Monthly Archives: February 2015

Leonard Nimoy: Life, Death, and Purpose

One of my college friends wrote the following about Leonard Nimoy’s death, and I wanted to save and share it here:

Today we’ve lost one of the quintessential icons of contemporary drama and of American Jewry.

You can use a fairy tale to start a conversation about our responsibilities to our fellow human beings. You can be beloved by those from another culture—another planet, another species—without sloughing off your own. And you can change that alien culture to value you and yours just a little bit more.

To boldly teach us that was his 83-year mission. He lived long, and we all prospered.

-Jesse Rosbrow

Chosen Ones and the Power of Love

In “Chosen One” plots, the protagonist has some born-in virtue or heritage that makes her the One Person Who Can Save Us. This is extraordinarily common in fantasy fiction, though it appears in SF as well (e.g. Jupiter Rising). In “Power of Love” plots, love has a spiritual, emotional, or mystical power that can directly affect the world. This is rampant in Hollywood (e.g. Interstellar); possibly less so in books, but that may be my reading tastes.

I see these two plot components — Power of Love and Chosen One — as “the same thing,” because they represent two facets of the same basic story choice. And that choice is pandering.

The common characteristic here is that success comes through no skill, training, or expertise. You could be revealed as the Descendent of the Hero! (You can worry about your training montage after that.) Maybe you love your Cylon enough to make a mixed-species baby possible! This allows the you, the reader, to more easily put yourself in the place of the hero — but it’s a cheap identification. Forget interesting characters, forget engaging stories, just make the hero able to succeed via things the reader could do.

This is why it’s pandering: it’s a lowest-common-denominator viewpoint. Who cares about education and expertise, if all you need is love? And this is also why it’s more common in movies than in books: because movies want to reach a wider audience, and make them leave the theater feeling proud and justified, as if they could’ve saved the world.

There are ways to write good plots with both of these elements. For example, I forgive Harry Potter a great deal for its ability to make a Power of Love plot work intelligently. But personally, I am tired of stories where Expertise Isn’t Necessary.

Edit: Note that pretty much any “instinct and intuition are correct, all the experts and scientists are wrong” storyline also falls under Power Of Love plot. Exact same thing, different flavor text.

Flaming Bear Mythology

Lately I’ve been reading Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism to find more awesome ideas for stories. There’s a lot of awesome stuff in here, but I had to share the trippiest myth of all:

So, the Prophet Elijah has accidentally revealed how to force the Messiah to come: in this case, by getting the three holiest people of the generation to pray together. Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi arranges this scenario. When the three sages reach the line “He causes the wind to blow,” the wind begins to blow. At the line, “He causes the rain to fall,” rain begins to fall. They are about to reach the next line, “He resurrects the dead.”

Folks in Heaven freak out. “Who has disclosed this secret??” All the angels point at Elijah. The heavenly court gives him 60 lashes of fire for his error. And now I quote: After that Elijah appeared in Rabbi Judah’s synagogue as a fiery bear, and chased everyone out.

That’s right, folks. The Prophet Elijah turned into a flaming bear.

There’s more to the myth of the three sages, as they figure out their identities at other points in history. But none of that stuff is important, because never again do they get stopped by a flaming bear prophet.

Annotated H.P. Lovecraft

My awesome wife got me this for a birthday gift: And a moonwalking bear!The annotated H.P. Lovecraft, with glorious footnotes and marginalia: academic discussions of Lovecraft’s references, art reproduced from the original pulp-fiction publications, photographs of the Providence locations he used, etc.

However, H.P. Lovecraft is a problematic figure. He was hideously racist, and that racism is not just incidental to his work. A lot of his fiction was motivated by fear of the foreign and other, those immigrants in their unnatural, debased, or miscegenated ways.

While I totally support removing Lovecraft from his place as a symbol of honor, I have zero guilt about enjoying this tome. First, the man is long dead; no money goes to terrible people. Second, I don’t usually boycott things just because their creator was an awful person — I don’t know the political opinions of most authors I enjoy. (But that’s an inadequate excuse here because HPL’s racism is intrinsic to his work.) Most importantly, Lovecraft made major contributions to the literature, inventing moods and themes and styles that still resonate today. Problematic literature should be examined for what it is. It still offers a lot to learn, whether of otherworldly terror or subtexts to be avoided. We read with a critical eye, and from there we can take things ever upward.

