Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A New Word for...

In the 2nd century BC, the Greek scholar Aristophanes was not a happy man.  The problem was that young people today just didn't speak properly — the way, for example, his 5th century namesake the comic dramatist had spoken.  Besides (in all probability) the fact that they mumbled and used incomprehensible slang, they also completely ignored the pitch accent.

Classical Greek, unlike any modern western language, was spoken with the pitch of words and phrases varying according to a set pattern.  It's been suggested that listening to, say, Socrates talk in the streets of Athens would have sounded rather like an opera singer performing recitative.  But, in the 2nd century, Greek speakers were ignoring this in favour of a stress accent of the kind we use in English.

Aristophanes's solution was to invent a series of accents — such as è, é and ê — to use in written Greek and indicate how the pitch should go.  However, the unruly youngsters continued to ignore him, and Greek gradually developed into the language spoken by millions today.  The accents weren't even much help to classicists, since Aristophanes didn't leave a clear enough explanation of how exactly the accents should be used, and there isn't a complete consensus about how the language should sound, although the same accents have been used for a variety of purposes in other languages.

The point about this story is that languages change, regardless of the horror of pedants, and often in unexpected ways.  Of course they do.  If not, I'd be writing this blog in Anglo-Saxon.  Or perhaps in Proto-Germanic; or in Proto-Indo-European; or in the unknown language that derived from; or even in the monosyllabic calls some early hominid species used to coordinate their hunts.  Come to that, what was wrong with when we just used to get on with the hunting, without all this new-fangled language nonsense?

Nevertheless, as writers, we're not utterly helpless in the face of language change.  Of course, we can't all be Shakespeare or the translators of the King James Bible, who had a profound effect on how English developed in the 16th and 17th centuries, but to some extent we can try to encourage changes that feel useful and graceful over those that don't, and maintain usages that, while not needed on a regular basis, are valuable to keep for when they are needed.

I thought I'd have a look at some of the words whose meanings have changed over the centuries, for good or ill, and some of the reasons why this would happen.  Sometimes, of course, it's for purely practical reasons.  Most computing terms, for instance, are new, specialist meaning for existing words - booting, menu, icon and the like.

Some words just drift, though.  The word nice originally meant precise, and it's still occasionally used in that sense — a nice distinction, for instance.  Gradually, though, it came to mean pleasant, and more recently can even be used to mean the opposite in a "damning through faint praise" way.  To describe something as very nice can be the kiss of death.

Sometimes, changes of meaning can create confusion.  We all know the expression the exception that proves the rule, which appears to be an absurd statement — an exception challenges a rule, it doesn't validate it.  In fact, that's precisely what it means, since prove originally meant to test, as in a military proving ground.  We have such faith in sayings, though, that many people assume it must be true in its modern sense.

A euphemistic meaning might take a word over for a while.  Shakespeare's Falstaff refers somewhere to how accommodate used to be an excellent word until it fell into bad company, a reference to a temporary slang meaning at the time of having sex.  Even when it isn't bad company a word falls into, slang meanings can overwhelm the normal meaning.  A century ago, or less, a single man addicted to wine, women and song would be described as a gay bachelor.  Nowadays, that would mean something completely different.

So should we just go with any change that's in the air?  And if not, what makes one change good and another bad?  That's partly a matter of taste, but I'd like to give my view by contrasting two words.

The original meaning of mutual is reciprocal, but it's gradually acquired the new meaning of shared, as in the Dickens novel Our Mutual Friend.  In the "real" sense, mutual friend is a tautology — it means I'm your friend and your my friend — but the alternative has become established now.

My biggest hate in "wrong" meanings, on the other hand, is disinterested.  It does not mean indifferent, it means impartial or neutral.  The Concise Oxford Dictionary does list the meaning uninterested, but describes it as "disputed" - dictionaryese for a meaning that's used but the dictionary isn't convinced by — and represents pure failure to learn what the word really means.

