You’ll recall me mentioning I went to this year’s Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature at Pembroke College, Oxford recently. The speaker was Terri Windling and she was reflecting on Tolkien’s Long Shadow.
You may also recall me mentioning that Terri explained a few things about the directions my fantasy writing is currently taking. She talks of her wish for less codified, more mysterious magic as well as a shift, even a loss, in fantasy fiction’s relationships with landscape.
As those of you who’ve read my various River Kingdom short stories will know, the magic there is very far from codified in any way the wizards of Hadrumal would recognise. At the moment, I’m shaping a novel set in this same milieu and I’m finding various people’s relationships with their particular landscape are coming through to shape events.
So I’ll get back to clearing the decks of a few other things, so I can get back to that. Meantime, you can go and enjoy Terri’s talk for yourselves.
Here’s a thing that occurred to me this morning. However advanced and startling your new exploration of a craft may be, it must still abide by and satisfy the fundamental requirements of whatever you are doing.
Let me explain.
We’re teaching some advanced stuff in our aikido classes at the moment. It’s a small club currently, and with the youngest members off doing exams, we have two students working towards blue belt/2nd kyu and one working towards second level black belt/nidan. Since the other students in the class at the moment are also solidly experienced, we’re working way beyond the ‘stand here, move this foot, then that hand, move here’ level of teaching into refining and enhancing techniques everyone’s already familiar with, as well as using faster and more challenging styles of attack.
With varying degrees of success. Last night I found myself saying more than once, to more than one student, ‘the reason that didn’t work was you didn’t remember the fundamentals of that technique’. And then demonstrating what I meant. What was happening was the student was so focused on the new elements of the attack or some refinement of positioning that had just been explained, that they had cut short or even omitted some element of the actual technique. That allowed a gap to open up or closed up a gap they would need, not taking the attacker’s balance or allowing a recovery, that sort of thing.
The sort of thing we teach from the very start. Because a central aspect to understanding aikido is realising that the early stuff which you learn isn’t the baby steps. It isn’t stuff which you can master and then leave behind as you progress. What you learn at the outset forms the foundation for everything that follows.
Now let us consider books. I’m specifically casting my mind back to the two-hundred-plus books I read in my two years as a Clarke Award judge. Across that broad and varied span of writing, there were some very interesting new approaches and experiments in style, theme, genre-blurring, genre-crossing and more – which ultimately failed, certainly for me, and given their absence from subsequent, substantive discussion, I assume they didn’t make the grade for the other judges either.
Speaking purely for myself, those particular books failed because they were so focused on the new and different thing they were trying to do, that they forgot about the foundations of good writing. Compelling characterisation. Coherent plot progression. Rigorous internal logic. Vivid scene setting. Convincing dialogue. The list goes on. All those things which the reader shouldn’t actually notice happening but which are essential to draw you into a book and keep those pages turning because This Really Matters!
The books that won when I was on the judging panel? The Testament of Jessie Lamb, and Dark Eden? They both broke new ground at the same time as satisfying those fundamental tenets of good writing and thus, good reading.
All of which goes a long way to explain why I have no patience with book reviews that insist we must forgive some obvious shortcoming in a book like clunky prose or a plot hole or an unaccountable absence of anyone but middle-aged white men – again, the list could go on – because this particular special aspect is just so new and shiny!
No. In writing, as in aikido, there must always be balance. The unexpected, the breath-taking, the shocking, the ‘how the hell did that just happen?!’ will only be truly effective when it stems from a solid foundation of essential and well-honed skills.
Just at the moment, I’m thinking about the relationships between writers and a couple of things, one of which is the personal, oral, family history which we learn (proverbially and frequently literally) at our grandmother’s knee. When I’m up to date with current obligations, I plan on blogging accordingly.
Meantime, imagine my delight when I was interviewing Lisa Tuttle for the upcoming issue of Interzone, and conversation turned to this very topic. She’s very kindly expanded on this in a fascinating guest post.
To me, the experience of doing family history research falls somewhere between what it feels like to read a novel and writing one. These people were real, not fictional creations, but their stories have been lost….only scattered references, clues and hints, the occasional memory or newspaper references remain, so I must use my imagination to try to bring them back to life.
