Posts belonging to Category culture and society



What the black scientist Rufus Carlin brings to “Timeless”

For those of you who haven’t seen it, ‘Timeless‘ is a prime-time, network action-SF show. The premise is straightforward: English billionaire Connor Mason funds the secret development of a time travel machine, bad guys steal the time travel machine, the authorities get involved and a square-jawed hero soldier Wyatt Logan, somewhat sheltered academic historian Lucy Preston, and Rufus Carlin, one of the science team who’d much rather stay in his lab, have to use the prototype machine to stop the bad guys wrecking history for fell purposes as yet unknown. So far, so formulaic.

Well, no, not entirely. Quite a few things lift this TV show above the mixture as before. It’s very well cast and the actors all deliver solidly committed performances. There are soon questions over how bad the bad guy Flynn’s motives might actually be, and while history’s big picture is pretty much maintained, the butterfly effect means massive changes in Lucy’s personal life when she gets back from their first mission. All enjoyably entertaining.

Then there’s Rufus Carlin being black. Not that he stands out in the present day setting; so is Connor Mason and there are more actors of varied ethnicities among the scientific support staff and government officials, men and women alike. The show has a diverse cast because there’s absolutely no reason there shouldn’t be such people in such roles in this day and age. So far so good, and so unremarkable.

But … the action is by no means limited to this day and age, is it? This is a time travel show. And as Rufus points out to Connor Mason in the first episode, “There is literally no place in American history that will be awesome for me!”

Rufus being black adds whole new levels of complexity and interest to the writing and thus to the viewing. Not that the writers are out to beat viewers over the head with Politically Correct Messages. These things arise naturally from the situations created by the overall plot arc. Put Rufus in early 1960s Las Vegas and all of a sudden, he’s invisible because everyone just assumes he’s a waiter. Put him in 1930’s New Jersey and the overt racial bias is much less amusing. Put historical expert Lucy in 1970s Washington and she knows all about the political scandals – but has no clue about the Black Power movement because that was never something a white girl like her would study. Fortunately Rufus did, even if it was just to impress a girl. You get the idea.

This is precisely what I meant when I asserted “There’s a point to ‘rainbow sprinkles’ for writing and ice-cream”, when that particular sneer about increased diversity in SF&F was circulating a while back.

This sort of thing makes viewing and reading so much more interesting. So let’s see much more of it.

Why this weekend’s reading has got me writing.

Longstanding readers will know that I generally sign off a year’s blogging on Christmas Eve and resume around January 2nd. They’ll be wondering what’s happened, given this is my first post of 2017. Well, I simply haven’t known what to say.

Charlatans and crooks have got hold of the reins of power in the UK and the US. Our alleged leaders have been lurching from one glibly aspirational sound-bite to the next, with no clear plan for anything and even less understanding of the complex issues they’re facing. Insulated by wealthy and privilege, they’re going to make narrow-minded, dogmatic decisions which will have a devastating impact on ordinary people’s lives. All of which is sufficiently apparent in the mass media without this particular blog adding to the chorus of despair.

Doing book promo stuff instead? That’s been feeling like saying ‘well, yes, I know the world’s going to hell in a handbasket, but while you’re waiting for the sky to fall in, how about an enjoyable read?’ Just for me, please note. I’ve been seeing other people’s book stuff and thinking, ‘how nice, something positive for a change’. Logic does not necessarily apply in these circumstances.

So what’s changed? The Women’s March. All the women’s marches, all around the world, from Antarctica to Alaska and everywhere in between. Reading all those placards; witty, funny, furious, uncompromising. Seeing so much support for all women, of all ages, regardless of race, religion, disability, cis and transgender alike. So much support from men, gay, straight, whatever. So much collective determination to defend human rights for all.

Seeing SF&Fantasy so evident in the images and quotes on display, from Princess Leia to Xena, Warrior Princess to Wonder Woman. Not to mention Doctor Who/Peter Capaldi and Gandalf/Sir Ian McKellen marching in London (carrying a poster of Jon Luc Picard/Patrick Stewart).

