Tag Archive | fantasy

She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness — more of why I love sf/f

Anthony Head, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Brandon Nicholas, Allison Hannagan and James Marsters from a BtVS publicity shot.

Anthony Head, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Brandon Nicholas, Allison Hannagan and James Marsters from a BtVS publicity shot.

I am one of the biggest, craziest Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans you will ever meet. But I wasn’t always one. I saw the original movie when it came out, and thought it was very funny. There were some things I didn’t like about it, but it was a good laugh and a fun inversion of the typical teen horror film. Then a few years later I heard they were making a television series out of it, and I was certain it would be very bad. My late husband, Ray, watched it from the beginning when it started airing as a midseason replacement in March of 1997 and told me it was awesome. At the time, it aired on a night when I frequently had board meetings or committee meetings for the chorus, so I wasn’t home while he was watching it.

He managed to get me to watch an episode or two with him that summer, because he had a lot of the season on video tape. I don’t remember hating it, but it also didn’t really grab me. Season two started that fall. I remember one particular evening when I got home for chorus rehearsal that Ray was telling me about the show and how much he was looking forward to next week’s episode, because there had been a cliffhanger.

Two nights later, Ray had a seizure and went into a coma. Then he died, and I fell apart.

Some time after he died, I was alone in the house doing something, and I heard a noise from another room. I went to see what was going on, and one of the VCRs was rewinding furiously, then popped its tape out. In 1997 DVRs didn’t exist. We owned three video cassette recorders, though, and Ray had a complicated schedule of pre-programmed recordings, and a pile of labeled tapes. He would swap out tapes at different times in the week, so that the different machines would record the next episode of whichever series was kept on that tape.

And I hadn’t been keeping up.

This was maybe two weeks after Ray had died. I was still deep in the shell-shocked stage of grieving. So the idea that I hadn’t kept Ray’s rotation going seized me as a terrible thing. I was letting him down! I had let the wrong shows get recorded on the wrong tapes! Who knows what else I had messed up? Never mind that Ray was beyond caring about these things. I wasn’t rational. When someone you love dies, even the most stoic and logical person has some moments of irrationality over take them.

So I tried to sort out what was going on with the tapes. And that’s how I ended up watching all of the season two episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, along with about half of the season one episodes out of order (because his labelling system wasn’t always discernible to anyone but him) in a very short time.

There’s a lot of things that happened to me in those first few months after Ray died that I don’t remember clearly. But one of the few crystal clear moments was one point when I was staring at the TV and I said aloud, “Dang it, Ray! You were right. This show is incredible!”

I was addicted.

Don’t get me wrong, the show has problems. I can rant for hours and hours about how monumentally awful were most of the decisions the writers made in season six, for instance. And the many ways that season seven doubled down on some of the failure. Even before the universally despised season six, there was the incredible frustration of how the first half of season four showed such brilliance and promise of taking things to a new level, then collapsed into a world of disappointment and lost opportunity. And oy! Trying to make sense of both the explicit and implicit contradictions about the nature of magic, demons, the biology of vampires…!

Dru and Spike!

Dru and Spike!

But there were so many things the show got right. One of the things they got most right is casting James Marsters and Juliet Landau as Spike and Drusilla, the Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen of the undead set (and if you don’t know who they are, your life is sadly lacking in Sex Pistols, is all I’m saying). There was a point, after I had acquired the complete DVD set of season two of the series, where literally at least once a week I re-watched the episode that introduced Spike and Dru, “School Hard.” They were evil and cold and vicious and Dru is crazier than a coked out mutt in a hubcap factory. But they were also madly deeply in love. Spike rather proudly proclaimed himself love’s bitch in a later season, “at least I’m man enough to admit it!”

What made the show work was the relationships between the characters. Joss Whedon and his crew created a world in which a small, pretty girl regularly kicked the butts of evil creatures. A world where the real problems that teens try to deal with often made the monsters seem trivial by comparison. Some of the creatures of darkness were metaphors for the problems humans face coming of age, yep. And sometimes the parallel between the mundane story lines and the supernatural ones were a little on the nose.

But then there were the moments of brilliance, such as when everything had been taken from her: her first love turned evil, her best friend lying dying in a hospital, she’s been kicked out of her home, everything she cared about either broken, dying, or lost; the villain has fought her back into a corner and is berating her about all she has lost and all who have abandoned her. “What have you got?” he asks with a sneer, as he thrusts what we think is a killing blow with an enchanted sword. She catches the blade between her hands, looks him in the eye with the most amazing fuck-you glare of determination and says, “I’ve got me.” Then proceeds to kick his butt and save the world.

Those sorts of moments, where a simple refusal to give up in the face of impossible odds, and the many times that various characters in the story sacrificed for their loved ones and found a way out of a hopeless situation—they were what made the ups and downs of the show worth it. And I want to be clear: one of the things they did right more than once was not that the characters found that one last glimmer of hope in the midst of despair and defeat; rather, the characters made their own hope. Yes, Buffy was about empowerment. Buffy was about the damsel being able to rescue herself. Buffy was about turning notions of victims and saviors on their heads. Buffy was about seeing that the questions of good vs evil aren’t always black and white; that part of being a hero (and a big part of growing up) is about learning to make your way through all those shades of grey without losing yourself.

But mostly, Buffy was about love, chosen families, and not giving up.

Destiny, prophecy, self-discovery, and love — more of why I love sf/f

Cover of Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell, cover design by Olga Grlic (click to embiggen)

Cover of Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell, cover design by Olga Grlic (click to embiggen)

Carry On — The Rise and Fall of Simon Snow is a ghost story, a love story and a mystery.” So begins the official blurb on this novel that I found myself enjoying far more than I thought I would. First, an explanation. Rainbow Rowell, the author of Carry On first came to my attention through a recommendation on a podcast. Her work was described by one of the people on the podcast as being young adult novels that didn’t feel like YA. They also noted that she handled non-heterosexual characters really well. So I looked up some of her books and put them on my wish lists, but I hadn’t gotten around to actually trying one.

