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Knowing Where You’re Headed: Harry Potter, Star Wars and BSG

I’ve been patently neglectful of this blog for the last few months; didn’t even realize until I logged in a few days ago that my last post was from mid-October. However, there are a few posts I’ve been meaning to get to for some weeks now, so I’m cautiously resolving to undertake a blogging revival in the New Year (we’ll see how long that sticks :)) To jump-start the process, I figured I’d talk about the creative pursuit that’s been consuming my time for the last 3 months: outlining.

If you’re a regular visitor to this space, you know that I’ve been working on the first book in a long series for the last 3 1/2 years (give or take). Last summer, I was still bold enough to say aloud that I was hoping to have my book in a state to be shopped around by the end of 2015 (haha. Ha.); even by the beginning of October, I was feeling cautiously optimistic about getting through a draft by year’s end. And then I hit a block. A scene that I’d thought was plotted solidly enough to write itself completely fell apart. All the plot building blocks that were balanced on the outcome of that scene started to tremble; I saw in a flash that I wasn’t quite sure why those bits of plot were important to my protagonist’s story, or how they were going to play out in the next book and the one after that. Warily, I took a step back and forced myself to take a hard look at the rest of 2015: two lengthy out-of-state trips, three major holidays, and quite a bit of Life Stuff that needed to be cleaned up and organized before the new year. And I decided it was time to shift gears.

So since the end of October, I’ve not added a word to my novel-in-progress. Instead, I’ve been sitting down with the fragments of loosely-plotted notions that gave this series its genesis starting almost a decade ago, and the very vague outline I drafted 3 or 4 years back, and going through the arduous process of trying to make it all fit together in a way that feels right.

I’m not going to pretend I’ve enjoyed every minute of it; in fact, I’m writing this post after a morning banging my head against a map and culture that I’m only now realizing needs a lot more development if I’m actually expecting to set a book in that place. But overall, the process has been extraordinarily rewarding. I’ve always thought of this series as comprising three sequential trilogies; the first two are now plotted and framed in a way that really makes me happy. Each individual book has an arc, framed by a few strong story questions; each trilogy has an overarching question and issue that needs to be resolved; and each piece contributes to the larger journey I want the protagonist to take. After almost 2 years grubbing in the trenches of scene-by-scene minutiae, it’s been a breath of fresh air to step back and look at everything from 10,000 feet up. When I encounter a sticky piece of plot, it’s refreshing beyond words to be able to step back from it and say “hmm… would this work better if I changed something all the way back in Book 4?” Which I can do, without consequence, because Book 4 has not passed under anyone else’s eyes at this point; there are no legions of fans devoted to things having played out in a particular way.

As opposed to, for instance, the fans who heard Leia Organa’s claim to remember her real mother, as “very beautiful, kind, but sad,” despite (as the prequels later established) Padme Amidala’s having died when her children were literally minutes old.

Of course, the media-analysis sites that I entertain myself with have had maybe more than an average amount of conversation around Star Wars continuity in the last few months (on that subject, yes, I’ve seen The Force Awakens; yes, I plan to say something about it here, probably in another couple days). I’ve followed that discussion with particular interest given my own project of the moment, but this isn’t a new issue for me. I think about it every time I consume a new series, as I try to figure out how much the creator(s) planned ahead of time and how much is invented on the road. And thus we come to my examination of the three series mentioned in the title of this post: Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Ronald D. Moore’s reimagined Battlestar Galactica  (potential spoilers for all three series follow, though not for The Force Awakens).

First things first: I’ve consumed and enjoyed all 3 of these stories, and I fully admit that all of them have their problems. But I also think they serve as an interesting trio to look at when considering the relative virtues of outlining, retconning, and free-floating storytelling.

To all appearances, Harry Potter is on one end of the spectrum as far as planning goes. While not all of the ideas from JK Rowling’s original sketch for the series ended up in the books (see this interview, where she talks about doing a “hostage swap” in deciding which characters wouldn’t survive the series), she does a masterful job of laying out small details that become consequential later. Many people remember the first mention of Sirius Black on Page 14 of Sorcerer’s Stone; for me, the moment that brought home Rowling’s finesse with details was when I went rummaging back through Half-Blood Prince descriptions of the clutter in the Room of Requirement searching for something that might be the Sword of Gryffindor. There are swords, of course, but none of them are Gryffindor’s: however, there’s also this.

Seizing the chipped bust of an ugly old warlock… he stood it on top of the cupboard… [and] perched a dusty old wig and a tarnished tiara on the statue’s head… (P527)

That tiara, of course, is Rowena Ravenclaw’s diadem, and one of Voldemort’s horcruxes. Just tossed casually into the mix. The only other series easily brought to my mind that shows this level of forethought is Babylon 5, and that show was explicitly conceived by its creator as a novel for television with a clear beginning, middle and end.

