Monday, December 23, 2013

A Very Sweet Christmas Story (fiendish laughter)

In my first last-blog-before-Christmas, I discussed midwinter festivals and how Christmas fits in with them.  For the second part, this is a little story about a very different midwinter festival...

Snow Spirit
by Nyki Blatchley

"Is this the way you always celebrate Christmas?" asks the stranger in his outlandish accent, rubbing his hands in front of the fire.  "Or is it special?"

I see glances between the people crowded in Agnes's house — the whole village — though I reckon the stranger didn't.  It's said cities make you half blind.

We leave it to Agnes to answer, though, like what's proper for the eldest. 

"This ben't Christmas," she explains.  "Be feast to honour the Snow Spirit, what we have each seventh seventh year."

I shiver.  I never saw it — none of us has except Agnes, and she was a little girl — but we know what happens.  The stranger don't, though.

"Like in faery lore," he says, eyes lighting up.  "Can I see it?"

"Oh, aye.  You come now, if you want."

He follows her outside, and we all go too.  When we're gathered in the snow on the mountainside, Agnes speaks the special words, the words from before time, and we repeat.  The children too.  One of them'll be doing it next time.

Reckon the stranger don't know what's happening till the snow-swirl rouses up round him.  Then he screams, but it's too late.  The Spirit settles down into the snow, fully fed, and he's gone.

"Well, me dears," says Agnes, "that's that.  Reckon Spirit'll leave us alone another seven seven years.  Maybe there'll be another stranger.  There were last time."

We file back into the house to start the celebrations.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Merry Christmas (or Whatever Festival You Celebrate)

It's Christmas.  (Well, almost).  Or Midwinter, or Saturnalia, or the Nativity of Mithras.  Some years, it would be pretty much Hanukkah, although that was unusually early this year.  And it's certainly many other festivals, too.

So, why now?  Why aren't we celebrating Christmas in April, or July, or September?

The official explanation, of course, is that it's the day on which Jesus was born, but the evidence for that is worse than flimsy, consisting of two flatly contradictory stories in the New Testament.  Now, I should make it clear that I'm largely neutral on how reliable the stories in the Gospels are, though I see the greater part, without commitment on the theological aspects, at least plausible as an outline of events and the closest we have to a near-contemporary account. 

The nativity stories seem to me the least reliable part (they give contradictory accounts and don't convince me at all as stories) but again it's the closest there is to evidence.  Nowhere does either account mention the time of year, but two details strongly suggest that it wasn't at the time we celebrate Christmas.  For one thing, if the Romans were taking a census, it's unlikely that it would be done at the time of Saturnalia, their mid-December festival which seems to have strongly influenced Christmas.

The one dating hint in the tale is the detail that the shepherds were watching their flocks by night.  There might be reasons for doing so at any time of year (persistent predators, for instance) but the only time when it would be normal would be during lambing.  And that's in early spring.

Not that it really matters.  It could be seen as an "official birthday", such as the Queen has (during the summer, so there's more chance of fine weather for the pageantry) and I suspect most Christians would say that what happened is much more important than when it happened.

But why midwinter?  And why are so many other festivals held at the same time?

I suspect the reasons divide into symbolic and practical, though these might not be as separate as might be assumed.  Much traditional religion was practical, based on the needs of the farming year, but that didn't make it any less important and significant.

And why should it?  I remember seeing a piece on a TV programme years back (I've no memory of what the programme was) about a couple whose house in the country was on the north side of a mountain, meaning that they didn't see the sun at all from their home for several months.  Each year, they held a little celebration on the first day in spring when the sun was visible.

Now, these were modern people.  They had lighting and heating, sophisticated communications, and they had access to shops from which they could expect to get food at any time of year, but they instinctively sensed the significance of this moment.  How much more important would it be to people who'd shivered in the cold and dark all winter, who knew they'd starve to death if the seasons somehow failed?

Festivals celebrating the sun's return, of course, belong to early spring, and our version of that is Easter (certainly at the right point of the year this time, since the events are specified as coinciding with Passover).  But why would anyone choose to celebrate the darkest time of the whole year?

Part of the reason, as I said, is purely practical.  In a subsistence farming society, early-to-mid winter is the time when all the harvests have been brought in and stored, the beer and cider have been made, the beasts that aren't going to be kept through the winter have been slaughtered and cured, probably salted.  None of this would last very long, though, so it needed to be eaten and drunk.  Add to this that it's a period when the farm only has to be kept ticking over, and the weather's bad — what better time to sit indoors around the fire, eating and drinking and making merry, singing songs and playing games, telling stories about the dangers safely outside in the darkness?

Then it gets harder.  Work starts to build up again: in Britain, the first ploughing of the year is traditionally in January, and then, as we've seen, comes lambing.  And the supplies dwindle.  It might seem counterintuitive, but the hungry time is spring and early summer, when the food's gone and the harvests haven't started coming in yet.  Midwinter is a time of plenty — provided, of course, that the harvest hasn't failed.  In that case, all bets are off.

It probably wasn't lost, anyway, on even primitive peoples that the darkest time of the year is, paradoxically, the time when it all starts getting better.  Not obviously at once, but this is where the sun begins to return, little by little, and many cultures have celebrated the birth of a little light in the midst of darkness, which would grow and eventually banish the dark.  Symbolically, the perfect time to celebrate the birth of a saviour such as Christ or Mithras.

Christianity grew largely within the Roman Empire — either the western empire centred on Rome or the eastern empire centred on Constantinople — and it adopted many Roman customs and celebrations.  The Roman midwinter festival of Saturnalia shared many characteristics with Christmas: feasting, gift-giving and the Misrule that was a common factor of Christmas till a few centuries ago.

