding excuses  to include them, so I stayed interested.  In fact, I wanted an already long story to be longer.

Basically,  if  I want the boffo trimmings, I’ll go to a costume contest and enjoy the people in Victorian garb wearing gears for jewelry.

ALAN: Speaking of that,  did you know that New Zealand is a vital cog in the steampunk engine?

JANE: Yes, I did.  Walter Jon Williams showed Jim and me his slides from New Zealand, many of which featured a town called Oamaru.

ALAN: Gosh – I didn’t realise he’d got that far south. He really did do a lot of exploring, didn’t he?

JANE: That’s our Walter!  He also dove the Great Barrier reef.

ALAN:  Oh, I’m so jealous! Anyway, Oamaru is a small town deep in the South Island where The League Of Victorian Imagineers is based. They hold regular steampunk events such as fashion shows and the like. This summer they plan to hold a Victorian Steam Powered Picnic with a cricket match and skittles. The Picnic will culminate in a treasure hunt for the rare South Pacific Tree Octopus (which is perhaps a relative of the famous Australian Drop Bear).

And in June the League will be hosting a steampunk weekend to celebrate the 150th anniversary of steampunk in New Zealand. This will include airship racing and a gala ball.

JANE: This sounds like fun…  If I were closer, I’d definitely attend.

ALAN: But back to literary steampunk. Another entertaining aspect consists of novels that feature real people from our own Victorian era having exciting adventures in the steampunk universe. So, for example, Mark Hodder has written a trilogy (the first volume is called The Strange Affair Of Spring Heeled Jack) detailing the adventures of Algernon Swinburne and Richard Burton. Unlikely companions I agree, but again that’s part of the attraction.

JANE: Unlikely, but neat…  After all, why just re-tell history as it happened?  Your mention of Richard Burton reminds me of Phillip Jose Farmer’s “Riverworld” books.  If they were published today, they’d certainly be considered “steampunk.”

ALAN: Oh, yes – I enjoyed those a lot.

There’s also a novel by the British writer Christopher Priest which is called The Space Machine. It’s another proto-steampunk novel (it was published in 1976) and it’s a kind of a sequel to H. G. Wells’ War Of The Worlds. Wells himself has a very large part to play in the action of the novel and I think that Priest’s book might have had a more direct effect on  the artistic development of steampunk than Farmer’s books did. Farmer resurrected Burton in the future – he didn’t use him as a character in his own era as both Priest and the steampunkers tend to do.

JANE: Burton is a fascinating character…  Jim’s a particular fan of his writings.

Another area where steampunk has been well used is anime and manga.  Hayao Miyazaki’s film Laputa: Castle in the Sky is one of the most obvious.  However, I’d stretch the argument to include his films Naussica: Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke, as well.  In each case, Miyazaki explores not only how cool alternate technologies might be, but also some of the implications.

Darker and set in 1914, rather than strictly in Victoria’s reign, is the compelling world of Fullmetal Alchemist.  No airships, but lots of trains and clock towers and the innovative “automail” prosthetics used to replace limbs in this war-torn world.

As with the town of Oamaru, these tales are visually glorious – but thoughtful stories as well.

ALAN: Normally, you and I agree on most of the literary things that we talk about. So I think it’s interesting that, while we do have some common ground here, we also end up having quite different views about the nature of steampunk. I think that has made this a rather interesting discussion. What are we going to talk about next?

JANE: A review you wrote a while back has raised a question for me…  But I need to go work, so I’ll save it for next time.

Polymer People

March 13, 2013

As I’ve mentioned before, one of my favorite hobbies is working in polymer clay.  (See WW 4-18-12, Messing Up.)  Lately, with Artemis Awakening turned in to Tor, I’ve been allowing myself some craft time.  I find that doing such actually loosens up my brain and gets it ready for writing something new.

Three Inches Tall (or Less)

Three Inches Tall (or Less)

For the last year or so, I’ve been running a role-playing game for some friends.  I decided that it would be fun to make something to use at those times when it’s helpful to know who is standing where in relation to what. I didn’t want to use commercial gaming miniatures because these are quite small, intended more for games where military tactics and combat are essential.  These also work best when everyone is seated around the same table, because they are quite small.  When we play, we’re spread out around the room.

At first, I was merely going to make some colored pawns, similar to those used for board games, from scrap clay.  Then I saw a design for  figures to use in a miniature theater.  These were pretty simple, not much more than cones with heads and arms.  I thought I could make these, adding the flourish of  hair and eyes of the proper color for each character.

I started with Jim’s character, Marcus.  (In the photo, he’s the guy with the mustache.)  Rapidly, I discovered my fingers were a lot more ambitious than I had realized.  “Marcus” did not want to be a cone with a head and arms.  He wanted to look more like a proper person.

For years, I’ve been reading books on modeling polymer clay figures.  I’ve done some projects, carefully following the instructions.  Overall, I’ve been happy with the end results, but I’d never felt confident enough to do anything more ambitious than, say, change a blond into a brunette.  Now, maybe because the characters were so vivid in my imagination, I decided to try flying solo.

