Monday, January 30, 2012

The Vilification of Wool

If you would be so kind as to indulge me, I'd like to take a moment to introduce Jodi Meadows, our guest blogger this week. I've been following Jodi's blog for a long time. I watched her transition from slush reader to full-time writer, to published author. It has been an exciting experience, even from the sidelines. I'm not just a fan of her writing, I'm a fan of HER. But I promised not to embarrass her, so I'll let it go there.

Jodi's first novel (of a trilogy), Incarnate releases out into the world tomorrow, January 31.

Ana is new. For thousands of years in Range, a million souls have been reincarnated over and over, keeping their memories and experiences from previous lifetimes. When Ana was born, another soul vanished, and no one knows why...

Newberry Award Winner, Robin McKinley says: "Incarnate has an eerie and intriguing premise..."

New York Times bestselling author, Rachel Hawkins called it, "...lyrical and thought-provoking...the kind of book that stays with you long after you've turned the last page."

Award-winning author of the Shade trilogy, Jeri Smith-Ready called it, "...breathtaking, heart-melting, soul-feeding, mind-blowing..."

And not only is Jodi an amazing storyteller, but she's mistress of all things knitted and wool, and quite committed to the medium, as her guest post will attest. Enjoy!

The vilification of wool in fiction must be stopped.

Bold statement, I know, but how many times have you read about a character pulling out a "rough woolen blanket" or wearing "scratchy woolen clothes?"

My friends, this must stop. Yes, there is scratchy wool, but why wear it when there's so much snuggly soft wool available? Why force carpet wool (it's a thing!) on characters you already mistreat for the sake of plot?

As I write this post, I have within reach no fewer than ten woolen objects -- and none of them are scratchy or rough. Several pair of fingerless mitts knit out of Merino wool, a few knit out of BFL wool, one pair knit from Falkland wool. Let's not forget the Merino and silk hat I'm wearing, or the Corriedale wool I have on a spindle.

Of those, the Corriedale is probably the roughest, but it's still soft enough to use for socks or perhaps a hat if one doesn't have a sensitive head.

Let's do away with adjectives like "rough" and "scratchy" for wool. Some wools certainly are rough and scratchy, but if you want to hurt your characters with wool, why not ruin their favorite pair of mittens? (Doable in a variety of ways, from felting them in the washing machine to the terrible death of wool moths.)

Instead, let's embrace adjectives like "smooth" and "soft" and "warm." Heck, even "squishy" and "snuggly." All these words apply to many breeds of wool.

And did you know that wool is flame-retardant? Indeed, while wool will catch fire, it does not stay on fire. Flames quickly go out.

Another thing: wool is one of the only fibers you want to keep wearing if you fall into a freezing lake and have no change of clothes. (A real danger in fantasyland!) With most other fibers, like cotton or nylon, you're better off being naked. Can you believe it? NAKED. But wool -- wool is warm even when it's wet. Wool will save your life.

Fantasy and YA books often have messages of tolerance. What makes wool any less deserving of that message, especially considering its many virtues?

This is a real issue, my friends. Let's do something to correct it. I've tried to do my part in my debut YA fantasy/dystopian INCARNATE. The protagonist wears as much wool as possible, including mittens, hats, scarves, socks, shirts, and even pants. (But not underpants, because some things are just wrong.) Wool is a comforting.
I challenge you to do the same in your fiction. Let's stop the vilification of wool.

Jodie Meadows lives and writes in the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, with her husband, a Kippy*, and an alarming number of ferrets. She is a confessed book addict and has wanted to be a writer ever since she decided against becoming an astronaut. Her debut YA fantasy/dystopian is Incarnate, coming January 31 from HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen. Order on IndieBound! Incarnate, by Jodi Meadows

*Kippy is a cat along the line of Crookshanks or the Cheshire Cat--a character in her own right, and often one who steals the show.

