By whom? By comedian Jackie Kashian, on her Dork Forest podcast. If you ever wanted to hear me prattle on for an hour on a topic unrelated to my professional capacity, now is your chance. Note: She’s got about five minutes of intro stuff, and then I come in. Enjoy.
Nifty, yeah? I think so too. It comes out on October 5, if you’re in Germany, or just like German translations. I’m happy to say that Bernhard Kempen, who has translated most of my work in German before, is continuing the task here. Since I’ve won awards in Germany, he’s clearly doing an excellent job.
The real question to my mind is whether Alan Gratz’s new novel Ban This Book is itself ever banned. It’s possible! And would be recursive! And as Gratz explains below, it would mean his book would join a rather august list of books that have been banned.
A few years back, someone posted the following question to Yahoo Answers: “Is it OK to run an illegal library from my locker at school?” The author of the question then explained that she went to a private Catholic school where the principal had released a long list of books the students weren’t allowed to read. To be a rebel, the girl brought one of the banned books to school, and soon her friends were clamoring to read it. She added more and more banned books to the collection in her locker, and began running it like a proper library. “But is what I’m doing wrong because parents and teachers don’t know about it and might not like it,” she asks at the end, “or is it a good thing because I’m starting appreciation of the classics and truly good novels in my generation?”
Cue the Internet swoon-fest.
The link was shared everywhere. It was Tweeted and Facebooked and reposted. The story was picked up by Library Journal, and Goodreads, and Reddit. The girl and her banned book locker library were written about on educational review sites and librarian listservs and school blogs. Cory Doctorow even posted the forwarded story on BoingBoing, adding, “Give that kid a medal and a full-ride scholarship to the best library school in the country, please!” The post itself got more than a hundred responses (most of them offering earnest advice and plaudits,) and has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. And the author of the post kept updating it with more lists of books that had been banned and added to her library.
But…wait for it…
It was a hoax.
What? Not everything you read on the Internet is true? Gasp and clutch the pearls!
Pretty quickly those skeptical fun killers among us proved the whole thing to be made up. But because nobody ever reads the comments, and because nothing ever dies on the Internet, the story keeps getting found, and shared, and linked to. I’m still surprised when I see it pop up in one of my feeds. Maybe you’ve seen it yourself. Just within the last year, a writer I admire retweeted the link with heaps of praise for the student. Like a lot of other people, I loved this story, and probably like a lot of those same people, I was bummed (but not entirely surprised) when I learned it was bogus.
But unlike everybody else, I stole the idea and wrote a book about it.
To write a book about book banning though, I was going to have to learn a lot more about, well, banning books. Not being in favor of banning books, I’d never tried to do it myself, and I’d never taught at a school or been at a school as a student or parent when a challenge happened. And none of the books I’ve written has ever been banned. At least, not that I know of. That’s one thing I learned as I began my research—that many book challenges and removals are never reported or contested. Very quietly, a book just disappears from the shelf.
I also wanted to know what kind of books got challenged and banned. I knew the famous ones—books like Huckleberry Finn (first banned in 1885, the year after it was published, for being “absolutely immoral” and using “bad grammar and inelegant expressions,” to more recent challenges over the N-word), and the Harry Potter series (witchcraft!). But what else got challenged, and why? For answers, I turned to the American Library Association, who are all over this like evolution disclaimers on Alabama textbooks. Each year, the ALA investigates every public challenge in America, and every few years they publish a book listing every challenge ever recorded. It’s a big book.
The challenged books are as varied as the reasons for challenging them are ridiculous. Among children’s books, The Stupids Step Out was challenged for encouraging children to disobey their parents. In My Teacher is an Alien, challengers took issue with the main character handling problems on her own instead of relying on the help of others. Harriet the Spy supposedly taught children to “lie, spy, back-talk, and curse.” Ewoks Join the Fight was challenged because (spoiler alert!) the Death Star is destroyed. And my favorite: The Lorax “criminalizes the foresting industry.” These were all real challenges.
