your own questions

Earlier this month I was the author guest for Literacy Night at a local grade school. My presentation (repeated three times–though never the same) was half an hour to kindergarteners through fourth graders and the adults they had in tow, about how to take an idea to the point of being an actual story.

It was great. The kids were great. At one point we ended up with a dragon riding a roller coaster with a robot yeti and fleeing a wendigo–and that was all one kid. The parents were also great, with one dad postulating a unipotamus (a hippopotamus with a unicorn head), both envying and envied by a dragon, each learning to be themselves.

The thing I focused on was learning to ask questions, learning to ask the right questions, which is to say, the kind of questions that result in a story. “Where do you get your ideas?” is the cliched question, the question that interviewers seem to simultaneously want to ask and want to avoid asking. But I think that behind the cliche there can be a genuine desire to know about a skillset the interviewer does not have, and that’s even more the case the younger the person asking the question. Sometimes what they’re really asking is: how do you do this thing, in specific, concrete terms so that I can do this thing too. Or at least so that I can see whether I can.

I think that one of the major aspects of keeping childhood creativity–or even a fraction of it–into adulthood is learning to direct your questions rather than stifling them. Learning which questions are the ones that suit you, that take you where you want to go. Learning when to break out of that pattern and try some new questions. So I tried to give these kids a sense of what kind of questions you can ask yourself about a story you want to tell.

If they keep up with questions, if they practice asking questions, most of them will discover that the questions that interest them most are not a fiction writer’s questions. They will look at the same birds on a half-frozen pond as a storyteller, and they will find that they have questions about how to make water look wet and ice look slick on paper, how those particular birds behave in summertime, what things we don’t already know about helping someone see at a distance. That’s okay. It’s actually great. But I think it’s fair to start giving kids some ideas of what kind of questions you can ask, how this actually works, where those questions lead you.

The Time Museum, by Matthew Loux

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

Delia Bean’s entomology-packed plans for her summer at her uncle’s estate take a surprising turn for her (less surprising for those of us who know the title of the story she’s in) when her uncle turns out to be a time traveler who founded a museum of all the times of Earth, past and future. He’s looking for interns and Delia fits the bill: intelligent, curious, determined. The other candidates for the internship are from different eras in history, including a girl from 200 years into Japan’s future, a Neanderthal boy, and an ancient Roman who is still weirded out that they keep calling it ancient.

Delia still gets to do some entomology, but she has to dodge dinosaurs to do it. She also finds other strengths she didn’t know she had. An adult reader might well suspect them–the character arc is not very twisty or surprising, but that doesn’t mean that its messages of curiosity and teamwork are unsatisfying.

This is the beginning of a series of kids’ comics, and the time museum and its related time travel set up tons of potential adventures for Delia and her friends, with one-offs and arc plot both possible. It’s a romp through space and time, aimed at kids but not offensive to adult sensibilities.

Please consider using our link to buy The Time Museum from Amazon.

Books read, early February

Douglas Brinkley, The Quiet World: Saving Alaska’s Wilderness Kingdom, 1879-1960. This is a large, magisterial volume on nature and its protection. Brinkley is a modern enough writer to make serious attempts at including women in his assessment of what happened, and with good reason–several women were seriously important in this fight in divergent ways. He didn’t do quite as well with Native people; Native Alaskan groups are quite often treated as monoliths, with no particular individuals having any particular opinions or actions or influence. So–not a good place to stop learning about this topic, but a pretty good place to start.

A.S. Byatt, The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye. Reread. I remembered loving these stories the first time I read them, and I did the second time as well. Two are excerpts from Possession, which I had not read the first time I read this volume; two are tiny fairy tales in the same vein, and the last is a novella of great depth and interest, a middle-aged woman’s relationship with a power of fire and air–a fantasy story rather than a fairy tale proper. I noticed Byatt dealing with the Blitz and the evacuation of London children again–she did this in one of the stories of Sugar and Other Stories, I think?–and that felt like a very familiar thing for a writer to be doing, returning again and again to myth to deal with the hard things in one’s past. Highly recommended.