If JK Rowling started out with a destination in mind and stayed more or less on the same path to get herself there, George Lucas seems to have taken a different tack. It’s generally accepted by Star Wars fans that when A New Hope was released in 1977, Lucas had not yet decided that Luke and Leia were siblings or even that Vader was Luke’s father (thus the clumsy ret-conning that has to happen in Return of the Jedi when Obi-Wan explains that his account of Anakin’s fate “was true… from a certain point of view.”) Then, of course, there is the disconnect between the prequels and the original trilogy. While the quote from Leia about remembering her mother is probably the most-often cited example, the one that caught me was in this review by Tor.com’s Ava Jarvis recounting her experience of watching A New Hope for the first time after having seen the prequels:

I definitely believe that the prequels did more damage than not to the original trilogy—and that damage isn’t limited to the sudden appearance of the idea of a mitochondria midi-chlorian driven Force, the wrong most often cited by fans. The cracks go deeper than that—including making the final confrontation between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan feel stilted, in a way it wouldn’t have had there been actual passion and concern and, yes, chemistry between the two.

After watching A New Hope for the first time in a long time, and doing so for the first time with Revenge of the Sith fresh in my brain, I can’t help but agree with her point. Even in their stilted interactions in the prequels, Obi-Wan and Anakin can be believed to have genuine affection for one another, and as far as the audience knows, the last time they saw one another was on Mustafar, after Obi-Wan had cut Anakin down and left him to die. With that reality in mind, seeing them calmly circle each other in the corridor on the Death Star, fighting without so much as a flicker of emotion, feels… well, it feels funny, to say the least.

Obviously, Lucas’s story has been presented to the world over a much longer time frame than Rowling’s (38 years, so far, compared to 8), and serialized stories’ changing their details from one installment to the next is nothing new. But even so, it still seems to me like the better storytelling choice is not to change course mid-stream; once you’ve set a piece of your history in place and shaped other aspects of the tale around it, and gotten readers and viewers invested in that history, that piece ought to stay put. Even if it proves inconvenient for you later.

Of course, there’s another way of dealing with inconvenient plot details, and that’s the strategy employed by Battlestar Galactica‘s Ronald D. Moore when he realized he’d misnumbered the humanoid Cylons (with one of the “many copies” models being identified #8, presumably leaving the “final five” as 7, 9, 10, 11, and 12). Moore wrote a few lines into one episode mentioning a 13th model, “Daniel,” that had been scrapped early on in mass production (and thus, viewers were led to assume, was not counted as part of the set), and then was startled when fans leapt on this new character as a source of potential answers to the show’s many unanswered questions. Desperate for some damage control, Moore released an official statement through his podcast saying that “[Daniel] is not part of the plan for the end of the show.”

In the first interview linked above, Moore also notes that he didn’t really start thinking about how he wanted the show to end until he was developing the fourth season. Given that the show introduces its first mysteries in its miniseries, and nearly every over-arching plot (Kara Thrace’s uniqueness, the identity of the “final five” Cylon models, the destiny of Hera Agathon) is embedded in some sort of mystery, this style of plotting seems like a risk, to put it mildly. Perhaps it’s not surprising that many fans rated this ending among the worst in science fiction TV history.

I know that many writers don’t like outlines, and I know that serialized fiction has succeeded for a long time and in many media with writers not worrying too much about an overarching plan for their stories. However, when I write, I try to tell stories that I would enjoy as a reader; and comparing my experience of these three series just leaves me more convinced than ever that I’m taking the right approach. So I may not get back to writing for another couple weeks — but when I do, I will know where my protagonist ends, and how he gets there. And I think I’ll tell a better story because of it.

Believing Impossible Things: Magic and Fantasy, Part I

Quick, now: what makes a fantasy story a fantasy story?

When I’m asked the well-meaning-but-terrifying question “what is your book about,” my shortest and most general answer tends to take a shape kind of like this: “Oh, it’s a big fat fantasy novel. You know, with swords and monsters and magic.”

With these three elements, I like to think I can narrow my story’s scope enough that potential readers will know if they want to hear more. The “swords” part probably suggests that my book’s got some things in common with historical or quasi-historical stories (like GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire, or Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books); the “monsters” part probably indicates that there will be invented creatures of one kind or another (though it’s certainly not only invented settings that can depict monstrous things). But the part that I suspect most clearly marks the kind of story I’m telling – that I know from experience is most likely to make someone lean in or turn away – is the word “magic.” Because I’m increasingly convinced that magic is the marker of fantasy stories.

But what are we talking about when we talk about magic?

The first definition to come to many people’s minds is the kind of magic showcased in the Harry Potter books and in your average sword-and-sorcery novel or MMORPG. This is the wizard in the D&D party casting Magic Missile: very showy, often involving formal words and gestures, most frequently (though not always) formally taught, and common in the culture it’s a part of. But it’s not the only model out there.

About 6 weeks ago, author Kazuo Ishiguro went on record in an interview with The New York Times expressing his concern that readers of his new novel, The Buried Giant, “are… going to say this is fantasy.” Setting aside the ideological debate that sprung up in the wake of his comments, consider the content of the book in question: according to Goodreads, it follows an elderly couple as they wander around the ruins of their not-quite-British homeland, shrouded in a mist that makes people forget their pasts. Is this magic?

