Sunday, August 31, 2008

Escape, answer #3--Curiosity

While answer #2 is the main response I'd give someone questioning me, as I was thinking about the fact that I enjoy real-world stories set in unfamiliar cultures, it occurred to me that curiosity is really a big part of why I like the stories I do. You see, when I say "setting" and when I think about worldbuilding, a bit part of that for me is cultural. I like surprising and evocative geography--a world that's made of hedges, a city that's suspended on chains, a nation carved into the sides of a giant cliff, a city that consists of a handful of trees, each big enough to house millions--what especially interests me, what especially makes me curious is how that aspect of geography influences the cultures that spring up there. I want to dig into their assumptions, their rituals, their habits, and see what these might mean to them.

Similarly in the real world, I'm curious about peoples and cultures that are different from my own. I've read books that I've enjoyed set in all kinds of sub-cultures and settings, and those experiences have expanded my understanding of people...and even of myself.

There's a danger in being drawn to such different types of settings. What I don't want is for it to be a kind of patronistic touring of these exotic others. Whether they're a real-world group or something imaginary, that's not something I want to encourage in myself. I'm not sure I have any short-cut way to avoid that, but I suppose the key is to be aware of this pitfall and to actively try to understand these various cultures, to insert myself into them and see what that ends up saying--about them, about myself, and about being human in general.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Bar Book Club

A brief break before my last response to the idea of escape, because last night was our latest book club meeting.

Beer of choice: Existential Porter--this is one of the beers they have periodically, not a one-time thing but also not one of their standards that's always available, and I really like it.

Book discussed: My Story as Told by Water by David James Duncan. This was a book I'd suggested, and one I'd read before, a collection of nonfiction pieces focused on environmentalism and the wilderness. Most of the others felt that while it had some snippets of incredible writing--beautiful prose evocations of the wilderness or deep-cutting insights--as a whole it lost its power by being too strident, lacking in nuance or practical responses. I can see that in places, though actually in the course of discussing it, we kept finding more and more that we'd appreciated about it.

In keeping with the writing theme of this blog, here's a great essay of Duncan's on non-advice for writers: "My Advice on Writing Advice." One snippet:
My very best, most financially useful writing advice to those who show extra spirit, the way you're doing, is this: If you want a sane work life, economic viability, happy family, home, flat abs, nice ass, reliable car, health insurance, and teeth, DON'T TRY TO WRITE BOOKS AT ALL! STOP NOW!"

That often ends the conversation, or at least moves it on to happier topics, such as viruses or STDs.

Then once he gets through the very funny attempts to dissuade writers, he explains how "fun" is the basis for all his writing:

If you think, by the way, that the "Have Fun on Paper" concept is a recipe for self-indulgence, if you think I've just outlined a self-indulgent life, then your imagination is dozing, partner—because living with nothing but paper, day in and day out for years, is not easy. If you can learn to find fun all day with nothing but paper, you could probably have fun with nothing but yesterday's laundry, or with a small pile of dirt, or with the dead flies that collect on most writers' windowsills. If you can learn to find fun with nothing but paper, you might have fun with a pile of plain nothing, after you die.

We had a number of interesting books brought by another member of our group for our next selection and chose Annie Dillard's The Living. I'm looking forward to it. I've read a number of poems, essays, meditations and assorted non-fiction by her--The Writing Life, For the Time Being, Holy the Firm--but I don't think I've read more than a snippet or two of her fiction. So that should be good.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Escape, answer #2--Removing assumptions

In a sense this is how escape isn't necessarily a negative thing either, except that this one defines what you're escaping from (and to). When I hear Tolkien's quote that I mentioned last time, this is what I think of now...though I'm not sure it's exactly what he would have meant.

The idea here is that by removing a story from the average, mundane setting of your readers--whether that's through a fantastical secondary world (preferably not pseudo-medieval, McEurope, of course), a largely unknown culture or sub-culture of the real world, or some distant imagined future--what you're escaping is the assumptions and trivialities that keep people looking only at the surface of the real world around them. It's a powerful way to look at the underlying aspects of the real world, the ideas and assumptions that allow a more profound understanding of our own culture and that of others.

I'm leery of allegory in its usual sense, where Meaning comes first and the thinly veiled tale is twisted and nailed onto that frame. A nuanced story, though, one that doesn't start with the author determining the meaning but that begins with the author aiming for some sort of truth or understanding, exploring an idea or image and trying to understand it even if no understanding ultimately comes...that's the kind of story I love.

Fantasy and SF and stories set in unfamiliar locales are ways, good ways, of achieving that kind of re-examination of what it is that makes us who we are. I'm making no claim that they're the only or even best way to do so, but I know that they're the best way to get me to that kind of place.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Escape, answer #1--Escape is not a bad thing

Tolkien's famous answer is that no one reprimands a prisoner for trying to escape. Even that, though, is a phrase that could be interpreted different ways. So I think of this one rather as the Robert Frost answer. I owe it to a college prof of mine who had published a book on high, epic fantasy many years before I was in college, John H. Timmerman (1983, according to Amazon). It's long out of print, and I can't say what I'd think of the discussion within it today, but this was his comparison in that book.

