Once Upon a Time VIII Reading Challenge – The Porcelain Dove

When I was younger, I think I would have loved Delia Sherman’s The Porcelain Dove.  It absolutely captures the feel of another, more fairy-tale time.  The aura of porcelain and flowers and stories, parties and wealth permeates the book.  The little girl is the one who discovers how to use the magic, and carries out the quest. The happy ending is just what I would have liked, and the only part of the book that would have made me sad would have been what happened to the birds.

Reading it as an adult — wow, it looks different.  I can’t help seeing it now as a mordant commentary — on human nature, on magic, on the sort of little girls who would have enjoyed it in that unreflective manner.

The aura of aristocratic luxury is still there, but doesn’t cover up the stultifying boredom of being too rich to need to do anything, the almost desperate searching for hobbies, and the colossal cluelessness of having boredom be your biggest problem while starvation, death and disease plague the families a mile away.

The magic is still there, but it doesn’t really matter. The aristos  treat their magic as they treat the peasants starving in the village; it is an unregarded collection, its reality ignored and its potential unsuspected.

The aristos of this novel fritter their time through one act of thoughtlessness after another, like a catalog of the revolution’s grievances or an unsympathetic account of well-to-do modern life.  Reading about these people was like watching the world’s nastiest reality TV stars picnic on a railway track; I felt I ought to say something that would get them out of the way of the hurtling train, but failing that I wished it would just hit them already and get it over with.

And when it did hit, there were still pages and pages to go, the most horrific misbehavior yet to be revealed, and the happy ending I would have loved as a little girl … the ‘happy ending’ all the characters wanted … the ‘happy ending’ most of us would ask for, given the choice … well, it makes me think. Which I guess is a better thing to say about a book than anything I would have said as a child.

I classify this as a ‘magic doesn’t make you any different’ book, like Grossman’s The Magicians. It’s made me wonder whether there are any books out there in which magic enlightens people and changes them for the better? I can’t think of any offhand, except perhaps A Stranger in Olondria, but I’d love recommendations.

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Once upon a Time VIII Reading Challenge

banner for once upon a time VIII

(Art by Melissa Nucera)

Here’s something new (to me) – a fantasy/ folklore/ fairytale/ mythology reading challenge.  I’m going to try it at the lowest level just so as not to disappoint myself — but I bet I’ll read more than just one book in the allotted time.

Of course most of the fun will be in reading other folks’ blogs — and in finding out what the additional activities are, since I’ve never done anything like this before!

Interested?  You can find out more and maybe sign up yourself here.

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Belief vs. Magic

Warburg apparatus

Just looking at it still makes me shudder… from http://www.oroboros.at/index.php?id=respirometry

I’m making a moroccan-style squash stew.  I thought of posting the recipe, but it would include things like ‘add cumin until it smells right’ and ‘cook till it’s done.’

I cook by smell.  That’s how my parents taught me about spices; smell each bottle until you find one that smells like it ought to be in this kind of food.  But I take it further, having an unreliable stove (mainly because a mouse stole the insulation out of the top of it, but that’s another story); all my oven recipes are cooked at 350 until I can smell them in the living room.

This sort of thing would have driven my father, the chemist, bat-shit.  Not just because he had a poor sense of smell after years in the lab, but because he liked directions he could follow, organic synthesis-style.  My brother went further, wanting to know the dimensions of the chunks he was cutting carrots into. There’s a faith underlying this, a scientist’s faith that events have causes and that by controlling the causes you can control the outcome.

I share that faith because I was raised in it, but every now and then I take an unexpected step back from it and begin to see how magic could explain things.  My cooking methods, for instance.  To someone like my father, what would explain my ability to smell that something’s done from two rooms away?  Talent, skill — magic?  It’s trite to say that advanced technology looks like magic.  Personal abilities look a lot more like it; after all, a really advanced technology will work for whoever pushes the button.

During my masters, I had to use a Warburg constant volume respirometer.  My dad groaned when he heard it. “Otto Warburg was the only person in the world who could make that piece of junk work!”  – which was untrue; my major professor could make it work.  His calibration runs were things of beauty.  Mine? No matter how I tried, every calibration run came out completely different.

In the same project, I had to do thin-layer chromatography.  It did not work.  I even went over to the lab in which it was being done on the main campus, watched their methods, made up the solutions under their watchful eyes; nada.

You may say I was a crappy chemist.  Well yeah!  But that’s not the point.  The point is, what made these other folks GOOD chemists?  Because they couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong, or why the same setup worked perfectly when they touched it.  None of us could figure it out, but we all agreed on one thing — it wasn’t magic.