Monday, January 23, 2012

A Plague on Both Your Houses: A Guest Blog by Athena Andreadis

Don’t you know
They’re talkin’ ’bout a revolution
– Tracy Chapman
In James Tiptree’s "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" three male astronauts are thrown forward in time and return to an earth in which an epidemic has led to the extinction of men. They perceive a society that needs firm (male) guidance to restore correct order and linear progress. In fact, the society is a benevolent non-coercive non-hierarchical anarchy with adequate and stable resources; genetic engineering and cloning are advanced, spaceships are a given, there’s an inhabited Lunar base and multiple successful expeditions to Venus and Mars. One of the men plans to bring the women back under god’s command (with him as proxy) by applying Pauline precepts. Another plans to rut endlessly in a different kind of paradise. The women, after giving them a long rope, decide they won’t resurrect the XY genotype.
The skirmish in the ongoing war about contemporary fantasy between Leo Grin and Joe Abercrombie reminds me of Tiptree’s story. Grin and Abercrombie argued over fantasy as art, social construct and moral fable totally oblivious to the relevant achievements of half of humanity – closer to ninety percent, actually, when you take into account the settings of the works they discussed. No non-male non-white non-Anglosaxon fantasy writers were mentioned in their exchanges and in almost all of the reactions to their posts (I found only two partial exceptions).
I expected this from Grin. After all, he wrote his essay under the auspices of Teabagger falsehood-as-fact generator Andrew Breitbart. His “argument” can be distilled to “The debasement of heroic fantasy is a plot of college-educated liberals!” On the other hand, Abercrombie’s “liberalism” reminds me of the sixties free-love dictum that said “Women can assume all positions as long as they’re prone.” The Grin camp (henceforth Fathers) conflates morality with religiosity and hearkens nostalgically back to Tolkien who essentially retold Christian and Norse myths, even if he did it well. The Abercrombie camp (henceforth Sons) equates grittiness with grottiness and channels Howard – incidentally, a basic error by Grin who put Tolkien and Howard in the same category in his haste to shoehorn all of today’s fantasy into the “decadent” slot. In fact, Abercrombie et al. are Howard’s direct intellectual descendants, although Grin’s two idols were equally reactionary in class-specific ways. Fathers and Sons are nevertheless united in celebrating “manly” men along the lines demarcated by Tiptree.
As I’ve said elsewhere, I enjoy playing RPGs in many guises. But even for games – let alone for reading – I prefer constructs that are nuanced and, equally importantly, worlds in which I can see myself living and working. Both camps write stories set in medieval worlds whose protagonists are essentially Anglosaxon white men with a soupçon of Norse or Celt to spice the bland gruel. To name just a few examples, this is true of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Howard’s Conan stories, Moorcock’s Elric saga, Leiber’s Fafhrd series, Jordan’s Wheel of Time toe-bruisers, Martin’s fast-diminishing-returns Fire and Ice cycle. The sole difference is approach, which gets mistaken for outlook. If I may use po-mo terms, the Fathers represent constipation, the Sons diarrhea; Fathers the sacred, Sons the profane – in strictly masculinist terms. In either universe, women are deemed polluting (that is, distracting from bromances) or furniture items. The fact that even male directors of crowd-pleasers have managed to create powerful female heroes, from Jackson’s Éowyn to Xena (let alone the women in wuxia films), highlight the tame and regressive nature of “daring” male-written fantasy.
Under the cover of high-mindedness, the Fathers posit that worthy fantasy must obey the principles of abrahamic religions: a rigid, stratified society where everyone knows their place, the color of one’s skin determines degree of goodness, governments are autocratic and there is a Manichean division between good and evil: the way of the dog, a pyramidal construct where only alpha males fare well and are considered fully human. The Sons, under the cover of subversive (if only!) deconstruction, posit worlds that embody the principles of a specific subset of pagan religions: a society permanently riven by discord and random cruelty but whose value determinants still come from hierarchical thinking of the feudal variety: the way of the baboon, another (repeat after me) pyramidal construct where only alpha males fare well and are considered fully human. Both follow Campbell’s impoverished, pseudo-erudite concepts of the hero’s quest: the former group accepts them, the latter rejects them but only as the younger son who wants the perks of the first-born. Both think squarely within a very narrow box.

Other participants in this debate already pointed out that Tolkien is a pessimist and Howard a nihilist, that outstanding earlier writers wrote amoral works (Dunsany was mentioned; I’d add Peake and Donaldson) and that the myths which form the base of most fantasy are riddled with grisly violence. In other words, it looks like Grin at least hasn’t read many primary sources and both his knowledge and his logic are terminally fuzzy, as are those of his supporters.

