In Which Milieu Gets Our Heroine

30 May 2003

Good work day yesterday; good baking day; good yoga day. It was almost a good day all around, except that Mark's bus was in a wee tiny accident on the way home. It seriously was a very small accident, and Mark is just fine, but it delayed his already-late homecoming slightly, and I fussed a bit until he showed up clearly unmussed.

I was thinking about historical settings yesterday, and how much they dictate to the plot. How much they dictate to the characters is I think a little clearer -- if you want your characters not to behave as people behaved in your chosen place/time, you have to give pretty clear reasons why. (Most common being: he/she/it is unusually rebellious, has been raised by eccentric parents, etc.) Sometimes this is hard, because present behavior seems "natural" and "obvious" and gets extrapolated into past, future, and utterly imagined settings -- oh, and here I am on a tangent before I've even started.

Marymary was distressed with the lack of women in Foundation and was asking herself (and the rest of us), "How to not notice what kind of world he'd made? Why didn't it jar him that it only had men? It saddens me that this sort of thing was acceptable for so long in fiction. I guess it is no different than stories without a range of ages, elders and children, of different ethnicities, of different sexual orientations. I wonder what other fiction at the time was like. Is this a phenomenon located in time and genre specifically?" I think what it is, mostly, is a consequence of Asimov's professional life. Same goes for other early SF writers, too.

Here's the thing: many early SF writers were engineers or scientists, working in that field sometime in the 1930-1960 range. After they got out of high school (maybe before, if they went to a single-sex high school), their lives were not filled with women. Socially, perhaps, if they went to look for wives or if they had wives, sisters, or mothers who encouraged social time. But very few early SF novels had a social focus. Most of them were focused on something professional or technical, and when they looked around and saw how things were and had "always" been, there were not very many women in geeky professional organizations. There still aren't. After awhile, after your third or fourth time being the only female, it stops being as noticeable. It's just how the world works unless you consciously pay attention to it. I'd imagine it'd be even more so if you were not the female. If I could go on autopilot and assume that there would be no one else in the room who knew what menstrual cramps felt like, I'd imagine that it'd be even easier to take that autopilot if I never had to think about them in the first place.

When we write futures now, most of us deliberately try not to reproduce the present. We don't populate our labs with white and Asian men only, not because that's not most of what we see, but because we believe -- we have been taught -- that it will be different, someday. We've been taught to think about how it will be different. And I'm pretty sure we're missing things, and the SF lovers who come after us will throw their hands up in despair and say, "How could they have missed it?" And that's good. That's called progress. We shouldn't stop trying to see what we've missed, but we shouldn't despair about it, either.

(My own first Asimov experience was with Prelude to Foundation, written in the 1980s and featuring Dors in a much, much more prominent role. So I think when it was pointed out to him (directly or indirectly), he pretty clearly could adjust; he could write female characters more prominently, although it still wasn't what he'd grown up with. So I think we can agree that his heart was likely in the right place.)

Right, then. Where was I? Ah yes: setting and plot. So I rambled into the Finnish YA last night accidentally, because it features some of the same characters as the Not The Moose Book and I was making sure I knew what they'd been up to before. I was amazed at how much of it was determined by the setting, though. It's set during the Winter War, which was in the winter of 1939-1940. And we know how the Winter War went, and what came after it. We know that the odds are very good that many of the men in my characters' lives died, or would die soon in the Continuation War (known outside Finland as World War II...). We know that a big chunk of country, the home of some of my characters, would be lost. We know that the Soviets were going to do some pretty horrible things to Karelian and Ingrian people who didn't get out in time and to some who did. We know that there will be shortages of everything, that people will barely scrape by, that many of them won't make it.

And while this isn't a story about generals and politicians, it can hardly help but matter. It would be a bit offensive to me to have it not matter -- oh, tra la la, the rest of the country is having their world turned upside down, but I'm magic. No. Just, no. This is why I haven't read another Jon Hassler book: Rookery Blues was set on a college campus during the Vietnam War, and the main character was too self-centered for that to make any difference at all. What, social turmoil? Never mind that, I'm a self-centered jerk! Just no.

It's not as though setting things in Finland is taking the easy way. It takes some doing, and if the place and the time aren't going to matter, why bother putting it there in the first place? Why not put it somewhere else, some other time? (I suppose one answer might be, "because these characters are only teenagers in one place and time." So I could write a story about other characters. That's not really an answer.)

And yet, and yet. I'm going to have lots of death and destruction in this story, and I don't think that's entirely the point of it. So there's got to be something else that fits in with the Winter War and the magic as I have it set up, and also that fits in with the heroines being 15 and 16 years old. I won't have Winter War battles as the main plotline, but the main plotline needs to have to do with that, needs to have some emotional parallel to it. (I am knocked over by what it must have been like to be the Finns then, to watch the invading enemy coming in thin cotton coats and to know that half my job was going to be done by the land itself...and then, gradually and with horror, to realize that it didn't matter, because the invading power was not only cold enough to send uninformed troops with insufficient supplies, but was also huge enough that it could do that and still win. I'd really like to get that across. It's like a punch in the stomach.)