The figure who first caught my interest in this way was my great-grandmother, my father’s paternal grandmother, Eugenia Ash Tuttle – “Genie” – who died a couple of years before I was born. Here’s what my Aunt Gracia (my father’s older sister) remembered:
“She travelled all the time, all over the world, and crossed the Atlantic 17 times. When my father was a little boy, he lived in Paris, and spoke French before he spoke English. His mother had great E.S.P. and believed she was clairvoyant. She studied astrology in Egypt. After she divorced Mr Tuttle [this was her third divorce at a time when it was rare], Genie moved to California and starred in silent movies. Late in life, when she was down on her luck (like me) she went to live with her son in Birmingham, Michigan, but she could not stand the quiet, missed the excitement of her life in California, so back she went!”
Genie’s first husband – my great-grandfather — was Robert Elliott Clarke. He was ten years older than 20-year-old Eugenia, who had known him barely twenty-four hours when she married him in Chicago in 1886. He was the son of Irish immigrants, grew up in Brooklyn, left school at fourteen, had worked as an actor and as a voice teacher. Their son, born in 1889, was years later adopted by his stepfather, Clarence Tuttle, and became Robert E. Tuttle.
My grandfather never saw his real father again after the age of about five, and I suspect any discussion of Clarke was verboten for at least as long as Mr Tuttle was around, but later he did some investigating of his own – the copy of his parents’ marriage license was my own starting point, decades later. The story that came down to me was that Clarke had been “physician to the Court of St James” at the time of Queen Victoria.
From a biography of Queen Victoria I learned she’d had a personal physician named Sir James Clark. Could this possibly be my ancestor? The dates did not fit, nor did his life – he never went to America, and nor did his son, who had no children.
My reading was too random to be classified as research. Only after the internet came along, and the wonders of searchable digitized archives and newspapers, did I make a real effort to unravel this old family mystery, and discovered this headline from Washington, D.C. in February 1891:
“Robert E. Clarke Disappears – He Left Many Checks, but No Bank Account”
He’d been selling bogus shares in property investment, and skipped town just in time to avoid arrest. Thanks to the many digitized records available through Ancestry.com, I was able to find out where he “disappeared” to: In March, he applied for a passport, to include his wife Eugenia and their little boy, at the American Embassy in Berlin. He claimed he was a “merchant” from New York.
What they did, how they survived, abroad for the next four years I don’t know. They moved around. They spent time in Paris (where my grandfather learned French) and in London. But I have no detailed evidence of their lives abroad, and that blank spot has inspired a curiosity, which has led to me a fascination with the period. I have read a lot about other people who lived in – and Americans who visited — London, Paris and Berlin in the early 1890s, developing a feel for the zeitgeist of the time. This led me to write fiction – not about my great-grandparents (I want to know them, not turn them into fictional creations) but set in that time, so I embarked on a series of detective stories….and the first novel in the series, The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief, set in London in October and November 1893.
My grandfather returned to the U.S. – for good – with his parents in April 1895. They left Southampton on 4 April 1895, on the Manitoba, bound for New York. It was a single-class passenger liner and there were only 26 passengers on board for that voyage, so they would all have become acquainted during the 12-day journey – I imagine it a bit like a floating house-party. Among the passengers were three prominent members of the Theosophical Society – Dr Archibald Keightley (who had been responsible for bringing the founder of that group, Madame Blavatsky, to Britain from America, paid her bills and supervised the publication of her book The Secret Doctrine), his wife Julia (formerly Mrs Verplank) and their close friend Alice Leighton Cleather. I feel sure Genie would have been fascinated by Theosophy as she was by all such spiritual, esoteric subjects.
On the passenger list, Robert E. Clarke claimed his profession was “Physician.”
I’m guessing this reflected a new scam he’d developed to earn a living whilst in Europe. And he continued to call himself a doctor after he got back to New York, as per an article that appeared in the New York Herald, Monday, 16 December 1895:
MANY SEEKING G. ELLIOTT CLARK.
