Saturday, October 11, 2014

Are You a Social Coward?

If you have to tell somebody something that you believe they aren't going to like or will react badly to, do it to their face like a civilized human being!

       I never have liked the idea of using a blog for the purposes of venting one's sour feelings, but I simply have to get this off my chest.  I have a lot of arthritis; that's why I quit driving.  I was getting to where I couldn't turn the wheel or even pull the seat belt around to fasten it, because it started in my shoulders. Maybe four years ago, the orthopedist said I had no cartilage left in the shoulder joints and the only answer is joint replacements.  I can't see doing that -- I am not going to spend the rest of my life doing nothing but therapy and maybe have it be less than successful, anyway.  I also have arthritis in my hands, my feet, and now in my right knee., and it's starting in the left hip.  So, after I got rid of my car (which happened in February of 2013, when I broke my rib), a friend volunteered to take me the grocery store, to medical appointments, etc.  She was firm in her commitment, although I'm always skeptical about whether you can be entirely sure of anybody's help, no matter what they say.  My mother always said, never count on anybody to do anything for you.
       Lately I've developed a medical problem that will require some outpatient surgery.  And I've been thinking that my friend didn't seem herself lately -- she seemed kind of edgy and taciturn, and she's been tied up a lot, so scheduling the things that I needed to do was becoming difficult.  So I asked her if she was going to be able to keep on helping me, and she said firmly, "Oh, yes, I want to," and we made some arrangements and I thought everything was hunky-dory.
       Then yesterday morning I had an email from her (and we never exchange emails -- we talk on the phone).  She told me very formally that she had family problems and she couldn't help me any longer.  A very cold, businesslike note, like we were business partners breaking off a contract or something.  I've called her twice and she won't pick up.  Now what do you think of that? 
       It's not the fact that she can no longer help me that bugs me because I understand that family has to come first -- it's just that I think she should have talked to me directly instead of wimping out with an email, like I was somebody she barely knew.  I would like to still be friends, but now I don't think we're going to be.   She'll probably never talk to me again. 
       It's like getting a "Dear John" letter.
       That's what I call social cowardice. 
       This isn't the first time I've encountered this phenomenon.  My mother and I lived in a duplex at one point and the landlady and her husband lived on the other side.  We were quite friendly; they had cats and two Great Danes, and I enjoyed being around them.  One day in summer, we were sitting there with the front door open for air and the woman suddenly appeared at the door.  I called, "Hello!" but she just dumped a note in the mailbox and bolted around the corner.  She was raising the rent and didn't have the guts to face us.  Now isn't that something?  We continued to be friends, but she never said a word about the rent raise and we didn't either -- we just paid it out.  Social cowardice!  
       And one more example.  I had a handyman whom I really liked.  He would always do anything I asked, from remortaring bricks in a retaining wall to repairing the till of an old trunk.  And he agreed to install new vinyl flooring in the kitchen.  I picked out the flooring and had it delivered, and then he broke off contact.  He never told me he changed his mind and didn't want (or maybe didn't know how) to put in the floor -- he simply stopped answering my calls and disappeared off the face of the earth.  I wrote him a straightforward letter of complaint, but I never heard a word from him again.  The man did not know how to say no!  Most handymen will say, "I don't paint" or "I don't do flooring," etc.  But for some reason he couldn't do that!  I found somebody else to put in the flooring, but still, I counted on him to do little things for me, like fix light switches and toilets.  And he just dropped me like a hot potato.  If he didn't want to work for me any longer, he should have said so!
       Face people, for goodness sake -- take responsibility for your actions  and maintain a civilized attitude!  You're not going to lose a friend or a business associate just because circumstances won't let you do everything you may have promised! 
Don't be a social coward!
And learn how to say no gracefully!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Can a Humanist Write Fantasy in Good Conscience?