In Frost's poem "Birches," the speaker dreams of climbing the trunk of a birch tree and then, swinging from the drooping tops, find himself back on the ground. "I'd like to get away from earth awhile / And then come back to it and begin over." And then the key, the thing that makes escape not a negative thing is in the next lines, "May no fate wilfully misunderstand me / And half grant what I wish and snatch me away / Not to return. Earth's the right place for love..."

Stories set in a secondary world, by this argument, do offer escape from the real world, but it's a temporary escape that allows a reader to return once again ready for whatever might be happening. A negative escape would be to climb those trees and refuse to take that swinging plunge through the air that ultimately brings a person back down. (Italo Calvino might argue that even that isn't ultimately negative...but then I think we might be starting to mix metaphors, which wouldn't help.)

It is possible for two readers to read the same text and react differently, one in the cover-my-ears, I'm-not-listening-to-the-real-world way and the other in an OK-now-I-can-deal-with-this-way, so I don't think this answer relies on the text so much as on the reader...but that will probably be true of all of these responses I give.

I'm not fully satisfied with this one, but I think it's a good starting point.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Setting and Escape

I'm very influenced by setting in my reading. I don't mean landscape only--though a good, weird landscape can draw me in--but all the aspects of an interesting cultural and social backdrop. I certainly enjoy good (as in well-rounded, believable) characters, an interesting plot, and depth of thought, but if I happen to find the setting intriguing, much else can be forgiven. That's probably a large part of my draw to speculative works--give me a secondary world that isn't cookie-cutter, pseudo-medieval; give me a far future colonized planet with intriguing societal structures; give me a post-apocalyptic story with believable repercussions (or just a narrator who begins his story, "On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig...").

Even in mimetic fiction, I'm much more likely to want to read something set in a culture or subculture that I'm not familiar with, or at least that I didn't grow up with. Whether it's set in Argentina, South Africa, India, Afghanistan, or China or whether it takes place among a subculture within North America, something that is by choice or force or location isolated from the mainstream--those are the stories I tend to enjoy. What I have very little interest in is stories about middle-class, white Americans dealing with the ennui of suburbia.

This preference opens me up to accusations of escapism. Is reading something like this merely a way to stick my head in the sand and ignore the world around me? I don't believe so, and I have three possible responses to that over the next few days. They aren't mutually exclusive, though there's one that I probably best reflects how I go about reading. Stay tuned!

Saturday, August 16, 2008


I happened to catch the 1,500m run prelims last night, and that got me excited about watching some running here. The 800 was my race in both high school and college, so I definitely hope to catch that. But I think when it comes to drama and excitement, the 4x400 is the greatest event. That's the one that gets me pumped up, wanting to race myself. In college I did run that event, but always on the B team. Our A team won nationals one year, so I think cheering for them helped build that kind of anticipation for me. That plus the fact that I put way too much pressure on myself in the 800, while there was none in the 4x400--for an 800 runner, a single lap is just a sprint with no worries about strategy or pacing, both things that ended up twisting me up before my 800 races. My favorite experience from the 4x400, though, was one time that we had a 4xDan relay.

So I know nothing about anyone competing in it for any country, but I'm hoping to catch it regardless. I've been conditioned to see it as the final event of a meet, so after watching it, I'm sure a part of me will feel the Olympics must be over, whenever it ends up taking place.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Oh yeah, WorldCon

Nearly a week later, and I still haven't given any reaction to the convention. I apologize. It was good--I met a number of other writers and a few people who are in some sort of editing role for different venues, plus I got to sit in on some good writing-related panels.

Which panels? Let's see if I can remember... (OK, had to get the booklet to get the exact titles and participants correct)

Short Fiction: On it's way out or a way to break into the market? David Levine, Ellen Datlow, James Patrick Kelly, Lisa Mantchev, Sheila Williams

I wasn't sure about this one, as it seems a conversation that comes up so often online, and I didn't expect a lot of new insight from this, but I was interested in seeing some of the panelists in person. And I was right that it didn't really change my opinion, but it was interesting. There was some condescension toward Strange Horizons and Clarkesworld that I found silly (not from Lisa Mantchev, of course, who's been published in both and whom I met afterward briefly, but mostly from JP Kelly, if I remember correctly). There seemed a decent awareness of things like podcasting, more than the Big Three often get credit for at least. But, really nothing earth-shaking here. It was disappointing but to-be-expected that when they asked for hands both for how many in the room write (or hope to write) short fiction and how many read short fiction...there were more hands for the first than the second. How do you expect to write it if you never read it?