So rather than make up fake books to challenge in my story, I used real books. Every novel challenged by parents in Ban This Book is one that has been challenged somewhere in America at least once in the last thirty years. The rest of my story—well, that’s all made up. I had to change a few things from the original Yahoo Answers post, of course. My main character would also be a girl, but she would be a lot younger—a fourth grader. And instead of going to a Catholic school where, let’s face it, they can tell you what you can and can’t read because it’s a private school and if you don’t like it you can just stop paying them money and go somewhere else, I would set mine at a public elementary school in North Carolina, where I live. (And where, I’m ashamed to say, we’ve seen our fair share of book challenges and book controversies.) And instead of young adult novels, it would be all middle grade novels that were banned, and Dav Pilkey, author of the awesome and oft-challenged Captain Underpants books would make a cameo, and the finale would involve a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-style school board showdown, and…
Well, I changed pretty much everything except the part about hiding banned books in a locker and checking them out in secret to other kids.
After all, why let the truth get in the way of a good story?
The headline says it all. If you queried about a Big Idea for September and I have not yet gotten back to you, everything is all filled up for the month. October and November slots are still open (for October and November releases).
Such is the latent influence of A Christmas Story that whenever I see a box marked “Fragile” my brain pronounces it fra-gee-lay, and another part of my brain says “It’s a major award!” But in today, the box marked “fragile” that came to my house did have a major award in it: the Audie that The Dispatcher won this year. The Audies, in case you were not aware, are the awards that the audiobook industry give out, and this year The Dispatcher was a finalist in three categories, and won in “Original Work,” meaning a production that was designed from the ground up to be an audiobook. I showed the Audie to Spice, as you can see; she was not notably impressed, but then, she’s a cat.
The Audie will not stay on the chair any longer than the cat will; it will go on the award shelf along with the Hugos and Locus and other various awards. I’m delighted to have the physical trophy because I’m proud of The Dispatcher, not only in terms of what I wrote, but how it was brought to life by Zachary Quinto and the folks at Audible. It’s nice to have a tangible reminder that the whole package was appreciated by listeners and industry peers. Thanks, folks.
California has always been pegged as the “weird” state — and as a native of the state, I just have to say… well, yeah. But in Strange California, the story anthology she’s co-edited with J. Daniel Batt, editor Jaym Gates goes beyond a simple agreement on the strangeness of the state, to dig into what makes the Golden State so weird and wonderful.
I think I first came up with the idea for Strange California long before I realized it. I had a habit, when I lived in the state, of taking long drives, losing myself on backroads choked with fog, warded by towering oaks or sequoia. One day, on my birthday, I was driving up Highway 1, along the coast from Santa Cruz to Pescadero. It was a sunny day, but a wall of fog was rolling in from the sea. Highway 1 is all steep cliffs and blind corners, and as I drove around one such corner, I found myself surrounded by a lemon-yellow fog.
There’s no way to describe that color or feeling in words. It was like being swallowed by the sun, glowing and liquid in a way I’ve never seen before. I wanted to stop and bask, but I passed around another corner and was again in the grey and blue and gold of early-winter California, wondering if I had dreamed the whole thing, and suddenly I was laughing, the fear and stress of months of personal horror washed away by a strange trick of the light.
It was moments like these that inspired the title of this anthology, and the spirit of it. The roads of California are entities themselves, mythologized in their own right, and they play their own part in telling the stories here.
Take a journey up Highway 99. Stop off just north of Bakersfield where a young woman stands on the edge of Woollomes Avenue, looking apprehensive, debating if she should cross. She’s been dead for decades but the residents see her often enough that she’s become a stable fixture of the scenery, as normal as the billboards that line the Highway.
Follow that highway further and you’ll encounter another roadside obscurity. John Muir’s conservationist efforts have inspired people across the world. Commemorating him via celebration wasn’t enough for the small town of Lemon Cove. To honor the champion of the wilderness, some Californians have constructed a massive wooden sculpture of his head that sits just the road, staring to the horizon, to the vastness of Yosemite.
Time for one more stop on your trek up 99? How about visiting the underground city below Old Sacramento buried when the town decided to simply raise the roads and start fresh. The storefronts still stand and some swear that the dead have migrated to roam the alleyways of a town that’s been forgotten by the tourists walking above.