Within 24 hours though, I was also reading attempts to undermine that millions-strong opposition to selfishness, bigotry and greed. Possibly the most ludicrous tweet was that bloke claiming this wasn’t a spontaneous movement because ‘no one could have manufactured and distributed so many pink hats so quickly’. Er, there speaks a man who has no clue how quickly an experienced knitter can work with some spare yarn and a simple pattern freely available on the Net. But there have been more serious attempts. I’m highly suspicious of some of those trying to turn what are vital conversations on understanding intersectionality into blazing rows between one group and another. The selfish, bigoted and greedy have had so much success with ‘divide and rule’ of late.

Why wasn’t I marching myself? Because I have a stinking cold and the worst earache I’ve had since I was a kid. So I’ve been on the sofa, re-reading some Terry Pratchett – specifically Going Postal and Making Money. Both of those are books castigating selfishness, bigotry and greed. So much of Pratchett’s writing challenges us with the cold, hard truth that all that’s necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men and women to do nothing.

Meantime, my friend Catie is reading my Lescari Revolution books. She’s had a couple of questions that had me checking the text to make sure I was giving her the right answers. That’s reminded me I wrote a whole damn trilogy about ordinary people deciding they’re mad as hell about being trampled by the selfish and greedy and getting organised to oppose them. Okay, that’s fiction, but I researched enough real revolutions and popular uprisings throughout history before I wrote those books to know it can be done.

So it’s time to get writing again. Fiction. Non-fiction. Letters and emails to my elected representatives.

And let’s support all those writing the investigative and analytical journalism that will be crucial to exposing our so-called leaders’ lies and restoring democratic accountability.

If you’re going to tell lies, what’s your justification?

We all get used to the idea of little white lies; of resorting to minor dishonesty to smooth over social difficulties. Saying ‘I’m so sorry we can’t come to the party, I’m coming down with some sort of cold and I wouldn’t want to spread it around’. When actually, it’s just been an exhausting week at work and we’d much rather spend Saturday night on our own sofa with a movie on Netflix. Okay, it’s fudging the truth but surely that’s better than causing needless offence?

But where do we draw the line? How far will we go, insisting that the ends will justify the means? I first recall this debate during the ‘Operation Countryman’ investigations into the UK’s Metropolitan Police in the late 1970s. Among the allegations made was the police fabricating evidence, justifying this on the grounds that the crook in question might not be guilty of this particular charge but he had got away with so many other crimes that fitting him up for this one was serving justice regardless. Or that these people were so obviously guilty, even if no one could prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, that the police just gave the prosecution a helping hand by burying something that undermined their case. Wrongdoing for the greater good is excusable, surely? It’s even got a special name now; ‘noble cause corruption’. Just try that phrase on for size a few times. Noble cause corruption. Isn’t it seductive? We all want to think we’re doing something noble. Except, as so many cases have shown, the consequences can be appalling miscarriages of justice. Who’s left feeling so noble once those truths come out?

What has this got to do with storytelling? Well, as the writing cliché goes, conflict is the essence of drama. Writing epic fantasy across four series of novels, I’ve set up my heroes and heroines with all manner of conflicts; murderous sneak-thieves, brutal invaders, arrogant nobles waging war to serve selfish ambitions, and renegade wizards threatening everyone’s peace. In all these stories, a broad array of characters are all serving the greater good with courage, guile and their quick wits. Granted, there’s deception and misdirection involved but that’s understandable and excusable. Noble, even.