And then fan art for a book that seemed to be about teen wizards (but not characters I recognized) started appearing on my tumblr dashboard for a series that I’d never heard of: the Simon Snow series. Except there is no Simon Snow series. One of the novels by Ms. Rowell that I’d put on my list was entitled, Fangirl, and the blurb was that the main character, Cath, is just starting college, and that for the last few years her life has been dominated by her love for a series of urban fantasy novels. And these novels star a young man named Simon Snow.

In order to write convincingly about a fan who is very active in writing fanfic and has a number of close friends within the fandom, Rowell had to plot out a fictitious fantasy series. At least enough for the characters to talk about it as if it were a real series. Fangirl was a success, and received a lot of praise, particularly in sf/f circles, despite not being a fantasy story itself, because the portrayal of fannish culture was considered spot on.

After finishing that book, Rowell wound up writing a Simon Snow book. She didn’t write the entire series, she wrote a book that can be looked on as the next book that was published after all the books that Cath and her friends had been fans of in 2013 (when Fangirl was published). So, Carry On is not a sequel to Fangirl. Carry On is a sequel to the fictitious series which is talked about in Fangirl.

The magical world of Carry On bears a strong resemblance to the Harry Potter series, though it isn’t a parody or a satire. It also bears certain parallels to other young adult fantasy series. The plot seems straightforward, at first. Simon Snow attends a wizarding school called Watford. He was not born in the wizarding world, but he has immense power and various prophetic signs indicate that he is the person who is destined to defeat the Insidious Humdrum. The Insidious Humdrum is a mysterious being which, when it attacks, drains all of the magic out of the area, leaving what appear to be permanent dead zones where wizards and other magical creatures become powerless. Simon doesn’t know how he is going to defeat this creature, and has so far failed to master his magical powers. His powers are massive, but out of his control, and things tend to get destroyed when he tries to use them. His roommate at the school, Baz (full name, Tyrannus Basilton Grimm-Pitch) is Simon’s nemesis at school, and is assumed by everyone to be the person destined to try to kill Simon when the big battle with the Humdrum finally happens.

But the story isn’t really about the conflict between Simon and the Humdrum. It’s really about the nature of prophecy, what does it mean to be a chosen one, and how people (whether mortal politicians or master mages) twist belief and hope to fit their own agendas. It’s about identity, not just what it means to be a hero or villain (or the fact that it is seldom either/or), but there are allegories for ethnic identity issues and class identity issues. Oh, and more than a bit about sexual and romantic identity (which aren’t always the same thing).

There is a ghost story. There are several mysteries. And there is even a love story. There are battles magical, political, and personal. And it all hangs together very well. I have to admit, I think the wizarding world portrayed in Carry On makes a lot more sense than the world of Harry Potter, or a number of other fantasies of similar ilk, even though the magic part of the story isn’t the main focus of the plot.

I’m not sure that those two observations are unrelated.

I enjoyed the book a lot. I didn’t find most of the plot developments surprises. As one reviewer put it, the revelations as the story moves along feel more like confirmations of your existing suspicions than plot twists. But again, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think that’s part of why the story hangs together better than some other books we could name.

I enjoyed the book a lot. It didn’t end quite as I hoped it would, but it ended in a way that felt right and satisfying regardless. It did make me wish that some of the series and fantasy books had handled their characters as well as Rowell does. I hope that the next person who undertakes this sort of tale takes note.

What’s better than Bikini Armor Battle Damage? Magic Meat March!

Magic Meat Week is reformatting into a month-long challenge (with a theme for every day of March). (click to embiggen)

Magic Meat Week is reformatting into a month-long challenge (with a theme for every day of March). (click to embiggen)

A couple of years ago fantasy illustrator Amanda Sharpe came up with the idea to dedicate an entire week to the creation of hot fantasy dudes… or… as they called it, Magic Meat Week.

For one week each the last couple years they encouraged artists to draw “hella objectified fantasy dudes,” post them to Tumblr, and tag the art #MagicMeatWeek ”

This year they want all of March to be Magic Meat March.

I learned about the event from of the awesome Bikini Armor Damage tumblr. I’ve linked to an written about Bikini Armor Battle Damage before, which pokes fun at the weird sexual objectification and impractical armor drawn on fantasy women in video games, comic books, and so on. You may recall the Bikini Magic Bingo card shared here and many, many places, for instance. Anyway, I’m not a good enough artist to really do this, but I love the idea of putting male characters in the same kinds of strange flesh-baring armor and fantasy costumes the women get drawn in all the time. So I’m spreading the word!

And yes, I like looking at the pretty artwork of the pretty, pretty men. I mean, the empowered men. Right! They’re empowered, not being objectified and shown in ridiculous costumes in overly sexualized poses which would never work in actual combat. No. Empowered. That’s what they are.

Oh! And there’s a theme for each day of the month! The event has its own blog: Magic Meat March. Check it out!

(Hey! I can’t just blog about serious stuff all the time! I’m a queer nerd, after all…)

Crime Does Not Pay (but the hours are good)!

This is one of the covers I made for the gaming binders to help me remember what was in which binder.

This is one of the covers I made for the gaming binders to help me remember what was in which binder.