Both Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire and Carey’s Kushiel books are the product of an enormous amount of historical research, although neither is set in the “real world” that readers know. Both series also have elements that are generally accepted not to exist in the real world (in no particular order and without differentiation: dragons, murderous shadows, precognition, and shapeshifting). These elements are seen as generally remarkable by the characters living in the setting, and their existence is not well-understood or explained; but they’re there, and they’ve always been there. Is this magic?

What about the feruchemy and allomancy of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books? These powers are openly stated to have a genetic basis, and they’re fairly common in their respective populations, if not completely taken-for-granted. The time travel in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series seems to follow similar rules: successful time travel has a genetic component, it’s linked to particular places and times, and there are other factors that make it easier to travel safely. Magic? Or science?

What about Star Wars’ the Force? Magic? Does your answer change if you’re considering only the three original movies versus all six extant movies (which offer a pseudo-scientific explanation for it)?

When we hear the word “magic,” what do we expect to see?

This question’s been at the forefront of my mind lately, as the first “really magicky” parts of my novel have come under the knife for revision, but I’ve been thinking about it for a while now. Last April, I read a Locus interview with author Daryl Gregory where he said:

Readers will read something as science fiction if the characters are engaged in the process of science. In fantasy there’s no fiddling with the rules. You pull a sword out of a stone, and that makes you King of England. There’s no, ‘But what if I put a sword into the stone?’ In a science fiction novel, everybody would be trying to figure out how to make more kings by inserting more sharp objects into rocks! A fantasy novel is almost distinguished by not asking those fundamental questions about what is going on. A science fiction novel, no matter what the rules, is always asking those questions.

At the time, this really resonated with me – perhaps because my fantasy-worldbuilding kept being disrupted by sci-fi-loving Husband asking questions like “but where does the magic come from?” – but as I get a little more distance from it, I find myself wondering. I’ve encountered fantasy stories where people attempt to figure out where their magic comes from. It seems to me like the final climax of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is all about taking control of the fundamental processes of magic (and basically inserting sharp objects into rocks). If a character in Harry Potter attempted to ascertain where their magic came from, would that make the story into science fiction? Or would it only be science fiction if it was discovered that the cause was genetic manipulation or radiation?

Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law states that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Is the only difference the way that the story frames the unbelievable elements, that “magic” is unbelievable things that come from outside of people, where “technology” is people-derived? When Hermione Granger develops a new spell, is she using magic or technology or both?

A few months ago, I attended a Google Hangout interview with NK Jemisin through the Dive Into Worldbuilding series where she talked both about the new novel she has coming out later this year and about her philosophy on world-building. The two things that struck me most from this conversation were her points about assumptions she tries to avoid in her readers. First, she noted that people generally assume that science and magic don’t coexist, that the practice of science in a fantasy setting (or even the use of scientific language) is a rare commodity. But the thing that really resonated with me was her explanation for why she doesn’t use “magic” as a term in her books. The reason, she explained, was because “magic implies… differentiating between magic and mundanity.”

I think that might be my new favorite explanation: that when people use the word “magic,” they’re drawing a line between what is normal and what is uncanny. This can be different for your setting than for the real world – in fantasy, that’s often the case – and it can change over the course of the story. But “magic” as a concept carries undertones of something rare and precious and bizarre. By that definition, the mysterious stuff of Carey and Martin’s books is undeniably magic. The everyday conveniences of Harry Potter’s world, on the other hand, start to lose their rights to the title. Something that’s common – that’s just part of how the world works – wouldn’t quite be magic, not to the characters. Even if it’s never been seen before by the readers.

Of course, all this musing hasn’t done much to tidy up the definition of magic, or of fantasy — but as I tell the students in my sociology courses, definitions are always problematic, and people get uncomfortable with edge cases (like the Force in Star Wars, or Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books, which are always identified as “technically science fiction”). For most readers, I suspect that Harry Potter-style wizardry falls neatly into a different category than the more pseudo-scientific approach to weird powers taken in Mistborn or Pat Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle. But are there other distinctions? Does the purported source of uncanny powers matter? George RR Martin offers up both religious and secular magic, some clearly magical creatures and some human mages and some whose nature isn’t entirely clear. Is a dragon always magical? An elf? A dwarf?

I suspect I’ll be thinking about this for a while longer. What do you think? What puts Ishiguro’s allegory about societies recovering from atrocity in the Literature section of Barnes & Noble, while Tolkien’s goes in the Fantasy section?

An Aside: On “Issue Fiction”

As my regular readers know, in addition to being a novelist/philosophizer/incessant reader, I’m also trained as a sociologist. I’m very aware of the way that my social science background leaks into my writing: it affects how I construct cultures and characters on about a million levels. So when I first received an email about the Social Fictions series, I was very excited. This series frames itself as a set of novels explicitly designed for use in social science courses, giving students a less abstract way to grapple with major concepts.