Artwork & layout by Ben Baldwin

Artwork & layout by Ben Baldwin

But what if we take this one step further? What if the truth about something is so dangerous, if the consequences of it being revealed are so horribly dangerous, that bare-faced lies must be told to conceal it? Where’s the heroism in deliberately upholding something you know to be calculatedly false? What if those who discover this truth must be silenced by whatever means prove necessary? Where’s the heroism in using violence and threats to coerce innocent bystanders who’ve accidentally stumbled onto a secret? How does someone convince themselves that this sort of behaviour is in any sense noble? If they can’t, but they still have no choice but to act this way, what will that crisis of conscience mean for them? How corrosive will those lies be for their soul? This is the tension that underpins the Shadow Histories of the River Kingdom.

Not that I consciously realised this, when I started writing these stories back in 2008. But that’s the thing about fantasy fiction. It has an uncanny knack of reflecting the world we live in right back at us.

We need to talk about lies, because we live in a world where the celebrity-obsessed rolling-news media are so seduced by ideas of ‘narrative’ that they persist in fitting ‘breaking news’ events into a pre-existing framework before even half the facts are known. When inconvenient facts emerge later, proving something significantly different happened, the truth will struggle to catch the lies which have already gone round the world.

We need to talk about lies, because we live in a world where ‘reality’ TV no longer means documentaries bringing harsh truths into the light but ‘scripted’ and ‘constructed’ entertainments masquerading as real life. Somehow all this has become normalised, even acceptable, even as it colours attitudes and reinforces dangerous prejudices about religion, unemployment, poverty and black and minority ethnic issues.

We need to talk about lies, because we live in a world where massively significant political victories are currently being won by people who tell deliberate and calculated lies. People who just shrug and carry on lying when the truth is waved in their face. Why are they doing this? Because those liars are getting their reward when those desperate and disadvantaged people who desperately want to believe those lies are voting for the lies not the truth. Because, to take just one example currently applicable to the UK and US, the lie of ‘vote for me/my plan and I’ll bring those old jobs back’ is quicker to tell and easier to swallow than a detailed explanation of decades of economic and industrial change which means those jobs are gone beyond recall and creating alternatives requires focused investment, hard work and new thinking.

What’s our excuse for letting such lies go unchallenged? We’re not trying to keep out the monsters from a shadow realm. In our world, allowing these lies to take over means the monsters get a hold over us all.

Desert Island Books for Novacon – E Nesbit – The Phoenix and the Carpet

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As a writer, you’re often asked about your influences. As a fantasy writer, it’s generally assumed that Narnia must have been central to your childhood reading. Now, I certainly read and re-read the Narnia stories, and loved them as a kid, but thinking back to early reading that’s had a lasting influence on me as a reader and writer, I’d say E Nesbit far outweighs CS Lewis. Not least for the far wider variety of the stories she offered. There are the Bastable books, the Psammead books, the House of Arden books – and still more. All of which include so many snippets of information and history and other interesting asides which fascinated me, alongside the thrilling adventures, with or without encounters with magic.

Then there are the elements in Nesbit’s books which Narnia so conspicuously lacks – such as parents. For Nesbit’s child protagonists, parents mean complications both practical and emotional, bringing a whole added level of interest and complexity to their stories. Then there’s loss and change and these children have to cope with those things – just as children of all ages and eras have to cope with such challenges. There’s no getting away from the realities of life, even if you’ve got a magic carpet. Unlike the Pevensie children who can live entire lives as adult rulers of Narnia and still hit the reset button back to childhood by stumbling through the wardrobe the wrong way. Whose reaction to learning everyone has been killed in The Last Battle struck me as unconvincing then and now.