Back in 1981 I decided that what the world needed was a superhero roleplaying game. At the time, there wasn’t much on the market, and the few games that existed barely qualified as a full-fledged gaming system. But I’d been playing in various roleplaying games for a few years, and had been a superhero comic fan for as long as I could remember (my mom was a comics as well as sci fi/fantasy fan before I was born, so I’m a second generation fan). Since the few games I could find weren’t adequate to my needs for playing at superhero, I invented my own game. I originally called in, unimaginatively, Superheroes. And after about a week of writing up some tables and power descriptions, I talked several members of my gaming group into putting together characters. It wasn’t long before I had enough people playing it, that they started recruiting acquaintances. I made changes and improvements to the rules. Over the course of a few months, I typed a couple hundred pages of rules.

By that time I was running three different groups of players on three different nights of every week.

I ran the last game using the system, and set in the same world and continuity, in the year 2000. I want you to think about that for a moment: I ran a roleplaying campaign, a single campaign setting, with a single history, et al, for 19 years. So when people find out that I’ve got a Victorian Steampunk roleplaying campaign that has been running (with the same core players, same core characters, and in the same continuity) for 16 years and they freak out, I have to point out that it isn’t the longest campaign I’ve run.

There was a point where I re-typed all of the rules for my superhero game into a word processor. And I made more updates and changes to the rules, refining things as we ran into situations that within the game. In the early 90s I was thinking that I might still try to publish the system, and I had changed the name to Crime Does Not Pay (but the hours are good)! The problem was that by then, there were several other superhero based role-playing games on the market, and while I still think there are aspects of mine that were superior to those others, there were also aspects that weren’t.

I should mention that I did get the rules well-defined enough that three of my friends who loved to run games set up their own campaigns. So I got to play in my own system and see how it worked from that point of view.

I’m writing about this now because this last weekend I went through some of the shelves in the computer room, and I emptied out all of the three ring binders, pulled out all the spiral notebooks, and so forth that were full of notes and characters and scenario descriptions and so forth, and put them all into recycle. The scary part as I was going emptying all of those binders was how many of the thousands and thousands of pages of material that was in there was handwritten. In my atrocious printing. But usually in pretty colors, because I love unusual ink colors and I had a tendency to color code my notes as I created villains and supporting characters and scenarios. Or wrote up the fictitious history of small countries or crime fighting organizations, and so on.

Several years ago I made a comment to some friends that, since I hadn’t run a game in the system in years, I should toss all those gaming notes. These friends had been players in the game for years. And one of them was horrified at the idea that I would toss all of that history. So I decided not to tell anyone other than my husband before I went through the shelves.

Usually my inner packrat balks at this sort of thing. I expected it to be more of an emotional trial than it was. But the fact that I haven’t actually run a game, nor seriously looked through any of those notes for this campaign, in more than a decade seems to have given me enough emotional distance to just be amused as I recognized some notes in passing.

The collection of empty three-ring binders left over after I recycled the gaming notes. Please notice that several of more the 4-inch thick binders.

The collection of empty three-ring binders left over after I recycled the gaming notes. Please notice that several of more the 4-inch thick binders.

As you can see from the photo, there were a lot of binders. Several of those were 4-inch binders, which hold about 800 pages each, and at least two were 5-inch binders, which hold 1000 pages each, plus a bunch of 3-inchers, which since they usually have O-rings usually only hold about 570 pages each. When I said thousands and thousands of pages I wasn’t kidding. Keeping the notes organized in binders was always a bit of a challenge. Many years ago I got in the habit of making a title page for the binders, so I could remember that this binder was full of villains, while this one had notes on our never quite completed magic system, and another had notes for older games, while another had the notes for the most recent games and things I was planning.

And there were about a dozen spiral notebooks and several notepads all filled with even more notes. I generated a lot of material running that game for 19 years.

The notebook names were often based on Far Side comics. At least two were based on Calvin and Hobbes strips. As the pages of notes and characters and scenarios piled up, I’d have to make new binders, while older binders would become part of the archives, rather than something I’d get out all of the time.

It’s a little scary to think about how much fictional history we created during all of those games. I should add that when I said it was a single campaign, that’s slightly misleading. As I said I had at one point several groups playing at once, and I kept them separate mostly by basing their characters in different cities. But it was one fictional world, and we did cross-overs. Plus, since it is comic book superheroes, there were occasional adventures where the entire world was in danger. I also set some of the player groups in different time periods. at one point I had two side groups adventuring during the World War II time period, while original three sets had been playing in “the present” so basically the 80s and 90s. Then I had another side group playing in the 70s for. But all of the groups were set in the same world. And yeah, since I had player characters in different time periods occasionally involved in big global events and so forth, the continuity of my fictitious world got nearly as convoluted as that of the big comic book publishers.

Of the six friends who created characters for my first couple of weeks of playing, three have passed away. Of the others, I still have some contact with two on Facebook. I last ran into the sixth player at a science fiction convention around the year 2000, and he had an absolute melt down when he found out I was gay. My friend, Mark, moved to the town where I lived before moving to Seattle in 1983, I think it was, and joined the campaign. He played various characters for nearly 10 years, I think, with some interruptions since he moved to Seattle about a year before I did. And we’re still friends, now. Maybe I should make him a certificate, because I think he might hold the record of the longest player in that game.

I had a lot of fun, and as far as I know the players did, too.

If you want thousands, you have to fight for one — more of why I love sf/f

One of the many covers of various editions of Terry Pratchett's _Small Gods_.

One of the many covers of various editions of Terry Pratchett’s _Small Gods_.

