Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

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

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

July 6, 2010

Aliette de Bodard – Servant of the Underworld

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , , , — Sam @ 5:51 pm

It’s pretty much impossible, these days, to chuck a stone in a decent-sized library without hitting a few fantasy books that are also mysteries or police procedurals, and since I’m a definite fan of all those things I rather like this trend.

It has to be done right, though, and done thoroughly enough—nobody ever talks about the Harry Potter books as fantasy mysteries, even though most of them follow that plot structure. This, on the other hand, is mostly mystery, with a hefty dab of mythology, and the fantasy elements are very well integrated with both.

It’s set in pre-Columbian America, in Tenochtitlan; the detective is Acatl, High Priest for the Dead, called in when someone is murdered by magic… and his own estranged brother looks like the obvious suspect. It’s not all paint-by-numbers plotting, however, and it gives a very similar sense of a detective out of his depth amidst politics, but determined to do the right thing, as Lindsey Davis’s Falco books or Liz Williams’ Detective Inspector Chen books (which de Bodard namechecks as an influence in her afterword, at that).

The worldbuilding is solid and consistent, and there’s a reassuringly sizeable bibliography at the back, which is always a good sign. A few things threw me (like the reference to drinking chocolate from a “clay glass”), but those are strictly minor issues. Overall, definitely recommended.

March 22, 2010

Somtow Sucharitkul – The Aquiliad

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 12:38 pm

This is one of Somtow’s early books, and in a 1983 edition (first, I think) from before he began publishing as SP Somtow. Really, the man is incredibly, ridiculously multitalented. It’s actually the first of three in this world, but I had to go looking to find that out, and I’ll count myself absurdly lucky if I find the others any time soon.

It’s an alternate-history job, set in a world where the Roman Empire develops steam power under the Julio-Claudians and can therefore expand across the Atlantic, into the lands of the Apaxae, Comanxii, and so forth.

Our viewpoint character, Titus Papinianus, is the Commander of the Thirty-Fourth Legion—-not this Papinianus, but presumably a relative. “Papinian” is Somtow’s middle name. The Aquila of the title (“actually some barbaric tongue-twister, but it means eagle”) is the war-chief of a band of Lacotii auxiliaries, bought for the arena and then sent off by Domitian to aid the Thirty-Fourth in Cappadocia.

That’s the first book of Aquila, originally published on its own; the books after that deal with Titus’s experiences as Governor of Terra Nova, sent to find a route to the Chinish Empire by Domitian and then by Trajan. First south, to the land of the Olmechii, and then west and north to the land of the Kwakiutl, which must clearly be the land they seek given the combination of giant bones littering the land (the remains of silkworms, as in the scientiae fictiones of P. Iosephus Agricola[1]) and the discovery of a scroll which is “a dictionary of the Chinook speech! Now what else could that mean, but that we have here a transcription into Egyptian letters of the Chinish tongue?”

There’s a bit of racial stereotyping going on, which is sort of inevitable in SF of this era, but it’s countered by comments about the problems with imperial projects.


[1] No, it sounds more like Herbert to me too, but I may be missing something. There are a lot of these littering the text, such as the Judean Asimianus and his epic poem Fundatio.

March 2, 2010

All on account of elephants – Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 6:39 pm

This is a Jewish sword-and-horse historical novel of swashbuckling and derring-do, consciously patterned after the great adventure stories of the early 20th century. The cover art (Andrew Davidson) & interior illustrations (Gary Gianni) fit this perfectly—the wood-engraving style is exactly right, and the only thing that would make it perfect is (expensive) watercolour-style colour plates.

I only have two criticisms of this book; it’s too short, and there aren’t nearly enough female characters. The one woman with any agency spends nearly all of the book, and the rest of her life, disguised as a man.

It’s set in the Kingdom of the Khazars, around 950 CE, and follows the adventures of two wandering Jewish adventurers from very different backgrounds. Zelikmann is a Frankish physician suffering from acute depression; Amram is an Abyssinian mercenary. Together, they fight crime put an exiled prince back on a usurped throne.

Since this is a quintessentially Jewish text, it’s very much concerned with two fundamental icons of the Matter of Fantasy—the Road and the Book. Chabon’s afterword talks in detail about the yearning for travel and adventure, and of course there’s a lot of black humour to be had contrasting that to the history of the Jews. Two complementary quotations, first from the book itself—

She looked away so they would not see her tears, and noticed, on its carved and gilded stand, the giant illuminated Ibn Khordadbeh that had so enchanted her as a child, with its maps and preposterous anatomies and flat-foot descriptions of miracles and wonders, page after page of cities to visit and peoples to live among and selves to invent, out there, beyond the margins of her life, along the roads and in the kingdoms.