But what if it was?

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A Royal Academy interview

I’ve been interviewed over at Mount Oregano, my friend Sue Burke’s blog.  Thanks, Sue!   I look forward to returning the favor when Sue’s novel is issued.

If you’re a fan of knights in armor you’ll want to check out Sue’s other blog, Amadis of Gaul.   She’s translating the book that drove Don Quixote insane in all its mediaeval glory,  with related scholarship and photos.

My friends are cool.

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Those Who Favor Fire

Winston Chiliming by Georgie Schnobrich

Winston Chiliming by Georgie Schnobrich

What better way to start the new year than a new Royal Academy Story?  In ‘Those Who Favor Fire,’ a museum curator develops a friendship that’s hard to categorize — mainly because the other participant, Winston Chiliming XXIII, will not be categorized.  At least, not without divine intervention… you can find it at Lorelei Signal.

Winston fans might also like this essay from a while back.

The magazine is free, but they ask that you donate if you like a story.

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You can’t afford a used copy of my book…

So you better buy a new one.
In fact, buy a hundred and sell 99 of them on the fantastic used-book market!

Pricing robots strike again

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Character Growth vs. Stagnation

David Farland had an interesting post this morning about stories that depend on character growth and those that depend on stagnation. By ‘interesting’ I mean that it answered some questions and raised a bunch more.

The question it answered was one I’ve had for a long time about ‘escapist’ literature. I’d always pretty uncritically accepted the distinction between escapist and serious literature as having to do with content — that one escapes to a world with dragons or spaceships or cowboys in it, and being serious requires you to stay in the real world. When it’s stated out baldly, it’s obvious that this is B.S., but I won’t feel too stupid about it because it’s the basis for genre, isn’t it? Segregate all those spaceships, dragons, and cowboys in the genres and call the real-world stuff ‘literature.’

I like Farland’s distinction a lot better. He maintains, basically, that escapist literature is that in which the protagonists don’t grow.

In short, growth is unimportant in these tales simply because this is “escape” literature. The story transports the reader back to a safe time in his life, to a time when the reader did not have to worry about the complexities of life, and that is a major appeal of the tale.

So there’s escapist fantasy and non-escapist fantasy, escapist mainstream literature and non-escapist mainstream literature. I can buy this!

What I can’t buy is Farland’s definition of character growth. It’s too literal and unreflective for me. Here’s how he puts it:

…ultimately, when your character reaches adulthood, he accepts personal responsibility for the world’s state of affairs and then spends the rest of his life in service to his community. In essence, he accepts a kind of death, the death of his selfish desires and dreams.

So, my challenge as a writer of growth literature is to figure out how to get beyond that. How do I sell the message that growth is good and necessary and beautiful?

That’s easy. You simply show that the community is good, that family is necessary and beautiful, so that when your protagonist sacrifices himself for these things, we as an audience see the nobility in it.

Is that really the only definition of growth? How awfully convenient for the community and family! And where does that leave all the books in which a character grows by questioning their community and family standards? Where does it leave Huckleberry Finn?

Character growth is one good indicator of serious fiction for me. But fiction in which the character grows into an inflexible mold that the author has created — or accepted without questioning — is, I think, even more escapist than fiction in which the character never grows at all. And as a writer, what could be a bigger waste of my time than dragging my characters to some predetermined end?

Right now I’m on the fourth rewrite of the beginning of a novel, and it’s because I need to drag my character to a predetermined position by about chapter 5 in order for her to have the adventures in the rest of the book. And I just stink at that. My characters question every single assumption I try to make them accept. I swear if I wrote about their feet, they’d cut ‘em off. But no point complaining — this is how I like my characters, and my authors. The last thing I want is to spend my reading time with somebody who’s figured it all out.

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Legends of Russia by Kseniya Simonova

I don’t know Russian legends, but I know what I like.  This video’s amazing both for her artistry and the confidence with which she destroys and recreates her art. I like a book to do this as well – replacing one insight, one perspective, with another so that meaning flows and changes yet finally adds up to one story; a story which you know would have been different had any of the other characters been central to it.

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Mary Sue writes open letters

My news stream contained far too many open letters and fake State of the State speeches today, which made me stop and think: why do open letters bug me? And really, what is an open letter?