I’m very attracted to this idea. I dream of someday teaching a sociology intro course framed around utopian fiction; I’ve thought about teaching a sociology of science fiction course since I first entered the discipline. So I went to the website and grabbed a preview for one of the books, RP Clair’s Zombie Seed and the Butterfly Blues.

And then my excitement started to wane.

To be completely honest, I can’t give a good review of the book: I didn’t get far enough to do so. I read the first ten pages and stopped, wondering if this author had ever written fiction before. The prose was clumsy, and the dialogue was stilted, full of exchanges like this one:

“How’s your head? Are you feeling okay?” Mona Barthes asked her academic advisor.
“I’ve had better days,” Delta answered and then followed by thanking her graduate advisee for the ride as she settled into the front seat of the little green Geo.

According to the promotional material, the book explores issues of violence (cultural and interpersonal) as well as the risks of disconnection from critical thinking. All great stuff; very important; well worth including as a theme in your book. But in the same way that writing about a popular topic doesn’t make your book good, neither does writing about an issue, no matter how much passion you have for the subject. Characters still need to be well-fleshed-out; settings still need to be coherent; prose still needs to read smoothly. If that part’s taken care of, readers will pick up the subtext on their own.

I thought of my response to Social Fictions when I read Mark Strauss’s post for io9 about a University of Vermont study of the effects of Harry Potter on readers’ political views. Political scientist Anthony Gierzynski found that Harry Potter readers “are more open to diversity and are more politically tolerant than nonfans. The fans are also less likely to support the use of deadly force or torture, more politically active and more likely to have had a negative view of the Bush administration. Gierzynski says these correlations remained significant even when applying more sophisticated statistical analyses — controlling for other factors, such as parental influences.”

There are some caveats in the findings (elaborated on in the linked article), but it seems pretty clear that these books had an effect on some portion of their readers. And they are ALSO rip-roaringly good reads, with engaging characters and a strong plot (yes, the worldbuilding is sometimes a little shaky, but I’ll save that for another post).

I feel like this tip, of making your story a story first and a political message second, is important to remember for all of us seeking to increase the presence of underrepresented groups in our own writing. Because although I’ve been writing posts here for over a month talking about the importance of diversity in all its forms, I don’t expect I’ll ever write a story intended to show that “people from Group X can do Y.” I am making a conscious effort to include a more diverse population in my fiction, but I’m also taking to heart Nisi Shawl’s advice from Writing the Other (which I’ve quoted before): “[b]lack people don’t spend their whole lives thinking of themselves as black. We’re Ghanaians and editors and diabetics, and lots of other -ians and -ors and -ics.” (83)

If my years as a consumer of genre media and my admittedly-limited exposure to media studies analysis have taught me anything, it’s that just as social scientists tend to research issues that have personal resonance for them, it’s difficult for fiction writers to avoid bringing the issues they care about into their stories. The reboot of Battlestar Galactica is — among other things — about colonization, terrorism, and 9/11, while the current zombie flavor in postapocalyptic monster fiction might be feeding on people’s fear of real-life apocalypses like pandemics or global warming.

This is all great. I do believe that fiction can have a positive impact on the mindset of its readers.  I think the issues and morals and representations presented in fiction are incredibly important. I just hope that we as writers remember that for a story’s elements to have that sort of impact, people have to get drawn into it first.

Book Review: Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

An icy rush of air, a freezing slipstream on the newly exposed skin. She is, with no warning, outside the inside and the familiar wet, tropical world has suddenly evaporated. Exposed to the elements. A prawn peeled, a nut shelled. — beginning of the second chapter of Life After Life.

This book came onto my radar in the end-of-year wrapup in Locus, where it was noted as having won a UK National Book Award, acclaim from Publishers Weekly, Amazon Editors’ Top 100 Print Books, and Time Magazine. Its central concept is fairly simple: the protagonist, Ursula Todd, is a woman who lives many parallel lives. Each time her life reaches a point where she might have died (beginning at her birth, when she enters the world with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck), one version of her ends there; another continues on. Over the course of the book, it becomes clear that she has some deja-vu-esque memories of these events, that allow her to avoid the pitfalls in the next go-round.

That’s as far as the book goes in terms of “genre” elements: overall, it feels much more like a piece of early-20th-century historical fiction. Ursula is born in 1910, in the English countryside. So she experiences the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918 (more than once); she works in London during the Blitz; she moves to Germany and hangs out with Eva Braun in the ’30s. And none of that is even very spoilery, because the very first thing we see Ursula do in this book is kill Hitler.

The genre piece of this story is definitely in the subtext. There’s never any explanation for why Ursula experiences her life over and over again in a weird cross between reincarnation and Groundhog Day. But by the end of the book, she’s clearly aware something odd is happening to her, and she uses it to attempt to set things right in a serious way: for her family, for England and for the world.

