Why Agent Carter Feels Like Coming Home

March 25th, 2015 § 21 comments § permalink

Because everything happens at once, the year is 2006 and 2015; I’m simultaneously descending stone stairs overgrown with trailing ivy in the southern Anhui province countryside, walking to the dining hall for lunch, and lounging on my Somerville futon fixing to watch Agent Carter, which friends have kvelled about for months while I’ve been too buried in work to watch television.

But let’s focus on China in ’06 for now.

Two thirteen-year-old boys skip down the steps ahead of me, hand in hand. Descent complete, the taller boy drapes himself over the smaller one’s shoulders like a cloak, and, laughing, they stumble on toward lunch.

Later, in class, two other boys with the local equivalent of punk haircuts and louche bored-with-life expressions tangle their arms around one another and press flank to flank as they puzzle over a composition exercise.

Boys whisper, boys joke, boys touch each other softly with open hands and laugh. I remember the sort of body language passed between my male friends when I was young: handshakes, shoulder punches, slap on the back, hug with closed fists, surprise wrestling moves applied from behind on unsuspecting dudes at their computers. Every touch contained a strike.

I saw shoves and tackles and competitive handshaking among my Anhui students too. But they also patted, stroked, and leaned.

My first summer in Beijing years before, I’d marveled at girls and women walking hand in hand around Bayi Lake in Yuyuantan Park, twirling parasols beneath the Blade Runner sky. At first I assumed they were couples. How wonderful, how accepting! A friend told me, later, that norms of touch were different here: handholding was just something girls and women did with friends.

I didn’t know whether the same form was at play between my Anhui province students, but I suspected it might be, so I asked friends and teachers about homosexuality, and the reactions they confessed to me in Southern Anhui in 2006 reminded me a great deal of those I saw and heard growing up in middle Tennessee in 1996, ranging from educated but uneasy acceptance to a facial contortion and a slur.

So much for my intimations of higher consciousness. But the fact remained: my students touched their friends.

Obviously men like men, and women like women, and men like women, under any cultural conditions—biology in action. I would be surprised if there weren’t women walking hand in hand around Bayi Lake who were deeply, physically attracted to the women by their sides; I would be shocked if none of my male students felt a physical attraction to one another. But gentle touch, in public, seemed not to be sexually marked in this time and place. Some of these people were, presumably, queer. The rest were friends.

CUT TO, as they say in movies: INT GLADSTONE HOUSE, 2015 – DAY. (Except in movies they don’t have a period at the end of the scene establishment line, but this is the internet and if I left off that period you’d all be on top of me in the comment section at once, never mind anything I wrote here.)

At this point my attorney advises me to warn you all: the rest of this essay discusses and analyzes the plot and structure of Agent Carter in detail.  Cool?  Cool.

I have no idea what to expect from Agent Carter. At risk of nerd excoriation here, the first Captain America movie was, let’s say, not my favorite part of Marvel Phase One. It checked off what boxes needed checking competently and in good time. I was, I confess, a bit disappointed with Peggy’s plotline—meet-cute and body worship, with much of her screen time hinging on romantic tension between her and Steve. Atwell’s an amazing actress and Evans isn’t half bad himself, so they carry it just fine, but I’d read this script before. That final plunge into the water, the date, the swelling music, yes it brought a tear to my eye, but I could trace the etiology of that tear.

But the prospect of eight hours starring Atwell as Peggy, without Steve? Getting to know this fantastic, exceptional person when she wasn’t being movied into girlfriend mode? Without the usual romantic prop to fall back upon, what would the showrunners do?

Let’s take a shot-by-shot walk through the first few minutes of Agent Carter.

We begin with Steve crashing into the ocean, Peggy tearful, Steve stoic, rain check on that dance. This is a show about surviving heartbreak and reassembling your life. The crash ends in a beautiful dissolve to a teakettle: it’s morning in New York. Cue: big band montage of Peggy’s adventures in the war, highlighting action, adventure, competence crosscut with Peggy armoring herself for the day with makeup, stockings, skirt. Spy stuff, awesome. Peggy’s roommate introduced: Peg, you need to get out there and meet someone. Message received, Show. Peggy has to get her professional life together, and her personal life as well—she has to move on, in an explicitly romantic sense. I’ll start dutifully watching for potential pairs, just like I do in every other show. A bit tired, but you’ve shown me so much pure style already that I’m still psyched, because Atwell’s awesome and the clothes! And the New York! And the big band music! And the teakettle dissolve! And my friends say this is great, so, let’s roll.

I’m being unfair to Peggy’s Roommate, because she also introduces the other major theme: that with men returning from the war, workplace gender norms destabilized by World War 2 get reasserted with a vengeance. Rosie the Riveter’s driven to retire. And in case we missed it, when Peggy reaches the headquarters of the SSR, the spy agency for which she works, the show hammers the theme: Peggy’s wartime experience has been completely discounted. In her (male) superiors’ and colleagues eyes she’s most suited for answering phones (like the women who mind the phone lines outside the SSR HQ) and filing. Her heroism has been eclipsed by her rep as Captain America’s romantic partner. (And here’s where I perk up, because between this and the Captain America radio serial featured within the show itself, it seems like the writers had the same problem I did with CA: The First Avenger.)

We meet Daniel Sousa, played by Enver Gjokaj, and once again I am forced to thank Dollhouse because in spite of my deep and abiding frustration with that show it introduced me to a slate of actors and actresses I’ll follow to the ends of the earth. Gjokaj, as Sousa, is the One Nice Guy in the office, a war hero who service left without his leg; he white knights a bit on Peggy’s behalf against office sexism, and she asks him to stop, but it’s clear he cares for her. Potential romantic interest number one!

Howard Stark’s in trouble, in a classic Damsel in Distress “you gotta believe me, Mister Spade” situation given an elegant McCarthy spin. We know him from the Captain America movie, and he’s an interesting temperamental complement to Peggy, in an odd couple sort of way. Potential romantic interest number two!

Okay, cool, if we’re doing a love triangle, neat, I mean, seen it before, but still. Sousa and Howard are also formal opposites (struggling / loyal / patriotic vs. comfortable / adventurous / selfish), makes a nice contrast.

But then Howard leaves, after a suggestive exchange about “I never thought you would have trouble finding a man” that causes me another eyeroll, fine, Show, I get it, this is “who does Peggy end up with adventure hour,” but Atwell’s still amazing, as is most of the cast, and the clothes! And the music! And the cars! And the feminism!

And then—just then because the people who write and run this show are good at their jobs—we meet Jarvis, and my eyes stop rolling.

Because Jarvis is tall, elegant, gorgeous, impeccably tailored, well-spoken, not a fighter (in yet another contrast with Peggy and with all the other men in the show), he’s in bed by nine, he likes band music and soufflés. He’s to be Peggy’s partner in this investigation, the Scully to her Mulder.

First thought: this is our guy.

With respect to Kerouac and Ginsberg, first thought ain’t necessarily best thought. Second thought: wait, no. Sousa and Stark are also positioned as potential love interests. And the show’s told us several times it’s interested in romance.

Hold up. Am I watching a shoujo harem anime? On American live-action television? (For those of you not familiar, this is a style of relationship-centric show in which one woman becomes the center of a complex group of radically different men, all or most of whom crush on her, and the question is which one is the one?) I haven’t seen that before. It’s still a bit done, as a flowering of the love triangle trope, but, hm, neat—

Except, no. Because Jarvis is married.

I doubt we’ll go with a poly story on American network TV, and Marvel probably won’t let straight up Ashley Madison extramarital affairs fly either. Maybe they’ll shuffle his wife out of the way with some contrived plotwork. She has to be a secret agent or something, right? Or maybe we’ll end up in one of the (horrible) narratives where she’s a ‘bad woman’ who ‘doesn’t deserve’ him. God, let’s go down the misogynistic list: maybe she’s shrewish, maybe she wears him down, maybe—

Nope. He’s devoted to her. He loves her deeply. He’s committed treason for her.

What the hell is going on here?

It doesn’t hit me until episode three, and then mostly because a conversation with a friend who said she didn’t feel any particular romantic tension between Jarvis and Peggy made me realize that I wasn’t feeling any romantic tension there either—just the ghost of romantic tension Typical Show Structure was telling me had to be there.

What were these people, if they weren’t romantic interests?

That’s when the present of this show opened. The wrapping paper of style and music and outfits and pace and fight scenes and just incredible acting unfolded, and I saw the structure.  Peggy’s Roommate was a double blind.

Peggy and Jarvis and Howard and Sousa aren’t romantically involved. They’re friends.

Peggy and Jarvis form the closest bond in the show. They care about one another, deeply. They trust one another. They depend on one another. They make cutting, terrifying sacrifices for one another. (Jarvis’ fake confession; Peggy’s ‘slip’ with the stolen car report.) They confess. They fight. They cooperate.  They betray. They make up.