An Army of Creditors Call at His Former Residence To Find Him Gone
FAT PERSONS DISGRUNTLED
He Agreed to Cure Them Of Obesity, but Many Still Mourn Over Their Corpulency.
How He Made Men Taller.
The story beneath the interesting headlines says that he put the letters “M.D.” after his name on his card, although “he did not openly practice as a physician.” He sold bath salts that were supposed to aid in weight reduction, and special shoe inserts to make men taller. By the time he left – assumed to have returned to London – his wife had taken their son and gone back to her mother in D.C. She did not stay where he might have found her, but went to Chicago, divorced him, and – but the rest is a story for another time.
Last night, Terri Windling explained some very interesting aspects of my current thinking and writing in epic fantasy. Not that she had the least notion of doing any such thing. She was giving the fourth annual Tolkien lecture on fantasy fiction at Pembroke College, Oxford. It was fascinating on many levels. It was being recorded and should that become available online, I’ll make sure to flag it up.
One of the many good things about Terri’s talk last night was the number of women writers she referenced and recommended. As you Bobs know, issues of visibility and diversity are a particular concern of mine.
This week Liz Williams wrote an uncompromisingly realistic piece on the nature of writing careers for Sarah Ash’s ‘Nobody Knew She Was There’ blog series; Schrodinger’s Writer Authors, at whatever stage in the game, should most definitely read this.
Something I’ve been thinking about this week is the role SF and fantasy may well have played in me raising two sons to be young men well aware of diversity and equality issues. My younger sister, now also the mother of two sons, is finding her children surrounded by toys, popular culture and history where the message that it’s men who are important and powerful is constantly reinforced. So this video she flagged up to me was of great interest to us both.
Still, we are making progress. The BBC reported this week on The men who are taking a stand against ‘dude fests’. Specifically, in recent months increasing numbers of high-profile men have been speaking up against the all-male panel at conferences. Which is excellent. While also illustrative of gender issues itself, in that this is now newsworthy because men are speaking up, in a way that the many women’s voices saying just the same has not been…
Seriously. This is what my head was full of when I woke up at 5.30 this morning.
In the near future, sports organisers have given up trying to stop the abuse of performance enhancing drugs. Not least because global media corporations have become dissatisfied by falling audiences, and the attendant loss of advertising revenue, as it’s become harder and harder for athletes to break records and win or lose is now determined by fractions of a second. So designer drugs to increase strength, speed, agility etc are now really big business.
Except it all goes wrong. A laboratory in Oxford genetically engineers a virus to take this sort of therapy to a whole new level. Alas, funding cutbacks and outsourcing vital services mean that things like bio-security are increasingly lax. The virus gets loose and spreads like, well, norovirus. The effects are hyper-aggression, driving violence in every unpleasant manifestation you can imagine. To the exclusion of all else. People forget to eat, only sleep when they collapse from sheer exhaustion, drink only when thirst overwhelms their other urges. So victims end up dead in about three weeks – if someone hasn’t already killed them first.
Survivors head for the hills – in this case, the Cotswolds. This is very much a middle-class disaster. The chapter where our heroes (male and female) are looting the Waitrose on the Botley Road, while trying not to fall victim to the howling mob outside is particularly Wyndham-esque. Which isn’t to say the deaths weren’t unpleasantly graphic. I dream in full colour, full-sensory imagery with added emotional content.
Now the whole thing becomes a post-apocalypse scenario rather than a zombie-variant movie. Our protagonists end up in a remote manor house, among other things, breeding horses, as they fight to keep the infected out and to drive off other groups of survivors. When the virus has burned itself out, they venture back into the city. Finding supplies is a secondary consideration to finding vital knowledge. So they head for the Bodleian libraries.
Since I dream in full colour, full-sensory imagery, the final scene was particularly effective: two people riding horses down Broad Street in the morning sun, the road strewn with decaying corpses, all the modern shops destroyed, while Oxford’s ancient, enduring architecture rises above it all. Hence the waking up completely and absolutely at 5.30 this morning.
So will I be writing this novel? No, not a chance. I have pretty much zero interest in zombie stories as a reader or viewer and have still less interest in writing them myself.