I was never convinced I’d have much in common with the Pevensies. The children in Nesbit’s books? Oh, yes, we’d have got on famously. Not least for their inveterate habit of playing complex imagination games spun off the stories they’d read and things they had seen. That’s how me, my brother and our friends spent our free time after all. And just like us, they had to handle unexpected bad luck, sometimes as a consequence of things they had done, sometimes coming out of the blue. They so often had to negotiate adult rules and expectations, not merely those of their parents. And to decide just how much of the truth, without actually telling lies, they could share with their parents…

Revisiting these books as an adult, I find they stand up to re-reading far better than Narnia. I can also appreciate far more fully the ways Nesbit slides in adult perspectives and preoccupations which the children in the book can only half-grasp, in the same way that I first half-grasped them as a reader. This must have made reading these books aloud far more amusing for parents; think how Pixar do the same in their movies today. Then there are the social conscience elements, reflecting Nesbit’s lifelong commitment to socialism from the 1880s onwards. In this particular book, the children’s lives include servants as a matter of course but Nesbit shows their cook has good reason to be so exasperated. When the children encounter a burglar, it’s soon apparent his descent into crime stems from social ills rather than a degenerate personality.

It’s worth noting that these are the particular aspects that stood out in my memory when I was trying to decide which particular book of Nesbit’s to choose for this Desert Island collection – the cook, the burglar, the phoenix’s transitory nature and the fact that carpets wear out.

Incidentally, I’ve learned far more about Nesbit’s life and political activism over the years and that’s a fascinating story in its own right. From the writerly point of view, she really does deserve far more recognition than she gets today, when people are discussing the origins of current fantasy writing.

(Next up, the American writers who expanded my understanding of SF)

Gender in Genre and the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off 2016

Following my last post, I’m indebted to Kevin Beynon for directing my attention to the finalists in this year’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off – an admirable initiative from best-selling epic fantasy author Mark Lawrence, which aspiring writers and fantasy fans alike should definitely take a look at.

At the start of this year’s competition, Mark invited self-published fantasy authors to submit their books which were then divided randomly among ten established and well-regarded book bloggers/review sites. Each blogger read those submissions with an experienced and critical eye – the sort of consideration any literary agent or editor will give a hopeful new story. They’ve now put forward their favourite for the final. All the bloggers will now read all the books and score them out of ten, generating a cumulative score to determine the overall winner.

Here’s the first thing that’s significant for the current gender in genre discussion. This year’s finalists are five men and five women. What does this tell us? As far as I am concerned, it indicates yet again that when a playing field is level, as far as writing is concerned, gender bias pretty much evaporates.

I’ve seen this in several writing competitions now, where I’ve judged short stories blind – which is to say, all the entries were reformatted and sent to me without any names or indicators of the author’s gender. Every time, when it comes to picking a shortlist, once the winners have been chosen and the curtain is drawn back, that selection proves to be evenly balanced for gender. I’ve found exactly the same in writing competitions I’ve played no part in.

It also reminds me of one key finding when I analysed Waterstones’ promotional emails for signs of gender bias. In the ‘Staff Picks’ and ‘What We’re Reading’ sections where recommendations came from booksellers and customers based on what they’d enjoyed reading, those choices were 53% male, 47% female.

When the only thing that counts is what readers make of the writing, the story really is all that matters.

The second thing I’m seeing here? Out of three hundred SPFBO submissions this year, the field was 49% male, 33% female and 18 unknown as they were using initials. Can we assume those initials all belong to women? I’d say that’s a risky assumption – and even if that were the case, that still means only a third of the books were written by women prepared to raise a hand to be identified as such. What does that tell us?

Once again, it confirms something I’ve seen time and again since I started writing about inequalities in visibility in SF&F. Something I’ve had confirmed as an endemic problem in fields such as medicine, science, computing, literary criticism, history and the law. Women are still culturally conditioned to put themselves forward much less and to hold their own work to a far higher standard before offering it for publication. It’s a problem that frustrates and infuriates editors, from those working on academic journals, through fiction anthologies in all genres, to the commissioning editors in publishing houses. With the best will in the world, the best initiatives to improve diversity and representation can only work if those who’ve been historically excluded now step forward.

Which means those who’ve been historically excluded need to feel they can step forward. That they can raise a hand without it getting slapped down. That their work will be judged on its merits and nothing else. Which absolutely doesn’t mean initiatives that offer patronising, special treatment or give anyone a pass for substandard work. That merely entrenches the idea that these people cannot make the grade unless the standard is lowered to accommodate them. That’s as counter-productive as it is insulting.