And they are both, and I cannot stress this enough, so goddamn attractive that it makes my eyes hurt to see them together on screen. Atwell has a kind of charisma I didn’t think was possible in this fallen age. She moves and I can’t help but watch her move. She’s still and I stare in awe. She’s competent and fast and strong and brilliant and witty and did I mention beautiful? And James D’Arcy, who plays Jarvis—cultured, impeccably tailored, dry, wry, insanely handsome, passionate, devoted, reserved except when fury at injustice, or boyish glee, breaks through that perfect shell. I would watch him read digits of Pi just to see his mouth move.

Nor are Sousa and Stark slouches either—excellent actors, attractive dudes, and fantastic, infuriating persons in their own right. Both Jarvis and Stark are canonically, demonstrably interested in women, and Peggy is canonically, demonstrably interested in men. Sousa has no textual history of relationships with women so far as I remember, but his reaction to seeing Peggy in her underwear in e05 suggests he’s at least interested.

(Note phrasing—we have no proof these people aren’t bi, I just mean that we have seen them demonstrate romantic or physical attraction with or toward opposite-gendered folks.)

Sidebar, here, though it’s tangential to this particular point, to note that Peggy has wonderful and strong female friendships too, most notably with Angie, the diner waitress who becomes her roommate, but also, in a lighter in-passing sort of way, with the SSR security guard / phone operator, with Dottie, and with the other women at the Griffith. (My grandmother lived in a situation similar to the Griffith in NYC about half a decade after Agent Carter’s set. The Griffith scenes felt like staring into an up-tempo version of her history.)

So we have these stunning people on screen together, their physical or romantic relationship is demonstrably possible, in fact we’d have to assume they were blind if they weren’t aware of one another as profoundly attractive physical beings, and yet what matters turns out to be not romance, but—trust. Compassion. Betrayal. Commonalities of vision. Differences of opinion. Trauma, and memory.

Friendship.

I’m sorry, it looks understated in mixed case. Let me try again.

FRIENDSHIP.

And this is where I need to talk about sex. This might get personal. I know it feels personal to me. I’m about to say stuff you may or may not agree with, in public. Please understand that I don’t mean this as an attack on anyone. I’ve been trying to figure out my thoughts on this stuff for the better part of two decades, and this is where that thought has left me.

Humans have been having sex since way back when our ancestors were mice hiding from dinosaurs, and we’ve been trying to figure out how to negotiate our sex drives as long as we’ve been able to figure anything out at all. Sexual attraction in Western medieval romances tends to be seen as a socially destructive force (Lancelot and Guinevere), and sometimes even spiritually destructive (Paolo and Francesca). Sex brings down empires in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and in standard dynastic narratives of the An Lushan rebellion. Sex is celebrated sometimes for its destructive power, or (in Dionysian cults) for its revelatory power—which are of course different sides of the same thing. Sex becomes sacred practice in some tantric and Daoist ritual, in May Day revels, and the Song of Songs.

Modern Western culture, after the sexual revolution, seems to have said to itself, Sex is totally awesome. This old Jekyll/Hyde narrative is stupid. Let’s celebrate sex! Let’s celebrate sexiness! Let’s liberate ourselves from hidebound purity narratives! Sex everywhere! Sex all the time!

Which is great! I mean, I love sex. One of my favorite activities. It sucks to be suspicious of one’s own body and desire.

But when we abandoned the old Jekyll/Hyde story, I think something scary happened as a result. Sex began to colonize all forms of intimacy, like mold colonizes bread.

Cut back to China, 2006. Why could my students behave so gently to one another?

Any definitive answer here falls straight into the kind of cultural reductionism and critique I find deeply flawed. But I can’t help but think that, in the presence of serious homophobia, this sort of gentleness relied on an assumption that physical contact between men could not be interpreted as sexual. In metropolitan centers, where there was more of an awareness of male gay culture as a thing, I saw less casual contact between boys; in the countryside, where thought of queerness was repressed to the point of erasure, I saw a lot more casual contact.

Contrast growing up in Tennessee—no one in, say, my Scout troop, was aggressively homophobic, but ‘gay’ was a more-or-less common expression of scorn that always felt weird to me on a deep level but which I wasn’t conscious enough to talk out. We were aware of the possibility of queerness, and because of homophobia that possibility became a risk. People need to touch people, so we did—but we touched one another with our fists, with our arms and knees in no-pads tackle football, with cuffs to the back of the head, with wrist locks or choke holds or handshakes to crush one another’s fingers, greeting become a kind of war, and looking back I feel in those moments a sort of subtle handshake protocol: “This is not tenderness. It can’t be tenderness, because I am not weak, and neither are you. Because if we were weak, they would spear us through the gap in our scales, they would pull out our hearts and watch us bleed.”

I was weak, or I read as weak, when I first moved south. Those first years I learned to fight. I learned well. I’ve been unlearning ever since. Others must have had it worse than I did back there, back then. But the fear was real.

So, to me, my students’ fearlessness seemed to rely on an absence of possible threat—erasure of the queer possibilities of that touch, problematic of course in its own right, but that erasure could not and did not remove the fact of touch.

Obviously homophobia and misogyny and sexual repression are horrible. Obviously these patterns warp people. But maybe we could have the tenderness, maybe we could have the trust that allows a touch that isn’t war, without the institutionalized repression and erasure. What would a world look like where the possibility of sexual interest didn’t lead to the presumption of sexual intent?

It seems to me that in such a world the first and most proper bond between people—the bond we cared, as a culture, about building and preserving—would not be a bond of sex at all. It would be the bond of friendship. This world would not lie subject to the narrative of sexual primacy.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

A young man and a young woman meet, and grow close for any of the reasons people grow close to people: they like the same books, they laugh at one another’s jokes, they enjoy long walks or rock climbing or Marilyn Manson or gingerbread or whiskey, or even gingerbread whiskey.  But in the background hovers this narrative—particularly for the young man, who’s been sold it again and again by mates and movies—that sex is good, sex is desirable, sex is wonderful, sex is the highest form of intimacy so intimacy necessarily leads to sex, we should want to have sex in any and all circumstances in which we can, if sex is possible sex must occur. It turns my stomach to type this, but here we go, “naturally,” in this narrative, once two people grow close and know one another’s secret minds, sex is required. If sex does not ensue, something is wrong.  The “friendzone” threatens, jesus god, as if friendship were this horrible barren failure state no one would want to occupy if they could be having sex, rather than a rich and sunlit territory we discover long before our loins first twinge, and which shelters and sustains us long after they cease.

Sometimes there’s no problem, because the timing synchs—both people are single at once, or they’re poly and seeking new partners, they find one another mutually sexually interesting, etc. But often that’s not the case. Timing is tricky.

And when timing slips, life can get ugly.

People break. They sour inside. They assume they’re owed something that was never promised.  They spiral down. They hunt. In the most benign scenario, they abandon old committed partners to chase new ones. The presumption that all intimacy must be sexual births horrors. And this isn’t just true of straight narratives! The assumption that any intimacy naturally results in sex leads to suspicion and scorn of contact and intimacy in same-gender groups as well—which I doubt makes life any easier for queer people. This narrative is related, I think, to the one where after your friend learns you’re gay he never hugs you again, where rumor you’re a lesbian titters through your girls’ school and suddenly some friends no longer speak with you.

I’ve seen my friends’ lives broken by these narratives of sexual presumption and sexual primacy, again and again, in small ways and large, and I’m fucking sick of it.

I’ve wanted for a while, though I didn’t know how to articulate it, a story that accepted sexual contact was just one more form of intimacy—an interesting and entertaining one to be sure, but not necessarily the most enduring, and perhaps not even the most intimate.

And that’s what I found in Agent Carter.

Peggy loved Steve Rogers, Captain America, romantically. But she also fought beside him. She believed in his principles, in his country, in his duty to his men and his self-sacrifice. Now he’s gone, and he won’t return. That physical relationship, the sexual relationship, can’t continue. But the moral relationship—her desire to serve the country they served together, to carry forward the ideals they shaped and pursued—remains. She, like Utena, met a prince—and decided princes were excellent, so she should become one, right down to the red-white-and-blue wardrobe. She’s shaken to the core by the discovery of a vial of Steve’s blood, the man’s physical presence returned. She hides it. She shelters it. And in the end, she decides to let it go, because her love for the man endures and does not depend on physical intimacy.

Jarvis loves his wife, Anna. He committed treason to save her. He makes her soufflés. He respects her after-hours requirements. She’s off-screen for the entire season, but that almost makes it better—her offscreen presence allows us to see her as a constant support and anchor for Jarvis, rather than a character in conflict with other characters, which is a risky choice but, I think, the correct one here, since the show never gives us an excuse to think, “god, if not for that lousy Anna, then maybe Peggy and Jarvis…” But Jarvis obviously cares, deeply, about Peggy. He stitches her wounds. They save each other’s lives. They work together to solve the mystery. They pick one another up when they fall. And she stops girls from slapping him in the face for Howard Stark’s nonsense.

Peggy is attracted to men. Jarvis is attracted to women. They’re both so insanely good-looking that the whole weight of narrative history seems to force them into a relationship—Jarvis stitches up Peggy’s leg in direct inversion of the famous “pain don’t hurt” scene from Road House, he’s even kneeling in front of her with his hand on her thigh. But, confounding all expectation and their own evident and nearly supernatural charms, their relationship centers around trust, mutual support, self-sacrifice, and good humor—not sexyfuntimes. By the end of the show, their tension isn’t the tension between lovers-in-waiting, but between friends who find their life paths taking them apart—and who want, desperately, to keep walking together.