A prominent example was the accusation from one of Grin’s acolytes that contemporary fantasy is obsessed with balance which is “foreign to the Western temperament” (instead of, you know, ever thrusting forward). He explicitly conflated Western civilization with European Christendom, which should automatically disqualify him from serious consideration. Nevertheless, I will point out that pagan Hellenism is as much a cornerstone of Western civilization as Christianity, and Hellenes prized balance. The concept of “Midhén ághan” (nothing in excess) was crucial in Hellenes’ self-definition: they watered their wine, ate abstemiously, deemed body and mind equally important and considered unbridled appetites and passions detriments to living the examined life. At the same time, they did not consider themselves sinful and imperfect in the Christian sense, although Hellenic myths carry strong strains of defiance (Prometheus) and melancholy (their afterworld, for one).
Frankly, the Grin-Abercrombie fracas reminds me of a scene in Willow. At the climax of the film, while the men are hacking at each other down at the courtyard, the women are up at the tower hurling thunderbolts. By the time the men come into the castle, the battle has been waged and won by women’s magic.
So enough already about Fathers and Sons in their temples and potties. Let’s spend our time more usefully and pleasantly discussing the third member of the trinity. Before she got neutered, her name was Sophia (Wisdom) or Shekinah (Presence). Let’s celebrate some people who truly changed fantasy – to its everlasting gain, as is the case with SF.

My list will be very partial and restricted to authors writing in English and whose works I’ve read, which shows we are dealing with an embarrassment of riches. I can think of countless women who have written paradigm-shifting heroic fantasy, starting with Emily Brontë who wrote about a world of women heroes in those tiny hand-sewn diaries. Then came trailblazers Catherine Moore, Mary Stewart and André Norton. Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea is another gamechanger (although her gender-specific magic is problematic, as I discussed in Crossed Genres) and so is her ongoing Western Shores series. Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni cycle is as fine a medieval magic saga as any. We have weavers of new myths: Jane Yolen, Patricia McKillip, Meredith Ann Pierce, Alma Alexander; and tellers of old myths from fresh perspectives: Tanith Lee, Diana Paxson, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Terri Windling, Emma Bull, C. J. Cherryh, Christine Lucas.
Then there’s Elizabeth Lynn, with her Chronicles of Tornor and riveting Ryoka stories. Marie Jakober, whose Even the Stones have haunted me ever since I read it. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, whose heroic prehistoric fantasies have never been bested. Jacqueline Carey, who re-imagined the Renaissance from Eire to Nubia and made a courtesan into a swashbuckler in the first Kushiel trilogy, showing a truly pagan universe in the bargain. This without getting into genre-cracking mythmakers like Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) and Louise Erdrich.
These authors share several attributes: they have formidable writing skills and honor their sources even as they transmute them. Most importantly, they break the tired old tropes and conventional boundaries of heroic fantasy and unveil truly new vistas. They venture past medieval settings, hierarchical societies, monotheistic religions, rigid moralities, “edgy” gore, Tin John chest beatings, and show us how rich and exciting fantasy can become when it stops being timid and recycling stale recipes. As one of the women in Tiptree’s “Houston, Houston” says: “We sing a lot. Adventure songs, work songs, mothering songs, mood songs, trouble songs, joke songs, love songs – everything.”


Athena Andreadis brief bio
Athena Andreadis was born in Greece and lured to the US at age 18 by a full scholarship to Harvard, then MIT.  She does basic research in molecular neurobiology, focusing on mechanisms of mental retardation and dementia.  She is an avid reader in four languages across genres, the author of To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek and writes speculative fiction and non-fiction on a wide swath of topics.  Her work can be found in Harvard Review, Belles Lettres, After Hours, Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Stone Telling, Cabinet des Fées, Bull Spec, Science in My Fiction, SF Signal, The Apex Blog, World SF, The SFF Portal, H+ Magazine, io9, The Huffington Post, and her own site, Starship Reckless.

Images: Éowyn, shieldmaiden of Rohan (Miranda Otto) in The Two Towers; Sonja, vampire paladin (Rhona Mitra) in Rise of the Lycans; Yu Shu Lien, Wudan warrior (Michelle Yeoh) in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Monday, January 16, 2012

A Fantasy for All Seasons

My birthday was last Thursday and, as this annual occurrence is timed so nicely with the new year, I am yet again presented with the opportunity to wax nostalgic.  That, combined with our first Monday’s discussion about C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books, has started me thinking about how fantasy shapes the seasons of our lives.

I must have ordered the Narnia books off of the Scholastic book flyer, because the whole set came to me at once, in all of their new-book-smell and glossy-cover glory.  In those days, The Magician’s Nephew was still last of the set, not first, and I had not a single clue about the Christian allegory.  My favorites, for no explicable reason, were The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and The Silver Chair.  My gateway drug to fantasy, they introduced me to new worlds and places I could only imagine; I thirsted for more. 

Then, in fifth grade, I made an amazing discovery in my elementary school library: Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonsinger.  Once I realized that my mom had all McCaffrey’s books on our bookshelf at home, I read every novel of hers I could find.  Then I moved to the other books on my mom’s bookshelf, which was chock full of fantasy.

