I am sitting at the moment on a beach watching dawn brighten over the mountains in the east, without another human or (barely) anything built by same in sight. There is no electricity here, no landline or cell phone service, nothing that we didn’t bring in ourselves. (And since a 100-year-old alder tree came down in recent weeks near the turnoff from the main (one-lane, gravel) road, we had to hump everything we brought in a fair ways.) Tiny fish are feeding out on the nearly glass-smooth ocean, looking like raindrops, a couple of otters are arguing and splashing on the little islend across the way. A woodpecker has waked up and is rattling in the forest behind me. It’s so quiet I can hear a seagull complaining on a reef two miles away.
A great deal of fantasy takes place in non-technological settings very different from those most who write and consume it live in. I’ve been spending a part of every summer since I was 8 or 9 on this beach, and it serves as a reference when I read or write such fantasy. One thing that is on my mind at the moment is how much work simple things require. Getting a drink of water, for example…. …
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I’ve been traveling the past week-plus, from the Arabian desert to the hallucinatory green of the currently rain-sodden mid-Atlantic, north to Readercon outside of Boston (where I stood bareheaded in the rain!!), and then back again to Philadelphia. Among the many joys and oddities of return: the drivers in these cities are so calm and polite, and so observant of the traffic rules that I feel at peace on that crowded femoral artery of Philadelphia, the Schuylkill Expressway.* Which just goes to show the power of relativity.
Readercon is one of my favorite cons. It’s a small convention with programming pretty much only about books, and the dealers’ room (or crack den, as my friend Vickie calls it) sells no t-shirts or other tchotchkes, only books and magazines. One of my panels was about re-reading the classics, a poor choice by Programming since my reading history is lamentably patchy. Somehow (I think all I said was that Shakespeare was hard to read for speakers of present-day English) I seemed to become the person who thought the classics were all irrelevant. It’d be more accurate to say that I think the classics are valuable if not always relevant.
One interchange was about Homer, and how great the Odyssey was, and how much of the whole history of literature the Odyssey had influenced, and how Joyce’s Ulysses contained the whole of human experience (this last from critic and fellow panelist Michael Dirda). …
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I am somewhat embarrassed to confess that until now, I had never read a Discworld novel. It’s happened before: I’m bandwagon-phobic and when books and series become popular, a voice I’m often not even conscious of starts harumphing, “It can’t be any good. It certainly can’t be as good as everyone says it is.” The Harumpher was busy for years on the subject of Patrick O’Brian, despite his series being recommended to me by many people of impeccable taste whom I knew were undoubtedly right. Yes, I know it is a character flaw to act against one’s own best interests.
Living in the Great Arabian Book Desert, without the means to (as some people do) rent space in a container for a huge yearly shipment of books from Amazon.com, I’ve had to shove the Harumpher into a corner with a gag in her mouth. I was so happy to find a free (!!) copy of Master and Commander on the paperback exchange shelf at my son’s school. Those people on the bandwagon were right! The book is brilliant. So now I’m going to have to shell out $15 or $20 for a used paperback copy of #2, which I might even be able to find here. Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic (all British editions here) showed up on the same shelf and I took it for my son whom I knew had read and enjoyed all of Pratchett’s kid books. But then I opened it up and found Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser practically on page 1. I was immediately drawn in by the mix of satire, broad humor, and complex intertextual engagement with the entire sword and sorcery tradition.
OK. OK, you guys have all read the whole series, probably. I’ve largely avoided humorous fantasy (although I enjoy humor in adventure fantasy, a different animal to my eye). This just seems smarter, by which I think I probably mean that it is serious at its heart. Or maybe it’s just because I, like Pratchett, prefer Lieber to Howard, or Dunsany, for that matter, although those and many other authors are in there too…. Anyway, it makes me happy that now I have two whole long series to look forward to.
The august editor of Black Gate once asked me to remove two occurrences of the f-word in a story, because, he said, of wanting to be able to sell the magazine to high-school libraries. While it proved remarkably hard to find a substitute with the resonance I wanted, in this case referring to brief and utterly non-romantic sex, I didn’t mind the request.
