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.