I actually enjoyed this book more than I expected to at the start. The style is unconventional in places; because of the conceit that every time Ursula dies she starts over again, there are some sections where the same ground is covered over and over, sometimes in quick succession (we see the Spanish flu hit the Todd household about 4 times in the space of 20 pages) and sometimes over a much longer period (there are several incarnations of World-War-II-era Ursula that run on for many chapters apiece before “resetting”). I might have had trouble with this if I were a slower reader, but as it was, I was able to hold the book in my head well enough that the revisiting of old plotlines felt clever rather than annoying.

The star of the book is Ursula, but we also spend a lot of time with her parents and siblings, and some with various romantic partners she has in the different timelines. The characters are generally likeable (except for the intentionally unlikeable ones) and well-drawn, and although I don’t know a huge amount about early-20th-century British history I didn’t feel like I was struggling to keep up with the author’s references, which is always a plus.

Like The Time Traveler’s Wife, I might recommend this one to people who think they don’t like genre fiction: I think it could have significant crossover appeal. But it’s also worth reading for the genre fiction crowd, if only because the concept lingers with you when you’ve finished. I am most definitely a subscriber to the “everything happens for a reason” belief system, and Ursula’s deja-vu-fueled life choices definitely speak to that philosophy. We all have those moments of walking through life when we suddenly stop and shiver — the “goose walking over your grave” feeling — but this book puts a different spin on them. When you suddenly feel the urge to change your plans unexpectedly, maybe it’s because the ship you’re sailing on is doomed; or maybe your classmate’s had a vision of your plane going up in flames; or maybe you’d just meet someone at the coffeeshop who’d set your life on a track you don’t want.

As the book notes toward the end: “Practice makes perfect.”

Biting and Stinging: Discomfort in Our Media Consumption

“I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow on the skull, why bother reading it in the first place?” — Franz Kafka, from a 1904 letter

I first ran across this quote last year, and have been meaning to blog about it for a while — and then, in the last few days, I’ve found about a dozen different things that seemed to point to this as The Week for This Post. So, here goes…

The major precipitating event here was a conversation this week between faculty at the small liberal arts college where I teach. The facilitator wanted to bring people together to talk about trigger warnings in higher education. I’m guessing most of the Internet knows what a trigger warning is: they’ve become increasingly common on blogs and general-purpose Internet forums (fora?). My understanding of the term, and the one used by my colleague earlier this week, is that “triggering” material is that which might provoke PTSD-style reactions for individuals who are survivors of some kind of trauma (most often sexual violence, but I’ve also seen them used for images of war or violence generally).

This is all good stuff. However, in the last year or so, trigger warnings have become increasingly commonplace in higher education. Oberlin College in Ohio recently changed (and then re-changed) its guidelines for syllabus development, asking professors to be sensitive to assigning potentially upsetting material in the classroom and to provide students with the opportunity to avoid it if necessary. One example from the Oberlin guidelines:

Sometimes a work is too important to avoid.  For example, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a triumph of literature that everyone in the world should read.  However, it may trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more. Here are some steps you, as a professor, can take so that your class can examine this source in the most productive and safe manner possible…  (the guidelines then go on to talk about providing trigger warnings, how these are different than spoilers, and that professors should strongly consider making potentially triggering material optional).

The Oberlin guidelines (which have since been placed at least partially on hold) have produced a backlash from people concerned about academic freedom (professors’ rights to have final control over what’s assigned in their classrooms), and also from those who think that undergraduates are already too “coddled” — but what I think is most interesting, and the point my colleague made, was that we as educators need to find a way to distinguish between students who might find material legitimately triggering and those who just want to avoid being made uncomfortable. Because, as several other commentators have pointed out in different places, being made to be uncomfortable from time to time may well be part of gaining an education.

That really resonated with me, and I’d suggest that for people who have primarily majority/dominant group identities, it’s an important thing to keep in mind. Some of the most thought-provoking conversations I’ve ever had have started in uncomfortable places (like a conversation with relatives that I still reference 4 years later about whether I, as a white person, am suitable to teach a course on the sociology of race). And that brings me to the piece that I think is more relevant for the scope of what I typically talk about here: how we as readers/consumers (and writers) deal with uncomfortable topics, and (relatedly) with things that are “foreign.”

I like being immersed in other worlds: it’s one of the main reasons I read genre fiction. But I’ll freely admit, I don’t like having to work too hard. If a book doesn’t take some time to explain its setting(s) and its culture(s), I’m apt to get thrown off and put the book down (and that’s one of the reasons I typically have a hard time with anime, which seems to rely more heavily than most Western shows on “jump in and we’ll explain it all as you go along”). I don’t like having to stop and do research while I’m reading; it feels like work.