—and from the afterword.

For better and worse it has been one long adventure—a five-thousand-year Odyssey—from the moment of the true First Commandment, when God told Abraham lech lecha: Thou shalt leave home. Thou shalt get lost. Thou shalt find slander, oppression, opportunity, escape, and destruction. Thou shalt, by definition, find adventure.

January 16, 2010

Kim Stanley Robinson – Galileo’s Dream

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 4:38 pm

I loved this book. It’s both a pure shining SF novel and a good, respectful fictionalized biography of an amazing man; it really brings the beginnings of science to light, and I learnt a lot I hadn’t known about the politics surrounding the Copernican system at the time. (I also learnt something I hadn’t known about elliptical orbits, too.)

If I could arrange my bookshelves by affinity (and if I hadn’t taken it back to the library), this one would go between Anathem, Godel Escher Bach, 2061: Odyssey Three, Galileo’s Daughter, and Latitude. In fact, I had to re-read Latitude almost immediately on finishing Galileo’s Dream.

November 5, 2009

Ursula LeGuin – Lavinia

Filed under: sf — Tags: , , , , , , — Sam @ 11:02 pm

Like Ithaka, this is another retelling (or reclaiming) of Classical mythology. This time, it’s the Aeneid, and Aeneas is about to land on the shore of Latium. Our viewpoint character is Lavinia, king’s daughter and faceless cipher in Vergil’s poem – but, since this is LeGuin, it gets Complex. The Lavinia who speaks to us is not a historical character precisely, not a real person[1] in the secondary creation, but the character in the poem, rounded out and given life in the Miltonian sense[2].

She has a series of conversations with Vergil as he lies dying, and he’s enjoying getting to know her properly – rather than the one-dimensional character with no lines that he wrote. “I thought you were a blonde.” On the other hand, there’s no recrimination or contempt for his (lack of) characterization, and it’s obvious that the poet’s insufficiency (unfinishedness – there’s quite a debate about that) hasn’t detracted from the secondary world. LeGuin obviously loves the text, even without the afterword explaining so, and she describes the countryside of mythic Latium very evocatively.

I say mythic, because LeGuin’s always very conscious of the Aeneid’s roots in Octavian’s time – the afterword discusses why she had the characters drinking wine and eating olives despite the agricultural anachronisms involved. This is very much a novel which looks forward rather than backward – that’s absolutely characteristic for LeGuin, but rare in fiction set in Classical times.


[1] Insofar as “real person” has any meaning in fiction, but you get what I mean.
[2] For books are not dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them equal to that soul whose progeny they are.

August 29, 2009

Ithaka

Filed under: children's lit,review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 10:38 pm

A children’s book by Adèle Geras, telling the story of those Odysseus left behind on Ithaka when he went to war – Penelope, his queen; Telemachus, their son; Klymene, her handmaiden, with whom the gods converse; and Ikarios, her twin brother.

I read this courtesy of Second Judith, or to be more accurate I was asked to carry it back to her and accidentally read it myself instead.

It’s a good book, with lots of warmth and vitality; the characters are fairly lightly sketched, but with a myth I (and most of us) know so well then it’s easy for us to flesh them out. On the other hand, this is the same familiar myth from a very different standpoint. The Greek myths are very much Hero Tales – stories of musclebound idiots throwing spears at each other and setting fire to things for the sake of a local beauty queen and the hope of undying fame. Of course, one of the reasons Odysseus is so popular is because he subverts this stereotype; he’s the classic trickster hero. I remember seeing a really interesting adaptation on stage at the Lyric Hammersmith a while back, with Odysseus as a scrawny guy with a dodgy beard and bags of charisma, trying to get his war-weary troops home and ending up stuck in a refugee detention camp with a bunch of Trojans.

The thing about having kings turn up and drag the menfolk off to war, however, is that that leaves the womenfolk at home to mind the house, bring in the harvests, milk the goats, and generally keep life going while the men muck around with their little toys. And since they’re culturally discouraged from violence or effective self-defense, Penelope’s in a sticky position when a whole bunch of suitors show up and start making comments like “Νιγε πλαγε ιου ηαυε ηερε”.