There are two particular differences between these cases.  One is that the change in mutual is an understandable mutation — shared isn't the same as reciprocal, but there's a connection between them — whereas the change in disinterested is purely an error.  The other is that the difference between the two meanings of mutual is fairly obvious, and there's unlikely to be an misunderstanding.  The spread of the misunderstanding about disinterested, on the other hand, makes it difficult to use the word correctly.  If I were to announce I was going to be a disinterested judge of a contest, you could pretty much guarantee someone would tell me I ought to be interested.  So I'd have to hit the person over the head and introduce them to a dictionary.

The meaning of any word, of course, is what's understood by it, and maybe eventually the meaning of disinterested will change, but I'd regret that.  Although both meanings have synonyms, it seems to me that the correct meaning is a more useful one.  I'll continue using it that way — and any editor who suggests otherwise will receive a lecture.

Ultimately, though, it's usefulness that counts, and even a blatant error can be useful.  The word careen has gone through an extraordinary change lately.  It's actually a nautical term meaning to scrape the barnacles off the hull of a ship or boat, but somewhere along the line it seems to have become confused with the verb career, meaning to run wildly and aimlessly (the more usual meaning was originally a metaphor for a race, whether or not by rats).  In a way, it's as wrong as disinterested, but it sounds right.  In any case, the real meaning is very technical, and it's unlikely to be used between people who don't understand it.

This is just a tiny sample of how the English language has changed, and the only thing we can know for sure about its future course is that it'll continue to change in ways no-one will guess until it happens.  In the unlikely event of this piece still existing in a couple of hundred years, I wonder how much amusement it'll cause because the meanings of some of the words are different.  I hope you have a good laugh.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Introducing the Heroes & Villains Bog Hop

Next weekend, I'll be participating in the Heroes & Villains Blog Hop, which will be running from the 3rd to the 6th May.  Twenty-nine authors of fantasy, science fiction and historical fiction will be discussing heroes and villains - their own, or those of other authors they admire.

There will also be a variety of giveaways, and I'll be holding a draw to give away a copy of my fantasy ebook, The Treason of Memory, published by Musa Publishing.

I'd be delighted if you could join me and the other authors next week.

Heroes & Villains taking part are:



Monday, April 22, 2013

Fantasy for Social Change? - Guest Post by Nicholas Mena

Today, I welcome to my blog  fantasy writer Nicholas Mena, whose varied works combine traditional fantasy with the perspective of his Caribbean culture.  You can read his musings about writing and cooking on his blog Sancocho Pot, but here he talks about the often-ignored subject of social responsibility in fantasy.

Let me introduce myself by saying I am a Caribbean writer (not to be confused with the local anthology series, The Caribbean Writer; they turned me down without so much as a form letter, but at least I’m not bitter). I prefer to emphasize “Caribbean” because that in itself hints at trends of social recognition, culture, and revolutionary thinking. And being a fantasy writer at heart, there are times where I wonder, how does writing about the supposedly “unreal” factor into my primary motivation for writing, to stir changes, whatever they may be.

When you read nearly anything, doesn’t it do something to at least modify or nudge your thinking or frame of mind from where it was a moment ago? And if “Fantasy” is supposed to be about escapism that brings you back to reality once you’re done with it, then where does the change come into play?

I’ll reintroduce myself by saying I am not an escapist fantasy writer. Yes, there are definitely notions of unreal themes in my writing, but I always try to use fantasy as a colorful mirror for myself and the world around me. I believe this can be said for all fantasy as well. If a story doesn’t have enough of us and our society in it to be relatable, even if it is races of elves and gnomes and such, then the tale would be nothing but alien jibber-jabber-- not really a story at all.

Fantasy provides the opportunity to look at themes in our society with different lenses. We get to be the outsiders looking in. We can even completely immerse ourselves in these other worlds, but then step away and become the outside observers again. We are often jaded to the social issues that exist in our society because we are so embedded in it that they don’t stand out to us. I like the analogy of comedians who make jokes about racism, but do so because at some level they see the need to bring our attention to it. Fantasy does that for us as well. Yes, it can be shocking to hear a joke about racism, just like it might be shocking to see a race of elves devastating a city of fairies because they hate them and what they stand for. However, now that we have the issue all up in our face, we are forced to think about it the way a newcomer to our society would, as an outside observer.

