Photographer Kyle Cassidy was here today to take photos of me in my natural habitat (i.e., my office), and naturally Ghlaghghee had to be part of that, as she is more famous than I. But that’s not to say she wasn’t sporting an attitude. Hey, it’s not easy being an Internet-famous cat.
It was lovely to see Kyle, who in addition to my space is photographing other science fiction writer offices for an update of this. I’ve seen some of the shots he took just of my office, and looking at them I realize when people say to me, “wow, you take great photos, you should go pro,” while they’re being flattering, it’s pretty clear the difference between what I do and what someone like Kyle does. I think I’ll keep my day job.
And yes, a couple days early. Here in Ohio, they have “Beggars’ Night,” on the thinking that Halloween has been colonized by adults, who will have lots of drinks at their Halloween parties and then take to the road, not necessarily watching for tyke-sized ghosties and ghoulies out looking for treats. I am also skeptical of this, but hey. As long as Athena gets her brains candy, no one gets hurt.
From a small mud volcano in southeast Asia to the very end of the world? That’s quite a journey. But it’s the journey Diana Pharaoh Francis took in the process of writing Bitter Night, the first book in Francis’ new “Horngate Witches” series of fantasy novels. Along the way, Francis considers a new kind of apocalypse — call it an intelligently designed apocalypse, one intended for a very specific purpose. Francis has quite a lot on her mind, it’s clear, none of great news for the humans in her books, but that’s what they get for being fictional characters. Here in the real world, you don’t have to experience the end of the word (YET), but you do get the read how Francis imagines one into being. Lucky you!
DIANA PHARAOH FRANCIS:
It all started with the mud volcano in East Java. The volcano, named Lusi, spewed out (and continues to spew out) the equivalent of a dozen Olympic-sized swimming pools of hot mud per day and the expectation is that it will go on doing so for decades, if not longer. It’s buried farms and towns and factories. Its power is inevitable and slow moving, chasing everyone in its path to the sea. Not a good thing when you live on an island.
Then there was the collapsed bridge in Minneapolis. And Hurricane Katrina (which chronologically happened before Lusi erupted, but only began agglomerating together into a Big Idea after I started thinking about the others). Disaster after disaster—tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, drought, fires, famines, mudslides, tornados—and all of them seeming to be coming at us more frequently and with increasing death tolls. What could be the meaning of it? Why was it all happening?
The answer seemed obvious: None of these are accidents. It’s all deliberate: an attack on humanity. But to what end?
I love a good apocalypse.
This is where I started rubbing my hands together in gleeful anticipation. I was sure I was on to something. But I didn’t have a story yet. I needed answers to the questions yammering at me—what brought on this particular apocalypse? And why not do it right and just set off the Yellowstone volcano or let a meteor come take care of things in one fell blow? Cliché yes, but that wasn’t a good reason for why not. The real problem is that that sort of destruction is too easy, too quick, and frankly, it kills indiscriminately. I didn’t want an extinction level event. I wanted to kill a lot of people and unravel and restitch the world, but I didn’t want to annihilate everything, because there didn’t seem to be much fertility in that sort of novel: “Everybody and everything dies. The world is sterile. The end.” Great story, eh?
So there had to be more behind this apocalypse and it had to have something to do with what brought it on and who was going to live and who was going to die—or perhaps it might be better said as who was intended to live and who was intended to die?
The answer lies in the villains and therefore the heroes of Bitter Night. My Big Idea and my zygote story were nothing without characters.
Aside from a great apocalypse, I like a really good villain—one who is as good as he his bad, and following that logic, I appreciate heroes who are as terribly flawed as they are heroic. Hitler thought he was a hero, the British thought Napoleon was evil—it all depends on perspective (except that Hitler really was evil, but that’s not the point today). So I got to thinking—what if the apocalypse was a good thing—at least for someone? Who would benefit from it? Who would be willing to commit genocide?
Humans are always being accused of destroying the world with our carelessness, our arrogance and our decided sense of invincibility. Sooner or later, someone might want to teach us a lesson—rein us in a bit. I began thinking of all the things that might share the earth with us—creatures of potentially no little power. These would be things from myth and legend and folklore. What if they were tired of being driven into hiding, their powers dwindling, their lives steadily eroding has humanity poisons the magic of the earth? What would they do if suddenly they had the means to take back their world?
They’d fight back; they’d overthrow the evil invaders who are destroying them and they’d slaughter everyone they could. Human annihilation.
All right, not all of humanity. Just most of it in order to bring back the balance of magic in the world. Ever since humans have been ascendant, magic has been fading away. Soon it will be gone forever. It’s time to rebalance the scales and restore the magic before it’s too late.