Of course, since this is like Ultimate Patriarchy, Telemachus is also in a sticky position. He wants to toss all the suitors out on their collective ears, and feels he won’t get any respect unless he does, but he’s just a teenager, not a hero, and since he’s a smart lad (he’s Odysseus’s own son, he’s got smart and plenty to spare) he knows he won’t manage it.

This tension is basically what the novel’s about – that space where the family left at home try and maintain their lives in the face of bullying on one hand and abandonment on the other. Of course, just because Odysseus has abandoned them doesn’t mean his actions don’t still affect them; Poseidon, in his grief for his child Polyphemus, goes to the sea strand and the taverns of Ithaka to mutter about his Plan and prepare his revenge.

Because we know that the myth is going to end well – for values of well that include a lot of blood and guts everywhere, and Penelope staying with the man who took ten years to get home from Troy to Ithaka, a distance of about 1,000 miles or three months’ leisurely hike – then we have the liberty, as readers, to focus on Klymene’s coming-of-age story, her relationships with the other Ithakans and the separate peace she forges with one of the suitors’ men, instead of the mythic backdrop. It’s a really good book, and definitely recommended.

August 14, 2009

Tigana part 2 – Dianora

Filed under: rereading — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 10:45 pm

With this section, we get a new POV character – Dianora di Tigana Certando, Brandin of Ygrath’s favourite concubine – and a new map. This one’s purely political, without any more details; it shows us that Brandin of Ygrath has conquered four provinces (three on the mainland, and the island of Chiara, where this part is set), Alberico of Barbadior four, and the last one, Senzio, is neutral.

It is, of course, significant that Brandin’s made his headquarters on the island, separate from the rest of the Palm – and like most of the images in this book, it works both ways. The island’s separate, but it’s also surrounded by the ocean, and the ocean is the soul of Tigana. We learn, in fact, about the Grand Dukes of Chiara, and the Ring Dive – the Duke would throw a ring into the sea in token of a wedding, and a woman would dive for it to bring it back.

For that matter, Dianora was sent over the ocean, on a “Tribute Ship”, as a concubine for his saishan (seraglio), and became his favourite – and came to love him, despite having sworn to kill him. The saishan is attended by eunuchs, chief amongst whom is Vencel; he is “awesomely obese”, with a “dark face”. He’s from the hot northern land of Khardhun, and rather sympathetically presented. I’m assuming that the Khardhu are North Africans, Berbers perhaps. (This will become relevant later.)

In Chapter 8, we learn that Brandin ran up Sangarios, the mountain peak of Chiara, and there he encountered a riselka. I’m not sure what a Slavic water spirit is doing in an Italianate story, but it seems to work out. As we learn in more detail later, if one man sees a riselka, it’s a fork in his life; if two see a riselka together, one of them will die. If there are three, one is blessed; one comes to a fork; and one will die.

That afternoon sees an assassination attempt – the Ygrathen master-musician Isolla has manipulated Camena di Chiara, the most famous poet of the age, into shooting at Brandin under the guise of a threat to her. Dianora pushes someone else into the path of the crossbow bolt, reacting without thinking; Brandin would have died, otherwise.

He doesn’t send for her that night, and Dianora remembers her childhood in Tigana, in Avalle of the Towers, where the noble families competed to build the tallest tower until the Prince decreed that nothing could be taller than his own masterpiece. She grew up with her brother Baerd, and under the stress of the occupation they slept together for comfort – and who else would understand?

“What are we doing?” her brother whispered once. [...] “Oh, Baerd,” she’d said. “What has been done to us?”

August 12, 2009

Tigana, part 1 – A Blade in the Soul

Filed under: rereading — Tags: , , , , , , , — Sam @ 2:19 am

To begin at the beginning, with the author’s acknowledgements. He cites a number of scholars; the three I know offhand are Joseph “Hero’s Journey” Campbell, Robert “White Goddess” Graves, and Johan Huizinga. So altogether, a nice mix of “ooh, interesting”, “hm, could be entertaining if he doesn’t take Graves too seriously”, and “oh, god, not Campbell again”.

Next we have one of the most traditional markers for Fantasy of all; a pronunciation guide. This particular one consists of “most of it is Italian”. And speaking of traditional markers, here’s the map. The Palm looks very much like Italy turned upside down; across the water there’s what looks like the edge of a continent, Khardun, and Ygrath and Barbadior indicated by arrows pointing west and east respectively. To the south is Quileia, and we have no clue what any of these places are like.