Besides, this isn’t overly original. I amused myself over breakfast by identifying the things my subconscious had knitted together. Including but by no means limited to:
See also – Jurassic Park, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and any number of other ‘Stuff Gets Out of Labs and It All Goes Horribly Wrong’ movies. Plus the upcoming Rio Olympics. Plus discussions on BBC Radio 4 last autumn, following England’s early exit from the last rugby world cup, about what that might mean for ITV’s advertising revenue and the wider loss of income for those towns and venues hosting subsequent matches etc.
So why am I writing this up? Because it really is a good example of how stories come together in a writer’s head. Or at least, in this writer’s head.
Most of all, I want this out of my head. Otherwise I will spend the rest of today getting distracted by new thoughts on tweaking details of the plot, expanding the back story of the various characters, visualising locations with ever more precision.
Do I often have dreams like this? Pretty frequently, especially when I’m not actively working on writing fiction. It’s absolutely no coincidence that I wrapped up the third of the Aldabreshin Compass short stories yesterday – which I will let sit over the weekend before giving it a final polishing pass next week and making it available.
Right, having cleared the mental decks, I will get on with some other work now. 🙂
You’ll recall me mentioning I’d been swapping thoughts with Gail Z Martin about the challenges of ending a multi-volume story? By way of a companion piece to her guest post on this blog , she’s hosting some conclusions I’ve drawn over on her own website.
There’s a fine line to tread between ‘and they all (eventually) lived (more or less) happily ever after’ and ‘they all came full circle and hit the Reset Button’. The first can and arguably should be satisfactorily achieved, because ending a series with overall failure is hardly rewarding the reader for their time and commitment. On the other hand, hitting the Reset Button treats the reader just as badly, when an entire series ultimately fails the ‘So What?’ test. What was the point in following those characters through all that travelling, learning and struggle if nothing has really changed?
Getting the final volume of The Aldabreshin Compass out in ebook has set me thinking about the challenges for a writer when it comes to concluding a series. Since I’m always interested to know what other authors think about a topic that’s got my attention, and noticing her current epic fantasy story is now reaching its own conclusion, I invited Gail Z Martin to share her thoughts on this particular topic. As you’ll see from reading this piece, that was an email very well worth me sending.
When the End Comes
By Gail Z. Martin
Saying goodbye is hard, especially to the people who have been living in your head.
Ending a series is bittersweet, because it brings a story arc to a conclusion, but it often means that those characters who have been in your thoughts every day for years, maybe decades, won’t be hanging out with you anymore.
So how do you wrap up a series in a satisfactory way, and in today’s digital publishing world, is goodbye ever really forever?
I’ve put a bow on two series now: The original Chronicles of the Necromancer/Fallen Kings Cycle series that runs from The Summoner to The Dread, and the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga series that ranges from Ice Forged to Shadow and Flame. I’m happy with the outcome in both cases, but it’s always sad to reach the end of the journey.
As a reader, I still feel sad thinking about series that ended the adventures of characters I’d come to love, like the Harry Potter series or the Last Herald Mage series. The series came to a planned conclusion, but it was still sad nonetheless that we wouldn’t be going on new journeys together. Having those experiences helps me make my own decisions as an author to give readers the best wrap-up possible and leave the characters at a good stopping point.
For the record, I think the whole debate about ‘happy endings’ is bull. A book’s ending is an arbitrary point chosen by the author. In the real world, we all have good days and bad days. If we are telling a story and chose to end the write-up on the character’s wedding day or the birth of a child or a big business success, that would be a ‘happy ending’ but it doesn’t ensure that tomorrow the character wouldn’t be hit by a bus, which had the story continued would make it a ‘tragic’ ending. That’s why I don’t think happy endings in and of themselves, properly led up to and reasonably executed are unrealistic. It’s an arbitrary decision of when we stop rolling the film on our character’s lives and let them go their way unobserved. I don’t buy into the idea of tragedy being more real or honest than happiness, or that a tragic ending is more legitimately literary than giving your characters the chance to go out on a good day.