It took me a while to understand Terry Pratchett. Several friends had enthusiastically proclaimed their love for his works. They had waxed eloquently about the hilarity of Guards! Guards, the wondrousness of The Luggage, and the ludicrous fun of the cowardly wizard Rincewind. But when I tried to read the books they recommended, I just didn’t find them engaging. They came across as parodies of fantasy and sword & sorcery, and I just couldn’t get into them. I didn’t understand what my friends saw in them, at all. And one of the books I tried to read back then was Small Gods.The back cover blurb sounded interesting, but I just couldn’t get through the first several pages. It made no sense to me. I didn’t understand how the description of a turtle trying to avoid being eaten by an eagle had anything to do with the the simple novice, Brutha, who only wants to tend his melon patch until he hears the voice of a god calling his name–a small god, but a bossy one. I put the book back down. I was at a friend’s house for something, and waiting, and there was the book sitting on a table.

My friend joined me just as I was setting it down, and asked if I’d ever read the book. So I explained about my previous encounters with Pratchett, and we went off on a long digressive conversation about books we loved, books we tried to get other people to love, books we realized were problematic but still liked, and so forth.

A couple months later, my first husband died. And not long after that I was preparing to head off to spend my Christmas vacation at my Mom’s (which was going to be interesting for many reasons). And a couple days before I left, the same friend stopped by. She was one of many of my friends who had taken to regularly checking on me following Ray’s death, so I thought she was just checking in. She had an additional mission. She had spent a lot of time thinking about what I had said about why I had disliked all of Pratchett’s Discworld novels I had tried to read, thus far, and she was bringing me one book to get me to try again. The book was Wyrd Sisters, which focuses on the witches of the tiny kingdom of Lancre. She explained why she thought I would like it (fairy tale themes given various twists, a lot of Shakespeare references, unconventional characters with deeply-rooted senses of ethics independent of religion), and asked me to give it a try. She cryptically said, “There’s one character in here who I think you’ll really love, but I don’t want to say who, because they need to grow on you.”

The second night of my vacation, I accidentally stayed up all night reading all the way to the end, and was so disappointed that I didn’t have any more Pratchett books to read next, that I started over at the beginning.

I finally understood. Pratchett wasn’t writing parodies, he was writing satire. Going by dictionary definitions of those two words, they may seem to be nearly the same thing. But they aren’t. A parody imitates a specific work or body of work, and makes use of deliberate exaggeration for comic effect. A satire, on the other hand, uses humor, irony, exaggeration or ridicule to critique and analyse human nature. It just so happened the Pratchett did this in many of the Discworld books through the lense of various tropes of fantasy literature.

Once I had found the book that spoke to me, and bonded with characters such as Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, suddenly, the rest of Pratchett’s work made sense. I saw now that the purpose of the jokes was not to poke fun at books and stories I loved, but to make me laugh in such a way that I got new insights into people (and incidentally why we tell some of the stories we tell)1.

Which brings me to Small Gods, one of my favorite books from the entire series2.

cf1f15f34ab9745dfcdd810a6a4e9701Small Gods is built around the notion that in a magical world such as Discworld, believe is what gives gods their power. The Great God Om has been worshipped for centuries in Omnia, because at intervals he returns to earth, manifests in some way, picks a new prophet, does a little smiting, and so forth. When our story begins in Omnia, people are waiting for the god to return and select his Eighth Prophet. Many think he’s overdue. Others are much more concerned with Omnia’s relations with neighboring countries, such as Ephebe. And then there is Brutha, a humble novice that everyone knows isn’t very bright because it’s been impossible to teach him to read, but he’s got a good memory and works hard and never complains as he’s tending garden in one corner of the Citadel in the capitol city. Brutha has a problem: he can hear a voice in his head, and the voice, he is convinced, is coming from a tortoise inexplicably in his garden, and the tortoise insists that he is the Great God Om.

We eventually learn that Om returned to the mortal world three years ago, quite surprised to find himself trapped in the body of a tortoise and almost completely lacking all divine powers. The problem is, you see, that over the last many years, belief—genuine faith in the existence of Om—has dwindled, having been replaced by fear of the Quisition. So now Om is in danger of losing the last of his power and becoming nothing more than a voice in the desert, along with all the small gods that have never had a believer. So he has to find a way, using only the abilities of a tortoise and his one last believer, to make a comeback.

Meanwhile, Deacon Vorbis, the head of the Quisition, is plotting to conquer Ephebe, while simultaneously root out a new underground heretic movement within Omnia. Brutha gets caught up in Vorbis’ plans when Vorbis realizes that Brutha’s memory isn’t just good, it is eidetic. Brutha has no idea why Vorbis has suddenly become interested him him, partially because Brutha has never really questioned anything his whole life. He was raised by a cruel and overzealous grandmother, and believed everything she told him. It isn’t until he meets his god face-to-face that he learns to start thinking for himself. Om, meanwhile, also has some learning to do before the story is over.

Pratchett has a lot of fun in this book with the idea of philosophers. Brutha meets philosophers in Ephebe, including Didactylos, the blind author of a scroll about the physical nature of the Discworld (a vast disc rotating on the back of four giant elephants standing on the back of a great turtle swimming through space), which has become the inspiration of the heretic movement back in Om. The holy books of Om teach that the world is a sphere floating in space on it’s one, revolving around a sun. So believing that the world isn’t flat is heretical.

Over the course of the story we see several aspects of faith and its misapplication. By the end of the story Brutha and Om have enduring various trials (Brutha nearly being burned to death as a heretic himself in the dramatic climax) before Om returns to power, and then finds himself forced to bargain with his new prophet and help transform his religion into one that is less violent. Before they can do that, they have to deal with the small matter of the war Vorbis has started. One of my favorite quotes from this book happens during this part, as Brutha is trying to stop everyone from fighting, and some of his would-be allies are proclaiming their willingness to die for the truth: “The truth is too precious to die for!”

