Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

April 28, 2011

Here Be Cartographers – Reading the Fantasy Map

Filed under: signal amp — Tags: — Sam @ 8:28 pm

If you enjoyed my essay ‘On the Meaning of Maps‘, you’ll really like Nicholas Tam’s excellent and well-illustrated essay here, courtesy of Jonathan McCalmont’s “Horizontal Connections” column at Strange Horizons (which everyone should be reading).

April 27, 2011

Privilege & fantasy

Filed under: essay — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 3:32 pm

In my last essay, I talked about two forms of nostalgia, and the characterization of History within fantasy texts. This time around, it’s time for an assertion: it’s much harder for the privileged classes to write literary fantasy than it is for the oppressed and marginalized.

Let’s start with some definitions (do feel free to take issue with them in the comments—I’m not going to be ideological about them):

Literary: of enduring worth; of complexity; supporting multiple disparate readings; possessing novelty or making an original contribution. Layered and polysemous enough that it isn’t immediately accessible in its entirety. Possessing an awareness of itself as a text.

Fantasy: That Which Is Not: a change in the philosophical and/or metaphysical nature of the world, which I’ll tentatively call a diversa after Suvin’s “novum”. A desideratum, or an elegy. Passion is a necessary and perhaps sufficient condition for fantasy; there are some unpleasant words for fantasy without passion. Popular trope fantasy is perhaps the apotheosis of advertising, without any product. It’s normally impossible to tell it from pisstake fantasy.

Privileged: Possessing something inherited or innate that makes life easier for them than most people, and, in general, not aware that this makes a difference. Tending to ascribe their success entirely to hard work or luck. Generally, in the case of fantasy writers, it means “middle-class white cis urban-dwelling Western/minority-world men whose first language is English, and who aren’t disabled”, and it covers most of them.

April 14, 2011

Dan Abnett – Prospero Burns

Filed under: review — Tags: , , — Sam @ 10:23 am

This is part of the Warhammer 40k franchise’s Horus Heresy line; whilst I’ve not read any of these before, I’m familiar with the general outline through picking up a few Black Library books here and there over the years. This one is billed as what happens when one entire army of super-soldiers turns to the dark side, and another is sent to destroy them. It’s actually deceptive, since that plotline is only introduced properly two-thirds of the way in; it’s possible to interpret the early part of the book as building up to the Space Wolves’ destruction of the planet Prospero, but since we hear almost nothing from the first army (the Thousand Sons) before then it’s very hard to feel invested in this plotline. Also, “Prospero Burns” sounds like a Victorian theatrical impresario.

Fortunately, the main story the book tells is much more interesting. Scholar Kasper Hawser decides to abandon his comfortable life on Earth to live amongst the Viking-themed Space Wolves, taking the name Ahmad ibn Rustah in a nod to history, and record their unique warrior culture. He is accepted, for reasons that seem arbitrary, as their skjald. His developing relationships with the warriors and his increasing awareness of his own role are absorbing, and deftly done, bringing an interesting dimensionality to what would otherwise have been an absurd cliché of a culture. Like all franchise writers, Abnett has to work with what he’s given, but he does a good job of it.

Speaking of what the franchise requires: the denouement is unsatisfactory in itself, being an utter diabolus ex machina, and it would have been nice to have encountered said diabolus before. On the other hand, it makes perfect sense (and is entirely necessary) when viewed as part of the overall arc plot, and these books aren’t really intended to be read on their own. It does give a good sense of the nihilism and meaningless inherent in the 40k universe, and the mind-twisting gulf of scale between the successes and failures of a human life and the long sweep of time on a galactic scale.

April 13, 2011

David Anthony Durham – The Other Lands

Filed under: sf — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 5:40 pm

This is book 2 of his Acacia trilogy—you can read my review of the first book here. It has several good points, so I’ll save those for last.

