Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

November 8, 2012

The Hidden Assumptions of Robert A. Heinlein

Filed under: sf — Tags: — Sam @ 8:15 pm

I am reliably assured that this post is not a parody. However, it wasn’t the text I wanted to comment on, but the Heinlein quotation in the top right-hand corner, presumably chosen as some sort of philosophical statement to live by.

Let us leave aside the wisdom of choosing an SF writer’s words as philosophy, and move on to the quotation itself.

Certainly the game is rigged. Don’t let that stop you; if you don’t bet you can’t win.

Nice, ain’t it? Just the right blend of encouragement and cynicism, letting the adopter feel proud of their own savvy & daring, while looking down on those who don’t have the bravery or vision to realise how the world works and put up with it.

Let’s take a closer look.

Certainly – it’s important, when writing Didactic Aphorisms, to position yourself as an authority. And amongst people who respect certainty, filler words like this lend much more authority to whatever follows them.

the game – heaven forbid we be seen to treat things as important. If we do that, we lose our perspective. It’s just a game. Or, looked at another way: games are just as important as anything else is, because in the final analysis it’s all much the same.

is rigged – nice use of the passive voice there. Nobody owns the rigged-ness; it just happens. It’s just the way things are. Identifying particular people, or classes of people, as deliberate bad actors just isn’t done. For one thing, that implies that it isn’t universal, and that everyone wouldn’t do it if they owned the game – that perhaps someone might blame that person for rigging it. That there might be some overarching concept of fairness. In addition, this unsupported assertion allows the speaker to feel smugly cynical, always a very popular pose amongst adolescents desperate to avoid being seen as naïve.

Don’t let that stop you – implying that you were going to do it, you wanted to do it, but your decision might save for this advice have been influenced by small considerations like the situation being rigged against you. This isn’t anything near a million miles from a condescendingly emotive taunt like “Don’t be a coward”, and it’s not-so-subtly positioning the speaker as someone much older, wiser, and more daring than you.

; – notice the intimidating semicolon. Everyone knows that sentences with semicolons in them are much more learned and authoritative than those with dashes or ballistic commas.

if you don’t bet you can’t – phrasing this in the negative (rather than “if you bet, you could”) acts as a challenge. For the kind of people motivated by challenges, by the perceived need to prove themselves to a challenger, it’s more encouraging than actual encouragement or the provision of options. Also, notice that the focus is on the act of betting itself, rather than on the decision of whether to bet on a particular issue, or what to bet. Courage, rather than consideration of the situation, is important, it seems.

win – because you winning is all that matters.

October 5, 2012

What I see when I look at fantasy book covers

Filed under: essay — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 11:26 pm

It’s not all fantasy that’s like this (thank goodness) but you can see the basic tropes making this unmistakably Extruded Fantasy Product.

  • Importantly, there is no frame: the full-bleed background extends to the edges of the cover. It must be as photorealistic as possible, and preferably show either a wild romantic landscape or a dark gritty urban scene.
  • The cover text is very much not part of the image, but splashed on top. Text is metadata, the image is in the world, and the two must never ever interact (beyond decorative overlapping) or the author’s legion of dedicated fanboys will get very nervous and shouty.
  • The title font is unnecessarily ornate & curly, with the metallic foiling that tells the discerning fanboy “this is really High Class fantasy”.
  • This is a really High Class author, so he gets metallic foiling too, and an enthusiastic blurb from a completely & very distinctly different author in the same genre.
  • Extruded Fantasy Product often contains a lot of compound nouns in the title, usually made up of at least two of the following components: sword, horse, crown, shadow, throne, star, demon, dragon, blade, thorn, bone, wind, skull, moon. Otherwise, it is mandatory to use an invented place name or culture name in the title, viz. “Throne-Moon of Corokhai”, or “Revenge of the Aaladrii”.
  • Magic sword. You can tell it’s magic because it has that purple swirly halo effect. Magic is purple. And swirly. In some cases, you have the sword without the magic swirly bit, or vice versa. This may or may not be the sword referred to in the title; it may be the crowndragon, whatever a crowndragon is.
  • The all-important Hooded Man. If it doesn’t have a bloke with a big weapon front & centre, it just ain’t got that fanboy appeal. His features are in shadow, to avoid spoiling the “it might be YOU” feeling. Also important: stubble (not shown) for that handsome gritty look. He should be muscular & Hollywood Grimy for the full effect, in a very homoerotic manner. NB: The man is depicted in a dark, moody, gritty colour palette. This does not mean he is not white. Sometimes, the figure may be female; if so, she will be depicted in a very sexualised manner, and almost certainly in an anatomically unlikely pose. She will often be wearing a corset, possibly designed to look like armour; she may or may not have a face. Her hair, in any event, will be long and will not be tied back.