In contrast, I did mind another editor’s demand to remove quite a bit of content from my novel Bear Daughter. “Just because it’s in ethnography,” she kept repeating, “doesn’t mean it should be in your book!” One of the things she was most bothered by were the references to post-partum bleeding, and the magical protection it briefly provided against the Giant Carnivorous Bird of the Underworld. I still for the life of me don’t understand her squeamishness–especially given a couple of violent and bloody scenes, one involving exploding frogs and mass dismemberment, that didn’t seem to faze her at all. In this instance I kept the (female reproductive) blood. …
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One of the best books I’ve read about writing (and, full disclosure, I don’t read many) is Samuel Delany’s About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters & Five Interviews (Wesleyan). When I say “best,” I don’t mean I was nodding my head the whole way through going, “Right! Exactly!” Although in many places I was. Overall, I was in constant dialogue, sometimes offering additional examples or counterexamples, sometimes arguing vociferously, sometimes muttering, “WTF are you talking about?” Almost every page was good for a long train of thought.
The subject of one chapter is illustrated by its title, “After No Time at All the String on Which He Had Been Pulling and Pulling Came Apart into Two Separate Pieces So Quickly He Hardly Realized It Had Snapped….” Writing, Delany argues, has at least two technical levels. The sentences of a story describe a progression of events and occurrences, and this is what he calls the “text.” These sentences, though, are simultaneously “gesturing, miming, and generally carrying on about a supportive countertext that gives the story we’re reading all its resonance, highlighting, and intensity.” …
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Who knew? The national weekly Micky Maus, featuring mainly Donald Duck, sells 250,000 copies in German, beating out Superman. Another 40,000 mostly adult readers snap up the monthly all-Donald specials. The fan organization D.O.N.A.L.D. (an acronym for “German Organization for Non-commercial Followers of Pure Donaldism”) holds a yearly convention, philosopher Max Horkheimer admitted to reading Duck comics at bedtime, and many Germans credit the Donald with introducing them to the literary classics. He remains the most popular children’s comic in Germany.
As Susan Bernofsky writes in the May 23 Wall Street Journal, it’s because Disney’s German licensee, Ehapa, retained artistic control over the translations. Donald was introduced during the years following World War II, when school officials were setting fire to American comics and some were proposing laws to ban comic books altogether. Ehapa hired a Dr. Erika Fuchs, who had never laid eyes on a comic before she was handed her first Donald Duck story. Her job was to breathe a little erudition into Disney. In her version, Donald quotes (and misquotes) Schiller and Goethe, he’s prone to philosophical musings, and even ordinary dialogue is cranked up: “I’d do anything to break this monotony!” becomes: “How dull, dismal and deathly sad! I’d do anything to make something happen.” A cat belts Wagner. And through it runs a vein of political critique, mostly, it seems, aimed at Nazism and intolerance.
Dr. Fuchs supplied the German for Donald Duck for a rather amazing 54 years, until her death in 2005.
This, alas, is not going to be one of those highly informative posts by a knowledgeable person possessing vast information on the subject. Instead, it’s a partial response to several different topics that have crossed my consciousness lately. One is an ongoing issue–the role of the Other (exotic, evil, dangerous, wild, etc.) in our culture and our storytelling, and what it is like living in a country of one of our current primary Others (Arabs) for the last year. Another is an article I read recently on the current state of Arab cinema (burdened by censorship, unwieldy bureaucracy, and funding problems–see also here and here). Finally there was a conversation last night on the future of the Arab world in which the subject turned to education. As in the US, discussions about the role of education tend to focus on job readiness and the economy, but it’s art and storytelling that are crucial for cultural health, and growth.
“Arab Fantasy” could mean fantasy by outsiders using elements of Arab tradition, or fantasy by Arabs using traditional or other source materials. The best-known source in the west is, of course, One Thousand and One Nights in its numerous versions, although (quoting from wikipedia, that utterly reliable source), “Some of the best-known stories of The Nights, particularly “Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp”, “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” and “The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor”, while most likely genuine Arabic folk tales, were not part of the The Nights in its Arabic versions, but were interpolated into the collection by its early European translators.” Actually the article is a pretty interesting overview, and I learned a bunch of stuff. Genre works influenced by Nights are many; titles I’ve read recently enough that they float to the surface include Tim Powers’ World War II espionage-with-djinns novel Declare, Diana Wynne-Jones’ Aladdin sendup, Castle in the Air, and P.B. Kerr’s Children of the Lamp series, aimed primarily at middle-grade readers, but entertaining enough for undemanding adults, and, it seems, forthcoming as a movie from Dreamworks. …
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Oh where have you been, Lord Randall, my son,
Oh where have you been, my handsome young man?