On the other hand, consider Daniel Sousa, a hero who’s sick of people looking at him like one. He’s frustrated when Peggy’s passed over, but he’s also attracted to her and feels he can’t be with her, which aggravates feelings of inadequacy connected with his war wound. (Speaking of inadequacy, Sousa’s leg being shot off shades toward Jake’s injury in The Sun Also Rises. I wonder if Peggy and Brett Ashley would get along. Probably not.) He tries to stick up for Peggy, but he’s so swimming in the sexual primacy narrative he doesn’t realize there’s another one. He stays a good guy, but we see him sour. When Peggy slips up, when he discovers a difference between the story he’s telling himself about her and the truth of her situation, he turns bitter and in a way far more vicious than a confirmed all-around asshole like his colleague Thompson—Sousa jumps straight to accusing Peggy of being a sexual dupe of Stark’s. (“He’s really got you wrapped around his finger, doesn’t he? I’ve got to give it to him! He’s as good as they say. He got in so deep he scrambled your brain.”) Their relationship is on some level about sex, so her betrayal must be a sexual betrayal! (It’s no accident that Sousa gets a face full of Reaver gas in the final episode—the show externalizes that inner aggression to confront him with it.) He recovers and trusts her. But he could have been the plain and simple woobie, the nice guy everyone wants to win out in the end. The show does something far more complicated by revealing his sharp edges.

But the show doesn’t code sex as evil, either. Consider Howard Stark.

Stark seems to love no one so much as Howard Stark. He enjoys being with many women; he’s painted as a cad for it, but he’s treated with neither suspicion nor censure, nor does the show seem to scorn his romantic partners. In fact, we get a chorus of their fury when Peggy and Jarvis try to trace one of Stark’s previous hookups. They’re angry at Howard’s cavalier treatment of their relationship, but the frustration tends to hinge not on perceived romantic betrayal (“he said he loved me,” that sort of thing), but on his clumsy attempt to buy them off rather than confronting them directly. It’s jokingly sex-positive, and even relatively kink-positive. But Howard is sleeping around at least in part because of his own deep unresolved issues in the war, especially around Steve’s death.

In this context, while I understand and respect the readings of Howard Stark as bisexual based on the “I know you loved him; I loved him too” exchange with Peggy about Steve Rogers in the final episode, I think the show’s doing something more radical, in terms of resisting sexual primacy, than merely establishing Stark is bi. Peggy, we know, had a romantic relationship with Steve. When Peggy equates Howard’s love for Steve with her love for Steve, all we know is, whatever the form of Howard’s and Steve’s connection, for Peggy, it’s as strong and valid and real as her romantic and moral bond. Perhaps Howard was sexually attracted to Steve. Perhaps they were simply deep, good friends who disagreed and shaped one another and saved each other’s lives for years. Either way, the term ‘love’ applies as far as Peggy is concerned.

And either way, I don’t think Howard recognizes his love as love before Peggy acknowledges it. If Howard recognizes his love for Steve as love, why would Peggy’s description of it—and recognition of its identity with her own obviously romantic love—cause him to wake up out of the trance? No new information has been exchanged. No revelations have been made. It seems to me that Peggy’s shocking Howard out of the trance with a revelation about himself: that he did love Steve as deeply as Peggy, that his love is valid, whether or not that love was sexually expressed.

The series’ twofold climax, then, rests on Peggy’s recognition of Howard’s feelings toward Steve as love (after her rejection of them earlier in the season), and on Sousa’s refusal to listen to the evil psychotherapist’s argument that all forms of relationship hinge on sex. (“[The other agents] see you as broken, half a man,” remembering here the Jake-leg wound-impotence association, “and Agent Carter, I see how you look at her, but she will never value you for the man that you are, how can she? She feels only pity. But we can change all that. If you just focus.”) Peggy extends the vision of love beyond a narrow boundary; Sousa rejects the narrow view of human relationship into whose grip he has fallen, by refusing to listen.

Even when Sousa invites Peggy out for a drink after work at the series’ end, I think it’s easy to read that not as a date, but in juxtaposition to Krzeminski asking Peggy for a drink earlier—that is, Krzeminski asked his colleagues to join him for a drink, then asked Peggy, but with an edge of proposition toward her he didn’t direct toward, say, Thompson. I think we’re supposed to feel that when Sousa asks, she agrees (tentatively) because she feels he’s asking her as a colleague, not a potential sexual partner.

And it’s in that spirit, too, that Peggy and Jarvis resolve: “But should you again find yourself in need of my services, I would be honored to assist you at a moment’s notice, Ms. Carter.”

“Thank you, Mister Jarvis.”

And then, when he gives her the vial of Steve’s blood: “I owe Howard Stark a great deal. But he does not own my integrity. I am quite certain there is only one person in the world who knows what to do with this. You, Ms. Carter.”

He trusts her to make this final, grand, moral decision. It’s the act of a true friend.

I’ve spent ten pages and the better part of a day writing this essay. I won’t be paid for it; there’s too much personal here to burden any paying venue I could easily approach. And Agent Carter is by no means a perfect show; criticisms of (among other things) its racial balance are good and just and have been made more eloquently elsewhere.

But.

Over the years I’ve known many brilliant, beautiful, powerful, elegant, scrappy, joyous, passionate people. I’m married to one, by some miracle. I love her deeply. I’m blessed that she returns the affection.

And we both have friends ourselves—who are brilliant, and beautiful, and powerful, and elegant, and scrappy, and joyous, and passionate, and wise, and also foolish and limited and blunt and silly and weird. We love them. We bear them with us. We build worlds together. Because we’re human, and because we seek out other amazing humans, there have been moments when the old pre-conscious bits twinge. But we are subject to our own will, not to the inner mouse, and friendship is glorious, and true, and anyway the inner mouse can be tended well and joyfully without being allowed into the driver’s seat.

That’s not the kind of life we see all that often on television, or in books for that matter.

Finding a world like that, here, on this show, on network TV—a world where people are beautiful and strong and smart yet the primary axis is not who ends up straddling whom—a world of friends—it feels like coming home.

And I’ve been a long time away.

Reading, Challenge, Strength

March 18th, 2015 § 8 comments § permalink

I’m headed to ICFA this week, which means that as I write this I’m staring, despairing, at all I have yet to pack and prepare. I’ve meant for a while to write a piece about reading challenges, and it’s always seemed like there was too much to say for me to even start. But I had a long chat with a friend about the subject a while back, and realized I’d told that person much of what I wanted to say already. So, with their permission, I’ll share a somewhat edited version of my side of the chat with you now.

Now, this is my take on reading and reading challenges as a writer. I approach my reading the way fighters approach their diet, or the gym. Barth Anderson has a similar angle on the topic here. People coming from different backgrounds, or coming to reading for different goals, may have different priorities. I recognize that; still, it’s my blog, so I’ll testify about my own experience.

Also NB before you venture below: I’ve left this in its original form for two reasons. First, so you can all understand that this is an internet chat ‘script, and not an essay, which invites different approaches to language, punctuation, etc. Second, the internet chat is its own wonderful and weird literary form. I can’t think of another style of English communication that uses enjambment, for example. Rendering the following in paragraphic prose would be an exercise of adaption, rather than of ‘cleaning up.’ So, here you are.

—CHAT TRANSCRIPT BEGINS—

When I was in China I took along shelves of books to read with me.

Big meaty stuff to last through the winters

So, like, a bunch of early 20th century theology, and Thomas Hardy, and boatloads of Russians

And in the process of not having any actual spoken English around, and reading all these books, which, never read Hardy without heat in the wintertime it will make you want to build a time machine to go back and set Hardy himself on fire

Or at least it did me?

Even though he’s unarguably great etc

Jude the Obscure jesus christ

ANYWAY

So by the time I leave China, 2008, I sound

like Thomas Hardy sieved through a bad translation of Dostoyevsky simmered for a long while with, like, Martin Buber and Heschel and Tillich and stuff

I’m talking about my fiction, understand. Clunky weird sentences. Vocabulary no one should use

So, after arguing with my father about the dubious quality of my latest literary achievement, I decided that for a year I’d only read American fiction. In fact, that I’d only read American realist fiction. No fantasy, no SF, no genre nothing

All the stuff I’d classed as hopelessly boring and recondite, to which my adolescent reaction had been I DO NOT CARE ABOUT YOUR MILL TOWN OR YOUR BUSTED KNEE OR YOUR SON WHO WANTS TO GO TO COLLEGE RATHER THAN REMAIN IN THIS CRUMBLING MILL TOWN YOUR GRANDFATHER BUILT

And some of that stuff? Was trash. And some of it was amazing.

I’d never read any of it before! Like I missed all the classes where it was taught ‘coz I was taking Shakespeare over at the local college!