January 11, 2012

Gene Deitch’s Hobbit

Filed under: review — Tags: — Sam @ 11:11 pm


It’s The Hobbit – in twelve minutes, from 1966. With a courageous princess (and love interest), no orcs, no riddles, no dwarves, a traditional Chosen One plotline, gorgeous Czech artwork, and a hobbit Macgyver. The changes are really interesting, and in some ways add a bit of coherence to the plot – but then again, part of the charm of The Hobbit is its bumbling, sprawling arbitrariness. In others, they subvert the Professor’s original intent. The hero only thinks he’s unlikely, and becomes a king (or prince consort – it isn’t specified) and the Arkenstone is the dragon’s doom rather than the cause of strife.

Because I wanted to, here’s a summary!

Dale, the City of Golden Bells, is attacked and ravaged by the dragon Slag the Terrible. The city burns, and the myriad jewels of its treasury – but especially the heart of the city, the shining Arkenstone – are carried off into the jewel mine under the Lonely Mountain.

The only three who survived the flames – a watchman, who slept at his post; General Thorin Oakenshield, of the now-destroyed Garrison of Dale; and (Mika?), the last Princess of Dale – head to the lonely tower of Gandalf the Grey. As is usual with Wizards, Gandalf has a plan.

“It is clear that the time has come. The time of the hobbit!”

Enchantingly, the narration refers to Bilbo being very different from his “great-great-grandhobbit”, over a shot of a family photo showing said great-great-grandhobbit standing in triumphant safari pose on a dragon.

He doesn’t really like Gandalf’s assertion that he is “the chosen dragonkiller”, who will lead this group “over the Impassable Barricade Mountains, through the Impenetrable Mirkwood Forest, across the poisonous Desolation of Slag, to the Lonely Mountain itself, wherein the horrid creature lies”. (Well, would you?) However, when the “furious, impatient” princess scolds him (“if you are so afraid, then I shall go alone”) he realises he has no choice.

The party’s first challenge is a pair of Groans, hungry thick-skinned brutes whose favourite food is people-meat. The three survivors of Dale are quickly trussed to a roasting-spit, but the clever hobbit (who “was a good mimic”) tricked the Groans into arguing with each other until dawn took them and they turned to dry trees.

Gollum is still here, as is the One Ring of Power, though there’s no riddle contest. “Magically, the One Ring of Power had found its true bearer. It was Bilbo Baggins the hobbit!”

Under the Lonely Mountain, Slag sleeps cuddling the Arkenstone. Conveniently, it’s actually shaped like a heart, and Bilbo realises what he must do: sneak down, climb the sleeping dragon, steal the gemstone, build a ballista out of old mining tools, and shoot Slag dead with a giant bolt tipped with the Arkenstone itself.

After that, the brave hobbit marries the Princess of Dale, and they reign there together – but finally they returned to that quiet comfortable life in Hobbiton, until the next time that Gandalf the Grey would knock upon the round green door.

December 27, 2011

Laini Taylor – Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 5:04 pm

This is only going to be a very short one, because I’m too annoyed to do more.