-Person A has an opinion about person B’s actions
-BUT instead of telling person B, person A writes down what s/he would say to person B if s/he were writing to person B, and publishes it for other people to read.
-In spite of the fact that person A could just as easily write to person B

Ooh, this bugs the heck out of me!  But why?  Why is it more irritating than it would be if person A simply wrote down their opinions? It’s not the letter format; someone who reprints a letter they actually sent to the person they’re criticizing doesn’t arouse my scorn.

I think it’s because the open letter is fiction and it’s crappy fiction, all about the author instead of the characters. It gives me the same feeling I get when I read a bad, bad Mary Sue; I see through the story to the author, and am embarrassed for him or her. (“Does she really want Professor Snape to do that to her?”)

Someone who’s writing fan fiction can be forgiven a little Mary Sue-ing.  After all, if you’re imagining yourself on the Enterprise you are already in fantasy-land, and imagining you can also beat Mr. Spock in hand-to-hand combat isn’t breaking any rule except that of internal credibility.  But the open-letter writer pretends to be involved in the real world, commenting on the real world, when in fact he or she is writing fan fiction. And not even fan fiction about some novel or TV show; nope, it’s fan fiction about themselves and the clever, unanswerable things they would say to Scott Walker or President Obama if he came within buttonholing distance, and how he would have no reply to their unassailable arguments.

The polite reader will turn away and pretend she didn’t see this.

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Somebody came up to me and said “I hear you used to attend the Ginormous Convention of Eukaryotic Organisms, do you think that would be a good event to take students to?”

Now, I flatter myself that I know our students, and every blessed one of them is a eukaryotic organism, so I said “Absolutely!  Hustle them right over there post-haste!”

I, however, will not be at the GCEO.  I have the perfect excuse involving a large plane, a passport, and probably big boats as well, but it’s prejudice that makes me glad I can’t attend.  Internet-derived prejudice.

It’s my own fault.  I wasn’t satisfied with being a eukaryotic organism in real life, I had to dabble around with it on the internet; and first thing I knew, I found out there was a tremendous divide between haploids and diploids.  I could probably have gone all my life without discovering what haploids really thought about diploids like myself, except there it was on the internet in all its hashtagged, vitriolic, invective-filled glory.  So now I’m a little nervous about the GCEO.  Anyone I spoke to there, I imagine, would immediately tweet:

Can’t believe what f***ing 2N idiots are saying NOW #diediploidscum

This is pretty much the definition of prejudice, I know.  Probably none of the people who post under #diediploidscum will be, or ever have been, at the GCEO.  But here I am letting them make me nervous about eukaryotes in general, even when I’m a eukaryote myself!

Well, part of it is that I don’t navigate conferences well, unless they’re dominated by conspecifics.  I feel just as insecure, for instance, as a teacher attending a big research conference.  But that’s not my point here.  My point is that the internet opens our eyes to what other people think, and then we find out that some of those other people despise us.  And then we have to shut the computer off and step out into the world which contains people who despise us, and interact with them as if none of us despised each other.

Well, Pat, welcome to the real world.   Some people have to deal with this all the time!

Some people are byGod saints, that’s what they are.  Some people put up with crap that would have me spending my day in a fetal position.

I’ve always felt nobody should have to put up with that kind of stuff.  The internet, though, is making me question this.  Because that kind of stuff is all over the internet, and now we all have to put up with it.  What were we asking each other during the session on students using Storify? About half ‘How will their work represent the college?’ and half ‘How will they cope with the comments people will make about it?’  (The folks leading the session, who had actual experience, made some remarks about teaching students to post considerate and productive comments).

Perhaps it’s all just going to fade into the background, the way every other critical medium has.  Folks will stop being shocked and surprised.  Killfiling and blocking will catch up with trolling, and we’ll all learn to stay away from certain websites.  Maybe I should not be surfing over to 2N is 2 Many: it’s not really meant for my eyes.

I don’t have a clue how internet civility will play out.  This January I’ve seen a lot of posts (here, here and here, for example) about cruelty within online communities and how it frightens people into self-censorship, but that’s not what I’m writing about. I’m writing about the more general, baseline anger and sniping that seems to run like a river of sludge under the whole enterprise.

It makes me sad.  And it makes me determined to not add one bit to the load of hostility the people around me are enduring.  Which is the answer in the end, I suppose.  Not ‘what could someone criticize on the internet?’ but ‘what real-life effect is my action having?’

So, does it matter in real life that I’m feeling a little prejudiced against GCEO this year? I think not, since I wouldn’t have been able to go anyway.  Students will attend it, and they’ll have a rocking’ good time.  I will go off on a big plane to another place, where we’ll interact with local citizens as if none of us despised each other.  Sometimes that’s the best you can hope for.

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