What I didn’t like—at all—is Durham’s writing style. It reads as though he’s attempting some nihilist theory of anti-narrative, deliberately flattening the emotional peaks and lending spurious bathos to the troughs. He consistently has his characters reveal important, plot-wrecking events in the past tense (“Last week I carried out my master plan, and now you’re not in the plotline you thought you were”) and doesn’t let us feel main characters’ reactions, instead telling us about their facial expressions.

His word choice is odd enough (there is no real reason to use the word “protuberance” unless you’re writing comedy pornography) but he seems to feel an over-eager need to tell us everything.

She made each assignment sound both simple and laced with threat. She was good at that. He would have to keep his wits about him, make journal notes regularly, and find a way to quell the nausea that roiled in him each time he thought of those ocean waves.

The end result somehow manages to be simultaneously lumpy and soggy, like a feather quilt caught in a thunderstorm.

I did say that it had good points, and they’re very good. As in the first book, there’s plenty of racial and cultural diversity, and (as far as I can tell) basically no white people. Given the wholesale erasure and exoticization of nonwhite people in nearly all fantasy, that’s a really good thing. There are women in positions of power, and he’s rowing back on the royal Mary Sue factor that the first book suffered from—one is clearly suffering the corruption of power, and another demonstrating that she’s a warrior not a general. All of the character-development arcs here are extremely dark and nihilistic; the only way to avoid corruption and loss of idealism, it seems, is to die young.

Another good point is that Durham understands and uses rural ecological economics—

Gone were the tiny kive fish, such an important source of protein fried or dried or ground into paste. Gone were the waterfowl that hunted them. Fading was the Halaly vigour—which had been so based on their reliable food sources—and dwindling were the tribute and trade that had made them the beating heart of the continent. If all that wasn’t bad enough, the air swarmed with the mosquitos and biting flies that now gestated in the lake untroubled by the kive fish that had once thrived on their eggs;one of these spread disease, while the other left welts on the skin that easily grew infected.

Strange and offputting were the backwards High Fantasy sentences, however. Needed was a better editor, and no less so for a particularly comedic homonym: when talking about royalty, “secession” really doesn’t mean the same thing as “succession”.

To be fair, Durham does well with descriptive passages where he isn’t required to choose a focus or write dialogue;the landscape porn in the first book was quite spectacular, and there are some passages here—including a literally epic sea crossing—that match it nicely.

Overall, I’d recommend it only to serious series-fantasy fans, and then only if you read & enjoyed Book 1, and only if you have a high tolerance for bad writing.

April 4, 2011

The time-binding of nostalgia

Filed under: essay — Tags: , — Sam @ 1:43 pm

I’ve been reading a lot of Guy Gavriel Kay recently (Under Heaven, The Wandering Fire, The Darkest Road, and The Lions of Al-Rassan) and have therefore naturally been thinking about identity, passion, and pride.

It’s a commonly accepted trope amongst many fantasy critics, scholars, and commenters that fantasy is, at its root, about nostalgia. I’ve never quite agreed with this, but I think that’s partly because nostalgia comes in several flavours. The word comes from the Greek nostos, a homecoming, and algos, pain, and was coined as a medical term in 1688 to describe Swiss mercenaries’ longing for the mountains of their home. (As a Welshman, I can relate to that! The Welsh word hiraeth is mostly untranslatable, but Schweizerheimweh does seem like a cultural analogue.)

In recent decades, however (and especially by the English) it’s been coopted to describe a kind of early 20th century idyll. You know the one—ploughmen, foaming nut-brown ale, small children waving at steam trains, The Countryside or The Beach two hours’ journey away, a distinct lack of brown people. It’s basically thinly disguised neo-mediaevalism, or rather neo-mediaevalism (in fantasy writers of a certain age, at least) is a proxy for their yearning for the kind of social certainty that supposedly existed in the recent past.

I feel compelled to point out here that that past (either of those pasts) never really existed, and the only way to pretend that they did is by wholesale erasure of the experiences and histories of women, the working classes, nonwhite people (there have always been nonwhite people in Britain, at least back to the Romans if not before) and Jews. Not to mention (and people rarely do mention) those who are more than one of those. It’s fairly safe to blame the Victorians for making up the mediaeval idyll. We’ve been reimagining recent history ever since, and it’s not as though revisionist history started in 1820 for that matter, but it was the Victorians who pioneered the mass production of History.