So this brings us back to that level playing field. How do we achieve it? How about taking that idea of no special treatment one step further? Let’s stop giving one privileged group the lion’s share of promotion and publicity. Review coverage, promotion through social media, recommendations, citations and award nominations, anthology selections and more besides, remain stubbornly skewed in favour of white male writers. They get roughly two-thirds of the publicity that’s so vital for the word-of-mouth popularity which sustains a writer’s career. Everyone else gets to share the third that remains.

When the vast majority of white male writers working today never sought such favouritism. They find the dead hand of cultural inertia and institutional racism/sexism as problematic as anyone else. Not least for themselves. They don’t want to win awards for writing the best SF/Fantasy/Horror book from a westernised white male. They want to win for writing the best book in that field from anyone! That old saying that a woman has to be twice as good as a man to get half the recognition? It has a flipside. Winning a competition that’s rigged so you can do half the work for twice as much reward as the opposition? Is that prize really worth having?

We have a long way to go. Everyone needs to play their part. Readers and writers alike will benefit and that can only be good for our genre.

Meantime, this particular competition’s outcome is an encouraging sign of progress for me.

Andrew Marr’s Paperback Heroes – a masculine view of epic fantasy entrenching bias.

Two things happened on Monday 24th October. News of Sheri S Tepper’s death spread – and a lot of people on social media wondered why isn’t her brilliant, innovative and challenging science fiction and fantasy writing better known?

Then the BBC broadcast the second episode of Andrew Marr’s series on popular fiction, looking at epic fantasy.

The programme featured discussion of the work of seven, perhaps eight, major writers – six men and one, perhaps two women if you include the very passing reference to J K Rowling .

Four male writers were interviewed and one woman. Please note that the woman was interviewed solely in the context of fantasy written for children.

If you total up all the writers included, adding in cover shots or single-sentence name checks, eleven men get a look-in, compared to six women. Of those women, three got no more than a name check and one got no more than a screenshot of a single book.

It was an interesting programme, if simplistic in its view, to my mind. There’s a lot of fantasy written nowadays that goes beyond the old Hero’s Journey template. There’s a great deal to the genre today that isn’t the male-dominated grimdarkery which this programme implied is currently the be-all and end-all of the genre.

But of course, I can hear the justifications already. A general interest programme like this one isn’t for the dedicated fans, still less working writers like me. For mass appeal it must feature authors whom people outside genre circles have heard of, and whose books they’ll see in the shops. If these books just happen to be mostly written by men, well, that’s just the way it is.

Am I saying these aren’t good books which have a well-deserved place in the genre’s origins and evolution? No, of course I’m not. All these featured and interviewed writers are deservedly popular, their books widely read, and their work is illustrative of points well worth making about fantasy.

But those same points could have been made just as effectively while featuring a more balanced selection of writers, from the genre’s origins to the present day. So what if that means including less familiar names? Do you honestly think readers interested enough to watch a programme like this will object to discovering a new author to enjoy?

When such a programme has a marked gender skew, it matters. This selection guarantees these are the books that’ll get a sales boost from this high-level exposure. So when the next programme maker comes along to see what’s popular, maybe with a view to a dramatisation or to feature in a documentary, he’ll see that same male-dominated landscape. So that’s the selection of books that will get the next chance of mainstream exposure. Thus the self-fulfilling prophecy of promoting what sells, thereby guaranteeing that’s what sells best, continues to entrench gender bias.

If you’re wondering how the work of writers like Sheri S Tepper and so many other ground-breaking women writers is so persistently overlooked, you need look no further than programmes likes this.

(For more – lots more – on equality issues within SF&F, click here)

In which we discover Anne McCaffrey was a lot more prescient than me!

As the news of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature has gone racing round the world, to a wide range of reactions (to say the very least!) my response has been perhaps a little different to most.