It is easy to look at the book as an indictment of organized religion and blind faith. But I think the people who do that are making the same sort of mistake I did when I was trying to read the earlier books in the series the first time: they’re looking at this is a parody, rather than paying attention to Pratchett’s deeper commentary on human nature. The book skewers blind atheism at least as much as it does empty faith, because Pratchett turns his satirist’s eye on everyone. Characters you would expect to be allied heroes in the book have their flaws examined just as closely as the characters who are primarily villains.

There’s one other plot thread I should mention: The History Monks. Pratchett will use these guys a few more times, most interestingly in Thief of Time. They are a group of monks charged with keeping history on track, running around the world trying to make sure that things happen as they ought. Of course, who gets to decide “ought”?

I like to re-read Small Gods regularly, to remind myself where morals and ethics should come from. To remind myself that there are things worth having faith in (truth, yes, but also people, and compassion, and empathy). To remind myself that evil people are evil, yes, but they’re people, too—and that all of us have the potential to be evil, no matter how well-intentioned we may be. And most importantly to remind myself that forgiveness isn’t something you earn, it’s something you give.


1. One important note: another problem is that Pratchett himself didn’t find his voice in the series right away. In my opinion, Pratchett didn’t find the proper voice for this series until about the fifth book in the series. Some of his characters took a couple books on their own before they gelled, as well.

2. So many favorites. I read a lot of them out of order after finally having my breakthrough. As I mentioned, some of the earlier books are a lot weaker than the later ones. But they’re easier to enjoy once you know where the series is going.

Which Christmas Ghost should I write?

Since 1995 I have written an original Christmas Ghost Story that I then read (or otherwise perform; one required ukulele, there have also been costumes) at the annual Holiday Party “sponsored” by the Tai-Pan Literary and Arts Project. Some years the ghost story is set in the Tai-Pan universe (which makes it fun, since that universe is a hard sci fi universe; I’ve had to be a bit creative about the definition of a ghost), some have been set in universes of my own creating.

I have a rather long document that I keep adding Christmas Ghost Story ideas to, so even though I’ve been doing this for more than 20 years, I’m not out of ideas. That’s actually the problem, I have so many ideas, that trying to get myself to focus on one and finish it is always a little bit of a struggle. Thus the many times I have posted a comment to social media in the wee small hours of the night before the party that I have finally finished this year’s…

Anyway, I’ve kind of narrowed it down to four that are speaking to me this year, and still trying to decide. So, I’m turning to the wilds of the internet and giving you a chance to weigh in. Read the titles and teasers below, and pick the one that you would most like to hear on a spooky winter’s night:

Some notes: in the past some friends have at first declined to vote because they didn’t feel that they were sufficiently familiar with the universe or stories. Please don’t let that stop you. People who are familiar with my work will have a really good guess who at least one of the protagonists above is, but don’t feel you have to be in the slightest familiar with me or my work to cast a vote.

I don’t guarantee that the winner is what I’ll work on. Some years I spend days nearly finishing one story, and then have a blast of inspiration that results in my writing a completely different tale. But I can’t decide, so maybe you can help!

There wolf! There castle! why sf/f doesn’t have to be serious

Peter Boyle as the monster, choking Gene Wilder while Marty Feldman and Teri Garr partake in an impromptu game of Charades. (© 20th Century Fox)

Peter Boyle as the monster, choking Gene Wilder while Marty Feldman and Teri Garr partake in an impromptu game of Charades. (© 20th Century Fox)

I was fourteen years old when the movie Young Frankenstein was released. The small town where I lived had only one theatre, and it showed two movies each week. One played Monday through Thursday, I believe, and the other would play Friday through Sunday, sometimes with a matinee Saturday afternoon (but not always). No matter how sold out any show was, it didn’t stay past its scheduled three or four day run.

And I was, as far as I could tell, one of the few kids in my class on the Monday morning after the movie had shown, who hadn’t seen it. If the film was shown on network television in the next couple of years, I didn’t manage to see it. After my folks divorced and my mom, one sister, and I moved 1200 miles away, one of my new friends mentioned that Young Frankenstein had been re-released to theaters and was playing downtown. Back in the days before ubiquitous cable, movies on tape or disc, or the internet, movies were often re-released into theaters.

When I mentioned that I’d never seen it, my friends were aghast. The next thing I knew, we were piling into someone’s car and driving to the theatre. I loved the movie. I loved it so much, that I couldn’t stop talking about it. I kept telling anyone who would listen to me about the grandson of Victor Frankenstein, Frederick, who insists that his last name is pronounced Frohnkensteen, and is ashamed of his crazy grandfather’s work; but upon finding said grandfather’s journal becomes obsessed with bringing a dead man back to life, and the zany misadventures that follow.

My mom thought it sounded fun. And so a night or two later, I found myself standing in line at the theatre once more, this time with my mom and little sister.

The movie has more than a few jokes based on sexual innuendoes, which it didn’t even occur to me might not be appropriate for my eleven-year-old sister, let alone what Mom might think of it. And both of them were laughing at all the same places I was, so everything was going fine. Until we reached the point where the Creature kidnaps Frederick’s fiancé, Elizabeth.

And then, panic started to set in. Because what happens next is that the Creature and Elizabeth have sex (in a scene that is a casebook example of pop culture’s long entanglement with rape culture). During which Elizabeth falls in love with the Creature because he has an enormous “schwanzstucker.”

Mom was a Bible-thumping Southern Baptist. Yes, she was also a science fiction fan, but her open-mindedness only went so far. And I had brought her and my little sister to a movie where a central turning point of one of the subplots is a woman falling in love with a stranger because of the size of his penis.

I was quite certain that I was going to wind up being grounded for life. Obviously Mom was going to be very upset. And I should have realized that she would be and mentioned the scene as soon as she suggested we go see the movie! I sunk down in my seat, bracing for an angry outburst.