So that’s one way in which nostalgia is expressed in English-language fantasy fiction: the desire for an imagined past. That can be a joyful escapist wish, as with William Morris, or a heartfelt elegy for something that could never have been, as with Tolkien. In either version, the past (in the context of the novel, ie. the created world’s own imagined past) is seen explicitly as a good thing, a lost Golden Age.

There’s another version of nostalgia, however—nostalgia in its most etymologically strict sense, the pain of longing for a homecoming—and that is the one experienced by those whose home is contested, denied, erased. The interesting thing about that is that in the latter, the past-within-the-text is usually unpleasant, problematized, or generally Not Even Slightly Golden.

April 2, 2011

Signal boost: calling cartographers!

Filed under: signal amp — Tags: — Sam @ 11:53 pm

Saladin Ahmed is looking for an artist who’ll make a beautiful map of his fantasy world to go inside the hardcover of his debut novel. It probably isn’t a formally paying gig, but there’s almost certainly something reciprocal in it. His post about it is here, so if you have any mapping experience please consider it.

I have to declare a strong interest myself, as On the Meaning of Maps will show. More art in books, especially with the risibly bad state of fantastika cover art, is Always Good. Providing a map that could exist in the world, as an artistic object as well as a functional one, is even better.

Trithemy & the smell of old books

Filed under: essay — Tags: — Sam @ 11:37 pm

NB: This is a slightly tidied-up version of my presentation notes from a talk I gave at Eastercon 2010.

“Trithemy” means the loss of information through the decay of the physical media that carries it, or the loss of any tools necessary to read it.

It’s a coinage from Trithemius, who was a frankly amazing man. Reading about him first started me thinking about this. He disliked printing, because the books were less durable, and because it meant books weren’t being copied mindfully by scholars who could improve & redact them, and merge different versions. Mind you, he was a born manager, and never worked his way up through the usual monastic channels, so it’s unlikely he ever spent much time in the scriptorium himself; we have to take his views with a bit of salt.

“All of you know the difference between a manuscript and a printed book. The word written on parchment will last a thousand years. The printed word is on paper. How long will it last? The most you can expect a book of paper to survive is two hundred years. Yet, there are many who think they can entrust their works to paper. Hoc posteritas iudicabit – only time will tell.” — Johannes Trithemius, Abbot of Sponheim. De Laude Scriptorum (1492), ch. 7, tr. Roland Behrendt.

Information wants to be lost. It’s a constant battle against entropy, and we all know how that goes. Some things can’t be encoded—there is no way to represent them in any way other than themselves. A lot of what I learnt as a chemistry student involved intuition, fine shades of vision, and muscle memory; there’s no way to teach those from a textbook or a video, only from another person and from experience. We couldn’t record everything that happens even if we wanted to, and we’re in a better position to do that than any other generation who’ve ever lived. We can’t put a man on the moon next year, or in five years’ time, even using the same processes we used before. The UK is facing a critical shortage of nuclear engineers, despite having built and operated a great many nuclear plants in the past.

A basic question: Why do we want to preserve information, and for what purpose?

    Either for reference, or for a backup.
    To use later; for other people to use later; so that we will not be forgotten.
    Because we have a visceral fear of loss.
    To protest cultural erasure.

Of course, some people want to destroy it.