Tracy Chevalier, Remarkable Creatures. I really shouldn’t look a gift novel about Mary Anning in the mouth. But…look, there are not that many working-class heroines of science. Mary Anning, fossil hunter, is very thoroughly one of them. And Chevalier…gives her a fictional older, middle-class woman for a mentor, and that relationship is the heart of the book. I am usually really happy with mentorship relationships at the heart of a book, but in this case it felt like the same thing that so often happens with scientists who are outside the stereotype of who can become scientists: their prowess is attributed to other people. Chevalier even gives one of Anning’s major discoveries to her brother, which, I mean, come on, this is textbook stuff. On the other hand…on the other hand I expect most of the audience for this book knows nothing about Mary Anning, and now they do a bit, so yay that. (The other book with the same title looks interesting. -ed) (And in fact it is!–MKL)

Anne de Courcy, The Fishing Fleet: Husband-Hunting in the Raj. This is a good book to read a single chapter of, so if you’re interested in any of the chapters for research, by all means, do that. Taken as a whole it is repetitive, and its focus is skewed toward the very, very late end of the period considered–because that’s where the easy research is. Which is great if you’re interested in specific case studies of British women who married men who were in some way serving the British Empire’s governmental, commerce, or military interests in the early 20th century, but less so if you’re interested in broader questions of how these institutions functioned in general. Not one of de Courcy’s best.

Michael J. De Luca, Scott H. Andrews, Erin Hoffman, Jason S. Ridler, and Justin Howe, The Homeless Moon 3 and The Homeless Moon 4. Two more chapbooks by a group of friends. (Again available for free. -ed)¬†One of them has a sub-genre theme (steampunk) and the other is stories in a shared universe. While I would have been reasonably happy to read more of these chapbooks, the progression from an unthemed chapbook to a shared universe seems like it has a natural endpoint here, as writers working together on a project like this could go. It’s also kind of neat to see people growing as writers in ways that you can’t always–or not always consciously–if you’re reading a story here and a story there and not always in sequence. Everyone was doing more by the fourth one than they were in the first one. So yay.

Victoria Finlay, The Brilliant History of Color in Art. This is a lovely coffee-table book about pigment. Finlay has another book (Color: A Natural History of the Palette) that is denser, more prose and more depth, and frankly I like that one better. But this one is not just a lighter version of the same thing. It touches on slightly different anecdotes in the history of art and science, and that’s fun. And sometimes can be shared with people who aren’t committed enough to read a longer prose work.

Stefan Grabinski, The Dark Domain. Early twentieth century dark fantasy short stories from a Polish writer I had never read. Gosh, people were frightened of their own brains in the early twentieth century. The call was pretty much always coming from inside the house. Which is not a bad thing, just a direction to be noted, as people’s tolerance for darkness/horror often varies depending on type.

John Haines, The Stars, the Snow, the Fire: Twenty-Five Years in the Alaska Wilderness. Reread. This was an accidental reread–I picked it up on a whim and just kept going. Haines has some really lyrical nature writing here, and his relationships with snow and dogs make me particularly happy. Also it’s short, so if you fall into it, you can fall back out again without devoting too much of your reading time to it.

Kij Johnson, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe. This is a feminist Lovecraftian novella, which is not usually my jam, but there is a big one of my buttons to press here, which is: the Gaudy Night button. Early stages of female higher education: yes please give me more. There is a lot of wandering around doing quest stuff (well, it says so on the tin, I am not surprised) and exploring and contextualizing. Which was fine, but the university life was what got me interested here, and I wished for more of it.