And now the text, with the Prologue. The land is lit up by two moons, and a falling star arcs across the sky. We’re in a battle camp by the River Deisa, on the eve of a war, and “the dark-haired Prince of grace and pride” is giving the boys a touch of Harry in the night. They know perfectly well they’re going to lose, against the sorcerer-king of Ygrath; but that isn’t going to stop them. “The one thing we know with certainty is that they will remember us.”

Part 1 – A Blade in the Soul. Chapter 1 opens in a khav room, thus proving once again Diana Wynne Jones’s adage in Nad and Dan adn Quaffy that there’s always some variant of coffee around. A bit of background; the Palm is divided between two tyrants now, Alberico of Barbadior and Brandin of Ygrath. Given the Interestingly Cryptic nature of the scenes with a particular musician, he’s clearly one of our heroes. The chapter ends on the words “he’d forgotten to ask the musician his name” – and this is, of course, a theme we’ll be seeing over and over again. It’s all about names.

The other thing it’s all about, of course, is the sea, and the next chapter opens with one Devin getting drunk in a bar by the docks. Devin is a lot smarter, more resourceful, and emotionally useful than the typical 19-year-old we meet in the early stages of Big Fantasy, and that’s a refreshing change. Apart from a bit of Golden Bough background, and an introduction to a couple of people who will later become important, that’s it for this chapter – except that we learn the name of the musician from earlier, Alessan di Tregea.

The third important theme is music, and they’re all working together – Alessan, Devin, and a young redheaded singer named Catriana who resents Devin for making it look so easy. The fourth is sex, preferably illicit, kinky, and/or socially unapproved sex – and from the text, I can’t decide whether bisexuality falls into that category or not. It’s worth noting that just about all the sex anyone has, for most of this novel, is very much for a purpose – it’s to distract someone, to get close to them so they can die, as a hopeless beacon of protest in the darkness. We’ll see more about that when we come to Part 3.

In Chapter 4, it looks like Devin’s stumbled into the intersection of two complicated conspiracies – the Duke of Astibar has taken the Juliet Drug to make sure he and a few others have time to talk unobserved by Alberico’s agents. Alessan crashes the party before the Duke wakes, and points out that getting rid of one tyrant won’t do; the other will just take over the entire Palm. So here we have yet another theme, that of compromise with the stubborn imperatives of pride. More gnomic comments about names, and then – cave! Alberico’s coming. Someone betrayed the party; everyone dies before they can talk, except the Duke’s son Tomasso. Whom, it turns out, is gay and sadomasochistic, and wears makeup, and who “would leave nor ever a name to be spoken, let alone with pride”, and who is Secretly Very Competent. What a surprise that was! Seriously, though, it’s good to see a fantasy book that doesn’t immediately jump on any of those things as signifiers of Evil.

Outside, the conspirators test Devin out by telling him a story. The map shows a province called Lower Corte; the people of that province killed Brandin’s son during the conquest. In revenge, the sorcerer took their name away, so that no-one who was not born in that province could hear and remember the name of Tigana. They can speak it, but nobody will hear.

That’s really horrible – I find it an incredibly cruel revenge, to erase the identity of a people like that, and give them no way to represent themselves to others, no voice. To force them to use another’s name for their land, and to know that their children will be strangers, foreigners, that their home is lost and will die with them. And unlike most instances, this was done to them deliberately. I’ve got a particularly strong viewpoint on this one, of course, since I’m Cymraeg. Both in my country and in Scotland, the native languages were abandoned, the English names were the “real” ones, children were beaten for speaking Welsh or Gaelic at school – and the worst, saddest thing is that we did that to ourselves, to our own children. We told them to go and be English, because it was the only way they’d get on in the world, the only way they had to be better than they were.

Devin, on the other hand, was born in Tigana and can hear the name – and these passages, again, are full of water metaphors. We hear throughout the book that there’s a special connection between Tigana and the sea, even when it’s not stated outright as it is here. “If something could be remembered, it was not wholly lost” – and that shard of hope, those few people who remember and care, is all they’ve got. It doesn’t look like much, but that’s no excuse – and Alessan, it turns out, is the Prince of Tigana, child of the prideful Prince of the prologue.

The section ends as the Duke wakes, and joins with Alessan’s band because it’s the only revolutionary game in town; and when he admits to being a wizard, and uses his powers to visit his son Tomasso in prison and take him poison. The last words are “The difference between the spoken and the unspoken ceased to matter any more.”

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