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The Many Faces of Animal Stories

Mostly by happenstance, in the last month I’ve encountered a number of different stories that featured animal protagonists. In fairly short order, as part of my preparation for 2016 Hugo nominations at the end of March, I read Lawrence M. Schoen’s Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard and Daniel Polansky’s The Builders, both highly-regarded tales published in 2015; About a month ago, Husband and I went to see Disney’s Zootopia, because we try to take in movies that sound vaguely interesting and get good agglomerated reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. Finally, I picked up Tad Williams’ Tailchaser’s Song on a whim, because I’m a cat person and because this book has the rare feature of being one of his novels that I hadn’t read before.

I liked parts of all of these stories; I enjoyed Barsk and Zootopia wholeheartedly, for reasons that probably have as much to do with the kinds of stories I like as the characteristics of the individual works. And putting them all together side-by-side got me thinking about the different ways that storytellers use animals to tell human stories, and consider how those different rationales are also present in genre fiction.

Basically, it seems to me that anthropomorphized animal tales fall into three main categories: allegory , anthropology, and alien familiar. Before I expand on those concepts, let me clarify my analysis with one definition, one parameter, and one caveat:

  • The Definition: Anthropomorphism is the practice of assigning human traits to non-human beings, whether that takes the form of insisting your computer has a grudge against you, believing the ocean is really a short-tempered Greek god named Poseidon, or creating a comic book series about adolescent red-eared sliders who eat pizza and practice martial arts.
  • The Parameter: In this analysis, I’m focusing (for the most part) on stories that have no significant human characters. While there are plenty of examples of stories that include both people and anthropomorphized animals (on a scale from CS Lewis’s Narnia books to Disney’s Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey), I think animal-only stories have some unique elements that don’t come out when a story also counts humans among its protagonists.
  • The Caveat: Like all typologies, this one will have gray areas around the edges, and a particular story could incorporate themes from more than one of my categories. I’ll demonstrate that by drawing on a fairly multi-faceted animals-only film, Disney’s The Lion King.

Allegory

This category, perhaps best-exemplified by George Orwell’s Animal Farm, uses animal protagonists to explore topics and tales that might be seen as too controversial if they were dealt with using humans. We see this to some extent in The Lion King, which shows its protagonist’s dead father on screen: it’s unlikely this would have been tolerated in a children’s movie if Simba had been a human boy prince and Mufasa a human man king. Particular animal species are also often used to symbolize particular aspects of human society. In Maus, Art Spiegelman presents readers with a graphic novel dramatizing his father’s tales of surviving the Holocaust; by choosing mice to represent the Jews and cats to represent the Germans, he can tap into his audience’s associations with those species, while also showing more explicit violence in his pages than he could probably have gotten away with if he’d been drawing human figures. I’d argue that Zootopia also falls into this category; while it’s both a fun buddy cop movie and a message piece about not being afraid to follow your dreams, it’s also a story about prejudice, stereotyping and microaggressions, and given the widespread pushback that still exists around perceived attempts to politicize children’s media (I wrote about this at length early last year in the context of the 2015 Annie remake), I don’t know that such a movie could have been made without the animal “filter.”

Anthropology

These stories are the ones where authors try their best to envision what “realistic” animal societies might look like. There are hints of this in The Lion King, like the moment when the young Simba and Nala get bathed by their mothers as they talk about sneaking out to the Elephants’ Graveyard (we’ll just ignore the fact that all the prey creatures are bowing down to the apex predators, or that Simba and Nala would probably be half-siblings). While they may appear to be less removed from reality than the other categories, in their own way “animal anthropology” tales are as fantastical as the others. After all, no matter how much I love Richard Adams’ Watership Down, there is no evidence that rabbits have their own language or a heroic trickster god. Williams’ Tailchaser’s Song falls very consciously in this mold, as he gives his feline heroes their own language and a trio of gods who (unsurprisingly for those who’ve read Williams’ other books) end up playing a rather more active role in the plot than might be expected at the beginning. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any film examples of straight-up “animal anthropology” that try to craft an anthropomorphized culture onto what’s known about animal behavior — this might be for the same reason that Foz Meadows suggests in her analysis of why there haven’t been many great fantasy movies until recently, that the things that make these stories work are more difficult to transfer from page to screen.

Alien Familiar

This category might be the one most people think of when they consider the subject of “talking animal stories”; animals in human clothes, living basically-human lives that are only slightly altered to accommodate differences in anatomy or physiology. The Lion King skirts the edge of this one, with its hula-dancing meerkat, but other examples range from Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows and Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH to Brian Jacques’ Redwall. It seems like these stories, more than any other, tend to be aimed toward children (think Arthur the Aardvark, Daniel Tiger or The Berenstain Bears), maybe because stories that might be seen as “too ordinary” acquire enough magic to be interesting if they’re told about animals instead of “real children.” That said, the two stories I read as part of my Hugo-nominee canvassing in the last few weeks, Schoen’s Barsk and Polansky’s Builders, both fall solidly into this category, and neither one is by any stretch of the imagination intended for children.

Barsk takes as its opening premise a galaxy with multiple sentient species, where the “furred” races have deep-seated prejudices against the mostly-hairless “Fant” (elephants) and exile them to a single planet where their continued existence is permitted only because they hold the secret to manufacturing a drug much-desired by the other races. The Builders is the tale of a squad of broken war veterans from half a dozen different species, reuniting for one last try at setting things right: one part Firefly, one part Crown for Cold Silver, no guarantees of a happy ending. Both books feel more like “traditional” genre fiction, where the protagonists might just as well be aliens as animals, and the point is for readers to enjoy the process of dawning recognition and familiarity as much as they do the more straightforward plot aspects of the story.

As a self-identified “animal nut,” I grew up reading stories of all three of these types, and I still have examples of all of them on my shelves. And while I haven’t written anything with anthropomorphized animal protagonists since my first attempt at a novel — a ten-year-old’s homage to Black Beauty — animals continue to play important roles in most of the stories I tell. And stepping back to look over the categories I’ve drawn up, I suspect that people like encountering animals in their fiction for some of the same reasons people like reading genre fiction; an animal’s experiences, like those of a fantasy-world protagonist, are familiar enough to be relatable and strange enough to be escapist. Maybe I’ll have to try my hand at writing an animal protagonist in my next creative piece.

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On Remembering That Writers are People

I met a new author this week, the first professional author that I’ve spoken with for longer than 15 seconds in the course of a book signing. We talked about traffic and getting lost on Interstate 80; it was a normal conversation. And I think it was exactly what I needed.