It’s good, but don’t buy it unless you have a high tolerance for unfinished stories, because (without any indication whatsoever on the cover, blurb, or title page) it’s the first book of a series. It’s not even self-contained; the story set up in the early pages mutates to a larger one, and the only resolution we get is to a story arc introduced over halfway through. By two-thirds of the way through, I could tell it wasn’t going to finish, and the last three words of the book are “to be continued”.

This kind of behaviour by a publisher is Distinctly Unimpressive.

December 15, 2011

Seanan McGuire – Rosemary and Rue

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 11:35 am

Let’s get this out of the way first: it’s a fairies-in-America book, the first of the October Daye (Fairy PI) series. It involves the usual pointless feudalism and Native American erasure—the only non-Celtic creatures in the list at the front are djinn, lamia, and peri—but the racial politics are rather more crosslinked and nuanced than in most such.

The list at the front, unfortunately, set my expectations very low for the rest of the book; it’s a pronunciation guide, and it’s wrong. “Coblynau” (Welsh for “Goblins”) is plural, not singular, and it’s “cob-luh’nigh” not “cob-lee-now”; similarly, “Tylwyth Teg” (literally, “fair folk”) is “tuhl’with tair’g” (more or less) not “tillwith teeg”. As for “Tuatha de Danann”, that would have been even easier to research than the modern Welsh names are. As is traditional, they’re all presented as different species or clans, with distinct phenotypes; unusually, none of the traditional names are cultural analogues of one another.

Happily, I can report that the book improved. It’s a good, uncomplicated read, and the worse characteristics of fairies (imperiousness, secrecy, and drama queening, for instance) are presented as annoyances rather than good things. Toby herself is competent and proactive (rather too much so for her own good, at times) and McGuire’s both good at introducing interesting supporting characters and unafraid to kill them off when we’re getting fond of them.

October 7, 2011

Towards a Hope Mirrlees Award, Redux

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — Sam @ 6:16 pm

Here’s a more detailed proposal building on my previous suggestion. Please do suggest alternative possibilities, explain why my suggestions won’t work, and point out the obvious things that I’ve forgotten!

What: A yearly award for the best fantasy novel of the previous year; a sub-award for the best first novel by a woman writer; and a second sub-award for fantasy artwork (cover, cartography, or illustration).

Eligibility: Must be arguably fantasy of some kind: high fantasy, low fantasy, epic fantasy, urban fantasy, rainbow fantasy, hamster fantasy if anyone decides to publish some. Must have first been published in English in the year since the last award. Can be submitted; may be co-opted.

Criteria: Quality, innovativeness, and an elusively magical sensibility. Sales, popularity, or past record will not be taken into account either positively or negatively.

Judging model: A jury of six, including a coordinator with a casting vote in the event of a tie. Each year, within three months after the award, the three longest-serving members resign and the remaining three co-opt three more members to serve for the next two years. If someone resigns during their term, another member can be co-opted immediately.

Shortlists: Shortlists should be published in good time before the presentation, and should show a commitment to inclusivity (without aiming to be comprehensively representative) and against discrimination of any form. At the same time, jury members should disclose any financial, professional, or personal interest they have in any of those books, their authors, or their publishers, and should consider recusing themselves from commenting on a book if they have such an interest. Those interests, on the other hand, shouldn’t preclude a book from consideration, or bias other jury members against it.

Award: An art object and a nontrivial sum of money, which should be raised through donations or sponsorship, but not co-branding, because having Mirrlees’s name on the award is important. Besides, that way people can say they officially have a Hope.

October 1, 2011

The asymmetry of erasure

Filed under: essay — Tags: , — Sam @ 7:59 pm

(Or: some further thoughts on Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death.)

The author tweeted that I’d pointed out something few others had, that there were almost no white people and no legends of white people. It took me rather aback that few others had noticed this, but I suppose that’s normal for white reviewers; erasure isn’t at all symmetrical.

Non-white readers have to deal with erasure, invisibility, non-representation, in almost everything they read. When people with their skin tones and facial features (for race in Who Fears Death is much more subtle and complex than skin colour, as you’d expect from an author who lives real differences, not paintbox differences) do appear, they’re often thin and stereotypical caricatures of real people. There’s a lot of discussion here and there about whether that’s better or worse than outright erasure, but not only is that out of my text but I don’t think there’s any general answer at all.