So here’s what I think matters when it comes to wrapping up a series or a multi-book story arc:
1. Wrap up the loose ends. Make sure you’ve got all the characters accounted for, the plot bunnies caged, and the stray threads tucked in neatly. Don’t leave us wondering ‘whatever happened to …”
2. Give us closure. It may turn out that fate and free will are illusions and everything is mere random chance, but if it does, human minds will still be driven to assign meaning and context. So whatever journey or quest your characters have taken, make sure that by the end, we know what it all meant and what comes from it. Leave us with a sense of purpose.
3. Glimpse the future. None of us knows what tomorrow brings, but that doesn’t stop us from making plans. So have your protagonist face the future with the intent to move forward, and let us know what that looks like.
4. Provide emotional satisfaction. If you’ve made us care and cry and laugh and bleed for this character, then the least you can do is give us the emotional satisfaction of knowing how the character feels when it’s all over, and perhaps how the other key characters feel as well.
Now for the second part—do we ever have to really reach the end? Thanks to ebooks and the advances in self publishing, it’s possible for authors to continue to create new adventures in series long after the books are out of print or a series has officially ended. After all, authors can make a profit off self-pub sales levels that are far below what a traditional publisher considers viable. Readers love to get additional canon stories. And of course, there are also a growing number of book series that have been reanimated by new writers (Dune, for example) after the original author dies.
I truly think that series extension via ebook is going to continue to grow. There’s a lot of upside, and very little downside. I’ve written three novellas in my Ascendant Kingdoms world that fill in part of the six-year time gap that occurs early in Ice Forged, and I have another three in mind for later this year. (The three stories currently available are Arctic Prison, Cold Fury and Ice Bound, and the coming-soon collection of all three is The King’s Convicts.) They’re every bit as much ‘canon’ as the books, but they’re extra stories that flesh out characters and set up later events.
Likewise, my Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures are prequels to The Summoner, adding up eventually to three serialized novels of backstory for a very popular character. So far, there are 18 short stories and there will be three more novellas by the end of the year. And in the case of the Jonmarc stories, the original publisher asked to do a collection of the first ten short stories plus an exclusive eleventh and bring out the collection in print and ebook (The Shadowed Path, coming in June 2016). That’s a win for me, for readers and for the publisher, because it keeps existing fans happy while potentially bringing in new fans, and it helps me keep a light on for the characters until I get to write the other six books in the series that are bouncing around in my brain.
So there you have it—goodbye doesn’t have to be forever. Every series ending is the beginning of a new series extension. Virtual immortality, for our virtual characters. Seems like a win-win-win to me!
About the Author
Gail Z. Martin is the author of Vendetta: A Deadly Curiosities Novel in her urban fantasy series set in Charleston, SC (Solaris Books); Shadow and Flame the fourth and final book in the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga (Orbit Books); The Shadowed Path (Solaris Books) and Iron and Blood a new Steampunk series (Solaris Books) co-authored with Larry N. Martin.
She is also author of Ice Forged, Reign of Ash and War of Shadows in The Ascendant Kingdoms Saga, The Chronicles of The Necromancer series (The Summoner, The Blood King, Dark Haven, Dark Lady’s Chosen); The Fallen Kings Cycle (The Sworn, The Dread) and the urban fantasy novel Deadly Curiosities. Gail writes three ebook series: The Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures, The Deadly Curiosities Adventures and The Blaine McFadden Adventures. The Storm and Fury Adventures, steampunk stories set in the Iron & Blood world, are co-authored with Larry N. Martin.
Her work has appeared in over 25 US/UK anthologies. Newest anthologies include: The Big Bad 2, Athena’s Daughters, Unexpected Journeys, Heroes, Space, Contact Light, With Great Power, The Weird Wild West, The Side of Good/The Side of Evil, Alien Artifacts, Cinched: Imagination Unbound, Realms of Imagination, Clockwork Universe: Steampunk vs. Aliens, Gaslight and Grimm, and Alternate Sherlocks.
Find her at www.AscendantKingdoms.com, on Twitter @GailZMartin, on Facebook.com/WinterKingdoms, at DisquietingVisions.com blog and GhostInTheMachinePodcast.com, on Goodreads and free excerpts on Wattpad
I once had an amiable conversation with a scientist who genuinely couldn’t see what so enthrals me about history. When it’s happened, the past is done, according to him. Once you know the facts, where else is there to go?
