The Big Idea: Arianne ‘Tex’ Thompson
Posted on July 30, 2014 Posted by John Scalzi 14 Comments
When you introduce magic into a real-world setting, you don’t only have to deal with the problems that magic introduces — you have to deal with the problems that already existed in that real world setting. When Arianne ‘Tex’ Thompson wanted to introduce magic to an American milieu in One Night in Sixes, she took all of those problems into consideration. Here’s how she made it work.
All I can say is that it seemed like a good idea at the time.
“I’m tired of Euromedieval fantasy!” I thought. “I’m tired of swords and castles and straight white monocultures. I’m going to write a fantasy about MY country, and MY history, with eleventeen kinds of people rubbing shoulders – like in real life! – and it’s going to be AMAZING.”
And by “amazing”, I must have meant “an absolute landmine of racism, imperialism, slavery and genocide.” Because, y’know, we Yanks really don’t have any post-contact history that doesn’t involve somebody taking something from somebody else. And I don’t think it’d be very responsible to write historical American fantasy that doesn’t acknowledge that somehow.
“Well, okay,” I thought, “but I want all these different folks to have power and agency and hope for a better future. So maybe in MY magical fantasyland, this huge clash of cultures isn’t a relentless colonial tragedy. Maybe the settlers and indigenous peoples are more evenly matched. Maybe they’ve actually fought to a standstill. Because… because… well, because the native guys have magic, see!”
Also because there were fishmen acting as a disease barrier, but anyway – magic.
I was a pretty far ways along before I realized that that was capital-P Problematic, not to mention cliché as hell. Real talk, fantasy writers: why is it that we always give the native guys magic? Is it because we’ve inherited some 500-year-old fetishistic meme? Is it so we can even out all those Guns, Germs, and Steel, like we’re setting up some kind of DnD CR table and have to balance the fighters and the mages? Why is magic always the antithesis of modernity?
And then it hit me.
“BECAUSE,” I said to myself, “in MY magical fantasyland, magic comes from cultural continuity. So the more you eat what your ancestors ate, work their land, speak their language, and live their lifestyle, the more powerful you are. So the settlers DO have magic – or rather they DID, until they started industrializing and spreading and changing so fast that most of them can’t even name their grandfathers, nevermind make the thousand-mile trek back to the old homestead. And – and and and! – the rich folks have actually hung on some of their magic, because they can afford to hole up in their big old ancestral plantations and estates, while the poor folks work in factories or pull up stakes to go do the wagon-train thing. My God – they’ve turned the proletariat into muggles!”
So that was exciting. And it made my brain happy, because not only did it address some of those tropey, icky stereotypes, but it also gave this 19th-century story a real 21st-century feeling. The settlers have given up their cultural continuity in the name of progress and opportunity. The slaves who had their culture forcibly stripped away are actively seeking to rekindle it. And the indigenous peoples who have fought to hold on to their land and lifestyles are having to decide how much of their old ways they can afford to keep in this new, changing world.
That set off a whole chain reaction of big mental bombshells. The possibility of creating new traditions, new magic powers, as people mix and adapt. The idea of a world in which violence and suffering cause a kind of mystical radiation poisoning that lingers for generations. The people and creatures – the children of the last generation’s horrific warfare – who have been literally, supernaturally altered by all this bloodshed and pollution. And a whole lot more that I won’t even get into here.
But even though I’m excited about all of this, I don’t want to give off the impression that now everything is hunky-dory and I’ve got it All Figured Out. This IS an interesting concept – dare I say, a Big Idea. However, part of what still has me scared absolutely gutless, even seven years after that first American epiphany, is that I’m fictionalizing and fantasizing about really serious real-world stuff that has a long history of being horrendously mishandled. And having a good idea isn’t the same as executing it well. I think fear is absolutely the right emotion to have, of course, because being terrified of getting it wrong is a crucial step in getting it right.
But as nervous as I am about this Big Idea and how it will be received, the even-bigger one behind it – that is, the push for a more inclusive bookshelf, and the importance of being able to re-imagine our own history without sweeping the uncomfortable bits under the rug – is one that I am really excited about. I hope you will be too.
One Night in Sixes: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.
Thanks for this.
As people know, part of my promotion and interest in Silk Road Fantasy comes from a similar impulse as yours–looking for models for fantasy that escape Northwestern Europe.
And you speak D&D. Awesome!
This is the textbook definition of a Big Idea, and wow, I’m sold.