The setup: Husband and I went into San Francisco on Sunday night to attend SF in SF‘s monthly author reading, something we hadn’t done in a long time. As luck would have it, each one of us was excited about one of the two featured authors this month. Husband, a hard SF/Big Idea guy in the core of his being, devoured the first book in Hannu Rajaniemi‘s Jean le Flambeur trilogy late last year and was eager to get his hands on the rest, while I’ve read Daryl Gregory‘s We Are All Completely Fine and Afterparty (read my review of the latter here) and find myself consistently interested in whatever Gregory announces he’s working on next.

So we joined a decent-sized crowd for the reading, hosted by Terry Bisson, and listened to each of the authors read two short pieces. As I suspected might be the case, I was left admiring Rajaniemi’s craft even as I acknowledged that his stories weren’t really aimed at me, and wanting to check out Gregory’s short story collection (not, alas, available for sale at the reading!) The first piece Gregory read was about a very human reaction to the coming apocalypse (which was, really, all this dystopian fan sociologist needed to hear to be hooked :)); the second was a lighter piece about the location of human consciousness. Once both authors had finished their readings, we took a short break, and I sat down to dive into one of the new books I’d picked up from the Borderlands sales kiosk — at which point, Husband tapped my shoulder. “It looks like they’re chatting with people — do you want to go say hi?”

I froze. “Oh, no, that’s OK. I wouldn’t know what to say. I’d feel awkward. I — they’re real authors.” 

Husband: “So are you!”

Me: “No — no — I’ve been working on the same story for ten years and I’ve got nothing to show for it yet. I’m not a real author. I — uh — I’m just gonna read.” At which point, I proceeded to bury my face in Pandemonium.

And then heard a friendly voice say “So, you’re getting a head start by reading at the reading?”

I don’t remember exactly what I said to Mr. Gregory in response; honestly, I think the first thing was a stammered schoolkid answer along the lines of “no, I promise, I wasn’t reading while you guys were reading!” But then he cracked a joke, and then Husband asked him where in the Bay Area he lived (since he’d mentioned in his intro that he’d recently moved here), and then, suddenly, we were talking about a neighborhood where I’ve got friends, and a coffeeshop there where he goes to write, and the struggles of figuring out exactly how long it takes to drive from one place to another in the metro area with one of the worst commutes in the nation.

Daryl Gregory just won the World Fantasy Award; his work has been nominated for the Nebula and the Locus. He first crossed my radar because of an interview he gave in Locus Magazine a few years ago, where he talked about the difference between fantasy and science fiction as being focused on the characters’ reactions to the unexplainable:

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.

This  idea has stuck with me, and continues to be one of my basic benchmarks for how I distinguish the two genres; it’s the brainchild of a “real author.” A real author who struck up a conversation with me about the weirdness of being a Bay Area immigrant and who offered to chat if I ever see him around town.

Given how I’ve been feeling about my own writing lately (more on that in the last few posts, so I won’t recap here), I think I desperately needed that reminder — that the people behind the books are real people, who live in the real world, and have to deal with getting into San Francisco on a rainy night just like everybody else. And that in many of the ways that matter, the successful aren’t so different from the rest of us.

So thank you, Mr. Gregory, for reaching out; I hope to bump into you around town, and I also hope I’ll have the opportunity to pay your kindness forward someday. If I ever finish this book.

On the Things You Can’t Learn from Books: My Experience at West Coast Falconry

I haven’t done much writing lately.

As my regular blog readers know, I’ve been working on my Big Fat Fantasy Series (with little concrete to show for it) for longer than I’d like to admit. When I read this quote from Pat Rothfuss’s interview with Locus, it definitely resonated with my experience:

“People talk about the trunk novel, writing 10 novels before the 11th or 12th gets published. For me it was just the one book. I worked on this one book for the same amount of time that other writers worked on 11. (In my head I always think of it as ‘‘The Book,’’ like it’s the Platonic form of the book.) So really, I sort of wrote 11 books too – it was just 11 serious different drafts of this same story, constantly refining it.

What I’ve been doing the last few weeks (in between dealing with bouts of nasty Uber-Cold and far too many Real World logistics) doesn’t even count as drafting:  I’m still in outline mode, trying to lighten the burden on my Future Self by figuring out where my story is going before I write myself into too many corners. I’ve spent most of the last 2 months scowling at my third trilogy, which was always the most loosely plotted portion of the story and which is stubbornly refusing to resolve itself into a nice tight arc the way the other two did. I’ve dreamed on more than one occasion of throwing the whole thing in a drawer and letting it simmer for a while. I’ve thought of printing out Elizabeth Bear’s refreshingly honest take on artistic burnout  and tacking it up on my wall. I’ve wondered if any of these books is ever going to see the light of day, or if I should throw in the towel and run off to become a lumberjack.

And it was deep in that mindset, two weeks ago, that I packed a bag for the weekend and drove up into Yolo County, northern California’s agricultural heartland, to a place called West Coast Falconry.

While the substance of my novels’ arc has shifted and changed in a hundred different ways over the years I’ve been working on it, one thing has stayed resolutely the same: my protagonist’s heart and soul are wrapped up with raptors. So I’ve got half a dozen falconry and raptor biology books on my research shelf, and I started working at a local wildlife rehab facility last year in part because it gave me regular opportunities to interact with raptor patients. But for years now, I’ve known that all the text and pictures in the world, and even learning how to safely restrain an injured hawk for an exam (which I’ve now done a few times), wouldn’t give me the kind of detail I needed to make my book work. I needed to see birds that were comfortable around people, and talk with people who spent their days with birds.

West Coast Falconry, run by master falconers Kate Marden and Jana Barkley, bills itself as a way for the general public to learn about raptors and the ancient sport of falconry. I first met Kate and Jana in 2012 when I went to their site for a “Falconry Experience” — the chance to watch their falcons chase the lure, and to call a Harris hawk to my arm. I walked away exhilarated, with pages of notes — but then, bit by bit, the days and the years slipped by. I got caught up in the minutiae of plot and character, of word choice and world-building, not to mention real life, and I felt my story growing stale. I needed an infusion of inspiration.

And so, after hemming and hawing about it for months, I signed up for the three-day Falconry Apprentice Seminar. This course is designed to prepare would-be falconers for taking the California apprenticeship exam, and covers everything from state regulations for obtaining and keeping raptors to building a mews (hawk enclosure), interactions with game wardens and the Department of Fish & Wildlife, trapping and training a wild bird, what to feed your bird (and how to butcher said food), and hunting etiquette. On the final day, we gathered early in the morning, with two Harris hawks, and went hunting rabbits.