Ellen Klages, Passing Strange. Another novella, this one with a 1940 San Francisco setting, focusing on the lesbian community of that time. There were a few places where it felt like it was referencing a larger body of work that to the best of my knowledge is not published, but it was still smoothly written, well-characterized, unique, interesting, and short. (Another piece of fiction with an interesting nonfiction book of the same title. -ed)

Jill Lepore, Joe Gould’s Teeth. Speaking of short books, I only finished this one because it was short, and I have the feeling Jill Lepore feels the same way. (I could be wrong.) She researched would-be historian and revolutionary of the field of history Joe Gould, who was friends with Ezra Pound and E. E. Cummings and all sorts of other Modern poets, and what turned up is that Joe Gould was a fairly nasty person but not in an interesting way. Ezra Pound, not an excellent judge of character: news at 11. Gould hassled, annoyed, and harassed (for criminal definitions of harassed) members of the Harlem Renaissance who were ten times more interesting than he was. Jill Lepore being herself, she was utterly willing to call this out for what it is. But…it still left me feeling like there was no good reason to be reading about him instead of the Harlem Renaissance, except that I was 75% of the way through this very short volume. I’d recommend literally anything else Lepore has done over this book, unless you’re desperately interested in the peripheries of Modernism or the Harlem Renaissance.

Robert Massie, Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman. A giant book with some missed opportunities because of blind spots. Massie does not seem to have spotted that Catherine’s public acknowledgment of her lovers was entirely different than that of, say, Charles II of England, because she was a woman. So there’s this fascinating difference in Russian imperial culture that he ignores or, worse, misconstrues as typical of the rest of Europe. The first half of this, before Catherine takes the throne, is still pretty great, fluidly written, very novelistic. The second half is more back and forth, focusing chapters thematically rather than temporally…which in some ways makes sense, but it leaves you reading about the reaction of someone whose death was covered in the previous chapter. Still recommended, but only when you have a big chunk of time and patience.

Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky. Reread. The last time I read this book my grandfather was still alive, so the crucial scene relating to Tiffany’s grandmother’s place was merely well-done rather than completely wrenching. I love these books so much, even when they make me cry.

Michael Schumacher, November’s Fury: The Deadly Great Lakes Hurricane of 1913. The past was a dangerous place. This is full of pictures of ships, most of which went down in this storm or at least struggled mightily. It is short and to the point, so if you’re interested in natural disasters, the Great Lakes, or the history of shipping in the US, you’ve come to the right place. Other than that probably give it a miss.

Delia Sherman, The Evil Wizard Smallbone. This is not going to be known as Delia Sherman’s best book, but it’s entirely readable and entertaining. Young would-be magician and cranky mentor, several interesting supporting characters. The beats fall where you’d expect them to, but that’s okay.

Trenton Lee Stewart, The Secret Keepers. Kids’ adventure SF, very much a page-turner. Strange gadgets! Mysterious oppressors! Worried parents whose worries do not prevent adventures! I liked The Mysterious Benedict Society, and I like this. It’s much in the same vein.

Ian Tyrrell, Crisis of the Wasteful Nation: Empire and Conservation in Theodore Roosevelt’s America. A thoughtful analysis of the rhetoric and attitudes of empire and how they interacted with the early conservation movement. Very clear-eyed on the buttons pushed to get the cause supported, for better and worse. The writing style is very academic, and so are the concerns therein, but not inaccessibly so.

Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple, The Seelie King’s War. The conclusion of this trilogy–this volume is very nearly all exciting climax and tying the threads from previous volumes back together. Don’t start here, start with The Hostage Prince. Full of faerie magic and stubbornness.

Worldbuilding: continuing thoughts after panels

I was on a worldbuilding panel at ConFusion that was labeled Worldbuilding 495, intended to be graduate level in contrast with another panel that was labeled 101. I’m not sure we got it that far, but we certainly took it beyond default questions. And then I went to another panel where an audience member’s commentary made me shoot steam out my ears (seriously, ask 4/6 of the panelists–maybe the other two too, but four of them commented on my face after), and so here we are with a handful of post-panel thoughts.

I think the thing I didn’t get to after my own panel was about sidelong politics and parallel social structures. We have those! We have them everywhere. If you ask who is president of the US, who is prime minister of Canada, etc.–even who is in Congress, who is on the Supreme Court–that doesn’t give you influential members of the communities that might interest you. Who’s the president of a charity, who are the major donors. Who are the people who make sure there are chairs set up for that charity’s talk. Who’s the lecturer at the university people want to hear; who’s the journalist who calls them. All of these groups have their own internal and overlapping politics. If you read about monarchs and heads of state, you’ll get one picture–and maybe that’s the picture you want to draw. But if you read about things that are less centrally about governance, a different picture emerges–sometimes overlapping, sometimes not.