Does it matter?  I don't have any religious or emotional investment in this, one way or the other, but I think there are two ways of looking at it.  On the one hand, the right symbolism is a powerful thing, and there seems no reason why it shouldn't be reused, especially when it coincides with the practicalities.  On the other, if you have a strong investment in your version of the festival being the true one, encoded into the entire nature of the world — well, why wouldn't that truth and symbolism be felt incompletely by other cultures, other religions, even before the event?  We're all a part of the same world.

Whatever festival you choose to celebrate at midwinter, may it be happy and filled with love.  That, after all, is the important thing.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Spire City: Guest Post by Daniel Ausema

One of the best authors I have the privilege to know — though only through the medium of the interwebs — is the Colorado writer Daniel Ausema.  Dan has a stunning ability to come up with strange and wonderful fantasy settings, and his latest venture, being published by Musa Publishing, is his Spire City serial.  Here he is to discuss it.


First of all, thanks to Nyki for doing this blog swap. I hope everyone reading this hops on over to Twigs & Brambles to give his post there a read as well.

I've known Nyki through his writing for many years, and one of the things he's done a stellar job on is posts about his worldbuilding process--how to create a secondary world that feels real and believable. One of the big differences in writing between Nyki and me is he has one fabulously invented world that spans thousands of miles and thousands of years, and most of his stories take place within that world. I don't have one world for my stories, preferring to come up with a setting depending on what a given story needs.

Several years ago, I read a wonderful story in one of the pro zines and followed on to the writer's blog. There she had a post with a title along the lines of “Confessions of a serial world-builder.” The writer wrote about how she creates new settings for every story, so that plot and character and setting all rise organically from each other. That resonated with me. I love to imagine new places. I love to evoke the mood and sense of strange cities and unknown lands. And the whimsical and surreal twists of an unknown place often give rise to and develop along with the stories I'm writing.

The danger, though, is that worlds made up on the fly can become thin. If immersion is important in a given story (which isn't always the case, but...), then the bare spots of a poorly imagined setting can work against that and weaken the entire thing. So how do you avoid that?

With my serial fiction project Spire City, I initially wrote a single short story set there. For that, the main character was a banker, and the mood was inspired by Kafka, so those two things affected what I needed to portray of the city. That's the first key. See your setting from the eyes of your characters. (And hear it from their ears, smell it from their nose, etc.) An obvious premise at first glance, but something writers don't always do well. Are the cobbles important to mention? They are if it's something your character would notice. The origin of the stone used to make them? Not so much in this story...and yet I'll keep in mind that it may prove important for some reason. The giant beetles that pull Victorian carriages through the streets? Perhaps. The singers chained to the city's steeples? Absolutely. The economics of how those singers are supported, fed, trained, etc.? In this story that wasn't important to him at first. He noticed the songs and the sounds of their voices. As the story progressed, he found himself needing to learn some of those other aspects, and so the world builds by necessity.

When it came time to do the episodes of Spire City, the banker was gone, as was most of the Kafkaesque mood, and there were going to be numerous characters whose minds would be our windows into the city. So I did spend some time just working through various aspects of the city. Regular, old-fashioned brainstorming. How does the city fit into the broader world? Does it have a local language, a dialect of a broader language, a mixture of languages? This question led to the presence of an immigrant community within the city, which proves important as the series progresses. And other questions helped tease out the various dimensions of the city, past and present.

At a certain level, too, you can have some things that you just present as true. It requires a certain arrogance that just says this is how things are. It was a dozen years ago that I first discovered some of the works that have been labeled New Weird. Part of what I loved about those books was that very sense of apparent arrogance, as if they were saying, “No, this doesn't make sense, but it's how it works anyway.” Because they're presented in the right way, their very improbable-ness is part of the enjoyment.

The last thing is key not just to this question, but to how I approach writing in general. Don't shut any idea down. As you write, give yourself permission to toss out the most random and bizarre thing that comes to mind. World-building, as Nyki has argued here on his blog, ought to be messy. Lines are never straight. People never fit perfectly into our preconceptions, and neither do cities or nations. Sometimes that bizarre thought will lead to an entirely new wrinkle that impacts all the other parts of the story. Sometimes it has little bearing on anything else. Yet even so, those kinds of things help make the setting more real. Even now, as I'm doing final revisions on the season 1 episodes, I find myself excited by new details that seem to come from nowhere and make the world of Spire City more real. Of course the immigrants' cooking consists primarily of a pungent gourd and glazed nuts. Of course Spire City has a tradition of folk tales about people becoming animals and transforming back, stories that will be especially poignant to our protagonists, as their infection is uncontrollable and permanent. (Actually I just came up with that as I wrote this post...but now it has to find its way in somehow...)

Thanks, again, for the chance to come here and for reading. Let me know any other tips you have in the comments, and check out Spire City, Season One: Infected when you get a chance. Episodes 1 and 2 are out, with episode 3 coming on January 10, 2014.

Spire City is home to mighty machines of steam power and clockwork, and giant beetles pull picturesque carriages over cobbled streets, but there is a darker secret behind these wonders. A deadly infection, created by a mad scientist, is spreading through the city, targeting the poor and powerless, turning them slowly into animals. A group of those infected by the serum join together to survive, to trick the wealthy out of their money, and to fight back.


Thursday, December 12, 2013

Race in Fantasy: In Memory of Nelson Mandela

Although this is a writing blog, I didn't feel I could ignore the death of one of the great human beings of our time, Nelson Mandela.

I grew up not only in a liberal family but also in the context of the radical strand of the Sixties whose principal concerns were opposing racism and war.  I partly accessed this through music — Bob Dylan was and remains my main musical idol, and I listened to a whole range of socially aware folk and rock musicians — but I followed the news closely too. 

I was well aware of the American civil rights struggle, but in Britain the issue of apartheid in South Africa and Rhodesia was closer to home.  We never bought South African produce at home — such that, even now, I sometimes have to think twice before I remember it's fine to eat South African fruit or drink South African wine.