While I’d spoken with Jana (a fellow author!) before signing up and gotten her reassurance that I would be welcome in the course, I knew that I wasn’t the target audience, and during the opening ice-breaker, I felt awkward. While the other students spoke confidently about wanting to hunt with a red-tail or a peregrine or an owl, or peppered the facilitators with logistical questions about  building a mews in the suburbs, the best explanation I could come up with for my presence at the table was “…so, I’m writing a book. Not a book I can tell you the plot of, really — not a book that’s close to done — but really, I promise, someday, maybe, there will be a book.”

My nagging sense of imposter-hood lasted for about an hour, as we reviewed the bureaucratic process for becoming an apprentice falconer. But once we got past paperwork and into the meat of the lectures, my doubts disappeared.

Between what we learned in the classroom and what we saw in the field, I walked away with enough material to turn into 8 single-spaced pages of notes when I got home Sunday evening. A lot of it was straight-up prepared material from the curriculum, like these tips:

  • Birds captured from the wild as first-year adults (“passage” birds) are often more pleasant to be around than those hand-raised by people, because they know that they’re birds and will not try to attack their handler for food as they would their parents.
  • The best way to check your bird’s condition is to palpate its breastbone (the keel); although raptors don’t enjoy being touched, the bird can be trained to tolerate this handling, including recognizing the word “keel” as a cue for what’s about to happen.
  • Most of the killing that happens on a hunt will be done by the falconer, not the bird; the bird’s initial attack rarely kills the game animal, and so part of the falconer’s responsibility is to make sure the game is dispatched as quickly and humanely as possible.

As you can see from these examples, the class was pretty comprehensive; in addition to the written material, we learned what it feels like when a bird lands on your glove, got some first-hand experience with operant conditioning, and gutted Coturnix quail as preparation for the hawks’ morning meal. And yet, I think the most valuable things I learned were nothing to do with the prepared curriculum at all.

Over the course of the weekend, I spent two twelve-hour days and a six-hour morning with five falconers. And as I watched them interact with their birds and listened to their stories, I felt my basic background assumptions shifting. Here are some of the myths that were dispelled for me without anyone’s having to say a word:

  • That one can be a “part-time” falconer. If my protagonist keeps a raptor and treats it well, that means he’s taking it hunting for hours at a stretch, at least every few days. I drove away from West Coast Falconry this time pondering which key scenes in my outlines could feasibly take place in a rabbit field.
  • That the glove and gauntlet worn by falconers are only necessary to avoid being “footed” (grabbed) by an angry bird — in a setting with mystical/magical ties between human and animal, the hawk would “just know” to sit lightly. After watching an excited hawk bouncing around on her falconer’s arm, with one foot slipping off the glove onto bare skin, I realized that even an innocent touch is painful. (Also, a hawk would never sit on someone’s shoulder like a parrot — the wingspan’s too large and the bird’s too flighty — and so when it travels on your person, it’s on your fist. Which makes your footprint in a crowd considerably wider).
  • That a hawk could sleep with humans in any old room without needing special accommodations for perching (more complicated than you’d think because for the vast majority of its life, a raptor’s weight is on its feet; wild raptors spend an average of 20 minutes in the air each day, and never lie down unless they’re very ill), casting (undigestable parts of its meal, vomited up some hours after eating) or its mutes (waste, which a hawk typically shoots 4-6 feet away from its body; falcons are more considerate in this regard, muting straight down, but still have the other problems).
  • That a falconer’s bird, sleeping safe in its mews every night, will live to a ripe old age: we heard several stories that made it clear these birds’ lives are far more dangerous than those of your average tame animal. In addition to mundane dangers like disease, they face threats from the game they hunt, the wild predators whose territories they cross, and the environment they race through in pursuit of their quarry. Finally, with the exception of one species, raptors aren’t social: a falconer with multiple birds must consider them all potential threats to one another.
  • That every hunt is successful. We flushed more than half a dozen rabbits in our two hours in the field, with two experienced hawks, and only caught one.
  • That anyone could successfully figure out how to train and handle one of these birds without mentorship, mystical advantages or no.

I walked away from my weekend of falconry with a far better understanding of the commitment — in time, money, love, and tears — this lifestyle requires of those who seek it, especially in any world not inclined to give its people the liberty of days at a time to go hawking. I knew, in a way I hadn’t before, that falconry isn’t a passion I have room for in my daily life, now or probably ever. But I also knew that to write the book I want to write, I will have to take steps to bring more falconers and trained birds into my days. So in the week since, I’ve taken the first steps in that direction and I plan to continue doing so.

Because while I’d never be one to dismiss the power of research (I was too long a student to do that), there are some things a book can’t teach you.

DSC03797

The author with Seabhag (she-VAK), a female Harris Hawk, at West Coast Falconry in 2012.

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.

Elaborating on a Promise: A Tale of Series Fiction and Two Jo(e)s

In the last two months (since early August), I have read and thoroughly enjoyed the first books in two very different trilogies. In both cases, I read the first book in 1 or 2 days, choosing it over socializing and newsfeed-reading and the other things that tend to occupy my non-writing hours. It’s been quite a while (a few months at least) since I’ve had that kind of reaction to a book, so when it happened for the first time, I went out the next day and ordered Books 2 and 3 in that series, happy to know that I would be able to pick them up and devour them at my leisure. With the second series, though, I was more cautious; instead of running to the bookstore, I requested the sequel from the library. As it happened, I liked that book enough that I will probably add it to my permanent collection alongside its predecessor… but I had learned my lesson the first time around. Just because a first book catches your fancy doesn’t mean that the rest of the series will do so.

I’ve blogged here before about the relative joys and tribulations of standalone books and series, but my experience with these two trilogies prompted me to revisit the issue from a slightly different angle. The series I set down unfinished was Joe Abercrombie‘s Shattered Sea trilogy; the one I would endorse in its (admittedly as-yet unfinished) entirety is Jo Walton‘s Thessaly books. Both series are well-written; Goodreads confirms that both have lots of devoted fans. The two series also do some similar things from a craft perspective. Both present a word that is a mix of history and fantasy; both have multiple viewpoint characters; and perhaps most notably, neither author is afraid to make their second (or third) book very different from the first, and trust the readers to decide whether they want to continue along on the ride. Mild-to-moderate spoilers for both series follow.