Sometimes even basic social structures don’t overlap much with the official government. The work of James C. Scott has been really influential in my thinking about this. He writes about hill people as a particular category of peripheral social groups to empire, and how and when they succeed at keeping themselves out of the imperial eye. And we have a bit of that in our legends with Robin Hood, but I think there’s a lot more potential here.

I left the other panel with a strong sense of classism in worldbuilding, and I’ve just run into it in the book I’m reading too. I think it’s worth asking ourselves, especially in urban fantasy and near-future SF, how much the shorthand we’re using for “these are bad people” overlaps with “these are poor people, these are the lower classes.” I think it’s worth making some effort not to do that. And if it’s farther-future SF, it’s worth considering whether what you’re saying is “some groups of people are just squalid and awful no matter what you try to do for them because they inherently aren’t like us.” And don’t do that either.

The commenter at the panel used “eating potato chips and watching TV” as his flag for the mentally inferior lower classes. There were potato chips in the consuite and lots of panels on TV shows…but we all know he didn’t mean our snack foods and filmed entertainment, he meant their snack foods and filmed entertainment. You know. Them. And if we lived in a post-scarcity society, he went on, they would likely outbreed us, and what would happen to our utopia then?

Because, y’know, education is not a scarce resource now, nor are time and energy, so any way that they are is because of how they are. Previous situations where people’s standard of living was improved and their family patterns changed are not relevant for reasons. But it’s not racial! It’s just…about groups of people…who have inherent group traits that make it just and right that they’re poor and we aren’t. And all the nerds who have families who don’t understand them don’t count as counterarguments to the idea of being swallowed up by a growing inherent inferior class, apparently, because reasons. Because it’s so much more satisfying to create an us vs. them. Because you can say beer and cable TV, as the book I’m reading now does, safe in the knowledge that it’s not our beer (which is the good beer) and our cable TV (which is the quality shows). And if one of our people happens to like entertainment with a broad base of appeal, clearly we’re liking it differently and it doesn’t count like when one of them likes it.

“The Marching Morons” needs to go. March on. March away. Just stop doing your worldbuilding in ways that postulate that people are entirely awful by demographic group. We can all do better. And we should.

Preexisting

I’m pretty sure I’m preaching to the choir with this, but the thing about preaching to the choir is that sometimes you get at an angle of analysis the choir hasn’t been using. I have heard a lot of “depriving people of health care is bad” arguments that are absolutely true, but not a lot of the following.

So let’s talk about preexisting conditions.

You know those commercials that tell you to tell your doctor if you’re suffering from dropsy, the vapors, or a dozen other conditions that make you think, “Shouldn’t my doctor know that already”? Under the current system, where people can’t be dropped from all insurance possibilities based on a preexisting condition, those notifications are necessary because record-keeping and institutional memory are imperfect. Your doctor should know that already, but they may now, so: probably mention it, huh.

But if you can be dropped based on a preexisting condition, it takes on a whole new meaning. “Tell your doctor if you have a history of respiratory infections”: right, so your doctor can write down “history of respiratory infections” in the course of figuring out what drug to give you for something different, and boom, there you are with that tag on you, and who knows what the consequences will be. Your doctor needs to know this stuff to figure out how to treat you–sometimes to figure out a subtle cause or contributing factor to what you have right now–but you suddenly have incentive not to tell them. Healthy as an ox, me, just this sprained ankle to deal with! Something very temporary! Oh please don’t tell them I have anything non-temporary. Please ignore the anemia. Do not test my thyroid. Forget the anxiety. I just won’t get treated for the life-altering allergies. Only deal with the condition I tell you I’m in here for. For heaven’s sake don’t run any tests because you caught a murmur listening to my heart or my blood pressure is behaving funny. That’s all the sprained ankle. Has to be. And let’s wait until whatever else there is has caused permanent damage, because that’s the point at which it’s too bad to ignore.