One vital difference, though, is that fantasy lets us bring these issues to light without being so blatant. We can face social change in our writing with a subtle pen (or keyboard or whatever). And while I agree with most of my writer comrades that preachy stories are a waste of good ink and toner, attempting to forego all your social responsibilities within your prose can be just as detrimental. While your barbarian story with the hero killing indiscriminately left and right and freely raping women while his black slave boy carries his weapons may be considered entertaining to some people (I’d hate to be in a room with any of those folks), it really doesn’t have any place in our present society and can actually incite a lot of harm in the folks who read it and deem it socially acceptable. If you’re not giving them any messages to the contrary, then why would they believe there would be anything wrong with it?

So I do believe fantasy can be a powerful medium for social change, and while not everyone may see the underlying messages we try to bring to these important issues, we’ll at least know that we’re doing something to add to the dialogue while (hopefully) entertaining the masses with our stories.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Ten More Spec Writers You May Have Forgotten (with acknowledgements to Charles Suddeth)

This post is shamelessly ripped off respectfully inspired by an excellent recent blog by author Charles Suddeth, TenSpec Writers You May Have Forgotten.  It could be argued that many of these authors are hardly forgotten, but it's true that, with the exception of Verne and Lovecraft, they're rarely discussed in the context of speculative fiction.

It's a good list, but, of course, there are many more authors who could have been included, so I'm taking a leaf out of Suddeth's book and posting my own list of ten authors who are either not generally thought of as speculative authors, or else aren't nearly well enough known to modern spec readers.

1) Chrétien de Troyes.  Although Arthurian legend goes back further, it was the courtly poets of the 12th century who developed the familiar image of the Knights of the Round Table, forever going off on quests and rescuing damsels in distress.  Chrétien was perhaps the best of these, treating the subject with a stunning mixture of wonder and realism, not to mention a considerable sense of humour.

Perhaps his greatest legacy is the creation of the Grail legend.  Most of the elements pre-existed, but it was Chrétien who wove them into the tale of Perceval and his quest to discover the meaning of his vision in the castle of the Fisher King.  Note, by the way, that the artefact wasn't at that time the Holy Grail, the Sangraal, or even a Grail-shaped beacon — it was "a grail", i.e. a serving dish, not a cup.  Perhaps some of the people who write nonsense about the legend should try reading the original version.

2) Wu Ch'êng-ên.  A 16th century poet and novelist, best remembered for his epic novel The Journey to the West, also known as Monkey.  This tells the tale of the mythical Stone Monkey, and how he redeemed himself from his punishment by Heaven by joining a journey to India to bring back Buddhist scriptures for the Emperor.

The journey, undertaken by Tripitaka, Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy, is the best-known element and formed the basis of the classic TV series Monkey.  My favourite section, though, is the early account of the Stone Monkey's origin, and his struggles with Heaven for dignity and independence.

3) William Shakespeare.  Note, William Shakespeare, son of John Shakespeare of Stratford, possibly the greatest writer of all time — not some random aristocrat, dead dramatist or philosopher/scientist. 

Shakespeare wrote plays of all kinds, but two of his most popular, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest, are unmistakably fantasy tales.  In addition, two of his greatest tragedies, Hamlet and Macbeth, could be described as magic realism — essentially, political thrillers, in which supernatural elements play crucial roles in setting events in motion.

4) Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  My favourite poet of all time, Coleridge wrote poems of philosophical speculation, natural observation and inspired lyricism, but he also wrote two masterpieces of gothic fantasy.  Gothic novels were considered rather trashy at the time (Jane Austen's parody in Northanger Abbey is probably a fair enough picture) but Coleridge saw the possibilities for this sort of story.

The unfinished verse-tale Christabel is a brilliantly atmospheric story of an innocent heroine seduced and enchanted by a demoness, but The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is his masterpiece, with its account of the cursed ship and the tortured immortal Mariner.  It's effective just read off the page, but far better either to declaim it aloud, or else to hear it.  There's a superb recording by Richard Burton that's well worth seeking out.