STEINBECK

Faulkner oh my god, all the stuff nobody I knew down south ever talked about but IS THERE but we’re all so good at not talking about it I barely realized it *was* still there like that until I read Absalom Absalom

Even Poppa Hemmingway, though I don’t like him quite as much as Faulkner coz I agree with Ralph Ellison he kind of cheats & forgets that race is a thing

And it helped! My writing got better. My reading got better. My comprehension got better.

And I fell in love with authors! New authors! Authors I’d completely written off!

But then at the end of this year I realized, shit, I’d read

like a billion dead white dudes

So I thought, I need to read more women! So I started on a Year of Reading Women

North American women, or else I’d just have reread Dunnett and McKinley and all that again

and some of the books I read I couldn’t stand!

but I read Tiptree

and I read Margaret Atwood

who, again, in younger days I’d been all “Margaret Atwood pretending she isn’t writing SF, what the hell”

But Younger Max is a moron

1. Margaret Atwood can write whatever the hell she wants and call it whatever the hell she wants

2. there is no 2

except for 2. publishing is hard and you do whatever you have to and for her? if you can hit that crossover market, and can hit it only by distancing yourself from core genre, which I think was the case in the 80s and 90s? DO IT
hm, sorry, I’m getting a bit carried away here, it’s the old Southern Preacher mode

And I rediscover LeGuin

who MY GOD

Like I’d read her stuff as a kid! So I didn’t know from what!

I was like “That was great, now imma read some David Eddings farmboy fiction”

but then I go back to her and it’s just

*HEAD EXPLODES*

And then I saw some folk online talking about reading writers of color in genre, and I realized that my reading list was overfull of white dudes

and dudettes

and a bunch of 700 year old Chinese guys

So I changed my habits again! Read more Delany, read Okorafor (ALWAYS BE READING OKORAFOR), read Lord (ALSO), read read read.  And so it goes

and again and again the pattern repeats

I’ll start reading people I’m not reading

and some of them I won’t like because whatever reason, and sometimes I’ll be right and sometimes I’ll be wrong
and sometimes when I’m older I’ll realize that younger me was a critical imbecile

like I suspect I might even like Madame Bovary now though when I read it the first time I wanted to throw it out my dorm window on a per-chapter basis

I GET IT FLAUBERT SHE’S READ TOO MANY BOOKS AND THEY’VE SCREWED HER UP AND ALSO POOR PEOPLE IN THE COUNTRY ARE POOR, AND ALSO IN COUNTRY

I love those moments when I recognize young-me was wrong; they remind me of my insufficiency

And each time I’ve intentionally adjusted my reading habits, I’ve found new writers to love

Library’s like a gym. Too many people are New Years Resolutioners when it comes to reading

“Yeah bro I totally lift like three epics a year”

Trainers help. Routines help.

Trainer tells you:

YOUR READING LATS ARE WEAK AND YOU SHOULD FEEL WEAK

WHAT IS THIS CRAP, YOU CAN CURL 90 POUNDS BUT YOU’VE NEVER READ JAMES F—–G BALDWIN?

People doing a reading challenge with good heart will discover muscles they didn’t know they had

Develop reading str_max! Develop reading volume! Develop reading isometric strength! Develop reading speed strength! Develop reading endurance!

Be pretty through strong!

“oh but Trainer I just read books with good stories”

F— YOUR STORIES, JUST READING GOOD STORIES GOT YOU TO THE POINT WHERE YOU CAN SQUAT 500 LBS BUT YOU CAN’T DO A PULLUP

SPECIALIZATION IS FOR INSECTS, MAGGOTS!

SPECIALIZATION IS FOR INSECTS!

And then we drifted off topic. Now, again, this is my take on reading *as a writer*: reading is training, is development, is mat and sparring partner and heavy bag and weight set. Reading is the uncomfortably cut bastard you see doing muscle-ups at the gym and think, god, if I worked harder maybe *that* is possible. Just reading what comes natural is never enough, because what comes natural will stew you in your own juices. Read to grow stronger, faster, sleeker, to hit harder and climb further. And some wild training magic happens when you start: you find you like being strong, and fast, that it’s fun to be sleek, to hit hard, to climb far.

People read for all sorts of reasons, though. Maybe yours are different.

Terry Pratchett

March 12th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

I saw on Twitter when the news dropped.  I cried.

He did amazing work.  Hilarious work.  Laugh until you weep work.  Cutting, kind, vicious, proud, brutal, humble, horrifying, ugly, beautiful, sad, joyous work.

Without his books I would be a worse writer, and a worse man.

He leaves memories and stories that will last, I think, as long as humans read or speak.  But his passing also leaves me scared, and challenged.  While he lived, I could always say, “well, my work has its flaws, but at least Terry Pratchett’s out there doing it right.”  Now that’s gone.  Lancelot’s gone.  We need to do it all for ourselves, now.

We need to make our own magic.

Special Guest Paradoxes!

March 11th, 2015 § 1 comment § permalink

Hello friends!  I’m on vacation after finishing a very long crunch period that produced, mirabile dictu, a first draft of The City’s Thirst, my next Choice of Game, which is about hunting water rights for Dresediel Lex in the years after the God Wars. Bit of Western, bit of Noir, bit of giant scorpions, a skeleton or three, a roving reporter—all sorts of fun.

Things are Afoot in the Wider Internet.  Specifically, a ring of book bloggers are running a readalong of Three Parts Dead!  Which is a lot of fun, and if any of you want to catch up, or just to see what some folks reading the book for the first time have to say, definitely go and give them a shot.  Here are some links to the first third of the readalong: Lynn’s Book BlogOver the Effing RainbowViolin in a VoidOn Starships & DragonwingsThe Bastard TitleLittle Lion Lynnet’s, and Dab of Darkness.  I’m a storyteller at heart, and I love the notion of people reading my books and then mulling over them.

But since I’m on Vacation this week, I don’t have an essay of my own to share with you.  To make up for it, I’m going to share an essay my friend Matt Michaelson wrote about paradox, authoritarianism, worldviews, and progress.  I hope you like it!

——-

I would like to tell you some stories of long ago and far away, which have more power over us than we know. One is about a man named Gongsun Long. He can be said to have witnessed none of the things he hoped for. Another is about someone you may have heard of, named Zeno.

The best known story about Zeno is that he wrote something called “Zeno’s Paradox”, which in the story you know may not be described in detail. In fact according to other stories, Zeno is said to have written of more than 40 paradoxes, of which nine come down to us today secreted away inside the shells of harder-to-kill texts. Zeno was tall and fair-haired. He was a teacher and a student. Pericles sat at his lectures. In Plato, he argues Socrates to a standstill. He died trying to kill the Tyrant of Elea, his home.

If the name Zeno’s Paradox refers in popular consciousness to one in particular, it probably refers to The Dichotomy. More or less: To cross a distance, first you must cross half that distance. To cross half a distance, first you must cross half of that. And so on. How can you cross any distance at all? And yet of course you do.

This, along with Zeno’s other paradoxes, was said to be a defense of Zeno’s mentor (and perhaps lover) Parmenides. Many thinkers disputed Parmenides’ arguments about the nature of reality. But, wrote Zeno, if you believe all of what you’re saying then how can you refute The Dichotomy?

Over the centuries this challenge was taken up, Zeno’s paradoxes have been taken as jokes or an affront. Obviously wrong for this reason. Or for that. And anyway what is the point? It has no depth. It’s a trivial game of words. You cannot speak of infinity in the way Zeno does, wrote Aristotle. It is terribly wrong. The charitable might admit his paradoxes were mystical. But certainly there was a limit to what anyone could say about them.

Graham Priest:

An abhorrence of contradiction has been high orthodoxy in the West for more than 2,000 years. … As Avicenna, the father of Medieval Aristotelianism, declared:
“Anyone who denies the law of non-contradiction should be beaten and burned until he admits that to be beaten is not the same as not to be beaten, and to be burned is not the same as not to be burned.”

Zeno died having failed to persuade the world of Parmenides’ truth or to kill the man who despoiled his city. One story goes that he was the kind of man who, in failure, held back by the tyrant’s men, with nothing left, bit off his own tongue with his teeth, and spit it in his enemy’s face.

Some part of Zeno’s work, which no one knew how to understand, was never wholly lost. And since the development of calculus, and especially since mathematicians and philosophers developed transfinite math, analytic philosophy, and forms of logic Aristotle did not know — since then the learned of the west have started to think of Zeno’s paradoxes somewhat differently. Not just outdated or mystical ideas. Perhaps something useful; an intuition pump. 19th century mathematician Karl Weierstrass’ analytic methods, which form the basis for the math of real analysis, can propose a very serious “solution.” Georg Cantor was partly inspired by Zeno to develop his math of numbers larger than infinity. It is now possible to speak, with analytic rigor, of how a person crosses a distance. It is possible to speak of types of infinity. It is possible to say, thanks to scholars who stood on Zeno’s shoulders, what type of infinity is described in his paradoxes, and some of the things that type of infinity can and cannot do. The Dichotomy is now widely taught in the humanities, the arts, the sciences, and in math. By the 20th century some paradoxes had become tools.