    Cultural warfare – to subjugate a people or a class.
    Or from an ideological opposition to learning in general, because learning is so often used as a tool of political & social repression.
    Emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered all philosophy books from states other than Qin burned in 213 BC.
    Spanish destruction of Maya books
    Burning the books of heretics. Generally very enthusiastic about this.
    Trying to suppress Judaism. (There’s also some cultural conflict internal to Judaism here, with the destruction or deprecation of Yiddish texts in comparison to Hebrew.)
    To be freed from the chains of the past (cf. John Barnes’s Thousand Cultures series, where history is irretrievably muddled in an effort to avoid cultural conflict)
    Because it’s immoral (Bonfire of the Vanities; Farenheit 451; private diaries, including Byron and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu)
    When the creator doesn’t want it to survive (Virgil’s Aeneid, Hopkins’ early poems, Larkin’s diaries)

History of archiving: papyrus, paper, weird shit media. The best reference for this section is Papermaking by Dard Hunter.

“Heaven does not permit such a divine art to be made easy for mortals here below.” — Fr. Imberdis, S.J., Papyrus sive Ars conficiendae Papyri (1693)

    Stone is easy to carve, with a decent blade and a mallet, if you’re not trying to do anything complicated. Therefore, Ogham, designed specifically for ease of stone- or wood-carving.
    Clay holds impressions really well, and can be stored almost forever. It’s intensely vulnerable to flooding or impact, however.
    Papyrus is hard and complicated to make, and doesn’t fold (thus: scrolls). Parchment was a compromise, invented when supplies of papyrus were running low. Paper is much easier to produce in large quantities.
    Paper follows the standard tech trajectory: first work out how to make it good, then work out how to make it crap because crap is cheap.
    Stamping-mills and rags produce really good paper. Anything with fibres in can be used for that, so worn-out clothes are what’s generally used.
    1666: English Parliament decrees that only wool may be used to bury the dead. Encourages wool trade and reserves other fibres for papermaking.
    1682: The Hollander is first recorded. It’s basically a set of huge churning blades, which cut the fibres so the resulting paper is easier and quicker to make but has less strength.
    1684: Edward Lloyd makes paper out of asbestos. There’s a line in one of Cory Doctorow’s books, about how in the 1970s it was normal to look at any weird object and say “that would make a great bong”, and in the 2000s it was “that would make a great wifi antenna”. In the 17th century it was “that would make great paper”. No matter what sort of weird vegetable matter or natural substance you can find, someone probably tried making paper out of it.
    1719: René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur makes paper out of wood filaments.
    1774: Scheele invents chlorine-lime bleach
    1840s: Mechanical pulping of wood
    1861: French gov’t stops insisting on stamping-mill paper for Stamp Office.
    Rosin-alum sizing introduces sulphuric acid even to 100% rag paper.

Their failure modes, and efforts to remedy them.

    Paper containing wood (specifically, lignin) is acidic unless specially treated, and the lignin and hemicellulose molecules react with the acid to a) turn it yellow and b) smell nice. The smell is diagnostic, ie. you can tell what sort of paper it is and what’s happening to it by the smell. It’s a complicated chemical soup usually containing acetic acid, vanillin, anisol, benzaldehyde, and furfural/furan-2-carboxaldehyde. It’s highly path dependent, so the smell of each book is unique.
    At high temperatures or under UV (including sunlight), it oxidises too, but oxidation is not relevant at STP – so special oxygen-free facilities are more or less a waste of money. (Though they do keep bugs, mould, &c. out.)
    Nobody noticed that the new, cheaper paper would do this till 1930, when books made of it, er, started doing this.
    Kelmscott Press books don’t smell at all; Morris was obsessive about proper paper.

Preservation techniques
Cold is good, but consistency is more important. Humidity should be around 45% – too high causes mold & rot, too low makes it dry & brittle. Air circulation is important.
Intersperse carbonate-buffered paper – open packing helps a lot. Single sheets never give the characteristic smell.
Split in plane & insert good paper in between the halves.
Deacidification techniques: diethyl zinc infusion. Works well, if you get it all out; strengthens & lightens paper, and adds oxide buffer. If you don’t get it all out, the books catch fire when exposed to oxygen. Plants have to be sited well away from libraries, because the reagent has a nasty habit of exploding. This makes it basically uneconomic to do.

History of archiving: magnetic, optical, internet/cloud.