Ah, but whose facts? Because this isn’t maths where a particular equation always gives the same result or chemistry where adding Stuff A to Stuff B has a predictable, repeatable outcome. One of the most fascinating things about studying history is analysing the interpretations of a particular set of known facts and seeing what that particular view tells us about whoever drew those particular conclusions. Because historical scholarship invariably tells us as much about the time and place where it was written, and about who wrote it, as it tells us about the actual historical period under discussion.
For those who were interested when I talked about this at Fantasycon 2015 – and begging the indulgence of any genuine academics reading this – here’s a brief and necessarily broad-brush look at the ways in which classical Greek homosexuality has been viewed in successive decades. Because as the first hand sources make very clear, intense friendships between teenage boys and older men were common and even encouraged. This much is known – but what exactly does that tell us about the society of Athens in the 5th century BCE, according to the historians?
According to classical scholars writing in the 50s and 60s, these were perfectly wholesome relationships where gentlemen with more worldly and military experience would mentor and advise the next generation of Athenian citizens – and there’s absolutely no reason to assume any sexual component to these relationships. NOT AT ALL, according to the prevailing not-very-sub-text of those scholars, because as we all know, Decent Chaps Do Not Get Up To That Sort Of Thing! They would cite the mockery of effeminate characters in Aristophanes’ comedies as indisputable proof and move briskly on.
The thing is, these scholars were not in denial. They weren’t lying or distorting the facts. But they were most assuredly viewing the past through the lens of their own times and society. These are academics who would have been educated and be working in predominantly if not exclusively male environments where the Old Boy Network was a flourishing institution. Given study of the classical world was considered to be the study of history’s greatest thinkers and institutions, a shining example for civilized men to emulate ever since the Enlightenment, seeing similar relationships to their own at work in Classical Athens merely served to endorse their belief in the essential and inevitable benevolence of the patriarchal status quo.
More than that, given the way in which that particular system of education considered the classical world’s stamp of approval defined so much that was worthwhile and praiseworthy, the idea that these friendships could have been homosexual relationships is quite simply untenable for them. Because these men grew up, were educated and were writing in an age when homosexuality was illegal. And not merely illegal in a way that wasn’t actually a problem because kindly, blind eyes were turned. Gay men were imprisoned. They lost their jobs and their families. Some killed themselves. Some killed others to protect their shameful, filthy, guilty secret – as it was seen back then. If you want some idea of society’s prevailing views and their reflection in the media, look into the case of John Vassall, a British civil servant who was blackmailed into spying for the KGB. If the Profumo Affair hadn’t come along, Vassall’s case would be the definitive 60s sex scandal.
So for those scholars to uphold classical civilisation as an exemplary model on the one hand and on the other, to accept that it also included behaviour which they’d been taught to believe was repellent, was quite simply impossible.
Fast forward to the 1970s and 80s when legalisation and the gay rights movement meant gay men could be out, loud and proud, challenging prejudice head on. Now we can find classical scholars offering very different views. Of course all these relationships were fully and physically homosexual, as far as their equally honest and sincere interpretations are now concerned. Without the shame-based culture promulgated by subsequent religions, men in Classical Athens were able to express their natural sexuality exactly as they wished before the obligations of citizenship demanded wives and children from them. Bisexuality was effectively the norm, not the exception, certainly according to some.
Obviously, a degree of decorum was expected. According to this scholarship, that same mockery in Aristophanes makes it plain that the 5th century equivalent of aging, flaming queens were a joke. But homosexuality itself was entirely accepted and acceptable – which of course means that those gay rights proponents could and would now claim that very same Classical Civilisation Stamp of Approval previously so jealously guarded by The Establishment.
Fast forward again to scholarship in the 21st century and to current interpretations informed by the ways in which understanding of gender and sexuality is moving beyond a purely binary view. Not only as a result of campaigners’ efforts but also as an unforeseen consequence of other things. After decades of denial, the issue of AIDS forced civil and military authorities to acknowledge the reality of same-sex encounters in all-male environments such as prisons and the armed forces. Public health considerations required supplying condoms both for avowedly gay men and for those who would have same-sex liaisons even though they still considered themselves wholly straight and who opted for heterosexual relationships outside such environments. Which, for instance, casts quite a different light on Socrates sharing a blanket with Alcibiades while on military service and subsequently marrying a woman as a good Athenian citizen was expected to do.