Because I remembered writing this, back in 2012, when I wrote an appreciation of Anne McCaffrey’s ‘The Ship Who Sang’ for SFX magazine’s Book Club column.

While some detail now seems dated, notably reverence for Bob Dylan to equal Shakespeare, …

Shows how much I know 🙂

The specific story where Dylan’s music plays a vital role is ‘The Ship Who Killed’, first published in 1966. Helva, the brainship, is partnered with Kira, a practising ‘Dylanist’. What’s that? Kira explains:

‘A Dylanist is a social commentator, a protestor, using music as a weapon, a stimulus. A skilled Dylanist … can make so compelling an argument with melody and words that what he wants to say becomes insinuated into the subconscious

A really talented Dylan stylist … can create a melody with a message that everyone sings or hums, whistles or drums, in spite of himself. Why, you can even wake up in the morning with a good Dylan-styled song singing in your head. You can imagine how effective that is when you’re proselytising for a cause.”

For those who might like to read the whole piece, I’ve added it to my reviews page. Hopefully I can find time to add a few more recent reads there sometime!

Here’s an Amazon link to tell you a bit more about the book, always remembering you can buy it from any other retailer online – or why not visit your local bookshop?

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Good things on the Internet – SFF Writers blog for mental wellness #HoldOnToTheLight

The best writing reflects real life and day to day challenges to mental health are a reality for everyone, to a greater or lesser extent. Through September and October dozens of authors will be blogging about mental wellness, mental illness, depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD treatment and related issues.

Gosh, that sounds like a whole load of fun… really?

Don’t be fooled. This isn’t some worthy gloom-fest. Look at that hashtag #HoldOnToTheLight. This initiative is about illumination, about exploration, about using the power of the Internet for something positive.

Few things are as isolating as the struggle for mental health. This campaign is already highlighting that whatever your particular challenge may be, you are not alone. If you’re desperate to help a burdened friend but don’t know what to do for the best, see what you can learn from the experiences of those who’ve already been there and done that, from both sides of the issue.

So check out that hashtag on Twitter. Keep your eyes open on Facebook and other social media. I’ll be writing my own post towards the end of this month.

Meantime, here’s more from Gail Z Martin about the project.

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Holiday reflections (and eagles)

We’ve recently spent a week in the Ardennes, Belgium. Specifically, in a miniscule village about 8 miles outside Bastogne. We rented a ground floor apartment in a barn conversion with thick stone walls, tiled floors and those continental shutters that the sons still insist on calling ‘blast doors’ after first encountering them at the age of ten or so, when they were really getting into the thrills of SF. So even with outdoor temperatures in the high twenties centigrade, that was a wonderfully cool place to relax, especially after a week spent working in the Netherlands in 35C heat.

Why Bastogne? Well, both Husband and I are interested in history and this area is famous as the arena for the World War Two ‘Battle of the Bulge’. We have a particular interest in this as my brother in law is a historical re-enactor with a group honouring the 101st Airborne, The Screaming Eagles, who were besieged in Bastogne by the German counter-attack of December 1944. When the Germans invited them to surrender, the U.S. commanding officer, General McAuliffe sent back the simple reply ‘Nuts’. This apparently baffled the Germans comprehensively.

If this is all new to you, I can seriously recommend the TV series ‘Band of Brothers’ for an overview of post D-Day WWII. If you’re already interested in such things, we visited and can very much recommend the Bastogne War Museum at the Mardasson Memorial, the 101st Airborne Museum in Bastogne itself and also the Bastogne Barracks, still a Belgian Army base where the soldiers offer guided tours of what were the U.S. HQ buildings, now with historical displays, along with one of the finest collections of World War Two military vehicles we’ve seen, including some real rarities.