The Shattered Sea books focus on a culture that bears a more-than-superficial resemblance to (mainstream cultural understandings of) the Vikings; a world where manhood is marked by one’s ability to go raiding, and wealth comes from what you can take when you burn a village. There are a handful of different nations (most notably Vanstermen and Gettlanders) whose cultures seem remarkably similar, and a few others that are more distinctive. Abercrombie also includes some interesting worldbuilding details which I think are invented; while the peoples of the Shattered Sea have distinct roles for men and women, those tasks apportioned to women include most financial and religious duties, and the pantheon includes some interesting reversals from the most traditional stereotypes (Father Peace and Mother War, for starters). In the first book, Half a King, our hero is Yarvi, the younger son of the King of Gettland, who’s been given to the priesthood (in a role relatively rare for a man) because his disabled hand makes him unable to hold a shield and thus unable to fight. In the first chapter of the book, he learns that his father and elder brother have died, and thus he is now King of Gettland; within the first 50 pages, he’s betrayed by his uncle, left for dead, and sold into slavery. The rest of the book is Yarvi’s struggle to set this situation right, and I loved it: he surrounds himself with memorable characters whose exploits I really cared about, a band of unlikely heroes making their way through the wilderness, and their adventures kept me turning pages right up until the end. I liked that Yarvi wasn’t the traditional hero; I liked that his disability was neither his only character trait nor something to be ignored when it became inconvenient, or cured by book’s end; and I liked the plot he found himself in, with a combination of action and character development.

The second book in this series, Half the World, is the tale of a ship making its way from Gettland to the other side of the known world to attempt an alliance with a far-off ruler. The journey has some of the same elements I loved from the first book, but I didn’t enjoy it as much — in large part, I think, because Yarvi is no longer the viewpoint character. Abercrombie trades him in for two new viewpoints, a man and a woman, and while they both had some interesting elements I didn’t feel that either was as distinctive (plus, there’s an awkward YA-style romance between them, with lots of miscommunication before the inevitable getting together). I made it through the book hopeful that the third, Half a War, would feature more screen time for Yarvi; instead, Abercrombie changes viewpoints yet again, bringing in three new protagonists, and sending heroes new and old off to battle. Given the title of the book, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that there was more fighting and less opportunity for character interplay (never my favorite combination), but given how much I’d liked the first book, I kept holding out hope that this one would turn into something closer to what I’d loved in the first book. It didn’t, and I set it down halfway through.

In most ways, Jo Walton’s Thessaly series is as different from The Shattered Sea as it is possible for two books to be while remaining in the same genre (maybe unsurprising given how different Walton’s books and series are from one another). The premise of the first book, The Just City, is that the Greek gods Apollo and Athene have took it upon themselves to test out the model of a city laid out in Plato’s Republic. To do this, they transport a number of Platonic scholars from various points in human history to a remote Greek island in pre-history, and present them with a cadre of “blank slate” pupils — more-or-less contemporary slave children taken from throughout the Mediterranean. The goal is that the children will be raised in line with the Platonic ideals outlined in The Republic; the viewpoint characters include one teacher, one human student, and Apollo, who has elected to take on human form to participate in the experiment directly. Sokrates gets involved; there are robots; and as you might guess, things get complicated quickly. This book is unlike most other things I’ve read, and I loved it; it speaks to the worldbuilder in me, as the protagonists are forced to confront the problems with implementing an untested philosophical system with real people, and to the sociologist who loves stories of utopia and dystopia. I don’t usually like stories focused heavily around ideas, but this book was an exception.

The second Thessaly book, The Philosopher Kings, pushes the plot ahead twenty years: the children from the first book are adults, having children of their own, and the community has spread out beyond a single city and even beyond the small island where Athene originally placed them. Two of the narrators are the same, while a third disappears from the story in the first chapter. Philosopher Kings delves more deeply into theology (specifically issues of incarnation and the rights and obligations of demigods) and the effects of historical meddling, but it remains at its root a book about ideas, with the characters serving mainly as mechanisms to kick those ideas around. It’s not the sort of book I would ordinarily jump at, but I’ve been recommending it to all my fellow “book nerds,” and I expect I will be snapping up the third in the trilogy when it appears sometime next year. Which raises the question — why did I like one series so much and not the other?

I’ve thought about it, and I don’t think it’s specifically because of the changes the authors make between books. Other series, like Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, set their first narrator aside when the first book is done and I go on to enjoy the later books even more; George RR Martin has introduced new settings and characters galore in his later Song of Ice and Fire books and I’ve enjoyed most of them very much. And it’s not as though one series stays truer to its central themes than the other; Shattered Sea has Viking-esque warfare and cultural values throughout, while Thessaly is first and foremost an exploration of what happens when a set of philosophical ideals are implemented in the real world. The difference, I think, is that what I liked in Half a King was something other than Abercrombie’s central theme. I wanted to see more of Yarvi’s story from the inside, not just hear about how he was a great diplomat and priest from the eyes of other characters; Abercrombie wanted to let the world grow bigger, and I wasn’t interested in following along. By contrast, although Walton moved outside the Just City in her second novel, the things I liked about the first one were still central to the story she was telling.

The exercise of comparing the two series has been interesting, particularly since I’ve set myself to writing a set of linked series that will put my protagonist in drastically different circumstances. It’s useful to remember that while contemporary authors are more encouraged than their predecessors to stretch themselves, and new authors in particular are warned to avoid focusing too much on one type of project, every change you make in a sequel will alienate some of your readers. People fall in love with a book for lots of reasons, and not all of those will come with you when you move on in the world.

On the up side, I suppose that even a reader who doesn’t like where a series ended up can still be in love with the first book. I won’t be keeping Half the World or Half a War, but Half a King has earned its place on my bookshelf; and I’ll be ordering Philosopher Kings from my local bookstore at the next opportunity.

On Six Months as a “Real Writer”

Since my last teaching job ended at the end of March, I’ve been self-identifying as “a full-time writer.” In practice, for me, this has meant two things. The first is that I permit myself to consider my novel “work.” The second is that I set myself a goal for a number of hours worked each week, and I track those hours. Since I’m about to reach the six-month mark, I figured it was about time to sit down and reflect on my experiences so far – and to share them, because people always seem to find other people’s writing-process accounts fascinating.

I have definitely noticed a change since I’ve made these changes in practice, not only in my writing process but in my mindset. In fact, although I’ve been writing semi-consistently for most of my life, and almost every day for most of the last nine years, the last six months have seen some revisions to aspects of my routine that have been there for years.

First and foremost, I find that allowing myself to have designated consistent writing time is a godsend. I’ve talked before on this blog about how I typically block off one weekday as “writing time” – no contractor appointments, coffee dates, or house-cleaning obligations, just me and the laptop. In general, I also try to avoid making appointments before 1 PM so that I can have my mornings to work. I’m still not as good about staying out of email and social media distractions as I’d like to be, but I have started setting my phone to do-not-disturb mode for a few hours. It’s not an absolute system – there are certain people, designated as “priority,” whose calls will still get through in case of emergencies – but it’s a bit of ritual that works for me, a “physical” acknowledgment that I am now enclosing myself in the sphere of my book for a limited time. The world will be there when I’m done.