Obviously humans are going to see the war as evil—after all, most of them are going to be slaughtered. On the other hand, the magical creatures who’ve been verging on extinction are going to see it as salvation. But there are a few in the middle—those who used to be human, for instance, or their allies, and those who don’t like being manipulated and pushed around—who have to figure out where they stand. Because the natural disasters are only the start. The guardians of the earth who’ve begun this apocalypse are going to need an army to go house to house and clean the vermin out, and the question for the few in the middle is—which side are they going to fight on? No one gets to be neutral Switzerland in this war.
What you might be able to see is that Bitter Night was quickly becoming epic in scope, and in fact, that was the thing I wanted to do all along. That was the real Big Idea. I wanted to figure out how I could bring some of the epic qualities of high fantasy into contemporary fantasy. I wanted to meld the best qualities of each type of book, which includes fast-pacing, rich description, gritty stories, world-ending dangers, snarky repartee, fantastical creatures from myth and legend, and real-world slang, fast food and guns. And on top of all that, I get to make my own personal apocalypse. It’s good to be a writer.
The final finishing touch to my Big Idea was that this was not an apocalypse that could be prevented—no last minute saves, no deus ex machina. It’s the end of the world as we know it and it’s unstoppable. This book isn’t about saving the world, it’s about the struggle for salvaging what can be salvaged and learning to live with what’s left. It’s about those people struggling with making choices and standing by them. It’s about villainous heroes and heroic villains.
And that, in a nutshell, was my Big Idea. But before I go, one last thing. You might be wondering of Lusi made an appearance in the book. The answer is no. It catalyzed my imagination and was the golden seed for the whole novel, but it didn’t get so much as a mention. Maybe next time.
This is funny: Amazon has apparently just patented a “system and method for marking content,” in which the text of a e-book could be changed slightly with any particular download in order to distinguish that copy from other copies — so if the document is then let loose on the Internets, it could theoretically be tracked down to the source. It’s like watermarking, except that in doing so you’re changing the meaning of the text.
The patent suggests that “the modification to an excerpt performed by the synonym substitution mechanism may not significantly alter the meaning of the excerpt to a human reader,” which sounds just like the something that someone who doesn’t actually write in human languages for a living might suggest. Perhaps we should suggest we should go into this software engineer’s code and swap some of the code around. Oh, sure, it might not significantly alter the meaning of the code. But then let’s run it and see where it gets us.
There is some irony here in that Amazon patent replicates, in intent and general procedure, something called “Shades of Gray,” an idea by former vice president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. This former vice president, as it happens, didn’t actually write much, which to my mind would have explained his apparent befuddlement when people in SFWA who actually wrote for a significant portion of their living pointed out that actively corrupting their texts was not really a smart idea. Nothing much ever came of “Shades of Gray” — which is a story in itself — but it was a bad concept then, and it’s not any better of a concept in the somewhat more refined form Amazon has patented.
I certainly won’t be using it, in any event. Hard as it may be for Amazon to believe, I actually use the words I intend to use when I write. If I had wanted to use a different word for something, I already would have.
Earlier in the week I upgraded both my computers to Windows 7 and my BlackBerry Storm to the BackBerry 5.0 OS, so I thought I’d do a quick review of both.
And the review is: Hey, I like both just fine. They make sense, the make my electronic thingies run better, at least on the surface level on which I use them, and generally speaking they’re pretty and don’t break any of the programs I’m already using. I’m still in the process of learning the new Win7 navigation as regards the taskbar, but the learning curve isn’t steep. I like the new thing it does that rotates through my desktop pictures. As for the BlackBerry upgrade, now using my Storm doesn’t feel like pushing through molasses. And in both cases the new OS doesn’t get in my way when I want to do something.
Seriously, though, I’m totally happy for Steve Perry that he’s got a gig shilling for UPS.
Every time I see this dude in a UPS ad, I can’t help but expect him to break out into “Separate Ways” or something. Although for a delivery service, maybe “Send Her My Love” might be more appropriate. Either way, dude. Hair. Get it out of the 80s, man.
Does a “beach read” novel need an intellectual justification? Probably not, but if it actually has one, that’s always a bonus. And as it happens, literature professor and debut novelist Nicole Peeler has some rigorous and righteous background justification for her novel Tempest Rising, which follows the mystical adventures of half-selkie Jane True. Not only that, but Peeler also lays out some deep thoughts on “urban fantasy” in general, and why it speaks to us here and now. Hey, that’s a pretty big idea, so it’s good we’re all already here. Let’s get to it.
