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.

Birdman! Also, Last First Snow Preorder!

January 21st, 2015 § 2 comments § permalink

Hello friends!  First, your weekly dose of the strange: Birdman’s Oscar nods last week prompted me to publish an observation I made back in December—that the film is a Muppet Movie.  Maybe even the best Muppet movie.

Here I am on Tor.com:

Here’s how it breaks down:

Michael Keaton is Riggan Thompson is Kermit D. Frog, neurotic leader of a troupe of misfits desperately trying to make it on, or at least near, Broadway with a charmingly dated concept (Vaudville in the 80s / painfully earnest Carver adaptations in the ’10s). Their shows are a weird mix of cynicism and blinding idealism, on a shoestring budget, with enough of a revue aspect to allow for hilarious backstage costume antics—bet-the-farm passion projects helmed by a director/writer/producer/star so desperately earnest it sometimes hurts to watch him.

Read the rest of the article.  Honestly, I think this may be why I got so into this film.  It has problems, of course, and friends of mine keep pointing them out!  Basically every critic or critically-inclined individual I know has struck sparks off the invective Keaton’s character directs at the film’s main critic character, not to mention the critic herself, for example.  (Granted, there may be a little bit of hitting-too-close-to-home at work there—back when Stuff White People Like was a thing, I’d been studying Chinese intensely for several years and living in Anhui for a while, not to mention that I was in my early 20s and had very little sense of humor, so I was not let’s say properly primed to be able to laugh at the site’s “White People Like Studying Chinese” article.  I am now, but that’s another story.)  And its portrayal of big-ticket New York theater, and of Chandler, is… hopelessly romantic?  Especially given that Big Ticket NYC Theater is a Business, and film people on stage are hardly a new phenomenon.  But I made the Muppet connection about halfway through the film, and so—of course what’s at issue here are these Big Overwhelming Simplistic Emotional Questions of Authenticity and Wanting to Do the Right Thing By These Flawed Weird People, of course the theater’s almost out of money, of course the critic is genderswapped Statler and Waldorf, of course of course of course.   It’s even possible that, because of the Muppet-like vibe, I was prepared to accept e.g. the film’s lionization of Carver, who’s a great writer but such an easy touchstone for spare artistic excellence that he tends to get used as a kind of lazy metonymy for Art even though the film doesn’t really interact all that much IIRC with, like, Carver himself, as kind of fun-poking at the whole unreflective Carver-is-PURE-ART thing, in the same way that The Muppets is always both winking at the camera and refraining from winking at it, at one and the same time.  (And in the same way it’s possible to think Carver is awesome and recognize the existence of the aforementioned Carver Thing.)

And there’s something to be said for raw freneticism that holds together; this film is sort of applying the Tony Jaa aesthetic (speed! continuity! choroegraphy!) to drama; it’s like Eddie Izzard’s American Adaptation of British Film method applied to, say, the first season of Slings and Arrows.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about re: Eddie Izzard, watch this.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about re: Slings and Arrows, watch this.

If you don’t like the first season of Slings and Arrows, you’re wrong, and you’re on the internet, so… keep being wrong, I guess?

Anyway, I had a wonderful time at Arisia.  Good cons and good conversations and good parties!  I got confused for a Doctor Who cosplayer at the Doctor Who party, even though I was just dressed like normal.  This is maybe the best compliment I’ve ever received.  Lots of good crunchy conversation on all panels.  Theory abounds!  On the final day I even engaged in some good old-fashioned postmodernist (or metamodernist) moon-shouting.  Hooray!

In Publishing News for the Week, it looks like preorders for Last First Snow are live!  I think they’ve been for a while, but maybe they’re extra-live now or something?  Go ye forth and preorder!  It’s all for the best!

Stepladder Epiphanies & Gender; also, Arisia Schedule!

January 14th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Last week, while revising Last First Snow, I experienced what I tend to think of as a stepladder (or dim) epiphany, after the great line in Snow Crash:

[Hiro] finally went through a belated, dimwitted epiphany, not a brilliant light shining down from heaven, more like the glimmer of a half-dead flashlight from the top of a stepladder…

(Which line I just found in under a minute with reference to a physical copy of a book I haven’t read since China, so score one for codices and the human brain’s contextual search function.  But that’s another essay.)  Some days I wonder whether these kind of stepladder epiphanies aren’t the only kind—that truth, when or if it dawns, does so in the form of statements so basic it’s almost impossible to convey their depth or significance to anyone but the recipient.  So of course I’m going to try here.  Hooray!  (Also very mild spoilers for Last First Snow, my next book, ahead, if you care.)