    All these methods are summarizable as plastic, and prey to all the ills that plastic is heir to. MacLeod, The Sky Road (cite? I remember a scene with the grey dust of the magnetic media falling out of a disk case, but can’t find it looking back. May well be remembering something else). CDs haven’t been around long enough for their ageing abilities to be properly assessed.
    Magnetic storage is vulnerable to field effects.
    Internet storage looks better, but relies on vastly more layers of technology, and in the end it’s just sitting on a hard drive somewhere else.

Their failure modes.

    The media themselves decay and break, and the magnetic domains break down.
    Increased complexity of the tech tree—tech FOREST—required to support them, and unavailability of the hardware needed to read them/display them. 5.25” floppies, or even OHP sheets, generally can’t be used these days without special and unusual equipment. Information may not be transcribed to the new medium for any number of reasons, including inefficient curation, or just taking advantage of the change to do some spring cleaning.
    Transcribing “up” to a new medium introduces data loss too, because every new system introduces new constraints on what you can do. (Database fields, for instance.)
    Media may not be forward compatible: the 1986 Domesday Project is only viewable by emulation, or by using a very few legacy systems, eg. in the British Library. HOWEVER! This is at least as much because of social/legal considerations of data/project ownership. Given the number of layers involved, the IP entanglements and the project-ownership and -investment are wearisomely prohibitive. It’s like negotiating separately for the books, the crypto key, the card catalogue, the shelving that fits them, and the contract for the only librarian who understands the language the catalogue’s written in.

History of archiving: the oral tradition

    Amazingly reliable, with enough people, but it depends on performance; constantly checking it against others’ memories, ie. social consensus. Everyone owns the data, in a manner of speaking. The only text is the bard, and in many societies every bard has/is a slightly different text.
    Oral intersects with written at Ossian. Faujas de St Fond, Marianne MacLean of Torloisk (a dazzling, intellectual, talented bluestocking, living on a clifftop on Mull in the eighteenth century, an epic journey and an even more epic sea crossing from the culture of Edinburgh), and Dr Johnson. Johnson didn’t believe in written Gaelic old enough, or Gaelic poets good enough, but then he was the same man who managed to ride twenty feet from Mull blackhouses and not see them, and to dismiss as uneducated, untravelled savages men who had served in the army in Canada.
    The limitations of the oral tradition: the colophon at the end of The Dream of Rhonabwy says that nobody can tell this tale without a book, by reason of the complexity of it.

“And this story is called the Dream of Rhonabwy. And here is the reason why no one, neither bard nor storyteller, knows the Dream without a book – by reason of the number of colours that were on the horses, and all that variety of rare colours both on the arms and their trappings, and on the precious mantles, and the magic stones.” — The Dream of Rhonabwy, tr. Jones & Jones

Language is a technology too – linguistic shifts can make meaning much less accessible.

Go, little book! Go, my little tragedy!
Before I die, God grant thy maker
Might to make a comedy!
But, little book–don’t envy other work.
Humble yourself beneath poetry,
bow down and kiss the ground
where Virgil, Ovid, Homer, Stace, and Lucan walk.

I fear there’s such diversity in English,
written, spoken, type, or txt,
pray God that none miscopy thee!
- or worse, mismeasure your lines aloud.
And wherever you’re read, or even sung,
I beseech God you’re understood!
Troilus and Criseyde, Geoffrey Chaucer

The big push to regularize spelling &c. in the 18th C. was to try and slow down changes and make sure authors’ works stayed readable. (Cf. Bragg, the Adventure of English.) Relates to the effort to translate everything into Arabic so Arabic-speaking scholars everywhere could have access. Also alchemical notation – can still follow & use their notebooks, but only if you know what the terms refer to, and we’ve lost a lot of that or can only reconstruct by guesswork.

Access vs preservation, and accessibility vs coverage. Relevant texts here are Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, David Brin’s Uplift books, and Wikipedia.