Not to the greenwood, that’s for sure, and not eating eels and toadstools, though sometimes the job application process (not to mention the writing career) can feel like it. Let’s just chalk up my recent absence from this space to life generally and move on. Though, parenthetically, it’s strange how fragments of ballads you haven’t heard in decades can suddenly breach the darkness. Now I can’t get the impossible-to-sing tune out of my head….
We read together as a family at my son’s bedtime and have been making our way through Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. It wears well after all the years (I won’t say how many) since I first read it. We also recently saw Paul Blart: Mall Cop. That was not an experience I want to repeat in the decades to come, but the momentary temporal conjunction of the two got me thinking about the humiliation of the hero as a trope. It’s an exceedingly common one in comedy, and I can think of a zillion examples in movies, everything from Bridget Jones’ Diary to There’s Something about Mary. That it’s uncomfortable to watch (at least I find it so) even while I’m laughing (sometimes, anyway) must have something to do with the cathartic value of comedy–the second half of the arc in that genre is success, especially romantic success, and among other things the hero’s humiliation makes his/her success all the sweeter. …
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RIP, J.G. Ballard.
His was among the strange New Worlds fiction that I encountered as an unsuspecting kid in my brother’s sf collection, higgledy-piggledy among the Clarke, Asimov, and Simak. I didn’t know what to make of it then, but it’s been sitting in my backbrain all these years, still messing with the contents.
Strangely, one of my grad school professors was, like Ballard, born and raised in Shanghai, and like him was also interned as a boy by the Japanese during World War II. He said, of both the book and movie versions of Empire of the Sun, “It was nothing like that.” I wish now I had taken notes; he gave a number of specific examples. But it shows that memoir (and memory), like fiction, are the product of an intensely personal process. This is the construction of meaning through narrative.
In searching academic literature on memory recently, I came across a review article on “Trauma and Memory” (Van der Kolk, Bessel A. (1998), Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences 52:S97-S109). The author compares the recollection of traumatic events with ordinary memories from both a clinical and a neuroscience perspective. Combat veterans and other sufferers of PTSD do not experience recollection of the most traumatic events as memory, but as fragments of direct, unprocessed sensory input. During traumatic experiences, the sense-impressions received by the brain bypass the parts, like the hippocampus, that would organize them into a coherent form of consciousness, and so memories do not form as in ordinary experience. This “organizing” is the creation of a narrative out of the fragments and at the same time, creation of meaning which the fragments lacked. At the clinical level, processing traumatic memory was the stitching together of a story of the experience….. a process which most of us, most of the time, do so effortlessly we hardly notice.
No wonder being told stories, in fiction, in movies, in art, has such a huge effect on how we think and feel. Narrative is how we think and feel. …
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If pre-industrial secondary-world settings are the norm for adventure fantasy (and for much Black Gate fiction), I’d like to detour today into some quite different fantasylands. A comment by braak last week on the differences between sf and fantasy started me thinking about fantasy works in which the mysterious is made extremely quotidian. I am writing without the books at hand, so I hope that if my memory is faulty (it usually is) someone will correct me.
The first are a pair of books by Walter Jon Williams, a writer better known for his straight-up sf. These are Metropolitan and its sequel, City on Fire, both Nebula nominees and the latter a Hugo contender as well. They are set in a roofed-over world-city powered by a geomantic substance called plasm, which accumulates naturally in (or under) buildings. The main character is a young woman named Aiah, who gets a job with the public utility that oversees collection and use of plasm. She finds a huge unmapped pool of plasm which she does not report properly… and then becomes entangled with a shady politician/mage named Constantine, whose protege she becomes. The ambiguous emotional resonances of her relationship with Constantine never fully came alive for me, but there’s plenty of action and intrigue and mystery, and I loved the steampunk-y bureaucratization of magic and the truly urban feel. A lot of people read the books as sf, but I would class them as a sort of proto-New Weird, only without the slipstream element. Back when they came out I had a conversation with Walter in which he ran down the list of fantasy tropes he had intentionally incorporated into the books, and they are all there, but one thing I have always found interesting about his work is the way his characters, even or especially his protagonists, are always morally ambiguous in some way. Constantine may be the wise mage/teacher figure, but he is also the dark mage of the books, and Aiah makes some pretty dubious choices of her own. He had a third book planned out, but couldn’t sell it, and as he supports himself with his writing he moved on to other things. …
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