White readers, on the other hand, have the dual luxuries of plentiful, complex, nuanced representations (and internally sketched representations at that, of white people by white people for white people; an endless conversation with themselves) and of a perceptual default, colonizing not only their own territory but the neutral, unmarked territory too. An undescribed character is, in the absence of any crashingly obvious clues, assumed to be white; there’s always more white people in the next book along; and the whole trajectory of history as white people are taught it tends towards whiteness, exaggerating the differences between white ethnicities into story-defining oppositions. Which, to be fair, they are… within the sometimes quite parochial bounds of those stories. But there have been a great many non-white people erased from British history, and that’s never justified. Many of them are still there to be rediscovered (the sheer mass of data means that many are only buried in archives, rather than scoured away; many others are only conjecture or conclusion) but it still grates having to work at finding oneself there.

For white readers, on the other hand, seeing ourselves erased from a text can be rather fun; it’s a sort of mild, transgressive, dislocatory feeling, like draping a sheet over your head and running down the street as a ghost. In fact, it’s a very good thing, because there really are so very many stories in the world that don’t involve us; very few people are telling us not to read them (with the exception of some tribe- or culture-specific ritual practices & histories) and when you’re used to having privileged access to narratives, it’s good to have that changed about, to be knocked off the top of an ontological pole and sent sprawling to look up at a story dark against the stars.

September 30, 2011

Nnedi Okorafor – Who Fears Death

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 6:38 pm

This is postapocalyptic fantasy, but very much not in the Shannara or Shadowrun sense; it’s poetic and spare, without concerning itself with European fantasy tropes or the endless codification which is the curse of so much fantasy.

Codification, indeed, is one of this book’s cores. A Great Book forms the central text of the Okeke/Nuru society in the area; the dark-skinned Okeke grew proud with their technology and their cities, and then disaster fell and the light-skinned Nuru were placed over them. Rana, the Seer, prophesies that a tall Nuru man will rewrite the book; Daib, a sorceror, decides that he is that man and begins exterminating the Okeke. On the other hand, Onyesonwu—the titular “Who fears death?” and an Ewu (child of interracial rape) sorceress—is told by her teachers that Rana had rewritten the prophecy, unwilling to believe that it really could have meant an Ewu woman. So we’re nicely set up for both plot conflict and an ambiguous look at the whole concept of prophecy & textuality.

This is echoed interestingly by Okorafor’s use of nsibidi, ideograms used in pre-Roman-script West Africa for magical & legal purposes as well as for communication. They’re inherently powerful, but they aren’t exclusively powerful, and we see throughout the book that there’s a lot of juju Onyesonwu doesn’t understand or can’t use, as well as juju she has learnt or is inherently very good at. This is no all-powerful player character wizard, and what in a European fantasy we’d refer to as a magic system (it’s neither magical nor systematic here) does not have edges or demarcations. To mix cultural metaphors appallingly, it’s a song not a topographical map.

Another (related) theme is heritage and genetic/familial determinism. Ewu are generally thought to be inherently violent, being the children of violence. That’s something that Onye repeatedly tells us isn’t true, but it isn’t particularly borne out by her actions; she’s very much Not A Nice Person. Mwita, the other Ewu we meet properly, is a child of love rather than violence, but has had a very violent past; his avocation is as a healer. It’s flatly impossible to separate any effect of birth—what in a Christian context we’d call original sin—from the toxic effects of tradition, cultural hatred, and old wounds. (This may look like a traditional African theme, but it isn’t; it happens everywhere, sadly.)

Okorafor easily resists the bog-standard “science and rationalism bad, living in harmony with the environment and intuitive magic good” approach, and undramatically weaves in realistic and useful high technology where it’s appropriate. By European fantasy standards, this is a dystopian future; coin-sized computers and weather-gel treated clothing are sold from open stalls in dusty markets, and slaves carry heavy loads along roads thronged with bio-fuel scooters. I’m rather reluctant to use the word “dystopia”, though, because that implies something that doesn’t exist already; this sort of complex intersection of technology levels, social conditions, traditional practices, and the future is already happening all over the world, and has been for quite some time.