The Goddess Durga
The Highest-Mother-Who-Has-No-Name
with her star nurseries
       When I first started this self-publishing effort, I happened to make the acquaintance of an indie author who was a convinced atheist.  This writer abjured fantasy in all forms because of the underlying premise of magic, which assumes a spiritual foundation not grounded in science.  This writer would read science fiction, but  only if it omitted all non-material assumptions.  Since then, I've encountered other atheists who seem to feel the same way.  The most convinced atheist is a fullblown materialist and simply can't allow for anything unexplainable by science.
        Those of you who may have followed this blog since its early days will remember that I'm a humanist. Humanists are by definition supposed to be atheists, but I reject that appellation because my view is more that of the agnostic -- I reject the notion that it's possible to know anything about god or gods, but I leave the possibility open that something beyond the explanatory ability of science might exist.  
       So how does one define belief?  I define it as conviction without proof.  A convinced religionist "believes" that he/she knows the truth, but the fact is that there is no way to prove if that person is right.  A convinced atheist "believes" there is nothing spiritual anywhere, but he/she has no proof, either.  That's why I reject dogmatism (of either the religious or the atheistic variety) and view it as the source of countable wars and evil acts committed against the best principles of right behavior (what I call the Right Way) that are embedded (along with the capacity for evil) in the human consciousness.
       I see humanity as having the capacity to fix things on their own without the intervention of gods, and that is what I mean by humanist. However, while many humanists are atheists, I call myself a spiritual humanist.  I simply state that you cannot know the truth about what might be beyond the ken of science.  Therefore, I have no problem with belief in itself.  My problem is  with those who believe so strongly in their rectitude that they want to force their belief on the whole world,  either through conversion (under corecion if necessary) or by  eliminating those damned recalcitrant sinners, individually or through warfare.
       Consequently, I can enjoy fantasy -- stories with spiritual or magic elements in them -- and I can write such stories.  (And I want to add parenthetically that I realize not all atheists reject fantasy; some simply accept the role of the imagination in human endeavors, suspend disbelief, and enjoy themselves.)  All of my books include some spiritual elements.  I can write in The Termite Queen about a future history of Earth that has rejected religion and lives by the humanist Mythmaker principles, but in the same book I can write about a termite planet that has Seers who are in touch with a Mother Goddess who lives among the stars.  And I can conclude that book with references to Christianity, which I think not everybody who has read the book has recognized.  Kwi'ga'ga'tei the Seer takes the sins of the universe on herself (TheWound That Will Not Heal) and atones for them.  The myths of all religions can be adapted for many purposes.
       Similarly, in the series The Labors of Ki'shto'ba Huge-Head, I retell (among other epics) the Song of Roland.  When I was rereading it in preparation for adapting it, I was struck by how in medieval times both the Christians and the Saracens called each other infidel and how we're still fighting that useless war today -- a war over disparate "truths" neither of which can ever be proven.  So I made the Marcher Shshi and the People of the Cave to be at war with each other over the "truth" of whether the Highest Mother lives in the sky or in the ground.  In the beginning Di'fa'kro'mi the Remembrancer is rather shocked, because he has never encountered any form of worship other than of the Sky Mother, but as time passes, he comes to realize that it doesn't matter which way you perceive the Goddess -- what matters is the way you behave toward your fellow "humans" and how you honor the principle for which the Goddess stands -- in a termite context, the rare and beautiful procreative principle.  I think all this is quite pertinent to our own sad times. 
       My WIP The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars is much more a work of literary science fiction than it is a fantasy and it explores the nature of the humanist future of Earth more fully than I had space to do in The Termite Queen.  But even in MWFB there are elements of fantasy.  We see how religion has evolved into remnant communities that are sanctioned by EarthGov as long as they keep their worship private and don't proselytize.  In some cases Enclaves are chartered by EarthGov, in which communities of religionist believers can operate openly, again as long as they remain within the Enclave boundaries and keep the rules established in their charters. 
       However, I also investigate what might exist in the unexplored reaches of space.  Could there be something unexplainable out there, something that might not want us entering its domain?  Or is the entity only a figment of a disturbed mind?  This is mostly developed much later in the book, but I do have one reader of my unfinished opus who really likes the book but who, as an atheist, has complained that he would perfer I stuck to the scientific, no matter how fanciful my science is, and omit anything spiritual.  Well, I can't do that.  The concept of the spiritual is deeply embedded in the psychology of the intelligent being, and much of the wonder that exists in our lives comes from things we can't explain. 
       I constructed my future history around a group of 20 ethical precepts called the Mythmaker Precepts.  You can read my earlier posts on the topic here under the label Mythmakers in the sidebar, but it's best to start with the first one, Who Are the Mythmakers and Why Do They Matter? and then proceed through the series. The instinctive impulse toward belief  is embodied in the myths that humans devised to explain the world in a time less versed in scientific methodology.  I see fantasy as modern myth (I've stated elsewhere that most significant fiction has an element of fantasy within it [see Defining Fantasy according to TermiteWriter]).  Those myths become metaphors for important moral and ethical considerations; they clothe the deepest insights of modern man in wonder and give those insights a psychological and emotional foundation.  They can teach us and move us and appeal to our deepest selves.

Virgin Mary, Folk Art, Peru
19th century

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Curmudgeonly Pontification on Editors and Self-Promotion

       I'm plenty old enough to be called a curmudgeon and I've occasionally written a post where I assume that appellation. A couple of observations have occurred to me lately that fall under that category.
Editors and Editing