Another issue that brought apartheid very much to the fore was sport.  I've always been a cricket fan, and the pros and cons of playing against South Africa were hotly debated, especially during the "D'Oliveira affair" of 1968.  Although I've never supported political sniping in sport, I always felt that apartheid was a different issue, since it impacted directly onto the sport itself, and I strongly supported banning contact.

The South African issue remained important to both me and the culture I moved in throughout the Seventies and Eighties, and Nelson Mandela increasingly became the icon and the struggle.  The slogan "Free Nelson Mandela" was everywhere, and the feeling was that he could make everything right.  That's normally a poisoned chalice, since anyone who has that kind of expectations laid on them is usually being set up to fail.  Nelson Mandela succeeded triumphantly.

He didn't do it on his own, of course.  There was a whole movement behind him, and the character of the South African peoples was crucial.  Some credit should also go to de Klerk for doing the right thing, for whatever reasons.  But the fact that South Africa transformed from apartheid to the Rainbow Nation without the expected bloodbath is due in no small part to this extraordinary man.

As I said, this is a blog about writing, and particularly about fantasy, so it seems appropriate to mark this moment by looking at issues of race in fantasy.  Traditionally, the genre hasn't dealt well with non-white ethnic groups.  In the old sword & sorcery tales, for instance, if characters weren't so-called "pure Aryan" (a misnomer based on sheer ignorance) they were either stupid savages, decadent barbarians or comic stereotypes.

On the other hand, speculative fiction has often dealt with racial issues far more subtly and sympathetically by the back door.  Tolkien, for instance, has often been accused of a certain degree of racism, and certainly all the "good" humans are white, while the barbarians from far lands all serve Sauron.  It's also true that he uses a traditional colour symbolism which these days is associated with race, although it's doubtful whether that connection would have commonly been made when Tolkien was writing.

However, although Tolkien no doubt shared a certain amount of the casual racism of his generation, he was anti-racist for his time.  He was born in South Africa, where his parents are recorded as being disgusted by the treatment of Africans in the 1890s, and a rare public comment on the subject in the 1950s made it clear that he firmly opposed apartheid.  He was also fairly unusual for intellectuals of his generation, many of whom were sympathetic to the Nazis, in being implacably opposed to anti-semitism, referring to Hitler's "filthy racial doctrine".

Where Lord of the Rings does express a more liberal attitude is in the relations between his fantasy races.  Whether it be the ancient enmity between elves and dwarves, the mistrust of the Rohirrim for the elves of Lothlorien or everyone's scorn for hobbits, one message the book delivers over and over is that the world can only be saved if all peoples of goodwill work together and find the good in one another, regardless of how strange they seem.

This kind of approach to race relations is often used in both fantasy and science fiction.  In Star Trek, for instance (which does better than some at diversity, even if it does occasionally smell of tokenism) it's the relations between the various aliens — Vulcans, Klingons, Romulans, Cardassians and the rest — which often stand in for racial and ethnic issues.  The original series, which had a habit of portraying its ideas in ways that are glaringly obvious but still oddly effective, dealt with the absurdities of racism in the episode about the half-black-half-white race whose bitter prejudice was based on which half was which.

As far as racial diversity in fantasy goes, though, things have improved a little, but not as much as might be expected.  There are honourable exceptions, of course, such as Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea series, which has a rich racial mix and a main character who in real-world terms would be Native American (a fact blithely ignored by the makers of the disappointing TV version) but such cases are still the exception rather than the rule.

I've tried to show racial diversity in my work, especially since the stories are spread over an entire imaginary world.  In At An Uncertain Hour, for instance, although the central character is white, the majority of characters, many of them his friends or lovers, are a mixture of black, red, brown and yellow.  Eltava, who appears both in the book and in a series of stories of her own, would in real-world terms be half Chinese and half Native American.

On the whole, I haven't used this to explore parallels with our world's racial issues, preferring simply to show a racially diverse world in a broadly positive way — not that it lacks negative aspects of other kinds.  Occasionally, though, I've included issues of racism, such as in At An Uncertain Hour's portrayal of the city-state of Dakh'el.  This is a place where the white population have subjected the black population (whom they charmingly refer to as the unclean) to such a level of slavery and degradation that torturing and killing "unclean" is seen as a sport that everyone participates in.  Besides using this episode as an outlet to express my hatred of racism, it asks the question — unfortunately without being able to supply the answers — of how to overcome such entrenched prejudice and hatred.  Maybe the answer was that they needed a Nelson Mandela, though I don't think even he could have solved that one.

Many people seem to believe that authors should only portray characters of different races when they want to "deal with the issues" of their race.  This kind of argument, which is also put forward for other kinds of characteristics such as LGBT, seems to me to be advocating the worst kind of tokenism.  Any realistically created world is going to be racially diverse, and there seems no reason at all not to express that diversity in stories.  There doesn't need to be a "reason" for a character to be black, any more than a "reason" for them to be white.

A more serious objection is that many writers feel inadequate to write about characters of a different race, fearing that they won't do justice to an experience they haven't shared.  There's something in this as far as real-world settings are concerned, although I wouldn't say it's an impossible task, but I can't see any reason for such an objection in a fantasy world.  There's a big difference between race and culture and, for example, a black person in a world where there's been nothing equivalent to Africa's experiences of the slave trade and aggressive colonisation won't have the same cultural issues that a black person in our world might.

The legacy Nelson Mandela left is a country where, in spite of many problems, the wounds left by the racial divisions of the past seem to be healing.  Fantasy is, among other things, fiction that gives us visions of the best and the worst that a world can be.  I don't believe it has any excuse nowadays not to reflect and celebrate the same multi-racial nature of humanity.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Pandas, Commas and Capitals: What's So Special About Grammar and Punctuation?