And besides, this tome is awesome!

 

Diversity and SFF

I regularly see variations on this quote on my social media:

“In a world where (Thor walks around / James Bond has a tuxedo under his wetsuit / people fly on broomsticks), why do you idiots find a (black James Bond / Asian waitress in 1940s America / female prime minister in 1880) unbelievable?”

This argument leaves me very conflicted.

Diverse representation in stories is an important goal. No reader should have to struggle to find a protagonist whom they can identify with; our local/current group in majority/power does not need to be the “default setting.” Stories influence our norms, and we should strive for norms that include everyone as actors (as opposed to setpieces) and represent everyone with depth and respect. Furthermore, underrepresented groups tend to be underrepresented for all the wrong reasons (undeserved opprobrium, lack of power, etc), which we authors should strive to undo. I could go on and on here.

There are innumerable good reasons to create diverse stories. But the quote above isn’t one of those reasons. It’s just a new deployment of the argument, “if it’s fantasy, you can do anything.”

This is the argument that totally dismisses the genres. The argument that says “once it’s science fiction/fantasy, it’s all equally unbelievable anyways.”

Our fictional alternate worlds have their own rules, but those rules must follow their own internal structure and logic. If Severus Snape conjured up a machine gun, we would throw the book across the room. If Indiana Jones’ archaeological relics turned out to be alien technology, that would be was infuriating.

The speculative fiction writer builds a world different from our daily life, but the burdens of “believability” and “realism” do not just vanish once you introduce fantastic elements.

We need diverse books. But that doesn’t mean authors get to ignore worldbuilding. Rather, we need to do the hard good work of showing that a diverse world is a believable one.

[Edited Wed. 2/4 to clarify the opening quotation]

January 2015 Update

January is over! Time for another monthly update! Oh boy? Gather round, kids, and let me tell you about REVISING.

First off, I’m excited for my first publication coming out a month from today. Fictionvale Ep. 6 due March 1st!

But wait, what about last month? A month of editing, that’s what.

1) Another round of edits on “The Wind and the Spark” for Fictionvale. So excited! My first publication is coming out a month from today!

2) “Weights and Measures” (banker-priestess fantasy) got a disheartening rejection. My favorite piece, back from most suitable market, with personal comments criticising a totally minor issue. Bah! I touched it up and sent it out to Writers of the Future, where it will destroy all opposition.

3) “Machines in Motion” (steampunk engineer character piece) got some good feedback from fellow writers, then off to the 2015 James White Award. I am super-excited about this one. Last year I made the JWA shortlist with a different piece in the same setting, let’s see if I can do even better this time!

4) “Custom Made” (Lovecraftian humor flash fiction) off to F&SF, after one minor but critical tweak. A skill I am working on improving: signaling the story’s mood and theme. In another week or two I’ll know whether I got it right!

5) “The Coin of Leadership” (steampunk military adventure) I just relaunched to Intergalactic Medicine Show tonight. Very satisfying to reread a piece and not find any major flaws with it. This one isn’t earth-shattering, but he’s definitely solid and exciting.

6) “Shiplight” (political science fiction) got some good help from a new beta-reading friend, and now off to Crossed Genres.

Accomplishments! Productivity! Woo! Now I’m digging back into my VP submission story (conquistador dragon story, name currently in flux), looking at feedback people sent me in late December. There’s one paragraph that multiple beta-readers loved, so in my unseemly pride, I want to share it with all of you:

“A new scent spread through the palace. Still the rich earthy spice of sandalwood, but now sharp and bitter. Not wood, but smoke. When the dragons [with muskets] met a squad of guards, the smell gained the sulfurous bite of powder, and then the coppery foulness of fresh death. Human blood and dragon blood shared the same reek, but this was all human.”

Happy winter, everyone!