The story of Zeno’s life and work is a story about beauty in an unexpected depth. There are further depths.

In Zeno’s day the philosophies of the non-Greek world were just as rich. I do not know enough about them. But I know that if you want to see the world differently, go to another country and learn to see the world as they do there. Even among the things you both share, certain ideas may be larger or smaller. The Law of the Excluded Middle was smaller in the ancient east, and Synthesis was larger. Kant’s noumenal was larger, and Zeno’s Paradox was smaller. It is a sad story why Zeno’s Paradox was smaller. It brings us back to the beginning, and to ancient China.

Gongsun Long lived in a time when war was common and few could read. Rome fought the Samnites. Ashoka conquered the lands of the Indus, the Ganges, and the Kalinga. Doomed Qi was hegemon in the far east.

Nobody now knows very much about Gongsun Long. He was a student of the rites, and the old kings. He was a traveler. He enjoyed the patronage of noble men. He was said to be a member of the School of Names and a follower of Master Mo. He spent his life creating word games and advocating an end to war. Some of Mo’s followers — Mohists — were the sort of people who, if conquerors would not lay down their arms, would arm the conqueror’s enemies and fight on the side of any who could not defend themselves. Gongsun Long likely did not fight or design weapons for the downtrodden. At the court of a local lord in a small northern kingdom, he argued for peace in his time. He thought. He took students. It is given to us that the products of Gongsun Long’s teaching were recorded, written by his hand or his students’.

Statues overturn and the things bright people build disappear. Of his books, six short scraps of characters survive attached to his name, buried in fakes and attempted reconstructions by medieval scholars a thousand years after his death. That was another dangerous age, and there were more after it. Today those medieval savants’ copies are themselves incomplete.

Like other Mohists, Gongsun Long wrote about argument and about logic. Of the remains, however, only perhaps two or three short items are truly his. They are mentioned in the Chinese canon in much the way Zeno is mentioned in Aristotle. A thorn in the palm, to be pulled. So many, many scholars attempted the removal, but the more who tried, the less likely they were to succeed in forgetting him. Master Zhuang mocked Gongsun Long along with other Mohists. In Master Zhuang, of course, to be mocked and to be upheld are not necessarily dissimilar.

Before the establishment of the Empire of All Under Heaven, Mohists and Confucians competed for influence in the courts of the Nine Countries (though nine was merely a traditional number, and the true number varied). After the establishment of the empire, books were burned and thinking was consolidated, and the organs of the state sided with the Confucians.

Bulgakov said that manuscripts do not burn. Shakespeare himself noted, however, that time would come and take his love away.

Much was forgotten of Mohists, perhaps more than any the other Hundred Schools. More than Zeno in the west, their work was said to be trivial, sophistic, or simply useless in the construction of ideologies of power. People decided to say such things, to forget the words, or to burn the work and cut out tongues. Even before unification, it is written that the men of Jixia Academy in doomed Qi did not approve of Gongsun Long. No less a great player of the game of kings than Lord Shang Yang, who dreamed of totalitarianism long ages before the word was first spoken, who built the war machine that ended the 800-year Zhou Dynasty, who designed new punishments for the masses and said none would be above them and was executed in his own fashion along with everyone he ever loved — he took from the Mohists the idea of collective responsibility and made it a tool for the state to control people. He was worse in his way than the Eastern Han ministers of the left and the right who sided with the Confucians, and burned Mohist books. I do not know their names. They did not entirely succeed. But Shang Yang is still quoted in the halls of Chinese power to this very day. He took what the Mohists made to be a defense against conquerors and used it to conquer things they held dear.

Today of the writings and deeds of the Mohists there remains very little, and there remains of Gongsun Long more or less only one paradox, which is called the Discourse of the White Horse. A white horse is not a horse, it says.

???: ??????????
[A]: Can it be that a white horse is not a horse?

????
[B]: It can.

?????
[A]: How so?

??????????????????????????????????????
[B]: “Horse” is how the shape is named; “white” is how the color is named. That which names color does not name shape. Thus I say: “a white horse is not a horse”.

For a long time the wrongness of this was a given and arguments attempted to brick over it. Or perhaps it was a joke or an insult. You may have the same reaction. But to you and all the scholars of dead dynasties who turned away I say: there is beauty in unexpected depths.

Recently, some scholars in the west have applied new types of logic or analytic philosophy to the white horse who is not a horse. Mathematicians who study what it means for things to be equal — scholars of isomorphism — have become interested again. Like infinity, sameness comes in different kinds, and there is much work to be done to study how it works in different fields. I wish I knew more about it, just like I wish I knew more about the Buddha.

Graham Priest again:

When Western philosophers look East, they find things they do not understand – not least the fact that the Asian traditions seem to accept, and even endorse, contradictions. Thus we find the great second-century Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna saying:

The nature of things is to have no nature; it is their non-nature that is their nature. For they have only one nature: no-nature.

The Buddha argues that existence does not end, that there is no self, that suffering exists but is an illusion. There is much to be said of this beyond what I can write here. It is enough to say that Buddha’s is a vast country.

Many of the learned in the west have called the philosophies of the east “illogical.” Some have said philosophy as such is a product of the west and the west alone. Heidegger said that only Greek and German were languages sufficient for philosophic thought. Over time, translations were made. By Russel and Cantor’s time, serious responses were being made, and admixtures. Deep relationships were formed. Schopenhauer obsessed over the Upanishads. Jung loved the Yi Jing. Perhaps you expected the depth here.

I want to ask you something now. Do you know who Nagarjuna is? Do you know why the world is on fire? Do you know whether a white horse is a horse? Do you know of every great paradox humans once thought they knew?

Sometimes it is said that we in our age have a poor understanding of what progress is. It cannot simply be that money or volume or even a scalar index of human health can capture the essential thing about what is happening as time passes. Are we richer? Are we warmer? Are there more of us? Are we more happy? More free? Messrs. Zeno and Gongsun Long share a number of things in common, from a certain point of view.  They were each relatives of a movement that failed, and thoughtful men with principles. They died failures, and their work was hounded across the world. They are of course different, and well that it is so. Gongsun Long reminds me very much of Bertrand Russel as well, in a rhyming sort of way. If there is such a thing as progress, is that what progress is? Could it be exactly that which makes it so that Bertrand Russel’s pacifism and paradoxes were not abhorred but studied? I can write to you all of Master Mo and Gongsun Long and no political event in my imagining could lead to my being killed for this. I can think to myself that, as ridiculous as it sounds, I am not at all put out that the NSA might collect my tired ramblings to use for some purpose no one yet knows. I do not know.

I feel optimistic, however, because it seems that some beautiful ideas can survive against ignorance, contempt, or misuse.

The Grace of Kings & Narrative Form

March 4th, 2015 § 2 comments § permalink

Hi friends!  Deadlines march along, but I wanted to share something really cool with you.  Tumblr user (do we capitalize tumblr at the beginning of a sentence? I imagine we must) wichago made a God Wars playlist on 8track.  Some great music on there—good lyrical references, too.  I really need to listen to more Metric.

Also!  A number of book blogs are assembling to do a Read-along virtual book club sort of thing on Three Parts Dead this month.  Check it out!  Join in!  This seems like a really fun way to read things.

ALSO ALSO Super bonus post-publication fun time edit: Full Fathom Five was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award for Best Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror!  I’m so excited by this!  But I wrote another blog post already, so I’ll talk about that next week!

I’ve been thinking a bit in the last couple days about storytelling toolboxes, because I’m one of those unconscionably lucky bastards who ended up with an advance reader copy of Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings.  This isn’t a review, because I’m still reading, but I can tell you already that you should pre-order it if you’ve ever been excited by a book in which one individual swings a sword at another.

I’ve written at great length elsewhere about wellsprings of fantasy tradition outside the Western mythological canon.  In these essays I tended to focus on the stories themselves—who does what within them, what kinds of situations and worlds are portrayed, etc.  For example: the Mahabharata is an immense philosophical epic in which warriors with psychic weapons that can break the planet in half fly around in diamond chariots piloted by gods and end up in sorta-poly romances, occasionally with other gods.  WHY WOULD YOU NOT WANT TO READ THAT?

This style of geeking out about myth is great, but it obscures the forms of the original texts—as, to be fair, do many translations.  (There are many prose renderings of the Mahabharata, which is a work of epic poetry; the Genji Monogatari was originally heavily illustrated IIRC, or at least historical editions of it were.)  Obscuring textual form encourages people to sort of project the content of these stories into familiar forms—like, say, the epic fantasy novel.  (I kinda did that in my retelling of Drona’s Death, recasting a key Mahabharata tale in the form of a Zelazny-esque SF short story.)

So this is fine!  But it ignores a whole different way to use these sources.  The way the story’s told can be as cool as its content!  (I mean, of course, but I usually think about this sort of thing in reference to more intentionally pomo stuff, rather than historical and literary sources.  The more fool I!)

In The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu’s telling a version of the fall of the Qin dynasty, and the Chu-Han contention, in an alt-Hawaii-ish setting with gods and zeppelins and it’s totally great.  But more to the point (for this essay, anyway), he’s using storytelling tricks which remind me a great deal of Ming Dynasty classics like Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and it’s these techniques as much as (or even more than!) the setting that make the book feel so fun and deep at once.