If I hadn’t been a fantasy reader by then, eighth grade would have sealed the deal.  My English teacher assigned T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, and a deep and abiding love of all things Arthur nestled deep in my soul, right next to the dragons.  I read other Arthur books, too, a few of which I’ve searched for ever since.   I discovered David Eddings, one of my all-time favorites, and the out-of-print “Tredana Trilogy” by Joyce Ballou Gregorian, which I am afraid to re-read.  From then on, knights, wizards, gods, magic, and the ideal of a better world captured and held my imagination.

Fantasy became my dirty little secret during high school and college.  I was not going to be a geek, so to the general  public I was a wholesome, outgoing, all-American teenager.  Who knew that I played Warhammer in the back room of my friend’s house and wrote Pern fanfic for Star-Rise Weyr?  And NOBODY knew that I would occasionally pick at that old story I’d started during middle school.  That was for me alone.

Of course, my secrecy only lasted a few years.  During a Medieval Literature class in college, I had an epiphany: I could read King Arthur myths in college?  I felt like I was getting away with some elaborate scheme.  I was going to study the very roots of modern fantasy, and the University was going to give me a college degree in exchange!  My scheme persisted through my M.A. in Medieval Literature and cemented my fate.  Not only could I now read and discuss fantasy, I could pick at the author’s historical accuracy.  And eventually, when I was ready, I discovered The Lord of the Rings, and appreciated all of the complexities and subtleties of Tolkien’s amazing world.

Fantasy has formed a significant portion of my personality and worldview.  I no longer care that I’m a fantasy geek—which is ironic, because becoming a geek is so much more cool and mainstream.  The benefits of reading fantasy have far outweighed any drawbacks to my social life or character: I have a rich imagination, a strong vocabulary, and the ability to appreciate political, religious and social systems completely foreign from my own.  I appreciate people of all different races, cultures and ethnic backgrounds, and my mind is open to new possibilities, both in fiction and in life.  I believe I am a better person, more open-minded and less prone to a black-and-white worldview because of fantasy. 

I did try to reread the Narnia books a couple of years ago, and found them thin in plot and character, overbearing in religious message.  It made me sad to have my sense of wonder stripped away, and I wish now I hadn’t reread them, that I could always hold them in my heart with the same charm they once held for me.  Still, I will never forget how they shaped me on this journey to become the reader and writer I am today.

Looking ahead, I expect I will find new fantasies that engage me as an adult.  Eight years ago I tried Game of Thrones and felt it too dark; now I watch the series and see not only the darkness, but the varied shades of grey.  Life changes me, changes not only what I want to read, but what I need to read.  And what I read, in turn, changes me.

Now here is my question for you: how has fantasy shaped you as a reader, and as a person?  And how has your taste for fantasy changed with the seasons of life? 

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Essential Face of Fantasy

In his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’, J.R.R. Tolkien describes magic -- more precisely, “the Magical” – as “the essential face of Faerie".  

As a genre, fantasy has multiple expressions:  dark, humorous, violent, romantic, children’s, YA, adult, urban, epic…the list goes on and on.  Yet the common denominator for all these expressions is the presence of magic.

Writers of fantasy struggle at great length to build systems of magic unique to their worlds.  Readers respond to magic with a critical eye, seeking sorcery that “makes sense”, at least on an instinctive level, and – most importantly – that does not simply function to save the day at the end of our heroine’s journey.

This week I’d like to share some of my thoughts about magic; ideas that have come together as a result of crafting Eolyn, and that continue to evolve as part of my journey with fantasy.

Let's start with:

Magic does not have “rules”, but rather is constrained by rules imposed on it.

Arguably a semantic consideration, but it’s very difficult for me to think in terms of “the rules of magic”, because in my mind, the whole point of magic is that it breaks the rules. Magic acts in ways that defy explanation, most often with respect to the known laws of science. 

Nonetheless, effective story telling depends on magic having limits. Certain things can and cannot be done by the wizards, witches, mages and magas of our worlds.  I’ve come to think of these boundaries not so much as an inherent property of magic, but as constraints that result from the imperfect knowledge, imagination and/or abilities of practitioners.  Which brings me to my next thought:

The practice of magic should have cultural foundations.

Similar to what we talked about with respect to religion in fantasy last week, for me the most convincing systems of magic are thoroughly embedded in their respective cultures.  The practice of magic has a past, present and future.  Magical knowledge can evolve, undergo innovation, and be lost.