I’m not saying this hasn’t happened under the current system. It does. Of course it does. We should be moving away from it, not towards more.

And this is all bad enough when we’re talking about a heart condition, or depression, or, well, any of a number of things. But when we’re talking about something contagious, all of a sudden it’s more than a dangerous calculation for one person–it’s a dangerous calculation for the people around them, too. Is what you have bad enough to disclose and get treatment, or should you just cope with it and keep passing it along to others? I should not have to say that this is not a good system. This attitude often gets billed as “be a smart consumer of health care,” but in this case a stingy consumer of health care is the opposite of a smart one.

But that’s not the only thing pushing people toward dangerous medical dishonesty in the current political climate. There are lawsuits wending their way through the courts claiming that doctors should not have to treat people who have certain sexual orientations. So not only the questions that pertain to your sexual health but also the ones about the rest of your life health–“Do you feel safe in your relationships?” is one of my favorites–are now extremely dangerous. Not just for getting dumped from insurance, although let’s not underestimate the impact of that. But for being rejected for emergency treatment even if you pay the entire gigantic bill out of pocket.

Last week a family member made a Facebook post of a meme saying that while other people freaked out in favor of or against Donald Trump, he was just going to keep doing what he always did. The people who connect me to that family member each have quite large preexisting conditions that can no longer be hidden–one of them was treated on an emergent basis, both of them are in the records. And of course there’s me and my giant flashing neon sign that reads “preexisting condition.” So…”keep doing what I always do” is not actually a functional mode here for his own family. It’s certainly not a functional mode for the country.

Books read, late January

Mishell Baker, Borderline. Do you ever do the thing where you get in your head that a book is something utterly different than what it was? For some reason I thought this was going to be near-future SF. There is no good reason for this; none of the jacket copy says so, because it isn’t. What it is, is urban fantasy, quite good urban fantasy in a number of ways. First, it doesn’t do the mushy thing that urban fantasy does where it’s “urban” but has no features of any actual city. This book is set in really for sure Los Angeles. It is very specifically LA, and a very specific part and experience of LA at that. Second, Baker uses borderline personality disorder to examine and refract some tropes of the genre in ways that delight me. The scene where the heroine has a big deal of telling everyone what she thinks of them: that has causes, and it has consequences, it is not the kind of wish fulfillment that that scene so often is. There is carefully followed worldbuilding here, there is a main character who is a person, not a diagnosis, but whose diagnosis informs her character intimately…there’s a lot to like, and I’m eager for the sequel. (What a relief, since I like Mishell, but that’s never a guarantee of anything.)

Steven Brust and Skyler White, The Skill of Our Hands. Discussed elsewhere.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Penric’s Mission. Kindle. Pen and his demon continue to wander around the world of The Curse of Chalion, using lifetimes worth of knowledge to improve matters for the people around them–and sometimes, crucially, themself. Themselves. Whichever applies when one entity is entirely housed in another. These are fun, and this is a fun one of these. It’s not what I’d choose to introduce people to Lois’s work, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its own value.

Stephanie Burgis, Congress of Secrets. I had just been reading about the Congress of Vienna, and up pops this fantasy novel set there. It is a fantasy that crosses over quite a lot with its romance genre–there are some misunderstandings and relationship developments that are squarely inspired by that genre–but for many of you that’s a happy thing. The Congress of Vienna is the sort of thing that takes a great deal of work to make sense of, so the addition of magic actually doesn’t make things any more confusing and possibly less so.