By trade, I’m a professor of English literature. And yet, when I finally wrote a book, it wasn’t the study on the pre-ideological formation of values in contemporary fiction that I’d always intended. Instead, I wrote an urban fantasy named Tempest Rising, which is about a girl who discovers she’s half-selkie.
In other words, I wrote a book that, on the surface, is the opposite of the novels I teach and read for my day job. From its inception, I envisioned Tempest Rising as a “beach read,” something fast-paced and sexy that a reader could gobble up in a day. Conversely, I teach Modernist literature, one of the most intellectually challenging genres possible, in that Modernism sought to elevate aesthetics over ethics and to eradicate the literary axioms taken for granted by writers and readers for centuries. These were texts meant to challenge, complicate, and obfuscate reality.
And yet, the Modernists weren’t merely being obstreperous. Rather, they were attempting to forge a literary style that was not only original, but also more effective at representing their lived experience than the rigid conformity to surfaces which is literary realism. As I teach in my classes, Modernist literature was fractured and difficult not because the Modernists were jerks, but because they were weathering the death throes of the philosophical assumptions Western culture had taken for granted for so many years. In many ways, then, Modernist texts are traumatized texts, testifying to their authors’ struggles to make sense of a world apparently crumbling around them.
Which leads me to my idea for Tempest Rising, specifically, and for urban fantasy, in general. There’s been much talk in the media about the “rise” of urban fantasy. Oftentimes, this coverage is attached to a particular cultural obsession with sparkly vampires. And yet, as most commentators have admitted, there is more going on with this interest in the supernatural and the paranormal than a mere teeny-bopper fad. There’s something about urban fantasy, with its very specific images and themes, that appeals to readers from diverse generations and walks of life, right at this moment.
When I started planning my own urban fantasy, it was very obvious to me what my Big Idea was going to be. I’ve always been fascinated with religion, mythology and fairy tales, and especially the idea of Jungian archetypes: the theory that, somewhere in the deepest recesses of our brains, lie the imprinted memories of our earliest ancestors. Jung’s theory explaining why diverse cultures share similar mythologies is fascinating, needless to say, but I’d always been a big fan of Sherlock Holmes, wielder of Occam’s Razor. When I imagined myself asking Holmes the same set of questions that inspired Jung, Holmes’ response was obvious: “Perhaps these creatures exist.”
And so, the world of Tempest Rising was born: I knew the sorts of supernatural creatures that would populate my world and how they would live amongst us. The idea of archetypes that first hooked me, however, has also offered me insight into the current interest in the supernatural and paranormal. According to Jung, we soothe our fears of that which goes bump in the night by weaving narratives–complete with morals, warnings, and vivid images of loss. In other words, folk and fairy tales are an attempt to make sense of a chaotic world, just as the grand aesthetic experiment that was Modernism was also an attempt to make sense of a chaotic world.
Think, now, of the times we live in, post 9/11: a world riven by various wars, natural disasters, the real plague of AIDS, the media plagues of Avian and Swine Flu, an increasing distrust of authority figures, and the nihilistic horror of terrorism. In a time of chaos and uncertainty, is it any wonder that urban fantasy, the genre of the contemporary fairy tale, is on the rise? After all, urban fantasy offers a vision of the world in which traditional evils–vampires, werewolves, zombies–are often times merely misunderstood. Meanwhile, traditional heroes–vampire hunters, government agencies, the Church–are often revealed to be sanctimonious, narrow-minded, and murderous zealots. The binaries neatly dividing good and evil are blurred in this genre, and the underlying message in many urban fantasies seems to be that the individual must make his or her own choices: that we must rely on our own experiences and intellect in a world that wants to brand outsiders as evil, to force ideological dichotomies on reality, and to make soldiers of us all.
Urban fantasy, like its folkloric and literary predecessors, offers no more and no less than a narrative restructuring of life: one which highlights cultural anxieties about our world even as it offers escape through storytelling. So move over Modernism! These “beach reads” bite back. And we like it.
I think some people are under the impression that the White House wants Fox News to disappear. Nothing, I suspect, could be further from the truth. The White House is in fact delighted that Fox News and its merry cast of commentators exists. Nor is the White House vexed that its every pronouncement concerning Fox News solidifies Fox’s core audience; that’s actually the plan. The point is not to moderate Fox News by accusing it of being biased/not a real news organization/running or being the propoganda arm of the GOP; if anything, the point is to make it more extreme in the views it airs.