These days the idea that young men might experiment sexually with each other before settling into heterosexual marriage is (hopefully) unremarkable. Now Aristophanes’ mockery is seen not as lampooning gay men for their sexuality but as targeting those whose excessive self-indulgence of sexual alongside other appetites mean they are failing in their duties as citizens. Provided a man meets those obligations, how he chooses to satisfy his sexual desires, gay or straight, isn’t the central issue, according to current readings. Add to that, there’s now plenty of evidence for male and female prostitutes working in classical Athens and no stigma in visiting them.
Which isn’t to say that these relationships between teenage boys and older men aren’t a concern for current scholars. It’s the cause for concern that’s changed. When 5th century sources say that the younger partner should be beardless and with hairless thighs, does this mean prepubescent? If so, academics are now very keen to discuss how very much later puberty occurred in the days before modern nutrition, with secondary sexual characteristics appearing as late as sixteen or seventeen years of age. And how old is the senior partner in that particular historical context? Primary evidence is emphatically cited for such relationships only being socially acceptable for men up to their late twenties or early thirties. Scholars flag up contemporary sources condemning those in their forties and fifties seeking out the very young – in other words, exactly the sort of men whom we now consider predatory paedophiles. It’ll be interesting to see if these interpretations still stand unchanged in twenty years’ time or if they are considered at least in part, as a reflection of this particular decade’s belated acknowledgement of, and overdue resolve to prevent, child abuse.
So it really is at least as important to look at who’s telling you something about history, and the time and context within which they are working, as it is to look at the thing itself. Personally I think this is particularly important for writers of epic fantasy who may well start out, at least, by drawing on the history they recall from school and on general resources, particularly online, which are far more likely to draw on recycled and outdated material than to be keeping current with the latest academic research.
And of course, looking at who’s telling you something is an equally valuable skill when it comes to analysing the pronouncements of modern politicians and the mass media so eager to push their own political and commercial agenda. As Cicero used to say – and he was no slouch when it came to manipulating opinion – ‘Cui bono?’ Who benefits?
Over on Kate Elliott’s website, I’ve contributed a piece on Tropes to her Worldbuilding Wednesdays series of posts – all well worth reading, incidentally, just like her novels.
Just what is a trope and what should you do with it?
It’s one of those words batted back and forth in creative writing conversations, and if everyone else nods wisely but you don’t actually know what it means mostly you’ll mostly sit quietly and try to work out what it means from context.
Unless you can stealthily look up a definition in an online dictionary. Though that may not be overly helpful. According to the Concise OED, it’s ‘a figurative (e.g. metaphorical or ironical) use of a word’, from the Greek/Latin for ‘to turn’. Merriam Webster is more useful. ‘A common or overused theme or device’.
Oh, so it’s another word for cliché? Yes and no, and this is why this particular word has become useful in discussions about plot, character, setting and all the other intricacies of creating convincing fiction.
What’s this particular anthology about? Well, here’s the back cover copy…
What might we run into as we expand beyond Earth and into the stars? As we explore our own solar system and beyond, it seems inevitable that we’ll run into aliens … and what they’ve left behind. Alien artifacts: what might they reveal about us as we try to unlock their secrets? What might they reveal about the universe?
In this anthology, nineteen of today’s leading science fiction and fantasy authors explore how discovering long lost relics of alien civilizations might change humanity. Join Walter H. Hunt, Julie Novakova, David Farland, Angela D. Penrose, S.C. Butler, Gail Z. Martin & Larry N. Martin, Juliet E. McKenna, Sharon Lee & Steve Miller, Andrija Popovic, Jacey Bedford, Sofie Bird, James Van Pelt, Gini Koch, Anthony Lowe, Jennifer Dunne, Coral Moore, Daniel J. Davis, C.S. Friedman, and Seanan McGuire as they discover the stars and the secrets they may hold—both dark and deadly and awe-inspiring.