But I’m also aware that my social identities put me in a position where I don’t often have to. In A Song of Ice and Fire, the main characters are people whose culture I’m already familiar with, from the million other fantasy books where the setting is not-quite-medieval-Europe. Just like how when I watch movies — genre or not — for the most part, the main characters look like me, and their concerns more or less map onto ones I can relate to. Of course, in genre fiction, the main characters are still most often men… but that’s OK, because (studies show) women and girls are used to identifying with men and boys as main characters. It’s only when things go the other way that it gets difficult (check out this review of Brave that talks about why it can in fact “still appeal to boys” despite having a female protagonist).

Genre readers tend to have better imaginations than most: we can put ourselves in the mind of an alien, or an elf, or a ghost. But people sometimes get uncomfortable about putting themselves in the minds of someone who’s fundamentally different from us in a “real-world” way. When Ursula LeGuin’s Wizard of Earthsea was made into a Sci-Fi Channel miniseries, they turned her protagonist white as a matter of course, after she spent decades fighting to have him appear as a brown or red-skinned person on the book cover. When Game of Thrones explicitly noted a gay male relationship in its first season, some fans who’d read the books protested that HBO had “made them gay” (not so, for what it’s worth). And, of course, there was the controversy over The Hunger Games’ characters of color.

I found this blog post by Thea Lim the other day which seemed to sum up the argument: as a person with numerous privileges, what should I do with the fact that I assume people in books are like me? What should I do with the fact that reading books by authors who aren’t like me sometimes requires more work? Lim’s response left me pondering:

Just read books as the person that you are. Writers are not asking anything more of readers usually. But to assume that you can understand everything about a story, especially when it is not written specifically for you, can be a symbol of entitlement, a refusal to accept that many politically marginalised writers write things into their stories that are only for their own people.

Going back to the Kafka quote, I think that some people with privileged identities avoid reading books (or taking courses) that aren’t “about them” because they don’t think they’re relevant: some avoid them because they don’t want to be made uncomfortable. But I agree with the point made above — sometimes being uncomfortable is good. Sometimes, for those of us privileged to see ourselves reflected in our genre fiction over and over and over again, being reminded that not everyone is like you (and — less often appearing in genre fiction, which tends toward the utopian or dystopian — people like you have their own baggage) is part of becoming a more educated person.

As part of my reading education project this year, I’m trying to read more literature from other genres — and I’m trying to read more things not exclusively written by white Americans, including things that talk about unpleasant history or paint my groups in a less-than-favorable light. Because I think stepping outside my comfort zone is important: that it’ll make me a better author, a better teacher and a better person.

I don’t have an answer to the trigger warnings problem: I’ll think about it some more before I write my next syllabus. I don’t have a solution for the overrepresentation of straight white able-bodied men in genre fiction, either. But I’d like to think that thinking about it is a step in the right direction, and I’m willing to be bitten and stung by books from time to time. That’s how you learn.

Book Review: Parasite, by Mira Grant

If her family approved the procedures to harvest her organs now, her death could mean life for others. By pairing her organs with splices taken from her SymboGen implant, the risks of rejection could be reduced to virtually nothing. Dozens of lives could be saved, and all her family had to do was approve. All her family had to do was let her go.

All they had to do was admit that she was never waking up.

Sally Mitchell opened her eyes.

The ceiling was so white it burned, making her eyes begin to water in a parody of tears. She stared up at it for almost a minute, unable to process the message she was getting from her nerves. The message wanted her to close her eyes. Another part of her brain awakened, explaining what the burning sensation in her retinas meant.

Sally closed her eyes. (from Parasite, p8)

I was super-excited when I heard that this book was coming out. I very much enjoyed Mira Grant‘s Newsflesh trilogy, even if I disagreed with some of her plot choices (non-spoilerific review of the first book is here); I’ve also now read one of the author’s books written under her own name (Seanan McGuire), the first in the urban fantasy/PI series about the half-human, half-fae October Daye, and enjoyed that too. McGuire/Grant’s worldbuilding is consistently solid; her characters are witty and fairly well-rounded, and she does a decent job with broad-spectrum representation, with queer characters, characters of different racial/ethnic backgrounds, and characters with disabilities all appearing as non-tokenized members of the cast. The fact that her books are all set around the Bay Area, where I live, is an additional bonus.

But (you knew there was a but coming, didn’t you?) Parasite didn’t work for me.

The premise is interesting enough. The one-sentence summary is that in the near-future (most of the plot takes place in 2027), disease, allergies, autoimmune disorders, and most drugs are a thing of the past.The reason? Almost everyone on Earth has been fitted with a genetically engineered tapeworm that integrates with their system and compensates for the artificially pristine modern world (the book talks a lot about the hygiene hypothesis), while also secreting designer drugs, birth control and basically anything else you can think of. No more need to monitor your health: the SymboGen Intestinal Bodyguard(TM) does it for you.

Of course, this goes about as spectacularly well as any other medical marvel is apt to go in a novel.