Here’s the thing about Romance of the Three Kingdoms.  It’s this vast sprawling 100-chapter epic that swings from battlefield to boudoir to roadside village, zooming in and out through time without breaking a sweat.  We’re not following a main character, exactly—we’re following a huge historical event.  We can glom onto central characters now and again, maybe even for most of the chapters, but all our heroes will die sooner or later, even if only from old age.

Because of its scope, and because it was presented by traveling literate storytellers to an eager illiterate listening public, Rot3K doesn’t let itself bog down in angst and soliloquizing.  A character plans a grand betrayal?  It’s generally executed within three chapters.  If she feels bad about it afterward, she commits suicide or confesses or commits a counterbetrayal or something with due haste.  Peasants rebel, gather thousands of followers, and overthrow major governments during a chapter break.

One interesting side effect of this approach is that, while Rot3K is brutal—people get butchered alive and subjected to all sorts of torture—it doesn’t fetishize brutality.  Someone’s eviscerated in the public square?  It happens and we move on without needing to linger on the knife tugging on abdominal skin, or the particular cadence of the scream.  Which, if you think about it, is even more horrifying, since it speaks of the readers’, and storytellers’, casual familiarity with acts the witnessing of which would cause modern folk who think of themselves as hard men to lose bowel control.  Rot3K establishes its viciousness the way Hammet establishes his characters are good brawlers—by not describing events that seem utterly routine to their participants (like disarming a guy who’s broken into your bedroom).

And the story takes a similar approach to fighting.  When Rot3K really wants to highlight a fight scene, it uses actual honest-to-god poetry to describe the combat.  Some day I’ll do this in a book and my editor will try to kill me.  But when we’re not watching something spectacular, the fights boil down to “And then Lü Bu entered the fray and killed several hundred men,” which tells you just about all you need to know about Lü Bu.  The style leaves blow-by-blow choreography to actors and acrobats, and lets the reader’s mind do most of the heavy lifting (outside of the occasional flights of poetry).  And it’s glorious lifting.

All this allows the story to swing back to characters faster—so that, even though we face a cast of thousands, we really know those thousands, from common folk to true heroes.  (At the same time, we grow to understand that the line between the two is very thin.)  But even as we grow to love these people, we must accept that the narrative structure allows any of them to die at any time for no reason whatsoever.

I don’t know if this was Ken Liu’s plan, but The Grace of Kings uses all these techniques masterfully.  The first couple hundred pages have covered at a gallop territory standard epic fantasy (and let’s reflect on how silly we are as human beings, that such a phrase makes sense to say) would linger over for an entire book.  And while all the above may sound as if the book skimps on the smaller moments, in fact these techniques lead to the exact opposite effect.  Whenever the pace slows to describe a single event—say, to show a character blow on a dandelion—it lands.  Many books would drown such key thematic moments in oceans of descriptive text, all those clothes, parades, and meaningless meals; here, they snap into sharp relief.

It’s a bracing and exciting approach.  Epic fantasy, in failure mode, feels like swimming in a pool filled with lukewarm Mrs. Butterworth’s.  The Grace of Kings is a dart through a crisp clear stream at dawn.

Here’s the preorder link.

Translation is Weird

February 25th, 2015 § 1 comment § permalink

If I had a time machine and perfect language skills and were bound by some geas to use them only to answer weird literary questions, one of the first things I’d do would be go back to the Tang dynasty and ask Li Bai’s opinion about pronouns.

Here’s a great Li Bai poem, called 静夜思, which renders as “Silent Night Thoughts,” but the poem’s so iconic that if you ask Google to translate a page with that poem title, it’ll just read “Nostalgia”—the poem stands in for the whole experience.  Anyway, here goes.

床前明月光,疑是地上霜。
举头望明月,低头思故乡。

 For those of you who don’t do Chinese, here’s a simple, bad translation, courtesy of me:

Bright moon shines beside the bed
Like frost on soil
I raise my head and watch the moon
I lower my head and think of home.

Now, to continue this essay I’m about to do the thing you should never do, which is offer a character-by-character reading of a Chinese poem—thereby falling into the old Ezra Pound “Chinese is a language free of grammar, it consists of beautiful pure images!” trap.  I’m doing this because anyone reading my blog at least speaks English, and while most English-speaking readers can look at, say, a Spanish poem and extract a little meaning, since the languages share common roots, they can’t often do the same with Chinese poetry.  So, understand that there is grammar at work here, even though my character-by-character rendering will obscure that.  Okay?  Okay.

床前明月光,疑是地上霜。

chuang2 qian2 ming2 yue4 guang1, yi2 shi4 di4 shang shuang1.

bed-before-bright-moon-shine, as-if earth-(on top of)-frost.

举头望明月,低头思故乡。

ju3 tou2 wang4 ming2 yue4, di1 tou2 si4 gu4 xiang1

raise-head-watch-bright-moon, lower-head-think-old-country.

As you can see, my super-lightweight translation falls short.  For example, to preserve English syntax I switched the image-order in the first two lines; I haven’t come up with a way to land the lines on “moonlight” and “frost-shimmer” respectively that doesn’t make the English read stilted.  (That’s not to say such a rendering doesn’t exist.)

But I did greater violence to Li Bai’s original—or did I?—when I inserted ‘I’ and ‘my’ into the second couplet.  The original poem does not, so far as I can tell, indicate that the speaker is the person raising his or her head.  Nor, of course, does the original language indicate the gender of the speaker.  (Fun fax: spoken Chinese doesn’t gender the third-person pronoun, and written Chinese didn’t gender the third person pronoun until IIRC the Westernization and modernization pushes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Hooray!  Wait. [Though to be ‘fair’ you could read this as erasure, too.] )  To create an English version of Silent Night Thoughts, the writer has to decide: is the poet speaking?  Is the poet describing someone else?  If so, what’s that person’s gender?  (He raises his head? She raises her head?)  Is the poet addressing the reader?  (“You raise your head”?)

And this is where I want my time machine.  In English, this indeterminacy seems deliberate.  You’ll rarely write a person-indeterminate English sentence without meaning to.  But in Chinese poetry, that’s a straightforward task.  In fact, formal restrictions can require it.  So: would Li Bai’s readers have read an ‘I’ into the poem?  A ‘he’?  A ‘she’?  A ‘you’?  Would the indeterminacy operate for them the way it seems to operate in English, allowing the reader to flow freely through the poem, choosing to see it from the subject’s point of view or from an outsider’s, or from the point of view of a person in the Old Country thinking of his exiled lover?  Or is this an artifact of differences in language construction?  Would a contemporary reader even have recognized this indeterminacy?

And yes, the author is dead, and yes, Sapir-Whorf doesn’t work, but—how dead is the author really?  Translating from a language I learned far too late to experience natively, I find myself asking all the time: is this what the author wanted to say?  (Or, is this what the author’s intended audience would have read, which seems like the same question seen from the other angle…)  And how false is Sapir-Whorf, when the translation process is nothing but wrestling with thoughts that are trivial to frame in certain languages, and nigh-impossible in others?

I am all but certain monographs exist on this subject.  I haven’t read them; I don’t know what they would say.  But whatever they do record, all the people to whom this poem was first delivered are over a thousand years dead—any experience of the poem they didn’t write down, we’re at a loss to reconstruct.  And, depending on their linguistic background, it may not have even occurred to them to think about this issue.

I don’t know.

Hence, the time machine.

Romance and Flensing at Boskone

February 18th, 2015 § 12 comments § permalink

Boston’s still snowed in, with drifts reaching my front window from the ground, but while I haven’t managed to take that snowbird vacation, Steph and I did spend much of this President’s Day weekend at Boskone 52. As always, Boskone was a seed and prompt for great conversations and weird stories. I was on a funny cover pose panel with Bruce Coville (!). And many other excellent people, of course, but I read Bruce Coville when I lived in Ohio, age seven, back when there seemed an impassable gulf between me and the Adult World where people made decisions and wrote books.

One of the weekend’s stand-out conversations for me was a panel discussion with Ada Palmer, Debra Doyle, and Chris Jackson about romance in genre. Ada and I spun off into theory land for a bit, and I’d like to take this post to at least map some of the territory we explored, since this is my blog and I can use it as an ideological scratchpad if I want. Everything I’m about to write is filtered through considerable sleep debt; many weeks’ worth of coffee has been consumed in the interim. Failures of logic are of course mine.

Ada observed that the modern romance, in which two people meet one another, grow infatuated, and celebrate and affirm that attachment through marriage, thereby ending the story, emerges for the first time in the early nineteenth century. Before that, romances tended to be extramarital stories. Debra Doyle, also on the panel, observed that passion in the middle ages was seen as a primarily extramarital phenomenon, since marriage (at least among ruling classes) tended to be a matter of settling property and fealty rights. Passion and romance were directed outside marriage, and seen as dangerous natural phenomena.