You have a choice, from here. On up 99, to the brutally-sharp rubble and claustrophobic caves of the Lava Beds National Monument, to the silent, deserted ghost towns and high-mountain deserts of Modoc, the extinct volcanoes and wildlands around Lassen. Head back around to 80, through the Donner Pass–be sure to go in winter, and take some friends with you.
Or you can leave 99 and take 50. 50, the notorious mountain highway. Blocked in winter by snow, in spring by mudslides, in summer and autumn by wildfires. Stop off in Placerville, where an effigy still hangs over Main Street in commemoration of its heritage as Old Hangtown, and ghosts are reported in nearly every old building and mine. Follow 50 through the steep climb to Tahoe, the legendary inland sea, or venture off to its tributaries 395 and 49. 395, passing through military training grounds, ski resorts, cattle towns, and back down into the deadly beauty of Death Valley and Yosemite. 49, the Golden Chain highway, snaking through towns once infamous for their gold and hangings, through the country that inspired Mark Twain and Clark Ashton Smith.
And we haven’t even touched on Southern California, or the intense rivalries between North and South. With an economy rivaling that of many world nations, it is a world unto itself, full of mystery and legend from a hundred cultures and alternate histories. It leaves an indelible mark on everyone who passes through it.
But these are strange places we know of. California sprawls across a multitude of landscapes and has amassed a history full of the strange and unusual. There are secrets in the desert. Secrets in the cities. Strange and unusual happenings in the odd, dark places of the coastal state.
I’ve wanted to do a project like this for a long time. My family was in the state before it was a state, and the family stories would fill many a night of storytelling. While that history influenced my own storytelling quite a bit, I wanted to hear other stories, too.
So J. Daniel Batt and I talked to some people, opened a slush pile, and built an anthology. We ran it off of Kickstarter (and discovered just how much Facebook throttles links now!), and barely funded. In true California fashion, we met our goal in the 11th hour…thanks to a mysterious venture capitalist. It was the perfect laugh, a thing where you shrug and remember that weirdness doesn’t stay in the soil of a place.
California is an entity, a genius loci of power and mystery. It inspires envy, lust, greed, love, fear, and so much more. Its wide borders encompass a microcosm of the nation, from abject poverty to unimaginable wealth, the old ways and the new packed shoulder-to-shoulder, simmering with potential for greatness, or for disaster.
California Strange tells a few stories inspired by that legendary place.
Happy Monday — here’s a lovely stack of new books and ARCs for you peruse as this week gets started. If you see something you’re interested in, tell us in the comments!
I was left to my own devices today, and rather than just slump on the couch and watch TV, honorable pastime though it might be, I decided to play with my audio software and record another song. This one is from Yaz(oo), the seminal electronic band from the early 80s, featuring Vince Clarke (post-Depeche Mode but pre-Erasure) and Alison Moyet, who is one of my favorite singers (and who as it happens just released a new album). It’s the song “Nobody’s Diary,” from their second album You and Me Both.
As is my wont, I’ve made the cover very noisy and grindy and drony, in part to cover up my terrible guitar playing, but also because I sort of dig the sonic aesthetic, and it’s fun to hear how many sounds I can wrench out of an acoustic tenor guitar and some audio editing software.
In any event, here it is.
And in case you’d like to compare and contrast with the original, here that is:
Such a grand voice, Ms. Moyet has. I’m going to see her in concert in a month!
Done up all old-timey.
Slow day here at the Scalzi Compound. Hope your Friday has been a good one.
Child delivered and ensconced in her dormitory room, and she’s pretty happy. I posted the above picture on Twitter and the response was largely, “Wait, she has a single room? As a freshman?” The answer is, yes to both. Apparently this was surprising to people at her college as well. Be that as it may, I also had a single room as a freshman, so I guess this is a Scalzi family tradition. Which is better than having a tradition of, say, being the first person in the dorm to do a keg stand or something like that.
We’re back at home now and everything’s fine, if a bit quiet. It was a long and kind of emotional day, but overall a good one, I think. But this evening my plan is to eat ice cream and zone out. I think that’s a perfectly fine reaction to the first day of an empty nest.