Thanks to
       I'm probably the only person around who prefers to indulge in that tremendous no-no, the violation of which shocks and horrifies!  I prefer to edit my own books.
       I have recently encountered someone who knew her book needed editing, so she hired an editor and paid good money, and then everybody who reviewed the book talked about how poorly edited it was (including me).  I am not about to waste money for somebody to do what I can do better, and I have no desire to be patronized by somebody who just assumes that if you're looking for an editor, you yourself are an uneducated simpleton.   (To be fair, I should insert a disclaimer here: I realize that not all editors are like that.)
       I have a sufficient academic background in English and language that I think I know how to write English using correct grammar and usage.  And I certainly know how to look things up, not only in the dictionary but in other tools.  I was a librarian, for goodness sake!  And when I first started writing when I was 29, I had my mother right there.  She was an English teacher and she's the one who taught me most of what I know about grammar and usage.  She and I proofread my early writing together, in the proper way -- with one person following the manuscript and the other reading in a slow, detailed way -- one word at a time, with all the punctuation verbalized.  Somewhere along the line I was taught that method, but it doesn't seem to be something anybody knows about these days.
       Now my mother is gone and I don't have anybody to proofread with, and I'm aware that when you proofread by yourself, you can miss a lot of typos.  So I apologize if a few typos slip through, or possibly the occasional small grammatical error.  Still, I trust myself to catch, for example, misuses of  homophones like "horde" and "hoard," a couple of words I always check out in every book so I don't have the Shshi sending out a "hoard" to found a new fortress.
       I think the reason people need editors so badly (apart from dyslexia, which can't be helped) is inferior education (and also poor typing skills, but that's a different problem).  Where were they during their high school English language classes?  Off in some adolescent haze, I guess, because it was obvious they ain't never gonna have no use for what the teacher was trying to larn 'em.  I think that's always been true to a considerable extent.  I'm quite sure many people who sat in my mother's classes back in the '30s, '40s, and '50s didn't learn grammar any better than the kids do today.
Thanks to
       We indie authors beat our brains out trying to get people to buy our books.  I list all my special prices on Twitter, Goodreads, Facebook, Google+, and in special forums and listings. I post them on my blog and I get promos on websites like The Story Reading Ape (bless his furry hide!)  I've been interviewed, and I thank all those interviewers.   I belong to several book promo groups on Facebook and Google+.  You put your posts on those and immediately they sink like a stone in the sea. 
       So I've decided all this is based on a false premise:  that people are actually out there trolling all these sites, looking for books to gobble up in order to fill their cavernous maws that hunger for reading matter. 
       I don't think this is true at all -- I don't think anybody is looking for books to read.  I'm basing this on myself.  I admit I hardly ever pay any attention to the myriad of books posted on these sites (not cites, you notice).  That's probably a flaw -- I should pay more attention, especially if I want them to pay attention back.  First off, who has time to investigate every book that's just been published?  Secondly, most of these books are in genres I have absolutely no interest in.  Erotic romance? Forget it!  Vampires?  Likewise (I have read one or two with vampires).  Zombies?  tha'sask|>|| as my Shshi would say.  Paranormal in general?  Nope!  I realize that my interests and the books that I write are literary in style and trends don't attract me.  I've even quit reading most high fantasy (dragons and elves and magic don't seem to appeal much to me these days).  I read tons of it in the '70s and '80s, as well as a good bit of more traditional science fiction.  Ursula K. LeGuin was my favorite, however, and I think everybody realizes her stuff is pretty literary in tone -- carefully crafted, with deeply dimensioned characters.   That's what I like, and I hope that's what I write, whether it's laid in the real world of the future or on a distant planet.
       There are many books that I would like to read before I die and unfortunately most of them were written years ago -- standards that I never got around to reading earlier, like The Great Gatsby or The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende.  I cannot possibly check out every book that crops up on a promo listing no matter how much I want to support indie authors. When I do, sadly, the books often turn out to be a waste of time.  It's not only poor editing -- it's that the authors think they can toss off a book in a week or a month and publish it immediately and have a masterpiece that sells a million copies.  They need to write ... and write ... and write ... and put the manuscript away and let it cook and then go back to it months or years later after they've gained more knowledge and experience, and then judge if it was really any good.  Perspective -- authors need to gain perspective on their own works by coming to them as if they were new.  I have no intention of ever publishing anything I wrote in the first eight years of my writing life.  I rewrote it so many times that the beginning became nothing but a jumble.  I do have a couple of manuscripts from the late '70s or early '80s (the period around the writing of "The Blessing of Krozem," my free novelette on Smashwords) that I may resurrect someday, but much as I loved the really early stuff when I wrote it, I think it's consigned to oblivion.  Juvenilia, they call it -- only I was in my thirties at the time! 
       So I apologize if I cannot pay attention to every indie-published book out there, and I understand why mine get ignored.  If I don't like to read erotic romances, the writers of erotic romances surely don't want to read character studies of giant termite people.  But somebody out there does want to, and that's why I don't give up.  You just have to find your readership.  That is what is important, and probably the hardest thing you have to do!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

How Do My Books Fit an Agent's Criteria?

Ki'shto'ba Huge-Head
Stands Guard
In the foreground (from left):
A'zhu'lo (Ki'shto'ba's twin),
Wei'tu and Twa'sei
(the smallest Worker),
Di'fa'kro'mi the Remembrancer
(a Star-Winged Alate)
       On his excellent blog Nicholas Rossis recently published a post entitled The Worst Way to Begin a Novel. His criteria are excerpted from The Write Life and enumerate complaints of agents that can cause rejection.  I decided it would be interesting to consider some of my own books in relation to these criteria, so here goes!
"Prologues: not so much! Agents find them boring and think that it’s much better to include the description of the prologue in the actual story plot."
       I have only one book with an addition called "Prologue" at the beginning.  It's my WIP entitled The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars.  I extracted this and published it in the first Read for Animals book (proceeds going to support animal shelters) because it deals with a wounded eagle.    I'm thinking if I ever publish that humongous novel, I might retitle the Prologue as Chapter 1, because it relates directly to something that happens early on in the book and also to the book's broader theme of the eponymous Captain as a wounded man.  Furthermore, it's quite absorbing in itself.  I wouldn't want to omit it.
       However, all of my Ki'shto'ba books have introductory matter, specifically, a Translator's Foreword, because I've set up a scholarly framework.  These are tales written by an extraterrestrial and they require scholarly explanations. 
"No dreams in the first chapter: it makes readers identify with a story plot and/or a character/situation and then realize there was no point it, since it was not real. This can make them feel cheated."
       Not sure I agree with this premise, because dreams can be quite revelatory of a character's psychological state, so they can enrich the reader's understanding.  Why would that make you feel cheated?  That said, I've never written a dream in a first chapter.

"Too many descriptive adjectives: 'overwriting' is considered the mark of amateurish writing, as is language that’s too rich for its good.  As I always say, don’t let your writing get in the way of your story."
       I think Nicholas and I agree on this one.  I may occasionally violate it, although I'm not going to dig for an example.  You'll just have to read my books and decide for yourselves.