5) Charles Dickens.  What, Dickens a spec writer?  Well, he certainly specialised in social realism (though some might argue that his plots contain so much coincidence that they might as well be driven by magic) but he wrote at least two classic ghost stories.  The Signalman is a shivery short story (also notable for being the only time Dickens mentioned the railway, in spite of writing till the 1860s) and, of course, there's A Christmas Carol, with its succession of ghosts reforming the old miser.

6) George MacDonald.  Victorian novelist, poet and liberal theologian, Macdonald included a number of fantasy romances among his work, notably the dream-fantasies Phantastes and Lilith.  It's perhaps less known that he also wrote at least one work of science fiction, long before Verne and even longer before Wells.  This is an episode in Phantastes, in which the hero reads a string of stories in a strange library.  One is set on a planet which is a lot further than Earth from its sun and consequently has a much longer year, so that its inhabitants rarely experience more than one season.  Not bad, for the 1850s.

7) William Morris.  Better known as a poet, artist, socialist thinker and wallpaper designer, Morris was described by Lin Carter in the 1970s as "the man who invented fantasy".  This isn't entirely accurate — Carter elsewhere rightly claimed that fantasy is the oldest form of literature — but Morris was possibly the first author who simply made up a world to set his stories in, because they wouldn't fit into any corner of the real world.

Having said that, Morris's world is very like an idealised version of mediaeval Europe (though his heroes and heroines are more likely to be peasants than knights and ladies) but the countries, cities and customs are all invented.  Morris wrote in a very archaic style, which might take some getting into, but it's well worth making the effort.  The Well at the World's End is probably his best — and very obviously Tolkien's model for the plot-outline of Lord of the Rings, although the stories' natures are very different.

8) Lord Dunsany.  If Morris "invented" the modern fantasy novel, then Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron Dunsany "invented" the modern fantasy short story.  He did write novels, notably The King of Elfland's Daughter, but his greatest legacy is in developing the standard forms of short fantasy.  His tales range from exotic cities and gods to heroic adventures to magic intersecting the familiar world.  Both directly and through authors he influenced (notably Lovecraft) he's had an immeasurable influence on fantasy.

9) James Branch Cabell.  Mostly famous/notorious in the 1920s for having his novel Jurgen (unsuccessfully) prosecuted for obscenity, Cabell created perhaps the first complex mega-series in fantasy.  The various components, linked by family ties and the idea that the characters were collectively playing out the comedy of mankind, ranged from an approximate version of mediaeval France to 20th century Virginia (in one case, in the same novel) and beyond into a variety of mythical realms.

Not all aspects of Cabell make comfortable reading today — his sexual politics, for instance, were, let's say, very much of their time — but he wrote with a huge sense of fun, mischief and wonder.  The best novels to start on would probably be Figures of Earth (nominally the beginning of the series, although it's not quite as simple as that), Jurgen or The Cream of the Jest.

10) Hermann Hesse.  The only Nobel laureate on my list (partly because many of the others predated the prize) Hesse was born German and naturalised Swiss.  His work ranged through contemporary realism, historical fiction, magic realism, mystical allegory and science fiction.

Steppenwolf, perhaps his best-known book, is a psychological examination of its central character through a "magic theatre" in which he can live his fantasies.  The Glass-Bead Game is a work of philosophical science fiction, set in the future where society's spiritual needs are expressed by the game of the title.

Restricting myself to ten, as in the original list, means I've had to leave out plenty of authors I might have included on my list.  Hopefully, though, what I've helped to show is that not only are there many great speculative authors who aren't as well known to modern readers as they deserve, but speculative fiction is far more widespread and far more "respectable" than the literary establishment try to pretend.  After all, if speculative fiction was good enough for Shakespeare and Dickens, who is some obscure academic to look down on it?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Iain Banks - A Tribute

You may have heard that, a few days ago, the Scottish author Iain Banks — who also writes under the cunning disguise of Iain M. Banks — announced that he has terminal cancer and isn't expected to live more than a few more months.  Banks (with or without the initial) has been among my favourite authors for nearly two decades, and I'd like to take the opportunity to pay a personal tribute to him.

I first encountered Iain Banks (literally) in 1995.  He was on my radar as one of those "authors I must try sometime", and one evening I had an hour to spend (I never "kill" time) in Islington.  This was no problem, since there was a large bookshop open, and I went in to find Iain Banks at the nearly-deserted tail-end of a signing session.