One central character in Last First Snow is a father trying to balance duty, family life, and religious obligation.  He’s concerned: the world’s changed since his childhood, and the models of fatherhood, husband-hood, and civic duty he inherited from his parents no longer seem valid.  He’s trying to be a good man, but he grapples with the meaning of both those words.

And I realized, amid copy edits, like ten drafts into this book, that this character’s story (or, much of this character’s story) was about gender.  He’s wrestling with questions of gender performance, social roles, moral inertia, and historical demand.  He’s trapped, or at the very least confronted, by gendered terms—father, husband, man, priest, hero, king.

I didn’t have to go back and insert this angle, to be clear.  This stuff was in the book all along.  It’s not the only aspect of his character, and he certainly wouldn’t discuss it in these terms.  But it’s there, inescapable, in the marrow of the story.  And this isn’t some weird insertion of my own.  This is core fantasy stuff.  I intended this particular character’s arc to be in direct conversation with a bunch of trad fantasy and literary fiction.  Which means all those are about gender, too.

As with all epiphanies, this one has many facets, and I’m regarding each in the light, slowly.  Many (most?) of you out there will probably read the above and think, “duh,” or some more eloquent variation on same.  Unfortunately, my ponderous pondering doesn’t lead to a nice snappy sum-up.  If you’re the kind of person who seeks morals in blog posts, here are a few:

· Books are big and complicated and sometimes you don’t realize what you’re writing until long after you’ve written, no matter how much outlining or scheming you perform in advance.

· Gender structures are part of that enormous field of karmic interaction we inherit and manage / mitigate / destroy / maintain / subvert / transcend-through-awareness-of-suffering-&-codependent-origination (choose all that apply or add your own); they operate on deep levels.

· Lots of traditional fictional / literary quandaries are much more gendered than they may appear at first unreflective read.  Or at tenth reflective read for that matter.  (Sorry, Shakespeare nerd here, so these next few parentheticals will go really fast.) (To what extent does, say, Prince Hal’s strategy in Henry IV1&2 depend on the world of gender relationships and signifiers built in the play?  Hotspur is the best jock in Shakespeare’s jockiest environment, but/and that’s ultimately his weakness; Hal uses him as catspaw—yet Hal needs to figure out how to fake certain stereotypical forms of manliness in order to be an effective king.  And in this light it makes sense that so much of Hal’s character in Henry V is explicitly public, that he’s all speeches before armies, that the few times in HV we see him in private it’s like we’re seeing a warped, ruined thing, like Voldemort’s soul under that King’s Cross bench—that the degree to which Hal seems human at all in HV and not some kind of masterful broken puppet depends on the actors’ and directors’ ability & desire to sell the courtship scene b/w Hal and Katharine….)  (For that matter some of the greatest gender/power pondering in Shakespeare takes place in Othello—”not for all the world?“—which also features Iago, dark prince of Shakespeare’s clockwork men, contrasted with lover / dudebro / digital watch Cassio, and Othello himself, basically the most successful performer of manhood in the canon up to a point.)  (And then, Jesus, Macbeth and Lady Mac…) (Sorry, I need to go reread Shakespeare, I’ll be back in a bit.)

· Pace all the rest, that warped ruined thing under the King’s Cross bench is the single image from Harry Potter that stays with me on a gut-clenching personal level.  I don’t know what that says about me.  Nothing good, probably.

· Books never ‘just happen’ to be about, say, only men, or only women, or only genderless beings from Alpha Centauri.  Each option is a choice.  (Some choices may be so karmically conditioned, see above link, that we may not know they’re choices—they may seem to us like sight, or the absence of a choice.  The trolley problem is relevant here.)

· Did you know the trolley problem was first formulated by a woman, virtue ethicist Philippa Foot?

· Our choices have consequences—including the choice to stand by, and / or act in karmically conditioned fashions.  To the extent we are adults and awake, we seek to become aware of & live with the consequences of our choices.

· I’m really excited about this next book.

Housekeeping details: I updated the events page with my schedule for Arisia this weekend.  Also, Last First Snow got included along with a bunch of other excellent books in io9s Books to Watch 2015 Megalist.  And this year looks like it’ll be a killer one for books.  New Karen Lord! Zen Cho!(!!) Elizabeth Bear! China Mieville stories! Stephenson!  Ken Liu! Lagoon in the US with a worse cover than the UK edition but whatever! KSR! Y’all should watch out for Fran Wilde’s Updraft, also!  And Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant, which isn’t on the list but really should be.  And those are only the ones I know to be excited for.

2014 Backward, 2015 Ahead

January 7th, 2015 § 12 comments § permalink

Happy New Year, friends. neighbors, and Internet People!