Creating a Mythos. Elaine Isaak, Julia Phillips, LE Modesitt, and David Zindell.

I was impressed with the well-thought-out observations and questions of Modesitt, whose books I haven't read yet. Basic question was about how do you convey the mythological underpinnings--not just religious, but the assumptions and patterns of thinking--of an invented society. One of the things Modesitt said is often the best way to convey that to a reader is to introduce a character who actively opposes or disbelieves what the majority holds as given. Elaine Isaak also had some good things to add, so I may be checking out some of her writing too.

Fandom and SF outside the English-speaking world. Alvaro Zinos Amaro, Christian Sauve, Rani Graff, Sarah Hoyt.

I really enjoyed this one, giving the perspectives of such places as Spain, Quebec, France, Israel, Portugal...and with the help of some audience members, Finland, Sweden, and Russia. Part of the discussion was about how fandom and cons are similar or different...which didn't especially interest me since I'm only just discovering that subculture here in the US so I don't have a lot to compare it to. But I was very interested to hear what they had to say about the types of stories being written by native speakers of the various countries. I'd love to read some of any of those countries (though Spain would be the only one where I could read the stories without translation).

Storytelling and the Oral Tradition. Bill Mayhew, James Nelson Lucas, Patrick Rothfuss, Randy Smith, Uncle River.

This panel had some interesting points about oral cultures and the nature of storytelling. It was dominated by bearded males (not the audience, though--clearly interest in storytelling extends beyond that demographic). It would have been interesting to have a bit more diversity within the panel to get other perspectives. With my background in the camp industry, I've come into contact with the storyteller subculture before, so not much was new here, but it was a good reminder of the importance and nature of stories.

Later we went to a variety of parties. The Viable Paradise party was a lot of fun, and I met a number of other writers there. I'd never even heard of VP, but they throw a good party. The official party floor of the con, though...all duds that night. I suspect some of the publisher parties on other nights might have been more interesting, but the Thursday parties were not. At all. Oh well, the rest of the day was very good. I have no idea when I'll get to go to another con (MileHi? I don't know yet), but I look forward to it.

Friday, August 08, 2008

"Exile, Self-selected"

I'll have to find time in a little while to report on my experiences yesterday at WorldCon--at the moment I'm exhausted, because of a combination of that and things going on here, but I wanted to direct you to my poem, which is now published at MindFlights, "Exile, Self-selected."

This was written specifically for the contest, which had a theme of exile. It seems that immigrants have been showing up more and more frequently in my writings lately, and this is no exception--it was imagined as something of an homage to the migrant workers I used to work with in the onion fields and Christmas-tree fields of Western Michigan. For six summers beginning at age 9, I worked for two different onions, carrots, and parsnips farms in the rich soil of what had once been a shallow lake that was drained by early settlers. We could jump on some of the fields and feel the entire ground shake because of the water that was still there in pockets. About twenty years later, and much of that soil is drier, far less rich. Then for two summers I worked swinging a machete all day long to trim Christmas trees. So this is for H├ęctor Sr. and Jr. and all the rest.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

World Con

So I'm going down to World Con for the day tomorrow. This'll be my first time attending a con. I have vague fears of high school-style boredom, standing around with no one to talk to or nothing to say to those I am by, wondering how long until the next class, err, session, so I can at least be doing something... But I'm also excited to get a taste for what these things are like and hopefully meet a few people here and there. I'm riding down with Jeremiah, and he'll introduce me to many people, I'm sure. So I know it won't really be a repeat of my freshman year of high school. That doesn't stop some animal part of my brain from dredging up long-buried feelings, though.

It'll be especially strange to be away from the kids for an entire day, especially since my wife has been back to work these past two weeks.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Dr. Julius T. Roundbottom

I've mentioned this fun serial fiction project by fellow Fort Collins-ite Jeremiah Tolbert, but now I want to point out that new dispatches are being added with a new storyline. This is a steampunk text-and-photo project (or photonic captures) patterned as if from the field notes of a scientist in a world of clockwork and steampower. So read the latest, and circle back to see what's gone before--today's is the second of the latest storyline, so it may be worth reading last week's first actually. Or start at the very beginning. You know, however you want to go about.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

"Called Out to Snow Crease Farm"

It's taken me until today to read this past week's story in Strange Horizons, but I really enjoyed "Called Out to Snow Crease Farm" by Constance Cooper. It's the story of a new vet working with animals she wasn't trained on, animals that she grew up considering evil. Out in this poor, frontier-type region where she was sent to work, though, the animals serve an important function. I think it was really the fact that on this frontier, people end up with lichen growing on their faces, and there's no way to stop it that drew me in. What does that say about me?

The story definitely has the feel of a setting that could give rise to many fascinating stories, so I hope there are more someday. (Cooper has a pretty extensive bibliography, it appears, so perhaps there already are more...maybe some detective work is in order.) Go. Read it.