As for the other factor, the hours-per-week – well, it’s had a few effects. The first is psychological. I’ve told myself that I will aim to do twenty hours of work on the book each week: this was also what I aimed for when I was writing my dissertation in 2012 and 2013. That means that when I’m evaluating my admittedly-unstructured week, I find myself making calculations about how to spend my free time. Do I have a busy weekend planned? Then maybe I won’t take that friend up on her Wednesday afternoon coffee date, because I know that I won’t have time to fit in my last few hours at the end of the week. I also find that tracking hours is better for my morale than tracking word count (which I know a lot of people do, including Stephen King) because it allows me to “count” things like going for a walk to untangle a sticky plot knot, or spending a morning outlining a new chapter. I know that sometimes the words will take a while to come, but if I’m ready and waiting for them, I can count the time as writing.

That’s the other thing I’ve found as an effect of my twenty-hour work week – I get less anxious about sticky plot than I used to. Even a few months ago, when a chapter jammed up, I would fret and pace and let it get under my skin, ranting to Husband that “this is clearly the most difficult chapter! It’s just not working! I can’t figure out where it’s supposed to go, I’m not working on it anymore!” Those rants have dramatically decreased in number since I’ve started this new process. I think part of that is that I’m just gaining more experience – putting in more time on the book within a more condensed time frame means that I’m getting accustomed to the ebb and flow of drafting, the fact that almost every chapter will have its sticking points and that after a week or two of frustrating fumbling suddenly the pieces will fit together and I’ll know how to move forward. But I think the other is just having some measure of accountability. Whether the writing is going well or badly, I still expect myself to show up; I still have that record of my time that I log at the end of the week, encouraging me to apply butt to chair (or, at least, brain to problem) and wait for my subconscious to work its magic.

I recognize that I’m privileged to have a schedule that accommodates this level of immersion in a creative project every week, and I also acknowledge that a lot of my tricks are the same ones I used to get myself through the later stages of graduate school. But all the same, my experience has made me a convert to a few tricks of the trade that seem like they’ll work no matter how much time you have to devote to your storytelling:

  1. Take your writing seriously. Allow yourself to make and keep appointments to work on it, just the way you would with work for which you’re accountable to someone else.
  2. Set attainable goals for yourself. Say that you’ll engage with your story for 30 minutes a day, or that you’ll try to get in 2 2-hour sessions over the course of a week.
  3. Don’t get obsessed with word count. I know that NaNoWriMo and other writing contests encourage writers to spew out words and not worry too much about content, and that’s a strategy that works well for many people – but if it doesn’t work for you, or doesn’t always work, find another way to give yourself a sense of forward momentum.
  4. Figure out what times work best for you to write, and don’t be afraid to take advantage of those times.

Maybe most importantly of all, as I’ve noted on this blog before, keep at it. Whatever lets you make progress on your creative goals, if you’re working at them, you’re doing it right.

A Breath of Fresh Air: On Attending (Half of) the 2014 Tiptree Ceremony

It’s not often I trek into San Francisco on a whim, but this past weekend I made an exception. Late Friday afternoon, I saw an email notification from a fabulous local nerdy organization, SF in SF, noting that due to a congruence of unusual circumstances, one of the bestowals of the 2014 Tiptree Award would be taking place in San Francisco instead of at this year’s WisCon. The site of the ceremony would be Borderlands, maybe the most fabulous genre bookstore to have ever graced the earth; the awardee would be Jo Walton, for her novel My Real Children.

I love Borderlands, enough to have been one of the first 100 people to join their sponsorship program earlier this year when they nearly had to close because of the new SF minimum wage law (more about all that here; linked post first, then others from February and March 2015). And when I picked up My Real Children on vacation last year, I loved it so much I almost didn’t leave the hotel room (my review is here). So when I heard the two were going to come together in a glorious awards ceremony, I figured it was worth a chunk of my Sunday to experiment with being a Tiptree audience member.

I am so, so very glad I did.

For those new to the concept, here is how the Tiptree Award (named in honor of author Alice Bradley Sheldon, who wrote her sci-fi novels as James Tiptree, Jr.) is described at tiptree.org:

In February of 1991 at WisCon (the world’s only feminist-oriented science fiction convention), award-winning SF author Pat Murphy announced the creation of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender. (To read her speech go to PatMurphy.pdf.) Pat created the award in collaboration with author Karen Joy Fowler. The aim of the award is not to look for work that falls into some narrow definition of political correctness, but rather to seek out work that is thought-provoking, imaginative, and perhaps even infuriating. The Tiptree Award is intended to reward those women and men who are bold enough to contemplate shifts and changes in gender roles, a fundamental aspect of any society.

The essence of the award is fundamentally in tune with the larger issues WisCon seems to be primarily concerned with — issues of representation in genre fiction, of rethinking what sci-fi and fantasy “should” be about, and of opening the genre to a wider fan base and helping underrepresented fans and creators feel like they’ve got a place in the crowd. In short, it touches on a lot of the same concerns that I raise in this space: I’ve described it to friends before as “a convention for sociologically-minded nerds.” I thought about making the pilgrimage to WisCon this year, and finally decided I had too much else going on to justify the expense of a semi-random trip to Wisconsin on Memorial Day weekend. But the presentation this weekend reaffirmed my commitment: maybe not next year, or the year after, but soon, I will be there. And I hope that someday I’ll be able to become a regular.

Here’s what I saw on Sunday.

Once everyone had gathered, most of us chittering over newly-purchased books to be signed, emcee and author Ellen Klages called up a friend of Jo Walton’s, Ada Palmer, to first give a reading from her new book Too Like the Lightning (which I will definitely be reading when it comes out next year — intrigue and mayhem and toy soldiers! toy soldiers who come to life!) and then to sing, with her colleague Lauren Schiller, a song called “Somebody Will.” Which pretty much embodied the essence of what it seems like WisCon-oriented genre writers are trying to do, and what I’ve talked about here more times than any other topic, and how I like to live my life: the idea that change is slow but inexorable, and that each of us has a role to play in making that change a reality even if it doesn’t change in our lifetimes, and that the important thing is to do what you can with heart. Which, among other things, is a central theme in My Real Children.