"No long descriptions: it’s all a question of balance between plot and description. You want to create a setting, but describing the colour of the flower in the vase for three paragraph could be dull."
       I think I deal with that pretty well, most of the time.  In Chapter 2 ("In the Nu'wiv'mi Marsh") of the second volume of the Ki'shto'ba series, there is quite a lot of description of the Companions' surroundings, including the plants and animals. I think any conworlder would appreciate that -- how can you construct a world and then not describe it?  And this watery environment is new to the characters in the story as well, so it fascinates them.
"Action: literary agents want action in the first chapter so that they -- and the readers -- get hooked."
       I sometimes violate this one.  I think I handled it OK in The Termite Queen, v.1, because the first short chapter is an internal monologue of the captive termite, and the second chapter introduces some characters in a way that doesn't explain everything (Who is this strange being on the other end of the com link?  Why does he talk in musical notes?  I want more!)  However, I confess that in the Ki'shto'ba series, I sometimes open with a chapter where Di'fa'kro'mi is simply talking with his scribe about his present life, his old age, how he happened to invent writing, etc.  The books often don't have much action until the second chapter or even later because that's where our narrator begins the actual story.  But when you get to that point, things pop. 
       Here are some sample openings of the main part of the text:
       Vol. 2: The Storm-Wing:
“We are lost.  I mean, we are quite lost!  Yes, I have to admit it.  I am not at all sure of the way!”
Ra’fa’kat’wei’s confession did nothing to improve my mood.  I was covered with mud, my wings were encrusted with drying shreds of water-weed, and I was sprawled on my belly huffing with fatigue.  So my rejoinder was tart.
“A fine guide you have turned out to be!  You said you knew all the paths!”
Vol. 3: The Valley of Thorns (this sets a tone of nostalgia, an anticipation of something that will be lost, including a bit of foreshadowing):
As travel-weary as they were, the Marcher Commander Gri’a’ein’zei’a disdained to rest its company long, saying that the situation demanded speed.  The following day we spoke our final farewells to our good friend Sa’ti’a’i’a, girded on our gear, and regretfully allowed No’sta’pan’cha to slip into our past.  When we came to the Ya’ur’akh’on, I looked down the valley toward the land where that river had another name.  My home fortress of Lo’ro’ra lay somewhere out there, past the distant haze that eternally hung upon the swamp Nu’wiv’mi, down the river called Rim’pol’bu, between the volcanoes, beyond Za’dut’s home fortress of Kwai’kwai’za.  I would not come even that close to the place of my hatching again in many season-cycles … so many …
Vol. 4: Beneath the Mountain of Heavy Fear (where  the Companions first encounter Bu'gan'zei, the Orpheus character):
       A wind had sprung up – the tree limbs seemed to be dancing and from a nearby overhang some stones broke loose and skittered down …
       Is’a’pai’a was the first to receive the sending and it stopped so abruptly that Wei’tu and Za’dut bumped into its posterior.  Then we all took the sensation – an antenna-buzz at once penetrating and delicate, so unusual that we were all entranced.  Simultaneously there was the smell of a male At’ein’zei Alate, along with the rank odor of reptiles and the feather-stench of birds!
       “Holy Nameless!  What can that be?” Ra’fa’kat’wei exclaimed.
       And then we detected words in the sending …
Finally, my latest publication, v.5: The Wood Where the Two Moons Shine (also an example of my description):
       After safely negotiating the daunting bridge that crossed the Sho’gwai’grin at the Great Waterfall, we found ourselves descending an ancient zigzag path that had been hollowed out by the scraping of countless claws.  Off to our right, the escarpment, an impassable precipice layered with gray and white and brown stone, stretched westward until it vanished into the distance.  To the southeast, beyond the end of the spur, we could see the glinting line of the river, with cliffs continuing to abut it on the east.  If we were to follow the west bank of that river, it would bring us into Gwai’sho’zei country and lead us quickly to the sea.
       Our immediate destination lay southwest, however.  In that direction we could see stubby hills thickly covered with dark trees and hung about with mist.  I always associate mist with these lands in which we would spend the final days of Ki’shto’ba’s quest. 
Personally, I think those are pretty good opening paragraphs, but I could be prejudiced!

"Make the reader want to learn more: the literary agent wants to see something captivating about the character, something that will make her read more in order to discover the plot and how the character unwinds."  And I'm combining with this: "Characters that are too perfect."
       Character is all, in my opinion!  Well, not all, of course -- a good tale needs many layers and aspects -- but still, if the characters are crudely drawn, cliched and commonplace, the whole story falls flat.  The good guys and the heroines need to have flaws and quirks that make them human (even if they are alien termites! -- "human" is in the eye of the beholder!)  And the villains ...  well, it's nice to have a villain that has redeeming qualities -- whose motivations are comprehensible -- although I confess to finding few redeeming qualities in Mo'gri'ta'tu (the villain who wreaks such havoc in The Termite Queen).  But then I based Mo'gri'ta'tu on Iago in Othello, who is frequently criticized for having unclear motivations.  The villain in The Wood Where the Two Moons Shine is possibly a little easier to understand, although he is even more devious and evil than Mo'gri'ta'tu, if that's possible.

"Don’t describe your characters fully in the first chapter: a), it’s boring, b) you really need to leave mystery for the rest of the book."
       My characters never emerge all at once; after all I've written some 600,000 words in the Ki'shto'ba series (averaging about 100,000 words per volume).  If they all emerged in the first chapter, nothing would be left to write!  They change and grow as the series progresses -- every single one of them.

"Unrealistic situations: literary agents feel that however inventive and imaginative a book can be, some things have to remain genuine and authentic, especially when it comes to human reactions."
       So how do you remain "genuine and authentic" when you're writing about giant alien termites?  You do it just as I said above -- you make them as close to human as you can.  You show that extraterrestrials -- aliens, if we must call them that -- may very well share the human qualities of compassion, caring, loyalty, self-sacrifice, adventurousness, joy, grief, and humor.  They also share characteristics  like intelligence, stupidity, anger, betrayal, sibling rivalry, a desire for revenge, and the ability to forgive.  It doesn't matter if they have three Castes and all of them are deaf and two Castes are blind.  It doesn't matter if they can only speak through their antennae, if they breathe through the sides of their bellies, if the Warriors can't feed themselves, if some of the species eat their own dung, or if all of them are necrophages.  What really matters is what is in their guts, or as humans might prefer to say, in their hearts -- their several hearts.  That is what makes them "genuine and authentic" and I'm egocentric enough to think I achieve that.  Whether a literary agent would ever think so is irrelevant.