It's amazed and annoyed me in recent years how many writers don't know how to punctuate dialogue (the tendency is to write "That's what I thought." He said instead of the correct "That's what I thought," he said).  Recently, though, I discovered that a younger writer who was making this error had actually been taught at school that it was right.  I'd already suspected that the faults in Microsoft's grammar checker were partly to blame, but it seems that people who genuinely should know better are not just ignoring students' understanding of grammar, but actually poisoning it.

Does grammar or punctuation really matter, though?  How important is it to know whether a panda eats shoots and leaves, or whether it eats, shoots and leaves?  I mean, how many of us have actually met a panda, let alone count one as a friend or acquaintance?  Most people would assume a man eating tiger is a dangerous beast, not (as it technically means without the hyphen) an irresponsible human consuming an endangered species.  And the only time it might be dangerous to leave out the comma from Let's eat, Grandma would be if Hannibal Lecter were in the room.  (For some reason, all my examples involve food.  I wonder what that means.)

I suppose it depends at what level we're trying to communicate.  The average text message is probably comprehensible without any punctuation, but any attempt to communicate complex ideas of philosophy, artistic expression or law is going to need all the help it can get.  The kind of misunderstanding that can be caused by a misplaced comma or a grammatical mix-up might not have such far-reaching consequences in novel as it could in an international peace-treaty, but it can annoy readers who aren't sure what you mean.

(And, for the record, my text messages are laboriously typed out in correct English, with proper spelling, full punctuation and grammar that's at least adequate for colloquial speech.  Mostly.)

The important thing to remember is that grammar isn't just a set of arbitrary rules invented by sadistic scholars when they were bored: it's a fundamental aspect of language, and even of thought.  There's a widespread view nowadays among linguists that humans are actually born understanding grammar, or at least understanding the need for it.  Not the specific laws of a given language, of course, which may express grammar in any number of ways, but certain basic ways in which thoughts, and therefore eventually words, form patterns to create larger concepts.

Words are ideas.  We may say, write or sign house, maison, casa or haus and mean essentially the same (not quite the same, since the idea will depend on cultural norms), but each word is merely a symbol of a specific idea we want to encapsulate.  Language is the process of combining these symbols, and therefore these ideas, into coherent sequences of thought that can express anything from the location of a good food-source to the meaning of life, and grammar is the function each of these ideas plays in the construction of that concept.

We seem to fundamentally understand, for instance, the difference between identity and action (i.e. noun and verb), the relation in time and place of an event or condition to ourselves, and the concept of case.  The cases of nouns and adjectives come in long and tortuous lists that must be memorised if you're learning languages like Latin or Greek, but case is essentially the understanding of what an idea is doing in the larger concept.  Is it acting, or acted upon?  Or does it stand in some relation to the ideas that are fulfilling those functions?

The expression of the functions, of course, can vary immensely from one language to another.  The case function of a word, for instance, can be indicated by the word's form or its position in the sentence, among other ways.  In English, dog bites man and man bites dog are fundamentally different sentences, because it's the word-order that determines which bites and which is bitten.

In Latin, on the other hand, word-order is irrelevant, because case is expressed by the form.  Dog bites man could be equally canis mordet virum or virum mordet canis.  To say man bites dog, you change the words, not the order: vir mordet canem or canem mordet vir.

Nevertheless, both languages are expressing exactly the same basic concept: that, to be at all useful, it must be possible to identify the precise function of each word.

The deep grammar we're born with is a matter of potential, not specifics, an instinctive need to look for the patterns in ideas which the brain then slots into place as grammatical rules.  The rules will vary immensely depending on whether you're Japanese, Inuit or English, but some patterns seems to come up over and over, such as the tendency of grammatical functions to come in threes.

Three is a significant number in maths and science (after all, the world we consciously inhabit has three dimensions) and this seems to have spilled over into our linguistic understanding.  There are three essential time-references or tenses (past, present and future), three genders in most languages that use them (although neuter has fallen out of use in the Romance languages) and three persons (I, you, he/she).  There were even once three numbers, singular, dual and plural, although few languages now retain the dual.  (In Classical Greek, it was used to express pairs — the eyes, the ears, salt and pepper, Laurel and Hardy.)  Part of our shared deep grammar seems to be to find tripartite divisions.

Grammar is important, but specific grammatical rules aren't absolute.  I'm currently reading a novel by John Crowley, a man who, I suspect, could probably recite the rules of grammar in his sleep, yet there are many sentences in the book that are punctuated "wrongly".  The point is that each case is there to create a precisely calculated effect, such as leaving out the commas in lists to give the impression of ideas tumbling uncontrollably.  Any rule of grammar can be broken — but only if you know precisely what rule you're breaking and why you're breaking it.

Then again, grammar isn't an exact science in practice.  A good example of that is the problem of double negatives.  The original understanding, in Shakespeare's time and still in languages such as French, was that negatives augment each other, whereas the consensus now is that they cancel one another out.  In a way, it doesn't really matter which argument is more logical.  Personally, I think the original concept makes far more sense, since the mathematical equivalent of the grammatical negative is zero, not minus, but language is about what its speakers understand, and it's generally understood today, for good or ill, that two negatives make a positive.

Being a writer is about trying to communicate a more precise meaning than is usually necessary in everyday speech, and grammar is a framework that allows all those shades of meaning to be brought into sharp relief.  Getting a few grammatical rules wrong isn't the end of the world (unless you're writing an international treaty, in which case it could be) but it can make your work harder to read by leaving your meaning less intuitively clear to the reader.  It can also lead to pandas being arrested on firearms charges, or fictional psychopaths eating your grandma.  But perhaps that's a shade less likely.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Fifty Years of Doctor Who: A Personal Journey

Fifty years ago last Saturday, I was settling down to watch the first episode of a new Sci-Fi series on BBC.  Just the day before, we'd been stunned by the news of Kennedy's assassination.  Strangely, I've always had vivid memories of both events (I fit the cliché — I even remember what programme we'd turned on for when we saw the newsflash) but it was only about a decade ago I discovered they'd been on consecutive days.  Twenty-four hours is a long time for a child.