Once the song had been sung and the audience had collected ourselves and stopped sniffling, Klages sat down to interview Walton about her experience as a writer; I’m not sure if this interview is available on YouTube, but it was very refreshing to hear someone admit that all the Truths about Real Writing (you must write every day and never stop; you must never give away your creative work on the Internet; you must pick a genre and stick to it) hadn’t applied to her, and that somehow her books were still winning awards (and not only “feminist” awards, either; in case you missed it, Walton’s Among Others won both the Hugo and the Nebula in 2012). Walton also discussed how she’d written My Real Children to deliberately blur the boundaries between science fiction/fantasy and “women’s fiction,” which she defined as literature whose principal tensions derive from issues central to many women’s lives — marital relationships, children, balancing work and family, getting old — that are rarely addressed in genre fiction (regardless of whether the main character is a woman or a man). She talked about how she thought these things were particularly important to include in our field, since not only was no one writing about them, but (paraphrased) “they’re unlikely to go away in the future — and if they do, then that will be interesting and worth writing about!” It resonated with other conversations I’ve read about the importance of telling all kinds of stories, and reminded me why I fell so in love with Gabaldon’s Outlander books despite their flaws. And it felt so refreshing in the wake of all the angry rhetoric that’s been thrown down in fandom this year about what kinds of stories “deserve” to be told.

And then, once the interview was done, the Tiptree committee gave Jo Walton her prizes: besides a plaque, they included money, and chocolate, and a piece of specially commissioned art inspired by the subject of her book. Ellen Klages then explained that the Tiptree winner usually has rights to wear one of the Tiptree tiaras for the duration of the WisCon weekend, and that Walton did get those rights (even though she was the guest of honor at another convention that weekend, a Tiptree representative met her there with a “spare tiara”); but that because Walton had expressed concerns that wearing a tiara was more stereotypically “girly” than she really felt comfortable with for herself, the committee had gotten her a tiara hat pin instead, to wear on her fantastic broad-brimmed hat. I was surprised at how touching I found this, maybe just because it was evidence that the committee not only knew the author but had actually taken time to take her wishes into account.

And then, before cake (because there was cake, and we all got a piece), the committee and the audience sang Walton a song. Two songs, actually; a combined round, to the tunes of Row Row Row Your Boat and Frere Jacques, with the words changed so that the songs were about My Real Children. And as I sang, with gusto, and as I looked up to the front of the room and saw Jo Walton’s face light up, I thought: this is the community I want to be a part of.

I’ve read a lot about the people in the genre fiction community over the last few months, good, bad and ugly. I’ve read George RR Martin’s long explanations of how the culture at WorldCon has changed; I’ve seen other authors I like and respect wade into the fray and try to speak reasonably; I’ve considered the Hugo nominations and decided how I was going to vote on as much of the material as I was able to take in. And honestly, it’s all left me feeling a little uneasy about pursuing a career as a professional writer. I know that all groups of professionals have politics, that there’s no getting around that — but somehow, I thought that maybe there was a niche within genre fiction where nerds who felt the way I did about the world could just get together and hang out and talk about books and how they try to use them to create positive change in the world.

This weekend, I think I found that place. And if this ceremony said anything at all about the rest of WisCon, I may have to get a ticket for next year’s Memorial Day weekend this week. Because this whole event, from beginning to end, was food for my artist’s soul. Thanks to all who put it together, and I hope I’ll get to know you better soon.

If You’re Doing It, You’re Doing It Right: The Creative Process

A few months ago, Husband came home from work with a book in hand: “I saw this at the store and thought of you.” The book was Daily Rituals, by Mason Currey; it’s basically the distillation of as many different sources as Currey could find, laying out the creative process for “novelists, poets, playwrights, painters, philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians… who describe how they… get done the work they love to do.”

I suspect that I’m not the only creative type who enjoys hearing about how other people get their creativity flowing, so I was intrigued by this book, but also intimidated. I’m still a little new to this full-time creative life, after all, and also acknowledge my own tendencies to compare myself to others — so when I hear that Stephen King writes 2000 words every day and says that “the first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season” (from his book On Writing), I get anxious. The first draft of my current project took almost two years; the second draft is shaping up to encompass another year and a half, if I’m lucky. Hearing about wildly productive and successful authors like King (whose books I faithfully read and generally love) makes me feel like I’m doing it wrong.

Turns out what I may have needed is some perspective.

It took me a while to read Currey’s book, over the course of many, many 5-minutes-before-bed stints. There were moments in my perusal when I felt my old comparison anxiety popping back up, like when I read about how Faulkner “often [completed] three thousand words a day and occasionally twice that amount” — but for every section about wildly prolific authors, there was a passage like the one about John Updike, who said that “I’ve never believed that one should wait until one is inspired because I think that the pleasures of not writing are so great that if you ever start indulging them you will never write again.” Joyce Carol Oates said that “Getting the first draft finished is like pushing a peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor.” Ayn Rand got through writer’s block (which she called “the squirms”) by playing solitaire without getting up from her desk; Goethe waited for inspiration, saying that “It is better to fritter away one’s unproductive days and hours, or sleep through them, than to try at such times to write something which will give one no satisfaction later on.”

One thing the book makes abundantly clear is that no two creatives have exactly the same process, and that there’s no “right” way to make art. I found it useful to keep this fact in mind last week, when I was trying to decide whether to go back over a chapter that I knew needed more work or to press on to the next one. As someone whose Lawful Good alignment runs deep, I spent a day or two obsessing over which was the “right” way to do it, before finally making my peace with the fact that there was, in fact, no rule to follow here. In the end, I decided to spend a day laying the groundwork for the new chapter and then as long as it took (as it turned out, about 1 week’s/20 hours’ work) to go over the old one and set it right before I lost track of the threads of plot and character motivation that’d come together at the end of a difficult pass through. It involved three days of really frustrating work on the rougher parts before I got to the “easy bit,” but I was left feeling that the chapter was better and also pleased with myself for managing to get it done in a single fairly condensed time frame. And as Husband keeps reminding me, in the end, I’m not Stephen King or William Faulkner, and my book will take as long as it takes.

In the spirit of writerly disclosures, here are a few things that seem to be part of my “best practices,” as they’ve emerged over almost a year of full-time writing:

  • My best work tends to happen in the morning and early afternoon, between about 10 AM-2 PM (a little earlier if the cat cooperates by settling down and not making a pest of himself)
  • I can usually work between 2.5-3 hours at a stretch; if I’m writing new material and the words are coming easily, I may do two sessions of that length in a day with lunch in between.
  • I’m best off working on my manuscript every day, even if just for a half hour, to keep it fresh at the top of my mind
  • To avoid the temptations of social media while I’m working, the deal I make with myself is that I won’t check Facebook or Twitter until I’ve met my minimum writing goals for the day (typically 1500 words and/or about 400 words an hour)
  • I keep track of both words written and hours worked for the week; this allows me to avoid feeling bad about myself in a week that has more planning and less prose production, and also gives me the satisfying feeling of watching the words and the hours pile up.
  • If I’m feeling blocked, it’s usually a sign that I haven’t thought through some element of the plot or character motivation clearly enough. Going for a walk, and/or sitting down with a notebook (away from the temptations of social media) are my best ways of solving that problem

There are still days when I want to throw the whole thing out the window; but for the most part, I continue to feel deeply fortunate that I get to live this life. And I found this book a useful reality check that whatever works for you, however long it takes you to produce your masterpieces, as long as you’re working and someday your work makes it out into the world, what you’re doing is the right way.