The scene with the Creature began, and I just sank down lower in my seat. Then when the sex happens (the movie was rated PG, so you don’t even see either character get undressed, it’s only implied that the Creature unzipped his pants), and Madeline Kahn, who played Elizabeth starts singing in an exaggerated operatic style, “Oh! Sweet mystery of life at last I’ve found you!”

Mom started laughing. I looked over, and she wasn’t merely chuckling. She was guffawing loudly, covering her mouth to try not to disturb the rest of the audience (many of whom were laughing, but not that hard) and doubling over like she was going to fall out of her seat. A minute or two later her laughter subsided and she was wiping her eyes. She leaned over and whispered, “We probably shouldn’t have brought your little sister to see this!”

My sister asked mom what was so funny, and mom started laughing again.

A day or so later Mom had a slightly more serious talk with me about the importance of evaluating shows and books and such I might let my sister see as to whether they were appropriate, but she wasn’t angry. She said the only other thing she was disappointed in about the show was that we couldn’t immediately re-watch the original Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein right afterward.

Some time later a pair of the friends who took me to the film the first time re-enacted the “Need a hand?” “No, thanks! Have one,” scene when Mom was around, and she asked them to do it again. And they started to, but it morphed into a re-enactment of the scene in the blind man’s cottage instead. For the rest of the evening we were quoting funny lines from the film at each other. I think it was that evening that Mom explained her view of all the ways that the original Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein had alluded to love, romance, and even sex. Though we stayed away from any mention of the Creature’s schwanzstucker.

It should come as no surprise that two of the friends who were so aghast that I had never seen Young Frankenstein were the same pair who, a couple years later, dragged me to my first performance of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. All the sexual situations in Young Frankenstein are hetero and heteronormative, but there was still a strain of the transgressive running throughout. Young Frankenstein didn’t have the same effect on my own self awareness as Rocky Horror, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t an important landmark in my understanding of the possibilities of science fiction and fantasy.

And I wasn’t the only nerd to think so. The year after it was released, Young Frankenstein won the Hugo Award for Dramatic Presentation. And the Science Fiction Writers of America awarded Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder a Nebula Award for the screenplay. The film also won four Saturn Awards. The film displays a great deal of fondness for the Universal Frankenstein films (there’s even a line of dialog about how the village elders have endured all of this five times before, though that’s a miscount since the Universal series actually have five: Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, Ghost of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman and House of Frankenstein). Young Frankenstein was a humorous parody, yes, but it also served as both a deconstruction and homage at the same time.

And it’s a funny film! And that’s nothing to sneeze at.

Little things can make or break your story

“The best writing is re-writing.” — e.b. white

“The best writing is re-writing.” — e.b. white

The other night I assembled an Aviation cocktail for the first time. It’s a drink my friend, Jared, likes, so I texted him a picture of my first attempt. It’s made with gin, maraschino liqueur, crème de violette and lemon juice. I’d followed a recipe out of a bar book. When I commented that it didn’t taste as good as I remembered, he suggested his own recipe, which differed from the book very slightly. Specifically, he suggested 1/2 and ounce of lemon juice rather than 3/4 as the book. That was the only difference.

I tried it, and that tiny change made an major difference in the taste. And not in the way I had expected. The drink tasted slightly less sweet with a bit less lemon. Two of the ingredients are very sweet, whereas lemon juice is generally more tart, so I don’t know if it was just a contrast change in the mix or what, but the tiny adjustment made a big improvement.

I’ve been struggling with the revision of my novel, The Trickster Apocalypse for a while. After working on the first draft for a long time, regularly reading chapters to my monthly Writers’ group, I had revised and assembled the whole thing, and gotten three people to agree to read it all the way through. There had been some common comments from all of them regarding some frustration with the protagonists or inconsistencies in their characterization.

So I’ve been re-reading and revising. I recently shared two new scenes and one heavily revised one with two of the readers and my group, and there was a consensus that these little revisions changed their perception of the main plot and one subplot significantly.

I’ve described the novel as “a light fantasy in an epic fantasy wrapper using anthropomorphic tropes to tell how reluctant and unlikely heroes try to avert a prophesied apocalypse.” As a light fantasy, certain things happen in the story because they’re funny. It was easy, especially when I was working on the first draft and reading it to others in a serialized fashion, to pepper in jokes throughout. People laughed when they read the scenes, so that seemed like a good thing, right?

But when someone read the whole thing in un-serialized circumstances, a couple of the jokes late in the book subverted the emotional arc of at least one of the protagonists. It’s not that I can’t have jokes late in the book, but I can’t show one character’s emotional journey from reluctant to get involved to taking a stand in a big showdown if I keep showing ways that he is trying to dodge responsibility. A scene that would have been funny and in character in chapter four doesn’t work in chapter seventeen, after the reader has watched the character start growing beyond that.

The scene is funny, which is good in a light fantasy, but any scene in a novel needs to either advance the plot, establish or resolve a conflict, illuminate a character, show how a character has changed, reveal new information to the reader, or hit an important emotional beat. It’s not that the scene has to go, but every scene, particularly jokes about the protagonist’s character need to move the things forward, not back.

I should have realized during an earlier revision phase a couple of these developments were actually throwbacks to earlier versions of the character. I didn’t in part because in a couple of cases the jokes were working so well, I wanted to keep them in. When people repeat the classic writing advice to “kill your darlings,” it isn’t because your favorite lines or sequences are always bad, it’s because that sometimes, because some bit is a favorite, it blinds us from noticing that it’s wrong for this scene or this stage of the story.

Removing a single misplaced joke can change the taste of the entire tale.

Geek Girl Con

S0, my hubby and I are attending our first GeekGirlCon, which is held at the Washington State Convention Center. It’s a sci fi con, dedicated to welcoming and celebrating girls, women, young women in geek/sci fi/fantasy culture.