I'd been vaguely miffed that a cartoon show I liked had been taken off for this new programme, but I was looking forward to it all the same.  I'd loved the Pathfinders series ITV had put on over the previous couple of years (Pathfinders into Space, Pathfinders to Mars, Pathfinders to Venus) and was hoping it would be as good.  I was pretty much hooked by the time the unearthly title music had faded away.

Doctor Who quickly became my favourite programme, though I can't actually claim to have watched every single episode from the Sixties.  There was no recording in those days, no iPlayer, no endless repeats on BBC3 (no BBC3, or even BBC2 at first) and sometimes I had to be out at Saturday teatime — usually for a treat, though it tended to be a close-run thing whether the treat was worth it. 

Still, I saw probably 95% of the episodes, many now lost: the first sight of the Dalek and the Cybermen (not to mention the recently returned Great Intelligence and Ice-Warriors), the comings and goings of companions, and the Doctor's first regeneration.  It's difficult to pick out a high point, but I think it might be the amazing (and largely lost) twelve-parter The Daleks Master Plan, memorable among other things for killing off two companions.

Not that I knew it as The Daleks Master Plan at the time.  For the first three years, only episode titles were ever given, and the stories were, Friends-style, The One With the Daleks Invading Earth or The One With the Voords.  This was The One With the Time Destructor.  Whatever it was called, though, I loved it.  I've seen the surviving episodes and reconstructions of the lost ones since, and as far as it's possible to tell it still holds up well.

Not all the stories from the Sixties have survived as well in reputation, but my experience of them was a bit different from people discovering them now.  Back then, they were slick and beautifully made, with totally convincing sets and effects.  I'm sure they've been tampered with since — the same as the way that, when puppet shows like Thunderbirds were shown back then, the strings were totally invisible and have only been added on modern copies.

Of course, nothing's really good or bad except in reference to its own time and context.  One story that has a poor reputation among fans is The Web Planet (aka The One With the Zarbi) but my experience of it was very different.  To an eleven-year-old watching it in the Sixties, it was absolutely awesome, and the story was one I remembered as a high point.  Even from a twenty-first-century perspective, I think it's a much better story than it's given credit for, although it does have serious holes in it.  Mainly to do with the Optera.

Another reason for negative views of some of these stories today is that most people now experience them by getting the DVD and watching straight through, or at most in two chunks for the longer stories.  They were never designed to be seen that way, and watching them in twenty-five-minute doses a week apart played up the excitement and tension.

What Doctor Who mostly did in the 60s was to play to its strengths.  An excellent example of the this is The Dead Planet, episode one of The Daleks.  It finishes with the iconic shot of the view down the Dalek eyestalk of Barbara cowering away in terror, but the episode as a whole consists of the four regular characters wandering around cardboard sets, handling awful props and talking a lot.  And it's an absolute master-class in how to build up tension with few resources.  I'm certainly not advocating making programmes exactly like that now, but I think it might not be a bad thing, in the days of effects-led storytelling, for the makers to take a step back and relearn some of the basics.

The Sixties version of Doctor Who was my childhood, and nothing can compete with childhood memories, but I continued to watch through the Seventies.  The images and the feelings they generated didn't stick so firmly in my memory in this era (I was busy growing up, going to university, getting a job and all the things associated with those processes) and when I started rewatching them I often found I'd totally forgotten excellent stories, but I watched faithfully throughout the Pertwee and Baker eras.

A few things stick in my memory.  I recall, in late 1975, while Pyramids of Mars was on, I was taking a course in Greek philosophy at university.  The lecturer was explaining one philosopher's attempt to "Platonise" Egyptian mythology and gave a brief account of the murder of Osiris by Set, or Sutekh — then gave a slight laugh and added, "Currently appearing on Doctor Who."

The Eighties were when I lost touch with the show.  There were a number of reasons for this, not least that I didn't have a TV for part of the decade.  Anyway, when they messed around with the schedules and put it on during a weekday evening, I wasn't usually in at the time.

In any case, I felt less motivated to make an effort.  I felt Tom Baker's last couple of series were noticeably slipping (a view I still hold, with certain honourable exceptions like City of Death and Logopolis); at the time, I didn't much like Peter Davison's Doctor (though I've revised my opinion there); and I wasn't very impressed with the current crop of companions.

In any case, I stopped watching, apart from an occasional catch-up that wasn't enough to get back into it.  I've now acquainted myself with Eighties Doctor Who, and my feeling now is that it was a very uneven period, but with plenty well worth watching and occasionally as good as any era.  I personally think that the very last classic series, in 1989, was probably the best since the high days of Tom Baker.

That was later, though.  I still had fond memories of the old stories, and I watched them on the rare occasions they were reshown, but nothing much more.  As I discussed in a previous piece, I'm not actually very good at "being a fan", and I've never really been into tie-ins, conventions or merchandise for anything, so I didn't have anything much to keep up with.  I watched the 1996 movie and felt (as I still do) that McGann and McCoy were brilliant, but overall it was a disappointment.

Then the channel UK Gold started running the classics (or maybe they'd been running them and that was when I got the channel — I can't remember).  Anyway, I watched loads of stories and taped quite a few, and for a while I just watched those ones over and over, before I eventually discovered the joys of cheap DVDs being sold online.  As of now, I have most of the stories and can vary my Who-watching a good deal more.

In the meantime, of course, the show was rebooted in 2005.  I wasn't sure what to expect, after the experience of the movie, but I loved it.  I have some quibbles, but they're more to do with how TV is generally made today rather than specific to Doctor Who — the tendency to be led by effects and action, as against the intelligent storytelling of the past (though Doctor Who's better than most at blending them), overuse (for me) of music, and an over-reliance on story arcs.