My story now has a title, The Sphere, and if you click through you can look for clues in the list of tales from everyone else. As well as seeing the very fine cover art and for details on the book’s publication date and how to order it.
And by the way, do check out Joshua’s books, and novels from his alter ego Benjamin Tate, the next time you’re looking for a good read.
You’ll recall how much I enjoyed reading Zen Cho’s debut novel, Sorcerer to the Crown. (If you missed my review, click here) So I’m extremely pleased to host this illuminating and thoughtful post reflecting on that story’s origins and her experiences as a newly published writer.
My year of saying no
In 2015 I became super obsessed with the BBC miniseries Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. This wasn’t terribly surprising – I love the book and have reread it several times, and the series had everything I like: men and women in pretty period outfits, magic, humour, and even a touch of the numinous. It wasn’t a perfect adaptation, but an adaptation that’s sort of almost there but not quite is perfect for inducing fannish obsessiveness.
What was new and surprising was that, for the first time, I started identifying with Jonathan Strange. Jonathan Strange is nothing like me. He’s a fictional rich white dude who would be dead now if he was ever alive. I’m a real middle-class Chinese Malaysian woman who’s only spent time in 1800s England in her imagination. He’s the Second Greatest Magician of the Age. I’m a lawyer who moonlights as a moderately obscure fantasy writer.
I’m also fundamentally not as much of a douche (I love the character, but it’s gotta be said). I take no credit for this. It is because I was socialised as a woman and was therefore taught things like listening skills and how to feel guilty for taking up space in the world.
But there was one big thing I had in common with Jonathan Strange. We had both figured out what we’d been put on earth to do, and we were doing it. The vocations we had each chosen were potentially of great value and importance to society as a whole — magic in Jonathan Strange’s case; writing in mine — but we were mainly doing it for selfish reasons rather than to benefit anyone else. Nevertheless our work felt like a great and serious charge, and what this charge required of us was a determined selfishness.
In 2015 my first novel came out. It was a bit like getting married: it meant that something that had been private suddenly became very public, and people treated me differently about something I’d been working away quietly at for years. And it also meant that people started wanting stuff from me. They wanted me to answer questions, write blog posts, submit to anthologies, show up to events, blurb books, critique manuscripts ….
It’s nice to be wanted, of course, and it was a refreshing novelty. As with most writers, rejection is the backing track of my life, so it was nice for once to hear “please will you?” instead of “no, thank you”. But it meant I had more demands on my time than ever before, when I had less time than ever before.
I had to learn to say no. Which was hard, because women aren’t encouraged to say no, and they especially aren’t encouraged to refuse to help other people. We’re supposed to be nurturing. Fortunately, I am pretty bad at being nurturing, but even so I struggled.
A lot of the requests I get are for nice things, things that support diversity in SFF and publishing, which is something I both care about and benefit from. How could I refuse when it was for such a good cause?
But I realised that if I was not ferociously protective of my time — if I didn’t play that role of The Rude Genius — I would soon find it sucked up in mostly uncompensated labour, in things that weren’t writing my own stories.
I don’t, in fact, have a room of my own. I have a sofa and an inbox full of requests for publishing advice that the querier could Google for themselves. So I’m learning to patrol the boundaries of the uncluttered space I need for writing — and for living, because I don’t owe anyone time and attention even if I’m not rushing to meet a deadline.
I’m still not as good at saying no as I should be, but I’ve already been accused of being grand for the appalling crime of not answering emails. I wonder whether the same accusation would be lobbed at me if I was a white man. We expect men, especially white men, to be rude geniuses. But it seems we feel entitled to the time and energy of women, especially Asian women.
You’ll point out I’m not a genius, which is true, but then I’m also not that rude. I say yes far more often than I say no. There’s still that fear, whenever I turn something down, that I should make the most of any attention I’m getting now, because people will stop asking eventually.
But you know what? I have never, not once, regretted saying no. And even if people stop asking and go away, it’s not like they’ll take the stories with them. Writing is mine – and it would be foolish to let a general sense of obligation to the world at large chip away at it. Jonathan Strange would definitely say something sardonic about that.