My first problem with this book, actually, was the marketing. I’m pretty sure McGuire/Grant intended for the exact nature of the problem caused by the designer tapeworms to become clear relatively late in the book, but there’s information on the book jacket that, when combined with the “things start to get creepy” aspects of the early chapters, makes it all too clear what’s happening, even to this fairly naive reader. I know, I know, you’re not supposed to get upset about spoilers on book jackets because if you don’t want spoilers you shouldn’t read the marketing material… but it’s hard to get someone to buy a book if they can’t get a hint of what it’s about.

Unfortunately, my second (related) problem came out of the story itself. This is a book that counts on its compulsive page-turn-ability coming from the fact that the first-person narrator, Sally Mitchell (she who wakes up from her coma in the first few pages) has no idea what’s going on, and I’m definitely a fan of that “Aha!” moment when the reader figures out what’s about to happen just a few pages before the characters do. But that’s not what happens here. I guessed some important facts about the main character very, very early on, and then read through more than 450 pages before she came to the same realization.

This isn’t a common experience for me: as I noted above, I’m generally a fairly naive reader. On my own, I rarely develop suspicions about characters’ parentage, or wonder if a prophecy really means what the character thinks it does, or even guess that someone isn’t really on the hero’s side before their sudden-but-inevitable betrayal. Because of this, I tend to be guilty in my own early drafts of dropping too many hints or waiting too long for the revelatory moment, leaving my beta readers wondering how my character can really be that clueless. That was how I felt about Sally Mitchell throughout this book.

I haven’t given up on this author: not by a long shot. I’m hoping to go into San Francisco in a couple weeks to see her read and buy a copy of her new book released under the Seanan McGuire name. But this one was disappointing.

(If you’re curious about the specifics of what I guessed, I’ve included a spoiler-full explanation under the cut).



Review: “Tribes”

“This is the first time you’ve listened to me… and it’s because I’m not speaking.” — Billy, “Tribes”

I don’t have much experience with theater: most of the plays I’ve seen have been musical theater, which is a whole different sensory ballgame. But when I heard Tribes advertised on our local radio station, I was intrigued. Written by Nina Raine and directed at Berkeley Repertory Theatre by Jonathan Moscone, it’s the story of a deaf man, his hearing family, and his new girlfriend — a woman who was born hearing, to Deaf parents, and is now going deaf herself. The play is presented in a combination of English and ASL, and it centers around language, community, and identity. I don’t know if you could have written a play better suited to catch my interest.

I’ve been fascinated by Deaf culture since reading an article several years back that pointed out that unlike blindness or other physical differences, deafness is a fundamental identity for many of those possessing it because it shapes communication. Anyone who’s poked their nose into this debate knows that there are a lot of very contentious conversations around what the “best” course of action is for a child born deaf to hearing parents: cochlear implants to allow them to join the hearing world? Immersion in the Deaf world of ASL? Training in both ASL and lip-reading? Language is a powerful categorizer of people: even Durkheim said as much, in his essay on social facts. “I am not obliged to speak French with my fellow countrymen… but I cannot possibly do otherwise.”

These are the issues the play grapples with. The main character, Billy, played by James Caverly, grew up in an academic family who argues recreationally: the first scene of the play vividly demonstrates Billy’s struggles with fitting in when he has to work twice as hard as everyone else just to catch half the gist of what’s being said. His family has discouraged him from learning sign language, saying that he doesn’t need it and shouldn’t isolate himself with “those people”: but when he meets native signer Sylvia, played by Nell Geisslinger, and starts to learn her language, it opens up a new world to him, and starts drawing lines between him and his family (as in the quote above, which is signed rather than spoken aloud as Billy confronts his family asking them to learn sign). The central conflict of the play is where Billy fits: the deeper takeaway point, or at least the one that resonated with me, is that we all have multiple “tribes,” and no one fits into all of theirs all the time.

The play is definitely a study in two languages. There were supertitles presented when characters signed (except for during one sequence when the audience was put in the position of Billy’s family, shut out from a conversation for the first time). The program noted an interesting conflict that came up with staging the play in the US; the playwright is English, the play is set in London, and the original production was in English and British Sign Language. Although the actors in this production still speak with British accents, the American producers elected to change the signed dialogue to ASL because of significant differences between the two languages. Native speakers of American English can understand British English, but leaving the signed dialogue in BSL would have been like staging the play in Welsh. I was also fascinated by the program interview with the ASL Consultant, Anthony Natale, where he noted that since James Caverly is a native user of ASL and Nell Geisslinger isn’t, one of his tasks was to make sure not only that Sylvia looked fluent but that Billy did not.

I was also impressed by the way the play presented a variety of viewpoints on the controversies around use of ASL and around Deafness as a culture. There are demonstrations of signed poetry and things ASL can do that spoken language can’t: but alongside these commendations, we hear Sylvia’s criticisms of the Deaf community and see her grief over the loss of her hearing, something that Billy can’t understand.

The play left me thinking about bilingualism, Deaf culture, overlapping identities and what makes someone a member of a community. It’s at Berkeley Rep through May 19th: if you’re in the area, I would heartily recommend checking it out.