If you’re not interested in such things? If you consider all this to be ‘old, unhappy, far-off things and battles long ago,’? I’d still recommend a visit to the area as it offers wonderful opportunities for outdoor pursuits of all kinds; hiking, cycling etc, through a beautiful region. While you’re there, you might like visit one of those museums and I think you will find more contemporary relevance than you might imagine. Exploring the rise of fascist nationalism in the 1930s, displays used contemporary documents and sources to highlight the failure of the political establishment as parties in all countries became more interested in internal back-biting and rivalries than tackling the very real, severe economic hardships and social inequalities which ordinary people faced. The demagogues – to the extreme left and the extreme right – offered simple-sounding solutions. They promised to sort everything out, they pointed the finger at easy scapegoats – and no one countered their deceptive narrative.

In the era of Trump and Brexit, that should give us all pause for thought. From the UK perspective in particular, I was struck yet again by how different the European experience of World War Two was from the British one. These museums make plain the impact of the war on the civilian population. There were the posters detailing requirements for the compulsory registration of Jews. Turn up on the appointed day and give all the details of your family, your parents, your grandparents, everyone’s dates of birth, addresses etc. – or else. Sabotage and any other resistance activity was strictly forbidden – warning posters specifically included such things as turning up late for work, or not doing your job with sufficient enthusiasm…

I recall my grandmother talking about getting twin babies and a dog down to the air raid shelter night after night on England’s south coast. They were in very real danger, as were all my relatives. In Bastogne I saw a video of a woman of much the same age, recalling spending two nights outdoors hiding in a wood in freezing temperatures with her baby. Driven back into the town by hunger and desperation, she was caught in a bombardment and both were injured. Her baby died of his wounds two days later. There are people suffering the same today. The 101st Airborne Museum has an audio-visual presentation in one of the building’s cellars. It gives you something of the experience of the townsfolk sheltering in those very cellars as the war raged overhead. Sitting there, with my ears ringing, dazzled by the flashes of light in the darkness and feeling the floor shake beneath my feet, I was forcefully struck by the thought, ‘This must be what life is like in Syria now’.

It’s not just the museums. I’m used to English village war memorials listing tragic losses through 1914-18 and 1939-45. I wince when I see the same surnames repeated, as families lost successive generations of fathers, sons, brothers, husbands, uncles. In Europe though, as I saw time and again on this trip, these memorials also have lists of ‘civilians’, ‘resistants’ or simply ‘shot by the Germans’. In some cases those outnumber those who died in the armed forces – in villages of under a hundred houses. No wonder the peaceful co-operation of the European Union (yes, with all its flaws) is so valued across the Channel. No wonder the couple of ordinary people who raised the subject with me were so baffled and politely indignant about the UK Referendum – both the campaign’s distortions and lies, and the vote’s outcome.

Gosh this all sounds very serious. Yes, such things are, and they matter, and I value these experiences which inform and expand my understanding. We also had plenty of fun as well as relaxing with books, DVDs and computer games according to taste. We had some splendid meals out; the local cuisine is good, hearty, farmland food. The countryside is lovely and the people are friendly and welcoming – and French speaking which was a relief as my Dutch is still really minimal.

We visited the Musee des Celtes and that was well worth the trip. It’s small, six rooms over two floors of an old building but with some nice artefacts well displayed, plus a replica Celtic chariot since chariot burials are a notable local feature. Overall it does a sound job of focusing on the specifically Ardennes Celtic populations and archaeology, within the overall context of Celts Europe-wide. That was interesting of itself to us since we’re so used to the Celtic focus being Scots/Welsh/Irish. There’s stuff to keep children interested, plus a wrap-up display about Celts in popular culture today, featuring Asterix, naturally. An interesting side note was the display on the 19th century Celtic Revival in the context of Belgian nationalism. I think I learned more specifically Belgian history that week than I’ve ever known before.