I hope you all had a pleasant holiday.  The days are getting longer again, which up here in US!New England is a great and glad thing.  The worst of our winter’s still ahead, but every day we claw a minute back from the darkness.  Of course, last year was the warmest year on record—though, as I understand this sort of thing, ‘warmer’ means ‘the system is higher-energy’ which, in turn, means ‘you’ll experience greater extremes of hot and cold,’ which certainly does reflect Boston 2014.  Let’s see how 2015 fares.

In terms of work, 2014 was a pretty good year for me.  For Your Consideration, as they say in the Academy, my year in writing consisted of the following:

Novels

Full Fathom Five, Tor Books, about which you can find more relevant information on its page on this very site.  Lots of people seemed to think this was a standout book from me, which was gratifying.  It’s certainly the book with which I crossed the greatest gulfs of despair and hope in my career so far—but that’s just my subjective experience of the writing process!

Short Fiction

A Kiss with Teeth, a charming vampire story, on Tor.com

Late Nights at the Cape and Cane, a story about supervillains hanging out in a bar, at Uncanny Magazine

The Angelus Guns, a tale of angelic revolution and time travel inspired by a mishearing of the lyrics to The Foggy Dew, on Tor.com

This was a fun year in short fiction for me!  One of the many things I like about short fiction is that, since the text’s comparatively short, I can hold an entire short piece in my head at once, and tell if e.g. I’m overusing a certain image or leaning too much on a certain sort of description.  Of course, that means I work short pieces over and over and over again before they go anywhere, which means short pieces take a very long time to gestate.

Fan Work

I’m given to understand that this blog, which I spent a lot of time on in 2014, is technically a Fan Work, and I am a Fan Writer.  This is only fair, I think—I’ve been a Fan about ten times as long as I’ve been anything that you could remotely term “professional,” at least by the dictionary definition of the term.  Then again, the dictionary definition may not apply here!

My most popular 2014 posts turn out to have been Ghostbusting Lovecraft,  the Goblins post in which I independently derived the backstory of the Orks from Warhammer 40k (turns out cool ideas get around!), and, trailing those two by a large margin, my post on Robert Jordan and the Plinkett Test of Character Design, as well as one of my personal favorite essays of the year, the Die Hard and Fairy Tales post.

And here’s to 2015!

By way of spoilers: right now I’m working on another Choice of Game set in the Craft Sequence universe, which will hit virtual shelves this year.  Of course, Last First Snow debuts in July—preorder early, preorder often!  Or else Temoc will get angry!  Of course he may get angry even if you don’t preorder anything! Getting angry is something he does, is what I’m trying to say! I’m in the sixth or so draft of Craft Sequence Book 4 as we speak, which features many old familiar faces, and should be on my editor’s desk at the end of the month.

After that, I’m scheming deeply about a self-contained novel, plus the next Craft Sequence book of course.  And a just-for-the-hell of it side project.  And something which you know what I’ll just leave this here for now.

So, that means I’m possibly on the hook to deliver a game, two novels, and a handful of shorter fiction this year.  It’s been nice knowing y’all! *gulp*

I have a couple open questions, if you’ve made it this far:

1. I’ve thought about writing a small pamphlet about my editing process—something describing the steps I’ve passed through to turn a book like, say, FF5, from a first draft to its final form, including notes on conception, developmental editing, and language editing.  Would any of you be interested in this?  I might do it regardless, as a passion project, but if there was some interest that would shift it up my priority list.

2. Would people be interested in t-shirts, Muerte Coffee mugs, or something similar?

And now, for something sorta sappy—

As I’m looking back at this post, at the work it describes & the work it forecasts, there’s something missing in this account of text: people.  In weeks like I’ve had recently (to wit: nose, meet grindstone), it’s easy to focus so much on the language and the keyboard and the stories and the same five video game scores I listen to on repeat because I can’t do words with words in my ears.  And, you know, there’s a decent sort of easy social component of the writer’s life, all bitterness and coffee and bourbon or whiskey or whatever’s your jam, and of course let’s not forget the creeping sense of failure.  But really, I’m here, for now, to tell stories—and storytelling is about the audience.  I tell stories to and for my friends, because dammit the things they do are magic.  I tell stories to my family, to my loved ones, to strangers who stop by and listen for a few minutes or years.

So, thank you.  Stay a while.  I have great things planned.

Resolutions. Also, How to Do Your First Pull-Up.

December 31st, 2014 § 2 comments § permalink

Last year, I resolved to post to this blog once a week.  It’s gone well so far!  Not every essay is about goblin fungus, apian Star Wars, anti-Lovecraftian philosophy, or John McClane’s fairy tale roots, but I’ve had a great time, and the weekly schedule has proved just ambitious enough to inspire.  I fully plan to remain here, and at tor.com, for 2015, though oh my god you all should see my production schedule for 2015!  I have a lot of work ahead of me.