Nevertheless, I think Russell T. Davies, Stephen Moffett and the rest have done a wonderful job of updating the show without losing what always made it special — the way it balances fun and gravitas, action and intellect, scary monsters and social relevance.  Saturday's Fiftieth Anniversary Special, which had a really hard job living up to its hype, blew me away, managing to be at the same time a brilliant story and a fan's wet-dream of reappearances, in-references and in-jokes (they even got a reference in to the notorious UNIT dating controversy).  And the ending opened up a whole new vista of possibilities for the next fifty years.

So where now?  Although I'll be sorry to see the end of Matt Smith, who's become one of my favourite Doctors, I'll be fascinated to see what Peter Capaldi makes of the role.  For companions, I love Clara, but I hope when she does go they'll be more adventurous.  Although the string of primary companions we've had since 2005 have all been distinct and interesting characters, they've essentially all (or mostly) been twenty-something contemporary women.  I'd like to see an occasional one who isn't — someone from the past or future, or from another planet.  Maybe an alien.

Similarly, I'd love to see more variation in destinations for the TARDIS, particularly more historical settings that aren't nineteenth or twentieth century (seriously, the 1980s as historical?) and more well-realised planets.  Not just desolate planets with crashed spaceships, or barren rocks that aren't being pulled into black holes (much as I loved those stories) but living, complexly populated planets.  The twenty-first-century equivalents of Skaro, Marinus, Peladon, Tara or Androzani.

Whether or not they take my advice (and why wouldn't they? I keep telling myself till I believe it) I'll keep watching.  Maybe, if medical science keeps the pace it promises to, I'll just about still be around to watch the hundredth anniversary on the care home TV.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A NonNaNoWriMo Adventure

With an impeccable sense of bad timing, I started working on a new novel on the 7th November.  Actually, I didn't want to do it for NaNoWriMo (the annual challenge to write fifty thousand words of a novel between the 1st and 30th of November) because I've too much else going on this month to put myself under that kind pressure.  Still, I suppose it makes me a NaNoWriMov fellow-traveller of some kind, so I'll join everyone else in reporting on my progress.

I'm currently well on into chapter three, or around ten thousand words in, although that includes a couple of scenes based on trial versions I wrote a while back.  I've really no idea what length it's going to end up at, but most likely around 120-130,000, so I've still a long way to go.

I'm using the working title The Empire of Nandesh, but the only thing I can say for sure is that that isn't going to be the final title.  It refers to the evil empire of the immortal sorcerer-king Nandesh, which is central to the story, but I'd prefer a more allusive (or elusive, or illusive) title, and I'm trusting that, like a Pern dragon, it'll let me know its name.

This is part of my ongoing ennealogy.  I'm aiming to make it as stand-alone as I can, but it's inescapably a sequel to At An Uncertain Hour, dealing with some of the consequences of the Traveller's choices at the end of that book.  The Traveller is central to the story, though under the name Tollanis — a now-obsolete local word for traveller that's turned from a soubriquet to a name — and Nandesh is the son of his adversary the Demon Queen.  That's not a spoiler, by the way — it's revealed in the second chapter.

Like At An Uncertain Hour, this book is written non-sequentially and in first person.  Unlike it, though, it has four different first-person characters.  Yes, I'm sure you can tell I'm always on the lookout for ways of making writing easier.  So, for a brief, blurblike introduction to the main characters and their issues at the start:

Tollanis feels uncharacteristically dubious about helping to fight against the evil sorcerer-king Nandesh, and he's not too sure about his ally Kargor, either.

Nandesh, in among his plans to conquer the world, seems to have a personal grudge against Tollanis, although the two men have never met.

Fandis, Nandesh's lover and bitterest enemy, dreams of the day she can kill him, even while she spurs his ambition higher.

And, perhaps scariest of all, Tollanis's ward Lanza is a seriously frustrated teenager.

So why did I choose to write it like this?  I wanted from the start to split the point of view between protagonist and antagonist, since neither's role could really be understood without knowing about the other.  And, as in At An Uncertain Hour, third person really wouldn't give the level of immersion needed to roam at liberty through the characters' memories.

So, I needed two first-persons, which was scary enough, but as the ideas coagulated I realised I also needed Lanza's and Fandis's voices to tell the whole story.  Hence the somewhat unusual structure.

This probably makes it sound as if the whole novel's carefully planned and outlined, but in some ways I'm writing blind.  Not entirely.  The whole ennealogy actually goes back a long way in its basic concept.  At An Uncertain Hour was based on an outline of the Traveller's life I'd written years earlier, while The Winter Legend, the trilogy I've been working on in between, is something I've been writing versions of since 1969. 

The central events of this story — its "present", at least — go back to various pieces I wrote in the 70s, but a lot has changed since then.  Nandesh, in particular, had a different name, a different nature and a different background then, and his backstory is really the main motivator for the novel.  And Lanza is an entirely new character, wreaking havoc on a nice, orderly plot.

I'm looking forward to exploring all these people and showing how they got from there to here, but I'll have a number of non-POV characters to present, too, especially the aforementioned Kargor.  Kargor, sometimes known as Karaghr or Kari, has appeared as a young man in a series of stories, including the ebook The Temple of Taak-Resh, and he appears in the later but already-written trilogy The Winter Legend (first volume currently attempting to seduce an agent, the other two awaiting revision).  I enjoy writing Kargor, and I was delighted when a friend recently commented that he reminded him of Tom Hiddleston as Loki.  Perhaps a casting option for a film version — though I'll have to get on with it.

So, I know where I want the story to get to, and I have a number of scenes pretty much nailed down in my head, but the route it's going to take over the hundreds of years it covers will be a surprise.  I hope it'll be a good surprise — both to me and to my readers.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Write What You Know?

Write what you know.  A maxim regularly proposed by people who don't write to people, especially young people, who want to write.  Possibly the most vilified, misapplied and misunderstood of all writing advice.