Here’s a picture of Athena on the last day of summer. The next day (today, as I’m writing this after midnight) we bundle her and much of her belongings into the minivan and head down to Oxford, Ohio, where Athena begins her time at Miami University. We’ll drop her off, help her get situated, and then drive away, to come home to a house that for the first time ever will not have her in it on a regular basis. It’s a good and expected and desired thing to have her start this part of her life. But it will be different. If there was any doubt that our daughter is no longer a child (even when she remains our child), coming home to a house without her will be the closing argument on that.
It’s nothing new in the annals of history, mind you. Children leave home all the time. But it’s new to us. And that’s the thing. We’ll be fine, and Athena will only be an hour (and a text or a tweet or phone call) away. But it will still be different without her. A little bit of each of our hearts goes with her when she goes.
That’s all I want to say about it right now. Except to reiterate again how much I love my daughter, and how proud I am of her for who she’s become and excited for who she has yet to become in these next few years. What a wonderful time for her, and for us. Still, I hope you’ll understand if I’m a little out of it the next several days. It’ll just be me, missing my kid.
Just posted a thought on a friend’s Facebook post that I think I’d like to expand on here. The friend was talking (basically) about how he was annoyed that the fans of a certain person insisted that person was a genius when my friend saw that person’s output as largely just okay. I wrote:
Calling someone you’re a fan of a “genius” is mostly just second-order complimenting of one’s self (because you have the good taste to be a fan of a genius, you see). Most of the people I’m fans of are not geniuses, they’re just really really good at what they do, and because they are, they sometimes make great and/or enduring art.
And I think that’s true. “Genius,” in the context of creativity, is bandied around a lot and is typically used as shorthand for “that person/group I like who does stuff I really like and which for some reason I have incorporated into my self-identity.” There’s also often but not always a whiff of “and they do something I don’t know how to do myself” in there. In short, “genius” means “people who are highly skilled and super-talented in their creative field, who produce high quality material that speaks to me ineffably.”
I think being one of those people is nice work if you can get it, but I don’t think it equates to being a “genius.” I think to be a creative genius (very incompletely, here) is to bring something new(ish)* to a culture, and to have it affect enough people that it is incorporated into the culture, and (this is the really unfair part) to have enough people notice that you have done it to be remembered for it. If you’re doing genius-level stuff and it’s all stuffed in a drawer and it never gets out, you’re going to miss out on being a creative genius, sorry.
So genius is both rare — it’s difficult to bring something new to the creative table — and a lot of it is down to luck and the fortunes of history, i.e., whether someone finds your work and celebrates it. Emily Dickinson and Vincent Van Gogh count as two geniuses whose stock rose well after their death; in my own field Philip K. Dick was celebrated in the small circle of science fiction while he was alive but only ascended in the culture after death. Not everyone gets to be the Beatles, and see in their lifetimes how their creative genius changed the world.
Most creative people aren’t in my opinion geniuses, since it seems to me that genius has a lot to do with being in the right place at the right time, and failing that, at least having the right people find out about you when you’re dead. Which is to say, things that are completely out of one’s control and with a large element of luck involved. So much of genius has nothing to do with native ability and/or acquired skill. And in being recognized as a genius, it helps to get in early, before all the ground has been broken (or alternately, there when a field is in crisis, and everything is up for grabs).
But — and this is an important conjunction — this doesn’t mean that creative folks who aren’t geniuses aren’t making good art, or great art. They very often are, because the one element of genius they have some control over — craft — is something they work on, and they keep working on, hopefully through their careers. In point of fact I think there’s an argument to make that much of the work of non-geniuses is as good as or even exceeds the quality of the work of “geniuses,” who, while their reputation benefited from being the first to explore a field or technique, also (and necessarily) didn’t have the same fluidity or experience with the subject as others who came later and worked with it longer and incorporated it at a much earlier stage into their creativity.
So again: Not very many creative people should be called a genius, which is to my mind a highly contingent title, and one’s ascendance to the title might not even be settled in one’s lifetime. But certainly quite a lot of creative people should be acknowledged as masters of their field, and of their craft. “Master” is about the things you can control — your skill and the work you put into it — and it’s something that others can concretely argue for by pointing to the quality of one’s work in itself.