Thanks again to Nicholas Rossis for giving me the idea for this blog post.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Three New Reviews on Three Different Books

       I casually went into Amazon this morning and lo and behold!  I had three new reviews, all by the same person!  The Termite Queen got a 4 star, The War of the Stolen Mother a 5 star, and Monster Is in the Eye of the Beholder a 2 star (more on that presently).
       Here is the review of The Termite Queen (it's posted on v.1, but it covers both volumes (the bold type is mine):
       "The two volumes here comprise a classic first-contact scifi story, and opposites attract romance, and a court intrigue "historical novel". At least. And they all flow together smoothly into a satisfying whole. The scifi part has the usual unexplainable "science" bits, but they are used judiciously as vehicle, not hinges for the whole plot. The real science -- of Linguistics, mainly, is accurate within its limits and well presented. The romance is credible and the intrigue is made new again by being adapted to structure of termite society and the realities of termite physiology (about which we learn a good deal as well). The only complaints I have are to the assumed panspermia (or whatever puts all discovered life forms on the terran tree) and the needless complex (from a linguistic point of view, not from a scifi novelist's) phonology of the termites."
       This reviewer really likes The Labors of Ki'shto'ba Huge-Head series (which I consider to be the best thing I've written):
       "This and the next volume are novel retellings of best of epic myths. Transferring from demigods to termites refreshes the perennial motifs and tales, while the mix of elements and the lively characters bring out the nobility and low cunning, the humor and the pathos of these episodes. The hero is all that that title implies, his companions the appropriate mix, complete with internal tensions and hearty cameraderie. And the narrator is just the right mix of keen observer and fussy pedant. And the tale continues into the fourth and soon fifth volume! Hooray!"
        I'm also going to give you the 2-star review of Monster.  In fact, it's a good 2-star review - nothing insulting or nitpicking about it -- it's fair-minded and reasonable.  I concede that some people will react like this to Monster -- it will creep them out.  Yet others rave about the novella and give it 5 stars.  A matter of taste, I think.  Why don't you give it a try and form your own opinion?
       "This is a very disturbing tale. As an allegory is quite dark; as a scifi novella it is ultimately wrenching. It starts with a twisted premise (even for an allegory) and then moves inexorably to its devastating conclusion. I like all of Taylor's other works (as I have said elsewhere) but this one creeps me out. Only the fact that Taylor is a very good writer (which makes the effect here more affecting) keeps this from a one-star (or a 0, if that were possible)."