History Through Two Lenses: On Watching Star Trek/TOS

Until very recently, my Star Trek literacy was shockingly low, at least by the standards of my uber-nerdy social group. I had conscientiously watched the two new JJ Abrams movies, more-casually watched two original movies (so casually, in fact, that while I’m sure that I’ve technically seen Wrath of Khan, I couldn’t tell you what the other one was), and caught a scattered handful of episodes from TOS, TNG, DS9 and Voyager. So when Husband and I found ourselves in search of a new show for our weeknight evenings, I suggested we start Star Trek from the beginning. If nothing else, I figured, it’d give us a nice long stretch before we had to worry about choosing another show.

We’re still in the earliest stages at this point, Season One of the original series, and I’ve already noticed my Star Trek literacy increasing. I know what a Vulcan nerve pinch is now; I also feel much better able to appreciate the satire of John Scalzi’s fabulous novel Redshirts. That said, I find that my purest enjoyment of the show is happening on the meta level — in fact, on two different meta levels. Whenever we hit hit one of those inevitable moments that cause people to roll their eyes at TOS, Husband cringes, turns to me and says “I promise it gets better!” And every time, I shrug and say “Sweetheart, I’m a storyteller and a sociologist. I’m fascinated by all of it.”

Some of the conscious liberal philosophy built into the original Star Trek seems to be fairly common knowledge even outside the Trekkie fan base. I already knew, for example, that TOS was the site of TV’s first interracial kiss. I also knew about Roddenberry’s carefully considered decision to make the bridge of the Enterprise a multiracial, multinational place, and I’d heard Nichelle Nichols’ fabulous retelling of her meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., where he talked about the importance of the American people’s seeing a black actress playing something other than “a black role.” But there were other elements of show design and storytelling that I wasn’t aware of until I started watching. In the first pilot episode, which features an almost entirely different crew, we see that Roddenberry originally intended for the Enterprise to have a female first officer who (gasp!) wore the same uniform as the men.That level of equal treatment might not have made it into the later series (I’m looking at you, miniskirts and go-go boots), but there’s still plenty of ideology in TOS that I don’t think was par for the course in 1960s TV. One early episode, “The Arena,” boldly suggests that even “bad guys” rarely see their own actions as evil-for-evil’s-sake. Another, “The Menagerie,” features a character with substantial physical disabilities, who can’t easily communicate with his peers, as one of the judges in a court-martial, implying that his judgment is as sound as anyone else’s. The episode isn’t perfect — there’s some unexamined disabilism elsewhere, and the ending’s  pretty problematic — but coming more than 20 years before the passage of the ADA, it still seems very forward-thinking.

In addition to marking the places where the show was ahead of its time, I’m having fun picking out moments where the attempts at progressivism haven’t aged quite so well, or where it didn’t occur to the creators to question their base assumptions. There’s one episode, “Mudd’s Women,” where the walk-on heroine ends up living happily ever after because she just has to BELIEVE she’s beautiful to be desirable to men. In an era when women were still expected to wear makeup every day, I see what they were trying for, but it looks dated to modern eyes. And don’t even get me started on Kirk’s endless string of nameless love affairs: I’ll just go out on a limb here and guess that even if Majel Barrett‘s first officer had remained a part of the series after the pilot, she would not have been engaging in such “wanton” behavior. As entertaining as the social commentary is, though, what I find most interesting is unpacking the plot tropes.

Unsurprisingly, TVTropes.com has a lot to say about Star Trek, but I found this passage particularly illustrative:

The show’s writing was good, the cast had great chemistry and the characters themselves were very memorable, to the point of creating three new archetypes: The Kirk, The Spock, and The McCoy. In fact, this series created so many new tropes that it has left an unmistakable mark on both television and pop culture ever since. Not to mention inspired a lot of mostly affectionate parodies.

Whenever I’m watching an episode, I can’t help but feel like I’m seeing the norms of sci-fi storytelling developing before my eyes. In the evil twin episode, “The Enemy Within,” when a transporter malfunction basically splits Kirk into id and superego, “evil Kirk” spends most of his energy screaming and attacking people, making him eminently distinguishable from “good Kirk”; it’s only at the end of the episode that we begin to see the writers playing with the idea of not being able to tell them apart. When the Romulans make their first appearance in “Balance of Terror,” where the Enterprise is forced to violate the Romulan “neutral zone” in a presumed act of war and then discovers that the Romulans look a little too much like Vulcans (certainly not an allegory about either the Cold War or the suspicion that fell on Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor), after Kirk’s brilliance leads to their successfully outmaneuvering the other ship, the enemy captain blows up his own ship and crew after saying poignantly to Kirk, “You and I are of a kind. In a different reality, I could have called you friend.”

I recently discovered that one of my local nerd cronies is also doing her first TOS watchthrough right now; when we discussed it, she said that the thing she likes best about the show is that the stories don’t turn out the way she expects. Star Trek created so many storytelling tropes, she argued, that contemporary writers seeking to avoid cliches have no choice but to go in a different direction. I agree with this in part, but I also don’t think it’s the only explanation for the change; one recent episode got me thinking about how broader norms for “likeable” characters have changed in the last 50 years.

In the episode, “Court Martial,” Kirk is called to task by Starfleet High Command on charges of negligence causing the death of an Enterprise crewman. For most of the episode, we’re treated to video and computer evidence suggesting that Kirk genuinely made a mistake, pushing the wrong button in a tense situation and flushing the crewman out into space. But in the end, it becomes clear that the crewman faked his own death; blaming Kirk for an earlier incident that derailed his career, he was determined that The Great Hero should meet a similar fate. When we finished the episode, I looked at Husband and said “wouldn’t it be more interesting if Kirk really had made a mistake?” **

Thinking about it later, I remembered a film studies course I took in college where we learned about the New Hollywood movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. The filmmakers from this era, whose famous movies include Bonnie & Clyde, The Godfather and The Graduate, made a point of demonstrating the moral ambiguity of their protagonists, telling stories that weren’t so clearly “black and white”; the change is generally viewed as drawing its inspiration at least in part from the changing American zeitgeist after the Vietnam War.