On the face of it, it seems like artistic sabotage, especially for a fantasy writer.  Followed literally, it would mean, unless you've had a life like Jack London or Joseph Conrad, all most of us would be able to write would be little, slice-of-life tales of social realism.  Not that there's anything wrong with stories of that kind if they're what interests you, but it isn't what all authors want to write — and, more to the point, it's not what all readers want to read.

It's especially bad advice to give a child who wants to write.  Again, the child might genuinely want to tell a story of someone of their own age going to school and living the same kind of life they do, but most will want something more exciting to write about.  In any case, the worst possible thing to do to a child-writer, or any child, is to clip the wings of their imagination.  Their work's highly unlikely to get published, whether they write school stories or improbable tales of international espionage, and it's far better for their future enthusiasm if they have fun doing it.

The literal interpretation would certainly rule out any fantasy.  How can anyone write about immortal sorcerers, wandering swordsmen or swordswomen, meetings with gods or commanding vast armies if they write only what they know?

But that's not all there is to it, of course.  Write what you know is possibly the worst-phrased maxim to mask genuinely good advice.

What lies behind it was expressed beautifully by the Anglo-Irish writer Lord Dunsany, who in the early 20th century virtually invented the fantasy short story as we know it.  Dunsany wrote exotic tales of Elfland, the edge of the world and the lands that lie beyond the fields we know, but he considered:

It is my belief that those sudden visionary pictures which are the true essence of any art arise like a flower from a seed that has fallen into the mind, sometimes in infancy, sometimes in later childhood, sometimes in adult years, but often as imperceptibly as any seed blown on the wind finds a home for itself in the earth at the end of its wandering.  Bricks without straw are more easily made than imagination without memories.

Half a century later, another great writer, Bob Dylan, said it more succinctly and far more colloquially:

Open up yer eyes an' ears an' yer influenced
an' there's nothing you can do about it

My own favourite image of this process is a vast cooking-pot.  Into the pot goes everything that happens to me, everything that happens around me, everything I hear about, every item from the news, everything I read, watch or listen to, everything I think or discuss with other people.  The pot simmers constantly over the heat and I stir it regularly.  When I write, I dip in a ladle and take a spoonful out.  Everything I threw in is there, but changed, blended into new forms and new combinations that bear little resemblance to the raw ingredients.  This is the stew that makes my stories.

So how does this work?  In At An Uncertain Hour, I had to write about a character who reluctantly takes on commanding the army of a great alliance for a thousand years to defeat an evil empire, even though what he really wants to do is wander the world on an enchanted ship.  Strange to say, I've never actually done any of that myself.  Hardly writing what I know.

On the other hand, like most of us, I've had to choose between fulfilling moral and social obligation and letting myself drift along doing what I love.  I've had to square up to taking on positions of authority — not commanding a vast army, but managing people at work or running performance clubs — in spite of doubts about whether I'm really a natural for it.  I've fulfilled duties while dreaming of being free and footloose.

In addition to this, of course, I've observed many other people in positions of authority (often over me), followed the news about public figures, read works of history and biography about great leaders and generals of the past.  All in all, I'm surprisingly qualified to write about this character.

The things we know above everything else are our feelings and emotions, and these are what we tap into and extrapolate to experiences we've never known and are never likely to know.  Suppose your character is being hauled before the King, wondering whether the sentence is going to be instant execution.  It's not only unlikely that this has happened to any modern writer — it would also be highly inadvisable to attempt to seek out the experience. 

On the other hand, you might well remember sometime having been called in to see the boss, wondering just how much trouble you're in, terrified that you're going to be out on your ear.  Resurrect that memory and remember just how you felt; then expand and transfer it, try to feel those emotions again but much, much more intensely, and apply them to how another person might feel.

Imagination = experience + extrapolation + empathy.  As simple as that.

All right, it isn't really simple, but it's a start.  Of course, there are practical issues as well: things a writer might simply not know.  I recall long ago hearing a writers' cautionary tale.  A sheltered Edwardian lady wrote a novel in which her hero went to an Oxbridge college and ended up rowing in the University Boat Race.  Now, the whole point of a rowing team is that they have to learn to keep in perfect synchronisation, otherwise chaos ensues; but this author, in her enthusiasm, wrote a sentence something to the effect of Everyone rowed fast, but {the hero} rowed faster.

The moral of the tale was supposed to be that she'd no business writing about something she had no experience of, but I take a completely different moral from it.  If she wanted to write about the Boat Race, fair enough, but she should have got hold of a good book about rowing techniques and read it cover to cover.  Ideally, she should also have found a nearby rowing club and gone to watch practice there.  Perhaps talked to some of the rowers (shocking for a nice lady, but she could have taken a chaperone) and memorised some of the phrases they used and the experiences they'd had.  That would have enabled her to write the episode not only without that obvious blunder, but with a depth of involvement that made it seem she must be an expert rower.

We're living in an age where, compared with that Edwardian lady, we have any information we need just the click of a button away.  It's not always quite that easy, of course, but we really have no excuse but laziness for not researching the things we put into our stories.

Anyway, research is fun.  It's an opportunity to learn things, gain new experiences.  It might even take our lives off in rich, unexpected directions.  At worst, it'll stand us in good stead in trivia quizzes.

Write what you know?  Perhaps it's time to abandon that misphrased saying and the inadvertent damage it can do, and bring out in its place the true meanings that it masks.  Write what you feel.  Write what excites you.  Write what you want to know.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Remember, Remember the Fifth of November

Remember, remember
The Fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot.

We still remember the Fifth of November in Britain, even if it's only as an excuse to let off fireworks at any time from the beginning of October to Christmas, but many people know little about the event that sparked it all off.  The popular version is that a man called Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament, but was discovered at the last minute.  Although we celebrate the failure and burn Fawkes in effigy, there tends to be a sneaking admiration for him whenever politicians are being particularly aggravating.  Guy Fawkes has been described as the only man who ever entered Parliament with honest intention.