Examples! you say. Okay, let’s take, oh, I don’t know, film director Ron Howard. Is Ron Howard a genius? I think history is going to come down on the “probably not” side of that one — there’s very little in his canon of work that’s groundbreaking or startlingly innovative or so influential that you can see its mark in other filmed works. Is Ron Howard a master? Yup — leaving aside the Oscars he picked up for A Beautiful Mind, one can easily pick out the very good and near great work he’s done (my trio: Parenthood, Apollo 13, Frost/Nixon) and point to his reputation for no-nonsense competence — there’s a reason LucasFilm had him parachute into the Han Solo film. Howard may not be a genius, but when Apollo 13 or Parenthood shows up on cable, I stop skipping and start watching. He’s really good at what he does, and some of his work is legitimately classic. He deserves the honors and accolades that have come his way. He’s a master.
As I note above, I think people who are fans of a creative person want to label that person a genius, not just because it’s complimentary to the artist (no one dislikes being called a genius) but because it speaks well to their own taste. I’m not going to stop anyone from using the word, or tsk-tsk that hard when they do. But for myself I think its worth it to say that not everyone’s a genius, and it’s not an insult in itself to say someone’s not one. And also for myself, I’m more likely to call someone whose creative work I admire a “master.” In many ways, I consider that to be the higher compliment. You can become a genius by circumstance. Becoming a master takes work.
*Let me suggest “new” here can mean either something wholly new, and often springing from an advance in creative technology of some sort, or something that is an unexpected synthesis of existing forms.
Which is: When you type “Scalzi.com” in your address bar, it now takes you to Whatever rather than the static page that I’ve had at the site for years and years.
Why? Well, because the static page was static, and not especially helpful, and meanwhile pretty much everything that goes on with the site goes on here on Whatever. Also, most people who come to the site come to the blog directly, and all the links that were previously on the static page pointed here anyway. It made sense to make the switch.
If I ever get around to doing a full site revamp, things might change. But I suspect at this point, I’ll be keeping it as it is. This is where the action is. Might as well point to it.
In the wake of Kai Cole’s piece about Joss Whedon, and some of the reaction to it, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a man in the public sphere who considers himself to be a feminist. Part of this thought process was also spurred on by seeing some of the reaction to the news on Twitter by women:
I’ve talked before about my own personal feminism here on Whatever. In 2012 I noted why I was hesitant to call myself a feminist, and then a couple years later I explained why I was going to go ahead and call myself one. Here in 2017, I think it’s worth coming back around to it and thinking about it some more.
And at the moment, this is what I think about it: I consider myself a feminist because fundamentally, I believe that women should have and need to have the same rights, privileges and opportunities that men do — that I do — and I think it’s worth saying that out loud and working toward that goal. This feminism is part and parcel of believing that everyone should have the same rights, privileges and opportunities that I, a straight, white, well-off, gender-conforming man has, not just on paper but in the practical, mundane, day-to-day workings-of-the-world sense. We’re not there yet, and as we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks, there are a lot of people who never want to see that happen. I would be ashamed, especially now, not to stand up and be counted out loud as someone who believes in feminism, among all the other things I believe in.
But I am also deeply uncomfortable with feminism being part of my “brand,” for several reasons. The first is that I’m aware of my failings and imperfections, and I’m also aware that there are a number of failings and imperfections I’m not aware of. With regard to my feminism, I can work on the things I know about and listen when people point out the things I’m not aware of, but the general gist of it is that I’m aware my feminism is imperfect. I am loath to charge in saying behold, the male feminist! when I know there are lots of places where I fall down. I’m a feminist, in progress, and suspect I will be until I’m dead.
The second, following on the first, is that I’m also aware feminism doesn’t need me as a flagbearer. I’m not and shouldn’t be the vanguard of feminism (I mean, if I am, whoooo there’s trouble). What I can be is support, and occasionally a tank (i.e., someone being an obvious target and taking hits while other people get to work). One of the great gifts of getting older is the realization that you don’t have to lead every parade. Sometimes it’s enough to march along and have the backs of the people out in front.