Contemporary audiences are used to gray heroes. Whether we’re talking about Walter White, Greg House, or Tyrion Lannister, modern characters make complicated choices, and sometimes they do bad things. On purpose. But even though Rick Blaine let the Nazis drag Ugarte away at the beginning of Casablanca, and Rhett Butler slept with ladies of ill repute and ran the Union blockade, both of them ended up clearly on the side of the “good guys” by the ends of their stories. I suspect that earlier audiences weren’t so keen on ambiguity in their heroes.

So all in all, I’m enjoying my Star Trek education so far, and looking forward to seeing what other sci-fi tropes I can trace back to this universe — and for what it’s worth, the experience is confirming my earlier belief that it’s worth our time as storytellers to dig into the history of our genre. If nothing else, knowing what came before will stop you from being like a friend of mine who reportedly got about 100 pages into Lord of the Rings on a first reading and then threw it aside, saying, “This is the most cliched book I’ve ever read.”

Know your book’s genealogy: something can’t be a cliche if it came first. Go forth and read and watch and think, and your writing will be better for it.

**(For the record, Husband’s answer to my question about whether the other way of ending the story would be better was “You’re going to LOVE Next Gen.” I’m looking forward to it.)

History is Written By People: Conclusions on Building Fictional History

I read quite a bit of history, both real and fictional. In the last couple months, the historically oriented books that I’ve read and enjoyed have included (in no particular order) Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, the edited volume Wastelands 2: More Stories of the Apocalypse, Kim E. Nielsen’s A Disability History of the United States, Bruce Levine’s The Fall of the House of Dixie, N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and the fictionalized history text by George RR Martin, Elio M. Garcia Jr. and Linda Antonsson, The World of Ice & Fire. With all of this stuff floating around my head, and especially after talking about Jemisin and Martin’s work in my book group this weekend, I’ve been reminded of a conclusion that’s good to restate from time to time. That conclusion is this:

History is complicated.

A lot of what I mean by that is encompassed in the expression “history is written by the victors,” that those who come out on top in any conflict usually get the first and/or last say in how that conflict’s framed in official history books. That’s why Christopher Columbus’s arrival in North America is still celebrated in much of the United States despite protests that the holiday commemorates genocide, and it’s why children in Vietnam learn that the United States sent colonialist forces to their country in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But there’s more to the matter than that.

Good historians, like all social scientists, try to understand and present the past as completely and accurately as possible. But when we talk about history, we mean more than just the most accurate account of events; history’s a distillation of the stories a culture tells itself about the world. By its very nature as the collected experiences of individuals, set down by individuals, real history is never completely uniform, and it’s never totally complete.

First off, no official history ever goes completely unchallenged. One hundred and fifty years later, people still occasionally refer to the 19th-century conflict between the US and the Confederacy as “the War of Northern Aggression.” More than 45 years after network TV broadcast Neil Armstrong saying “one small step for man,” people still dispute whether there was ever a moon landing. Even the most authoritarian leaders usually can’t suppress opposing views completely – and even the most information-driven societies can’t be absolutely sure of the truth of everything in their archives. Not to mention the fact that the archives never hold everything.

Every historian’s work is based on analysis of data. The two “real” histories on my list from the first paragraph, Nielsen’s and Levine’s, rely heavily on first-person accounts, journals and letters from the time periods they’re interested in. But if a place or a people is destroyed suddenly (as happens sometimes in history, and is particularly prone to happen in genre fiction, where a god or an asteroid might wipe out a whole continent with no warning), there may not be much left in the way of records to consult. In Charles C. Mann’s 1491, distilling the latest theories about pre-contact American societies, the author makes the point that there’s a great deal that will never be known for sure about these peoples just because their destruction by the Europeans (through intentional and unintentional means) was so complete.

Finally, there’s the fact that those who set down the history are human beings, and as I tell my students in Sociological Research Methods, human beings can never be truly objective. Even a historian who had access to all the possible data on their subject, from all the sides of a conflict, would have to pick and choose what to include, and those choices would inevitably be guided by bias. Social researchers can try to be aware of their biases, and to work around them, but they can never escape them completely.

Having said all that about how I believe real history works, it probably comes as no surprise that I like my fictionalized history to follow these same rules.

George RR Martin is a master of this. Whether you believe A World of Ice and Fire is a worthwhile addition to the universe or a concession to fans chomping at the bit for the next book, you’d be hard-pressed to deny that it’s a marvelously complex and human history that’s right in line with the way Martin is telling his story in the novels. Rather than an uncontested “behind-the-scenes” account of the events Martin’s developed for the history of his world, AWoIaF presents a contradictory account by a few well-intentioned maesters, who are drawing on incomplete data and writing in full knowledge that their work will be reviewed by the current rulers, and so they’d better stay clear of politically incendiary rhetoric (the title “Kingslayer,”  for example, appears nowhere in these pages). The book’s gotten some criticism from fans for not being “the official history of Westeros”; I’d argue that it couldn’t be more official, just as it is.

Another series that does this well is Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy, of which The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is the first one. When we enter the setting, we’re given the official version of its history – once there were three gods, but then one was killed, another enslaved. These are, respectively, the traitor and the fiend, while the remaining god rules alone in the heavens and the family that helped him win the gods’ war rule on the earth with wisdom and justice. Upon encountering this setup, I’d guess that any reader familiar with the concept of “mainstream” and “alternative” history will be suspicious from the word go, and Jemisin is quick to validate those suspicions. In a guest post she wrote for John Scalzi’s blog when her first book came out, she notes that the germ of the idea for the Inheritance books came when she read 1491, which made her think about the idea of “hidden history.”

The world of my novels has all kinds of hidden history. The era my hero lives in is (very roughly) something of a Renaissance period for his culture, the first years of peace and renewal after a long war that basically leveled the previous civilization. When I sat down to flesh out my worldbuilding, one of the first things I had to work out was exactly what happened in that war. So I did, and now I know the whole story – more or less – but as I wrote it out, I found myself taking first one perspective and then another. I told one faction’s version of what happened and then countered it with the other’s; I came up with names for what each group called themselves as well as what they called their enemies. And when I reference the war in the novel, a person’s answer to the question of “what happened” varies dramatically depending on their species, their regional origins, their age and other factors. No one person, no one group, has the whole story. I like it better that way.

There are certainly good books that connect their story’s main events to precise, unambiguous history. But the more I read, the more I’m convinced that if a writer wants their fictional world to have the ring of authenticity, they’d best take a little time to think about how that world views its past. What evidence has been preserved for contemporary people to use in understanding the past? What stories do the people in power want taught and highlighted? Who would have the incentives to counter those stories?

That’s why I read so much history; because the real world is wondrously multifaceted and complex, and the story changes depending on who’s telling it. I think the best fictional worlds are those that have this feeling to them, like Martin’s, like Jemisin’s. That’s what I try to do when I tell stories in my world.