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Monday, August 4, 2014

The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende; an Analysis

Barrabás came to us by sea …

The preceding constitutes the first and the last line of this monumental novel.  Barrabás is a bizarre, gigantic, black dog who was found nearly dead among the possessions of Clara del Valle’s Uncle Marcos.  The little girl immediately adopted and named him, and he becomes the glue that holds the book together.  He never stops growing, it seems, and becomes as big as a colt.  On Clara’s wedding day, the cook stabs him to death with a kitchen knife.  He drags himself into the wedding celebration and dies with his head in Clara’s lap, staining her wedding dress with his blood (prefiguring horrors to come, perhaps?)  Afterwards, Esteban Trueba, Clara’s new husband, has the pelt tanned and turned into a rug, complete with head and glass eyes.  Finding this construction laid down in the nuptial chamber, Clara is horrified and consigns the grotesque gift to the cellar, where years later her daughter and granddaughter play on the rug and make love there.  At the end of the book, the aged Esteban and his granddaughter Alba bring up the rug and place it where it belongs, in the bedroom of Clara, thus completing the union and reconciliation of past, present, and future.
I’ve summarized this to emphasize the truly fantastic nature of this book, coupled with its objective brutality.  When I set out to discuss a book that is as famous as this one, I never read any reviews or critiques beforehand – I want the assessment to proceed from my own impressions.  And this book was not what I was expecting; it’s my first foray into magical realism and I was anticipating a whimsical tale, charming and perhaps a bit sentimental. 
Instead, I found a book that is massive, brutal, coarse, direct, and totally without sentimentality.  I have never read a less sentimental book.  Everything, even the most painful events, is presented in a detached style, as if seen from a distance.  There was not one moment when I was moved to weep for a character, even when the most dreadful things were happening to them.
It’s the story of three women – Clara, Blanca, and Alba – mother, daughter, and granddaughter.  It’s surely no coincidence that the three names mean “clear,” “white,” and “white.”  It’s also the story of Esteban Trueba, who fell in love with Rosa the Beautiful, Clara’s older sister.  Rosa, who has the green hair of a mermaid (Alba inherits the trait), dies when she ingests the poison meant for her father, a neophyte politician.  Later Esteban marries Clara, but he is hardly an ideal man or an ideal husband.  He is a landholder – a patrón – but he fails to grasp the fact that the peasants on his land are human beings.  He rapes every girl as she comes into puberty, and the offspring of the first of these comes back to almost destroy him and the only thing he loves in his later years.  Furthermore, his temper is as volatile as the volcanoes in the cordillera.  When his daughter gets pregnant by one of these peasants, he whips her, then sets out to kill her lover, in one of the most memorable scenes in the book.  And when he discusses Blanca’s pregnancy with his wife, she says to him:
“Pedro Tercero Garcia hasn’t done a thing you haven’t done yourself.  You also slept with unmarried women not of your own class.  The only difference is that he did it for love.  And so did Blanca.”
At that, he hits Clara in the face and knocks her teeth out.  After that, although she continues to live in the same house with her husband, she never speaks a word to him again.
Beneath the personal stories of the main characters runs the political situation in Chile.  The story spans a period from early in the 20th century through the 1970s coup that killed Marxist President Salvador Allende and its aftermath of repression under the military and Pinochet.  In fact, however, these actual historical characters are not mentioned by name; Allende is simply “the President” and Pablo Neruda is referred to only as “the Poet.”  Furthermore, the name “Chile” is never uttered, or the name of any city in the country.  At one point the country is referred to as “this half-forgotten country at the end of the earth.”  All this adds to the fantasy feeling; this could indeed be a constructed world – an imaginary country devised by a fantasy author – a strip of land between impassable mountains and a vast sea, which stands alone and is unconnected to reality.  People may leave and go to other countries, which are indeed named, but whatever and whoever remain in this fantasy world is not governed by the same laws as the rest of the Earth.  Sometimes in a fantasy world, the fantastic things that happen illustrate reality better than reality illustrates reality. 
The paranormal powers of the women is one aspect of fantasy in the book.  Clara in particular is not only clairvoyant – she also has powers of levitation and she can summon spirits, and after her death she remains a presence in the house, appearing frequently to members of her family.  Esteban Trueba’s sister Férula is the most tragic of the characters; she sacrificed her youth to take care of their disabled mother, and after the mother’s death, she comes to live with her brother and Clara and help run the household.  She falls in lesbian love with Clara, which rouses Esteban’s jealousy.  He throws Férula out of the house, whereupon she curses Esteban (a curse that comes only too true).  One day she enters the house, approaches the family at the dining table, and kisses Clara.  When she leaves, Clara announces, “Férula has died.”  They discover later that she died in poverty and dementia, having refused to spend the money her brother has supplied to her.  Indeed, Esteban Trueba’s principal attitude to the women in his life is that as long as he supports them monetarily, it doesn’t matter how he treats them.  Later, he comes to realize that this attitude isn’t enough, but by then it’s too late.
Another aspect of fantasy is the theme of the prevalence of monsters in that world.  It all starts with Barrabás – that hulking dog of unknown breed.  One can’t imagine Barrabás as a fluffy little lap dog.  Blanca (who becomes a potter) makes Christmas crèches that include monster animals.  And the land itself is a monster, ready to consume its parasitic population at any time through the action of earthquake and tidal wave.
I have to say, one of my favorite fantasy passages is the way the old peasant Pedro Garcia rids the land of a plague of army ants, after the experts have failed in every attempt to destroy them.  He does it by talking to them.  “Tell them to go, that they are a nuisance here.  They understand.”
I noted two stylistic elements utilized in the book.  The first is foreshadowing.  Here is only one of many possible examples: (Re Blanca’s first meeting with Pedro Tercero when they are both small children): “When they found them, the little boy was on his back on the floor and Blanca was curled up with her head on the belly of her new friend.  Many years later, they would be found in the same position, and a whole lifetime would not be long enough for their atonement.”
The other stylistic element is the use of long descriptive lists, which add to the richness of the world being presented.  Indeed, the book includes wonderful descriptive passages, some delicate, some brutal.  It’s difficult to choose examples from so many, so I’ll supply only three – one delicate, one grotesque, one horrific. 
The first describes the fourteen-year-old Blanca (daughter of Esteban and Clara) as she is becoming a woman.
“She took off her nightgown and, for the first time in her life looked at her body in detail, and as she did so, she realized that it was because of all these changes that her friend had run away.  She smiled a new, delicate smile, the smile of a woman.  She put on her old clothes from the preceding summer, which were almost too small, wrapped herself in a shawl, and tiptoed out so as not wake the rest of the family.  Outside, the fields were shaking off their sleep and the first rays of sunlight were cutting the peaks of the cordillera like the thrusts of a saber, warming up the earth and evaporating the dew into a fine white foam that blurred the edges of things and turned the landscape into an enchanted dream.  Blanca set off in the direction of the river.  Everything was still quiet.  Her footsteps crushed the fallen leaves and the dry branches, producing a light crunching sound, the only noise in that vast sleeping space.  She felt that the shaggy meadows, the golden wheatfields, and the far-off purple mountains disappearing in the clear morning sky were part of some ancient memory, something she had seen before exactly like this, as if she had already lived this moment in some previous life.  The delicate rain of the night had soaked the earth and trees, and her clothing felt slightly damp, her shoes cold.  She inhaled the perfume of the drenched earth, the rotten leaves, and the humus, which awakened an unknown pleasure in all her senses.”
Blanca is forced to marry a certain man to cover her illegitimate pregnancy, and this man traffics in Indian artifacts. 
“The only thing that truly distressed her were the mummies. … Inside its jar, shrunken into a fetal position, wrapped in tatters, and accompanied by its wretched necklaces of teeth and a handful of rag dolls, the mummy looked like the pit of some exotic fruit.” 
And finally, this speaks for itself:
“The child Esteban Garcia was by my side, staring at me silently.  He had picked up the sliced-off fingers and was holding them like a bouquet of bloody asparagus.”