The challenge turned out to be a lot of fun.  I asked my players for a few extra details – such as heights relative to each other and whether their character would be a flashy or conservative dresser.    I double-checked eye and hair color.  Two characters, for example, were both in my notes as having blond hair, but one was a golden blond while the other was white blond.  One had somewhat darker skin than the others, because she came from a different ethnic group.

The character Raphael has a kitten that won’t leave him alone.  The cat looks a lot like our cat Kwahe’e, including distinctive white rings on a black tail.  Since the tallest figures are only three inches high, this means the cat is less than a half inch from ear tip to paw tip.

Each character offered its own challenges.  One I had particular fun with was Perdita – a girl who had grown up with a mummer’s troop and dresses very colorfully in her spare time.  Because Perdita is the shortest, her figure is only two-and-a-half-inches tall, so I had to fit a lot into very little space.

The final embellishment on each figure were tiny “gems.”  Some, like Marcus’s earring (he’s a fashion hound), are so tiny that they are about the size of the dot made by a freshly sharpened pencil point.  Some were larger, positioned as pendants or in belt buckles.  Each character got at least a few gems, from a dark purple, almost black for Raphael (he’s a bit somber) to a randomly placed sprinkling of brilliance for Perdita.

The project was a lot of fun, not only for the end result, but also for the feeling that I’d expanded my horizons, learning in the process that I was capable of much more than I had dared imagine.

TT: Punking Up the Steam

March 7, 2013

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back one and join me on the intertwining landscapes of Art and Craft.  After that, you’ll be in gear for Alan and my venture into the evolving landscape of that strange beast called “steampunk.”

Improbable Train

Improbable Train

JANE: Y’know, Alan, after we’d decided to make the logical move from cyberpunk to steampunk, I realized that I had a haunting feeling that the meaning of the term “steampunk” had shifted since I first encountered it back in the late 1980’s.

I decided to go check Clute and Nicholl’s 1993 The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction to see what they said and found that I was in some sense correct.

ALAN: Always a good place to start. What did the encyclopedia say?

JANE: Okay.  The article is far too long to quote in full here, but I’ll quote a little:

The term “steampunk” was “coined in the late 1980’s on the analogy of cyberpunk, to describe the modern sub-genre whose sf events take place in against a 19-century background….   It is as if, for a handful of sf writers, Victorian London has come to stand for one of those turning points in history where things can go one way or the other.”

ALAN: You piqued my interest with that, so I went and read the article. It goes on to claim that Charles Dickens is actually the spiritual father of the genre. That really resonated with me – I can see distinct parallels between Victorian London as envisaged in many steampunk novels and the increasingly surreal portraits  of London that Dickens painted in his later and odder novels.

Some people say that Jules Verne is the spiritual father of steampunk. But I’ve never really thought much of that claim.

JANE: I agree with you absolutely.  The difference is that steampunk looks back – or at least sideways – to how the future might have been if events developed differently or if some unpredictable element came in.  Verne was writing at the time and looking forward.  In this sense, he was much closer to being a hard SF writer, rather than a writer of steampunk.

ALAN: Of course steampunk didn’t just appear overnight. There are a lot of examples of what you might call proto-steampunk where writers were experimenting with what later jelled into a genre.

One of those books was Harry Harrison’s rather odd novel A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! which was published in 1972.  (Gosh – that seems such a long time ago now).  I call it odd because it’s full of jokes (as many of Harrison’s novels were) but it is based on some rather dark and disturbing thinking about the path that American history might have taken if the colonies had failed to throw off the yoke of British rule. One of the more entertaining steampunk-like inventions in the novel was an aeroplane with coal powered engines; literally coal powered – the plane had huge tanks full of the coal dust that it used as fuel. Refueling tended to put dirty streaks on the body of the plane. How annoying.

I heard Harrison talk about this book once. On its first magazine publication some buffoon wrote a long, complicated, technical letter to the editor discussing just how such a device could be made to work. Harrison was flabbergasted. “It was a JOKE! You MORON!”

JANE: That certainly sounds like a novel that should be made available to audiences today.  What other authors were writing steampunk before it had that name?

ALAN: Michael Moorcock dabbled a bit as well. In 1971, he published the first volume of what eventually became a trilogy documenting the adventures of Oswald Bastable, an Edwardian era soldier stationed in India. He has the ability to wander through alternate histories and in the first volume (The Warlord Of The Air) we find him in a time when WW1 never took place. The novel extrapolates on Edwardian technology (airships are very important in this world) and it is written in a very Edwardian style. Moorcock has more than once sung the praises of Edwardian popular novelists whose books have not stood the test of time but which seem to occupy a place of honour on his bookshelves. Perhaps this novel is an homage to the forgotten writers he admires so much.