And it’s fun!

First impression while we were in line to get our badges was that the crowd is much more like a pony con than a traditional sf/f convention. Fewer guys. A lot more kids. Not that there aren’t a lot of guys of all ages, here, but we’re in the minority. Which is the point, and not at all a bad thing.

There’s a Do It Yourself Science area that’s set up for kids to sit down and do science projects. Every time I’ve walked by today, it’s been pretty full. I first learned about it a couple months back when the GeekGirlCon mailing list sent out a link for people to donate to pay for the supplies and such in the area. You know I jumped on that. We need more science-literate people in future generations!

I’m writing this blog post in Introvert Alley, which is a room the set up for people to have a quiet, dark place to retreat to if you need it. It’s nice. I can still hear the con outside, but we’re clearly in another space. I had to adjust the brightness of my iPad screen several times before it felt right in here. Now I wish every con had someplace like this. When I feel the need for this sort of thing at some cons, I just head back to our hotel room. But since this place is about a fifteen minute drive from our house, and downtown hotels are never cheap, we don’t have that option.

The Exhibitor Hall (or dealer’s den) is huge. We did one long methodical sweep through it, only stopping at a couple of booths. I was pulled to one by a 1954 Hermes 3000 typewriter. The author whose table it was at, Eva L Elasigue, had typed some poetry on it. We geeked out about manual typewriters a bit, then I asked her about her book. She said it was mythic space opera, “think, Les Mis meets Cowboy Bebop.” No, I’m one of those queer boys who hates Les Mis. I know, sorry, it’s just too grim for me. But I understand the pathos and appeal it has for a lot of people. And I absolutely love Cowboy Bebop. And Cowboy Bebop’s noir-ish vibe certainly could go well with a Les Mis sensibility. So, as I told her, based on the pitch alone I had to buy the book: Bones of Starlight: Fire On All Sides.

We hadn’t walked far from her table when we hit one of those traffic jams that happen in crowed dealer’s rooms, so I opened the book, and read a few sentences. Yeah, I could totally hear a Cowboy Bebop soundtrack playing as I read. I got through the rest of the first page in starts and stops every time we had to wait while walking. I like it already and have high hopes for the rest of the book.

I’m seen several people I know, but other than Joi, it’s all been from a distance through the crowd, so haven’t talked to any of them, yet.

Michael reminded me that he hadn’t eaten before we left, so we tried to walk to a restaurant 600 feet away, but I managed to get turned around and go the wrong direction for at least that far before I figured out where we were. We’d exited the convention center from a side I’ve never been on before, and thanks to some construction projects happening outside (I think for the new light rail station), I couldn’t see any landmarks I recognized until we’d gone a block and a half the wrong way. We got to the place eventually, and the way we both inhaled our meals, clearly he wasn’t the only one who needed to eat.

I had trouble finding the room the next panel I wanted to see was in. By the time we did, the room was full with a guard at the door telling people the room was full. But the next panel I want to see is there, so I now know where it is and I can go get there early. I hope.

When I do check twitter, I’m trying to just skim over all the deplorable stuff. I much prefer the bright future I see on display here to the rationalization and rape apologetics that the Republicans are trying to pass off as political discourse this week.

Longing, Loathing, and Locution — how you love in sf/f isn’t the only way

Cora Buhlert argued very convincingly this week that there are Three Fractions of Speculative Fiction. She identifies them as the Traditionalists, the Anti-Nostalgics, and the Character Driven1.

Traditionalist fans want sci fi that is heavy on the engineering and explosions and light on the characterization. Rightwing politics in space is all right, but they’d prefer the stories not focus on issues that matter to women, people of colour, or LGBT people. Literary fiction is right out.

Anti-Nostalgic fans want speculative fiction that is sophisticated, literary, and eschews old paradigms. They vehemently reject anything nostalgic. They think the only worthwhile stories are the ones which break new ground and redefine the genre. Many of them give lip service to wanting diversity, but they heap condescension on all non-white, non-male, non-straight writers except one or two favored tokens.

Character Driven fans want sf/f that is heavy on characterization. They aren’t opposed to Big Ideas, but emotional arcs, moral dilemmas, and the effects of technology on human lives should drive the plot, to the point that sci fi tropes can exist as mere set dressing. They are especially fond of protagonists and settings which have previously been neglected in classic sf (women, characters of color, LGBT characters, disabled characters, non-western european settings, non-Anglo cultures).

I think these are fairly good definitions of three of the big categories of science fiction and fantasy enthusiasts. Though there will be some overlap, and of course no classification system is going to neatly encompass everyone. For instance, I have emphatically argued that Babylon Five (which I loved) is not science fiction at all, but rather techno-fantasy. It is an epic fantasy which wraps itself in all of the trappings of space opera, but gets some extremely basic science that is fundamental to its main plot laughably and embarrassingly wrong. When I was in the heat of such an argument, I’m sure that I looked to all outside observers like a pure Traditionalist there. Whereas anyone who has read my fiction would likely place me in the Character Driven group.

I also agree with Buhlert that the struggle between the Traditionalist and Anti-Nostalgics has been raging in various incarnations since at least the 1930s. Her examples are: the Campbellian SF versus Pulp Adventure SF, the exclusion of the Futurians from the ’39 WorldCon, the New Wave versus the Campbellians (which had become the old guard by then), the rise of and resistance to Cyberpunk. With each wave, elements that had been new and different and championed by the Anti-Nostalgics were co-opted by the Traditionalist (along with some of their fans), until some other upstarts came along.