This leads me to talk about the point of view.  This book is a prime example of alternating points of view.  Mostly it’s omnipotent third person narration, but occasionally an “I” crops up, and it isn’t always clear who is speaking.  In the very first paragraph of the book, we have this, speaking of Clara’s diaries: “She also recorded trivialities, never suspecting that fifty years later I would use her notebooks to reclaim the past and overcome terrors of my own [foreshadowing again.]”  We don’t learn who this “I” is – who is writing the book – until the epilogue.  But there are also lengthy passages in the first person and this is always the voice of Esteban Trueba, as in the asparagus allusion above.  In the epilogue, the explanation for this is stated.  “I began to write with the help of my grandfather [yes, it’s Alba who was the “I” on the first page]. … In his own hand he wrote a number of pages … ”  So this explains the change of voice.  It’s actually quite effective, even though I was under the mistaken notion that when a stray “I” turns up from time to time, it's always Esteban.  It’s effective because some of the most intense passages proceed directly from Esteban’s violent reactions and emotions, while the bulk of the book remains in the detached style I mentioned earlier.
The House of the Spirits was not difficult to read – the style is limpid and clear – but it wasn’t what I would call a “fun read,” either.  I noted in some of the excerpts from reviews at the beginning of the book, remarks were made about the book’s humor.  I find it to be a very black variety of humor.  For example, when Clara’s parents are killed in an auto accident, her mother’s head gets cut off and nobody can find it.  Clara goes out searching for it and finds it in the bushes.  The body is already buried, so she brings the head home and they keep it in the basement, along with the Barrabás rug, for years.  This may be called humor, but it’s not funny; I would designate it dark grotesquerie.
The House of the Spirits is fascinating, compelling, overwhelming, and unforgettable – certainly something I’m happy to have read.  I’ll probably try my hand at more magic realism in the future, but not immediately!  I need something lighter first!
One final thought:  the author begins the book with an epigraph, a brief poem by Pablo Neruda.  It really does characterize the theme of this great story – that the same stories are lived over and over again and thus no one ever really dies.
How much does a man live, after all?
Does he live a thousand days, or one only?
For a week, or for several centuries?
How long does a man spend dying?
What does it mean to say “for ever”?

Monday, July 7, 2014

An Interview with A Walker Scott, Fellow Conlanger and Nascent Novelist (Part 2)

This is Part 2
of my interview with A Walker Scott.
To read Part 1, click here.

Walker's interview of me is now posted on my

       At one point Walker posted this on his Facebook timeline: "This is very slow and very hard work, so why am I writing a novel? My only answer comes in a quote from one of Tolkien's letters where he quotes CS Lewis from memory, "If they won’t write the kind of books we want to read, we shall have to write them ourselves; but it is very laborious." 
       I personally concur with that statement -- I also write the kind of book that I like to read! Today we have the privilege of learning all about the extraterrestrials that Walker has created for his books, and we get to read an extract. (Oh, and for curiosity's sake, here is his translation of the above quotation into his conlang Carrajina: "Si nu voluns sciviri uls tipus djals livras fi feremus ledjeri, nechidemus scriveri nozus probjus dals fistas, peru esti mutu lavorozu."  I'm sure you can detect the Romance language association.)
        ·       I know you’re also working on a science fiction novel (and a sequel, at the same time). Do you have titles for these novels? Can you tell us something about the plot, the locations, and the period of time?
       I have working titles, but I am dissatisfied with the first. Currently it is titled If by This Hand I Slay, but I find it overly melodramatic and rather misleading about the story itself. Sooner or later, I will find a better title. The sequel is titled Words like Leaves on the Wind. That one fits very well.
       IBTHIS is set at an interstellar university on a space station. The students come from a multitude of worlds, mostly from within the Interstellar Commonwealth of Sentient Species, but also from worlds well outside the ICSS. My story follows one group of students studying diplomacy, engaged in a year-long simulation project to show they know what they are doing in their chosen field. My main character, David Asbury, really doesn't want to be there, but circumstances have left him no choice. Just as he's starting to settle in and accept his fate, the game turns real-world serious.
        WLLOTW picks up about three years later when David is on his very first First Contact assignment, struggling to learn an alien language that keeps changing on him just when he thinks he has it figured out. Then an enemy from the past shows up to make things really difficult. Under torture David begins to remember a different version of the last three years of his life and realizes something very important may be locked inside his head.
       Both these novels are set about 300 years in the future.
·   How do you use your constructed languages in these books? I mostly use my conlangs as an aid to discovering what it would really be like when we make first contact with extraterrestrials, but my intelligent termites also speak in these languages from time to time, especially when it comes to words that don’t translate well. I also include one specimen piece (in v.3).
        I use them in various ways. There is the occasional greeting or rude comment in an alien language. Sometimes there are brief snatches of conversation. At one point some of the characters get to argue about poems in a couple of languages.
·    A lot of your characters are non-human. Tell us about some of the characters. What are your non-humans like and how many different kinds are there?
           Well, I could really go off on a tangent here. There are a LOT of different aliens mentioned in passing in my novels and most of them have one or two representatives walk on stage for a paragraph or a page somewhere in one book or the other. In the first book, David finds himself on a team with nine other classmates, only one of whom is Human.
        Tkal is a Tvern An who was raised on Earth since his parents are the Tvern An ambassadors to Earth. He's the leader of the group. He is big and friendly and covered in green and yellow stripes. He is very enthusiastic about English slang and loves to eat -- except bread ... he has a terrible allergy to yeast.
        Gronorgh is a Gravgurdan, a huge warrior, over seven feet tall who would make the biggest Human bodybuilders look anorexic. He's rude, enjoys using his size to intimidate, and hates Humans. But he's smart and good at whatever he does.
Dai-Soln (a Taisiran)
Drawing by A Walker Scot
        Dai-Soln is a Taisiran. They are frail-looking, and have powdery skin in shades from blue to lavender, obsidian eyes and these fronds like moth antennae where we have eyebrows. Dai-Soln often takes on the task of peacemaker trying to smooth things over between Gronorgh and whoever he has totally insulted most recently. He's actually a prince somewhere waaay down in the succession to the throne of his people's Empire, which is currently in a rather disadvantageous relationship with the Gravgurdan Stronghold.
        Shintikaisen is a female warrior of the Trelkairni. She is a traditionalist, so she has never really thought of men as quite people in the same way as women are, until she finds herself working with males as equals. She is roommates with Ael, the other Human on the team, and they spend a lot of time in good-natured bickering about males and "their place" each trying to "enlighten" the other.
        Red-shimmer Gold-streak is an Iridian who is specializing in trade relations and the economics of diplomacy. She feels rather isolated at times since she's only a couple of feet tall, shaped like a rock and can only communicate with her teammates through a translation voder.
Enemwunu (an Alelliawulian)
Drawing by A Walker Scott
        Xtp is a neuter Xttg, an insectoid race. Its language consists entirely of clicks, so it too must use a translation voder to speak Standard. It rooms with Red-shimmer.
        Enemwunu is a gamma-gender Alelliawulian. They are tripedal, hoofed cephalopods. Five is an important number to them. They have five limbs (three legs, two arms) and five genders, five major organs, five elements, five vowels ...
        Fthsaisth is the very first of his species to be educated off-world. His people have just made first contact and are finding the idea of sharing space with so many strange flightless aliens a bit difficult to cope with. Part of Fthsaisthf's job is to help his people decide whether or not to join the ICSS.
  • Parenthetically, I had to look up “voder” to make sure it was a "real" word. I thought you had mistyped “coder.” Turns out there is a Wikipedia article on the subject -- it was a very early form of voice synthesizer. I might not be the only person who never heard the term (it’s even older than I am!)
        I think I picked up that word up as a child while reading some of Heinlein's juveniles. I believe his Venerians/Venusians had to use a "voder" to produce English. A little search shows me that not only Between Planets (the one I was remembering) but also The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress uses the term. I probably read both of those more than once in my early teens. I have a bad habit of pulling out odd words -- like voder and vibrissae. I ended up nixing vibrisssae for "fronds." I hadn't thought of voder as being a problem, but maybe I should insert a bit of explanation somewhere in the text.
·    Give us an excerpt from the first volume, to whet our appetites. Two or three paragraphs up to a page.