It is in this context that “the rules of magic” make the most sense to me. A society’s structure, history and current state of knowledge can determine what kind of magic is practiced by its members.  In this way, magic never reaches its full potential because every culture has an imperfect understanding of that potential, and therefore a limited ability to achieve it.

So for example, in an imaginary world we could have one society with warlocks who practice shape shifting but do not engage in divination.  A neighboring land might have witches who see the future and read minds, but are inept when it comes to assuming the form of other animals. For me, these differences are most convincing if they exist for reasons grounded in history and culture. 

Magic is not the same as science. 

Science can inform systems of magic, and it has become popular in recent years to recur to science for explanations of our magic.  There are some very clever examples of this, one being the application of the law of conservation of mass to the problem of shape shifting. 

It is really up to the author how much of a given magical system can be explained (or constrained) using our current understanding of the natural world.  In Eolyn’s world, there is a whole class of magic, Middle Magic, that is essentially an antiquated version of ecology, botany, natural history and medicine. 

Yet, however tempting and useful it is to occasionally explain magic through natural laws, sooner or later we need to let magic be magic, and allow it to transcend the framework of science. 

Which brings me to my last thought for today:

Magic at its heart is not logical.

I’ve noticed that we writers like to dig into magical systems, ours and those of others.  We dissect them and try to make sure every piece fits back together neatly.  This is a good, solid practice that helps us build cohesive worlds, but there’s one irony in the process.  If magic is truly at work, sooner or later, no matter how water-tight “the rules” are, you’ll come across something that does not make sense. 

The best part of this is, if everything else is done right, that one illogical piece is never a weakness of the system; the illogical piece is what defines it as magic.

Now, it’s your turn…

Talk to me about magic:  systems of magic that appealed to you, uses of magic that put you off, spells that you thought were totally cool and would like to be able to do in real life. 

Also, what do you think the role of “rules” should be in magic?  Does science have a place in explaining magic? Is magic “the essential face” of fantasy?

As an aside, while selecting images for this post, out of curiosity I did a google search for "the face of fantasy".  Google kicked back oodles of portraits of beautiful women, a handful of demonic-looking men (which I found rather curious), and. . .George R.R. Martin.  An essential face of fantasy, indeed. 

Posted by Karin Rita Gastreich

Monday, January 2, 2012

Of Gods and Prophecy

Fantasy and religion just go together. Whether we, as readers or writers, claim spiritual faith or a decided lack thereof, there's no getting around the fact that fantasy fiction often relies heavily upon some form of religion. (David Eddings, The Belgariad and The Mallorean come quickly to mind.)
Magical systems are often religion-based. Gods are invoked, sacrificed to, avoided at all costs and petitioned to for aid. In Finder, the "ornery desert gods" are often called upon as a curse, but there is little in the way of gods or religion in that book. Still, they are there if only implied. In A Time Never Lived, gods play a huge role in the story. The first book didn't need gods; the second book did. That's just the way it rolled. And it made me wonder...

It is interesting to me, more as a reader than a writer, to realize how I respond to religion in novels. I expect it. I enjoy it. It gives depth to the culture/s and thus the worldbuilding. I look for the parallels to "Earth" world religions, and enjoy a good dose of Norse or Celtic, African or Native American etc, lore--as long as it doesn't get too close. Once it does, it becomes preaching. It breaks that "fourth wall" as they say in theater. It's author intrusion when an author's views become so blatantly clear, and, for me, totally blows the story. (And now Philip Pulman's His Dark Materials comes to mind!)

I started wondering how others feel about this, if they think of it at all. For example--much as I loved the Narnia books as a kid, once I figured out all the Christian allegory--ugh--might as well have put worms and goop and other icky things inside for all I'd want to open them again. I'll admit--I'm agnostic on the best of days, but it's really not about being anti-religion. I love CS Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, as well, Till We Have Faces. Both of these by a super-religious writer, writing super-religious themes; so why did Narnia bug the crap out of me while the others didn't?

I have a theory--because with the latter two books, I went in knowing what they were. With Narnia, I was duped!

Anyway, before I go on and on about Lewis* and all he tried (and mostly succeeded) to do with is writing, I ask you--how do you feel about gods and religion in fiction? Does fantasy fiction need them to be authentic? Does it bother you because you are a religious person, and the notion of any other god than yours unsettles you? Do you prefer a magic system that doesn't rely on a divine presence? What books? Tell me! I'm a curious oyster by nature, and once I get to wondering, it hurts my brain until I have answers.
*I happen to LOVE CS Lewis, as a writer and also, from what I've learned, as a person. I think Jack and I would have been great friends! ~Terri