Reblogged this on Michael Patrick Hicks and commented:
I’ve been thinking a bit about the genre sometimes known as “weird western” of late. The concept is one that really strikes a chord with me and I love the idea of a low-tech frontier dealing with supernatural forces. I’d hope for more out of the movie COWBOYS AND ALIENS, after all, six-shooters and horses vs. aliens and UFOs seemed ripe for a truly awesome story. Joe R. Lansdale’s Deadman’s Road is in my TBR pile, and Hunter Shea’s Hell Hole has certainly caught my eye.
Thanks to John Scalzi’s blog, I can now add One Night in Sixes to my list. It sounds dynamite!
Author Arianne ‘Text’ Thompson writes, “But as nervous as I am about this Big Idea and how it will be received, the even-bigger one behind it – that is, the push for a more inclusive bookshelf, and the importance of being able to re-imagine our own history without sweeping the uncomfortable bits under the rug – is one that I am really excited about. I hope you will be too.”
I certainly am. Be sure to check out the original post at Whatever.
I had the privilege of reading an early draft of this, and I can guarantee you, the storytelling ABSOLUTELY lives up to the conceit. Anyone remotely interested in fantasy — and in what fantasy can be, outside of the swords and sorcery trappings — owes it to themselves to pick it up!
Ok, I’m in. You know, one thing that I enjoy about these Big Idea pieces is that we often get a real sense of the level of thought that went into the world-building of the novel. In the stories of one of my favorite authors, Damon Knight, you can tell that he really, really, really put a lot of thought into his concepts, following the repercussions to the fullest extent possible. This novel sounds like it might be in the same intellectual wheelhouse (albeit in a slightly different genre than most of Knight’s work).
Let me guess, the Natives turn into animals… I hope that the novel takes a nuanced look at colonization and at the different cultures of the Native Americans themselves. Native American magic and alternate West fantasy is nothing new and original, I hope this author knows that. There are dozens of big roleplay games set in a magical West. White Wolf did the whole Native American magic deal real well, even Shadowrun has the native magic power trope.
In respect towards the whole “natives good colonials bad” overdone trope, I hope it has more nuance. The Natives were a diverse people, but most of all they were human. Human people with a stone age culture acting like humans. They murdered, raped, fought wars, took and traded slaves, lied, betrayed, and acted just like their European counterparts. Colonial history is filled with native leaders selling out eachother and using the colonials to fight their inter tribal conflicts. To portray natives like some magic, peace pipe smoking, Knotts Berry Farm mystery lodge mystics is as lame as having pretty damsles in towers waiting for white knights.
“BECAUSE,” I said to myself, “in MY magical fantasyland, magic comes from cultural continuity. So the more you eat what your ancestors ate, work their land, speak their language, and live their lifestyle, the more powerful you are.
“And,” Heinrich continued, “that’s why these rootless cosmopolitans are our natural inferiors! Because we still have the mystical attachment to our Heimat, and they don’t!”
“Wow!” young Moritz exclaimed. “So love of the Fatherland really is at the root of our strength as a race! Thanks, Uncle Heinrich!”
Sounds amazing – and I am in.
Bought it – direct from the publisher.
Really happy the author put in the part about “…new traditions, new magic powers” – otherwise, some hapless character might have only 2 choices: Cannibal or Muggle. No one should have to make that choice.
On a more serious note, everyone has things to be proud of, and not so proud, in their heritage. And everyone should have the right to benefit from good choices they themselves try to make. Sounds like “Tex” has both angles covered!
This sounds fascinating – with a side of problematic. I tend toward the reservations expressed by ajay and Alexandru, but I’m willing to be open and give it a chance.
Reblogged this on Mr. Rhapsodist and commented:
While I enjoy John Scalzi as an author (thank you, Redshirts), I’m a pretty big fan of his blog, Whatever. In particular, I’ve always enjoyed reading his Big Idea posts, where fellow authors get a little space to put in their own words the inspiration behind their latest novels or other creative projects. More often than not, these kind of posts have been a big help for guys like me looking for something new and interesting to read.
That’s why I wanted to share with you all this great Big Idea by Arianne “Tex” Thompson, whose concept for her debut novel rocked my world this morning. It’s a story that addresses both the issues of introducing magic to the real world and also dealing with historical real-world issues (i.e., racism, class struggles, industrialization, colonialism). I wanted to share her enthusiasm and her keen look into a 19th century world where magic and modernity intersect violently.
So please give her Big Idea a moment of your time and then give her story a chance, too. I know I will!
The Big Idea piece intrigued me enough to get the sample. The sample starts with a bang, and I’m loving the writing. I can’t buy it this week, but it’s on my list now. Well above average in the writing departmt, and if the ideas match that, it’s going to be a humdinger.