There are at least two other fan wars that were primarily Traditionalist vs Anti-Nostalgics that I’d like to throw into the mix. In the early 70s fans who had subscribed to (and later contributed to) magazines for years looked with disdain on fans who never read the monthly ‘zines, and only read novels and anthologies (which were reprints of selected works from the ‘zines). In the later 70s, when comic book fans started coming to sci fi conventions, there was another backlash against these newbies and their “picture books.”2

But not all of the upstarts have been Anti-Nostalgics. When Star Trek fandom blossomed spontaneously, rather than from within existing sf/f fandom, there was a strong backlash, with elements of both the Traditionalist and Anti-Nostalgics looking down on these Trekkies, who weren’t just newbies unfamiliar with classic sf and traditional fandom, but were far more likely to be women! Trek was just the first of many waves of Media Fans (new fans brought into the fold primarily by movies and television)—Doctor Who, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica3, anime, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Twilight—that have each faced resistance and rejection from established fandom.

A lot of these Media Fans fall into the Character Driven category. And just like the Anti-Nostalgic waves before them, most of them have, after being resisted by Traditionalists, been at least been partially assimilated. To the point that the stereotypical attacker of a Fake Geek Girl is a guy who speaks Klingon, has a collection of Star Wars figurines, and will attempt to exclude the girl by asking super obscure comic book questions.

But even more than that, each new wave of the Media Fans tends to have more women, particularly young women and girls, more people of color, more queers, and other marginalized groups than the existing fandom as a whole. I believe the reasons for that is that movies, television, and hit young adult books4 are readily available to all demographic segments of society, and find enthusiasts from all of those walks of life. Established fandom isn’t very welcoming of the newbies, especially non-male, non-white, non-straight newbies. The subsets of the previous waves that have assimilated into existing fandom winds up skewing male, straight, and white. Which perpetuates the problem.

The queers, women, and people of color continue to be fans of sf/f, but more and more they find welcoming communities on the web and outside the established fandom, some times creating their own conventions and meet-ups.

And it’s not just because the existing fandom is all actively racist, misogynist, and homophobic. It’s a combination of lots of subtle things. When the vast majority of the staff of a convention is white, and you’re not, you don’t feel welcome. When the vast majority of existing fans keep telling you that you must read certain classics, which are full of straight white male protagonists, with plots that are full of misogynist and colonial subtext, you don’t feel that this fandom is for you. Heck, when the existing fans won’t talk about anything published less than thirty years ago, and you’re younger than the books they keep talking about, you don’t feel invited7.

The most recent fannish dust-up, the Affair of the Melancholy Canines, is mostly a subset of the Traditionalist reacting to the kind of fiction the Character Driven fans like starting to get more than token representation in certain awards short lists, as well as the inclusion of non-white, non-male, non-straight writers and editors on those lists in more than small token numbers. The Melancholy Canines also claim that they’re pushing back against the sort of literary fiction the Anti-Nostalgics want, but the funny thing is that the Anti-Nostalgics hate all the same books and authors as the Canines. And if you read some of the posts that Buhlert links to, you’ll notice that they heap rather a lot of condescension on the writers who happen to be women or people of color.

I’m hopeful that this time, maybe, the section of fandom that welcomes (and is eager to both create and consume) sf/f that’s inclusive of all genders, gender identities, races, abilities, et cetera continues to grow and make inroads throughout fandom. It isn’t guaranteed. Previous waves haven’t been successful in changing the complexion of established fandom, after all.

But I’m not giving up. This queer fan is staying right here. I’m going to keep writing the kinds of characters and stories I like. I’m going to keep reading the good stuff I can find. I’m going to try to start doing a better job of promoting all of the interesting newer stuff I’m reading, as well.

“I want to write about people I love, and put them into a fictional world spun out of my own mind, not the world we actually have, because the world we actually have does not meet my standards. In my writing I even question the universe; I wonder out loud if it is real, and I wonder out loud if all of us are real.”
― Philip K. Dick


Footnotes:

1. I am attempting to paraphrase Buhlert here, but my own perceptions may be skewing her point. If you don’t like anything I say here, blame me.

2. The current incarnation of the Anti-Nostalgics is very snobbish and literary, whereas the primary argument against both the non-magazine subscribers and the comic book fans were that they weren’t perceived as reading as broadly nor as seriously as the Traditional fans. Both sides have been snobbish in various ways. The comic fans argued that graphic stories (even though comics had been around for decades) were a new and more experimental art form than the unillustrated word on paper, for instance.

3. Original series. By the time the reboot series had happened, enough fans of the old series had been incorporated into the fandom community that the new series was embraced by many, and their fans tolerated by the rest.

4. It seems to me that Young Adult series have become the new gateway books. Back in the 50s and even still ins the 60s5, the Heinlein juveniles were the introduction to sf for many. Though certain older fogies6 still insisted on panels at conventions that Heinlein’s works are great gateways, the truth is most of his work (the juveniles in particular) have not aged well.

5. Which is when was a child finding Heinlein books in school libraries.

6. By which I mean, older than me.

7. I’ve published on this blog a series of “why I love sf/f” posts that focus on books, short stories, shows, writers, and magazines I read as a kid and teen-ager and how they influenced me as a fan (and a writer). So I’m not saying that nothing printed more then a decade ago is worth anyone’s time. I haven’t written about everything I read back then, because not all of it was good. Even for the works I really loved, sometimes had problems I didn’t recognize back then, which I’ve commented on (the children’s book that had two antisemitic scenes which flew right over my head as a child, and shocked the heck out of me when I rediscovered the book in my thirties, for instance). The issue is that when established members of the community tell you (explicitly or not) that only people who can love those particular books can be part of the community, well, when the young fan finds themselves cringing at the blatant homophobia, the racism, the misogyny (or at least total lack of any portrayal of many types of people who live in the real world), the message seems clear that we aren’t welcome in the community.

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