Theodora Goss, on the previous night’s panel about parents in folklore and genre fiction, mentioned that the concept of motherhood also emerged in the early nineteenth century, and it’s a truism of college literature classes that the notion of Delightful Childhood Innocence takes shape in the Victorian era.

It seems to me, I said on the panel, though I have no basis for this point beyond correlation and intuition, that these broad transformations of myth might have roots in the societal and economic transformations taking place due to the industrial revolution.

I’m about to butcher economic history, but in pre-industrial times, property and biology seem to have been linked. Accumulation of wealth happened through blood: cows give birth, wheat grew, married couples produced children to inherit. The whole King is the Land myth structure emerges from this: in a society where blood is the store and vector of value, the spilling of that blood, or the failure to respect it, leads to chaos and disorder.

(Insert parallels to the Mandate of Heaven and the bureaucratic failures of dynasties’ late emperors here.)

During and after the industrial revolution, a capitalist pattern emerges: wealth transforms into goods the ownership of which passes between people based on contract. Blood’s significance fades. Relations between people begin to matter less, in terms of wealth development and transfer, than relations between contracting entities that may or may not correspond to people. Marriage ceases to be the fundamental unit of society, and childbearing is no longer a principle form of wealth accumulation.

All the flesh-and-blood stuff, it seems, gets flensed from the wealth-and-power stuff. (I’d say ‘workers get alienated from their labor,’ but I don’t want this to become a purely Marxist conversation and anyways ‘flense’ is a nice word.) The people with their wobbly bits are “free” to develop new, more satisfying relationships to one another, while the contracting entities (which may or may not be people) take on the societal business of wealth transfer. When your child is not an heir or heiress or peaceweaver in waiting (to steal Nicola Griffith’s excellent term), what is she? “Innocent”? Well, maybe. At least, that meme has currency in C19 English society. When you’re no longer required to marry for the advancement of your family’s political and economic goals, what should you marry for? Well, what about this “love” thing over here? Maybe the realignment of romance, motherhood, childhood, and (I suspect) fatherhood emerges from this fundamental systematic shift.

(As I write all this out, I see interesting parallels between the relationships of what I’m calling ‘contracting entities’ and ‘flesh-and-blood persons,’ and the relationships of human minds and hypothetical postsingularity AI minds, in the realm of responsibility-offloading—maybe the development of the human mind post-singularity, if we still are pre-singularity, will parallel in some ways this romantic transformation?)

If we have hit on something here, if marriage and romance really did play different roles for most of (western?) human history until some of their “responsibilities” shifted to the capitalist system, then it explains some interesting artifacts in modern fiction.

The whole “back when men were real men, women were real women, and small fuzzy creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small fuzzy creatures from Alpha Centauri” idea has been mocked rightly, but maybe it reflects a sense that love and marriage worked differently in The Old Days (in addition to its obvious infantilist yearning for the mighty and perfect parents some of us remember). Even moving away from that toxic image, authors as disparate as Connie Willis and Dan Simmons show us moments when the Postmodern Man confronts a Pre-modern Woman he recognizes as a being alien from the Postmodern Women with whom he’s familiar. (I’m thinking of the historian’s encounter with Helen in Ilium, and Ned’s first meeting with Tossie in To Say Nothing of the Dog.)

The separation of wealth-and-power stuff from love-and-sex stuff would have other consequences, too: on the one hand, a societal intimation that romance is only free and true between equals on the wealth-and-power level (the power-couple dream), and on the other hand, an eroticism of power and contracts, which billionaire romance in general and the Valentine’s Day release of 50 Shades of Grey in specific seem to support. The Kama Sutra discusses spanking people, yes, but the Marquis De Sade seems very much a creature of the transition we’re discussing here. When power and sex become (at least in theory) separate spheres, it makes perfect sense that each sphere should try to colonize, or subvert, the other. (Eddore vs. Arisia, anyone? Squishy shapeshifty biological stuff vs. abstract “higher” mental power stuff that just-so-happens to hinge on eugenics, law enforcement, and the politics of fear?) I wonder if power exchange fantasies as a modern would describe them were as common in the pre-industrial era? (To stem off the most obvious objection to this: I think there are some structural differences between modern power exchange fantasy and courtly love—though that’s an essay I probably won’t write because I’d like this site to stay at least sorta PG.)

Let’s wrap up with the usual slate of warnings: I recognize I’m making huge leaps of argument. I’m not positive I’d stand behind this theory—like I said, this is my ideological scratchpad. And, of course, contractual relationships existed in the pre-industrial world, corporations were formed, etc. etc.; to spin a phrase from Gibson, the future was always here, but it was never equally distributed. Now I’ve written all this out, I’ll have some notes to refer to as I read more, and learn. One of Steph’s div school books is called Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation, which seems like a good place to start. (It has an ideological axe to grind, but, honestly, give me a scholar who’s obvious about their axe any day, over a scholar who tries to hide their axe or pretend said axe doesn’t exist. What, this old thing behind my back? It’s just hahaha a potato peeler.)

Anyway, that should give you a sense of Boskone. I just went on for 1450 words about a ten-minute conversation, and I didn’t even get into Ken Liu’s, Carrie Cuinn’s, and my back-and-forth on the folklore panel about authenticity, copyfighting, authority, cadastral mapping and text ownership, or the fantasy-and-vacation chat on the Fantasy Vacation panel, or how awesome it was to share an Urban Fantasy panel with Ginjer Buchanan (!!!!) and Leigh Perry. Or the rest of the convention’s running chat with Ada about authorial responsibility. Or how refreshing it was, after how much I worry about, you know, will the next book sell, do I have any hope, etc., to watch Jo Walton interview Steve Brust and first, realize just how much they love writing, and second, remember just how much I love it, too.

Good times.

In Which I’m on Writing Excuses, and I Tell Y’all about the Mohists

February 11th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

This continues to be Max’s Month from AAAAAAH, so of course I took some time out earlier this week to host Warring States Era Chinese Philosophy Storytime on Tor.com!  Check it out:

Sit down, because I’m going to tell you about, objectively speaking, the best philosophical movement in history.

If you’re saying “what gives, Max, this is a little looser than your usual style,” well, I delivered two books last month, and this month I have a game to write and page proofs to approve and two short stories due, so y’all get Philosophy Story Time.

DISCLAIMER: Being of fractured mind and atrophying body, I’m not cite-checking this blog post. This is my “off the top of my head” survey of Mohism, the Warring States Period, etc., which is pretty solid, but if you base a paper on this, on your own head be the fault.

Most of Chinese philosophy’s core strains come from a time called the Warring States period, which lasted for about two hundred fifty years and started about 2,500 years ago. You know that bit at the beginning of Star Wars where the crawl says “It is a time of CIVIL WAR”? That’s the Warring States era. Basically the Western Zhou, the dynasty which sort of ruled a decent chunk of the land we now call China, split into hundreds of tiny city-states, and they all slammed against one another at high velocity until they glommed into eight larger kingdoms that then, well, warred.

Everyone was warring with everyone all the time, and life sucked.

And since everyone was warring with everyone all the time, and life sucked, people started asking: why does life suck so much? Does it have to? Could westop life from sucking?

So they became philosophers.

Read the rest over on Tor.com.

Since I’m not likely to be appreciably less busy next week, check back for a retelling of the story of Gong Shu Ban, with funny voices.

OH! And and and!  A few months back, I was fortunate enough to be a guest on the Writing Excuses podcast!  And now the episode is up!  I’m talking about the Magical 1%—about Worldbuilding That Revolves Around You, The Hero.  And more!  I had a great time talking with the Writing Excuses team, and hopefully I sound something like coherent on air.  Judge for yourself!

Silencing the Voices Long Enough to Read

February 4th, 2015 § 1 comment § permalink

I wrote this long crazy post about Mohists, but Tor.com’s running it now, which is great!  On the other hand, it leaves me sans a load-bearing post.

So, let’s do some housekeeping:

1. I have a Boskone schedule!  It’s posted on the events page!

2. Full Fathom Five ended up on the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2014, along with a whole bunch of other books you should read.  Everything I’ve read on here is amazing.  Also there’s a Locus Reader’s Poll, apparently.

3. The new issue of Lightspeed features a novella by Brooke Bolander, which I haven’t had the time to read yet but heard her read excerpts from at ReaderCon last year, and I’m excited to have the whole thing waiting for me in my e-reader when I finish chewing my way through these Shanghai history books for SEKRET PROJEKT.

4. On a similar note, I’m really excited for the new issue of Uncanny Magazine, featuring short fiction by Amal El-Mohtar and Ann Leckie!

I’ve been reading a lot recently—non-screen, long-form, bound-book reading.  This may sound weird or elementary for a professional writer to say, but, folks, reading’s great.  I am transported.  I explore strange new worlds.  I seek out new life and new civilizations—I mean, yes, that’s Star Trek, but it’s also my reading life.  There’s a reason LeVar Burton is the guy who makes the Enterprise go.

Part of the reason I read less than I did when I was in high school & college, I realized recently, is that back then I tended to read until someone Of Higher Stature flat out told me to stop reading.  “Time for dinner!”  Or, I had to get to class.  Or,  etc.  The key here is, whenever I wasn’t affirmatively required to be doing something, I by default sank into a book.