Anyway, while there's some really strong emotional stuff tied up with the time/place, I'm not writing a traditional war story, and I'm not all that thrilled with tragic endings in the long-term. So the plot needs to have something a good deal more positive than "lost my homeland/lost my family/gearing up for another war." Positive without being a chirpy wrapped-up happy ending. Oh, and without being a romance for the ages, because I know these girls when they're women, and they don't have romances for the ages. Have never had romances for the ages and never will. A best friend for the ages, though, maybe....

I'm worried that I'll start to write bits of that on the theory that it'll provide depth of background for the Not The Moose edits. Well...there are worse things, I suppose, and it exists as a whole entity all by itself, so it's not like it'd depend on selling the Not The Moose, or vice versa. And I've got to write a different book at some point, so it's just a matter of which one. Right? Isn't that how it works? So I shouldn't worry about it too much? Maybe?

The front page of our paper says, "Mexico's First Lady Battles Image." And I picture her in VR rig, duking it out with the computer. That's much cooler than people saying nasty things about her.

I finished An Instance of the Fingerpost yesterday, and it was good. Definitely recommended. I tend to divide mysteries into those you can solve yourself with the information given and those you can't. This one fell somewhere in the middle of that. Some knowledge of religio-political dynamics of the Restoration is useful for making guesses about who did what when, as of the middle of the book, but I still don't think you could predict exactly what was going on, just what categories of stuff. The structure frustrated me a little, but only a little.

I also read Diana Wynne Jones' Aunt Maria, which was fairly predictable. Quick and entertaining, and I liked what she said about using people's better nature against them, Not one I'll return to, I don't think; just not that fabulous, and I've always got Fire and Hemlock to pet and love.

And now I've started reading John LeCarré's The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, even though I swore after The Looking-Glass War that I didn't need to read any more LeCarré, because Wendy's Daniel told me it was muchly much better. So I dutifully noted it on my library list, and it was on the first floor of the library and thus readily available when I was making a quick swing through, whereas other things he has recommended, like Heaney's translation of Beowulf, were not.

I don't pretend to understand my library choices. I don't necessarily get the books I'm most excited about reading first. But why don't I? I think the obvious answer is that I have three closely written pages of books I want to get from the library -- worse than that, three closely written books or authors, so "Diana Wynne Jones -- jfic, SF, YA" is a listing that hasn't gotten crossed off despite the many Diana Wynne Jones books I've checked out over the last year-plus. It just keeps getting copied to new incarnations of the list. The reason I have all that written down is that I'd never remember it all. It certainly doesn't have a total ordering. But some books on it -- like The Spy Who Came In From the Cold -- are definitely on the low end. ("In the PO-set of life...." I really look forward to living in the same city as Aaron again.) And yet here it is, home with me, and I'm reading it before some of the other books I brought home. I think it's just that my book habit is out of control. Sometimes I just keep grabbing another, and then another.

Oh. Ohhhhhhh. Oh. I may be having a Harry-Met-Sally moment here, but do you know what I can do? I can go online to the Hennepin County Library system. And I can look up the books on my "Later Library" list and note whether HCL has them or whether I should transfer them to the "Used Bookstore" list. I could even, should I be in the mood to waste a great deal of time, check my current library list against the HCL system and see if there are books I should make sure I get before I leave here because HCL (hee hee, this is a ridiculous thought) won't have them.

Insert Meg-Ryan-esque moans and squeals here. This may be a trifle eccentric. I do not care. I get to live near The Good Library. I get to use The Good Library. It will be mine.

This morning, Timprov and I were making up albums. One of them is called, "Why Minnesotans Don't Get Elected Much" or something like that, and it featured really thick Minnesota accents on bits of famous oratory. The Gettysburg Address is hard to get through, because it starts out so fabulously for Minnesotans. "Foourr scoorre and seven yearrss agoooo...." We moved on to "Minnesota Tropics Songs," including "Cooopa Cabana" and the theme from "The Love Boooooat." Oh, we slay ourselves. We're so hysterical.

Thomas is moving books now. Also those other, incidental, non-book things. Poor dear. I commiserate with him now, partly in hopes that he'll commiserate with me in October. I'm looking forward to packing up all of our books, actually, but I'm also dreading it. And wondering whether we'll be able to fit all those boxes in the apartment or whether I'll be packing them as we're loading up the U-Haul. I truthfully don't have any idea how many boxes of books we own -- we didn't move them all at once when we moved down here from Hayward, so I can't even estimate that way.

Well. Anyway, it cooled back off to Northern California-normal temperatures yesterday, so I could make rosemary buns and close the windows to talk on the phone (so that it wasn't so loud). No need for the AC at all. Hurrah.

Onwards and upwards: time for spy stuff in the Not The Moose. Perhaps more spy stuff than I'd intended. And then a solid afternoon of editing and listening to the Wallflowers, I suppose. It sounds pretty decent to me.

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