Here's a bit some might find interesting:

        Just then, the outer door to the corridor opened. David turned to see who was entering. Half way through the turn he froze. The half smile on his lips melted away and all the color drained from his face.
“What is that creature doing here?” thundered the Gravgurdan warrior from earlier.
        David's eyes were as big as the warrior's fists. Sweat was glistening on his brow and dark circles sprouted on the fabric under his arms.
       Dai-Soln stepped from behind the Gravgurdan's shadow to see, and his fronds swept immediately back over his shoulders as his obsidian eyes darted around the room trying to piece together exactly what was going on. Before everything blew up.
        Shintikaisen huffed. “Lower your volume, Gronorgh. None of us here is deaf.”
        "Nor blind,”added Red-shimmer Gold-streak, whose voder had just assaulted her with some very intense color to translate Gronorgh's shout.
        Gronorgh brought his voice down to a low rumble, but still demanded, “I ask again, what is that creature doing here. It better not be the linguist.”
        He is,”said Tkal striding forward with all the muscles along his jaw standing out in sharp relief and his stripes darkening fiercely. “He is the best on this station, and I had to jump through all kinds of hoops to get him.”
        “Pah! It’s too scrawny to make out-caste. And too timid to breathe. Ones like him foul the gene pool. He should have been exposed at birth.”
        David was trembling on the inside. He fiercely hoped it was only on the inside, but he couldn’t stop the sweating, and there was no color left in his already pallid skin. Gronorgh had used the Terran word for exposed, driving home that Humans had once practiced the most abhorrent of Gravgurdan customs – disposing of weak babies like garbage.
        David knew he had to say something, but his brain wasn’t working right. All he could think about was how big Gronorgh was and how far on his bad side he had already managed to land. He thought he was about to faint. He wanted to run for the door and never look back. But he couldn’t. Doing that would be giving up everything he had worked for, everything he wanted for the future. He had to find a way out of this, or around it, or through it. His brain was buzzing for an answer.

·    Well, that makes me want to read more! Personally, I like for my extraterrestrials to be portrayed as real people, no matter how bizarre they are, and you're surely fulfilling that requisite!  So do you intend to try to publish professionally, or are you planning to join the community of self-published authors, as I have?

I'm going to try to go the traditional publishing route. We'll see if anyone bites!

·   Finally, say something about your other interests or hobbies. I understand you’ve won some arm wrestling competitions!

        I wish! Actually, my best result was a second place in the North Dakota State Championship several years back. I love armwrestling (it's usually spelled as one word within the community), but it's been several years since I last competed.
       My other hobbies go in every direction imaginable! I collect hats, Christmas music from all cultures, Chinese mythological creatures, dictionaries and grammars of foreign languages, books period ... I paint, I crochet, I lift weights, I cook, I dance, I love Renfaires, I like to travel (I've been to 11 countries and 27 of the states).

·    That sounds like you could be the subject of a dozen interviews, Walker! Are there any URLs you’d like to share with the readers, such as a Facebook page or a website?

        If you want to follow my journey to completing this novel you can check my Facebook Page and friend me.!/profile.php?id=100006969166318

        Thanks so much, Walker, for visiting with me and my own readers! I’m eager to following that journey and I wish you much good luck in your literary progress! I definitely look forward to reading your books in the not too distant future!

FYI: The intention is that Walker will now
turn around and interview me!  If he does,
the interview will appear over on my other blog
because Walker doesn't operate a blog or webpage.