Fox News isn’t the number one cable news channel because it has a broad spectrum of viewers or because the quality of its news reportage is better than those of other cable news networks or organizations. It’s the number one cable news network because it’s explicitly conservative in viewpoint where other news networks and organizations are not. Fox News garners the viewers for whom ideology trumps news; every other news organization splits the rest of the viewers.
This is good news for Fox News, since four decades of conservative railing against “the liberal media” has given it a core of like-minded viewers, who being conservative are also loyal: they’re going to be with Fox News come hell or high water (as long as Fox News doesn’t change its ideological bent, that is). But it’s also good for the White House, because at the end of the day, Fox News’ nightly audience in the third quarter of this year was 2.25 million viewers in primetime (source). For perspective this means that it has roughly the same audience as your average Dollhouse episode, which was just yanked by Fox (the broadcast network, not the cable news network), so that its ratings wouldn’t stink up November Sweeps. Even with Fox News’ ratings going through the roof because of its little war with Obama, the actual number of viewers is minuscule. Or to put it otherwise, 2.5 million Americans watch Fox News, which means that 297.5 million Americans don’t.
Which makes it a low-risk ideological foil for the White House. Follow: The White House says Fox News is not a real news organization and is the propaganda arm of the GOP, Fox News throws a very public shit fit about it, which gives it higher ratings and an impetus to skew even more to the right in its presentation, and go out of its way to criticize Obama even further. Meanwhile the noise is all covered by multiple other news outlets, which in aggregate reach a much larger audience, which show Fox News anchors and personalities in the middle of ideological conniptions, confirming to the general population the proposition that, indeed, Fox News is more interested in politics than news, and reinforcing the impression that Fox News and the GOP are reading off the same page. Which makes the GOP look unreasonable in an era in which its popularity isn’t, shall we say, spectacular to begin with. To what end? Well, you might have heard there’s a health care debate going on.
Mind you, using politics to marginalize the press is not exactly a new thing; note, if you will, the aforementioned four decades of railing against the “liberal media.” What ought to make conservatives pissed off at Obama is not that he’s taking a page out of their playbook, but that he’s improved upon it. Conservatives moaned about liberal bias in the press to carve out an alternative ideological media under the guise of “balance,” but never managed to marginalize the “liberal media” in any significant way; it was just too damn big. Obama, on the other hand, is picking a fight with a small conservative entity and is essentially forcing it to do what he wants — make conservatism (and by extension the GOP) look like an extreme political position — by adding to what it needs to survive: an audience. But it’s a small-scale audience comprised of people already opposed to the president and his policies (ie., no great political loss). The conservative war on the media was Clausewitz; the Obama war on the media is Sun Tzu.
Does such a thing carry backlash potential? Sure, although possibly not as much as conservatives like to suggest. The White House has already run this play before — it used Rush Limbaugh as a foil earlier in the year, to good effect. Limbaugh loved it, because it was good for him and his ratings; it wasn’t so great for the GOP. People fretted that the White House elevating the stature of Limbaugh would backfire, but it doesn’t appear to have done any real damage to the White House. In a very real sense going after conservative media outlets and personalities is a smart strategy for Obama. Unlike the GOP, which is in such organizational disarray that no one really knows it’ll do next, conservative media outlets and personalities are reliable: They always move toward ratings. And that’s easy enough for the White House to manipulate to its own ends.
There is some irony that Obama and his White House are waging a media war on the GOP using the tools that everyone has assumed were for the GOP’s benefit. But there’s a saying that generals are always fighting the last war, not the current one. Well, the GOP is still fighting the last media war; Obama and his White House are fighting the current one. He’s winning it. And so is Fox News. And neither of them would have it any other way.
As a number of you have expressed an interest in having some of the photos from earlier today (and even before that) as computer wallpapers, I’ve created a Flickr set specifically for wallpaper-worthy shots of mine, so you can use them to your (non-commercial and personal) heart’s delight. The set is called “Wallpapery Shots” and is available here. I’ll add other pictures to the set later. For maximum detail, of course, when you visit the picture you like, click on the “All Sizes” button (update: apparently you need a Flickr account to do access that particular button, sorry, but hey, it’s free! Update update: Just changed permissions so hopefully you won’t need to make a Flickr account) and then click on the link for the largest picture, then download. Most of the pictures are landscape orientation, but some are also portrait orientation (for those of us whose monitors swing that way). Enjoy.
In which the grass is still green but the leaves and the corn have moved on. And in another week or so neither the leaves or the corn will be there anymore. It’s an in-between time, October is. Possibly why it’s my favorite month.