In fact, it was a lot more serious than that.  It's been suggested that, had the plot succeeded, it would have been as devastating to 17th century Britain as 9/11.  More so, in fact, as it would have taken out virtually the whole leadership of the country, as well as a lot of innocent bystanders.  And Fawkes wasn't even its instigator.

The plot was formed between a group of Catholic gentry from the Midlands — several were related to Shakespeare through his mother's family, the Ardens.  Under Elizabeth I, who died in 1603, Catholics had been forced to pay fines but had generally been left to get on with their religion, as long as they kept it behind closed doors.  She did become harsher after the Pope ordered that it was the duty of all English Catholics to assassinate her, but there was no wholesale persecution.

Nevertheless, it was far from an ideal situation for them, and many Catholics hoped for better when James VI of Scotland became James I of England.  He was the son of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, but his education had been supervised by the arch-Calvinist John Knox.  In fact, James rejected both extremes, sticking with Elizabeth's middle-of-the-road Church of England.

Early in 1604, a meeting was held between Robert Catesby, Thomas Wintour and John Wright, at which Catesby proposed his plan to blow up Parliament on the day the King was due to open it.  In the months that followed, a number of co-conspirators were recruited, including Guy Fawkes, also known as Guido Fawkes, a staunchly Catholic soldier who'd been fighting for the Spanish against the Dutch Protestants.

The plot was put on hold when the expected session of Parliament was postponed several times because of outbreaks of the Plague in London, but by the time the opening approached, on 5th November 1605, the plotters were ready.  The plan was to wipe out the King, his sons, the Privy Council, Lords, Bishops and Common — and, as collateral damage, anyone else who happened to be close by — and simultaneously raise a rebellion in the Midlands.  The rebels would seize James's daughter, Princess Elizabeth, and place her as their puppet on the throne.  Elizabeth was later Queen of Bohemia and known by evocative names like the Winter Queen and the Queen of Hearts; at nine years old, though, she presumably wouldn't have had much of a say.

The popular rebellion was probably nothing but wishful thinking, but the attack on Parliament could well have succeeded.  The problem was that several of the plotters had friends of relatives in Parliament, and one broke ranks and sent a warning to his brother-in-law that I say they shall receive a terrible blow this Parliament; and yet they shall not see who hurts them.

When news of this came to James, he took it very seriously.  It must have resonated with him — his father had been assassinated by being blown up — and he ordered the cellars to be searched, a tradition still carried out before the State Opening of Parliament, though only as a ceremonial relic.

The plotters had rented a disused undercroft beneath Parliament and built up a large number of barrels of gunpowder there, hidden under piles of firewood.  Fawkes, the gunpowder expert, had stayed to set the fuse before making his escape, while the rest had left London to prepare their rising.  Guy Fawkes was caught waiting to lay his fuse and arrested, while the rebellion fizzled out into a fight at Holbeche House in the West Midlands, at which most of the plotters were either killed or captured.  All the survivors confessed under torture and were hung, drawn and quartered.

There was some backlash against Catholics in the short term, with the Jesuits being generally blamed for the plot, although there's no evidence any Jesuit was directly involved.  In the long run, though, there was no increase of persecution of Catholics — in fact, their lot improved somewhat during James's reign, and he kept out of the Protestant Alliance in the Thirty Years War, although his daughter was centrally involved.

From the first anniversary of the plot, nationwide celebrations were held to give thanks for its failure, and this gradually evolved into lighting bonfires to burn effigies of Guy Fawkes, the main public hate-figure, or of the Pope.  This seems to have been a deft hijacking of the fires of Samhain, or Halloween, a few days earlier, at which an effigy of the Summer King was burnt on a bonfire, a possible descendent of an actual human sacrifice (as I discussed in more detail in my post last week).

Fireworks were let off as part of the celebrations from early on — they contain gunpowder, after all — and have now taken over as the main focus of the festival.  Until recently, it was common for children to take their "guy" around before burning it, asking for a penny for the guy, but this seems to have largely died out, and burning effigies in general is less common than it used to be.  Halloween rituals imported (or reimported) from America have largely taken over at this time of year.

It's easy to sympathise with the Gunpowder Plotters as persecuted men who only wanted religious freedom, but this is a naive view.  In modern terms, they were terrorists who were willing to accept any level of slaughter, of the innocent as well as their actual targets, and their objective was certainly not toleration and freedom.  It's probable they'd have treated Protestants a good deal worse than Elizabeth or James had treated them, and they'd almost certainly have snuffed out the early stirrings of parliamentary democracy which, by the end of the century, were to lead to a constitutional monarchy.  History would have been very different if Guy Fawkes had lit that fuse.

Some years ago, I wrote a poem called Guy Fawkes, which appeared in my self-published collection Lessons of History, which looks at him from all angles, from stuffed effigy to terrorist to sacrificial king.  I thought it would be good way to finish this piece.

Guy Fawkes

silly straw-stuffed face
crookedly amiable
cries in silent agony
as stuck-out tongues of fire
gently lick him
asking why
in his innocence
he is falsely condemned

archetypal anarchist
who so nearly carried out
what we dream of in anger
not that we would but
just suppose
and so we burn him now
for letting down our fantasy

king for the day
or a summer maybe
becomes a shield against
fear of age
of non-renewing
and this years hope turns to ash
so that next years hope can grow 
willing sacrifice
the cancer to be cut out
takes on himself
the fears of the world
dug into the soil
hung up on a tree
burnt into the skies
thank God it isnt me

he lives between our dreams
hiding behind our minds
he slips among shadows
of hopes and fears
and triumphs at last
as we feel the pain
of a stuffed nothing 
penny for the guy
penny for your thoughts