Book Review: The Brides of Rollrock Island, by Margo Lanagan

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” — Stephen King

I’ve read a lot of books in my life. I’ve been reading independently since I was four, and reading genre fiction for as long as I can remember; however, because I didn’t grow up in an uber-nerdy household, most of my genre books were fairly haphazardly chosen, and when it comes to the genre canon for grown-ups, I increasingly feel hopelessly undereducated. So, as part of my efforts toward authorial professionalization, and to show my support for Stephen King’s philosophy above, I decided that one of my projects this year would be to read more consciously. I made a list of Hugo and World Fantasy Award winners; I polled people on their favorite classic genre authors; I considered names I had heard whose books I’d never investigated. And I went to the local used bookstore and blew a big pile of store credit in their used section.

So now I’ve got a stack of books to go through, and I thought this spot was as good a place as any to share the results of that process. And, of course, to no one’s surprise, the first book I’m reviewing in this process is one I just picked off the top of another blog.

The book is The Brides of Rollrock Island, by Margo Lanagan, and I first encountered it on Aarti’s BookLust. If you haven’t run across her yet, do check her out — she’s a fabulous review blogger who features a fair bit of genre fiction, as well as making a special effort to read genre fiction by POCs.

Lanagan is Australian, and according to Wikipedia and her own blog, she writes short stories and YA novels. I don’t have a good definition of what constitutes YA; this month’s issue of Writer’s Digest suggests that overt sexuality and graphic violence are both acceptable in YA books, so the main “limiting” factor seems to be that the protagonist should be high-school-aged. I’ll restrain myself from ranting about problematic assumptions that only kids want to read about young protagonists and say only that this book matches those guidelines: sexuality plays a major role in the story, though there’s no overt sexual activity on the page, and the viewpoint characters are all young. But not all at the same time.

Brides of Rollrock Island is the story of a place, a tiny village that feels very Scottish to me, and what happens to the people there over the course of a few generations when an unhappy girl with magic gifts decides to get revenge on those who mistreated her and ends up fundamentally changing her culture. The magic in question is the capacity to bring selkies out of their seal forms — to bring beautiful seal-women up onto the island, where they’re magically irresistible to all the men. Within a relatively short time (by social science standards at least ;)) every man on the island has decided he wants a selkie wife, and is willing to pay the “old witch” to bring him one, and all the human women have gone to the mainland in disgust.

In Aarti’s review of the book, she said what struck her most in this narrative was the illustration of slippery slopes: the idea that what was initially seen as uncanny and frightening quickly becomes matter-of-fact. Y’see, like many shapechanger myths, the selkie story’s got a dark side — in order for a husband to keep his beautiful seal-woman with him, he needs to hide her seal skin, because otherwise she’ll take it and change back into a seal and go back to the sea. In a generation, on Rollrock Island, all the corrolaries of this become normal: a man’s wife will come from the sea, and he’ll have to teach her everything about being a person, and if she bears him daughters instead of sons he’ll have to give them back to the sea to be seals, and he’ll have to lock her sealskin up with the rest so that she won’t disappear on him.

This point was striking to me, too, but what really enthralled me about this book was another piece of the narrative. As I alluded to up above, there are six different first-person narrators; they speak from different times in the history of Rollrock Island, and they aren’t presented in chronological order. So as you jump from one narrator to the next, your view of what’s really going on shifts and changes the way the island’s does.

I’m a sucker for animal shapechanger stories, and selkies are one of my favorites (Gwen Knighton has a song that touches on some of these same themes, along with her songs about Shadowrun and twisted fairy tales); but this one was exceptionally well-done because I felt like it presented the situation from all sides. The “villain” is one of the viewpoint characters, and we understand why she acts as she does; ditto the mainlanders, the human wives, the human men and the mixed selkie-human children (that voice might have been my favorite of all the ones we encounter). I’d strongly recommend this book, and I’m going to go off in search of Margo Lanagan’s other stuff.

A quote to tempt you before I go:

I remember lying with my mam in the sun on a rug on the sand at Six-Mile, and the thought coming out my mouth: “When I have a wife, I will let her speak seal in our house.”

“Oh, yes?” she said, surprised. “Why will you do that, my Daniel?”

“Because when wives talk seal they are happy, and I want my wife to be happy.”

I lay there pleased with myself for this wish, pleased with my own kindness uttering it to my mam, pleased with my plan for my future self, who would become a kind and admirable man. All was well with that day, the warmth of the sun and my mam and me on our island of blanket, other mams at a distance, other boys running and kicking up the water.

Mam turned to me, propped her head on her hand. “My darling,” she said softly, “if you want your wife to be happy, and to speak the seal-tongue truly, you will not take her as your wife.”

A propos of nothing: Yes, I know it’s been some time since I’ve posted here ::blows off dust:: The last three-quarters of a year have been busy with a pile of Big Life Changes, and now that I’m finally starting to feel settled on the other side of them, I decided it was time to come back to this space and see what I could do to revive it. And whittling down the reading list in a visible way seems like a good place to start.