The third, which is related to the second as the second is related to the first, is the awareness that I have the privilege of not being performatively feminist. Which is to say that I can — and sometimes do — decide to take a break from actively having to deal with issues and concerns of feminism, because I am busy, or distracted, or tired, or just decide I want to take a breather. My passive feminism is still there, my default belief in the equality of rights and opportunities, but I don’t have to do anything about it, and the personal consequences for my not engaging are very low.
Having the option to quit the field without penalty, and to engage only when you have interest, means some interesting things, not all of them good. It means, as an example, that you can choose to do only high-profile, high-impact flashy attention-getting things, and not the day-to-day grunt work that other people have to do. It’s not at all surprising that the reaction of the latter folks is irritation and frustration that you’re getting credit for something they see essentially as stunting for cookies.
I’m not going to deny that I’m aware that I have the ability, within my own little pond, to draw attention to issues and to make things visible by being loud and immovable in only the way someone with my advantages has, and in that way effect change. I try to be useful with that, and to make clear the fact that others have done work I’m essentially pointing to. And I try to do more than just the flashy, attention-getting, cookie-bearing stuff. But at the end of the day I’m aware that I have the option to engage, with feminism as with many issues, when other people are required to engage if they want their existence to be acknowledged as anything other than background noise. That makes a difference. I don’t think I can have feminism as part of my “brand” when I only have to engage with it at my whim.
(There’s also a fourth issue here, which is the disconnect between public and private lives. To be very clear, I’m not keeping any affairs — or, really, anything — secret from Krissy; we believe in communication and lots of it. But I’ve also been clear that while my public persona, including on this blog, is me, it’s a version of me tuned differently from the me who lives at home with my wife and daughter, away from the rest of the world. I don’t know that there’s anything in my private life to give someone pause re: feminism, but who knows? There might be. In which case, best to not lead with it as a brand identity.)
I consider myself a feminist. I am also 100% all right with being interrogated on that assertion, and to have people, and especially women, be skeptical until and unless I prove otherwise. I’m also aware that “feminist” is not a level-up — you don’t grind until you get the achievement badge and then don’t have to think about it ever again. I’ve said before that if your social consciousness is stuck in 1975, the 21st century is going to be a hard ride, and that continues to be a true thing. You have to keep engaging.
I’m also aware that I’m going to fail — that I’ll miss a step, or say or do something stupid, or otherwise show my ass, on feminism (among, to be sure, many other issues). And I can pretty much guarantee I’m not always going to take being called on that with initial good grace, because history suggests I’ll occasionally screw that up too. I can say that I do try to base my ego not on having to be right, but on doing the right thing. This is why I once did a primer on apologizing: because I need it in my own life.
So, yes. Here in 2017: I am a feminist, imperfectly to be sure but even so. I’m happy for it not to be part of my “brand.” I just want it to be part of me; of how I treat women, and others, and how I view the world for what it is and should be.
It went well! We had intermittent clouds in the run-up, but for the first half (closing up to the maximum) we had very good views much of the time, and the clouds weren’t so heavy we couldn’t see. I made a box, but then Krissy’s work handed out eclipse glasses, so we used those instead, and I also used a makeshift filter on my camera to get some pretty good shots. This particular shot came just after maximum, when all of a sudden a lot of clouds rolled in and I could snap a naked shot of the sun without frying my camera. We got 88% of coverage, which is enough for a show. In all, a very fine eclipse, from the deck of my house.
The next eclipse for North America is in 2024, and as it happens, that one will have totality directly over my house. Which is convenient! And before you ask, we’re already booked up. Sorry.
Updated to add: Also, I think I may never get a better eclipse shot than this one. Thank you and good night.
A small piece of security information for you: Whatever (was well as the whole Scalzi.com) site, now operates using https, for extra added security. Mind you, as this site does very little in the way of transactions or anything security-critical, this may not be a big deal to anyone. On the other hand, Google sent me a note recently noting that unless I switched over to https, they’d start blasting “INSECURE” in the URL field of the Chrome browser, so, fine. Now it’s secure. Enjoy the securiosity! No, that’s not a real word. Even so.