Adulthood, or something like adulthood, has put the kibosh on that strategy.  Nobody requires me to do anything any more.  Hell, I’m a full-time writer; I could just stay at home in my PJs all day eating gummy bears and watching Cartoon Network and only a handful of people would even know until the whole system crashed down in flames around me.  But in order to earn adulthood I had to learn how to require myself to do things.  I had to internalize the need to take out the trash, cook, shop for groceries, work out, clean the bathroom, to sit down and work even when I really don’t want to.  In the halcyon days of yore, I had to do what people told me to, but only that.  These days, few people tell me to do anything—because I’ve built all these systems that make sure there’s food on the table, the house isn’t falling down, the sink hasn’t gone sentient, etc.  Some of those are real systems, GTD style.  Some of those are background processes.

If I start reading and really let myself go, I can read for hours at a stretch.  And since I know that, I’m careful—and for years I did the reading equivalent of constantly myclonic-twitching awake just before you hit REM sleep. I’d never let myself go, because I was always calling to myself from inside my own head: “time to make dinner!  Time to clean the bathroom!  Time to sweep!  Time to take all that stuff to the post office that you’ve been putting off for the last two weeks!  And shouldn’t you get started on your tax paperwork?”

Recently, and this’ll seem stupidly straightforward to you all, I’ve started setting a timer.  I can decide, for forty-five minutes at a time, that I want to read.  That’s how I want to spend this bit of leisure.  Kitchen and bathroom and dust and junk piles and emergency emails will still be there after forty-five minutes.

But for those forty-five minutes, I’m gone.

It’s great.

Also, I’m trying to read more broadly.  A friend of mine last year read only books by women, which I admired but can’t quite emulate because I want to stay caught up on my friends’ books, and not all my friends are women.  So for months now I’ve been working to make sure I don’t read two books by straight white cis men in a row.  Now, this sort of approach has its own issues (for one thing, it can, in its failure mode, sort of norm straight white cis-dudes, and by extension it plays into the whole problematic “feminine-Other” association a la Said), but so far it’s been great.  This process hasn’t changed my normal reading habits much, to be honest, but it has encouraged me to prospect for new authors and break out of hegemonic ruts.  And, it’s helped me spot uncomfortable subconscious biases.  (“James Baldwin’s amazing! Why didn’t I read him before now?  …. Oh.  Oh.  Well, shit.”)

Aaaaanyway.  Books are great.  Reading is fun!  Be well.

Two Reviews – The Opium War, Ms. Marvel

January 28th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Hello, friends!  It’s another crazy week over here at the Gladstone House, as I rev up on the next Choice of Game.  (More details about that in the near future.)  In the interests of pressing on with game writing, I can’t take the afternoon I usually would devote to blog composition—so, instead, here are a couple reviews.  I’ve been reading more this last month, and I’ve returned to Goodreads to track my books.  Hit me up over there if you’re interested in seeing what I’m up to.  I try to keep my comments on books short and sweet, but these got away from me a bit, so… here I am.

 

Julia Lovell’s THE OPIUM WAR

Lovell’s well-written and masterfully researched THE OPIUM WAR undercuts much received wisdom about the War, its causes, and its effects.

For example: Lin Zexu, the Qing official celebrated for seizing and burning illegal shipments of British opium in Guangdong in 1839, is commonly described as an anti-opium crusader; Lovell makes a good case from contemporary sources that Lin was in fact a driven Qing official hoping a successful resolution of the opium problem would lead to his being promoted to a position from which he could achieve his final goal of improving grain shipments to the capitol.

Or: the standard line on the financial situation underpinning the Opium War is that the British were running a heavy trade deficit with China (England needed tea and silk, and wasn’t offering much in trade except silver), and so started shipping opium from India. This turned the deficit in the other direction, and China started losing immense quantities of silver on the opium trade, thus destabilizing the national economy—so the Qing government outlawed opium and dispatched Lin Zexu to break up the import market. But, Lovell points out, opium imports rose dramatically after the war, and yet the Qing economy remained stable. Turns out the silver pinch the Qing felt in the 1830s was brought on by a contraction in global silver supply due in part to revolutions and unrest in South America and Mexico, which produced something like 80% of the world’s silver at the time.

The book’s full of little turns like this, opening the standard narrative of the war like a dreamcatcher to reveal new sides and perspectives to the history in question. I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it quite so much if I didn’t have a reasonable background in the “received history” of the struggle, from books like Jack Beaching’s The Opium War and (for more general information about Western trading and missionary activities) Jonathan Spence’s To Change China.

Lovell’s account is strongest in its primary focus on the First Opium War. She covers the Second Opium War in a bit of a rush—focusing on a few highlights like the sacking of the Summer Palace, in comparison to her archival depth on the First War—and her chapters on reactions to the Wars jump around a great deal in time. I don’t think this is a problem, exactly, but it may be confusing to readers unfamiliar with 19th century Chinese history. That said, her final chapter, tracing the evolution of modern China’s history / propaganda industry post-June 1989, is a brilliant summary of her book’s themes.

The Opium Wars were important and weird. A handful of expats, missionaries, and drug smugglers cheated, shot, and conned their way to conquest. The technological disparities between the British and Qing war machines in 1840 were so great that many of the military conflicts in this book read like Independence Day. If you want a terrifying vision of what contact with technologically advanced aliens who think of themselves as “the good guys” would look like, this is your book. (Another of Lovell’s compelling inversions: her argument that the Yellow Peril narrative is at root fueled by British / Western anxiety and guilt over the one-sided indefensibility of the Opium Wars.)

Midway through reading this book, I decided to look up what happened to Jardine & Matheson, the import-export business formed by the two arch-warmongering drug smugglers of 1840s Guangdong who were prime instigators of the Opium Wars. Turns out their firm still exists. There’s a website. Its Board of Directors includes a man named “Lord Leach of Kildare.”

Reality is a strange and terrifying place.

G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona, Ms. Marvel: vol. 1

A proposal: stories (or, generally, texts) can be represented as three-dimensional, even four-dimensional, shapes in the noosphere. Critical perspectives are two-dimensional planes intersecting these texts. A critical perspective’s reading of a text is the outline formed by the intersection of text and critical plane.

Let’s imagine a text that is, in three-dimensional form, a round teakettle. Some critical perspectives on that text are the equivalent of a plane cutting straight through the teakettle’s base: their reading on the teakettle is that it’s a circle. Some perspectives / projections are closer to a plane bisecting the teakettle along a line of lateral symmetry through handle and spout—in which case anyone who’s seen a teakettle will recognize the kettle’s side-on silhouette.

Some critical perspectives produce readings that are more—let’s say, informative?—about certain texts than others. Readers with the kind of critical perspective that reads a teakettle as a circle may think “this is just a circle, like all other circles. We’ve seen circles before! Why are people so excited about this one? Why, this other text over here is a complicated labyrinth! And that one’s a star!” While readers with the critical perspective that reads a teakettle as a teakettle may think “A teakettle! Thank God! I’ve wanted one of those for decades!”

I think Ms. Marvel is a teakettle.

By which I mean: comparing nothing but its use of superhero genre tropes and language to other uses of superhero tropes and language, much of what’s being done here has been done before. (As a tale of a nerdy working-class teen random-chanced into the superhero life who fights local supervillains, Ms. Marvel vol. 1 is telling something close to The Spider-man Story.) But that critical perspective is like the perspective that reads the teakettle as a circle. It doesn’t remotely capture what’s going on.

Other critical perspectives reveal dimensions to which few mainstream superhero comics aspire. Kamala Khan is a working class first generation immigrant girl from a Muslim family in Jersey City, in a far more realistic social milieu than Peter Parker’s, including frankly but compassionately drawn fault lines of race and class and faith. Ms. Marvel vol. 1’s domestic relationships also move in directions that shouldn’t feel fresh, but do: both Kamala Khan’s parents are alive! Neither of them understands her, but they both mean well! Her brother’s a complicated guy trying to figure out his own faith and place in the world! In fact, all her friends and family are struggling with their own identity issues! Who cares if the story’s similar to Spider-man’s from a pure genre-language angle? In fact, the straightforwardness of the story’s use of superhero genre language lets all these other fascinating elements hang together. “Round” turns out to be a great shape for a teakettle!

This circle-teakettle issue pops up again and again in critiques of books and stories that take the genre as a foundation to explore topics under-explored by traditional genre narratives. The standard protest goes something like, “this story doesn’t use the language (or tools, if you want) of this genre in new ways—it’s not reading the genre back to itself—therefore it’s doing nothing new.” When in fact, the work in question is doing new things. Many new things! And it *is* reading the genre language back to itself, in ways that may not be visible from a genre expert’s critical perspective.

(Sidebar: this same complaint is often leveled against, e.g., literary writers who deploy genre tropes, and a similar response applies. The book may operate in dimensions for which the “how is this using genre language in new ways” critical perspective is poor or irrelevant.)

As of its first volume, Wilson’s Ms. Marvel builds fresh and well-told stories off a strong foundation of genre language. Also, the art in this book is beautiful.