Deciding this would be the ideal time to make a start, I paid for a copy of his latest paperback (Whit) and approached him with the book in a bag.  "Ah," he said enthusiastically, "I know what you've got in there.  It's a book, isn't it?"  Something possessed me to say, "No, it's a box of chocolates, actually," which he seemed to find funny.  The upshot was, I have probably the only copy of Whit in existence autographed by Iain "Cadbury's Selection" Banks.

I read Whit and was enchanted by it.  I'm not a wide reader of realistic fiction, but Banks has a playful, sideways view of reality that means his books are anything but like merely sticking your head out of the window.  I found it inventive, witty, thought-provoking and, most of all, filled with great characters, especially the main character Isis, and it remains one of my favourites.

After that, I worked my way, in no particular order, through the books of both Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks (according to the story he tells, Iain M. Banks was the name he originally wanted to use and was talked out of, and then suggested it sarcastically when told he had to publish science fiction under a different name).  Some were from the library, although I now have my own copies of those, and the more I read, the more I was sure this was an author I could really relate to.  Naturally, there are books I'm less enthusiastic about than others, but he's published nothing I didn't enjoy, and many I truly love.

His work ranges from exuberant space opera, through more surreal SF and magic realism, to straight(-ish) realism, but his books, however unique in their ideas and characters, always have an unmistakable Banksness.  That includes the books written both as Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks.  There are certain differences — the mainstream novels, for instance, usually focus on a single main character, whereas the SF ones tend to have a number — but essentially the same approaches are applied to the different subjects.

He's one of the few authors I've read who excel at both characters and ideas.  He has a habit of creating main characters you wouldn't expect to feel affection for but do — his debut, The Wasp Factory, was about a genuinely engaging teenage psychopathic killer.  More typically, his central characters tend to be exasperating but endearing, and most of the books are populated by a dazzling supporting cast.  He has a particular talent for portraying children and teenagers, seen simultaneously through their own eyes and through a more distant, adult point of view.  It's a rare knack, which I've tried to emulate at times.

He tosses off fascinating ideas, too.  One somewhat recurring theme seems to be taking a traditional bugbear and showing it as not really so bad.  This is especially true of his main SF setting, the Culture — a society run by machines that actually promotes human freedom and individuality, rather than suppressing them — but it can also be found in The Business, with a secret global company that owns everything but is, if anything, rather benevolent, and in Whit, centring on a secret religious cult that's daft but harmless. 
And his turn of phrase is second to none.  Who can forget the opening sentence of The Crow Road - "It was the day my grandmother exploded"?
Besides enjoying the books as a reader, I've also learnt an immense amount from them about writing, and most of all about writing in a non-linear way.  Banks almost always writes several time-periods simultaneously, weaving a complex pattern of flashbacks that gradually reveal the solution to a mystery — sometimes a mystery to the characters, sometimes only to the reader.

When I began writing my novel At an Uncertain Hour, I knew that had to be written largely as reminiscence and flashback.  I'd already encountered this in a number of Banks's books, but it happened I was just in the middle of reading The Crow Road, often considered one of his best.  Although my story was a fantasy covering several millennia, not a contemporary novel covering several decades, it was The Crow Road that taught me how to deploy my own non-linear complex.  I suspect my book might not have been published without that example.

So I owe an immense amount to Iain Banks, both as a reader and a writer.  I'm currently reading, and thoroughly enjoying, his recent novel Stonemouth, after which I have two of his SF books still to be read, and his forthcoming Quarry.  I hope for a miracle cure, of course, but realistically Quarry will almost certainly be his last.  After that, I'll just have to reread his books.

So, Iain "Cadbury's Selection" Banks, thank you for being amazing.  You'll always be one of the best.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Medicine in Fantasy - Guest Post by E.L. Wagner

This week, I'd like to welcome fantasy author E. L. Wagner, whose novel Umbral Heretic should soon be ready to seek out the publication and adultation it richly deserves.  Here, she talks about a subject close to her heart, as well as to her novel: the use (and sometimes misuse) of medicine in fantasy.