The displays and audio visuals are primarily in French but there is a English booklet offered which translates all the display case cards – in some cases rather amusingly. ‘The defunct’ instead of ‘the deceased’ raised a grin. Not that this party of three with two non-French speakers is in any position to feel superior, you understand. Overall, through the week, I was pleased/relieved how well my French held up as the family’s sole communicator, given I’ve never been properly fluent and I don’t use it overmuch.

By contrast, the Chateau de Bouillon is one of the biggest castles we’ve visited. It’s high on a rocky outcrop – and substantially built into it – dominating one of the river valleys that’s been a passage through the Ardennes for Germanic invaders heading west for, well, forever. Consequently this castle’s defences have been successively used, refined and updated from 968 to 1944. The views from it, and of it from the town, are spectacular and its long history is fascinating.

It’s also the only castle we’ve visited where dogs are banned specifically because the resident and apparently highly territorial eagles will see them as prey and attack accordingly… There’s an impressive collection of birds of prey with excellent daily displays featuring assorted owls and raptors from sparrowhawks to steppe eagles. Unsurprisingly I am now thinking how to integrate the new things I learned about falconry into my next fantasy project…

As promised, here are some pictures.

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Interesting things from the last little while – and explaining the recent link posts

I’m doing a lot of background reading, world-building and story-plotting at the moment, as well as the admin and other stuff associated with getting the next ebook out. Then there’s all the domestic administrivia which is mostly down to me at present since Husband’s currently working 12-14 hour days, six days a week, on a demanding new project for a prestigious new client. So me finding time for reflective and interesting blog posts isn’t really happening.

Fortunately there are all sorts of interesting things crossing my radar online.

On the history front – “Vatican library digitises 1,600-year-old edition of Virgil”

The 1,600-year-old document is one of more than 80,000 manuscripts, running to 41m pages, in the library, which was founded in 1451 by Pope Nicholas V.

A major project to digitise all 80,000 documents will ensure that scholars have less need to consult the originals, and also make the texts available to the general public.

“Our library is an important storehouse of the global culture of humankind,” said Cesare Pasini, prefect of the library. “We are delighted the process of digital archiving will make these wonderful ancient manuscripts more widely available to the world and thereby strengthen the deep spirit of humankind’s shared universal heritage.”

On the equality in SFF front – “Eisner Nominee Renae De Liz Shares Short Guide for Artists on How to De-Objectify Female Characters”

Renae De Liz, the Eisner-nominated artist and writer behind such series as The Legend of Wonder Woman, The Last Unicorn and Lady Powerpunch, shared her thoughts on how to draw women without objectifying and oversexualizing them. In her impromptu guide, she tries to dispel many assumptions people have when they set out to draw women because of deep-set trends in comics.

And I found this prompted me to consider the assumptions people make about writing women because of deep-set trends in SF&F

On the technology front – “Slow-motion replays can distort criminal responsibility”

“Researchers found that slowing down footage of violent acts caused viewers to see greater intent to harm than when viewed at normal speed.
Viewing a killing only in slow motion made a jury three times more likely to convict of first degree murder.”

As a lifelong crime and mystery fan, in books and TV/film, I found this very interesting. I’m also thinking about the ways in which perceived technological progress can turn out to be not so helpful after all. When I get round to a longer blogpost, that’s something I want to discuss.

On the SF conventions front – no, I’m not going to discuss the debacle of this year’s World Fantasy Convention programme. For those of you coming late to this story, this particular convention has a long-established lousy record for offering interesting or up-to-date panels and this year’s offering might just as well come with an introductory, explanatory note saying “Yes, we hear you explain how everybody gains from diverse and inclusive programming. WE JUST DON’T CARE”

So how about trying one of the many conventions that offer a packed programme of fascinating discussions between people with plenty of relevant things to say?

Fantasycon by the Sea 23rd- 25th September in Scarborough – guests of honour Mike Carey, Elizabeth Bear, Frances Hardinge, Scott Lynch, Adam Nevill and James Smythe>

Bristolcon – 29th October – guests of honour Fangorn, Ken MacLeod and Sarah Pinborough.