Michael J. DeLuca, Jason S. Ridler, Scott H. Andrews, Erin Hoffman, and Justin Howe, Homeless Moon: Imaginary Places. A chapbook put out ages ago by five friends, of whom I now know three. Far-ranging weirdness. Good fun in different directions. Cool thing to do. (And available as a free PDF. -ed)

Anatole France, Bee: The Princess of the Dwarfs. Kindle. I have been thinking about how the late 19th century and early 20th century constructed their version of fantasy, and this was another data point for that. It feels to me like a lot of pre-Tolkien, pre-Mirrlees, pre-Dunsany writers were more interested in lush description of fantastical scenes than in characters that, well, did much of anything. Some of this is that many of them are consciously–self-consciously–telling a children’s story, but what that means for the era can get pretty precious. None of the characters who would seem to be primary characters learn or accomplish anything of note. But gosh, they were pretty. Okay then.

Justina Ireland and Troy L. Wiggins, eds., Fiyah Issue 1. Kindle. What a great way to start off a magazine. Malon Edwards’s story “Long Time Lurker, First Time Bomber,” in particular, as an opener: whew, wow. The insight of old ladies as a science fictional exposition device, with attention to the cultural norms between them and their individual personalities: yes please, more of this.

Bela K. Kiraly, Hungary in the Late Eighteenth Century: The Decline of Enlightened Despotism. If you’ve ever wondered about the Hungarian noble system, wow, here you go. Complicated, bizarre way of running a society, and Kiraly lays it out for you in detail, with charts: what percentage of people were this kind of aristocrat, what percent had that kind of education. It’s a solid place to put your feet when you’re looking at the Habsburgs and going, “What? What?”

Richard Manning, Grassland. Focused specifically on the grasslands of North America as natural habitats and human usage detracting from same. Manning has lots of interesting stuff to cover here but occasionally veers into habitat exceptionalism regarding grasslands as opposed to forests, deserts, etc. and overstates points that could have been made reasonably. Still, if you’re interested in wilderness environments, having a bit of analysis about grasslands and how great they are is no bad thing.

George O’Connor, Olympians: Artemis, Wild Goddess of the Hunt. Discussed elsewhere.

Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe, eds., The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales. Retold fairy tales are by now a genre standard, and this book is a clear indication of why. There’s a rich vein still to be mined here, and a fresh editorial team is sometimes a great way to get the best out of authors who have touched on this sort of thing before–or who haven’t and need a nudge in the right direction. My favorites were Genevieve Valentine’s “Familiaris,” Theodora Goss’s “The Other Thea,” Sofia Samatar’s “The Tale of Mahliya and Mauhub and the White-Footed Gazelle,” and Kat Howard’s “Reflected,” but really there’s quite a lot to dig into here.

Luke Pearson, Hilda and the Stone Forest. A book on the line between graphic novel and long picture book–or perhaps it’s just a graphic novel that’s aimed at a youngish audience. Hilda continues to have wild adventures with the secret magical creatures near her home. This time her mom gets involved–not entirely voluntarily–and their relationship is beautifully done. It would work as a starting point, but there are more before this, and they’re also lovely.

Baruch Sterman with Judy Taubes Sterman, The Rarest Blue: The Remarkable Story of an Ancient Color Lost to History and Rediscovered. This is about a very particular blue dye that is religiously significant to some groups of Jewish people. If you’re interested in history of dyes and pigments or history of religion, this is one of the places where they overlap. Human beings are pretty odd ducks. If you read this book and don’t say, “What? What?” at several points, you’re more jaded than I.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad. This is wrenching and great. It follows the arc of a young woman’s life from slavery in the Deep South onward, and it does not romanticize social relationships in any particular. It’s beautifully written. I’m so glad I read it. I’m also so glad I’m not permanently reading it, because it’s a lot to take in.

Walter Jon Williams, Impersonations. The latest Praxis story, following the consequences of the earlier trilogy. I think you could pick up everything you need to know, but the emotional weight of why you should care feels like it’s dependent on Dread Empire’s Fall etc., so you might as well start there if you have the chance.

Out of the Woods, twice

Today you can read my latest story with Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Out of the Woods. Or, and for once I am keeping track of this appropriately, you can listen to the podcast of the same story, narrated by Folly Blaine.

This is my post-Robin Hood story that is informed by growing up with Astrid Lindgren’s Ronia the Robber’s Daughter. Go, read, enjoy!