    Just because something exists doesn’t mean anyone knows about it; just because someone knows about it doesn’t mean everyone knows about it; and even if everyone knows about it it may be impossible to get at.
    The eternal Wikipedia debate: inclusivity vs being able to get to the good stuff through an ocean of Pokemon-related crap.

The ease of commercial capture of digital data – a lot of older texts from the British Library have been digitised, but are only available through Amazon. The nature of digital archives makes denial easier in the same way that it makes access easier, and makes gatekeeping (eg. paywalls, or tech constraints) even easier. It’s down to the number of layers, and the ease of swapping in another one with a filter.

The enemies of completeness: targeted curation. Almost the greatest enemies of books are librarians.

As far as I know, it was my poet who gave me any reality at all. Before he wrote, I was the mistiest of figures, scarcely more than a name in a genealogy. It was he who brought me to life, to myself, and so made me able to remember my life and myself, which I do, vividly, with all kinds of emotions, which I feel strongly as I write, perhaps because the events I remember only come to exist as I write them, or as he wrote them.
But he did not write them. He slighted my life, in his poem. He scanted me, because he only came to know who I was when he was dying. He’s not to blame. It was too late for him to make amends, rethink, complete the half-lines, perfect the poem he thought imperfect. He grieved for that, I know; he grieved for me. Perhaps where he is now, down there across the dark rivers, somebody will tell him that Lavinia grieves for him.
Lavinia, Ursula K LeGuin

Archival preservation only comes in after three steps already:
1. Noticing interesting questions to start with. Only things considered important by generally-male and -white scholars. Cf. McKenna, Butler. Ossian?
2. Choosing data to record, often exemplary data. There’s lots of crunchy theory stuff, both information-science and anthropology/sociology/women’s studies, here.
3. Not throwing the damn stuff away, either to make room for other things or for political reasons. Cf. Alexandria by Lindsay Davis, NASA re: Apollo.

The consequences of loss. There could be hundreds more classic scenes like this, lost to us forever.

STUDENT: Well, all right then. Once Chaerephon asked Socrates whether mozzies hummed through their mouth or through their bum.

STREPSIADES: And what did Socrates say about the mozzies?

STUDENT: He said that the mozzie’s gut is a narrow canal with only a small space for the air to travel through so that, when the mozzie hums, that air travels hard and fast through this canal all the way to its bum, so then, the bumhole being simply a hole attached to the narrow canal, vibrates as the wind is forced through it, see?

STREPSIADES: I see, I see! The mozzie’s bum-pipe is a trombone! Oh, blessed and blessed twice again is he who could penetrate through such a gut-blasting problem! Such a mind would have no worries at all about winning law suits! Imagine having such an intricate knowledge of a mozzie’s bumhole!

Clouds, Aristophanes (tr. Theodoridis)

What we’ve lost: two full-length Bach passions. Nearly all of Sappho’s work, and all of Heraclitus’s. We only know of Eratosthenes’s book On the Measurement of the Earth because Cleomedes summarized it. Chaucer’s Of the Wreched Engendrynge of Mankynde. Nearly all of the monastic libraries of England. The play Black Batman of the North, Part II (Chettle & Wilson, April 1598. Presumably there was also a Part I, which we don’t have either). We thought we’d lost Shakespeare’s Cardenio forever, but then Theobald’s Double Falshood was discovered to be a version of Cardenio. We still don’t have his original text.

There’s a hell of a lot of stuff out there, and always more being created. We lose vastly more than we can record anyway.

THOMASINA: But instead, the Egyptian noodle made carnal embrace with the enemy who burned the great library of Alexandria without so much as a fine for all that is overdue. Oh, Septimus! – can you bear it? All the lost plays of the Athenians! Two hundred at least by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides – thousands of poems – Aristotle’s own library brought to Egypt by the noodle’s ancestors! How can we sleep for grief?

SEPTIMUS: By counting our stock. Seven plays from Aeschylus, seven from Sophocles, nineteen from Euripides, my lady! You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or for your lesson book that will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We will die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march, so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?

Arcadia, Tom Stoppard

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