Unsurprisingly, this book easily passes the Bechdel test; not only that, but it gives an interesting look at familial relationships between women, forcing Onye to re-evaluate her mother at the end. Another interesting—and entirely appropriate—representational issue is that there are no white people (except one, Sola, whose milk-coloured skin and flat lips mystify & repulse Onye) and no legends of white people. This is not a story of dark-skinned people emerging from a pale-skinned colonial yoke, but a story of a culture who have re-mythologized their own history.

It’s a deeply affecting book, and as you’d expect it avoids the pile of easy clichés about Africa that what little African-influenced fantasy we do see so often shows off. I’m not in any sense qualified to evaluate the book’s treatment of contemporary African issues, only to note that it exists. I’d recommend this book to anyone, with some serious trigger warnings over rape and female genital mutilation.

September 16, 2011

Towards a Hope Mirrlees Award

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — Sam @ 11:27 am

A brief discussion on Twitter (brief because nobody disagreed) has resulted in the conclusion that a) we need more genre awards named after women, and b) there should be one named after Hope Mirrlees.

Why? — well, to address point a), it’s pretty much universally recognized that women’s contribution to fantastika is greatly undervalued. Not enough gets to market; not enough of that gets reviewed; and not enough of that gets nominated or chosen for awards. Having almost all our high-profile awards named after men or gender-neutral objects (the Tiptree is the sole exception that springs to mind) doesn’t help this; it flags the field as one dominated by men, and for men, and that “women’s fiction” is something unique and separate and lesser.

(Just to clarify, I do think there’s something qualitatively distinct about fantastika by women, as there is about fantastika by members of other underrepresented groups. However, discussing this here would be derailing, so we can do that some other time.)

As for point b), Mirrlees is an amazing author; in Lud-in-the-Mist she produced something utterly unique and strange, fantastic in the oldest senses of the word, and something that’s rarely given the acclaim it deserves.

I propose that we (collectively) establish such an award, for fantasy published in the previous year. There are a few questions that need to be nailed down, though.

  • Eligibility: All authors, women only, or a requirement for shortlists to be more-or-less balanced? English-language, for practicality as much as anything else. Should there be a geographical restriction?
  • Prize: Realistically, there would need to be a monetary award as well as an art object. Sponsorship or donation drives should deal with that.
  • Operating requirements: eg. website design & hosting, publicity, promotional materials, fundraising overhead, ceremony costs. Quite a bit of it can be crowd-sourced or donated, but some will require actual money.
  • Judging model: jury, popular vote, or a combination of the two? The same model for the shortlist as for the final choice?
  • Mission: basically, what’s it for? To encourage good writing & inclusive publishing, or to encourage a particular style or characteristic of fantasy literature?

A lack of reliable health & energy, combined with a lack of most of the relevant skillset, means I can’t take a proper lead on this, but if anyone fancies setting up a proper committee then I’m very much in. (Also, I’m about to go away for a week and a half. But I wanted to make a proper post for discussion first.)

Fundamentally, though, this is very much doable.

August 6, 2011

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – a decision

Filed under: meta,rereading — Tags: , , — Sam @ 11:06 am

Life has caught up with me, and I’m not going to be able to finish the project. I was initially leaving it for a few weeks, to make sure there was a decent gap between the “official” Fae Awareness Month posts and the continuation, but then of course that stretched, and since I’ve also been spending my time looking after a partner who’s been going through an ME flare-up I’ve had no energy left to write with. I decided that if I hadn’t managed to start again on the project by the beginning of August, then realistically I wouldn’t manage it at all.

I hope I’ll get back to it eventually, because it’s a book I utterly love, but it’s not like it’s going anywhere.

If you’ve been waiting for more, then please accept my apologies, and if you can keep reading without me then please let me know how you get on!

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