I come from a family of biology geeks and animal lovers, and if I'd been a bit more, um, focused in college, I might have gone to veterinary school. I had to content myself with grad school instead, but I've always been interested in medicine, both human and animal. I've also always loved fantasy, so when I decided to get off my butt and actually write a novel, it's not surprising a certain amount of biology and medicine came into it.

In my first novel Umbral Heretic, which is now being polished for submission, my protagonist is a rather hapless guy who is addicted to a magic that's forbidden for a very good reason--it uses physical and psychic pain to warp the life force of its victims. Umbral magic is connected to life magic, which is used by healers to, well, heal.

My secondary protagonist is a healer. Healers are common in fantasy novels, so I had to spend some time thinking of how I wanted to make this character stand out from the pack by having my healing magic be a bit more than simple hand waving.

This necessitated some research. The thing that really hit me is how dependent modern medicine is on technology. It's really common to run across fantasy settings where the healer gives a patient some miraculous potion or herbal concoction that kills pain, banishes infection or puts the person to sleep as effectively as modern drugs do. This seems just a tad unrealistic to me.

Another serious problem faced by early physicians was a lack of knowledge of the inner workings of the body. Until microscopes came along in the 16th century, people didn't know the body was constructed of cells, and the microbialtheory of disease wasn't widely accepted until the 19th century. Without x-ray machines and other, more advanced imaging tools, they couldn't look inside the living body. Physiologists didn't even know how blood circulated until the mid sixteenth century. Mummery and quackery abounded, and even the most meticulous and advanced physicians of their times (people like Hippocrates, Hua Tuo and Galen) based their healing on hypotheses they had little means of testing.

So I had to spend some time researching when and how various things, from microscopes (late 1500s) to hypodermicneedles (early 1800s) were invented in our world. I also had to learn when varioussurgical techniques (from antiquity to 1800s) were first performed successfully and when various concepts like hygiene (antiquity) came into existence.

These numbers created some problems for my tale, since they were so all over the place. I really didn't want to present my healing as being modern, but I didn't want it to be all bloodletting and purges either. The setting is a society that was roughly in line with the mid to late renaissance in terms of social organization, technology level and overall "feel." But certain plot elements needed for there to be medicine that was a bit more sophisticated than it was in the "real" 17th century, and I wanted some elements of society at least to be undergoing a period of rapid change and enlightenment.

And this is in fact what drives some of the conflict in my novel, the overwhelming majority of which does not take place in a medical setting.

So I've tried to interweave my "physical" magic system into the existing world. I've discovered that it requires some care. While sophisticated healing is common in fantasy, it often involves miracles without any real explanation of the healers' knowledge of the workings of the body. While I don't provide a lot of details about the process of healing in my novel, I do have some scenes taking place in an infirmary setting, and the narrative spends some time in my healer character's point of view, so I can't gloss the details over completely.

And I've discovered (re comments from my beta readers) that as soon as a writer starts shuffling history's deck a bit, he or she invokes suspension of disbelief issues. Magic or no magic, there's no reason discoveries and inventions have to follow the same sequence in every culture (in fact they didn't in the Earth's various civilizations and cultures either). But whether or not this is true, some readers will still wonder why a healer in a pre-industrial setting is boiling her surgical instruments if aseptic technique didn't become established until the 19th century in our world. There's the old adage that it's relatively easy to get fantasy readers to suspend disbelief for the large things, like miraculous healing, but not smaller things, like magic that allows the development of microbial theory before steam engines make an appearance.

The comments from my readers have been invaluable here, as they pointed out some of the areas that need to be shown or justified a bit more carefully, and they provided me with some ideas of how to subtly (without info dumps) get across to readers that my setting is not your "default" socially, politically and culturally stagnant quasi-medieval fantasy world. In the end, there is probably no approach to world building that will please every reader, but I hope that my approach is novel enough to be interesting and plausible enough to be believable.

A collection of ancient surgical instruments found at Pompeii.

A 13th century medical illustration showing the major blood vessels. They did not differentiate between veins and arteries at this time, nor did they understand the mechanism of blood circulation.