Which is great!  The pie-eating contest’s coolest prize is more pie.  (Though money doesn’t hurt.)  Still, that’s a lotta pie!  More details as I can offer them.

First, for housekeeping: Full Fathom Five made Vox’s Best Books of 2014 list, and io9.com’s Best of 2014 as well!  Huge honors.  I’m thrilled.  The thought that excellent people are putting me on the same list as, seriously, look at every other author else on both those lists—it’s a really cool thought.  More bulwarks against impostor syndrome, for sure.

In other Max-related writing news, I wrote a post for The Book Smugglers’ end-of-year celebration, Smugglivus, about how winter is the best season for readers, including a list of some of my favorite winter reads.  Looking for book recommendations?  Hie thee hence!

And, because it’s Resolution Season—after some conversation about pull-ups on Twitter a while back I mentioned that, as of graduation from college, I’d never successfully performed a single one.  Getting to my first pull-up was a huge milestone for me.  Some folk were interested in how I got there; now, I’m not a personal trainer by any stretch of the imagination, but here’s:

The Pull-up Protocol!

aka WORKOUT ADVICE YOU MAY ALREADY KNOW BECAUSE I’M NOT TOO GOOD AT THIS OKAY??

Pull-ups!  A great movement that I used to feel an utter martial arts failure for not being able to do!  Every time I watched a movie where Indiana Jones pulled himself up over a cliff, I’d feel this stab of guilt—”were I in the same situation, I’d die.”

Then, my first year in China, I had a lot of free time on my hands, and a copy of Ross Enamait’s Never Gymless, and decided, screw it, let’s make this pull-up thing happen.  (Much of the routine below comes out of Never Gymless, which is an insane book written by terrifyingly sane person for insane people—it’s  a bodyweight combat fitness book, and consists of excellent exercise advice mixed with demonstrations that Ross Enamait, the writer, is a superhuman.  TRIPLE HANDCLAP PUSHUPS.  Tiger leaping from plank position.  “Here are some variations on the one-handed pushup if this movement is too easy for you.”  “One-arm handstand pushups develop good core strength.  I strongly recommend this movement.”  Jesus Christ.)

Three concepts that you probably already know, but I enjoy writing, so here we are:

  1.  As you know, Bob, a negative rep is the part of the exercise in which you return to the starting position.  For example, in a pushup, it’s the part where you descend from the plank until your nose touches the floor.  In a pull-up, it’s the part after your chin has cleared the bar, in which you lower yourself to the starting position.
  2. Negative reps work basically the same muscles basically the same way as positive reps, only from a different (& often easier) angle of approach.  So, by working negative reps, you can build strength for full repetitions.  It’s like an assisted rep, but you feel more badass (or at least I did), and don’t need bands or one of those weird assisted pull-up stations.
  3. Isometric exercises (e.g. static holds) are (a) awesome, and (b) build strength for ten to fifteen degrees around the particular angle articulation held.  So, if you chain isometric exercises together like pages in a flipbook, you can improve strength throughout an entire movement.  (Which is a good way to improve punching power and speed, if you’re interested.)

So, Max’s 0 to Pull-up Progression which is really just my implementation of Ross Enamait’s advice:

Start with negative reps.  Jump so your chin’s over the bar (or step up using a stool if jumping doesn’t work for you for some reason), and lower yourself slowly (like a count of five or ten?) with good form—shoulders down, lats engaged.  I started, IIRC, with pyramid sets with rests capped at 30s—for example 1 rep, rest 10s, 2 reps, rest 20s, 3 reps, rest 30s, 4 reps, rest 30s, and back down the pyramid.  I don’t know that there’s anything magical about this method as opposed to three even sets.  Like I said up top, I don’t know what I’m doing!

When you feel comfortable with the movement, incorporate static holds on each rep at the quarter-points of the exercise, so the isometric strength you’re building overlaps (like I try to describe in point 3 above).

Train to the last movement you can do with good form.  (Which is what I tell myself whenever I pick up a weight, and still I find myself trying to beast through the last rep with horrible form.)

Occasionally check max_reps on the movement.  I think for me the first pull-up came soon after I could do a set of ten controlled negative reps with isometric holds—which took a couple months of regular training (3x/week, I think).  It happened so smoothly I didn’t even realize I’d done my first pull-up until it was done.  My wife used the same protocol to do her first pull-up a few years later, so it’s not just me!  That said, if you weigh more, you’ll have to build more strength to perform the movement, which might take longer.

I still don’t have a high max volume of pull-ups, but the exercise remains one of my favorites, and I crank a few out whenever I pass a bar.  They feel great, and they’re one of the few exercises where you can think, “Yeah, I might use this some day.”  Especially if you ever become Indiana Jones.

Anyway, that’s all for the year, folks.  Have a happy one, and I’ll see you around!