JANE: Odd that you mentioned those books.  I was browsing through one a few weeks ago when I was looking for books to illustrate our discussion of the New Wave.  Ah, serendipity!

ALAN: And coming a bit more up to date, there’s a brilliant novel called The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling which is often cited as an example of steampunk. It was published in 1990, by which time the term steampunk was starting to come into general use, but nevertheless I think the novel was sitting on the cusp. It assumes that Babbage’s mechanical computer was actually constructed in the nineteenth century and then goes on to examine the implications. Michael Flynn wrote a novel called In The Country Of The Blind which had a similar theme.

By their very nature I think that both books had to use the tropes of steampunk – after all they were set in the real Victorian London – but in another sense, you can think of them as mainstream SF (if that’s not an oxymoron). They seem to me to be much more alternate history stories than they are steampunk stories, but there’s no doubt that they have a foot in both camps.

JANE: Interesting.  I certainly can see your point, but since I haven’t read either of those books, I can’t really respond.

Certainly, readers of the current crop of steampunk fiction would be surprised to learn that Tim Powers, James P. Blaylock, and K.W. Jeter were selected by Clute and Nicholls as representative of this new movement.  I decided to ask Tim Powers – whose novels The Anubis Gates and On Stranger Tides were among those listed – if he and his friends deliberately tried to start a new “punk.”

ALAN: And what did he say?

JANE: Tim said, “No, Blaylock and Jeter and I didn’t have any notions about starting a movement, or sub-genre, when we were writing our 19th century London SF and fantasies.  It was just that we all were using the same cool research book (Henry Mayhew’s London Labor and London Poor).  But I certainly don’t mind being listed as one of the pioneers of Steampunk!”

So what’s really nice about this is that one of those credited with helping to found steampunk is still very happy to be associated with the sub-genre all these years later. (And I highly recommend both of these novels!)

ALAN:  I recommend them as well. Wonderful books!

JANE: There’s a whole lot more worth discussing on this topic, but duty calls.  How about we pick it up again next week?

Writing: The Art and Craft

March 6, 2013

Believe it or not, I do think about something other than writing, but lately there seems to be a lot to stimulate me in that area.  Take this week…  I e-mailed my friend Michael Wester that I was hoping to get together with a mutual friend and talk about the art and craft of writing.

Exterior Landscape

Exterior Landscape

Michael responded, “Writing the art and craft…???  I am not sure I follow?”

In replying to Michael, I realized that in my mind there is a complex, intertwined relationship between what I think of as the art of writing and the craft of writing.

The art of writing involves rich characterization, thoughtful world building, and intricate but comprehensible plots.  “Art” also involves the elusive but all important element of style – that strange but often undefinable element that means you’ll never mistake a Terry Pratchett novel for a Patricia McKillip novel, even if these authors were to write on the same subject, about the same characters, and in the same setting.

The craft of writing is what it takes to actually write and write well.  This starts with actually sitting down to write, rather than talking about that great novel you could write if you only had time.  It carries through to keeping writing, day after day, until the pages pile up.  It continues as you revise what you’ve written, trying to make the words bring the vision you started with into a shape that you can share it with someone else.

Obviously, the two are intertwined.  You can’t improve in the art of writing if you don’t actually sit down and write.  Writing workshops or books on writing can teach you tricks and terminology but, just as you can’t learn to ride a horse without throwing your leg over the back of that big, hairy four-legged beastie, you can’t learn to write unless you put words down on a page (or screen).  And not just a few words, but lots and lots.  There’s an old saying that it takes three falls to make a rider.  I’ll adapt that and say that it takes three hundred thousand words to make a writer.

However, you can’t produce writing that is worth reading if you don’t attend to the art.  Otherwise, you’re always going to collect rejection letters or, if you choose to self-publish, never get that vital “buzz” that leads to people insisting that their friends absolutely must read your book.

Sometimes, art and craft become very out of balance.  I’ve known art-obsessed writers who worry so much about making sure that every detail and word is perfect that they don’t write very much.   Of course, what they write is often beautiful.   Ultimately, their slim, slowly evolving manuscripts can become  like one of those haute cuisine meals that’s beautiful to look at, delightful to taste, and not very filling.  They leave you wanting more, and that “more” isn’t there.

On the other hand, I’ve known writers – including many popular professionals – who become so caught up in producing to a deadline that art falls by the wayside.  The same wonderful word-slinging skills that brought them to where they are professionally are neglected,  becoming less important than producing “copy.”  Art vanishes.  Taking its place is a strange race to  finish a work and get it “out.” In the end, production goals become more important than the dreams and visions that led the person to take up writing.

So…  There I go again, thinking about writing.   Outside the sky is grey and the wind tosses clouds that the weather service swears shouldn’t be there.  My landscape is in shades of brown, uninterrupted by the least hint of green.  Even the birds darting back and forth from the feeder are mostly brown.

But my interior landscape is vibrant and colorful, enriched by the intertwining boughs of the flowering trees called Art and Craft.