A very fine collection of new books and ARCs arrived to the Scalzi Compound in the last week, and here’s what they are! See anything you’d like on your own shelves? Tell us all in the comments.
The world we live in is not always peaceful… and maybe sometimes we kind of like it that way, whether we like to admit that or not. Author Anna Smith Spark has thoughts on the act of violence, and how it animates the story of her novel The Broken Knives.
ANNA SMITH SPARK:
The Court of Broken Knives is a novel about violence.
When I started writing the book, I didn’t have a plot or a world or a cast of characters in mind. What I had was a scene.
A group of men.
I’ve always been fascinated by violence: How one might respond to the opportunity for violence. What doing violence might feel like. And that’s what The Court of Broken Knives ultimately became about.
I was brought up reading the great myths and legends, the old stories of heroes. The Iliad. The Eddas. Beowulf. Gilgamesh. The Tain. I loved these stories. Read and reread them, immersed myself in them, told myself stories set in their worlds. But what I came back to, as I got older, was the realisation that for so many of these stories we are not reading about good versus evil. We are not reading high fantasy, the last desperate stand where evil is vanquished and the Dark Lord is overthrown. We are reading about violence for its own sake. The act of winning, of killing one’s opponent and glorying in one’s triumph, is the victory. The hero is ‘good’ because he wins.
And yes, ‘he’. These are acts of masculine violence. More women have perhaps fought in battle than we realise, yes, granted. But, historically, organised violence has been the domain of men. Armies and battle hosts have been male places. Places from which women have been excluded. And that in itself is worth thinking on.
Let’s look for a moment on the Iliad. The Iliad was written down over two and a half thousand years ago. It was composed perhaps three thousand years ago. It is the first and greatest masterpiece of European literature, the foundation stone of western culture. It is a book entirely and totally about war. A very large number of people die in the Iliad. Graphically, horribly, and without even the consolation of heaven awaiting them. The whole reason for the war is shown to be futile.
But war is also the whole basis of the Iliad’s society. The leader of the Trojans is called Hector. He’s spent ten years killing Greeks for the sake of a woman who ran off with his little brother. He’s seen most of his brothers die, and his wife’s entire family die, and he knows, deep down inside, that he’s going to die himself. In one of the most moving scenes in the poem, he says farewell to his wife and child before going out to battle, and he knows and we know and they know that he’s not going to come back from it. And this is what he says:
When [their child is grown and] comes home from battle wearing the bloody gear
Of the mortal enemy he has killed in war-
A joy to his mother’s heart.
(Homer, Iliad, trans. Robert Fagles, Penguin, 1990, book 6, lines 568-574)
Coming home from battle still bloody with his enemies’ innards. That’s the greatest joy a woman can want for her children. That’s what makes you absolutely the top chap.
The Iliad is not a celebration of war. But is not a rejection of war, either. It makes one terrible, horrifying, entirely obvious point:
Winning at war feels great. And that’s a strange and exhilarating experience to write about—particularly someone who has not ever fought.
Reading about war is enjoyable. Writing about war is immensely enjoyable. And I strongly suspect, from everything I’ve ever studied about history, that actually doing war is even more enjoyable than reading or writing or watching it. Warfare has been pretty much a constant of human history, and those who are good at it have generally occupied the top social and sexual desirability spot. Some war is morally justified. Most war is not. We’ve always known that. Right back to the Iliad. And yet we do it. We have always done it. We probably always will.
We do it because winning at war feels great. I wanted my characters to have the same feelings as Hector: to understand simultaneously that war is bloody and horrible, but also glorious and exciting and fun.
I do not say this because I think war is a good thing. It is a terrible thing. A horrifying thing. A thing of utter shame and grief.
But I say it because it is a true thing, and a thing that I wanted people to remember in The Court of Broken Knives.
I have a piece in the Los Angeles Times today about the difficulty of writing science fiction in today’s world, and no, it’s not just because one has to wonder if the world is going to be here tomorrow. Here’s the link. Enjoy!